Ramona returns from Nice; a body (but which body?) is discovered at Helvstead; Millicent and Henry are forced to return early from there honeymoon
About the time I was making preparations to return to England a postcard was sent to the London police. The postcard was a quite ordinary, untraceable, mailed from a post box near Trafalgar Square, suggesting the London police look into Lady Millicent Von Favre’s connection to Eddie Depillar. It wasn’t me who sat down to write it, although later I would have one mad moment where I wondered if I might have without realizing it.
It seems rather an astonishing number of people write anonymous notes with all manner of suggestions that would hopelessly clog the wheels of justice if the police were to follow up on half of them. Much of the time these ‘tips’ will be discarded as useless and are, whatever the police say, considered lunatic. It must have been sent to just the right person, or just the right idle moment, for a sergeant’s on the Depilliar case followed up on it. Perhaps it was because the Millicent’s name had come up in the police’s inquiries, however blamelessly; perhaps because a sergeant had some a spare hour or two, and nursing a dislike of society ladies, was happy to ask questions that at least might offer the satisfaction of making one uncomfortable. Later it would be suggested that Mrs. Depillar herself sent the postcard, although she would have been mad to do so, and she was a woman known for her shrewdness. The handwriting didn’t match, she’d been in Italy for some time; but for someone with her means, this wouldn’t be prohibitive, and a friend or servant might have helped her.
I never saw the postcard. But I would dream of it often. In my dreams the postcard appeared without warning: atop a stack of books, in the band of my hat, laying discarded on the sofa. Curiously there was never any writing on it, just a rectangle of white paper with a neatly canceled stamp on it and while neither insistent nor reproachful nor even ominous in it’s appearance it was consistently and indisputably present, ineradicable, there.
Sometimes, I dream of it still.
I was unaware, of course, of this when I returned. I only knew myself to be glad of a few days rest after returning from France.
The unmistakable chill of Helvstead greeted me as I opened the door contrasting the spring warmth outside; I nearly smiled, at the familiarity of the faintly unpleasant cool, damp air. I dropped my bags, echoing emptily in the hall. No one, I knew, was about: Lucy had made arrangements to help her sister with the baby who was proving colicky, and only came in three mornings a week; Molly was visiting a relative in the West country; Millicent had instructed me to find positions elsewhere for Anne and Charlotte. Tony, presumably, was somewhere on the grounds, quite happy, I’m sure, to have the place to himself.
I meandered room to room, reacquainting myself. How shabby Helvstead appeared! I pulled the curtains open in the morning room. Spring was the one season the room got sun, and it flooded in, radiating off the starchy white sheets covering the furniture, motes of dust illuminated by the refracted light. I sat in a chair facing the window, the sheets still cool under my hands, and lit a cigarette, the smoke making baroque whorls in the brightness. If one were to ever live at Helvstead I thought—the idea of which appealed not in the least–but if so, one must bring it into the twentieth century with proper lighting, modern appliance, a hi-fi even.
“Come back now, have you?” said a sharp voice behind me.
I started out of my chair. “Molly! Good gracious! You frightened me.”
Molly stood, her white bun shot through with sun, her hands already busy dusting a ornamental plate I remembered from my visits as a child. With effort, I recovered.
“How are you, Molly? I thought you were in the West country.”
“Oh, I’m right as rain,” she said. “My visit had to be pushed back a week.”
I watched her return the plate to its stand. The picture used to frighten me a little: a man stooped next to an ox struggling with the weight of a cart, with matching fierce sagging faces that suggested a state of permanent enervation.
She glanced around. “Scandal, it is, the shape it in. And a few things missing, I wonder.”
I followed her gaze, face blank.
“Ah. Well. I’ll just be staying here for a few days while I pack,” I said. “Before I…move on.”
“Is that so, Miss Bright.”
“Millicent, however, will be back to pick up a few things. In a week or two, I believe. So it will be just me for now.”
“It’ll be quiet as the tomb, on your own.”
“I suppose it will,” I answered, aware Molly would never have allowed Millicent to stay at Helvstead on her own. “Well, perhaps I’ll go unpack a few things.”
She snorted derisively as if I were putting on airs, gave me a scalding look and I left.
My bedroom seemed to have shrunk and I’d forgotten the occasional drafts of air smelling of cold stone and must that emitted from mysterious regions under the bed, where it seemed no drafts could exist, except in that perverse manner of Helvstead. And what would my rooms in the ‘O’ look like to me now, I wondered, as I unpacked. Actually squalid? Or merely sad? I unpacked my toiletries, and plunged into the storage closet to do a quick inventory of what remained in my trunk. An hour later, dusty and thirsty, I decided I needed tea, did a few cursory ablutions and came downstairs.
I found Molly in the foyer, on her way out, having donned a short old-fashioned black cape, redolent of mothballs. I wondered if she’d bought a new coat or frock in the last fifty years.
“There’s a quart of milk in the icebox but no more deliveries, Miss Bright, not for a week. Only what’s in the larder.”
“I’ll only be a few days so that’s no trouble, thank you.”
She gave a funny contemptuous snort, pulling on her gloves. “Be careful in the kitchen, Miss Bright. The silver that didn’t get seen to this year properly—I had to bring it upstairs to do inventory. It’s a crime the state I found things.”
“I see,” I said, keeping my tone equananimous, and understanding, for the first time, Millicent’s amusement at Molly’s insistence Helvstead needed to be maintained as a place of grandeur.
She looked at me sharply. “You needn’t look so satisfied with yourself.”
“I wasn’t aware I did, Molly.”
“You need regular worship,” she made a herumphing noise. “One day He will come with his sword and smite the land with His mighty vengeance. The way she neglects this place is a sin, mind my words. Pure trumpery it is to think it’s not. We’re all at the mercy of our Christ’s wrath, Miss Bright—best not forget.”
“The blood of sinners will run like a river, through streets and lanes and roads. No one is immune from God’s vengence; you know that, don’t you?”
There was a strange theatrical quality to this recitation, one I’d noticed, but never put my finger on. While I never doubted Molly’s fundamental belief in such things of the Lord’s smiting, I only now had I become conscious she was fully aware the effect of such pronouncements and that it amused her greatly to see other’s consternation, dismay, embarrassment but in no way mitigated how firmly she meant such things.
Her azure eyes boring into mine with a strange, merry malice, so potent, it nearly coaxed a foolish smile out of me.
“I hope you have a good visit, Molly. With your cousin.”
“That godless idiot. I don’t imagine so.” Her eyes raked me. “You—you certainly have gotten comfortable.”
“I saw that little fur stole you tried tucking away. Aren’t you the fancy miss. Wonder what my Millie had to pay for that. Oh, now!” Molly said, smiling at me. “Come, come. Just a little joke. Even that poor mad mother of yours could give a laugh now and then.”
The horn tooted.
“I’m off to worship,” she said with a final tuck to her gloves.
“I won’t ask when you’ve been last to church, and I dread to think of what you’ve been up to in that godless land—no, no—don’t protest, I can see it for myself. But remember only some of us will get to the New Jerusalem, washed in the blood of the lamb.”
She opened the door and turned round.
“Be careful of the range when you make your tea. Lucy nearly singed off her brows and that whorish fringe of her’s last time she tried. Good day, Miss Bright.”
“Good day, Molly,” I said leaning against the closed door, only moving when I heard the sound of the automobile retreat into silence.
I returned to the chair in the morning room. The sun had shifted; the sheet-swathed furniture has lost their aureoles of white light. Odd, I thought, neither Molly nor I had mentioned Millicent’s marriage. I had felt an unexpected prick of stubbornness on the subject: if she didn’t bring it up, neither would I. While curious of what she might be prompted to say, I found myself dreading such a conversation would result with her asking about my own plans or prospects. Yet it was more than that. I’d forgotten the power of Molly’s presence, or perhaps it was more accurate to say, the atmosphere of merry malevolence she carried with her. When I thought of her in France, it seemed like it must be an exaggeration, when in reality, it was quite real. And even as Millicent traveled miles away in Italy, graced with every good luck on offer, I felt the desire to shield her from Molly’s harpy acumen.
Such a fragile undertaking, marriage: reaching out for happiness, hoping it will be there waiting to meet your extended hand.
Later, heading into the kitchen to make tea, I stopped short in the doorway. Covering every surface stood silver of any conceivable household utility and decoration: cutlery, in innumerable sets and designs; pie servers, tureens, chafing and serving dishes, platters, tongs, cake stands and candelabras. Littered amongst this were snuff boxes, cigar clippers, ink stands, mirrors, humidors, and objets d’art–including miniatures of cats, shepherds, Victrolas, bonnets, dogs, barrels, windmills and butter churns and then items with utilitarian-looking hinges or spokes or spiraling parts, but for uses so archaic as to be unrecognizable.
It would take two maids a week to finish; had Molly expected Lucy to do it? How long this might it take for a lone elderly woman, however spurred by self-righteousness, I couldn’t imagine. How amazingly ill-advised of her, leaving out this towering mass with no one at home. It was deliberate of course, a reproach, but I wasn’t the target: that would be Millicent.
I squeezed around the tables to make my tea. That fearsome range, something I had thought of as old-fashioned, but in attempting to light it again, realized it was downright dangerous. Lucy really oughtn’t have to use it. And how had I managed that night of Edward Depillar’s burial, in the dark? I’d been very lucky I hadn’t set myself on fire. I brought down the electric kettle from my bedroom I had so surreptitiously filched from the Foreign Office canteen and plugged it in, feeling somehow I was getting one over on Molly, and aware using an electric kettle for tea would strike her as heresy.
Waiting for the water to boil, I prowled around the larder and found Lucy had left cheese and water biscuits and a tin of sardines. The air felt close, and the tarnished silver cast off a peculiar smell in the damp, one that seemed to rest on the back of the tongue. I opened the back door, and leaned against the doorjamb, my eyes falling on the unexpected sight of Tony tramping twenty yards away through the back field. He failed or pretended not to see me; Lilliput, however, knew no such subtleties, and having an apparently fine memory of that defenestrated breakfast, began hurtling towards me. In consternation, I closed the door, and leaned against it as if to brace it against a team of oxen instead of one fluffy black spaniel. In a few moments I heard her hit, scrabbling and flinging herself with plaintive whimpers. I flinched at each new recapitulation, trying to staunch a laugh. His whistle sounded, and soon enough, Lilliput desisted.
The kettle boiled, and feeling more cheerful I set about my tea. Exiting the kitchen with the tray, I regarded the silver. I would neither move, nor make arrangements for it; I wouldn’t alert Millicent to its presence, and most of all I wouldn’t lift a finger to clean so much as a single lobster fork. How pleasurable to be standing in the midst of that chaos and not feel obliged to do anything about it. That decided, I returned to the living room and the company of the wireless. Someday, I thought, munching on a sardine and following the heretical trail of my earlier thoughts, Helvstead really ought to get a telly.
There would be little to mar the peace of the next few days. I’d brought so little with me from the ‘O’—how meager it looked, bundled into withered cardboard boxes—it didn’t take long to weed through the remnants. I attended to a last bit of Helvstead business, a few bills, household arrangements; I was glad to Helvstead in good stead. I did some shopping in Clivebarton, weaving my way through the countryside, taking the long way home. I’d missed driving while I was in France.
Nights, when I heard the creaking beams, or the branches of the oaks tracing lazy circles on the windows, I felt no fear. Even the phantasmal smell of smoke failed to stir apprehension as it once had. Being surrounded by so many empty rooms only served to amplify the sense of independence, of autonomy, of having no obligations to anyone.
Only once did I find this easy state disturbed. I woke my second night at Helvstead with a gasp, eyes and mouth open, one arm outstretched to the blackness of the room, the other against my chest, hand on my stopped heart.
Soon enough, though, I feel back asleep.
It didn’t take long to pack the Austin. The lamp from my bedside, wrapped in newspapers, I wedged in a box, next to the icon of St. Aloyshius, and my spoils from Oxford, the wooden shoes and painting from Oxford. My suitcases sat in a short neat row. I’d resurrected the best of my wardrobe from London and the second hands Millicent had give me, and put away the little fur stole Molly had remarked upon, along with my other purchases in Nice. Everything else—the odd piece of furniture, leftovers from childhood, I could send for when it was time. There was only one other thing of interest. I had paged through the photo albums that morning and my prize now sat in an envelope on the front table which I tucked my pocketbook: a photograph of Millicent standing next to the smiling, doe-eyed girl. Millicent, perhaps ten or eleven only had eyes for the horse. M. with D. Sandbourne, it was written on the back, Stable House, Helvstead.
The only thing I knew for certain leaving Helvstead was I had no desire to return to London. I’d been trying on future scenarios like so many hats: as a secretary in a solicitor’s office in Cornwall surrounded by distinguished lawyers in grey flannel; a personal assistant for some absent-minded aristocrat in a palatial home in the moor; a typist at an arty magazine in Edingburough, wearing a smart set of glasses. But the only conclusion I’d arrived at so far was the unwillingness to break the present spell of possibility, which stood suspended, like asparagus in aspic. I found it far too new a sensation to interrupt by forcing a decision, especially when I had recently discovered I had no financial imperative to do so.
It wasn’t until I returned from France that I called Siegel and Siegel about the account Millicent had set up for me. I suppose I wanted a sort of grace period, so that the time in Nice—and that I’d moved in with Millicent, really—seemed to be all of a piece, unaffected by whatever light this account might cast on our relationship. I wasn’t so naïve not to know this to be inevitable. Money, when derived from relations, often has a chiaroschuro effect, drawing forth one’s own importance out of the murky corners to another can be a revelation, if not always a happy one.
Not in this case, at least. I had called Siegel on my last day at Helvstead, and returned the phone to the cradle in a sort of daze, sitting down heavily on the divan. I hadn’t—not quite—a fortune—Millicent had been careful about that—but enough that I had secured my freedom, and for a good while, if I were reasonably prudent. It’s funny, hearing the number, eying the bank book, instead of furthering tightening the ties between us, I felt a freedom: our slate was clean.
I’d long wanted to see the Cotswolds and Lake District, if for an absurd, private reason: a book from childhood, Lettie and the Lakes where the illustrations of Lettie, a lonely orphan girl from the Lake District, picnicked with badgers, beavers and muskrats on preternaturally peaceful glades. I’d read it many times, pored over details of the illustrations: the sweet fluffiness of tails and furry backs, the heavy lines that made up of podgy rocks and the more wavery sort that wistful tendrils of cloud. I regarded these as if they were a Rosetta stone, as if the ineffable coziness of those pictures could be transmitted if one only could crack the code.
In any case, north provided a good a direction as any. Bolstered by Millicent’s petrol ration books, I would weave my way around England, staying at whatever inn or hotel struck my fancy, for as long as it pleased me. I half-dreaded the villages where strangers, particularly a woman traveling alone, made for a nice meal of speculative conversation. A full bank account, however, was a remarkable buffer, and not just to gossip; probably everything but loneliness, and even that too, if not improved exactly, certainly ameliorated. Utter bliss, solvency.
Helvstead looked its best when I left. The oaks stood in full leaf, the sunlight dappling on roof and grounds, it reminded me of the photo of Helvstead in Picture Post many years ago, and as it is said of some women, if not beautiful, for a moment, looking almost distinguished. At the bridge over the Clivebarton creek I stopped, letting the car idle. I’d taken Reggie’s collection of ‘poofter pictures’ as Millicent had called them, out from the library. It seemed a shame to simply dispose of what had obviously required a great deal of ingenuity to acquire. I imagined leaving it wedged behind Oscar Wilde in the Clivebarton library or bookstore. But that was silly, unlikely it would arrive in the correct hands, and besides, a good deal of bother. I got out when I crossed a small bridge over the widest part of the creek and tossed over the parcel. R.I.P. Reggie, I thought. I got back in the car and drove off.
I didn’t think to take a final glance at the fields. Where the memory of that night of Edward Depilliar’s murder could have come to rest in my mind I hardly know, but as I drove away from Helvstead, it seemed as neatly disposed as he had been.
Wishing I’d thought to pack a few sandwiches (or really that Lucy had been there to do it for me), I pulled off the main road for a very late luncheon to find a fete taking place on a village green. I did so love them as a child, and rarely got to attend with mother’s moods being as they were. I wandered away the afternoon, admiring the stalls of vegetable marrows, paid a few pence for a slice of sponge and fizzy lemonade in the refreshments tent whilst listening to the cheerful, asthmatic whistlings of a brass band comprised of red-faced gentlemen with grey bristling moustaches and whiskers. I ignored the jar for the church restoration fund and purchased several of the usual useless things amongst the jumble: a half-melted silver thimble made to resemble a bonnet, a pair of dove gray opera gloves with thirty six buttons up the side and a mustard stain on the palm, and, a bit of serendipity, another book I’d not seen by the author of Lettie of the Lakes, this one about trains.
Spoils in hand, aware the afternoon shifting into the dinner hour, I inquired at the pub about accommodations. A bed and breakfast, not far, mainly servicing hikers, but nice enough might be rung up; the bar man knew the owner, and I was aware if I’d been wearing my pink worsted suit procured in Nice, he wouldn’t have suggested this.
He called ahead, and in a matter of a half hour I found myself inside a well-kept farmhouse, the landlady having captured my bags and marched them upstairs without a backward glance. I had the largest room, with its own bath, the only one still available despite the hikers, who, it seemed, were an economizing lot.
I protested tiredness to forestall the questions that were beginning to crescendo from the landlady, who cast a lingering eye on my ringless fourth finger. I ran a very hot bath and an hour later put on my night clothes, feeling pleasantly boiled. Slipping under the well-starched sheets I realized I’d nothing to read but the picture book from the jumble sale. It was one of those mysteriously inevitable stories about steam trains (the addition of HORSEY IS A BIG WET NOODLE written in large purple crayon on several pages), but I found little of the enchantment of Lettie and the Lakes. I put it aside, casting my eyes about the room for reading material. In the drawer of the night stand I found an old church circular and settled in, falling asleep even before the sun had gone well and fully down.
I woke, feeling unusually refreshed. I’d forgotten to close the window and the smell of bacon and sausage came in with the large lungfuls of inexpressibly fresh air. Having skipped dinner the night before I hastened my toilet. The hikers had left long ago, I was told as the landlady bustled off in the kitchen to coddle my eggs. I smoothed the napkin on my lap and glanced out the window at the tender green surfeit of late spring. It looked like a Constable with cows in far-away reddish brown rectangles on the horizon, the sun beginning to melt through fraying clouds, promising a fine day, the air redolent of dew and grass. The landlady brought me tea while my eggs readied, and, lashing with curiosity, sallied little probings and wonderings while she served. I countered these by speaking in what must have been infuriating generalities. Finally she gave up, more good-naturedly than I would have given her credit for, and said one of the hikers had taken that day’s newspaper, but yesterday’s Times was there if I liked.
A breeze from the window, like cool velvet, touched my cheek. I had never seen such a morning, I thought. With a sigh of contentment, I reached for the paper. Then I turned it over to lower half and my eyes scanned the headline:
BODY FOUND AT HELVSTEAD MANOR
Lady Von Favre returns from Capri honeymoon with third husband,
American millionaire Henry Crampton to be questioned by the police.
I turned the pages, unseeing and folded the paper in half. I could hear Mrs. Dermott in the kitchen humming, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
I began counting, steadying myself. When I reached sixty, I rose and asked if I might use her telephone.
I remember little of my immediate response to the article. I haven’t any recollection of feeling light-headed or clammy or any of the usual things one does with a shock. I seemed to have very credibly kept my composure. But the photos of the article are curiously branded into my memory; I can say not even my mother nor even my father’s faces do I see so clearly in my mind’s eye as that. There were three pictures, the largest of which is Millicent and Henry at Heathrow, returning from their honeymoon. Henry is wearing one of his light suits–yellow or white, impossible to tell–which, in the translation to newsprint, gave him an erroneous playboy air. Millicent looks incalculably glamorous and enviable in halo of black hat and her grey suit. Next to that were photos of them emerging from a taxi in London, Millicent implacable, unafraid, Henry keeping himself between her and the photographers, his hand on her elbow. I recognized the herringbone suit Millicent wore–one I particularly envied–and I wondered if it looked almost too smart, too posh in the glare of attention, her sunglasses catching the dazzle of flashbulbs, her manicured hand held up against the fray. I could feel it, looking at her, the sensation of being swarmed, the clicking of the shutters, the flashes, the questions.
With a display of pound notes and promises of reimbursement, I managed to wrest a bit of privacy from Mrs. Dermott and rang Siegel and Siegel in London. No Siegels were available, a smooth clipped voice told me, and, trying to keep the panic out of my own, I left a message I’d try again. Ringing Millicent’s London flat proved equally futile, the line engaged for nearly twenty minutes, until an unfamiliar person answered, and told me in a discouraging voice that Lady Von Favre wasn’t at home. I rang off, and hearing the landlady greet one of her hikers, who was exclaiming excitedly about a badger dragging an ancient and apparently discarded bowler hat across a field to its den, dashing past me to retrieve a camera in hopes of capturing it. I slipped up to my room.
Time moved strangely that day; dawdling maddeningly slow, then racing past in bursts of two or three hours. I found the call box in the village for another round of fruitless attempts at communique with London. With little appetite for dinner, I retired early, and lay in my frock on the bed, an ashtray balanced on my stomach, smoking and watching the sun sink under the trees. It seemed to take hours for that last glaze of daylight to fade. It was a glorious pastoral sight, the fields and trees and oxbow, even I could see even in my current state. Under a heavy blue twilight, the color of secrets I thought, in some vague, stunned manner. The crickets throbbed, and only the far off amusical clanging of a cow bells breaking the stillness of the oncoming night. After a time, I fell asleep.
“I’d offer you the paper this morning, love, but somebody’s took it.” The landlady said, adding darkly, but not without affection. “Some of these hikers, they’re a sticky-fingered lot.”
“Well, there’s nothing for it, I suppose,” I said, accepting my coddled eggs, bangers, tomatoes and toast complacently. I’d woken in darkness, and tiptoed downstairs to snatch the paper and tuck the paper in to my dressing gown. There had been no new information.
“Is everything…” she asked, her face flushed with interest. “Is everything…” her voice became gentle. “…All right? With your calls such like, I did hope nothing was amiss. And you went to bed so early.”
“Oh, yes, yes, just a bit of business to attend to,” I said. “And I’m afraid I just had rather a headache last night.”
After refusing offers of aspirin, a glass of water, a womanly talk, a viewing of her telly in her own living room, or a restorative visit with her Wheatland Terrier, I managed to steal up to my room. Thirty minutes later, spying her exiting in hat and coat, snapping a shopping list into her handbag as she slid into her automobile, I crept down the stairs, hoping a bit of air might clear my head.
As I walked questions circled feverishly as if my brain were a racing track: who could this man in the cellar possibly be (not Edwar Depilliar) (no, no it couldn’t be), what must be done, was Millicent all right, who must I talk to, what dangers might be gathering on the horizon. But while my brain ran in these ever-accelerating, hectoring circles of doubt, my awareness, unaccountably, seemed to have separated itself, to rest on the pile of drifting clouds, the lush green pasture, the cows wandering about it, amiably, munching. For at the center of this vortex, lay an unsettling stillness and there, no anxiety, only emptiness, blankness, a strange detached indifference. I did have visions of headlines, arrest and gaol, but even this inspired little fear and certainly nothing that could credibly be called a spasm of remorse. I leaned over the fence, staring at the ground, for what felt like an age. Think, I urged myself, think. But I was unable to come up with anything other than the most obvious: I would go to London. By noon the next day I’d packed my things, paid my bill and after a polite but determined extrication from the landlady’s vortex of curiosity, I left.
Traffic was light, and I wouldn’t even record, much less have remembered the drive, if there hadn’t seemed to be a peculiar amount of incident alongside the road: a shack blazed in sooty flames behind a farmhouse where a man appeared to be doing a jig; a couple resplendent in evening wear, argued heatedly by the side of the road beside a Daimler, while a chauffeur sat, his gloved hand resting over his eyes. Four robed Oxford students with bottles of champagne simultaneously doused each other as they passed in their roadster. Horses mated in a field; at first glance it seemed the black one on top the brown, but at a second the reverse. A group of gypsy women, clutching their children, stood in front of caravans facing three farmers, one holding a shotguns. Two dogs ran out into the road and I screeched to a stop nearly killing the one, and twenty feet later, the both. A stunt plane circled dizzily overhead as I passed by a long expanse of field near an estate, tents of a large party dotting the landscape. Then, what I can still see in my mind’s eye as if it just happened, a string of five or six chickens on a fence, large and very white, with a bright green garden snake twining round the pole underneath.
It seemed unnatural, feverish display, this amount of incident and activity. I wondered if life were always carrying on this way. I had a sudden conviction that these things worked together as if part of a piece of music, each incident making up a part, the melody, harmony, rhythm. I sped by a rose bush, and just like the one Millicent had driven by that first day I arrived at Helvstead, it shook itself in a shower of petals; I’d no idea I’d remembered it so clearly.
What if I had come into the wrong life, a life that didn’t suit? I had often heard and liked to imagine there is some sort of schema or sense or destiny to our lives, but there on that sunlit hour, I could see it, how, one moment then came into the next then the next then the next, with no plan, no pause, each moment a tiny swing you must reach your hand out for and there you are reaching and reaching for what’s next trying to keep from falling.
A sign to London appeared and as abruptly as it had descended, the sensation passed. I turned onto the main road, accelerating, my urge to arrive quickly obliterating anything else.
In retrospect it would be easy to see that the man found at Helvstead couldn’t be Edward Depillar: for one thing, he was two inches shorter and nearly a stone lighter. In fairness, however, they looked alike, which is to say, really, they would at least be described similarly—tall, handsome fair hair, spectacles, mid forties—but still, when photographs appeared side by side, I had been struck how very different two varieties of this species could be.
I have often wondered if at least some of the ensuing upheaval would have been avoided if Bainbridge Tarris hadn’t spent the previous weekend shooting with friends, at Pippa Depillar’s. It had been some time since Edward Depilliar’s disappearance; he’d learned Pippa was working to have him declared legally dead. Tarris hoped to marry her; as he’d told everyone at that party many times over. I would remember that day at Helvstead, when Millicent’s set had teased him about his feelings for Pippa; how much of a godsend Edward Depillar’s disappearance must have seemed.
It was unclear whether Pippa reciprocated Edward’s interest. With her delicate ethereal looks, and very worldly fortune, she certainly had many options. Later when the scandal came to life, died out, and was resurrected again, as the way of all scandals, the speculations abounded: if Tarris’ mistake about the body had been deliberate, or unconscious, one born out of longing, for in the end, he would become Pippa’s husband, although whether this was everything he would have wished for I’ve always wondered.
Bainbridge Tarris had been the only person who knew of Millicent and Edward Depillars’ affair, and thereby the only person to imagine Depillar in Helvstead. Perhaps he can be excused for jumping too quickly to the conclusion he did, although an autobiography of one of Tarris’ friend, published many years later, had expressly stated Tarris had drunkenly confided otherwise one rum-soaked holiday night in Bermuda. “I knew it wasn’t old Eddie. But it seemed like too good a chance to pass up, as Pippa was trying to get him declared legally dead and all that,” the author quotes him as saying. However, several other such startling anecdotes had been proven false; others, even more shockingly, true, and it remains as inconclusive as ever.
This, in any case, is what Tarris told the police: arriving at Helvstead he parked and tooted his horn, his usual announcement. Using a key kept outside, he called for Lucy, then Molly, more out of habit than actually expecting to find either of them there. Finding no one, he had gone, no doubt whistling some popular tune from his youth, as he usually did, through the kitchen down to the cellar. He procured a bottle or two of whiskey, he said, and returning to the stairs noticed a foot protruding from one of the cellar doors. He’d thought it was Tony returning to the ways of his youth, after a night of hard drinking.
“Hallo!” he called. “That you Tony, you old sot? Thought you’d given that up.”
Greeted by silence, he headed down the cold stone hall to investigate .
“I say,” he said. “What’s going on here?”
He came closer. An old set of fire tongs sat propped up against the wall and he tapped the lifeless toes a few times. At the lack of response he turned on the light and peered in.
“Good god,” he claimed to have shouted. “It’s Depillar!”
He rang the police, then, unbeknownst to them, Mrs. Depillar, who he knew to be at a nearby estate lunching with a friend. To the local constabulary’s everlasting chagrin, they had a puncture on the way down and Mrs. Depilliar would arrive before them by twenty minutes. Tarris, who at first manfully shielded her from the sight of the corpse, finally acquiesced, perhaps sensing the first hint of victory in the air.
If there is a moment I could have chosen to witness in my life, it would be this: Pippa Depiliar’s first glance at the man lying on the stone floor. Did she know the man wasn’t her husband? Or was it, as she would always later claim, simply the shock of seeing a dead man who resembled him after long months of waiting and worry? Did she feel sorrow? Relief?—regret? Did she take a long, lingering look at the body or did she only spare it a single glance?
“It’s him!” Pippa had said. “It’s him!”
And so it started.
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here.