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A Death in Tadcaster

By Tim McDaniel
May 4, 2020 · 2,984 words · 11 minutes

Rose bush in front of old home

Photo by Eli Luna via Unsplash.

From the author: Old woman and famed amateur detective Miss Dalyrimple is dying. At her bedside, Vicar Swettenham is going to learn some surprising information about her career solving crimes.

            Mr. Swettenham paused at the low gate to admire the roses.  So many varieties, so artfully planted, so lovingly cared for.  But the garden was now showing signs of neglect – dead flowers which had not been trimmed from the vine, weeds creeping in among the roots.  Unthinkable, that she could allow the garden to go unkept. It was in this very garden, Mr. Swettenham recalled, in which Miss Dalyrimple had overheard a murder being plotted.  How exciting to think of it!  But her detection days were over now.  Her long career was finally at a close, her end becoming frightfully near.  He sighed, tenderly disengaged a thorn which had caught his coat, then stepped in and closed the gate behind him.

            Hat in hand, he knocked gently on the front door of the cottage.  There was no answer, or no audible answer.  He eased the door open.

            “Miss Dalyrimple?  Mr. Swettenham here for a visit?”

            “Yes?  Hello? Who’s there?” called a thin voice from within the darkened home.

            Mr. Swettenham came in and softly closed the door behind him.  “Mr. Swettenham, Miss Dalyrimple,” he said. “I’ve come to see how you're getting along.”

            “Oh, yes.  Of course. Come in, vicar, do come in.”

            Mr. Swettenham crossed the parlour to the bedroom.  The door was open.  The bedroom was dim; thin curtains had been drawn over the window.  The window that looked over the garden.  But Miss Dalyrimple was visible in the bed, a small outline, nearly hidden under the bedclothes.

            “Come.  Sit.” A hand made of little more than bone lifted and gestured ineffectually towards a small chair next to the bed. On the other side of the bed was a bedside table, its surface covered by pillboxes, tissues, a pitcher, and an old lamp. “Sit, sit.”

            Mr. Swettenham sat in the chair, holding his hat in his lap.  “And how are you feeling today, Miss Dalyrimple?”

            She shook her head, a minute movement.  “Little change, I’m afraid.  Except for the worse.  I know I have but a short time left, now.”  Her thin, white hair lay flat against her head on one side.  On the other it was a wispy, disordered mass on the pillow.

            “Oh, stuff and nonsense!” Mr. Swettenham said with a false chuckle. “You’ll throw off this minor indisposition and be back on your feet in no time, I’m sure.  I imagine the police are already feeling your absence most keenly.”

            She raised her head, and the eyes in the withered face sparked.  “The police?  Are they here?  So soon?” 

            Mr. Swettenham frowned.  “No, no. I just meant they will miss all the assistance you’ve given them over the years.”

            “Ah. Yes, of course.”  Miss Dalyrimple let her head sink back into the pillow. “Fools, the lot of them, you know.”

            “Oh, Miss Dalyrimple, I know you don’t mean that,” Mr. Swettenham said.  “I realize that some of them were unable to keep up with you as you worked, but I know you value their abilities, nonetheless. Why, think of Inspector Crump. You’ve aided him in several cases, but I dare say he was of some help to you, too.  Why, in the case of my own brother-in-law, for example, he was quite a bit of assistance.”

            “Crump is an idiot,” Miss Dalyrimple said.  She closed her eyes.  The bedclothes hardly stirred with her slight rises of breath.  “You came through the garden?  How is it?  It’s been so long since I could see to it.”

            “A bit the worse for wear, I admit,” the vicar said.  “But you’ll set it all to rights when you’re feeling more yourself.”

            “Foolish optimism.  I think those roses are the only things I will miss.”

            “I’ll pluck a handful for your bedside table, shall I?

            “You’ll do no such thing!  The picking of a rose requires patience, insight.  My beautiful garden, my refuge, violated so!  I will not have it!”

            The vicar smiled tightly.  He patted the old woman’s hand.  “Are you having a bad time of it today, then?  I’ll bring some of Mrs. Swettenham’s biscuits when I come by tomorrow.”

Miss Dalyrimple opened her eyes and looked hard at Mr. Swettenham.  “I really don’t think I will be here, tomorrow,” she said.  “Turn on that little lamp, there.  It’s time for more light.”

            Mr. Swettenham came around the bed and turned on the bedside lamp.  Miss Dalyrimple squinted against the light, her eyes becoming lost in the wrinkles.  Then she blinked and opened them wider.

            “Better?” Mr. Swettenham asked.

            “Fine, fine,” Miss Dalyrimple said.  “You should understand, first of all,” she said, as if continuing a conversation that had been halted midway, “that women of my generation and social class were quite constricted as respects careers or hobbies.  Later, after the war, why things opened up just a bit.  But there wasn’t much that I was allowed to do with my life.”

            “And yet look what you’ve made of your time here on Earth!” Mr. Swettenham said.

            Miss Dalyrimple said nothing, seemingly lost in thought. 

            “As I said, I noticed as I came in that your lovely garden could use a little upkeep,” Mr. Swettenham said, returning to his seat.  “Perhaps I could ask for a volunteer among the parishioners.  We all feel we owe you a great debt, it’s needless to say.  I’m absolutely positive that the Tadcaster Gardening Society would be delighted, just delighted, to lend a hand while you are temporarily unwell.”

            Miss Dalyrimple’s lips tightened, then she waved a hand.  “I suppose Mrs. Bantry is not a complete moron,” she admitted.  “No imagination, no flair, but workmanlike.  And I won’t be here to endure her endless, vapid talk of her grandson.  If someone must take over the care of my cherished garden, I imagine it could fall into worse hands.  Arrangements, of course, will necessarily be made with whoever inherits this house. My nephew.  God knows what kind of mess he would make of it.  So, when I am gone--”

            “Oh, but not for some time yet, surely!”

            Miss Dalyrimple didn’t reply.

            “Have you had many visitors since I was last here?  I hear Colonel Easterbrook popped by, and Miss Griffith.”

            “Tiresome people,” Miss Dalyrimple said.

            “Oh, I’m sure that’s just your momentary discomfort talking,” Mr. Swettenham said. “I called Inspector Crump the other day, you know.  He’s hoping for a chance to visit you early next week.”

            “I have nothing to say to that old fraud,” Miss Dalyrimple said.  “A fool, as I have told you.  Blind as a bat and as simple as a hamster.”

            “Now, Miss Dalyrimple, surely—”

            “Are you even listening to me?” Miss Dalyrimple said sharply.  “I’m telling you that they are all fools.  Blind, blind.  You, too, for that matter!”

            “I’m sure I don’t quite understand why you would say such a thing,” Mr. Swettenham said.  “And once you’re feeling more like yourself, why, I’m sure that you yourself will—”

            “Do be quiet and think for a moment,” Miss Dalyrimple said.  She raised herself up a bit on her pillows.  “Tadcaster is not a big city.  It’s no London or New York or Peking.”

            “Why, of course not,” Mr. Swettenham said.  “And thank goodness, I say!”

            “Then could you please explain to me why our murder rate is so high?”  Miss Dalyrimple said.  “Every few months or so, someone or other is assassinated.”

            “We’ve certainly had our share of misfortunes, but there is bad luck as well as good, I suppose.”  The vicar clasped his hands with a shy smile.  “Although, and maybe I shouldn’t be saying this, I personally have my own theory as to our overabundance of misfortunes.”

            “Do you?” Miss Dalyrimple rose a bit further from her bed.  “Have you reasoned it out, at last?  I knew someone would, eventually.  Never thought you would be the one, of course.”

            “Oh, yes. You see, I have long thought that perhaps the Almighty has sent so many misfortunes and crimes our way because, well, because He knew that there was someone here who could identify the guilty parties.  Other boroughs might not be so blessed.”

            Miss Dalyrimple rolled her eyes and let herself sink back onto the bed.  “Yes, perhaps you were right to say that you shouldn’t be saying that.”

            Mr. Swettenham smiled through pursed lips.

            “And think about the kinds of murders,” Miss Dalyrimple said.  “Never a simple case of ‘he was angry about a card game’ or ‘he came home to find his wife in bed with a lover, and beat him to death with a fire iron.’  Nothing like that.”  She cleared her throat, a sound like a choking bird might make.

            “Those would be dreadful,” Mr. Swettenham said.

            “No, nothing as simple as that.  Instead it was always disguised heirs, or previously unknown heirs, killing for an inheritance.  Murders to allow, or to prevent, a marriage.  Murders of people who merely looked like the intended victim.  No one from the lower classes, of course, unless they happened to be killed to cover up a more socially significant crime. And hardly ever a fire iron – it was nearly always some exotic poison.  Aconite or taxine.  All extremely convoluted.  Things like that simply don’t happen in real life.”

            “I would guess, rather, or suppose, that things like that actually do happen,” Mr. Swettenham said, “and more often than we realize.  The thing is, though, that no one knows what is going on.  Not until someone like you can come along and explain it all, and unmask the murderer.”

            “Someone like me.”

            “Exactly! A mind as discerning as yours can ferret out the answers to these kinds of mysteries, while we normal fellows are left stumped.”

            “Well then, consider this, Vicar, has it never occurred to you, or your esteemed Inspector Crump, or anyone else for that matter, that nearly every murder victim has had such a tight connection to myself?  An old friend of mine from my schooldays; an association of my nephew, the idiot writer; a former servant of mine; even people I met in hotels – and thathappened twice!  Is this really a coincidence?  How many people were murdered during your last holiday, Vicar?  Do you know anyone else who has been attached to so many mysterious deaths?”

            “That’s an interesting question,” Mr. Swettenham said.  “It does seem unlikely, when you put it like that, doesn’t it?”

            “Very unlikely, indeed,” said Miss Dalyrimple.

            “And yet it has happened, obviously,” Mr. Swettenham said.  “Life is stranger than fiction, as they say.  Why, have you heard about this elderly lady in St. Mary Meads, down not far from London?  I believe she is called Miss Marble, Miss Maple, something like that.  Also quite the sleuth.  And also in quite a small town.  So you see, these things happen, odd as they may appear.”

            Miss Dalyrimple shook her head.  She sighed, then closed her eyes.  “People can be so thick.  So dull-witted.  So willfully blind.  I must excuse you, Vicar, I suppose.  It’s a professional requirement in your case.  You know, the vast majority of the people in this world can be led around like goats on a rope.  One merely must play a part, an actress on a stage, to make them believe anything, anything at all.”

            “I don’t think I quite follow,” Mr. Swettenham said.  “Who is it that is leading people around like goats?”

            Miss Dayrimple’s eyes snapped open.  “Why, it was me, of course!” she said.

            “You? You led people like goats?”

            “Oh, it wasn’t as hard as you might think, I can tell you that.  Though it did take quite a bit of research, beforehand. Digging into family histories, household secrets.  Interpreting emotions thought to be well hidden.  Devising strategies and planning contingencies.  Visits to pharmacies and herb gardens.”

            “Miss Dalyrimple, I fear your mind may be wandering just a bit.  Would you like, perhaps, to take a nap?  I can come by later.”

            Miss Dalyrimple grimaced and attempted to sit up in the bed.  Mr. Swettenham awkwardly and ineffectually endeavored to assist her, without of course actually touching the old woman, and finally she was propped up against a small hillock of pillows.  “Oh, how obtuse you’re being!” she said.  “Can you not understand what I am saying?  That now, at the end, I want someone, even one tedious person, to know.  Yes, I’ve enjoyed being thought of as a heroine.  And even more, I’ve enjoyed playing my tricks on you all to make myself look like a brilliant detective.  And watching you, all of you, so amused in your smug condescension, watching an old lady play detective.  Do you understand, now?  It was me, you fool.  Me, who committed all those murders.”

            “I’m not sure you are saying what you mean, Miss Dalyrimple,” Mr. Swettenham said slowly.

            “Me, I said.  I was the one who poisoned and stabbed and shot all those people.  I was sure someone would catch on.  I was sure someone, at some point, would say, ‘Isn’t it a bit odd that all of these murder victims have a connection to Miss Dalyrimple?’ But no one ever did,” Miss Dalyrimple wheezed.  “No one ever asked where I had been when each murder was committed.  No one ever wondered how it was that I, only I, could see through all the subterfuges and deceptions to explain it all away.”

            “But surely, many of the murderers later confessed—”

            “Goats on a rope.”

            “I think, perhaps, I should return later, after you’ve had some rest.”  Mr. Swettenham rose and placed his hat on his head.

            “Oh, sit down, Vicar!” Miss Dalyrimple said sharply.  “Sit down.”

            The vicar sat.

            “I haven’t got much time left,” Miss Dalyrimple said, “and silly and obtuse as you are, you are the only one here, so you might as well hear it out.  Hear it all, and you can tell everyone later on.”

            The vicar swallowed.  “And just what is it you wish to say, Miss Dalyrimple?”  His voice rasped.

            “Why, just what I have been telling you.  I killed all those people.  I researched family histories and secrets, investigated personalities and predispositions, explored poisons and murder weapons, and then I struck.  And, just as I knew I would be – although I had to press quite hard in some instances – I became part of the investigation, and when I miraculously solved the cases, oh!  How impressed you all were!  How impressed!”  Miss Dalyrimple’s voice degenerated into a dry chuckle, which then became a cough.

            “But – but my own brother-in-law, Gerald Wright, my sister’s husband – you mean that you – you murdered him?  Along with all those others?  My own sister’s husband?”

            “Oh, don’t be so shocked,” Miss Dalyrimple said.  “We all must die sometime, you know.  What difference does it make, really, who murdered him?  Me or someone else; it all comes to the same thing.  I myself am dying right now.  I’m not complaining.”

            Mr. Swettenham discovered that he was unable to speak, to swallow.  He found himself rising again, replacing his hat, and stumbling away from the dying woman’s bedside.

            “Fools!” he heard her saying, as he left the house.  “Blind idiots!  Any bit of commonsense—”  Then there was more coughing.

            Mr. Swettenham quietly closed the door after him.  He took a couple of steps.  He was back in the garden, among Miss Dalyrimple’s beloved roses.

            Mr. Swettenham was known throughout the parish as a gentle man, a very temperate and mild creature.

            But what he did to those roses was savage, savage.