Collins was the first to arrive at Babbington’s house. Conroy had sent the boy out to summon several people, but he was not surprised to see the newspaperman arriving first at the door. As Conroy gestured him inside, Collins straightened his tie and tipped his hat before stepping over the threshold, his eyes darting around the small cottage.
‘I’m glad to see you’ve come to your senses, Mister Conroy,’ he announced, waltzing through to the study room.
As he stepped inside the room, his mouth dropped open with wonder and he quickly moved across to the desk, taking the seat where Babbington had been found. As he swung the chair back and forth, he took in every detail with his ferret-like eyes. Beaming with child-like enthusiasm, he formed an imaginary gun from his thumb and index finger, placed it against his head and re-enacted the final moment of the old vicar’s life. Collapsing in the chair, he expelled one final breath before giggling excitedly to himself and swinging the chair back around until he was facing Conroy once again.
‘So,’ he muttered, reaching into his pocket and retrieving his notebook. ‘This is the spot where it happened. Do you have any suspects now?’
Gesturing to the chair, Conroy mumbled:
‘If you wouldn’t mind.’
Collins took a few seconds more to properly enjoy the seat before reluctantly clambering to his feet. He moved around the side of the room where Conroy had set out four chairs and, after selecting the one that afforded the best view of everything within the room, settled down whilst he gazed curiously at the empty seats.
‘Are we to have company?’ he asked.
Conroy nodded. ‘You are blessed, Mister Collins,’ he said, moving around to the desk and producing the Babbington’s gun from his inside pocket. ‘Today is the day I catch Reverend Babbington’s killer. You will be present to see it.’
‘Oh?’ Collins’ eyes widened feverishly. ‘Good-oh.’ He wrote something in his notebook, looked up at Conroy and said: ‘My money is on the Babbington girl, am I right?’
Conroy didn’t say anything. Carefully he placed Babbington’s gun down on the desk, rotating it so that it was in exactly the same position as it had been found before readjusting the chair to its correct position as well.
At the side of the room, Collins fidgeted gleefully, his eyes still darting around every nook and crevice. Every so often, an idea seemed to occur to him, which he would write down before returning to his observations. His behaviour was only interrupted by a scuffling noise by the study door and, as he leapt to his feet, Hannah emerged carrying another chair that she set down next to the desk. Collins watched with utter confusion as the little girl took her seat and beamed up at Conroy.
‘Is the girl significant?’ he asked.
‘The girl has a name – Hannah.’
‘My apologies, miss,’ Collins replied, giving a brief – if insincere – nod of respect before turning back to Conroy. ‘Is she important?’
‘I helped Patrick solve this mystery,’ Hannah replied, straightening her back so as to appear as proper as possible. ‘Without my help, Mister Conroy might not have his solution.’
‘Oh really?’ Collins raised a single eyebrow and quickly jotted something down in his notebook.
‘Miss Hannah has had a part to play in proceedings,’ Conroy explained. ‘She was rather insistent that she be here at its conclusion. Who am I to argue with a young child?’
Collins smirked. ‘Quite.’
There was much the same reaction from the others when they finally arrived. First there was Doctor Edison and Constance who, upon seeing Hannah, insisted that she shouldn’t be there for this. Hannah, in return, argued that she had as much right as anyone else and gripped hold of her chair so tightly that, had Doctor Edison attempted to move her, he would have succeeded in doing little but lifting both child and chair, which – given the awkward shape of the mass – he would have struggled to get through the door.
With an air of reluctance, the doctor and the daughter took their seats next to Collins who wasted no time in introducing himself and bombarding Constance with questions until Walcott arrived a few minutes later. As he swept into the room, his eyes fell on Constance first and then Hannah.
‘This girl should not be here,’ he said to Conroy.
‘I did suggest that myself,’ Edison chipped in.
Conroy laughed a little, glancing down at Hannah who, once again, gripped her chair with the strength of a vice as she glared at Walcott.
‘I invite you to try to move her.’
Walcott did not. ‘I shall inform your mother of this, Miss Bell.’
‘She already knows,’ Hannah replied confidently.
‘I somewhat doubt that,’ the magistrate replied, taking the last empty seat and crossing one leg over the other. ‘I trust this is important, Mister Conroy, I have much pressing business to attend to.’
‘Nothing too important, sir, I just intend to reveal Reverend Babbington’s murderer.’
At this, the whole room went silent. Conroy looked from face to face, watching where each person glanced as the silence took hold of the room. Collins followed Conroy’s eyes as they moved around the room, doubtlessly trying to deduce the identity of the murderer before Conroy could reveal it. On more than one occasion, Conroy saw Edison glance at Constance – a behaviour that Walcott also exhibited on one occasion – whilst the girl herself drew very pale as though she herself were dying before their eyes.
It was Edison who spoke first.
‘Now listen here, Conroy,’ he mumbled. ‘Before you do anything hasty, are you quite sure you have all your facts? It would be most improper if you were to sully a man’s name without due care and attentiveness…’
‘Or woman,’ piped in Hannah.
‘I quite agree,’ Walcott said, nodding to Edison. ‘And is it really necessary to have a newspaperman present for this? If your theory is wrong, it would not do to have a person’s name dragged through the mud for all of the country to read…’
‘So, you don’t have any faith in Mister Conroy’s abilities, magistrate?’ asked Collins, writing something down in the notebook. ‘That is interesting.’
Conroy ignored Collins’ comment and turned straight to Walcott.
‘On the contrary, Reverend, it turns out that Mister Collins is vital to our case.’
At this Collins almost dropped his notebook. ‘I am?’
‘Indeed you are, sir. It was your presence in this village that offers the final proof of the murderer…’
‘Why, yes, sir.’ Conroy moved slowly around the room, his eyes fixed firmly on Collins. ’When I first met you, Mister Collins, you told me that you had been sent down to report on the murder. Now, by that point, the murder could hardly have been public knowledge for more than an hour or so – certainly not enough time for news to travel as far as Dorchester. Only someone involved with the investigation could have summoned you at such short notice but – curiously – you had arrived in the village the day before.
‘This led to one of two possibilities: first, that you are in fact the murderer – in which case, you must be very stupid to have remained here long after carrying out your deed – or, second, the murderer called on you the day he planned to commit his crime so that he might get as much exposure of it as possible. Now I have one or two ideas why our murderer would want to do such a thing, but perhaps you would be good enough to confirm for me the name of the person who brought you here that day.’
At this, Conroy span on his heels and stared directly at Collins who quivered in shock as the butcher loomed over him.
‘I can’t, Mister Conroy,’ he whispered anxiously, his eyes darting here and there.
‘You can’t or you won’t?’
‘I can’t, sir. You see, I wasn’t really summoned by anyone at all.’
Conroy’s heart sank. ‘You weren’t?’
‘No, Mister Conroy.’
Behind him, Conroy heard Edison mutter something about an amateur, but the butcher paid him no mind.
‘Then how do you account for your being in the village?’
Collins shrugged. ‘Pure coincidence, sir,’ he said. ’I had a few days of leave from my duties at the Gazette. I was heading towards the coast, but decided to spend the night at Barclay’s Hollow. The following day, I heard about the murder and thought, ‘why not?’’
He peered sullenly around at the others in the room. In the corner, Hannah tapped her legs excitedly, exchanging glances with Constance who appeared to have withdrawn completely into herself.
‘You see, I am not a successful writer, Mister Conroy. Most of my articles have been about village fetes and obscure obituaries – I had never in my wildest dreams hoped of being able to report on something as important as a murder. And yet, here I was with one practically dropped into my lap. It would be my ticket to the big leagues – I might not get another chance. Would you really tell me that you wouldn’t do the same in my position?’
Conroy shook his head slowly. ‘So, nobody called you down to Barclay’s Hollow?’
‘No, sir,’ Collins replied before quickly adding: ‘But I didn’t kill anyone either. You have to believe that…’
Conroy stepped away from him. He hadn’t anticipated this blow to his investigation, particularly not so early in the proceedings. As he moved slowly towards the desk, he heard Doctor Edison chuckle quietly from his chair.
‘Well now, Butcher, it would appear you have messed this one up, haven’t you?’
Conroy paused for a moment - regaining his composure – before turning back around to eye Edison from across the room.
‘Not quite,’ he muttered, taking a few steps forward. ‘Tell me, Doctor, what did you make of the old man in grey the morning that Babbington’s body was discovered?’
Edison’s eyes narrowed.
‘I don’t recall any man in grey…’
‘Well, of course you do. Miss Constance pointed him out to you - I saw it with my own eyes through the window. What did you think when she told you that her real father had returned?’
The look of shock that passed Edison’s face was a joy to behold.
‘Now where the hell did you find that out…?’ He hesitated. An idea began to dawn on him as his eyes flickered between Constance and Conroy. ‘You were in my house?’
‘Yes, I was,’ Conroy replied. ‘I visited Miss Constance earlier this morning.’
‘How dare you…’
‘I assure you it was of vital importance,’ Conroy replied coolly. ‘For example, it explained to me why you were so eager to get Miss Constance out of this house that day.’
‘What do you mean?’
Conroy ignored Edison’s question and turned straight back to Constance.
‘Tell me, Miss Constance, was there any moment on the day before Reverend Babbington died when the house was empty?’
Constance thought for a moment. Conroy could see her breath quickening and her heart racing in her neck as the panic began to set in. Despite this, however, her voice remained resolutely calm as she replied:
‘No, sir. My father – Reverend Babbington – was here all day save for when he went out to visit you. At that point, I was here alone the whole time.’
‘So nobody could have gotten into the house without either yourself or Reverend Babbington knowing of it?’
‘Quite so, sir.’
Edison growled from the corner: ‘What are you driving at, Irishman?’
Conroy ignored him, his eyes still set on Constance.
‘And was the house locked up that night when you went to bed?’
‘Why, yes, sir. It is the last thing I do before turning in.’
‘All locked, sir.’
Edison chipped in again: ‘I ask you again, what is your point?’
Conroy turned towards him, flicking his hands out to the side in a mock surrender.
‘I am merely conveying what you already thought, Doctor Edison.’ He eyes darted to man next to him. ‘And you, Reverend Walcott. You both came to this conclusion long before I came to this cottage. You both knew that the only person who had the opportunity to kill Babbington was his own daughter – that was why you were both so eager to get her out of this house. And you – Doctor Edison – when she told you about the reappearance of her father, that was too much to bear because that gave her motive as well…’
Edison leapt to his feet.
‘You go to far, sir.’
‘A young girl. A loving daughter who murdered the man who saved her from the workhouse. Such a scandal would shake Barclay’s Hollow to the core.’
‘You take that back…’
At this moment, Walcott got gingerly to his feet, placing a calming hand on Edison’s shoulder before moving in between him and the butcher.
‘You must understand this, Conroy, we were doing this for the best. There is no way that Constance would kill her father – she is such a God loving creature…’
‘And yet you believed it,’ Conroy shot back, his eyes falling on Constance who now visibly shook with fear. ‘Which, I imagine, was precisely the point.’
Constance shook her head violently, her eyes welling up with tears as Collins sat a few feet away from her, eagerly scribbling everything down.
‘I didn’t kill anyone,’ she muttered, before descending into a flood of tears.
It had been Edison who made a move to comfort her, but Conroy was quicker this time. He nudged the doctor out of the way and bent down beside the crying girl, kissing her gently on the top of her head and pulling her in close to him.
‘I know, my dear,’ he said softly, cradling her in his arms. ‘And that is what makes it all the more horrific.’
He slowly released her and turned to face the others. By the desk, Hannah watched the proceedings with enormous enthusiasm – as though all her life’s ambition had rocketed down on her that afternoon. She watched intently as Conroy moved back towards the desk and picked up the gun, swinging around to show it to those gathered in the room.
‘Our murderer intended two things,’ he announced. ’First, he killed Babbington quietly – so quietly, in fact, that it did little to stir Miss Constance from her sleep. I imagine, given his delicate state of mind, that Babbington had this gun ready to be used should his intruder return so, after dispatching the old man, our killer dressed the scene to look like suicide.
‘Which leads us the second and – by far – the most dastardly part of his plan. He entered and left the scene in such a fashion so that there could be no doubt that Babbington killed himself. He broke no windows or locks – it was almost as though he were a ghost. But in doing this, he gave himself another way out. Should anyone realise that Babbington hadn’t killed himself, we would be forced to conclude that only someone in the house could have carried out the deed.’
His eyes fell back on Constance as she wept at her chair.
‘Our murderer was willing to frame a young girl to make good his escape.’
The room went quiet for a moment save for the scratching of Collins’ pencil in his notebook. When he finished his writing, he looked up Conroy and asked:
‘But who? Who could do something so monstrous?’
Conroy nodded, moving back towards Constance.
‘Something in what you told me today, Miss Constance, got me thinking,’ he announced. ‘You said that you moved to Barclay’s Hollow to escape your old lives. I wonder, was that a phrase you had heard before?’
Constance looked up at him through her wet eyes. Slowly she nodded before wiping the tears away with her handkerchief.
‘When I first met Reverend Babbington, he told me that we both had demons in our past that we should escape from. That’s why we moved to Barclay’s Hollow – he thought we could both escape our pasts here.’
‘Which suddenly makes the whole tale that much more sinister,’ he said, turning to each person. ‘The Reverend Babbington was running away from something – that’s why he chose this village and this house from which he could see all the comings and goings of the people. He was fleeing the world. But two nights ago, that world caught up with him at last.’
The room was silent again. Walcott turned to Edison who seemed to nod a silent agreement between the two of them. He turned back to Conroy and asked:
‘But who did it? Who committed this terrible crime?’
Conroy stared blankly back at him. At that moment, the clock on the church tower began to strike the hour. The butcher listened to the chimes intently.
‘He will be here soon.’