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Authors: Leo Bruce

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BOOK: Furious Old Women
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“Ah hum!” he beamed. “You're certainly not afraid of convention, Mr Deene. That, if I may use the expression, is an old one. What's more I think I can answer it pretty accurately. I lunched at home. My wife and daughter. Cottage pie, I remember. A little argument about whether it should be called Cottage or Shepherd's. My wife became quite impassioned about it. I found myself weighing the balance between them. I dislike
disagreement. We can't all hold the same opinions about everything but we needn't be dogmatic. A little sweet reasonableness here, a small compromise there and the world….”

“You were telling me what you did that afternoon.”

“Yes. Yes. I get carried away. I went to see my Churchwarden. Commander Fyfe.”

“Is he as keen as you are on agreement among people?”

“He has recently joined me in a little conspiracy which, until this sad event in the parish, we thought successful. Two good and sincere women—sincere each in her own manner—had been long in conflict. Miss Griggs might be described as evangelical in her views, Miss Vaillant held opposite opinions. Miss Vaillant wished me to introduce a form of ritual which Miss Griggs considered out of keeping … inappropriate … not in accordance with her conception of the Church of England. In a word, Miss Vaillant was High Church, Miss Griggs, Low.”

“And you?”

“Oh, Broad. Broad. I could not subscribe to some of the more exuberant notions of Miss Vaillant and felt her use of the word ‘Mass' was open to misinterpretation. On the other hand I felt that Miss Griggs, sincere though she was, might wish to deprive our fine old church of some of its grandeur.”

“So how did you manage the situation?”

“Well, I had liturgical colours, you know, and we turned to the East for the Creed. I had to draw the line at holy water but I allowed those of the choir who wished it to make the sign of the cross. I had six candlesticks on the altar but kept a plain cross and felt bound to refuse the large crucifix presented by Miss Vaillant. We used the term Sung Eucharist but I wouldn't allow Matins to be ousted from the hour of eleven o'clock. As for Confessions, I expressed myself willing to hear them but chiefly in cases of illness. I agreed rather reluctantly to the choir wearing the lace cottas which Miss Vaillant presented after their surplices were worn out but I would
not go so far as scarlet cassocks. Recently, after much careful consideration of the subject, I took the important step of wearing vestments at Sung Eucharist though not at the Early Morning Communion Service which the Misses Griggs attended. I would not allow incense but we were considering a side chapel.”

“It all sounds very sensible,” said Carolus.

“But of course the parties at both extremes were dissatisfied. It is so often the way. I had distressing scenes with Miss Vaillant when she wished to prevail on me to wear a biretta and Miss Griggs refused to attend the church on one occasion until I had removed a Paschal Light. But recently, after years of moving among these discordances, I seemed to perceive a ray of light. With the aid of my Churchwarden, splendid chap, we at least induced the two ladies to be on speaking terms. It appears that an agreement was reached that when together they should discuss everything except religion, the church, our services. It seemed to work so well that Miss Griggs actually went to Miss Vaillant's home on two occasions recently. Then came this dreadful murder to throw a shadow over all.”

“Thank you for those interesting details,” said Carolus. “Now may I bring you back to the afternoon of the tragedy.”

“I was saying I walked round to Commander Fyfe's pleasant home, The Fairway. Perhaps you know Commander Fyfe?”

“Not yet.”

“An excellent fellow. A really grand chap. But apt—how shall I put it?—to see mystery, even intrigue, where none is noticeable to others. He reads newspapers which are inclined to stress the more sensational aspects of national life. But the best of men. We discussed the hopeful situation that had risen between the two ladies and one or two other parish matters. An unfortunate rift has arisen between our organist-choirmaster, Mr Waygooze and my enthusiastic curate Peter Slipper. Slipper's
splendid with boys. Scouts, Boys' Club, Camping, splendid. Waygooze naturally wants them for the choir and the two enthusiasms clash. I see Waygooze's point of view, of course, and I support Slipper in his endeavours. I find myself …”

“Just so. That afternoon?”

“I took a cup of tea with Commander and Mrs Fyfe, then decided to call at the church on my way home.”

“May I be impertinent enough to ask why?”

“Certainly, my dear chap. Certainly. No impertinence at all. It is a custom of mine. From time to time I spend a while there in contemplation. We do not Reserve, of course, but the church is something more than a mere meeting-place. My verger Rumble locks it at night. Most conscientious, Rumble. A loyal employee. He has a very happy disposition in spite of his domestic trouble. His wife, you know. They don't Get On. Most unfortunate. How many times have I tried to pour oil on those troubled waters? Mrs Rumble works for Miss Vaillant and is apt to take her view of the little controversy which has disturbed my flock. Rumble does a certain amount of gardening at Crossways when he has time. Perhaps because of that he takes the view so ardently held by the Misses Griggs. Frankly I do not know which, if either, was to blame. On the one hand Rumble seems to have a happy disposition, on the other it is not always the more bitter ones who are responsible for quarrels.”

“You were saying that you went to the church?”

“Yes. At about five o'clock.”

“That would mean that its lights were on and could be seen from outside?”

“Yes. When I arrived the church was in darkness. I switched on the main light over the chancel.”

“Was there anything unusual or out-of-place?”

“Not that I observed. All seemed quite as it should be. Mrs Rumble keeps the church in order. I saw nothing to criticize though I was not that moment looking for anything.”

“Was there any sign of the brass having been recently cleaned?”

“Now there you have me,” said the vicar. “I did not notice the brass.”

“Not even the lectern?”

“No. The lectern is in the form of a magnificent brass eagle with outspread wings. It was a gift from the father of the Misses Griggs and Mrs Bobbin before I had the living. You may know the kind of thing?”

“I do indeed.”

“I certainly did not notice that afternoon if it had been recently polished.”

“Pity. Did you happen to see a pair of galoshes near the door?”

“Galoshes?” repeated the vicar.

“Rubber overshoes.”

“Near the door?”

“Yes, Mr Waddell. Near the door.”

“No. That would be most unusual.”

“But it was dark when you arrived? You could have passed them?”

“I think not. The switches for all the lights are at the West end of the church.”

“Still, you can't be certain?”

“No. I can't be certain.”

“You see, Mr Waddell, there is a suggestion that Millicent Griggs went to the church that afternoon to clean her brass. She may have been murdered on the way to the church, or coming away from it, or even
in
it, for all we know.”

“Terrible. Terrible.”

“So anything you could tell me which would suggest that she had been there, or had not been there….”

“I hardly know what to say. On the one hand all seemed so peaceful yet on the other I suppose that shortly before or after my visit…. Terrible. My wife would like you to take a cup of tea with us.”

“I shall be delighted. You saw nothing?”

“Nothing unusual, no.”

“And heard nothing?”

“Not in the church. Not at that time.”

“Then?”

“After returning here I set out to call on Miss Vaillant. Miss Vaillant, as you may know, occupies the Old Vicarage just opposite the church. I couldn't possibly afford to keep it up and got permission to let it while we have moved into these more modest quarters. It was past six when I approached Miss Vaillant's house. The church was, of course, in darkness. The village seemed quiet. A dark peaceful night. Then, just before I rang the bell, I heard the sound of a motor-bike engine starting up.”

“Where?”

“It
sounded
as though it came from the lane behind the church.”

“Was that very unusual?”

“Well, no. That lane is used, I gather, by the young people of the village. Harmless, I'm sure … I suppose … I hope. Our village policeman seems perturbed about it. He explained to me that once the young folk imagine they can do what they want….”

“Yes, he gave me his views on public morality. So why did you particularly notice that motor-cycle being started?”

“I hardly know. But I did notice it.”

The cheerful daughter came to the door.

“Tea's ready,” she said, and Carolus found himself following her to a small drawing-room where Mrs Waddell was already seated behind a silver tray. “A lean and hungry-looking woman who seems thoroughly dissatisfied with life” was Mrs Bobbin's description of her and it fitted. She did not look too pleased at the inclusion of Carolus in the party. She gave him a toothy and unwilling smile and after a minute or two spoke to him.

“I may as well tell you, Mr Deene, that I was against
my husband giving you any information in this matter at all. It seems to me wholly a police affair”

“You think the police will discover the murderer, Mrs Waddell?”

“I daresay. I'm not much interested. But I see no reason to assist a private detective. Milk and sugar?”

“Please. I hope the police are successful,” said Carolus and added mischievously—” It would be disgraceful if a kind, generous and devout old lady could …”

The thin face of Agatha Waddell had turned scarlet.

“Is that the impression you have been given about the late Millicent Griggs?” she asked.

“Agatha, my dear …” protested the vicar.

“Now, mother,” said his daughter.

“I don't know who can have told you that,” said Agatha Waddell. “Millicent Griggs was kind to no one but herself, she was generous only to gain her own ends and as for her devoutness she was the most hypocritical, narrow-minded….”

“Agatha, my dear, what
will
Mr Deene think of us?”

“I don't care what he thinks. If he's fool enough to believe that Millicent Griggs was kind….”

“You must forgive my wife's strong feelings, Mr Deene. She had her difficulties with the late Miss Griggs, as we all had.”

“Perhaps you were of the other faction, Mrs Waddell?” suggested Carolus.

“Grazia Vaillant's? Certainly not. A gushing insincere woman.”

“My dear, we must be charitable in our judgments.”

“There's a limit to charity. I've seen my husband's life here made a purgatory by these two self-centred, bigoted women.”

“Aren't you somewhat overstating the case, dear? They have been most generous.”

“When it suited them. More tea, Mr Deene? I wonder how you would like being a vicar's wife in a small country parish.”

“I'm sure I should find it a most difficult transformation,” said Carolus, pacifically.

“Intrigue, suspicion, back-biting, jealousy the whole time.”

“You are not suggesting that Millicent Griggs was murdered from sheer malice, are you?”

“I'm not suggesting anything. But there's enough malice in Gladhurst to murder fifty people.”

“You alarm me.”

“Millicent Griggs herself was capable of it.”

“Really?”

“I know for a fact that she wrote to the Bishop.”

“What about?”

“Prejudice again. Fortunately the Bishop knows my husband. He has been here to lunch. Otherwise it might have meant all sorts of difficulties for us. She said that my husband intended to ride into church on an ass on Palm Sunday.”

“And didn't he?” asked Carolus who unfortunately knew very little about ritual.

“Certainly not. She even implied that there was something between my husband and Grazia Vaillant.”

“And …” Carolus stopped himself in time. “And that was an obvious lie,” he said.

“Of course. There was no limit to what that woman would say.”

There was a long pause.

“I wonder whether just for the sake of form, Mrs Waddell, you will tell me how you spent that afternoon? I have to ask everyone that.”

To Carolus's surprise she acceded without protest.

“I had my Mothers from four to six.”

“Where?” said Carolus not revealing his ignorance of her meaning.

“At the Institute.”

“Oh, I see. And afterwards?”

“I came home.”

“And you, Miss Waddell?”

“Who? Me?” laughed Rosa Waddell. “I was out on my bike. Went over to Burley, as a matter of fact.”

“For anything particular?”

“Not really. More for the run than anything.”

“See anyone you knew?”

“No. Can't say I did. Why? Don't say I'm a suspect? I often felt like bashing Millicent Griggs but you surely don't think I actually did it?”

“I haven't got to the point of having suspects. I'm only just beginning to get a notion
where
it happened. I certainly don't pretend to guess when or through whom. Were you back before your mother?”

“Yes. I got my own tea. I was hungry, too. Then I settled down to a book. Thirkell. You know, goes on and on but you feel you have to find out what happens to the dreary people. Daddy popped in for a few minutes and rushed out again. Then mother arrived.”

“You didn't notice any times?”

“I suppose daddy came around six and mother a good bit later.”

“What do you call a good bit?”

BOOK: Furious Old Women
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