Read an Excerpt
A C. D. Sloan Mystery
By Catherine Aird
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1975 Catherine Aird
All rights reserved.
Miss Cynthia Paterson considered herself something of a connaisseuse of a good funeral.
This had been born of long practice. She was the only child of a country rector and attendance at village funerals large and small had been part of her lot in life for as long as she could remember.
She was at one now, sitting in her usual pew in the great empty church of St. Leonard in the parish of Constance Parva in the county of Calleshire. High above her, in the church tower (late Norman, with Victorian embellishments), the funeral bell tolled at regular intervals. That was the tenor bell (cast in 1622), which was her favourite.
It had the words "Alfred bade me be wrought" inscribed on the metal, and when she was small—she'd been a ringer ever since she had been strong enough to handle a rope—she used to wonder who Alfred had been. There was something else carved on the bell too: something which she had never forgotten, although it was a good many years now since she'd been right up to the top of the bell tower.
I to the Church the Living call Too the grave do summons al.
In those days, of course, bell-ringing had been important. They'd rung the death knell when anyone in the parish died, accompanied by the "tellers" which gave the age and sex of whoever had passed away. There was nothing like that these days. Ringing wasn't what it had been when she was young—and that wasn't yesterday, either, as Cynthia herself would have been the first to admit. They didn't even always have the funeral bell at a funeral any more now.
This funeral was different, of course.
Gregory Fitch would have stopped whatever he was doing up at the timber yard half an hour ago. Then he'd have come down to the church and taken off his jacket in the same purposeful manner as he did everything else in life. She could visualize him now as clearly as if she'd been standing in the bell tower beside him: a sturdy countryman, with muscles thickened by the saw and the axe, to whom bell-ringing was effortless.
He'd have one eye on the clock, that was certain. A minute bell was a minute bell when Greg Fitch rang it. There was something else that was certain too, and that was that there would always be a funeral bell when one of the Fent family was buried.
Miss Cynthia Paterson turned her attention back to the church. She wasn't the only one sitting there even though she had been early. Being early for church was something else born of long experience. It had been one of the few things her father had insisted on, and old habits die hard. For forty years he had ministered to the parish of Constance Parva and read and re-read his books—and got to the church in good time.
She aligned her hassock with a deft hook of her right foot. Perhaps if her mother had lived he would have taken preferment when the opportunity came his way—but her mother hadn't lived and her father had stayed on at the rectory of Constance Parva while Cynthia herself had grown up and passed almost without noticing it into middle age. At the same time, with her father, middle age had slipped equally imperceptibly into old age and a Christian life had ended with a Christian death.
Which was more than could be said for him whom they had come to bury today. A Christian life, perhaps, but nobody could call it a Christian death. That didn't mean that the Book of Common Prayer didn't provide for it. The Prayer Book provided for almost everything you could think of—most of it in the Litany. If she closed her eyes now she could conjure up a vision of her old father intoning, "From lightning and tempest; from plague, pestilence, and famine; from battle and murder, and from sudden death ..."
She didn't mind being early. It was pleasantly cool in the church even though the hot summer sun was shining outside. The stained-glass windows on the south side of the church glowed warmly, splashing their colours all over the chancel. It was August. August, which the ancients called the death month, though she didn't know why. She would have to look it up. She still had all her father's books.
Her own much-thumbed, most-used book—her gardening text-book—decreed that in August the gardener could go on holiday with no worries provided that he has "mown the lawn, watered thoroughly, and asked a friend to pick the fruit and vegetables." Cynthia Paterson couldn't afford holidays but she did ease up a little from the professional gardening she did the rest of the year round.
Her various employers up and down the village didn't seem to mind. She had noticed before now that they themselves had slackened their interest in their own gardens by the middle of August—except those with the church flowers on their minds. They remained perpetually anxious; but not the others. April was the only month in the year when all her garden owners were uniformly troublesome—wanting, to a woman, horticultural wonders done by June.
She looked round to remind herself of who had done the church flowers this week. Marjorie Marchmont, she decided without difficulty. She would have known even if she hadn't been keeping an eye on Marjorie's garden all the year round herself, fending off her vigorous forays into the flower border and making up for her equally taxing periods of total neglect, when something or someone diverted her attention from her plants.
No two people arranged flowers in the same way—Cynthia had a theory that flower arrangements were as individual as finger-prints—and the definiteness of Marjorie Marchmont shone through the firm reds and bright blues and the manner in which they were packed stiffly into the church vases.
The church door creaked and another mourner came in. Herbert Kelway, village grocer and unctuous with it. Half-currant Kelway was what he was called behind his back—his scales never went down too heavily on the customer's side—and he'd been known to chop a currant in two. He always came to his customers' funerals—and he liked to be known as a provision merchant rather than as a grocer. Cynthia Paterson, who didn't like him, didn't think he would be either for very many more years—he was losing trade steadily to the big self-service stores in Berebury and Calleford.
Peter Miller came in hard on the grocer's heels. He was a farmer and not losing out to anyone. On the contrary, thought Cynthia dryly. Peter Miller's land, Fallow Farm, marched alongside the Fent property and Fallow Farm had prospered mightily under his go-ahead new management. She wouldn't be at all surprised if Peter Miller were thinking of buying an acre or two of Strontfield Park if he got the chance. He'd be lucky, she thought. Nobody had had a chance to buy any Fent land for generations—and it wasn't likely that Peter Miller would be any luckier than anyone else.
The bell tolled again and at the same time old Nellie Roberts came in. No funeral in Constance Parva was complete without Nellie Roberts. Her place in the church was strategic and her office that of messenger—the Greeks, Cynthia was sure, would have had a word for it. From Nellie's pew both the lich-gate and the approaching cortège were in full view. At the same time Nellie herself could be seen clearly by clergy and organist. Both were obedient to cues in the form of a nod of Nellie's time-battered straw hat.
At much the same time as Nellie Roberts took up her look-out station, so to speak, Cynthia saw Richard Renville and his wife, Ursula, enter. They joined Cynthia in her pew, Richard placing himself next to her, his wife on his other side.
"A bad business," he hissed in her ear.
She nodded, and whispered back, "Poor Helen ..."
Richard Renville pulled down the corners of his mouth in a quick grimace. "And poor Bill ..."
"And poor Bill," agreed Cynthia Paterson sotto voce.
Bill Fent of Strontfield Park who had gone to join his fathers.
Almost unconciously Cynthia Paterson tilted her head until she was looking at the Fent family tablets on the north wall. The thought, she decided defensively, wasn't as pagan as it first seemed. There on the church wall were memorials to his ancestors—there had been Fents at Strontfield Park long before anyone could remember—and now Bill's name would join those of his father and grandfather and all the other William Fents of Strontfield.
Her eye wandered over toward Bill's grandfather's name. He had died of pneumonia in the days when you did die of pneumonia. Cynthia could remember her own father praying in church that old William Fent would live through his pneumonia crisis—and he hadn't. Any more than Bill's father had lived to come back from Dunkirk in spite of all the prayers there were. Not, of course, that modern medicine—or peace—would have saved Bill Fent. He was dead before the ambulance got anywhere near him.
Everyone said so.
The other driver was still alive, though. The ambulance had rushed him hell-for-leather to Berebury Hospital. That would be a simile left over from the horse, decided Cynthia, her mind drifting away from the vision of Bill Fent, dead, to that of a man lying unconscious in a hospital bed.
And like to die too, they said, though on what authority she didn't know.
Her mind's eye could take in the intensive care unit at the hospital because she had been there on its opening day. She'd been invited because she'd been a collector for the hospital in the old days when two pence a week and an annual fête seemed able to cover all the running costs—and now she collected for the Friends of the Hospital for patients' comforts above and beyond the call of the Health Service.
What had struck her then about the intensive care unit had had nothing to do with the magnificent chromium and electronic equipment of which they all seemed so inordinately proud. It had been a matter of words. The words hadn't even been on a door. Just on the plan, and in very small print at that.
The non-recovery theatre.
She'd thought about those words since. There was one thing to be said for gardening as an occupation: it left the gardener with plenty of time for thought.
The non-recovery theatre was where they took the organs for transplanting from the patients who hadn't got better. It was medicine which was mealy-mouthed. Not the Church. The Church didn't go in for euphemisms. On the contrary. It rejoiced in plain words. There was nothing equivocal about those in the Order of Service for the Burial of the Dead in front of her now.
On the other hand, thought Cynthia fairly, it was medicine not the Church which went in for daring innovations like transplants—it wasn't all that long ago that the Church had stood in the way of medical progress. She—true gardener that she was—was all in favour of transplant surgery. Lilac onto privet had been her own first success ...
The church door creaked again.
It was all a bit like compost. Cynthia Paterson's train of thought was getting confused now but she knew what she meant. One of her own cardinal gardening principles was that anything that had lived once—be it paper, cotton, leather, wool—could live again as compost.
The creaking door had meant that someone else had entered the church. It was a woman and she found her way to a pew somewhere at the back of the church; but this time—for a wonder—Miss Cynthia Paterson, who knew everyone in the village, did not recognize who it was who had come in.
Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan recognized her.
Her name was Mrs. Mary Exley and Detective Inspector Sloan knew who she was because he had seen her before—the day before yesterday, to be exact. She had been at the inquest on William Fent and so had Detective Inspector Sloan. She had been sitting inconspicuously at the back, then, too. Part but not parcel of the proceedings, so to speak.
She was present at both the inquest and the funeral out of a strange courtesy. That was the only way of putting it. It was her husband, Tom Exley, who was lying at death's door in the intensive care unit at the Berebury District Hospital.
Inspector Sloan didn't need a second look at her to know that the poor woman could hardly have eaten or slept since last Saturday night when it all happened. He'd been in at too many deaths and bad accidents not to recognize the signs and symptoms—even if he hadn't already known that the inquest and funeral were the only two occasions that she'd left the bedside of the bandaged and betubed man—almost, so very nearly, a lay figure—that was her husband.
Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan (Christopher Dennis to his wife and parents, "Seedy" to his friends) was head of Berebury Division's tiny Criminal Investigation Department and in this capacity he didn't have to attend many funerals.
"You'd better go to this one, though, Sloan," his superior officer, Superintendent Leeyes, had advised. "You never know ..."
"Fire a shot across their bows and all that." Once upon a time, a long time ago, the superintendent had travelled briefly in a naval landing craft. From that day forward he had used the Navy's idiom as if he had been born to the sea.
"And take Constable Crosby with you. He doesn't look like a policeman. Nobody would ever guess that he was"—Leeyes, normally dogmatic beyond the point of contradiction, looked up in need of reassurance—"would they?"
"No, sir." Sloan had been quite firm about that. "Never. He doesn't look in the least like a policeman."
The trouble, of course, with Detective Constable Crosby was that he was inclined not to behave like a policeman either, and this was a worry to his colleagues in the Force.
"The funeral might fill you in on the background a bit more, Sloan." The superintendent had rubbed his hands together like an undertaker. "Nothing like a funeral for finding out who's related to who."
"A Will's better, of course. We haven't seen that, have we, Sloan?"
"Not yet, sir."
"Nothing on the books about him?"
"Just that he had a fire-arms certificate, sir. All in order. I checked. The local constable says he was a pillar of society down their way. Old Calleshire family, too ..."
Superintendent Leeyes had snorted gently at that. "Doesn't mean a thing these days.
When they're bad, Sloan, they're very bad indeed."
Gregor Mendel, the monk of Brünn, might have seen fit to agree with the superintendent.
loan certainly didn't.
He shook his head. "No, sir. Our chap out in the village—P.c. Bargrave—was quite happy about him. He was on the Bench, too, you know ..."
Leeyes's snort hadn't been quite so gentle that time. "All right, Sloan, all right, have it your own way. Either the deceased led a blameless life or death wiped the slate clean. Now, where does that get us?"
So far it had got Detective Inspector Sloan and Detective Constable Crosby precisely as far as the very back pew of St. Leonard's church, Constance Parva, just before noon on the morning of Friday, August 27th, for the funeral of one William Fent of Strontfield Park in the county of Calleshire.
The church door creaked again and again—and again. People were coming in more quickly now. Sloan caught a glimpse of the faintly familiar face of a local magistrate here and there, though he himself didn't ever have to appear before the particular Bench on which William Fent had sat—that was the Lampard one.
There were touches of decent black everywhere and a due solemnity about everyone's behaviour. All orders of society, noted Sloan, were represented—even, he thought ironically, the police.
Officially as far as the funeral was concerned they came in the person of Superintendent Bream of Calleford, who, if he recognized two plain-clothes members of the detective branch sitting at the back of the church, didn't reveal the fact by so much as the bat of an eyelid. Resplendent in the police equivalent of full canonicals—ceremonial uniform, gloves, cane and all—he too had come to pay a last tribute to one of Her Majesty's justices of the peace, dead upon the midnight the Saturday before.
Dr. Dabbe, consultant pathologist to the Berebury Group Hospital Management Committee, took a noticeably jaundiced view of road traffic accidents upon the midnight any night of the week but especially on Saturday nights.
Excerpted from Slight Mourning by Catherine Aird. Copyright © 1975 Catherine Aird. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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