Episode 4: Mr Barker and Mr Dalton
Season 1: The World Unseen
After a few hours of broken, unhappy sleep, Peggy got out of bed when it was still dark. She wrapped herself up and went outside to use the privy. Then there was plenty else to do: horses and chickens to be fed, water to be pumped from the well, a kettle to be boiled for tea, porridge to be prepared for breakfast. After that, she went upstairs, filled the washing bowl in her room, and left fresh water outside Arthur’s room. Once she had washed, brushed and pinned her hair, and put on her black mourning clothes, she went back downstairs. She found Arthur in the kitchen, making the tea and putting out the bowls.
It was a subdued breakfast, with both of them tired from the night’s expedition and pensive about what it had revealed. They left the house just after nine o’clock. The rain held off, but the sky glowered over them, and the wind was strong, whipping them awake, filling their noses with the scent of the sea.
At Clifden, they stabled the horse and trap, reported the burglary to the police — ‘They won’t be able to do anything, but we may as well get it recorded,’ Arthur said — and then boarded the 9.50 train.
Two hours later, they were walking through the doors of the Atlantic Hotel on Eyre Square in the centre of Galway. Peggy knew the hotel well, had stayed there many times with her parents, had liked it there, but now found it a site of gloom and ill fortune for her.
Few tourists came to the west of Ireland in the winter months and the place had a somnolent atmosphere that day, from the frugal light cast by gas lamps turned as low as possible, to the lethargic tock of the wall clock. The empty chairs in the lobby, cushions plumped, antimacassars geometrically precise, bore no imprint of recent bodies.
‘I know that man at the desk,’ Peggy said. ‘I think he’ll be helpful if he can.’
When the desk clerk, who had been dealing with a telephone call, gave them his attention, his expression changed to one of uneasy sympathy when he recognized Peggy.
‘Why, here’s Miss Lock,’ he said brightly. And then more sombrely, as if he had remembered something, ‘Please accept my condolences. It was a terrible, terrible thing.’
‘Thank you, Mr French. This is my uncle, Major Arthur Lock.’
‘Good morning, Major,’ French said to Arthur. ‘Is there something I can help you with?’
‘Yes, there is. I’d like to see a piece of the hotel writing paper that’s provided for guests.’
French frowned. ‘Well, yes, I can certainly lay my hands on that.’
He hesitated. It was clear he wanted to ask Arthur why this was required. It was equally clear from Arthur’s expression that there was to be no debate on the matter. Peggy had a glimpse of his personality that was new to her: fierce, uncompromising, and quite terrifying to anyone on the receiving end. I would comply in French’s shoes, she thought, if only to stop those icy blue eyes from boring into me.
French disappeared into the back office and returned a moment later with a sheet of the hotel paper.
‘Thank you,’ Arthur said, pleasantness restored. ‘Now, we’re going to sit in the lounge. Will you bring us a pot of tea and some sandwiches — cheese, ham — whatever you have.’
‘Of course, Major.’
The lounge was unoccupied, apart from an elderly man, nursing a glass of whiskey in one hand and negotiating a newspaper with the other. Arthur and Peggy took a corner sofa, where they could sit without being overheard. A coal fire burned in the grate, the gas lamps were turned up higher here, the air was warm and stuffy. The decor was high Victorian: dark, heavy, chintzy, cluttered. Watercolours and photographs of Irish scenes, plates painted with shamrocks and leprechauns, horse brasses, and needlepoint quotations of the Psalms and mottos such as ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed’, covered every patch of wall. Ornaments and baubles crammed the mantelpieces and sideboards too.
Peggy had always found this hotel lounge oppressive, and never more so than on this day. And she pitied the maids who had to dust all this paraphernalia.
Arthur put the hotel letter paper on the table and took the scrap he had retrieved from the ruined cottage on top of it.
‘See, Peggy, it’s the same paper, and the edge of the crest matches.’
‘That our man was staying here.’
‘But he led us on a merry dance once before.’
‘You mean he meant us to find this scrap, to bring us here? No, I don’t think so. He would have made it more obvious. No, I think he genuinely thought he’d burnt the paper to ashes. Besides, there’s no reason for him to lure us here. He has what he wanted from the house.’
Peggy could not suppress any longer the question that had been gnawing at her all morning.
‘Uncle — Arthur, I mean. Do you still think Da and Mammy’s deaths were natural? Could this man have arranged it somehow?’
Arthur hesitated. Peggy could sense he was weighing up whether to speak his true thoughts or to respond with something neutral, for fear of upsetting her.
‘You can be honest with me,’ she said.
Arthur ran a knuckle along his scar. ‘The doctor certified the cause of death as pneumonia. There’s no reason to doubt that. But I feel very uneasy about all this. That the man who stole your father’s notebooks happened to be staying at the same hotel… well, as I told you before, I don’t believe in —’
‘Coincidences,’ Peggy whispered.
A maid arrived at this moment with their tea and sandwiches. After she had set the things down on the table and withdrawn, Arthur said, ‘This must all be a shock to you, Peggy, on top of everything else. Do you want us to go back home?’
Peggy shook her head. ‘No, let’s finish what we came to do.’
‘Then we should both eat and drink something.’
Given what they had just been discussing, Peggy expected not to be hungry. To her surprise, she found herself ravenous. It’s as if I’m an animal, feeding itself before some great exertion, she thought. Arthur too was starving, and they fell on the sandwiches like wolves.
Barely a word passed between them until the maid returned to clear away the plates.
‘Will you bring us another pot of tea, and ask Mr French to come and see me for five minutes,’ Arthur said to the maid.
French turned up a few minutes later with the fresh pot of tea.
‘Take a seat, French. I have a few questions I need your help with.’
‘Oh, I can’t sit down with hotel patrons, Major. Especially not when I’m on duty. I’ll stand if you don’t mind, but ask away.’
‘I suppose the hotel is quiet at this time of year?’
‘That it is, Major. As you can see.’
‘Have you had any other English visitors in the last week or two?’
‘Let me see. There were a couple of English spinsters here at the weekend, on some kind of pilgrimage, I believe. Other than that, just two gentleman travellers from England. Botanists, they were, looking for some rare kinds of heather that only grow on the west coast.’
‘I see? Was one of them a tall chap, well-built, broad face, sandy-coloured hair?’
‘Well, yes, that sounds like Mr Dalton,’ French said with mild surprise.
‘And the other one, can you describe him?’
‘Mr Barker? Oh, shorter than Mr Dalton by a few inches, but not what you’d call a short man. Middling, really. Dark hair though, yes, very black it was, worn short and brilliantined. Thin face, thin moustache, thin he was, all over.’
‘When did they leave?’
‘This morning. They’d been in Clifden for a few days. Mr Barker came back yesterday with most of their luggage and stayed another night here. Mr Dalton remained in Clifden and came back early this morning —’
Arthur exchanged a glance with Peggy and said, ‘I see. And they left for?’
‘Dublin, Major. Caught a train soon after Mr Dalton got back.’ French paused. ‘Sure, there was an interesting coincidence during their stay.’
‘Was there?’ Arthur said. ‘Go on.’
‘Well, they crossed paths with Mr and Mrs Lock in the dining room in the evening, the evening of the night when… well…’
‘Go on, man,’ Arthur said impatiently. ‘We’re well aware of what happened to Mr and Mrs Lock.’
‘Well,’ said French. ‘It seemed that Mr Barker and Mr Lock knew one another, though Mr Lock was very surprised to see Mr Barker here in Galway. There was a conversation, which quickly became… unfriendly, and then Barker went off —’ French lowered his voice melodramatically, ‘ — in a bit of a huff.’
‘You witnessed this?’
‘No, Major. I heard it from one of the waiters, a very trustworthy man. He’ll be in later if you wish to talk with him.’
‘No, that won’t be necessary. Thank you for speaking with us, French.’
Mr French bowed and left. Peggy guessed the pair of them would be the subject of gossip in the staff room that evening.
They drank tea in silence for a few minutes. Peggy’s mind whirled with half-formed thoughts. She wanted Arthur to say something, to crystallize in speech what she couldn’t.
But all he said was, ‘I’ll pay the bill, and then we’ll visit the Society offices. I want to see if your father left any papers there.’
The Galway Scientific and Philosophical Society was housed in a Georgian building on St Augustine Street. Peggy and Arthur entered through grand wooden doors into a lobby with a black-and-white tiled floor and white stucco pillars. A small man with thinning white hair and mutton-chop whiskers sat at a reception desk.
‘Hello Mr Kirwan,’ Peggy said.
The man blinked. ‘Well, it’s Miss Lock.’ He stood up, looking grave. ‘I was very sorry to hear about your parents. A great loss to the Society and to County Galway.’
He shook Peggy’s hand.
‘Thank you, Mr Kirwan. This is my uncle, Major Arthur Lock.’
‘Good morning, Major,’ Kirwan said with another handshake. ‘Now, Miss Lock, I’m thinking you’ve come to collect the papers that your father left here.’
‘Yes, that’s right,’ Peggy said.
‘Ah, now here’s a strange thing. A man came in here a couple of days ago claiming to be you, Major Lock. He asked if there were any of your brother’s possessions that needed collecting. There was something about him that wasn’t right, and I don’t just mean that he didn’t look much like your brother. He was a shifty-looking fellow, pale, with a great sweat on his brow. I asked him for some identification and he made a show of searching his pockets and then said it was all at his hotel.
‘I knew there was something wrong then, because I’d heard that you were staying with Miss Lock. So I challenged him. He turned tail and ran straightaway. I assumed he must have been some rascal who’d heard of Mr Lock’s death and thought he’d try it on, in case there was anything valuable left here. I told the police and asked that the night constable keep an eye on the building, but to be honest, the fellow didn’t look like the burgling type.’
‘What did he look like?’ Arthur said.
‘Dark hair, thin-faced, neat moustache, medium height, shifty looking, as I said. Ah, people these days. No respect for the living or the dead.’
Kirwan turned and took a key from a rack on the wall behind him.
He handed it to Peggy and said, ‘Now, each member has a small locker where they can store books, papers, and so on. I haven’t opened your father’s and looked inside because that’s not for me to do.’
‘That’s grand, Mr Kirwan. And where are these lockers?’
‘Take the staircase over there down to the basement. You’ll find the room next to the cloakrooms. It’s signposted. Just bring the key back when you’re finished.’
As they were descending the stairs, Peggy said, ‘That man Barker again’.
‘Yes. I wonder how he and Henry knew one another.’
Peggy felt a surge of anger and hatred towards these men, Barker and Dalton. They had caused her parents’ deaths somehow; she was sure of it. And yet the doctor had said it was pneumonia. How was that possible?
A sudden dizziness came over her, and her legs gave way.
She was grateful when Arthur caught her.
‘Steady there, Peggy. Lean on me.’
She put a hand on his shoulder and, with his arm around her waist, got to the bottom of the stairs.
It took only a minute or two for her to compose herself.
‘I’m sorry. I got myself worked up, thinking about those men, about what they’ve done,’ she said.
‘That’s understandable,’ Arthur said. ‘Let’s find that locker and then we can go home.’
It was a small room, containing three rows of wooden cabinets divided into lockers, suitable for books and papers, but not much else.
Peggy checked the number on the key. Twenty-one. With Arthur standing behind her, she opened her father’s locker. At the front were a slide rule and a pencil box. And at the back were three manilla folders.
There was a small table on one side of the room and they opened the folders there. The first contained agendas and minutes of the society’s meetings. The second contained correspondence. And the third had Henry Lock’s notes for recent lectures he had given to the society. But there was also a sheet of paper with a table of letters and numbers on it.
‘I wonder what this is?’ Peggy said, handing it to Arthur.
He frowned as he examined it.
‘Hmm… let’s see… the top row is the plain alphabet… the succeeding rows… oh, I see… each letter is shifted once to the left, so the second row starts with B and ends with A, the third row starts with C and ends in B, and so on. I’d say it was some kind of cipher, but I’m no expert. If we ever had to use ciphers in India, they were much simpler than this one. It may just have been something Henry was playing with. He loved word and number games. Anything else in there?’
‘Just lecture notes.’
‘Alright. I think our business here is done.’ He checked his pocket watch. ‘We have two hours before the next train to Clifden leaves. Why don’t we take a stroll around the harbour and then we’ll find a tearoom. I don’t know about you, but I could eat a bun.’
Later that day, on the train back to Clifden, Peggy was looking out of the window when she saw, against a dark hedgerow, a reflection of Arthur watching her.
‘What is it?’ she said, turning to him.
‘Oh, I was just thinking of how much you look like your mother. The same thick chestnut hair, the same brown eyes, the same fine features — lucky for you that you didn’t inherit the Lock nose and chin.’
Peggy laughed. ‘It’s a fine nose and chin — on a man.’
Arthur smiled and then his expression became serious again. ‘Well, have you thought any more about coming back to England with me?’
‘Yes, I have.’
‘I don’t feel I have much choice. I couldn’t stay here by myself — I’d get so lonely. But…’
‘I’m frightened I won’t settle. I’m frightened people will think I’m an uncultured Irish girl. I’m frightened I’ll be homesick.’
‘Look Peggy. Come for a year, that’s all I ask. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll consider another option. Your parents’ house will still be here. There’s no need to sell it. We can ask Mrs O’Neil to check on it from time to time.’
‘And Bran can come with us?’
Arthur sighed. ‘If you insist. It’ll be a damned fuss though, transporting a horse.’
‘Then Bran will come with us.’
‘Then I’ll come.’
Arthur nodded. ‘You know, I’m worried about not settling too. I’ve been away from England for almost twenty years. We’ll be in the same boat. We can keep one another cheerful and occupied.’
They sat in silence for a few minutes, Arthur deep in obscure thoughts, Peggy thinking of England, and Tarian Hall, and wondering what the riding country was like in Shropshire. And then thinking again of the men who had stalked her parents.
‘Will you promise me one thing, Arthur?’
‘What is it?’
‘If these men, Barker and Dalton, had anything at all to do with… with what happened, can we find them out?’
Arthur took her hand. ‘Oh, believe me, Peggy, whoever they are, and whoever they’re acting for, I intend to hunt them down, all of them, like the vermin they are. That’s a promise.’