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Authors: Leo Bruce

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But Mrs Bobbin had been right. Whatever retired naval officers were like they were not like Commander Fyfe.

His house, called The Fairway, was at the end of the village farthest from the church, a stucco and slated affair closely hidden by trees. Relieved to see a porch over the front door Carolus ran from his car to its shelter, then rang the bell.

As he stood there he had an uncomfortable feeling that he was being watched and, noticing a mirror set in the door's panel, he guessed that it was one of those constructed to allow one behind it to see through while appearing an ordinary mirror from the outside. He at once made a grimace at it and a rude sign with his fingers.

Then a small trap in the main door opened and for the first time he had a glimpse of the narrow bald head,
the active dark eyes, the vigorous growth of eyebrow and the thin clean-shaven lips of the churchwarden.

“Oh yes, I know,” said Fyfe. “Your name's Deene, isn't it? Wait a minute while I unbolt this door.”

‘A minute' turned out to be three and the scraping and grating, the rattling and jangling suggested that Fyfe was the custodian of one of our less escape-prone prisons.

“Come in,” said Fyfe conspiratorially and, when Carolus was standing in a dark passage, set to work to bolt, bar, chain and lock behind them.

“Come to my den. We shall be undisturbed there. You don't mind if I lock the door? Sit down, please. Smoke? Listen! What's that?”

“It sounds like the rain,” said Carolus.

“It may be. It may be. But you never know. Get some queer noises round here. Very queer. It's a queer place altogether. Have to take every precaution.”

“So I notice. Against what?”

“Against what? Well, you know what's just happened. Poor woman clubbed. I put nothing past them.” “Past whom?”

“Any of them. I tell you this place is full of strange characters. Have you met a woman known as ‘Flo'?”

“I've seen her. I should have thought she was the most harmless of souls.”

“She may be. But indiscreet. Loud-mouthed. I was foolish enough to stop and chat with her one afternoon. Merely to ask how she was. I had seen her in church. I assure you I didn't stop for more than two minutes. Yet before I reached home my wife had heard of it. The vicar knew. The whole village. It caused me a great deal of inconvenience. Of course the woman herself didn't mind at all.”

“No, Flo doesn't mind,” repeated Carolus.

“That's only one of the things.” Fyfe turned round suddenly and looked at the window. “Did you see anything?” he asked.

“Trees,” said Carolus.

“I thought I noticed a shadow. As though someone were outside. I may be mistaken. Can't be too careful. What did you want to ask me?”

“About the day of the murder.”

Fyfe nearly leapt from his chair.

“That
was
a day,” he said. “Extraordinary things happened that day.”

“Such as?”

Fyfe leant forward.

“It was on that day,” he confided, “that the incident happened which I have described to you. With the woman known as Flo.”

“Where?”

“In the very centre of the village. Outside Jevons's Stores. It couldn't have been less secretive. Yet …”

“At about what time did you meet her?”

“That I can tell you exactly. Habit of mine. Always make a note of the times of events. You never know, you see. Anything can happen in a place like this. It was 3.42. I need scarcely add p.m.”

“So you were in the village street between half-past three and … when, would you say?”

“Nearly four.”

“Whom did you meet?”

“That's the extraordinary thing. Almost no one.”

“Almost?”

“I saw Slipper, our curate, you know. Very good with boys.”

“So I understand. Was he on foot?

“Yes. Hurrying along as he usually is. Wearing a raincoat.”

“Alone?”

“That's another strange thing. He was alone. Usually has several of the boys with him.”

“You saw no one else?”

“Only the girl who works at Crossways. Naomi Chester.”

“Did she see you?”

“I think not. I was in the Post Office. I saw her pass on the other side of the road.”

“On foot?”

“Yes. She too was in a hurry.”

“Going towards her home?”

“It might be. Yes. One doesn't know of course.”

“You reached home at what time?”

“Soon after four. I found the vicar here.”

“Mrs Fyfe was at home?”

“Yes. As I have explained, she had already heard this extraordinary story about the woman called Flo.”

“Oh yes. Perhaps the vicar himself had told her?”

“No. I understand someone had made a telephone call. Shows you, doesn't it? Small place like this. Full of malice. Old women, you know.”

“Yes. You do seem to have a collection of somewhat irascible elderly women. I understand a man called Grey was working for you.”

“No. No. Not for me. He is employed by a local firm of builders and decorators. He was painting. The dining-room.”

“You found him there when you returned that afternoon?”

“No. Just gone. Quite extraordinary. A phone call had come for him. My wife answered the phone.”

“Who wanted him?”

“My wife didn't recognize the voice. That of an elderly woman, she thinks.”

“Another elderly woman?”

“So my wife tells me. She did not listen to the conversation. She told Grey he was wanted on the phone and noticed that shortly after he left the house.”

“Before his usual time?”

“Yes. Very odd, wasn't it?”

“You didn't by any chance pass the churchyard that afternoon?”

“It was the first thing I did after lunch.” Fyfe's voice
dropped almost to a whisper. “Rumble was there. At work on Chilling's grave.”

“There was surely nothing odd about that, Commander Fyfe? Chilling was to be buried next day.”

“But do you know who was helping him? Mugger, of all people.”

“Yes. Rumble told me.”

“A dangerous character, that.”

“Dangerous?”

“Lawless. Violent.”

“He has the freedom of your land, I believe.”

“What? Oh, rabbits, yes. He helps to keep the rabbits down.”

Dusk had fallen as they talked but Commander Fyfe did not switch on the lights. They sat in half darkness. Fyfe's voice was hollow and awed and his eyes restless.

“You didn't notice anyone hanging about outside when you came in?” he asked Carolus. “No. Why?”

“You can't be too careful. Yes, Rumble and Mugger were digging the grave and Rumble was actually singing as he worked. I could tell you something else.”

“Yes?”

“The three old ladies—well, there are only two of them now—have a nephew who lives at Burley.”

“I have a note of that, I think.”

“But you didn't know he was over here that afternoon, did you? In his car. A grey Vauxhall. Saw him with my own eyes. You see what I mean when I say queer things happen in this place.”

“Not quite. What is extraordinary about Dundas Griggs?”

“He is the nephew of the murdered woman,” gasped Fyfe.

“I see.”

“And he was in Gladhurst on the day of the murder.”

“Mm.”

“Then what about Larkin?” whispered Fyfe.

“What about him?”

“You surely know his connection?”

“I know that there is a story that more than forty years ago there was some incident connecting him with Millicent Griggs.”

“There you are! I tell you …”

“Did you go out again that day, Commander Fyfe?”

“I? My wife is an invalid, as you may have heard. I never go out at night and leave her alone in the house. Certainly not. Anything might happen. Anything. But on that evening I was fortunate. My gardener and his wife who live nearby had asked leave to view the television. I took advantage of that for a brief spell.”

“What time would that have been?”

“Oh, six-thirty to eight, perhaps.”

“Did you remain downstairs long after that?”

“Oh, an hour or two, I daresay. With my stamps, you know. I am a philatelist.”

“You heard nothing more of the outside world, as it were, that evening?”

“At one point I thought I heard someone tapping on that window pane. But I found it was the branch of a tree.”

“Very disappointing for you. Nothing more?”

“Motor-cycles,” said Commander Fyfe.

“That was not unusual though?”

“In winter? On this road? Most.”

Carolus rose.

“I shall have to open the door for you. I'll tell you if anything else very strange occurs.”

“Thank you,” said Carolus. “I wonder what you could tell me about the dead woman? Her character, I mean?”

It had occurred to Carolus that unreliable and sensational as Fyfe might be on facts, on character he would be more dependable.

“Strange, very strange,” he said, shaking his head. “I
cannot pretend that she was popular—very much the contrary. She was a woman of insatiable curiosity. Of a most unsavoury kind, I fear. I was once rash enough to leave her alone in conversation with my wife. My dear fellow, the questions she asked. I could scarcely believe it afterwards. Hair-raising.”

“She doesn't sound very pleasant.”

“Pleasant? She was … but the woman is dead so let's say no more. Now I'll let you out if you like.”

The unbolting began again.

“Have to take precautions,” explained Fyfe.

It was still raining as Carolus drove away.

8

N
OW
there was nothing for it. He must call on Grazia Vaillant.

He found the Old Vicarage a well-kept house, vaguely Georgian in architecture, with additions probably made by the fathers of large families in the last century. But as soon as he drew near he saw that no opportunity had been missed for antique embellishment. Wrought iron gates had been put in, large urns evidently from Crowthers' topped the gateposts, beside the front door was a huge ship's bell and over it a ship's lamp. A wrought iron bracket which had once had a sign swinging from it had been fixed to the wall with another lamp suspended from it. An antique sundial was on the lawn and an ancient dovecote was visible.

Mrs Rumble opened the door. She was evidently a woman who having taken the unprecedented step of according someone her friendship did not turn back, for she made a grimace at Carolus which was intended to suggest a smile.

“I was just off,” she confided. “But she's in, all right. Having her tea. Wait here a minute and I'll tell her.”

Carolus stood among coffin-stools and oak chests, corner cupboards and brass chestnut-roasters, cricket-tables and warming-pans, arranged not as they had been in the place in which they should have stayed, some expensive Old Curiosity Shop in Rye or Tunbridge Wells, but as though they were the natural furniture of the house.

Presently Mrs Rumble reappeared and ushered him to a large drawing-room. Grazia Vaillant came forward to greet him with extended hand and they met under an enormous glass chandelier which tinkled no more than Grazia herself with her pendants and bits and pieces. She wore something which William Morris might have designed for the chatelaine of an old English castle. Her hair was henna-red and her eyes searching and hungry.

Carolus had time to observe the room about him, a nightmare of old samplers, stump-work pictures, Dresden figures, half a dozen clocks such as collectors value, an antique hour-glass, a couple of spinning-wheels, a collection of tea-caddies, stools with woolwork covers and a spinet. But over the fireplace was a magnificent landscape which looked as though it had entered by mistake. Almost certainly a Constable, Carolus thought.

“How do you
Doo
?” asked Grazia, forgetting to release Carolus's hand. “Come to the fire and have some tea. Such a wretched day. I hear you're investigating our murder.”

“Yes, in a way.”

“Such a dreadful, dreadful business.”

“I'm glad to see you're not scared by it, Miss Vaillant. You remain alone here at night?”

“But of course. I have my
ange gardien.”

“Useful. Any watchdog?”

“Oh yes. Peter and Paul my two boxers. Oh,
I
'm all right, I assure you. Besides, lightning doesn't strike in the same place twice. Why should we expect anything more
in Gladhurst? They have the jewellery and money, poor old Millicent Griggs is dead. Aren't we entitled to peace now?”

“‘They'. Who do you mean by ‘they'?”

“The robbers. The murderers.”

“I see. You had not been friendly with Miss Griggs, I believe?”

“We are all Christians, Mr Deene, but I did have to remind myself of it rather often with Millicent Griggs. She was so painfully protty….”

“I'm sorry. I don't know that word.”

“Protestant.”

“But—forgive my ignorance—I thought that was your religion. Church of England, I mean.”

“No. No, Mr Deene,” smiled Grazia kindly. “You've got it all wrong. We're Car-tholics.”

“But?”

“Not Romans, of course. Just Car-tholics. The Church of England is part of the Car-tholic Church.”

“What are the other parts?”

“The Orthodox Russian. The Greek. The Roman. All one.”

“I see. But Miss Griggs wasn't included?”

“You are naughty,” said Grazia Vaillant. “She was what is called evangelical, though I can't think why they use that lovely word. She opposed every effort we made to beautify our church, to make it more in keeping with its heritage. We had struggle after struggle….”

“Who did? How did the vicar vote?”

“Poor Father Waddell! He's rather a waverer, you know. I remember when I gave him a beautiful set of Stations of the Cross by a Spanish artist, he hesitated. He was wondering what Millicent Griggs would say. You see, to her, Mr Deene, I was the Scarlet Woman, I was Popery personified. She really believed I kept Jesuit priests in hiding-holes and was planning another Gunpowder Plot. She hated me and all I stood for with the hatred of a Puritan for a Cavalier.”

BOOK: Furious Old Women
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