Saturday, 1 January 2011

The Ruthless Blackmailer


The ancient walled town of Tilling, nestling picturesquely on its hill overlooking the coast, had been recognised for decades by many gentlefolk as a pleasant and refined place in which to make their homes in retirement.

Though never aspiring to be anything quite so vulgar as “the jewel of the English Riviera”, Tilling modestly accepted its special status as “the bibelot of the Costa Geriatrica” in Sussex.

For a small borough, Tilling managed its public affairs efficiently and with a degree of style. Its civic plate was proudly displayed and its Corporation processed in full regalia (including a striking mace) at every opportunity.

Regular civic pageantry was cannily recognised to add to the “quaint charm” of the town and thereby increase its appeal to visitors, upon whom the prosperity of many Tillingites depended.

Much of the Borough’s arcane ritual took place in or about the Kings Arms Hotel in the High Street. Its balcony was considered to provide a better view for onlookers than the steps of the Town Hall and to add an important note of theatricality. Accordingly, it was from this prominent vantage point that official proclamations regarding royal or national events were read by the Mayor, wearing a traditional tricorn hat and robe trimmed with ermine.

From this balcony, the results of elections were announced and the Mayor threw heated pennies to the scrabbling urchins below on high days and holidays. Unfortunately, on the last such occasion, the Mayor’s Sergeant had been somewhat over-zealous in heating the coinage, resulting in squeals of discomfort from the ungrateful tots and threats of litigation from various opportunistic parents.

On the evening of 8th. September 1934 the Kings Arms Hotel was the venue for a Mayoral Banquet. The gathering was to celebrate the second term as Mayor of Tilling of Mrs Emmeline Pillson. Mrs Pillson, the first female to hold the august office.
                         
The Mayor – known to her intimes in the highest echelons of society as “Lucia” - arrived at the Reception for the Banquet with Tilling’s senior police officer Inspector Herbert Morrison.

As Lucia made her entrance, smiling benignly to all as she slowly passed through the Hall, a round of polite applause arose spontaneously from the assembled guests.

Since this was in every sense “her” evening, Lucia assumed that the applause was a demonstration of affection and respect for their Mayor upon her arrival. In fact the company had heard of a dramatic success earlier that day of Inspector Morrison and his force.

Tilling Constabulary had apprehended a fraudulent medium, known as Madam Maud, who preyed upon the impressionable and wealthy. In this instance, her intended victims had been Susan and Algernon Wyse of Tilling.  They had also arrested her accomplice who, for complex motives, had also been responsible for four cases of arson in the neighbourhood, the most recent of which had nearly resulted in the destruction of Tilling’s Institute.

A general relief that the arrests marked the end of what amounted in peaceful Tilling to a veritable crime wave added to the pleasure of the guests in anticipating an enjoyable evening.

The Banquet Committee formed by the Mayor to organise the event had worked hard to make the occasion as novel as possible. One of its innovations was the engagement of a professional toastmaster to supervise the event, introduce speakers and perform the varied duties implicit in his calling. 


Through an advertisement in the Mayor’s copy of “The Lady” magazine, the Banquet Committee had become aware of a leading practitioner in this field, Mr Maltravers McGrath. Indeed Mr McGrath was noted to be current Chairman of the International Guild of Toastmasters and Hospitality Facilitators.

With military bearing and handlebar moustache, Maltravers McGrath orchestrated the proceedings from the very start. All guests were announced upon arrival, preceded by a loud tap of his ornate wooden gavel. Immaculate in red tails, white dress shirt with winged collar and white bow tie, Mr McGrath combined authority with showmanship most impressively.

Bunty Morrison, the wife of the Inspector, arrived at the reception escorted by longstanding friends, brothers Georgie and Per, who happened to be the Town Surveyor and Foreman of its Gas Works.

The ebullient twins were also Councillors and members of the Banquet Committee chaired by local greengrocer Harold Twistevant. Neatly dressed in identical dinner jackets and black bow ties, they cheerfully delivered their charge to her husband.

“We took good care of her Herbert, old chap” said Per.

“In fact, we were tempted not to hand Bunty over and all and keep her all to ourselves for the evening,” added Georgie.

“ Not a good idea old son – if you don’t want to be arrested,” rejoined Herbert dryly, “I’ve been doing quite a lot of that today, so watch out.”

At this point Bunty coughed, to signify that she was actually present.

 “You look wonderful dear,” said the Inspector kissing his wife on the cheek.  Bunty, elegant in a long evening gown of watered silk with her hair pinned up and a simple pearl choker at her neck, smiled demurely and Herbert continued, “Time for a glass of champagne for us all, don’t you think?”

Georgie Pillson, husband of the Mayor was next announced with Robert and Daisy Quantock. Georgie approved enthusiastically of the introduction of a toastmaster and smiled broadly as his name and that of his guests from Riseholme was announced in ringing tones.

Resplendent in his new dress suit with crimson lining in damask, topped with opera cape, top hat and ebony cane, Georgie felt on top of the world. He blew discrete kisses and gave jaunty waves to acknowledge his many friends about the room – as befitted Tilling’s eternal “jeune premier”. Georgie was pleased to accept compliments upon his new ensemble, which he agreed entirely was “Just too divino.”

After the stress inflicted by Madam Maud’s henchman – dubbed in the late special edition of the “Hampshire Argus” as “the Phantom Arsonist”- the Quantock’s were in relaxed mood and looking forward to the evening. They soon accepted glasses of champagne and were thrust into a round of introductions starting with the Padre and Evie Bartlett, whose rather drab evening frock was ingeniously praised by George as “a veritable symphony of beige.”

The Padre explained his full clerical attire by confirming that he represented the spiritual authorities and admitted, “Aye, this is partly a working evening for me, ye ken, since Yon Worship has done me the singular honour of asking me to deliver grace before dinner.”

It occurred to Georgie that with his eye upon his “baubees,” as he was often wont to do, the Padre had taken the precaution of turning attendance at the function into an official duty, thus rendering the “ruinous cost” of the tickets wholly and entirely deductible against the equally ruinous income tax. As it happened, Lucia had removed the possibility of any embarrassment over the issue by generously inviting the Bartletts as her guests at her own expense. Thus were the Padre’s prayers answered, though by an oversight the cost of the tickets still appeared as a deduction upon his Income Tax for that year.

The stentorian tone of the toast master then again boomed out to announce the arrival of Miss Irene Coles.

Though normally designated “Quaint Irene” in conservative Tilling, this evening the bohemian, Germanophile Miss Coles could more aptly have been described as “striking”.

Descending the staircase at the entrance alone, Irene looked stunning in a beautifully cut gentleman’s two-piece suit in ivory barathea with matching men’s brogues, white shirt with soft collar and a silk tie. On her head she wore an ivory beret covering her Eton crop at a jaunty angle.

                                    

Unusually for the boyish Irene, this evening her macquillage was very much in evidence and strikingly comprised a shimmering pale foundation set off by dark kohl eyes and a slash of vivid vermillion lips.

Forsaking her usual pipe, Irene sported a long cigarette holder in mother of pearl, which she wielded like a conductor’s baton to emphasise points and took lengthy draughts from Balkan sobranies in pastel hues. The elegant effect was only slightly diminished by her customary pint tankard of frothing stout, held in her other hand.

Hastening to her side, Georgie was first to compliment Irene on the cut of her suit and to inquire as to the identity of her tailor. He soon learned that Irene’s “look”, as she put it, had been inspired by a photograph in “The London Illustrated News” of the German cinema artist Miss Dietrich boarding the S.S. Bremen bound for New York. All agreed that the ensemble was very glamorous and rather advanced “for our little Tilling,” but Georgie made a mental note to consider substituting a dashing ivory or cream beret for his habitual tam o’ shanter when the autumn days grew cooler.

Diva Plaistow was announced next, rather grandly as “Mrs Godiva Plaistow.” Looking positively skittish, she favoured a marcel wave and wore a surprisingly sophisticated gown in duck egg blue – which Miss Greele had assured her, was, “Cut on the bias, just like Molyneux in London.”

Diva did not know what the term meant, but took her word for it, since Miss Greele was the authority on matters of fashion in the town. She had however seen a picture of Miss Gertrude Lawrence in a similar garment in “Picture Post” and wanted to look as much like her as was practicable, considering that she was shorter by a good two feet and about the same distance greater about the beam.

                                                 
Diva’s ensemble was topped off – literally - by a jaunty feathered head-dress which she referred to throughout the evening as “my fascinator” – a term new to Tilling and not quite living up to its nomenclature.

The Wyses arrived shortly after Diva, in the best of humours. Algernon spent an inordinate time bowing to everyone in the room beginning with his hostess and Inspector Morrison.

As usual, Susan persisted in wearing her sable until the very last minute, when dinner was announced.

The Wyses were happy and relieved that Madam Maud and Henry Black had been apprehended and soon made the fastest of friendships with the Quantocks whom they were delighted to learn would be adjacent at dinner.

Susan and Daisy discovered they had several enthusiasms in common - including particularly the Hereafter and they enthused excitedly over séances, planchette and automatic writing.  Daisy lost no time in waxing lyrical to Susan about her latest dietary enthusiasm and the benefits of rigid Fruitarianism.

As men of property, Algernon and Robert found they also had much in common and Robert was soon elaborating upon his approach towards the management of his portfolio of investments. His holdings went beyond conventional shares and included Christmas trees in the Western Isles, French first growth clarets and esoteric financial instruments ranging from pork belly futures in the southern United States to guano derivatives in Peru.

Algernon soon broke off to make a note in his diary of Roumanian Oils recommended to him in the strongest terms by Robert. Although Robert had “got on the bandwagon very early on” he still felt the stock had “plenty of legs on it yet.”

Algernon was not entirely sure what this meant, but it sounded like a good thing and certainly had “more potential upside” than his present exceedingly dull 3 % Treasury Stock 1939.

As was her habit, the Mayoress of Tilling appeared last of all. Having asked for their names upon arrival, the toastmaster announced, “Major Benjamin Flint, Kings Indian Lancers, Retired and Mrs Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, Mayoress of Tilling.”

The Mistress of Grebe swept into the room with a flurry of tiger hairs from the redundant rug used with ingenious parsimony to re-trim her crocheted woollen evening shawl and headband.

As Major Benjy strode in he gave off a strong whiff of mothballs from his tail suit which no amount of airing by Withers had been able to dispel. Considerate as ever, he had set about an attempt to mask the odour with several surreptitious chota pegs in the dining room at "Grebe" whilst his normally vigilant spouse had been distracted by her toilette. Now he had arrived, however, Major Benjy had scurried to the farthest corner of the room, rather than his usual modus operandi of making a beeline for the drinks tray whilst his good lady was “meeting and greeting.”

Elizabeth Mapp-Flint moved regally from one group of friends to another bestowing genial “How de do’s.” The Mayoress smiled broadly disclosing a formidable array teeth in a way calculated to charm and ingratiate. Unfortunately, this sudden display of dazzling dental profusion generally had the opposite effect and unsettled and threatened those confronted with it. They were somewhat mesmerised as a mouse might be when caught in the gaze of a cobra.

Noting that the company appeared complete, Georgie turned to Lucia and whispered, “Lucia, dear, I have a teensy ‘ickle surprise for ‘oo. I do hope ‘oo will be pleased with your Georgino.”

Lucia looked quizzically at her husband remained silent for the chatelaine of "Mallards House" was not overly fond of surprises –‘ickle or otherwise. A lifetime at the head of affairs had taught Lucia that rigid control at all times was the best policy and being subjected to the unexpected - however well –intentioned – did not comply with this standard.

Before Lucia could respond, Georgie nodded to the toastmaster who bellowed in the deepest basso profundo, “My Lords, Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Olga Bracely.”

Shimmering in a gown of purest white satin with a diamond choker sparkling in the light, Olga appeared at the top of the stairs.  Georgie gasped at this vision of loveliness and led those standing below in a spontaneous burst of applause as the diva descended the staircase – just like her curtain call at Covent Garden.

Throughout this veritable Annunciation, Lucia remained silent. Tight-lipped and gimlet-eyed, she lightly touched one gloved hand to another in a tepid approximation of applause as the tumult continued around her.

Walking up to her hostess, Olga resisted the temptation to curtsy, but warmly kissed Lucia and Georgie on both cheeks in the continental fashion, “Lucia, darling, how lovely to see you,” she cried, “I do hope you will enjoy our little surprise and not be too cross with Georgie. As a leading lady myself, I know it can be tiresome it is to be upstaged. But this is your night Lucia and no-one shall steal even a teensy bit of your thunder. Georgie has just asked me to share your celebration and perhaps sing a song or two after dinner.”

“That will be lovely Olga dear” trilled Lucia insincerely, reminding herself to forbid Georgie to arrange any ‘ickle surprise – ever again.

“Thank heavens for that,” murmured Elizabeth to Diva, “At least we should be saved from yet another of Worship’s never-ending renditions of the “Moonlight Sonata” tonight. Things are looking up.”

As the clamour created by the surprise arrival of Olga Bracely abated, the toastmaster announced that dinner was about to be served and prayed that “Honoured guests make their way into the Banqueting Hall.”

Amidst much consultation of seating diagrams and checking of name cards the guests located their designated places and awaited the arrival of the top table.

In keeping with local practice, the Padre and his good lady led the procession to rhythmical clapping from the hall. They were followed by The Mayoress and Major Benjy, Olga, the Wyses and Quantocks with Diva and Irene at the rear. With Diva’s fascinator swaying as she walked and Irene’s masculine attire, their pairing did not look entirely out of place.

As the advance party reached the top table, a further innovation in this year’s Banquet became apparent. Four liveried buglers marched onto the small balcony overlooking the hall – where Elizabeth Mapp-Flint had been obliged to sit in solitary splendour the year before.

As the buglers raised their instruments to their lips, the toastmaster announced, “My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen pray remain standing and welcome Her Worship the Mayor of Tilling, Mrs Emmeline Pillson and Mr George Pillson.”

After the fanfare had echoed around the hall Lucia, with her hand resting upon Georgie’s, just as Queen Victoria’s had upon the strong arm of Prince Albert at the opening of the Great Exhibition, entered to yet more rhythmical clapping from those she benignly considered her subjects.

“Good grief, anyone would think she was the Queen of Sheba,” muttered the Mayoress with typical disloyalty, “At least we should be grateful she doesn’t have handmaidens dancing about casting rose petals for her to walk on”

“Next year perhaps, dear” giggled Diva

The Padre’s Grace in some ways bore an oral resemblance to the flags of all nations produced by conjurors at children’s parties. Each corner of the kingdom was represented in the accents employed beginning with archaic Scots followed by an Irish brogue. After a discernible Welsh lilt, he concluded in a received English pronunciation that would have done justice to the BBC.

Gastronomically, the highlight of the meal was inevitably Lobster a la Riseholme, eaten with due reverence and apparently rapt concentration by those intimes who understood the true significance of the dish. By fixing their attention upon their plates, each was able to avoid any embarrassing eye contact with either of the protagonists who went to sea on an upturned table from the kitchen of Grebe on Boxing Day 1930.

Daisy Quantock had considerately been provided with a repast able to satisfy the rigorous standards of her strict Fruitarianism. Upon Lucia’s instructions, Daisy’s dinner included an inventive Banana Soup, a novel Melon Bonne Femme and a positively ground-breaking Pineapple Wellington. Daisy pronounced all the dishes “absolutely delicious” and was touched that her hostess had been considerate enough to make such special provision for her.

As the evening progressed, Elizabeth Mapp–Flint, who was used to monitoring her husband’s consumption of alcohol like a hawk, was surprised to note his wine glass remained untouched.

Shocked by this unprecedented abstinence, Elizabeth grew concerned and asked, “Are you feeling quite well Benjy dear? You’ve not touched your hock or the claret. Whatever’s the matter?”

Without looking up, Benjamin Mapp-Flint continued to sit with his head bowed resting his head in his hand thus partially concealing his face, “Just a slight headache old girl,” he replied, “Nothing to worry about - best just to leave me be.”

Although rarely if ever “dutiful” as such, Elizabeth did as she was bid and, still somewhat bemused, gave her full attention to the evening’s speeches.
            
After the health of The King had been drunk, a toast to the Guests was proposed by Mr Twistevant, who had chaired the small but effective Banquet Committee. As he rose to speak, more than one person present commented upon the prominence of his name in the Banquet programme, compared particularly to the Mayor in whose honour the event was after all being held. Lucia’s name was barely legible by comparison.


This irony was not lost upon the Mayoress who looked pointedly at Lucia and loudly remarked, “Such a pretty programme Worship and such clear lettering. Dear Mr Twistevant’s name is so bold and clear. The font is just like that on Mr Georgie’s sweet little memorial, don’t you think?”

Elizabeth’s dagger went home, but Lucia did not wince. Placing her hand upon her temple to convey concentration upon Mr Twistevant’s speech, the Mayor did not find it necessary to respond to her Mayoress.   

Unaware of this bone of contention, Mr Twistevant continued. Due praise was heaped upon the distinguished company, prominent in so many fields with particular mention made of the world-renowned prima donna Miss Olga Blakely, who it was hoped would honour all those assembled with a short performance later in the evening. This aspiration was greeted with a general round of “hear, hears” and much tapping of the table with consequent rattling of glassware and cutlery.

As was to be expected from Tilling’s leading tradesman and slum landlord, Mr Twistevant spoke highly of the quality and value represented by his own wares. He also warned of the perils of rampant socialism represented by efforts to remove many of the picturesque and historic dwellings about the town which afforded accommodation at reasonable rents for the lower orders under the false banner of so-called “slum clearance.”  

After the health of The Guests had been drunk, Mr Twistevant sat down to moderate applause. Elizabeth hissed to Diva, “Pure self-promotion. Money couldn’t buy such advertisement.”

“Quite right, dear,” Diva replied, “That man should look to the quality of his soft fruit before he presumes to lecture us on the dangers of communism – or anything else!”

The banqueting chamber then again resonated with the clipped phrases of the toastmaster, “My Lords Ladies and Gentlemen pray silence for your Mayor, Mrs Emmeline Pillson.”

Impressive in her Mayoral robe, Lucia acknowledged her introduction with the merest hint of a nod and flicker of a smile. Rising to her feet, she turned this way and that to accept the gentle applause. As she did so, her chain of office reflected the light from the chandelier and wall sconces and sparkled.

In preparing her speech Lucia had determined that it should be wide-ranging. Accordingly she undertook a comprehensive review of the events of the past year. As it became only too apparent that they were “in for a long haul”, many in her audience much appreciated the substantial supplies of fine brandy and liqueurs on hand.

Lucia began by stressing her continuing belief in the sensible expenditure by her council to improve street lighting, sanitation and remove slum dwellings. Naturally this prompted much not very sotto voce grumbling from Mr Twistevant and remarks regarding the “Monstrous burden upon the ratepayer” from Elizabeth Mapp-Flint.

“My husband and I have been very pleased,” Lucia continued, “to make our own personal contribution to our newly-adopted home since coming here to beautiful Tilling from the Midlands a few years ago”

“The woman’s a parvenu,” muttered Elizabeth under her breath to no-one in particular, adding, “She certainly ‘adopted’ my home...stole if from under my nose and moved in.”

“Mr Pillson and I have tried to express our gratitude for the warm welcome we have received by giving something back to your community,” continued Lucia.

“Funny that,” thought Georgie, as he carefully peeled a grape, “I don’t remember ever being consulted about any donations. I do like the lining of this jacket: too divine. I wonder if they do it in fuchsia.” 

Unaware of her husband’s thoughts, Lucia proceeded, “We have already been pleased to fund improvements to the Church organ, the football and cricket pitches, the steps by the church and to plant the beautiful almond tress that now adorn the slope below our ancient town wall
                      
“To celebrate this marvellous evening and to further cement our future commitment to Tilling, I would like to take this opportunity to announce two further gifts to the people of the town,” Lucia added, “First my husband and I will be willing to fund the reconstruction of the recently damaged shelter at St Hilda’s Cliff.”

This suggestion as greeted with an appreciative, though gentle, round of applause, whilst Georgie sighed and thought resignedly, “Looks like no holiday on the Riviera for us this year.”

Pleased at the warmth with which this news had been received, Lucia carried on, “The visitors which are the life-blood of Tilling will again be able to enjoy the view down over the Town Salts towards the old harbour fully protected from the elements.”

“I wonder what’s coming next,” Diva whispered.

“A life-size bronze statue of our dear Worship perhaps?” replied Elizabeth sarcastically.

“Secondly,” she went on, “Like everyone, I was distressed to see the damage caused to our beautiful Institute by the recent arson attacks.”

“I certainly was,” commented Elizabeth bitterly, “All my beautiful watercolours were destroyed – every single one. No-one else’s you notice – only mine.”

Breaking off from her theme of her own largesse, Lucia turned to Inspector Morrison and added, “At this point, I am sure you would all like to join me in thanking our Inspector Morrison and his force for their sterling work in apprehending the arsonist today and bringing him to justice. Pray stand Inspector.”

Embarrassed, the Inspector stood and self-consciously acknowledged the enthusiastic applause which rang around the hall with a cry from Per of “Good old Herbert!”

“I think it is important to try always to turn adversity into advantage,” Lucia commented with a lowering of pitch that she invariably employed to convey gravitas, “I have therefore offered to our Council to fund the repair and refurbishment of our Institute plus the construction of an additional wing to accommodate a permanent collection of works of art connected to our historic town.”

“I think I can guess what’s coming,” commented Elizabeth grimly.

“Your Council have given a preliminary indication that it is minded to accept my offer,” said Lucia, adding, “They have however stipulated a strict condition that the new extension shall be named in perpetuity ‘The Emmeline Pillson Wing.’ Whatever my personal feelings and however reluctant I might be, my sense of duty towards our dear Tilling obliges me to accept and bow to their wishes.”

“I knew it,” groaned Elizabeth, “Tilling will be renamed ‘Pillson-on-Sea’ before long, you mark my words.”

As Elizabeth reeled with this news, Lucia applied her coup de grace, “And to get the collection off to the best of starts, I am pleased to confirm the loan to it in perpetuity of the stunning Mayoral portrait by outstanding local artist Miss Irene Coles. I am thrilled that as an irrevocable condition of the endowment, this outstanding work will be on permanent display in Tilling’s new gallery.”

As more applause greeted these comments, Irene Coles stood unasked and bowed and waved to each corner of the hall until it was suggested that she sit down.

Meanwhile, the Mayoress stared glassily ahead, for once speechless, whilst Georgie peeled another grape and thought, “No holiday on the Riviera next year either: how tarsome!” 

Lucia completed her peroration and sat to a standing ovation from grateful Tillingites, save for the Mapp-Flints who remained seated with unwavering fixed smiles, whilst offering the gentlest of applause.

Finally, Algernon Wyse was pleased to give a brief, elegant but heartfelt speech which amounted to a paean of praise for “the benefactress brought to the coast of Sussex as though by Divine Providence, whom all Tilling has taken to its heart.”

Despite lengthy protestations, Lucia savoured every flattering syllable of the delicious encomium heaped upon her. The Mayor’s triumphant evening was complete.

All too soon the toasts and speeches had concluded and the toastmaster prayed silence for Miss Olga Bracely.  Beautiful, simple and sincere, Olga sang divinely.

After Olga’s third encore the proceedings drew to a close, well after .

As Elizabeth was engaged in one final conversation with Diva, the toastmaster touched an unusually quiet Major Benjy on the arm and took him to one side, saying “I say old man, I thought I recognised you. Isn’t it Benjy Flint, good old ‘Sporting Benjy’ of the Kings Indian Lancers?”

Unusually flustered, Benjy avoided eye-contact and replied, “No I’m afraid not; never seen you before in my life. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must escort my good lady wife home. Good night to you.”

Without joining in the extended farewells that usually marked such occasions in Tilling, Benjy urged, pushed and ushered his spouse out of the portals of The Kings Arms and down the road towards the Land Gate and the road to Grebe.

“Really Benjy, I was trying to say goodnight to everyone,” complained Elizabeth, “We must have looked quite rude, rushing off like that. Whatever was the problem? I don’t know; you really haven’t been yourself all evening.”

“Just a little tired, Liz old girl, that’s all,” said Benjy and completed the long treck to Grebe in silence. As they walked Elizabeth gave voice to a loud and lengthy monologue which amounted to diatribe concerning Lucia, her dress, speech, largesse and pretensions and failed completely to notice that her spouse uttered not a word more.
                                              
As the Mapp-Flints completed their route march to Grebe, the Pillsons were making the shorter journey up the stairs at Mallards House. As they stopped outside his bedroom, Georgie opening the door, turned and said, “Lucia, one last thing about this evening: did you notice Major Benjy?”

“I think so dear,” replied Lucia, “He’s not really of a size that you could easily miss him is he?”

 “No, don’t tease; you know full well what I mean,” said Georgie, “I mean, did you notice anything, shall we say, ‘unusual’?”

“Well now you come to mention it,” responded Lucia playfully, “I did observe that he was unusually shall we say ‘abstemious’ tonight.”

“You might as well say it, Lucia,” urged Georgie, “You mean he was as sober as a judge. He usually manages to get rather tight on these occasions. I kept my eye on him and I have to say I didn’t see him touch a drop all night.”

“Really,” said Lucia, “I hadn’t thought it possible. The wines were satisfactory were they not?”

“Oh yes, delicious,” responded Georgie.

“Then do you think Benjy was unwell?” asked Lucia

“He looked fine to me,” said Georgie, “Perfectly well apart from that lingering odour, but I put that down to the mothballs.”

“Perhaps Elizabeth has forced him to sign the pledge?” wondered Lucia, “How very interesting. We must put it to everyone when we see them after church tomorrow and see if anyone else noticed. Buona notte, Georgino mio.”

“Buona notte, Lucia,” replied Georgie.                              
   
Sunday morning dawned sunny and dry with a pleasant on-shore breeze. Breakfast was served to the Pillsons, Quantocks and Miss Bracely at Mallards House in time to enable attendance at morning service at 10.30.

Over breakfast, everyone rejoiced that Madam Maud and that horrid Mr Black had been brought to book, but agreed to move on from that unhappy interlude.

A round of congratulations ensued. Naturally, everyone praised Lucia for the success of her Banquet, which all felt had been a sheer delight

Everyone also congratulated Olga for her performance at the end of the evening. It was unanimously agreed that she “had never sung more divinely.”

Olga modestly waved aside the plaudits and said she had missed hearing Lucia’s rendition of “The Moonlight Sonata”. Her remark was greeted with silence until Lucia asked if further toast was required.

Next, all present complimented Georgie upon his new tail suit. Thoroughly enjoying the moment, Georgie blushed to his very roots, or what would have been roots, if it had been bestowed upon him by the Lord rather than by Messrs. Colfax & Porter, of Kensington, "tonsorial accouterers to the gentry,” as modified by his peripatetic  hairdressser, the discreet and estimble Mr Holroyd.

After breakfast, the first couple of Tilling and their guests hastened to attend Sunday service in the Norman church

The Padre gave a heartfelt, yet opaque, sermon addressing what he condemned as “twin evils”. One evil was “an ungodly imposition and restriction of liberty” and the other illustrated “Man’s undisciplined folly.”

First to be exposed was British Summertime which “interfered in an ungodly manner in the natural passage of time, which after all was finally all that separated Man on Earth from his Maker.”

Secondly – or in tandem, so to speak - the Padre vented his outrage against “the evil and insidious threat to civilisation of riding bicycles without lights after dark upon the public highway or, even worse, upon the footpath. This wicked recklessness,” he fulminated “posed a threat to the physical and very moral well being of Tilling.”
                                             
The congregation was attentive as ever. Elizabeth Mapp-Flint sat with her husband in her usual prominent pew. In the sermon she gave her invariable impression of listening intently, with her head slightly bowed, one hand cupping her elbow and with a pointed finger of the other hand resting contemplatively upon her temple.

This “attitude”, partially borrowed from Lucia, had been practised and perfected in the bathroom mirror at Grebe. It was intended to convey rapt concentration with intellectual rigour, softened by a womanly humility and piety. It did not entirely succeed, since most observers interpreted her expression as conveying an irritable scepticism combined with digestive difficulties. In reality, the observers were nearer the truth.

After church the congregation filed out through the West door shaking the hand of the Padre and expressing their thanks.

Divine Service, Vicar,” said Olga, to suppressed laughter from Georgie, who was always reduced to schoolboy giggles by Olga’s puns, particularly when only he recognised them.

Olga rendered Georgie entirely helpless when she artlessly complemented the Padre upon his church, remarking, “Such a heavenly perpendicular window and such gorgeous flying buttocks, Your Grace.”

Lucia quickly stepped in to restore decorum by substituting reference to “buttresses” and “Padre” and apologised for her guest’s “ignorance of the terminology of ecclesiastical architecture and rank.”
                                           
It’s the artistic temperament you know, Padre,” Lucia explained, “Fortunately Miss Bracely’s peerless operatic talent compensates for her lack of knowledge in other fields.”

Aye ‘tis sure Maistress Pillson,” responded the Padre, who like a deaf schoolmaster had in any event failed to notice the rather weak joke in the first place.

When all the handshakes had been undertaken and thanks bestowed, the usual circle had developed in the churchyard, just outside the south transept.

Unusually the Mapp-Flints had hastened off in the direction of Grebe after thanking the Padre and did not participate in the usual post-sacramental exchanges.

Their absence was naturally commented upon as “unusual” and then the inductive reasoning in which the central group in Tilling excelled sprang into action.

As might be expected in a town where powers of observation and deduction often shamed those of Sherlock Holmes, all remaining had noticed and been surprised by Major Benjy’s abstinence throughout the previous evening.

He came in smelling of mothballs and scotch as usual,” commented Diva,"But he barely touched drop all evening.”

Nor afterwards did he stop cars in the High Street, direct the traffic or ask to see anyone’s driving licence,” added Georgie,

Nor even did he say that anyone was a “Damn fine woman” or that anyone reminded him of the Pride of Poona at all. And I thought we all looked in particularly good order last night,” said Diva, with a surprising note of disappointment.

Perhaps he felt unwell?” inquired Algernon Wyse charitably.

Illness wouldn’t normally put him off his stroke” commented Diva, less so, “Perhaps Elizabeth forbade him wine. She’s the only one he’s really frightened of. I wouldn’t put it past her.”

Well, we shall have to wait and see, it seems,” said Lucia, who had decided to remain above the unseemly but fascinating speculation, “Perhaps anyone finding the answer to this puzzle will pass it on when we next meet?”

All agreed to share such illumination as emerged and, after bidding each other a pleasant Sabbath, dispersed.

                          
After a pleasant farewell luncheon, Robert and Daisy Quantock and Olga Bracely departed. Lucia and Georgie stood on the steps of Mallards House side by side and waved their guest off. As the last vehicle had turned the corner of West Street into Porpoise Street, they turned sadly to each other and, without speaking, sighed and shrugged their shoulders.

It had been a thrilling weekend. Now it was over and they were alone for a moment or two, they almost felt bereaved.

Lucia being Lucia, however, would have none of this. “Buck up” Georgie she said, “We shall have some tea and then cheer ourselves up with some divino Mozartino!”

Although he would have preferred to sit alone for a while, dust his bibelots and mull over the events surrounding Olga’s visit, Georgie knew that, as usual, Lucia was quite right and replied “Topping idea Lucia.”
              
Next day, breakfasting at Grebe, Elizabeth worried that Benjy was, even by his normal standards of morning irritability, exceptionally quiet. He didn’t even try to shout “Quai Hai” for his breakfast porridge when it wasn’t placed before him by

Nor did he shake with anger over the “lily-livered dithering bunch of appeasers that make up the Government” or warn loudly of the “perils of the Hun”. For once, he read his newspaper in silence and not a single, “You mark my words”, “We should learn from last time” or “A leopard doesn’t change its spots,” passed his lips.

As silence continued to prevail, Elizabeth irritatingly flicked the wall of the newspaper erected before her, “Peepo, Benjy boy!” she sang in a high pitched descant, “Your girly, is here: do talk to her.”

Putting his “Daily Mirror” down Major Benjy expressionless said “Well then, Elizabeth, what is it?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing, oh grumpy one,” she replied, “You don’t seem your normal self this morning. Are you quite well?”

“Fine thank you,” Benjy replied again, lifting his newspaper and reading on in silence.
  
When Withers came to clear the breakfast things he put down his newspaper and Elizabeth seized her opportunity to renew the conversation.

“Well, Benjy boy,” she continued with brisk cheerfulness, “What are you going to do this fine morning?”

“I hadn’t thought,” he replied, “But now you ask, I think I’ll just play a practice round on my own today”

“That’s a shame,” replied Elizabeth, “You normally play with the Padre on Mondays – or I could keep you company, if you would like. It would be nice to get some fresh air.”

“No, thanks all the same old girl; I think I would prefer to be alone today.” Benjy replied, standing up from the table, “Thanks for the offer though.”

“That’s alright dear one.” Elizabeth replied non-plussed, “Now don’t forget your golf sticks – or whatever they’re called.”

As these words trailed off, there was no reply save for the brusque slam of the front door as Major Benjy was already walking down the front path of Grebe with his golf bag over his shoulders.

One of the advantages of Grebe was that it was possible to walk to the golf links in half the time it had taken to travel from Tilling.

Benjy did however miss his regular trips on the steam tram – first with his garrulous old friend Captain Puffin and latterly with the Padre. Today, however, he had a lot on his mind and was glad to be alone.

Feeling as though he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, he marched briskly along, mulling things over and humming, “It’s a long, long trail a winding.”

He had been shocked to find that the toastmaster at the Banquet the night before had been his brother officer from the Kings Indian Lancers all those years ago, Maltravers McGrath.

“A rum cove,” he thought, “Always up to some scheme or other, usually dishonest. Always had a gift of the gab and never really told the truth. Not someone to be trusted. I didn’t like him then and I don’t expect to now. I don’t want to have people like him around, not now I’m settled here. I hope that’s the last I see of him.”

All of sudden, before Benjy had reached the second verse, a tall figure jumped out from behind the hornbeam hedge by the roadside.

As if prompted by some malign fate, it was literally the last person Benjy had wanted to see, Maltravers McGrath. Instead of his vivid red tail coat, he wore tweed plus fours and a Norfolk jacket with an authentic-looking deerstalker hat.

Benjy jumped back, startled out of his reverie, “What the!” he exclaimed. Then, recognising who it was, added, “Oh. It’s you,” and immediately walked on. His golf clubs rattled together as he redoubled his pace.

“Good morning, old man” said the new companion struggling to keep up with the quickening pace of Major Benjy which was by now almost a jog, “Damn fine morning. Do you like the rig out? Best Harris Tweed. When in Rome I always say. Mind if I keep you company old chap?”
                                              
“I’d rather not McGrath, if it’s the same to you,” Benjy replied, by now becoming breathless with exertion.

“I’ll just stroll along with you for a while then,” the newcomer replied, “Too good an opportunity to miss to catch up on old times, to look back on the good old days don’t you think?”

“Not exactly,” replied Benjy growing more depressed, “I don’t remember any good old days – certainly not involving you anyway.”

“Come off it Flint old man; you loved it out there with the regiment,” responded McGrath in an attempt to exude bonhomie, “You always seemed to have a fine old time to me –   ‘Sporting Benjy’  you always said you were called – not that I ever heard any one calling you that.”

As Benjy shuffled uncomfortably from one foot to another and looked at his wrist watch, McGrath continued relentlessly, “Always the life and soul in the mess – always out and about and living above your means. As I recall you had no rich family like some of the other chaps. Still, it didn’t stop you at all - pig sticking, tiger shooting, polo, drinking and stories in the mess after dinner, all sorts of adventures –  many of which a decent chap couldn’t talk about in mixed company, if you know what I mean.”

Benjy just looked stiffly ahead, as though to attention and as though he had given up trying to rebut his companion’s reminiscences. Seeing this, McGrath continued, “You know me, ‘live and let live’ was always my motto - I’m not the sort to tell tales of a chap’s romantic interludes – the Pride of Poona and all that. You never caught me gossiping or ‘mentioning a ladies’ name in the mess.’”

“If you say so, McGrath; I can’t say I ever noticed,” muttered Benjy bitterly.

“I must admit I was a bit surprised when I had to announce you as Major Benjamin Mapp-Flint at the dinner last night,” added the toastmaster, “When I last saw you I could have sworn you had lost that crown from your shoulder and were back to being plain old Sergeant Major Flint - back in the NCO’s mess.”

“No, I think you’re mistaken there, old man,” responded Benjy weakly, “You must be confusing me with someone else. The memory can play strange tricks on a man after so many years.”

“No I’m sure I’m right,” replied Mc Grath, now hot on the scent, “Wasn’t it after that business with the Commanding Officer’s wife after the Regimental Ladies night?”

“Absolutely no idea what you’re talking about,” blustered Benjy.

“Quite a brouhaha, as I recollect it,” continued Mc Grath, closing in remorselessly for the kill, “What were the charges? Oh, yes, I remember now: ‘inebriation, improper and ungentlemanly conduct in public unworthy of the holder of the Kings Commission’. That was it: did you no end of harm. Didn’t do the Colonel’s lady much good either, I fear. She was packed off to back to a maiden aunt’s in Tunbridge Wells quicker than you could blink.”

“No, no, you’ve got it all wrong,” protested Benjy, “There was a lot of confusion over what actually happened.”

“I don’t think I’m in the least confused, Benjy old chap,” countered McGrath, smugly.

“It did end up in the Court Martial,” Benjy admitted, “And I was knocked back to NCO for a while, but it was eventually sorted out and I recovered my crown in time to retire as Major. You’re making it seem much worse than it was.”

“On a decreased pension and before your time though, as I recall, Benjy,” added McGrath archly.

“That might be right, McGrath, but I’m still entitled to call my self ‘Major Benjamin Mapp-Flint,” added Benjy defiantly.

“Well, that’s alright then,” added McGrath cheerfully, “I’m sure your charming wife and all your many friends in Tilling are most understanding and entirely sympathetic about your – shall we say - “chequered” past.”

Benjy stood silent in the knowledge that such tolerant virtues were not exactly abundant amongst his circle.

Maltravers McGrath fixed him with a merciless eye and continued, “It would be too bad if they were at all shocked to learn that you risked being cashiered by reason of your impropriety, ungentlemanly conduct and inebriation and that it cost you your officer status for a good while.”

Benjy gulped and stood defenceless as his tormentor landed a final metaphorical blow to his solar plexus, “Even now your name is never mentioned in certain circles in the Regiment – only by the cads.”

Summoning up his last reserves, Benjy at last managed to speak, “Well you may be right about what happened, but I have a good life here in Tilling now with a respectable wife and many decent friends. What is it you want?”

“Ah, that would be telling,” replied McGrath. “I must admit I do have a number of business opportunities coming to the boil here in Tilling and am a little short of working capital. An investment of a thousand pounds or so should see me straight.”

“You mean if I don’t pay you a thousand pounds you’ll tell all about the court martial?” asked a shocked Major Benjy, “That’s just blackmail.”

“I wouldn’t put it as crudely as that old bean,” responded McGrath, “Just think of it as ‘an investment opportunity’. I’m offering you the chance to invest in your future happiness.”

“Well, that’s totally impossible,” replied the Major though gritted teeth, “Apart from the fact that I’d rather die than give in to your blackmail, I just don’t have a thousand pounds. It’s as simple as that.”

“I’m not sure I believe you Benjy old boy,” said McGrath, “You look pretty well-heeled to me – husband of the Mayoress and all that. I’ll give you a day to think about it and we’ll see how you feel then.  Ah, there’s the first tee. I’ll leave you to your round. I’m staying at the Traders Arms whilst I attend to various bits of business in Tilling. I’ll be in touch; cheerio, old man!”

With that, Maltravers McGrath disappeared as instantly as he had materialised a few unpleasant minutes previously.

Meanwhile back in Tilling, completely unaware of the husband’s torment on his way to the links, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint literally bumped into Diva Plaistow outside Twistevants in the High Street.


As each readjusted the parcels in their respective shopping baskets and apologised for the collision, a few acid observations were exchanged regarding “Worship’s wonderful fiesta on Saturday evening”. As their conversation drew to a close, Elizabeth added with a knowing look “Diva dear, do you mind if I pop in for a quiet word later?”

“Of course Elizabeth,” responded Diva, “I’ll be there for the rest of the afternoon in about fifteen minutes. Au reservoir”

After completing her shopping with a particularly vicious debate with Mr Twistevant over the appalling lack of quality of some greengages supplied last week and obtaining a most satisfactory reduction in his “veritable fiction of a bill,” Elizabeth sat down in the front parlour of "Wasters."

Diva’s home in the High Street was “Ye Olde Tea House” during its lengthy opening hours - particularly during the tourist season - but was otherwise referred to by its old name. The key distinction appeared to be that visitors to “Ye Olde Tea House” were presented with a bill whilst those to "Wasters" generally were not.

After her tea, Elizabeth was served with what Diva called “a new line” – a savoury anchovy and haddock rissole created only that morning by her servant Janet.

Diva and Janet waited expectantly as Elizabeth took a bite, masticated conscientiously and swallowed.

“Well?” inquired Diva.

“Needs some work, I’m afraid, dear,” replied Elizabeth, “Although not positively noisome, it does have a strangely gritty quality and a most unfortunate odour and after-taste. Sorry about that.”

“Thank you Elizabeth dear,” Diva replied, “I don’t think I can recommend a dish to my customers on that basis. I can hardly say ‘Do try one of our savoury rissoles. Many other customers have said ‘They are not positively noisome’. Back to the drawing board, I think Janet. Thanks for trying anyway Elizabeth.”

As Janet left the room to consign her new creation to the dustbin, Diva turned to Elizabeth, “Now we are alone, what is it you wanted to talk about?”

“Well, Diva dear, it’s my Benjy,” she replied, “I felt I could only turn to you. After all, Quaint Irene is only a callow girl and could hardly be relied upon to give advice. With all her airs and graces, Susan Wyse has never exactly been what you might call ‘a close friend’. As the wife of the Padre, it would be too embarrassing to consult Evie and as for Lucia, well… I need hardly say. So I thought I would turn to Diva, my oldest friend,” she concluded.

“Not so much of the ‘old’, if you don’t mind Elizabeth,” rejoined Diva spiritedly, “If I remember, we are the same age.”

Of course dear, what I meant was ‘my closest friend in Tilling’: the one in whom I felt most confident in whom to confide.”

“Quite dear,” said Diva, mollified, “Now what on earth is it?

“Well strictly entre nous,” said Elizabeth, “You probably didn’t notice but my Benjy...”

“You mean the fact that he didn’t drink a drop all night at Lucia’s Banquet?” interrupted Diva, “Yes of course it was the first thing everyone noticed.”

“Oh” replied Elizabeth, the wind momentarily taken from her sails

Sensing that Elizabeth was somewhat shocked by the perspicacity of her friends; Diva adopted a softer, more sympathetic, tone, “Naturally all your friends were surprised and a little worried to see Major Benjy behave like that. It was so unlike him. He’s normally the life and soul with a word for everyone. Last night he just stood there in the corner and that was that. ‘Self effacing’ is the word I would use; that’s what he was, ‘self effacing.’

“So unlike him,” added Elizabeth, overcoming hurt feelings over the fact that the habits of her life partner were so transparent to their neighbours in Tilling.

“Well, Diva,” confided Elizabeth, “Not only did a drop of alcohol not pass his lips all evening. He hardly spoke – just the bare minimum, so as not to be offensively rude. Nor did he chat to our friends after dinner. He didn’t even have a brandy with his cigar.”

“Perhaps he was feeling unwell” suggested Diva with a disappointing lack of originality.

“Well, that was the first thing I asked him,” said Elizabeth, “He just replied ‘I’m fine old girl’ and carried on in his own little world. He didn’t say a word all the way back to Grebe and once we were there he went straight to bed alone in his dressing room.”

Interested though she was in the inference which could be drawn from this remark concerning the usual overnight arrangements of the Mapp–Flints, so often the subject of oblique conjecture amongst the ladies of Tilling, Diva could see this was not an opportune moment to intrude upon them.

In any event, Elizabeth continued without pausing for breath, “And this morning, total silence over breakfast and then he goes off for a practice round of golf all on his own. Naturally, I offered to keep him company, but he would hear nothing of it! Not even his usual ‘By bye Girlie. See you for lunch.’ Diva, what can it all mean?”

“Well Elizabeth I would try not to jump to conclusions. There are hundreds of possible reasons,” commented Diva in an effort to be positive.

Refusing to be helped, Elizabeth replied “Well, you tell me one then – other than him being ill. He told me several times he was quite well. Do you think he doesn’t care for me any more? We’ve not even been married for three years yet. Is he tired of me already?”

“I really don’t think there’s anything to worry about Elizabeth dear,” said Diva trying and failing to encourage her friend, “Anyone – even the most shall be say ‘convivial’ is entitled to be quiet for just one evening every so often. Also, far be it from me to comment upon what attracted Benjy to you in the first place, but I really don’t think you need conclude that your looks have now deteriorated so much as to drive him off..” Diva paused and added, “Not quite yet, anyway.”

“Thank you dear” said Elizabeth icily, adding sarcastically, “How very reassuring of you to say so.”

“I for one thought you looked quite respectable at the Banquet - all things considered,” Diva continued, digging her hole a little deeper with every word.

“Yes Diva dear, thank you very much,” replied Elizabeth with as much dignity as she could by this point muster, “I now understand the meaning of the term ‘Damned with faint praise’.  In fact, until now I hadn’t thought my appearance was quite so hideous as to drive my husband off into the slough of despond or a massive change of personality or behaviour.”

“Of course not,” replied Diva, whose patronising air was now irritating Elizabeth beyond words, “What I really meant was perhaps your Benjy has some other worries apart from health. Perhaps he has financial concerns?”

Relieved at this change of tack Elizabeth replied, “I’m pretty familiar with his affairs and, although we could always do with some more, I don’t think there’s much amiss.”

“Perhaps he would feel more comfortable discussing whatever his worries might be with a gentleman?” asked Diva.

“That might not be a bad idea, you know,” replied Elizabeth, “My Benjy hasn’t got all that much time for Mr Georgie and it’s always difficult talking about private matters – well any matters really - to the Padre, which leaves us with Algernon Wyse. I might suggest to Benjy that he talks to Mr Wyse if he has any problems and perhaps they could resolve it ‘man to man’. Thanks you Diva I shall do just that.”

“Good, so pleased to have helped” Diva replied, “I’m sure we shall have Benjy his usual squiffy self, directing traffic and singing at the top of his voice before too long”

“That’s not exactly what I had in mind,” Elizabeth replied, frowning, “Still; I must rush back to Grebe for luncheon: merci beaucoup and au reservoir.”

Before Diva could remind her friend that she had promised to desist from lacing her conversation with schoolgirl French, the front door of Wasters had slammed and Elizabeth had gone.

During the rest of the morning, several sightings were made of Maltravers McGrath in and about Tilling. After walking around the town and viewing it from atop the tower of its Norman Church, McGrath partook of a liquid lunch in the public bar of the Traders Arms, where he was lodging.

Gregarious and affable by nature, the newcomer soon made the acquaintance of various locals, who regularly refreshed themselves there, including Quaint Irene Coles.

Several pints of best stout later, Maltravers and Irene were firm friends and an appointment was made for an early private viewing at her studio at Taormina and to discuss means to expedite the development of her artistic career.

Later that afternoon, the itinerant toastmaster was seen to enjoy a one and eight penny tea at “Ye Olde Tea House”. Regular customers were surprised to note the proprietor, Mrs Plaistow chatting animatedly with the ebullient visitor and then joining him at his table leaving her servant Janet to serve for the rest of the afternoon.

Before long they were calling each other “Diva” and “Maltravers”. Like old school friends their conversation was punctuated by whispered exchanges and bursts of raucous laughter.

After her establishment had closed for the day, Diva was seen enjoying a light supper with Mr McGrath at the Traders Arms and later taking his arm for a moonlit walk through the Landgate and down to the Martello Tower by the old harbour.

Naturally, it was not long before news of Mr McGrath’s perambulations around and about Tilling reached the shell-like ears of Elizabeth Mapp-Flint. The impact of this charming newcomer and how such diverse residents as Quaint Irene and Diva were “entirely smitten” was the sole topic of conversation amongst Elizabeth’s circle.

In the High Street next morning both Irene Coles and Diva Plaistow spoke in the highest terms of their new friend, whom they considered to be a “breath of fresh air in stuffy old Tilling.” Both ladies, it appeared, were “formulating business proposals” with him and were “highly optimistic regarding future prospects.”

Returning to Grebe in time for lunch, Elizabeth animatedly recounted to her husband all that had been going on in Tilling that morning and the impact of the ubiquitous Mr McGrath. She was disappointed that despite her entertaining narrative, embellished as it was with perceptive, if somewhat harsh and acidic, observations, her “news” appeared of little interest to him.

Still trying to prompt some enthusiasm, Elizabeth continued, “And we are invited to tea and bridge at Diva’s this afternoon. The Wyses and ourselves make up one table and Worship, Mr Georgie and the Bartletts the other.”

When this elicited no response from her other half, Elizabeth lost patience, “Really Benjy; do make an effort to show some enthusiasm dear,” she snapped, “I am trying to do all I can to lift your dark mood.”

“Yes I know, girly,” Benjy replied, “I do appreciate it, but I just haven’t been feeling quite the ticket recently. I’m sure it will pass,” he continued unconvincingly.

“If you have something on your mind and I can’t help, perhaps you could take the opportunity to talk it over with Algernon Wyse after bridge. He’s very sensible and you normally get on with him so well.”

“We’ll see” he replied non-committally and again lifted the shield of his newspaper.

 As Benjy pretended to read, he resumed the mental gymnastics and calculations with which he had been preoccupied since the demand from Maltravers McGrath. He racked his brain and scoured his memory for any asset which could be sold for cash. However hard he tried, he could see no way of raising the huge sum of one thousand pounds – especially without Elizabeth knowing, ”McGrath will just have to do his worst,” he thought and, utterly defeated, sighed.                                

The bridge players arrived at “Ye Olde Tea House” at the appointed hour of 4 ‘o clock in good time for tea and several rubbers of highly competitive bridge.

As the first hand was being dealt, Maltravers Mc Grath was the sole topic of conversation. Diva waxed lyrical over his manifold virtues, so much so that Elizabeth wondered if perhaps she, “waxed too much.”

Unaware of this unspoken scepticism, Diva praised Maltravers’ "wit, kindness and charm." She commended his “brilliant business brain and acumen which was guaranteed to make simply pots of money, heaps of it in fact.” As yet, however, Diva was, “not at liberty to divulge the details of our commercial plans until ‘All our ducks are in a row’, as Maltravers puts it.”

“Very nice, Diva dear,” said Elizabeth, as though patronising an over-excited child, “You be sure to tell us when your…ducks are nicely arranged. I can hardly wait. In the meantime perhaps we might begin our bridge?”

Before the first hand had been completed, Inspector Morrison entered the front parlour of "Wasters". Bridge teas at “Ye Olde Tea House” were by now an institution in Tilling and the Inspector’s visit gave rise to none of the anxieties his first appearance had caused many months before.

Assuming “her” Inspector had come on official business concerning the Magistracy, Lucia imperiously thought he sought her. “Yes Inspector, can I help you?” she inquired.

“No, thank you, Your Worship,” the Inspector replied, “I came mainly to see Mrs Plaistow. Forgive me for interrupting your game, but I have some news I think you all should hear.”

“Pray continue then Inspector,” said Lucia, smiling but slightly disappointed that “her” Inspector did not require her.

“I’m afraid I have to inform you,” intoned Inspector Morrison gravely, “That Mr Maltravers McGrath was arrested earlier today and is currently in custody in the cells of Tilling Police station.”

“Whatever for?” cried Diva Plaistow, staggering backwards and sitting heavily on a worryingly fragile cane chair, “We were going into business together. There must be some mistake, surely?”

“I’m afraid not, Mrs Plaistow,” replied the Inspector as kindly as he could, “Various police forces have been monitoring McGrath for some months as he moved from town to town along the south coast.”

“And what exactly has he done, Inspector?” asked Elizabeth, whilst simultaneously trying to comfort a sobbing Diva Plaistow.

“Various offences, I’m afraid Mrs Mapp-Flint,” replied the Inspector whilst removing a notebook from his breast pocket. Opening it, he continued, “There are two charges of deceit in Folkestone, two of blackmail in Frinton, one of obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception in Hastings and three of fraud in Eastbourne. His modus operandi, it seems, is to befriend lonely or gullible elderly ladies and to persuade them to part with large sums of money to fund far-fetched business schemes. He then disappears with their savings and is never heard of again.”

As the Inspector spoke, Diva’s cries became as wail and reached a peak of intensity upon his reference to “gullible elderly ladies”, although it was unclear which adjective caused her more distress.

“I have spoken to Miss Coles,” he continued, “It appears she had paid to McGrath the sum of five hundred pounds to fund the establishment of a gallery in Mayfair to promote her work. Fortunately, she has been able to stop her cheque and should suffer no loss.”

“And what about me?” cried Diva, “Maltravers and I were going to set up a company together to train people how to run tea shops like mine and how to be toastmasters like him. We were going to call it “Tea & Toast Limited” and I was going to be a Director and Shareholder. Was that all lies?”

“I’m afraid so, Mrs Plaistow,” the Inspector replied, “But if you hadn’t given him your money yet, at least you have been saved from that.”

“I suppose you’re right,” sobbed Diva, “We were going to the Bank to withdraw Seven hundred pounds – my entire life’s savings - first thing tomorrow morning, so I suppose I should be grateful for that I escaped his clutches.”

Bridge was forgotten as a hubbub of conversation increased around the parlour of "Wasters." Major Benjy, who until now had remained silent, looked up and said, “Any other charges to be laid Inspector?”

Looking at his questioner directly in the eye, Inspector Morrison replied, “No Major Mapp-Flint. McGrath will be charged with attempted deception involving Miss Coles and Mrs Plaistow, plus the other offences in along the coast. He will certainly be imprisoned for a good few years and hopefully not trouble anyone in Tilling ever again.”

“A most satisfactory outcome for all concerned,” interrupted Lucia, who had divined that something else was going on, but was prepared to accept that she would never know it, “Please accept our thanks and congratulations for your excellent work – as ever.”

“Thank you your worship,” Inspector Morrison replied, “I will convey your thanks to my men. Now I must bid you all ‘Good day.’”

As Inspector Morrison turned to leave, Major Benjy touched him on the arm and quietly asked, “Might I have a private word, Inspector?”

“Of course, Major,” the Inspector replied, walking through into the hall of "Wasters", where they could speak without being overheard. Inside the parlour a buzz of excited discussion could be heard analysing the dramatic events which had just unfolded.

“I wanted to thank you for your discretion today,” said the Major, with quiet sincerity.

“Yes, I was aware of McGrath’s threatened blackmail,” replied the Inspector, “It emerged in the interrogation.,”

 “I can’t tell you how important it was to me that McGrath shouldn’t spread his poison about me all over Tilling,” continued Major Benjy, “It was good of you to see that didn’t happen.”

“Not at all, Major,” responded Herbert, “I think it’s an important part of my role to try to ensure that crooks like that don’t spoil the lives of honest citizens. Sometimes being practical and doing the right thing counts more than obtaining convictions in court and unleashing lurid press coverage. I always think there’s more to my job than just creating impressive statistics on sheets of paper.”

“Well thank you: jolly decent,”replied Benjy gratefully, “You saved my good name. When it comes down to it, that’s all I’ve got. I’ve no money to speak of and heaven knows, in the Mapp-Flint household, there’s only one commanding officer. Also, to be honest, I don’t know if my Elizabeth would want me if I was known as plain old ‘Sergeant Flint.’”

Herbert smiled and nodded as Benjy continued, “Between you, me and the gatepost, Inspector, here in Tilling I’m rather a caricature - an officer from an old cartoon in a dusty copy of “Punch” in Dr Brace’s waiting room.  I’m ‘Good old Sporting Benjy of the King’s Indian Lancers’. I’m the one that shot the tigers, played polo and served the King Emperor in the Raj. Truth is I’ve always been that person much more here in Tilling than I ever was in real life in India. If McGrath had taken that away from me, there would be nothing left of me at all. So thank you Inspector. I owe you a great debt. It might not actually be a lot, but being ‘Major Benjamin Mapp-Flint’ is all I really have.”

Touched by these words, Herbert patted him on the shoulder and replied, “My pleasure, Sir. To us in Tilling, you will always be ‘our Major Benjy.’”

THE END

Copyright 2011 Deryck Solomon. All rights reserved in appropriate territories

                                   

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