Ramona hears from Millicent and moves about London contemplating the quiet lives of women like herself and what secrets they might hide; she prepares for the eventual visit by the police about Eddie Depilliar’s death
The next day, returning from an afternoon’s worth of fruitless wandering, I received a message, in the careful copper-plate script of my landlady’s elderly mother-in-law, who hovered by the phone for this purpose, glad, I think, to feel of use. She handed it to me smiling eagerly.
Sorry to be incommunicado. You’re best away from me and these horrid reporters, anyway. Talk to Siegel if you haven’t already. There’s nothing to do but answer any questions that need answering.
“You all right?” asked the landlady coming in with a tray for her mother-in-law. “Your face is just so tuckered up, isn’t it?”
Any expression I had was wiped off into impassivity. Why this comment, irritating surely, but perhaps not exactly hateful, made me, who taken so many snubs and humiliations with little bitterness, feel a hot and dangerous rage stiffening the back of my neck, I’m not quite sure. I suppose with so many indignities, to have the refuge of one’s private thoughts under the assault of scrutiny and comment was too much. A few days earlier one of the other occupants came home and I overheard the landlady remark: “Oh, he didn’t show, did he, dearie? I can tell by the look on your poor face.” I’d tried to catch the other occupant’s eye to telegraph my distaste of the remark, but the woman ran to her room with the speed of someone desperate to outrace the onset of tears till in privacy. I’d been debating whether to continue my lodging; the rates were good and they provided quite a decent breakfast. But this last comment swung the balance: I would find other digs. This little revenge, if something so small could be even called that, allowed me to remain polite as she continued:
“Not the news you wanted, I’ll wager,” she continued, clucking sympathetically and darting little glances at the note. “Oh, I can just see it. You’re trying to hide it, but it’s a real disappointment.”
“On the contrary,” I said in an uninflected voice. “It’s quite fantastic news. Most fortunate. I’ll be vacating my room tomorrow at noon.”
My satisfaction lasted till entering my room and I felt anew the unhelpfulness of Millicent’s last communication. I closed my door and bewilderment descended like night. I put on my nightgown, tucked the piece of paper in my handbag and after a moment, somewhat absurdly, hid it under a pillow and went to sleep.
In retrospect it could seem a bit odd that Millicent didn’t seek me out during this time, if only to assure herself of my continuing silence. But then, perhaps, it wasn’t, which isn’t to say she trusted me entirely, but I do think she did her own acumen, which was indeed, entirely correct. She understood me very well. Keeping this distance hadn’t been neglect or thoughtlessness or self-absorption, but a deliberate decision. In doing so she removed possible impression of us as co-conspirators—and that was certainly wise, more so than I think I realized at the time—and she also insured, as no other course of action would have, I would do exactly as she needed.
This one brief message I did receive made it clear, in that master of brevity and impact that was Millicent’s style, that she knew the situation, was aware of the degree of stranding she’d done with me, expected me to tolerate it and pointed out how it had been in my best interest, and at the same time, demonstrated she trusted me implicitly. She knew when panicked I tended to stick, almost absurdly, to duty. How tightly I had clung to my father’s advice when the ‘O’ had gone under and I had lost my position; and how absurdly obsessed with detail and procedure I had been when my parents had died. At Helvstead I’d clung to my obligations until I became more comfortable.
In trusting me she also engineered, whether intentionally or not, a neat shift that any immobilization, that rabbit-in-the-headlights tendency that comes about in times of stress, would be shifted into the comfort of a prearranged scenario we’d come up with the night we buried Depillar. The truth of it is this: perhaps if she had become available and in need of my reassurance, the reversal might very well have been too much for me. My biddable nature—subjugation is not too strong a word—was inextricably bound with my admiration, which in turn was entertwined with envy. Envy has a will all its own, really. I might have turned my mind to what other courses of action were available, confiding to landlady, going to the press, the police.
It has taken me many years to recognize what she already knew: Millicent would never have betrayed me under these or really any circumstances. But I might her.
The next morning, I spotted an ad in the Times offering “Rooms for Distressed Gentlewomen,” located in the London purlieus. I remembered the neighborhood: I’d once attended a talk about African orphanages at a church nearby and been so persuaded by the minister, I’d given everything in my purse, including that week’s pay. That very well might have been the beginning of the end, I thought on reflection, the first stirs of dissatisfaction with my London life, as I munched through beans on toast every meal of that week with joyless, workmanlike dedication.
I rang the ad, and by late morning had arrived, unpacked, thinking I’d chosen rather well. Unprepossessing, shabby and smelling not unpleasantly of wood oil and polish, the house showed remnants of more prosperous days in faded amethyst-colored wallpaper, scrolled woodwork lining the dim, well-trod hallways, oriental rugs now worn nearly bare. Mrs. Tibble, a short, curly-haired woman of perhaps forty-five, had none of the usual curiosity of the landlady. The most personal question she asked was whether I wanted coffee or tea in the afternoons. This was followed by a cursory tour: the tiny booth sitting under the stairs that held the house telephone, the well-scrubbed kitchen from which meals emerged; a front room, where, through a set of French doors, one could see the carryovers of what must have been a prosperous Victory Garden; a dining room furnished with unexpectedly beautiful Regency table and chairs, polished to a mirror-like gleam; and a parlor where boarders might sit and read the papers. An array of stuffed birds—pheasants, snowbirds, grouse—the result of a hobby of the late Mr. Tibble, it was explained—rested on the tables and bureaus and sideboards of the parlor, glassy-eyed, all caught in the same fleeing pose. Duplicated so many times over, the effect was a little like a cavalry led on a charge. A small white cat, which I determined after a moment to be unstuffed, slept on a side table, its tail encircling a pheasant’s claw.
“What a lovely little cat,” I said.
“Minerva,” Mrs. Tibble said. “Watch this one. Sneaky. Will try to creep into your room.”
Despite her very English name, Mrs. Tibble’s accent revealed her to be from Eastern Europe—Poland, I thought. She possessed the most remarkable eyes I’d seen outside of the cinema, large and smoky grey. But she would have been conspicuous even without these points. As she led me round I saw that the second and forth fingers of her left hand were missing, as well as the tip of her pinky; and on the right, her ring finger was just a nub, the top two digits of her second finger were missing; her right thumb gone altogether. These losses were so tidily delineated it didn’t seem it could be a defect of birth, but at the same time, I found it difficult to imagine what sort of accident could possibly incur this sort of damage.
She pulled out the guest book after we finished; with her cropped hands, the opening of a page or proffering of a pen looked peculiar, as if in doing them she were mocking the very ordinariness of these actions, and reminded me of a surrealist movie I’d seen once and found very unsettling. I struggled, vainly, not to stare. She turned a page and I saw a line of numbers tattooed on her inner arm. I wasn’t unaccustomed to the sight; I had seen my share of refugees, of course, but still, it startled me. The images from the newsreels flitted through my mind: emaciated figures, razor wire, bulldozers.
“Some horrible times, the war,” I found myself saying, and immediately regretted it.
“You don’t say?” she replied, her voice derisory but somehow without rudeness, perhaps because there wasn’t any heat behind it.
I made some non-committal noise. Her eyebrows raised, half-amusement, half-challenge: rather like Millicent, actually.
“I’ll take you to your room,” she said.
I followed her meekly up the steps.
It would be a haven, my unremarkable room at 1220 Markum St. A bit crowded–the usual bed, washstand, bureau, desk and chair cheek by jowl with an ottoman, two bedside tables and three bookshelves—but comfortable. Four other boarders occupied the house, and we kept our interactions minimal, following the washroom schedule admirably.
Who knows what a respectable woman alone in the middle of the twentieth century could be up to, in her unfashionable clothes, in a quiet boarding house room of women, living a blameless life? It was rarely asked; perhaps, I thought as I passed a quiet spinsterish-looking librarian sort on the stairs, because we don’t want to know. The answers were filled with enough private sorrows to make one queasy, or stories, like my own, that rather undermined everything one appeared to be.
As soon as I settled in, I rang Siegel and Siegel to give my new address. To my surprise, Miss Harchester put me on hold and Mr. Siegel came on the line.
“Oh, I needn’t have bothered you,” I said. “I could have left it with Miss Harchester…”
“I told her if you called in to put you through,” he said smoothly. “Now: I take it the police haven’t come to speak to you?”
“Hmmm… perhaps in a few days. Several of your uncle’s associates—in Parliament—are making a bit of noise about how this has been handled, which is good. But: are you still feeling…reasonably comfortable with the idea of talking to the police? No…nerves about the matter?”
“Not really, Mr. Siegel. Of course, it’s worrisome but there’s really nothing to do but talk to anyone who has questions. I mean in an official capacity. In fact, I imagine it can only help. I’ll just tell them what I know and it should be fine.”
“Good. Quite right then. Ah—just a moment Miss Harchester, thank you—I see my next appointment is here. Was there anything else today?”
“No, thank you. Oh–Mr. Siegel? I forgot—when you ring, you should ask for a Mrs. Mona Bertram.”
“Mrs. Mona Bertram?” He repeated back carefully.
“Yes. Bertram’s my middle name and Mona, well like Ramona…” His silence caused me to hesitate. “It sounds a bit foolish, I suppose, but I feared with all the publicity…well, that…those horrid reporters might…” I gave a nervous laugh. “I must seem very silly…”
“No, it was probably wise of you to do so.” I thought I heard a tinge of respect. “Good day, Miss Bright.” Then he added, in a dry voice: “Or Mrs. Bertram, I should say.”
By the end of that week I’d become acquainted with the Markum St. neighborhood, and knew a good deal of its routines: the weary civil servants returning by the 4:42; the washing hung on Tuesdays and Saturdays, the children called in at tea time, (the name Lenora often rang plaintively throughout the streets, till a girl, about ten, with bright yellow plaits, would come tearing feverishly down the sidewalk), the neighbors who spent their evenings gardening and those who came out for a furtive swig of whiskey; the black and white tomcat, who sat on a neglected planter at dusk, surveying the block with a proprietary air.
I sighed and put down the paper one afternoon, pulling my dun-colored cardigan closer around me, observing that tomcat at the window of the parlor, staring at the stuffed birds with what could only be described as disgusted incomprehension. Minerva, beside me, sure of her safety behind glass, gave him an indifferent glance, and lolled back, resting her chin on my leg.
The hours were beginning to propagate, like rabbits. I’d read the papers. I’d seen every film at the local cinema, several twice. I’d gone to the library, taken walks, smuggled in a second hand wireless to my room, which I needn’t have smuggled at all, but it seemed somehow illicit, and spent hours listening to it, smoking a great deal of cigarettes and trying to tune it properly. If Mrs. Tibble’s television had worked no doubt I’d have parked myself in front of it for hours on end. And still the police hadn’t come.
I’d taken to attending church, the mid day service of St Jerome. Afterwards I ate in the church basement cafeteria the beans on toast and indifferent blancmange, indistinguishable from every other such place. As I sat down with my tray I wondered why I didn’t find it odd, even depressing, to be eating such fare after the wine and prawns and brioche of Nice. I seemed to have slipped back into my previous life with little difficulty. But I was neither discouraged nor dismayed by this. I knew of other lives now, and when I needed to slip out, I suspected I could do so as easily as I had reentered.
Opening the gate to the Markum St. house on my return I saw two men, one tall and younger I thought than his thick silver gray hair suggested, perhaps forty or forty-five, who was stifling a yawn, and the other, in his twenties, auburn-haired with a round childlike face and sporting a large moustache, possibly to make himself look older. Both wore neat dark suits and hats.
The younger one was saying. “Well, I’m glad Guv’ner assigned it to us. Come on, then, don’t be such an old fishwife, Jimmy.”
I couldn’t catch what the other man said till he turned, with a sigh and yawned again.
“…seems another mare’s nest to me,” said the gray-haired one. “You’re just excited because of the headlines. Those cases are the biggest pains in the arse of them all.”
“Well, at least you’ve had a crack at a big one, haven’t ya? Stop that yawning—you’ve been at it all day.”
“Don’t think Little Ned slept more than an hour last night. Margaret’s about to pull her hair out. And the Dawson case—we were out till four Wednesday, thinking he was at that tart of his flat. This week has been murder. I’m dying for a pint.”
The younger man saw me then and somehow, without nudging the elder, he produced the same effect. The gray-haired man quieted, but made his turning round to see me aping a quite natural manner. I felt acutely conscious of the picture I made: my old worn hat, gloves, and pocketbook, and grey frock, one I’d vowed never to wear again, but after spilling tea on my flannel skirt that morning, I’d pulled it on, and crowned this drab ensemble by that avatar of all indifferent clothing, my dun-colored cardigan.
“Miss Bright?” said the tall, grey-haired one, pulling off his hat. “I’m Inspector Fendorf and this is Sergeant Vale.”
Vale’s eyes flickered over me several times with distaste. Some men seem to dislike plain or dowdy women on principle, regarding them as almost a personal affront; it rather seemed Vale was one of them.
“We wondered if you might be free to have a word, then? About your cousin,” continued Inspector Fendorff.
“Oh,” I said. “Certainly. Follow me, Inspector Fendorff, Sergeant Vales.”
“Just back from church, are you?” He glanced at the prayer book in my hand. “My grandmother never went to service without hers.”
“Yes. It was my mother’s.”
I’d forgotten I was holding it. I’d taken it from one of the empty Sunday school rooms I’d peeked at after luncheon.
“Well,” I hesitated. “Would you–would you like to come in?”
We were allowed male guests in the common rooms, as long as they were neither too plentiful nor made too regular an appearance; in any case, I couldn’t imagine Mrs. Tibble would object to the police. The wireless was on in the kitchen and the sound of a current crooner wafted down the hall ‘It’s not going to be paradise, darling, but it’ll be ours…it’s not going to be paradise darling…p’rhaps a bit of heaven a bit of hell, but as long as you’re there, my love, all will be well’ the young charwoman was singing along, in a pretty voice, so very sweetly, with unabashed feeling. Vales look embarrassed and then annoyed at this embarrassment.
I led them into the parlor and closed the door. The clock on the mantle was quite loud; I could hear it sometimes, upstairs, in my room, when the door was left open, ticking away with absurd portentousness. I settled myself on the couch, moving aside a pillow, a bit of Victoriana, with an inexpertly needle-pointed black spaniel on the front. Vales closed the door behind him and sat at an angle to myself, on my left, while Fendorf seated himself directly across from me.
“So you must have some idea why we might like to speak to you, Miss Bright,” said Fendorf. I could hear a slight ironic emphasis on my surname, as if to acknowledge the discrepancy between myself and my nom de guerre.
I hesitated. “It’s–it’s about what’s in the papers, isn’t it?”
“We’d just like to check a few facts with you if you don’t mind.”
I paused, unsure if I should offer them refreshment. “Perhaps you’d like some tea?”
“There’s no need to trouble,” Vales said. His voice was clipped, unpleasant, sharp in my left ear..
“As you like.” Good thing too, as I had no idea if Mrs. Tibble would be accommodating.
“Sergeant Vales will take notes if that’s all right.”
“Certainly,” I assented.
“How long have you been here?” Fendorff his eyes roamed the room, his eyes pausing on the birds, but returning to mine with a practiced and unreadable expression. I wondered if it were true as the papers said, that he, like many policeman, saw so much in his work that he had become beyond surprise. Few could regard the room’s regalia of birds without some remark.
“A little under week.” My voice, I was pleased to hear, was calm, quiet, assured.
“Care to tell us why you’re staying here under the name Mrs. Bertram?”
“You’ll think me silly, but I thought the reporters might, well, try to find me.” I glanced from one to the other. “Goodness, I certainly hope you’re not under the impression I intended to–to hide in a larger sense. I told Mr. Siegel about it immediately, of course. I assume that’s how you found me.”
“Did you tell anyone else?” asked Vales.
“Well—no, but I don’t really have anyone else to tell.”
“Husband? Friends? Boyfriend? Relations?” said Vales.
“No,” I replied steadily. “Just Millicent.”
“You haven’t spoken to your cousin since she’s returned to London?” said Fendorff.
“Actually, we haven’t spoken since France. We’ve exchanged a few letters and postcards, but not seen each other.
“She hasn’t rung you on the telephone?”
I shook my head in the negative.
“I’d have thought you had lots to chat about, after a wedding,” said Fendorf.
Did he really believe he fooled me, I wondered, with this simulacrum of a pleasant, conversational tone? I felt the resignation, the boredom behind it, the wish to get the job done.
I did nothing to indicate what I’d observed, only explained Millicent had been honeymooning and I returning to England, deliberately dithering into little eddies of detail. Fendorff shifted in his seat, almost imperceptibly; the shifting turned into an interruption.
“I see. So you’re saying you’ve had no contact.” He opened his notebook. “Looks here like you left her several messages at her flat.”
I thought of all the unanswered calls from the callboxes. Thank heavens those hadn’t been recorded.
“Well,” I said. “I was so worried after the articles came out–I tried her several times.”
“But never heard back,” he said smoothly.
“Oh, no, I did, in fact,” I said, aware I’d been given an opening to demonstrate candor. “The landlady of my last place took a message for me. I can bring it to you if you like.”
They looked at each other and Fendorff gave a brief nod. I hastened to my room and retrieved scrap of paper, returning to my seat and handing it to Fendorff. He read it and passed it to Vales, who wrote down the contents in a notebook, glanced at Fendorff with a sour face, as if to indicate it would be impossible to determine the veracity of it.
“How close would you say you two are?” asked Fendorff.
“We’re cousins, Inspector Fendorf.”
“Outside of that. Close enough you knew of her affair with Edward Depillar?”
“Oh! No. No, I didn’t.”
“But you still maintain that you were close.”
“Well, yes. I lived with Lady Von Favre for nearly a year, and made arrangements for the household, and managed the bills—for frocks and things, you know—rather like a personal secretary.”
Fendorf opened his mouth but I pressed on. “But I think by close you mean confidantes. I don’t suppose we spoke too terribly much of the, er, personal.”
“My wife and her girlfriend tell each other everything,” Vales piped up, with an ingratiating smile that was actually quite horrible, especially through the moustache. “You ladies—you do like to chatter, don’t you now?—seems a bit odd she never mentioned it, a new man-friend.”
“Not really, Sergeant Vales.” I cleared my throat and gave a deprecating smile. “I grew up the only child of some rather old-fashioned parents. My cousin saw me as easily shocked, even—pious, I suppose.” Vales’ eyes swiveled to the worn Bible beside me. “And perhaps I am a bit,” I said. “Easily shocked, that is. Pious, well, I do hope not!”
Vales opened his mouth, but catching a glance from Fendorff, closed it again.
“You see, she was far more likely not to speak of it out of consideration for me than any sort of…secrecy,” I said.
“I’m afraid I’m not following you, Miss Bright,” said Fendorff, suppressing a sigh.
“My cousin asked me to come live with her, in part because she knew I’d been having some personal–that is to say–well, financial difficulties. She also knew I had too much pride to ever ask her for assistance, even though… things had become rather difficult.”
“Miss Bright, that doesn’t really answer my que—”
“She didn’t want to tell me about this…er…affair…for the very simple reason she thought I might be so…uncomfortable that I’d feel obligated to leave. And she knew I hadn’t much to…go back to.”
I could feel how it clicked as it said it, falling into place.
“I see,” said Fendorff.
“She’s quite kind you know, in her own way,” I said.
“Kind enough to pass the time with another woman’s husband?” Vales added in a hard jolly voice, his eyes turning to meet mine on the word ‘husband.’
“Well,” I said. “That is a point. Of course that wasn’t particularly kind. But it’s not the whole of who she is. Nor do we even know all the circumstances, I don’t think.”
“If she would have had any money troubles would you have known about it?”
“Oh. No. Well, perhaps,” I said. “But not necessarily. Siegel and Siegel, of course, handed her investments and the family income and such. I only managed the household bills. I drew from a special account exclusively for that purpose.”
“Never heard her complain of running short?”
“To my knowledge her finances always seemed in perfect order.”
“What do you make of this then?”
The inspector held out a piece of paper. I saw Millicent’s dark, sloping handwriting on a check from Eddie Depillar for twenty thousand pounds, dated October 15th. She had signed the back with exaggerated flourish, the ‘M,’’ ‘V’ and ‘F’ almost comically large.
“Goodness,” I said.
He looked at me speculatively. “So you knew nothing of it?”
“No, really I had no idea at all,” although of course, thanks to Mr. Siegel I did. Still it was curious to see. I stared at it. “Perhaps a bet or something?”
“Did Lady Von Favre do a lot of gambling?” asked Fendorff.
“No,” I said. “At least not that I was aware of. It was just the first thing that came to mind. ”
“Must be some reason,” said Vales, quick and sharp. “Likes her cards? Or playing the horses? Roulette wheel, perhaps?”
“No, no. It’s just the only thing I can possibly imagine to explain it.” I handed it back.
“Tell us—specifically, if you will—your access to her bank accounts?” asked Fendorff.
I described the details of our household accounts and the larger for repairs and maintenance of Helvstead.
“But other than those accounts, I haven’t access to Lady Von Favre’s holdings. The bank would be able to tell you better than I.” I handed it back to Fendorff. “Truly, though, I don’t think money was a problem of hers.”
“What would you say a problem of hers was then?” Vales pounced.
“Goodness!” I said. “I wouldn’t—”
“Gambling? Drink?” Vales offered up. “Come on now. There’s always something, isn’t there. Was she lonely? Widowed—and divorced, of course.” He made this last sound vaguely sordid, pitiable. “No kiddies. Perhaps she liked male companionship a little too well?”
“Oh, dear, Sergeant Vales. Honestly, I’m afraid I have no answer for you. I suppose the closest thing she had to a problem was how to spend her days.”
They looked at me uncomprehendingly.
“Her family is gone, you see.”
“That’s all? How to spend her days?” Vales snapped.
“Well, yes,” I said. “That’s all.”
“Someone else has a different way at looking at your cousin.” Vales piped up. I saw Fendorff suppress a little motion of irritation.
“Very different,” Vales repeated, his moustache taking a stubborn line and avoiding Fendorf’s eye.
“Mrs. Ryerton, I suppose,” I shook my head. “Sergeant, Molly is an elderly woman who holds some rather…extreme opinions about any number of things.”
Their faces remained deliberate blanks.
I smiled. “I can only imagine. The devil’s spawn? Greedy? Selfish? Ungodly?”
They made no remark, but I could see I was right. “Surely, gentlemen you don’t need me point out that Molly is…I don’t like to say so, certainly not so plainly, and I trust you will have the kindness never to repeat it back to her, but really I’m afraid she’s rather got a…religious mania and sees everyone through that particular lens, although why she is so hard on her benefactress I shall never understand. Lady Von Favre, I may add, has extended every kindness in spite of this.”
Vales spoke: “We’ve been trained, Miss Bright, about witness statements. You can trust our judgment and not worry yourself about what we should and shouldn’t—”
Fendorff cleared his throat. “Yes, well. Let’s continue. Can you describe you activities on November 8th to the best of you recollection?”
“Of course,” I said.
I gave them a brief outline, aware of Vale’s moving pencil, Fendorff’s bland intelligent eyes on my face. He seemed to digest my answer and rubbing his hand briefly over his grey pelt of hair, and changed the subject.
“You and your cousin traveled to Nice in January,” said Fendorff.
“Yes, yes, we did.”
“When had she first suggested travel?” Fendorff asked.
“Oh, I don’t really remember to tell you the truth. Probably when I very first arrived. She told me winters could be very dreary at Helvstead.”
“Did you pick the location or did she?” asked Fendorff.
“Oh, she did.”
“That was nice of her to bring you,” said Vales in a cold cynical voice. “To Nice.”
I thought he was making a pun, and laughed politely which trailed off as a quiver of offense and suspicion crossed his face. I smoothed my skirt, daring a glance at Fendorff who seemed aware of Vales unintended bit of humor, amplified by the tight sarcastic voice it was delivered. Fendorff looked like he was suppressing some surge of irritation. It must be strange, or perhaps simply vexing, for Fendorff to feel a moment of communion—however fleeting—with the person he questioned rather than his partner—and have that person herself be aware of it too. I averted my eyes.
“Yes. Nice. She’s quite a generous person,” I said. “Of course, she’s gone to France or Italy to winter for many years now.”
Sergeant Fendorff nodded. “Well, tell us about your trip then.”
“Perhaps if you could give me a sense of what it is you’d like to know?” I smiled. “Rather than subject you to a travelogue.”
“What you did, who you saw, and the like. Your cousin as well.”
“Oh, it was lovely. But I can’t say we did very much—a little sightseeing, for what was open at that time. Shopping and relaxing, taking a few walks, resting.”
The younger grunted, as if unconvinced.
“Was her behavior odd or strange in any way?” Fendorff asked.
“No,” I said. “But perhaps I’m not really sure what you mean.”
Fendorff made a short offhand gesture. “Oh, anything out of the ordinary. Did she seem edgy, worried—did she eat and drink properly? Was she sleeping? Making any unusual calls?”
“Oh. Well, none of those things. I do think she was a little loathe to get caught up in seeing her the same people she does in London. She wanted a spot of quiet, a proper holiday. But there wasn’t anything odd about that, certainly.”
Fendorff’s grey eyebrows rose fractionally with carefully suppressed interest.
“So she stayed in an unusual amount then? Unsociable, you might say?”
“No, no, you misunderstand me. I mean she didn’t go to some of the places she might usually. That’s all. She met some Americans there, quite nice they were—one of them now is her husband—Henry Crampton, as I suppose you know.”
“Your cousin paid for everything?” said Fendorf.
“Yes,” I said. “Except for meals and small things.”
“Mmmm. But no strings attached? Nothing…in return?” said Fendorf delicately.
“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“Did she ask you for any particular favors in return,” piped up Vale.
“No, not really. Once or twice she asked me to manage with the concierge but then my French is a little more adept than hers.”
I pretended not to see Vales’ exasperation. Fendorff looked at me, really
looked at me, in the eyes, for the first time. He put both hands together entwining them.
“She never, either in Nice, or at any other time mentioned Eddie Depillar to you?” he asked.
I shook my head in the negative. And, actually, this was true. She’d never mentioned his name: not once.
“Is it possible she could have and you’d forgotten?” Fendorff persisted.
“Well, if she did in passing, I suppose so. She knows many people—you can imagine. But if you mean in the context of some sort of—revelation—no, of course not, I wouldn’t have forgotten that.”
Fendorff nodded and exchanged another glance with Vale, as if to say let him handle it.
“Miss Bright, this is a disturbing question but we’d appreciate an honest answer. Do you think your cousin is capable of killing someone?”
“Good gracious!” I said, hand rising to my chest. “How can you ask that, Sergeant Fendorff.”
“Unpleasant questions are part of our job, Miss Bright,” he said in that same mechanical, bored voice. I wondered how many times he had said the very same thing in the very same way.
“I’ve just told you I’ve known her to be kind, sergeant. I wouldn’t say so if I didn’t feel it to be true—”
A small commotion erupted outside the door, a dish clattering but not breaking as it hit the wooden floor, then the sound of falling stack of papers. Vale stood up, shoulders squared, in a belligerent stance, when Minerva ran in, white fur fluffed. She stopped, stared at us aghast, and dashed out again.
“That’s Minerva,” I said. “She’s quite sweet really, but still a bit of a kitten. Just the other day—”
“Yes, Miss Bertram. As to the question…”
“Gentlemen—“ I hesitated. “I understand you needed to speak to me quite frankly. The police do such important work. I do recognize that. But, really, it seems a thousand times more likely that this Mr. Depillar, whoever he is, had an accident or perhaps some unfortunate encounter—a tramp looking for money…? Or an argument with someone at a pub… or hit his head and lost his memory, poor man. Well, surely, something like that is much more—infinitely more—likely than Lady Von Favre would have anything to do with his… disappearance?”
“The police are obliged to follow every channel that comes open,” Fendorff moved to stand. “Thank you Miss Ber—Bright—you’ve been helpful. Please let us know if you move. We may very well need to be in touch.”
“Of course. I’m glad I could be of any assistance. I’ll see you out,” I said.
Vales walked out first, then Fendorff , who gave a cursory tip of the hat. Minerva crouched underneath the table with the wireless, enormous eyes following them. I closed the door behind and moved to watch them from the window. They strolled down the sidewalk, conferring, Fendorf hands in pockets. I rather thought Vales was mimicking me; Fendoff shrugged and gave a dismissive, uninterested wave of the hand. With a last glance at the house, they slid into their car. Minerva, eyes still wide in curiosity and alarm, poked out her head. I plumpws the pillows they’d sat on, and then my own, tidying the side table. I’d rather enjoyed the whole thing.
Tea had a celebratory air that day, although what exactly I celebrated strikes me as complicated question; I’d done well with the police, and I knew it. A half hour later Mrs. Tibble, who again showed remarkable lack of interest in asking who the gentlemen had been that visited that day, had taken the tray and told me the phone was free if I’d like to use it. I climbed into the cramped booth under the stairs with its permanent smell of damp wool and placed my call.
“They came,” I said to Mr. Siegel.
“Ah,” he exhaled. “Do tell me. You are somewhere private?”
He seemed more interested in the questions that they’d asked than the answers I’d given them. “They’re more looking than finding. Still, infernal gall to imply what they did,” he said. “They were hoping you were an easy target, Miss Bright.”
“Well, I am, I suppose,” I said with a nervous laugh.
“Not at all. You did very well. Capital, in fact. Told them everything you knew, but didn’t cow-tow to any of their…ludicrous suggestions. Now, I suggest you go out and have good supper. Important to keep up your strength in difficult times.”
In another man, this might have seemed avuncular, but he sounded merely practical.
“Yes, of course. I’ve just had a rather swinish tea.” This wasn’t exactly true; I’d been too stimulated to eat, but I thought it sounded right. “I’ll try not to be so foolish again, Mr. Siegel.”
“Good. Well, I must be going. Last I hear, the inquest will be within the week. Miss Harchester or I will keep you posted.”
We rung off and I sighed, slipping the phone into place. There was nothing to do but wait.
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here