by Madeline McEwen
Enjoy this never before published Easter mystery short story.
Archibald Brown, a chimney sweep, had retired in the very last house on Windermere Lane deep in the heart of the Devonshire countryside in England. Living alone in the village of Lustingleigh, he rarely, if ever, had the opportunity to welcome a visitor and share any of his many memories, what his dearly departed wife called, “Tall tales,” like the time he had a brush with a golden opportunity.
Sadly, few folks used coal or logs anymore. Most people relied on central heating and other high-tech solutions against the chill. Hence, Archie’s long brushes and paraphernalia remained untouched in the hut at the bottom of his garden for many a long year gathering dust, cobwebs, and a lively community of spiders.
Since Betty’s death, when he became a widower, the cottage had declined without the dutiful care of his skillful wife: brass dulled by verdigris, dirty window panes edged with mold, and mouse droppings accumulating around the skirting boards. Although, that period of neglect came about while he nursed Betty through to the end. Now, he had neither the heart nor the energy for housework without anyone to share his home and only Jesse, his elderly, Old English Sheepdog for company.
As Easter approached, Archie sat on the window seat of the bay window where Betty used to put a vase of seasonal blooms and foliage. How she loved her garden and routinely made flower arrangements for the church. Not that he ever went inside. “You’re such a heathen, Archie. We must support the village, without our friends and neighbors, who are we?” He often thought of her, every day, so many reminders. He gazed at the spring bulbs emerging from the dark earth: crocus, daffodils, and the occasional tulip with its burnt-orange splendor. Funny to see their lives continue while their mistress, the woman who had planted them, moldered away in the cemetery.
On Sunday, after reading the newspaper, he grabbed his cane and Jesse’s leash and left the house for the second time in the week.
“Come on, Jesse,” Archie patted his thigh with encouragement, “shake your bones, old fella.”
For some reason, he had wanted to enjoy a pint at the Dog and Duck, like he used to do on the way home from work, an aperitif before Betty’s home-cooked suppers. Guilt flooded his thoughts. All those hours he’d wasted at the pub instead of spending time with Betty. But there was no looking back. He strode on along the familiar route glancing at the gardens and their springtime blooms full of hope and promise. He must soldier on and cobble together a life on his own.
He paused at old Mrs. Moffat’s house, the one she shared with her seventy-year-old daughter. Something seemed different, but what? Jesse woofed at their window, the bay window where Mrs. Moffat exhibited a pair of china dogs. Where had they gone? Archie thought they were hideous and apparently, Jesse did too, but the window looked barren without that decorative touch.
The landlord, Bill, welcomed him from behind the highly polished counter.
“Evening, Archie. Good to see you again. That fella’s been asking after you, but I wouldn’t tell him your address.”
“What fella?” Archie heaved himself up onto a tall stool and hooked his cane over the railing. Jesse sank to the floor with a sigh. “Why didn’t you tell him where I lived? I’m always open to visitors.”
“Cheers. Jesse’s mighty grateful, ain’t you, Jesse?”
Jesse didn’t stir.
“You watch out for that suit. Mark my words, he’s up to no good.”
“What a cynic you are, Bill.” Archie sipped his pint. “I’m sure he’s just another lonely soul, like me.”
“I don’t like these out-of-towners. I’m sure it’s because of that newspaper article last week. You’ve got to be careful with folks like that.”
“Maybe he’s property hunting. There’s a mighty fine house up for sale on Windermere Lane.”
“Hunting something else, more like. That house, the one for sale is at the other end of the lane from your cottage. So what was he doing tramping around your garden in the middle of the night?”
“Was he? I didn’t hear anything.”
“Do you wear your hearing aids at night?”
“Did you see him?” Archie touched his ear. “What were you doing out Windermere Lane way?” Archie smiled. “Visiting Wendy at number seven?”
“Wendy shouldn’t be talking to people like him. She’s far too naive. I wish she’d draw her curtains at night.” Bill squared his shoulders. “She gave me some cock and bull story, but I knew she was lying.”
“Lying? That doesn’t sound like Wendy.”
“Mrs. Moffat is her great-great-aunt, and Wendy says she had a nose for a story, but I don’t believe her.”
“True love treads a rocky path.” He liked young Wendy, a reporter at the Henderson Gazette; a bright girl with a head of fluffy hair like a newly hatched chick. She often brought him cakes and biscuits after Betty died.
“Although,” Bill rubbed his chin, “you’ll never believe it, but that guy offered me fifty pounds for those horse-brasses next to the mantel. He doesn’t know a thing about genuine antiques.”
* * * * * *
Archie hadn’t thought about that newspaper article published on Sunday last week. He read it with pleasure and showed it to Jesse, not that he showed much interest. Archie also read the advertisements about the Easter Egg Hunt–donations welcome–on the village green, and the new auction house opening soon, alongside a historical piece about Fabergé eggs. All of them had brightened his day. Maybe that was why he felt brave enough to visit the pub for the first time in a long while to mingle with friends and see if anyone else had read the paper.
He hadn’t expected Wendy when she had come to interview him after Jesse won a rosette for Best Barker in the village. She had taken a few photos too: Jesse lounging on the hearth rug, Jesse barking at the back door, Jesse in front of Betty’s display cabinet with all her dusty trinkets.
“You should hire a cleaner,” Wendy had said. “Someone to help you out.”
“No, I can’t have anyone handling Betty’s bone china. She loved her Spode, Wedgwood, and Crown Derby. Never let me touch them with my clumsy mitts.”
“Have you ever thought of trying meals-on-wheels? Their food isn’t half bad, save you the trouble of cooking for yourself.”
“I do alright.” He had fumbled with his hearing aids. He needed to buy new batteries. “I’m managing. Besides, I can’t afford to throw money around. Who knows, I might live another ten years, maybe more.”
“Have you ever thought about selling off some of those trinkets?” Wendy wandered over to the cabinet and peered inside. “They’re sure to be worth something.”
“What about that one?” She had pointed at the bottom shelf and touched the door handle. “May I?”
“Be my guest, but be careful, some of those are old and fragile, a bit like me.”
“I bet this one’s got a story.” She had held the little egg in her palm. “Was it a gift? What was the occasion?”
Archie gripped the arms of his chair and then leaned back to settle in his favorite position. Jesse plodded over and flopped at Archie’s feet.
“Do you remember the Volikovs? No, probably before your time. The Volikovs bought the big manor house during the war when they escaped from Russia. Lovely family but they kept to themselves. Only visited the village in the summer. Don’t know where they spent the rest of their time. Probably in London.
“Anyways, one summer, must have been sixty years ago now, we had a right stinker of a season. Poured with rain every day. Mr. Volikov, the Count we called him, asked if I could come and sweep his chimney so they could light a fire to stave off the chill.
“So, I nipped up their place faster than a rabbit. I laid out all my dust sheets careful like so as not to spoil all their fancy furnishings and covered the fireplace with a protective barrier on account of all the debris that falls into the grate. Then, I connected the broom extenders and shoved the brush up the chimney with the speed and efficiency that I’m known for in these parts.
“Did you know I was apprenticed when I was only eight years old? That was the way back then, and I learned my craft well.”
Wendy had leaned forward, “Fascinating.”
Archie fiddled with the buttons on his shirt. It never hurt to embellish a story and make it more fun, but he didn’t want to lie, not to Wendy.
“Go on,” Wendy had said. “What happened next?”
Hesitating, Archie plowed on. “Well, it was the darnedest thing. I heard this clunk, a heavy clunk, not just cinders but something heavier. Mr. Valikov heard it too. I thought it was odd, him standing there in the room with me. Usually, homeowners go about their own business. They don’t stand there supervising and hovering like vultures.
“I waited a minute for the air to clear, then I pulled down the barrier, and there amongst the rubble was that egg. Mr. Valikov’s face was white as snow like all the blood had pooled in his shiny, black shoes. Now there was a man with some secrets. So I said to him because I ain’t no fool, ‘this must be yours Mr. Valikov, this here egg hidden in the chimneystack. Must be worth a King’s ransom seeing as how its made of gold.’ ”
“And what did he say?”
“He said, ‘What that old, piece of junk! It’s only paste, a child’s plaything, probably hidden as a prank, perhaps by the previous owners.’ And I said, ‘Why no sir. I’m sure it’s valuable, feel the weight, that’s not paste. I’ve seen something like this before. I think it was insured for thousands. Somebody must be missing it something terrible.’ ”
Archie had glanced at Wendy, wide-eyed and perched on the edge of her seat. “Was it some kind of insurance scam?”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that, but what he said next, struck me as odd, more than odd. He winked and said, ‘why don’t you take it home and give it to your kiddies?’ ”
“But you don’t have any kids, do you, Archie?”
“No, but after I buffered up the surface, it shone more than I ever could have imagined, so I gave it to Betty.”
“Was she thrilled?”
“She said it was better than any goose’s golden egg.”
“Did you ever have it appraised, you know, valued by a professional?”
“What do I need with a professional? Any amateur, like me, can tell its as good as it gets, a gift with no strings attached. Between you and me, I think Mr. Valikov was glad to see it gone. Maybe it brought him bad luck, but for me there’s been nothing but sunshine ever since. If time’s get tough, I can sell my nest egg to see me through the winter.”
And ever since that photo had appeared in the paper, the one of his dog next to the cabinet, Jesse had stood in the hall barking at the phone.
Archie stuffed his spiral notebook and pen in his jacket along with his brief, crumpled shopping list. The doorbell tinkled as he left the village shop with a loaf of bread and a pint of milk. Jesse hated waiting outside tied to a lamppost, but dogs were considered unhygienic and not permitted entry. His tail wagged a welcome as Archie untied the leash. He reached into his pocket and gave Jesse a lint-covered dog biscuit. He wolfed it down, and then together they walked the mile-and-a-half home to Windermere Lane.
A man, the out-of-towner, stood on the welcome mat outside Archie’s front door with a winning smile, a sheepish demeanor, and a lumpy overcoat.
“Mr. Brown,” he said, “Mr. Archibald Brown?”
Jesse stopped dead in his tracks, narrowed his eyes and bared his teeth.
“Easy there, old fellow. I hope your dog doesn’t bite.”
“Hush, Jesse.” Archie opened the gate. “He might, but he hasn’t got many teeth, a bit like me.”
“I expect you’re surprised to see me here. I’m Guy Nugent, a friend of Wendy’s.” He spoke louder. “You know Wendy, don’t you? Your neighbor.”
“I’m deaf, not stupid.” Archie fumbled for his door key juggling the bread and the milk and the dog.
Archie opened the door. “Why are you trudging all over the village?”
“Hoping to find some antiques. It’s my hobby, something to while away the lonely days.”
“Are you…an appraiser?”
“No, no, no. An amateur enthusiast, that’s all, but you’d be amazed at what interesting knick-knacks you can find in these out of the way places.”
“Lustingleigh isn’t out of the way. We’re in the heart of the countryside, the part that makes the place alive.”
“Quite so. Shall I take this to the kitchen?” Guy darted into the hall. “Do you have a fridge? Come to think of it, do you have electricity? How old is this cottage?”
“It was only built in 1827, not the Dark Ages.” He unclipped Jesse’s leash and muttered, “I don’t have so much as a candle in the place.”
In the kitchen, Guy grabbed the kettle, filled it with water, and dumped it on the hob as if he owned the place. Archie didn’t like his manner, sloppy, and his jerky movements like a fox in a hen house ready to wreak havoc.
“May I sit down?” He pulled out a kitchen chair, and sat on the table with his feet on the seat.
Jesse looked at Archie and Archie returned his look. They were in agreement. Guy was not housebroken.
“Well, Mr. Nugent—”
“–Call me Guy.”
“I’ve nothing of interest for you. I am but a poor man with a beggar’s meager belongings.”
“Don’t be so dismissive. I seem to remember seeing a picture of you in front of a delightful display cabinet full of intriguing trinkets.”
“I think not,” Archie said.
“Yes, it was. I saw you in the Henderson Gazette.”
“The photo was of Jesse, not me.”
“Ah, quite so. Please do show me the cabinet, or shall I find it myself? Is it next door.” He jumped off the table and skidding across the flagstoned floor. “In there?”
“Help yourself.” Archie waited to make the tea and watched Jesse pad after Guy. Nothing could go wrong with Jesse by Guy’s side. Since a watched kettle never boils, Archie rooted around the cupboards for a couple of cleanish mugs. As he searched he came across Betty’s sugar pot, the Royal Albert Bone China one from the Princess series inherited from her granny, the only piece she used daily because it already had a chip on the rim. Archie smiled as a wicked thought occurred to him.
He found a tray and laid it out in the way Betty had used to do: two cups, jug of milk, and teapot. After filling the pot with piping hot water, he replaced the lid and popped a tea cozy on top. Then he chose an ornate plate, took half a dozen dog biscuits from the back of the counter and arranged them on the plate. Perfect!
Archie joined his uninvited guest in the sitting room, Jesse shadowing his every more.
“Tea! Wonderful, and biscuits too, you’re far too kind.”
Archie put the tray down, and Jesse trotted over to the coffee table and aligned his nose with the plate. Guy swatted him away, “Not for you, Hairy Hound. I do believe those are for me.” Guy helped himself to a biscuit, tossed it with a theatrical air, and caught the whole thing in his mouth.
“A hole in one,” Archie said to Jesse.
“I wasn’t expecting a savory biscuit,” Guy said. “Are they customary in these parts, a local delicacy?”
“Some folks think so, don’t they, Jesse?”
Jesse’s tail drooped.
“Here’s your tea,” Archie said. “Drink up. I expect you’re in a hurry to find some treasures.”
“No hurry. In fact, I believe I’ve spotted an overlooked bargain.”
“Surely not, I don’t have anything valuable.”
“I didn’t say valuable, I said bargain. Those are two very different things, wouldn’t you agree?” His cup clattered on the saucer. “I’d like to make you an offer, if I may? I’ve taken a fancy to that little paste egg in your display cabinet. Just the thing for my daughter. She’s like a magpie, loves glittery things.”
“One of Betty’s, my late wife’s favorites too. I didn’t know you had a daughter. What’s her name?”
“Mag … Magda.”
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint Magda, but I couldn’t possibly part with that gem.”
“It is not a gem, merely paste, not worth anything, hardly anything. How much do you want for it?”
“It’s not for sale.”
“I’ll give you a hundred pounds to soften the blow.”
“I wouldn’t sell it for a thousand, several thousand. That egg is worth more to me than–” he glanced around the room until his eyes rested on his faithful friend. “More than Jesse, and you can’t buy him either.”
Guy jumped out of his seat and paced the room with rapid steps. “Be reasonable.”
“Slow down, Guy. You’ll wear out the carpet.”
“Here.” Guy opened his overcoat and yanked a package from his pocket. “This is all I have, five thousand pounds. You can have it if you must, but you’ll have cleaned me out. I’ll have to hitchhike home.”
“What about the other pocket?” Archie nodded toward the bulge in Guy’s overcoat. “I’ll take that five thousand too.”
“You’re ridiculous. Do you think I’m going to spend ten thousand pounds on a Fabergé egg without any provenance?”
“It is a fabulous egg.”
“Did Count Volikov give you any hint as to its provenance?”
“Not him. We had a gentleman’s agreement. Neither of us made any promises.”
“Good enough.” Guy handed over the second package. “You drive a hard bargain, but I like to play fair.”
When Archie arrived later that evening, the Dog and Duck was busy as he made his way through the crowd with Jesse trailing behind. Wendy sat on a bar stool and talked to Bill as he served his customers.
“Evening, Archie. What can I get you? Pint?”
“Nice one!” Bill said. “You come into some money? Don’t tell me you sold Betty’s priceless collection of china. You didn’t, did you?”
“I don’t like to think of that out-of-towner carting off everyone’s valuables and selling them for a song in some fancy, London, auction house. It ain’t right.”
Archie touched Wendy’s hand. “I’m not sure if I should thank you or give you a good telling-off.”
“Who me?” Wendy grinned. “I had no idea when we published that story, and that’s the truth.”
“I believe you,” Archie said, “but can you convince honest Bill, here?”
Bill rubbed his hands on a bar towel. “Convince me of what?”
“Okay,” Wendy said. “Can I help it if some people are susceptible? How was I supposed to know that picture with your egg would draw so much attention?”
Bill frowned. “What am I missing?”
“I may have made a suggestion to my editor. Perhaps I pointed out a theme. The juxtaposition of the missing Russian eggs historical piece and the advertisement for the auction featuring a fictional Fabergé egg might have been happenstance. Jesse and your egg on the opposite page seemed to balance out the center spread.”
“You’re leaving out something else,” Archie said. “Why don’t you put Bill’s mind at rest? In case you hadn’t already noticed, the boy is quite smitten.”
“I am not a boy.” Bill bristled with indignation. “And I’m certainly not smitten. You’re a free woman. You can talk to whomsoever you wish. I’ve no claims on you.”
“Whomsoever?” Wendy repeated giving Archie a wink. “Well, if you must know, Guy Nugent’s been hanging around the village, off and on, for some weeks. He gave my auntie, Mrs. Moffat, ten pounds for her pair of china roof tile finials, you know the ones she had in the window.”
“Those ugly dogs,” Bill said.
“Ancient Chinese lions, not dogs.”
Bill stared at Jesse. “That explains a great deal.”
“They’re not genuine Ming dynasty, but worth at least a hundred each. I phoned that television program, Crime Stoppers. That should put everyone on alert, but we’ll never get them back now.”
“What a shame.” Archie sympathized with the sense of loss. He’d happily trade Betty’s collection of bone china tea-sets if he could have her back instead. Things had no value, only their associations. “I’m sure he’ll get his comeuppance in the end.”
Wendy ran her fingers through her hair. “Do you believe in Karma, Archie?”
“If I knew what it was, I might. Good night folks, me and Jesse are heading for home.”
The sunset brought a rosy glow to the hillside as Archie crossed the village green already marked out ready for the egg and spoon race, and other festivities planned for the hoards of expectant children over the Easter weekend. That’s what everyone needed, a little less trickery and a bit more fun. What would Betty think of his craftiness with Guy Nugent? He paused at the lychgate leading to the church next to the cemetery and pushed a one-hundred-pound note into the wooden collection box.
Then, he moved on along the winding track toward Windermere Lane until he and Jesse reached Mrs. Moffat’s house. A shaft of light broke through the center of the curtains illuminating the bare windowsill. Opening the gate, he tiptoed up to the front door and listened to the sound of the television news.
Archie took out his pad of paper, tore out one of the pages and wrapped it around five one-hundred-pound notes. Then, he scribbled a couple of lines, “For your window decoration fund, preferably flowers, with best wishes from your neighborhood heathen,” and stuffed it through the letterbox.
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