Death of a Busybody: A British Library Crime Classic

Death of a Busybody: A British Library Crime Classic

Miss Tither, the village busybody, is not the best-loved resident of Hilary Magna. She has made many enemies: bombarding the villagers with religious tracts, berating drunkards, and informing the spouses ...

About The Author

George Bellairs

George Bellairs was the pseudonym of Harold Blundell (1902–1985), a prominent banker and philanthropist from Manchester who became the author ...

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Chapter I

The Body by the Gipsy’s Grave

The September morning which greeted the Rev. Ethelred Claplady, M.A. (Cantab.), incumbent of Hilary Magna (and Parva for that matter), made him want to leap and shout. “He slept till break of day and then he awoke and sang”, lisped the vicar to himself, flinging wide the casement, stretching out his thin, pyjama-clad arms as if embracing the whole scene, and standing on his bony tiptoes in a posture which suggested that he was about to launch himself into space. Then, expanding his narrow chest, he took a deep and noisy breath. The sudden inrush of tonic air made him light-headed and he reeled back a pace, clutching wildly at the edge of his dressing-table for support. Gingerly, he clawed his way back to the bed where, having rested himself, he disentangled his heavy, camel-hair dressing-gown from a confusion of blankets and sheets and, swathing his shivering body in it, mentally cautioned himself against overdoing his breathing exercises. Better go gently, one nostril at a time, as in Yoga. Feeling better, he pattered to the bathroom on the other side of the house. There, he tripped to the window again, closed his eyes and one side of his nose and gently inhaled to the accompaniment of uplifting thoughts. The result was remarkable, for on this wing of the vicarage the air was no longer champagne, but a veritable blast from Gehenna filled with death and corruption. Mr. Claplady’s eyes opened and closed rapidly and wildly, he snuffled like a dog exploring his favourite tree and hastily deflated his lungs, wrestling inwardly to eject the last cubic centimetre of the foulness he had drawn in, and then rushed back to the fresher side of the building.

All around nature spread her rich cloak of autumn colour. Viewed from the vicar’s bedroom, the trees of his garden and the adjacent churchyard framed a magnificent view of the flat fields surrounding the ancient church with its square tower and crooked weathercock; the trim lawns round the old house; cattle standing mutely chewing in the field beyond the hedge; a few rabbits sporting among the laden apple trees in the orchard; and the gardener with his head among the tops of the potatoes which he was disinterring, his huge backside protruding like some monstrous, black toadstool. Widespread fields of corn, ripe and ready for harvest. The whole scene gently softened by a thin mist although the morning was well advanced. The vicar sighed. On this, of all mornings, old Gormley, the general handyman of the village, had decided to empty the clerical cesspool. “And man alone is vile…” mused the Reverend Claplady to his image in the mirror as he shaved in the room to leeward. He hurried, as it was past ten o’clock. He had overslept through late work the night before.

The face which confronted him in the looking-glass was a puzzle to its owner. Day after day, for fifty-two years, the Rev. Ethelred had seen it over and over again as he contorted it and slowly scraped the lather from it, yet he had no idea what it looked like to others. His photographs, taken at parish garden parties, rummages, cricket matches, floral fêtes, when he held the seat of honour in the centre of the front row of his self-conscious looking flock, and the more formal portraits executed for the local press when he became incumbent of the Hilarys, to say nothing of that for his passport (in which he resembled a bogus clergyman fleeing from justice), always came as a shock to him. Somehow, he knew every feature; high, wide forehead with dark, thin hair brushed tightly back, brown eyes, rather close-set in deep sockets beneath bushy black brows, a thin face with a waxy skin and a bony, projecting chin, blue from a quick-growing beard and careless shaving. The mouth was large and generous and the nose straight and regular, a perfect figure 4 in symmetry and style, with wide nostrils and a pink-shot-purple hue, suggestive of indigestion. Funnily enough, Ethelred Claplady could have enumerated every detail of his face and even assembled them all like a strange jigsaw into something like order, but the resulting picture conveyed nothing to him. Every morning, as he confronted his reflection through a froth of shaving-soap, he puzzled over it. The good man’s musings on his own baffling image were interrupted by the sight of two familiar figures engaged in conversation in the field-path which skirted his garden. He could well imagine what was going on. It was Miss Tither, the village busybody, continuing her ceaseless campaign to convert Mr. Haxley, the local atheist, to the orthodox faith.

Miss Tither, “rather long in the tooth”, as the Squire described her, was about fifty years of age and had sufficient means to pay for the domestic help which released her to poke her nose into the affairs of everyone for miles around. She was scorned and snubbed by most, but carried on her secret investigations and remedial campaigns against vice and sin with abhorrent fortitude. The village quailed in fear of her. Husbands, raising their hands or voices against their wives, paused at the thought of her. Scolding wives pitched their nagging in a lower key, lest Miss Tither should be in the offing. The lecherous, adulterous, drunken and blasphemous elements of the population held her in greater fear than the parson and looked carefully over their shoulders lest she be in their tracks. Lovers in the Hilarys never embraced or kissed in fields or coppices under the open sky, but sought the dark depths of woods and spinneys for their ecstasies, lest the all-seeing Titherian eye light on them from the blue or through rifts in the clouds. The ungodly, unpatriotic, radical and dissenting sections of the community gave her a wide berth, for she clung like a leech when she buttonholed them, wasted their time, reviled the views they held dear, and made them wish to strike her dead. Her battle against what she deemed to be sin and shame, however, did not end in ferreting out offences. Had such been the case, she would merely have been regarded as an innocuous busybody, vicariously sinning. Miss Tither was a campaigner as well. Her weapon was her tongue, which she used like a pair of bellows, fanning a spark of a whisper into a consuming fire of chatter, a holocaust of pursuing flame.

From his place at his bedroom window, the vicar could only dimly recognize the distant figures, but his imagination filled in the details, especially those of Miss Tither. She wore a knitted costume which seemed to have expanded in the wash and hung on her bony, tall frame like a sack. The long, shapeless skirt drooped round her thin, grey-stockinged ankles; the sleeves of the jacket had been turned back to give freedom to her ugly wrists and long square hands and fingers, which flapped in energetic gesticulation as she spoke. Grey-streaked dark hair, untidily gathered and tied in a bun perched on the back of the head. From the mass of hair rose a black straw hat, a cross-breed between a bonnet and a straw beehive. A long, narrow face, with a good pink skin; firm, rounded chin; large mouth, with fleshy lips, the nether one projecting aggressively. Large, slightly protruding, cunning, grey eyes, set in dark circles under thin black brows and a broad, low forehead. The nose, however, was the dominating feature of the face. Long, fleshy and slightly tilted at the tip, with narrow nostrils. A sensitive, inquisitive organ, built for foraging and rooting, and always in a condition, judging from its colour and sniffing, of impending cold in the head.

Mr. Haxley, her victim, stood good-naturedly listening to her arguments. A stocky, rotund man, with a square face framed in a short, curly brown beard and with sparkling, grey eyes behind gold-rimmed, bifocal glasses. He was a man of means, although nobody quite knew where his money came from. There were dark surmises, of course, ranging from activities on the turf to dirty work in Buenos Aires, but the truth was that he had successively married and survived three ladies of property and lived on their accumulated fortunes. He rented fifty acres of glebe from Mr. Claplady for shooting purposes (it was good for little else), and twice a week could be seen prowling round with his gun and blazing away at sitting rabbits and perching wood-pigeons, greatly to the disgust of the local gentry, who dubbed him an unsportin’ bounder and passed him by with throaty noises and popping, bile-shot eyes. Mr. Haxley contended that killing outright a stationary quarry was more humane than scaring it into activity and then sending it squealing to cover with a shattered wing or a peppered rump. He was a well-read man, especially in theology. He never attended church, but relished an argument with the vicar, whose knowledge of and beliefs in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion he loved to prove and find wanting. Miss Tither frequently assailed him with tracts and pamphlets which called on him to Turn or Burn, Repent and Be Saved, Beware of the Wrath to Come, and Prepare to Meet Thy God. As the vicar watched them, Miss Tither took from her bag a fistful of papers, waved them excitedly and pressed them between Mr. Haxley’s well-kept hand and the gun he was holding and he accepted the gift with a smile and a courteous bow. The vicar descended to breakfast.

Having attended to his morning mail and pushed aside three bills, four begging letters, an advertisement for unbreakable celluloid clerical collars and a booklet on glandular therapy, the reverend gentleman rose, wiped the grease from his chin and the marmalade from his lips and set forth on his daily round.

He found Gormley shovelling metallic-looking slime from the cesspool into a wheelbarrow. The Parsonage Hinnom was in a ditch at the bottom of the orchard hidden by a screen of lush nettles and towering golden-rod, nurtured to gigantic proportions by the fertilizing refuse. The labourer raised a crafty face, sunbaked and framed in a fringe of shaggy whiskers. His small, cunning eyes shone venomously.

“That fellow did say you could drink the water if so minded,” he exclaimed to himself and spat in the drainage in which he paddled with no concern. This was a recurrent thrust, aimed by Gormley at the vicar every time the job was done. The glib-tongued cesspool salesman who sold Mr. Claplady the outfit had sworn that it would totally consume any solid or liquid meal imposed on it, leaving, as the only by-product, a stream of pure water and the good man had taken him at his word, in spite of the doubts expressed in very forthright language by Isaiah Gormley. This ignoring of his counsel, which was paramount to all in his teeming family circle except his principal daughter-in-law, added to the failure of the scheme which necessitated Gormley’s descending into the miniature Tophet to clear it every six months, was a standing grievance. The vicar was, on this morning, however, in no mood to bandy words.

“Get on with your work, Isaiah. Every time a sheep baahs, it loses a bite, you know,” he said, and then more sternly, “I wish too, that you’d see that the wind is blowing away from the vicarage when you decide to clear out this place. Most unhealthy and unpleasant with the wind in the south-west. Most unpleasant.”

“There’s nuttin’ healthier for man or beast,” came the voice of the aged one from below ground, and his voice, echoed by the metal tank, took on the brassy resonance of some hidden oracle. “Makes things thrive and grow,” boomed out from the earth, as though the cesspool itself were trumpeting its claim to virtue.

“Don’t talk nonsense, Gormley, and get on with it,” said Mr. Claplady and passed on.

There was a scuffling in the ditch and the angry face and then the indignant body of Isaiah emerged. No furriner was going to tell him what was right or wrong about prevailing winds and odours in his native village, not even the vicar. In dudgeon, he covered up the sewage-hole with its metal plates, stamped angrily on them, left the job half finished and stumped off in the direction of the village pub. He was going on strike!

Mr. Claplady, unaware of Gormley’s defection, passed on to his pastoral duties. He had a call to make at the church and then sick visiting to attend to. He was ruffled at Gormley’s impudence and to clear his mind, adopted a mental device which he erroneously thought he had invented himself, of concentrating on and reciting aloud the first piece of poetry that came into his mind.

I remember, I remember
The house where I was born…

muttered Mr. Claplady as he moved to the centre of the village of Hilary Magna.

Sick missioning did not take Mr. Claplady long that day. His principal client was Mr. Allnutt, grocer and vicar’s warden, now laid low with lumbago. The shopkeeper was cantankerous and gave his father-confessor short shrift, for he was champing at the bit in his bedroom over the shop, listening to the ceaseless tinkle of the bell over the door below, wondering whether his assistant was relaxing in matters of weights and measures and slacking or indulging in dalliance with the girls of the village. Mr. Claplady made a speedy exit, overcome by the reek of liniment and rubbing-bottles.

In the High Street, the parson encountered the daughter-in-law of Isaiah Gormley, a lazy, prolific woman, five of whose six children had been removed to the isolation hospital, suffering from the prevailing epidemic of scarlet fever. She was standing in the doorway of a small cottage, suckling her latest arrival from a copious breast. She wore a glazed, ecstatic look, her hair was unkempt, her face dirty and her house filthy. Lutulentus sus came wilfully into the good man’s mind as he remembered the reference being made to his own untidy desk and copy-books by his Latin master in student days.

Mrs. Gormley, junior, was chattering.

“It’s an ill wind, I allus sez,” she clattered on, half choking her infant by pressing the flowing fount over its face. “A perfect ’oliday fer me, it is. I doan’t know I’m alive with the five of them away…not that I doan’t miss ’em. But I ’ope they doan’t come back too quick. An ’oliday it is for them, too.”

Mr. Claplady retreated feeling depressed. All his efforts to improve conditions of life and thought in the village by lectures, literature and sermons, seemed to fall on stony ground. But he must not despair. No, he must cast despond from his mind. Again, he applied his little remedy of reciting to himself the first line of poetry that entered his head.

They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshid gloried and drank deep,
And Bahram, the great Hunter, the wild Ass
Stamps o’er his Head, but cannot break his Sleep.

Suddenly realizing with horror, this scrap of infidelity flung up by his mind, the vicar turned his thoughts elsewhere, to Gormley, whom he thought still engaged in his noisome labours.

Isaiah was not far away. As the parson left the cottage of his son, his dirty, bearded face appeared round the side of the house. His daughter-in-law’s complacency left her.

“Wot you doin’ ’ere this time o’ day?” she yelled. “Ain’t you got a full day’s work along o’ the vicar’s drain…?”

Old Gormley quailed. He was afraid of his son’s wife.

“I bin an’ gone on strike, I ’ave. Nobody, not even parson, be goin’ to critikize the work I be doin’. I give it up and left ’un to do it ’isself.”

He bared his toothless gums at this idea of a joke. Mrs. Gormley, junior, shrieked, but not with mirth. The smell of ale was on the air around the old curmudgeon, too.

“Strike, did yer say, yer hidle, lazy, boozy old gufernuttin. As if I ’adn’t enough mouths to feed on Joe’s wage, without you spongin’ on me fer meat and drink. Get you back to work an’ quick about it, an’ doan’t you go playin’ and gossupping on the way. Either you pays me the five bob vicar promised when you comes by it tonight, or else you finds bed and board elsewhere. No room fer scroungin’ old dodgers at this ’ouse. So be off with yer…”

Before the tirade subsided, Gormley was off across the field to the vicarage again. Anywhere for refuge from the searing tongue. The squealing of his barrowwheel died away in the distance. Gormley had another reason for hurrying. Ahead of him he recognized the figure of the vicar, making for the short cut to his house through the churchyard, over the wall of which lay the cesspool. He must have the lid off and be making a show of working before Mr. Claplady reached him. Otherwise, he might get the sack and then, no five shillings and…He broke into a shambling trot, his barrow leaping over stones in the field-path.

Meanwhile, the vicar, meditating and serene again, had reached God’s acre and was almost within the range of the savoury smell of the roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and apple-dumplings cooking for his lunch, when a thought struck him. In unconsecrated ground by the churchyard hedge, overlooking the terminus of the vicarage drainage-system, stood a gipsy’s grave, marked by a large stone erected by the Romanies in honour of their lost queen. Prior to Mr. Claplady’s arrival in Hilary, it bore, unchallenged, a strange inscription.

Darker and darker the black shadows fall.
Death and oblivion reign over all.

On entering his new field of labour, the good man had been shocked at the dark, hopeless sentiments allowed to exist in the memorial rhyme. He made up his mind to remedy the evil at once, but pressure of other things had deferred it. Last week, however, he had, at his own expense, instructed the stone mason to carve a remedial line on the slab, which now stood out, white and clear, in contrast to the old lettering. “Till the day break and the shadows flee away.” The vicar read his handiwork with relish. It lifted his thoughts from the commonplace difficulties of the present and pinned them on the future. His soul seemed to take wings and soar.

A wild cry brought Mr. Claplady to earth. It was a mixture between the bellow of a bull isolated from his herd, and the groan of a boxer punched in the wind. The vicar peered over the hedge whence the sound had come. Old Gormley stood there, rooted to the spot, beside the tank, the cover of which he had just removed. Perceiving the head of the parson poking over the bushes, he pointed a horny finger at the object he had laid bare. It lay like a sack in the cess-pool, face downwards, arms outspread. No need to tell Mr. Claplady what or who it was. The ill-fitting, knitted costume was enough. The vicar uttered a choking scream, which he stifled half-way by putting his hand over his mouth.

“Stay there, touch nothing and let nobody come near,” he squealed at Gormley. Then, gathering up his cassock, he ran to the village by the nearest route, stumbling, gasping and clutching his skirts, like an eager entrant in the sack-race at the sports of his Band of Hope.

Reviews of

Death of a Busybody: A British Library Crime Classic

“…Bellairs’ dryly ceremonious wit, which shines from the very first page, helps explain why Anthony Berkeley, aka Francis Iles, was such a fan 75 years ago.”

Kirkus Reviews

“This British Library Crime Classics reissue brings back George Bellairs, who was extremely popular during Britain’s golden age of detective fiction. Fascinating period detail from the blackout days, a plot that keeps surprising, and contemporary crime novelist Martin Edwards’ insightful introduction add to the fun.”