It’s the Old Misery Himself
“Bernie, what are you talking about?” asked Lady Elisabeth Collington in a bored tone as she leafed through the latest copy of Continental Gardens.
“I swear to you, Lizzy, I believe someone is trying to kill me! Sir Bernard said, peevishly.
“You’re not on about that again, are you? And don’t call me ‘Lizzy,’ you know I simply loath that name.”
“Really, I think I’m on to something this time. Last month it was the exploding barbeque where I was nearly skewered by flying shish kabob. The month before I was nearly brained by a flowerpot falling from the parapet.”
“I didn’t know we had any pets much less a pair of them.”
“That’s not the point. Yesterday at the Davidson’s dinner party, the bathroom light switch shorted and set the bloody wall on fire!”
“That was nothing to do with you. As I recall you weren’t in the bathroom.”
“Nearly was, luv. I was next in line, so to speak, when the whole place lit up like fireworks.”
“You’re imaging things, my sweet,” Elisabeth said, turning page after page with perfectly lacquered talons. “Have a nice cool drink and forget about those silly little mishaps. You’re getting yourself into such a state.”
Bernie poured a small bourbon. He avoided slouching in his favorite reading chair; an old recliner that no longer reclined, not since an errant spring recently pierced his buttocks in a most uncomfortable fashion. I could have ended up with tetanus, he thought to himself.
“Oh, damn!” Bernie exploded. Standing near the window, he watched as the Reverend Bartlett arrived riding his ancient bicycle. Even with the windows closed, one could hear the high-pitched squeal of the rickety wheels each time he rode up the graveled drive because the vicar was too cheap to buy a tin of oil.
“It’s Bartlett, come to collect for one of his charities, no doubt. He never lets up.”
“Oh, dear. Is it that time of day already?”
Bernie hurried from the library, muttering, “Someone ought to poison his tea. That would fix the old misery.”
Elisabeth peered out the window in time to see the county’s biggest boor drop his rusting hulk of a bicycle on her manicured lawn. With an exasperated sigh, she let the magazine fall from her hands. She slipped down the back stairs to the kitchen to alert Mrs. Martin, their house-keeper and cook, to prepare their afternoon tea with the vicar, which had become a recurring ritual.
Bernie raced down the marble staircase two at a time ahead of his old, but loyal man-servant, Grainger. Waving him off, Bernie crossed the foyer and whipped open the thick oak door before the Reverend Bartlett could tug on the bell-pull.
Looking slightly stupefied, Bartlett stammered, “Good to see you looking so well, Sir Bernard.”
“And why shouldn’t I?” Bernie asked, suspiciously. “You say that as if you’re surprised.”
“A mere greeting; I meant no offense. However, one hears so many things these days.”
“Come in. I suppose you’ll want tea?”
“Some tea wouldn’t go amiss.” Bartlett shuffled across the threshold.
Grainger headed toward the kitchen, but in all likelihood, the tea service was already prepared for the vicar’s near-daily visits.
“What’s the latest gossip?” Bernie asked, resigned to the inevitable long-winded chat.
“Now, now, Sir Bernard. One mustn’t repeat gossip.” The vicar arranged himself on the hard-backed chair, which he hated, but Sir Bernard never seemed to take the hint when Bartlett would audibly sigh and squirm in his seat.
Bartlett leaned in close. “I’ve come to you warn you about your –” he started, but never got a chance to finish. The vicar clamped his mouth shut as Mrs. Martin pushed open the door carrying a heavy tray.
Bernie said, “Right on time, Mrs. Martin. Thank you.” Cook placed the tray on a small table separating the two men.
“It’s precisely three o’clock, innit? Can’t keep the vicar waitin’?” She departed with a backward scowl at the mooching Reverend.
“She’s only joking; pay no attention.”
“I never do.” Bartlett helped himself to sugar, fresh lemon, and plenty of ice from a silver bucket. “That’s what I like about tea here at the hall. You always serve it American-style.”
“It’s a bad habit I picked up while touring the colonies.”
The vicar took a tentative sip from the frosted glass. “As I was saying, someone mentioned to me in the strictest confidence . . . aaagghh!”
Clutching his throat, Bartlett fell to the floor scattering the contents of the tea tray with a deafening crash.
Bernie sprang from his seat and stood by uselessly as Bartlett choked and sputtered, his small round face turned an unhealthy shade of purple.
The door burst open, and Lady Elizabeth, Grainger, and Mrs. Martin rushed in to find Bartlett flailing about on the carpet. He’d pulled his dog-collar loose as he gasped for air.
“What happened?” Lady Elizabeth asked, shocked to find the vicar in distress.
“So sorry,” Bartlett rasped. “That first sip went down the wrong way, couldn’t catch my breath.”
Mrs. Martin took one look at the mess on the floor, spun around, and marched from the room pushing Grainger out ahead of her.
Elizabeth edged close to Bernie and whispered, “I was worried something might have happened to you, darling.”
“No worries; right as rain. Can’t say the same for old Bartlett though.”
“Should we call the doctor?” Elizabeth moved toward the telephone when a groan from Bartlett stopped her. “Bernie, do something. The vicar doesn’t look well!”
Bernie turned to see Bartlett holding himself and making a wheezing sound. Bartlett suddenly fell backwards, his head thumped on the floor. For several seconds, his whole body shook violently then went limp.
“See here, vicar, are you alright?” Bernie seized Bartlett by the arm and attempted to pull him upright, but he wouldn’t budge.
Bernie swallowed hard. “I don’t think we’ll need a doctor after all.”
# # # #
Sir Bernard and Lady Elizabeth were ordered to wait upstairs until the police called for them. Banished from his own drawing room, Bernard sulked about the library with his fists thrust deep in his pockets.
“We’ll never live down the scandal. What do you think happened?”
Elizabeth stared at the wall, the picture of poise and grace. “The vicar simply over-exerted himself riding that old bicycle of his, and his heart couldn’t stand the strain.”
“He was about to reveal a couple of rumors he’d heard. Something very hush-hush.”
“What rumors?” Elisabeth asked anxiously.
“He never said. Damnedest thing I ever saw,” mused Bernie.
Bernie grasped Elisabeth’s hand. “Now do you believe me? Every time I turn around something tragic happens. And if not me, then to someone nearby.”
“Darling, this unfortunate event is upsetting you, but it’s nothing to do with you. Surely you understand that?”
“Don’t you find it strange so many ‘accidents’ occur with alarming regularity? One day they may add up to something big.”
“I dare say the Reverend Bartlett would agree with you. Nevertheless, you worry too much.” She patted his arm reassuringly.
“You’re always so sensible. You know, for one awful moment . . . never mind, it was a terrible thought.” Bernard went to stand by the window.
Elizabeth came up behind him. “What were you thinking?”
“For a moment there I thought . . . well, that you poisoned the vicar’s tea.”
Elizabeth pulled away. “Why would you think that? Never say that again, I forbid you!”
“When I got impatient and said someone ought to poison the old fool, I believed you might have taken my suggestion literally.”
Elizabeth feigned shock, “You mustn’t say things like that. Actually, I was quite fond of the old misery in spite of his strange ways.”
“That’s the first time I’ve heard you speak kindly of the vicar. You can see how a mere suggestion might take root in someone’s mind?”
“Speaking of which, perhaps you should see someone about your state of mind before you have a nervous break-down.”
“Sorry, luv, I didn’t mean to cast aspersions on you.” Bernie wandered about the room absently. “I can’t quite remember . . . there was something the vicar started to say . . .”
Preoccupied, Bernie wandered off to find the police inspector. As he exited the library, Bernie failed to notice the wistful expression on his wife’s angelic face.
She had a look that said, “Better luck next time.”
Terry Adcock © 2022
Author Notes: Thanks for reading my short story. All comments, suggestions, and observations are welcome!