Chapter 6 - Lilies at the Funeral by A.J. Hall
The words on the page swam before Dermot’s eyes, refusing to arrange themselves in sentences. If only he could finish this final report and be out of here, and not have to see this damnable place until the Assizes, if then.
“Excuse me, but would you mind if I join you?”
A fluffy, elderly lady wearing a pink cardigan was standing beside his table. The teashop, at this time in the morning, was crammed with elevenses-seekers. The seat opposite him appeared to be the only unoccupied one in the whole place.
He had come here by way of escape. Talking to anyone was the last thing he wanted to do. Yet manners demanded he offer her the seat. And she, unlike everyone at the station, wouldn’t insist on talking about that damned case — and not merely talking, damn them all, positively rejoicing about the outcome. With this old tabby, his nerves would be safe from further jolts.
“Please, be my guest.”
She settled herself with a great deal of commotion and apology, eyed the menu and, after some discussion, sent the waitress for scones (“plain butter, please, no jam”) and a pot of tea (“Indian, quite strong, and a thoroughly warned pot”). That task accomplished, she looked brightly across the table at him.
“Forgive my asking, but you are Sir Henry Clithering’s nephew, aren’t you?”
He concealed his shock. “I — ah, well, yes. But I —”
Dermot’s mind flicked back to yesterday’s half-finished, unfinishable letter to his uncle, consigned to the fire when he’d realised that the words he really wanted to use were unwritable:
What should a conscientious policeman do when his superior officer wraps up a case on a capital charge and you’re convinced he’s sent the wrong person for trial?
The old lady nodded. “I thought so. A very strong likeness! Sir Henry lives quite close to St Mary Mead, my own village. Such a distinguished man, and so truly clever. Very kind, too. Most generous with his time.”
He cautiously conceded that Uncle Henry was all of the above.
“But I’m running ahead of myself. My name is Jane Marple. I’m staying at the Vicarage here. And you, of course, must be Detective-Constable Dermot Craddock. Your uncle mentioned how pleased he was that you’d decided to follow in his footsteps.”
The waitress arrived, bearing a loaded tray. The business of pouring out tea and buttering her scone was not enough to keep Miss Marple quiet.
“Yes, you really do resemble him very strongly. I should imagine you two think very much alike. I do wish I could have known your uncle as a young man. He has the most fascinating stories from his early days — though many of them quite sad too, of course, in their own way.”
“Sad” was the last word Dermot would have applied to Uncle Henry.
“I’m sorry?” he hazarded.
“Well, detectives like yourselves do have such a difficult job, don’t you? There was one story he told me — now I come to think of it, I don’t suppose he could have been much older than you were now, and it was back — oh, a few years before the War, and the War changed so much — less so in country places like this, but nevertheless a great deal. For instance, I believe your uncle would have been one of the first public-school educated men to be on the Force. No doubt that caused all sorts of friction and awkwardness with his colleagues at the time, dear me, yes.”
Dermot blinked. Accustomed to Sir Henry’s glittering reputation being an albatross round his own neck, he had simply not wondered what it might have been like for his uncle, striking out across pathless territory.
Miss Marple nodded her head, as though satisfied he was following her.
“I didn’t like to pry too much, since it was clear this particular case was a painful memory for your uncle, but from what I could glean it involved the murder of a little girl. A most distasteful business.”
Distasteful! Dermot had worked on a couple of such cases when in uniform, and the Victorian euphemism made him want to laugh out loud. That, or punch something. Then he caught the cool, steady gaze behind the tortoiseshell spectables, and his rattled nerves steadied. Victorian language or no, impossible as it seemed, this white-haired, fragile old lady had experienced the depths of human evil, looked it in the face and known it for what it was.
“Well, in this particular case the little girl vanished on her way home from Sunday school. I don’t think she was missed until it started growing dark — it was summer, and everyone assumed she’d gone off playing with her friends. And it was only several days later that they found the body. It was in a quarry, half the breadth of the county away.”
Miss Marple buttered another scone. “Of course that seemed suggestive. The police search turned to carters, people with pantechnicons, railway freight depots and so forth. And — as so very often happens, particularly in a country place — public opinion lighted upon a man who had always been an object of general suspicion. Reuben Jenkins was a carter in the district, a rather simple, solitary man with a tendency to violent outbursts, particularly when in drink. People said he had beaten a dog to death.”
“But something like that — done in public, in anger — is hardly the same kind of thing as the surreptitious abduction of a child,” Dermot protested.
Miss Marple beamed at him. “Exactly so! People fall into types; in their bad deeds as well as their good ones. This must have required a great deal of planning and forethought. Quite the wrong crime for Reuben Jenkins! Besides, he was the sort of man all the children in the district were warned to keep away from. Little Emily-Jane would never have gone anywhere alone with him. And there was another thing. One of Emily-Jane’s friends at school, a little boy called Tommy, said all the older children at the village school had a sort of competition which of them would be the first to ride in a motor-car. Of course, they were very rare indeed in those days. What’s more, the very morning Emily-Jane disappeared, she’d told him she expected to win it.”
“Quite so. The thought struck your uncle at once. However, he met the strongest of opposition from his superiors. Not only were motor-cars rare, they were the prerogative of the wealthy and well-connected. And this was such a particularly sordid crime. Still, Sir Henry stuck to his guns — I believe he argued that the crime might have been committed by some chauffeur purloining his master’s car, and so all the cars in the district had to be ruled out.”
Softly, softly, catchee monkey had always been Uncle Henry’s motto. It occurred to Dermot he could do worse than adopt it as his own.
“After what was no doubt a large amount of painstaking work and, I daresay, some needless hostility from those who ought to have been more public-spirited, he happened upon a most promising line of enquiry. In a village about ten miles away from where the little girl had vanished there was a lovely Jacobean manor, owned by a couple in their sixties.”
“With a motor car?”
“Indeed. And a chauffeur — a free-spending, rather flashy young man. The locals’ name for him was ‘London’.”
Dermot winced. Miss Marple nodded.
“A telling insult, in a country place. Small wonder Sir Henry thought himself on the verge of a breakthough, especially when he found some odd scratches and damage to the car’s bodywork that the chauffeur couldn’t explain and seemed evasive about when asked.”
“But —” Miss Marple had described the story as a sad one. Apart from the intrinsic horror of a young life cut short, there would be nothing particularly sad in Uncle Henry’s arresting a flashy, unlikeable chauffeur. Dermot chose his next words carefully. “Had he an alibi?”
“Indeed he had. He’d been given leave to go to the funeral of a relative. An aunt, I believe, or perhaps a grandmother.” Miss Marple sniffed. “No such thing, of course. He’d been at a race-meeting; your uncle soon got to the bottom of that. Still, it didn’t help — an alibi is an alibi. Stronger, really, for the surface deception. Being caught out in the lie about the funeral would explain anything shifty about the chauffeur’s demeanour at once. At least, to the general run of people.”
There was something in her tone —
“Could he have let anyone else drive the car?”
Her beam suggested she saw Dermot as a slightly dense gun-dog who had finally grasped the command, “Fetch!”
“Indeed yes. It turned out the couple had a son — one of those ‘late blessing’ children. What’s more, he’d been down from school — he was in the Sixth — on a half-term visit to his parents that weekend.”
Dermot had a queasy sense he was about to discover that, in this case, the blessing was a very mixed one.
“After, I gather, the most tremendous argument, your uncle got leave to interview the boy. And the boy confided — indeed, Sir Henry said it was more of a boast — that yes, he had bribed the chauffeur into teaching him to drive, behind his parents’ back. He was, though, adamant that he’d not seen or heard anything of Emily-Jane, the day she disappeared. Not even when the search got up. He claimed he’d been off ferretting all afternoon.”
“Yes, Mr Craddock, I rather think you do. For your uncle, the most telling evidence was the boy’s manner. It was, Sir Henry told me, as like watching someone trying on clothes, to see which outfit fitted the occasion best. One moment haughty and dismissive, the next moment disarming and vulnerable. I’m sure you’ve come across the kind of thing yourself.”
Dermot recalled, abruptly, that last impossible interview with Julian Fleming. The tea on his tongue had the bitter, stewed taste of defeat. He looked up, over the rim of the cup, to meet Miss Marple’s steady, knowing gaze.
“What happened?” His voice seemed to come from very far away.
“Well, nothing, I’m sorry to say. That is, your uncle had no success at all in persuading his superiors that they ought to confront the boy with the scratches on the car paint and see what that got out of him. And then, of course, a few days later Reuben Jenkins was found drowned in the river —”
“Yes; it did seem a little too convenient but he was under a great deal of strain, and he was on his way home from the Black Lion, along a very treacherous bit of bank. In any event, I think there was a general feeling that however he got in the river, he deserved to be there. But that, of course, brought an end to the investigation. The village was satisfied that little Emily-Jane’s killer had been found, and, if he’d cheated the hangman, at least he’d not survived to gloat about it. And in that sort of case, of course, no-one would thank your uncle for stirring matters up. The case was closed.”
“That can’t have been the end of it.” Dermot had never been more certain of anything in his life.
“Oh, no. About five or six years later, when your uncle had moved on to another station, there was another case. A small girl vanished after Sunday school on a summer’s day — no-one looking for her until dusk. Your uncle recognised the pattern at once. While it was twenty miles or more from Emily-Jane’s village, it was no more than five miles from the old manor house. And this time your uncle managed to find a witness who had, a day or so before the girl disappeared, seen her talking to a man in a car. Still, without a body he could do nothing.”
“Well, then the War started. The young man from the manor was among the first to join up, and he was soon in France. Some time in 1915 an Army party, breaking ground for an encampment near a village about half way between where the two girls had vanished, came across a little skeleton in a shallow grave. There was some cloth — fragments of a pink cotton dress — and a charm bracelet. And at the very bottom of the grave — where you can imagine it might have fallen in and been overlooked by a young man digging a grave in a great hurry, in secret — was a cuff-link. A cuff-link bearing the arms of of the very Oxford college which the young man from the manor had attended.”
“So what did Uncle Henry do?”
“Eventually, he obtained leave to travel to France. Again, he encountered immense argument and delay before orders were sent forward summoning the suspect to Staff HQ for questioning. But he never came. He was killed leading a wiring party, less than an hour before he was due to return. And, once again, the case died with him. His parents dedicated a memorial window in his honour in the village church, and that, I’m afraid, was that.”
“And Uncle Henry?”
“What could he do? But I know his failure to prevent the second murder weighs very heavily, to this day. You see, it’s all too easy to talk about a murder, as if that makes an end of the matter. But a murder is such a terrible injury to society, it doesn’t only destroy the official victim but a legion of others — the victim’s family and friends, anyone who comes under unjust suspicion — Reuben Jenkins, of course — but, worst of all, perhaps, is the effect on the murderer himself. Once someone commits a terrible crime and believes he has got away with it, the effect on his vanity can only be described as diabolical. And if such a man also has money and influence, who can say how far the damage may spread, if it is not checked.”
Dermot would never have considered himself a religious man. But then, he had never before encountered a messenger of the Lord sitting in a chintz-laden Gloucestershire tea-shop, wearing a pink fluffy cardigan and eating scones.
He drew a deep breath.
“Miss Marple, I really shouldn’t be talking about this at all with anyone. The Superintendent will have my guts for garters if he hears I’ve breathed a word. But there’s something been troubling me about a case I’ve been working on at the moment, and I’d be enormously grateful for a second opinion.”
Miss Marple’s white curls bounced when she nodded. “Mr Craddock, consider me entirely at your service.”