Saturday, 1 January 2011

The Phantom Arsonist


Saturday morning was passing in its normal pleasant way at “Braemar”, the semi- detached home of Tilling’s senior police officer Herbert Morrison, his wife Bunty and their nine year old twins James and Doris.

The breakfast things had been cleared away and the children ushered out to play in the back garden as the grown ups settled down at the large well-scrubbed kitchen table for another cup of tea. They turned their attention to a pile of newspapers.

“There are five copies of the ‘Hampshire Argus’ and two each of the ‘Daily Mirror’ and ‘Morning Post’,” said Herbert, “We can give an Argus and one of the others to the grandparents and keep the rest ourselves.”

“Good idea,” Bunty replied, cutting out a picture and article from the front page of the local weekly journal, “I know they’ll all be very proud to see our Jim and Dot meeting the Queen. What a day.”

“Yes, that’s certainly something for the scrapbook,” said Herbert, lighting his pipe and puffing ruminatively, “Everyone in Tilling seemed to enjoy the occasion. Our twins have only just come down to earth and the whole town’s still talking about it. She spoke to so many locals – the Bartlett’s, Mrs Wyse, Mrs Plaistow and even Miss Coles.”

“Of course, there’s one exception,” added Bunty, “Everyone says Mrs Mapp-Flint is still furious. She says that as Mayoress she 'shouldn’t have had to stand out on the pavement. 'In the queue at Mr Twistevant’s yesterday, I heard her say as clear as day, ‘It was like being a ragamuffin with my nose pressed up against the toy shop window on Christmas Eve.’”

“Yes, dear, I can imagine her saying that,” answered Herbert. Stopping to apply another Swan Vesta to his pipe, he added, adopting his “official voice”, “But it was a private visit and Mrs Pillson entertained Her Majesty in her private capacity and not as Mayor. Mrs Mapp-Flint could only have been introduced as a personal friend. Imagine how odd it would have sounded if Mrs Mapp- Flint had stepped forward out of the blue. Mrs Pillson would have had to say, ‘Your Majesty may I present my intime, Mrs Elizabeth Mapp-Flint.’”

“Oh, I see dear, since you put it like that,” Bunty replied, “It would have seemed most odd. I suppose there’s no saying where such things will end if every single ‘intime’ of our Mayor gets to be introduced to the Queen of England. Mrs Pillson has so many after all. And where does it stop? Does she have to introduce the Major in his own right or is he just referred to as ‘the husband of my intime’?”

By this stage Herbert could see Bunty was teasing him, mildly if not verging upon direct sarcasm, but he wisely resisted the temptation to rise to the bait and just nodded. His wife continued, “Whatever happens, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of it yet, not by a long way - you mark my words: there will be…ramifications.”

“You’re probably right dear,” Herbert replied, “It’s bound to be interesting. No-one could ever say there was a shortage of entertaining ‘ramifications’ in Tilling.

As the Morrisons enjoyed their quiet Saturday morning, the same subject was under discussion a mile or so away in the dining room of “Mallards House” in the physical and spiritual heart of Tilling.

Foljambe placed a silver tray with the morning’s post upon the breakfast table. Opening a stiff manila envelope, Lucia extracted a glossy photograph some eight inches by ten which had graced the front page of that week’s edition of the “Hampshire Argus”. It showed the Queen in West Street receiving a posy from little Doris Morrison. Standing proudly to the right of Her Majesty stood the chatelaine of “Mallards House” and her husband with a smile described by some as “graciously benign,” and by others as, “infuriatingly condescending.”

“How charming,” cooed Lucia, “This photograph in a simple silver frame shall stand upon the piano as a memento of our wonderful day.”

“Yes, Lucia,” sniffed Georgie, “It is a lovely picture of the front of the house and the Queen and - of course – of you. It’s a shame that I’m obscured by your head, but never mind - worse things happen at sea.”

By power of word association –“sea”- “upturned table” –“worse things” – the thoughts of first couple of Tilling turned simultaneously to Elizabeth Mapp-Flint and knowing, yet inquiring, looks were exchanged.  

“It’s all over the town, of course,” commented Georgie Pillson, replying to the unspoken inquiry of his spouse as he tapped the top of his boiled lightly boiled egg with a silver teaspoon, “Tarsome thing,” he added as the yolk spurted out and defiled the lapel of his elegant silk dressing gown “And it’s brand new – a Sulka one, very ‘now’, just like Noel Coward. I suppose Foljambe will be able to remove the mark before it stains.”

“Yes, I’m sure she will,” responded Lucia soothingly “You were saying?”

“Oh yes,” continued Georgie flustered by his mishap, “Elizabeth has been complaining to anyone who will listen about the visit. She keeps saying said ‘She’s gone too far this time. ‘She’ is you, of course. Elizabeth even accused you of ‘Daring to monopolize the Queen of England.’ Anyway, she says ‘I, for one, am not going to put up with it any more.’”

“Indeed, Georgino mio” Lucia replied slowly, adopting a look combining surprise, injured feelings and a degree of aggression “And what exactly is it, up with which, dear Lib Lib will – so to speak - no longer….put?”

“Well,” said Georgie a little more tentatively, “She said ‘I’m withdrawing from public life,’ whatever that means. I gather she’s no longer prepared to attend any gathering or function at which you are to be present.”

Lucia’s agile mind immediately calculated the potential inconvenient impact upon the civic and social life of Tilling if her Mayoress was unwilling to be present in the same room at the same time as the Mayor. She put down her tea cup and sighed “It really is like dealing with a spoiled child at times. Fortunately, spoiled children can usually be distracted with a sweetie sufficiently long to terminate the tantrum.”

“Well, Lucia, out with it,” responded Georgie “What have you in mind this time?”

“I don’t think I should really claim credit for the idea. It came to me when I was browsing through one of Juvenal’s “Satires” only recently”, Lucia explained with an affected languor that Georgie always found somewhat irritating. He was well aware that the volume in question was invariably casually left bookmarked in various prominent positions to impress visitors. For many years in Riseholme an equally challenging and largely unread life of the Venetian Antonio Caporelli had performed the same impressive function.

“And what is that dear?” said Georgie, adding “I do hope Tilling is not to be split into three parts; no, that was Caesar’s Gaul, wasn’t it? Do tell.”

Sensing more than a hint of husbandly irony, which was unusual for Georgie, Lucia continued, no less affectedly, “Nunc se continent atque tantum res anxius optat, panem et circenses.” Lucia was gratified to be able to recite the few words of the Latin she had conveniently memorised specifically for this purpose earlier that morning.

“I’m still none the wiser, Lucia,” Georgie remarked with patience born of acceptance of the fact that his life’s partner was not disposed to wear her knowledge particularly lightly. On the contrary, once removed from her “wardrobe of learning” an apt fragment of text or apophthegm was used and reused until as threadbare as Elizabeth Mapp-Flint’s perennial favourite green skirt. Georgie continued, “A translation, per favore.”

“Of course dear,” she replied with an unconvincing artlessness, “Basically, it means ‘Now the populace restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.’”

“Still as clear as mud, I’m afraid. Do stop talking in riddles,” Georgie responded.

“Well, sposa mio,” Lucia continued, “Given Elizabeth’s sour grapes over her - shall we say -  ‘perceived’ - exclusion from Her Majesty’s private visit, we need a function that will bring all of Tilling together  - something which Tilling might enjoy and in which Elizabeth might play a leading part. We need to find an occasion which will oblige her to desist from her childish, but socially disruptive, fit of the sulks.”

Warming to the topic, Georgie, tried to adhere to the classical theme. He replied, “You want to organise an un-missable event which will force her to stop skulking in her tent. I assume the occasion will involve dressing up and having a nice time?”

“Exactamente, Georgino mio,” Lucia exclaimed, “I shall entice Elizabeth from her tent like Achilles with an invitation to my Mayoral Banquet.”

Georgie face fell on hearing this disclosure, “Oh dear,” he said, “Given what happened last time, I really don’t think Elizabeth will set one foot outside her tent for that. I imagine Elizabeth would lurk in an army-surplus bell-tent with many patches and the odd hole. Don’t you?” he asked whimsically, “Or perhaps it was Major Benjy’s old one, still dusty from his last tiger shooting expedition up the Jumna.”

Easily resisting the temptation to join in his speculation regarding the preferred camping accoutrements of her Mayoress, Lucia inquired, “I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘What happened last time’, Georgie.”

“Be honest, Lucia,” he replied, “You must admit, it was a fairly ghastly evening.”  Warming to his theme of disgruntlement, he continued, “I had to sit opposite you on my own with my back to the room and was hardly served any food or wine all night. It was even worse for Elizabeth. Don’t you remember, she had to sit all alone on that tiny balcony overlooking the hall, all dressed up with no dinner and just giving you the odd wave now and then? And she had to listen to you playing “The Moonlight Sonata”. You know how that brings out the worst in her.  At least she called for an encore.”

Noting the narrowing of what might most accurately be described as “Lucia’s gimlet eyes” upon this last remark, Georgie concluded, “It was quite bizarre; the poor woman looked like a solitary Christmas decoration, overlooked on Twelfth Night and mistakenly left on the pelmet until May.”

Slightly taken aback by the vehemence of Georgie’s expression, Lucia responded pacifically, “Yes, you are quite right Georgie; I must admit that the evening was not entirely satisfactory - although I had thought my rendition of “the Moonlight” was reasonably well-received. This year it must be completely different; it must be more festive and more of an ‘event’- ‘una occasione’.”

Looking at the framed photograph of her role model, Dame Catherine Winterglass standing on the mantel piece, Lucia continued determinedly, “I wish to be a moderniser after the inspiring example of  Dame Catherine and will propose that arrangements for my Banquet be entirely revamped and dragged wriggling into the twentieth century. Elizabeth would call it ‘scriggling’ or whatever her ghastly invented term is, but you know what I mean. What do you think?”  

“Oh, excellent news,” responded Georgie with more enthusiasm, since he could sense the impending delight of ordering of a deliciously expensive new dress suit, “How do you want to change things?”

“Well, Georgie,” answered Lucia, “For a start, we must have entirely new arrangements. You must sit at the top table by my side facing our guests as will my Mayoress, who will be accompanied by her husband.”

“In that case, you had better give very strict instructions to the waiting staff regarding the pouring of the wines,” laughed Georgie.

“Don’t be small, Georgino mio,” Lucia replied, ringing the bell to summons Grosvenor to clear the breakfast table, “I would also like to take the opportunity to broaden the guest list a great deal. As well as our new intimes from Tilling, I shall also invite some old friends from Riseholme – perhaps Robert and Daisy Quantock? Do you think they would like to come?”

The thought of such a grand celebration appealed to Georgie enormously and he replied, “Indeed, Lucia, a capital idea. And if you are not disposed to give your “Moonlight” again, perhaps we might arrange some other entertainment after dinner?”

“A charming idea, Georgino; I shall consult my Town Clerk about arrangements to bring my Banquet out of the Dark Ages and then form a Banquet Committee from amongst my councillors and issue invitations. I really must get on. How you all work me.” 

“Indeed we do,” responded Georgie cheerfully as Lucia bustled briskly from the room, adding under his breath with a sigh, “Just as you always like it.”  He moved to an arm chair, placed his pince-nez on his nose and resumed work upon a delicate embroidery of a rococo cherub in pink silks which, despite his best efforts, still resembled an ailing piglet, “Tarsome thing,” he thought, “But at least I shall sit facing forwards this time and shall need to order a divino new dress suit. Things are looking up.”

True to her word and energetic as ever, Lucia set about the task of organising her Mayoral Banquet. She first summoned her Town Clerk and quickly confirmed that there was no obstacle to “updating arrangements for the event to make it more inclusive and enjoyable for all involved. After all,” she concluded “the event should be a celebration, not a chore.”

Once this ground had been covered, Lucia notified the member of her Mayoral Banquet Committee of their selection.  Requiring co-operation and speed, Lucia selected three other members: the cheerful and energetic Town Surveyor and Head of the Gas works, brothers Per and Georgie, who conveniently always supported her initiatives in Council and Mr Twistevant, who would be guaranteed to do all in his power to facilitate a luxurious feast, which would after all be supplied on reasonable terms primarily from his own shop in the town.

With remarkable efficiency the date, venue, menu and programme were settled. Appropriate bookings of staff were made and orders of provisions placed with alacrity. As soon as the tickets, priced at one guinea, were printed, Lucia was able to set about the pleasant task of selecting and extending invitations to the deserving affluent.

A few days later, more than a hundred miles to the north-west in the picturesque Cotswold village of Riseholme, the spectacularly high heels of parlour maid De Vere clicked a staccato tattoo across the parquet floor in the hall of the home of Robert and Daisy Quantock.

“The second post, Sir,” said De Vere, “As she handed several letters to her employer,” and clattered from the room.

Putting down his copy of “The Times”, where he had just noted with satisfaction the continued rise in the price of Roumanian Oils, Robert Quantock opened the envelope and turned to his wife, “Well Daisy, old girl, this is very timely. You were saying we don’t get out enough. This is just what you wanted.”

“Yes, Robert, what’s that?” replied Daisy Quantock, lowering her copy of the latest edition of the “Fruitarian Newsletter” in which she had been engrossed.

“Lucia and Georgie Pillson have invited us to stay with them in Tilling for a long weekend next month and to attend the Banquet celebrating her second term as Mayor,” Robert confirmed, “I think we should go, don’t you?”

“Yes, dear;” Daisy agreed, “I would be fascinated to see Lucia in her adopted surroundings. I really must try to remember to call it her new ‘milieu’ or something like that and not her ‘realm’. I recall she always took herself rather seriously over such things,” she added mischievously and continued in the same vein, “Mayor twice already; it does sound as though she has the place well under control. Still: ‘Riseholme’s loss,’ as they say. We can make the trip in the new motor,” she continued, “And I can take De Vere as my maid. That will be expected don’t you think?”

Robert and Daisy agreed that a visit to their old friends at the seaside would be “very agreeable”. Their finances were particularly healthy just now and it would be diverting way to spend some of the recent profits from the seemingly inexorable rise of Roumanian Oils.

There was also the interest which had accumulated pleasingly upon their share of the substantial insurance proceeds paid out following the unfortunate conflagration which had destroyed Riseholme’s Museum. Accordingly, Daisy retired to the study to compose a suitable letter of thanks and acceptance from the impending visitors and to ponder whether etiquette allowed any mention to be made of her special dietary requirements.  

Meanwhile, a hundred miles south east, beneath scudding white cirrus clouds and the cawing of wheeling sea gulls, the visitees-in-waiting went about their mid-morning marketing. Oblivious to the world outside their ancient town walls, they again convened before the shop-windows in the High Street and danced the intricate social gavotte that had been the ingrained habit of the burghers of Tilling for decades.

Now that letters of invitation had plopped gratifyingly through their letter boxes, the select few of the Mayor’s personal guests happily discussed the social event of the season with those of similar standing. Naturally they tactfully avoided the subject with those less fortunate, who were not part of their literally “select” band.

In her straightforward manner Diva Plaistow went straight to the point, “Well, my invitation arrived this morning. Has everybody else had one?”

Whilst Susan Wyse merely nodded and smiled, her more courtly spouse paused and bowed in the general direction of “Mallards House” around the corner in West Street. He went on to confirm in his characteristic Chesterfield terms that he was “Pleased to vouchsafe that our most Worshipful Mayor has graciously let it be known that she had been led to believe that were a formal invitation to her Banquet be extended, the proposal would not be met with an entirely unfavourable response by myself and my good lady wife.”

“You mean she invited you too and you’re going?” responded Diva.

“Yes, I suppose you could put it like that, my dear Mrs Plaistow” replied Algernon Wyse whilst exchanging a glance with Susan, raising his eyebrows and tutting in terms quite far from Chesterfield.

Sensing a slight tension, Kenneth Bartlett intervened and returned conversation to the question of invitations. “Aye, ‘tis most generous of yon guid Mayor tae call on us tae be her guests at yon Banquet,” intoned the Padre in his habitually implausible Scottish dialect, “And mark ye, ‘twill save this pair of poor wee timorous ecclesiastical beasties many a baubee ye ken, since yon tickets are costly things, mair than a simple man of the cloth could rightfully affaird.”

A pause ensued as the Padre’s listeners translated out his neo–Burnsian reference to “poor church mice”. Considering his consistent parsimony and how much the Padre habitually relieved each of them of in their regular hotly-contested games of bridge, no-one gave much credence to this protestation of poverty.

 “Yes, a guinea each,” intoned the mouse-like Evie Bartlett, filling the void which followed her husband’s remarks at a pitch barely audible to her fellow shoppers, but causing a frisson unusual in daylight hours amongst the bats resting pendulous in the tower of the nearby Norman Church.

“Aye wee wifey, that’s quite right. But I suppose the next big question is ‘Whither Maistress Mapp-Flint?’ If I’m not mistaken, here comes the lady in question this very moment. Guid morning, Mistress Mapp-Flint; how fare you this guid day, ye ken the noo?”

Elizabeth Mapp-Flint hove onto view carrying her large basket and smiled broadly to each member of the assembled group. Her smiles were known both for the extent of exposure of her considerable array of teeth each entailed and their surprising duration. Accordingly, they often unnerved those upon whom they were bestowed, particularly if it was a new experience

“How-de-do Padre and good morning to one and all,” she responded gaily, knowing full well that everyone present was on tenterhooks as to whether she had been invited and, most importantly, if she would attend the Banquet.

With typical, though not particularly becoming, coquettishness, Mrs Mapp-Flint decided to make her friends work and, if possible, suffer, to discover her intentions. Accordingly, she passed comment upon “the lovely weather today”, “the greenfly attacking my beautiful roses at ‘Grebe’”, “the ongoing problem of pilfering my apples with no action as yet by our hard-pressed police” and “the delicious hat being worn by our dearest  Diva,” although it was her normal summer head gear which everyone present, including Elizabeth, had seen many hundreds of times over the last decade.

Eventually, as the general conversation covered its fourth or fifth topic unconnected with the Banquet and was about to advance into the sixth, Diva could stand it no longer, “O come on, Elizabeth, do tell us” she interrupted in exasperation, “Have you been invited to Lucia’s Banquet? And will you be going?”

Unable to resist one further little tease for the assembled group, Elizabeth feigned surprise and put her hand to her temple in an unconvincing attempt to convey simplicity, tinged with confusion, “Oh dear, what can you mean?” she drawled, “As you know Major Benjy and I have not been much involved in society here in our beloved Tilling in recent weeks. Isolated out at ‘Grebe’ we feel more and more outside your smart social circle here in the very heart of things in the town. We lead a much more simple life now and keep ourselves to ourselves”

As Elizabeth spoke, Irene Coles had sauntered unnoticed up the High Street. She stood behind the group and listened to Elizabeth’s protestations. As Elizabeth finished her remarks, Irene removed her briar pipe from her mouth and commented “Oh come off it Mapp; you really are the limit. You’ve just been sulking at ‘Grebe’ since you didn’t get your way over the Queen’s visit. You should be very careful, you know. I for one have quite enjoyed our little break from you. The others probably feel exactly the same, but they’re much too…,” she paused, as she struggled for a sufficiently vituperative adjective, “‘Bourgeois’ - to admit it!”

As ever, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint could summon no immediate riposte for Irene, who invariably held the upper hand in their confrontations. As her husband's was wont to do when perplexed by his spouse, her mouth opened and closed repeatedly, but no sound emerged. Seizing upon the opportunity Irene continued, “You know full well you’ve been invited to the Banquet and jolly lucky you are too. You should be grateful to Lucia for kindly inviting you and should thank her for her generosity – which you don’t deserve at all. You should get down or your knees to beg her forgiveness for always talking behind her back. So there!”

With a laugh Irene took another puff on her pipe and walked off towards Mr Hopkins the fishmongers, swinging her shopping basket back and forth in triumph.

“Such a character, our dear Quaint One.” remarked Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, pale and visibly shaking, “So full of vitality and the outspokenness of youth. She does so like to shock us all. It’s just as well that we know it’s only her fun and that she doesn’t mean a word of it.”

“Oh, I think she does actually, Elizabeth,” responded Diva, “Irene has always been so very loyal to Lucia and can’t bear it if anyone doesn’t treat her exactly as Irene thinks is right and proper.”

“Nonsense, Diva dear” Elizabeth admonished, knowing full well that Diva was entirely correct, but stubbornly resisting her assertion to the very death, “As I said, it’s just Irene’s juvenile wildness yet again. Most people grow out of it much earlier, but it seems our Quaint One is the exception. Perhaps she will become more temperate and ladylike in her language when she has the benefit of the love and support of a good man.”

Upon these words, knowing looks were exchanged between the disbelieving listeners, who to put it mildly, “remained wholly unconvinced”. The general scepticism regarding Elizabeth’s improbable speculation on the prospective mellowing of Miss Coles remained unspoken. Diva did however administer an elegant coup de grace upon the issue by adding simply, “I can’t say that I’ve noticed that the love or support of Major Benjy has had that effect on you, Elizabeth dear.”

Fearing that the conversation was about to encroach upon delicate ground, Elizabeth decided it was time to disclose her position regarding the possible attendance of the Mapp-Flints at the forthcoming Mayoral Banquet. “Where were we? Oh, yes, Diva sweet one, you wanted to know something? Was it about the Mayoral Banquet, perhaps?”

“Yes, Elizabeth, as you well know,” replied Diva testily, “Are you going?”

“Well Diva dear, I haven’t had time to check my diary of engagements as yet - given that our invitation only arrived this morning. Assuming we are not engaged, I shall put my personal feelings to one side and try to support our Mayor - even though I fear it is yet another evening of what the less charitable amongst us might call ‘self -glorification’. Still, I am Mayoress of our dear Tilling and I think it behoves me to support the Mayor, whatever slights and provocations I have had to endure.”

A wave of disappointment spread amongst Elizabeth’s listeners, just as she had known it would. Elizabeth recognised that all the ladies of her circle had canvassed energetically for the position of Mayoress and that if she persisted in “withdrawing to her tent”, her appointment must have been in jeopardy. There would be no shortage of willing candidates for the succession. On this occasion, the balance of advantage, Elizabeth sagely concluded, lay without her metaphorical tent, rather than within.

As the group struggled to overcome its disappointment, the subject of much of the conversation joined her prospective guests, escorted by Georgie, who looked particularly dapper in a striped blazer and boater. 

“Bongiorno a tutti,” exclaimed Lucia with brisk cheerfulness, “How lovely to see you again Elizabeth. Quite well, I trust?”

“Yes, indeed Worship,” simpered Elizabeth unconvincingly, “Thank you for your kind invitation to your… ‘Jubilee’ – what a treat is in prospect for us all. I shall consult my diary and pray first, that I am not engaged and second, that my Benjy boy will allow me to attend. He is so strict. We have become quite the stay-at-homes in recent times and I sometimes find it hard to persuade him to move from our cosy fireside of an evening. He does so like to pore over his diaries after a quiet dinner, but I hope he may be induced to forsake them for just one night - in the interest of civic duty.”

“Quite,” said Georgie, whose credulity had been so stretched as to well exceed its theoretical breaking point, “No doubt you will do your best. We do hope you will be able to join us.”

“Indeed, Mr Georgie,” responded the Mayoress with a  bearing her formidable molars, described by some as “a smile”, “I do hope we will be able to join you to celebrate yet another year of Lucia’s ‘rule’ in Tilling – if that’s what Mayors ‘do’. Whatever it is I’m sure her ‘regime’, or whatever the term is, will be very benevolent and terribly good for us all. Anyway,” she concluded, “I simply must be off or my Benjy boy will wonder where I am and may scold me.”

“That would never do,” commented Lucia dryly, as she and all those assembled tried, and failed, to imagine Major Benjy being allowed to administer any form of tongue-lashing. In the meantime, Elizabeth hastened down the High Street to do battle with Mr Twistevant over the charge for some asparagus which she had deemed not  “comme il faut.” 

As the gathering previously centred upon Elizabeth Mapp-Flint fractured into smaller groups, the band of Mayoresses manquées convened to share commiserations. Whilst Susan Wyse conversed with Diva and Evie, Algernon  spoke discreetly to Lucia in more haste than his usual courtly mode of expression, “Mrs Pillson, I was wondering if you might spare me a few private moments of your precious time later this afternoon; it concerns a matter with which you previously very kindly lent me assistance.”

“Yes, of course, Mrs Wyse,” responded Lucia, intrigued, “I have a meeting with my Town Clerk shortly, but will be free later this afternoon. Would you care to call at four?”

The assignation was thus arranged and the sitting of Tilling’s morning parliament concluded, just in time for luncheon.

As the clock on the Norman tower of the church struck four, Algernon Wyse knocked the front door of “Mallards House”. Greeted by Grosvenor, he was shown into the presence of Lucia in the garden room. Putting down her not-very-well thumbed edition of “The Satires” of Juvenal, Lucia asked her visitor to be seated and offered him tea.

“First of all, thank you dear lady for sparing me a few minutes at such short notice,” he began, with customary courtesy, “I know how busy you always are, and particularly just now with the myriad of arrangements to make for your Mayoral Banquet.”

“It’s always a pleasure to see you Mr Wyse,” Lucia replied soothingly, pouring the tea, “I always say ‘it is just busy people who have time for everything’. So, what can I do for you? I do hope nothing is amiss.”

“I sincerely hope so too, Mrs Pillson,” he replied and added, leaning forward, “But I have been increasingly worried in recent days. You remember our little difficulty some time ago, when you very kindly helped Susan to accept that her budgerigar, Blue Birdie had departed this life and passed fully through the veil over onto the other side?”

“Yes, indeed, I do, Mr Wyse,” Lucia responded, “You don’t mean to say that Blue Birdie has re-materialised, after all this time?” As she spoke Lucia looked directly at the fireplace of the garden room where the partially decomposed cadaver of Blue Birdie had been unceremoniously cremated some months before. Almost smelling the lingering fragrance of burnt feathers, Lucia continued, “Why, I was only thinking how dear Susan was quite her old self nowadays. Pray tell me that the visitations have not recommenced.”

“No, fear not, Your Worship,” Algernon responded, in an effort to reassure, “I am pleased to say dear Susan is fully restored to her former vigour and again enjoying drives in the Royce and her beautiful sables. She continues with her good work for Tilling Hospital, which His Majesty so graciously recognised when honouring her with appointment as Member of the Order of the British Empire. She even finds time to tour our beautiful Sussex lanes once more upon her tricycle.”

“I’m so pleased, but in that case what is the problem?” asked Lucia, somewhat bemused.

“Well,” said Algernon, “After the final séance at Starling Cottage, when you so cleverly convinced dear Susan that her precious Blue Birdie had finally fluttered off its mortal coil and flown over to the other side, we heard no more of spiritualism. Her white shift, the little shrine and other paraphernalia were packed away in a cupboard. I thought ‘that was that’ and our happy life together could resume undisturbed.”

“And hasn’t it?” asked Lucia.

“In many ways it has, dear lady” continued Algernon,” It’s just that a few days ago I found her reading ‘The Spiritualist’s Companion’. It calls itself ‘the monthly journal for those wishing to foster their connection with the other side’. It was concealed within a copy of ‘Sussex County Magazine’. You remember the one with the feature on the smugglers of old Tilling and the pictures of the harbour.”

“Yes, I remember, it well,” Lucia replied, “But what happened next?”

“I asked Susan what she was reading and why she was hiding it from me,” he replied, “And Susan said she was a little embarrassed about it, given her behaviour over the passing of her dear Blue Birdie,” he continued, “She then went on to tell me she had been following a series of articles about the after life and messages from the beyond with a medium, Maud Smythe, known to her many followers as ‘Madam Maud’. She thought she was a very gifted claire-voyante and well-respected in spiritualist circles and had entered into an interesting correspondence with her through her secretary, Mr Black. She showed me some of his letters in which he had taken great pains to put Susan’s many questions to Madam Maud and to detail her replies.”

“I see why you might be concerned Mr Wyse,” said Lucia solicitously, “But so far there has only been correspondence?”

“Yes, Mrs Pillson,” he relied, “But now Mr Black has written to inform Susan that Madam Maud will be holidaying in Eastbourne next week and might be able to find time to visit Tilling for a consultation and to hold a séance at ‘Starling Cottage’”

“How interesting,” said Lucia adding, “And has Susan’s behaviour changed at all? Has there been any sign of her slipping back into her previous over-excited state?”

“No, not at all,” he replied, “In fact, Susan seems even more lucid and happier than ever. I don’t want to make an unnecessary fuss, but I have been so pleased to have my Susan back to her old self and I don’t really want to risk losing her again. What do you think I should do for the best?”

“I can quite understand your concern, Mr Wyse,” Lucia confirmed in the judgmental tone usually reserved for the Bench of Magistrates, “But, as I understand it, dear Susan is calm and enjoying life. She is taking an intelligent interest in the sometimes difficult area of the Hereafter and is consulting an acknowledged authority in the field, which is not, as yet, a crime. I myself am a ‘Warwickshire Smythe’ by birth and perhaps this augurs well for your dealings with Madam Maud: we must hope so.”

Warming to her theme, Lucia continued, “On this occasion, analysis of the facts leads me to conclude that what Lord Liverpool once called ‘masterful inactivity’ might be best. You might even encourage Susan in her proposed consultation and arrange to be present, so as to be doubly assured that the experience is not too taxing for her.”

“A million thanks, dear Mrs Pillson” said Mr Wyse effusively, “I felt certain that you would be able to resolve my perplexity and, as ever, you have not disappointed me. I shall proceed exactly as you suggest. Now I have taken up far too much of your valuable time and shall leave you to your other business.”

“The pleasure has been mine,” replied Lucia as she pressed the bell summoning Grosvenor to show her visitor out, “For what are friends for, if not to help resolve the odd perplexity?  Au reservoir, Signor Sapiente.”

The ensuing days were busy ones in Tilling as fevered preparations continued for the Mayoral Banquet.  For the extravagant minority of ladies in Tilling, new gowns were delivered from London and for the more parsimonious majority, Miss Greele in the High Street was prevailed upon to exercise her skill in dressmaking or alterations at remarkable speed and on very reasonable terms.

For the gentlemen, dress suits were removed from mothballs, sponged and pressed in readiness and decorations burnished until they shone in the late summer sunshine.

Following his counselling from Lucia, Algernon Wyse threw himself into preparations for the visit of Madam Maud and Mr Black. Plans were made for luncheon followed by an informative walk around the principal sights of Tilling and a light tea at Diva Plaistow’s “Ye Olde Tea House”. Hopefully Madam Maud would then give a private consultation at “Starling Cottage” including, if the spirit guides were so-minded, a séance.

Meanwhile, around the corner from Porpoise Street, “Mallards House” in West Street was similarly a hive of activity. Guest bedrooms and a sitting room on the first floor were prepared by Foljambe and Grosvenor working in tandem and suitable books and flowers placed for the enjoyment of Daisy and Robert Quantock.

Once Lucia and Georgie had inspected their guests’ accommodation and pronounced it to be “magnifico” and “bellissima”, to the extreme pleasure of the “domestichi”, the hosts sat down in the garden room over tea and worked out a rough itinerary for their visitors.

“They must have an escorted walking tour of Tilling,” said Lucia.

“Including the view over the town from the church tower,” added Georgie.

“They might also enjoy a round of golf,” continued Lucia, “I gather Daisy still plays – after a fashion.”

“And they might like to travel to the links and back on our steam tram,” observed Georgie, “They don’t have one of those in Riseholme.”

“Absolutely, Georgino,” said Lucia, “And we simply must take them to the Summer Art Exhibition. Also we might bicycle out to one of the Martello Towers or Guestling Castle for a picnic if the weather is fine. I’m sure Mr O’Day will have extra cycles for hire, as he did when Hermione and Ursula last visited”

“We shall have plenty of diversions to occupy them,” responded Georgie, “Not to mention the main event – your Banquet itself. I must say I’m starting to look forward to it enormously.”

Mid-morning on the Friday preceding the Mayoral Banquet, the sleek Bentley of Robert and Daisy Quantock pulled up in front of “Mallards House”. Their parlour maid De Vere, travelling as ladies maid to Daisy, sat in the in front next to the driver Dickie, who had kindly been loaned by his employer Colonel Creswell who had bought Georgie’s house in Riseholme and who was currently holidaying abroad with his sister, Adele Brixton.

Anticipating their arrival, Georgie and Lucia Pillson greeted the guests on the front steps amidst a flurry of kisses, handshakes and animated inquiries regarding health, journey and the weather. Soon all were seated in the garden room, as Georgie put it, “to enjoy a pre-prandial apperativo and to catch up on all the news.”

With her employers thus occupied, De Vere first unpacked their luggage and then set off down West Street to purchase some essential items for her mistress from Twistevants, the greengrocers. After a veritable dietary odyssey, which had taken in the thoroughfares of Vegatarianism and Veganism and the by-ways of Uric Acid, Daisy had for two whole weeks been "strictly Fruitarian" and urgently required additional supplies of whatever delicious fruits of the season were available locally.

A group comprising the Mapp-Flints, Bartletts and Diva Plaistow standing strategically outside the shop of Mr Hopkins, the fishmonger noted with interest the very pretty young woman in black day dress and house maid’s white apron and cap leaving “Mallards House” and click-clacking towards them in heels so lofty as to be rarely seen in sedate Tilling.

“I say,” commented Major Benjy, with unwise spontaneity.

This ill-judged remark earned him a glare of reproof from his wife, who from twenty yards had taken an instant dislike to De Vere, whom she had summarily dismissed as “brazen”. “By their footwear shall ye know them,” she thought, with characteristic decisiveness and lack of charity.

As De Vere crossed Porpoise Street, the elegant and very high, high-heeled court shoes for which she was known, made their first contact with the ancient cobbles for which the streets of Tilling were likewise known. The connection was neither comfortable nor lengthy and, in a split second, one pencil slim heel stuck between two venerable paviours and snapped completely off.

With a cross between a squeal and a shriek (which perhaps amounted to a “squeak”), the unbalanced De Vere tottered first left then right then left again and fell heavily into the outstretched arms of Major Benjy.

“There, there my dear,” said the Major solicitously, “I trust you are alright, Miss. Here let me help you.”

“Oh, thank you Sir,” replied De Vere plaintively. With a well-developed facility for stating the obvious, she continued, “My heel broke on the cobbles and I fell. I think I’ve hurt my ankle.”

At this point Elizabeth Mapp–Flint raised her considerable frame to its full height and exclaimed, “Benjy dear, put the young lady down at once. I’m sure it will be better if we ladies took care of her. What is your name, Miss?”

“De Vere, Mum,” she replied, “I’m maid to Mrs Quantock who is visiting Mr and Mrs Pillson for the Banquet this weekend.”

“I see,” replied Mrs Mapp-Flint, exchanging pointed looks with both Evie Bartlett and Diva Plaistow, “We will help you back to “Mallards” or should I say “Mallards House”, where you can get that ankle attended to. It looks badly sprained to me.”

When the Good Lady Samaritans had returned De Vere to her employer’s care, the inductive reasoning upon which Tilling prided itself came to the fore. Conversation naturally turned to what conclusions should be drawn from the episode involving “such a flighty young thing.”

As might be expected, no positive or flattering inference was drawn regarding the visitors or their hosts. For once, Diva Plaistow enjoyed the penultimate comment upon the subject, “Judging by her leap into Major Benjy’s arms, the young lady seemed intent on benefiting from ‘the support of a good man’, don’t you think Elizabeth?”

As might be expected, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint did not consider this remark in good taste or worthy of a response. Ignoring it entirely, she stumped off towards the Landgate and the road to “Grebe” with her other half in tow, a pace or two behind.

Unusually, the final word that day - albeit behind his wife’s back and under his breath - went to Major Benjamin Mapp-Flint, King’s Indian Lancers (Retired), “Damn fine filly: reminded me of the Pride of Poona at her peak.”

Whilst their friends monitored the arrival of the Quantocks, Algernon and Susan Wyse had been completing preparations for the arrival of their own distinguished guest. As the clock struck one, they stood expectantly on the platform at Tilling Railway Station and awaited the arrival of the 1.03 from Eastbourne. The train arrived on time and a crowd of noisy trippers disembarked and hurried towards the exit.

The Wyses looked anxiously amongst the throng for their visitors and feared that they had either missed the train or slipped through unnoticed. Suddenly, through a massive billow of steam, as the engine hooted shrilly to signal its departure, appeared two dark figures, blurred as though emerging through a mirage in the desert.

Dressed from head to toe in black and covered by a heavy veil was a stout woman of indeterminate age carrying a beaded black reticule and walking with the assistance of an ebony cane.

Accompanying her was a middle-aged gentleman with a pencil moustache and thin metal-rimmed glasses in City garb of dark jacket with pin striped trousers, spats, black tie and winged collar. His ensemble was completed by a bowler hat and furled umbrella. He also carried a large and heavy Gladstone bag in brown leather.

The gentleman seized the initiative and walked up to Algernon and Susan Wyse, raising his bowler hat politely, “Mr and Mrs Wyse, how do you do? So pleased to meet you in person at last: I am Henry Black and may I present Madam Maud.”

At this, his employer inclined her head in an almost regal manner, but remained silent. No expression could be discerned even close-up to her veil which remained steadfastly in place and effectively opaque.

Unsure whether to kneel, kiss her hand or proffer a handshake, Algernon Wyse opted for the safer course of a flowery welcome, “We are so pleased and honoured to make your acquaintance and that you have managed to find time to see us today, Madam Maud, “he said effusively, “It is kind of you to interrupt your well-deserved holiday for our sake.”

“Madam Maud is pleased to be here,” replied Mr Black, “We are at your disposal for the remainder of the afternoon.” 

“We thought we might offer a light luncheon to begin,” continued Susan Wyse leading her visitors to the Royce which waited immediately outside, effectively blocking the station entrance. A degree of congestion had already developed around the stationary vehicle as it normally did when obstructing traffic about the town during morning marketing, which passed for “peak hour” in Tilling.

The Royce returning slowly to “Starling Cottage”, passed Lucia and Georgie Pillson, who had already commenced giving Daisy and Robert Quantock their guided walking tour of the town. When the limousine, usually described by her Mayoress as “a great lumbering bus” went by, Lucia waved and Georgie raised his boater and this was reciprocated by the Wyses.

As the afternoon wore on, the Pillsons and Wyses and their respective parties waved at each other from various vantage points around the town. The Pillsons waved from the top of the church tower, gesticulated from underneath the arch of the Landgate and feigned semaphore from the viewpoint on the belvedere. The Wyses later waved and blew kisses from their table in the window of “Ye Olde Tea House” as the Pillsons and Quantocks walked down the High Street. It became a standing joke that each party was destined to view the other from a distance, but never to actually meet face to face.

Weary, following an energetic afternoon of sightseeing, the Pillsons and Quantocks were looking forward to a short rest before dinner. It had been a busy and eventful day.

Upon their return it emerged that Dr Dobbie had confirmed that De Vere had severely sprained her ankle, as Elizabeth Mapp–Flint had diagnosed. Dickie was despatched to drive her back to recover in Riseholme and to return with Chantal, the Quantock’s under parlour-maid, who would deputise as Daisy’s personal maid for the duration of the visit. Daisy Quantock persisted in regarding herself a free spirit and did not consider that her under parlour maid’s French nationality or alleged atheism, disqualified her from this un-demanding post.

Dickie’s paramount instruction was to ensure that Chantal packed only the most sensible of footwear for her stay – “rubber-soled plimsolls if necessary” – to avoid any further mishaps upon the treacherous cobbles of Tilling. 

As those in residence at “Mallards House” eventually prepared for dinner, the day proceeded to its climax at nearby “Starling Cottage”.

After her initial silence, Madam Maud had become merely reticent at luncheon. As the afternoon wore on, she became pleasantly conversational. At “Ye Olde Tea House” after the Pillsons and Quantocks had passed by, she had grown positively “chatty” and even consented to lift her veil, which admittedly had been interfering with her consumption of tea, jam puffs and Mrs Plaistow’s famous sardine tartlets.   This part of the visit was judged a great success, since not long after enjoying luncheon at “Starling Cottage” Madam Maud had managed to despatch not one but two of Diva Plaistow’s best one and eight penny teas.

Upon returning to “Starling Cottage”, Mr Black advised an anxious Susan and Algernon Wyse that “Madam feels the portents are positive for a séance today.” Her amanuensis was accordingly permitted to make appropriate preparations in the dining room. Curtains were drawn, the table covered and lights lowered “to create the correct milieu for Madam.”

The séance proved absorbing. In the gloom, seated at the dining table, Madam Maud was soon inhabited by the first of her spirit guides, Guillermo, an aged fisherman from a small island close to Capri. “He must have been prompted to make contact by our talk of your sister Amelia and her home there with Count Cecco”, whispered Susan, who was also much impressed with the fluency of Guillermo’s English, remarkable in an unschooled peasant.

After hearing of the current well-being of several di Faraglione of yesteryear, Guillermo receded and Madam Maud was visited by Vanessa, a slave girl from the court of Queen Nefertiti in ancient Egypt.

Despite the disparity in age and girth, Madam Maud conveyed the persona of a dancing girl of fifteen years with remarkable conviction. Hearing of life beyond, Susan could resist the temptation no longer and asked after the welfare of “my sweet Blue Birdie.” She was gratified to learn from Vanessa that her adored former companion was leading a happy and fulfilled after-life.

Heaven, it appeared, was “simply thronged with feathered friends for Blue Birdie” from the prettiest parakeets and sparrows to the grandest of winged archangels. Blue Birdie was pleased to reassure his anxious former owner that he was “terribly busy” and that there was “never a dull moment.”

The séance reached a thrilling conclusion when the room seemed engulfed in the froth and spume of a stormy sea. Susan distinctly felt the wind in her hair, the splash of the spray and her table rocked by the harsh waves. To the surprise of the Wyses, Madam Maud received a visitation from the heroic and lamented heroine Grace Darling, whose bravery all those years ago amidst a wild storm at sea was still much celebrated. After her exertions in revisiting the scene of such courageous feats, Madam Maud sat back in her chair gasping and perspiring visibly. “Not surprising with all that rowing,” whispered Susan sympathetically.

After this dramatic interlude, Mr Black suggested that the visitation be marked with due reverence by rising and singing together “For Those in Peril on the Sea”.  This was done with due solemnity with all present holding hands.

As the last strain of the hymn ebbed away, Mr Black suggested that, “It would be best to give Madam a few minutes to collect herself, following her dialogue with the Beyond.”

Considerate as ever, the Wyses responded that they, “understood perfectly,” and adjourned to their drawing room, leaving Madam Maud in silent contemplation with one finger upon her temple, still breathing heavily.

Once alone with Mr Black, the tiresome earthly issues of expenses and a generous honorarium, “to assist Madam Maud in her important work,” were settled. By the time these mundane tasks were attended to, Madam Maud had fully recovered and re-joined them. Speedy farewells were then bidden with oft-repeated promises to keep in touch and the visitors caught the next train back to Eastbourne.

Catching his breath after the tumult of the preceding afternoon, Algernon commented, “Well, Susan, I think it all went off very well. What an interesting day.”

“Yes, dear,” Susan confirmed,” I’m so pleased that my dear Blue Birdie is happy and enjoying his new… life. It’s been such a worry. After such a day and since we are “a deux”, I do not think we need dress for dinner this evening: something ‘eggy’ on a tray, perhaps?”

“Absolutely, my love” Algernon replied. Thus it was settled.

As the sun rose over Tilling on the morning of the Mayoral Banquet, an active day lay in store for the occupiers, both permanent and temporary, of “Mallards House”.

Over breakfast, Georgie suggested various alternatives and it was agreed that Daisy and Robert would make the most of the fine weather with a round of golf out at the links. This would enable Lucia to attend to official business and preparations for her Banquet before re-joining her guest for luncheon and then spending the rest of the afternoon with them. Georgie discreetly looked forward to a morning at leisure during which he might dust his bibelots, finish embroidering, “those tarsome cherubs,” and ,“pop out to the shops in the High Street to see if there was any news.”

Armed with detailed directions, the Quantocks headed off to catch the 10.06 steam tram to the links. Much as they had enjoyed the company of their hosts – “who could not have been more welcoming and hospitable” – they were relieved to be able to spend some time alone and looked forward to their game in the bracing sea air.

After an interesting round, which had seen both Daisy and Robert explore many of the lesser known regions of the West Course – its bunkers, rough, woods and out-of-bounds - the Quantocks were pleased to reach the eighteenth hole at scores only marginally in excess of two hundred strokes each.

“Better than normal, Robert dear,” said Daisy, who was very pleased with her improved performance.

“Yes, indeed,” he replied, “I think the sea air agrees with us.” Entirely satisfied with their morning’s endeavours, the Quantocks walked carrying their bags of clubs and boarded the waiting steam tram.

As the venerable tram clanked and puffed its way back to Tilling, it was passed in the opposite direction by a bright red fire engine, with bell clanging and helmeted firemen clinging on as it raced along.

By the time it reached the links, the wooden caddies’ hut adjacent to the ninth green, the most distant from the clubhouse on the course, was well alight. Within fifteen minutes, despite the best efforts of the firemen, all that remained of the building and its contents were charred and smouldering ruins.

Back at “Mallards House” the Quantocks and Pillsons exchanged accounts of their respective mornings.

As she consumed several bananas and some melon, Daisy outlined her theory of fading a ball in to the green from the right and how best to use a sand wedge.

Georgie’s interest in and grasp of such jargon was slight and he conversed at completely cross purposes with Daisy since he thought she had been talking about a “sandwich.”

Lucia then outlined progress of preparations for the Banquet next day and Georgie informed those at table of the news gleaned whilst popping out to the High Street just before . It appeared that on the previous evening the Tilling fire service had been called out to deal with emergencies twice. This was unheard of in Tilling and Lucia declared it “a cause for grave concern”.

It was understood that initially a fire had broken out beneath the belvedere close to the centre of the town. Later, another outbreak had occurred in the new shelter by St Hilda’s Cliff which gave a fine view over the town salts and harbour beyond. In both cases paper and other debris had been set alight and the fire had taken hold and spread to the wooden structures, but fortunately the fire service had doused the flames before irreparable damage could take place. Happily, no-one had been injured.

With two incidents taking place in one day, it was clear that deliberate acts of arson were involved and the matters had been referred to the Tilling Constabulary and were being urgently investigated.

Upon hearing this, Daisy exchanged anxious glances with Robert since both remembered only too clearly the unfortunate burning down of Riseholme Museum. Both were aware that this incident was entirely the fault of Daisy who had clumsily spilled paraffin from the heaters used to keep the premises free from damp. Not only had Daisy never been blamed for the conflagration, she and her husband had profited very handsomely from the insurance proceeds. Sadly, being an imaginative, sensitive and fair-minded soul, Daisy contrived to feel pangs of guilt for the outbreaks of fire in Tilling, even though she was entirely unconnected with either and wholly blameless.

Not wishing her guests to become anxious over the wave of incendiarism, apparently exclusively confined to places in the locality that they had just visited, Lucia sought to provide a distraction, “Georgie and I thought we might call in upon the Summer Art Exhibition at our Institute this afternoon. Would you like that?”

“So-called because, ‘Some are Art and some are not,’” remarked Georgie giggling, as though he has just that moment thought of the apercu. 

Missing the pun entirely, Robert replied, “Capital idea; we would enjoy that,” whilst Daisy, who was still preoccupied with news of the out break of arson, only smiled weakly and nodded.

At Lucia and George led their visitors through the door of the Institute. Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, recently restored to the Hanging Committee, sat at a small table by the entrance and exchanged four slim typewritten catalogues for the florin tendered by Georgie.

The usual pleasantries were exchanged with Mrs Mapp-Flint, who politely asked after the health of De Vere following her “nasty fall” and whether the Quantocks were enjoying their stay in “our dear little Tilling”. She established from Lucia that no progress had yet been made by the police in apprehending, “whoever has been responsible for these ghastly fires – first the belvedere, then the shelter and now the caddies’ hut. Whatever will come next?”

As Elizabeth showed signs of becoming even more overwrought regarding the performance of the police and starting again upon the subject of the theft of her apples, Lucia intervened and shepherded her grateful party away from the agitated door-keeper to view the exhibition.

It began with a prominent display of Mrs Mapp-Flint’s own watercolour studies of the marsh-land around her home, “Grebe” at various times of day from dawn to dusk. These employed bold bands of brown, green and blue of differing widths and textures to convey earth, grass, sea or sky.

“Impressionistic” in character, the studies had a consistent style: it invariably involved less than perfect light giving a fuzzy or distorted quality and a complete absence of straight line or perspective. “The school of Mapp-Flint” required negligible drafting skill and a minimum of talent; it applied no rigorous admission requirements and had only one – very mature - student.

“Charming,” muttered Robert, unconvincingly; the party moved on without further comment.

Hung next to Elizabeth’s expressive marshscapes, and providing a stark contrast, were several of Georgie’s much more careful pieces. Having painted detailed depictions of virtually every quaint building with which Tilling abounded, Georgie had turned his attention to saccharine botanical studies and had submitted a set of five, intended as a birthday gift to his wife. Gilt lettering upon on the mount spelt out each title: “Delicious Daffodils”, “Ravishing Roses”, “Heavenly Honeysuckle”, “Beguiling Begonias” and “Gay Gladioli”.

“Quite exquisite and so alliterative,” commented Daisy, without great conviction, as she turned to the next painting.

Georgie explained that, in previous years, the Summer Exhibition had prominently displayed contributions by Tilling’s only professional artist, Irene Coles, “whom Daisy and Robert might remember was once responsible for the Picture of the Year at the Royal Academy”. Typically, they did not.

Undeterred by this want of knowledge, Georgie continued, “Irene had produced a very, shall we say ‘striking’ work featuring her usual model – Mr Hopkins, our fishmonger – au naturel - tres au naturel, in fact - in the role of Atlas bearing the weight of the world upon his straining shoulders. Mr Hopkins represented the oppressed working man and was surrounded by a number of ladies and gentlemen in Victorian garb, apparently attending a garden party, which Irene called ‘useless drones.’”

“The trouble was,” interjected Lucia, “That the faces of the Victorians bore a distinct resemblance to many prominent citizens of today – including our Padre and Mrs Bartlett, the Wyses, Mrs Plaistow and most unfortunately - yet again - the Mapp-Flints”

“To make things worse,” added Georgie, “Irene insisted that the whole of the main hall of the Institute be repainted in lapis lazuli and devoted exclusively to the display of what she called her ‘masterpiece’. She also demanded that all of what she referred to as our ‘amateur daubs’ be consigned to the tiny side room, which was usually used to prepare the teas.”

“So, unfortunately the Hanging Committee was obliged to decline Irene’s submission,” concluded Lucia, “Although in view of my own special relationship with her, I abstained in the vote.”

The Quantocks nodded without comment as their understanding grew of how life in the externally sedate Tilling was red in tooth and claw just below its demure surface.  

Moving on, the visitors learned that this summer, owing to pressure of work at the increasingly successful “Ye Olde Tea House”, its proprietor, Diva Plaistow had been obliged to confine herself to one still life in oils, entitled “Cornucopia”. This featured a plain white china plate on which stood a single savoury rissole and a rather dry-looking sardine tartlet.

“A deceptively simple composition,” Robert remarked.

Algernon Wyse had similarly found time to submit only one work.  It was a pastel portrait entitled “The King of Italy on horseback ~ from memory.” Although the rest of Tilling was prepared to take Mr Wyse upon his word, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint had mischievously produced a copy of “The Illustrated London News.” This contained a photograph of the new official portrait of His Majesty, recently exhibited in Rome, which bore a startling resemblance to the work of Mr Wyse. This led the less charitable to comment, “perhaps he remembered it from the magazine.”

The viewing concluded with several charcoal sketches by Lucia of “Mallards House,” including the frontage and the exterior and interior of the garden room.

On this occasion Daisy was able to comment without irony, “Most accomplished, Lucia dear;” to which Robert added, “A triumphant conclusion to our tour. Thank you so much.”

Pleased that her visitors had shared her own view of the relative merits of the works on display, Lucia suggested that they make haste to return to “Mallards House” to rest and then prepare for her Banquet that evening.
Bidden by their hostess to “partake of una piccolo apperativo,” before their departure for the Reception preceding the Banquet, Daisy and Robert Quantock joined Lucia and Georgie in the garden room.

Compliments flew around the room as Diva admired Lucia’s gown and vice versa. Georgie appreciated the cut of Robert’s dinner jacket and everyone heaped praise upon Georgie’s new bespoke tail coat with red damask linings and matching evening cape with filigree gold chain at the neck.

The evening commenced auspiciously as Georgie deftly opened a bottle of champagne and began to pour. Barely had the gentle reverberation of the “pop” of the cork diminished than a more discordant sound reached their ears. Both couples hastened to the large window overlooking West Street. Above the buildings in the distance was the unmistakable glow of fire against the dim evening twilight.

Lucia summoned Grosvenor and instructed her to, “Pop out to see what is happening and report back immediately.”

Anxious looks and small-talk was exchanged until Grosvenor’s return. Though the minds of all present returned to the fateful night of the incineration of Riseholme Museum, with remarkable tact the word “fire” was not once spoken.

After what seemed an age, Grosvenor reappeared. With her overcoat still draped over her shoulders, she reported breathlessly, “It’s the Institute Ma’am. It’s well alight. The fire engine is right outside and the firemen are trying to get the blaze under control.”

Upon hearing this Daisy Quantock wailed and tottered backwards into the arm chair next to the case in which Georgie’s bibelots were displayed.

“Calm yourself, my dear,” implored a concerned Robert Quantock, rushing to his wife’s side and spilling his champagne in the process.

“Don’t you see?” she sobbed, “We have been in Tilling for less than two days and there have already been four unexplained fires – in each and every case at places where we have visited only minutes before. I know I shall be blamed, but I don’t remember doing anything of the sort. I’ve never had the slightest temptation to set fire to anything; or I don’t think I have. Shall I be sent to prison? What shall become of me?”

As Daisy’s outburst escalated relentlessly towards hysteria, bewildered looks were exchanged between her hapless hosts and spouse. At that point the front door knocker sounded loudly and Grosvenor hurried from the garden room to answer it.

Moments later, Grosvenor announced, “Inspector Morrison to see you urgently Ma’am”.

The Inspector walked into the centre of the room, impressive in the immaculate full dress uniform of the Tilling Constabulary in readiness for that evening’s Banquet. As he turned to speak, his medals tinkled and caught the light of the chandelier overhead.

“I’m sorry to intrude upon you your Worship,” he began, “But I thought it timely to contact you regarding recent disturbing events. I do hope it is convenient to spare me a few moments now?”

“He’s come to arrest me!” wailed Daisy, “Can’t you help me Robert? I don’t remember doing anything wrong!”  

“Do be calm, Daisy” Lucia responded, “If anyone in Tilling can assist, I’m sure it will be Inspector Morrison. Pray continue, Inspector.”    

“Thank you, Your Worship. I will try to be as brief as possible” he replied, “It became apparent that something was amiss yesterday when I received reports of small acts of arson: first, the belvedere and the shelter at St Hilda’s Cliff and today the caddies’ hut at the links and our Institute in the centre of the town”

“Yes, but it wasn’t me!” interrupted Daisy emotionally, “Or at least I don’t think it was. I did set fire to our Museum in Riseholme all that time ago, but that was by accident. I’m not an arsonist – surely if I was I would have remembered! Wouldn’t I?” She again collapsed back in her chair to receive the ineffective comforting of her husband.

“If you will let me continue, Mrs Quantock” the Inspector replied, “I will try to clarify what happened. In addition to the fires, I received a report yesterday morning from Mr and Mrs Wyse”

“Oh yes,” replied Georgie and Lucia, both intrigued

“Mr Wyse reported,” continued Inspector Morrison “That certain items of value, including a silver picture frame, Georgian tankard and pieces of family plate had gone missing overnight”

“But what has this to do with the outbreak of arson?” asked Robert impatiently.

“As it turns out, it has a great deal to do with it,” the Inspector replied good naturedly, “From a few questions to Mr Wyse, we learned that the most recent visitors to “Starling Cottage” had been  Madam Maud and her secretary, Mr Black.”

“Yes, Inspector, we saw them around and about Tilling, but are still unclear about the connection,” said Lucia.

“Well, Ma’am” he replied “When interviewed, the management of the hotel in Eastbourne where Madam Maud and Mr Black were staying, divulged that various guests  had complained that Madam Maud had obtained sums of money from them by means of what were alleged to be ‘faked séances, employing all sorts of trickery’. Furthermore, when we carried out a search this morning, we found the missing valuables of Mr and Mrs Wyse in a suitcase beneath the bed of Madam Maud in her hotel room. We also found a small electric fan, quantities of white muslin and a water spray used in their theatrics.”

“But I still don’t understand. What has this got to do with me and with the fires, Inspector?” asked Daisy.

“This is where it grows more disturbing Mrs Quantock,” replied the Inspector, “It appears that Madam Maud recognised you the very first time she saw you when the Wyse’s Royce passed you on its way from the railway station to ‘Starling Cottage’. This was confirmed by subsequent sightings later that afternoon from the church roof, at the Landgate and from ‘Ye Olde Tea House.’”

“But recognised me from where, Inspector?” asked Daisy.

“Please try to remain calm, Mrs Quantock” suggested the Inspector “You have in fact met Madam Maud and Mr Black before.  I regret to advise you that the real name of Madam Maud is ‘Marie Lowenstein’, a convicted fraudster, whom you once used to know in London and Riseholme as the medium, Princess Popoffski.”

“Good heavens!” exclaimed Daisy.

“And Mr Henry Black was Princess Popoffski’s secretary and aided and abetted her crimes, but then under the name of ‘Hezekiah Schwartz’”, he continued “He and Madam Maud were terrified that you would recognise them and identify them as fraudsters to their newest victims, Mr and Mrs Wyse.”

“Oh, now I see,” Robert remarked as the sequence of events began to fall into place

Inspector Morrison continued, “Knowing through local gossip that you had accidentally burned down the Museum in Riseholme and benefited from the insurance proceeds, Madam Maud and Mr Black tried to find a way to force you to leave Tilling before you recognised them and exposed them as crooks. In criminal jargon,” he continued “they tried to ‘fit you up’ as an arsonist”.  

“And what happened this evening?” asked Lucia.

“Well Ma’am” the Inspector replied “We thought it best to monitor the railway station and an hour or so my men ago arrested Mr Black, Schwartz or whatever he’s called boarding the train to Eastbourne. He was carrying a large Gladstone bag which contained yards of muslin and some old copies of “The Spiritualist’s Companion.”

“And what did that signify?” asked Georgie.

“Our Fire Chief advises me,” replied the Inspector “That charred pages of “The Spiritualist’s Companion” were found at the seat of each of the previous fires and that the arson in the Institute was caused by inserting lengths of muslin thought the letterbox and setting fire to it.”

“Just like a long fuse,” added Robert, who well remembered the extreme flammability of the material. He remembered when he burned large quantities of it in the grate of a bedroom in Riseholme many months before to destroy all trace and evidence of the modus operandi of the fake medium, Princess Popoffski. So flammable had it been that he nearly set fire to the chimney.

“Precisely so, Sir” confirmed the Inspector who continued “So now all appears under control. Madam Maud has been arrested in Eastbourne and charged with numerous offences ranging from fraud, deception and obtaining money by deception to theft and conspiracy to commit arson. It is certain that she will receive a severe custodial sentence this time.”

“And Henry Black or Hezekiah Schwartz?” asked Daisy

“He too has been arrested as he boarded the train in Tilling and charged with all those offences,  including conspiracy with his employer, plus several counts of arson itself. He also evaded paying his train fare from Eastbourne. He will certainly go to prison for what he no doubt would call ‘a long stretch.’”

“I think it has something to do with ‘porridge’ or ‘gruel’ or something nasty like that”, said Georgie, wishing to contribute to the discussion, but finding himself on unfamiliar ground. He then continued more confidently, “And what about the Institute?”

“Good news, I think, Mr Pillson,” answered the Inspector, “The fire damage was relatively superficial with no major structural harm. I gather it will re-open after being dried out and re-decorated. Our firemen even managed to rescue all the art work exhibited on the walls – other than those of Mrs Mapp-Flint, close to the door where the fire began.”

“Most unfortunate: such a loss,” replied Lucia, who wisely chose to avoid exchanging glances with Georgie, when uttering this untruth.

“Look at the time,” exclaimed Lucia, “We are due at the Kings Arms Hotel for the Reception prior to the Banquet in ten minutes. We must fly.”

“Indeed, Your Worship,” replied Inspector Morrison, I can go there directly from here since Georgie and Per are escorting Mrs Morrison to meet me there.”

“In that case,” replied Lucia, “I have only two further tasks for you this evening. First please accept the thanks of us all for resolving the dreadful difficulties we have faced over the past few days. Secondly, whilst my husband accompanies Mr and Mrs Quantock, perhaps you would kindly escort your Mayor from ‘Mallards House’ to the Reception?”

Taking the Mayor’s arm in his, Inspector Morrison bowed and replied smiling, “Of course, Your Worship, but how you work me!”  

THE END


Copyright 2011 Deryck Solomon. All rights reserved in appropriate territories

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