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Authors: Carola Dunn

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BOOK: Mistletoe and Murder
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“I happened to run into her at Claridge's, where I spent Saturday night, since your husband's house is not suitable for inviting your mother to stay when she is in town. We spoke briefly, as she was rushing off somewhere—and how she manages it at her age I cannot imagine. There's really something quite indecent about it—but I mentioned that I was to be Westmoor's guest at Brockdene. If only she had had the common courtesy to enlighten me there and then!”
“Enlighten you about what, Mother?”
“I suppose you believe the Indian person is the widow of the sixth earl's youngest son.”
“Honestly, I never thought twice about whose widow she is.”
“She's not.”
“If you want me to understand, you'll have to be less oracular,” Daisy said, patience wearing thin.
Momentarily, the dowager looked flummoxed, as if she wondered what “oracular” meant. She knew when Daisy was being unfilial, though. “I'm afraid being married to a policeman has not improved your manners, Daisy. Eva says it was all well known at the time. I was much too young to hear about it, of course.”
“Of course, Mother,” said Daisy, less to redeem herself than in the hope of speeding the awaited revelation.
“It was in the '70s. Albert Norville was a subaltern in India. His commanding officer wrote to Westmoor, the
sixth earl, that Albert was involved with a native woman and had even had a child by her. Naturally Westmoor summoned Albert home.” Lady Dalrymple scanned the letter to refresh her memory of the misdeeds of the unfortunate Albert. “His ship arrived in Plymouth some months later.”
“He came?”
“Naturally. In
those
days one did not lightly disobey one's parents. According to Westmoor's man of business in Plymouth, Albert called on him and learnt that his parents were in London, but his eldest brother, Lord Norville, was here at Brockdene. He announced his intention of sailing up the Tamar to win Norville's support before he faced Westmoor.”
“How on earth did all this become known?” Daisy demanded.
“According to Eva, the sixth countess was a thoroughly indiscreet woman, even a trifle underbred. Of course, the shock must excuse a certain lack of self-control,” Lady Dalrymple said with conscious tolerance, “though I should never allow myself such latitude.”
“What shock, Mother?”
“They were both drowned.”
“What! Who?”
“Albert and his brother. The servants here reported that they quarrelled bitterly, and the sailors who took them down the river said they actually came to fisticuffs on the boat. They fell overboard and could not be saved.”
“How dreadful!”
“The middle brother became the seventh earl, and the present Lord Westmoor is his son. I shall write him a stiff letter, a very stiff letter indeed. I consider his conduct towards me unconscionable.”
“He does seem to have gone a bit too far,” Daisy conceded.
“He's become downright eccentric since the War!”
“But how did Mrs. Norville end up living here at Brockdene, Mother? Surely Lady Eva hasn't left you in suspense.”
“‘Mrs.' Norville turned up in England some months later with two children, claiming to be married to Albert. She offered no proof, and the sixth earl didn't believe her for a moment; but to keep her quiet he gave her an allowance and a home here as long as she made no claims. Can you imagine the scandal if the newspapers had got hold of the story?”
“They would have had a field day,” said Daisy, trying to imagine the feelings of the unhappy girl, arriving in England with two little boys to find her husband dead and his family refusing to acknowledge her—always supposing Albert had actually been her legal husband. Surely she would have had some sort of proof, though. Perhaps he had just gone through some sort of Hindu ceremony with her.
“I presume the earl left provision for her in his will,” her mother continued, “to save his heirs from any unpleasantness. But what possessed Westmoor to suppose I would consider the woman an acceptable hostess is beyond me! I have a very good mind to leave immediately.”
“What an excellent idea, Mother. I'm sure you could spend a very comfortable Christmas at Claridge's …” Daisy's voice trailed off. She swallowed a sigh. “Only even if we could summon a boat to take you to Plymouth, the weather's already foul and there are gale warnings on the wireless. I'm afraid you'll have to stay.”
E
veryone helped with the Christmas decorations. Even Lady Dalrymple.
Once she accepted the impossibility of leaving in a huff, she had descended to the Hall. In her best
grande dame
manner she thoroughly enjoyed supervising the decking of it, as far as Daisy could see. Captain Norville was the moving spirit, nominally in charge, but the dowager sent him and Alec, his able assistant, rushing back and forth with ladders: this paper chain (turned out by the dozen by Derek and Belinda, with Miles sorting the rainbow colours for them) hung not quite symmetrically; that bunch of mistletoe was not perfectly centred over the doorway. The captain accepted her ladyship's corrections with unfailing good humour. She seemed to have forgotten, however temporarily, that he was the illegitimate offspring of a Native.
Meekly accepting her ladyship's occasional condescending remarks, the native herself sat by the wide hearth. A noble fire burned there today, though its warmth was vitiated by the gale howling down the chimney. Mrs. Norville was turning scraps of wool into little dollies which
Jemima hung on the Christmas tree. Daisy and Felicity tied ribbons and sweets on its branches and draped tinsel. Mr. Tremayne fixed the Christmas tree candles firmly in their little metal holders, while Dora Norville fussed over clipping them on safely.
Her husband had fastened the silver paper star to the top of the tree. Thereafter he hurried about the Hall uttering cries of distress every time a nail holding some ancient weapon was required to do double duty for a paper chain or bunch of holly. Whether his presence counted as helping was questionable, but at least he was present.
Everyone was present, except the clergyman.
“Mistletoe!” The Reverend Calloway stalked through the door from the East Wing, his eyes on the green leaves and pearly berries dangling above him. “Do Druids worship here? And an evergreen tree? I scarcely believe my eyes! Why do you celebrate the holy birthday of our Lord with these pagan symbols?”
“A Christmas tree is a pagan symbol, Mr. Calloway?” asked the captain, doubtful and anxious. “I'd never have guessed, I promise you.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” exclaimed Lady Dalrymple. “My good man, my uncle the Bishop saw no harm in Christmas trees. Your dogmatism is preposterous. And as for mistletoe …” A touch of pink tinted her cheeks, to Daisy's astonishment. Mother blushing? “My late husband always insisted on mistletoe at Christmas.”
“I'm sure if Lady Dalrymple has no objection, there is nothing more to be said.” Godfrey Norville cast a defiant glance not at the clergyman but at his brother, as Daisy was interested to note.
“It's all for the children, Reverend,” said Captain Norville, placatory now.
“For our guests,” Mrs. Godfrey put in with determined brightness. “The old traditions are such fun, aren't they?”
“There's another tradition which will be more to your taste, Padre,” said Miles. “We're going to sing carols in the Chapel this evening.”
Calloway seemed mollified. “I shall be pleased to join in hymns appropriate to the Church calendar.”
“Mr. Calloway.” At the unexpected sound of old Mrs. Norville's gentle voice, everyone turned to stare at her. “I hope you will be so kind as to take a Christmas service for us in the Chapel tomorrow morning?”
“Gladly, ma'am.” He didn't go so far as to smile, but the look he bent upon her was definitely softened. “I am happy to see that so much proper feeling remains.”
Daisy saw the captain surreptitiously wipe his forehead. What on earth could make it so important to him to keep on the clergyman's right side?
The gong in the East Wing rang out, interrupting her thoughts. Captain Norville gallantly offered his arm to Lady Dalrymple, and she, after a moment's hesitation, deigned to accept it. The rest followed them through to lunch.
 
“At last!” said Derek. “I thought we'd never get away.”
“I don't mind,” said Belinda. “It was fun making decorations, and I like having lunch with the grown-ups. Anyway, Mummy wouldn't have let us go out while the wind was so strong even though it stopped raining.”
“The gale's blown away the clouds. It's a good thing it didn't last long. Come on, let's get Nana.”
Belinda hung back. “I still think we ought to tell someone where we're going. So Daddy can find us if …”
“Oh, all right. We prob'ly ought to ask Mr. Norville if it's all right to go there anyway, but
don't breathe a word
about what we found.” His hand touched his pocket. “I've got my torch.”
She envied his pockets. Why were boys allowed to have great big pockets you could fit everything in, while girls could only fit a hankie in theirs?
They found Godfrey Norville. “You ask,” Derek whispered. “People always think boys are planning mischief.”
“Please, sir,” said Belinda, hoping what they were planning didn't count as mischief, “may we go to that tower on the hill?”
“The Prospect Tower? Yes, certainly. I don't believe it's locked. There's nothing in there you can damage. The sixth earl had the rotten old stairs removed, so you can't come to any harm.”
With a rapturous Nana bouncing around them, they set off up the grassy hill. As they approached the tall stone tower, they saw that it was a triangle with concave sides, though from a distance it looked as square and solid as anything.
“No wonder it's called a Folly,” Derek said scornfully, “but I bet you could see a long, long way from the top. I bet the smugglers used to signal to each other from the top. Then when it was safe, they used the secret passage to hide their loot.”
“Contraband,” Belinda corrected him. “Pirates have loot.”
“Never mind, it's all treasure. I hope the mechanism
hasn't gone all rusty. It'll be jolly mouldy if we can't get in.”
The door pushed open easily enough. Inside, Belinda looked up and saw a triangle of sky, for the tower had no roof.
“Everything's bound to be rusty with the rain coming in,” she said, half disappointed, half relieved.
“Not if it's all inside the walls. Let's look at the map.”
Derek took from his pocket a piece of paper yellowed with age and not much improved by its latest resting place. He knelt on the damp, rough floorboards and unfolded it with the greatest care, fending off the puppy's inquisitive nose. Bel knelt beside him. Together they pored over the spindly, faded writing and diagrams.
“It's right opposite the door,” said Belinda.
“Two feet up. People wouldn't notice because it's below eye-level.” Derek jumped up. “Come on.”
Belinda folded the map and brought it with her. She didn't want to enter any secret passage without instructions on how to get out again. Derek had already found the loose stone. He pried it out, and there was the promised lever.
It moved with surprising ease. In the darkest corner of the tower, a square of floor swung downward.
“Gosh!” Derek exclaimed, running over to the black hole.
“Derek, what if it's not a secret after all?”
“What do you mean?”
“I was just thinking. If the floor was really really old, wouldn't it be rotten, like Mr. Norville said the stairs were? I think the sixth earl must've put in a new floor, and he couldn't do that without everyone finding out about the room underneath.”
“Oh. Well, maybe, but maybe they didn't find the secret tunnel on the map. That'll be where the treasure's hidden.” He sat on the edge of the hole with his feet dangling and turned on his torch. “I'm going down anyway. Look, there's steps.”
Abandoning whatever she had been sniffing in the far corner, Nana beat him to it. She trotted down the steps and disappeared into the blackness below. Derek hurried after her, and Belinda didn't want to be left behind.
“Is there anything there?” she called, feeling her way cautiously as Derek wasn't shining the torch towards the stairs.
“Treasure chests!”
Belinda was low enough now to see the torch beam playing over a stack of wooden boxes. They didn't look anything like the treasure chests in the pictures in
Treasure Island
or
The
Arabian Nights.
“Are they locked? Can you open them?”
Derek was raising a lid, shining the light inside. “Nothing.” He dropped that lid, raised another.
“They say ‘Darjeeling' on the outside,” said Belinda, coming close enough to read the large, painted letters. “‘Darjeeling, Calcutta, London.' I bet they had tea in them. They used to smuggle tea as well as brandy, didn't they? ‘Brandy for the parson, 'baccy for the clerk … laces for my lady …'”
“Laces? They smuggled
shoelaces?”
“No, silly, French lace for dresses and things. The song doesn't say tea, though.”
“Never mind, they're all empty anyway. Let's find the tunnel.”
“It said we have to close the trap door. I don't think …”
“Don't be such a
girl
, Bel! Come and help.”
It took all their united strength to lift the trap door into place. Derek had to lay down the torch, so that was no help, nor was Nana, who kept getting in the way. At last it clicked into place above them. The sound gave Belinda a sort of horrid hollow feeling inside.
Derek retrieved his torch. He flashed it around the stone-walled room.
“I can't see anything,” he said, bitterly disappointed. “Let's look at the map again.” As he turned towards Belinda, the beam swung across the area which had been hidden by the trapdoor.
“No, look!” she cried, pointing. “A latch! It'd be jolly hard to see with just candles.”
It was a large but perfectly ordinary latch, of greypainted metal without a speck of rust. They raised it and pulled with all their might on the handle. With much creaking and groaning, a wooden door faced with very thin stone slabs swung open. An earthy smell wafted out.
“Let's go!” shouted Derek, and plunged into the narrow tunnel revealed by his torch. Nana frisked after him.
“Wait!”
Belinda wanted to say,
“What if there's a skeleton?”
but that would only make him call her a
girl
in that horrid way. “Remember, I haven't got a torch. And shouldn't we put something to block the door, so it doesn't close?”
“Good idea. We'll use one of those chests.”
Bel breathed a silent sigh of relief. At least she knew they could get out again.
The tunnel was perfectly beastly. She couldn't see much because Derek went ahead, but at least he was the one who got cobwebs in his face, not that he minded. First there was a slope going down, then a long flight of stone steps. On the plan it looked as if there was a room at the end.
“Derek, if we find the treasure, we can't keep it, can we?”
“Blast!” He stopped dead, turned and shone the torch into her eyes. She covered them with one hand and flapped at him with the other. He lowered the beam to her feet, which wasn't much help. “I suppose we can't. But who do you think it belongs to? Mr. Norville?”
“I don't think so. I don't think any of the stuff is his; he's just frightfully keen on it. I think everything belongs to Lord Westmoor. I wish we could give it to Mrs. Norville.”
“The old lady?”
“Yes, she's nice. Couldn't we give it to her secretly?”
“We have to find it first. Come on.”
Nana added a “hurry up” bark. They went on, and suddenly the passage ended and they stepped into a sort of half cave, half room. It was quite small, square, with three walls of rock and packed earth shored up with wood and one of neat stonework.
“No skeleton,” said Belinda, relieved.
“No treasure chest,” said Derek gloomily. “What a wash-out.”
“Maybe there's another map,” she consoled him. “We haven't tried the other desk yet, the one in the South Room. But look, Nana's got something!”
“Nana, drop it!”
Nana didn't want to give up her find, but Belinda made her sit and Derek prised it from her jaws. She barked as he examined it, with Belinda allowed to hold the torch.
“What is it, Derek?”
“It looks like a dagger in a sheath. Gosh, it's almost as good as treasure.” Holding one end, he pulled on the other. A blade slid out. It wasn't rusty, but it had rusty-brown
stains on it. “Blood!” said Derek, with ghoulish glee. “I bet someone was murdered with it.”
“It doesn't look much like a dagger, though, just a knife.”
BOOK: Mistletoe and Murder
11.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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