E is for English Rose. Verity Meadows is the daughter of the Reverend Doctor Meadows, vicar of Cadblister Parva, and typifies, in appearance, the English Rose type of beauty. She’s caused a bit of a stir of late in the village, having returned from school with Notions. Specifically, she has the (to many of the villagers) insane notion that women ought to be allowed to vote.
Miss Verity Meadows, after an anxious look backwards to make certain that she was not being observed from the Vicarage, quietly slipped through the graveyard and into the church. Lunchtime was almost an hour off, which meant that it would be at least two hours before her father would expect lunch, or notice that he had not eaten it yet. Morning service had been unusually sparsely attended, for a Christmas morning, but Verity attributed this to the late hour at which the village meeting had ended, and to the dishearteningly final blow to the village’s hopes that Lord Cadblister had delivered. She’d had quite a late night herself- she blushed to think of why- and had barely managed to make the morning service. Her sense of duty, however, had at the last moment compelled her out of her bed and into her Sunday best.
Now, Miss Verity stood inside the church and allowed her eyes to adjust to the gloom. As she eyed the rows of pews, her heart, for a moment, misgave her. There would be a fuss, that was certain. But Verity considered that to shirk this task would be to shirk a Duty, would be, in fact, Letting The Side Down, and, as the side in this case was Womankind, to let it down would be unthinkable. Resolutely, then, she removed from under her jacket a stack of pamphlets, each boldly headed with the words VOTES FOR WOMEN, and moved to the back row of pews. She opened a hymnal to the first hymn of the day, inserted a pamphlet, and replaced the hymnal on the rack. She repeated this action with all of the hymnals in the pew. Then, she moved forward to the next pew and carried on in the same way. Sometimes she knew which parishioner would soon be opening a particular hymnal, and as she moved through the church, she thought of each person’s probable reaction.
“Old Mrs. Hive, this is her place,” thought Verity. “What will she do, when she sees my pamphlet? First off, of course, she’ll cackle. She always cackles whenever anything surprises her, these days. Then, I suppose, for the rest of the service, she’ll try to catch my eye, and she’ll wink at me, and elbow her neighbor and say something terribly vulgar.”
At another place, she thought, “one of Mrs. Dremmel’s boys will open this one, and then he’ll probably ball up the tract and throw it at someone. I do hope he doesn’t aim it at father, for the poor man gets so bewildered when things are thrown at him. Well, if he throws it at me, I’ll box his ears. But not, of course, during the service.”
At yet another place, her lips curled in a slightly bitter smile, and she thought, “Ah, yes. This book will be opened by Constable Wikins, who’s heard about the ‘powerful lot of trouble’ suffragettes give to the police in the towns and in London, and who therefore doesn’t hold with them. He’ll open his book and spend the rest of the service puzzling over whether it’s a violation of law, slipping this sort of thing into a hymnal. He’ll want to believe it is illegal, so that he can arrest me, but I don’t think he’ll be able to make out a case- unless he somehow convinces himself that it is pornographic. Poor man, he will be in a muddle!” And Verity laughed, as she pictured Constable Wilkins’ face as it would be as he opened his hymnal. He’d be all pious attention as he reached for the book; his mouth would open, in readiness to sing; then, as he beheld The Tract-
“Is something funny?” The voice spoke from directly behind her. Verity dropped the hymnal and whirled.
“Oh, you startled me! Why, Mr. Grudge, what on earth are you doing here?” For, she was confused to note, it was certainly Randall Grudge who stood in the aisle, but a few feet from her. She hadn’t heard him come, but there he was.
“Yes, I know it must seem a little odd,” he said, his mouth twisting into his typical look of unhappy amusement, “to see me in church. But you see, I don’t especially wish to be hanged.” He was watching her face, watching for her reaction. Well, she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of letting him rattle her. Really, this sort of dramatic talk was terribly childish. She told him so.
“What is the point in talking of hanging in that childish fashion, Mr. Grudge? It may sound dramatic, but it doesn’t go over big with me.” And she retrieved the hymnal from the floor and firmly tucked the tract inside it.
He was still watching her with a strange intensity of attention. “I assure you, Miss Meadows, that being hanged doesn’t go over big with me, either. I am, in fact, against it. But that isn’t likely to matter much, as things stand now.” Verity looked up, and saw that his face was deathly pale.
“You don’t look well at all, Mr. Grudge. Perhaps you ought to sit down.” And she pushed him gently down onto a pew. “Now,” she said, with what she hoped looked like a friendly smile (as the Vicar’s daughter, it was her duty not to cut anyone dead, not even Randall Grudge), “tell me what you are talking about.”
“Do you really not know?” That hard look was still in his eyes. “Is it possible that it isn’t all over the damned village by now?”
“Don’t swear, sir!” This came automatically, and she regretted it. “We are in church, after all,” she added, more gently. He watched her still. “What is all over the damned village, then?” She asked. He threw his head back and gave a great shout of laughter. But when the laughter ceased to echo about the vault of the church, he slumped back on the pew like a man who has just expended the last of his strength.
“My father,” he said, soberly, “was murdered last night.” There was a clatter, and Verity realized, after a numb moment, that she’d dropped another hymnal.
“Nonsense,” she said, in a trembling, uncertain voice.
“He was stabbed in the back. The body was found lying in the lane. You know, the shortcut up to the Hall?” His voice was emotionless, lacking even its usual venom. But his eyes were alive and fixed upon her face. “And you see, Constable Wilkins saw me go up that lane last night. And he’s heard all about the quarrel that mother, Lord Cadblister, and I all indulged in last night after that futile village meeting. And of course I’m a bad hat – a bastard, by name and by nature- and he doesn’t like me. So of course I did it. He came to Rose Cottage at 6 this morning to tell me I did it, and he didn’t get finished with me until around twenty minutes ago. I immediately sought you out. You see, I’m curious.” And he leaned towards her, and his eyes blazed. “Why did you kill my father, Miss Verity Meadows?”
“What?” Her voice seemed to come from somewhere far away.
“Well, you see,” his voice was almost gentle, and that frightened and repelled Verity in equal proportions, for to think that this creature was pitying her was, at a visceral level, rather too much, “I walked up the lane to the Hall, and I walked down again, and there was no body in the lane. And, as I didn’t happen to stab my father, I find I am terribly curious to know who did. And who did I meet at the bottom of the lane?” He shrugged. “Well- you. You know that as well as I do. So,” and the malicious gleam was back in his eyes, “why did you kill -”
“That isn’t going to get us anywhere, you know,” she said, her voice steady, and her eyes meeting his unflinchingly. “I did not kill your father.” For a moment, he studied her in silence, and she met his gaze fearlessly. Then he seemed to deflate again, and the anger died in his eyes, and he seemed to die with it.
“Hang it,” he said. “I believe you. Well, that settles it, I suppose. I must have done it.” And the cold smile came creeping across his face once again.
“Except, of course, that you clearly didn’t. I suppose you told Constable Wilkins that I went up the lane after you did. I’m surprised he hasn’t come round to the Vicarage to take my statement.”
“I did not tell Constable Wilkins that you went up the lane last night. I am, after all, half a gentleman.” His mouth twisted. “If I were all gentleman, I’d go to the scaffold without a murmur. But as I’m only half a gentleman, I decided to come and tax you with it, and then decide whether I’d tell Wilkins about you or not.”
“But how silly! I can tell Constable Wilkins that I walked that lane after you did, and that there was no body there then, as there certainly was not. In fact-” and she straightened herself resolutely, “I’ll go do that now. I am sure it is important for the police to hear my evidence as soon as possible.” And she marched down the aisle- and Randall seized her arm in a painful grip.
“Oh, you’ll go tell Constable Wilkins, will you? Well, he doesn’t like you, either. At all.”
“Really, Mr. Grudge-”
“It’s no good. He’d gladly trade me for you. The bastard for the suffragette. That would be fine with him.”
Verity opened her mouth to give some suitably crushing replay (“Unhand me, sir!” was something she’d always wanted to say and had never had occasion to; she probably would have said it at this moment)- when the church door burst open and Viscount Diddums burst in.
“I say, Verity me love, the most beastly thing-” and then, seeing his intended fiancee (for he hadn’t actually ever gotten round to proposing; still, he fully intended to get around to it in time) and his illegitimate brother together, quite close together, and he actually touching her, his jaw snapped shut with a fierce click.
“Grudge,” he growled.
Randall grinned, all of his sneering insolence sliding back into place, and fluttered his eyelashes at the newcomer. “Why, it’s my brother, Viscount Diddums. Or no-” and he broke off dramatically and brought his hand up to his cheek, “pray forgive me. Not Viscount Diddums. Lord Cadblister. These titles are so terribly confusing to us bastards.” He stood up. “We can only look on- and admire.”
Viscount Diddums, the new Lord Cadblister, gave a roar of rage. “Murderer! Damn you!” He cried, and charged down upon his foe. Verity was about to intervene, for the Viscount was a much larger man than Randall, and she hated seeing the strong abusing the weak- but then she caught a glimpse of Randall’s face – and decided to leave them to it. As she didn’t especially enjoy fisticuffs, and it would be craven to run away, she settled down behind the organ and began to play. She hadn’t gotten in nearly enough practice, of late.