Stuffed birds, small cat; Ramona waits for news of Millicent’s looming trial, Lucy (Helvstead housekeeper) comes to London, and the mystery of the body in the cellar and ignominious truth of the story behind it are revealed; illegal production of cheese; the mystery of the postcard writer is discussed and remain tantalizingly insoluble; Millicent and Ramona meet.
Three and a half days, seven newspapers, five packs of cigarettes and many hours of crocheting later, sitting in the parlor room, I heard the distant tinkle of the phone echo feebly down the hallway. I had been getting inklings about how one can suspect the wallpaper is moving or watchful eyes are nestled in a room’s dark corners, and an inkling was all I needed to decide a change was in order. The parlor may have been chock full of stuffed birds, but it also possessed a wireless, and from my seat I could hear the sounds of running water, clattering dishes and the whistle of a teakettle as Mrs. Tibble and the charwoman went through their routines.
Between the hour after luncheon and tea, the house stilled. Even Minerva, who spent most of the day stalking the halls looking for a chance to dash into a boarder’s room to investigate, seemed to succumb to the quiet. She had taken up residence beside me instead of her favorite stuffed pheasant, in a slack, white, slumberous ball.
The phone rang again, this time more loudly as the door between to the foyer had been opened. Mrs. Tibble materialized.
“Call for you, madam,” she said.
I wondered sometimes if she found something a little droll in uttering old world courtesies to such conspicuously ordinary English boarders. Careful not to disturb Minerva, I followed her to the foyer, dipped into the booth, closing the door.
“Mr. Siegel?” I said eagerly.
“Oh, Miss Bright,” a familiar voice came crackling over the connection. “I’ve had such a difficult time reaching you.”
“Lucy?” I said, startled. “Why, Lucy, is that you?”
“Yes. I had to call Mr. Seigel’s office and the secretary gave me your number—she said I had to ask for a Mrs. Bertram—have you been married too, Miss Bright?!” She sounded bewildered. “I hadn’t heard of Lady Von Favre till I saw the papers and—“
“No, no, I’m not married, Lucy. It’s just—” I stopped myself. “I’ll explain later. Is everything all right”
“Oh, Miss Bright. I am glad I got through. I didn’t know who to talk to.”
“Did something happen?”
“It’s about—what’s been in the papers, Miss Bright.”
“What do you mean, Lucy?” My voice sharpened. “What’s happened?”
“I should have rung sooner, I expect, but when the police came they said it was that Edward Depilliar chap, so I held my tongue—but it isn’t him after all, is it?”
My pulse quickened. “You mean the man they found? No, it isn’t.”
“Well, I believe I know who it is, Miss Bright. Miss Bright? Are you still there?”
“Yes. Yes. It’s just—have you told anyone Lucy? The police?”
“Well, George—you remember my fiancé—and I were fairly sure, but then all the papers said it was the Depilliar man—and no one even mentioned the silver, not even the police—well, I thought perhaps I’d been wrong.”
I began to ask for an explanation then changed my mind. “Lucy, could you come to London today?”
“Why, I suppose I could.”
“I’ll pay for the ticket. No, no, I insist,” I said, drowning out her protests.
“All right then,” she agreed. “I’ll ask my neighbor to finish up the washing; I’m watching her little ones often enough.”
“Good. How soon can you arrive?”
“There is the 3:32 from Wyvernople.”
I gave her the address of the Tiny Top tea shop and rung off, alarm and mystification warring uneasily within me.
Still, even in this state of agitation, I could feel it, distant but distinct: the thundering hooves of curiosity, trampling everything else underfoot.
Three hours later, I sat, waiting, in a far dim corner of the Tiny Top, cursing my earlier self-restraint. What if Lucy became ill or had an accident in the interim? Or changed her mind? I regarded the other patrons, mostly women in drab and unfashionable hats, sitting in clusters, as if huddling together for warmth. We seemed the apotheosis of passivity, and I sighed, irritated with the lot of us. The door opened, in a half-hearted tinkle of bells. Lucy entered, neat in dark coat, hat and shoes, scanning the room. I had forgotten the aura of good sense she carried with her.
“Thank for you coming, Lucy,” I said.
We ordered tea and plates of meat and tongue sandwiches arrived on rough dark bread as well as lumpish scones and slices of an unevenly frosted orange cake with nuts. And like everything at the café, the indifferent presentation was in exact inversion to its taste, delicious as always.
“I didn’t have time for lunch,” Lucy said. “Why, that’s lovely. My mother hasn’t ever done a better orange cake, even. I wonder if that’s cardamom in the icing sugar?”
“I certainly don’t know. All right, Lucy,” I put down my sandwich. “You must tell me everything, you know.”
“Glad to, Miss Bright. The man they found at Helvstead. I’m almost certain, well—he’s Mrs. Molly’s boy. Terrence Ryerton. Not that he went by Ryerton anymore.”
A thousand questions bloomed. I opened my mouth.
“Perhaps it’s best I begin from the beginning, Miss Bright.”
I nodded, squelching a urging to get on with it. “Yes—all right.”
“It’s going to seem like I’m talking all roundabout-like, but you’ll see, in a moment what I’m getting at.”
I looked in her young, sensible face. “Yes, yes, of course.”
“Well, then. Mrs. Molly—you know she had all those kiddies?”
I nodded and firmly smoothed down my napkin along with my impatience.
“Most of them got shipped off to Ireland to stay with her husband’s family. Black Irish fellow, handsome as the very devil, my mum tells me. Anyway, they go to live somewhere outside Dublin. Molly packed them off, without a word to anyone. “
It struck me as rather silly I’d not seen what a fountain of information Lucy could be.
“All right. Go on.”
“Well, the youngest, Terrence—Terry—came back for a visit a while back. Year or two, I think? Before you came, while I was still in training. He had some business in London, and came by to see his mum. Been years and years—since he left, in fact. Thirty years.”
“Yes. Well, you couldn’t call the reunion a success. Horrible row he and Molly got in. Not sure what it was about—she said all the things she says to everyone…you know.”
“Well, about six months ago, I saw him around the village.” She gave me a confiding look. “Hadn’t come to Helvstead, mind, but he’d been about here and there. And I began hearing some things. He’d taken a different name, for one. And he’s gone over to the pope! Imagine if that ever gets back to Miss Molly.” Her eyes widened at the prospect. “And… well… there’s more: he’d gone Irish. I mean more than just living there. The politics.”
“The politics…oh. Oh.”
“George—you remember my fiancée—his cousin knows a chap over in the same town in Ireland, living in the same village, runs the pub. He knows what goes on. He said it was true, Terry was in with that very…Irish lot.”
“Yes, I see.”
“I imagine Terrence knew the manor’s been shut for the winter. I think he might have overheard it from my George at the pub, in fact, talking with his mates,” she glanced at me with regret.
“It wouldn’t have been hard information for this Terrence to get anywhere, Lucy,” I said. “George oughtn’t to feel responsible.”
“I’ll tell him you said that, Miss Bright. Been preying on him. Anyway, it seems Terrence and his Irishman friend got a bit of a scheme going.” She paused, a bit staggered by the information she was about to impart, then blurted: “Terrence’s passing himself off as English gentry. The Irishman he’s traveling with pretends to be Terrence’s valet.”
“Goodness! But why.”
“I’m getting to that. Been doing it for quite a time. Apparently Terrence can pull it off too. Fooled Londoners, society types, even. He stays at hotels and such-like pretending to be a gentleman and runs out on the bill. Lived off an old lady, I think, for a time too. Might have married her, now that I think of it.”
“Goodness,” I said.
“Drinks like a fish, too.”
“Who’s the man traveling with him?”
“Nobody’s quite sure, although George’s cousin hears he’s the brother of a woman that Terry—er, lives with.”
“But what did they want? I mean from Helvstead?” I said, puzzled.
“They needed something they could transport.”
I prompted her with a nod, but before she spoke I saw it: enormity of the silver collection.
“It’s the silver, isn’t it?” I said.
She nodded. “I suppose when there was more staff…it was all right to have laying about but, well, even if the rest of the place is not nearly so grand, it’s a pharaoh’s ransom down there, isn’t it?”
“Yes there very well is. It’s odd more hasn’t been sold.”
“So, that might be it. And my George heard two men are staying at old Wyvern’s farm—the caretaker is completely balmy—some have seen smoke from there.”
“How does your George know that?”
She hesitated. “I’m trusting you, Miss Bright, I think that’s the right thing.”
I paused my cup to my mouth at these words. “Yes, Lucy. Of course you can.”
“Truth is George has been making cheese on the sly since the war.”
The innocuousness of this proved almost disorienting. “Cheese?” I repeated as if groping for the meaning of the word.
“It’s like how other men…become priests you know? He’s found his calling. But it’s not really quite legal to make his own batches like he does then sell them, so he does it in private.”
“Well, all right. I won’t tell a soul.”
“He makes a lovely cheddar.”
“Yes, so—” I stopped. “Was that why your Welsh Rarebits were so tasty?”
She smiled her appreciation. “I’ll bring you a wedge next time I see you.”
“That would be nice,” I said.
“But that’s how he’s near the farm and saw the smoke. And then he heard from a neighbor they were using the old dairy to put a forge.”
I must have looked uncomprehending.
“Melting the silver. Into bricks, or bars what you. I have to say, don’t know if that was very clever, Miss Bright. But lots of it would be worth more as it was—why some of those candelabra and things are ever so intricate. And if you can smuggle out guns and things it seems like you can do a few a pieces of silver. The really fancy things they can get buyers for. They send to at all over the place—in shipments of wool blankets or some such thing. But they seemed to have melted it down.”
“I wonder how much it’s worth.”
We considered this for a minute, our eyes meeting and exchanging an expression indicating fruitless speculation.
“So what happened?”
“Terrence hired a car, dressed himself up. He knew about that Lord…Lord…oh dear…he’s a friend of Lady Von Favre…used to come by for riding. They mixed it up sometimes, I think.”
“Oh–Tarris? Bainbridge Tarris?”
“Yes, yes, That’s the name.”
“Molly did love him.”
“Oh yes. And he stops by for scotch now and then. Just goes down to the basement and takes it.”
I made a face. “He’s not…shy, let us say.”
“Well, somehow Terrence knew about it—perhaps Tony complained down at the pub—he does speak more plainly than one might expect, about the house—the guests. Well, you know. My George has heard him say such things ever so many times. Well maybe that’s how Terrence knew. And I think he must have come by and…well there you are. And he was the man in the cellar.” Lucy sighed.
“I think you’re right.” I shook my head wonderingly. “But, listen, you’re sure Molly doesn’t know about this plan of Terrence’s? I mean with the silver.”
“If she did, she’d have run him through with a carving knife.”
I laughed distractedly. “I don’t doubt it. Mmm. Goodness. It’s so very odd.”
She looked at me, taking my bafflement for suspicion. “I’m not making any of it up, I promise, Miss Bright.”
“No, I believe you, Lucy,” and I did. “It’s just the police haven’t…found any of this out.”
“I know,” she said shaking her head in marveling agreement.
“I suppose if they didn’t think there was any doubt…”
“They thought they knew whose body it was, Ms. Bright. With the identification of Lady Depilliar and everything. Why would they bother with anyone else?”
“Oh, dear,” I sighed. There was a pause. “Well, it would be best if you could go to them with the information.”
“Yes,” she sighed, but then nodded stoutly. “That’s why I called . It’s only…George. Be awful if they started getting curious as to why he saw some of the comings and goings at Wyvern’s. But. If it were something of no matter, well, I’d not bother, but as it is, I’ll do my duty.”
“Let me make a quick phone call first, will you, Lucy?” I got up and then turned back. “Why did you tell me all this and not Lady Von Favre? Or her solicitor?”
“Why, I don’t rightly know, Miss Bright. I suppose I always went to you first at Helvstead. You took care of things, didn’t you. You always seemed to know what to do.”
I stood and despite the time and the worry, I couldn’t help but smile.
“Siegel, Siegel and Siegel.”
“I need to speak to Mr. Siegel. Bartholomew Siegel,” I clarified. “Urgent Business. Miss Bright speaking.”
“Oh, good, Miss Bright. That was fast,” I recognized Miss Harchester.
“I just tried to ring you a moment ago.”
Confused, I said. “You did?”
“Yes, yes.” She lowered her voice. “There’s news. He just stepped out a moment—ah, there he is.” Her voice became smooth again. “Please hold the line.”
Mr. Siegel came on. “Miss Bright. I just tried you at—your hotel—er—boarding house—sorry, Markum St. Some very important, if very unexpected, information has come our way.”
“The man has been identified, Miss Bright. The police have got another man in custody who’s confessed to his murder.”
It was as if in that one split second every possible iteration of surprise trumped the next: I started, felt an urge to give a sharp laugh, and then, grew very silent. I held the phone tighter feeling its hard smoothness beneath my glove.
“Yes, go on,” I said. “Please do go on Mr. Siegel.”
Funny to hear two people tell essentially the same story so closely after another. It was a good thing I could reverse the charges for it took some time. I wondered later why neither of us felt the urge to have me get a taxi and come over to the Siegel offices. I think once the news came through both of us felt rooted to the spot until every bit of information was imparted.
It was both confusing and not. This friend of Terrence’s that Lucy had referred to, turned out to be a George O’Shaunsessy Lyre, who had been stopped at Plymouth port, initially for drunkenness and fisticuffs he’d gotten into with a fellow passenger, who turned out to be the son of an Earl. He became obstreperous. Then one of his suitcases and trunks all ridiculously heavy it was later discovered to turned over, the clasp broke and inside a great deal of random pieces of silver, as well as very poorly melted bricks tumbled out. It would take some time but eventually all of it would be identified as part of Helvstead’s collection. They’d found teaspoons sewn in Lyre’s overcoat, and another two loads in trunk he’d had freighted with him. There were also piles of Helvstead books, curios and paintings.
Lyre’s belligerent manner when confronted made him more heedless than violent and soon enough with such evidence before the police in a defiant angry screed against the Queen and England in toto, confessed to the ignominious tale in a state of self-righteous intoxication.
Apparently, George Lyre and Terrence Ryerton indulged in the scotch in Helvstead’s cellar and gotten in a squabble over something trivial, which would later, testified by friends and acquaintances, a regular occurrence between the two. They tussled and Mr. Ryerton fell and hit his head then got back up again waving one of the candelabras at Mr. Lyre. Apparently with such altercations coming to blows were nothing unusual in their friendship, violence ensued. Mr. Lyre belted him over the head, went upstairs and passed out on the couch. When he woke he’d assumed Mr. Ryerton had left and gone downstairs to see if there was anything further to take, and discovered Mr. Ryerton “dead as a damned stupid dodo on the floor. Useless. ”
It took nearly an hour for all this information to be imparted and I found it all very hard to imagine happening at Helvstead. I found myself thinking, somewhat illogically, that true, I rarely went down to the cellar area, but Helvstead! Where’d I’d spent all those months with so little to do, so little happening.
“How awful,” is all I could come up with.
“A sad business I’m afraid. Mrs. Ryerton, I imagine, will be very upset.”
She’ll probably say her son got what he deserved, I thought, but refrained from saying so out loud. Anyway, I had the feeling, Mr. Siegel was aware of this as I.
Suddenly I had a qualm. “And this Mr…Mr…”
“Lyre,” Mr. Siegel supplied imperturbably.
“His confession will hold, even though he was drunk?”
“Apparently he confessed to it all sober as well. A friend tells me he was the odd fellow whose belligerence is by no means mitigated by sobriety.”
“This means they can’t…implicate Millicent in this Terrence Ryerton’s death in any way, can they?”
A man with a moustache glowered at me from outside the call box. I turned my back to him.
“Oh, that’s wonderful. But…still…but Edward Depilliar is still missing,” I said.
“That’s true. And I’ve reminded the police we’ve offered every cooperation. But there never was anything in particular to connect Lady Von Favre to his actual disappearance. The I.O.U. was unfortunate, but it’s certainly not enough for a case, especially when it can’t be ruled out he’s gone and done a bunk. That extramarital…revelations go both ways: he wouldn’t be the first man to leave a marriage that was…in name only a marriage. No, no, it should be all clear soon. Now, I’ve been talking considerably more than you, and you had actually rung me, Miss Bright—how can I help you? Miss Harchester said you had urgent business.”
“Oh,” I said. I thought of Lucy in her best hat and coat, sitting at the tea table. And her George, somewhere in the county happily making his cheese. “Really, I was being foolish, that’s all.”
“You’re quite sure?”
“Yes, yes, I am. I supposed I was panicking. Do forgive me.”
He paused I think knowing there was more but accepting this with no further protests.
“Of course. I haven’t spoken to you since we last met,” he said. “Your unexpected arrival that day.”
“Yes, I do hope you’ve forgiven me for barging in like that.”
“Oh, Miss Bright! It’s hard to imagine what might have happened if we hadn’t…checked again. I must thank you. It’s a very good thing you spoke up.”
“Lucy,” I said, returning to our table. “A change of plans.”
She looked up expectantly, and it occurred to me again how very lucky Millicent and I had been that Lucy was not the sort to go running to the press.
“I don’t think you’ll be needing talk to the police. Mr. Siegel—Lady Von Favre’s barrister—they’re right aware of nearly all of it. They arrested that Irish fellow.”
She looked at me disbelievingly. “Not really?”
I told her more of the details and her expression became doubtful.
“But really, Miss Bright, oughtn’t I talk to them?” she said. “They may come to me too you know, again. Might as well make a clean breast of it.”
I had a difficult time persuading her to cross that bridge when we came to it, if the police should ask her more questions, for the trial and so forth, but eventually I did.
“If you say so, Miss Bright,” said Lucy. “But it does seem—“
“Remember, you weren’t there, Lucy. And really, it would be the best for Molly and Lady Von Favre—and George. And myself even. Why not just see what happens? You won’t have shirked your duty; you’ve just not brought any unnecessary trouble on your employer.”
Lucy eyed me. “You’re very persuasive when you want to be Miss Bright. But,” Lucy’s shoulders visibly relaxed. “George does love his cheese so. I’d hate for them to find out about it.”
I turned to find the waitress. “Another pot of tea, shall we?”
After another pot of tea, and round of sandwiches, I walked Lucy to the station.
“Lucy,” I asked finally after we had been strolling for a time. “When you were training at Helvstead, and before I came there even, did you ever notice someone you thought might have been Mr. Depillar about the place?”
“The police asked me something like that. But, no. Not a bit. Lady Von Favre wasn’t hardly ever there, until you came, and even then….”
“No, I suppose she wasn’t. And Molly never said anything to you?”
“No. I can’t imagine why she wouldn’t have though. I mean as she…expresses herself so freely about everything else.”
The streets were rather quiet and it was pleasant in the early evening air to walk, not saying anything. It was another block before I spoke again.
“Lucy…you don’t know anything about, well, postcards, do you?”
“I found some a few months back in the south parlor desk,” she said, looking puzzled. “They’re quite out of date, I’m afraid, but being so pretty, I didn’t like to chuck them.”
I saw we were taking at odds, and then it took me a minute but I remembered a thick stack of Victoriana postcard, piquant kittens tangled in pink and blue ribbons and such like.
“No, I mean what was on the postcard. Sent to the police. Concerning this whole affair.”
“What do you mean? Gracious—a postcard telling them about the man in the cellar?” her eyes widened in astonishment.
If it had ever occurred to me, and perhaps as I casted about further for explanations, that it was Lucy herself who sent this missive, there was something in her reaction that extinguished that doubt forever. It’s not that I thought her incapable of lying, few people are, but at the very least, I knew that she was fundamentally honest. I’d seen her with Molly, and even when it would be in her own best interest and avoided herself a brow-beating, it seemed never to occur to her.
“Why, how would anyone ever—” she was continuing.
“No, no,” I said. “No that.” I told her briefly what was on it. “But it was sent before the body they thought was Depilliar was found, if you follow. I guess it was what you call a tip.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Mr. Siegel, Lady Von Favre’s solicitor, says the police think it a separate thing. Just someone who wanted to make trouble for Lady Von Favre.”
“Oh,” said Lucy. “But why?”
“I don’t know Lucy. Perhaps someone who was envious of her.” I walked a few steps. “It’s been suggested Mrs. Depilliar wrote the postcard herself. But apparently, it isn’t her handwriting. And she was in Italy at the time. I suppose she could have gotten someone else to write it for her…?” I trailed off, unconvinced. “Lucy, does Molly—does she,” I struggled to find a tactful way to say it, but instead finished baldly. “Ever do much correspondence?”
She stopped. “Miss Molly can’t read nor write, Miss Bright,”
“Oh!” I said, stopping myself in surprise. “Are you quite sure?”
“Well, yes. A few numbers, perhaps, and she can sign her name—but that’s all.”
I was genuinely shocked. “But how on earth did she manage Helvstead? And all that scripture she’s quoting, goodness.”
“She’s memorized it.”
I stopped in my tracks. “You’re joking. Just from listening?”
“George always says she’d make a fortune on a quiz shows.”
“But Helvstead—the menus, the ordering,…?”
“Does the numbers in her head. Never forgets a name or anything anyone asks for or says or does.”
“That is a marvel.”
“You needn’t tell me, Miss Bright—like a parlor trick—only she did it every day of her life. I don’t suppose I need to tell you, but she’s awfully clever, Miss Bright..”
I digested this for a moment. “Well, I still would have thought she would have had to learn to read somewhere along the way.”
“She’s been working since she was a babe, Miss Bright. Scullery maids don’t usually get much of an education.”
“No, I don’t suppose they do. But later, when she became housekeeper…”
“I suppose she could have, then. But I don’t know—if her Mum hadn’t, she might not have either. Very set in their ways, that family, and proud as the devil, really. ”
I felt a wave of frustration. I’d imagined the postcard writer as Molly many times, and it had a malevolence to it that reminded me of her. But Molly would never had risked the Clive name like that. It must be someone else.
“Lucy, can I ask you to do something for me?”
“Of course, Miss Bright.”
“Can you keep an ear open for anyone mentioning…knowing something or telling the police something—about the postcard? I don’t know around the pub or the girls who came in—Anne and Charlotte—to clean, if there’s a round about way to bring it up. Well, then it would be wrong to ask flat out though…” I hesitated. “Oh, it’s silly. And futile. Perhaps you shouldn’t after all.”
“Whatever you like, Miss Bright.”
“It seems silly of me to bother, especially as now it looks like things will be all right in the end. But it troubles me. Might come back to be more trouble later,” I stopped. “Or perhaps it’s just pure curiosity, Lucy. I can’t help but wonder who it could have been.”
“I can be real subtle-like, Miss Bright.”
I looked at her feeling my lips purse. “I won’t ask any direct questions. Just bring it up…I don’t supposed you’ll even have to with it being the gossip of the county…mention that postcard—it’s in the papers, it’s all right…and see if anyone says anything.” I looked into her young, clear-eyed sensible face.
“My George could help,” she said. He’s good for listening with the men ‘round the pub. And he’s good with a secret.”
I looked at her. “You’re quite sure?”
“He wouldn’t have this cheese business if he couldn’t keep things to himself.”
“All right, then,” I said. “George it is then. Might I really get some cheddar?”
A week later I would receive a call from Lucy who called to say she’d heard absolutely nothing, except a suggestion it was a Nazi doctor, from one of the Tarris’ housemaid who was quite stuck on the subject.
It seemed ridiculous all of a sudden. Why would any one tell Lucy? Why would anyone at the pub know anything at all?
“Well, I think it was a bit of goose’s errand, but thank you for asking.” I twirled the phone cord with my finger. “It doesn’t really matter, actually. I suppose I’m being silly.”
“I don’t think you’re being silly,” said Lucy. “Why, that’s a queer old thing. It’s like it was back in our village, we had a poison pen, and don’t you know it turned out to be the headmaster’s wife. Unsettling, it was. But worse not knowing who was behind the letters. Headmaster knew all along, too, if you can imagine; he just pretended he didn’t recognize the handwriting.”
“I don’t which I find more disturbing.”
I laughed suddenly: she was right.
“Perhaps someday you’ll find out, Miss Bright,” she said. “You never know.”
A few days later, I lit a cigarette, leaning against the ivy covered wall. I had come girded with the Times, Tattler, cigarettes and a box of Coconut Dabs but there would be little need for any of it; I saw Millicent, Henry and Mr. Siegel emerging out of the courthouse just a few minutes after I’d arrived—they were pulling a bunk on all the newspaper men, I later found out—and headed down the steps. I watched Millicent’s silhouette. She wore a navy suit, cut on exquisitely simple lines and sunglasses and looked like a film star. Henry had exchanged his yellow suit for dark grey, and his face had a blank, naked appearance, without his tan, the fair brows and lashes nearly blending into his skin. He and Mr. Siegel intent on their conversation continued as Millicent halted to light a cigarette. She turned as I came up behind her, the cigarette case clicking shut, and for a second, I thought, looked curiously defenseless.
“Ramona. Fancy seeing you here,” she drawled, pulling sunglasses on top of her head.
Mr. Siegel and Henry turned, catching sight of me on the stairs. Henry started towards us, but Mr. Siegel made a gesture with his hand that somehow conveyed ‘let the ladies talk,’ and Henry contented himself with a gentlemanly nod in my direction.
I turned to Millicent. “It’s…it’s over, isn’t it?”
“Indeed it is, Ramona dear,” she said. “And with the lashing Superintendent got from a few of Daddy’s old friends, I doubt even if there was a photo of me slitting the throat of that idiot, Terrence—or anyone else for that matter—I’d hear about it. Lord Greenpole used to come to Helvstead in the old days. He’ll be making a speech to the press.” She flicked the ash of her cigarette. “Truth is, he’s always hated dear Pippa’s family—they did buy up the Greenpole ancestral seat when death duties forced them to put it on the market,” she smiled. “Well, he’s certainly had his little revenge. And the police practically had their tails between their legs. Commissioner apologized to me, if you can imagine. And some sergeant lost his job.”
I found myself hoping it was auburn-mustachioed Sergeant Vales.
“I’m so glad it’s over, Millicent.” I said.
Millicent gave a shrug.
“Yes, well, so it goes. You know, Ramona,” her nose wrinkled, as it did when she tried to recollect something. “I’ve been wracking my brains. I don’t know if I remember this—Terry, this boy of Molly’s. There was this skinny, fair boy, always whinging ‘Mummy this, Mummy that,’ that must be him. One of the last of her brood, I think, although he was older than me—I do remember thinking he was the most pathetic baby, the way he sniveled after her.”
“Is Molly—is Molly quite upset?”
Millicent’s voice took on the familiar airy drawl. “No. Or…not like, well, oh, I don’t know—a usual sort of mother. She’s more upset at the Clive name being sullied. Still, she wanted to have him buried in the family plot with the rest, with dear Mother Molly and Mr. Molly and the two kiddie Mollies that died of typhoid or some such thing, and all her stillborns. Sometimes I think she must have been pregnant twenty times. What a horrible lot of children.”
I couldn’t quite keep the incredulity from my voice. “Terrence Ryerton—he’s to be buried…at Helvstead?”
She gave me a complacent grin. “I believe he already has. A few days ago, in fact.”
“Well,” I said, finally. “That’s…”
Millicent smiled bemusedly. “Unexpected?”
“Generous of you,” I faltered. I felt Henry’s gaze on us. Millicent looked away, inhaling her cigarette, her nostrils flaring with distaste.
“God,” she muttered. “He’ll be over in a moment.”
“The postcard, Millicent—who could have sent it?”
She shrugged. “I haven’t the faintest.”
“I had hoped you might…”
“Yes?” Millicent said. “What, Ramona? You look very peculiar.”
“Well, you’d know who it was. It’s so…strange.” Horrid and worrisome is what I really meant, but somehow, on the quiet of the stairs, the last dreadful weeks finally behind us, it seemed rude and unpleasant to say so.
“Yes, I suppose. Although, I don’t know how strange it is, but it was damned awful timing.”
I turned my head. “You don’t think it peculiar?”
“Well of course, Ramona, it was very peculiar. I suppose people do get the oddest convictions; every once in a while one will be right.”
“You think someone might have made it up and it happened to be true?”
“Could be,” she shrugged. “How should I know?”
I felt my lips purse in concentration. “That hadn’t occurred to me.”
“Well, I don’t know, Ramona—it’s just a thought. I suppose one of my loathsome little set guessed something and felt the urge to put pen to paper, just to see the ensuing show, get me in the soup. It’s even possible someone saw me and him. Unlikely though—good Christ, he was cautious, like we were spies on assignation half the time.” The cigarette glowed red as she inhaled deeply. “Who knows? I don’t. Nor do I particularly care.”
“You didn’t send the postcard, did you Millicent?”
“Now you’ve gone completely mad, Ramona. Why ever would I do that?”
“I don’t know.”
She looked at me irritably. “Good god, get a hold of yourself.”
“Yes, well, how about Molly?” I tried this again.
“Molly is illiterate servant,” she said deliberately, as if relishing the reductive words, although what she said was true. “She can’t write two words, much less two sentences, in succession. Can’t you just smell the ignorance pouring off of her.”
I cleared my throat. “I suppose Molly could have gotten someone to write it for her—”
“You really have sunk your teeth into this haven’t you?” She gave a reluctant sigh. “All right: Molly. I don’t know, Ramona, I’d like relieve you of this…obsession but, I have to say I rather doubt it. As much as she would like to see me in writhing in hell, earthly or otherwise, she would never do so at the expense of infamy to the Clive family name. I’m surprised you haven’t come to much the same conclusion.”
I averted my face.
She took another draw of her cigarette and gave a faint snort. “Actually, she’s much more likely to commit murder to protect a Clive, than send a postcard hinting about to expose it. If you had been paying attention the last few months you’ve been at Helvstead, you would know that.”
“But if it wasn’t her—”
“I haven’t the faintest. I’m not some almighty oracle, you know.”
“What have I been saying, Ramona? You’re being very exasperating. I don’t know, Ramona. I really don’t.”
I opened my mouth to protest but instead I was overtaken by an acute awareness of everything that surrounded us, each leaf of ivy, brick, stair, the heavy wet droplets of fog clinging to them; the unlit streetlamp nearest to us, its grimy exterior darkened by the moisture in the air. The clouds overhead piled up soft and high a column of pillowing grey softness, And Millicent’s pale face, her dark eyes with those ridiculous long childlike lashes in contrast to her slashing eyebrows, her carmine lipstick as bright and constant as ever. The sight of her features, unlocked something inside me, and my questions dissolved, the wavering lines of uncertainty straightened, the world righted itself. Whatever I didn’t know, no longer mattered.
Henry called out to us as a dozen photographers and reporters crested over the uppermost stairs.
“This is how it’s going to be,” said Millicent, bemused and resigned watching them come to her. “What a hideous mob they are.”
“You better go, Millicent. Best of luck.” I crossed the foot between us under the guise of an embrace. “You must know I’ve never said anything,” I murmured into her ear. “Not a word. To anyone.”
Millicent’s gloved hand paused on mine. While the old ironical smile played across her mouth, I thought I saw her eyes fill.
“Of course, Ramona,” Millicent said, as if I had spoken something faintly distasteful. “I never thought otherwise.”
She made her way down the stairs to Henry’s awaiting arm to be shuttled into a Jaguar. A few moments later a clattering herd of journalists descended, flashbulbs popping, gabbling amongst themselves and lobbing questions, so intent on their quarry, they rushed past, not noticing me. By the time they did, I too had disappeared round the corner, into the London traffic.
But there is a photo of our meeting on pg. 5 of that evening’s London Tribune, the back of my head and Millicent eyes raised in ironical amusement:
“Lady Millicent Von Fohrer takes the back way out of court—but the London Tribune’s able photographer snagged this exclusive snap–wonder who the mystery woman is?”
I was never identified. I must say I rather liked that.
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here.