The Reverend Dodd, Vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Cliff, stood at the window of his comfortable bachelor study looking out into the night. It was raining fitfully, and gusts of wind from off the Atlantic rattled the window-frames and soughed dismally among the sprinkling of gaunt pines which surrounded the Vicarage. It was a threatening night. No moon. But a lowering bank of cloud rested far away on the horizon of the sea, dark against the departing daylight. The Vicar, who was fond of bodily comfort, sighed with the profoundest satisfaction. Behind him a big log fire crack- led in the open hearth. A reading-lamp cast an orange circle over the seat of his favourite chair and gleamed, diluted, on the multi-coloured book-backs which lined most of the room. In the centre of the hearth-rug, placed with exact precision between the two arm-chairs, was a small wooden crate. The Vicar sighed again. All was exactly as it should be. Nothing out of place. All ambling along just as it had done for the last fifteen years. Peace, perfect peace.
He cast a final look out of the bow-window and searched the ink-dark road for some sign of the Doctor’s car. He glanced back at the clock. Twenty minutes past seven. Oh, well…still ten minutes to go before dinner, and the old rascal was never late. Trust Pendrill to be on time when it came to their little Monday evening ceremony. Neither of them would have missed it for the world. In an isolated village like Boscawen, of some four hundred souls, these old-established customs were meat and drink to men of the professional type like Pendrill and the Vicar.
The Vicar pulled the heavy curtains, shut out the omi- nous spectacle of what looked like an approaching storm, and settled down with the Spectator to wait for his guest.
Five minutes later he heard the swish of a car on the drive, a merry tooting as the car passed the window, followed almost immediately by the jangling of the front-door bell. The next minute Pendrill was shaking his oldest friend by the hand and complaining about the foulness of the weather. “Just in time,” said the Vicar jocularly. “I was just going to sample the sherry on my own account. Sit down, my dear fellow, and toast your toes till the gong sounds.”
The Doctor subsided with a grunt of pleasure and began to sip his sherry. “Anything new?” asked the Vicar.
It was always one of his favourite opening gambits in conversation. He found that it got people talking. Not that Pendrill ever needed priming in this direction. He could sit for hours and talk “shop” without ever displaying the slightest fatigue. “Oh, nothing much. The usual round. A cut hand, two rheumatics, a whitlow and a case of measles.”
“Fred Rutherford—one of your cherubic choirboys, I believe. Incorrigible lad. Always causing trouble in the village.” The Vicar’s chubby face broke into a benign smile. “This is more likely to cause elation—at least among the younger generation. I remember we always hailed an epidemic as a godsend when I was a boy. They closed the school.”
The Doctor nodded. He was always uncertain if he ought to allow levity where his job was concerned. He didn’t mind poking fun at the Vicar’s choir-boys and charity fêtes, but medical matters were a different pair of shoes. The gong throbbed melodiously in the hall.
“Ah,” said the Vicar, tumbling alert in a moment. “Dinner!”
He followed his guest’s angular frame on his own short waddly legs into the dining-room.
Later the Doctor returned, as was inevitable, to his own little world of stethoscopes and clinical thermometers. “By the way, I was forgetting. Good news for you this time. It looks as if you’re booked for a double christening.”
“Mrs. Withers—twins.” “Dear me—when?”
“Tonight. I’ve just come away. I left Mrs. Mullion in charge.”
“Twins,” mused the Vicar. “Very unusual. I don’t seem to remember another set of twins in the village since Mrs. Drear surprised us—let’s see? Six years ago.”
“Seven,” corrected the Doctor. “I attended.”
The Vicar smiled a little wistfully across the heap of nut- shells which were accumulating on his plate. “Still at it,” he said quietly. “Fifteen years of it and it’s all going on just the same. Births, marriages, deaths. Major events all of them. I suppose our more successful colleagues, Pendrill, would say we were wasting our lives in a backwater. Nothing ever happens here. Nothing! It all flows along at the same slow pace, though heaven forbid that I should ever see it changed! I love this spot, Pendrill. It’s my home—my spiritual home. I wouldn’t change my set of parishioners for any other in the whole of Cornwall.”
“Not even Ned Salter?” asked the Doctor.
“No! No! Not even Ned. Confound it, my dear chap, I must have one soul left to save. Otherwise what’s my job worth? I should grow fat in idleness.”
“Work,” commented the Doctor as they rose from the table, “seems to have left few ravages on your person. I should suspect a tendency to diabetes if I didn’t know you better.” They returned to the warmth and cosiness of the study where the Vicar threw a few giant logs on to the fire. He proffered a cigar-box. “Try one,” he urged. “Henry Clays.”
It was all part of the solemn Monday evening ritual. He always proffered Henry Clays and Pendrill always patted his pocket and said, that without disparaging the excellence of the cigars, he preferred his pipe.
Coffee came in. They sank into their arm-chairs, smoking with the replete comfort of two bachelors who have dined well and now bask in the mellow light of each other’s friendship and esteem. Presently with a negligent foot the Doctor kicked the little crate on the hearth-rug.
“I see they’re here,” he said, pretending to be quite casual about the matter.
“I think we’ve got a good lot this time. A very good selection. I took trouble. I always feel when it’s my turn that I want to cap the brilliance of your selection the week before.”
The Vicar made a deprecatory gesture with his hand. “May I?” he said, diving into his pocket and taking out a large, serviceable penknife. “Of course.”
With a leisurely hand, as if wishing to prolong the plea- sures of anticipation, the Vicar cut the string with which the crate was tied and prised up the lid. Nestling deep in a pad- ding of brown paper were two neat piles of vividly coloured books. One by one the Vicar drew them out, inspected the titles, made a comment and placed the books on the table beside his chair.
“A very catholic choice,” he concluded. “Let’s see now— an Edgar Wallace—quite right, Pendrill, I hadn’t read that one. What a memory, my dear chap! The new J. S. Fletcher. Excellent. A Farjeon, a Dorothy L. Sayers and a Freeman Wills-Croft. And my old friend, my very dear old friend, Mrs. Agatha Christie. New adventures of that illimitable chap Poirot, I hope. I must congratulate you, Pendrill. You’ve run the whole gamut of crime, mystery, thrills and detection in six volumes!”
The Doctor coughed and puffed earnestly at his pipe.
A division of the spoils was settled on and three of the volumes were passed over to Pendrill. These would be exchanged for the Vicar’s loot on the following Thursday. On Saturday night the whole six would be replaced in the little crate and returned to the lending library at Greystoke; whilst on Friday the Vicar would send off the list for the following week, culling his choice from the various papers and periodicals which invariably littered his desk.
For years the Doctor and the Vicar had indulged this vicarious though perhaps perfectly common lust for crime stories. It was one of the minor jokes of the parish. They made no attempts to hide their common admiration for those authors who, with spider-like tenacity, weave a web and expect the poor, harassed reader to disentangle the pat- tern and follow the single thread back to its original source. Meeting each other in Cove Street, say on Friday, their conversation would invariably go something like this.
From the Vicar: “Well, Pendrill, have you got it?” “Which?”
“The Three Toads Mystery, of course. The others were mere child’s play.”
Here Pendrill would wink and look knowing. “Did you spot it, Dodd?”
“No—I’m asking you.”
“I’ve a very strong suspicion,” the Doctor would then say with the air of a man who hasn’t a strong suspicion, but a certain knowledge, “that it was Lucy Garstein.”
And then a little gusty cry of triumph from the Reverend Dodd. “I thought you would. I thought so.”
And with the look of a man who harbours an immense wisdom, a sort of esoteric knowledge, the Vicar would amble pleasantly on his way to take tea with Lady Greenow at Boscawen Grange. Fancy old Pendrill being caught out by a simple red herring like that! The man was cracking up. He wasn’t up to the old form of the early twenties. These new, psychological twisters, full of technicalities, were proving a little too difficult for Pendrill. He’d have to be put back on a course of early Conan Doyle.
Perhaps the Vicar had actually assimilated the tricks of the crime trade a little more ably than his co-reader. He remembered odd twists from earlier books, tiny deviations in evidence, smart methods of detection, cross-examination traps, all the minute bits and pieces which go to make up the author’s paraphernalia in the writing of mystery stories. His head, now alas racing rapidly towards balddom, was crammed with the stock-in-trade lore of the professional detective. Often by the exercise of his very acute observation he surprised, even annoyed his parishioners, by sudden references to their movements on a certain day. Dear, no!— he hadn’t shadowed them. Nothing so crude. He had by the simplest methods of deduction put two and two together and made four.
But heaven forbid that the shadow of any crime should ever fall across the grey-stoned cottages, the gorse-dotted commons and cliff-girdled seas of his beloved parish. He preferred to get his excitements second-hand and follow the abstruse machinations of purely imaginary criminals.
The book ceremony over, the couple fell into desultory conversation. Most of it concerned the sayings and doings of the locality, for neither Pendrill nor the Vicar found much time for recreations and visits outside Boscawen.
“How about our local man of letters?” asked the Doctor, breaking a long silence. “I haven’t seen him about lately. Is he busy?”
“Very,” replied the Vicar. “Putting the polish on his war novel. Autobiographical, so Ronald confided in me when I met him last. Between ourselves, Pendrill, I don’t think that boy looks well. He appears…well, strained—distraught almost. I dare say it’s overwork.”
“Possible,” was Pendrill’s noncommittal reply. “He’s a highly strung type of fellow. The war, of course, played havoc with his nerves. But what d’you expect?—he was only a youngster when they sent him to France. It may take him years to live down the stress and shock of the war. This book may help him.”
“Get rid of the poison in his system—to put it medically. Purge his mind of accumulated phantasms. There have been cases…”
The Vicar nodded. He was thinking of his last meeting with Ronald Hardy on the cliff-path and how disturbed he had been by the boy’s white face and jerky movements. Boy, he said. But then, even a man of thirty-four seems young when one is nearing the last rungs of life’s ladder. A fine and sensitive type, thought the Vicar. A mind like steel which had bent and bent but never snapped. A typical product of those nightmare experiences which had hounded the life of the world’s young manhood not so many years ago. A pity, perhaps, that the boy had never married. He was the type which would respond favourably to feminine ministrations. He wanted looking after. He had the peculiar lost air of a man who lived so much in his work that the humdrum factors of existence both perplexed and annoyed him. There were rumours, of course. There always were rumours in Boscawen, particularly about Ronald. He had been looked upon as a figure of mystery and romance ever since he had settled in Cove Cottage two years ago. An author was a new species in the village. But, wondered the Vicar, was the rumour which coupled Ronald with Ruth Tregarthan based on anything more than mere supposition? He himself had seen them walking and talking together on a few occasions. But bless one! That was natural enough. Ruth was a charming, intelligent girl—a bit lonely perhaps living the “small life” in that bleak, old house with her uncle. Ronald was a vivid, entertaining talker once his natural reserve had been pierced. Somehow it seemed inevitable that they should find a sort of consolation in each other’s company. But beyond that…well, well…it might be something warmer than a mere intellectual interest—on the other hand it might not. His ruminations were cut short by a sudden exclamation. Pendrill was pointing at the window.
“Phew. Did you see that? Through the cracks in the curtain…lightning. We’re in for a tidy storm by the look of it.” As if to confirm his words a low rumble of thunder muttered, first in the distance, then rolled up and burst with a crash, seemingly over the roof of the vicarage itself.
“I’ve been expecting it,” said the Vicar, adding, after a contented puff at his cigar, “I’ve an unholy fear of storms, Pendrill. Not for myself, of course—but for my church. It’s so isolated and open. I can’t imagine what would happen if the tower collapsed and the Greenow clock with it. I always keep an eye on the ‘grandfather’ over there, my dear fellow, until the storm blows over.”
“Oh, reassurance. I look out of the window and set that clock by the Greenow one in the tower every day. Never fail to. When my clock strikes and the church clock fails to respond…don’t you see?”
“There’d be such an almighty crash…” put in the Doctor. “Clocks wouldn’t matter.”
“Listen,” said the Vicar.
Faint and melodious the Greenow clock chimed the hour, and the nine strokes which followed came thinly down the wind. Before the church clock had completed its task the Vicar’s “grandfather” purred like a kitten and broke into a jingling accompaniment.
The Doctor pulled out his watch and shook his head, censoriously. “Two minutes slow, Dodd. It won’t do. You’d better abandon your old-fashioned methods and set your blessed clocks by wireless.”
“Ah, this spirit of modernity,” sighed the Vicar. He countered his friend’s criticism with a hoary one of his own. “I’ll install a wireless set in the Vicarage, Pendrill, the day after I see you attending divine service. All these years and you’ve never yet had the decency to sit under me. There’s a sermon I have there…” He nodded toward the big, mahogany, knee-hole desk near the window. “A high-spirited and, I may say, controversial affair. I’m delivering it next Sunday. Now what about it? I have to sit here and listen to you talking medicine. Why don’t you return the compliment and hear me on religion for a change?”
“When you visit my surgery, I’ll visit yours,” contested the Doctor. “When I feel spiritually out-of-sorts I’ll come to you for repairs, Dodd. But until then I’ll remain—”
“An atheist?” enquired the Vicar maliciously. “An agnostic,” commented the Doctor.
“But, my dear Pendrill, don’t you see that there is infallible proof that God—”
And the next minute they were launched on one of their interminable metaphysical arguments. The Doctor dour and scientific—the Vicar bubbling over with professional enthusiasm and persuasion, throwing out his plump hands, shifting in his chair, pulling wildly at his unlighted cigar, even hammering on his knee when Pendrill refused, through pretended ignorance, to take up a point in the pro-Christian side of the argument.
Above their heads, as the argument progressed, the elements also seemed to be wrangling. Peal after peal of thunder rode in from the sea and broke high over the rain-swept coast. “Oh, I grant you that! I grant you that!” The Vicar was getting shrill in his excitement. “But why base all truth on scientific proof? What about Faith, my dear chap? Yes, Faith with a capital F. Good old early Christian Faith. After all Faith is the one essential…”
The Vicar stopped, as it were, in mid-air. His hand, half- way through an incomplete gesture, dropped on to his tubby thigh. The telephone on his desk was shrilling away with the maddening insistence of a trapped mosquito. Overhead another long peal of thunder rose in a furious crescendo and exploded with a cannon-crack.
“The tranquillity of our country Vicarages…” laughed Pendrill, as the Reverend Dodd eased himself out of his chair and toddled across to the ringing instrument. “England’s rural quiet remains one of the…”
“Please!” sighed the Vicar, glowering at Pendrill in much the same way as he would have glared at an incorrigible child. “It may be the Bishop!”
He took up the receiver. “Hullo? Yes. Speaking. Who? Oh, yes, he’s here. Urgent? Hold on—I’ll tell him.”
He turned with a worried look on his usually amiable and cherubic features and frowned at Pendrill.
“For you. It’s Ruth Tregarthan. She sounds upset, Pendrill. It’s urgent.” Pendrill snatched the proffered receiver as a further blaze of lightning stabbed into the room through the chinks of the curtains.
“I’m here,” he said briskly. “What’s the trouble?”
For the moment the Vicar stood in a furore of curiosity. What was it? What had happened? Ruth’s voice had sounded queer and—what was the expression he wanted?—horror- struck. That was it.
Then after curious staccato noises had issued from the phone, Pendrill’s voice: “Good God! I’ll come at once. Don’t do anything until I get there.” He swung round on the Vicar. “Tregarthan’s been shot,” he said curtly. “You must get on to the police. Ring Grouch and tell him to bicycle up to Greylings as fast as he can.”
“Tregarthan shot?” The Reverend Dodd stood in the middle of his study utterly bewildered. His puzzled eyes glinted strangely through the lenses of his gold-rimmed spectacles. Shot? Tregarthan? Poor Ruth. What a tragedy!
Pendrill had already rushed into the hall, shuffled himself into his overcoat and crammed his hat over his head. The Vicar called out to him as he flung out through the front- door to where his car was drawn up.
“Pendrill! It’s an accident, of course?” The Doctor’s voice came back above the hum of the car’s engine.
“Accident? No! From what I can make out from Ruth—of course, I don’t know the details—her uncle’s been murdered!”