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The Spike or Victoria College Review 1936

The Mouse and the Vicar

page 58

The Mouse and the Vicar

The mild face in the illustration beamed happily. Good-nature, sympathy, and childlike faith shone in that printed smile. No doubt the photograph had been taken as the vicar waited on a sunnny verandah for a second cup of tea from a very dear old parishioner. That sweet benevolent air suggested a christening satisfactorily accomplished—nay, more: a double christening, for it spoke aloud of twins. It seemed incredible that the owner of such a face should have an enemy in the world. And the front-page headline read: Cold-blooded Murder of Elderly Vicar.

Mrs. Button adjusted a cushion with some care, rested a bulky ankle on a small footstool, and sat back to enjoy the murder as it had been cleverly reconstructed in the paper. She already knew the main facts from the less sensational dailies, but she had waited impatiently for the colourful details in which this weekly specialised. The vicar might have had a Past: this would dig it up; there might have been some blood about: loud rubrics would sing of it.

There were other pictures: the bereaved wife, silverhaired, and his daughters, who probably always took bad photographs; the vicarage, complete with virginia creeper; and finally a plan of the room where the murder was committed.

After an introduction in gory doric, the article, by a Greater Blue-Wattled News Hawk flown immediately to the scene of the crime, proceeded:

"It is Saturday night. The vicar's wife and two daughters have gone to a theatre several miles away, and he is alone in his study."

Mrs. Button's household had also gone out for the evening, and she too was alone, except for a large clock (with an irritating squeak after every tick) and a lingering smell of the evening meal. Only last Saturday! she thought with what in a slighter figure would have been a shudder.

"Or rather, he believes himself alone. But somewhere in this rural cottage lurks a fiend with murder in his heart."

It seemed to be growing chilly, and Mrs. Button noticed that the door behind her was ajar. She got up and closed it.

"On this calm summer evening, surely the whole atmosphere ["Now for a heart-wallop!" the Hawk had murmured here] must be breathing quietness and calm. The very furniture suggests peacefulness—two comfortable armchairs, dark mahogany tables, old oak paneling on the walls, and framed water-colours, the work of his elder daughter. On a shelf (see diagram in column 4) are two vases of marigolds, on the table are Bibles, concordances, a dictionary, books of divinity. Who would have said such a house could have sheltered a murderer? It is ten o'clock."

At the very moment she read the line the dining-room clock cleared its throat and struck ten, and Mrs. Button was so overcome by the coincidence that she could not resume reading until the striking finished. Nerves must be getting jumpy, she thought. Perhaps there was a draught—no, the window was closed and the door—of course, silly of her—was still firmly shut. Like a schoolgirl, being scared by a newspaper and a bit of a coincidence. She read on more firmly.

"The scholarly man is working at his sermon for the morrow—a sermon preaching love and charity towards our neighbours. Can he have any slight premonition of the horror that awaits him, some vague, uneasy sensation of the evil about to shatter that atmosphere of peace? One can but wonder. If he did have such a feeling, then he must have dismissed it from his mind, for the sermon is nearly finished.

"Suddenly, a shadow falls across his table—"

The mottled hands that held the paper trembled.

"His throat is seized in a deadly grip—"

She almost choked; she imagined she too could feel the cold hands on her throat.

"And as he is forced back in his chair and gasps for breath, a phial of cyanide is thrust between his teeth—"

Mrs. Button shrieked and sprang from her chair as a mouse ran over her foot.

Not that she was afraid of mice. They were common enough in her squalid boarding house. But she shivered first with fright and then with anger. Confused emotions surging in her X.X.O.S. bosom strove to find expression, so that she opened and shut her mouth like a magnified tadpole. Before she could gasp, "You awful little beast," the mouse had zig-zagged the floor and scuttled down a hole.

"Here's me getting all worked up over the murder and you go and scare the livers out page 59 of me," she said to the hole. "I'm all over goosey. You just wait!"

There was no answer. She went to look for some cheese.

The new boarder came in. The landlady did not like him: he had funny eyes and strange ways, always smiling to himself as though he was amused at her—what reason had he to laugh at her? And he was always that particular about his food and his towels. One good thing, he was seldom in the house for long.

"Oh, hullo, Mr. Ferguson," she said. "I've just been reading about that dreadful murder."

"The Pururu case? I've heard something about it. Bit of a mystery, what?"

"Fancy that pore old parson chopped to pieces in the mortchery! It makes me quite miserable to think of it."

He hung up his coat. "Nothing to be miserable about. People of his age just go on living through force of habit. No more sermons to write, no more people to marry and bury. What a stench of cabbage!"

"Open the window then if you don't like it. I'm going to bed," she said tersely. Musn't let boarders get uppish. What was wrong with a smell of cabbage anyhow? She hated fussy people.

The boarder sat down with a book. The newspaper was still on the table, and he smiled in the friendliest manner at the vicar's picture. He had read all about the murder with the interest of an actor in his criticisms, but he felt contemptuous of the avidity with which such sordid material was swallowed by people like his landlady. They led drab, uninteresting lives, and were forced to seek excitement in the crimes of others beyond their own daring.

He shrugged his shoulders with self-conscious grace and returned to his book, where he was absorbed for an hour. But when the mouse ran across the hearth he remained still, watching. The mouse paused on the fender to sum up the new occupant of the room. What fascinating little black eyes it had, what wellkept whiskers! "Harmless, but I'll keep an eye on him," it decided, and set off on a search for crumbs. The quantity it found was a warrantable reflection on the landlady's housekeeping methods. The man followed the mouse's every movement with his eyes, but remained quite still in his chair, scarcely breathing. Shortly it sat up on its haunches, and began a clean-up. Pink paws swept backward and forward over cloverleaf ears, phosphorescent sides and immaculate tail. It brushed its whiskers roughly and sneezed, then smoothed them with the care and affection of a Kitchener. Pity we had to kill them or be over-run. But who justified existence better?—this svelte and intelligent creature or that fat human garbage, who couldn't even keep her whiskers tidy, let alone wash often..... Suddenly the mouse looked up from its toilet, a puzzled expression on its face. The sharp nose wrinkled. "Is it possible," the look seemed to say; "do I dream or do I?—By all that's rodent—cheese! Now if I can once locate it....."

The man was interested. Amazing how the little beggar could smell food. It took a brief run to the left and paused for a sniff, and looked disappointed. "Steady now, you're losing it!" thought the man, becoming enthusiastic. Another experimental run, at a right angle. The nostrils were going full out now, sorting, tracking down that delicious smell. "Warmer—cool—" said the man to himself, joining in the game; "cold again—ah, that's better—hot!"

He gripped his chair to suppress his excitement. The strain of keeping silent and motionless was a kind of ecstatic torture. The mouse had halted in the corner of the room, but with an air of conviction it made a beeline along the wall by the wainscoting, direct for the corner on the same side. And then cold fear laid a hairy hand on the man's spine, because at that corner, almost concealed by a chair, was a baited trap, rusty but tense and supercharged with death. With a yell the man hurled his book at the trap, which snapped its teeth fiercely, thwarted. The mouse leapt back, darted across the room, slipped and skidded a foot as it made too sharp a turn, and wriggled down a chink near the fireplace. Then the man laughed and panted with relief. "I've saved the mouse," he thought, "but I've waked Mrs. Button and all this will take a lot of explaining!"

There was a loud knock on the door. He opened it, first mopping his brow. There were three policemen there.

"You're Charles Ferrier," said one. "I reckon you know what you're wanted for. Coming quiet?"

They said in court afterwards that accused, when arrested, was "considerably agitated."