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While in Stratford, widow Sheila Malory always stays with her old friend, actor David Beaumont. On this visit she finds him in dire straits: his career is on the skids and his finances are in ruins. Unless he can convince his penny-pinching brother Francis to sell their jointly owned family home in the seaside village of Taviscombe, the bank will repossess his cottage.
Francis, Dean of the Culminster Cathedral, does not believe that charity begins at home. He refuses to put the house on the market or provide a loan. Mrs. Malory offers David a place to stay in her own home in Taviscombe so that the two brothers might meet in person to find a solution. Even if Francis can be persuaded to sell, one impediment remains: their ancient and addled nanny has been told that she can stay in the home until she dies.
Even after Nana’s sudden death, Francis insists that they hold on to the property. When he dies from consuming high tea laced with poison, the police conclude that both deaths were murder. Unfortunately David is their prime suspect. Determined to clear her friend’s name, Mrs. Malory applies her considerable skills as an amateur sleuth to identify the real culprit.
She has seen her share of evil, but even Mrs. Malory is shocked by what her investigation turns up.
Keep reading for an excerpt:
“Now then …”
One of the two telephones on his desk rang, the sudden, shrilling noise seeming strange and unsuitable, somehow, in such a place.
“Excuse me.” Francis picked up the instrument. “Yes, yes, I quite understand, Archdeacon. I will see you later …. Yes. Good-bye. I’m sorry.”
He replaced the receiver and spoke to David. “Cathedral business. I may conceivably have to go down to sort something out with the archdeacon later on, and then, as I told you, I must see the precentor—but I should be able to deal with them both quite quickly. We have plenty of time, since Evensong is, as you are aware, not until five-fifteen. Now then,” he turned to me, “here are the lists I mentioned of gifts promised, valuations where available—perhaps you could fill in the gaps there by consulting suitable authorities…” He broke off again as there was a tap at the door. “Yes, come in! What is it?”
Monica Woodward put her head around the door and said apologetically, “I’m so sorry to bother you, Dean, but the man from the printer is here about that new brochure—you said you wanted to have a word with him about those mistakes you found.”
Francis made an exclamation of annoyance. “How tiresome, but, yes, I will see him now—if I don’t I really hate to think what sort of muddle they will make. Excuse me.”
He bustled out of the room. I made a face at David and said, “Goodness, how pompous! I suppose the world might conceivably stop turning on its axis if he wasn’t in charge …”
I got up and went to the desk to look at the papers Francis had got out for me. Some of them were mixed up with the computer printout and I had to sort them out. The roll of computer stuff seemed to be lists of shares, which I took to be part of Francis’s restoration campaign until I saw that one sheet was headed “Francis E. Beaumont: Main Portfolio,” so I supposed these were his own shares. I don’t understand stocks and shares at all—they seem to have very peculiar names, some of them—and I haven’t the faintest idea which are valuable and which are not or why they go up and down and cause such grief and anxiety to people like my friend Rosemary’s husband, Jack. Still, judging from the list, Francis seemed to have a great many of them and it made me really furious to think that he had all these assets and had refused to lend a relatively small amount to his own brother when he knew that it was practically a matter of life and death.
Francis came back into the room and seemed rather irritated that I had picked up the lists from his desk.
“I hope you haven’t disarranged any of the papers there,” he said sternly. “I do like to keep absolute order in all things—one thing out of place and the whole system is in jeopardy!”
I was aware of David stifling a giggle and I quickly apologized.
We went through the lists and I received my instructions.
“Yes, that’s fine,” I said, “I’ll see to that tomorrow.”
“Very well, then, Sheila.” He looked at his watch. “Joan will be waiting for you.”
Having unmistakably received my dismissal, I gathered up all the papers and put them into a shopping bag I had brought with me. I could see that Francis considered it an unworthy receptacle, but I’m really not the sort of person who feels comfortable carrying a briefcase.
“Now then,” Francis said, “will you both be staying for Evensong?”
I looked inquiringly at David, who hesitated for a moment and then said, “Yes, I’d like to, if that’s all right with you, Sheila?”
“Yes, that’ll be fine. Will you come over to the deanery and collect me about five? Good-bye, Francis. I may see you later, then.”
“Splendid, splendid,” Francis said. “Now, David, if you would be kind enough to switch on that electric kettle on the desk beside you, we will have our tea.”
I closed the door carefully behind me, encouraged by the almost benevolent tone in which Francis addressed his brother.
“Wasn’t that David Beaumont?” Monica Woodward demanded. “The actor who used to be in that thing with the detective, on the television.”
“Yes,” I replied. “David’s the dean’s brother.”
“Really! I never knew that! An actor! It seems unsuitable, somehow.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “The church and the stage have much in common, and, after all, the theater had its origins in religious ritual.”