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The Spirit of St Mary Mead

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i. genius loci

It was a particularly ordinary grove, or so the commander of the nearby Roman camp thought, and was at a loss to explain the locals’ belief in it as a sacred place; the site where a genius loci might be found. Aerten, they said she was named, and his men in turn called her Atropos or Nemesis.

You had to be careful of your curses there, he’d been told; an improbable tale of the goddess manifesting in the form of a frail crone. You wouldn’t believe she could be a deity, not to begin with, seeming nothing more than an elderly Briton woman, but the things she knew were otherwise impossible to explain.

“Oh, dear,” she would say, watching her latest unwary worshipper with a gaze undimmed by her years. “I hardly think it fair to curse Coelius. After all, you have no proof that he was the one who spread those whispers against you. He dislikes you, it’s true, I know, but I have seen such things before – a young man, of the Dumnonii, who detested a fellow craftsman, but he would take no underhand revenge, for instance. Oh, no, I think not Coelius. This Vitellius who told you of the rumours – now there, I think we have it. It is exactly like Cerdig and that envious brother of his all over again. Such malice.” She would shiver a little. “Yes, and Vitellius resented Coelius as much as he did you. I do think if you are to curse anyone, it should be Vitellius.”

It didn’t trouble the commander; it seemed to keep some of the worst of the men in line sometimes. He’d drink to any goddess that brought such an outcome, and lay a token at her holy place too. It was, of course, costing his men more than it should be in paying to have curses rewritten, but that was their own look-out.

And, besides, no matter how unlikely a tale sounded, a wise man didn’t set out to offend the goddess of justice or the spirit of the place.


ii. time is, time was, time is not

There was always an Aunt Jane in the village. She was always somebody’s aunt, too, with a history and a family, if sometimes only vaguely mentioned distant connections. There was nothing marvellous about her. She lived much as any other maiden spinster of the parish did and aged over time, before disappearing to spend her last years in more comfort with an unnamed relative. A decade or so on, there might be another such, possibly a relative of the last old Aunt Jehane, or Jane, Janet, Johanna – another gentle yet sharp spinster; another Miss or Mistress Marple. An old family, the villagers would say knowingly, even if, despite that firm belief, there were no ‘Marple’ graves in St Mary Mead.

They said the family came from nearer Much Benham way; the family vault would be over there, that was all it was.


iii. darkness over the human mire

“But how did you know?” the Reverend Christopher Hartnell asked. He felt bewildered by the whole affair and unsure how this gentle old lady could have seen the truth of it before him.

Mistress Marple pulled her shawl close about her against the March chill – they were still a full se’nnight from Lady Day and spring had yet to make herself felt. “It was the handkerchief, you see. The young man – Clayton – had it tucked it away against his heart – just so,” she said, gesturing with a hand to her breast. “I saw it there. And I thought – although you can never be completely sure, I know – that it seemed such an odd thing to do if he had killed her. He might have taken it to hide it, if he thought it told against him, but as a love token? No, he would not be that kind of murderer. It suggested that Mary had gone into the woods to meet him there and had been alive when he left her, having given him her small token. It was someone else who must have seized the opportunity that gave them. A dreadful crime, Vicar, and all for money, I am afraid. Not only Mary’s death, but she would have had Clayton hanged at the Assizes.”

The vicar leapt onto the one part of her rambling statement that he could follow. “She?”

“Lettice,” said Mistress Marple. “Mary’s sister. Oh, dear, how very wicked it all is. She wanted to inherit the whole of their father’s fortune – I am sure you will immediately see why, but to be so desperate for a cause that a person overlooks all familial ties, all decent behaviour – no. Even in these times, it will not do.”

Her last statement might have been even more involved, but that Hartnell did understand. Mistress Lettice Withycombe was passionately in support of the King. She was not, of course, the only one, certainly not in St Mary Mead, even if the vicar himself was not one of them. He did not hold with those who denied Parliament its rights, and he wasn’t altogether sympathetic to those who must clutter up their faith with heathenish trappings.

“In one light, a person could almost call it admirable, I suppose,” said Mistress Marple. “To sacrifice so much for a noble cause. I daresay that was how she painted the act to herself. I don’t know, vicar, but I find myself worrying about people who say such things. They always seem far too ready to sacrifice other people to their cause ahead of themselves and that I cannot agree with.”

She followed her remark with an unusually sharp look at the vicar.

“I do see what you mean,” he said. He wondered which cause she favoured, or whether she felt that there had been too much fighting all these years and hoped that Parliament restored under the Lord Protector would bring peace. It was hard to be sure: she was an old family, of the sort that would naturally incline to the Royalist cause, perhaps even to the old faith – but then again, here she stood with a ruthless regard for justice shining through her, and he wondered. He couldn’t know, and he wouldn’t ask.

“But how,” he asked, returning to the matter in hand, “are we to prove Mistress Lettice’s involvement and save young Clayton?”

She patted his arm. “People will listen to you, vicar, where they will take no note of a mere old maid’s tale. You will do everything you can, won’t you?”

“Yes,” he said. He had no great liking for the rash young Clayton, but he too had a strong a belief in justice. “But I can’t save him on the strength of a scrap of embroidered linen.”

Mistress Marple became thoughtful. “The knife she used broke against the bone, leaving a shard inside the – oh, dear, how horrid it sounds to say the body, when I mean poor Mary – well, it did. And she had no chance to cast it aside then – and we have all searched for it since. She would not dare take that weapon to be mended. I think, Vicar, if you went to Colonel Benham and suggested he look for it, that should suffice. There is a floorboard in the main parlour that seems unaccountably uneven of late, according to the Withycombes’s young maid, Peg – she often talks to my Alice when waiting by the village oven. You know how people are. I believe, Vicar, that should achieve our aim.”

Her suggestion was full of sense, so the Reverend Hartnell gave a nod. “I shall do so at once.”

“Oh, good,” she said, and gave him a slight nod of approval. He felt suddenly as if he had passed some important test here this afternoon. “Thank you so much, Vicar. I must confess I was not sure – but then I thought you could not be so much like Tom, our last miller’s second son without – oh, dear, how I do go on! And, vicar,” she added, with one last gentle shaft as she turned away to leave, “I wouldn’t want to interfere, of course, but I wonder if it might be possible to be a little, well, kinder over the Sunday observances. Not for all. It does most people not the least harm – but there are folk like poor old Mrs Price who is bedridden and I hardly think –”

Reverend Hartnell felt the beginnings of alarm – what would she demand next, he wondered? – but he put them aside and gave her a smile. “I am a reasonable man, I think you’ll find, Mistress Marple.”

“Yes,” she said. “I know. Tom Lumley, as I said – people talked about him sometimes. He had such a fierce countenance, you see – with a nose not unlike yours. Rather harsh. But, as he proved time and again over the years, he had a good deal of sense – and a better heart than anyone had suspected.”

Despite the implied disparagement of his features, the vicar almost blushed at the odd compliment – before he took himself off to find the Colonel and arrange the search of the Withycombes’s cottage in order to catch a ruthless murderer.


iv. unrecorded, unrenown’d

“It’s been missing since at least Monday afternoon,” said Griselda Clement, the vicar’s inappropriate but much-loved wife. “None of us can find it, and I thought if I told you exactly when we last saw it and where we had all looked, you would immediately be able to tell me where it is.”

Miss Marple attempted to look disapproving and did not entirely succeed. “A notebook, you say?”

“Yes, but it’s got Len’s sermon in it, the one he didn’t use last Sunday because he nearly forgot it was Whitsun, so he needs it for this Sunday – and then I thought of how you said you were feeling out of practice. Don’t you think this might at least be something?”

“It might,” said Miss Marple, “if you were telling me the truth – strictly speaking. My dear, are you sitting on it? Only your hand does keep going to down the side of the chair – like so, you see –”

Griselda pulled the notebook in question out and gave a guilty grimace. “Well, I am now, I confess. Would you believe that after we’d hunted high and low for it and driven each other to our wits’ ends – even David helped, tipping his wooden bricks out of their box, although I’m not sure he really understood – and just after I decided it might do to amuse you and save us from distraction, I sat down here and found it? So, it was lost when I asked for you – and, honestly, I don’t see how you could have known just from that. But then you always are so frightfully clever.”

Miss Marple shook her head and gave a smile. “No, not merely from that, of course. After all, you must remember that I know you very well by now, Griselda.”

Griselda laughed. “True, and now I can have no secrets, it seems. Dear, terrifying Miss Marple – what would we all do without you?” She disarmed her odd compliment with another bright smile, and passed Miss Marple a refilled cup of tea.

“Terrifying?” said Miss Marple, blinking a little. “Oh, dear, no, I should hope not. At least – well –” She gave a small ghost of a smile. “Perhaps, I suppose – on one or two occasions to those who deserve it –”

Griselda dropped back down into the chair. “Well, yes,” she said. “Exactly.”


v. now the torch of truth is found

“That Parsons girl,” said Mrs Price, “is getting quite odd, I fear.” She directed the most discreet nod towards the window seat where an apparently inoffensive young woman was sitting, staring out at the garden. “I hear that poor Mr Bartholomew hardly knows what he is to do with her of late. And you know,” she added, lowering her voice further, “there were always rumours about her grandfather. They had to lock him up more than once, so I hear.”

Miss Marple paused in her knitting – there were always woollen stockings to be knitted, especially for the poor. “Oh, dear. I do hope not. Who has been putting such a story about?”

“Mrs Norton,” said Mrs Price. “The housekeeper up at the Hall. Says the girl has quite wild fits, and Mr Bartholomew won’t hear of her being sent to an asylum. I think it might be better for all if he did.”

Miss Marple put down her needles and balls of yarn in a mood of sudden distress, and rose in what Mrs Price thought was a thoroughly irregular kind of behaviour. “Oh, dear, oh dear – and so soon after Sir Richard’s arrival. I had so hoped I was wrong.”

Mrs Price blinked, wondering for a moment if there was such a thing as an epidemic of instability that might pass around a village, but before she could ask any questions, Miss Marple made some hasty, fluttering excuses and left with unexpected speed in a lady of her years.

 

“Charlotte Parsons, you understand, is my goddaughter,” said Miss Marple. “And despite her guardian’s strict rules, she is permitted on occasion to take tea with me. I suppose no one sees me as being of any account. Very true in some ways, naturally, but a mistake nonetheless. However, I am straying from the point – I am sorry, dear General – but Charlotte told me not so long ago how very unhappy she was at the Hall. She even said that she would kill her guardian if she were able. I must say, I was shocked. I had not imagined that matters had yet grown quite so desperate.”

“And these stories cause you to fear for Mr Bartholomew?”

Miss Marple stared back at General Ridley. “James Bartholomew? Oh, no. Dear me, no. I only wish something would happen to him. Perhaps I should not say so, but at the least, he should never have been made guardian to Charlotte. I have never understood what her mother was thinking – but then Elizabeth was always so much like my last maid, Nan. She would always worry over matters, only then to panic and make a hasty decision – and it would invariably be the wrong one.”

“Eh?” said the General, getting lost now in the old lady’s tangled tale. “Then whatever are you so affrighted over?”

Miss Marple straightened herself in the upright chair. “I had suspected something of the kind before, but there was nothing one could quite get hold of. He is a most clever gentleman – clever and unscrupulous.”

“Devil take it, Miss Marple, will you say what it is you do suspect?”

Miss Marple pulled back.

“Begging your pardon,” said the General. “Never have been fully domesticated, I’m afraid, dear lady. Please, carry on.”

Miss Marple gave a faint, forgiving smile. “I have suspected for a long time that he has made quite immoral use of the fortune left in trust for her. Naturally, I have no head for business, but I daresay you would know someone who could make the right sort of enquiries – discreetly, of course.”

General Ridley nodded.

“However, when I heard the stories now circulating about poor Charlotte – and that Sir Richard had applied for a marriage license – well, you must agree it would be little short of murder!”

“I fear you’ve lost me again,” said the General. “Best explain a bit further, if you can.” The conversation was beginning to make him feel damned thirsty, he thought, but Miss Marple was unmistakably still a lady and he felt it behoved him to hold back from the whisky while she was here.

Miss Marple gave a slight sigh. “One of the clerics over at the cathedral is cousin to young Kate, who is maid to Miss Wetherby, who lives in the house next to mine, you see. She happened to mention that Sir Richard and Mr Bartholomew had been together to apply for the licence and that could only mean one thing. It is a clumsy solution – but once done, it would be quite irreversible and that is all he needs. I daresay he knows a deal more about Sir Richard’s affairs than Sir Richard likes – or perhaps he did not need any persuasion. Charlotte has complained in the past of the way Sir Richard looks at her. Whatever the reasons, to marry a girl like Charlotte to such a violent, old scoundrel – it might as well be murder. And it would most certainly be a burying of outright fraud.”

“That is a very serious accusation to make,” said the General, fully attentive now. “Good Gad. What a cowardly plot. The blaggard.”

Miss Marple nodded and held his gaze steadily. “Yes,” she said. “Quite wicked. I really could not have allowed it.”

“Oh?” said the General, startled.

Miss Marple said, “Well, no, naturally. I should have objected in the church if it came to that. I had asked Kate to find out which one it was – although it wouldn’t be ideal and one can never be entirely sure. And so likely to cause a stir in the village. Much better for a gentleman like you to deal with the matter.”

“A frail, old lady like you couldn’t possibly do anything, eh?” said the General. “Ha! I’m not about to swallow such stuff, not after all this!”

Miss Marple turned very faintly pink. “I would not say frail, not as yet, but quite, General. You understand so well. And with you being a magistrate – well, I knew you should know precisely how to deal with that rogue Mr Bartholomew.”

“Oh, yes,” said the General. “I believe I do. I shall have someone to look into those accounts immediately and in the meantime –”

“I shall be keeping an eye on St Ethelburga’s in Nether Benham. Where the license was made out for,” said Miss Marple and then permitted herself a small moment of humour. “An avenging angel in waiting, if you like.”

It was a ridiculous image – her with her frilly cap, woollen shawl and slightly faded flower-print dress – but for a moment, the General could picture it without any idea of laughing at the incongruity. He only thought: And God help the rogue if he does dare cross her…


vi. information revolution

Davy Clement threw down the photograph of his grandfather; his namesake, another David, who had been born in St Mary Mead. It landed on the top of a pile of more such pictures and documents he’d had spread out over the rug.

“Indulging in a fit of nostalgia?” said Miss Marple, suddenly arriving behind him and causing him to jump. “I do apologise, but your door was open and you said on the phone to come straight in. I did call out, but I suppose my voice is still a little weak.”

Davy laughed and jumped up. “Yes, of course. I was just miles away there for a moment. Sorry, Aunt Jane! Fancy some tea?”

“Yes, please,” said Miss Marple, although he saw her slight hesitation.

“I promise to use the teapot,” he said with a grin. “Scout’s honour.”

 

Davy had come to stay in St Mary Mead following a bad bout of stress, following an even worse nightmare of a re-organisation at the council’s town planning department. He had the luxury of some savings, so he’d taken a fancy to come and stay in the village where his grandfather had been born and his great-grandfather had been vicar, with the idea of maybe idly pursuing some family history as well as getting his prescribed rest. He’d wound up somehow getting into all sorts of old stories about the place and seriously considering writing a book on its history. There were always plenty of avenues for publishing those sorts of things these days.

He’d been immediately directed to Miss Marple as a fount of knowledge about St Mary Mead, although he’d hardly needed it, since she’d introduced herself as being some sort of family friend – although Davy was hard put to work out exactly what age she must have been to remember his great-grandparents. Very young at the time, he supposed. Now that he’d spent a lot more time fishing out old family and village-related documents, he was even more confused on the subject. His great-grandmother had kept a few letters from a Miss Marple but she had been quite old, and he supposed she must have been some cousin or aunt or other to his Miss Marple – Aunt Jane, as he had rapidly started calling her. But still, he thought, biting into a digestive as he offered her several hastily tipped onto a plate. But still…

“You know,” he said. “It’s odd. All this local history I’ve been looking into –”

Miss Marple nodded eagerly. “I know, dear. And so fascinating! I do hope you haven’t strained yourself too much going over it all.”

“I’ve enjoyed it,” said Davy. “They say a change is as good as a rest sometimes, don’t they? But the thing is, there’s not really any mention of a Marple family living hereabouts. And yet in every directory or census and all that – there is usually one.”

Miss Marple took a genteel sip of her tea, despite it being in a mug with bright yellow letters on red – NOW YOU’RE 21, they read, although evidently several years outdated already. “Well, how strange. Still, I do believe someone once said that we came from somewhere round Much Benham.”

“Yes,” Davy said. “I mean, oh, yes. Obviously that’s what it is.”

It was only that, once he’d thought of it, other things cropped up. There weren’t any obituaries. When had the Jane Marple who’d befriended his great-grandmother died? Even though it was hardly a unique name, it wasn’t like trying to find a Mary Smith; he ought to be able to pick up something from a website, or one of those old indexes. The lack of graves in the churchyard or the more recent cemetery could easily be explained by the family crypt being elsewhere, but it was strange. Even when he got back as far as Manorial records, he could find mentions of a Marple who’d brought evidence to the court in at least one instance, preventing injustice being done, but there were still no signs of a wider family in the village – no baptisms, marriages or burials in the unspoilt Saxon church.

Miss Marple put the unlovely mug down on the unstable coffee table and twinkled at him. “Well, of course. Anything else would be quite ridiculous, wouldn’t it?”

Davy laughed. She was right – what other explanation could there be? Was he going to believe that St Mary Mead had its own unlikely and eternal guardian – a kind spinster, who could yet from time to time manifest as Nemesis, as the sword of justice herself? Ridiculous was the word for it, especially when he knew for a fact that his Miss Marple was currently a little unsteady and inclined to cough, still recovering from a recent dose of flu.

“I shall be very interested to read the book,” she said. “You are going to write it up, aren’t you? I don’t think anyone’s ever done a proper history of our little village. They made one of those picture postcard-type books, of course, but those aren’t at all the same, are they? Very pretty, but rather unsatisfactory.”

Davy pushed aside his impossible wonderings, deciding that when you came down to it, maybe they didn’t matter. “Yes,” he said, with a firm nod. “I’m pretty sure I shall give it a go. It’ll take a while, of course, especially since I’ll have to get back to the grindstone soon. But I tell you what, Aunt Jane – when I do, I’ll dedicate it to you.”

Miss Marple demurred for a moment, but only a little and with a slight smile as if she, as much as Davy, acknowledged the sheer rightness of the gesture.