Authors: Leo Bruce
Â© 1960 by Propertius Co., Ltd.
Published in 1983 by
Academy Chicago, Publishers
425 N. Michigan Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, mechanical or electronic, without the advance written permission of the publisher.
Printed and bound in the U.S.A.
Second printing, 1987
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Bruce, Leo. 1903-1980.
Furious old women.
PR6005.R673F8Â Â Â Â Â 1983bÂ Â Â Â Â 823'.912Â Â Â Â Â 83-15683
ISBN 0-89733-084-6 (pbk.)
young men?” said Mrs Bobbin. “Ridiculous. Whining about their maladjustment or disillusionment or whatnot. I'm seventy-one years old, I lost my husband in the first world war, my only son in the second, and my income has been whittled down to a pittance. Now my sister has been battered to death by hooligans. If I were to start talking the self-pitying rubbish of these people there might be some reason for it. But I don't and if I hear or read another word about âthe beat generation' I shall scream. Quite literally, wherever I happen to be. Now give me a cigarette and tell me how you're going to find out who murdered Millicent.”
Carolus Deene looked at the old lady appreciatively. Seventy-one, was she? She looked twelve years younger and when she snorted as she did now she made one think of a war-horse.
“Well, I'm going to start by asking you some questions,”
“That won't get you far. I was in London at the time as I've told you. But ask what you like. If it's only to satisfy my curiosity I must know who killed Milly.”
“She was the eldest of you?”
“Yes. I came second, my brother Arthur thirdâhe died in 1940âand Flora was the youngest. She was a late child and is only fifty-four.”
“You three sisters lived together?”
“We had done since the war, when I gave up my London flat and came down here.”
“This village was your family home?”
“Yes. We were all born here. Nothing feudal but we have lived in this house, Crossways, for three generations.
Millicent and Flora never really left it. They were always wrapped up in parish affairs. I married in 1910 and didn't return till my son was killed in 1940. I couldn't afford to keep a home of my own and joined my sisters.”
“You liked living here?”
“Bored stiff,” said Mrs Bobbin. “Church affairs meant nothing to me and my sisters were immersed in them. Local residents pretentious and unintelligent. I was almost reduced to television. As I say, I have a right to be annoyed with life.”
“But you had no financial worries?”
“Hadn't we? You didn't know Millicent. She had most of the money, the largest share from my father and a big sum from my brother's estate. Flora and I had meagre little incomes, yet Millicent insisted that we should all pay the same share. She had played the stock market for twenty years and had made herself an extremely rich woman. But you'd never have known it. Every single household expense was divided into three equal parts and we all shelled out the same. I haven't had a penny to play with,
play with, since the very fair income left me by my husband has dwindled to nothing. I may not have been in want or hunger perhaps but there are worse things than those. There is perpetual niggling, calculating and balancing which goes on for years and never leaves one any room for a small extravagance. We had that here at Crossways.”
“Will your sister's death relieve you of it?”
“I don't know. The will is enormous and very complicated and most of her wealth seems to be going to help Milly's pet church charities. But this money is so tied up with conditions on how the church is to be run that it will produce problems of its own. There's some for Flora and me but I don't know yet how much. Certainly not enough to compensate us for the annoyance of the murder.”
“Annoyance, Mrs Bobbin?”
“I'm extremely angry about it. Milly may have been mean and sanctimonious but she was my sister. To club her to death on her way to church was quite damnable.”
“You said âon her way to church'. What makes you think that?”
“Her body was found in an open grave in the churchyard. Dug for a Mr Chilling, I believe, a retired shopkeeper who lived in the village.”
“Yes, but it might have been taken there, surely?”
“I don't think so. You will find as you come to look into this that the whole thing's bound up with the church, just as my sister was.”
“Even so, what makes you say âon her way' to church? She may have been coming away from it.”
Mrs Bobbin thought for a minute, then said, indifferently, “I suppose so.”
“It happened about a week ago?”
“Today's Friday, so it was eight days ago. Last Thursday, February 18th. It was a dry cold day which grew cloudy in the afternoon so that the night was dark. I went up to London by the ten o'clock train in the morning and got back at eight-fifteen. I walked from the station and let myself in to find the house completely dark and empty. I at once telephoned the police.”
“No one normally slept in the house but the three of you?”
“No one. Our only domestic help is a young woman called Naomi who comes in during the day and leaves after lunch. I suppose we are lucky to have her.”
“Yes. Naomi Chester. I often wondered why she stayed with us. Millicent was unbearable with her.”
“In what way?”
“Inquisitive. My sister, Mr Deene, had rather a nasty mind and a habit of prying into other people's lives. Naomi's was a sad case. She is in love with a young man called Grey who married about three years ago a girl who has since been certified insane. There is a small child
by the marriage and it appears that Naomi is going to have a baby by Grey. My sister's curiosity about this embarrassed us all, particularly Naomi. But I suppose the girl continued to work for us to remain in the village near Grey. My sister Flora and I were quite fond of her.”
“Where was your sister Flora on the day of the murder?”
“She left the house during the afternoon and went by bus to Burley, the nearest town. She did some shopping, had tea at a cafe then went to the pictures. She got in soon after I did.”
“When did you first hear of your sister's death?”
“Not till next day. We had a most worrying night, of course. It appears that next morning the sexton, a man called Rumble, who works for us in his spare time as a gardener, noticed that the grave he had dug for Chilling had been partly filled in and began to investigate. He found my sister's body loosely covered with earth.”
Carolus Deene nodded.
“That was ingenious,” he said. “If it hadn't been noticed and the coffin lowered the chances are the body would never have been found. It would have been just another mysterious disappearance.”
“But not quite ingenious enough. Why didn't the murderers dig deeper? Then they
have got away with it.”
“Who was the last person to see your sister alive?”
“So far as we know, Naomi Chester. She usually leaves the house about two-thirty but was later that day. She says that there was nothing unusual when she went. My sister Flora had already caught the 2.40 bus for Burley so that when Naomi went Millicent was left alone in the house. But that was not unusual. Any one of the three of us was quite accustomed to being alone. It's always been a very quiet and orderly village.”
“So nothing is known of your sister's movements after Naomi Chester left her here?”
“Unless the police have discovered anything. But it's
fairly easy to guess. My sister decided to go round to the church.”
“There was no service?”
“I think not. Mr Waddell, the vicar, did once try to introduce what he called daily evensong but the attendance was so small he had to give it up. No, I think Millicent went there for one of her choresâcleaning the brass or something.”
“No. She disapproved of flowers in church. Millicent was what is called Low Church. Flowers were only a shade worse than candles which were anathema, while as for incense â¦ However, you'll hear all that in good time. She must have gone to polish her brassâshe took a pride in an idiotic-looking eagle that served as a lecternâand on her way was clubbed and robbed. As simple as that.”
“But was she known to carry anything worth robbing?”
“She had a rather ostentatious taste in jewellery. There were usually enough diamonds on her to make a fair-sized tiara. And she nearly always carried a fairly large sum of money.”
“Both had been stolen, I take it, when the corpse was found?”
“Oh yes. I've told you she was done to death by hooligans. Damnable.”
“How did she carry the money?”
“It was my sister's habit to carry a most capacious bag. More like a shopping basket, I often told her. In this was her purse. The bag was found with her body but the purse was missing.”
“Nothing has been recovered?”
“Certainly not. The police say they are investigating but beyond asking me a number of questions even more moronic than yours they have done nothing to my knowledge. That is why when Mrs Kensington said she knew you I told her to ring you up. I want someone hanged for this. Yes, Mr Deene, hanged by the neck till
he's thoroughly well dead. I have never been more infuriated in my life. Have a drink?”
“I'll get it for you. Flora's still more or less prostrate with shock and Naomi left hours ago.”
“Naomi Chester is still working for you, then?”
“Why not? She inherited nothing from Millicent and she's got her coming child to think of.”
Sipping his whisky and looking about him Carolus saw no sign of the âmeagre little incomes' âwhittled down to a pittance' and âdwindling to nothing'. They sat in the central room of the house from which a fine stone staircase curved upward to the first floor far above them. The furniture was of the eighteenth century, sherry-dark mahogany beautifully polished, and there were several good portraits.
“It is only since my sister's death that I am able to offer you a drink in this house. Millicent was quite rabid on the subject. Not a drop of alcohol must cross the door. I often wondered whether she had some secret temptation to drink. Such violent opinions often mean that, I'm told. I drink very little myself so it was no sacrifice to me, and Millicent carried Flora with her in this as in most other things. But I like to be able to offer ordinary hospitality.”
Carolus said he appreciated it.
“Does the case interest you?” asked Mrs Bobbin sharply.
“Yes. But there are one or two things I should tell you before we go any farther. First, I do not necessarily accept your view that your sister was clubbed to death by ruffians for the sake of immediate robbery.”