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Authors: Ngaio Marsh

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #det_classic, #Mystery & Detective, #London (England), #Police Procedural, #Police, #Cults, #Alleyn; Roderick (Fictitious character), #Detective and mystery stories; New Zealand

Death in Ecstasy

BOOK: Death in Ecstasy
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Death In Ecstasy
Ngaio Marsh

The woman stretched both her hands out and the priest gave her the cup.

“The wine of ecstasy gives joy to your body and soul.”

She raised the cup to her lips. Her head tipped back until the last drop must have been drained. Suddenly she gasped violently. Her face twisted into an appalling grimace. She pitched forward like an enormous doll, jerked twice, and then was still…

She may have been in a state of ecstasy, but she was undoubtedly dead.

Ngaio Marsh
Death In Ecstasy

 

The Characters in the Case

JASPER GARNETT, officiating priest of the House of the Sacred Flame.

The Seven Initiates:

SAMUEL J. OGDEN, Warden of the House. A commercial gentleman.

RAOUL de RAVIGNE, Warden of the House. A dilettante.

CARA QUAYNE, the Chosen Vessel.

MAURICE PRINGLE, engaged to Janey Jenkins.

JANEY JENKINS, the youngest initiate.

ERNESTINE WADE, probably the oldest initiate.

DAGMAR CANDOUR, widow.

 

CLAUDE WHEATLEY, an acolyte.

LIONEL SMITH, an acolyte.

DR. NICHOLAS KASBEK, an onlooker.

THE DOORKEEPER OF THE HOUSE.

EDITH LAURA HEBBORN, Cara Quayne’s old nurse.

WILSON, her parlormaid.

MR. RATTISBON, her solicitor.

ELSIE, Mr. Ogden’s housemaid.

 

CHIEF DETECTIVE-INSPECTOR ALLEYN, Criminal Investigation Department, Scotland Yard.

DETECTIVE-INSPECTOR FOX, his assistant.

DETECTIVE-SERGEANT BAILEY, his fingerprint expert.

DR. CURTIS, his Divisional Surgeon.

NIGEL BATHGATE, his Watson.

Foreword

In case the House of the Sacred Flame might be thought to bear a superficial resemblance to any existing church or institution, I hasten to say that if any similarity exists it is purely fortuitous. The House of the Sacred Flame, its officials, and its congregation are all imaginative and exist only in Knocklatchers Row. None, as far as I am aware, has any prototype in any part of the world.

My grateful thanks are due to Robin Page for his advice in the matter of sodium cyanide; to Guy Cotterill for the plan of the House of the Sacred Flame, and to Robin Adamson for his fiendish ingenuity in the matter of home-brewed poisons.

N.M.

Christchurch, New Zealand
.

PART I
CHAPTER I
Entrance to a Cul-de-sac

On a pouring wet Sunday night in December of last year a special meeting was held at the House of the Sacred Flame in Knocklatchers Row.

There are many strange places of worship in London, and many remarkable sects. The blank face of a Cockney Sunday masks a kind of activity, intermittent but intense. All sorts of queer little religions squeak, like mice in the wainscoting, behind its tedious façade.

Perhaps these devotional side-shows satisfy in some measure the need for colour, self-expression, and excitement in the otherwise drab lives of their devotees. They may supply a mild substitute for the orgies of a more robust age. No other explanation quite accounts for the extraordinary assortment of persons that may be found in their congregations.

Why, for instance, should old Miss Wade beat her way down the King’s Road against a vicious lash of rain and in the teeth of a gale that set the shop signs creaking and threatened to drive her umbrella back into her face? She would have been better off in her bed-sitting-room with a gas-fire and her library book.

Why had Mr. Samuel J. Ogden dressed himself in uncomfortable clothes and left his apartment in York Square for the smelly discomfort of a taxi and the prospect of two hours without a cigar?

What induced Cara Quayne to exchange the amenities of her little house in Shepherd Market for a dismal perspective of wet pavements and a deserted Piccadilly?

What more insistent pleasure drew M. de Ravigne away from his Van Goghs, and the satisfying austerity of his flat in Dover Street?

If this question had been put to these persons, each of them, in his or her fashion, would have answered untruthfully. All of them would have suggested that they went to the House of the Sacred Flame because it was the right thing to do. M. de Ravigne would not have replied that he went because he was madly in love with Cara Quayne; Cara Quayne would not have admitted that she found in the services an outlet for an intolerable urge towards exhibitionism. Miss Wade would have died rather than confess that she worshipped, not God, but the Reverend Jasper Garnette. As for Mr. Ogden, he would have broken out immediately into a long discourse in which the words “uplift”, “renooal” and “spiritual regeneration” would have sounded again and again, for Mr. Ogden was so like an American as to be quite fabulous.

Cara Quayne’s car, Mr. Ogden’s taxi, and Miss Wade’s goloshes all turned into Knocklatchers Row at about the same time.

Knocklatchers Row is a cul-de-sac leading off Chester Terrace and not far from Graham Street. Like Graham Street it is distinguished by its church. In December of last year the House of the Sacred Flame was obscure. Only members of the congregation and a few of their friends knew of its existence. Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn had never heard of it. Nigel Bathgate, looking disconsolately out of his window in Chester Terrace, noticed its sign for the first time. It was a small hanging sign made of red glass and shaped to represent a flame rising from a cup. Its facets caught the light as a gust of wind blew the sign back. Nigel saw the red gleam and at the same time noticed Miss Wade hurry into the doorway. Then Miss Quayne’s car and Mr. Ogden’s taxi drew up and the occupants got out. Three more figures with bent heads and shining mackintoshes turned into Knocklatchers Row. Nigel was bored. He had the exasperated curiosity of a journalist. On a sudden impulse he seized his hat and umbrella, ran downstairs and out into the rain. At that moment Detective-Inspector Alleyn in his flat in St. James’s looked up from his book and remarked to his servant: “It’s blowing a gale out there. I shall be staying in to-night.”

CHAPTER II
The House of the Sacred Flame

In Chester Terrace the wind caught Nigel broadside-on, causing him to prance and curvet like a charger. The rain pelted down on his umbrella and the street lamps shone on the wet pavement. He felt adventurous and pleased that he had followed his impulse to go abroad on such a night. Knocklatchers Row seemed an exciting street. Its name sounded like a password to romance. Who knows, he thought hopefully, into what strange meeting-house I may venture? It should be exotic and warm and there should be incense and curious rites. With these pleasant anticipations he crossed Chester Street and, lowering his umbrella to meet the veering wind, made for the House of the Sacred Flame.

Two or three other figures preceded him, but by the time he reached the swinging sign they had all disappeared into a side entry. As he drew nearer Nigel was aware of a bell ringing, not clearly, insistently, like the bell of St. Mary’s, Graham Street, but with a smothered and inward sound as though it were deep inside a building. He turned left under the sign into shelter, and at that moment the bell stopped ringing. He found himself in a long covered passage, lit at the far end by a single lamp, or rather by a single light, for as he approached he saw that a naked flame rose from a bronze torch held in an iron sconce. Doubtless in deference to some by-law this unusual contrivance was encased in a sort of cage.

Beyond the torch he saw double doors. A man came through, closed the doors, locked them, and seated himself on a stool under the torch. Nigel furled his umbrella and approached this doorkeeper. He was a thinnish young man, pale and spectacled, with an air of gentility.

“I’m afraid you are too late,” he said.

“Too late?” Nigel felt ridiculously exasperated and disappointed.

“Yes. The bell has stopped. I have just locked the doors.”

“But only this second. I saw you do it as I lowered my umbrella. Couldn’t you open them again?”

“The bell has stopped.”

“I can hear that very well. That, too, has only just occurred. Could not you let me in?”

“I see you do not know our rules,” said the young man, and pointed to a framed notice which hung beside the doors. Nigel turned peevishly and read the sentence indicated by the young man: “The bell ceases ringing as the Priest enters the temple. The doors are then locked and will not be re-opened until the ceremony is ended.”

“There, you see,” said the young man complacently.

“Yes, I see. But if you will allow me to say so, I consider that you make a mistake in so stringently enforcing this rule. As you have noticed I am a new-comer. Something prompted me to come — an impulse. Who knows but what I might have proved an enthusiastic convert to whatever doctrine is taught behind your locked doors?”

“There is a Neophytes’ Class at six-fifteen on Wednesdays.”

“I shall not attend it,” cried Nigel in a rage.

“That is as you please.”

Nigel perceived very clearly that he had made a fool of himself. He could not understand why he felt so disproportionately put out at being refused entrance to a ceremony of which he knew nothing and, he told himself, cared less. However he was already a little ashamed of his churlish behaviour and with the idea of appeasing the doorkeeper he turned once again to the notice.

At the top was a neat red torch set in a circle of other symbols, with most of which he was unfamiliar. Outside these again were the signs of the Zodiac. With a returning sense of chagrin he reflected that this was precisely the sort of thing his mood had demanded. Undoubtedly the service would be strange and full of an exotic mumbo-jumbo. He might even have got a story from it. A muffled sound of chanting beyond the doors increased his vexation. However he read on:

 

“In the Light of the Sacred Flame all mysteries are but different facets of the One Mystery, all Gods but different aspects of one Godhead. Time is but an aspect of Eternity, and the doorway to Eternity is Spiritual Ecstasy.

“Jasper Garnette.”

 

“Tell me,” said Nigel, turning to the doorkeeper, “who is Jasper Garnette?”

“Our Founder,” answered the young man stiffly, “and our Priest.”

“You mean that not only does he write about eternity but he actually provides the doorway which he mentions in this notice?”

“You may say,” said the young man with a glint of genuine fervour in his eye, “That this
is
The Doorway.”

“And are you fated to stay forever on the threshold, shutting out yourself and all late arrivals?” inquired Nigel, who was beginning to enjoy himself.

“We take it in turns.”

“I see. I can hear a voice raised in something that sounds like a lament. Is that the voice of Mr. Jasper Garnette?”

“Yes. It is not a lament. It is an Invocation.”

“What is he invoking?”

“You really should attend the Neophytes’ Class at six-fifteen on Wednesdays. It is against our Rule for me to gossip while I am On Guard,” pronounced the doorkeeper, who seemed to speak in capitals.

“I should hardly call this gossip,” Nigel objected. Suddenly he jumped violently. A loud knock had sounded on the inside of the door. It was twice repeated.

“Please get out of the way,” cried the young man. He removed the wire guard in front of the torch. Then he took a key from his pocket and with this he opened the double doors.

Nigel drew to one side hurriedly. There was a small recess by the doors. He backed into it

Over the threshold came two youths dressed in long vermilion robes and short overgarments of embroidered purple. They had long fuzzy hair brushed straight back. One of them was red-headed with a pointed nose and prominent teeth. The other was dark with langourous eyes and full lips. They carried censers and advanced one to each side of the torch making obeisances. They were followed by an extremely tall man clad in embroidered white robes of a Druidical cut and flavour. He was of a remarkable appearance, having a great mane of silver hair, large sunken eyes and black brows. The bone of his face was much emphasised, the flesh heavily grooved. His mouth was abnormally wide with a heavy underlip. It might have been the head of an actor, a saint, or a Middle-West American purveyor of patent medicines. Nigel had ample opportunity to observe him, for he stood in front of the torch with his short hands folded over an unlighted taper. He whispered and muttered for some time, genuflected thrice, and then advanced his taper to the flame. When it was lit he held it aloft. The doorkeeper and the two acolytes went down on their knees, the priest closed his eyes, and Nigel walked into the hall.

He found himself in a darkness that at first seemed to be absolute. In a few seconds, however, he could make out certain large shapes and masses. In the distance, perhaps on an altar, a tiny red light shone. His feet sank into a thick carpet and made no sound. He smelt incense. He felt the presence of a large number of people all close to him, all quite silent. A little reflected light came in through the doors. Nigel moved cautiously away from it towards his right and, since he met with no obstruction, thought that he must be in a cross-aisle. His eyes became accustomed to the darkness, he saw veils of moving smoke, lighter shapes that suggested vast nudities, then rows of bent heads with blurred outlines. He discovered that he was moving across the back of the church behind the last row of pews. There seemed to be an empty seat in the far corner. He made for this and had slid into it when a flicker of light, the merest paling of gloom, announced the return of the priest — surely Jasper Garnette himself — with his taper. He appeared in the centre aisle, his face and the rich embroidery of his robe lit from beneath by the taper. The face seemed to float slowly up the church until it changed into the back of a head with a yellow nimbus. The taper was held aloft. Then, with a formidable plop, an enormous flame sprang up out of the dark. The congregation burst into an alarming uproar. An organ uttered two or three of those nerve-racking groans that are characteristic of this instrument and red lamps came to life at intervals along the walls.

For several minutes the noise was intolerable, but gradually it revealed itself as a sort of chant. Next to Nigel was a large lady with a shrill voice. He listened attentively but could make nothing of her utterances, which seemed, to be in no known language.

“Ee-ai-ee-yah-ee,” chanted this lady.

Presently the organ and the congregation together unexpectedly roared out a recognisable Amen. Everyone slid back from their knees into their seats and there was silence.

Nigel looked about him.

The House of the Sacred Flame resembled, in plan, any Anglican or Roman church. Nave, transept, sanctuary and altar — all were there. On the left was a rostrum, on the right a reading-desk. With these few specious gestures, however, any appearance of orthodoxy ended. Indeed the hall looked like nothing so much as an ultramodern art exhibition gone completely demented. From above the altar projected a long sconce holding the bronze torch from which the sanctuary flame rose in all its naphtha-like theatricality. On the altar itself was a feathered serpent, a figure carved in wood with protruding tongue and eyes made of pawa shell, a Wagnerian sort of god, a miniature totem-pole, and various other bits of heathen bric-a-brac, as ill-assorted as a bunch of plenipotentiaries at Geneva. The signs of the Zodiac decorated the walls, and along the aisles were stationed at intervals some remarkable examples of modern sculpture. The treatment was abstract, but from the slithering curves and tortured angles emerged the forms of animals and birds — a lion, a bull, a serpent, a cat and a phoenix. Cheek by jowl with these, in gloomy astonishment, were ranged a number of figures whom Nigel supposed must represent the more robust gods and goddesses of Nordic legend. The gods wore helmets and beards, the goddesses helmets and boots. They all looked as though they had been begun by Epstein and finished by a frantic bricklayer. In the nearest of these figures Nigel fancied he recognised Odin. The god was draped in an angular cloak from the folds of which glared two disconsolate quadrupeds who might conceivably represent Geri and Freki, while from behind a pair of legs suggestive of an advanced condition of elephantiasis peered a brace of disconsolate fowls, possibly Huginn and Muninn. Incense burned all over the place. Everything was very expensive and lavish.

Having seen this much, Nigel’s attention was arrested by a solitary voice of great beauty. The Rev. Jasper Garnette had mounted the pulpit.

Afterwards, when he tried to describe this part of the service to Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn, Nigel found himself quite unable to give even the most general résumé of the sermon. Yet at the time he was much impressed. It seemed to him that these were the utterances of an intellectual. He had an extraordinary sense of rightness as though, in a series of intoxicating flashes, all mental and spiritual problems were reduced to a lovely simplicity. Everything seemed to fit with exquisite precision. He had a vivid impression of being personally put right. At first it appeared that the eyes of the preacher were on him alone. They looked into each other’s eyes, he thought, and he was conscious of making a complete surrender. Later the preacher told him to look at the torch and he did so. It wavered and swelled with the voice. He no longer felt the weight of his body on the seat. Nigel, in short, had his first experience of partial hypnotism and was well underway when the large lady gave utterance to a stentorian sneeze and an apologetic gasp: “Oh, dear me!”

That, he told Alleyn, tore it. Back to earth he came just as Father Garnette spoke his final period, and that was the one utterance Nigel did retain:

“Now the door is open, now burns the flame of ecstasy. Come with me into the Oneness of the Spirit. You are floating away from your bodies. You are entering into a new life. There is no evil. Let go your hold on the earth. Ecstasy it is yours. Come, drink of the flaming cup!”

From all round the hall came a murmur. It swelled and was broken by isolated cries. The large lady was whimpering, further along a man’s voice cried out incoherently. The priest had gone to the altar and from a monstrance he drew out a silver flagon and a jewelled cup. He handed the flagon to the dark acolyte and passed his hand across the cup. A flame shot up from within, burned blue and went out. In the front rank a woman leapt to her feet. The rest of the congregation knelt. The woman ran up the chancel steps and with a shrill “Heil!” fell prostrate under the torch. The priest stood over her, the cup held above his head. She was followed by some half-a-dozen others who ranged themselves in a circle about her, knelt and raised their hands towards the cup. They too, cried out incoherently. There was something indecent about these performances and Nigel, suddenly sane, felt ashamed and most uncomfortable. Now the priest gave the cup to one of the kneeling circle, a large florid woman. She, with the exclamation of “Y’mir,” pronounced with shrill emphasis, took the silver flagon from the attendant acolyte, poured something into the cup and passed it to her neighbour. He was a dark well-groomed man who repeated the ritual uttering a different word. So the cup went round the circle. Each Initiate took it from his neighbour, was handed the flagon by the acolyte, poured wine from the flagon into the cup, passed the cup to the next Initiate, and returned the flagon to the acolyte. Each uttered a single word. Nigel thought he detected the names of “Thor,” of “Ar’riman” and of “Vidur” among others so outlandish as to be incomprehensible. The circle completed, the priest again received the cup. The prostrate woman sprang to her feet. Her arms twitched and she mouthed and gibbered like an idiot, turning her head from side to side. It was a nauseating, a detestable performance, doubly so since she was a beautiful creature; tall, not old, but white-haired. She was well and fashionably dressed, but her clothes were disarranged by her antics, her hat had slipped grotesquely sideways, and one of her sleeves was twisted and dragged upwards. She began to speak, a long stream of incoherences in which were jumbled the names of antique gods with those of present-day beliefs. “I am one and I am all.” The kneeling circle kept up an obbligato of “Heils” in which, at the last, she joined, clapping her hands together and rocking to and fro.

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