Read Death of a Fool Online

Authors: Ngaio Marsh

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #det_classic, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural, #Police, #England, #Alleyn; Roderick (Fictitious character)

Death of a Fool (5 page)

BOOK: Death of a Fool

“Why, Ernie!” Camilla said, “you poor old thing.”

He broke into an angry torrent of speech, but so confusedly and in such a thickened dialect that she had much ado to understand him. He was raging against his father. His father, it seemed, had been saying all the week that the dog was unhealthy and ought to be put down. Ernie had savagely defied him and had kept clear of the forge, taking the dog with him up and down the frozen lanes. This morning, however, the dog had slipped away and gone back to the forge. The Guiser, finding it lying behind the smithy, had shot it there and then. Ernie had heard the shot. Camilla pictured him, blundering through the trees, whimpering with anxiety. His father met him with his gun in his hand and told him to take the carcass away and bury it. At this point, Ernie’s narrative became unintelligible. Camilla could only guess at the scene that followed. Evidently, Chris had supported his father, pointing out that the dog was indeed in a wretched condition and that it had been from motives of kindness that the Guiser had put it out of its misery. She supposed that Ernie, beside himself with rage and grief, had thereupon carried the body to the wood.

“It’s God’s truth,” Ernie was saying, as he rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands and became more coherent, “I tell ’e, it’s God’s truth I’ll be quits with ’im for this job. Bad ’e is: rotten bad and so grasping and cruel’s a blasted li’l old snake. Done me down at every turn: a murdering thief if ever I see one. Cut down in all the deathly pride of his sins, ’e’ll be, if Doctor knows what he’m talking about.”

“What on earth do you mean?” cried Camilla.

“I be a betterer guiser nor him. I do it betterer nor him: neat as pin on my feet and every step a masterpiece. Doctor reckons he’ll kill hisself. By God, I hope ’e does.”

“Ernie! Be quiet. You don’t know what you’re saying. Why do you want to do the Fool’s act? It’s an Old Man’s act. You’re a Son.”

Ernie reached out his hand. With a finnicky gesture of his flat red thumb and forefinger, he lifted the tip of his dead dog’s tail. “I got the fancy,” he said, looking at Camilla out of the corners of his eyes, “to die and be rose up agin. That’s why.”

Camilla thought, “No, honestly, this is
mummerset.” She said, “But that’s just an act. It’s just an old dance-play. It’s like having mistletoe and plum-pudding. Nothing else happens, Ernie. Nobody dies.”

Ernie twitched the sacking off the body of his dog. Camilla gave a protesting cry and shrank away.

“What’s thik, then?” Ernie demanded. “Be thik a real dead corpse or bean’t it?”

“Bury it!” Camilla cried out. “Cover it up, Ernie, and forget it. It’s horrible.”

She felt she could stand no more of Ernie and his dog. She said, “I’m sorry. I can’t help you,” and walked on past him and along the path to the smithy. With great difficulty she restrained herself from breaking into a run. She felt sick.

The path came out at a clearing near the lane and a little above the smithy.

A man was waiting there. She saw him at first through the trees and then, as she drew nearer, more clearly.

He came to meet her. His face was white and he looked, she couldn’t help feeling, wonderfully determined and romantic.

“Ralph!” she said, “you mustn’t! You promised. Go away, quickly.”

“I won’t. I can’t, Camilla. I saw you go into the copse, so I hurried up and came round the other way to meet you. I’m sorry, Camilla. I just couldn’t help myself, and, anyway, I’ve decided it’s too damn silly not to. What’s more, there’s something I’ve got to say.”

His expression changed. “Hi!” he said. “Darling, what’s up? I haven’t frightened you, have I? You look frightened.”

Camilla said with a little wavering laugh, “I know it sounds the purest corn, but I’ve just seen something beastly in the copse and it’s made me feel sick.”

He took her hands in his. She would have dearly liked to put her head on his chest. “What did you see, poorest?” asked Ralph.

“Ernie,” she said, “with a dead dog and talking about death.”

She looked up at him and helplessly began to cry. He gave an inarticulate cry and gathered her into his arms.

A figure clad in decent blacks came out of the smithy and stood transfixed with astonishment and rage. It was the Guiser.

On the day before Sword Wednesday, Dame Alice ordered her septuagenarian gardener to take his slasher and cut down a forest of dead thistles and briar that poked up through the snow where the Dance of the Five Sons was to be performed. The gardener, a fearless Scot with a will of iron and a sour disposition, at once informed her that the slasher had been ruined by unorthodox usage. “Dame,” he said, for this was the way he chose to address his mistress, “it canna be. I’ll no soil ma hands nor scald ma temper nor lay waste ma bodily health wi’ any such matter.”

“You can sharpen your slasher, man.”

“It should fetch the blush of shame to your countenance to ask it.”

“Send it down to William Andersen.”

“And get insultit for ma pains? Yon godless old devil’s altogether sunkit in heathen clamjamperies.”

“If you’re talkin’ about Sword Wednesday, MacGlashan, you’re talkin’ bosh. Send down your slasher to the forge. If William’s too busy one of the sons will do it.”

“I’ll hae nane but the smith lay hands on ma slasher. They’d ruin it. Moreover, they are as deep sunk in depravity as their auld mon.”

“Don’t you have sword dances in North Britain?”

“I didna come oot here in the caud at the risk o’ ma ane demise to be insultit.”

“Send the slasher to the forge and get the courtyard cleared. That will do, MacGlashan.”

In the end, the slasher was taken down by Dulcie Mardian, who came back with the news that the Guiser was away for the day. She had given the slasher to Ernie with strict instructions that his father, and nobody else, was to sharpen it.

“Fancy, Aunt Akky, it’s the first time for twenty years that William has been to Biddlefast. He got Dan Andersen to drive him to the bus. Everyone in the village is talking about it and wondering if he’s gone to see Stayne and Stayne about his Will. I suppose Ralph would know.”

“He’s lucky to have somethin’ to leave. I haven’t and you might as well know it, Dulcie.”

“Of course, Aunt Akky. But everybody says old William is really rich as possible. He hides it away, they say, like a miser. Fancy!”

“I call it shockin’ low form, Dulcie, listenin’ to village gossip.”

“And, Aunt Akky, that German woman is still at the Green Man. She tries to pump everybody about the Five Sons.”

“She’ll be nosin’ up here to see it. Next thing she’ll be startin’ some beastly guild. She’s one of those stoopid women who turn odd and all that in their fifties. She’ll make a noosance of herself.”

“That’s what the Old Guiser says, according to Chris.”

“He’s perfectly right. William Andersen is a sensible fellow.”

“Could you turn her away, Aunt Akky, if she comes?”

Dame Alice merely gave an angry snap of her false teeth. “Is that young woman still at the Green Man?” she demanded.

“Do you mean William Andersen’s grand-daughter?”

“Who the deuce else should I mean?”

“Yes, she is. Everyone says she’s awfully nice and — well — you know —”

“If you mean she’s a ladylike kind of creeter, why not say so?”

“One doesn’t say that, somehow, nowadays, Aunt Akky.”

“More fool you.”

“One says she’s a ‘lidy.’ ”

“Nimby-pimby shilly-shallyin’ and beastly vulgar into the bargain. Is the gel more of a Campion than an Andersen?”

“She’s got quite a look of her mother, but, of course, Ned Campion brought her up as a Campion. Good schools and all that. She went to that awfully smart finishing school in Paris.”

“And learnt a lot more than they bargained for, I daresay. Is she keepin’ up with the smithy?”

“She’s quite cultivating them, it seems, and everybody says old William, although he pretends to disapprove, has really taken a great fancy to her. They say that she seems to like being with them. I suppose it’s the common side coming out.”

“Lor’, what a howlin’ snob you are, Dulcie. All the more credit to the gel. But I won’t have Ralph gettin’ entangled.”

“What makes you think —”

Dame Alice looked at her niece with contempt. “His father told me. Sam.”

“The rector?” Dulcie said automatically.

“Yes, he’s the rector, Dulcie. He’s also your brother-in-law. Are you goin’ potty? It seems Ralph was noticed with the gel at Sandown and all that. He’s been payin’ her great ’tention. I won’t have it.”

“Have you spoken to Ralph, Aunt Akky?”

“ ’Course I have. ’Bout that and ‘bout somethin’ else,” said Dame Alice with satisfaction, “that he didn’t know I’d heard about. He’s a Mardian, is Master Ralph, if his mother
marry a parson. Young rake.”

Dulcie looked at her aunt with a kind of dim, watery relish. “Goodness!” she said, “is Ralph a rake, Aunt Akky?”

“Oh, go and do yer tattin’,” said Dame Alice contemptuously, “you old maiden.”

But Dulcie paid little attention to this insult. Her gaze had wandered to one of the many clocks in her aunt’s drawing-room.

“Sword Wednesday to-morrow,” she said romantically, “and in twenty-four hours they’ll be doing the Dance of the Five Sons. Fancy!”

Their final practice over, the eight dancers contemplated each other with the steady complacency of men who have worked together in a strenuous job. Dr. Otterly sat on an upturned box, laid his fiddle down and began to fill his pipe.

“Fair enough,” said old William. “Might be better, mind.” He turned on his youngest son. “You, Ernie,” he said, “you’m Whiffler, as us all knows to our cost. But that don’t say you’m topper-most item. Altogether too much boistrosity in your whiffling. No need to lay about like a madman. Show me your sword.”

“No, I won’t, then,” Ernie said. “Thik’s mine.”

“Have you been sharpening up again? Come on. Have you?”

“Thik’s a sword, bean’t ’er?”

Ernie’s four brothers began to expostulate with him. They pointed out, angrily, that the function of the whiffler was merely to go through a pantomime of making a clear space for the dance that was to follow. His activities were purest make-believe. Ralph and Dr. Otterly joined in to point out that in other countries the whiffling was often done with a broom, and that Ernie, laying excitedly about him with a sword which, however innocuous at its point, had been made razor-sharp further down, was a menace at once to his fellow mummers and to his audience. All of them began shouting. Mrs. Bünz, at her lonely vigil outside the window, hugged herself in ecstasy. It was the ritual of purification that they shouted about. Immensely and thrillingly, their conversation was partly audible and entirely up her street. She died to proclaim her presence, to walk in, to join, blissfully, in the argument.

Ernie made no answer to any of them. He stared loweringly at his father and devotedly at Simon Begg, who merely looked bored and slightly worried. At last, Ernie, under pressure, submitted his sword for examination and there were further ejaculations. Mrs. Bünz could see it, a steel blade, pierced at the tip. A scarlet ribbon was knotted through the hole.

“If one of us ’uns misses the strings and catches hold be the blade,” old Andersen shouted, “as a chap well might in the heat of his exertions, he’d be cut to the bloody bone. Wouldn’t he, Doctor?”

“And I’m the chap to do it,” Chris roared out. “I come next, Ern. I might get me fingers sliced off.”

“Not to mention my yed,” his father added.

“Here,” Dr. Otterly said quietly, “let’s have a squint at it.”

He examined the sword and looked thoughtfully at its owner. “Why,” he asked, “did you make it so sharp, boy?”

Ernie wouldn’t answer. He held out his hand for the sword. Dr. Otterly hesitated and then gave it to him. Ernie folded his arms over it and backed away cuddling it. He glowered at his father and muttered and shuffled.

“You damned dunderhead,” old William burst out, “hand over thik rapper. Come on. Us’ll take the edge off of it afore you gets loose on it again. Hand it over.”

“I won’t, then.”

“You will!”

“Keep off of me.”

Simon Begg said, “Steady, Ern. Easy does it.”

“Tell him not to touch me, then.”

“Naow, naow, naow!” chanted his brothers.

“I think I’d leave it for the moment, Guiser,” Dr. Otterly said.

“Leave it! Who’s boss hereabouts! I’ll not leave it, neither.”

He advanced upon his son. Mrs. Bünz, peering and wiping away her breath, wondered, momentarily, if what followed could be yet another piece of histrionic folklore. The Guiser and his son were in the middle of her peep show, the other Andersens out of sight. In the background, only partially visible, their faces alternately hidden and revealed by the leading players, were Dr. Otterly, Ralph and Simon Begg. She heard Simon shout, “Don’t be a fool!” and saw rather than heard Ralph admonishing the Guiser.

Then, with a kind of darting movement, the old man launched himself at his son. The picture was masked out for some seconds by the great bulk of Dan Andersen. Then arms and hands appeared, inexplicably busy. For a moment or two, all was confusion. She heard a voice and recognized it, high-pitched though it was, for Ernie Andersen’s.

“Never blame me if you’re bloody-handed. Bloody-handed by nature you are. What shows, same as what’s hid. Bloody murderer, both ways, heart and hand.”

Then Mrs. Bünz’s peep show re-opened to reveal the Guiser, alone.

His head was sunk between his shoulders, his chest heaved as if it had a tormented life of its own. His right arm was extended in exposition. Across the upturned palm there was a dark gash. Blood slid round the edge of the hand and, as she stared at it, began to drip.

Mrs. Bünz left her peep show and returned faster than usual to her backstairs in the pub.

That night, Camilla slept uneasily. Her shallow dreams were beset with dead dogs that stood watchfully between herself and Ralph or horridly danced with bells strapped to their rigid legs. The Five Sons of the photograph behind the bar-parlour door also appeared to her, with Mrs. Bünz mysteriously nodding, and the hermaphrodite, who slyly offered to pop his great skirt over Camilla and carry her off. Then “Crack,” the Hobby-Horse, came hugely to the fore. His bird-like head enlarged itself and snapped at Camilla. He charged out of her dream, straight at her. She woke with a thumping heart.

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