Authors: Edmund Crispin
There's humour, which for chearful Friends we got,
And for the thinking Party there's a Plot.
Thomas Betterton, or Anne Brace-
Girdle, or William Congreve, or Anonymous:
from the Prologue to Congreve's
Love for Love
âThat's another of them, don't you know,' said the Major. As some people can sense the presence of a cat in the room, so the Major could sense a journalist, or at any rate claimed he could. âReally, it's too bad. How long is it since Routh was murdered?'
âEight weeks, I suppose.'
âEight weeks at least. And yet here are reporters still rooting round the place like â¦ like pigs in PÃ©rigord. What the devil do they expect to find, after all this time?'
âI don't believe that's a journalist,' said Fen. He ate the last of his veal-and-ham pie - conventionally insipid stuff with which, however, The Stanbury Arms served Bengal Club mango chutney in mitigation - and drank some beer. âOf course that's not a journalist, Major. You've got journalists on the brain.'
The subject of their discussion, who had come into the bar only a minute previously, was a harmless-looking man in early middle age with scanty hair and a round, clean-shaven, yellowish face. His eyebrows were thick and smudged, as if laid on with a palette-knife, and he wore a dark townsman's suit. As he paid for his drink he eyed Fen and the Major speculatively, and after a moment, glass in hand, came across to speak to them.
âExcuse me,' he said. âI'm a journalist.' Fen gave a snort of exasperation. âPadmore's my name,' the newcomer went on, with diminished confidence. âJ. G. Padmore. I wonder if I might join you?' He peered anxiously at them out of moist brown eyes.
âSit down, my dear fellow, sit down, do,' said the Major cordially. Whatever his other faults, he never let his prejudices
debase his manners. âI'm the Major, and this is Professor Gervase Fen, from Oxford.'
âHow do you do?' said Fen. âI'm sorry I made that noise. It was the Major I was irritated with, not you.'
âYes, I do irritate people, I'm afraid,' said the Major, pleased at Fen's tribute. âI talk too much, for one thing. Yes, well now, as I was saying, Fen is a Professor, and from Oxford. He's staying down here for part of his sabbatical, to write a book. It's to be about the modern novel. The post-war novel, that is. The post-war British novel.' He seemed to feel that Padmore's vocation necessitated filling him in on all this detail before anything further could be allowed to occur.
âBurgess, Anthony,' Fen instanced helpfully. âAmis, Kingsley. Lessing, Doris, Howard, E. J., Drabble, Margaret â¦ Brooke-Rose, Christine.'
âHysteron proteron,' said the Major.
âI don't know Hysteron's work,' said Padmore. âBut the others, of course, are all very - are all very -'
âWell and fine,' the Major suggested.
âBut as you'll have gathered, I'm still only at the card-indexing stage.' And not mad-keen to be forging forward from it, either, Fen's tone implied. He frowned. âMajor,' he said, âdo tell that dog of yours to stop sniffing at my head.'
Padmore, who could see Fen's head but no dog anywhere near it, looked round him a shade wildly. He relaxed, however, partially, on catching sight of a small black whippet, skeletal like an advertisement for some animal Oxfam, which was investigating a sack dumped in a corner by the bar counter.
âHe's only sniffing,' said the Major. âHe won't try and worry it out, don't you know, not the way Sal would.' Sal was the Major's other pet, an inexhaustibly strident cocker bitch loved by no one but her owner.
âIt's a pig's head, for brawn,' Fen explained to Padmore. âA present.'
âFrom a Mrs Clotworthy,' said the Major, the informative urge still fermenting in him. âA butcher's widow, just turned seventy-five. She lives here in Burraford in a cottage.'
âOh, good,' said Padmore vaguely. âHow do you do?' he said, Then, âWell, if you're sure I'm not interrupting anythingâ¦'
By this time, regardless of whether they were sure or not, he had sat down on a narrow old black-painted bench fixed to the wall beside their table. There were several such benches in the bar-room - memorials to a centuries-extinct clientÃ¨le of pin-buttocks - but otherwise the furniture was all modern, from the oak counter with its mirror-backed shelves to the green glass-topped tables and the matching vinyl-covered chairs grouped round them. Isobel Jones, the landlord's wife, hummed quietly to herself as she polished glasses. By the fireplace, an ancient man with no collar on sat motionless as a reptile, the breath moaning in his nose like wind up a chimney. Fred, the whippet, had abandoned Fen's sack with a heavy sigh and lain down; he was now alternately licking his forepaws and gazing lachrymosely at the Major. For a pub at 11.30 on a sunny Saturday morning it was not a large complement, but there was good reason for this: nearly all the able-bodied local men who would normally have been present had been dragooned by the Rector into putting up stalls and marquees for the Autumn Church FÃªte to be held that afternoon in the grounds of Aller House.
Padmore, having inoffensively siphoned some of his ale-froth in under an extruded upper lip, put his glass on the table in a decisive manner, by way of indicating that he was now, so to speak, open for business. âIt's about Routh,' he said. âAnd, of course, Hagberd.'
Since this news came as no surprise either to Fen or to the Major, they said nothing, but merely nodded at him slowly in unison, like a pair of china mandarins. âYou see, I'm writing a book too,' said Padmore. âI too am writing a book. About the case.' They nodded again. Suddenly a new thought seemed to strike Padmore. âNo, I'm not,' he said.
Fen looked at him in perplexity. âYou're
writing a book?'
âI mean, not now.'
âStarted it and then gave it up,' the Major suggested. âPity. Would have been just the job, if you'll forgive my saying so.'
âI mean, as a matter of fact it's finished.'
âGood gracious, my dear fellow, you have been quick,' said the Major admiringly. âOnly eight weeks since the thing happened, and you've done a book about it already.'
âYou've got to be quick nowadays, with murders,' said Padmore. âOtherwise someone else who's interested gets the jump on you and takes half your sales away. I've been worrying about that, I can tell you. “Is someone going to get the jump on
?” I ask myself. “Or have I been lucky â am I in fact leading the field?”'
âYes, yes, my dear chap, of course you're leading it.'
âAnd I can only answer, “I don't know. I can't know.”'
âNo, now you come to point it out, naturally you can't.'
âAll I can do is to rush into print as fast as possible, and hope for the best. But it's not right.'
âNot right at all,' said the Major. âDreadful thing to be forced to do.'
âI mean, the draft of my book isn't right,' said Padmore testily. âThat is, re-reading it, I don't find that the two men, Hagberd and Routh,
vividly enough. They don't start out at one from the page.'
âI should hope not,' said the Major. âA very nasty experience, that'd be. No, no, my dear fellow, I know what you mean. I was only trying to make a joke.'
âNot properly rounded,' said Padmore. He paused in momentary confusion as his eye lit on a photograph of a scrawny fashion model in a newspaper which lay on the bench beside him. Then, recovering, âSo I thought I'd give myself a few days longer,' he said, âand come down here again, talk to some of the people who knew them, and try to visualize them more distinctly.' Put like that, the project sounded at once tedious and insubstantial, like ectoplasm at a sÃ©ance. âAnd then do a certain amount of rewriting, I suppose,' he concluded unenthusiastically.
âNo use looking at me, I'm afraid,' said Fen. âI didn't get here till a week after it happened. Try the Major. He knew them.'
But the Major regretfully shook his head. âOnly to pass the time of the day with, don't you know. And I should think you'll find it's the same with most people. Horrible man, Routh. And Hagberd, mad as a hatter, poor chap. So of course there was no one at all close to either of them - not that I'm aware of, anyway.'
âHagberd definitely struck you as insane, did he?' said Pad-more earnestly. âEven beforehand?'
âLord, yes, he'd been like it for months,' said the Major. âAsk anyone. It was all that work he did.'
âBut what I can't understand is, why nobody took any action about it, if they realized he was dangerous.'
âBut, my dear fellow, that's just what none of us did realize. He could be very fierce, of course, especially against Routh and Mrs Leeper-Foxe, but then, who wouldn't be? Besides,' said the Major with an air of reasonableness, âeveryone who lives in the countryside's a bit touched, one way or another. If we all started trying to have each other certified there'd be nobody left.'
âSo in fact, the murder came as a complete surprise?'
âWe-ll â¦' The Major took an interval for consideration, passing the side of his right index finger along his narrow black moustache. âYes and no. All that hacking and hewing afterwards, don't you know - somehow
fitted in with Hagberd all right. What didn't seem to fit in was the killing itself.'
Padmore reached for his glass. âTo Hagberd, the dead flesh was dead flesh: nothing more,' he intoned. Evidently he was now quoting from his book. âIn the abusing of it,' he went on, âthe abusing of the dead flesh, that is, there could consequently be no true harm. Pain, not death, was the enemy.' Fen and the Major made simultaneous mental notes, reducing the book's potential sales by two. âIs that right, would you say?' asked Padmore, relapsing into the language of everyday life. âRight more or less?'
âQuite right, my dear fellow, absolutely right,' the Major agreed. âAnd veryâ¦ very forcefully put. Yes. The only thing is - if you don't mind my mentioning it - that I don't exactly see the point of putting it at all, forcefully or any other way. I mean, although it's true that we all thought Hagberd was harmless, he wasn't was he? He just ignored our ideas on the subject, and went ahead and murdered awful Routh anyway.'
And it was at this point that a new voice struck into the conversation: the voice of the ancient man by the fireplace.
âEr never,' it said.
The ancient man was called Gobbo.
That, at least, was how he was universally addressed; his real name, Gorley or Gorman or some such thing, had been in disuse for so long that by now he had probably forgotten it himself. As to âGobbo', that was a Gothicism (nothing to do with Shakespeare) bestowed round about the time of the relief of Ladysmith owing to the young Gorman's (or Godwit's) habit of hawking and spitting with an amplitude considered excessive even in those relatively coarse-grained days. Gobbo no longer hawked or spat, his third wife having with some effort cured him of these obnoxious practices; but the nickname was by that time ineluctable (the third wife's reward, on sinking exhausted into the grave, had been to have âAgnes Lucy Gobbo' carved on her tombstone by a monumental mason labouring under a misapprehension), and had remained. For the rest, like many native Devonians off the beaten tourist track, Gobbo gave the impression of having been left over unaltered from a very early novel by Eden Phillpotts. He cackled pruriently at references to love or courtship. He cadged drinks. He reminisced, racily if not particularly engrossingly, about a boyhood whose chief amusements had apparently been poaching and voyeurism. He proffered recipes for long life. In winter, The Stanbury Arms gave him a free pint of bitter each day, for looking after the fire. Sometimes he would remember to do this. Grunting feebly from the exertion, he would throw on to the fire a great log, which would dislodge another great log, which would tumble out and roll, burning fiercely, to the centre of the room.