Authors: Edmund Crispin
As if to confirm this, the horse bared large discoloured teeth and seized hold of an ash shoot, backing away in an unsuccessful attempt to tug the shoot loose from its moorings in the hedge. âBut I thought you'd been in the cavalry,' Fen said to the Major as they walked on. âBefore it was mechanized, I mean.'
âQuite right, my dear fellow. Twenty years of it, I had, in India.'
âBut didn't that get you used to horses?'
âNo, the reverse,' said the Major. âThe more I saw of horses, the more
used to them I got. I was drunk for a week,' he confided, âcelebrating the day they took them all away. Because after they'd gone, don't you know, I couldn't have a fall.'
âYou mean you'd had a lot of falls.'
âNo, none. I
had a fall, not even when I was learning to ride, as a child. Well, you can see what that implied. Theory of Probability and so forth,' said the Major, jouncing along briskly with the aid of his stick. âThe longer I went on without having a fall, the more likely it became that I
have one. In the end it got a bit unnerving, because every time I got on a horse, the chances were about a billion to one against my
having a fall. I won through, though,' he said proudly. âI survived. No fall. I'm here to tell the tale. Padmore, do you ride?'
Padmore said not.
âDon't ever be tempted to try,' said the Major. âNot unless you fancy sitting astride a mobile double bed with ten homicidal lunatics carrying it.'
On their left they passed the straight stony cart-track, with wire fencing on either side, which led to the grounds of Aller
House; through the trees and the massed pylons they caught glimpses of the Church Fete stalls and marquees. Then on their right, coming round a bend into Aller hamlet, they passed the lane leading up to Broderick Thouless's bungalow, to Youing's pig farm, and to the Dickinsons' cottage which Fen was occupying.
Finally, round a second bend, they arrived at the Rector's house, a huge, lowering mid-Victorian erection in a comfortably large garden.
The Rector's house was called Y Wurry.
The Rector's family had lived in Aller continuously ever since one of his remoter forebears had fled to Devon to avoid being burned to death for Protestantism under Bloody Mary. Confirmed demolishers and rebuilders, they had put up house after house after house on the same site, a habit which had kept its impetus till the 1860s, when the Rector's great-grandfather had invested the family fortune in a Tavistock arsenic mine, and lost the lot. Not that the Burges were impoverished, exactly, even then. Though one of their dominant genes caused them to regard houses as infinitely expendable, another had made them very tenacious of other kinds of property, so that in the course of five centuries they had accumulated a staggering quantity of furniture, pictures, porcelain, silver, books, brocades and so forth, much of it rubbish, but some of it extremely valuable; and despite the fact that a great deal of this had been sold off during the last hundred years, enough still remained to fill three of the five attic rooms where once the damp souls of housemaids had despondently sprouted (thirty-five miles to the nearest Music Hall).
To do the Rector justice, Y Wurry hadn't been his idea. Up to 1937 the place hadn't been called anything in particular; but then in that year the Rector had gone off to India to preach better behaviour to the polyandrous Todas, and had decided on a furnished let during his absence, to help top up the Church funds. Not realizing what they were letting themselves in for, a trusting couple from Hinchley Wood had taken on the lease on the agent's say-so. The wife, normally a stoical woman, had
burst into tears ten minutes after entering the front door, but since they weren't specially well off, and couldn't afford to compound for the rent, they had had to make the best of it. It was not, they wrote to friends, that there was anything definite they could complain about. It just wasn't home-y, that was all. âGreat big rooms with pointy sort of windows,' the wife wrote, more tears splodging on to the page, âand all heavy dark furniture not like our nice Civil Service Stores and all heavy drapes dust traps and I'll swear there are mice or even rats! though Roland says don't be silly as we've put down cheese and no one's eaten it.' Eventually they had taken to living almost entirely in the kitchen. The wooden name-sign on the gate had been the last despairing bleat on Roland's slughorn in face of the Dark Tower; after that they had abandoned the attempt to humanize their surroundings and had instead anaesthetized themselves by constantly going into Glazebridge to the cinema, where they often saw the same programme three days running, worsening their condition, as they stared at the screen, by getting diarrhoea from eating too much ice-cream.
The Rector, returning from India, had been surprised to find his property baptized in his absence, but, not being a man very sensitive to literary nuances, had done nothing about the sign until many years later, when the Major had filled a conversational gap by suggesting that not worrying was probably a Popish practice, and so
unfit to be continuously recommended on the gates of proper Christian people of any sort, let alone proper Christian clerics. Though temperamentally little subject to anxiety himself, the Rector, struck by this notion, had at once gone to work on the nuts and bolts which held the sign to the massive wrought-iron curlicues of his great-grandfather's gate. When these resisted him - being by now rusted tight - he had seized a hatchet and dealt the sign itself a heavy blow diagonally across the middle, and would certainly have gone on to reduce it to splinters but for being interrupted by a parishioner in trouble. Later, after he had given the parishioner a lot of money and no advice, it had occurred to him that since many undeniable Protestants, such as Jesus of Nazareth, had advised against worrying, the Major must have been speaking frivolously; so that apart from a
sermon against frivolity the following Sunday, with special reference to the Major (lightly camouflaged as âa certain retired military person'), he had expelled the matter of the sign from his mind, and it had stayed expelled.
When the party from The Stanbury Arms arrived at the Rector's gate they saw a grey Mini neatly parked outside it
They went on in nevertheless.
The Rector's acreage was planted to a disconcerting extent simply with hedges - huge, unkempt, dusty, spider-haunted walls of lonicera and laurel and yew; making your way among them, you felt that you were in a giant's knot-garden, or a maze. And that Fen and Padmore and Fred and the Major were going to have to make their way among at least some of them was at once obvious. From somewhere out of doors over to their right, the Rector's voice, which even when imparting confidences could be heard fields away, was being raised in wrath.
âI don't care,' it was saying. 7 don't care. For all I care, the population of Plymouth can light its houses with tallow dips. Pylon, indeed. You're not putting any pylon in
paddock, and that's flat. And I'll tell you another thing.'
Guided partly by this uproar and partly by the Major, who professed to know his bearings, they plunged into the greenery, and so presently reached the source of the disturbance, which proved to be an overgrown circular grass clearing with an ancient sundial in the middle and hedges all round. With force rather than finesse, the Rector was in process of trimming these hedges, which as a result were beginning to look like a sort of cubist switchback. He had got down from his step-ladder and was waving his shears threateningly at a terrified little man in grey.
âHa!'said the Rector.
If you took the Rector from the top downwards, the first thing you saw was iron-grey hair thatching a high, noble forehead. Below this point, however, matters deteriorated abruptly. No doubt about it, the Rector's actual
was simian - so that the overall effect was as if Jekyll had got stuck half-way in the course of switching himself to Hyde. The clothes were a crumpled, laurel-spattered clerical black, with dog-collar and with
outsize cracked black shoes. Despite bow legs, the height was six foot three, and the frame was formidable. âI'm not,' the Rector had once complacently remarked, âthe type of thing you want to meet unexpectedly on a dark night.'
The Major said, âMorning, Rector. This is Padmore, who's here on a visit.'
âHow do,' said the Rector. âMorning, Fen. What's that you've got in that sack?'
âIt's a pig's head. Mrs Clotworthy's birthday pig's head, actually. I picked it up from her porch this morning. She gave it me because I'm an M.A.'
âPoor woman's obviously getting a bit gaga,' said the Rector. âAh well, we all come to it, if we live long enough. I don't imagine I shall, mind, but most of us do.'
The terrified little man in grey said, âI'm from Sweb.'
âHow do you do?' said Padmore. âFrom
âAcronym,' said the Major. âStands for South Western Electricity Board. They think that if they call themselves Sweb, don't you know, it'll make people look on them as friends.' He shook his head sadly at the thought of so much innocence exposed in a harsh world, like babies on rocks outside Sparta.
âDamn the man if he doesn't want to put up a pylon in my paddock,' said the Rector.
âThey want to put pylons everywhere,' said Fen.
âEvery effort is made to safeguard the amenities,' the man from Sweb said in a high, tremulous voice. â
âI can safeguard my amenities without any help from you, thanks very much,' said the Rector. âYou go and safeguard someone else's amenities. Oh, and by the way, now I come to think of it, since you're in the neighbourhood you can look in at the Church FÃªte this afternoon. Do you a world of good.'
The man from Sweb smirked wretchedly. He was neat as a henbird, all in grey except for shoes and tie. Despite the warmth of the day he wore an overcoat and a homburg hat with a diminutive turned-up brim. His face was round and pink, a uniform clear pink like the inside of a young cat's mouth; his eyes were blue and protruding. He was clean-shaven. His little pot-belly kept his overcoat buttons occupied without straining them too noticeably.
âChurch FÃªte? I - I'm not religious, I'm afraid,' he managed to get out.
âIf you're not religious, you do well to be afraid,' said the Rector. âHowever, we've no objection to taking money from the heathen, I'm glad to be able to say. If you can't get to the FÃªte, you can make your contribution to me personally, now.'
âI - I'm afraid that at the moment it's not - not quite convenient to - to -'
âTight-fisted as well as a heathen,' the Rector commented. âWell now, I hope you're quite clear in your mind about this pylon proposal. I reject it.'
âY-you understand that we have p-powers to obtain a c-c-c-compulsory order,' the man from Sweb trepidantly squeaked.
âDon't you try threatening me, my man,' said the Rector, almost kindly. âI've made my decision, and that's the end of that. So now be off with you.' He frowned slightly, apparently feeling that this peremptoriness ought in Christian charity to be softened a little, perhaps with a touch of light humour. âBe off with you,' he amended, âor I'll chop off your feet with these shears, and leave you to run away on your bleeding stumps.'
At this, the man from Sweb gave a small, moaning cry, turned from them and stumbled out of the clearing. Diminishingly they heard him blundering into shrubs and hedges as he tried to find his way back to the gate.
âUncivil sort of a fellow,' the Rector remarked. âDidn't even have the elementary courtesy to say good-bye. Well now, what can I do for you lot?'
They told him.
âGobbo!' the Rector exclaimed. âYes, certainly I saw
that evening, the evening Routh was knocked off. Why shouldn't I have seen him?'
âNo reason at all, my dear chap,' the Major agreed. âBut if I may say so, you seem to have rather missed the point. The question is, did you see Hagberd as well?'
âNo, because he was off somewhere else, murdering Routh.'
âYes, but Gobbo says he
âAh,' said the Rector magnanimously, âI see what you mean now. You didn't make yourself at all clear at first, chorusing at
me all together like that. Did I see Hagberd with Gobbo, you're asking.'
âHe wasn't there?'
âHe may have been
the Rector admitted. âAll I'm saying is that I didn't
him. Couldn't have done, not if he'd been behind the horse-box or the elm.'
âIt's all a lot of nonsense,' said Padmore.
mind you,' the Rector said.
âYes. Might have been just to himself, though. Or he might even,' the Rector added doubtfully, âhave been saying a prayer â¦ Actually, don't pay too much attention to that,' he advised them, though none of them was in fact paying it any attention at all. âMe being a clergyman, my mind tends to run on prayer.'
âJack Jones said,' said Fen, âthat just before you got to the pub, you looked along the path that leads to Mrs Clotworthy's cottage and scowled at somebody.'
âScowled?' said the Rector, scowling. âI never scowl. And anyway, I don't remember that I -'
But then he did remember. Flicking his horny fingers with a noise like a fire-cracker, he said, âYes, I do, though. It was Youings.'
âWho's Youings?' Padmore anxiously demanded.
âA pig farmer, my dear fellow.' The Major began absently scratching Fred's back with the rubber tip of his stick. âLives just up the road.'