From The Sussex County Magazine 1936
A short story by Florence E White
The night was sultry; heavy clouds, threatening a storm, obscured the sky. The road by the bridge over-shadowed by the trees was impenetrably dark; but there, a tiny red spark could be seen – Mr Nathaniel Parker’s pipe – he himself, in the gloom, being practically invisible.
As was his custom, he was taking his nightly stroll before going to bed – or, as the youths of the village would out it – "old Nosey Parker was on the prowl as usual."
With those prone to "sport with Amaryllis in the shade" he was not popular. Should some Jill chance to go out o’nights with someone else’s Jack, and the gossips got to know of it, the tale-bearer was pretty sure to be Mr Parker.
On this night, however, he was destined to be the deeply-interested spectator of a scene more thrilling than the ordinary bucolic love affair.
He paused in his walk and listened, for his sharp ears had caught a faint sound of voices and footsteps in the distance.
"Dear me, who can be out so late?" said Mr Parker to himself as he knocked his pipe out and, with his usual precaution, retired into a gap in the hedge.
He could now dimly see two figures approaching. One had the appearance of an immense bird with flapping wings! Seized with terror, he was on the point of taking to his heels, but perceiving that this apparition was a tall man dressed in a cape that swung to and fro as he walked, and by his side a woman, he conquered his fears, and remained motionless awaiting developments.
The mysterious couple paused on the bridge. The man produced something from under his cloak and threw it into the river. There was a loud splash as it hit the water. He lit a cigarette and the two then retraced their steps and again passed the unseen watcher in the hedge.
"Oh! Lance," Mr Parker heard the woman say, "suppose it floats and drifts on to the bank at the bottom of the meadow close to the farm. Then all would come out. How awful!"
"Don’t be silly, Gwen!" replied the man. "You know it’s weighted down with a big stone and there will it remain in the mud till Doomsday."
They had now passed out of hearing, but not before Mr Parker had recognised them as the two visitors from London who were staying at the Bottings’ farm.
Mr Parker relit his pipe, and now he, in his turn, leant on the parapet of the bridge and gazed down into the dark sluggish water. What was the secret, he asked himself, that lay there in the mud? He tried to recall what he had heard in the village about Mrs Botting’s lodgers. Their name was Tomsett and they were supposed to be brother ans sister, the one reported to be a writer and the other an artist. As for the relationship, they certainly did not resemble each other: the man being tall and thin, quite forty he should say, the woman plump and rosy and ten years or so younger.
Mr Parker’s friend and gossip, Miss Prettyman, had said she for one didn’t believe they were brother and sister – and then there was the baby!
Yes! There was that baby! He had seen Miss Tomsett with it in the village; a little mite, only a few months old. And now, only the other day, he had learnt that the infant had disappeared. At any rate the child was no longer at the farm with the Tomsetts.
He turned over in his mind everything that the Tomsetts might wish to hide, but could think of nothing that would have to be disposed of in the dead of night in such a secret and mysterious fashion, and which the woman was so fearful night float and be discovered! Couldn’t be a cat or a dead dog?
Here Mr Parker gave an audible groan – for he realised to what horrible suspicions his meditations were leading him. as he looked down into the darkness under the bridge, a little white baby’s face seemed to peer up at him from the black water. That night Mr Parker had little sleep.
Painful as it might be, it was, he felt, his duty to investigate this strange affair. If he could rescue that parcel from the muddy bottom of the river, that would settle the matter for good and all.
The next day he was busy improvising a grappling iron. That night, when his house keeper was safely in bed and asleep and all the lights in the village were out, Mr Parker emerged from his house, carrying a dark lantern, the grappling iron and a garden rake. On arriving at the bridge, he placed the lantern on a ledge below, and started his amateur dragging operations.
After an hour or more of hard work, the result that lay beside him on the bank was one dead cat, one puppy, both in an advanced state of decomposition, several old boots and a battered kettle.
Wet and muddy up to his knees, he returned home disheartened. But after a stiff dose of whisky and water he cheered up and decided to continue his investigations, but on drier and less unpleasant lines . . . . .
As the days passed Mr Parker became more and more obsessed with the idea that he was on the track of a crime. He prowled round the farm hoping to light on something to confirm his suspicions, but was only growled at by the old retriever, Rover, and snubbed by Mrs Botting when he ventured to pump her. One afternoon, taking tea with Miss Prettyman, the postmistress and proprietress of the general shop, he confided to her his perplexities and, under the pledge of secrecy, gave her a lurid account of the midnight scene at the bridge. They then discussed the mystery from every point of view.
"Now, Miss Prettyman," said Mr Parker, taking out his notebook and pencil, "with your active brain, I’m sure you can help. Have they a large correspondence?"
"Not many letters, but every week there is a postcard from some one who signs himself ‘Old Tom.’ He finishes with ‘Salaams from the Gang to the Babes.’ The other day it was ‘Mrs Tabitha Golightly and family going strong; just broken your blue vase’."
"Gang – Salaams – Golightly," murmured Mr Parker, busy taking notes. "Perhaps that’s a code. Now the question is – what should our next move be? I am considering whether I should go into Horsham and talk the matter over with the Inspector."
"For goodness sake," broke in his friend, "don’t do that till we have more evidence. The Tomsetts might hear of it and bring an action for libel. I’ll tell you what I advise. Go and see the Vicar. It’s his business to look after the morals of the parish – get him to go and see these people and see what he can find out about them."
The suggestion appealed to Mr Parker. If nothing could be proved and the Tomsetts made trouble, the Vicar would be useful to hide behind. If, as he thought, he had unearthed a crime, he would still be able to play the important role of chief witness for the prosecution. In imagination he had already pictured himself being thanked by the Judge for the way he had given his evidence. It was therefore decided he should call on the Vicar that evening.
The dining room at the vicarage, with the French windows opening on to the sunlit lawn, the bright silver and flowers on the table, the fragrant coffee and bacon – all was as inviting and cheerful as usual – but the Rev.Henry Northcote looked on the scene gloomily.
The peaceful flow of his existence had been sadly disturbed by Mr Parker’s visit of the previous evening. At first he had pooh-poohed the story – suggested cats and other undesirable articles that unpleasant people were in the habit of casting into the river.
Parker had brushed all this aside. "Why all this mystery and the fear that the thing should float and all be found out?" he had asked, and the Vicar had to admit he could give no plausible answer.
Mrs Northcote had been more easily impressed by the tale. Unluckily she had remembered reading a review of a collection of poems by Lancelot Tomsett, which she gathered were of the "morbid, erotic type; in fact, nasty modern stuff," so she was prejudiced to start with, and had backed up Mr Parker in his suggestion that the Vicar should call on the Tomsetts and ask them for an explanation. At any rate, as she had truly said, "All this talk in the village must be ended one way or another."
The Vicar was not looking forward to playing the role of investigator of crime that had been thrust upon him.
"Don’t you think, my dear," he said to his wife as she passed him his coffee, "you might, just as a preliminary, go and see Mrs Botting and hear what she might have to say about her lodgers?"
"Certainly not!" snapped his wife. "That would be quite useless. Even if she condescended to answer any questions, she would only repeat what the Tomsetts had thought fit to tell her. She has a hasty temper and would probably be rude. You remember how unpleasant she made herself at the Women’s Institute when that nice woman came down from London to lecture on "The Dairy and How to Make it Pay." She persisted in asking awkward questions, and when we remonstrated with her afterward, she bounded out of the room in a temper."
"Well, well," sighed the Vicar, "I’ll call this morning, and in good time to catch the Tomsetts before they go out. I feel I’m going on a ridiculous errand. However, the sooner this matter is cleared up the better.
The morning was already hot when the Vicar, arrayed in clerical black and stiff collar, started on his walk to the farm. He had felt it was not the occasion for any concession to the hear in dress; he required all the support his sacred calling could afford him.
When he arrived at the farm and looked over the hedge of the garden, a peaceful and charming scene met his gaze. Lance Tomsett, dressed in grey flannel trousers, a striped shirt, open at the neck, and red morocco slippers, was stretched in a deck chair reading the newspaper, and his sister, also airily clad, was feeding the pigeons.
"I do wish, Lance," the Vicar heard her say, "I could teach these fat, lazy birds to catch the food in the air like the seagulls do on the Embankment."
Her brother, gazing with astonishment at the black and respectable apparition advancing up the garden path, did not answer.
"Oh, heavens!" exclaimed his sister when she, too, observed the visitor; and the pigeons in a flutter retreated to the roof of the barn.
"I must apologise, Mr Tomsett, for calling at such an unconveniently early hour," commenced the Vicar, "but I felt that the matter I wished to discuss with you did not brook delay."
"Not at all," vaguely murmered Lance Tomsett. "You must have had a hot walk from the village. if you will excuse me a moment I will fetch another chair. It is cool here in the shade."
"I think we had better adjourn to the house, as it is a private matter that I am anxious to speak about," said the Vicar. "You see, we are rather near the road here, and passers-by might inadvertently become eavesdroppers."
"As you like, of course, Mr Northcote," and the Tomsetts, much mystified, led the way into the house.
Seated in the low-ceilinged sitting room facing two pairs of inquiring eyes, Mr Northcote felt decidedly uncomfortable, and the Tomsetts did not appear inclined to help him out with any small talk. There was nothing to do but make a plunge into the business of his visit.
"No doubt you know, Mr Tomsett, that in a small village like ours there is always a good deal of gossip, especially about any summer visitors from London. In a general way one can, of course, treat that sort of thing with contempt. However, last evening I had a visit from one of my parishioners – a respectable man, and I have no doubt truthful. He was the involuntary witness of an incident connected with you and your sister that might lead, if spread about in the village, to misconception, and if you will give me some explanation of the affair it will greatly relieve my mind and enable me to silence the tongues that have already begun to wag."
With some hesitation and embarrassment, the Vicar retailed Mr Parker’s story of the midnight scene at the bridge and hinted at the suspicions that were beginning to be aroused.
During the recital, Lance Tomsett sat upright in his chair, glaring at the embarrassed clergyman. His sister had thrown herself back in her chair and covered her face with her hankerchief.
"Good God!" cried Lance Tomsett, springing to his feet and looking menacingly at the speaker, "you don’t mean to say that your vile-minded, spying parishioner thinks we have murdered a baby and thrown it into the river?"
"Whatever that person’s suspicions may be, I do not share them; but I do beg you to give me your version so that I can put an end to this unpleasant business. Until you do so, I can do nothing, and this silly gossip goes on in the village.
A diversion was caused here by Miss Tomsett, who, judging from the sounds that came from beneath the handkerchief that concealed her face, was struggling with incipient hysteria.
Her brother looked at her with frowning disapproval. The spectacle seemed, however, to have a calming effect upon him, and he resumed his seat.
"I beg you to realise the awkward position in which I have been placed," continued the Vicar. "I am entirely in your hands and trust to you to do what you think right."
"Well, Mr Northcote, as you have come so far in the heat on such a foolish errand, I think I must let you into the shameful secret," said Lance Tomsett.
"Oh, Lance," cried his sister, emerging with a red face and tears in her eyes from behind her handkerchief. "Do remember Mrs Botting! She must never know what was in that parcel! Her feelings would be so hurt. You see, Mr Northcote," turning to him, "she thought it was quite all right. It was quite a nice pink colour."
"I assure you, Miss Tomsett," said the Vicar soothingly, "Mrs Botting shall hear nothing from me that would hurt her feelings."
"First of all," resumed Lance Tomsett, "perhaps that shining light of your congregation would like to know that my sister is not the parent of the babe. Its mother is an artist’s model; about the father I can give you no information. The child was left in charge of Mrs Jones, the caretaker of our studios. The mother disappeared. Mrs Jones could not afford to keep the baby and spoke of taking it to the workhouse. This distressed my sister, who is very fond of children, though, as she gets her living from painting portraits of the restless little brats, you would think she had enough of them. But in spite of that, had she not had the advantage of having a brother with common sense, she would have adopted this child permanently."
"Don’t be so pompous, Lance," broke in his sister.
"After some enquiries, we found a Home near London for these unwanted little mites. There the child is, and I trust well cared for. I shall be pleased to give you the address. I have no doubt if you and your friend care to call, the matron – who is a charming and motherly woman – will introduce you to Miss Gladys Felicia Stevens, the aforesaid infant.
"Now we come to the contents of the parcel. Mrs Botting received lately a present of half a salmon from some friends in Scotland. A large portion of this fish, our kindly landlady cooked and presented to us. The weather being hot, the salmon had found the journey trying. Day after day that salmon appeared on the table and we made some pretence of having partaken of it. At last one night it came up for supper in the pickled form. We could bear it no longer! Neither of us had the moral courage to tell Mrs Botting the truth. My sister suggested we should pack it up and throw it into the river, and now you know all!"
The Vicar sprang to his feet, seized Lance Tomsett’s hand and violently shook it.
"You have indeed lifted a weight from my mind. I am grieved to have worried you, Mr Tomsett, and upset your sister with this ridiculous affair."
"Oh, I’m not a bit upset," exclaimed Miss Tomsett. I’ve been thinking how impressed the Chelsea Gang will be – our neighbours at the studios have nicknamed my brother and me "The Babes." They think of us as a couple of silly innocents. Now that we have been suspected of a horrible murder, they will have to invent another name for us. I’m simply longing to tell tham all about it."
"I hope you’ll deal gently with me," pleaded the Vicar.
"Indeed I will," responded Mis Tomsett. "And you won’t let anything come out about the salmon? Dear Mrs Botting must never know. I’ve told countless fibs about it."
Lance Tomsett was still looking rather sulky. "I should like to give that fellow a good hiding," he grumbled. "He’s poisoned the atmosphere of the place for me. Let’s go back to Chelsea, Gwen. The air is more wholesome there."
"Nonsense, Lance. You know we’ve lent the studio to old Tom. We can’t turn him out. He’s been so good, looking after Tabitha Golightly and family. That’s our cat, Mr Northcote. She’s always having kittens and I never have the heart to have them drowned, so I have to find homes for them. I don’t think there’s a studio in Chelsea without one of the Golightly family.
"Ah, Miss Tomsett, you have a large heart. I wish there were more like you," said the Vicar. "Don’t think, Mr Tomsett," turning to her brother, "that the person who started this mare’s nest will not get his deserts. I am looking forward to tackling him and shall frighten him with the threat of a libel action. My wife will call on you, my dear young lady, and I hope you and your brother will come to tea with us at the vicarage. "Goodbye and thank you for your forbearance," and the Vicar strode back to the village with the light of battle in his eyes.
"Lance,2 said Miss Tomsett, "have you any decent clothes? Because I’m going to take you to church next Sunday morning. I think the Vicar’s a perfect dear."