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Authors: Leo Bruce

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“Thank you, Muggeridge.”

“Oh, I don't blame
you,”
conceded Muggeridge. “You can't help it any more than what I can if he wants to get on his high horse. I shall tell him, one of these days.”

Carolus found Mr Gorringer if not on his high horse at least very upright and pontifical as he sat at his enormous study table.

“Ah, Deene,” he greeted Carolus in a manner neither over-friendly nor hostile. It was hard to guess what direction the interview would take. “I wanted a word with you.”

Carolus nodded.

“Pray take a seat,” said Mr Gorringer. “We were disappointed not to see you at the house match yesterday. A very creditable show on the part of Plantagenet.” The houses at the Queen's School, Newminster, apart from
School House, were known as Plantagenet and Stuart. “But doubtless you had more pressing matters to attend to?”

“Yes,” said Carolus.

“It is in some way connected with this that I wished to see you. I cannot help feeling, my dear Deene, that, while you carry out your duties as Senior History Master with conspicuous care and success, your interest in what we might call the life of the school is apt to wander into regions remote from ours. I recognize your right to occupy your own time as you wish but it has come to my ears that the other men are a trifle hurt by your indifference to our extra-academic activities.”

Carolus waited.

“It happens, though, that a situation has arisen which will solve this little difficulty in a way most satisfactory to us all.
Breadman has decided to retire.”

For a moment Carolus did not catch the awful implications of these last five words.

“As you know, he has been at the school as boy and master since the turn of the century and his going will leave a gap difficult indeed to fill. It will also mean that Plantagenet House will require a housemaster. You, Deene, are Breadman's successor by right of seniority and I have decided to appoint you.”

Carolus gasped.

“You will have the care of twenty-five boys together with their boarding fees which after due allowance for generous catering leave a very satisfactory balance to your benefit. You will thus, I hope, be drawn into the integral life of the school. Allow me to be the first to congratulate you on this promotion.”

“But headmaster, you can't possibly be serious,” said Carolus. “As a widower …”

“I have considered that. While it is admittedly desirable that our housemasters should be married men, I have decided not to allow this to bar your way. A good housekeeper can surely be found.”

“But it's quite outside my scope. I know nothing about catering. I couldn't think of accepting the responsibility.”

“Come, come, Deene. You are too modest. You will find that once ensconced in Plantagenet you will be absorbed by the small problems it will produce.”

“No!” said Carolus desperately. “Let me make it clear at once, headmaster. I appreciate your confidence in me but I decline absolutely.”

Mr Gorringer eyed him with severity.

“Surely I am not to understand, Deene, that your personal, perhaps I may be permitted to say selfish, interests stand in the way? Your unfortunate hobby, for instance? If I thought
that
…”

Carolus had a sudden inspiration.

“What about Hollingbourne?” he asked. “He's a family man. Catering for twenty-five more beyond his own children would be child's play to him. He'd
like
it.”

“Hollingbourne is your junior on the staff,” said Mr Gorringer dubiously.

Carolus followed up his advantage.

“Does that really matter? It's right up his street. I couldn't possibly deprive him of it.”

“I should like to say that is generous of you, Deene. But I fear me that it is far otherwise. However, Hollingbourne certainly would be gratified by the opportunity. I shall have to consider it.”

Carolus found perspiration on his forehead when he left the headmaster's study.

But it was a half holiday and though a bitterly cold day the air was crisp and clean. Carolus decided to drive over to Gladhurst immediately after lunch.

He found the case as put to him by the irate old lady Mrs Bobbin was an unusually intriguing one. There had been a marked inconsistency in her account of it to Carolus yesterday, which he had noted at the time and now reconsidered. While insisting more than once that her sister had met her death at the hands of hooligans
whose motive was robbery, she had said twice that he would find it a ‘parish' affair and had spoken of the various persons connected with the parish whom he would meet. It was difficult to know what the old lady really believed.

He had read the newspaper account of the inquest and found that this, like everything else connected with the thing, was inconclusive. The injuries to the skull from which Millicent Griggs had died could have been caused by her being struck from behind with something like a club or could be the result of her head striking something immovable with sufficient force. There was almost no indication of the time of death but the body had been covered for at least ten hours when it was found by Rumble in the morning. No weapon had been found and nothing to indicate where Millicent Griggs had met her death. Nobody strange to the village had been observed that afternoon. Nothing had been traced of the jewellery Millicent Griggs had worn nor the money she was carrying.

So the horizon was clear. Not only was there no hint of the murderer's identity—it could not even be guessed whether there had been one or two or even more concerned in the crime. The time of it was unknown, so was the place. The way in which the woman was killed, the weapon, all the information which an investigator usually had at the outset was totally lacking. The only thing on which there seemed to be agreement was motive, but here Carolus found himself highly sceptical of the general conclusion, that Millicent Griggs had been murdered for the jewels and money she carried. It could be but it seemed a trite and unlikely solution.

Yet this did not mean that the case would prove to be extraordinarily baffling. It might even be better to start in such uncertainty. Facts would come with time.

He stopped at a point about a mile from Gladhurst from which the little village could be seen nestling—there was no other word—in its wooded valley. The clear
winter afternoon gave its outlines sharpness, the square-towered church, the red roofs, the smoke curling upward. It looked compact as though its houses were huddling together to keep warm. It looked friendly, too, a Christmas card village in which one would have supposed there lived only jovial farmers and their amiable workers, kindly cosy people with no enmity or cruelty among them. Well, he had known scenes like that before and seen the outwardly cheery people he met turn into malicious, jealous and violent brutes before his eyes.

For one moment he hesitated. He had a strange superstitious feeling that ahead of him lay great evil and perhaps danger, that the death of Millicent Griggs, horrible though it was, would prove to be only a part of something more menacing and beastly, and that he would find the worst qualities in those he had to meet. Why should he once again walk into the slime when there was so much goodness and kindliness to be found?

But of course he drove on. Curiosity, if nothing more, was sufficient temptation. Why had Millicent Griggs died? Why above all had she been buried in that open grave when the murderer could have escaped at once? Where was she murdered? These were questions enough for the moment without even considering the foremost and final one—who had killed her?

3

T
HE
first person he interviewed in Gladhurst confirmed his feeling of vague repugnance at the case, for he realized almost at once that Naomi Chester was a very frightened young woman. Carolus hated to see fear in any human being, it was to him as embarrassing as nudity. Naomi did her best to conceal what she felt but unsuccessfully.

She was a thin tall girl, a trifle sallow and anaemic-looking yet rather pretty in a thoughtful way. She looked as though she could get and keep anything she wanted by merely clinging to it. She sat opposite Carolus and moved her thin arms and long fingers as though she were about to play cats' cradles with them. Her brown eyes were watchfully, indeed fearfully, on Carolus.

“How did you get on with the late Miss Griggs?” asked Carolus in a friendly reassuring voice.

“Oh, all right,” said Naomi at once.

Lie One, thought Carolus, remembering what Mrs Bobbin had told him.

“You liked her?”

“Well, I wasn't much gone on all that church business,” said Naomi.

“Did she talk to you much about that?”

“No. Not about that, she didn't.”

“Other things, perhaps?”

“I never had much to do with her,” said Naomi sulkily.

The conviction was growing on Carolus that Naomi was not only frightened but had something to conceal.

“She didn't want to know a lot about your private life?”

Naomi gave a small bitter smile.

“You haven't any private life in a place like Glad-hurst,” she said. “Everyone knows your business.”

“But not everyone discusses it in front of you. Did Miss Griggs?”

“No!” said Naomi loudly and twined her fingers.

“Coming to the Thursday of her death. What time did you get here in the morning?”

“Nine. As usual.”

“And leave?”

“I've gone over all this with the police. About half-past three.”

“Was that your usual time?”

“I hadn't got one, really.”

“I understand you normally left at about two-thirty.”

Naomi was growing perceptibly more uncomfortable.

“When I can I do. It's often later.”

“And that day it was later?”

“A bit, yes.”

“Why?”

“I don't know.”

“Why?”

“No reason. I just hadn't finished my work.”

“Surely you'd washed up the lunch things?”

“Yes. Before Miss Flora left.”

“Then what kept you?”

“Nothing. I was just running about finishing.”

“Were you talking to Miss Griggs?”

“No. She was resting.”

“Where?”

“Where she usually rested. In the drawing-room.”

“You didn't go in there?”

“No.”

“I should like to clear this up, you know. I know enough about housework to know that you'd have got all your rooms done in the morning so that after you'd washed up and put things away and just done the last oddments you could get off. You must have finished the washing-up at half-past two because Miss Flora caught the 2.40 bus. What did you do for another hour?”

“I don't know now. I was busy.”

“Where?”

“Nowhere special. There were things to be done.”

Carolus decided to use one of his diversions which so often brought out the truth.

“The drawing-room where Miss Griggs was resting is on the ground floor, isn't it? It has French windows?”

“Yes.”

Naomi was staring at him now with a fixed melancholy.

“Were you near enough to hear if anyone had entered and talked to her there?”

“Oh yes. No one did that.”

“Then where were you?”

“As a matter of fact I found I'd forgotten to do my hall.”

“That's the central room of the house?”

“Yes. They don't like it being called the lounge. It's the hall.”

“Wouldn't that be the first room you'd do?”

“No. The last. After I'd done those round it. Yes, I remember what it was kept me now. I found I'd forgotten it in the morning.”

“Does it take an hour?”

“Oh yes. With all the staircase and that.”

“I see. And all this time you heard and saw nothing of Miss Griggs?”

“No. When I looked in before leaving she was asleep.”

“How was she lying?”

“On her back on the big settee with a lot of cushions under her head.”

“Was there much light?”

“No. Not much. She always pulled the blinds before going to sleep.”

“But you could see her face?”

“Only just.”

“Where did you go from there?”

It was quite evident to Carolus that this was a new one. Whatever the police had asked Naomi they had stopped at the point of her leaving the house.

“Home,” she said.

‘You live with your mother?”

“Yes.”

“Just the two of you?”

“S'right.”

“Was she in when you got home?”

“No. She was at work. She's the head cook at Highcliff House.”

“Who lives there?”

“It's a private nursing home. Just up the road. Mum's got a good job there.”

“Didn't you ever think of working with her there?”

“I did only it upset me. All those poor things. So I went to work for these three. There wasn't the strain.”

“You still haven't told me where you went that afternoon.”

“Why? What's it to do with it? You're trying to find out who killed Miss Griggs, not worry about what I do in my own time.”

“What time did you meet Grey?”

“Who said I met him that day?”

“Really, you are being rather silly, you know. You seem to want to make me think you had something to do with the death of Miss Griggs. I'll tell you frankly that I believe you know something you're afraid to tell. I can't see why you should be so evasive otherwise. Now don't start crying.”

“I'm not crying,” said Naomi unconvincingly. “Only you keep on at me with questions which have nothing to do with it.”

“If they have nothing to do with it, why not answer them?”

“What is it you want to know?”

“What time you met Grey.”

“He got off early that afternoon. He came home about four.”

BOOK: Furious Old Women
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