From Odd Goings-on at Ferndell Farm and Other Stories, a collection of short non-murder mysteries set in the 1920s, featuring detective Frederick Babington:
The Tattered Red Cloak
It was fully dark by the time they reached the Abbotshill village green. The air had grown crisp with nightfall, but the sky was full of brilliant stars. Only a crusting of old snow lay on the rooftops and on the grass. The green had been swept clear. A bonfire blazed high at the end nearest the Millwheel Inn and the children were dancing in a ring around it as if it were Guy Fawkes’ Night.
Everyone within five miles of Abbotshill had come out for the festivities tonight. All the village shopkeepers and neighboring farm-families were in attendance. Makeshift booths covered in colorful bunting had been set up to sell toasted buns, roast chestnuts, hot cider, mince pies, and other light but warming refreshments. The Rose and Crown Tavern, which sat on the opposite side of the mill pond, was open to offer the usual drink for those who wanted something more intoxicating. A band of musicians from Ipswich played in front of the tavern and a few couples had already assembled for the first dance.
Although his aunt had dismissed the dance as beneath the gentry, Freddie saw that many of his own relatives weren’t above taking part in this rustic amusement. In addition to Amyas and Virginia Barlow, Freddie recognized Virginia’s stolid older brothers Julius and Gervais Babington dancing with their respective wives. His elderly relatives Prunella and Hugh Proudhome stood to one side, not joining the dance in this chilly weather but enjoying the sight of the young people enjoying themselves. Ruby and Wilbur Chodeley kept a careful eye on their little daughters near the bonfire; their son Will and the Proudhomes’ grandson Alec had begun to toss squibs into the blaze to startle their elders and delight the younger children.
Freddie didn’t see Aunt Dodo among the crowd but after greeting him, Prunella informed him that the old lady had gone straight into the sitting room at the Millwheel Inn to sit by the fire with her closest friends and watch the proceedings through the bow window. Prunella then went inside to join them.
The band had been playing an old folk tune. After some murmured discussion, the fiddler attempted something more modern and ventured into the opening bars of that popular war-time song, “If You Were the Only Girl in the World…”
“There’s Susan,” said Billy, nodding his head to indicate his sweetheart. Susan Baines stood with Billy’s sister Marjorie and their girlfriends in an eagerly whispering group. All the girls wore hooded cloaks or capes decorated with brightly colored strips of rag-ribbons. None were masked, but most wore old-fashioned lace-trimmed caps or flowered bonnets that had probably been the pride of their grandmothers’ wardrobes.
When she saw Billy, Susan waved and gave him an inviting smile. The other girls burst into giggles.
Billy waved back and glanced wistfully at Freddie. Freddie understood: Bill wanted nothing more than to spend the evening with Sue but couldn’t bear to go off and leave him standing here by himself.
“Why don’t you ask her, Bill?” Freddie suggested.
“You wouldn’t mind?” Billy asked.
“No, of course not,” Freddie assured him. “Go and have your fun. It’s a party! You’re meant to enjoy yourself. Don’t worry about me. I’ll find my own entertainment.” He put one hand on Billy’s back to give him a push if necessary, but Billy needed no further encouragement. He went to speak to Susan and the couple joined the growing whirl of dancers.
The other girls regarded Freddie hopefully. A dance with a young gentleman was generally considered a triumph, but Freddie was aware that he was more than simply the nephew of old Miss Babington these days. He’d become a well-known figure in Abbotshill since he’d gained a measure of fame for himself as a private investigator. He’d even been mentioned in the newspapers, which was almost as good as appearing in the motion pictures.
Freddie hesitated. While he was up for a little dancing, he felt rather shy around young women he didn’t know well. In truth, there was no “only girl in the world” for him. He envied Billy that.
The girls didn’t wait long for partners. At last, only one remained, a young woman in a hooded red cloak. After the last of her friends had gone, she sought out and spoke to a masked youth, but he refused her with a dismissive gesture and instead made toward another girl in blue and yellow who had just arrived. The girl in red stared furiously after them as they too joined the dance.
Freddie began to circle the green, stopping to chat with acquaintances as he met them. As he passed by the front of the old mill, the ground floor of which had been converted into a tea shop, he noticed Timothy Summerson lounging against the door and smoking a cigarette. Tim was the son of the shop’s owner. His grandfather had been the last miller to run the mill; Mrs. Summerson, a widow of refined sentiments and higher social ambitions, had turned her inheritance into a more ladylike business with great success. She also rented the miller’s cottage, adjacent to the mill, to summer visitors and the occasional artist, and had made inroads into the local genteel society ruled by Freddie’s Aunt Dorothea. She was probably in the Inn with the other ladies now. Freddie recalled that Tim sometimes lived in the cottage when it wasn’t otherwise occupied, and had been a friend of his cousin Wilfrid—one of the few people in Abbotshill whom Wilfrid could get along with.
Tim wasn’t wearing a costume, and he watched the dancers with a sullen scowl. Freddie thought this odd. Did Tim disapprove of the holiday merry-making? If he considered himself above it, then why had he come out tonight?
Freddie went on past the mill. At the far end of the green, as he approached the Rose and Crown, he was grabbed from behind. For a moment, he was startled, then a distinctive and all-too familiar smell of cheap tobacco told him all he needed to know.
“Kell!” he cried as he turned and shoved his cousin back. “When did you get here?”
The Honourable Captain Kellynch Marsh grinned. “Phil and I arrived about an hour ago. I’m sorry we’re so late, old thing.
Did the two of you stop by Abbot House? I left a note on the door.”
“No, we didn’t bother. We knew you’d be here.”
“How could you know? I didn’t know it myself ‘til I arrived at Auntie’s.”
“We knew the house would be full up with Amyas’s and Ginnie’s brood, so we took a room at the Inn for tonight. They told us about the party, so we did our best to dress up for the occasion with a bit of help from our good landlady.” Beneath a borrowed, tattered old Inverness, Kell wore a brown leather coat which, though well-worn, was of a quality far superior to anything taken from Aunt Dodo’s dressing-up box. A leather cap with earflaps and goggles covered his toffee-colored hair and concealed his eyes.
“Where’s Phillip now?” Freddie asked.
“He went directly over to the Rose and Crown. He never likes to get very far from a glass if he can help it. I was just going after him. I had a chat with your Aunt Dodo and the other old birdies. It was Aunt Pru who said I’d find you. I knew you the instant I saw you, old chap, in spite of that ridiculous hat.” He snapped at the brim of Freddie’s hat with his fingertips.
“I didn’t know you,” Freddie admitted, “not at first. But that old coat of yours still smells of those filthy Black Gaspers you used to smoke during the war. I’m surprised you haven’t thrown the ghastly thing out.”
“It kept me warm in the cockpit of my aeroplane and does as well for an open auto on these icy roads. You never know—I hope to be flying again one day. I suppose I’ve ceased to notice the old cigarette smell.”
“I haven’t. I say, Kell, speaking of cigarettes, you haven’t got one on you?”
“Of course.” Kell laughed and produced a slim, silver monogrammed case from one of his coat pockets. “I can do better than the Tommy’s best friends these days.” He offered Freddie a cork-tipped French cigarette and lit it for him. “You ought to smoke a pipe, like jolly old Sherlock Holmes.”
“Too much fiddly work for me. Thanks awfully,” Freddie said after a grateful puff. “I haven’t had one since we got off the train. Aunt Dodo won’t have smoking in her house, and Bill keeps me strictly to no more than 4 or 5 a day. But as long as he’s not here to keep count…” He drew in on his cigarette again. “You’re lucky that Billy didn’t see you take hold of me, by the way. He might’ve thought I was being accosted by some local tough and rushed to my rescue.”
“Yes, I know all about your loyal manservant sworn to defend you at the risk of his own life,” Kell said wryly and cast a glance at the dancers as he drew out and lit another cigarette for himself, but Billy had eyes for no one except his partner at the moment. “It looks like he’s got other things on his mind tonight. You shouldn’t let him run your life so completely, old thing. A man’s got a right to smoke as much as he likes. Besides, your Bill couldn’t possibly object to these—they’re harmless as a summer’s breeze. Wouldn’t make a baby cough. I hope for your sake he won’t go on being such a mother hen once he’s married that girl and got some other chicks to cluck over.”
“I’ve done everything I can to encourage the match. Once they tell me they’ve set a date, I’m ready to make over Bill’s part of the flat for them.”
While they talked about Freddie’s plans, the music stopped. The fiddler put down his bow and went into the Rose and Crown for refreshment. The remaining musicians had a brief discussion, then attempted another modern song, the jaunty “Darktown Strutters Ball”.
Kell began to sway in time with the familiar jazz rhythm. At the line “I want to be there when the band starts playing,” he tapped his foot twice to the beat and began to dance. Freddie, smiling, matched his cousin’s steps. They danced a few feet apart to the music, punctuated by the occasional pop of firecrackers. When the song ended, they laughed out loud.
Billy, who had just finished his dance with Susan, noticed this and frowned.
Kell and Freddie sought out the hot-cider booth. The night had grown crisply cold and their breath steamed before their faces; a hot drink seemed just the thing. They found Phillip at another booth nearby, munching on roasted chestnuts. He wore a vividly red velvet coat with golden patches and a belled cap borrowed from one of his circus friends.
Billy headed toward them. “Freddie, who’s this lad in the goggles- Oh, it’s you, Captain Kell. I should’ve guessed. What d’you mean by making a spectacle of Freddie that way? Think of what people’ll say!”
“Oh, I’ve learned not to mind what people say about anything,” Kell replied dismissively.
“I don’t think anyone really noticed, or cared, if I had a bit of a dance with a cousin,” Freddie added.
“What about your poor leg?”
“My leg is fine, doesn’t ache at all.”
“You have to be more broad-minded, Billy,” Phillip said. “When Kell hears that tune, he goes wild and takes up with whomever’s nearest. Even Freddie isn’t safe.”
“Now you’re being ridiculous,” said Freddie.
“Indeed!” exclaimed Kell. “So much fuss over a bit of fun! I don’t have any designs on your precious Freddie, Bill Watkins.”
Billy’s mouth fell open, but he wasn’t sure what to make of this pointed remark. Before he could find a suitable retort, they heard a shout, a loud splash, and a girl’s screams.
Previous Freddie Babington mysteries: