Authors: Edmund Crispin
âAll right, I'll buy the scores for you, then,' said Fen compliantly.
âThanks. And now I think I'd better go indoors and turn out a spot of relief music before I eat,' Thouless said. Relief music was his anodyne for the X-pictures, the example in hand at the moment being settings of poems from
A Child's Garden of Verses. â
How's your health these days?' he added, as if Fen had applied to him for life insurance. âGood?'
âYes, very good, thanks. Yours?'
âIndifferent,' said Thouless. âStill, I suppose I've been worse, even if I can't remember when. See you this afternoon, then.'
âSee you this afternoon,' Fen agreed, and went on up the lane until he came to Youings's well-kept pig farm.
In the yard beside the house, Youings was hobnobbing with a gigantic brood sow. A massive, fresh-faced, blond man of about forty, he was bent over double, addressing the sow practically nose to nose.
â 'Ullo, my dear,' he was saying to it tenderly in his mild Devon accent. â 'Ow
you, then -
You funny little
thing, you.' The great creature grunted and swayed in satisfaction, its dugs wobbling like mottled blancmanges.
âWilfreda, is it?' said Fen. He had become accustomed, by now, to the fact that west-country sows often bore the same sort of names as the higher-born women in Thomas Hardy; for example, there was another of Youings's which was called Eusalie. âNice animal,' Fen added with fake judiciousness.
âAh, morning, Professor,' said Youings, undoubling himself. âYes, proper little wildego, this one.' He meant harum-scarum, a description which seemed inapposite unless, as the reiterated âlittle' suggested, he still thought of Wilfreda as a piglet.
âCobby,' Fen remarked, using a Devon word for well-knit, compact. This too was on the face of it inapposite, but since animal breeders have different standards of animal beauty from those of mere lookers-on, in practice it went down very well. There were some, said Youings, who in their ignorance of pigs would maintain that Wilfreda had too much fat on her, was flabby even. Wrong. Wilfreda was in actual fact as lean as a healthy sow could be, and Fen had shown great, though only-to-be-expected, acuity in noting her leanness.
âThat Mother Clotworthy's head, then?' asked Youings, innocently inquisitive, nodding at Fen's sack. Fen nodded back, reflecting that his brawn project seemed to have become established in Burraford and district as a sort of Forthcoming Event, on a par with the Meet at The Stanbury Arms next Saturday, or the Amateur Dramatics in the Church Hall the Saturday after. True, the circumstances which had given rise to it were slightly unusual, even for the countryside. Mrs Clotworthy being popular with her friends and neighbours, they had clubbed together to offer her a seventy-fifth birthday treat, envisaging something in the nature of a day trip to Guernsey by boat; when consulted, however, Mrs Clotworthy had affirmed unhesitantly that what she would really like best would be to cut up a nice pig, and the money subscribed had therefore been diverted to buying one for her. At this point, Fen had become involved in the matter. Mrs Clotworthy's late husband, the butcher, had often spoken to her of how much he regretted not being an M.A., and when Mrs Clotworthy heard that Fen was one, and that he had been complaining about the quality of some brawn
he had bought at the pork butcher's in Glazebridge, she insisted on presenting him not only with a recipe for home-made brawn but also with the head of her birthday pig, to make the brawn with.
âMind and salt en well,' Youings advised.
Fen said that he would be sure and do that.
âOne of mine, that were,' said Youings. He gazed sentimentally at the sack. âPretty little girl, were Tabitha, pink as a rose.'
Bypassing this valediction, Fen embarked on an account of Gobbo's reminiscences, and Jack Jones's, and the Rector's. Towards the end of it, Youings's wife Ortrud appeared at the side door of the house, carrying a paper bag. An Amazonian woman almost as tall as her husband, she had great physical strength and an emphatic, Junoesque figure. (âThose bosoms, don't you know,' the Major had once pronounced, more in amazement than in admiration. âProdigious things - dazzling -flesh-bulbs.') Her inexpressive nordic head combined dark eyebrows with cheese-coloured hair put together in a complicated bun at the back, like pallid worms transfixed in mid-orgy.
âZu mir, Liebchen,'
she said, evidently addressing Wilfreda.
She paid no attention to Fen, the ordinary civilities of life being unknown to her.
Wilfreda stopped swaying from side to side and began swaying from back to front instead. In this way she developed enough forward momentum to be able to get her trotters on the move. Wheeling, she lumbered over to Ortrud and was fed with handful after handful of yellow boiled sweets out of the paper bag. Against the resultant background of scrunching and snorting Fen finished his recital, while Youings stood frowning concentratedly.
Then Youings spoke. He did this in low tones, presumably in order to avoid scarifying his wife's sensibilities by reference to the macabre events of eight weeks previously. Since Wilfreda's eating made a perfect acoustic baffle, and Ortrud was practically out of earshot anyway, it was an unnecessary precaution. Because of it, however, and because he was sunk in the ninth beatitude of expecting nothing, Fen failed at first to grasp what was being said to him, and had to ask for a repetition. Getting
it, he sharpened to attention. For what Youings was asserting amounted to an unqualified denial of everything Gobbo had asserted. In short, wherever else Hagberd might have been at the time when Routh was getting himself brained in the copse at Bawdeys Meadow, he hadn't, Youings assured Fen, been talking to Gobbo outside The Stanbury Arms.
It worked out this way. Taking the short cut through Mrs Clotworthy's garden from Chapel Street, where he had been delivering a home-cured ham at the village shop, Youings had seen the Rector stalking past along the lane towards the Arms, and had followed him at a distance of some thirty yards, arriving at Gobbo, the elm and the horse-box just as the Rector was vanishing round the lane's first bend. By this time Gobbo had lurched to his feet and was setting off home to his supper, mumbling tetchily and scratching his bottom as if, said Youings, âa load of old fleas was eating at him'. And quite definitely Hagberd hadn't been there. Youings knew this because he had paused to inspect the horse-box, a new double-axle Rice which Clarence Tully had just bought; and Hagberd couldn't possibly have been lurking in or behind that, or behind the elm, or anywhere else in the car-park. He couldn't have nipped into the pub unobserved, since there had been three people drinking in there as well as Isobel Jones serving. He couldn't have crossed the lane unobserved, even if there had been anything but a blank wall for him to cross to. And finally, he couldn't have got round to the side or back of the pub without shinning up another wall or breaking down a locked door in it, which was about as likely, Youings gave Fen to understand, as that he'd flown up into the air and perched himself on a twig. Besides, said Youings reasonably, why
Hagberd have done any of these things? Granted, he'd been a bit mazed up top, but only, when you got down to it, about work and animals and Routh and Mrs Leeper-Foxe. And anyway, he hadn't been the skulking sort - quite the opposite, in fact.
Fen pointed out that if Hagberd had murdered Routh, he'd skulked when it came to the Bust child.
âDidn't want to frighten en, simly,' Youings surmised.
All this, taken in conjunction with the others' testimony, seemed decisive enough, and Fen wondered why now, for the
first time, he was perversely inclined to believe that there might have been something in what Gobbo had said. He kept this thought private, however, thanking Youings with the air of one whose skein of string has been obligingly untangled by a passerby less ham-handed than himself. Simultaneously, Ortrud Youings shovelled the last of the boiled sweets into Wilfreda, dropped the empty paper bag on to the ground, and turned to go back into the house.
she called to Youings over her shoulder. In spite of fifteen years' residence in England, she still never used English when German would do, or even when it wouldn't.
âDinner, that means,' Youings translated. âProper little cook, my Ortrud.' He gazed wistfully after her as her bun, broad back, muscular buttocks and long legs disappeared from view through the side door.
And apart from her quite liking the pigs, Ortrud Youings's cooking - Fen reflected as he went on up the lane - was about the best that anyone ever seemed able to find to say about her. âOh, my dear soul! That Ortrud, er leads en a turrable dance,' Mrs Clotworthy had confided to Fen on one occasion, discussion of brawn and M.A.S having temporarily palled - a statement which had been confirmed, with trimmings, by everyone Fen had talked to on the subject except Thouless, whose preoccupation with his own sorrows made it difficult for him to keep track of anyone else's. Youings had met Ortrud while doing his military service with the B.A.O.R. A willing horse, he had been led up the bridal-path only to discover that in addition to having been married for his money (he owned a small amount of investment capital as well as the pig farm) he had saddled himself with a nymphomaniac of a peculiarly tiresome kind. It was bad enough that Ortrud kept having affairs. What made it even worse was that instead of going off with the current favourite, as any other wife would have done, she invited him, if single, to live in Youings's house, and it was Youings who went off, making do for weeks at a time in a flatlet over Clarence Tully's stables and commuting daily in order to look after the pigs. Yet through all these frequent intermissions of misery, Youings's devotion had remained unshaken. It had
even grown. Grieving, he doted more and more. The local women, offended at the waste of a perfectly workable husband, were inclined to be censorious about Youings's apparently limitless tolerance, but the men, in between suggesting that Ortrud, if not divorced, ought at any rate to be beaten - an enterprise few of them would have cared to attempt themselves - were more sentimental, an exception being the Major.
âPoor silly fellow's no better than a muffin,' the Major said of Youings, sternly.
Unfortunate Gobbo, discredited by a muffin.
All the same, Fen was now beginning to ask himself if there hadn't been more to Routh's murder than the bizarre details that had met the eye.
The Dickinsons' cottage which Fen had rented had originally been two eighteenth-century semi-detacheds, housing farm labourers; but recently the two had been knocked into one, with the addition of a bathroom at the top of one of the two narrow, precipitous flights of stairs, and of a scullery at the back, so that where the peasantry had once banged their heads rushing out of doors to the earth-closet, the professional classes now banged theirs on their way to do the washing-up. (After two such experiences, Fen had taken to stooping whenever he went through any of the cottage's doorways, even though all but the one between the kitchen and the scullery were quite high enough to allow him passage upright.) To the outer side wall of the cottage, near the modern garage, clung a garden telephone bell - a clapper set between two enormous mammiform metal domes, their overall effect, through weathering, suggesting some fertility goddess dug up at Benin and rejected as worthless on account of the black bakelite box inscrutably attached to it just above the navel. Downstairs consisted of the scullery, the big kitchen with its Rayburn, and a pleasantly furnished living-room with an upright piano on which Fen played hymn tunes, bits of
A Little Sea Picture
by Alec Rowley, which he had learned at the age of eight and for some not easily analysable reason had been unable to forget; upstairs there were three bedrooms as well as the bath. A good small garden
surrounded three sides of the cottage, petering out at the back in a neglected half acre of grass, shrubs, trees and what seemed to be rabbit tracks. This part (the Dickinsons had encouragingly told Fen, prior to departing for Canada, where they were now touring around music-examining for the Associated Board) -this part of the estate provided an excellent close approach to the cottage for burglars, who would also be helped by the fact that any ground-floor window would swing open at once if a midge collided with it, even glancingly.
Fen's cleaning was done for him three mornings a week by Mrs Bragg, a big, henna-ed woman who shrieked with happy laughter all the time. He cooked, if you could call it that, for himself.
Trudging up the drive, an access constructed of sharp, ankle-turning rocks lightly filigreed with mud, Fen was displeased to see that Ellis the tortoise, who had gone into hibernation ten days previously, had changed his negligible mind and re-emerged, presumably because of the continuing summery weather. He had also been capsized by a dog - or else, as was quite conceivable if you knew him at all, had somehow managed to get himself wrong way up unaided - and was lying on his back on the lawn, head retracted, feet waving slowly about in the air in what Fen took to be extreme agitation. Restoring him to normal, Fen circled the lawn picking petals from late pansies to feed him with. Ellis was specially fond of pansy petals, but like other foods, they unfortunately had to be premasticated for him. He was undershot, his biting surfaces nowhere near in alignment; left to his own devices, he bolted things and became, according to the Dickinsons, ill. Fen was not so fond of pansy petals. No matter what their original colour, they came out of his mouth black, in the form of tidy, shreddy pellets; they also left him feeling as if his teeth had been sprayed with a particularly odious cheap face-powder. Frowning, Fen conscientiously mumbled pansy petals between tongue and soft palate until Ellis gave signs of being sated. Then he went indoors to rinse his mouth, while Ellis set out on one of his trips to the wall at the lawn's end, a favourite destination which yet never failed to amaze and terrify him by its impermeability when he arrived at it.