It was late, it was dark, and it was cold. Most of the residents of Cadblister Parva had very sensibly gone to bed some hours ago. There were but few lights showing in windows now.
In fact, not a creature was stirring- except for Harry and Harriet. In theory, Harry (who did not have permission to be away from Cadblister Hall, but, as he slept over the garage where the Crabtree Daimler resided, and as the status of a Chauffeur was still a bit of a puzzle to the traditionally-minded Sneakfork, he was frequently out without permission) was walking Harriet back to the cottage where Harriet lived with her mother, her father, and her three youngest siblings. In practice, this journey was so slow, and so often interrupted for long periods of time (as one or the other of these two stopped walking to hurl some particularly choice bit of venom at the other), it could hardly be regarded as a journey at all.
Harry and Harriet were, in fact, quarreling. This was Not Uncommon. It was in many ways the basis of their relationship.
“Ooh, you do make me furious, you do! Coming in to Inn and settin’ ogling of Bess, who wouldn’t look at you, and not so much as a word to me!” Harriet hissed at Harry.
Harry spat into the snow and turned to his inamorata with a fighting light in his eyes. “I can’t say as I ‘ad many words to pass to a gal what was obviously busy with that Mug,” he said pugnaciously.
“Busy with that-” for a moment, Rage rendered Harriet almost incapable of utterance. “Well, I like that!”
“Yes, you did like it, didn’t ya? It was pretty bleedin’ obvious you were liking it. ‘Ooh, Sergeant, you’re a powerful clever gentleman, ain’t ya?'” This last remark was delivered in falsetto, and in a caricature of Harriet’s rural accent.
They halted to discuss this in more detail outside the row of shops along Cottage Lane. Somewhere close at hand came a sharp whistle, but they ignored this.
“I were only being polite-like. He is a guest at Inn, and what with you being so busy with Bess, I didn’t see why I shouldn’t have speech with the man.”
“You was flirting, my girl!”
“I weren’t doing no such thing!”
“Hoy! Hey! Up here!” Came a shout from somewhere.
“Don’t try and sell me that, girlie. I’m not buying, see?”
“Oh, no, you wouldn’t. Don’t believe in spending money, you don’t, as long as you can get your drinks free!”
“Help! Fire!” Came a voice, tinged equally with irony and panic.
Harriet started to stomp away from Harry down the lane. Harry ran after her and caught at her wrist, spinning her around to face him.
“Get free drinks, do I?” He hissed into her face. “I can’t say as I’ve noticed it, much.” This was a Grievance that Harry had wanted to air for months now. He was fond of his Harriet, but he did feel that a man who was walking out with a barmaid was Entitled to the occasional free pint. Harriet had never given him one.
“Oi! Up here! Look up, can’t you?” Came the voice.
“Why, you greedy cheapjack! I do declare, Harry, you’re out for what you can get.” Harriet was starting to shed tears rather freely.
“Well, I don’t seem as I’m getting much!” Cried Harry, with feeling.
A disgusted sigh came from somewhere above them. A moment later, a piece of burning thatch came hurtling through the night, to land at the couple’s feet. They looked around- to find that flames were pouring out of the windows of a nearby house.
“Oh my gawd!” Cried Harriet. “Harry, what’ll we do?”
“First,” came a voice from somewhere above them, “you could drag a ladder – you will find one in the shed round the back- over here.”
They looked up. A young man sat in a window, his body silhouetted against the flames.
“Right, sir!” Cried Harry, and ran off towards the shed.
“Is there anyone else in the house, sir?” Called Harriet.
There came a mirthless laugh. “Only my mother,” said the young man. “And I fear that she is beyond all help. Someone smothered her, you see. She is quite dead.”
At this point, Harry returned with the ladder, and Mr. Randall Grudge stepped gingerly into the snowy street.
Now, it was very late indeed, and lights were blazing in windows all over Cadblister Parva, for everyone was now awake and engaged in frantic activity. The fire-engine had been summoned from Cadblister Magna, but it would be a time before it could reach them. For now, Cadblister Parva was on its own. The Vicar had rung out the peal of bells signifying emergency; now, he stood outside the Church, assigning tasks to people as they arrived. Colonel Crabbit was supervising a bucket chain that stretched from Polten’s Pond to Rose Cottage, bellowing encouragement and reprimand at his troops (included amongst which were Marge Bantree, Violet Teasdale, and a young couple who occasionally howled invective at each other as they passed buckets). Doctor Brandwood had attached a length of hose to a faucet in his surgery, and now he blasted water at the side of Rose Cottage that faced his own dwelling. Another bucket-chain stretched from the Vicarage kitchen to the cottage; this was being directed by Miss Verity Meadows. Small boys gleefully threw snowballs at the flames from all directions. Frank Valentine, blacksmith and farrier, stood impassively on the front walk of Rose Cottage, leaning on an enormous axe, waiting for the flames to subside sufficiently for it to be sensible for him to break down the door. Sergeant Mug and Constable Wilkins stood beside him, similarly armed, and eying the fire with misgiving. There was a body in there, allegedly, and they wanted a look-in as soon as possible.
And Randall Grudge sat in the Public Bar of the Yeoman’s Arms and told his story to a blear-eyed Inspector Crowner. Since he’d left Rose Cottage bare-foot and in the bottom half of a pair of silk pajamas, he was now wrapped up in a blanket. On his feet were a pair of mud-boots that Inspector Crowner had packed on the principle that “if it is the country, it is muddy.” Randall had clearly inhaled rather a lot of smoke, and his voice rasped.
“I went to bed at perhaps half past ten, and I fell asleep almost immediately,” said Randall. A lot of his sarcastic wit had, for the moment, deserted him. He seemed, thought Crowner, thoughtful rather than distressed at his mother’s alleged death, but this was perhaps understandable. “I woke up- well, I can’t say when, exactly- I suspect it was after midnight, but I don’t know. I woke up, I think, because it was getting a bit difficult to breathe. Anyway, I woke up coughing and gasping. And there was a flickering light coming in under my bedroom door. Light, and smoke. In fact, it was quite obvious that the house was on fire. I got out of bed and opened the door. The hall was in flames, but, for the moment, they were sort of clinging to the walls. I got half-way down the stairs before I remembered about my mother. I called to her, and heard nothing. I wasn’t exactly feeling heroic, but I dashed back up the stairs and to my mother’s room. Her room is the one that faces onto Cottage Lane. And everyone in Cadblister Parva knows that.” He eyed Inspector Crowner meaningly.
“Yes, yes. I see,” said Crowner. “The rumour-mongers would be anxious to know which window was your mother’s, I imagine. They could then look for titled silhouettes in that window, and that would be great fun. And of course it made things easy for our killer. Go on.”
Randall grinned at Crowner rather ruefully. “You have, if I may say so, a great grasp of infidelity, moral reactions to, in rural communities.” He shrugged, wincing slightly as he did so. He had several small burns, Crowner recalled, on his arms and shoulders. When that Doctor Brandwood was done with his hose-work, he’d have to have a look at the young man. But Crowner was pleased to have his own look at him first. “Anyway, I knocked at the door, and kicked at it, and heard nothing. My mother is- was- a heavy sleeper, however, and so I couldn’t be sure she wasn’t in the room. The fire-” and he gestured to a place on his head where his hair had been reduced to little black crisps – “was getting rather more lively, and I couldn’t get the door open. Then I noticed,” and he smiled a ghastly ghost of a smile, “that someone had put a wedge under my mother’s door.”
Crowner’s eyebrows rose. “Oh, they had, had they? Nasty,” he said, feelingly. “Go on.”
“Yes. Well, I thought it was nasty, too, rather. You see, my mother’s door opens outwards, and so-” here Randall choked slightly, but whether it was due to emotional or to physical causes it would be impossible to say. “-so I thought that if she’d tried to get out, she wouldn’t have been able to. She’d never think to check for that sort of trick. And she’s never been one to remain calm in a crisis.” Randall paused, coughed feebly, and went on. “I removed the wedge and went in.”
“At first, I thought all was well. There she was, on her bed, and nothing seemed to have been disturbed. The flames hadn’t yet penetrated to the room, and it was dark and cool, after the hallway. I went to her, and I shook her- and the pillow that had been over her head slipped away- and I saw her face. Have you ever seen a smothering victim, Inspector?”
Crowner indicated that he had indeed, and looked at the young man with a certain amount of sympathy. “Not pleasant.”
“No.” Randall seemed to shake off the gloom of this vision. He went on, speaking rapidly. “I felt for a pulse, but- well, there just wasn’t one. And then the flames came roaring into the room- I suppose I’d left the door open, and sort of brought the flames in with me. And I found myself suddenly in the middle of a damn inferno, Inspector. I made it to the window. I got it open, got myself out onto the sill. I was about to jump into a likely-looking hump of snow when I heard that couple coming down the road, and decided that I’d rather come down on a ladder.” At this, Randall slumped wearily in his chair. For a time, the two men sat in silence, while Crowner digested this story and Randall, apparently, slept. Then, abruptly, Randall sat forward.
“Who murdered my mother, Inspector? Do you happen to know?” He asked.
“Not at the moment, I’m afraid.” Crowner paused. “But I have been hearing some interesting things, one way and another.” He leaned forward, and his gaze was suddenly keen. “Why did Lady Cadblister and the Viscount come to see your mother yesterday? I don’t imagine the two ladies were exactly on calling terms.”
“They were not. Lady Cadblister was trying to evict us. She could’ve done it, too, if the Viscount hadn’t kicked. There was a document that my father liked to show my mother sometimes; enabled him, in essence, to put us out into the snow at a moment’s notice. Lady Cadblister seems to have found this document. The Viscount was ‘suddenly overcome with pity’ – according to my mother, anyway- and tore the document in half and threw it in the fire.”
“Decent of him.” Inspector Crowner raised his eyebrows in the way that makes a statement into a question.
“Yes? I suppose so. Curious, that. Inconsistent with what I thought I knew of his character. But then-” and Randall grinned. “They say I’m embittered. Perhaps it has warped my judgment.”
At this point, the doctor came in, looking charred, but triumphant. “Fire’s more or less out, Inspector,” said Doctor Brandwood. “Your man Mug is bellowing for you. As for me,” and he caught sight of Bess hovering in the doorway, “I want a whisky and a look at my patient. In that order, mind!”
And Inspector Crowner left the Inn and headed over to the scene of the second murder.