Inspector Crowner walked up the narrow path through the snow that led to the door of the Vicarage. As he walked, he reviewed, yet again, the facts of the case, and the picture that he’d constructed out of those facts. He thought he knew who- but as yet he had no notion of why. Why had this person (whom we will, for now, refer to as X) killed Lord Cadblister? And had the murder of Mad Grudge been planned from the start, or had X been forced to kill her because she represented some danger to him (and by him, dear reader, we do not necessarily mean that X is a person of the male persuasion- we merely use it as a convenient pronoun we happened to have lying around)?
Well, perhaps something would come of this visit. There was, as it were, one thing that Crowner knew he didn’t know; he’d go after that before he started looking around for fresh areas of ignorance. He knocked at the Vicarage door.
“Hello, Inspector,” said Verity Meadows. “Do come in.” She looked with some embarrassment at a closed door. “I believe they’ll be finished arguing quite soon now; daddy has just called her ‘my dear girl’ for the third time, which means he is very angry indeed.” There was certainly some sort of quarrel going on behind the door. As Crowner followed Miss Meadows past this mysterious apartment, he heard voices, mostly indistinct, but rising to occasional coherence. Crowner stopped outside the door and frankly eavesdropped.
“Really, Augustus!” A woman’s voice, high-pitched, well-educated, and hectoring, come floating upon the air, “as if it isn’t bad enough that you let that girl of yours do exactly as she likes- having that wretched boy here is really the limit.”
“But my dear girl,” said the Vicar, “I would never dream of allowing Verity to do anything! Allowing is no longer within the sphere of my parental responsibilities, you see. No, no- I won’t hear another word on that subject. As for your objection to ‘that wretched boy’- by whom I think you must be referring to young Randall- may I point out to you that he has quite recently lost his mother? And, now I come to think of it, his father, too. And also his home.”
“His home!” The woman snorted this. “And as for his father- that is precisely my point. His mother was an immoral, loose-living fornicator, and to have her son here seems to me to almost signal your approval of such wicked and unchristian behavior. You have a responsibility as the Vicar-”
“To behave towards my fellow man in a reasonably Christian fashion,” interrupted the Vicar. “Really, Grace, I do know my duty, and, as you don’t seem to, I do wish you would not presume to advise me upon it. And what does who I choose to have in my home have to do with you?”
“If you don’t know that-” the voice was now tearful. Crowner raised his eyebrows at Verity, who was vacillating between amusement and outrage at his blatent eavesdropping. And then the door opened with a bang, and Mrs. Grace Merriweather came out into the hall, sobbing loudly. Crowner tipped his hat as she passed, but she either did not notice this or chose to ignore it. The front door banged and she was gone.
“Verity,” called the Vicar, “did I not hear a knock at the door?”
“Yes,” said Verity, poking her head into the room. “Inspector Crowner. He’s been standing in the hall listening in on your quarrel.” And then Verity grinned at her parent. “Atta boy, dad! A couple more applications of that treatment and you may cure Mrs. Merriweather of having Designs upon you.”
The Vicar rose from an armchair and came to greet his caller. “Ah, Inspector! Did you wish to speak with me?”
“Actually, I was looking for Mr. Grudge. I had no business listening in on your little exchange of ideas at all, except a sort of general interest in pugilism.”
“Randall is in the study. Will you be needing me? I was going to go into the village, but-” Verity waved her hand vaguely.
“Thank you, Miss Meadows. I won’t be requiring you,” said Crowner. “Or you either, sir,” he said, as the Vicar made to follow him.
“You may find that you do. In any case, I think I will accompany you,” said the Vicar. Crowner shrugged, and together they entered the study. Randall was slouched in an armchair, smoking a cigarette and reading a bound collection of Punch. He wore a Votes For Women button on his lapel.
“Inspector Crowner,” he said, nodding. “Your Reverence.” He fished in a pocket and brought out a second Votes For Women button. “Here, Inspector. Do take one of these attractive objects. Guaranteed to brighten up the dullest costume.”
“Miss Meadows, then, has recruited you to the cause of women’s Suffrage?” Asked Crowner, taking the button and flipping it over his long thin fingers.
“Ah.” Randall sat back. “Well, it is a little complicated, Inspector. I am a Royalist by inclination, simply because I’d rather be ruled by one fool than by a million of them. But one has, in these matters, to look at the practicalities. It seems that the common man has become quite addicted to voting, and there seems to be no way of stopping them. Therefore, I see no reason why women should not be allowed to participate in this ruinous national pastime as well.”
“Therefore, votes for women?”
“Therefore, votes for women!” Randall waved a hand. “But I don’t imagine you’ve come here to canvas my views on Suffrage. How may I be of assistance to you?”
“I want to know something you refused to tell me before, Mr. Grudge. I want to know what the quarrel was about on the night of Lord Cadblister’s death.”
“Oh?” Randall’s eyebrows were up; so, it seemed, was his guard. “Why?”
“Frankly, because I am fairly sure I know who killed your father- and your mother, too, now- but there’s a snag. I can’t imagine why this person-”
“X,” suggested Randall, helpfully.
“X,” confirmed Crowner. “I can’t imagine why X murdered either victim. And I am hoping that knowing about the quarrel will give me answers, or at least a hint. I’m not expecting that it will- I’m just hoping that it might.”
Randall thought quietly for a time. Then he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Inspector. My mother instructed me not to say anything on that subject. Before her death, I might have disobeyed her- but…”
“My boy,” said the Vicar, sternly, “you must know that you are being idiotic. And I really wouldn’t have thought I’d ever classify you as a sentimental ass. Come, now.”
Randall regarded the Vicar in silence for a time. Then he nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I suppose I see that. Very well, Inspector, here it is: my father was planning to run away to Argentina with my mother and myself. He’d bought a vast property out there, with a fine house and a decent stable and a good, profitable farm. Only there was a catch.” Randall winced. “He wouldn’t take just my mother, you see. He- rather liked me, I think. If I would not come, he wouldn’t take my mother either. And, on the night of Lord Cadblister’s death- well, I said no. A final no.” And he smiled a rather ghastly smile.
Crowner stared at Randall as if mesmerized. “Why on Earth,” he demanded, “didn’t you tell me this before? And don’t say it was because you promised your mother never to speak to nasty policemen or whatever.”
“Does it help?” Asked Randall.
“YES!” Crowner shouted. “Yes, it does- it does! Oh my God, it does. Why-”
Randall shrugged. “I would have found it hard to explain why, that’s all. Why I said no to my father’s proposal, that is. I rather liked him, you know. Or- well, I saw things in him that I liked. And I hadn’t any particular reason for wanting to stay here. I just…” Randall shrugged. “I had a kind of idea that he’d gotten the money for this little enterprise by doing something really rotten.”
“Like mortgaging the village, for example?” Crowner asked.
“Like that, yes. For example.” Randall stared blandly back at Crowner.
“Thank you, Mr. Grudge,” said Crowner. He rose. “I think-”
“As long as I’m helping the police,” said Randall, “I do have one more fact to contribute.”
Crowner sank back into an armchair. “Go on,” he said.
“My mother went out to meet someone on the night before the night she died. And before she left the house, she put on a particularly ugly pair of boots. I deduce from this that a) she wasn’t going to meet- well, anyone she’d want to look pretty for- and that b) she planned to go somewhere where the snow still lay on the ground.”
“At what time,” asked the Vicar, “would this have been?” Crowner glanced at the Vicar- and saw that his eyes were shining with a Detective Fever.
“She went out at about half past eight, sir.”
“Ah.” The Vicar nodded. Then he asked, casually, “and she would of course have been wearing her widow’s weeds?”
“Yes, she was.” Randall looked at the Vicar in puzzlement. The Vicar cackled.
“I don’t generally,” he said, “pass gossip along. I hear quite a bit of it, one way and another, but I don’t generally pass it along. But this, now- well!” He looked at Crowner. “Inspector,” he said, “Frank Valentine, the blacksmith, went to visit Mrs. Goodkind on that night. She is a witch, and tends to demand tribute from those whom she has benefitted.”
“Yes. Well, to go to visit Mrs. Goodkind, one takes a path through Yeoman’s Woods. This path passes near a clearing, which is named, picturesquely, Dead Man’s Clearing. In this clearing, Mr. Valentine saw – or so he thought- the Viscount and the Countess, engaged in a quarrel. Do you see? Widow’s weeds-” and the Vicar wiggled one hand, “-and widow’s weeds!” And the Vicar wiggled the other hand. “He could not hear any of the Countess’s conversation, but he did call out a greeting to the Viscount, and his condolences.” And the Vicar sat back, smiling gently.
“I see,” said Crowner slowly. “Yes. Yes! I see. But-”
At this point, there came a frantic banging at the front door. The Vicar stood up to admit his new visitor, but this was not necessary. The door flew open, and Sergeant Mug came puffing into the room. “Inspector Crowner!” He panted. “Someone up at the Hall has gone and poisoned that American! Doctor Brandwood says he’s like to die.”
Crowner swore. “I knew we ought to have gotten him out of that nest of vipers,” he said, “but I let Doctor Brandwood convince me he couldn’t be moved.” He was on his feet now, and hurrying to the door. “What was Constable Wilkins doing while Crabtree was being poisoned? Twiddling his thumbs?”
Crowner swore again.
“To be fair, sir, it looks as if someone put something in his coffee,” said Mug.
“I hope it was arsenic,” Crowner said, vengefully. “Let’s get up there before they kill off anyone else.”
And, quite suddenly, Randall and the Vicar were alone in the house.