The Man with a Load of Mischief

BOOK: The Man with a Load of Mischief
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Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

April 15, Letter from Melrose Plant to Richard Jury


June Dunnington Grimes


Kent Holland

Come here, my sweet landlady, pray how d'ye do?

Where is Cicely so cleanly, and Prudence, and Sue?

And where is the widow that dwelt here below?

And the ostler that sung about eight years ago?

Why now let me die, Sir, or live upon trust,

If I know to which question to answer you first;

Why things, since I saw you, most strangely have varied,

The ostler is hang'd, and the widow is married.

And Prue left a child for the parish to nurse,

And Cicely went off with a gentleman's purse.

Matthew Prior


utside the Jack and Hammer, a dog growled.

Inside, his view of the High Street obstructed by the window at his shoulder, Melrose Plant sat in the curve of the bay drinking Old Peculier and reading Rimbaud.

The dog growled deep in its throat and started barking again, something it had been doing intermittently for the last fifteen minutes.

Sun streaming through the cerulean blue and deep green of the tulip-design of the leaded panes threw rainbow colors across his table as Melrose Plant rose up to peer over the reverse letters advertising Hardy's Crown. The dog sitting in the snow outside the public house was a scruffy Jack Russell belonging to Miss Crisp, who ran the secondhand-furniture shop across the street. Usually it launched its barks from a chair set outside her door. Today, however, it had wandered across the street to occupy itself with the Jack and Hammer's frontage. It barked on.

“I direct your attention, Dick,” said Melrose Plant, “to the curious incident of the dog in the daytime.”

Across the room, Dick Scroggs, the publican, paused in his polishing of the beveled mirror behind the bar. “What's that, my lord?”

“Nothing,” said Melrose Plant. “Just paraphrasing Sir Arthur.”

“Sir Arthur, my lord?”

“Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes. You know.” Melrose took a swig of his ale and went back to Rimbaud. But he didn't get very far along before the dog started barking again.

“Actually,” said Melrose, snapping shut the book, “I believe it was the dog in the nighttime.”

Scroggs applied his cloth to the mirror. “Nighttime, daytime, I only wish the bleedin' dog'd stop it. He be driving me crazy. Ain't it enough me nerves are in a state with this murder over at Matchett's place?” Dick was, for all his height and girth, a very nervous individual. Long Piddleton's murder had him constantly looking over his shoulder and regarding any stranger who walked into the Jack and Hammer with suspicion.

It was the murder, Melrose supposed, that had put him in mind of Conan Doyle. Murder in fact was not nearly so intriguing as murder in fancy. But he did have to admit their own murder had a certain flair: the head of the victim had been shoved down in a keg of beer.

The dog still barked.

It was not the sort of bark one hears when dogs greet each other over fences, nor was it especially loud. It was merely maddeningly persistent, as if this particular dog had chosen this post outside the Jack and Hammer's window to stand sentry and deliver its canine message to the world.

Dick Scroggs threw down his bar towel and went to the row of casement windows just beyond Plant's table, fronting the High Street. Scroggs's wound out one of them and a blur of snow flew in around the corners. He shouted at the barking animal: “I be out there to kick your scruffy, bleedin' head off, just see if I don't.”

“How awfully un-English of you, Dick,” said Plant, adjusting his gold-rimmed spectacles over his fine nose and returning to Rimbaud. It was his fortieth-birthday present to himself: an early edition of
Les Illuminations
, for which he had paid a
ridiculous price, telling himself he deserved it, then wondering why.

But Scroggs's shouts had only exacerbated the barking, since the dog now thought it had got some attention and meant to keep it. Dick Scroggs threw open the door and went outside to show the dog he meant business.

Plant had managed to read partway through “
” when he heard Scroggs gasp: “My God, my lord, come quick!”

Plant looked up to see the publican's head framed in the snowy window. The face was gray and ghastly, a blown-up version of the gargoyle heads beneath the beam outside which gave the ancient building a quaint, ecclesiastical air.

Plant made for the door. Outside, he plowed through ankle-deep snow to where Dick Scroggs and the small, brown Jack Russell stood side by side, looking upward.

“Good God,” whispered Melrose Plant, as the clock chimed the noon hour and another clump of snow fell from the figure atop the wooden beam that jutted out over the walk. The figure was not the mechanical smith usually located there, whose hammer made simulated strikes at a forge.

“It's that Mr. Ainsley that come in last night, my lord. For a room, he did.” Scroggs's voice cracked hoarsely. “How long's he been up there, I wonder?”

Melrose Plant, ordinarily a man of extreme self-possession, was not sure how his own voice would sound. He cleared his throat. “Hard to tell. Could have been there for hours, all night, perhaps.”

“And no one seen him?”

“Twenty feet overhead and shrouded in snow, Dick.” As he spoke, another chunk fell, molten in the sun,
, at their feet. “I suggest one of us trot along to the station and get Constable Pluck.”

But it wasn't necessary. The barking of the dog and Plant's and Scroggs's attendance at this macabre affair seemed to have waked the High Street from its snowy sleep and people were appearing out of shops, in windows, down walks and alleyways. Melrose saw that Constable Pluck had appeared outside the station up the street and was dragging on his dark blue overcoat.

“And here was the missus,” said Dick with a hoarse whisper, “wondering if he be wanting a bit of breakfast.”

Said Melrose Plant, polishing the lenses of his spectacles, “I'd say it makes no odds to Mr. Ainsley.”

 • • • 

The Jack and Hammer was wedged between Trueblood's Antiques and a haberdasher's sensibly called The Shop, which only changed its window display of bits and pieces of threads, tea cozies, mittens, dribs and drabs of dry goods, at Christmas and Easter. Across the street were a small garage with one bay; Jurvis, the butcher's shop; a dark little cycle shop; and Miss Crisp's. Farther along, just before the bridge that spanned the Piddle River, was Long Piddleton's police station.

The pub had once been painted a rather distinct ultramarine. But its most unusual feature was the structure attached to its front and from which it derived its name: standing atop a sturdy beam was a mechanical smith, carved out of wood and holding a copy of a seventeenth-century forge hammer. When the large clock beneath the beam told the hours, “Jack” would raise his hammer and strike away at the invisible iron forge.

The beam was twenty feet off the ground, about seven feet long and two feet in girth, and it jutted over the walk below. The carved figure (now removed from the beam) although not life-sized, was not far from it. Originally, he had been painted into a bright blue coat and aquamarine trousers, but the paint was dull now, chipped and peeling. “Jack” was a favorite butt of jokes and horseplay, especially among the village children, who sometimes dressed him up and sometimes took him down. The wooden figure was treated very much like a rugby trophy, something to be carted away by delinquent boys from the nearby market town of Sidbury, and later rescued by equally delinquent boys from Long Piddleton. It was, in a way, the town mascot.

Just this past Guy Fawkes Day, several children had sneaked into the pub while Dick and his missus were fast asleep. They had gone up the back stairs and into the box room just above the beam outside. And they had lifted “Jack” from his supporting pole (from which he had been loosened by much tomfoolery
over the years) and carried him off to the graveyard of St. Rules Church and buried him.

“Pore Jack,” Mrs. Withersby had lamented from her post by the Jack and Hammer's fire, “not even a Christun burial, buried on the dog's side, he were, not even in confiscated ground. Bad luck it'll be all round, mark me. Pore Jack.”

Since Mrs. Withersby's oracular powers were somewhat diminished by gin, not many people listened. But bad luck it was. Just one night before the discovery of Mr. Ainsley's body, another body had been found in an inn less than one mile from Long Piddleton's High Street — the body of one William Small, Esq.

With word that a killer was on the loose, the villagers were sticking to their parlors and fireplaces, something they might have done in any case because of the snow. It had been snowing for two days all over Northamptonshire, all over the north of England, indeed — lovely, soft stuff, which mounded on roofs and settled in corners of windows whose leaded panes were turned to squares of gold and ruby by reflected firelight. With the snow coming down and the smoke rising up from the chimney pots, Long Piddleton looked like a Christmas card of itself, despite the recent murder.

On the morning of December 19, the snow had finally stopped, and a bright sun had come out and melted enough of it so that the cottages could be seen to be prettily, even lavishly, painted. The High Street, down to the bridge, was fascinating, or beguiling, or weird, depending upon one's tastes. It looked like it had been done by a convention of crazy housepainters. Perhaps bored with the usual limestone, in this limestone belt of Northamptonshire, they had gone rioting with ice-cream-parlor colors: a hint of strawberry here, of lemon there, and farther on, a glimmer of pistachio, and then a sudden splash of emerald. When the sun was at its highest, the street fairly glittered. Sunlight dyed the russet bridge at the end so deep it was almost mahogany. To a child, it must have been like walking between big gumdrops down to a chocolate bridge.

BOOK: The Man with a Load of Mischief
5.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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