Conroy woke the following morning with a heavy headache and a mouth that was so dry that he could have imagined that he hadn’t touched a drop of water in weeks. Scuttling carefully to his feet, Conroy moved slowly across his bedroom to the washbasin where he proceeded to throw several handfuls of water over his face, in hope of quelling the throbbing pounding behind his temple.
Several minutes later, fully clothed but with his head still hurting, he stumbled out of his front door to discover Hannah sat neatly on the stones outside.
‘I saw you,’ she announced.
‘You saw me, what?’
‘In the Royal Oak,’ she explained, her face failing to mask her disapproval. ‘You were up all night drinking whisky – and don’t try to deny it.’
‘I wasn’t going to,’ Conroy shrugged, stumbling across the courtyard in the direction of the lane.
Hannah trotted along beside him, looking up at him worriedly.
‘You do know who that was that you were drinking with, don’t you?’
‘He’s a smuggler.’
‘Know how would you know that?’
‘I heard him bragging about it yesterday,’ she replied coarsely. ‘Didn’t you know?’
‘Of course, I knew.’
‘And you didn’t arrest him?’
Conroy stopped, turning sharply towards her and pointing a single finger out at her. ‘Now, don’t you start. Today is going to be hard enough without you making me feel guilty…’
He continued walking, glancing up at the clock tower of the church at the far end of the village. The time read a little past half past nine – he had just enough time to make it over to Doctor Edison’s house before he would leave.
He quickened his pace a little, causing Hannah to practically jog beside him to keep up. With her blue eyes flashing vividly, she peered up at the butcher as he reached the lane and turned sharply in the direction of Edison’s house.
‘What happens today, then?’ she inquired.
Conroy smiled down at her. ‘Today is the day I catch Reverend Babbington’s murderer.’
‘Really?’ Hannah exclaimed, her face beaming with excitement. ‘Do you know who it is?’
‘I do,’ he replied. ‘I don’t know why or how yet, but I’m hoping Miss Constance can answer those questions for me.’ He turned to look down at the little girl. ‘I don’t suppose you found the wooden chest in Collin’s room, did you?’
‘No sign,’ the girl replied gravely. ‘I even checked Mister Armitage’s room…’
‘I thought you might. And still nothing?’
‘Nothing,’ Hannah agreed. ‘I would have checked Mister Bottle’s room, but he was in it all day and didn’t leave for even a single moment.’
‘I thought he might,’ replied Conroy. ‘And the old man in grey? Has there been any sign of him?’
‘Not since you saw him. Most of the village think you were just making it up. But it can’t be Mister Bottle. He isn’t exactly young, but he certainly doesn’t have grey hair. Mister Smith was saying that he’d never seen a man with such long, brown hair…’
‘Very interesting,’ Conroy replied, rounding the corner and setting down a pathway that jutted out from the lane.
Hannah looked ahead with interest.
‘Are we going to Doctor Edison’s house?’
‘To see Constance?’
‘I know her, you know,’ Hannah replied proudly. ‘From Sunday school…’
‘You’re not coming with me.’
‘Why?’ she shot back and then after thinking for a moment asked: ‘Is Doctor Edison the murderer?’
‘I can’t have you interfering with this.’
Hannah looked incredibly put out. ‘But I must do something. I can’t sit around doing nothing whilst you do all the work. It isn’t fair.’
Conroy stopped dead in the pathway, turning towards the little girl with his hand held high as he readied to remind her of her manners. But as he looked down into her soft, blue eyes, his heart softened and he slowly lowered his hand once again. He thought for a moment, his eyes wandering up the hill to where Babbington’s house stood proudly against the rising sun.
‘All right, there is one thing you can do for me.’
‘Really?’ Hannah replied excitedly, bouncing up and down on the ground with joy whilst clapping her hands so hard that Conroy feared she could be heard from Edison’s house. ‘What can I do?’
‘Do you think you can get into Babbington’s cottage?’
Hannah nodded enthusiastically. ‘I’m sure of it.’
‘As I said, I know who killed him and I’m fairly sure how he did it. What I don’t know is why. There must be something in his study that explains it all and there must be a wooden chest hidden there as well…’
‘What makes you say that?’
‘Because the killer hasn’t found it yet,’ Conroy replied. ‘It must be somewhere in the house. I need you to find it.’
Hannah jumped a couple more times, her face beginning to turn red with glee and excitement.
‘I’ll find it for you, don’t you worry.’
Before Conroy had another chance to say anything, she was off like a shot, weaving down the pathway and out on to the lane quicker than a rabbit running through the hedgerows. Conroy watched her disappear around the bend before turning his attention to the house up ahead.
With a deep sigh, he set off up the pathway, his panging with regret with what he had just done to Hannah. Of course, she wasn’t going to find anything – he had just said it to get her out of the way. But he couldn’t subject her to what Constance had to say on the matter – she was too young, and some things needed to be shielded from her.
He arrived at the house just a few minutes before ten. As Reverend Walcott had promised, the good doctor was already out of the door and heading down the pathway, forcing Conroy to dive behind the nearest tree and wait perfectly still as he wandered past on his way to the Rectory. Conroy waited for a few seconds after he passed before sliding back on to the path and hurrying up the towards the house, where he rapped quickly on the door and barged his way past Edison’s maid.
He moved from room to room, ignoring the pleading from the maid that Constance should not be disturbed. He eventually found her sat in a backroom beside a large window that looked out to a nearby stretch of woodland and reading from a bible. As he walked in through the door, Constance seemed to breath a sigh of relief and, after a few encouraging words to the maid, she invited him to take a seat beside her.
‘You must think me very crude to have allowed Doctor Edison to take me away like that,’ she explained, setting her bible down on a nearby table. ‘You see, I was in so much shock that I didn’t really understand that, by leaving you like that, I was denying my father the justice he deserves…’
‘It wasn’t your fault, Miss Constance,’ Conroy replied sweetly. ‘Grief can do terrible things to a person.’
Constance eyed him curiously.
‘You speak as though you have endured it yourself, sir.’
Conroy hesitated for a moment before nodding. ‘That I have.’
‘May I ask who you grieved for?’
‘My wife and my daughter,’ Conroy explained, trying his best to ignore the pangs of pain in his heart as he spoke. ‘They were taken during the famine.’
Constance fidgeted slightly in her seat.
‘That must have been awful for you, watching them wither away like that. I suppose in comparison, I should be thankful that my father was taken so suddenly…’
‘Grief is grief, Miss Constance. You shouldn’t fight it.’
Constance nodded. ‘Is that why you came to England?’
‘How awful for you…’
She removed a handkerchief from her sleeve and gently dabbed at her eyes although Conroy struggled to see any sign of tears there. He waited patiently until she had lowered the handkerchief and, even then, he did not say anything until she said:
‘You have some questions for me.’
Conroy leaned in close to her.
‘On the night of your father’s murder, did you hear a shot being fired?’
‘No,’ Constance replied, shaking her head. ‘I slept all the way through the night. The first I knew of my father’s death was when I came into his study and found…’ She hesitated. ‘I hadn’t heard anything, I swear it.’
‘Nothing at all? No movement in the corridors, no unexplained sounds that you couldn’t account for?’
‘Nothing,’ Constance replied, her eyes flickering for a moment afterwards. ‘Well, except…’ She hesitated. ‘But it’s probably nothing.’
‘It’s probably everything, Miss Constance, please try to remember.’
‘Well, father had taken to having a pistol with him wherever he went. He was so terrified that he was going to be assaulted or, worse yet, killed that he had it on him all the time…’
‘Killed by the man in the tricorne hat?’
‘That’s right,’ confirmed Constance. ‘But, when I went to bed that night, I was very uneasy. It took me a long while to get to sleep but, just before I did, I imagined I heard something very briefly in the stillness of the night.’
‘And what was that, Miss Constance?’
Constance paused, thinking hard. ‘A dull thud. Like a hammer hitting a large block of wood.’ She glanced back up at Conroy. ‘It didn’t sound like a gunshot or – well - anything really, so I didn’t pay it much mind. Apart from that sound, I heard nothing at all that night.’
‘I see,’ he said quietly. ‘And the old man dressed in grey outside your house the day you came here – who is he?’
Constance’s face turned pale and her eyes seemed to grow dim as she stared at Conroy. In the same instance, her hands reached instinctively for the Bible beside her and, although she didn’t pick it up, they began to flick at the pages as though searching for a particular passage.
‘How…’ She stuttered. ‘How did you see?’
‘I saw the look you gave him, Miss Constance,’ Conroy explained. ’Now I need to know is he the same man you saw wearing the tricorne hat? Is that why you were frightened of him?
‘No,’ Constance said instantly, fidgeting again in her chair. ‘It wasn’t him.’
‘Then, who was he, Miss Constance?’
Constance thrust her face into her hands and, sobbing wildly, pulled herself far back into her chair out of reach of Conroy’s comforting hands. She cried for a few minutes, occasionally shaking her head in despair and pulling at her hair until it threatened to come out by the roots.
Unable to provide her with any comfort, Conroy simply waited until she finally managed to gain some sense of composure and, lowering her hands, revealed that her cheeks were soaked with tears.
She took a few steadying breaths and, finally, said:
‘He is my father…’
Of everything that Conroy was expecting to hear in that moment, those words were not them. For a moment he thought that the dull thudding of his headache had caused him to mishear but, as he stared at the sobbing girl, his mind began to finally unfurl everything that had happened.
Constance nodded. ‘My real father,’ she said before sobbing loudly once again.
‘I don’t…’ It was Conroy’s turn to hesitate. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘Reverend Babbington was not my real father,’ Constance explained. ‘When I was young, my mother died leaving me in the care of my real father. He was a poor man and, with the death of my mother, he turned to drink. In the end, it all got too much for him and I was sent to a workhouse in Warwick where I worked for four years before Reverend Babbington found me.’
She glanced back up at Conroy. ‘He saved me. He adopted me as his own and we moved down here to Barclay’s Hollow to escape our old lives.’ She sobbed again. ‘I thought my real father was dead but, when I saw him amongst that crowd, I thought…’ She hesitated.
‘You thought he killed Reverend Babbington to get you back?’
‘Yes,’ replied Constance, visibly shaking with distress. ‘I’m sorry, Mister Conroy. I’m sure this whole affair has only served to confuse your investigation…’
Conroy shook his head.
‘On the contrary, Miss Constance, it’s made everything that little bit clearer.’