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Chapter 16 - The Militant Mrs. Meade

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Author Topic: Chapter 16 - The Militant Mrs. Meade  (Read 16 times)
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« on: December 20, 2022, 03:00:37 am »

‘Good heavens, what was that?’

It was Meggie who spoke. The noise had awakened her and she sat up, her hair a little wilder than usual and her eyes wide with astonishment.

Abbershaw started to his feet.

‘We’ll darned soon find out,’ he said, and went over to the second door and knocked upon it softly.

‘Who’s there?’ he whispered.

‘The wicked shall perish,’ said a loud, shrill, feminine voice, in which the broad Suffolk accent was very apparent. ‘The earth shall open and they shall be swallowed up. And you won’t come into this room,’ it continued brightly. ‘No, not if you spend a hundred years a-tapping. And why won’t you come in? ’Cause I’ve bolted the door.’

There was demoniacal satisfaction in the last words, and Abbershaw and Meggie exchanged glances.

‘It’s a lunatic,’ whispered Abbershaw.

Meggie shuddered.

‘What a horrible house this is,’ she said. ‘But talk to her George. She may know how to get us out.’

‘Her chief concern seems to be not to let us in,’ said Abbershaw, but he returned to the door and spoke again.

‘Who’s there?’ he said, and waited, hardly hoping for an answer, but the voice replied with unexpected directness:

‘That’s a thing I won’t hide from anybody,’ it said vigorously. ‘Daisy May Meade’s my name. A married woman and respectable. A church-going woman too, and there’s some that’s going to suffer for what’s been going on in this house. Both here, and in the next world. The pit shall open and swallow them up. Fire and brimstone shall be their portion. The Lord shall smite them.’

‘Very likely,’ said Abbershaw dryly. ‘But who are you? How did you get here? Is it possible for you to get us out?’

Apparently his calm, matter-of-fact voice had a soothing effect upon the vengeful lady in the next room, for there was silence for some moments, followed by an inquisitive murmur in a less oracular tone.

‘What be you doing of?’

‘We’re prisoners,’ said Abbershaw feelingly. ‘We’ve been shut up here by Mr. Dawlish, and are most anxious to get out. Can you help us?’

Again there was silence for some moments after he had spoken, then the voice said considerately, ‘I’ve a good mind to have the door open and have a look at ye.’

‘Good heavens!’ said Abbershaw, startled out of his calm. ‘Do you mean to say that you can open this door?’

‘That I can,’ said the voice complacently. ‘Didn’t I bolt it myself? I’m not having a lot of foreigners running round me. I told the German gentleman so. Oh, they shall be punished. “To the devil you’ll go,” I told them. “Fire and brimstone and hot irons,” I said.’

‘Yes, I know,’ said Abbershaw soothingly, ‘but have you any idea how we can get out?’

A grunt of consideration was clearly audible through the door. ‘I will have a look at ye,’ said the voice with sudden decision, and thereupon there began a fearsome noise of chains, bolts, and the scraping of heavy furniture, which suggested that Mrs. Meade had barricaded herself in with a vengeance. Soon after there was a creaking and the door swung open an inch or two, a bright black eye appearing in the crack. After a moment or so, apparently satisfied, Mrs. Meade pushed the door open wide and stood upon the threshold looking in on them.

She was a striking old woman, tall and incredibly gaunt, with a great bony frame on which her clothes hung skimpily. She had a brown puckered face in which her small eyes, black and quick as a bird’s, glowed out at the world with a religious satisfaction at the coming punishment of the wicked. She was clothed in a black dress, green with age, and a stiff white apron starched like a board, which gave her a rotundity of appearance wholly false. She stood there for some seconds, her bright eyes taking in every nook and corner of the room. Apparently satisfied, she came forward.

‘That’ll be your sister, I suppose,’ she said, indicating Meggie with a bony hand, ‘seeing you’ve both red hair.’

Neither of the two answered, and taking their silence for assent, she went on.

‘You’re visitors, I suppose?’ she demanded. ‘It’s my belief the devil’s own work is going on in this house. Haven’t I seen it with me own eyes? Wasn’t I permitted—praise be the Lord!—to witness some of it? It’s four shall swing from the gallows, their lives in the paper, before there’s an end of this business.’

The satisfaction in her voice was apparent, and she beamed upon them, the maliciousness in her old face truly terrible to see. She was evidently bursting with her story, and they found it was not difficult to get her to talk.

‘Who are you?’ demanded Abbershaw. ‘I know your name, of course, but that doesn’t make me much wiser. Where do you live?’

‘Down in the village, three mile away,’ said the redoubtable Mrs. Meade, beaming at him. ‘I’m not a regular servant here, and I wouldn’t be, for I’ve no need, but when they has company up here I sometimes come in for the week to help. My time’s up next Wednesday, and when I don’t come home my son’ll come down for me. That’s the time I’m waiting for. Then there’ll be trouble!’

There was grim pleasure in her tone, and she wagged her head solemnly.

‘He’ll have someone to reckon with then, the German gentleman will. My son don’t hold with foreigners no-how. What with this on top of it, and him being a murderer too, there’ll be a fight, I can tell you. My son’s a rare fighter.’

‘I shouldn’t think the Hun would be bad at a scrap,’ murmured Abbershaw, but at the same time he marvelled at the complacency of the old woman who could time her rescue for four days ahead and settle down peacefully to wait for it.

There was one phrase, however, that stuck in his mind.

‘Murderer?’ he said.

The old woman eyed him suspiciously and came farther into the room.

‘What do you know about it?’ she demanded.

‘We’ve told you who we are,’ said Meggie, suddenly sitting up, her clever pale face flushing a little and her narrow eyes fixed upon her face.

‘We’re visitors. And we’ve been shut up here by Mr Dawlish, who seems to have taken over charge of the house ever since Colonel Coombe had his seizure.’

The old woman pricked up her ears.

‘Seizure?’ she said. ‘That’s what they said it was, did they? The fiery furnace is made ready for them, and they shall be consumed utterly. I know it wasn’t no seizure. That was murder, that was. A life for a life, and an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, that’s the law, and they shall come to it.’

‘Murder? How do you know it was murder?’ said Abbershaw hastily. The fanatical forebodings were getting on his nerves.

Once again the crafty look came into the little black eyes and she considered him dubiously, but she was much too eager to tell her story to be dissuaded by any suspicions.

‘It was on the Friday night,’ she said, dropping her voice to a confidential monotone. ‘After dinner had been brought out, Mrs. Browning, that’s the housekeeper, sent me upstairs to see to the fires. I hadn’t been up there more than ten minutes when I come over faint.’ She paused and eyed the two defiantly.

‘I never touch liquor,’ she said, and hesitated again. Abbershaw was completely in the dark, but Meggie had a flash of intuition, born of long experience of Mrs Meade’s prototypes.

‘But as you weren’t well you looked about for something to revive you?’ she said. ‘Of course. Why not?’

Mrs. Meade’s dubious expression faded.

‘Of course,’ she said. ‘What else was I to do?’

‘What else indeed?’ said Meggie encouragingly.

‘What did I do?’ said the old woman, lapsing once more into the rhetorical form she favoured. ‘I remembered that in the Colonel’s study—that’s through his bedroom, you know—there was a little cupboard behind the screen by the window, where he kept a drop of Scotch whisky. That’s soothing and settling to the stomach as much as anything is. So, coming over faint, and being in the Colonel’s bedroom, I went into the study, and had just poured myself out a little drop when I heard voices, and the German gentleman with his friend Mr. Gideon and Dr. Whitby come in.’ She stopped again and looked at Meggie.

‘I didn’t holler out,’ she said, ‘because it would have looked so bad—me being there in the dark.’

Meggie nodded understandingly and Mrs Meade continued.

‘So I just stayed where I was behind the screen,’ she said. ‘Mr. Gideon was carrying a lamp and he set it down on the desk. They was all very excited, and as soon as Dr. Whitby spoke I knew something was up. “What an opportunity,” he said, “while they’re playing around with that dagger he’ll just sit where he is. We’re safe for fifteen minutes at least.” Then the German gentleman spoke. Very brusque he is. “Get on with it,” says he. “Where does he keep the stuff?” ’

Mrs Meade paused, and her little black eyes were eloquent. ‘Imagine the state I was in, me standing there with the bottle in me ’and,’ she said. ‘But the next moment Dr. Whitby set me at peace again. “In the secret drawer at the back of the desk,” he said. I peeked round the edge of the screen and saw ’im fiddling about with the master’s desk.’ She fixed Meggie with a bright black eye. ‘I was upset,’ she said. ‘If it hadn’t been for the whisky and the way it would have looked I’d ’ave gone out, but as it was I couldn’t very well, and so I stayed where I was, but I listened. For I said to myself, “The humblest of us are sometimes the ministers of the Lord,” and I realized someone would have to be brought to justice.’

Her self-righteousness was so sublime that it all but carried her hearers away with it, and she went on, whilst they listened to her, fascinated.

‘I saw them open the drawer and then there was such a swearing set-out that I was ashamed. “It’s gone,” said Mr. Gideon, and Dr. Whitby he started moaning like an idiot. “He always kept them here,” he kept saying over and over again. Then the German, him that’s for Hell Fire as sure as I’ll be with the Lambs, he got very angry. “You’ve played the fool enough,” he said, in such a loud voice that I nearly cried out and gave myself away. “Go and fetch him,” he said. “Bring him up here. I’ve had enough of this playing.” ’

Mrs Meade paused for breath.

‘Dr. Whitby’s rather a sullen gentleman,’ she continued, ‘but he went off like a child. I stood there, my knees knocking together, wishing me breathing wasn’t so heavy, and praying to the Lord to smite them for their wickedness, while the German gentleman and Mr. Gideon were talking together in a foreign language. I couldn’t understand it, of course,’ she added regretfully, ‘but I’m not an old fool, like you might imagine. Though I’m sixty-two I’m pretty spry, and I could tell by the way they was waving their hands about and the look on their faces and the sound of their voices that the German gentleman was angry about something or other, and that Mr. Gideon was trying to soothe ’im. “Wait,” he said at last, in a Christian tongue, “he’ll have it on him, I tell you.” Well! . . .’ She paused and looked from one to the other of her listeners, her voice becoming more dramatic and her little black eyes sparkling. Clearly she was coming to the cream of her narrative.

‘Well,’ she repeated, when she was satisfied that they were both properly on edge, ‘at that moment the door was flung open and Dr. Whitby came back, white as a sheet, and trembling. “Chief! Gideon!” he said. “He’s been murdered! Stabbed in the back.” ’

Mrs Meade stopped to enjoy the full effect of her announcement.

‘Were they surprised?’

Abbershaw spoke involuntarily.

‘You be quiet and I’ll tell ’ee,’ said Mrs. Meade, with sudden sternness. ‘They was struck silly, I can tell you. The German gentleman was the first to come to his senses. “Who?” he said. Mr. Gideon turned on him then. “Sinisters?” he says, as if asking a question.’

Meggie and Abbershaw exchanged significant glances, while Mrs. Meade hurried on with her narrative, speaking with great gusto, acting the parts of the different speakers, and investing the whole gruesome story with an air of self-righteous satisfaction that made it even more terrible.

‘The German gentleman wasn’t pleased at that,’ she continued, ‘but it was he who kept his head, as they say. “And the papers,” said he. “Were they on him?” “No,” says the doctor. “Then,” said the German gentleman, “get him upstairs.” “Don’t let anyone know he’s dead, then,” said Mr. Gideon. “Say it’s heart attack—anything you like.” “There’s blood about,” said Dr. Whitby—“bound to be.” “Then clear it up,” says Mr Gideon. “I’ll help you. We must hurry before the lights go up.” ’

On the last word her voice sank to a whisper, but the stagey horror with which she was trying to invest the story did not detract from the real gruesomeness of the tale. Rather it added to it, making the scene down in the lamp-lit panelled room seem suddenly clear and very near to them.

Meggie shuddered and her voice was subdued and oddly breathless when she spoke. ‘What happened then?’

Mrs. Meade drew herself up, and her little black eyes burned with the fire of righteousness. ‘Then I could hold my tongue no longer,’ she said, ‘and I spoke out. “Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses,” I said, and stepped out from behind the screen.’

Abbershaw’s eyes widened as the scene rose up in his mind—the fanatical old woman, her harsh voice breaking in upon the three crooks in that first moment of their bewilderment. ‘They were terrified, I suppose,’ he said.

Mrs. Meade nodded, and an expression of grim satisfaction spread over her wrinkled old face. ‘They was,’ she said. ‘Mr. Gideon went pale as a sheet, and shrank away from me like an actor on the stage—Dr. Whitby stood there stupid like, his eyes gone all fishy and his mouth hanging open . . .’ She shook her head. ‘You could see there was guilt there,’ she said, ‘if not in deed, in the heart—the German gentleman was the only one to stay his natural colour.’

‘And then?’ Meggie hardly recognized her own voice, so toneless was it.

‘Then he come up to me,’ the old woman continued, with a return of indignation in her voice. ‘Slowly he come and put his great heavy face close to mine. “You be off,” said I, but that didn’t stop him. “How much have you heard?” said he. “All of it,” says I, “and what’s more I’m going to bear witness.” ’

Mrs. Meade took a deep breath.

‘That did it,’ she said. ‘He put his hand over my mouth and the next moment Dr. Whitby had jumped forward and opened the cupboard by the fire-place. “Put her in here,” said he: “we can see to her after we’ve got him upstairs.” ’

‘You struggled, of course,’ said Abbershaw. ‘It’s extraordinary someone in the house didn’t hear you.’

Mrs. Meade regarded him with concentrated scorn. ‘Me struggle, young man?’ she said. ‘Not me. If there’s going to be any scrabbling about, I said to myself, better leave it to my son who knows something about fighting, so as soon as I knew where I was I hurried up the stairs and shut myself in here. “You can do what you like,” I said to the German gentleman through the door, “but I’m staying here until Wednesday if needs be, when my son’ll come for me—then there’ll be summat to pay, I can tell you!” ’

She paused, her pale checks flushing with the fire of battle, as she remembered the incident. ‘He soon went away after that,’ she went on, wagging her head. ‘He turned the key on me, but that didn’t worry me—I had the bolts on my side.’

‘But you couldn’t get out?’ interrupted Meggie, whose brain failed before this somewhat peculiar reasoning.

‘O’ course I couldn’t get out,’ said Mrs. Meade vigorously. ‘No more’n could he come in. As long as my tongue’s in my head someone’ll swing for murder, and I’m quite willing to wait for my son on Wednesday. They won’t get in to me to kill me, I reckon,’ she continued, with a flicker of pleasure in her eyes, ‘and so when my son comes along there’ll be someone to help cast out the wicked. I ain’t a-holding my tongue, not for nobody.’

‘And that’s all you know, then?’ said Meggie.

‘All?’ Mrs. Meade’s tone was eloquent. ‘Some people’ll find it’s quite enough. Those three didn’t actually do the murder, but there’s someone in the house who did, and—’ She broke off sharply and glanced from one to the other. ‘Why’re you two lookin’ at one ’nother so?’ she demanded.

But she got no reply to her question. Meggie and Abbershaw were regarding each other fixedly, the same phrase in the old woman’s remark had struck both of them, and to each it bore the same terrible significance. ‘Those three didn’t actually do the murder, but there’s someone in the house who did.’ Dawlish, Gideon, Whitby were cleared of the actual crime in one word; the servants were all confined in their own quarters—Albert Campion insisted that he locked the door upon them. Who then could be responsible? Albert Campion himself—or one of their own party? Neither spoke—the question was too terrifying to put into words.

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