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Authors: Leo Bruce

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BOOK: Furious Old Women
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“Why not?”

“It doesn't quite ring true. That kind of murder could happen here I suppose, as it could happen anywhere in the world, but all my instincts are against it. And I don't think thugs of that kind would have waited to cover the
body at the bottom of an open grave. It's not impossible but I don't
think
that's the way it happened.”

“Go on,” commanded Mrs Bobbin.

Carolus looked at her strong resolute face and beautiful white hair and tried not to make his words sound opinionated and peremptory.

“You see, I think it could have happened almost anywhere. It was, as you say, a dark night and there would have been plenty of time to take your sister's body to the churchyard and cover it, for persons who knew that the grave was already dug. Moreover the actual killing could have been the work of anyone—even a woman.”

“You seem to wish to widen the possibilities instead of narrowing them.”

“Well, they are pretty wide. I take it there isn't much known even about the time of your sister's death?”

“I believe not. She had been under the earth for some hours.”

“So we do not know when, why, where or by whom.” “If you put it like that….”

“Then another thing I must tell you. I can't give much time at present to investigation. The Spring term is a month old and as you know I'm a schoolmaster. I think the police will get at the truth long before I shall.”

“They may. But I'm prepared to chance that. I have one thing in common with your angry young men, Mr Deene—I do not like policemen. They are paid to protect the public and their failure to do so in the last twenty years has turned the country into a paradise for criminals while decent citizens who overstep some silly little law are harassed and persecuted. I believe the police are often corrupt and unscrupulous and I'm almost as angry when I think of their failure in this affair as when I think of the murderer's success. If the police should hit on a solution before you it will either be a miracle or a mistake. So go ahead even if it's a part-time job with you.”

“Your sister will wish that, too?”

“My sister is just as angry as I am over this. Perhaps angrier, in an Old Testament sort of way. She's calling for vengeance like someone on Mount Sinai. She will be delighted if you help to discover the murderer. So far as we're concerned you have a free hand. The case is wide open.”

“It certainly is. I have never approached anything with such a range of possibilities. If one doesn't accept the theory of robbery one can't even see a motive.”

“I wouldn't say that. A number of people will benefit financially by my sister's death. I myself, my sister Flora, our nephew Dundas Griggs, the vicar Bonar Waddell and a former chauffeur of my father's who keeps one of the local inns, a man named George Larkin. He has a son called Bill who is also, rather unaccountably, in the will.”

“Quite a collection.”

“But as I've told you I'm convinced that there was nothing like a motive beyond the immediate one of robbery.”

“Had your sister any enemies?”

Mrs Bobbin considered this for a moment.

“I'm tempted to say ‘No' because the enemies she had are so obviously unconnected with the case. But there are two women in the village who hated Millicent and believe me, Mr Deene, in a little community like this hate can be fierce. One was the vicar's wife, Agatha Waddell. I suppose it was some kind of jealousy because her husband gave a good deal of time and attention to Millicent. Agatha is a lean and hungry-looking woman who seems thoroughly dissatisfied with life.”

“And the second?”

“The second is Grazia Vaillant, the vicar's
other
best parishioner. I told you my sister's life turned on the parish.”

“Tell me a little about this lady.”

“Grazia Vaillant, like Millicent, is rich and immersed in church affairs. Each of these women wanted her own way. But there the similarity ends. Where Millicent was
downright Grazia is gushing. Millicent was Low Church, Grazia, High, which left the vicar torn between them trying to look both ways at once. Grazia is somewhat eccentric, Millicent was outwardly rather a common-place woman. Needless to say they detested one another.”

“Have you seen Miss Vaillant since your sister's death?”

“Yes. Rather subdued, oddly enough. I think she misses Millicent's opposition. Flora will be no match for her, so she'll get it all her own way and the church will become so High it will stink of incense.”

“You speak as though your vicar had nothing to say in the matter?”

“What could he do between two women like Millicent and Grazia? His great ambition is to be all things to all men, a good mixer, popular, tolerant—you know the type. Grazia will bowl him over like a ninepin. As for the curate, he's considered ‘good with boys'. Scouts and that.”

“Who else is on the parochial scene?”

“Only one Churchwarden who counts—Commander Fyfe. He's not what you would imagine a retired Naval Officer to be like. Then there's Rumble who is both verger and sexton and who found the body. You'll meet him for yourself. I won't spoil your first impressions.”

“Who else am I likely to meet?”

“The publican of the Black Horse, George Larkin. Perhaps you had better hear straight away what someone in the village is bound to tell you sooner or later, that is that when he was chauffeur to my father many years ago there was a scandal of some sort. I was at boarding school at the time and have never from that day to this heard the story in full but I believe he ran away with Millicent. My father found them a week later down at Brighton and everything was hushed up. Larkin had a pub bought for him up in Westmorland or somewhere on condition that he did not return here. He waited till after my father's death then returned, since this is after all his native place. His own pub had flourished and he bought the Black
Horse. He is a widower now and in his seventies though his son is barely twenty.”

“Anyone else?”

“Oh, the village has the usual local characters. Rather irritating, most of them, I find. There's a poacher called Mugger who is rather notorious. The village policeman, Slatt, I consider to be of sub-normal intelligence but doubtless I'm prejudiced. You'll come on others unless you produce a solution almost at once.”

“I don't think that's likely. It's all too vague.”

“But tempting?”

“Yes.”

“Then do your damnedest. Because, as I say, I'm furious. This is the
end.
I've been pretty annoyed for years with this silliness called modern life. It irritates me to make no progress at all except towards old age. I could strangle the self-pitying young people who moan at the mess around them and do nothing about it. But I've never yet been angry on a personal score, I mean at something which happened to me. When I hear that my elder sister has been battered to death and thrown in an open grave, I find it too much. I'm livid. So don't take too long in solving the thing. I understand you're clever. For goodness' sake show it. And help yourself to another drink—don't sit looking at an empty glass.”

“Thank you.”

“When will you start your enquiries?”

“Tomorrow,” said Carolus.

2

C
AROLUS
drove the forty miles from the village of Gladhurst to the town of Newminster where, in the Queen's School, he was Senior History Master.

The Queen's School, Newminster, is, as its pupils find themselves under the necessity rather often of explaining, a public school. A minor, a small, a lesser-known one, they concede, but still in the required category. It has a hundred and sixty day-boys, ninety boarders and a staff of eighteen. Its buildings are old, picturesque and very unhygienic and one of its class-rooms is a show-piece untouched from the Elizabethan Age in which the school was founded.

At the school Carolus occupied an equivocal position. He was an extraordinarily good teacher but as a member of the staff he gave the headmaster, Mr Gorringer, many unquiet hours. His excessively large private income and Bentley Continental motor-car, his habit of dressing rather too well and keeping up an extravagant establishment for himself did not endear him to the staff, who were sparsely paid, conscientious men. His known interest in criminology and the fact that he had solved a number of much-publicized murder mysteries made the headmaster ‘tremble as he put it, for the good name of the school.

Carolus, moreover, had an unfortunately casual manner which Mr Gorringer could not but feel only narrowly missed the disrespectful. Mr Gorringer took his head-mastership seriously and was highly averse to the flippancy of Carolus. He was a large man with a pale solemn face and a magnificent pair of pendulous, hairy ears. His verbose and earnest manner of speech became him.

Carolus was aware that in school the boys were apt to take advantage of his known interest in crime both ancient and modern. A master with a hobby-horse is easily led away from the tiresome lesson in hand into the realms of his fancy. He may or may not realize this as the end of the school period comes and he finds that he has talked for three-quarters of an hour on his favourite subject and forgotten what he was supposed to be teaching.

Carolus Deene was very well aware of his weakness but he regarded his twin interests of crime and history as almost indistinguishable. The history of men is the
history of their crimes, he said. Crippen and Richard III, Nero and the latest murderer to be given headlines in newspapers were all one to him, as his pupils delightedly discovered. However Carolus enjoyed his job of teaching history and was conscientious over his work.

As he reached Newminster he realized that it was nearly nine o'clock and expected no mercy from his housekeeper Mrs Stick. The dinner she had cooked for him would be spoilt and her temper with it. If in addition she suspected that his lateness was caused by anything connected with criminal investigation she would be nearly as angry as Mrs Bobbin.

“Fortunately it was chops,” she said breathing hard when Carolus was seated. She was a small, thin severe woman who cooked superbly and with her husband made Carolus's home the most comfortable in Newminster.

“That's all right then,” said Carolus brightly.

“It's a good thing I didn't put them on,” said Mrs Stick. “Nor the soufflay either. Else they'd have been ruined. It's nine o'clock.”

“Is it really? Time goes by when you're interested, doesn't it?”

This earned him a long suspicious stare from Mrs Stick.

“I don't know what you've got to be interested in, I'm sure,” she said. “It wasn't anything to do with the school because Stick heard tonight from the school porter that you were Missed at the house match this afternoon. The headmaster was enquiring for you afterwards.”

“Oh dear, was there a house match?”

“Yes, Sir, there was, and you wasn't at it so when you say you've been interested you can't blame me if I think the worst.”

Carolus said nothing while Mrs Stick was bringing in his grilled chops.

“All my nice saltay potatoes have gone dead and greasy, of course. Well, you can't expect anything else. I was only saying to Stick that I don't mind as long as it doesn't
mean you're thinking of starting anything of
that
kind again. We can't have murderers and such all over the house.”

“Surely we never have?”

“Well, coming here at all hours and us not knowing whether you'd ever come back alive each time you go out. Look at that time they tried to poison you! And how our holiday was upset that year when they kept finding bodies.”

“The chops are excellent, Mrs Stick.”

“So they may be. But I was saying to Stick today I shan't be cooking for Mr Deene much longer if he gets up to any more of these larks with murderers. It will never do, I said. People will begin to think there's something funny about
us
next.”

“And what did Stick say?” asked Carolus curiously, for in all the years he had been hearing of Mrs Stick's remarks to her husband he had never once been supplied with the reply.

“Stick says what
I
say,” said Mrs Stick vehemently, and Carolus did not doubt it.

“I don't think there's much fear of your being involved this time, Mrs Stick.”

“Then you
are
up to something,” said the little woman triumphantly. “I knew it as soon as you came in late like that. Not that poor lady battered to death over at Gladhurst, is it?”

“You wouldn't want to see an elderly woman murdered and the murderer go unpunished, would you?”

“There's police to see to that and no call for you to start upsetting us all. It's no good, Sir. Stick and I will have to leave and go somewhere where we don't have the horrors every day of our lives. Put into an open grave, wasn't she? Look at that and tell me how I'm expected to sleep sound at night. Besides, there's what my sister will say. Last time I saw her she was on about my working
where there are all these murders. I don't know. I really don't.”

But Carolus had an even more difficult interview next morning when Mr Gorringer the headmaster sent for him during the Break.

Carolus was speeding towards the common-room in order to seize
The Times
before Hollingbourne could despoil the virginity of its crossword puzzle with the two clues he usually managed to solve, when he was waylaid by Muggeridge, the school porter.

“He wants you,” said Muggeridge sulkily, not needing to enlarge on this.

“Damn,” said Carolus.

“I know. That's what I said when he rang that blasted bell of his.” Muggeridge found his life a wearisome one and resented the uniform, including a gold-braided top-hat, on which Mr Gorringer insisted. “He could just as well have come and spoken to you himself. But no, he has to sit at his blasted desk and ring his blasted bell and send me chasing all over the blasted place looking for you while my tea's getting cold. He's got something up his sleeve, too.”

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