Authors: Edmund Crispin
âIs that what's in the cricket bag?'
âThat and other things,' said the Rector. He seemed on the point of expanding on this, but at the last moment desisted. The Major's gone on ahead to change,' he said instead. âHe likes to be a bit dressy on these occasions.'
They were coming up towards a bend in the lane, where a large scrawled sign said Beware Muck Cattle Children.
From beyond the bend they heard the sound of an approaching motor-cycle.
âMind out,' said the Rector.
The motor-cycle came into view only a few yards in front of them. It was being ridden at quite a moderate speed by a straw-haired skinny youth in a brown imitation-leather jacket and tight blue jeans. When he caught sight of the Rector, panic seized him. He swerved, skidded, lost control of his machine, and with a yelp of terror flung himself clear, landing heavily on his bottom near the verge. The motor-cycle went on for a bit and then fell over on to its side. Its engine sputtered out on a series of explosions like a Great Dane mastering a sneezing fit.
The youth gave a pitiful cry.
Fen and the Rector went back to examine him. He lay there supine, sniffling and rubbing his left arm, but not, apparently, very badly hurt. He broke into lamentations.
âYou're all right,' Fen told him.
At this, the youth ceased his lamenting abruptly. He stared up at Fen in horror. âYou'm 'im!' he unexpectedly shrieked. âYou'm 'im! La-di-da voice. You'm 'im! Oh, save me!'
âWho am I?' said Fen - sounding, he thought, like some Pirandello character grappling with doubts about his own identity. âWhat are you talking about?
âYou'm 'im,' the youth moaned. âBlackmail, that's what 'twere. There you was, in the dark of the night, a-threatening to show this yur letter to the perlice, so be you wasn't give money. You'm 'im, you'm 'im.'
âMust have hit his head,' said the Rector.
âMavis Trent,' said the youth. âYou was a-threatening'm about Mavis Trent.' Fen stooped, thinking it might be a good idea to get the youth at least partially upright.â 'Old 'im off!' the youth bellowed at the Rector. â 'Old 'im off, 'e's going to throttle me!'
âNonsense, Scorer, of course he's not going to throttle you,' said the Rector repressively. âPeople don't go around throttling people in broad daylight, with a clergyman present. And what's all this about Mavis Trent? No, don't answer for the moment. First, let's see if there's anything the matter with you. Move
your limbs. Go on, move them. No, not just your left foot,
of them.' Grey with apprehension, the youth obeyed. âNothing much wrong there,' said the Rector briskly. âPelvis still in one piece? Spine? Ribs? Fingers? Any softness in the skull? Cough.' The youth hawked feebly. âAny blood in your mouth? Tender tummy? Teeth loose?'
Fen went and heaved the motor-cycle in to the side of the lane. He propped it against one of the high stone retaining walls which here hemmed the lane in. Returning, he found the youth still lying supine, as if laid out waiting for his coffin to be brought, while the Rector diagnosed bruises and a possible, but not really very probable, cracked coccyx.
Satisfied that these ministrations were adequate for the moment, âNow, what's all this about Mavis Trent?' the Rector went on. âExplain yourself.'
âNo,' said the youth uncompromisingly. âShan't.' With precaution he propped himself up on one elbow, meanwhile making a palsied attempt to brush some of his plentiful hair away from his eyes. âAnd it weren't 'im, either,' he added, indicating Fen. âI sees that now. âE'm tall enough but 'e'm not fat enough.' But then all at once his eyes bulged in renewed alarm. âListen!' he shouted agitatedly. âListen!'
They listened. The noise, coming up fast from beyond the bend in the lane, was confused but distinctive.
âTes Tully!' the youth wailed. âTes Farmer Tully an' 'is cows! Move me! Move me!' the noise grew, bell-ringing, hooting, dogs barking, a car engine, a thunder of hooves. â
me!' the youth shrieked, wriggling convulsively. âOh, save me!' Fen and the Rector grabbed him at either end and heaved him on to the grass of the verge just as the cavalcade came into view.
At the head of it rode Clarence Tully's third cowman, whose duty it was to precede cow migrations on a bicycle; he was a jittery man whose nervous economy had been permanently affected, he believed, by having to toil up slopes in front of a herd of animals with more stamina, and a better turn of speed for hill work, than himself. Then came the cows, fourteen-hundredweight yearling South Devons. Last came Clarence Tully himself, bulging Falstaffianly behind the wheel of his Land-Rover, surrounded by excited, yapping sheep dogs, and
with two of his many enormous sons standing up, as they all for some reason always did, in the back.
Clarence Tully waved. The sons waved. They waved using the whole of the arm, like castaways trying to attract the attention of a ship hull-down on the horizon. The third cowman pedalled frantically. The cows - each of which would have lost several pounds in weight by the time the new pasture was reached - mooed angrily as they lumbered along at an ungainly trot. Clarence Tully hilloed. His sons yippeed. The third cowman rang his bell for the entrance to Fen's lane. The dogs fell into a paroxysm of barking. Still waving at full stretch, âAll right, then?' Clarence Tully bawled, as the Land-Rover passed the group on the verge. âAll
The youth whimpered, shielding his eyes from the dust. The Rector signalled reassurance. Fen watched the cows' smooth skins, glossy brown, sliding back and forth over their pumping haunches.
The procession receded, reached the further bend, was gone. The youth whimpered again; he seemed an exceptionally fainthearted lad. The Rector took him under the arms and dragged him to his feet.
âMavis Trent we'll hear about later,' the Rector said, âand no two ways about it. Meanwhile you come along with us to the Fete and have a word with the doctor about your bum.'
In all its two hundred and thirty years, Aller House - designed by Hawksmoor, destined for ornamentation by William Kent which never eventuated - had never been properly occupied even for a single night. A series of dooms had attended it: ever since the first Sir George Stanbury had run decisively out of money in the course of building it, its owners had regularly gone mad or bankrupt or to the colonies, and it had continued to stand empty even during the Hitler war, when accommodation was at a premium. Now Clarence Tully had it - but not to live in; he had bought it for the arable which was its only recommendation other than the antiquarian and the aesthetic, had converted part of what had been going to be kitchens into a ground-floor flatlet, and had leased this at a nominal rent to the Major, on the thin pretext that the place needed a caretaker, if
only to keep an eye on the occasional parties of sightseers from Museum Societies and other such bodies. The Major, who had only his pension - and that less than it should have been, thanks to a bureaucratic muddle at the time of the granting of Indian independence - had accepted this arrangement without false pride, as indeed almost everyone in the neighbourhood accepted almost all Clarence Tully's numerous dispositions for their comfort: he was a man whose unaffected goodwill made churlishness virtually impossible.
Either Hawksmoor had been in an uncharacteristically austere mood when planning Aller House, or else he had surreptitiously delegated his tiresome provincial task to some apprentice uninterested in the baroque. The place was really quite plain, its central mass rising in three well-proportioned storeys to a hipped roof with a balustraded surround, its two equal two-storey wings (flat-roofed) elegant, but apart from their balustrades, unadorned; its only serious concession to decorativeness lay in the pair of large circular bas-reliefs, depicting tangles of robust, helmeted Roman matrons, which were situated equidistant on either side of the pillared main door. Though very little had ever been done in the way of upkeep, Clarence Tully having confined himself to replacing two or three broken windows, weathering had been uniform, and the general effect was by no means dilapidated. Moreover, the gardens at the front had been kept under some sort of control, even though now reduced to trees, grass and shrubs exclusively. Their main feature was the huge lawn, bisected by the stony, unsurfaced driveway, where rankness had been kept at bay partly by sheep and partly by the occasional attentions of a man with a rotary mower: Clarence Tully was tidy-minded, and even on this white-elephant segment of his property had no intention of letting nature get the upper hand.
On the Aller House lawn, twice yearly, the Burraford Church Fetes were held.
The youth Scorer, fearing for his rump, was wheeling his motor-cycle, not riding it; his original destination abandoned without even a pretence of argument, he trailed along the lane, sweating lavishly, behind Fen and the Rector. Presently they came to where the action was. And it was a surprising amount
of action, Fen thought, for a place as small as Burraford: despite its size, the Aller House lawn was crowded, as also was the adjacent field where cars could be parked.
âPeople come to our Fetes from miles around,' the Rector said complacently. âAnd it isn't all women, either; the men come because they can get pickled in the beer tent and enter their tykes for the dog show and gawp at the legs competition, though I'm bound to say, the standard of girls' legs hereabouts isn't exactly dazzling: more like two pairs of bolsters, most of them. The fairground stuff helps, too, makes a change from stalls selling doilies and jam and daffodil bulbs and musty old copies of Blackmore and Annie S. Swan. There's a sort of community of retired fairground people living in horrible little bungalows at Glascombe, and whenever we have a FÃªte I make them dig their gear out and bring it along here. The theory is that they're thrilled to get back into harness again. They pocket half the proceeds, of course, when I'm not looking, but they fill in the gaps and they're a draw, of sorts. There's one who has a dead mermaid on show, but the moths have been at her and she's beginning to look a bit odd. He ought to store her in polythene, I keep telling him, but for all the notice he takes I might as well be talking to a heap of boulders.'
Trembling with exhaustion, the youth Scorer staggered into the car-park with his machine, while Fen and the Rector strode on along the rutted track towards the lawn. Ahead of them, a massive uniformed policeman in a white crash helmet was moving along unexpectedly slowly, swaying a little and from time to time waggling his head cautiously from side to side.
âWhat on earth's the matter with Luckraft?' the Rector demanded. âLooks as if he's half cutâ¦ Been at the bottle, Luckraft?' he inquired as they came abreast. Startled, Luckraft stumbled on a stone, recovered himself, said, âOh, it's you, Rector,' feebly, and attempted a smile. In point of fact he looked not so drunk as ill. They passed him and were in turn passed by another cleric, small and wiry, running. The Rector bellowed a greeting at him. âThat's Father Hattrick,' he said. âA Roman, mind you, but a sound chap nevertheless. And nowadays he's allowed to wear trousers, liberalization and all that tosh. Under another name, he's a sort of male C. V. Wedgwood,'
the Rector perplexingly added. âAlways runs, says it's better exercise than walking. Comes for Mrs de Freitas's gooseberry jam.'
They debouched on to the lawn where a double dais stood portentously apart. On its rear section, four grubby-looking girls with guitars, drums and a microphone were pottering about, trying to get themselves organized; lettering on the bass drum identified them as The Whirlybirds. The front section, at a slightly lower level and with another microphone, was for the present unoccupied. Though a fair number of people were wandering about among the tents and stalls, reconnoitring, even more were assembled expectantly in front of the dais, and their numbers were increasing momently. The Rector detached himself from Fen and set about shaking hands. Father Hattrick stationed himself strategically. The youth Scorer arrived, peering about him in search of the doctor. P.C. Luckraft appropriated, and with evident relief slumped down on, a folding wooden chair which someone had left propped against a nearby marquee. From the car-park, engine noise signalled the return of Clarence Tully in his Land-Rover, his herding mission accomplished, his two huge sons still standing up stick-straight behind him. The crowd buzzed, the sun shone, in the distance the Pisser swapped continuity for irregular spasms, a light breeze rustled in the shrubs and the stands of trees which the first Sir George Stanbury had planted at the lawn's margins. Diametrically opposite from the dais, over by the west wing, the Misses Bale single-mindedly mounted guard on the Botticelli, and for the tenth time little Miss Endacott re-arranged the in-congruent jumble of items on the Rectory stall. Should she, she wondered, call out, âCome and buy! Come and buy!' The mere thought of it made her legs shake so much that she had to sit down.
The Rector consulted his wrist-watch, muttered a short prayer, hoisted his skirts, took a run at the front part of the dais and jumped up on to it; his impact shook the structure with such violence that an inattentive Whirlybird lost her balance, fell against the pedal cymbal and knocked it over the edge. More laboriously or with more circumspection, several other men and women followed the Rector, among them the Mayor
of Glazebridge - since Burraford was in Glazebridge's extensive Rural District - complete with chain of office.
âWe don't want hours and hours of talk, now,' the Rector told his companions. It emerged in a roar from loudspeakers tuned to maximum amplification; an old man said, âHear, hear!' and a child, panicking at the sudden din, broke into uncontrollable ululations of terror and dismay. âPeople don't come here,' the Rector said, âto listen to hours and hours of talk.' âHear, hear!' the old man said again. âSo let's get cracking,' the Rector said.