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Authors: Dorothy L. Sayers,Jill Paton Walsh

Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction

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BOOK: A Presumption of Death
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‘Oh, Jerry,’ she said softly to herself, sighing.






We’re being led to the altar this spring: its flowers
will I suppose nod and yellow and redden the garden
with the bombs falling – oh, it’s a queer sense of
suspense being led up to the spring of 1940.
Virginia Woolf,
, 8
February, 1940
Harriet spent Tuesday morning at the Vicarage, helping Mrs Goodacre. The Vicarage was even more crowded than Talboys, since the Goodacres had taken in an assorted crew of refugees, ranging from three Czechs of Jewish descent to a Polish chicken-farmer who was trying to enlist in the air force or the army and lying robustly about his age. The Pole was busy in the kitchen when Harriet arrived, expertly plucking a fowl and putting the feathers in a sack.
‘Jan is very good at cooking,’ Mrs Goodacre told her visitor. ‘Although he would rather be fighting, if we would let him.’
‘How old I look?’ Jan asked Harriet.
She contemplated him. His round and friendly face was not heavily lined, except on smile lines, but his hair was greying.
‘Forty?’ she guessed. ‘Forty-five?’
‘Is fifty,’ he said sorrowfully. ‘They say no good for army. Less good even for air force.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Harriet, as though she had herself formulated the policy. ‘But surely they will find you something else to do. Some sort of war work.’
‘Farm work is all,’ he said.
‘Cheer up,’ said Harriet. ‘Food is a munition of war, they keep telling us.’
The vicar’s wife had undertaken the contentious task of billeting officer for Paggleham, and was organising visits of inspection to every family that had taken in evacuees. Many of them had been taken home again by their London families, for a variety of reasons. Now Mrs Goodacre needed an up-to-date survey of who had still got their evacuees, who had now got spare rooms, who was willing and who would be difficult when the next wave of displaced mothers and children had to be accommodated. It was all too clear that any German advance across northern France would bring bomber bases ever nearer English targets, and as soon as the long feared and awaited attacks on cities began, it was very likely that the evacuees would be back in the countryside in large numbers.
Mrs Goodacre settled down with Harriet at her kitchen table, and sorted out a bunch of cards from her index of families and addresses. She gave Harriet nine cards to direct her part of the task. Glancing through them Harriet saw to her amazement the letters VD against some of the children’s names, and one VD against the address of Mr Maggs.
‘Good lord, Mrs Goodacre!’ she exclaimed. ‘I’ve heard of bed-wetting and head-lice among the children, but VD?’
‘Well, a lot of them were, when they arrived, and as for that Mrs Maggs, you should have seen her kitchen, Harriet . . .’
‘A lot of them were what?’ asked Harriet faintly. ‘And what was in the kitchen?’
‘Very dirty,’ said Mrs Goodacre. ‘It’s my shorthand for very dirty. And what was in the kitchen was cockroaches.’
‘Well, thank heavens for that!’ said Harriet.
‘Thank heavens?’ said Mrs Goodacre in surprise.
‘That it was nothing worse,’ said Harriet solemnly.
‘I suppose things could have been worse,’ said Mrs Goodacre doubtfully. ‘But I do rather feel that the government have been a little unimaginative about some things: dislocation of commerce, and evacuation and that kind of thing. They seem, the government, I mean, to have thought out the beginning of everything very well, and then to have rather stopped thinking! Like the schoolchildren for example: I expect it was necessary to get them out without any books or pencils or anything to the nearest available place; but I do think the government might have helped the subsequent arrangements rather more, and got the schools together and organised the distribution of equipment and things.’
‘Well, if they thought we could be relied on to just get on and manage, they might not be so wrong, Mrs Goodacre,’ said Harriet, smiling at her friend.
‘But it’s a dreadful pity that so many of the children are being taken home again; it’s so good for them to get a bit of air and exercise, and find out how country people live. Someone told me the other day that her little London boy had piped up suddenly and asked if sheep laid eggs! Did you ever!’
‘I suppose it’s natural for parents to want their children with them,’ said Harriet. ‘When large-scale bombing begins—’
‘Paggleham at least will have an up-to-date register of billets,’ said Mrs Goodacre.
Harriet’s tour of duty revealed nothing that surprised her. Mrs Marbleham, billeted above the greengrocer’s shop in pleasant sunny rooms, was very far from grateful. She complained to Harriet that she was woken every morning by the greengrocer setting up shop at an unearthly hour, clattering his boxes as he spread out across the pavement, and whistling to himself as he worked. Harriet wondered if she could ask him not to whistle, and decided against it.
‘It must be nice to have his shop just down the stairs, though,’ she offered.
‘Not really. We don’t eat vegetables. Not being pigs. Not like some,’ the woman replied.
‘Vegetables are good for you,’ suggested Harriet, rather dismayed on behalf of the Marbleham boys.
‘Well, we don’t eat them. Only chips,’ was the reply. ‘What I wouldn’t give to be back right near a good fish and chip shop . . .’
Harriet couldn’t help that. She was more useful at Mrs Maggs’s cottage. The Maggses had a rambling set of bedrooms up a second stair that had once housed the blacksmith’s apprentices. They had taken in six boys, aged from ten to fourteen, from two different families. One family had sent enough warm clothes, and the other had sent nothing. One family paid up their ten and six for the first child, and eight and sixpence a week for the others very regularly; the second family had sent nothing. At least the clothes could be sorted out; Harriet wrote out a ticket to the clothes exchange organised by the WVS.
The third family she visited was very crowded, with the daughter sharing her bedroom with a little London girl who cried for her mother at night. And billets in Paggleham were not plentiful.
Passing the end of Church Lane on her way back to the Vicarage, it occurred to Harriet that Susan Hodge’s cottage, rented out to Flight Lieutenant Brinklow, would become available when he went back to his unit. She walked down to it. It stood four-square a little apart from its neighbours in an overgrown garden that was mostly old apple trees. The garden abutted an arm of Blackden Wood. Peter had bought the wood a couple of years back to stop it being clear-felled, because the hillside it stood on was in plain view from the bedroom windows of Talboys. At the time Harriet had thought it extravagant of him, and she had been amused when he said woodland always came in handy, but now it was providing firewood for Talboys, and most of the villagers, she couldn’t dispute it. It was handy to own it. Peter said there was an implied permission for anyone to take sticks for firewood – anything they could get ‘by hook or by crook’ – but no gathering with axe or saw.
Harriet knocked at the cottage door, waited and knocked again. The officer must be out. It was rather an isolated dwelling, she thought, but it looked as though you could put a whole family in it, which would certainly cheer it up a bit, and it would be nice for a London family to have the run of the wood. She must find out tactfully about the condition of the house, and the rent. She didn’t want to suggest the requisitioning of something that was essential to a local family’s income.
Later that day Harriet went into Great Pagford to shop. Paul needed larger clothes every week, it seemed, and it was getting very difficult to find things. She dropped in on Mr Kirk at the police station and gave him the names she had elicited. He thanked her in an abstracted way.
‘I’ll check up on these men as soon as I can,’ he said. ‘I’m being driven up the wall, my lady, by reports of spies. Everywhere. You wouldn’t have been able to see the moon for parachutes if the half of these tales were true. They all turn out to be Polish or Jewish refugees or fellows from Scotland whose funny accents hail from Glasgow rather than Berlin. But I can’t risk not investigating.’
‘There was a real one in the paper this morning,’ said Harriet. ‘A couple who turned up at Largo asking for the train to London, and aroused suspicion by not knowing where they were.’
‘See what I mean? We have to check however barmy it sounds. Look, we obviously have to follow up this Birdlap person. If I gave you a note to his commanding officer, you wouldn’t care to do that for me, would you?’
‘I’ll do what I can,’ said Harriet, carefully folding the hastily scribbled note into her handbag. ‘If he won’t talk to anyone unofficial, I’ll hand it back to you.’
As she reached the door of his office it occurred to her to ask, ‘What about Wendy’s parents?’
‘In Brighton!’ he cried, as though it had been Timbuktu.
‘We have a friend who might be able to help,’ said Harriet. ‘I couldn’t go myself, I’m afraid; but the friend in question has been very useful to Peter in several enquiries.’
‘Lady Peter,’ said Mr Kirk, ‘you are the answer to a maiden’s prayer, in a manner of speaking, of course. Just a minute while I find the parents’ address.’
Getting in to Steen Manor proved to be a little difficult. Harriet drove herself there, since it was rather too far to walk, even for an able-bodied and healthy woman. The road ran for two miles alongside a six-foot-high wall of mellow brick, topped with rolls of barbed-wire. She had to wait for ages at the guard post at the entrance. The lovely wrought-iron gates of what had clearly been the drive to a substantial gentleman’s house had been opened wide, and in the space between them a wooden hut had been erected, together with a red and white pole barrier. The sentry rang for instructions, which took some time to come.
Harriet stood quietly, leaning on her car bonnet, listening to the sweetly unaware birdsong. It comforted her, like the flowers in the banks. Eventually an airman in uniform came marching down the drive, and escorted Harriet up to the house. Surprisingly for a house built in Hertfordshire it was of a stone, grey, ashlar under a tiled roof, a bold plain Georgian building with Victorian additions and grand bay windows along the front. Her escort led her into a large hall with an elaborate oak staircase, and into a room that had once been the drawing-room, but was now lined with filing cabinets. The man behind the half-acre desk who rose to meet her was not in uniform. Harriet’s escort introduced her as: ‘The plain-clothes police officer, sir!’ saluted, and departed, closing the door behind him.
‘I’m sorry to say I may be here under false pretences,’ said Harriet at once. ‘I am not a police officer. I am simply a private citizen helping the police.’ She handed Superintendent Kirk’s note across the desk.
‘Do sit down,’ said the officer. He read the note carefully, twice.
‘Well, Lady Peter,’ he said eventually, ‘this is irregular, very irregular, but then these are not normal times. I think I met your husband once. It was some years back.’
‘Before I met him myself, I expect,’ said Harriet.
‘Yes, no doubt,’ he replied. ‘My name is Baldock. I am in charge of this establishment, which is, Lady Peter, very hush-hush. I am afraid we should not have admitted you, and having done so we must limit the damage.’
‘There isn’t any damage so far,’ said Harriet quietly, ‘unless English domestic architecture is part of the secret.’
‘Fine house, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘Glad you noticed. Well now, I am to understand that you need to question one of my staff. A valuable man, if somewhat temperamental. My own concern is twofold. First I must attempt to conceal from you in every way possible the nature of the work going forward here. And second I must try to protect Birdlap from any upset that might take his mind off his work.’
‘You need have no concern about the first of those things,’ said Harriet. ‘It is about incidents in the village of Paggleham that I wish to ask him. I need not, and will not ask him anything about his war work. You have my assurance.’
‘Thank you, Lady Peter.’
‘About your second concern, however, I cannot be so emollient. It concerns the brutal murder of a young woman with whom he is said to have been involved. I am afraid he may find it very upsetting indeed.’
‘I see. Does he already know of this death?’
‘I don’t know. He may well do. What he may not realise is that he seems to have been the last person to see her alive.’
‘And if I refuse your request to interview him, I shall shortly be confronted with one Superintendent Kirk bearing an arrest warrant?’
‘Very likely, yes.’
Brigadier Baldock rose, walked to the window, and stood looking out of it, rocking on his heels. Then he turned to Harriet. ‘You appear to be the lesser of two evils, Lady Peter,’ he said. He rang a bell on his desk, and a uniformed sergeant appeared.
‘Fetch Birdlap,’ he said.
Baldock sat down again. ‘I shall be present throughout this interview,’ he stated.
Harriet did not demur. A silence grew in the room. She heard the clock ticking ponderously in the corner. A self-dramatising clock, making the most of ticking off the seconds.
‘Lord Peter must have changed a good deal since I knew him,’ the Brigadier suddenly observed.
‘Why do you think so?’ said Harriet, anger flickering in her heart. ‘You find me rather unexpected as his wife?’
‘Well, I . . . goodness me, dear lady, I didn’t mean . . .’
‘What you did mean, I imagine,’ said Harriet, ‘is that I have neither the beauty nor the class that you would have thought necessary to capture him. I take it that you did not know Lord Peter very well.’
‘It would be brains, of course,’ said the Brigadier imperturbably. ‘Brains would do it.’
BOOK: A Presumption of Death
4.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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