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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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‘She wasn’t at the dance, so she was coming from the farm to join the air-raid practice,’ said Harriet. ‘Or so I have been told.’
‘Hmph.’ He said, ‘The thing is, I saw her going behind the tree from the right, and I didn’t see her coming out from behind it to the left.’
‘Well, no,’ said Harriet. ‘She would have been struck down behind the tree, from a viewpoint on the tower. So the very important thing, Mr Lugg, is who else did you see moving around there?’
‘I wasn’t keeping a watch on the street,’ he said. ‘I was supposed to be watching the rooftops, and the sky, in case of fires or parachutes.’
‘So you didn’t see everything – you couldn’t if you were doing your job?’
‘Just so. When I didn’t see the wretched girl coming out from behind the tree, I just thought she had moved on while I had my eyes elsewhere.’
‘That’s very natural,’ said Harriet. But she was mystified, because he was so clearly het up about something. ‘So did you see anyone else around after most of us had taken shelter?’ she asked.
‘I certainly didn’t see my son Archie!’ he said. ‘But I did see that dentist woman – Mrs Spright. She never went down any shelter that night; she was wandering around all over the place. You should try asking her what she was up to.’
‘I will do that.’
‘It got very cold up there, Lady Peter,’ he said lugubriously. ‘And I didn’t see the murder and I didn’t see any enemy action.’
‘It’s awfully frustrating, isn’t it?’ she said sympathetically. ‘All these preparations going on, and everyone’s life disrupted, and all this extra work like ARP precautions, and fire-watching and blackout—’
‘And for all that we can tell,’ he completed the sentence for her, ‘there’s nothing in the way of enemy action at all.’
‘There seem to have been a couple of spies arrested in Largo,’ she said. ‘It was in the paper.’
‘That’s a long way from here,’ he said. ‘The only thing different around here apart from upheavals which we have organised ourselves without help from the enemy is this murder; and that can’t have anything to do it with it, as far as I can see.’
‘It’s murder just the same,’ said Harriet, ‘and nobody seems very upset. I can find hardly a good word spoken on behalf of the victim.’
‘Well, there you are,’ he said. ‘The most I shall ever know about her is her size for a coffin. You can’t care about strangers the way you would for somebody you’ve known all your life, can you?’
‘Didn’t Archie know her a bit?’ asked Harriet. ‘Why did you think it might be Archie I was wanting to talk to?’
‘I supposed you might need some more shelves, my lady,’ he said.
‘As a matter of fact, Mr Lugg, I do,’ said Harriet.
Four

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, come and live with me my love
And share my war-time dinner
Who eats the least at this our feast
Shall make John Bull the winner
Here is a plate of cabbage soup
With caterpillars in.
How good they taste! (Avoid all waste
If you the war would win.)
We’ve no unpatriotic joint
No sugar and no bread
Eat nothing sweet, no rolls, no meat
The Food Controller said.
Aelfrida Tillyard,
The Garden and the Fire
, 1916
In spite of Mrs Trapp’s severity with her over borrowing sugar, Mrs Ruddle was sitting comfortably in the kitchen of Talboys when Harriet got back with the shopping. She put the string bag down on the deal table, and said, ‘Is there any more tea in the pot, Mrs Trapp?’
‘I’ll make some fresh, my lady, and bring it up to you,’ said Mrs Trapp.
‘No need,’ said Harriet, sitting down in the big Windsor chair at one end of the table. ‘I’ll have what’s there. What’s the news?’
‘Such a carry on!’ said Mrs Trapp. ‘But I don’t blame you, Mrs Ruddle!’
‘It’s one of them new families from London, Lady Peter,’ said Mrs Ruddle, launching joyfully into the account, ‘what the billeting officer has put in the flat above the greengrocer’s shop.’
‘Mrs Marbleham, you mean?’ said Harriet.
‘That’s her. Asked if she could join the pig club. Well, Joan Wagget more or less runs that, so she asks how can you join the pig club when you haven’t got anywhere to keep a pig? Oh, says she, do you have to have a pig? I would of thought I could pay my share. Well, you can’t, says Joan, the pig club is for them as keeps pigs. Well, says this Mrs Marbleham, I heard as how you need a licence to slaughter a pig, and if I can’t join you’d better watch out, she says. Because I’m living right in the middle of this horrible village, she says, and I keeps my eyes skinned. Now what do you make of that?’
‘Fascinating,’ said Harriet. ‘I didn’t know there was a pig club. Should we join it, Mrs Trapp?’
‘We have done, my lady, and been promised a piglet to fatten as soon as Mr Bateson’s sow has her litter.’
‘How does it work, Mrs Trapp?’
‘Well, it wouldn’t make sense in a place this size if everyone who was rearing a pig happened to be killing them in the same week or fortnight. There’s only so much you can make into bacon, and people like the fresh pork. So the pig club get together to share the meat out when a pig gets slaughtered and then share in their turn when their own pig is ready. We joined up to it as soon as I heard about it.’
‘And very welcome you are,’ said Mrs Ruddle. ‘You aren’t going to be one what feeds the pig onion skins and such as taints the meat. We have thrown someone out of the club, Lady Peter, before now because they growed the most horrible-tasting meat. Now the vicar’s autumn pigs are always beautiful, because he lets ’em into his orchard to get all the windfall apples and pears. But Mr Puffett’s is best of all. He gives ’em windfall peaches from his kitchen garden, along of all the peelings, and do they taste different! Gorgeous, they are. I had a hand and spring off of Mr Puffett last time we had a share-out what was a real meal to remember . . . I done it with prunes soaked in a little tonic wine, Mrs Trapp, and you couldn’t guess how good that was! Even my Bert was pleased, and he always wants the trotters.’
‘Is this part of the war effort?’ asked Harriet.
‘Bless you, no!’ said Mrs Ruddle. ‘Been going on for years and years. The war effort is what’s trying to stop it, making us have a licence to get a pig slaughtered – in your own back yard, too! What next, I says to Bert, whatever next? That stupid Jack Baker what calls hisself a policeman – he isn’t any better than Joe Sellon uster be if you ask me – going all around asking people about who was walking out with that land-girl, and might of done her in, and all the people what he was asking about was down the shelter with about a hundred witnesses to as how they weren’t available to murder anyone. I ask you. It’s just as well you got your finger in that pie, my lady, or it’d be real dog’s dinner. Course, it’s a shame Lord Peter ain’t around to sort it – he’d have it worked out in no time. Well, well, I can’t sit around here all day. I better love you and leave you.’
Mrs Trapp waited until the door was firmly shut behind the visitor before saying to Harriet, ‘I’m sorry I hadn’t mentioned the pig club, my lady; we seem always to have to discuss the rationing.’
‘Oh, don’t worry,’ said Harriet. ‘It’s a bit of a compliment that we’re allowed to join it, since it sounds as if it’s insiders only.’
‘I don’t think it’s so much a compliment, my lady, as necessity. It seems that the hoist is in one of our outhouses. They would need us involved.’
‘What is a hoist?’ asked Harriet.
‘An arrangement of ropes and pulleys, my lady, I understand. I haven’t been to look myself. Can’t say as I’d want to. The butcher at Duke’s Denver used to come up when there was a beast to kill on the home farm, but by the time I saw what he was up to it was all nicely jointed.’
Just at that point Polly and Charlie burst in through the garden door, panting and hot and asking for drinks. Harriet hastily changed the subject. ‘What can the youngsters drink, Mrs Trapp? Have we got anything for them?’
‘The finest drink that man can drink is water from the spring,’ said Mrs Trapp. ‘Straight from the tap. Good for your teeth.’
‘Can we have it poured from a jug, Mrs Trapp, even if it is just water?’ asked Polly. ‘Then we can pretend it’s something nice.’
‘You can have it out of this lovely Staffordshire jug, Miss Polly, as though you were the Queen of Sheba,’ said Mrs Trapp, with a flourish. Harriet saw that she was fetching from the pantry a jug with a strange brown fluid in it the colour of watered beer.
‘Wow!’ cried Charlie. ‘Liquorice water! Gosh, Mrs Trapp, I love you!’
‘Cupboard love, you young scamp,’ said Mrs Trapp, smiling. ‘It won’t fool me. You won’t get round me that way! Now how’s that thingummyjig that your uncle gave you? Have you got it working yet?’
‘Well,’ said Charlie, ‘it is working. But I don’t think it was me, Mrs Trapp, I think it was Sam Bateson. He’s a whiz at it; he got it to pick up the Home Service straight away.’
‘I’m glad to hear it,’ said Mrs Trapp. ‘Now, out of my kitchen all of you, if you want any supper tonight. Right away.’
Harriet felt herself included in the general dismissal. But before she followed her flock out of the kitchen she picked up the glass that Polly had been drinking from, and sipped it. It had a faint and pleasant flavour of liquorice.
‘It’s only a penny a root,’ said Mrs Trapp. ‘And that makes a gallon. And it isn’t rationed, nor yet on points.’
‘It’s quite nice,’ said Harriet, wondering how she had escaped it in her own childhood.
Her own childhood, as an adored only child, had offered her very little preparation for the life she was now leading, she mused later. She was comfortably curled up on her large soft bed, with Paul beside her, falling asleep over his goodnight story about Babar the elephant. This story, one of those provided by Aunt Mary, Peter’s sister, had a distinctly communist tinge, Harriet realised, reading it for the umpteenth time. In a minute Sadie would come, take the boy from Harriet’s arms and settle him in his cot for the night. But for the moment Harriet was enjoying the cosy feeling of his heavy head lying against her arm. She had time to make a mental audit of her situation. She was, alas, not living with Peter this week, or next week, and yet now her entire life was living with Peter and that included this week, this day, this hour. It was Peter’s money that kept the roof over her head, that paid the servants’ wages – admittedly only three compared to the eight it had needed to run the London house, but enough pairs of willing hands to manage caring for the children and keeping the household clean, warm and fed. The cartoon in this morning’s paper had made her laugh: it showed a snooty young woman interviewing a stout matron. ‘So, actually, all you’re doing at the moment,’ read the caption, ‘is the housework, arranging and cooking meals for your husband, children and evacuees, canteen work, and voluntary fire-watching?’
Harriet’s laughter had been tinged with guilt. She was doing everything she was asked to do for the WVS, she had taken a St John’s Ambulance Brigade First-Aid course, and had a certificate to prove it, she was contributing ‘think pieces’ to various newspapers when asked, she had served briefly on a writers’ planning committee, and now she was helping Mr Kirk as a stand-in detective. Should she be able to do more?
And yet how could she do more? Mrs Trapp, she knew instinctively, would stay with her through hell and high water, and was far too elderly to be requisitioned for war work. But the housemaids must find working in the country very boring compared to their lives in the London house, and surely they would soon be working in a factory or as land-girls. And if not that, working hard enough as fire-watchers, or in the WVS to compromise the energy they could give to the household. If by then she herself had undertaken other work, there could be real difficulties keeping things going. She had to face it that her primary duties were here, even if at the moment she was only the fall-back for most of the work.
It wasn’t the work she had thought to devote her life to, that Peter had expected his wife to be engaged in. How firmly he had briefed the servants in Audley Square about her working hours, how carefully he had arranged for her study to be furnished! The war, which had seemed so slow to start, was now a gradually intensifying whirlwind blowing the lives of everyone before it. It would be preposterous of her to complain that the war stopped her writing detective stories, when it was stopping so many people from more important work, stopping many people over the Channel even from drawing breath.
Harriet looked ruefully across the room at the bookcase containing the published works of husband and wife:
A Murderer’s Vade Mecum
by Lord Peter Wimsey,
Notes on the Collection of Incunabula
by the same author, a row of narrow paper spines representing monographs on various subjects to which Peter had given his attention at one time or another. Her own work was relatively brazen, having been wrapped by her publisher in dust-jackets intended to catch the eye in a crowded bookshop:
Death in the Pot
,
Murder by Degrees
,
The Fountain Pen Mystery
– a gaudy row of titles by Harriet Vane. But how frivolous the whole preoccupation seemed compared to the dangers of the present hour. Frivolous? But Peter had once energetically refused to call them that. He had said that they put before the public a world the way it ought to be, and kept alive a dream of justice. And where was justice now? How could it survive in war? Domestic justice now was like a wall of sand in the face of a raging full-flood tide. She saw suddenly that far from making a small injustice, a single domestic murder, less important, the general danger made it even more important. We cannot abandon what we are fighting to defend; that would make our self-defence indefensible.
BOOK: A Presumption of Death
6.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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