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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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Harriet was spared the need to answer this by the arrival of Birdlap.
He proved to be a very young, very dishevelled, RAF officer, who had left his jacket unbuttoned, and his dark hair unbrushed. The knot of his tie hung below his unbuttoned shirt collar and he looked not quite sleepy, but very much preoccupied. He was dazzlingly handsome in a vulnerable-looking way, with a long sensitive mouth, and a bony, boyish frame. Harriet thought he would appeal deeply to the mothering instinct in many young women.
She watched him carefully while the Brigadier explained the situation to him, and saw the colour drain from his face when he understood that Wendy Percival was dead.
‘I heard something . . . I didn’t know it was her,’ he said, very quietly.
‘But you did know the young woman?’ said the Brigadier.
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Then I think it would be best if you would answer the questions Lady Peter wishes to put to you.’
‘There was a dance in the village last Saturday,’ Harriet said. ‘Were you there?’
He hesitated. Glanced at his commanding officer and away again.
‘I have been told that your name was on the list of those who went from here to attend it. Your name was checked off when the party returned here,’ Harriet prompted. ‘But were you actually at the dance?’
‘No,’ he said quietly.
‘It has been suggested to me that the reason why Wendy was not at the dance was that she was with you. Is that true?’
‘Yes.’
‘It might help very much if you would tell me about it.’
‘It was just such a good chance,’ he said miserably. ‘Wendy’s quarters would be empty, because all the girls were going to the dance. Transport there, transport back again . . . You’re going to think me an awful heel, I know, but it wasn’t like that. She wanted me to . . . to find a way to . . .’ His voice began to shake, and suddenly he was looking at Harriet wide-eyed and desperate. ‘It was for me,’ he said. ‘In case I was going to die – we thought there might never be a chance again. We couldn’t wait to make it respectable, we were jumping the gun, but we thought one of us might die at any moment . . . and we hadn’t expected – and we thought it would be me – of course we thought it would be me!’
‘But you are trying to tell us the young woman was previously of good character?’ the Brigadier interposed.
‘She was – of course she was! But we were in love, and we didn’t know how long we had got; it was first time for both of us, and of course I would have married her if I got back safely . . .’
‘About any danger your work entails, least said soonest mended,’ said the Brigadier.
‘I am so sorry,’ said Harriet gently. ‘And I do understand that you are under very great pressure. Peace-time rules seem hardly to apply. Could you tell me, however, exactly how you parted from Wendy and got back here undetected?’
‘It was easy,’ he said. ‘It went like a dream. We could hear the air-raid warning from Wendy’s bunk, and it gave us time to dress, and get back where we ought to have been. I just joined the press of people getting on to our truck. She stayed back so that the trucks would have driven off, and the locals would all be in the shelters, and nobody would see her, and she was going to get down to the shelter almost last, and say she had gone back for a blanket to keep her dress from getting scruffy sitting on the ground.’
‘And did you see anyone else around as you made your way to the truck? Did anyone see you?’
‘Not that I can remember. I wasn’t watching. I was in a sort of daze . . . I’ll tell you one thing,’ he added, suddenly sounding collected and emphatic. ‘You’re going to have more than one murder on your hands if I get to know who killed her. I’ll get them myself. And I’m trained to kill, trust me for it.’
‘Don’t be a silly chump,’ said the Brigadier. ‘You’ll talk yourself into a scrape that might be hard to talk you out of. I’m confining you to barracks, understand? Off with you now, and back to work.’
Birdlap saluted and took himself off.
‘I shouldn’t think for a minute the poor chap means it,’ said the Brigadier. ‘But there might be more than one kind of peace-time rule that hardly seems to apply.’
Later Harriet settled down to her desk to write to Miss Climpson. She didn’t exactly know why she had not spelled out to Mr Kirk that she, under the aegis of Peter, had a private agency at her command. Miss Climpson had worked ingeniously for Peter for some years. ‘Putting questions,’ he had said, ‘which a young man could not put without a blush.’ He had used her, and a little bevy of superfluous otherwise unoccupied ladies answering suspect advertisements placed by fraudsters and money-lenders and tricksters, and gathering the evidence that convicted them, and rescued their victims. A job without end. And now she had diverted the efforts of her team of ‘hens’ to keeping an eye on public opinion, the sort of women’s underground public opinion that Mass Observation might find impenetrable. Women under stress might grumble to each other, whereas they would put a good face on things in the public world. When she had heard from Miss Climpson recently, she had sounded rather fully occupied. Harriet opened the letter.
. . . Sunday evening is my quietest time now – of course we have to have Evensong in the middle of the afternoon, what with the blackout and winter-time, and the choir-school has been evacuated and two of the assistant priests have gone to be army chaplains, so we have to have Low Mass instead of High Mass, and what with an air-raid shelter in the crypt and one thing and another, we are beginning to feel quite persecuted like early Christians in catacombs! Though indeed I oughtn’t to talk in that light-hearted way when Christians in Germany and Austria are being really persecuted – so subtly and wickedly, too, the older people being allowed to go to church, and all the CHILDREN being kept away by Hitler-Jugend meetings on Sundays, and being taught to insult Christ and despise their parents for believing in religion. It must be terrible to be a father or mother and feel that the government is deliberately ALIENATING one’s children and BREAKING UP the family and encouraging quite little boys and girls to read horrible, dirty stories about Jews and priests in that dreadful Stuermer. I believe they even teach those horrible things in schools. But I suppose a totalitarian state can’t afford to allow any group of people to have interests and ideas of its own – not even the FAMILY! And when one thinks how deeply the nicest Germans have always been attached to their
gemütlich
(isn’t that the word?) home-life, it seems quite heart-breaking . . .
Miss Climpson was clearly keeping herself busy. Nevertheless, she might like a little trip down memory lane in the form of an investigation related to a murder enquiry, even if she was asked by Harriet rather than by dear Lord Peter. But pen in hand, and sheet of paper at the ready, Harriet was overwhelmed with the emotion of missing Peter. She, Harriet, had been involved before in murder enquiries, but never without Peter at her side or somewhere in the background. She was missing him desperately, on every front. But how ridiculous to be reduced to tears by writing to Miss Climpson!
Harriet pulled herself together, and looked again at the three names: Jake Datchett; Archie Lugg; John Birdlap. Birdlap she had dealt with. She wondered what she herself knew about either of the others. Archie Lugg was a handyman, and he had put up some rough-and-ready bookcases for her only a week or so back, using old floorboards. A good-looking man, who seemed to live and work in a musing calm she associated with true craftsmen, and who smelled faintly of wood-shavings. She tried, and failed, to imagine him driven mad with love, and killing in a jealous rage; it wasn’t easy to imagine, but then she didn’t know much about him. If they had been looking for a blunt instrument, Archie’s toolbox would have contained plenty. Looking for a man with expertly homicidal hands was quite another thing. Disconcertingly, Harriet found she had quite a good mental picture of Archie Lugg’s hands: broad hands with rather spoon-shaped flattened fingers and thumbs. He would have the muscular strength, of course.
She turned back to her letter.
But the letter was out of luck this morning. She heard a child sobbing quietly on the way up the stairs, and put her head round the door to find Charlie in tears.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.
‘Uncle Jerry’s gone!’ he wailed.
She held out her arms to him, and briefly hugged him. At ten did he still want to be hugged? Yes, it seemed he did, for he held on to her. Lord, thought Harriet, what can I say? I can’t tell him Jerry won’t come to any harm when it’s only too likely that he will. I don’t believe in lying to children. The news was horribly depressing. An increasingly vicious air battle was developing over the North Sea. German planes and German U-boats were attacking neutral shipping and even little inshore fishing boats. The British government had decided to arm merchant ships, and the Nazis had announced that British merchant ships would count as warships. Of course that meant fighter pilots like Jerry flying sorties over the Channel and the North Sea. Anyone could see how dangerous that was. And that the need for seaborne supplies was Britain’s Achilles’ heel.
‘He’s gone,’ said Charlie, muffled in her loose embrace, ‘and I can’t make it work! And Sam can’t either,’ he added, in a normal tone, extricating himself.
‘Can’t make what work, Charlie?’
‘My crystal set!’ he cried.
‘Are you sure you’ve put it together right?’ she asked, stalling.
‘I’m pretty sure,’ he said. ‘But it keeps picking up the wrong wavelengths.’
‘I don’t suppose I can help in person, Charlie,’ she said. ‘It’s not my field. But your father and mother are coming at the weekend. Perhaps your father can help.’
‘That’s ages!’ lamented Charlie. But he wandered away, and when Harriet looked up from her letter a few minutes later she saw him with Bredon and Polly, playing French cricket on the lawn, and looking perfectly happy. She finished her letter to Miss Climpson, and began one to Peter.
She had no recent letter from him to respond to, but was still hungrily reading over his last, perfectly discreet letter, in the form of an official letter-gram, reduced to the size of a postcard, closely typed in tiny letters, and bearing an official stamp from the censor.
. . . Like the gentleman in the carol, I have seen a wonder sight – the Catholic padre and the refugee Lutheran minister having a drink together and discussing, in very bad Latin, the persecution of the Orthodox Church in Russia. I have seldom heard so much religious toleration or so many false quantities . . .
Peter’s light and ironical tones came clearly off the paper, as though he were in the room, conversing with someone. The letter was censored, but he had managed to make her smile with it. Then the post-script: In case of accident I will write my own epitaph now: HERE LIES AN ANACHRONISM IN THE VAGUE EXPECTATION OF ETERNITY.
Harriet put the letter away in her desk, alongside others, and began to compose a letter for him. The uncertainties of the correspondence made a smoothly alternating sequence of letters and replies impossible. But she could write in hope of reaching him, like Noah sending out a dove.
If one wanted gossip in Paggleham, thought Harriet, one only had to bump into Mrs Ruddle. Not that Mr Kirk had actually asked her to find out about the two local young men, beyond getting their names from the land-girls, but, Harriet thought, either one was doing something or one wasn’t. And once involved she couldn’t be not involved. Writing to Peter caused her heart-ache, and there was no certainty that any letter would ever reach him. She laid it aside, put on her coat, and having asked Mrs Trapp if anything was needed at the village shop, and put the ration-book into her gas-mask case, she went out for a walk.
Her way took her past the undertaker’s shop, and she went in.
‘Are you looking for Archie?’ enquired Fred Lugg, who was behind the counter, with his spectacles pushed up on his forehead, and his folding rule in his hand. ‘Or have you come to have a chat with me?’
‘I wasn’t hoping to be a customer of yours just yet,’ said Harriet.
‘Of course not, my lady, heaven forfend,’ he said. ‘But I thought you might want to ask me a question or two, seeing as you’ve taken over the murder from Superintendent Kirk.’
‘Goodness, who told you that?’ asked Harriet.
‘Isn’t it true, then?’ he asked. ‘It’s all over the village.’
‘I agreed to help with one or two simple enquiries,’ she said.
‘Well, then, how can I help?’ he asked. ‘Or were you after asking Archie about that young besom who was done to death?’
‘Would Archie be able to help, do you think?’ said Harriet, stalling.
‘No doubt he could tell you how she got her nickname tormenting young men,’ said Fred bitterly. ‘But isn’t anyone going to ask me anything? I mean, Lady Peter, there was I, the only citizen in the whole place who was supposed to be out in the open, and a murder was committed right under my feet, so to speak, and nobody asks me a blamed thing about it!’
‘Of course, Mr Lugg, you were on the church tower!’ said Harriet. ‘In the moonlight. Well, did you see anything?’
‘The tree is the problem,’ he said. ‘You know, that big yew tree by the lych gate. It blanks off just that bit of the Square where it happened. So I didn’t see it happen, no. But I saw people walking about, one side of the tree, and the other side of the tree, passing it by on the other side. When everyone was supposed to be in the shelter.’
‘You’d better tell me who you saw, Mr Lugg. Or if you don’t want to tell me, you could tell the police.’
‘I don’t mind telling you, Lady Peter. I saw all your people from Talboys, making their way along to the shelter. Not Mrs Trapp, now I come to think of it. She must have decided to absent herself. And I saw you and that young pilot who has being staying with you, coming along and meeting them; well, no, I ought to be strictly accurate, I saw you going towards them, and then I saw you all turn back towards the Crown. Except for your pilot friend, he went off by himself, after he saw you safe inside. There were RAF men walking about everywhere. There were several cars and two RAF trucks went off, one towards Lopseley, and one towards the Broxford aerodrome, and then that Wendy came running along in a big hurry.’
BOOK: A Presumption of Death
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