At Death’s Door, Chapter One

At Death’s Door


Leo Bruce


On the day before Emily Purvice was murdered the little town of Newminster had what is termed in England a heat wave.  That is to say there were at least six hours of sunshine, two of them strong enough to blister new paint and allow old gentleman to put on alpaca jackets.
Emily Purvice herself never seemed to notice the weather and discouraged cheerful references to it in conversation.  In fact she discouraged conversation, except rather furtive talks over the counter of her shop with people who had business with her.  And business with Emily Purvice was locally considered to be a one-sided matter.
She kept what is called rather ambiguously a Fancy Goods shop, sold oddments of stationery, picture frames and Gosse china, local newspapers, small ornaments and packs of cards.  The shop was ill-lit and had a heavy stale smell in it.  In the winter it was warmed by paraffin stove which added its own odour; in the summer it smelt of old stock and stale living quarters.
It could not pay, said the people of Newminster, for ‘there wasn’t much call’ for the things Emily Purvice sold, and she herself was not a woman to attract custom.  She was grim and avaricious, a little yellow-faced creature with a slight hump who never smiled, disliked greetings and good-byes and such conversational fripperies and served what customers she had as though they were her natural enemies.  Yet she was known to be rich.  She had invested in local property and owned a great many houses and business premises in the town.
There were several theories to account for this.  Some people were unkind enough to suggest that she was a receiver of stolen goods.  Others pointed out that she allowed the shop to be given as an accommodation address for a certain fee and through this may have gained knowledge of local affairs which she turned to advantage.  She had a lean finger in a good many unsavoury pies.  She was not a nice old woman.
On the day before she was murdered she had several callers who could scarcely be called customers.  The Reverend Stephen Colbert, for instance, the popular vicar of one of the town’s parishes, came in and remained in conversation with Emily Purvice for some twenty minutes.  He was a tall, lean, muscular man with a great deal of obstinate black hair on his face growing in unbecoming places.  His eyebrows were thick and unruly, his ears looked bristly as an animal’s, and hair sprouted from his nostrils and crept over the top of his clerical collar besides encircling a large mole on his cheek.  His big manly voice shook the rafters of his church when he preached and could be heard from far down the High Street greeting his parishioners.
“Splendid weather!” he shouted a dozen times a morning as he walked through the town.  “Hope it’s like this on Saturday!” he boomed with a jolly smile to those concerned with his annual Parish Féte.
But when he entered the dark unsavoury shop in which Emily Purvice stood alone, he grew suddenly subdued.  He said “Good morning, Mrs. Purvice” rather hopelessly, as though he knew he would not get an answer.
“Have you got the money?” asked Emily Purvice, whose habit it was to come to the point at once, especially when the point was as simple and as urgent as this one.
They fell into a long and seemingly intimate conversation, their two heads close together.  Only once, when the postman came in with several letters, was this interrupted.  Then Mr. Colbert stood upright.
“You can get me those cards by Friday?” he said loudly as the postman was leaving the shop.
They were soon talking intimately again.
Another caller was young Jimmy Drew who had just come from two years in a Borstal institution.  He was nineteen now and wore a strange and silly costume he called Edwardian.
“Morning, Mrs. Purvice,” he said brightly.  “Lovely sunny morning.”
“Have you got the money?” asked Emily Purvice.
’Course I —— haven’t.  What do you expect?  I’ve only been out a fortnight haven’t I?”
“They won’t like it,” said Emily Purvice.
“Who’s ‘they’?” asked Jimmy Drew disgustedly.  “You’re always talking about ‘them’ and what they’re going to do.  Like me to tell you something?  I don’t believe there are such people.”
“You may think what you like about that.  All I can say is that they won’t stand for it if they don’t have the money.  I shouldn’t like to see you get into trouble with Them.  Not as young as you are.  I tell you they won’t like it if they don’t get their money at once.”
“Well, no more don’t I.  Who does like being without lolly?  They’ll have to wait, that’s all.”
“I don’t think they will wait.”
“So what?  I’m not going to take chances to please them or you or anyone else.  I’ve done my ‘bird’ and I don’t want any more.  When I know of a really nice little tickle, a safe little tickle, I may do it.  But not until.”
“I shouldn’t be too long about it, if I were you.”
“I’ll take my time.”
“Better make it this week.  Or early next.  They won’t wait.”
Her quiet persistence seemed to check his bluster.
“Have a heart,” he said, trying to smile.
It was, to say the least of it, a fanciful injunction to give to Emily Purvice.
“No later than Wednesday.  That’s tomorrow week.”
“But I don’t know of anything.”
“Ask Syd.”
“Why, does Syd know of a tickle?”
“He might do.  You ask him, anyway.”
“I’ll see him at the dance tonight.”
“Mind you do then.  And don’t come here again till you’ve got something.  It looks bad.”
“Bad?  Why?  Just come to thank you, haven’t I?  For looking after mum.  What’s wrong with that?  All right.  Be seeing you.”
For a shop selling such old-fashioned wares, Number Eighteen, Market Street, ‘E.  Purvice.  Fancy goods, Stationery’ was busy on that warm summer morning.  Soon after Jimmy Drew had gone the street door opened again and a girl in jodhpurs burst in.
“You wicked old hag!” she cried.  She was flushed and trembling, a very angry young woman.  “You’ve got him shut up again!”
“Have you got the money?” asked Emily Purvice quietly.  “Because if so you can take him with you now.”
“You’re not going to blackmail me!” said the young woman.  “I’ve told you I’ll give you what you paid for him and a bit more.”
“I’ve given you my price,” said Emily Purvice.
Marcia Bailey look as though she might start crying though she was not the crying sort.  She was a stocky girl, dark and rather handsome though a little mannish.  She was Emily Purvice’s next-door neighbour sharing with her friend Jane Limbrick the proprietorship of ‘Marcia’s Pet Stores.’
They had opened the shop less than a year earlier and it was making a living for them, but in an unwary moment they had sold a favourite fox-terrier pup to Emily Purvice.  This was the subject of the argument now.
“You told me you needed him as a house dog.  You said you would take great care of him.”
“I do,” said Emily.  “He’s not likely to escape.”
“You cruel ——!” cried Marcia.  “I’d like to . . .  I’d cheerfully . . .”  She became incoherent as the tears started.
“I must have something for the Inconvenience,” pointed out Emily Purvice.  “All the noise from next door.  The pigeons wake me up.”
“You never even give him a run.  Jane says he’s half starved.”
“The Inspector did not think so when you sent him around.  He said he was in quite good condition.”
“You knew he was coming.  You wait.  I’m not going to have that dog’s life made a misery.  And I’m not going to pay all that money, whatever you may say.”
“I don’t know what you are going to do then,” said Emily Purvice, “because I can’t afford to be woken up by pigeons and have the smell of animals through the house without something to compensate me.”
“So you torment poor Barry?  You’re not going to get away with it, though.  If we hear him again this afternoon I’ll come in here and shake your teeth out of you.”
“You mustn’t threaten anyone.  You ought to know that.  The police won’t stand for anyone being threatened.”
“I’ll do it, too.  I believe you bought Barry from us on purpose.  I don’t care how old you are, I’ll give you a good hiding if it goes on.”
Something—a stretching of the lips—which on someone else’s face might have been called a smile, was seen for a moment on the sour bilious old features of Emily Purvice.
“You had better much better find the money.  It’s no good talking like that, as you very well know.”
Before she had finished speaking Marcy Bailey had left the shop.
When she was alone Emily Purvice put on her gold-rimmed glasses and began to examine one of a number of small notebooks which contained chiefly figures linked by single letters.  Two women came in to buy a birthday card and were silently given a trayful to examine.  Emily Purvice did not look keenly interested in their comments.  “That’s a nice one!”  “She’d like that !” they said.  Not until they asked the price of one—a floral anachronism with primroses and stocks commingled—did Emily Purvice speak to them.
When they had gone, the old woman again opened one of her little black books.  She was expecting a visit from another next-door neighbour but shewed no signs of impatience.  It was past noon when Mrs. Polling, the expected caller, appeared.
“Morning, Mrs. Purvice,” she said and added, as if in explanation of something, “I just popped in.”
“Have you got the money?” asked Emily Purvice, more sourly than heretofore.
“Mr. Polling’s just gone for it now,” said Mrs. Polling enthusiastically.  “He won’t be more than ten minutes.  He said to me this morning, he said, I must go and get that money for Mrs. Purvice, he said, and nipped out.”
“Where’s he gone?”
This seemed slightly to confuse Mrs. Polling.
“Just down the road,” she explained vaguely.  “He won’t be long.  He’s not the one to hang about gossiping.
“It’s four months rent.”
“Is it really?  There!  I told him last night, I said, Mrs. Purvice will be expecting her rent, I said.  We ought to have let her have it before, I said, after what happened last time.  But you know what he is.  Always looking after everyone but himself.  He’d give his last penny away if it was to help someone.  Then the business hasn’t been what it was.”
Mrs. Polling was a big smiling woman, easily flustered and given to scarlet blushes.  Her husband’s greengrocery business was one of the least flourishing concerns in Newminster, kept going largely by Mrs. Holdings optimism.
“I gave you till today,” said Emily Purvice.  “After that it’s Out.”
“I know.  You can’t be expected to wait.  Well, Mr. Polling won’t be more than ten minutes.  The business has started to Pick Up these last few days. . . .”
“He won’t be able to borrow it from Mr. Colbert again.  You know that.  I don’t know where he thinks he’s going to get it.”
“Oh, he’ll manage.  Well, he’s got to, hasn’t he.  We can’t go on like this.  I told him yesterday, I said, we can’t go on like this, I said.  But you know what business is.  It’s been ever so quiet until just lately.  Ever so quiet, it’s been.”
“I told the Court.  Only till today.  I’ve got the Order, you know.  It’ll be Out otherwise.”
“There!  I know you’d never do anything like that, Mrs. Purvice.  Not to a neighbour, you wouldn’t.”  There was not much conviction in her voice and no sign in Emily Purvice that could possibly be construed as agreement with this pronouncement.  “Besides, Mr. Polling is getting it now.”
“Well, you’ve got till this evening.”
“I must hop back to the shop.  I left it while I just slipped in.  Would you like a few flowers?  I’ll bring you in a bunch.”
Mrs. Purvice seemed so little interested in this kind offer that she did not trouble to answer it.
“You see that it’s paid before tonight,” she said.  It was her only leave-taking.
She closed her shop at one o’clock until two but it was impossible to imagine Emily Purvice having a jolly little luncheon on her own.  A man who owed her money once said that if she ate at all it must be some Dracula concoction, some witch’s brew from a black cauldron.  Actually she was a gross eater, consuming large quantities of the more inexpensive foodstuffs and drinking a pint or so of sweet strong tea with every meal.
Only once more that day did she receive a visit from anyone known to her.  That was at about four o’clock when a heavily built man of thirty-six came in and grinned knowingly to her.
“Hello, Mum,” he said incredibly.
Emily Purvice seemed about to speak when her son forestalled her.
“Have you got the money?” he asked.
“I told you not to come,” said Emily Purvice.
“I know you did.  But you didn’t send what I asked you for.  I’ve got to have it, Mum.”
“You can’t.”
“Yes I can.  You know very well you can spare it.  I’ve got to get away.”
“No.  I should have thought you knew by now.  I’ve got nothing for you, and shouldn’t give it you if I had.  You could have saved yourself the fare.”
“We’ll see about that.  Are you going to let them send me back to the nick?”
The man hesitated for a moment then turned towards the door.
“You’ve asked for it!” he said.  Considering everything known of Emily Purvice this did not seem too strong a statement.  All her life she had been ‘asking for it’ as her son called it.  This was what made her murder, which took place a few hours later, such a difficult crime to investigate.  There were moments when the police felt like giving up their attempt to find some among the scores who hated or feared Emily Purvice the one who had killed her.
“Motive?  Everyone who knew that woman had a motive,” said Detective Sergeant John Moore a week later.