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Authors: Carola Dunn

Mistletoe and Murder

BOOK: Mistletoe and Murder
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Readers of my
Smugglers' Summer
(Walker, 1987) will recognize the setting of this story: Brockdene is Cotehele, now a National Trust property open to the public. I have changed the name to protect the innocent, i.e., the actual residents of the house in the 1920s and their descendants. The Norvilles are a purely imaginary family, though I have borrowed genuine family legends, as well as one or two I invented for
Smugglers' Summer
.
That being clarified, my thanks are due to Louis Eynon, National Trust Property Manager at Cotehele, for his invaluable assistance. After changing the name of the house, I have felt free to alter a few details, but in the main this is an accurate description. I hope it will encourage readers to visit Cotehele, a fascinating experience.
Cornwall, 1874
 
The sailing barge slid smoothly down the Tamar on the ebbing tide. With no need to man the oars, the crew were at leisure to watch the two young gentlemen seated in the bows.
Beyond the obvious similarities—the fair moustaches and whiskers—their faces proclaimed a close relationship. The elder was Lord Norville, heir to the sixth Earl of Westmoor. His country tweed knickerbocker suit contrasted with his companion's military gear. Albert, his youngest brother, had recently returned from India and wore the uniform of a lieutenant in the Duke of Cornwall's Own Regiment.
The brothers' faces revealed more than their shared ancestry. They were obviously quarrelling. Their voices were lowered, so that even the closest of the sailors could not guess the cause of their dispute, but it appeared to be no minor matter.
The yellowing reed beds fell away to either side. The
barge began to bob as the river merged into the widening estuary. The captain shouted an order, and the crew moved to raise sail. The Norvilles argued on, oblivious.
A frigate steamed out from the naval dockyard at Devonport.
“You're a fool!” cried Lord Norville at last. “No good can come of this idiocy. Give me that paper!”
He darted a hand inside Albert's coat and pulled out a paper from the breast pocket. Ripping it in half, he stood up, his arm back to throw it overboard. Albert sprang to his feet and grappled with him, shouting.
His words were drowned by the throb of the frigate's engines. Heedless in her power and arrogance, the ship cut across the sailing barge's path. Her bow wave caught the small boat, tossing it about like an autumn leaf on the wind. Caught off balance, both young men toppled over the side.
By the time the horrified boatmen brought the barge around, the brothers had disappeared without a trace.
London, 1923
 
“M
other, you simply can't!”
“It's no good being difficult, Daisy.” The Dowager Viscountess's smugness insinuated itself between the crackles on the wire. “Perhaps you didn't catch what I said—this is a shockingly bad line. I wrote to Lord Westmoor as soon as Violet mentioned that you were going to Brockdene just before Christmas. And I must say I do think I shouldn't have to wait to hear your news from your sister.”
“Sorry, Mother, I've been frightfully busy since Alec and I got home from America. But …”
“Westmoor was most obliging. It's arranged already. We shall all join you on the twenty-third.”
“All?”
“I warned Westmoor that you had married a policeman. You ought to have invited the earl to the wedding, Daisy. The Norvilles are relatives, after all.”
“Only just,” Daisy muttered rebelliously. “Second cousins by marriage twice removed, or something.” Still, that
slight connection had emboldened her to ask his lordship's permission to write about Brockdene, so she couldn't very well complain—
—As Lady Dalrymple continued to do. Daisy had missed some of what she said, but she gathered Alec had not been banished from the family gathering because of his
infra dig
profession.
“And I suppose one can't very well separate him from his little girl at Christmas.”
“I should hope not, Mother! Besides, Belinda is my daughter now, too.”
The telephone wafted a resigned sigh to her ear. “Yes, dear. And Violet tells me she and Derek are thick as thieves, so perhaps they will keep each other out of mischief.”
Or egg each other on, Daisy didn't say. “What about Mrs. Fletcher?”
“Darling, do you think your mother-in-law would be quite comfortable in such company? A bank manager's widow, I gather, and merely a bank
branch
…”
“Mother, Bel's her only grandchild, and it's Christmas we're talking about!” An unconvinced silence forced Daisy to play her trump. “And she plays bridge. She's out right now at her weekly bridge evening.”
“Hmmm.” There was a thoughtful pause, then the dowager snapped, “Oh, very well, since you've never bothered to learn the game. I did mention to Westmoor that she might come, and he raised no objection. Now really, Daisy, I can't afford to go on chatting endlessly with the cost of trunk calls what it is. I'll see you on Sunday. Good-bye.”
Daisy hung the ear-piece on its hook and hurried from the entrance hall back to the sitting room. It was a pleasant
room, for which Daisy gave the credit to Alec's first wife. The heavy mahogany furniture had been reupholstered with cheerful prints; the walls, no doubt once been covered with the sombre wallpaper beloved by the Victorians, were now painted white; while over the mantelpiece where—Daisy suspected—a Stag had stood endlessly At Bay, hung a colourful view of Montmartre.
Alec's mother could not blame Daisy for that transformation. She did, quite rightly, hold her responsible for the lapse from rigid formality represented by books and magazines left open on tables, a half-completed jigsaw puzzle, a silk scarf flung over the back of a chair, and such depredations.
The worst of these sprawled on the hearthrug before the cheerful fire: Nana, Belinda's multicoloured mongrel puppy, who sprang up when Daisy entered the room and pranced to greet her as if she had been gone for five months, not five minutes.
“Down, Nana!” said Bel, tossing back a ginger pigtail as she looked round from the game of chess she was playing with her father. “Sorry, Mummy.”
“It's all right, darling, she didn't jump up. She's getting much better.”
So was Belinda. She no longer stammered when she addressed Daisy as “Mummy,” as she had at first, though she could barely remember her own mother. She was quite comfortable now with frequent hugs and other signs of affection, which her grandmother had withheld for fear of spoiling the child. She smiled and laughed much more often than when Daisy had first entered her life.
Daisy recognized her self-satisfied musing as an attempt to postpone revealing the Dowager Viscountess's latest
machinations. At least Mrs. Fletcher's absence meant Daisy could let Alec break the news to her gently, later.
“Darling,” she began guiltily, just as Alec moved a bishop, looked up, and asked, “What did your mother have to say, Daisy?”
“You don't want to know.” Daisy dropped into a chair. “You remember Mother was complaining that her house is too small to have the whole family visit for Christmas? But she wouldn't accept Cousin Edgar's invitation for all of us to Fairacres. I wish she'd be reconciled to Edgar and Geraldine. It's nearly five years since Father died and the poor man inherited.”
“She might find it easier if the Dower House weren't so close to Fairacres.”
“If it wasn't that, it would be something else. When she's in her coffin, she'll complain if she's buried five feet eleven and a half inches down instead of six feet.”
“Little pitchers,” Alec warned.
“Oh dear, forget I said that, Bel!”
“Said what?” Belinda asked, raising her eyes from the chessboard. “Daddy, I rather think you've cornered my queen.”
“Beast,” said Daisy, who hadn't the patience for chess.
“He's not! I told Daddy he mustn't let me win.”
“And
I
told you, you mustn't let him let you win. Quite right, darling. He's still a beast.”
“No, he's not,” Bel said anxiously. “He gave me four pawns before we started.”
“Right-oh, he's absolved.”
“You're not, though, Daisy,” Alec put in, grinning. “What has Lady Dalrymple been up to?”
“You are not going to believe this. She's somehow coerced
Lord Westmoor into inviting us all to spend Christmas at Brockdene. Vi and Johnnie, too. And your mother, of course.”
“Will Derek come?” At Daisy's nod, Bel's freckled face glowed. “Spiffing!”
“You did say Superintendent Crane is giving you Christmas off, darling?”
“Yes, I worked over both Christmas and New Year's Day last year. I've no excuse to turn down Lord Westmoor's invitation. Does he realize what he's let himself in for, do you suppose?”
“He's not going to be there, I'm pretty sure; but I bet you anything you like Mother thinks he will be. She didn't give me a chance to break the news.”
“Our host won't be present?”
“Well, when he gave me permission to write about Brockdene, he told me it was an ancient family custom to spend Christmas there, but the custom fell into abeyance ages ago. Now the house is inhabited by poor relations. I don't believe he told Mother. Perhaps he was getting his own back for being manoeuvred into issuing the invitation. She'll be furious!”
 
Nor would Mother be pleased to discover what the journey to Brockdene entailed, Daisy thought, stepping up onto the cobbled quay from the motor-boat which had brought her up the Tamar from Plymouth. She turned to wave good-bye to the boatman.
Lord Westmoor had warned her that Brockdene was quite isolated. Not only was the way by road tortuous in the extreme, but at this time of year the Cornish lanes were deep in mud. Motor vehicles attempting them frequently
had to be rescued by cart horses. From the nearest station, at Calstock, one might walk a couple of miles to Brockdene along a miry public footpath, but the earl did not think Daisy would care for that. To hire a launch and go up the river was quicker, simpler, and cheaper than any alternative.
Though Daisy's editor at
Town and Country
took some persuading that he wouldn't be paying her expenses for a pleasure jaunt, eventually she convinced him. Nonetheless, the boat trip had been a pleasure.
For a start it was a beautiful day. Daisy was quite warm enough in her heather-mixture tweed costume, without her winter coat. The soft, mild air of the West Country had little in common with the dank chill of London's atmosphere of coal smoke and petrol fumes. The sun shone through a high, shifting haze, bringing an intermittent sparkle to the blue-grey waters of Plymouth Sound. Herring gulls circled overhead. The chatty boatman, his Devonshire accent thick and rich as clotted cream, had announced the sights to Daisy as they put-putted past: Plymouth Hoe, Drake's Island, the busy Royal Navy dockyards at Devonport, the Spanish Steps.
As they continued the channel narrowed and the water turned to grey-green. The Tamar wound between yellow reed beds and wooded cliffs, with the hills of Devon and Cornwall beyond to either side, a patchwork of green, gold, and brown. The boatman pointed out a tiny stone chapel right on the riverbank at Halton Quay. He told Daisy he'd heard there was another such at Brockdene, not visible from the river. Near the chapel, lime kilns belched smoke into the air, making quicklime for fertilizer.
“Doesn't it burn the plants?” Daisy asked. She had a
vague memory of reading about quicklime being used to destroy plague-ridden bodies.
“'Tis slaked wi' water afore it be put on the fields,” the boatman assured her. “See them cottages? They do say in the old smuggling days a red petticoat hung on the washing line gave warning of the Preventives, and which end it hung told whereabouts they was searching.”
He spoke with a touch of nostalgia, Daisy noted with amusement, and she plied him for further tales of the smugglers. Maybe she could develop the stories into an article.
“They do say,” he finished, nosing the boat in next to the stone wharf at Brockdene Quay, “as one o' the chief smugglers, Red Jack, were related to the family at Brockdene and they hid him from the dragoons when he were hurt bad. But that were nigh on a hundred years past, and what the truth of it might be, Oi couldn't rightly say.”
“It's an interesting story, anyway.”
“So ‘tis. Now these here docks are silting up, since they put in the railway to Calstock. Few years more and you'll only be able to come in at high tide 'less they do dredge. Times surely do change. Thank 'ee kindly, miss,” he added as she tipped him. “There, let me put your bags ashore, then Oi'll hold her steady for you.”
Daisy watched rather anxiously as he slung her baggage onto the quay, including her camera and tripod, early Christmas presents from Alec, and her portable typewriter. Then she disembarked and the boat put-putted away down river.
No one was about. Glancing around, she saw a small public house, a few cottages, a warehouse, more of the rather sinister smoke-belching lime kilns, and a lodge
guarding a very steep drive. Brockdene itself, the fortified manor house, was invisible, presumably at the top of the hill.
Daisy looked at the hill, looked at her baggage, and groaned. Lord Westmoor had said he would notify the household of her coming, and she herself had written to Mrs. Norville to say when she would arrive. She hoped she was not as unwelcome as present appearances—or rather non-appearances—suggested.
At that moment a door slammed as a stringy youth in a jerkin, breeches, and gaiters came out of the pub and looked over to the quay. Seeing Daisy, he trudged towards her, trundling a handcart across the cobbles.
“Hello,” said Daisy. “I hope you've come from the house to take my baggage up?”
“Aye.” The youth, a gardener probably, touched his cap and silently loaded his barrow. Without another word, he set off.
Daisy scurried to catch up. In her usual friendly way she attempted to chat, but not only was he taciturn, when he did speak his Cornish accent was nearly impenetrable. She had the greatest difficulty understanding a single word and soon gave up hope of advance information about the household she was about to encounter.
In any case, before they reached the top of the hill she had no breath to spare for talking. Reluctant to arrive panting, she paused at the top. The gardener plodded on regardless, between a row of huge sycamores and a long, low building of lichened granite. It looked pretty ancient, though in excellent repair. A barn, perhaps, or stables? A faint odour of farm animals hung in the air. Daisy wondered whether there was a horse-drawn vehicle, if not a
motor, to bring her mother up from the quay. The Dowager Lady Dalrymple would not appreciate being forced to walk.
Looking ahead again, Daisy saw the house. The three-story crenellated gatehouse with its tiny windows and narrow entrance arch looked fit to withstand a seige. It begged for a photograph.
“Stop!” cried Daisy. “Wait, please.”
The gardener turned and gaped at her.
She hurried to the handcart and abstracted her camera and tripod. “I want to take a photo while the light's good,” she explained. “It may rain tomorrow.”
The youth looked vacantly up at the blue sky, from which even the slight haze had cleared. “Aye,” he said, and went on with the cart through the open, iron-studded door under the archway.
BOOK: Mistletoe and Murder
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