Authors: P. D. James
Even to Cordelia it sounded a stilted, sententious little speech, an unsubstantiated accusation backed up by an empty threat. She half expected Hugo to counter it with amused contempt. But he looked at her for a minute as if assessing more than the reality of the danger. Then he said quietly: “Can’t you accept my word that Mark died by his own hand and that if you do call in the police it will cause unhappiness and distress to his father, to his friends and be absolutely no help to anyone?”
“No, Hugo, I can’t.”
“Then if we do tell you what we know, will you promise that it won’t go any further?”
“How can I, any more than I can promise to believe you?”
Suddenly Isabelle cried: “Oh, tell her, Hugo! What does it matter?”
Cordelia said: “I think that you must. I don’t think you’ve any choice.”
“So it seems. All right.” He put his coffee mug down in the hearth and looked into the fire.
“I told you that we went—Sophie, Isabelle, Davie and I—to the Arts Theatre on the night Mark died but that, as you’ve probably guessed, was only three-quarters true. They had only three seats left when I booked so we allocated them to the
three people mostly likely to enjoy the play. Isabelle goes to the theatre to be seen rather than to see and is bored by any show with a cast of less than fifty, so she was the one left out. Thus neglected by her current lover, she very reasonably decided to seek consolation with the next.”
Isabelle said with a secret, anticipatory smile: “Mark was not my lover, Hugo.”
She spoke without rancour or resentment. It was a matter of putting the record straight.
“I know. Mark was a romantic. He never took a girl to bed—or anywhere else that I could see—until he judged that there was an adequate depth of interpersonal communication, or whatever jargon he used, between them. Actually, that’s unfair. It’s my father who uses bloody awful meaningless phrases like that. But Mark agreed with the general idea. I doubt whether he could enjoy sex until he’d convinced himself that he and the girl were in love. It was a necessary preliminary—like undressing. I gather that with Isabelle the relationship hadn’t reached the necessary depths, hadn’t achieved the essential emotional rapport. It was only a matter of time, of course. Where Isabelle was concerned, Mark was as capable of self-deception as the rest of us.” The high, slightly hesitant voice was edged with jealousy.
Isabelle said, slowly and patiently, like a mother explaining to a wilfully obtuse child: “Mark never made love to me, Hugo.”
“That’s what I’m saying. Poor Mark! He exchanged the substance for the shadow and now he has neither.”
“But what happened that night?”
Cordelia spoke to Isabelle, but it was Hugo who replied.
“Isabelle drove here and arrived shortly after half past seven. The curtains were drawn across the back window, the
front one is impenetrable anyway, but the door was open. She came in. Mark was already dead. His body was hanging by the strap from that hook. But he didn’t look as he did when Miss Markland found him next morning.”
He turned to Isabelle: “You tell her.”
She hesitated. Hugo bent forward and kissed her lightly on the lips. “Go on, tell. There are some unpleasantnesses which all Papa’s money can’t entirely shield you from and this, darling, is one.”
Isabelle turned her head and looked intently into the four corners of the room as if satisfying herself that the three of them were really alone. The irises of her remarkable eyes were purple in the firelight. She leaned towards Cordelia with something of the confiding relish of a village gossip about to relate the latest scandal. Cordelia saw that her panic had left her. Isabelle’s agonies were elemental, violent but short lived, easily comforted. She would have kept her secret while Hugo instructed her to keep it, but she was glad of his order of release. Probably her instinct told her that the story, once told, would lose the sting of terror. She said: “I thought I would call to see Mark and, perhaps, that we would have supper together. Mademoiselle de Congé was not well and Hugo and Sophie were at the theatre and I was bored. I came to the back door because Mark had told me that the front door would not open. I thought that I might see him in the garden, but he was not there, only the garden fork in the ground and his shoes at the door. So I pushed open the door. I did not knock because I thought that I would be a surprise for Mark.”
She hesitated and looked down into the mug of coffee, twisting it between her hands.
“And then?” prompted Cordelia.
“And then I saw him. He was hanging there by the belt from that hook in the ceiling and I knew he was dead. Cordelia, it was horrible! He was dressed like a woman in a black bra and black lace panties. Nothing else. And his face! He had painted his lips, all over his lips, Cordelia, like a clown! It was terrible but it was funny too. I wanted to laugh and scream at the same time. He didn’t look like Mark. He didn’t look like a human being at all. And on the table there were three pictures. Not nice pictures, Cordelia. Pictures of naked women.”
Her wide eyes stared into Cordelia’s, dismayed, uncomprehending.
Hugo said: “Don’t look like that, Cordelia. It was horrible for Isabelle at the time and disagreeable to think about now. But it isn’t so very uncommon. It does happen. It’s probably one of the more innocuous of sexual deviations. He wasn’t involving anyone but himself. And he didn’t mean to kill himself; that was just bad luck. I imagine that the buckle of the belt slipped and he never had a chance.”
Cordelia said: “I don’t believe it.”
“I thought you might not. But it’s true, Cordelia. Why not come with us now and ring Sophie? She’ll confirm it.”
“I don’t need confirmation of Isabelle’s story. I already have that. I mean I still don’t believe that Mark killed himself.”
As soon as she spoke she knew that it had been a mistake. She shouldn’t have revealed her suspicions. But it was too late now and there were questions she had to ask. She saw Hugo’s face, his quick impatient frown at her obtuseness, her obstinacy. And then she detected a subtle change of mood; was it irritation, fear, disappointment? She spoke directly to Isabelle.
“You said that the door was open. Did you notice the key?”
“It was in this side of the door. I saw it when I went out.”
“What about the curtains?”
“They were like now, across the window.”
“And where was the lipstick?”
“What lipstick, Cordelia?”
“The one used to paint Mark’s lips. It wasn’t in the pockets of his jeans or the police would have found it, so where was it? Did you see it on the table?”
“There was nothing on the table except the pictures.”
“What colour was the lipstick?”
“Purple. An old lady’s colour. No one would choose such a colour I think.”
“And the underclothes, could you describe them?”
“Oh, yes! They were from M & S. I recognized them.”
“You mean that you recognized those particular ones, that they were yours?”
“Oh, no Cordelia! They were not mine. I never wear black underclothes. I only like white next to my skin. But they were the kind I usually buy. I always get my underclothes from M & S.”
Cordelia reflected that Isabelle was hardly one of the store’s best customers, but that no other witness would have been as reliable when it came to details, particularly of clothes. Even in that moment of absolute terror and revulsion, Isabelle had noticed the type of underclothes. And if she said that she hadn’t seen the lipstick, then it was because the lipstick hadn’t been there to see.
Cordelia went on inexorably: “Did you touch anything, Mark’s body perhaps, to see if he was dead?”
Isabelle was shocked. The facts of life she could take in her stride, but not the facts of death.
“I couldn’t touch Mark! I touched nothing. And I knew that he was dead.”
Hugo said: “A respectable, sensible law-abiding citizen would have found the nearest telephone and rung the police. Luckily Isabelle is none of these things. Her instinct was to come to me. She waited until the play ended, and then met us outside the theatre. When we came out she was pacing up and down the pavement on the other side of the road. Davie, Sophie and I came back here with her in the Renault. We only stopped briefly at Norwich Street to collect Davie’s camera and flash.”
“That was my idea. Obviously, we had no intention of letting the fuzz and Ronald Callender know how Mark had died. Our idea was to fake a suicide. We planned to dress him in his own clothes, clean his face and then leave him for someone else to find. We hadn’t it in mind to fake a suicide note; that was a refinement somewhat outside our powers. We collected the camera so that we could photograph him as he was. We didn’t know what particular law we were breaking in faking a suicide, but there must have been one. You can’t do the simplest service for your friends these days without it being liable to misconstruction by the fuzz. If there were trouble we wanted some evidence of the truth. We were all fond of Mark in our different ways, but not fond enough to risk a murder charge. However, our good intentions were frustrated. Someone else had got here first.”
“Tell me about it.”
“There’s nothing to tell. We told the two girls to wait in the car, Isabelle because she had already seen enough and Sophie because Isabelle was too frightened to be left alone. Besides, it seemed only fair to Mark to keep Sophie out of it, to prevent her from seeing him. Don’t you find it odd, Cordelia, this concern one has for the susceptibilities of the dead?”
Thinking of her father and Bernie, Cordelia said: “Perhaps
it’s only when people are dead that we can safely show how much we cared about them. We know that it’s too late for them to do anything about it.”
“Cynical but true. Anyway, there was nothing for us to do here. We found Mark’s body and this room as Miss Markland described them at the inquest. The door was open, the curtains drawn across. Mark was naked except for his blue jeans. There were no magazine pictures on the table and no lipstick on his face. But there was a suicide note in the typewriter and a mound of ash in the grate. It looked as if the visitor had made a thorough job of it. We didn’t linger. Someone else—perhaps someone from the house—might have turned up at any minute. Admittedly, it was very late by then but it seemed an evening for people to pop in. Mark must have had more visitors that night than during his whole time at the cottage; first Isabelle, then the unknown samaritan, then us.”
Cordelia thought that there had been someone before Isabelle. Mark’s murderer had been there first. She asked suddenly: “Someone played a stupid trick on me last night. When I got back here from the party there was a bolster slung from that hook. Did you do that?”
If his surprise were not genuine, then Hugo was a better actor than Cordelia thought possible.
“Of course I didn’t! I thought you were living in Cambridge, not here. And why on earth should I?”
“To warn me off.”
“But that would be crazy! It wouldn’t warn you off, would it? It might scare some women, but not you. We wanted to convince you that there was nothing to investigate about Mark’s death. That sort of trick would only convince you that there was. Someone else was trying to scare you. The most likely person is the one who came here after us.”
“I know. Someone took a risk for Mark. He—or she—won’t want me ferreting around. But he would have got rid of me more sensibly by telling me the truth.”
“How could he know whether to trust you? What will you do now, Cordelia? Go back to town?”
He was trying to keep his voice casual but she thought she detected the underlying anxiety. She replied, “I expect so. I’ll have to see Sir Ronald first.”
“What will you tell him?”
“I’ll think of something. Don’t worry.”
Dawn was staining the eastern sky and the first chorus of birds was noisily contradicting the new day before Hugo and Isabelle left. They took the Antonello with them. Cordelia saw it taken down with a pang of regret as if something of Mark was leaving the cottage. Isabelle examined the picture closely with a grave professional eye before tucking it under her arm. Cordelia thought that she was probably generous enough with her possessions, both people and pictures, provided they were on loan only, to be returned promptly on demand and in the same condition as when she parted with them. Cordelia watched from the front gate as the Renault, with Hugo driving, moved out of the shadow of the hedge. She lifted her hand in a formal gesture of farewell like a weary hostess speeding her final guests, then turned back to the cottage.
The sitting room seemed empty and cold without them. The fire was dying and she hastily pushed in the few remaining sticks from the hearth and blew on them to kindle the flame. She moved restlessly about the little room. She was too lively to go back to bed, but her short and disturbed night had left her edgy with tiredness. But her mind was tormented by something more fundamental than lack of sleep. For the first time she knew that she was afraid. Evil existed—it hadn’t
needed a convent education to convince her of that reality—and it had been present in this room. Something here had been stronger than wickedness, ruthlessness, cruelty or expedience. Evil. She had no doubt that Mark had been murdered, but with what diabolical cleverness it had been done! If Isabelle told her story, who now would ever believe that he hadn’t died accidentally, but by his own hand? Cordelia had no need to refer to her book on forensic medicine to know how it would appear to the police. As Hugo had said, these cases weren’t so very uncommon. He, as a psychiatrist’s son, would have heard or read of them. Who else would know? Probably any reasonably sophisticated person. But it couldn’t have been Hugo. Hugo had an alibi. Her mind revolted at the thought that Davie or Sophie could have participated in such a horror. But how typical that they should have collected the camera. Even their compassion had been overlaid with self-concern. Would Hugo and Davie have stood here, under Mark’s grotesque body, calmly discussing distance and exposure before taking the photograph which would, if necessary, exonerate them at his expense?