Authors: Kel Richards
Originally published in Australia in 2013 as
C. S. Lewis and the Body in the Basement
by Strand Publishing
First published in Great Britain in 2015
36 Causton Street
London SW1P 4ST
Copyright Â© Kel Richards 2013, 2015
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British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
eBook ISBN 978â1â910674â18â5
THE TIME: The summer of 1933; Trinity Term has just ended at Oxford University.
THE PLACE: Somewhere in Cambridgeshire, not far from the County of Midsomer.
âJack! Your wallet's fallen into the fire!' I shouted as I leaped forward and grabbed a pair of fire tongs. âI don't know how long it's been there,' I grunted as I fished in among the burning logs and pulled out the black and crisp leather remains.
âHow did it fall into the fire?' muttered Warnie, who through this wallet-rescuing rush had not shifted from his position leaning against the end of the mantelpiece. âThe last time I saw it,' he said, âwas when I paid for our tea.'
The teapot, surrounded by cups and saucers, still sat on a small table near the fireplace. We'd ordered the tea while the pub prepared our breakfast. And Warnie had used his brother's wallet to pay for the tea.
Warnie looked like a goggle-eyed goldfish swimming around its bowl looking for a way out. âAnd then I sat the wallet on the mantelpiece,' he said in a dazed sort of way.
âPerhaps not the safest place for it, old chap,' said Jack gently.
âOh . . . oh, yes . . . see what you mean,' Warnie mumbled as he took a sip from the large tea cup in his hand. âAh, sorry about that, Jack.'
Warnie now looked both stunned and waryâlike a cat that's just been hit by a half-brick and thinks another might be on the way.
Jack said nothing but nudged the still smouldering wallet with the toe of his boot a bit further away from the flames.
The pub was
The Cricketers' Arms
in the village of Plumwood. It was the first stop on our walking holiday. We'd chosen it as our starting point so that I could call into Plumwood Hall, the country home of Sir William Dyer, whose library I had undertaken to catalogue.
The day before I'd met the owner of Plumwood Hall for the first time. He turned out to be a thin man with a face like an untrustworthy monkeyâthe sort of monkey other monkeys would never lend money to. However, on this occasion he was offering to fork over some of the folding stuff, albeit a modest amount, so we had shaken hands on an agreement: me in my capacity as an unemployed recent graduate of Oxford University, and Sir William as the vastly wealthy manufacturer of
Dyer's Digestive Biscuits
who had recently purchased the ancestral home of an impoverished baronet, including its large, and largely mysterious, library.
The wallet had now cooled enough to be touched and Jack picked it up. The leather was charred black, and when he opened it he found the notes it contained reduced to ashes.
âOh dear me,' said Warnie, setting down his tea cup with a nervous clatter as if feeling the second half-brick hit. âOh dear . . . Oh dear . . . that was all the money for our holiday, wasn't it?' he muttered, looking embarrassed.
âAll in notes,' Jack confirmed, âno coins.' In the gloomy tone that Jack adopted for all things financial he added, âBankruptcy looms.' Then seeing his brother's woebegotten face he added, âCheer up, old chap. These things happen.'
âBut how will we pay for things?' Warnie asked. âI'm not carrying any money.'
âI can pay for our accommodation here,' I volunteered, âand for breakfast.'
âVery kind of you, young Morris,' said Jack. âAnd I'll call into the nearest branch of the Capital and Counties Bank and make a withdrawal from my savings account.'
âWhere is the nearest branch of . . . whatever bank you said?' I asked.
âIn Market Plumpton,' Jack said, âa comfortable two hours walk from here.' I was about to ask how he knew, but he anticipated my question by continuing, âI was in this district last yearâon a walking holiday with Tollers and Dyson. I called into the Market Plumpton branch then.'
âYour breakfast is ready, gentlemen,' said the publican, walking into the room from the back parlour. âI've served it up in the snug . . . if you'll follow me.'
Our unhappy adventure with Jack's wallet had happened in the front bar parlour of
The Cricketers' Arms
, so we now followed our host, one Alfred Rose by name, out to the small back private bar called the snug. There we found a table set for three, and three full English breakfasts already served and waiting.
âThis'll cheer us up at any rate,' grunted Warnie as he settled himself in his seat. âEggs, bacon, sausages, toastâeven some black pudding. That's what I call a proper breakfast.'
And for the next few minutes we were fully occupied breaking our fast.
When mine host Alfred Rose returned, he was carrying a fresh pot of tea. The publican had a white, puffy faceârather like a lump of dough that had been sat on the windowsill to rise and was now about ready for the oven. It always felt slightly surprising when the puffy dough opened a mouth, smiled broadly and began to speak.
âAnd what are your plans for the day, gentlemen?' he asked in the hearty voice, and with the broad grin, of the professional publican.
âWe're walking to Market Plumpton,' I replied.
âWell, don't follow the road,' Alfred suggested. âThere's a much more direct walking path over the hills and along the ridge top. Much more pleasant walking too,' he added. âI'll give you directions for finding the path when you're ready to leave.'
He poured out fresh cups of tea for all of us, and then said, âBut I thought you were heading north today. Why Market Plumpton?'
âWe have to call in to the bank,' Jack explained as he finished the last of his egg and toast. âThere's a branch of the Capital and Counties Bank in Market Plumpton.'
The publican stopped pouring the tea and an earnest look came over his face, rather like a black cloud passing over the face of the sun. Shaking his head sadly he said, âRather you than me, gentlemen.'
âWhy?' I asked. âWhat on earth can be wrong with a bank? Or is it Market Plumpton itself you object to?'
âNo, no, it's not the town. Lovely little market town it is. No, it's the bank. That building has a dark history.'
âWhat sort of dark history?' asked Warnie, his words muffled by a mouthful of bacon.
âMurder,' hissed Alfred Rose as if whispering a dreadful secret in the manner of a stage villain in an overacted melodrama. âMurderâand a ghost.'
He was clearly dying to tell us the story so Jack invited him to do so.
The landlord set down the teapot, seated himself in a spare chair and leaned forward, his elbows on the table, his puffy face now flushed with colour and his small, black eyes shining like currants in the dough.
âThat bank is in a building that was once an old Georgian terrace house. Built as a gentleman's residence it was,' he began with the relish of a storyteller savouring a well-loved tale. âSome eighty or so years ago the owner was a certain Sir Rafael Black, a wool merchant. An awful man he was, a violent drunkard, rapidly working his way through his family fortune. His poor young wife, Lady Pamela, was terrified of him. He was a brutal man. Well, they do say that she took comfort in the arms of a handsome young footman.'
âDo they say what this young footman's name was?' I asked. Having an interest in folklore, I wanted to see how much detail was included in this particular tale.
âThey say his Christian name was Boris, but I've never heard of any surname being mentioned. Anyway, Sir Rafael discovered the dalliance between Lady Pamela and this young Boris. He had been drinking heavily all day, as was his wont, and he now fell into a drunken rage. The terrified footman sought refuge in the cellar of the house. Sir Rafael raged around the house waving a cavalry sword and searching for young Boris. Now this sword, or so they say, was a razor sharp sabre, so Boris did well to keep out of the way. But eventually Sir Rafael made his way down to the cellar, and there he found Boris.'
âAnd this is where the murder comes in?' said Warnie, taking up another slice of hot buttered toast and spooning on marmalade as if the world was about to run out of the stuff and he had to get his share while he could.
âExactly, sir. With Lady Pamela standing on the stairs and screaming for him to stop, Sir Rafael butchered poor Boris with that wickedly sharp sabre. Then seeing the dead body lying there in front of him seemed to sober him up. He realised what he'd done, and the consequences he'd face if caught. He forced his wife, trembling and sobbing with fear, to help him dig a hole in the cellar floor and bury the body.'
âNasty business,' I remarked, pouring another cup of tea.
The publican nodded in agreement. âFrom that day on Lady Pamela would wake in the middle of the night with violent, screaming nightmares. In due course she was dispatched to her relatives in Scotland to recover her sanity. With his wife gone, and perhaps from guilt over what he'd done, Sir Rafael descended even further into drink. Well, gentlemen, exactly one year after the night of the murder, one year to the very day, Sir Rafael was well into his cups when he dispatched his butler to the cellar to fetch yet another bottle of brandy. As the butler went down those cellar steps with a candle in his hand, he swears he saw a ghostâthe ghost of the murdered manâand it was pointing at the floor. The terrified butler dropped the bottle of brandy he was carrying. It smashed loudly, and the brandy ran down the cellar stairs. Sir Rafael heard the sound and bawled murderous threats against the butler for “wasting good liquor”. Then he dismissed the man from his service on the spot, with no notice and no good character.'