The Rectory was located on the same side of the village as the church, up the hill – but not as far up as Babbington’s cottage – and nestled in amongst a collection of tall, oak trees. As Conroy shuffled up the garden path towards the front door, he made a point of stopping and glancing around this new environment – taking in the church that loomed high above on the other side of the lane and quaint sights of the village down below.
As expected, he could see Babbington’s study window from the Rectory garden and he imagined that – had the dead man been inclined to look – he would have had a near perfect view of the pretty primrose flower beds, colourful rose bushes and neatly trimmed hedges that led the way up to Walcott’s front door.
Conroy could still see the study window - although slightly obscured by one of the oak trees – when he arrived at the Rectory door. He grasped hold of the large, bronze knocker and banged it hard against the wood three times before taking a step back to wait for the irritable figure of Thomas Walcott to appear.
Needless to say, Walcott was surprised to see his visitor.
‘Conroy,’ he exclaimed, momentarily stunned by the sight of the burly butcher in his front garden. ‘Have you given up already?’
Conroy smiled back with what he imagined was a pleasant expression. The sudden paleness that gripped Walcott’s face told him that it was far more intimidating than he had hoped.
‘I have a few questions,’ he announced. ‘If you don’t mind?’
Walcott stared passed Conroy, peering in the direction of the lane. For a moment, Conroy expected him to send him on his way but, to his complete surprise, the vicar took a step back away from the door and gestured for him to enter. Conroy stepped hesitantly through the door, allowing Walcott to close it with a sharp snap behind him. He then followed as Walcott led him through the small maze of corridors, which eventually led out to a small day room that – whilst it seemed to be bathed in golden sunlight – was completely hidden from view of the outside world by a collection of bushy fir trees.
Walcott gestured for the butcher to take a seat beside a small, wooden table before sidling off to a small stove where a pot was bubbling furiously.
‘I was making tea,’ he declared, lifting the pot off the stove and carrying it across to another table where a collection of cups and a teapot had been gathered. ‘I’m afraid I don’t know if the Irish drink it. It is a very quintessentially English drink, after all.’
‘Tea will be fine,’ Conroy replied, cursing quietly under his breath. It often irritated him how the English thought of themselves superior in every respect, including their pallet. It never once occurred to them that those outside of the main land may have similar tastes – especially someone as rough as Conroy.
Walcott placed the now filled teapot on to a tray along with two cups and a small bowl. He carried the tray delicately over to the table and set it down before taking his seat and pouring out Conroy a cup.
‘I don’t take milk myself,’ he explained, gesturing to the bowl, which Conroy could now see contained several slices of lemon.
‘I prefer it black.’
‘Ah,’ Walcott replied, a small smile forming on his face. ‘A man out of my own heart. Do you take lemon?’ He raised the bowl towards Conroy who immediately shook his head and took a sip from his tea. Walcott placed the bowl back down and finished preparing his own cup as he spoke. ‘I imagine you are surprised by my charity towards you. I doubt your foresaw tea with the vicar when you began your long walk over here.’
Conroy finished his sip and set his tea down. The liquid was warm and welcoming and, despite his previous disputes with Walcott, he began to feel quite at home in this little day room. It was that feeling of welcoming that made him feel quite uneasy about it all.
‘Not particularly,’ he replied. ‘As a vicar, you are a man of God. As a magistrate you are a representative of the people. I doubt the two work particularly well together.’
‘It is true, the two are not mutually beneficial, I must admit. But, I have no complaints, I do love what I do in this village, but it does regrettably lead me into situations where, try as I might, I must forsake my desire to act with compassion to my fellow man so as to keep the peace amongst the people.’
‘I understand,’ Conroy replied, cynically. ‘What you mean is you’re rather two-faced – not unlike the Roman God, Janus.’
‘Janus?’ Walcott replied, his eyes sparkling for a moment. ‘I had no idea you were an educated man, Mister Conroy.’
‘Anyone can hear stories, Reverend. Learning is not all about what people think you should know – sometimes you have to grab it for yourself.’ Conroy took another sip of tea. ‘Of course, what I meant was that you would strike me down with your words in one instant and then - when you believe you are unobserved - you would embrace me like a brother in the next. In that respect, you’re not so different from a coward…’
The change that came over Walcott’s face was remarkable. All of a sudden, the veneer of godliness disappeared and Conroy saw nothing but a creature of pure loathing staring back at him. It was as though the Devil himself had slithered into the room and poisoned the air around him. Even under the beaming sunlight, Conroy felt the whole room grow cold.
‘What is your business here, Butcher?’
Conroy settled back in his seat. The pleasantries were now over.
‘How well did you know the Reverend Babbington before he moved to Barclay’s Hollow?’
‘I’d never heard of him before,’ replied Walcott curtly.
‘Never. He arrived here a little under six months ago. I introduced myself, as I always do with new residents to the village…’
‘You didn’t with me.’
Walcott’s eyes narrowed. ‘You were different.’ He cleared his throat. ‘We had afternoon tea and talked for a while – mostly about history. Apparently he was quite the amateur historian…’
‘And after that?’ Conroy interrupted. ‘How close were you?’
‘Close? Well, not at all,’ came the reply. ’Obviously, I had a great deal to do with Constance. She attended the Sunday school and was a regular attendee here at church. I would see her here maybe three or four times in a week. But, after that initial introduction, I never saw him again save a couple of times when he would wander down the lane towards the village – and of course when he came to me for advise the other day...’
Conroy nodded thoughtfully. ‘I see.’
Walcott stared across the table at him for a moment, slowly bending forward and picking up his tea. As he sipped from the cup, his eyes never left Conroy and, when he finally placed it back down again, he inquired:
‘Why do you ask?’
Conroy had been hoping for this question. He slowly shook his head from side to side as though he couldn’t quite understand his own thoughts; although secretly they were as clear as day.
‘There is something not quite right about the way Reverend Babbington experienced life,’ he mused. ’The man was clearly paranoid. He selected a cottage that overlooked the whole village, with a study window that had a view of every major landmark Barclay’s Hollow has to offer – even your front door, Reverend Walcott. Despite being a man of the church, he rarely left his house – not even to go to church.
‘At first I thought he was worried about someone who might be a danger to him. His story about the man in a tricorne hat seemed to support that idea. But then it got me wondering – how many vicars do you know of that retire from service?’
Walcott gave him a curious look before rolling his eyes up towards the ceiling. ‘None that I can recall,’ he replied. ‘Most consider it a service until they die.’
‘Precisely what I thought,’ said Conroy. ‘It seems remarkable to me that you hadn’t heard of a man who had done such a thing before arriving in this village…’
‘Not so remarkable. The clergy is a tight community - there is no denying that - but we prefer to engage ourselves in the service of the Lord, not idle gossip.’
‘Unless you are also a magistrate.’
Walcott’s eyes flashed with anger. ‘Get to the point, Butcher.’
‘What if Babbington had chosen this village for a different reason to the one he gave? What if he hadn’t chosen to be here to escape the bustle of Warwick, but had chosen this village because of something, or someone, here? And what if he also hadn’t chosen that particular cottage because it meant he could observe anyone who could be a threat to him, but because he wanted to watch one specific person?’
Conroy levelled his eyes on Walcott.
‘Someone whose front door he could see from his study, for example. Someone who, like him, was a member of the clergy.’
If Walcott was angry before, it was nothing compared to what he felt now. He fists tightened into a ball and his arms shook with fury as he glared at Conroy.
‘What the Devil are you trying to say?’
‘Let’s suppose Reverend Charles Babbington wasn’t really retired - that he was working for the church still – what need would there be for him to be in Barclay’s Hollow? Why would he keep himself so isolated, watching the village around him but never joining with it? It doesn’t sound like any religious person I know. Unless, of course, he was trying to keep a low profile.’
‘Or,’ piped in Walcott, ’he really was retired and just wanted to spend the rest of his life in peace.’
‘Or,’ shot back Conroy, ‘he had been sent by the Church to investigate one of their own. A vicar who – let’s say – had been stealing funds donated to the church.’ Conroy gestured around the room. ‘I might be wrong, but I don’t think many vicars can live so lavishly as you do.’
Walcott was on his feet in seconds.
‘How dare you, Irishman,’ he bellowed. ‘How dare you insult my hospitality like this? If I were any less of a man, I would…’
‘Throttle me?’ Conroy replied, calmly. ‘Shot me in the head and pretend it was suicide?’
‘You monstrous excuse for a man…’
‘How did it go, Reverend?’ Conroy continued. ‘Did you realise who he was? Did he find out something about you that could end your career and your standing in this village? A man who finds out something like that cannot be allowed to live…’
‘You Irish filth…’
‘That’s why you were so keen to be there when I questioned Constance. That’s why you allowed Doctor Edison to walk her away when I questioned her. You knew she might have seen you in the house that evening, and you needed to know what she’d seen before I could talk to her…’
With the speed of a diving falcon, Walcott reached down and grabbed hold of Conroy’s cup, hurling it with all his might at the nearest wall. The china smashed into a hundred pieces and the brown liquid splattered against the wall before dripping down towards the floorboard.
For a moment, Walcott stood, breathless and filled with anger as he glared down at Conroy who, for his part, remained quite still and unperturbed by the outburst. Then, as though sense and reason had finally returned to him, Walcott’s face grew pale and, as quickly as he leapt to his feet before, he collapsed back in his seat with his head in his hands.
There he sat for several moments, quietly weeping into his skin and shaking his head back and forth. It was only after the clock on the church tower began to strike the hour that he finally lowered his hands and stared coldly at the butcher.
‘Very clever, Mister Conroy,’ he said solemnly. ‘Very clever indeed. But you ignore one vital factor… Proof’
‘I’m sure Miss Constance will provide me with that.’
‘And I am sure she will not.’
‘Perhaps,’ Conroy replied. ‘But Mister Collins’ testimony will more than likely incriminate you as well…’
‘Collins. The man from the Dorchester Gazette. He was called down to the village the day before the murder. He says he was told about the murder and he’d come down to report on it. There’s only one person I know who had the knowledge of the murder and the ability to contact Dorchester…’
‘You are suggesting I did that?’ Walcott interrupted. ‘Let me be clear, Mister Conroy, I have never heard of this Mister Collins before. I certainly have not contacted any newspaper to report on the murder – that would be entirely improper and disrespectful to Miss Constance…’
‘If you didn’t call on him, then who did?’
Walcott shook his head, his face regaining some sort of composure.
‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘But one thing is for sure – this pathetic excuse of a theory of yours seems to be falling apart quite easily. You have no proof of your outrageous accusations – and your theory fails to account for this mysterious journalist and for Babbington’s own insistence that a man in a tricorne hat was stalking him prior to his murder. How do you explain that, Butcher?’
He had a point. Conroy could do little but shake his head. He had been so sure of himself as he’d marched up the hill to the Rectory. Now, in the sight of Walcott’s superior education, Conroy theory had fallen flat. Of course, he should have been pursuing Collins, but the idea of bringing down Walcott had been too delicious to ignore…
A thought dawned on him.
‘What do you know of Babbington’s wooden chest?’
Walcott was momentarily startled by the question, but quickly regained control of himself.
‘A wooden chest? Why would I be interested in such a thing?’
‘Babbington told me he had a wooden chest that containing memorabilia. He said it was a prized possession and yet I saw no evidence of it in his cottage. I suppose whoever killed him might have taken it…’
Walcott raised an eyebrow. ‘At last, you make an assumption that isn’t entirely ridiculous.’
‘You wouldn’t happen to have it here, would you?’
‘Well, of course not…’
‘Would you mind if I search your house to be sure?’
Walcott opened his mouth to object but quickly closed it. He allowed the question to hang in the air before finally he got back to his feet, tightened his jacket around him and nodded his approval.
‘Be my guest,’ he said. ‘And after you have satisfied yourself that it is not here, you may leave.’ He took a few steps towards Conroy and stared intimidatingly down at him. ‘But rest assured, Irishman, this little ploy of yours has only confirmed to me what scum you people are. I shall make it my life’s purpose to see that you are destroyed for your impudence and that your presence is eradicated from our sweet and idyllic village.’
Conroy smile and slowly got to his feet, staring hard into Walcott’s eyes.
‘And they say religious men aren’t capable of evil.’