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The Sibyl in Her Grave
This is the 4th and last Hilary Tamar mystery novel by Sarah Caudwell, who died in 2000. Written in first person by Professor Tamar and including a series of letters by different characters, the story is told of a financial tax mess and a series of strange deaths. Professor Tamar seems to think there is a connection, but is there?
Even though she wrote only four novels, her death was a profound loss, not only in itself but also in that it deprives us forever of learning more of Julia, Selina, Ragwort, Cantrip, Timothy and the eternally mysterious and genderless Professor Hilary Tamar. The book itself? Lovely, cosy, funny, clever, erudite, and ultimately deeply satisfying.
To Anne, who
stands between me
FOR CERTAIN OF MY academic colleagues — I resist the temptation to refer in this context to the Bursar — the chief purpose of publication appears to be self-advertisement. Were it so for me, I should no doubt modify my account of the recent curious events in Parsons Haver in such a way as to reflect more credit on myself, for at more than one stage in my consideration of them I reached conclusions which afterwards proved erroneous. It was not until after the last of three mysterious deaths that finally the truth became clear to me.
I fear, however, that I myself cannot think it right to attempt to enlist Scholarship in the service of personal vanity or worldly ambition: she is the servant of Truth and can own no other allegiance. Though I may do less to promote my own reputation than I might hope would be to my advantage, and less to enhance the academic standing of my College than some will consider to be my duty, I cannot bring myself to place before you, dear reader, anything but a strictly accurate account of the events I have mentioned. If I thereby have the misfortune to displease the Bursar, I must be resigned to enduring his displeasure.
By the same token, I cannot think that it would be seemly for me, as the historian of these events, to present myself as if I had played a leading role in them, thrusting myself on the attention of my readers like an amateur actor, cast as a spear-bearer, ineptly trying to shoulder his way into the spotlight. The place of the historian is not at the centre of the stage but in the shadows at the side, observing and explaining the actions of the protagonists in the drama. I shall not, therefore, take up your time and attention with any description or account of myself.
Some of my readers, it is true, have been kind enough to say that they would like to know more about me — what I look like, how I dress, how I spend my leisure hours and other details of a personal and sometimes even intimate nature. I do not doubt, however, that these enquiries are made purely as a matter of courtesy and that to take them au pied de la lettre would be as grave a solecism as to answer a polite “How do you do, Professor Tamar?” with a full account of the state of my digestion. Of what interest can it be to the reader of a work of history whether the writer of it is tall or short, thin or fat, of fair or dark complexion? It would seem to me an impertinence on my part to claim the attention of my readers for such trivia. Maintaining, therefore, that modest reticence which I think becoming to the historian, I shall say no more of myself than that my name is Hilary Tamar and that I am the Tutor in Legal History at St. George’s College, Oxford, of which I have the honour to be a Fellow.
In particular, I shall not explain my reasons for deciding, shortly after the end of the summer term, to spend a few days in London: suffice it to say that the Bursar was still in residence at St. George’s and enough is enough. As I have mentioned elsewhere, Timothy Shepherd, a former pupil of mine now in practice at the Chancery Bar, has a flat conveniently situated at the top of Middle Temple Lane: I telephoned him, knowing the generosity of his nature, in reasonably confident hope of an offer of hospitality.
Timothy expressed his regret that he himself would be absent during the period I mentioned and thus unable to entertain me in person — he was appearing in a case in Manchester or Brussels or some such place. He kindly invited me, however, to treat the flat as my own during his absence and promised to leave a set of keys for me with Selena Jardine, a member of the same Chambers, to be collected on my arrival in London.
At about four o’clock in the afternoon on the Thursday before midsummer, I mounted the steps of 62 New Square and opened the door of the Clerks’ Room, intending to ask Henry, the Senior Clerk, to tell Selena of my arrival.
Plan of Parsons Haver
as drawn by Regina Sheldon for the assistance of visitors.
THE TWO MEN struggling on the floor of the Clerks’ Room differed widely in appearance: one young, of slender build, dressed in cotton and denim, with honey-coloured hair worn rather long and a pleasing delicacy of feature; the other perhaps in his sixties, tending to plumpness, wearing a pinstriped suit, with the round, pink face of a bad-tempered baby and very little hair at all. They rolled this way and that, as it seemed inextricably entwined, uttering indistinguishable cries and groans, whether of pain or pleasure I could not easily determine. A ladder was also involved in the proceedings.
I concluded after a few moments that their entanglement was neither hostile nor amorous, but of an involuntary nature on both sides, the result, very possibly, of an accidental collision between the older man and the ladder at a moment when the younger was standing, perhaps imperfectly balanced, on one of its upper rungs.
“Sir Robert — Sir Robert, are you all right?”
Selena’s voice, as she ran forward to assist the older man to his feet, conveyed a tactful mixture of deference, apology and concern — it seemed likely that he was one of her clients. If so, this was not the moment to lay claim to her attention: I withdrew, thinking that a pleasant half hour or so could be spent in visiting Julia Larwood in the Revenue chambers next door.
At 63 New Square I found Julia sitting at her desk, surrounded by papers, tax encyclopedias, half-empty coffee cups, and overflowing ashtrays, more than ever resembling in appearance some particularly dishevelled heroine of Greek tragedy. I concluded that she was working on a matter of some importance.
“Yes,” said Julia, waving hospitably towards an armchair. “Yes, I am. I’m writing a letter to my aunt Regina. She is in urgent need of my advice.” She spoke a trifle defensively, no doubt aware that I would find the claim improbable.
Julia’s aunt Regina, having spent several periods of her life in more distant parts of the world, had now chosen, as I recalled, to settle in Parsons Haver in West Sussex — a charming village on the banks of the Arun or the Adur, I forget which, of the kind that Londoners are usually thinking of when they dream of the pleasures of rusticity. Having at one time in the Middle Ages flourished as a seaport, it has long since been deprived by the changing coastline of any commercial importance; but its cobbled streets, its knapped flint cottages and its fine Norman church continue to attract the discerning tourist and those in quest of an idyllic retirement.
Regina Sheldon herself, whom I had once or twice had the pleasure of meeting, had also struck me as having something about her appearance which savoured of the mediaeval. As a girl, I suppose, she would rather have put one in mind of a good-looking pageboy at the court of one of the Plantagenets; now, though her figure was no longer boyish and the dark auburn of her hair must have owed less to nature than to her hairdresser, one could still imagine her as the same pageboy, grown up to be an ambassador or a rather worldly cardinal. Having married four husbands and brought up two sons, she professed to have retired from matrimony: the chief outlet for her talents and formidable energies was a small antique shop, adjoining the discreetly modernised cottage in which she lived.
There were few areas in which I could imagine her requiring the benefit of Julia’s wisdom and experience.
“She has a tax problem,” said Julia. “If you’d like to read about it, while I finish writing this—”
She offered for my perusal a letter running to several pages, written in distinctively elegant but perfectly legible manuscript.
24 High Street
Monday, 14th June
Now do please read this properly as soon as you open it, instead of putting it somewhere safe and forgetting about it. There’s something I need your advice on — I think it’s the kind of thing you’re supposed to know about — and it’s much too complicated to explain by telephone.
It all started in February last year, when Maurice and Griselda and I were sitting in the Newt and Ninepence. And don’t be tiresome, Julia, you know perfectly well who Maurice and Griselda are, or if you don’t it’s quite disgraceful of you.
Maurice Dulcimer is the vicar at St. Ethel’s. Well, in a manner of speaking — the Church Commissioners decided that St. Ethel’s was too small to have a full-time vicar to itself, so he’s been rationalised into an assistant curate — but they let him go on living at the Vicarage and everyone still calls him “Vicar.” I always invite him to dinner when you’re down here and you usually seem to amuse each other.
And you certainly ought to remember Griselda — Griselda Carstairs, my neighbour, who does people’s gardens and has cats. The first time you met her she was weeding my rose bed and you spent ten minutes flirting with her before you realised she was a woman, not a young man. And I do think, Julia, though of course I wouldn’t like you to be the sort of girl who’s obsessed with sex, that you ought to be able by now to tell the difference. Just because Griselda has short hair and was wearing trousers—
Well, as I say, there we were in the Newt, as we usually are on a Saturday morning, helping each other to finish our crosswords and talking of this and that. And it turned out that we were all a little bit richer than usual, to the tune of four or five hundred pounds each. Maurice had written an article on Virgil for one of the up-market papers, and been quite well paid for it. Griselda had been left a small legacy by someone whose garden she used to look after. And a charming American tourist had walked into my antique shop and bought some things I’d quite despaired of selling.
So we had an extra round of drinks to celebrate and talked about how to spend the money. By and by, though, we began to realise that it wasn’t actually quite enough. Not enough, I mean, to do anything exciting with. When Maurice and I were your age, five hundred pounds was a very large sum of money — it could almost have changed one’s life. And even when Griselda was your age, which isn’t nearly so long ago, it would still have been pretty substantial. But nowadays — and yet it seemed a shame just to put it in the bank, and let it trickle away in everyday expenses.
“It would be awfully nice,” said Griselda, “if it were about twice as much.” Which summed up our feelings in a nutshell.
Maurice thought we might put it on deposit, and leave the interest to accumulate for a while. We were working out how long it would take for us to double our money in that way, and getting a bit depressed about the answer, when Ricky Farnham came in.
Do you remember Ricky? Square shouldered and brick coloured, with a handlebar moustache to show he was once in the RAF, and a rather lively taste in ties? He came to dinner once when you were down here, and took a great fancy to you — I think not reciprocated. Not your type at all, poor Ricky, even if he weren’t thirty years too old — you like them willowy, don’t you, and he definitely isn’t that. (I dare say Maurice would have been your type when he was younger — he must have been very willowy.) Still, Ricky’s not a bad chap, as long as one’s firm with him. I’m quite fond of him really, though over the past few months—
But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that until he retired he’d spent most of his life looking after pension funds and investment trusts and things like that, so he seemed like the very man to advise us about our problem. He wasn’t at all keen on the deposit idea.
“Booze,” he said, “I can understand. Expensive restaurants I can understand. Fast women and slow horses, God knows I can understand. But throwing your money away on bankers — that’s what I call sheer senseless waste.”
What we wanted, said Ricky, was equities, by which he seemed to mean shares in companies. And as what we were talking about wasn’t our life savings, but a little windfall that wouldn’t do us any good anyway unless we could make it grow a bit, not shares in the big companies that everyone’s heard of, but in what he called “double or quits” companies. By which he seemed to mean that they either do very well very soon or go bust. And he happened to have just heard of one which might be the very thing for us.
It was pure chance that I was the one who actually bought the shares. Ricky had told us, you see, that one of the disadvantages of investing small sums was the high cost of dealing, so we’d decided to pool our resources and invest all the money as a lump sum. And as I had some banking business to deal with anyway on Monday morning, I said I’d arrange about the shares at the same time.
We looked in the paper every morning to see how they were doing, and for a week or two nothing happened at all. Then suddenly the price began to go up quite quickly — something to do with a takeover, I think. When they were worth nearly twice what we’d paid for them, Ricky said it was time to sell, but if we wanted to reinvest the proceeds he knew of another company which looked rather promising. So we did, and more or less the same thing happened — the second company didn’t do quite as well as the first, but well enough to encourage us to go on investing.
After we’d reinvested three or four times, Maurice began to have scruples — I suppose it comes of being a clergyman. Giving all those sermons about not laying up treasure on earth is bound to have an effect on one, isn’t it? He seemed to feel the whole thing was becoming too important to him, and distracting his mind from higher things.
“When I find I’m reading the financial page before I’ve even looked at the crossword,” he said, “I think it’s time to stop.”
Griselda and I didn’t feel quite the same about it. I paid Maurice his share of the money, and reinvested ours in a company called Giddly Gadgets, which was Ricky’s latest tip. It didn’t do nearly as well as the others, though, and we hardly made any profit at all. We began to wonder whether it might be some kind of warning that we were being too greedy, or a sign that Ricky was losing his touch, and we were still trying to make our minds up what to do when I found out that Ricky—
But that, as I say, is neither here nor there. The point is that we decided to stop. We just took the money and — well, spent it.
Maurice had already spent his. He has a weakness for old books and manuscripts, and he’d gone up to London for the day and fallen into temptation. An illuminated frontispiece for a copy of some poems of Virgil — Venetian, fifteenth or sixteenth century, illustrating a scene he says is from one of the Eclogues — it really is quite lovely. (He’s longing to show it to you, by the way — he says it’s just your sort of thing.) But then he had a bad conscience about spending so much on purely personal pleasure and made a large donation to the fund for maintaining St. Ethel’s. And then he realised that St. Ethel’s also gives him personal pleasure, so he gave the rest to a charity for the homeless — poor Maurice!
Griselda spent most of hers on a rather splendid greenhouse and new baskets for the cats, and I had new central heating put in. After that, and a few presents and celebrations, I had just enough left to go to Paris and stay with your aunt Ariadne for a week — which, as you know, is about as long as we can spend together before we quarrel about politics.
And if that were the end of the story it would be an extremely satisfactory one from everyone’s point of view. But it isn’t.
I had a wonderful time in Paris, eating and drinking too much and seeing old friends from art school, and came back feeling ready for anything. I thought that I ought to make the most of it, so I sat down straightaway and did my accounts, so that I could put in my tax return. (No, Julia, it would not be better if I had a professional accountant — the accounts of the antique shop are childishly simple, and I’m damned if I’m going to pay someone to do something I can do perfectly well myself.)
When I’d finished, I took the accounts along to the income tax people in Worthing — it’s always better to do it in person, so that one can explain anything they don’t quite understand — and just to be helpful I took my bank statements as well. I handed everything over to a young man in horn-rimmed glasses, who seemed at first to be perfectly sensible and obliging, and he noticed an entry in my statement arising from one of the share sales. And when I explained what it was, he asked me to send him a list of all the shares I’d bought and sold during the past year. Which I did, that same afternoon.
And now he wants three thousand pounds.
When I first got his letter I thought it was just a mistake. I rang up and explained to him that shares are capital, not income, and I shouldn’t have to pay income tax on them. But he said it made no difference, and he was very sorry if it came as a shock to me.
It’s all very well for him to say he’s sorry — which I don’t believe he is at all — where does he think I’m going to get three thousand pounds from?
Well, I know, of course, that when I tell Maurice and Griselda they’ll raise their share of it somehow, and so shall I. But we’re all going to find it a bit difficult — it’s twice as much as we had in the first place, and, as I say, we’ve spent all the money, mostly on things we can’t get it back for. I dare say Maurice could sell the Virgil frontispiece, but I think it would break his heart.
So before I spread alarm and despondency, I’d very much like to know whether you agree with me, or with the beastly young man in horn-rimmed glasses. I enclose a copy of the list I sent him and of his beastly letter. I’m almost bound to see Maurice and Griselda in the Newt on Saturday, so I’d be most grateful if you could let me know by then what you think.
What makes me so furious is that if I hadn’t been trying so hard to be helpful the beastly young man would never have known anything about it.
With very much love,
I felt a trifle anxious on Julia’s behalf: knowing that she would wish to take that view of the question becoming to the duty and devotion of a niece, I feared that some provision or other of the Taxes Acts might prevent her doing so. Little as I know of such matters, I had the distinct impression that there was a tax called capital gains tax: it seemed all too likely that it was chargeable on capital gains.
“Yes,” said Julia, leaning back and drawing deeply on a Gauloise. “Yes, you’re quite right, Hilary, there is such a tax as you mention, and by some oversight on the part of the legislature my aunt Regina is not exempt from it. I am happy to say, however—”
Her remarks were interrupted by the arrival of Selena, who had noted my brief appearance next door and guessed that she would now find me with Julia. Having handed me the keys to Timothy’s flat, she sank with perceptible weariness into the remaining armchair. Her pale blond hair, normally brushed to polished smoothness, was rather engagingly tousled and there was a smudge of dust on her nose: she had the expression of a Persian cat which has been having a difficult afternoon.
In response to Julia’s sympathetic enquiry, she described the incident which I had lately witnessed in the Clerks’ Room: the young man who had fallen from the ladder was the carpenter recently engaged by her Chambers to install new cupboards and bookcases — he had experienced, it seemed, a sudden impulse to measure something; the gentleman on whom he had fallen was her most valued client.
“The carpenter?” Julia looked anxious. “Do you mean the young man with the eyelashes and the Renaissance mouth? Oh dear, I do hope he didn’t hurt himself.”
“The carpenter,” said Selena, “is a fit and agile young man who spends half his time climbing up ladders, and the other half, I dare say, falling off them again. A more suitable object of your concern would be my unfortunate client, who is a merchant banker in his midsixties, with very limited experience of being fallen on.”
It was plainly regrettable that such a person, no doubt frequently in need of the advice of Chancery Counsel and no doubt with ample resources to pay for it, should incur the smallest inconvenience in the precincts of 62 New Square. Still, he did not appear to have suffered any serious harm: neither Julia nor I could believe that he would deprive himself, on account of so trifling a misadventure, of the benefit of Selena’s advice.
“Hmm,” said Selena, wrinkling her nose, seeming to draw little comfort from our encouraging remarks.
It soon became clear that the true cause of her dissatisfaction with the afternoon was not the incident with the carpenter and the ladder, which had merely, as it were, added a final flourish to its vexations. Her conference with her client had gone badly: that is to say, she had been unable to assist him with the problem on which he had sought her advice. She felt that he was disappointed in her.
“What kind of problem was it?” asked Julia, preparing to be indignant on her friend’s behalf.
“He wants to retire from the chairmanship of his bank, and doesn’t know whom to nominate as his successor.”
“Oh, but that’s absurd — it’s obviously not a legal question. How can he expect you to advise him about that?”
“Well, there’s slightly more to it than that. He has reason to believe that one of the two potential candidates — this is all, I need hardly say, in the strictest confidence.” She paused to settle herself more comfortably in the armchair and looked, for some reason, rather severely in my direction. “Well, I shall name no names. My client, whom I shall refer to as ‘my client,’ is the Chairman of a small but highly respected merchant bank, which I shall refer to as ‘the Bank.’ On his retirement, his voice will be decisive in the appointment of his successor. There are two possible candidates, both already members of the board of directors, whom I shall refer to as ‘A’ and ‘B,’ though those are not their real names. My client has reason to believe that one of them has been guilty of… rather serious misconduct.”
She again fell silent — the details were apparently almost too shocking to be spoken of. Julia raised an eyebrow, inviting her to continue.
“The business of the Bank, as you’d expect, includes advising on takeovers — if one company’s thinking of taking over another, it goes to the Bank for advice on how to go about it and how much to offer. In theory the client company makes the final decision, but in practice the Bank’s advice is almost always acted on. And, as of course you know, the announcement of a takeover bid is usually followed by an increase in the price of the shares of the target company — sometimes quite a dramatic increase. So you see, Hilary, one way for you to get very rich would be to find out in advance what the Bank was going to recommend.”
“My dear Selena,” I said, “it’s most kind of you to think of it. I suppose there’s a snag of some kind?”
“Well, the snag is that the Bank goes to a good deal of trouble to make sure you don’t. It operates, as my client likes to put it, on the basis of a need-to-know system. So buying ice cream for the office boy or chocolates for somebody’s secretary, or even dinner at the Savoy for a senior executive, won’t do you any good, because they won’t have the information you need. My client, until a week ago, believed these systems to be entirely effective, and lived, in that belief, a happy and contented man. But then …”
“But then?” said Julia, perceiving some further encouragement to be expected.
“But then one of the Bank’s computer people, having nothing better to do and some exciting new software to play with, decided to do an analysis of the takeovers which the Bank had been involved in over the past two years. And the results were rather disturbing, because they showed that in at least eight cases there had been a significant increase, immediately before the bid was announced, in the buying of shares in the target company.”
“Phew,” said Julia. “And no one had noticed? Not the Stock Exchange or the Department of Trade or anyone?”
“Well, not so far. It’s really rather a lesson in the value of moderation. You see, if you look at each case separately, the amounts involved weren’t enough to set any alarm bells ringing — never more than one hundred thousand pounds. It’s only when you notice that it’s happened several times to the same bank—”
“Once may be a misfortune, twice looks like carelessness, and eight times—”
“Really must be insider dealing — which of course is not only most improper but a criminal offence. And the only people who knew about all eight takeovers, apart from my client himself and his personal assistant, who has been with him for twenty years and can be trusted, he says, absolutely, are his two potential successors. That is to say — A and B.”
The discovery placed her client in the most painful dilemma. Could he leave the Bank, at the conclusion of a long and honourable career, in hands which might be guilty of such a crime against the laws of England and commercial honour? Unthinkable. Equally so to instigate any official enquiry by the Stock Exchange, which might well of itself prove ruinous to the Bank’s reputation and interests. The only solution to his problem was to identify the person responsible; but in this Selena had been unable to assist him.
“And I suppose one might say that it’s unreasonable of him to expect me to. But you see, he first came to me about a fairly minor matter that I happened to be able to help with and he was evidently rather impressed. Since then he’s behaved as if asking my advice is an infallible solution to every problem, which is the sort of attitude one likes to see in one’s clients and has had a very invigorating effect on my bank balance. So I don’t want him to be disillusioned with me.”
“So far as I recall,” said Julia, “the specialities mentioned under your name in the Law List do not include clairvoyancy You are, it is generally agreed, unrivalled in our generation in your knowledge of the Companies Acts, but you are not Madame Louisa.”
“No,” said Selena. “Who is Madame Louisa?”
“Madame Louisa writes the astrology column in the Daily Scuttle and has amazing gifts. She predicted this morning, I remember, that you might have frustrations in the workplace.”
“I would say,” said Selena, “that her gift is for understatement. What did she say about you?”
“That I might feel anxious about a business transaction, perhaps involving a relative, and that legal advice would be helpful. That too turns out to be an amazingly accurate prediction, though I’m hoping that in this case the advice in question will be my own.” Julia related the disagreement between her aunt and the unhelpful young man from the Revenue.
“But Julia,” said Selena, looking puzzled, and with the diffidence of one perhaps trespassing on a friend’s area of expertise, “what about the individual exemption? Aren’t the first six thousand pounds of capital gains in a fiscal year exempt from tax?”
“Yes, of course,” said Julia. “That’s why people so often forget that capital gains tax exists — the gains of the small private investor are usually covered by the exemption.”
“The claim to tax is on the gains over six thousand pounds. Unfortunately, all the gains were realised in the same financial year.”
“On an initial investment of fifteen hundred pounds?”
“Yes, about that.”
“But Julia, that means that the gains over the year must have been of the order of one thousand percent.”
“Yes,” said Julia. “Yes, when you look at it like that, it’s rather impressive, isn’t it?”
“Over the same period,” said Selena, “the most successful of the investment trusts made gains of just under thirty percent. How on earth did she do it?”
“Just a minute, I’ll show you the list of the shares she bought.” After a relatively brief search among the papers on her desk, Julia found what she seemed to be looking for and handed it to Selena. “But she obviously didn’t tell the man from the Revenue that she was investing on behalf of herself and two other people. If she’d told him that, I don’t see how he could dispute that they’re entitled to three exemptions. So as long as Maurice and Griselda haven’t incurred any other chargeable gains, and as long as the chap from the Revenue doesn’t try to say—”
Selena was looking at the sheet of paper in her hand with an expression of perplexity, one would almost have said of dismay.
“Julia, are you quite sure this is the list your aunt sent you?”
“Yes,” said Julia. “Why shouldn’t it be?”
“Earlier this afternoon, my client handed me a list of the companies which appeared to have been the subject of insider dealing. And all the names on her list are also on his.”
IN THE CAFÉ where I breakfasted on the following Tuesday, on my way to the Public Record Office, someone had left a copy of that day’s edition of the Daily Scuttle, open at the City page. A photograph at once caught my eye: I could not fail to recognise the cherubic features of the gentleman I had last seen on the floor of the Clerks’ Room, in the involuntary embrace of the young carpenter. I made haste to read the accompanying text.
Sir Robert Renfrew, the Chairman of Renfrews’ Bank, is pictured here making his speech of thanks at a dinner held last night in the Guildhall by the Worshipful Company of Thimble and Buttonhook Makers at which he was the guest of honour.
Sir Robert, who is sixty-seven, had been widely expected to use the occasion to drop a broad hint or two as to the identity of his probable successor, a subject on which there has been considerable speculation in the City. Instead, however, he seemed at pains to make it clear that such speculation is premature: he mentioned that he was in excellent health and emphasised that he was enjoying his job more than ever.
Renfrews’ is still a family bank, something of an anachronism in the era of multinational giants. Since its foundation early in the nineteenth century the chairman has always been either a Renfrew or an Albany, the two families being closely linked by marriage. Traditionalists, who include some of the bank’s most valued and prestigious clients, hope that Sir Robert’s successor will be the present deputy chairman Edgar Albany, fifty-one, educated at Eton and Cambridge and a direct descendant of the bank’s founder.
It is thought, however, that most institutional investors would prefer to see Renfrews’ facing the twenty-first century under the chairmanship of Geoffrey Bolton, the very able forty-eight-year-old director of corporate finance. Born and brought up in Lancashire, Bolton was wooed back to London five years ago from the Leibnitz Bank of New York to revitalise an investment department which had frankly ceased to sparkle. His success in this area is a personal triumph for Sir Robert, who was directly responsible for his recruitment.
It was thus, entirely by chance, that I first learnt the identity of Selena’s client and something of the two men whom he suspected.
The remarkable coincidence that the names of the same companies appeared on both their lists had at once seemed to Selena and Julia, too remarkable to be a coincidence: they thought it virtually certain that Ricky Farnham had obtained his information from someone who was in some way involved in the insider dealing.
This had placed them in something of a dilemma. They had reached their conclusion on the basis of evidence obtained from two separate and confidential sources: what use, if any, could properly be made of it in connection with the problem troubling Selena’s client? None, it went without saying, which might cause Mrs. Sheldon the slightest embarrassment; but there could be no harm, thought Julia, in adding a tactfully worded paragraph to her letter, asking if her aunt by any chance happened to know the source of Ricky Farnham’s information.
I wondered, as I walked along Chancery Lane towards the Public Record Office, whether she might by now have received an answer. The report in the Scuttle had awakened in me a greater degree of curiosity about the insider-dealing affair than I had felt when the two suspects were merely letters of the alphabet. I looked forward with interest to learning whether Mrs. Sheldon could shed any light on it.
Selena had kindly invited me to a meeting of the 62 New Square Chambers Restoration Committee, which was to be held at lunchtime in the Corkscrew. The Committee, I gathered, consisted of the three most junior members of Chambers — Selena herself, Desmond Ragwort and Michael Cantrip — and was responsible for the overall organisation of certain building works intended to be carried out in Chambers during the Long Vacation. The meeting was also to be attended by a representative of their neighbours in 63 New Square — that is to say, Julia. The proceedings were to include lunch: it was in this aspect of them that I was invited to participate.
The architect of the Corkscrew, as I believe I have mentioned elsewhere, does not seem to have cared much for daylight or windows. Arriving there shortly after midday, I paused for a moment in the doorway to accustom myself to the dimness of the interior after the midsummer sunlight outside.
Selena was sitting at one of the round oak tables between two young men in some respects similar — both thin, and of pale complexion — but at the same time presenting a pleasing contrast, as if created by two different artists: Ragwort by one working in watercolours to convey the subtle tints of autumn; Cantrip by some no less skilled but more impatient draughtsman, using a few strokes of charcoal on a background of white paper. A bottle of Nierstein had already been purchased, and a glass had been filled for me by the time I reached the table.
“Tell me,” I said, not wishing to be accused of distracting them from the business for which they were gathered, “what exactly is the purpose of this building work for which you are responsible?”
“We’re going to be modernised,” said Cantrip triumphantly. “Hot-and-cold running everything and state-of-the-art communication systems. When the twenty-first century hits us, we’ll be there waiting to hit back.”
“We intend,” said Ragwort, “to restore Chambers to the simple yet dignified elegance which prevailed in Lincoln’s Inn during, let us say, the reign of the later Stuarts.”
These objectives seemed to me to be not identical. I wondered if it might have been prudent, before engaging builders, to make a choice between them.
“Not at all,” said Selena. “It’s simply a question, you see, of how you look at it. On the one hand, as I hope you know, Hilary, we yield to no one in our respect for the great traditions of the English Bar. On the other hand, it has sometimes occurred to us that it might be possible, without gravely compromising those traditions, to make certain minor improvements to our working environment.”
“Such as central heating that actually works,” said Ragwort.
“And a proper computer system,” said Cantrip, “instead of a couple of laptops that our junior Clerk got cheap because they’d been obsolete for ten years.”
“And even,” said Selena rather wistfully, “somewhere to have a shower before one goes out for the evening. But whenever we suggest anything of that kind — I don’t know, Hilary, whether you’ve ever heard Basil Ptarmigan pronounce the word ‘modernisation’?”
“Seldom,” I said, “and only in accents of the utmost distaste, as if picking up some unpleasant object with his fingertips and holding it as far away as possible.” I could imagine that Basil Ptarmigan, QC, the most silken of Chancery Silks, would have little sympathy for any proposal requiring the use of the word.
“Basil takes the view,” said Ragwort, “that modernisation goes hand in hand with reform, and we all know what that leads to. Some of the older members of our Chambers do tend to be a little conservative in their thinking.”
“The way they see it,” said Cantrip, “everything’s been pretty much going to pot since someone went and abolished the rule in Shelley’s Case. And that was in 1925.”
“And naturally,” said Ragwort, “we’ve always felt that we must defer to their wisdom and experience.”
“Because they’d have to put up most of the cash,” said Cantrip.
It had seemed that there was an impasse and that dreams of showers and computer systems must remain mere dreams. The possibility of a solution revealed itself unexpectedly, when Ragwort was invited to a small drinks party by Benjamin Dobble—
“Whom, of course, you know,” said Ragwort, for Benjamin is a fellow scholar and, I hope I may say, a friend of mine. I have described him elsewhere: he plays too small a part in my present narrative to justify my repeating the description.
The party was intended to celebrate the recent refurbishment of his flat in Grafton Street. His guests had been called upon to admire in particular the oak-panelled cupboards and bookcases, Jacobean in style, which concealed the collection of filing cabinets, computers, printers, fax machines and other impedimenta nowadays considered indispensable to the pursuit of learning. The craftsman responsible for designing and building them, a young man by the name of Terry Carver, had naturally been the guest of honour.
Congratulating Terry Carver on his achievement, Ragwort had been inspired to ask whether he might be interested in carrying out a similar scheme of refurbishment at 62 New Square.
“So Terry came round to Lincoln’s Inn,” said Selena, “and measured things and took photographs and so on and seemed rather excited at the idea — he said he was thinking Inigo Jones.”
“Inigo Jones?” I said. “Isn’t that rather early for New Square?”
This comment, however, being thought unconstructive, I hastily withdrew it.
“And in due course he sent us some drawings, showing how we could have as many showers and computer terminals as we liked and at the same time look like a set of Chambers where Lord Nottingham’s just invented the Rule against Perpetuities. We showed them to Basil and the others, and they were even more impressed than we’d hoped.”
“Absolutely knocked sideways,” said Cantrip. “And couldn’t wait to get started.”
“So they did us the great honour,” said Ragwort, looking at the ceiling, “of entrusting us with the organisation of the project.”
“Well, yes,” said Selena. “Because it was clear, of course, that someone was going to have to do a good deal of work to make it all happen, and whatever anyone says about the senior members of our Chambers, no one’s ever said they were stupid. So we’ve had a rather exhausting few months, drawing up specifications and getting permission from the Inn and inviting tenders and so on. But we’ve finally got it all sorted out, and the builders are starting work at the end of next month.”
“My dear Selena,” I said, “you sound as if you thought that once the builders arrive your troubles will be over. That is not the universal experience.”
“Well, there’ll obviously be a certain amount of noise and mess while they’re actually there. But they’ve promised to finish by the end of the Long Vacation, so it shouldn’t be too disruptive.”
She leant back and drank her wine, with the serene contentment of a young woman who has agreed on a satisfactory estimate and a convenient timetable, and has never had builders in before.
“It sounds,” I said, “as if this young man Terry Carver were very much the lynch pin of your enterprise. Are you sure he’s reliable?”
“He does have one or two little failings,” said Selena.
“His tendency, for example, to flutter his eyelashes in a way that distracts Julia from her Finance Act. And of course his habit of falling on one’s clients from the top of ladders. What one has to remember is that he’s good at making bookcases.”
“According to Benjamin,” said Ragwort, “he is not only one of the finest craftsmen in London but extremely dependable.”
Knowing that Benjamin, in the matter of eyelashes, is almost as susceptible as Julia, I feared that his judgment might not be entirely objective; but I felt that this too might be thought an unconstructive comment.
Julia joined us soon afterwards, with apologies for her lateness. She had received another letter from her aunt, evidently posted on the way to a further interview with the young man from the Revenue: she had been trying to telephone to learn the outcome, but had found Mrs. Sheldon’s number constantly engaged.
“I don’t suppose,” said Selena, “that her letter happens to say anything about those shares?”
“A certain amount,” said Julia. “Would you like me to read it to you over lunch?”
“Well …” said Selena, looking doubtfully in my direction. She has the curious notion that no one but a fellow member of the Bar can be trusted with a confidence.
I explained to her, as I have already to my readers, that by the purest chance the identity of her client was no longer a secret from me. She gave me a rather sideways look; but with various admonitions unnecessary to repeat she resigned herself to relying on my discretion.
24 High Street
Monday, 21st June
There is something rather odd, if I may say so, about the tone of your letter — almost as if you thought I’d been doing something wrong. All I’ve done is buy some shares and sell them again — are you going through one of your Socialist phases? If so, do write and tell Ariadne — she’ll be so pleased.
But I’m very glad, of course, that you don’t think I have to pay the beastly young man three thousand pounds. I’ve made an appointment to see him this afternoon, to explain about the shares belonging partly to Maurice and Griselda, and they’re both coming round to supper afterwards to hear what he says. We all think you’ve been most helpful, and we’re planning to take you to lunch at the best restaurant in West Sussex next time you’re down here.
So I hope you won’t think it too ungrateful of me to say that if you don’t mind I’d much rather not ask Ricky where he got his information from about the shares. The thing is, you see, that I’m not at all pleased with Ricky at the moment, and I don’t want to do anything to make him think that I’ve stopped not being pleased.
You may say, I suppose, that it’s unreasonable of me to be not pleased with him. I know he was only advising us as a friend, in exchange for a few drinks, and perhaps one couldn’t expect it all to be confidential in the same way as if one got advice from a solicitor or someone like that. Well, Julia, I don’t care what you say, I still don’t think it’s right for him to go babbling about our affairs to all and sundry.
When I say all and sundry, I mean Isabella del Comino, as she calls herself, though I doubt if that’s the name on her birth certificate, or on her marriage certificate, if she has such a thing. Which I dare say she has — men can be complete idiots sometimes.
So far as I know, you’ve never met Isabella. If you have, it certainly wasn’t at my house. She lives at the Old Rectory, on the other side of the churchyard, which she bought two or three years ago from rather good friends of mine. They didn’t find it an easy house to sell — it’s one of those rambling Victorian places that cost a fortune to heat and maintain properly. The Church Commissioners very sensibly sold it a long time ago, and kept the little house opposite as the Vicarage. And though it’s quite a handsome building in its way, I always feel there’s something rather cold and forbidding about it — an estate agent would say that there’s a fine view of the church, but one can’t help thinking of it as a view of the graveyard.
My friends had made all kinds of improvements to it. They’d turned the ground-floor rooms at the back into one long drawing room, with French windows all the way along opening into a big conservatory, and a colour scheme of honeys and apricots. And from there one went into the garden — oh, Julia, it’s a shame if you never saw the garden. Griselda had laid it out in an Elizabethan sort of style, using a design in an old book Maurice had given her, and gone to endless trouble to get the right plants for it. I found some antique statues and urns and things, and we all felt we’d made it into something rather special. Griselda looked after it practically as if it were her own — she has quite a good view of it from the roof of her potting shed, so she could always see when something needed doing.
My friends sold the house without ever actually meeting the purchaser. I suppose she must have come down and looked over it before she bought it, but no one seemed to have seen her. Even after she’d bought it, she didn’t move in straightaway, and there were signs that she was having a good deal of building work done — plumbers’ and electricians’ vans outside the house, and sounds of hammering and drilling. So everyone was beginning to be rather curious about her.
And then, one morning when I was sitting in the antique shop, Griselda came running in, as white as a sheet, and said there were men at the Rectory levelling the garden.
I could hardly believe it at first, but of course I went back with her to see what was happening, and it was true, they were — just taking a bulldozer across it, destroying everything.
I managed to discourage her from climbing over the wall and lying down in front of the bulldozer — Griselda can be rather physical sometimes — and called out to the man in charge to ask him what he thought they were doing. His answer wasn’t at all polite, but I explained to him that we simply didn’t want him to get into trouble for destroying plants which might turn out to be valuable. Anyway, I offered him thirty pounds for the ones that were left and he ended by agreeing to fifty, on the understanding that we’d have to remove them that day.
So we spent the day frantically digging up plants in the Rectory garden and running back with them to Griselda’s potting shed. Fortunately, it was one of the days when Mrs. Tyrrell comes to clean for me, so there were three of us to do it, and by midnight we’d rescued pretty well everything that we minded most about — all the rose trees, and the plants from the physic garden. We shared them out between the three of us and gave some to Maurice. At fifty pounds they were really rather a bargain — some of them were quite valuable — but of course it didn’t make up for the garden being destroyed.
The next day they flattened it completely, and began to put up something that involved concrete posts and a lot of wire mesh. We couldn’t work out what it was — Griselda said it looked like a cage.
Two or three weeks later there were signs of someone being in occupation, though no one had actually seen her arrive — not even Maurice, whose study looks straight out onto the front drive of the Rectory. But there were lights on in the evening, and the postman said he’d started to deliver letters there.
We’re very informal down here in Haver — we don’t go in for visiting cards and so forth — but when someone new moves in we usually put a note through the door, introducing ourselves and inviting them to ring us if they need help with anything. So I wrote a short letter along those lines — no, Julia, it was not mere curiosity — and walked across to the Rectory to deliver it. And just as I was putting it in the letter box, the door suddenly opened and I found myself facing a fat, pale woman with fat, black ringlets.
When I say that she was fat, I don’t so much mean that she was of enormous size but that she gave the impression of being made of fat, all the way through, with no underlying framework of bone or muscle — which, of course, isn’t actually possible. She had a rather ugly, squashed button sort of nose — I suppose when she was young people would have called it retroussé—and very small black eyes, like currants in a suet pudding. She was wearing a long black velvet caftan, of the kind one can buy cheaply in Tangier or expensively in Knightsbridge — it might have been rather elegant, if it hadn’t shown so many signs of her being a rather careless eater.
“Good morning, Mrs. Sheldon, how nice of you to call,” she said. “Won’t you come in and have a glass of sherry?”
That looks, when one writes it down, like quite a normal and pleasant thing to say, but it didn’t sound like that. There was something gloating, almost sinister, about the way she said it — as if my name were a secret she’d been very clever to find out and could use against me in some way.
I accepted, naturally, and she led me through to the conservatory. As we went in, she said, “I hope you don’t mind birds?”
Well, as it happens, I do rather. When they’re flying about in the open air, I don’t mind them at all, but in a confined space with them I get an absurd sense of panic, like you with spiders. I know it’s completely irrational, but that doesn’t stop me feeling it.
But of course I said, “Not in the least,” and followed her into the drawing room.
She had had it entirely redecorated, no doubt at great expense. The walls were covered with a heavily embossed wallpaper — black. The ceiling and woodwork had been repainted — black. There were thick black velvet curtains, and the floor was tiled in black marble. Poor woman, I suppose she’d expected it to look very dramatic, but of course, with nothing there to provide contrast, the effect was simply dreary.
I saw at once that Griselda had been perfectly right about the cage. The conservatory and the area beyond it had been turned into an aviary, now occupied by a flock of ravens — I don’t know how many exactly, but there must have been at least a dozen. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the French windows had been closed, with the ravens safely on the far side — but they were open, and the horrible creatures were flapping and hopping about the drawing room as if they owned the place. The worst of it was, though, that when they weren’t moving they were more or less invisible against the black background — I thought that at any moment I might accidentally brush against one. I began, I’m afraid, to feel rather sick, and almost to wish I hadn’t come.
She poured me a tumblerful of sherry — such an excessive amount that I couldn’t think of it as generous, but more as a device to make me stay longer than I might have chosen — and invited me to sit down. Which I did, with considerable caution, on one of three chaises longues — I need hardly say, upholstered in black — which provided the seating accommodation.
The room was quite sparsely furnished — I couldn’t tell whether from choice, or because she hadn’t finished unpacking. There were no pictures or ornaments or books. Or, rather, just one book — it looked like one of those old family Bibles, so big you can hardly lift them. Isabella seemed to regard it as an object of interest, or even veneration — she’d put it on its own in a display cabinet at the far end of the room from where we were sitting. I resisted the temptation to ask for a closer look at it — the rest of that end of the room was in deep shadow, which I suspected of harbouring still more of the beastly ravens.
She asked me what I thought of her colour scheme. I said that it was interesting.
“Ah,” she said, “I didn’t think it would be quite to your taste.” She said it with a smile which suggested that her taste was bold and adventurous, while mine was timidly conventional.
“Black’s such a difficult colour,” I said, “if one isn’t an experienced designer.”
“Ah, yes,” she said, “I know you’re the village expert on design.”
“That’s a far too flattering description,” I said. “I haven’t worked seriously as a designer since I lived in Paris.”
Our conversation might have been more memorable if my attention hadn’t been distracted all the time by the flappings and cawings of the birds. Not much more memorable, though, because Isabella is one of those tiresome people who enjoy being mysterious about themselves. Trying to show a polite degree of interest in her, I asked if she had any special reason for choosing Parsons Haver for her retirement — she seemed of the sort of age to have recently retired, though from what profession one wouldn’t have cared to speculate.
“Oh,” she said, “I haven’t exactly retired.” And she gave a wouldn’t-you-like-to-know little smile, as if knowing her occupation were my dearest wish and I would beg her to tell me.
In case you happen to be tormented by curiosity on the subject, I found out later that the profession from which she had “not exactly retired” was what I would call fortune-telling, but I gather is nowadays called psychic counselling. On this occasion, though, I didn’t ask her any more questions about herself but simply invited her to ask me anything she’d like to know about shops and buses and so forth. I did also mention that if she wanted anyone to clean for her, I could thoroughly recommend Mrs. Tyrrell — Mrs. Tyrrell is a single mother, and I thought she might be pleased to do a few extra hours.
“Oh no, thank you,” she said. “Women of that class are such gossips, aren’t they?” Women of that class indeed — some people are enough to turn anyone Socialist. “Anyway, I have my niece to do that sort of thing.”
“Oh really?” I said, rather surprised to hear that there was another member of the household, and wondering where she was. “How nice for you to have such a devoted niece. I’m afraid mine’s far too busy with her practice at the Bar to come and do my housework for me.”
“Oh yes, I’d heard you had a clever niece,” said Isabella. “Daphne’s not clever. She isn’t really my niece, she’s my cousin’s daughter. Still, her mother was more like a sister to me than my damn sister’s ever been, so when she died I had to take over Daphne.” She talked as if the girl were a servant — not that anyone has servants nowadays and even when they did no well-bred person would have talked about them like that — as if she were some kind of object which Isabella owned.
I said that, whatever the relationship, I looked forward to meeting her.
“Oh, you can see her now, if you like,” said Isabella, and shouted “Daphne, come here,” like a man calling a dog. A man one wouldn’t much like, to a dog he enjoyed ill-treating.
There was a noise of something breaking in the kitchen, and a girl came in — an awkward, skinny little thing, all knees and elbows, somewhere in her early twenties. Not, I have to say, at all a pretty girl — lank brown hair, a poor complexion, a rather receding chin and overprominent front teeth. She had quite large brown eyes, which should have been her best feature, but very listless and watery looking — do always remember, Julia, that the expression “bright with unshed tears” is a most misleading one. Still, I’ve seen women with fewer natural advantages persuade half London that they were irresistible — a little makeup and a little animation can do wonders.
“Daphne,” said Isabella, “this is Mrs. Sheldon, who’s kindly come to see how we’re getting on — say ‘How do you do’ to her.”
The poor girl obediently stammered the words out and then stood jiggling about from one foot to the other, pushing down her skirt with the palms of her hands as if she were hoping to make it cover her knees. It was certainly far too short — I mean, the sort of length one should only wear if one has very nice legs and is wearing pretty underwear — and looked like something she had had in her teens and grown out of. As her hands were moist and not very clean, all she achieved was to make the skirt even grubbier than it already was.
I was trying to think of something kind and encouraging to say to her when something moved in the shadows at the far end of the room. And screeched. And flapped its wings. Something much larger than a raven.
I do strongly advise you, Julia, to try to conquer your feelings about spiders — one really never knows what embarrassments these ridiculous phobias can get one into. As you’ll have gathered, I was already more disconcerted than I would have liked by finding myself in the same room as a dozen or so ravens. When I realised that I was also sharing it with a vulture, I came closer to screaming than I care to admit.
“Oh,” said Isabella, “this is my friend Roderigo. I do hope he didn’t startle you?”
It was all I could do to say “What a handsome creature” and remember an urgent appointment at the Vicarage. And I wouldn’t want you, Julia, to find yourself at a similar disadvantage in a situation involving a tarantula.
IT WAS CANTRIP, misguidedly in my view, who chose at this juncture to refer to the spider episode. I have always refrained, and I hope shall always refrain, from offending the sensibility of my readers with the details of that regrettable incident: I mention merely that it conclusively marked the end of what some would term the more intimate relationship formerly existing between Cantrip and Julia.
“I bet your aunt Reg’s thing about birds isn’t really as bad as your thing about spiders. I mean, if she’d ever woken up on April Fool’s Day and found some witty chap she was chums with had put a stuffed parrot—”
“Cantrip,” said Julia, “although the spider episode has left scars on my psyche for which a litigious woman could undoubtedly recover an enormous sum in damages, I have tried for friendship’s sake to erase it from my memory. Do you really want to remind me of it?”
“There you are, you see — it was simply ages ago, and you’re still miffed about it. So what I’m saying is, your aunt Reg can’t be anything like as bad about birds as you are about spiders. Because let’s face it, if someone took you into a room crawling with spiders, you wouldn’t hang about drinking sherry and making small talk, you’d be out in nought seconds flat, screaming like a banshee on bath night.”
“I cannot imagine,” said Ragwort, “that Mrs. Sheldon would in any circumstances allow herself to leave the drawing room of a new acquaintance in the unladylike and precipitate manner you describe.”
“No,” said Julia, “I’m sure she wouldn’t, but that’s simply a question of character. I think, as a matter of fact, that she’s just as frightened of birds as I am of spiders.”
Maurice, of course, also had to call on Isabella — apart from anything else, he’s her nearest neighbour. He came round afterwards to tell me about it, shaking like a leaf and needing a stiff gin.
This wasn’t because of the vulture, it was because she’d told him that he was a true priest and a man of great spiritual authority. Poor Maurice, he’d been terribly embarrassed — he kept saying “Oh, my God, what would the Bishop say?” and needing more gin every time he thought of it.
She’d also told him that he’d think her a very wicked person and perhaps denounce her as a heretic and blasphemer. He’d tried to explain that he didn’t go in for that sort of thing, but she didn’t take any notice. She seems to imagine herself as the high priestess of some kind of alternative religion — that’s how she claims to have the gift of prophecy. Maurice thought she’d probably got the idea from reading something about the Albigensians.
“And I’m not saying a word against the Albigensians,” said Maurice, “who I’m sure were very good people and extremely badly treated. And no one’s sorrier than I am about it, so I don’t see why I should be cast as some appalling character like St. Dominic. Who was a ghastly man, Reg, really perfectly ghastly, and with all my faults I don’t think anyone can say I’m like him.”
Whatever religion it is, the big leather book seems to be a central feature of it. Maurice asked her if he could have a closer look at it, but she wouldn’t let him—”I know, Father Dulcimer, that it is lawful for me to read in your Book, but it is forbidden for you to read in mine.” He thinks it’s probably part of her fortune-telling paraphernalia — there’s a very old form of prophecy, he says, where you open a book and point to a line at random and it tells you what you want to know. It has to be a very important and serious book, of course — the Bible or Virgil’s Aeneid or something of that sort. What Isabella’s is there’s no way of knowing — one thing we’re pretty sure of is that it isn’t the Bible.
She’d ended by saying that though she and Maurice were destined to be adversaries, they were adversaries who respected each other and could perhaps be friends. Poor man, no wonder he needed gin.
“Ragwort,” said Julia, pausing in her reading, “we look to you for enlightenment on questions of a religious nature. Why should a clergyman object to being called a true priest and told he had great spiritual authority?”
“He would have felt, I imagine,” said Ragwort, “that such expressions savoured of the charismatic — happy-clappy music and the Toronto Blessing. People don’t much care for that sort of thing in Sussex — not in West Sussex, at any rate.”
“And would that also be his objection to the comparison with St. Dominic?”
“Not exactly. St. Dominic, one would have to say, went to rather different extremes.”
You’ll have gathered, I expect, that neither Maurice nor I was much taken with Isabella, and even if she’d been a perfect angel Griselda wouldn’t have forgiven her for destroying the garden. So we were all a little surprised when Ricky began to be quite friendly with her. They’d apparently known each other in London some years ago — she invited him round for drinks soon after she moved in and since then he’s been a regular visitor.
Well, of course, Ricky’s old enough to choose his friends for himself, and if he enjoys Isabella’s company that’s no one’s business but his own — one just finds it slightly odd, that’s all. Apart from anything else, he’s always been rather an enthusiast for comfort and good cooking, and I wouldn’t imagine there’s much of either to be had at the Rectory these days. So presumably there’s some other attraction — there are men, I know, who like women who don’t wash much.
Still, as I say, that’s no one else’s business. The only tiresome thing, as far as I’m concerned, is that he put her up for membership of our little boating and tennis club, and she seems to spend half her time there. It’s just a small clubhouse and bar overlooking the river, with a couple of tennis courts, but it used to be a convenient place to meet friends if none of us felt like entertaining at home. Now one can only go there if one’s in the mood for running into Isabella, which in my case isn’t often.
But I suppose it’s rather unkind of me to resent her being there so much — without it, so far as I can see, she’d have no social life at all. Since neither she nor Daphne can drive a car, and public transport is beneath her dignity, she doesn’t get about much outside the village. She hasn’t made many friends since she arrived here, and if she had any before then, they evidently aren’t close enough to come and visit her. The fortune-telling business seems to be done mostly by correspondence — Mrs. Makepeace at the Post Office says she gets quite a lot of letters.
There is one exception, which I have to admit we’re all very curious about. Every four or five weeks or so, at about seven in the evening, a large black Mercedes car with tinted windows drives rather fast into Parsons Haver and straight to the Rectory, where it parks in the part of the drive that is hidden from view by the shrubbery — this could be pure chance, but no one in the village believes that. The man who gets out of it rings at the front door and is let in. After two or three hours, he comes out and drives off again equally fast, heading towards London.
And what everyone wants to know is — who is he? We all agree he must be rich or he wouldn’t have a Mercedes. And famous, or he wouldn’t need tinted windows. But is he a famous footballer? Or a television personality? Or a member of the Royal Family? These are the main possibilities put forward in the bar of the Newt and Ninepence — in some circles he’s thought to be something far more sinister.
The only person who’s actually seen him is Maurice. His study window is the one place in Haver with a clear view of the Rectory doorway, and he’s seen the man quite plainly several times. But that’s no use to anyone, because Maurice is almost as unobservant as you are — is it something that happens to people who read Classics at Oxford? All he can find to say about the man is that he’s an ordinary, middle-aged man, in a City suit.
The visits of the black Mercedes are at irregular intervals, but one can always tell when it’s expected. Poor Daphne is banished from the Rectory at about six o’clock, with just enough money to buy herself a sandwich and a glass of wine, and sits hunched up all evening in a corner of the Newt and Ninepence, looking like a puppy that’s been turned outdoors in disgrace and doesn’t understand why.
If I see her in there, of course, I say “Good evening” and buy her another glass of wine. She used to be very hesitant about accepting — she was obviously embarrassed, poor girl, that she couldn’t buy me one back — but now she seems used to the idea. And she always tells me that she has to stay out all evening, because Aunt Isabella is giving a Personal Reading — one can hear the capital letters — and anyone else in the house would disturb the vibrations. So it looks as if the visits are professional, rather than personal.
It’s really too mean of Isabella — if she wants the girl out of the house, she might at least give her enough to go into Brighton to enjoy herself a bit. She doesn’t seem even to give her pocket money, let alone any proper wages. I suppose one would say that she pays for Daphne’s keep, but she certainly doesn’t buy her any clothes — or if she does, it must be at jumble sales. I’ve never seen Daphne in a pretty dress — really, some of her things look as if she’d got them from someone’s dustbin, and not a very clean one either.
I don’t say Isabella physically ill treats her — though Griselda’s sure she does — but her feet are always rubbed sore from going without stockings in badly fitting shoes, and she often has quite painful-looking peck marks on her face.
Griselda gets very upset and indignant about it all, and says that we ought to do something. But what? One can’t ring the RSPCA or the cruelty-to-children people — Daphne’s not a child or an animal, she’s a grown-up human being, not all that much younger than you are.
And she’s not a prisoner — she could leave Isabella tomorrow if she chose. But if she did, where would she go, and what would she do? She isn’t qualified for anything — Isabella’s brought her up to think that “what they teach you in school isn’t true knowledge” and exams aren’t important, so of course she’s never passed any. And she certainly wouldn’t get a job on the strength of her looks or personality.
In any case, she doesn’t want to leave. If one asks her what she wants to do with her life, she looks very round-eyed and earnest and says, “I just want to feel I’m caring for someone who needs me.” And she seems to believe that Isabella does. Why a grown woman in the prime of life and possession of all her faculties should need a full-time personal attendant I can’t very well imagine, but she’s somehow persuaded Daphne—”brainwashed” says Griselda — that she’s not merely an invalid but practically a saint, who’s sacrificed her health in the cause of helping others, and it’s an honour and privilege to serve her.
Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Isabella’s health that a little fresh air and exercise wouldn’t put right, and I feel there are probably more effective ways of helping people than telling them to avoid travel when the sun’s in Capricorn and distrust dark-haired strangers when Mercury’s in the ascendant or whatever it is she does. One can’t say that to Daphne though — any criticism of Isabella almost reduces her to tears.
Which does make talking to her rather a strain on one’s patience. Her conversation consists almost entirely of quotes from the same source—”Aunt Isabella always says this” and “Aunt Isabella always says that”—as solemnly pronounced as if she were citing Scripture. Someone has evidently told her that it’s polite to talk to people about things they’re interested in, but she hasn’t quite grasped how it works in practice. So her idea of conversing politely with me is to tell me Isabella’s views about art—“Aunt Isabella says real artists don’t need to go to art school, they’re born knowing how to paint”—and with Griselda Isabella’s views about gardens—”Aunt Isabella says it’s cruel to shut flowers up in flower beds, they ought to be allowed to grow naturally.” Even if I liked Isabella I’d be getting heartily sick of her.
Blast the woman — I’ve talked as much about her as if I found her almost as interesting as she thinks she is, and still not explained why I’m not pleased with Ricky.
Well, as I think I told you, the last company that Ricky advised us to invest in was one called Giddly Gadgets. Just after we sold our shares in it, and while we were wondering whether or not to reinvest the proceeds, I happened to be in the wine merchant’s, being tempted by a rather delicious claret they had in, much more expensive than I usually buy. I was trying to make up my mind if I could afford half a case of it when Isabella came in, attended by Daphne to do the carrying. She doesn’t usually do her own shopping, of course, but the wine merchant counts as grand enough to deserve a personal visit.
I didn’t want to stay and make conversation, so when we’d exchanged good-mornings I gave my usual order and told the young man serving me that the claret was really too expensive. And Isabella smiled at me, in that infuriating way she has, as if she knew something you didn’t want her to know, and said, “Ah — what a pity Giddly Gadgets didn’t do better.”
“Yes, isn’t it?” I said, and walked out of the shop feeling absolutely furious.
As I say, if Ricky chooses to be friends with Isabella that’s entirely his own business, but he must have known that she’s the last person on earth whom Griselda or Maurice or I would want to know any details of our financial affairs. And he was absolutely the only person who could possibly have told her about us investing in Giddly Gadgets — anyway, I rang him to say how surprised I was, and he didn’t deny it.
So you’ll understand, if you don’t mind very much, and think it too ungrateful of me, that I’d rather not ask him where he got his information from.
Yours with much love,
Few of the tables in the Corkscrew were still occupied: it was thought time for the proceedings of the Restoration Committee to be adjourned. Even Julia could not be persuaded to linger for another glass of wine: fearing that the interview with the young man from the Revenue might for some reason have proceeded less smoothly than it should have done, she was anxious to telephone again to find out what had happened.
When she finally succeeded, however, in speaking to her aunt, she found her too preoccupied to discuss income tax: Mrs. Sheldon had a funeral to arrange.
MY DUTY TO HISTORICAL truth does not, I think, require me to bewilder my readers with the version of the day’s events in Parsons Haver which we received from Julia on the basis of her telephone conversation. A more complete and orderly account is contained in the letter which she read to us when we gathered once more in the Corkscrew on the Thursday evening.
24 High Street
Tuesday, 22nd June
Do forgive me if I was slightly distrait when you rang earlier — I’d had a rather trying day. I suppose, if I’m going to tell you properly about it, that I ought to start with yesterday evening.
I’d had a most satisfactory interview with the income tax man and it occurred to me, as I was beginning to get supper ready for Maurice and Griselda, that we had a first-rate excuse for champagne. So I ran down to the wine merchant’s and bought a couple of bottles, and on my way back I saw poor Daphne, sitting all by herself on a bench outside the Newt and Ninepence.
I was rather surprised to see her there. The black Mercedes had been seen here less than a week ago, and there’s usually at least a month between its visits. I didn’t feel I had time, though, to stop and talk to her, so I waved and went on my way.
But a moment or two later she came running after me and seized hold of my shopping basket, saying it looked much too heavy for me and I must let her carry it. I could hardly take it back from her by physical force — which it almost seemed I’d have to, she was so determined — so I let her go on carrying it, and she came trotting home beside me.
It seemed churlish, when we got back, simply to say thank you and shut the door in her face, so I invited her in for a sherry. It struck me, as I was giving it to her, that she looked even more miserable than usual — I mean, not just as if she might be going to cry, but as if she’d been crying a good deal already. So I asked her whether anything was the matter.
“Nothing — I don’t know — everything,” said Daphne, and did indeed burst into tears.
It wasn’t easy, between the sobs and the stammers, to make out exactly what she was upset about. In the end, it seemed simply to come down to this — that Isabella was giving her second “Personal Reading” in the space of a week, and Daphne thought she was dangerously overtaxing her strength. I’m afraid I may have looked rather sceptical.
With more sobs and stammers, Daphne said that I didn’t understand. No one understood. No one understood what Isabella put into a Personal Reading. No one knew how exhausted she was for days afterwards. She ought to be still resting after the last one. And Isabella wouldn’t admit to physical weakness, and said she just had a cold, but Daphne knew there was something badly wrong with her. She didn’t know how, she just knew. And something awful was going to happen, and she didn’t know what to do about it. More tears.
Well, what could I do? I thought she was talking nonsense, of course, but I didn’t have the heart to pack her off to sit on her own in the Newt. So I told her that if she’d stop crying, I’d lend her a comb and facecloth to tidy herself up with, and she was welcome to stay for supper. I didn’t think Maurice or Griselda would mind — I had quite enough food for four, and I knew they both felt sorry for her.
It was a beautiful evening, and the garden’s at its best at the moment, so we ate out of doors. It was a very simple meal, just a salmon mousse with salad and new potatoes, and some strawberries afterwards, but it went quite well with the champagne, and everyone seemed to enjoy it.
Daphne had two helpings of everything, and said it was the best meal she’d ever had. Which, without unduly flattering myself, I could all too easily believe, poor girl.
The conversation, I have to admit, didn’t exactly sparkle, though I’m sure that Daphne was doing her best — like a little girl at a grown-up party, trying hard to do the proper thing but not quite knowing what it is. She didn’t seem to realise that people don’t always mean exactly what they say, not because they’re insincere but because they’re making a joke about something. And she evidently expected Maurice to keep talking about religion, which of course he wouldn’t dream of doing over dinner.
A minute or two after ten she said she had to go home, in case Isabella needed her for anything before she went to bed. Maurice said that he ought to be leaving too — he had to be up early to take morning service at a church ten miles away — and suggested that they should keep each other company across the churchyard. Dear Maurice — he’d normally have stayed much later, morning service or no morning service, but he wouldn’t have liked to let Daphne go home in the dark by herself.
He rang a few minutes later, to say they were both safely home — he’d waited at the gate of the Rectory to make sure she got in all right, and he’d heard Isabella shout out to Daphne that she wasn’t needed and telling her to go to bed. The visitor had evidently left — Maurice said he’d seen no sign of the black Mercedes.
So it sounded as if Daphne’s anxieties had been as misplaced as I thought.
I usually wake up at about seven, but this morning I was woken earlier than that by the sound of someone ringing my doorbell. Not just ringing and stopping and going away again, like the postman leaving a parcel, but going on ringing, as if they didn’t mean to stop until I’d answered. I looked out of my bedroom window and saw that it was Daphne, so I put on my dressing gown and slippers and went down to let her in.
She was in such a state of agitation, and stammering so badly, poor girl, that I could make no sense at all of what she was trying to say. All I could gather was that something was seriously wrong — or at least that she thought there was — and she wanted me to come straight back with her to the Rectory. So without being sure there was any real urgency, but not liking to take a chance on it, I put on my raincoat over my dressing gown and ran back with her across the churchyard.
She’d left the front door open. We went straight in, and through the hallway to the black drawing room.
The first thing I noticed was the smell — it was the first thing anyone would have noticed. A perfectly disgusting smell, acrid and sweet at the same time, mainly, I suppose, of bird droppings, but as if someone had tried to sweeten it with something else — incense or camphor or something like that. The second thing I noticed was the vulture, perched on the back of one of the chaises longues. The third was Isabella, lolling on another of them, dressed in the caftan she’d worn on my first visit, with her little black eyes staring at me without blinking, out of her white pudding face. I almost apologised for my intrusion.
“She’s been sitting there like that since I came down this morning,” said Daphne. “She doesn’t seem to hear what I say to her. There’s something wrong with her.”
I knew straightaway what was wrong with her, and I could hardly believe that Daphne still hadn’t realised. I tried taking her pulse, and the other things they tell one to do in first-aid classes, but I already knew she was dead. The vulture knew it too, and was looking at Isabella in a way I didn’t much care for.
I didn’t think I was the right person to break the news — I asked Daphne who her aunt’s doctor was.
“Aunt Isabella doesn’t believe in doctors,” she said, looking more frightened than ever. “She says that Nature has a cure for everything if you know how to look for it.”
I said that nonetheless her aunt must have professional attention, and sent her off in the end to fetch Dr. Selkirk. He’s not the doctor I’d normally call-a bad-tempered little Scotsman, semiretired, with a bee in his bonnet about keeping fit, and not much in the way of a bedside manner — but he was the one who lived nearest. I knew at that hour of the morning he was more likely to answer the doorbell than the telephone, and I thought that with any luck she could bring him back to the Rectory in ten minutes or so.
If I’d gone myself, I could have probably persuaded him more quickly, but I couldn’t leave poor Daphne on her own with a corpse, and we couldn’t both go. I’ve lived in Egypt and Syria, and I’ve seen what buzzards can do. So someone had to stay and discourage the vulture.
I don’t know quite how long I waited for them — it seemed a good deal more than the mauvais quart d’heure I’d bargained for. Isabella still seemed to be staring at me with her little black-currant eyes, and from time to time the horrible Roderigo spread his wings and screeched at me. Having only my nightclothes on under my raincoat made me feel ridiculously defenceless, and I wished I’d something more effective than my bare hands to ward him off with if he tried to challenge me for his breakfast.
The worst thing of all, though, was still the smell — it wasn’t simply disgusting but somehow narcotic, so that I felt dizzy as well as sick from it. I wondered if Isabella and her visitor had been smoking marijuana — I suppose it would be quite an effective way to heighten the atmosphere for a séance, or whatever one’s supposed to call it. It’s some years since I smoked any, and I don’t remember the effects being so unpleasant — but that was in Paris and in better company.
There were no ashtrays, though, and no traces of smoke in the room, so perhaps I was wrong about that. There weren’t any dirty glasses, either, which struck me as rather odd. Whatever else one might say about Isabella, I wouldn’t have thought she’d have sat all evening with a visitor without offering him a drink, and having one herself. Anyway, there were two empty champagne bottles in the wastepaper basket.
And Daphne had been sent straight to bed when she got home the night before, so she couldn’t have washed them then, and she certainly wouldn’t have stopped to do it after she found Isabella in the morning.
Well, of course, it wasn’t really at all odd — it simply meant that Isabella had washed the glasses herself, and then come back and sat down again on the chaise longue. That’s not at all an odd thing to do — it’s what I’d have done myself. Just not what I’d have expected Isabella to do — I’d have bet almost any sum you like to mention that she’d have left them for Daphne. Which shows how one can misjudge people. Or perhaps she’d just taken them through to the kitchen, and left them there to be washed.
It occurred to me, thinking of the kitchen, that I might find something there that I could use to ward off Roderigo. So I went quickly in there, leaving the door open so that I could keep an eye on him, and found just what I wanted — a long-handled broom, which made me feel much braver. But no dirty glasses anywhere, so Isabella must have washed them up after all. And yet somehow I still just couldn’t imagine her doing it, so I decided that it must have been her visitor — the man in the black Mercedes.
Dr. Selkirk, when he at last arrived, declined to examine the patient in the presence of the vulture. At the cost of several savage pecks, Daphne managed to remove the bird to the conservatory. After that, we waited at the far end of the room while the doctor carried out his examination.
“Heart,” he said, when he’d finished. “What did she expect, carrying all that weight?” He seldom misses a chance to point out the dangers of obesity.
“Will she have to go to hospital?” asked poor Daphne.
“It’s not the hospital she’s needing,” said Selkirk, with his usual tact. “It’s the undertaker’s. She’s dead, lassie — been dead for hours.”
And poor Daphne threw herself down on the floor and howled.
You’ll understand by this time why it’s been a trying day. It’s now nearly midnight, and I thought when I came to bed that I’d go straight to sleep. But I found I couldn’t, and decided to write to you instead.
The funeral’s on Friday, and with Daphne having no close family I somehow feel responsible for seeing that it all goes properly. There are all sorts of things that I could quite reasonably be lying awake and worrying about — like how to make Daphne presentable for it, and what to give people to eat, and whether we can find anyone to say a few words about how nice Isabella was.
What seems to be stopping me from sleeping, though, isn’t any of those things but a perfectly idiotic question of no importance at all, which is nagging away at me like a clue in the crossword that one hasn’t managed to get the answer to. As soon as I close my eyes, the absurd question which comes into my head and starts buzzing round there is, “Do men with Mercedes cars usually wash their own glasses?”
Yours with very much love,
“Dear me,” said Selena, turning her wineglass between her fingers, “it almost sounds as if she thought—” “She can’t really be suggesting—” said Ragwort.
“She thinks there’s something fishy about it,” said Cantrip, his eyes brightening with innocent enthusiasm at the thought of homicide. “The way she sees it, when you’re rich enough to have a Mercedes, you leave the dirty work to someone else. So if you suddenly start offering to help with the washing up, it’s a definite sign of fishiness. Bet you anything she’s right.”
“On the other hand,” said Selena, “isn’t it just possible that it was simply an act of politeness?”
“Though perhaps,” said Ragwort, “a rather officious one. One doesn’t normally offer to do the washing up if one’s simply been having drinks with someone — one would think they might feel embarrassed if they hadn’t tidied the kitchen. It’s different, of course, if they’re family, or if one’s staying the night.”
“Right,” said Cantrip. “So he didn’t do it to be polite, he did it because Isabella’s had cyanide in the bottom.”
“Surely not cyanide?” said Julia. “According to all that I have read on the subject — which I may say includes the complete works of the late Dame Agatha Christie and other almost equally distinguished authorities — the effect of cyanide is virtually instantaneous. When Maurice took Daphne home, the black Mercedes had already gone and Isabella was still well enough to shout out to Daphne that she didn’t want her for anything.”
“Oh, all right then,” said Cantrip, “arsenic or something — there are lots of poisons that take an hour or two to work. So at some stage in his chat with Isabella he slips whatever it is into her glass and sticks around until she’s finished drinking it. Then he does his New Man bit and washes up the glasses before he goes. He drives off, and Daphne and the Reverend get back ten minutes later, before whatever it is has started to work.”
“I defer,” said Selena, “to those who have read more widely than I have on the subject, but isn’t it considered usual for murderers to have some sort of motive?”
“Certainly,” said Julia. “But Isabella sounds like the sort of woman practically everyone wants to murder.”
“But not the man in the black Mercedes. He was a regular client and presumably valued her advice. Why should a satisfied client want to murder his fortuneteller?”
“Lots of reasons,” said Cantrip. “I expect she told him it was a good day for travel and romance and he’d got stuck in traffic on the M21 and had a blazing row with his bird. So he got miffed and poisoned her. Which is good, because now you can do your ace detective bit, Hilary, and unmask the villain and put it all in a book. ‘The Case of the Vulture, the Vicar and the Virgin’ is what you want to call it, and you’d better make this Daphne bird a gorgeous-looking blonde. Then you’ll make pots of money out of it and you can take us out to dinner.”
“My dear Cantrip,” I said, “alluring though these prospects are, I fear I must disappoint you. Julia’s aunt Regina is without question a shrewd and observant woman, but I think that in the present case she is being unduly fanciful. There are many possible explanations, all more commonplace and therefore more probable than murder, for the absence of unwashed glasses. I see no reason to doubt that Isabella died, as most people do, from perfectly natural causes.”
As I have already admitted to my readers, during my investigation of these events I was on several occasions entirely mistaken.
DEL COMINO — Isabella, suddenly on 22nd June at her home in Sussex. A wonderful and caring person whose great gifts as a healer and teacher were devoted to helping others. Her wisdom and guidance will be missed above all by her niece, Daphne, who will humbly but proudly strive to continue her work. Funeral 12 noon on Friday, 25th June, at St. Ethel’s Church, Parsons Haver.
[Deaths column of the Times]
IT WAS A FRIDAY suitable to funerals, the sky sombre with the threat of unseasonable rain and an unpleasant clamminess in the air. Rather earlier than usual — a document crucial to my researches had been capriciously removed to Kew — I left the Public Record Office and made my way to the coffeehouse at the top of Chancery Lane, expecting it to be some time before I was joined there by any of my friends.
Soon afterwards, however, Selena appeared and began to talk about men, expressing herself on that subject with unusual bitterness. Thinking that this must signify some unhappy rift in her relationship with my young friend and colleague Sebastian Verity, the customary companion of her idler moments, I enquired with some concern what he had done to displease her.
“When I speak of men,” said Selena, “I do not mean Sebastian. Sebastian is not a man in the sense in which I am at present using that term — that is to say, he is not a man who undertakes any kind of building work. Three weeks ago I arranged to have a site meeting at nine-thirty this morning with the carpenter, the plumber and the electrician, to work out exactly what was going to be done when and how they were all going to fit in together. Since when, rather than cancel it, I’ve turned down a very nice little brief in the Companies Court. And now the plumber’s rung up to say that his van’s broken down and he can’t be here before midday. And the electrician’s rung up to say that he has an emergency in High Barnet and can’t be here until the afternoon. And the carpenter’s rung up to say that he has a family bereavement and can’t be here at all. Hilary, do you think men in the building trade always behave like this?”
“No, no,” I said soothingly. “I’m sure it’s most unusual.” What was unusual, from all I had ever heard of such matters, was not their failure to arrive but their telephoning to give notice of it; I did not think it constructive to mention this.
“Still, I suppose there’s a bright side. Sir Robert Renfrew’s suddenly decided he wants another conference — he’s coming round at eleven-thirty At least I don’t have to worry about him being showered with carpenters.” She gave a small sigh, as if nonetheless expecting the conference to present her with further troubles.
I asked if Sir Robert was still expecting her to advise him on the choice of his successor.
“I’m afraid so. His latest idea is that if I meet the two directors concerned I’ll somehow be able to tell which of them is the insider dealer. He’s bringing them along so that I can have a look at them. They don’t know that’s why, of course — ostensibly I’m advising on the documents for the next takeover.”
“It’s gratifying, at least, that he has such faith in your judgment.”
“Well, it would be if it weren’t utterly absurd — I’m beginning to feel like the girl in the fairy story who was expected to spin straw into gold.”
Julia arrived: she had received a further letter from her aunt.
24 High Street
Thursday, 24th June
I had a rather strange conversation with Ricky yesterday, and he told me why he advised us to buy those shares you were interested in — this is the first chance I’ve had to sit down and write to you about it. I seem to have spent as much time on Isabella’s funeral as if she’d been my dearest friend — which, as you know, she wasn’t.
Maurice is in rather the same position — he’s been spending as much time on it as if she’d been his most devout parishioner, which she also wasn’t. Still, it does make things a bit easier that he’s going to conduct the service, and that it’s going to be at St. Ethel’s. I’d have expected her to want Stonehenge, with the Archdruid presiding, but Daphne seems quite sure she’d have wanted Maurice to do it—”She always said you were her adversary, Father Dulcimer, but an honourable adversary and a true priest.” Oh dear, poor Maurice.
He seems at the moment to be the only person who can deal with Daphne — she’s still very upset, poor girl. Understandably, of course, as Isabella was all she had, even if — well, never mind. I brought her back here with me on Tuesday morning and Mrs. Tyrrell fed her on tea and chocolate cake while I rang the undertakers and so on, but it was only when Maurice arrived that she began to calm down at all. I dare say Isabella would have seen this as a sign of his “great spiritual authority.”
He asked Daphne the name of her aunt’s solicitor — a Mr. Godwin, living in London — and rang him up and told him what had happened. It seems that Isabella made a will about two years ago, soon after she moved here, and Mr. Godwin is appointed the executor — it doesn’t say anything about funeral arrangements, except that she wanted to be buried rather than cremated. Mr. Godwin said he couldn’t come down for the funeral, but he’d be getting in touch with Daphne in due course.
He was rather cagey about the provisions of the will, but Maurice thought it sounded as if Daphne didn’t have much to worry about financially — it sets up some kind of trust and she’ll get the income from the whole estate. She doesn’t have much for immediate living expenses — just sixty pounds or so that Isabella had in her handbag — but Maurice has had a word with Mr. Iqbal at the supermarket, and she can go on using Isabella’s account there for the next three or four weeks, until it’s all sorted out.
There didn’t seem to be anyone else to be personally notified of Isabella’s death — she’d apparently never been married, though the name she was born with turns out to have been Isabel Cummings. Her only sister died a year or two ago. But Daphne was very anxious to have it announced in all the newspapers, national as well as local, and wanted Maurice to help her with getting the wording right.
So he told her to write out what she wanted to say and said he’d come back later and look it over. I settled her down in the garden, with a notepad and a couple of ballpoint pens, and left her to work on it.
After three hours or so she came back into the house, with ink all over her face from chewing on the ballpoint, and showed me what she’d written. It ran to about a dozen foolscap pages — at a guess, roughly twice what the Times would allow for a senior statesman or Nobel Prize winner. There wasn’t much in the way of factual detail — when Isabella was born, or where she’d lived, or what she’d actually done that was at all remarkable — but a great deal about what a wonderful, caring person she’d been, and a wide selection of her views on life, death, and the nature of the universe.
I felt I had to say that it was on the long side.
Tears of indignation. Daphne said that Aunt Isabella had been a wonderful person, and she ought to have a proper obituary — meaning, I gather, a full page in the Times. Aunt Isabella would have wanted a proper obituary, not a stupid little two-line notice, as if she were just anybody, and if she couldn’t have one it wasn’t fair.
At this stage, luckily, Maurice came back. I must say, he coped splendidly. Truly gifted and remarkable people, he said, very seldom get the recognition they deserve in their own time. Some of the greatest thinkers and prophets, including Socrates and the founder of the Christian Church, would quite possibly not have been given a full-page obituary in the Times. The Times—and all the other newspapers, even the Guardian—were essentially Establishment minded and conservative in their thinking, and couldn’t be expected to appreciate someone whose ideas leapt over the traditional boundaries. After about an hour of this, Daphne agreed to cut down what she’d written to a length which could be inserted at reasonable cost in the deaths column.
She stayed here all day and Griselda joined us for supper and to offer condolences. I’m afraid that by the time we’d finished I was rather longing to have the house to myself again, but it seemed wretched for Daphne to have to go back and spend the night on her own at the Rectory. The undertakers had removed the body, of course, but even so — I felt I had to ask if she’d like to sleep in the spare bedroom.
“Oh no,” she said, “I have to stay at the Rectory. If Aunt Isabella’s dead, I’m the Custodian.”
“You could go and put out food for the birds,” I said, “and then come back here.”
“Not of the birds,” she said, looking very anxious and solemn. “Of the Book. I’m the Custodian of the Book.”
So I didn’t feel I had to argue any more about it. Griselda very kindly walked back to the Rectory with her, and I went off to bed expecting to go straight to sleep.
But as you know I didn’t, and instead sat up writing you a ridiculous letter all about dirty glasses — please take no notice, it was simply because I was tired.
I woke up next morning worrying about something completely different — who was going to give the eulogy at Isabella’s funeral? You know the kind of thing I mean — a little speech about nice things she’d done and how everyone would miss her.
What really worried me was that if there was no one else Daphne might expect me to do it, and I’d have to say no. It’s all very well for Maurice — clergymen have to get used to saying things they don’t mean, just like lawyers — but I simply didn’t think I could do it.
And then I thought of Ricky. It seemed like rather a brain wave, because he’d known her longer than anyone else in Haver and was actually a friend of hers. So I rang Maurice and asked him to sound out Ricky to make sure he’d say yes if Daphne asked him to do it. Maurice said it would be better if I did the sounding out — he’d already talked to Ricky and felt that he’d like it if I got in touch.
So I rang Ricky and explained that I was helping Daphne with the funeral arrangements and there were one or two things it would be nice to discuss with him. I was really rather glad to have a reason for ringing him — I thought he might be feeling upset about Isabella and want someone to talk to, and I wouldn’t have liked him to feel he couldn’t come round and see me just because I’d been a bit cross with him. On the other hand, not being sure exactly what terms he’d been on with her, I couldn’t very well offer anything like formal condolences.
He came round bringing a bottle of Sancerre, and we sat out in the garden drinking it. I still didn’t quite know what to say about Isabella. In the end, I thought that the best thing was simply to begin by talking about the funeral arrangements, and leave it to him to say how sad he was she was dead, or whatever he wanted to say. Instead of that, he suddenly interrupted me, and said, “Reg — about those shares you thought I told her about.”
Of course I told him not to be silly — it was all water under the bridge and there was no need to mention it.
“No,” he said. “No, I want to explain — I didn’t tell Isabella about those shares.”
“Now really, Ricky,” I said, almost beginning to feel a bit impatient, because after all no one else could have done.
“I didn’t tell her about them,” said Ricky. “She told me.”
Not long after she moved here, and she and Ricky renewed their acquaintance, she’d said that she’d like to give him a present — he was a friend, and she liked to give presents to her friends. The present was simply a free prediction — the shareholders in a particular company were going to have something to celebrate within the next month — he could make as much or as little of it as he liked.
Well, Ricky couldn’t see any reason for the shares to go up, but so that she wouldn’t be offended he bought a few. A couple of weeks later there was a takeover bid, and they doubled in value almost overnight. By the time Maurice and Griselda and I asked him for his advice, this had happened three or four times and he thought that the best thing he could do for us was to give us the benefit of Isabella’s predictions.
“But look here,” I said. “You don’t actually believe that Isabella could foretell the future?” From the way he’d told me the story, it seemed to be the only explanation.
“Oh,” said Ricky, “anyone can foretell the future, if their information’s good enough.”
According to Ricky, Isabella hadn’t always been a fortune-teller. In her younger days, she was a hostess at a London nightclub which was popular at that time with businessmen and stockbrokers and so on. In the course of her conversations with customers — well yes, Julia, I think that probably is a slightly expurgated version — she learnt a great deal about what was going on in financial circles, including a lot of things that no one was supposed to know were going on and some things that weren’t supposed to be going on at all. That, in Ricky’s view, was the basis of her success as a fortuneteller.
I was surprised, if her information was as reliable as that, that she hadn’t simply used it to make money on the stock market, instead of bothering with the fortune-telling business. But she seems to have had some kind of superstition about that — she thought it would be unlucky for her to invest in shares herself, and she never did.
“But Ricky,” I said, “all this must have been at least twenty or thirty years ago. How could she still go on getting information?”
“Information’s like money,” said Ricky. “Once you’ve got it, you can use it to get more. You can buy one secret by keeping another. ‘I’m keeping your secret because you’re my friend — prove you’re my friend by telling me—’ Well, whatever it is you want.”
I thought this was all beginning to sound rather unpleasant — almost as if Isabella had been a professional blackmailer.
“Yes,” said Ricky. “That’s right. That’s what she was. There must be quite a number of people who aren’t sorry she’s dead — as a matter of fact, I’m one of them. I’ve had a pretty rotten two years of it, Reg.”
I didn’t really feel, after this, that I could ask him to deliver the eulogy.
Selena had allowed her first cup of coffee to grow cold. She ordered another and sat gazing at it with a look of judicial severity, as if it were a witness she suspected of being evasive.
“According to Madame Louisa,” said Julia, “this ought to be a good day for me to solve problems. But she doesn’t seem to mean that I can be any help with yours — knowing that Ricky Farnham’s information came from Isabella doesn’t really take you any further.”
“Oh,” said Selena, “I wouldn’t say that exactly. At least it means I know what question I’m trying to answer. I thought what I had to guess was which of the directors wanted money enough to take the risk of insider dealing. Whereas what I actually have to guess is which of them was being blackmailed by Isabella into giving her confidential information.”
“You sound quite sure that that’s what was happening.”
“How else could she have known about the shares? Unless she really did have prophetic powers, of course — but it would be rather odd, wouldn’t it, if they only applied to takeovers involving one particular investment bank?”
“But how could she make use of the information if she never invested in the stock market?”
“Oh, by selling it — that’s to say, by passing it on to one or two favoured clients in the form of a psychic prediction. But the fee, I imagine, would have been considerably larger than people usually get for crystal gazing or reading tea leaves. It’s really rather clever — it would be almost impossible to prove that any offence had been committed.”
“Well,” said Julia, “if you’d like to tell your client about Isabella, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t — it can’t cause any embarrassment to my aunt.”
“No,” said Selena, frowning slightly. “No, I suppose not, but — all the same, I don’t think I’ll tell him. What he knows at present is that one of his codirectors is guilty of insider dealing. He doesn’t know which and it’s making him very unhappy. If I tell him about Isabella, he’ll know that one or the other of them must also be guilty of something else — something serious enough to be blackmailed for — and he still won’t know which. I don’t think that’s going to make him feel any happier. And since it’s the duty of Counsel, so far as humanly possible, to keep the client happy, I’m not going to tell him.”
Her decision was taken, as my readers will have observed, with full and proper regard to the interests of her client. If I say that it might have been better had she decided otherwise, I speak with the benefit of hindsight.
Anyway, as it turned out, I needn’t have worried at all about the eulogy — Daphne wants to do it herself. There’s no reason why she shouldn’t, of course — we all just assumed that she’d be too upset, and nervous of speaking in public.
The only problem now is making her look presentable — we really can’t let her go to the funeral looking like some sort of vagrant, especially if all Isabella’s friends from London are going to be there. So I’m giving her my grey silk Chanel dress, with the little jacket — I’d have to lose half a stone to wear it again and I’m quite resigned to never doing that.
I’ve told her to come round here to change into it, in good time for me to see that it fits properly — it needed a bit of taking in — so I’ll be able to make sure she’s properly washed and brushed and doesn’t have a chance to get it dirty before the funeral.
She had some idea at first that this wasn’t a suitable time to be worrying about her appearance, but I told her that it would be disrespectful to Isabella not to try to look her best. I said that if my niece didn’t wash her hair and wear a nice dress for my funeral I’d be so cross I’d jump out of my coffin — and I would, so don’t dare forget it when the time comes. Anyway, Maurice said he agreed with me and since, in Daphne’s eyes, he is now the fount of all wisdom, there was no further argument.
We’ve also persuaded her to invite people here, rather than the Rectory, for something to eat and drink afterwards. The only room for entertaining guests at the Rectory is the drawing room, where Isabella died — it really would be too macabre. It’s absolutely typical of Isabella — oh dear, I know the poor woman didn’t do it on purpose, but it’s quite the most inconvenient room for anyone to die in.
I’ve no idea how many there’ll be. Daphne seems to be expecting hundreds—”all the people Aunt Isabella helped so much”—though after what Ricky’s told me I’m not at all sure how many that means. I’m simply going to assume that I’m catering for about three dozen — if it’s a hopeless underestimate, she’ll just have to be selective about who she asks back.
Anyway, I’m not doing anything elaborate — mostly sandwiches, with a choice between ham and chicken and prawns and so on. And some stuffed eggs and some cheese puffs and odds and ends like that. And some little éclairs, in case they want something sweet. And Daphne says she’s bringing some sponge cakes, made from a recipe Isabella taught her.
Mrs. Tyrrell’s coming in to help, though it isn’t one of her mornings, and won’t let me pay her for it — something to do with Daphne being an orphan. And Griselda’s doing all the flowers, of course.
I must admit, I’m very curious to see all these friends of Isabella’s. I’ll let you know in due course how it all goes.
Yours with much love,
“I remember your aunt’s little éclairs,” said Selena dreamily. “Do you think we could get ourselves invited?”
“Too late,” said Julia. “The service starts at twelve and it’s already twenty past eleven. Even if you drove—”
“Twenty past—? Oh Lord,” said Selena, and left in haste for her conference.
Julia and I finished our coffee and returned to Lincoln’s Inn at a more leisurely pace. We were in time to see a large black Mercedes motorcar draw up opposite the entrance to 62 New Square.
IT LOOKED LIKE a funeral procession: four dark-suited men emerged from the long black motorcar and walked silently, in single file, towards the steps leading up to the main doorway.
From the doorway of 63 New Square, Julia and I had no difficulty in observing them. They were led by an elderly gentleman, whom I recognised as the senior partner in a firm of City solicitors — his name, as I recalled, was Mr. Vavasour — and who was, I assumed, the solicitor instructing Selena on behalf of Sir Robert Renfrew. He was followed by Sir Robert Renfrew himself. I concluded that the other two were Sir Robert’s codirectors and potential successors — Edgar Albany and Geoffrey Bolton.
They might have been chosen to illustrate the characteristic differences between those of Saxon and those of Celtic descent. The one I thought of as Saxon was a little over six feet in height, heavily built and of florid complexion, his face egg shaped under thinning fair hair, with blue eyes as round as marbles and a small rosebud mouth curiously inappropriate in the face of a middle-aged man. He walked rather stiffly, always looking straight ahead, as if not wishing to appear in any way impressed by his surroundings. Sir Robert, turning at the top of the steps to make some remark to him, addressed him as Edgar.
By a process of elimination, then, the other must be Geoffrey Bolton. He was several inches shorter than his rival and lighter boned, but giving the impression of a certain muscularity. His complexion was rather pale, his hair and eyebrows very black by contrast. Though I had read in the Scuttle that he was only five years younger than Albany, the resilience of his step and the alertness of his expression made the difference appear greater — at a distance one might almost have taken him for an undergraduate, still eager and curious.
And yet, despite these differences, either of them might reasonably have been described as “a middle-aged man in a City suit”; neither had any physical characteristic so remarkable that some reference to it would necessarily be added to that description; either, in short, might be the man whom the Reverend Maurice had seen emerging from the black Mercedes on its visits to Isabella.
That the mysterious visitor had been one or the other of them I already had little doubt. One of the directors of Renfrews’ had been supplying Isabella with confidential information: he must therefore have been in some form of regular communication with her. If one of them owned or habitually drove a black Mercedes, it would be perverse to imagine that her only regular visitor from outside Parsons Haver had been someone entirely different, driving by pure coincidence a black motorcar of the same expensive and accordingly unusual make.
I had only to discover which of the directors was the owner of the car and I would at once know the answer to the problem which was so much troubling Selena.
There was one obstacle, however, to my reaching an immediate solution: neither Albany nor Bolton had on this occasion actually been driving the car. The driver was a young woman, who remained in the driving seat while the four men descended. Having set down her passengers, she manoeuvred the car into a parking space in the middle of Old Square and set off on foot in the direction of the gateway to Lincoln’s Inn Fields. She walked briskly, as if with some definite objective.
Though there might have been other ways of learning who owned the Mercedes, the Scholar in pursuit of knowledge is impatient of any delay. Bidding a hasty good-bye to Julia, I set off at a similar pace in the same direction.
The young woman went through the gateway and was hidden from my view, but came in sight again when I reached the Fields — a tall, slim figure in a beige raincoat, her fair hair drawn back to the nape of her neck in some kind of knot or chignon. The athletic vigour of her stride began to suggest to me that she intended to walk some distance, perhaps, after all, despite the threatening sky, only for the sake of exercise. It was with some relief that I saw her enter the small Museum on the north side of the Fields founded by the late Sir John Soane.
There is a book, in the entrance hall of the Museum, in which visitors are invited to inscribe their names. I noticed, as I signed, that the name above mine, neatly written, with a fountain pen rather than a ballpoint, was Katharine Tavistock, with an address in Islington.
Not seeing her in any of the ground-floor rooms, I climbed the winding staircase to the first floor, my progress a little impeded by enthusiastic groups of tourists and schoolchildren. I eventually caught up with her in the Picture Room, where she appeared absorbed in the series of paintings by Hogarth known collectively as the Rake’s Progress. Concealing myself behind a conveniently placed statue of Apollo, I was able to study her unobserved while considering how I should approach her.
She was older than I had at first imagined — not less, though perhaps not much more than forty — and too large boned and large featured to be, or ever have been considered, beautiful. She was wearing a severely tailored trouser suit — no doubt expensive, but seeming designed to convey competence and professional standing rather than any interest in allurement. Some quality about her made me dismiss the idea of a matrimonial connection with any of her former passengers; and yet she did not quite look like a person employed solely as a driver. I decided that she must be the personal assistant of whom Selena had spoken and in whom Sir Robert had expressed such absolute trust.
When finally she turned away from the misadventures of Tom Rakewell, I stepped forward, so that for the first time we were face to face. “Miss Tavistock,” I cried. “What an unexpected pleasure — are you playing truant from your office?”
Few people have the self-possession, when warmly greeted by name, to disclaim all acquaintance with the person addressing them: Miss Tavistock did not prove to be one of them. To have forgotten merely my name would have been enough to embarrass her; to have forgotten me entirely, when I so clearly remembered her, was a discourtesy unthinkable to admit. With a blush and an anxious smile, she entered on an explanation for her presence in the Museum.
“Oh no, not really — I had to bring Sir Robert to a meeting in Lincoln’s Inn, and two of the directors, and of course I have to pick them up again afterwards, so I thought I’d look in here and see how poor Tom Rakewell was getting on. I usually do that when we’re in this part of the world.”
“Are you hoping for a happy ending? One day you’ll come in and find a picture showing him reformed, and married to Sarah, and living comfortably and respectably ever after?”
“Well, not quite that. Though as a matter of fact, you know, I think it would be a more realistic ending. Tom’s quite an ordinary sort of person — he’s not really wicked, not wicked on principle like Lovelace or the Vicomte de Valmont. He’s just selfish and greedy and — well, not terribly bright. I’ve never actually met anyone like the Vicomte de Valmont,” she said, sounding as if it were something she rather regretted, “but of course I’ve met lots of people like Tom. And they usually end up being respectable, unless they’re very unlucky.”
Though she seemed to accept it as natural that I should remain in her company, I judged it prudent to approach the subject I wished to speak of by a slightly circuitous route. I began, since it was clearly an interest of hers, by talking of the eighteenth-century novel; from there it was an easy step to the drama of the same period; this allowed me to refer to the celebrated performance of David Garrick in the role of King Lear; having mentioned Lear, I felt able to enquire, as I hoped apparently en passant, whether Sir Robert had said anything further of his plans for retirement.
She smiled, evidently not doubting that my question showed merely a friendly interest in a subject of which she had spoken to me in some previous conversation, now unaccountably forgotten.
“Poor Sir Robert, I suppose he does feel rather like that about it — having to give up his kingdom and not knowing which of his daughters deserves to get it. But it wouldn’t really be fair, you know, to think of Mr. Albany and Mr. Bolton as anything like Goneril and Regan.”
I had no difficulty, after this, in encouraging her to go on talking about them — more freely, perhaps, than she would have done if she had not still felt embarrassed by her inability to remember who I was.
It appeared that Edgar Albany was related to Sir Robert both by blood and by marriage. His great-grandmother had been a Renfrew who had married an Albany: I gathered from Miss Tavistock’s discreet summary of the circumstances that she had done so to improve her social position. His aunt, the Chairman’s wife, was an Albany who had married a Renfrew: I gathered from an even more discreet summary that she had done so to improve her financial position.
Geoffrey Bolton’s background was less distinguished — indeed, Edgar Albany sometimes said that he had no background. He had been born, as one could tell from his accent, in Lancashire, and his parents had not been the sort of people that one expected to have heard of.
“Which of course,” said Miss Tavistock with sudden asperity, “may reflect rather well on them, because the things one hears of people for aren’t always things to be proud of, are they?”
Albany had been educated at Eton and Cambridge, where he had obtained a third-class degree in History. Bolton had not enjoyed the same educational advantages: he had attended a state school and then, Miss Tavistock thought, some kind of adult education college — he never said much about his time there and she was uncertain about the details.
“So it’s all the more to his credit, of course, that since then he’s done so well.”
Albany had been with Renfrews’ since leaving Cambridge. Bolton, for much of his life, had worked abroad. Sir Robert had met him about five years before in the course of some negotiations with an investment bank in New York and been so impressed by his abilities that he at once offered him a senior position.
Their talents were also entirely different. It was universally agreed that Bolton was brilliant at the technicalities of investment management. Albany specialised more in interpersonal skills, which of course were also very important in investment banking.
“I don’t mean,” said Miss Tavistock, “that Mr. Bolton doesn’t get on well with people. Sir Robert says that he’s a bit of a rough diamond, and he speaks his mind, of course — Northcountrymen do, don’t they? — but almost everyone likes him.”
Though she disparaged neither, I observed when she spoke of Albany that almost imperceptible tightening of the facial muscles and vocal cords which indicates dislike, or at best irritation: I suspected that she thought him an example of the failings that she had attributed to Tom Rakewell. When she mentioned Bolton, on the other hand, her voice softened and she smiled slightly; but it seemed fanciful to infer that the blunt Lancastrian had any quality which she found reminiscent of the subtle and sophisticated Vicomte de Valmont.
None of this, however, shed any light on which of them owned the black Mercedes. I cautiously ventured to enquire further about their personal circumstances.
It appeared that Albany had been married to a very charming woman, entirely suitable in every way, and had two children, but to Sir Robert’s great disappointment the marriage had ended in divorce. His wife and children now occupied the house in Norfolk which he had inherited from his grandmother, while he himself lived in a flat in central London.
Bolton had a wife, to whom he was still married, but whether she was charming or not neither Miss Tavistock nor anyone else at Renfrews’ was in any position to say. He insisted on keeping his personal and his professional life entirely separate and accordingly had never introduced her to any of his colleagues, not even to Sir Robert. Though he had a flat close to the City, where he lived during the week, his wife, so far as Miss Tavistock knew, spent all her time at their house in Buckinghamshire, which no one from Renfrews’ had ever been invited to visit. It was rather a pity, because it made people think that there must be something odd about her, something socially unacceptable.
“But probably she’s just very shy and doesn’t like meeting strangers, in which case it’s really rather nice of Mr. Bolton not to try to make her.”
The indirectness of my approach had cost some little time: Miss Tavistock was looking at her watch. After all I had learnt about the two directors of Renfrews’, I still could not think of any natural way of asking what kind of cars they owned. Not being greatly interested in motor vehicles, I could imagine no convincing reason for wishing to know such a thing. I resigned myself to disappointment.
She was a pleasant sort of woman and it would have seemed unkind to leave her in perplexity: saying that if she were at any time in Oxford she must be sure to get in touch, I wrote down for her the telephone number of St. George’s on the back of an envelope bearing my name. Her relief was perceptible: I no longer represented a nightmare of embarrassment.
We left the Museum together and I walked back with her to Lincoln’s Inn. When we reached Old Square, where she had parked the car, I saw that I had been singularly obtuse.
“What a splendid car,” I said. “A Mercedes, I believe. Does it belong to Sir Robert or to one of his co-directors?”
“Oh no, Professor Tamar, it’s a company car. We have a fleet of four of them, actually — so even when one of them’s being serviced, there’s always one available for the Chairman and each of the directors.”
“But I suppose there are differences between them?” I said a little desperately, seeing that the solution was after all about to elude me. “Surely the Chairman’s car must be grander than the others?”
“Oh no, Professor Tamar,” she said, laughing, at ease with me now that she knew my name. “We’re a very democratic organisation — apart from the licence plates, they’re all identical.”
As is the way of the Scholar when Truth proves unexpectedly elusive, I was unable to dismiss from my mind the problem I had failed to solve. Finding no escape from it in my researches in the Public Record Office, I spent the afternoon walking restlessly in the gardens of the Inner Temple, pausing but seldom for refreshment or repose. I could hardly believe, having learnt so much, that I was no nearer to knowing whether it was Albany or Bolton whom Isabella had been blackmailing.
And yet it was so. Certainly, I had now no doubt that whichever one it was had been her visitor in the black Mercedes: with four Mercedes motorcars provided by Renfrews’ Bank, it would have been logically preposterous to invent a fifth. This information, however, now seemed to count for nothing: when it was put in the balance, the scales remained equally poised.
There was a further thought which I found slightly disturbing: the last visit of the Mercedes to Parsons Haver had been on the night of Isabella’s sudden and unexpected death. I had dismissed rather lightly, as my readers may recall, the suggestion that she had been poisoned; but I had not known then that she was a blackmailer, or that the man in the black Mercedes was one of her victims.
Selena seemed not altogether grateful for my efforts to find the solution to her problem. Remark was made, when I told her of them in the Corkscrew that evening, on the readiness of Oxford academics, too idle to pursue their proper researches, to meddle instead with things that were none of their business.
“My dear Selena,” I said, “do be careful — you’re beginning to sound like the Bursar. Tell me, what happened at your conference? What opinion did you form of the suspects? Did you reach any conclusion?”
“Hmm,” said Selena, with another of her sideways looks. She softened, however, under the benevolent influence of her wine. “Well, as a matter of fact, there isn’t much to tell. So far as the insider-dealing problem is concerned, it was a complete waste of time — I had none of the miraculous insights that Sir Robert was evidently hoping for. He rang me later and I had to tell him I still couldn’t help. Poor old chap, I’m afraid he was very disappointed.”
“Which of them do you think he’d prefer it to be — Albany or Bolton?”
“I don’t know. Albany’s a sort of cousin of his, and Lady Renfrew’s nephew into the bargain, so it would be fairly embarrassing if he turned out to be the insider dealer. On the other hand, recruiting Geoffrey Bolton was very much Sir Robert’s personal decision, and so far it’s been a great success and he’s very proud of it. It would be quite painful for him to find that it was a misjudgement.”
“Would it be unfair to suspect that Albany owes his position at Renfrews’ rather to his family connections than to his personal qualities?”
“Well,” said Selena, “I certainly wouldn’t suspect him of owing it to his intellectual abilities. But then, he doesn’t claim to be an expert on the technical side. They all agree that Bolton is the one with the technical expertise. Albany’s the one who talks to clients and so on.”
“Miss Tavistock said that he specialised in interpersonal skills. I understood her to mean that his chief asset was personal charm.”
“Yes,” said Selena, after some reflection. “Yes, I think that’s how he would understand it, too. He has a way of treating one just like his social equal which one would find very charming, I expect, if one happened to think of oneself as his social inferior. On the other hand, you might understand it to mean that he went to the same school as a number of people who have money to invest and who like the idea of its being looked after by someone from their old school.”
“While Bolton, having not been to a school of that kind, is considered to be something of a rough diamond?”
“That’s how Sir Robert sometimes puts it, but all he really means is that Bolton has a Lancashire accent. As a matter of fact, I’d say that Bolton has infinitely more personal charm than Albany.”
“Ah,” I said.
“Not at all,” said Selena, sounding a little vexed. “As you know, Hilary, I am devoted to Sebastian, and there can be no question of ‘ah.’ ”
I hastened to assure her that I had not used the word in any sense to which she could reasonably take objection.
“I was merely noting that you found Bolton a more attractive personality than Albany — it might follow that you thought Albany the more likely suspect. More likely, that is to say, to have done something sufficiently disgraceful to expose him to blackmail.”
“Only if I thought that an attractive personality could be relied on as evidence of good character. As you may perhaps have noticed, that isn’t always the case. No, I’m afraid I’d have to say that at the moment Geoffrey Bolton looks to me like the more likely suspect.”
“Merely because he’s the more attractive? My dear Selena, isn’t that a rather prejudiced attitude?”
“No,” said Selena, “not because of that. Because no one knows who he is.”
She rose and went to the bar to replenish our glasses, leaving me in some perplexity. I gently suggested, on her return, that her previous observation was palpably untrue.
“Well, it depends on what you mean by knowing who someone is. My client met Bolton about five years ago, when he was working for a bank in New York, and offered him a job straightaway, simply on the basis of personal impression. Exactly how long he’d been in New York and what he’d been doing before he got there Sir Robert has no idea — as far as I can see, he could have come from outer space.”
“But surely he made enquiries of some kind about him before offering him a senior position at Renfrews’?”
“What sort of enquiries would you expect? If you meet a man in his forties, occupying a senior position in a bank of international standing, you don’t ask him to prove that he’s qualified to do it — you just assume he is. You don’t mind if he started his career as an office boy — if he did, it’s a sign of his ability that he’s progressed so far. And you don’t want to ask his present employers too many questions about him, in case they guess that you’re trying to poach him.”
“Didn’t he even want to know about Bolton’s educational background?” The fervent pursuit by the young of certificates, diplomas and degrees, of impressive curricula and favourable references — was it all mere wasted effort?
“Well, it was clear from his accent that he hadn’t been to the kind of school Sir Robert had. He mentioned having been to a grammar school in Lancashire and then to some sort of college in some town in the Midlands. Sir Robert didn’t see any point in pressing him for details — he was happy to accept him as more or less self-educated and rather admired him for it.”
“But when he started work at Renfrews’, weren’t there forms to fill in? What about income tax and national insurance and pension schemes and all that sort of thing?”
“If he’d spent all his working life outside the United Kingdom, you wouldn’t expect him to have been paying tax or insurance. When you come down to it, the only document one needs to prove that one exists is one’s birth certificate. The bank’s personnel department has a copy of Geoffrey Bolton’s birth certificate and I dare say he was born when it says he was. But after that there’s a period of over forty years unaccounted for.”
He had been with Renfrews’, however, for over five years: it seemed to me inconceivable that none of his colleagues should in that time have learnt any more about his previous career than had been known when he was first appointed. In the course of his ordinary day-to-day conversations, he must surely sometimes have said something, however trivial, which would give some hint of what he had done, whom he had known, where he had lived, during his twenties and thirties.
“Apparently not. He sometimes mentions things that he did in New York, but apart from that he simply never talks about his past. I suppose,” said Selena, sounding, however, as if she thought otherwise, “that he may just think that people wouldn’t be interested.”
It seemed likely, I had to agree, that he had some more powerful motive for avoiding the subject.
“And I gather,” I said, remembering what I had heard from Miss Tavistock, “that he’s equally reticent about his private life — none of his colleagues has ever met his wife or visited his house?”
“Never once. You see, he insisted when Sir Robert offered him the post that he must be allowed to keep his business and private lives completely separate. Sir Robert rather assumed that it was actually his wife who’d insisted — that she didn’t want to be a company wife and have to go to office cocktail parties and entertain clients at weekends and so on. So that was part of the deal, though I’m not sure my client expected to be held to it quite so strictly.”
“If your client were determined to find out what Bolton did out of office hours, I imagine there would be ways of doing it.”
“Private detectives? Well, I did suggest that possibility when he first asked me about the problem, but it didn’t go down well — he thought it wouldn’t be gentlemanly. That’s to say, he thought he’d be found out and Bolton would be so angry he’d resign. And if after all it was Albany who turned out to be the insider dealer, that would be a rather major disaster for the bank. So you see what I mean, Hilary, when I say that no one knows who Geoffrey Bolton is. At Renfrews’, he’s a respectable banker. Outside Renfrews’, he could be — anyone or anything.”
I understood why she thought Bolton a likely subject for blackmail.
It was again in the Corkscrew, three or four evenings later, that Julia read to us her aunt’s account of the funeral.
24 High Street
Saturday, 26th June
Oh dear, I always forget what a romantic sort of girl you are, probably because of all those Georgette Heyer novels I lent you when you had measles. I suppose I’ve led you to expect a Cinderella story and I’m afraid I have to disappoint you.
The Chanel dress didn’t transform Daphne into a raving beauty. No charming man fell instantly in love with her. And no one came to the funeral.
No one, that is, of the sort that she seemed to have been expecting. Ricky and Griselda were both there, of course, and a handful of people from the village, either because they were sorry for Daphne or because they were curious about who else would come. Fewer than a dozen in the whole congregation, and only one that I didn’t recognise — a rather good-looking young man in grey corduroy. Daphne said she’d never seen him before and had no idea who he was.
She delivered the eulogy without bursting into tears or stammering too much, so I suppose one ought to say that she did rather well. She spoke in a very portentous little voice, like an archbishop announcing the death of a senior statesman, and always referred to Isabella by her full name, as if she were one of the greatest figures of our time. It was along the same lines as the obituary she wrote — all about Isabella’s great gifts for guidance and healing and how she’d been a caring and wonderful person who’d devoted her life to helping others. With many quotations, of course, from Isabella herself, and a bit about Daphne being sad but proud to be left to carry on her work.
She’d evidently written out what she wanted to say, and was reading from her notes, but they didn’t seem to start or finish anywhere in particular — in fact, I began to wonder whether they’d finish at all.
I had the distinct impression, after twenty minutes or so, that she’d got back to her starting point and was beginning all over again. Maurice must have thought the same, because he took advantage of what I suspect was only meant to be a pause to say, “Daphne, thank you — that was most moving” and make a signal to the organist.
Still, it seemed to make Daphne feel better, which I suppose is the main thing. Griselda and I stood beside her as the coffin was put in the grave, and she was calmer than we’d expected her to be.
Maurice stopped and had a word with the young man in grey corduroy and it turned out that he was there by mistake. He’d come into the churchyard to see if he could find the grave of his great-grandfather, who he thought was buried there — he was quite right, actually, and Maurice was able to show him the gravestone — and then been tempted inside by our beautiful stained-glass windows. He’d felt that it wouldn’t be respectful to walk out again when he found there was a funeral going on, so he’d just stayed and listened. Poor Maurice, I could see he was longing to tell the young man all about our stained-glass windows — it’s one of his favourite subjects — but he saw that Daphne was getting slightly fretful, and restrained himself.
As there were so few people, and I felt that the young man had behaved rather nicely about not leaving in the middle of the service, I suggested to Daphne on the way across the churchyard that I might run back and invite him to join us for the funeral breakfast. Daphne wouldn’t hear of it, though. For some reason she’d taken an instant dislike to him — she said he had an untrustworthy aura.
Why she should have thought that I’ve no idea — perhaps she simply meant he was too good-looking. It’s true, of course, as I suppose you know by now, that very good-looking men usually aren’t to be trusted, but you must also remember that even quite ugly men often aren’t to be trusted either. So in the end you might just as well enjoy yourself and be let down by the good-looking ones.
Now the only thing left to worry about is what to do with all the sandwiches. Not to speak of the éclairs and meringues. Not to speak of a couple of dozen little sponge cakes which Daphne made herself and are quite undoubtedly the worst sponge cakes I have ever eaten, or for the sake of politeness tried to eat — like slices of rubber cooked in rancid oil, but not so appetising. Daphne’s convinced they’re delicious, though — they’re made from a recipe Isabella taught her.
Well, I don’t know that one could call it a successful funeral exactly, but at least we’ve got Isabella safely buried.
Yours with very much love,
A number of people, I imagined, would be hoping that Isabella’s secrets were safely buried with her. I rather wished that Daphne had not announced so publicly as she had her intention to carry on Isabella’s work: the phrase seemed to me to be open to misconstruction.
IT WOULD BE an impertinence little becoming the modesty of the Scholar to trouble you, dear reader, with matters ungermane to my present narrative. I therefore refrain from any account of my own activities — though these, on some other occasion, might be not without interest — during the six or seven weeks which followed Isabella’s funeral.
On the second Friday in August I again found myself in London, where I intended to spend the weekend before travelling by aeroplane to the United States of America. At the hour of the afternoon when tea is customarily taken I made my way to 62 New Square.
My first impression was that a small civil war had broken out, the result, possibly, of some unhappy disagreement between the Bar and the Law Society, and that 62 New Square had been chosen as a particular object of hostile bombardment. The air was heavy with the dust of shattered plaster; the walls and timbers shuddered at the pounding of hammers and the pitiless reverberation of electric drills; muscular men in string vests were attacking the building with blowtorches. In short, the builders were in.
In such conditions, an offer of tea seemed unlikely: I retreated to the Chambers next door. Even there, though tea was available in generous quantities, the level of noise remained too high for civilised discourse. Moreover, Julia had an urgent Opinion to write on the provisions of the latest Finance Act. She proposed, therefore, that while drinking my tea I should read the most recent letters from her aunt Regina.
“Some rather odd things,” said Julia, “seem to be going on in Parsons Haver. I’m beginning to feel slightly worried about it.”
24 High Street
Friday, 16th July
I’m sorry I had to cancel our lunch. In London nowadays, I suppose, you’re all quite used to people being burgled and wouldn’t dream of letting it interfere with your social engagements. Down here, though, it’s still something of an event.
It happened just before midnight last night. Daphne was asleep in bed, but she was woken up by the vulture screeching. It doesn’t usually do that at night, she says, so she knew that something was wrong. She ran downstairs in her nightdress and into the drawing room and saw a man trying to break open the display cabinet — the one that contains the Book.
She screamed and he turned around. He had a knife or a chisel or something like that in his hand and she was frightened that he was going to attack her. She ran out through the front door and across the road to the Vicarage, still screaming, and rang the doorbell until Maurice answered it.
Maurice rang the police and then me, so I was up most of the night soothing Daphne and making tea for people. Which is why I didn’t feel at all like catching the train to London this morning.
The police came in the form of a young sergeant and an even younger woman police constable. They were quite pleasant and sympathetic, but they didn’t seem very hopeful of catching the burglar. One can’t really blame them — he had a black balaclava over his head and a long black raincoat over the rest of him, so Daphne wasn’t able to give them much of a description. She said that she thought he was quite tall, but that seemed only to mean that he was taller than she is.
They’re treating it as a fairly amateur sort of crime. They think that the burglar found the back door unlocked — it was open when they went round the house — and was simply making the most of his chances. Daphne, on the other hand, swears that it was locked when she went to bed and he must have used something quite sophisticated, like a skeleton key, to open it. She’s convinced that he broke in on purpose to steal the Book.
But when the police asked if they could examine it she wouldn’t let them — in fact she became almost hysterical at the idea. It isn’t lawful for anyone except the Custodian to read the Book or even touch it, and if they do, something terrible will happen to them. The police didn’t find this very helpful.
Even Maurice can’t persuade her to explain sensibly what the Book is supposed to be or what’s in it or why anyone might want to steal it. She simply says that the Book has its enemies and the enemies of the Book are the enemies of the Custodian, but it isn’t lawful for her to try to explain who they are.
She’s quite worryingly peculiar on the subject. If the idea of being the Custodian cheered her up and gave her a bit of confidence in herself one wouldn’t mind, however silly it was, but in fact I think it rather frightens her. She talks about the Book as if it weren’t a thing but a person — not a very nice person either, someone rather cruel and vindictive, who’ll punish her if she doesn’t do what it wants her to.
She also thinks she can read the future in it. She came round a couple of days ago, when Griselda was working in my garden, to warn her very earnestly that during August she should keep away from animals — not the most practical advice to a woman with three cats.
According to the Book, apparently, August is going to be the Month of the Animals. This means that animals are going to be very significant in all our lives and intensify the effect of all the other influences. For some reason August is a dangerous month for Griselda, so it’ll be particularly dangerous for her to have anything to do with animals. For me, on the other hand, it’s going to be rather prosperous, so something involving animals should be especially lucky for me.
I’m afraid we treated all this fairly lightheartedly, and poor Daphne became quite upset — she really seemed to believe that “something terrible” was going to happen to Griselda because of an animal. So Griselda had to promise to keep away from farms and zoos and wildlife parks, and be very careful of the bad-tempered Alsatian in the garden next door to the Vicarage.
Well, if that’s the best the Book can do in the way of prophesying the future I don’t think anyone’s likely to go to the trouble of stealing it. I expect the police are right and the burglar was just a casual sneak thief, but the trouble is that Daphne doesn’t think so and is frightened that he’ll come back.
We’re all hoping that when Isabella’s estate is dealt with and the Rectory can be sold Daphne will forget all this nonsense about the Book and get on with having a proper life in a sensible sort of way. The house alone must be worth between three and four hundred thousand, so she should be able to manage pretty comfortably on the income from the proceeds. Griselda and I have all sorts of plans for her — we’re going to transform her appearance and move her to a nice little flat in Brighton and enroll her in some not too demanding training course and make some nice friends for her of her own age. We haven’t quite got round to finding her a suitable husband yet, but I dare say we will.
So her future, as you see, is in good hands, but none of it can actually happen until the solicitors have sorted out the estate. And lawyers, if you don’t mind my saying so, don’t seem to deal with things very quickly.
Yours with much love,
I wondered whether Daphne might not be right in thinking that the burglar had had some specific objective. She was the heiress to a professional blackmailer: could he have been in search of some item of incriminating evidence, perhaps a document of some kind, which he believed to be now in her possession? Might he be in some way connected with — might he even be — the man in the black Mercedes? Was this the possibility that was worrying Julia?
Observing, however, that Julia was still diligently writing her Opinion, I continued my reading without disturbing her.
24 High Street
Monday, 2nd August
Though one should not speak ill of the dead, I am prepared in Isabella’s case to make an exception. She is managing — and it is, in her case, a considerable achievement — to make more trouble dead than alive. She has left poor Daphne in a quite impossible position, and Maurice thought you might know if there was anything to be done about it.
As I mentioned in my last letter, we’ve all been a little worried about the poor girl, but the one thing we didn’t think we needed to worry about was her financial position — the solicitor had said that she was going to get the income from Isabella’s estate, and we assumed that meant she’d be quite well provided for. It wasn’t until yesterday that we found we were wrong.
Maurice and Griselda and I were sitting in the Newt and Ninepence, as usual on a Saturday morning, working hard at our crosswords. We’d polished off the Times and were getting on quite nicely with the Guardian when poor Daphne arrived, very moist and sticky and clearly on the point of tears. She was sorry to interrupt, she said, but she was in the most terrible trouble, and could she please talk to Maurice as soon as possible? So Maurice downed his beer and went straight back with her to the Vicarage.
“When she says she’s in trouble,” said Griselda, “she surely doesn’t mean—?”
I said I didn’t think so.
“Men can be such pigs,” said Griselda.
Which of course they can, but I still didn’t think it was that kind of trouble. Later on Maurice came round and told me what kind it was.
It had taken him quite a while to find out what was upsetting her. What he gathered at first was that she’d been insulted by Mr. Iqbal at the supermarket. He was very surprised about this, because Mr. Iqbal is usually most polite and obliging, but when Maurice asked exactly what had happened Daphne just started crying and saying she hadn’t known that people could be so beastly. It was some time before he realised that all Mr. Iqbal had done was ask when she expected to be able to settle her account. And she can’t, and has no prospect of being able to.
Yes, it’s quite true that under Isabella’s will Daphne gets the income from the estate — but only as long as she provides a home at the Rectory for the beastly Roderigo and the wretched ravens. At the Rectory, mind you — she isn’t allowed to move anywhere else, even if she takes them with her. Either she stays here in Parsons Haver for the rest of her days with no chance of finding a job or making friends of her own age or doing anything with her life, or she gives up everything and is left homeless and penniless.
Well, as it turns out, she’s penniless anyway. After taxes and legal expenses and so on the house is just about all that’s left in the estate, and if it can’t be sold there isn’t any income. Or hardly any — Mr. Godwin, the executor, says she can expect about twenty pounds a year. How could Isabella have expected her to live on that? And maintain the house? And feed the wretched birds?
And of course, the poor girl can’t afford to get any legal advice, which might turn out to be no help anyway, but Maurice thought you might be able to tell us whether it’s legal for anyone to make a will like that. I’m enclosing a copy of it, and I’d be most grateful if you could let me know what you think.
Can Isabella really go on controlling Daphne’s life like this? Can she reach out of the grave to keep hold of her? It’s monstrous — I can’t believe it’s allowed, and if it is it ought not to be.
Yours with much love,
There was a lull in the noise of drilling and Julia had paused in her labours to pour further cups of tea. I enquired whether she had been able to assist with the problem of Isabella’s will: it seemed to me to be one rather outside the area of her professional expertise.
“Yes, it is, but fortunately Selena and Ragwort had a similar case a few months ago, so they were well up on the authorities.”
“A case about a vulture?”
“No, no, about a pet tortoise, which the testator had evidently held in high esteem and wished to make provision for. Ragwort represented the trustees of the will and Selena represented the residuary beneficiary.”
“Who represented the tortoise?”
“No one — this placed it, I’m afraid, at something of a disadvantage. So with the benefit of their advice I was able to send my aunt a comprehensive account of the current law relating to testamentary dispositions for the benefit of animals, with particular reference to the provisions of Section 106 of the Settled Land Act. The gist of it was that if Daphne wanted to challenge the will she’d have to go to the Court of Appeal, if not the House of Lords, and the costs of the action would be prohibitive.”
“And you were unable, I suppose, to suggest any other solution?”
“On the contrary,” said Julia with some degree of indignation. “We suggested a perfectly sensible and practical alternative involving almost no expense at all. The will provided, you see, that Daphne was to have the income of the estate during her lifetime or until she ceased to live at the Rectory and provide a home there for Roderigo and the ravens.”
“Yes,” I said, “I gathered that.”
“And subject to that, everything went to Isabella’s sister, Marjorie, or if Marjorie predeceased Isabella, to Marjorie’s child or children. Which meant that Daphne and Marjorie, or Marjorie’s children, were together absolutely entitled to the whole estate and if they agreed to divide it up between them there was nothing Isabella, or indeed the vulture, could do to stop them. So we suggested that Daphne should approach Marjorie or her children with a view to doing a deal — selling the house and sharing the proceeds and putting the vulture in the care of the community.” She sighed. “But you know what beneficiaries are like.”
The drilling began again with redoubled vigour; I resumed my reading.
24 High Street
Saturday, 7th August
Thank you for all those interesting stories about people leaving money to cats and donkeys — I’m afraid I must have put you to more trouble than I realised, and as it turns out completely wasted.
Maurice has explained your suggestion to Daphne, about coming to some sensible arrangement to divide up the estate, and Daphne says she’d rather starve. She’d rather beg. She’d rather go on the streets. (This isn’t a very practical idea — there’s not much scope for that sort of thing in Parsons Haver, and even if there were I frankly don’t think it’s something she’d have a talent for.)
Isabella’s sister Marjorie died a year or two ago, leaving one son. Isabella’s sister, according to Daphne, was an unkind and horrible person and hadn’t been to Daphne’s mother’s funeral (so Daphne didn’t go to hers) and hadn’t spoken to Isabella for nearly fifteen years. So it obviously follows that her son is also an unkind and horrible person and Daphne doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. And anyway, there can be no question of dividing up the estate, because Aunt Isabella wanted her to stay at the Rectory and keep the birds there and she could never even think of betraying Aunt Isabella’s trust in her.
Naturally, Julia, I think it’s very proper for a niece to regard her aunt’s wishes as sacred, but in the present case it simply isn’t practical. What is Daphne to live on?
She seems to imagine that everything will go on just as it did when Isabella was alive, and refuses to understand that it can’t — they were living on the income from the fortune-telling business, which seems to have been quite profitable, and an annuity Isabella had bought which ended on her death. (How like Isabella!) But Daphne doesn’t seem to understand that this means that she has to make some money — she just goes on blaming poor Mr. Iqbal, and saying that he’s insulted her.
“She says he ought to know,” said Maurice, “that she isn’t the kind of person who doesn’t pay their debts.”
“If she hasn’t the money to pay them,” I said, “what other kind can she be?”
“She’s the Custodian,” said Maurice. “The Custodian does not break faith. I wonder, Reg, if I could have a spot more gin?”
Poor Maurice, I’m afraid he’s finding the whole thing rather wearing. You see, it isn’t just her practical problems that she expects him to help her with, it’s her great spiritual problem — can the Custodian go to church? She wants to go to church, so that she can listen to Maurice’s sermons and help him with his important work, but the Custodian must keep faith with the Book, and she doesn’t know if she can do both.
She apparently regards this as the most agonising spiritual dilemma that anyone’s ever had to face since the Temptation in the Wilderness, which makes it perfectly reasonable for her to expect Maurice to spend hours every day discussing it.
The fact is that Maurice isn’t all that keen on having Daphne in his congregation — she’s a little on the intense side for St. Ethel’s — but he feels rather conscience stricken about not wanting her.
“Because after all, Reg, one’s supposed to believe that in the eyes of God every human soul is infinitely precious, and I suppose one’s supposed to believe that He likes them all coming to church, though I’ve never quite understood why, so who am I to say that He wouldn’t be pleased to see Daphne sitting in a pew in St. Ethel’s? I mean, for all I know He’d be thrilled to bits. Anyway, she thinks He would be and if I suggest He wouldn’t she’ll be terribly hurt. So I’ve simply told her that God is very broad-minded nowadays and if she feels it wouldn’t be right for her to go to church He’ll quite understand and do His best to manage without her. But of course that wasn’t the end of it.”
Which with Daphne it wouldn’t be. She isn’t the kind of girl, you see, who asks for one’s advice and then either takes it or doesn’t and leaves one to get on with something else. She’s the kind who asks for one’s advice and looks as if she’s listening to it and comes back next morning to ask for it all over again.
One certainly can’t accuse her of not being grateful to Maurice for the help he’s given her — she’s always saying how kind he’s been and how lucky she is that he’s there to give her spiritual guidance. And she’s always trying, poor girl, to find ways to repay him — she goes round to the Vicarage every day to take his rubbish out to the dustbin and ask if he wants any shopping done and see if she can do anything to make herself useful. The trouble is, though, that Maurice doesn’t really need anyone to do things for him — he has Griselda to help with the garden and Mrs. Tyrrell to clean for him two mornings a week and otherwise he’s quite good at looking after himself.
He came round for supper with me yesterday and we spent nearly the whole evening talking about Daphne’s problems, drinking more gin than was good for us and not getting anywhere. With great difficulty — she evidently thought it beneath the dignity of the Custodian — he’s persuaded her to ask for some money from the Social Security people. He helped her to fill in the forms and they’re supposed to give her enough to keep her from starving. Apart from that, it’s hard to know what to suggest.
I wondered for a while whether perhaps she could go on with the fortune-telling business — if she’s going to go on claiming to be the guardian of some sort of sacred text I thought she might as well make some money out of it. But Maurice isn’t sure it’s something he could encourage — he feels it rather savours of witchcraft.
“And you might think, Reg, that in these ecumenical times that wouldn’t matter much. But the Bishop’s very down on witchcraft, almost as down as he is on ordaining women, and you know how he feels about that.”
Besides, if it was the kind of business that Ricky says it was, it’s out of the question — she couldn’t get information by the same methods as Isabella, and even if she could, of course, it would be very wrong. It’s rather a pity in a way, though, because she actually sometimes seems—
I don’t mean I think that she can see into the future — that would be too ridiculous. But some quite sensible people do believe in telepathy, and she does sometimes say things—
Two or three weeks ago in the Newt and Ninepence, Ricky was buying a round of drinks and asked her what she would like. She hesitated a bit and then she said, “Oh well, as you’re getting all that money next week, I’ll have a glass of wine.”
Ricky wasn’t expecting any money, and asked her what she meant. She looked slightly bewildered, as if she didn’t quite know why she’d said it, and said, “I just thought you were going to get some money — for some medicine you’d sold, or something.”
Ricky was most amused by this — rather more noisily, in fact, than was quite kind or polite, and I told him so afterwards — and said he’d never sold medicine to anyone in his life.
But two days later, when he opened the post in the morning, he found he’d got quite a large dividend from a pharmaceutical company he had shares in. Poor Ricky, he was quite shaken — mind you, it serves him right for making fun of poor Daphne.
And then there was the day she came round to give me a box of chocolates, to thank me for helping her with the funeral and so on — very sweet, squishy chocolate creams, actually not at all what I like — it breaks my heart to think of her spending her money on them. Still, she ate several while she was here, so at least she did get some pleasure out of it. Just as she was leaving, she said, “Oh — give all my best to Mrs. Tyrrell. I hope she finds whatever it is she’s lost.”
I said that I didn’t think Mrs. Tyrrell had lost anything — she’d been here that morning, and hadn’t said anything about it. And again Daphne looked rather bewildered, and said, “Oh, I thought she’d lost something quite important — something to do with someone who’s dead.”
And half an hour later there was Mrs. Tyrrell at the door, saying she couldn’t find her ring and wondering if she’d left it here. It’s a very pretty ring and rather valuable — late Victorian, turquoise set in silver — left to her by her grandmother, so naturally she was quite upset. We looked everywhere for it, and I’m glad to say we found it — she must have taken it off when she was cleaning the bathroom, and it had rolled behind