Finally: Murder. A Trip To the South of France; Savoring the Many Pleasures of Nice. An Examination of How Millicent and Ramona Cover Up The Murder.
Although it took me a while to recognize it, I saw to my surprise, as our months at Helvstead passed, Millicent and I had begun to live in something akin to commensal harmony. I don’t know when it had started; long before I realized and recognized it as such. This harmony came first as a trickle, then more steadily, an unexpected ease emerging from the juncture where our lives and routines mingled. It stole upon us, and was a source of continual surprise to me once I recognized it, as Millicent was in many ways the least likely person I’d have thought to be restful company. Bracing, perhaps; enlivening and challenging yes; but restful, certainly not.
Yet being around a bracing person can have its comforts: the world neatens up, finds its clean lines. I‘ve never before or since then, lived such a dreamy and endless present, possessing no wants or aspirations. It seems that I lived at Helvstead without a thought of a future or the past. I put aside any thoughts of the future so firmly, in fact, I believe I would have looked rather blank should they have asked what I imagined myself doing in a year, five, ten. Helvstead’s silence too, changed, I no longer found it the vacuousness of time passing in a mausoleum: dull certainly, but with a certain and not entirely unpleasant quietude lightened by the occasional murmurings of a house running smoothly.
I have a pleasant store of memories: Millicent reading the paper, drinking a G&T, before going out to a dinner party, resplendent in a chic frock, but not yet changed out of her red plimsoles; glancing up from the bills to see a wren on its nest, pulling out binoculars and catching a glimpse of Millicent in the fields on her horse, my gaze following her for a time as she rode; fetching Millicent a riding crop and breathlessly racing it out to her in her convertible, which she accepted, whizzing off with a toot of her horn, then stopped, ordering me to get in declaring I was pale and in need of a bit of a drive; coming into the dining room to find my lunch in a tidy display on the plate, a chop curving round neat piles of peas and parsnips and thinking how everlastingly lovely I wasn’t responsible for my own meals.
Then there was a flat box Millicent tossed to me containing a pair of the black leather driving gloves she had purchased in London, a size too small for her; driving the car by myself for the first time; wandering round the house coming a cross a tiny silver figurine of a bulldog and pocketing it, to be examined later, in my room; bringing a Millicent a bicarbonate and soda where she’d just returned from a night out and watching her slump into the couch, saying: “You’re a good sport Ramona.”
But when I think of us then it’s most often in the mornings. Breakfast continued to be one meal we had together, for no matter how late she was out the night before she was always up by eight; she liked mornings for her rides. In that dim camel-colored room, starry splotches of sun on the walls coming in from the beveled windows on fair days, we ate our toast and drank our tea and read the paper in companionable silence.
So, in this nascent harmony the spring had turned to summer then a golden September turned to October. Autumn came with its lachrymose beauty: leaves turning a bitter gold and falling, a veil of mist hovering over the countryside, the occasional bout of rain lashing the windows.
And then soon enough, it became November.
It was an unseasonably warm afternoon the first week of November when Millicent came into the morning room and stood beside me at the desk. It took me a moment to notice as I was in the middle of a complicated dressmaker’s bill and I felt rather than saw her first. I glanced over, aware she was still in her riding gear. Usually she took off her boots, at least, before coming in the house.
“Dalrymple’s has a charge for altering the black watchband skirt,” I said. “I rather thought that was on the last bill. Did you get another one?”
My eyes were still fastened on the bill, which was difficult to follow, and having grasped the logic behind the tiny lines of cramped numbers, I felt reluctant to break my attention. When Millicent didn’t reply, I glanced up, and noticed her expression: flat, revealing nothing. Her eyes were dark, determined. A fine spray of blood lay on the throat of her creamy white riding shirt. She continued to hold my gaze, not speaking.
“Millicent,” I said slowly. “Millicent, what’s happened?”
She didn’t reply but after a moment turned and began walking out of the room.
“Millicent,” I called, putting down my pen and following her. Down the short steps to the front room we went and into the hall. Millicent strode towards the tradesmen’s entrance.
“Millicent, wait! What is it? Is everything all right? Whatever has happened?”
She only gave me a level look.
“You’ll want other shoes,” she said.
Hastily, I slipped out of my oxfords and wedged my feet into the brogues kept by the door, and tossed a cardigan across my shoulders, hurrying after Millicent as she went out.
She ignored my calling after her, walking quickly. The day was warm and very close. We reached the low stone fence that bordered the road and Millicent nimbly climbed over without a hitch in her progress into the fields. Millicent strode as I negotiated the uneven terrain with the occasional badger’s holes, rocks and nettles and I began to fall behind feeling graceless, uneasy, trying to keep from bleating her name. It really had been a time since I’d been out of doors in a field; the soft dull grey sky struck me as needlessly large, the line of woods thick, tangled, very untidy. The fields had already been cut for winter, and the stubble scratched my ankles, snagged my tights. I began to perspire. My cardigan, draped around my shoulders, cloaked me in an unpleasant warmth. We walked, farther than I’d ever gone before from the main house, even during my childhood visits.
“Millicent,” I called, from time to time, my voice shrill, plaintive, as Helvstead disappeared behind us over a rise in the field. “Millicent, where are we going?”
My legs had begun to ache as Millicent made a purposeful turn in a southerly direction. She abruptly stopped at one of the small shelter of trees that stood in desultory fringes in the fields. I looked around instinctively, but no other person dotted the horizon. The land rolled in gentle hills, giving way to larger and larger hills, till they obscured the horizon altogether. They looked like waves of earth, suspended, about to start a slow crashing descent. She moved to three or four young oaks that stood clustered next to a weeping beech whose drooping limbs trailed on the ground with dark green papery leaves.
I followed Millicent’s gaze.
There, on the ground, lay a man, dressed in riding clothes, a dark brown and black tweed blazer, dark brown pullover, brown jodhpurs. He was on his back, arms and legs sprawled, feet encased in the gleaming riding boots. I moved closer. A riding crop was still in his hand. His body following a small swell of the earth beneath him, so his head and feet were slightly lower that his waist and it took me another moment to see the left side of his head wasn’t averted, but shot, blood soaking the grass around him.
Millicent and I arrived in Nice a week after Boxing Day. We stayed at a less fashionable hotel than she might usually have selected before the murder, but still no less elegant, I think.
We started early from our hotel along the tree-lined boulevard of Aix-en-Provence heading to Nice. I remember our trip very well, my first look of the city, the brightly painted flats, the Clementine trees, elegant hotels, gated homes and the gardens, dormant then in winter, but hinting at great splendors. The hired car threaded its way through narrow streets and groaned as it wound in dizzying circles up and down the steep hills, passing shops and restaurants—patisseries, books, jewels, salons, antiques—along with ever-more tantalizing glimpses of the sea. The car pulled to a stop at an unremarkable elderly building in the Old Ville, the discreet entrance flanked by two boxwoods, a uniformed young man appearing the moment our car came in sight. So discreet and integrated into façade, it made it difficult to tell how large L’Hotel St. Juste would be once inside. There was no doorman outside, but if there was one, I could never imagine it being Cleavus.
But after following the young man through a dim unpromising hallway, it became clear the hotel was as opulent as the tariff had suggested. A crystal chandelier presided over the reception room, with smaller repetitions, like offspring, glinting and shimmering in the corners. High-backed sofas and chairs, decorated in a foamy green, sat at careful intervals in the room, close enough to allow for conversation but not require it. Layer upon layer of diaphanous material curtained the windows, giving off a tactfully diffuse daylight. A thickly carpeted curved staircase filled the hall near the reception desk, and beside that polished brass lifts gleamed dully. I inhaled the curious smell of old world privilege: furniture polish, clean linen, fresh flowers, the lingering smoke of unfamiliar cigarette and cigars, a trace of expensive perfume.
L’Hotel de St. Juste’s name in a sense was misleading, for a good number of its clientele held permanent flats in the building, mostly aging Russian, Italian and Eastern European nobles. Some of these flats remained unused for five, even ten years at a time, if not the bulk of any given year. This accounted for the slightly ghostly atmosphere of the St. Juste, the hush that stole over the well-carpeted halls, the air of rarified stillness, of time being held like a hat in coat check.
The concierge, who I thought was having pains so cringingly did he bow when relaying his information, regretfully told us our rooms weren’t quite ready. This wasn’t entirely a surprise as the agent only found the place yesterday and Millicent and I had arrived nearly two hours early. He suggested we take refreshment while we wait and we followed him past the lifts to a door he held open, and with torrent of admonitions for the waiter inside, gave another unctuous little bow.
During the summer the café must have been a bustling place of bathers and holiday-goers, bejeweled and bronzed, smoking, drinking espresso and iced coffee, reading their papers, gossiping in many languages; not perhaps a young crowd, but a very exclusive one. Now, it stood deserted except for a gleaming espresso machine and a waiter in black vest and tie, wiping cups with a rag. Half of the café sat indoors, the other on a patio, divided by a set of gleaming glass doors. A few tables and chairs sat outside, but most were stacked off to the side in a tangle of exquisitely bent wire legs.
Millicent motioned toward the outside with her chin. I nodded, the glass from the door cold on my palm as I followed her, blinking in the glare. The sun, muffled by a low wintry fog that morning, had escaped, and, even in January, shone with a distinctly unEnglish fervor. We buttoned our coats against the cold arid breeze, which rippled the frayed leaves of the palm trees around the patio, like someone practicing scales on the piano. I shivered but later, when I ran my hand across the top of my hair I would find it silky and warm from the sun.
I followed Millicent’s tweed back as she led us to a table; her coat very much like my own, olive to my heather colour. That morning we both had our hair dressed, and both chosen neat spirals, and carried similar pocketbooks. It is the only day I can remember when someone might have thought we looked alike, if in similarity of presentation.
Millicent absently brushed a bit of dust off the surface of a table as we sat. I ordered our cafés au laits, and we leaned back in our chairs, staring at the sea in silence. I had only caught tantalizing glimpses of the Cote D’Azur so far, winding around the hills or through the gaps in the buildings or at the ends of streets. I’d never seen the sea bluer than the sky before and my eyes ran the length of the horizon again and again, finding it a revelation, this deep lavish turquoise. Except for the long line of gray rocks that ran the length of deserted beach, everything around us held a shade of that radiant, otherworldly hue, deepest at the horizon lightening to aquamarine at the shoreline.
Our cafe au laits arrived, and we raised our thick white cups to each other. This, I’m sure, sounds like the act of the very guiltiest, schemingest sort of conspirators, congratulating each other on evading the noose of justice. And, in a way, I suppose it was.
But I remember it differently. How deluded that sounds, yet our toast merely felt an acknowledgement of the understanding Millicent and I had forged over the last few months. It was only in Nice, after a week of unhurried and luxurious travel, at our final destination, that we had made such a gesture. Millicent slipped on her sunglasses and I followed suit. This is one of the few days of my life I can say I’ve wished I had a photo to remember it by; how must we have looked sitting there, watching the sea. We finished our coffees and ordered another, this time with croissant, our appetites piqued by the sea air.
These arrived and we ate, brushing flaky crumbs from our laps when we finished. A chill had seeped in, but still I felt unwilling to move, hypnotized by the sea and the suspended strangeness of the hour. Then the concierge materialized to tell Millicent the rooms were ready. With a raise of her eyebrows in my direction, I nodded. Millicent left some coins on the table, and we stood.
And so our time in Nice began.
But if Nice has more than its fair share of glorious days, even in winter, it occasionally had its overcast. The day I remember best in Nice was such a day.
Millicent mentioned she’d run into some old American acquaintances of her first husband she couldn’t very well get out of meeting for lunch. A watchful beat of silence followed this off-handed admission, as she waited to see how I took this information. But I didn’t mind. I wanted to explore Nice, see things she had seen many times over, and would deem hideously touristy even if she hadn’t. And in the course of the last months I had discovered that my desire to be in Millicent’s proximity wasn’t as unassuagable as I had imagined. I rather liked being on my own.
After a lingering tour of the Olde Ville in the morning followed by lunch of salade fleur-de-lis, baguette, soupe de pistou and a very good wine, I strolled, window shopping till I came upon an entrance, the gates open wide in invitation. L’Ancienne it read on a brass plate affixed to the gate. I dimly recalled a guide book mentioning this as a chateau with a view of the Olde Ville harbor, a reward to those willing to make a somewhat arduous walk up the hill, or cliff, really. I followed the long curving driveway to stairs carved into the cliff. An elderly couple in grey coats, black hats and white hair, passed, arms locked, murmuring to each other as they negotiated the stairs.
“Bonjour,” I said.
“Bonjour, mademoiselle,” they nodded, with a dip to their heads.
The air smelled fresh, mysterious; mist and sea mixed with loam and leaves. I had worn my low heels, fortunately, and managed the stone steps, often quite steep, the path weaving up and up, through the leafy stillness. I stopped, once, at a landing, watching a ship, a trading vessel by the looks of it, arrive. The loud bellow of its horn startled a bird above me which fluttered away into the hush of the trees. I started up again and after a time, with only the sound of my labored breath for company, I arrived at the top. I followed a curving street around a bend, then the length of a high stone wall, which abruptly became an entrance.
I noticed the cypress trees first, tall and roiling as Van Gogh had painted them, like dark green flames against the sky. Underneath that line of trees lay a cemetery that could be fairly described as crammed with graves: miniature mausoleums stood cheek by jowl with heraldic angels, crosses tall as grown men, elaborate headstones, footstones and tombstone slabs, a mass of marble and stone and cement that sat on several different tiers of sculptured profusion on the hill.
My heels made a shushing noise on the gravel. I walked slowly down the line of graves, admiring the variety of stones and a peculiar rubbery green plant with leaves whirled like flowers, and the fresh bouquets—tiger lilies, roses, carnations—laid out on the tomb. A carving of a harp and a threnody of descending musical notes caught my eye: “C’est l’heure,” it read. On another lay a marble dog, its mournful head slumped on its paws, inscriptions read Beloved Husband, Beloved Wife, Beloved Father, Beloved Son.
My shoes clicked up the small stone stairs to the highest part of the cemetery. I paused, hearing a rasping sound and turned round to see a man raking the gravel. He looked perhaps sixty, deeply burned by the sun, a kerchief knotted around his neck, and a soft cap low about his eyes wearing tall gardener’s boots and a black and brown tweed jacket. He stopped, sensing my gaze, and lifted his cap. I nodded. After a few paces I turned around to him.
“I am sorry, you know,” I said.
“Pardonez-moi, mademoiselle?” He said, pausing with the rake, a hand cupped behind his ear.
“Rien,” I shook my head. “Rien.”
Millicent and I felt we could be reasonably certain that no one knew of the murder when we arrived in Nice. Nothing out of the ordinary had transpired since that fateful day (as it is said), to set off warning bells: no unusual calls, appearances by unexpected officials or reporters, nosey probings of neighbors, unexpected visits or letters. The day maids continued their invisible and unflappable service and Lucy her tending to Helvstead’s creaky needs. So we arrived in Nice, simply two women, relations, escaping the dreariness of another English winter on the Rivera. And anyone who had stayed at Helvstead during January or February couldn’t argue that it offered a fine impetus to leave.
In many ways, we had been very fortunate that day, the day I turned (rather effortlessly, it seems) against God or society, however one might choose think of it. Earlier that morning, after procuring Millicent’s permission, I had told Lucy she might visit her sister, who’d undergone a protracted and difficult delivery. Tony had been stricken with flu, and lay quarantined; his wife had rung up and been emphatic to the point of rudeness about him taking a rest, although Millicent nor I had protested in the least, and the image of him married to the owner of that shrill waspish voice at the other end of the line had given us both a laugh, mine a little guilty, thinking, as I always would, of Lilliput. Molly sat ensconced in her village home, recuperating after another operation, and neither Anne nor Charlotte was expected till the following Monday.
All clear, as we used to say during the war. Only of course I hadn’t known till Millicent appeared by my side that afternoon, eyes leveling with mine, with the faintest mist of blood of her blouse, there was any need for it.
“Put these on,” she had said once we stopped our long march from the house through the fields to the white birches. She handed me a pair of gardener’s gloves.
The gloves, too large, felt clumsy, strange, once donned, like I wore another person’s hands. Millicent thrust a shovel towards me, which I accepted doubtfully. I must make a preposterous figure, I thought, in my old frock, dun-colored cardigan and borrowed oversized brogues, holding the shovel ineffectually with my gloved hands. I knew it absurd, under the circumstances, to mind, but I felt no less grateful for the dark that came early to those heavy autumnal skies, obscuring my appearance. I heard the whoosh and thock of a shovel, followed by a ripping sound: Millicent had started. After a moment I followed her example. My shovel only went a half-inch into the heavy, wet ground, the grass giving a bat-squeak of protest as I wrenched it, followed by a waft of earth.
“Put the top parts, with the grass, there,” she’d instructed. “We’ll put it back as best we can.”
I nodded and tossed my nub of grass to the side. I watched her and attempting to imitate the easy throw and pull of Millicent’s shovel; mine seemed to bounce off the resisting earth. After a while I became more a bit more adept, yet for the modicum of skill I gained with each shovelful, I wearied. Months of sitting indoors, smoking heavily, had ill-prepared me for such activity and I had to stop frequently to rest. Millicent only paused once, taking a draught off the flask she’d pulled out of the dead man’s coat. I could just see its outline, a large flask of hammered silver. She offered it to me, and I followed suit, compliant as a child; that night I would have drunk blood or absinthe, just the same, without comment or complaint. But it was only whiskey, and even I could tell a very good sort. I returned the flask to her and felt the north wind picking up, turning the sweat on my back icy.
“Hang on,” she said as I reached for my shovel. Through the dim I could just see a hedgehog that had been ambling past, grown alarmed and rolled into a neat prickled ball. She scooped it with her shovel and put it aside, giving me a nod to continue. So we did, and, dreamlike, the more we shoveled, more shoveling was necessary. Perhaps this is why I don’t remember when I noticed the man moving. I rather think I saw it before I recognizing its meaning or acknowledged this meaning to myself: from the prone figure on the ground, a twitch in the eye; two fingers curling and uncurling; a small sound when a shovelful of dirt landed on his chest and face.
Millicent intent on the work sensed my stillness and followed my gaze. She straightened up and leaned over, regarding him for a moment.
“Never mind that,” Millicent said. “Saw much the same touring during the war.” She added, perhaps to reassure me of something. “Be done soon enough.”
And so we carried on, as slowly, inexorably the crepuscular light faded to charcoal, then black. My hands blistered. The moon rose, a sulking iridescent gleam behind the clouds, creeping across the width of sky; it would travel a good way before we finished.
We made our way back to Helvstead. Millicent vanished into the darkness, circling the house, for signs of unexpected visitors. I guessed the hour to be coming on midnight. I had a sense, oddly pleasant, of permanency to the smooth black coolness of that night. I stood listening to Millicent’s receding footsteps, feeling the warmth from my efforts begin to dispel and pulled the cardigan closer. A few minutes later, coming round the other way, she returned, nodding in the direction of the kitchen door. We set about scraping the caked earth off boots and brogues, and headed inside.
Exhaustion, like a pair of unseen hands, seemed to shove me down in the closest chair. Millicent grabbed a broom, mop, pail and pan from the closet and began sweeping the foyer. I made to stand but she gave a wave for me to stay put.
“The night’s not yet finished, Ramona, You best rest a while.”
I agreed, protesting faintly but relieved, and watched her attend to erasing the traces of mud. She moved with that quick, light, off-hand ease of hers; she might have been making cocktails. Watching her, stupefied with tiredness, and shock, I was struck how every aspect of the evening, the facts—what had transpired, the steps that we had taken, the tools that we had used, the clothes we’d worn—had become a thread to some sort of knot we must untie into and retie into stronger one, one that held fast, unrecognizable from its predecessor . Or, I considered, in my stupor, perhaps it was more as if we were in the midst of—or in fact had become—a riddle, every step, every action, every movement from there on out put or seen or erased so as was to change the riddle’s answer, so that the correct answer, the very truth, was forever altered. What do you get when you have two ladies in the dead of night, sweeping up mud in an ugly manor house? Why, nothing, nothing at all.
It took several times for Millicent to rouse me with instructions to bathe, and bring clothes and towels to the morning room when I’d finished. I nodded and wandered upstairs to the lavatory. It would be interesting to know if I gave myself a long, soul-scalding look in the mirror: certainly it would be the moment for it. I don’t remember; in any case I rather doubt it. I bathed and emerged, flushed and clean, to regard a silky white nightdress and dressing gown on my bed. I wondered wildly if they were from one of Millicent’s trousseaus, as the unfamiliar sensation of silk glided over my skin.
The curtains of the morning room had been pulled shut when I came downstairs. Millicent had started a fire. At first I didn’t see her, but recognized her outline by the fireplace. A deep hushed darkness seemed to swelled in the corners of the room, threatening to engulf it. She twitched her hand impatiently for my things, not turning nor speaking. I watched her place my neatly folded clothes on the fire. The flames made short work of them. The towels soon followed; I found something unspeakable in their thick white newness being consumed by the flames. Millicent’s own jodhpurs and blouse came next. A sleeve of the blouse fell to the hearth like an arm of a sleeper turning over.
A wild, idiotic thought popped through my mind that I ought to stop her: wouldn’t she want some record, some memento, like you might of any important moment in one’s life, of this night? I imagined the blood-spattered blouse folded neatly in her drawer. It was then I realized how tired, how deathly tired, I was. The fire dimmed as these items collapsed to ash; Millicent wedged in a few newspapers and decrepit copies of Punch I’d been reading, and fire leapt in response. She tossed in her gloves.
“I’ll sift through these after it cools Make sure everything’s gone—buttons, zippers, all of it,” she said. “Make us some tea, will you?”
“Yes, Millicent,” I said.
“No lights,” she cautioned.
There was just enough light from the moon through the kitchen windows I could make my way round if I groped along the counters. I managed to light the stove, a great terrifying beast of metal and gas, made a pot of Oolong, and placed it, sugar, milk, cups, saucers and a box of petit fours Millicent had received in the mail, from an admirer—perhaps the man I had just assisted burying, it occurred to me—on a silver tray.
The tray seemed as weighty and uncooperative as the body we’d buried, but I’d recovered a little energy in the bath and with a few rattles managed to lift it. I paused in the foyer struck by the sight of the flower arrangement I’d made that day. Commander Charles had sent white peonies from his hot house, giant, effusive, prize-winning outbursts of petals and scent, as new and pure and unsullied a white as anything I could imagine; and presently looked unearthly, almost glowing in the dim, like flowers of the moon. A tiny ant crawled out of the enormous fluffy blossoms and waved its antennae experimentally at me. I carefully snapped a smaller blossom, and pocketed it, letting my fingers loose themselves in the silky petals within the confines of my dressing gown’s silken pocket.
“Ramona!” I heard Millicent call sharply. “Come on, then.”
The flames had died and only the coals of the fireplace, angry red and gold jewels bursting through black velvet, illuminated the room. Millicent sat on the floor, her back to me, arms around her knees, outlined in a faint orange glow. I managed not to drop the tray as I lowered it onto the table and poured our tea, placing Millicent’s cup beside her on the hearth and moved to the couch. A chill from my damp hair as a draft idled through the room ran down my back, and I pulled the dressing gown closer. We sat, silent, drinking our tea. To my surprise, I was hungry. I reached in and without bothering to determine what sort plucked up seven of the petit fours in rapid succession. I sipped and ate, grabbed a few more, and finally, replete, came to a still.
In the time since she had first appeared that afternoon to burying the body, till returning to Helvstead, Millicent had refused to say what happened. I had asked, but she’d said nothing, including a refusal, and I hadn’t pressed. Now, however, with my shock waning, warmed by tea, the hovering darkness buffeting my courage, fatigue making me less constrained and obedient, I could feel my mouth open then to form a question.
She couldn’t have seen me, leaning against the chaise lounge as she was, but still, she spoke.
“I’ll not tell you anything that you don’t already know or wouldn’t find out in the papers for yourself.” Her voice was firm, final. “It’s the only way, Ramona, if there’s trouble. You’ll not have to pretend anything—that’s better. I don’t doubt you’re a good liar, but if you needn’t that’s far better.”
The silence, once broken, no longer seemed to live in that hushed darkness. It became bare, stark, scraped thing. And this is where I see things might have gone differently. I might have set my sights on another course: slipped away to the W.C. to make a call; or to the car to make a visit to the local constabulary, leading the police to the body; or given an anonymous tip: any number of things, really.
But I didn’t. It didn’t even occur to me.
After a while Millicent spoke again.
“We must never talk about it, you know. It’s not safe. Lucy’s not the suspicious devil Molly is, but she’s not a complete idiot and I certainly wouldn’t want to chance anything. Those village girls—Charlotte and Annie?—oh, I never can remember—they don’t seem particularly bright either, but you never what general nosiness can do to mitigate stupidity. And Tony—” she snorted. “Well, he doesn’t like me much. And he’s not any fonder of you either.” She flicked her cigarette in an ashtray. “Not after you poisoned his Lilliput—”
I must have made a faint exclamation.
“Oh yes, he told me about it.”
A stream of smoke coursed from her, the light from the coals catching it’s outline.
“And of course Molly. Thank heavens she’s out. Needs another operation—they found more trouble after the last round. What a great and wondrous mercy. She won’t be descending on us for some time. If you should ever need to—you shouldn’t—in fact you won’t—but if you ever did need to speak to me about it, this is what we’ll do: you should say, ‘Millicent, do you think the south garden will ever be renovated?’” There was a pause. “Go on then. Say it now.”
“Do you think the garden should be renovated?” I repeated. My mouth felt stiff, uncooperative.
“No,” she said. “Do you think the south garden will ever be renovated?”
“Do you think the south garden will ever be renovated?”
The coals shifted with a crumbling sound.
“And then I will ask you to come run errands in the village with me or some such nonsense and we can talk in the car.”
I took another sip of my tea. Time was passing strangely that night, like water racing down a drain in such a rapid spiral, it created a hole in the center, where nothing moved at all.
“Now, listen, Ramona, if the police ever come, you must stick to the story of what you would have done this afternoon. And I mean exactly. Spend tomorrow morning going over the bills. It might sound silly but pretend, say to yourself ‘I’d like to get this and this and this done today’ and ‘it would be about two thirty now,’ ‘this is when I would take tea’ and pause from your papers and ‘this is what I would have finished’ or ‘I wish Millicent bloody well could keep her pocketbook in hand for a week.’ When you’re done, ‘dinnertime soon, I should like to take a bath first’ and so forth. It will make it easier if you should ever to need to lie.” She paused. “Are you clear on this, Ramona? You are attending?”
“Yes, Millicent.” I said, “I shall go over the books once more tomorrow.”
“Good. Now. You’re going to be sore. Take aspirin—four or five tablets, it won’t hurt you—and the same again when you get up. I’d give you a pill I’ve a couple bottles leftover after I Cyclamen and I took that fall, but those hit rather hard, and I don’t want Lucy noticing anything unusual. But neither will it do for Lucy to see you grimacing to reach for the creamer. So do take the aspirin, now, before the soreness settles.”
“Yes. Yes, quite.”
“Have some blisters, do you? Soak them in salt water if they trouble you, and put plasters over the worst. If anyone asks, you scalded yourself making tea while Lucy abandoned us for the day.”
“All right. You should get on to bed, Ramona. I’m going to be up for a while yet.”
I stood up. “You don’t mind being alone?”
She didn’t answer. “No lights,” she called over her shoulder, instead. “Have a nip of the whiskey in my room if you like—it’ll help you sleep. We’ll breakfast at the usual time. If for any reason Lucy asks about the fireplace, say I lost an earring after coming back from a party the other night, and have been looking through the ashes to see if it fell when I started up a fire. All right?”
“Yes. All right.”
“She won’t ask—Molly would—but she won’t. Still, it’s good to have thought of it. Now, go over everything in your mind before you sleep Ramona, that way you won’t forget.”
“But for God’s sake don’t write anything down.”
“Of course not.”
“Good. Right,” she nodded. “Now. Let’s say it’s about, oh, ten o’clock. The clock has just chimed. You’ve had your glass of milk and goodnight biscuit or whatever it is you do—”
“No. No, actually, just a final cigarette.”
“Right then. So: you’ve had you’re final cigarette. In a few moments you go up.”
“Yes. Yes. It’s ten o’ clock. Five past, really.”
“Yes. So I come in and say good night.”
“All right.” I paused. “I’ll be retiring now, Millicent.”
“It’s only ten,” she said.
“Yes, but I’m a bit tired.” Perhaps it was fatigue or the power of Millicent’s will, for I spoke quite naturally. “I went over the dressmaker’s bills this afternoon. We should go over them tomorrow.”
“If we must. Very well. Goodnight, Ramona.”
I left. Millicent’s dressing gown whispered about me in billowing gossamer folds and it seemed to take a very long time to get up the stairs down the hallway to my room.
By the time I crawled into bed I was too exhausted to rehearse all that Millicent had said. But it was no matter. I would not forget any of it. I couldn’t, even if I’d wanted to.
I dressed with difficulty next morning; my shoulders and arms aching as Millicent predicted. My hands showed a few blisters, mostly on the palms. I took more aspirin and attached a few plasters on my hands, relieved they weren’t particularly noticeable. I gave myself a hard stare in the mirror. The late night worked like whitewash on my already pale skin. I splashed my face with freezing water, which seemed to help a little. When I first arrived I had found a sleek little compact in the back drawer of my lavatory chest. It still smelled faintly of violets and had the texture of tack and was probably at least twenty years old; I daubed a miniscule amount on my cheeks. It did nothing and, too afraid to use more, I reverted to the old-fashioned trick of pinching my cheeks and drew back to regard the effect. I looked better; not transformed into a picture of ruddy health, but at least the death’s head aspect had lessened.
I found Lucy downstairs, puttering about the sideboard, replacing the lid of one of the silver warmers.
“Lucy,” I said, as I came into the dining room, and I heard to my relief that I sounded quite calm. She turned around smiling. Then I added, stupidly, “How are you?”
Lucy paused, a puzzled furrow gathering at her brow. I quickly amended myself.
“I mean, how is your sister?”
“Oh, she’s better, thank you, Miss Bright. It’s her fifth and a real squawler. Lorna—that’s my sister—thinks this one will be an opera singer.”
“Splendid!” I said somewhat inattentively. “What time did you get back?”
“Oh, lor, must have been five in the morning. I think Lady Von Favre was still up, heard her in her room.”
Millicent, driving back from parties in London, was often up late, fortunately, and there was nothing unusual in this. I heard the unmistakable tread of Millicent coming down the stairs.
“Heard what?” she said, bounding in the room.
For one stomach-tightening moment I thought she still wore the previous day’s outfit. But, no, only something similar, with the same sharp neat lines of yesterday’s riding coat and jodhpurs; this outfit, was a cheerful blue, her boots polished, clean as yesterday’s had been mud-splattered. Her hair shone in gleaming auburn waves around her shoulders. A smart blue scarf was tied jauntily round her throat, her lips painted their usual carmine and she didn’t, even the slightest bit, look tired.
“Lucy, I’m rather hungry this morning. Make me an omelet, will you?”
“Certainly, Lady Von Favre,” Lucy replied, pleased; she rarely received any culinary challenges from me and Millicent was such a light eater she rarely ate more than toast.
Millicent sat down, opened the paper and shouted at the still swinging kitchen door.
“And throw in some shallots, will you Lucy?”
Lucy’s head popped with surprising alacrity around the door.
“Certainly, Lady Von Favre. Anything else? I’ve got some lovely farmer’s cheese. And chives from the garden.”
“The chives might be all right. No cheese, just the chives and shallots.”
Lucy disappeared back into the kitchen.
“Hope she knows the difference between a shallot and garlic,” Millicent said, opening the paper. “The cook at the Jones’ gave me one for the other last week, can you believe it? Perfectly revolting. Turns out she was a fraud, references and everything.” Millicent finished scanning a page and turned it. “Well, I suppose, the poor fool must have needed a job rather badly.”
I nearly put down my toast at the relative generosity of this last remark, but Millicent had already moved on to other topics.
“Oh and Lucy!” called Millicent. “Let’s ring Molly today. I want to make sure she’s not taking advantage of that gall bladder of hers.”
I gave Millicent a startled glance.
Lucy coughed. “Ehm, I did hear from Dr. Parker at my sister’s that Molly’s been very poorly—”
“Yes, yes, I know she’s ill. I am only teasing. Just ring her, will you?”
“Yes, Lady Von Favre.” Lucy nodded and disappeared.
“Is that really wise?” I had been counting on Molly’s ill health; and found myself very uneasy at the idea of Molly’s sharp eyes—or ears—any time soon.
“Is what wise?”
“To call Molly. When she’s…” I glanced back at the kitchen door. “Been so ill?”
“Can’t have old Molly thinking I’ve forgotten her now, can I? Perhaps, I’ll just pop round for a visit, remind her just what all those hours of sacrifice and hard work for the Clive family has come to,” she gave a small cheerful chuckle. “That is the Jezebel of London as she refers to me sometimes. So, are you going to another one of your edifying lectures today? With that woman—a Miss Carpet or Carstairs is it? The one with the religious squint, I mean.”
I sunk my teeth into my toast, biding for time. But as much as I scoured this question for intimations, I could hear no weight of significance, no cue, no instruction, and her expression was quite the usual, eyebrows only lifted faintly in inquiry. In a moment she would lose interest. She leaned over and lathered her toast with jam. I cleared my throat.
“Miss Caruthers and I aren’t to go to a lecture till next week. I have some papers—receipts and things—to finish up. That bill from Fortnum and Mason we might go over—”
Millicent waved her hand. “Oh, I can’t be bothered. Look, Caroline’s got herself another scandal again.”
Lucy came in with the omelet.
“Shallots!” said Millicent, as it was placed before her. “Well done, Lucy.”
“Thank you, Lady Von Favre.” Lucy looked pleased but surprised, as well she might. Millicent tucked in, pulling out a large forkful.
“Delicious,” she said.
I drew my spoon through my porridge.
It’s odd how some moments can seem more real than others, intensified, as it were, to a point of unreality, like a dream or a hallucination. I darted a glance at Millicent, realizing as I watched her eat her omelet as she might any morning, that she had every intention of going on as if nothing had happened. That was the idea, of course, and I suppose it was supremely idiotic to be surprised. It was the very thing we must do, but somehow now that it was transpiring, I couldn’t shake my wonder. A sensation rose, unfamiliar at first, but then steadied like a flame that has wavered that finally catches hold.
For the first time in my life, I think, I felt free.
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here: http://linesdotscircles.tumblr.com