Fire in the Thatch: A British Library Crime Classic

Fire in the Thatch: A British Library Crime Classic

WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY MARTIN EDWARDS The Second World War is drawing to a close. Nicholas Vaughan, released from the army after an accident, takes refuge in Devon—renting a thatched ...

About The Author

E.C.R. Lorac

E.C.R. Lorac was a pen name of Edith Caroline Rivett (1894-1958) who was a prolific writer of crime fiction from ...

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Chapter One

1

Colonel St Cyres stepped out of the French window on to the terrace and drew in a deep breath of frosty air, conscious of the exhilaration of a glorious December morning. He always felt better out of doors. In the open air the worries and irritations of life seemed less immediate, and he felt that he lost a burden when he closed the window behind him.

The prospect before him was one to give a sense of well-being to any healthy man, and St Cyres, still in his early sixties, was vigorous enough to enjoy the keen still air and the glory of winter sunshine. Beyond the low wall of the terrace the frost-rimed meadows gleamed and sparkled, sloping down to the river a couple of hundred yards below. On the farther bank the land rose again in a series of gentle ridges, meadow land, plough land, and finally wood land in the distance. Here and there a thatched roof seemed to be tucked into the comfortable folds of the rich Devon valley, and blue wood smoke coiled into the still cold air. Everything was agleam with hoar frost, scintillating in the level rays of a sun which threw shafts of intense light along the valley and made the swift-running river flash back the white beams.

Down by the river some bullocks grazed in the lush grasses which never fail in a Devon pasture. Colonel St Cyres chuckled as a couple of the lusty young beasts horned one another around the pasture—Red Devons, the famous Ruby beef cattle, snorting and blowing in their youthful vigour.

St Cyres thrust some letters into the pocket of his old tweed coat and hastened along the terrace towards the corner where a cluster of outbuildings stood against a larch coppice. In his other hand was a good crust of bread and he munched it appreciatively though with a shamefaced grin. He had done a bolt, he admitted it frankly; he had brought his breakfast to finish out of doors or in the wood-shed, and he knew just why he had done it.

“God knows why he married her, poor chap—but scent at breakfast is more than I can stomach,” he said to himself.

The “poor chap” of whom the Colonel was thinking was his son, Denis, now a prisoner of war in Japanese hands. Whether the Colonel’s epithet was due to Denis’s plight or to the wife he had married was uncertain, but Colonel St Cyres disliked his daughter-in-law as heartily as any well-bred man allowed himself to dislike a woman. The Colonel was a countryman. He loved the country and his own ancestral acres with an unquestioning tacit devotion. He liked country clothes and country ways, the smell of dung, the rich red Devon mud, the slow slurred speech of his humble country neighbours and the inconveniences of an ancient house set miles away from trains or bus routes.

June St Cyres was a Londoner. She had been born in a flat in Mayfair, and a flat in Mayfair was her ideal of happiness. She liked fashionable clothes and shoes, French cooking, modern dance music, and what she called Society. She used elaborate make-up, vivid nail varnish, and Coty perfumes. When Denis had been reported as prisoner of war six months ago, Colonel St Cyres had gone up to London to see his daughter-in-law.

“Come down to us, my dear,” he had said, “and bring the little chap with you. It’ll be better for both of you, and we’ll look after you and save you any worries and troubles we can.”

Full of kindliness and sympathy, St Cyres persuaded June to give up her flat in town and to come with her small boy to live at Manor Thatch.

June had acquiesced at first. She was lonely and frightened and in debt. June St Cyres was one of those young women who can never live within their incomes, but she was shrewd enough to know that she could live at the Manor without paying anything for her upkeep. Also, she could not get a nurse for small Michael in town, or any domestic help in the flat, and she was very tired of “the damned chores” as she expressed it. At Manor Thatch there were some old servants—and Anne could help with Michael. Anne was Denis’s sister, a sensible domesticated creature of thirty—though June always regarded her sister-in-law as a woman of fifty. Anne was a sober, quiet woman, who lived contentedly in the same tweed suit year after year.

June came down to the Manor, bringing five-year-old Michael and a mountain of luggage. She had been there for six months, and it was difficult to say who disliked the arrangement most—June or her father-in-law. Chivalry and a sense of duty prevented Colonel St Cyres from suggesting any other arrangement. With June, it was sheer inertia which kept her at Manor Thatch, coupled to money difficulties. She wanted to go back to London, but the rents asked for any habitation which she called “possible” appalled her. Everything was expensive, and service was unobtainable. Two or three visits to town, staying at the Dorchester, had not assisted her laudable intentions of paying her debts. Bored, grumbling, and discontented, June St Cyres continued to stay at Manor Thatch. Irritated, hurt, but never complaining, her father-in-law tried to keep the peace and to put up with June’s untidiness and laziness, her habit of keeping the wireless on all day, and her total lack of consideration for anyone but herself.

 

2

 

It was Anne who uttered the warning which sent her father out of doors before he had had his second cup of coffee.

“June is coming down to breakfast. I believe she wants to talk to you about letting Little Thatch to those friends of hers.”

Colonel St Cyres choked back his immediate exclamation of “Good God!” and said hastily, “Er…er…later in the day will do for that. I’ve got a letter from a friend of Robert Wilton’s…a naval chap, invalided out. Sounds all right…I shall be in the wood-shed if you want me, Anne…”

The wood-shed was the Colonel’s favourite refuge. He loved wood and he loved wood fires. At the moment he had two vast logs of ash—the split bole of an old tree—and he wanted to cut them up in his own particular way. “Ash green or ash dry, meet for a queen to warm her fingers by,” he murmured as he rolled the wood over to a convenient angle and considered the matter of driving a wedge in to split it. Leisurely in all his ways, he did not hurry. Having arranged his log and chosen his wedges, he lighted his pipe and took his letters out of his pocket. Anne’s sentence about letting Little Thatch made Colonel St Cyres anxious to consider the letter he had received that morning. Smoothing out the sheet, St Cyres read:

“Sir,—I am advised to write to you by Commander Wilton, who tells me that you have a small property to let—Little Thatch. I have recently been invalided out of the Navy on account of damaged eyesight, and I am seeking a small holding or house with an acre or more of good fertile land suitable for intensive cultivation. I aim at a market garden combined with an orchard and should be glad to keep a few head of stock if pasture is available. I am very fit and intend to work my own land, and I can housekeep for myself for the time being. If your property is what I am seeking, I should be willing to buy, or to take it on an assured tenancy of some years’ duration so that it would be worth while putting work and capital into cultivating the land. I have the opportunity of driving over to see Little Thatch to-morrow morning at 10.30. If I do not hear from you to the contrary by 10 a.m. I shall assume that I can be allowed to view the property. My telephone number is Culverton 79. Yours faithfully, Nicholas Vaughan.”

“Sounds just the sort of chap I want there. It’s a fine fertile bit of land, and though it’s out of cultivation now, it’ll pay anyone to cultivate it,” said St Cyres to himself. “I only hope he likes it…”

He replaced the letter in his pocket and picked up his mallet, aiming skilfully at the wedge he had placed to split his great gnarled log. He was only half-way through the job when the door of the wood-shed opened and a breath of Chypre wafted across the pleasant smell of wood shavings and sawdust.

 

3

 

June St Cyres stood at the door of the wood-shed, clutching her fur coat round her and surveying her father-in-law with puzzled eyes. The Colonel gave a start.

“Eh, what’s that?” he asked, as he turned to face the newcomer. His jaw fell when he saw June, but he contrived a kindly “Good-morning, my dear. Deuced chilly morning for you to be out. Better get back to the fireside.”

“I want to talk to you, Pops,” said June, unaware of the fact that her form of address irritated St Cyres almost to frenzy. “It’s about Little Thatch. I wrote and told Tommy Gressingham about it, and he wants to take it. It’d be a bit of luck for you, because Tommy’s got pots of money and he’d improve it no end.”

“Well, well. If your friend wants to take the place he’d better write to me in the usual way, and I’ll deal with his application along with any others,” replied St Cyres.

“That’s not good enough,” retorted June. “I won’t be put off like that.”

She had taken a cigarette out of her pocket and lighted it, throwing the match on the floor. St Cyres hastily stamped on the unextinguished match.

“Look here, my dear: I make a rule never to light matches or smoke cigarettes in the wood-shed. It’s too risky. There’s wood shavings and sawdust all over the place and if the shed catches the main thatch will catch too. It’s true I smoke my pipe, but…”

“Oh, all right,” she retorted, stubbing out her cigarette irritably. “About Little Thatch. I want you to let Tommy and Meriel have it. They’re my friends, and it’ll make all the difference in the world to me if I have somebody to talk to down here—somebody who’s interested in the same things as I am. I wouldn’t ask you to let them the place if there was any chance of your being done over it, but there isn’t. They’re well off, and he’s a good business man. I do so want them to come. Promise?” she begged, drawing nearer to St Cyres and rubbing her powdered face against his coat.

Roderick St Cyres had little finesse in his nature; he prided himself on being straight and saying just what he meant, and he answered his daughter-in-law according to his nature.

“I’m sorry, my dear, but I can’t make any promises of that nature. As I’ve told you, if Mr. Gressingham applies for a tenancy, I’ll consider his application on its merits. I can’t promise anything further.”

“But I don’t see what you mean,” she argued. “I’ve told you he’s wealthy, and he’s a good business man. Anyone will tell you I’m right—his banker or lawyer. You can phone up and ask them.”

“That isn’t the only point, my dear. As a landlord I have a duty to the land. It’s true that Little Thatch has been shamefully neglected. Poor old Timothy Yeo and his wife just let it go for years, but they were old and they’d lived in that house for quarter of a century. I couldn’t turn them out. Now Yeo’s dead I want to put in a tenant who will live in the house and cultivate the land.”

“I’ve told you Tommy will look after it. He’s got a lovely garden at his Surrey place.”

“Then he doesn’t need another garden down here. I’m sorry, June, but I don’t want to let Little Thatch as a wealthy man’s plaything, to be used for week-ends and kept for a toy. Little Thatch is a good house and a valuable small holding, and I want a tenant who will live in it and cultivate the land and be a responsible neighbour to me and to the farmers.”

“And what about me?” she burst out. “You talk about what you want. You don’t think about anyone else. Can’t you see I’m bored and miserable to the verge of giving up? My husband’s a prisoner, and God knows if I shall ever see him again. I’m poor and I can’t live the life I’ve a right to expect—the life I was brought up to. I’m stuck down here in this ghastly place, miles from my own friends, with nothing to do and no one to care about me. I ask you for this one small thing, so that some of my own friends can be near me, and you talk a lot of hot air about cultivating—even though I’ve told you the Gressinghams will improve the place. You’re only refusing me out of obstinacy, because you hate me and hate all I stand for. It’s mean and beastly and cruel.”

Colonel St Cyres stood aghast. He was a reticent man and June’s outburst horrified him. Something inside him told that the right way of dealing with his daughter-in-law was to administer a stern rebuke and to tell her plainly that she was a self-indulgent lazy-bones, but he was too kind-hearted to follow such a course. He protested gently:

“Come, come, my dear. You are being unreasonable. I am indeed sorry to learn your opinion of this place. We wanted you to be happy here, and we have done our best to make you comfortable and to give you a real home—to make you feel you belonged—”

“I don’t belong, and I never shall. You’re always criticising me and everything I want, and Anne looks down her nose at me. You don’t care that I’m miserable. You  all hate me. I loathe being here, and I loathe your beastly country with its mud and smells and beasts.”

She was working herself up into an even fiercer temper and St Cyres felt alarmed, but his slow-working mind was beginning to resent June’s unfairness. His voice was sterner as he replied:

“While I am sorry that you are unhappy with us, it is only common sense to point out that you are under no compulsion to remain here, June. I suggested your coming in the hope that you would find our home a refuge where you and Michael would be welcome to make your home—but if you are miserable here—”

“You don’t care how miserable I am,” she broke in. “You’re just content to live like cows or cabbages, without any ideas or any society or anything that makes life worth living, and when I tell you I’m wretched you just say clear out—as though I’ve got anywhere to go. I can’t bear it! I wish I were dead,” and with that she flung out of the shed running furiously over the frosty ground—running clumsily, too, for her high-heeled slippers were not made for frosty tussocks or cobbled yards.

Colonel St Cyres took out his handkerchief, mopped his forehead and blew his nose vigorously. “God bless my soul” was all he could find to say, and he was still saying it when Anne came into the wood-shed.

 

4

 

Anne St Cyres was very much like her father. She was tall and squarely built—too solid for elegance, but built for endurance. Her face was square, too, with a resolute jaw, low forehead and nondescript nose. Her eyes were her best features, wide-set, grey-blue eyes, happy and steady, and her mouth was full-lipped and kindly, but resolute like her chin. Her hair was long, drawn back into a plaited bun, waving prettily over her shapely ears. Anne wore an old heather mixture tweed suit—it was a good suit, but old enough to have lost its lines and become baggy. With her chestnut brown hair, russet cheeks and heather mixture tweed she looked almost part of the landscape, an appropriate sturdy figure, strong and competent. When Colonel St Cyres saw her, he said, “Thank God.” He always did thank God for Anne.

She came straight into the wood-shed and straight to the point. “June been having high strikes? I’m sorry for you, Daddy, but it had to happen. She’s been boiling up her grievances for quite a long time. All the same, don’t let Little Thatch to her friend Gressingham.”

“I’m not going to, Anne. I don’t like the sound of the fellow.”

“You’d like the reality even less. I’ve met him. He was in the Cocktail Bar at the Courtenay Hotel in Exeter when I was there with June the other day.”

Her father cut in: “Cocktail bar? That’s a new port of call for you, Anne.”

“Oh, I know,” she replied. “I ran June in to Exeter when I had to go to see about new tyres, and nothing would please her but cocktails and an expensive lunch. I loathe wasting money like that—but I’m sometimes sorry for June. She’s a fish out of water here. However, I was going to tell you about her friend, Mr. Gressingham. He’s just the type you and I dislike—oozing money, very pleased with himself, and inclined to be familiar on a moment’s acquaintance. Oh, I loathed him. He’s facetious and he called me Anne in the first five minutes—but I shouldn’t have minded that so much—we can’t all like the same people—only I wouldn’t trust him an inch, least of all with June. He’s got a wife, and June’s got a husband—and I just couldn’t bear the way he behaved with her. It made me hot all over.” Anne’s honest face had flushed deep rosy red, and her voice was distressed as she went on: “I hate myself for saying all this, and I shouldn’t have said a word to you about it if it hadn’t been that I know June is set on getting Little Thatch for Mr. Gressingham, so that she can be in and out of the place any time she likes. I just can’t bear the idea of it. You and I were both sorry when Denis married her, but since they are married—well, I don’t want any Gressinghams down here.”

Colonel St Cyres nodded, but he looked very glum.

“You’re quite right, Anne. I feel exactly as you do, and I want to do everything we can for Denis, poor chap—but it’s going to be difficult. If June takes this attitude about hating us all and being miserable we can’t very well keep her here.”

“Don’t take any notice of her. Leave her to me,” replied Anne. “It’s all very well for June to say she’s going away because she can’t stand us any longer—I’ve been hearing that for some time—but June likes her comforts, and comforts are costly these days. Let her simmer down again. Take no notice of what she’s said—you’ll find she’ll think better of it.” Anne laughed, a little bitterly. “I’ve no doubt she’s lying on her bed at the moment, raging furiously. I shall take her up a hot-water bottle and a jug of coffee, sympathise with her over her appalling headache, draw the curtains, murmur something about chicken for lunch, and retire tactfully.”

Colonel St Cyres chuckled, but he quickly sobered down, adding: “All very well to laugh, my dear, but it’s deuced hard on you. You get the brunt of it.”

“Don’t worry about me, Daddy. I’ve got a broad back and I can manage. Provided you and Mother aren’t made miserable in your own home I don’t mind dealing with June. She’s an idiot—according to our ideas—but I’m still sorry for her, partly because she is an idiot. She’s never done an honest hard day’s work in her life: she misses everything that seems worth while to me, and she doesn’t seem to have a friend in the world who values her for herself. I love Michael, you know. He’s a darling, for all that he’s a spoilt little brat, and he is beginning to improve. He doesn’t yowl nearly so much as he did, and he’s healthier. Look!” She opened the door of the shed and motioned to her father.

Michael, aged five, was playing by the pump in the stable yard, throwing bits of ice about, as George, the gardener’s boy, broke the crust of ice on the stone trough. Michael was very fair, with scarlet cheeks and blue eyes; muffled up in an old fair-isle scarf of Anne’s, tied over his head and round his neck, he was a picture of healthy childhood, very different from the white-faced little lad of a year ago.

“That seems to make it worth while, doesn’t it?” said Anne. “Denis will come back one day—I hope—and we’ll show him a son to be proud of. Don’t you bother about June. I’ll cope with her. Now I’m going to Leighs to look at those two heifers he wants to sell. They’re good stock, and we’ve lots of winter feed. Bye-bye, Daddy. Don’t worry—and get a good sound hard-working tenant for Little Thatch, and see he gets it into decent cultivation again.”

And with that Anne hurried off, shutting the door of the shed behind her.

Reviews of

Fire in the Thatch: A British Library Crime Classic

“Lorac (the pen name of Edith Caroline Rivett) liberally sprinkles the narrative with red herrings and fairly presents all the potential clues. Readers will enjoy watching the conflicts that arise between the wary country folk and the cocktail-drinking Londoners invading their habitat. In sum, this is jolly good fun.”

Publishers Weekly

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