Authors: Suzette Hill
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
To my dear friends Julian and Mary Smith
in gratitude for years of mirth and encouragement
1: The Dog’s Diary
2: The Cat’s Memoir
3: The Vicar’s Version
4: The Cat’s Memoir
5: The Vicar’s Version
6: The Dog’s Diary
7: The Vicar’s Version
8: The Vicar’s Version
9: The Cat’s Memoir
10: The Vicar’s Version
11: The Cat’s Memoir
12: The Vicar’s Version
13: The Vicar’s Version
14: The Dog’s Diary
15: The Vicar’s Version
16: The Vicar’s Version
17: The Vicar’s Version
18: The Vicar’s Version
19: The Vicar’s Version
20: The Vicar’s Version
21: The Cat’s Memoir
22: The Dog’s Diary
23: The Vicar’s Version
24: The Cat’s Memoir
25: The Vicar’s Version
26: The Cat’s Memoir
27: The Vicar’s Version
28: The Vicar’s Version
29: The Vicar’s Version
30: The Vicar’s Version
31: The Vicar’s Version
32: The Vicar’s Version
33: The Vicar’s Version
34: The Cat’s Memoir
35: The Vicar’s Version
36: The Dog’s Diary
37: The Cat’s Memoir
38: The Vicar’s Version
39: The Cat’s Memoir
Also by Suzette A. Hill
It’s all very well the vicar Francis Oughterard (or F.O. to me and Maurice) being pleased because that goof Crumplehorn has been slung into jug – but
know that things won’t last. They never do. Not with our master: he’s what you might call accident-prone. Or at any rate that’s what Florence the wolfhound says. (But then she’s a very nice lady and makes excuses for everyone – unlike Maurice of course.) Speaking for myself, I just think he’s plain daft. Mind you, I don’t mean barking daft like the organist’s aunt who’s short of a biscuit or two, but what you might call normally so like a lot of humans are, especially here in Molehill. Though in F.O.’s case it’s perhaps a bit extra. Still, it quite suits me him being like that, because it means there’s always something going on so I don’t get fed up. There are a lot of dogs who lead very BORING lives simply because their masters or mistresses are BORING. Take my friend O’Shaughnessy the Irish setter for instance. His mistress is dull as a day without bones, which is why he is always slipping his collar and wanting to play with me in the graveyard. When we race around the tombs or get up to no good in the Veaseys’ garden or with the dustbins, the setter says it is like having a shot in the rump with the vet’s special tonic. I like the games too of course – but having a murderer for an owner and not someone who does nothing except go to the hairdresser and play whist all day, I don’t have
the same need.
And besides, there is the cat Maurice to keep me company. He’s a one, all right! What you might call a real sniffy basket. But somehow, despite all those airs and graces, I can’t help liking him. Which is probably just as well, because we have been sharing the vicar’s home for nearly three years (at least, that’s what Maurice tells me – not too good on sums myself) and if I didn’t get on with him things might be a bit OFF. But on the whole it works pretty well, i.e. he tells me to bugger off, and I take no notice. It suits us both. And frankly without him – or F.O. messing around – don’t know what I would do with myself: BORING!
Anyway, after all that stuff with Crumplehorn and the knife, and F.O. doing a stint in hospital and everyone saying how brave he had been (as a matter of fact it was me who savaged that fat slug – but I know when to be modest), he has been fairly calm. But something is starting to rattle him all the same. You can always tell – begins crunching those gobstoppers nineteen to the dozen, and the fag smoke over the piano gets thicker and thicker. But the real clue is when he starts missing the notes. I’ve got a pretty good ear, you know – unlike the cat who’s got a F-O-B-Y-A about music (fobya about most things, come to think of it), and sometimes just to wind him up I remind him what they use for fiddle strings, and he goes berserk! That’s fun, but sometimes he just goes into one of his sulks and sits under the holly bush for hours on end, which is when I get restless and look for O’Shaughnessy or go down to the crypt and listen to the ghosts gurgling.
The vicar ought to do that – he would find it really soothing when he’s having one of his frets. And like I said, I think he’s about to have one soon. There’s an awful lot of dud notes being played (he’s normally spot on), and I heard him on the blower the other day talking to that Gaza person – the Type from Brighton. He was getting very red in the face and jabbing the blotting pad with his pen nib. I don’t always get the hang of human words but Maurice does, and he explained it was something to do with going to France and digging up some stuff in a crumbling house that once belonged to the old girl he did in. I said I thought that sounded pretty interesting as I like to do a spot of digging myself. But the cat only smiled his superior smile and said that as it was gold and not bones they were after, my own particular skills would be OTEEOSE – at least that’s what it
like, but half of Maurice’s words I don’t understand anyway. When I asked him what it meant, he thought for a while and then said that the oteeose thing was a bit like me. He seemed to think that was very funny, but I don’t suppose it was – the cat’s jokes are not known for their humour. Not like mine, which are JOLLY GOOD!
I suppose there
other cats who are martyrs to fortune, but for those who have not yet achieved that status I issue a word of warning: at all costs avoid vicars. Humans by nature are peculiar, but vicars more so. I have lived with only one in my lifetime but he is more than enough and I feel I can generalize from that particular. My master’s asinine attempts to keep his head above water while juggling with forces even more neurotic than himself are a trial indeed, although not without interest.
A further trial is the dog. But as long as one takes a firm paw he can be managed. As a matter of fact, having the creature as a companion is not without its benefits. One can, for example, chew over with him the details of the day, expounding and honing one’s viewpoint. The dog of course invariably insists on putting his own viewpoint (generally at variance with my own and
honed), but I can ignore that, and broadly speaking our alliance is congenial.
Occasionally his observations are pertinent, although naturally one is careful not to acknowledge this too overtly as it goes to his head and he becomes insufferable. Nevertheless, he had a point about the vicar … he was indeed getting het up, and on the whole I am not surprised. After all, with that dubious specimen from Brighton at his coat tails yet again even the most self-possessed might get windy. And the vicar (canon actually – bizarre though that may seem) is far from self-possessed. In fact, one less fitted to eliminate one of his own kind it would be hard to imagine. However, he did it, and we reap the consequences – which are considerable.
Bouncer tells me he finds it all ‘jolly good’. It strikes me as neither jolly nor good: the dog himself generates enough drama as it is, without F.O. adding to the theatricals. That being said, our master and his absurd criminal pursuits do provide a certain frisson to life, which, after residing with his victim Mrs Elizabeth Fotherington for quite long enough, I find refreshing. The vicar’s injudicious action in the wood rescued me from her stifling clutches, and thus, insane though he is, I owe him a debt of gratitude – which, when appropriate, I show.
Admittedly Bouncer is tiresome; but fundamentally he has a good heart, and I have tried my best to inculcate in him an element of decorum – though it appears but rarely. However, as my Great Uncle Marmaduke was given to remarking, ‘Nothing feline is ever lost’ … I am not
clear what he meant by that, but doubtless it is of great wisdom and I am sure that by continuing my association with Bouncer the dog can only benefit.
Whether the vicar can benefit from anything at all is a moot point, but we do what we can to monitor his trials and to contain the grosser blunders. However, despite the settling of the Crumplehorn débâcle, both Bouncer and I could foresee just such another blunder looming, and coping with its developments has been fraught with peril. But things seem moderately resolved now … although, to quote the dog’s inelegant phrase, it was ‘a damned near thing’.
It all started with the wretched Brighton Type, Nicholas Ingaza, who had got it into his crooked head that he could exploit the vicar’s title to that battered French property which had been left to him by Mrs Fotherington. This gift was far from appreciated, for the last thing F.O. wanted was to be linked in the public mind with his victim – let alone as her principal heir. As detailed in my previous memoir, the embarrassment of the cash legacy had been bad enough, but despite the inquisitiveness of the police he had dealt with it fairly well. And then just as he thought that all financial connection was severed, out of the blue came the bombshell: his entitlement to her château in France with its rumoured Nazi gold.
As I explained to the dog, left to his own devices F.O. would simply have destroyed the deeds, and the tiresome building would have eventually sunk into the ground with none being the wiser as to its intended owner. The problem is that with the Type from Brighton breathing down his neck our master rarely is left to his own devices … And thus Ingaza smartly pocketed the deeds, forged the vicar’s signature, and fired by the prospect of unearthing gold (or at the very least getting his hands on some profitable real estate) persuaded the vicar that it was in everyone’s interests (i.e. his own) to make an investigative trip to the Auvergne for an assessment of the domain – or, as Bouncer would say, ‘to case the joint’.
This is a matter I shall return to, but meanwhile there are things to be attended to here in the graveyard: the pursuit of pigeons, mangling those grotesque plastic flowers beneath the Browns’ headstone, stern words with the hedgehog and some light badinage with the belfry bats. I think too that the new sexton’s spadework needs inspection. I don’t know the vicar’s view, but personally I think he is cutting corners. It won’t do!
Elizabeth was at the root of it: Mrs Elizabeth Fotherington, my victim and my persecutor. Persecutor? The word carries overtones of menace and malevolence, and in all honesty I cannot think that either term applied to Elizabeth. Rather the reverse in fact, for she was a woman of nauseating, albeit steely, sweetness. But persecuted I felt nonetheless. It was the blandishments, the patronage, the coyly romantic effusions, the merciless smothering pursuit, which appalled – terrified – and in the end snapped my nerve and pushed me into that fatal act, only yards from my vicarage, in the summer of 1956.
The date and circumstances are embedded in my memory: her outlandish overture on that peaceful shaded path, my eardrums and the wood’s silence rent by the unctuous babbling, the insistent pawing at my elbow, a feeling of sudden revulsion followed by numbed detachment … Then suddenly, with a few brief tugs at her conveniently draped scarf – it didn’t take much – the thing was done: noise stopped, the wood returned to its sylvan calm. And I had become a murderer. What Nicholas Ingaza would doubtless describe as being ‘overcome by events, dear boy’.
In fact, come to think of it, I believe that is exactly what he
say at some point, when later, in a spasm of intemperate revelation, I spilt the whole can of beans. It happened in a moment of weakness (a state not unfamiliar to me), and while the confession was possibly of some psychological value at the time, in various ways I have been paying for it ever since. ‘As so he should!’ I hear you say sternly. Yes, you are perfectly right – and I mention it less as a defence than as a means of explaining some of the ramifications my act has induced. Murder, like its close companion deception, spins a tangled web. And sitting at the centre of mine is Nicholas – charming, chummy, and preposterously relentless.
If one is rash enough to confide in a disgraced seminarian – high jinks in a Turkish bath – turned entrepreneur of sharkish bent and shady dealings, trouble is bound to ensue. But that, as I have discovered, is the nature of murder: burden becomes heaped upon burden, and things that seem initially expedient sooner or later backfire. In my case generally sooner.
However, it is not simply Ingaza’s knowledge of the business that puts me in his power, but also the debt that I owe: for in a moment of crisis during the original police enquiries I had asked him to substantiate a fiction I had been forced to concoct. Without then knowing the full details (my ‘confession’ came later), he did this with brisk efficiency … and with genial good humour has been exacting the toll ever since. Any protest from me is met with the pained, ‘But my dear chap, don’t you see, it has made my position very delicate. After all, there’s a hefty penalty for confounding Her Majesty’s law enforcers … bad for business, you know.’ Invariably he will murmur something about a
quid pro quo
, and with conspiratorial wink sleek his hair and offer me a Russian Sobranie which I accept in silence.
The problem is that the single
multiplies alarmingly. True, I had myself elected the role of assassin (no, not elected – blundered into), but since then Ingaza has cast me as chief protagonist in a variety of his dubious schemes, and most recently as stooge in his search for buried gold in a godforsaken French ruin left me by my victim. This last has been a particularly taxing experience from which I have barely recovered. However, to be away from the crags and vicissitudes of the Auvergne, and back in the staid safety of Molehill, my Surrey parish, and the comforting flagstones of St Botolph’s church is a massive relief which even my bishop, Horace Clinker, fails to unsettle (for the time being at any rate).
Although Nicholas had made it more than clear that he proposed we should investigate the Fotherington Folly (as it had come to be known), there was fortunately an interval between the edict and the date of our setting out. Apparently Brighton’s art-dealing fraternity was undergoing a lucrative phase and he was engaged in a number of ‘delicate transactions’ which required his full attention.
I was relieved at that as I had a number of things to deal with myself, one of which was at least as delicate as anything Ingaza might be connected with – i.e. my forthcoming Canonical Installation and Inaugural Address, a nerve-racking event which haunts the lives of all recently promoted canons, stipendiary or otherwise. Fortunately my post was of the latter sort: an honorary one attracting no fee – but thankfully also few duties. Much to my bishop’s displeasure, it had been conferred upon me some months previously in tacit gratitude for scuppering the chances of a universally disliked cleric hell-bent on securing the then vacant post of archdeacon. Since the candidate in question had happened to be Bishop Clinker’s protégé, my superior had taken a dim view of my elevation. But there was nothing he could do, and in any case, the bishop’s own affairs were sometimes what you might call a shade delicate as well, and there had been more than one occasion when I had helped smooth the episcopal path.
For example, his passion for playing tiddlywinks with Mrs Carruthers is something he chooses to keep well under wraps. However, like much that is clandestine, it can lead to moments of acute embarrassment (that appalling business in the allotment shed being a painful case in point
). Thus, irked by my knowledge but reliant on my assistance, Clinker views me with a mixture of pique and resentful tolerance. And as a respite from the awful Gladys, I suspect I represent a half-decent port in an exhausting storm.
The bishop’s problems are, of course, less acute than mine, and do not have the threat of the noose hanging over them – though some would say that living with Gladys was a comparable fate. However, all is relative, and in moments of benignity I experience twinges of a wary loyalty … But few such twinges were felt when I encountered him in Guildford a few days prior to the inaugural ceremony.
I had nipped over to remind myself of the layout of the pro-cathedral’s chancel and choir stalls. The ceremony is an elaborate and tortuous affair and it doesn’t do to be seen taking a wrong turn in the prescribed perambulations. I was familiar with the general protocol but thought it wouldn’t hurt to ‘walk the course’ before the day itself. Once I get the hang of things I am all right, but I recall only too well being a raw recruit at Aldershot during the war, and the sergeant-major’s apoplectic despair as he tried to cajole me into turning left rather than right on its parade ground. It had been a time of mutual trauma. And thus, still smarting from the memory and not wishing to relive it, I took the necessary precaution.
As it was a Friday afternoon there were few people about, and I was just ambling thoughtfully up the central aisle and eyeing the pulpit from which I would deliver the Canon’s Address, when there was a brisk tap on my shoulder.
‘Ah, Oughterard,’ Clinker’s voice boomed. ‘Having a little rehearsal, are we?’
I jumped, inwardly cursed, and then assuming an air of casual ease agreed that that was exactly what I was doing.
‘Good, good,’ said Clinker. ‘Sensible thinking. I’ve seen many a new canon make a hash of things. Amazing really. Wouldn’t want that, would we?’ There was a note of hopeful challenge in his voice.
‘Absolutely not, sir, not at all!’ I smiled wanly.
We chatted for a while about the ceremony and other related matters, and he pointed out the new hassocks which I dutifully admired. And then, clearing his throat, he said, ‘I think, Oughterard, I might say that congratulations are in order.’
I was surprised and could not think what on earth I had done to merit such recognition. However, composing my features into a modest smile, I replied appropriately: ‘Goodness, is that so, sir?’
‘Yes, it is rather. You see, I have won my half-blue.’
Disappointment and amazement jostled for position, the latter outstripping the former by a good length. A
? At his age! And in what, for heaven’s sake? I stared blankly.
‘Yes, thought you would be impressed. It was the Bracknell Cup that did it, made my mark there all right. The judges were most complimentary.’
Daylight dawned. My God, he was talking about
‘Remarkable, sir. I had simply no idea that they awarded blues for board games.’
His expression soured somewhat. ‘Of course they don’t, Oughterard, but tiddlywinks is in a league of its own and has long been regarded as one of the more civilized sports – not, I may say, a mere
. However, you lead a sheltered life and I suppose can be forgiven for not knowing.’
A sheltered life? That was rich! Nothing sheltered about cultural larceny, let alone the Foxford Wood nightmare. However, anxious to reap the bishop’s ‘forgiveness’, I said brightly that I was sure his partner Mrs Carruthers would be most gratified. To this he replied that Mrs Carruthers was but Gladys wasn’t, and on no account should I mention it to her: ‘Mrs Clinker has limited knowledge of the sport and even less of its value.’
Since I am punctilious in ensuring that my encounters with the bishop’s wife are minimal, I thought the likelihood of my conversing with her on the subject distinctly remote. Thus assuring him of my discretion, I said soothingly that doubtless true aficionados would recognize the honour and that it had surely been admirably earned.
He looked pleased and thanked me, adding a trifle wistfully, ‘Yes, it is nice to be appreciated in such matters.’ I felt a rare stirring of sympathy and was about to make further assurances, but was numbed by his next words.
‘Anyway, one thing at least will please Gladys: we are taking our holiday next month. There is of course the initial hurdle of Belgium and my sister-in-law, but after that we shall be motoring through the … uhm, never can think of the name …’
‘The Ardennes?’ I asked helpfully. ‘So easy from Brussels and I believe it is beautiful countryside.’
‘No, not the Ardennes,’ he exclaimed impatiently. ‘Myrtle is always dragging us off there; after all these years I know it like the back of my hand! No, we are going well south – to the Auvergne,
I had discovered from the atlas that the Auvergne is a very large area, and thus the chances of our encountering Clinker and Gladys were about a million to one. And besides, despite being in the same month, it was unlikely their sojourn would coincide with the dates of our own brief foray. But despite such rationalizing, the news struck like a blow to the solar plexus, and not for the first time I wondered why Fate had selected me for such persecution.
‘Fascinating,’ I murmured. And then gingerly, and with winded words, enquired what dates he expected to be there.
‘Mid-October. Rather a nice little place by all accounts, a village called Berceau-Lamont – quite high up, I believe. Myrtle has friends there.’ She would, I thought. She just frigging would!
Berceau-Lamont – the nearest village to La Folie de Fotherington. According to Ingaza it was a small hamlet set on the lower slopes of a precipitous mountain about a mile to the north of the château, boasting a church and, apart from a pond and some rambling goats, not much else. His description had been uncomplimentary, although if the bishop’s sister-in-law had friends living there presumably it must have had something to commend it. However, its qualities or otherwise were now entirely irrelevant: what mattered was that it was in the immediate vicinity of La Folie and that Clinker and Co. would evidently be visiting at the same time as ourselves. Did Fate know no bounds to its cruelty?
I listened to him describing the fishing he hoped to do and Gladys’s determination to take her painting paraphernalia. A blanket of gloom descended as I envisaged the likely complications and embarrassment should we have the misfortune to encounter them. Questions would be asked. What was I
there? What was my connection with the ruined château? How
that it should have belonged to the poor lady murdered in my parish!
were my companions? … I thought of the boisterous Eric, Ingaza’s domestic sidekick with his cockney slang and raucous guffaws; and (with a shudder) of that egregious curé from Taupinière, Henri Martineau, their seedy Gallic accomplice roped in to ‘help with the lingo, dear boy’. I could see only too vividly the raised quizzical eyebrows, Myrtle’s pursed lips, and the lowering scowl from Gladys … and mentally cringed at the prospect.
And then with a flash of horror I thought of Ingaza himself. Bad enough having to explain the other two, but how on earth after all these years was I to explain to the bishop the sudden emergence of Brighton’s sharpest and shadiest art dealer? Nicholas Ingaza: ejected from St Bede’s (then under Clinker’s own administration) for matters of gross misconduct, ex-jailbird … and long, long ago at Oxford, the bishop’s one-night standing folly. To a man such as Clinker, governed by status and Gladys, such entanglements are best forgotten or at least kept veiled. A sudden encounter with Nicholas and his satellites on a remote foreign mountain top would hardly be good for him. But more to the point, it would hardly be good for me. The fallout would be dire: I should be blamed for everything and doubtless banished to the frozen wastes of the north or packed off to administer some obscure Home for Indigent Clergy – or worse still, to manage a Temperance Mission in Peckham. And it would all be Nicholas’s fault! Wretchedly I tugged at my collar and contemplated the Auvergne in all its looming menace …
‘I say,’ said Clinker, ‘you’re looking a bit tense, Oughterard. Hope you haven’t been overdoing things. Nerves probably – I’ve noticed it before with the new canons: it’s the prospect of the ceremony. Gets them down. And then there’s the special Address of course, always a fraught business. Still, I dare say yours will be all right … more or less.’ And with those words of comfort and inspiration, he rattled his car keys and sauntered off to the main door.
I drove home, fed the dog, and with lacklustre energy attacked the piano and the whisky.