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Authors: Nina de Gramont

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For the moment what seemed to make Cornelia Armstrong happy was waxing sorrowful about the Marstons’ untimely end. She moved over to sit directly beside Agatha. Chilton felt thankful none of the hotel guests were privy to the information about the poison that had been discovered in both Marstons.

‘Do you know,’ Miss Armstrong said to Agatha, ‘that before marrying Mr Marston, Mrs Marston had been a nun?’

‘You don’t say?’ Agatha looked to Mr Chilton, interest changing from polite to sincere.

‘She told me so herself. She asked me not to tell anyone. But I suppose that doesn’t matter now.’

‘I suppose not.’ Chilton poised himself, the way he did when someone was about to reveal something important, hoping the acceleration of his heartbeat wasn’t detectible.

‘She had been a nun,’ Miss Armstrong said, her voice giddy with the romance of it. ‘And Mr Marston, he had been a priest. Oh, it sounds like a novel, doesn’t it? The two of them torn and in love, all those years working side by side until they couldn’t bear it a moment longer. They’d only just renounced their vows and run off, so they could be together.’ She lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘You know, I’m not sure they’d even married yet, really. But that could just be me wanting more scandal.’ She laughed, a gentle twitter that might have been delightful, this show of happiness from the lovely young woman, if only it didn’t spell possible doom for another.

‘Do you happen to know,’ Chilton said carefully, ‘what sort of order they’d come from?’

‘An orphanage.’ Miss Armstrong spoke warmly, as if this were the most philanthropic venture she could imagine. ‘She was such a loving person, Mrs Marston, you could see it plain as day. I’m sure she took wonderful care of all those children.’

‘I’m sure she did,’ said Mr Chilton. ‘Did she say where this orphanage was located?’

‘County Cork, in Ireland. And I remember the name of the town. So poetic.’

Before Miss Armstrong could speak the words, Sunday’s Corner, Chilton looked over at Agatha. He could see from her face that in her mind as well as in his, everything had just come clear.

Perhaps you surmised in that moment, along with Chilton and Agatha: Mrs Marston and Sister Mary Clare were one and the same. Or perhaps you figured it out pages and pages ago. I wasn’t finished, that day in Sunday’s Corner, when my fingers circled around Sister Mary Clare’s throat.

In the baths, the world dripped with warm moisture. The ceiling was good and high, no need for claustrophobia as Chilton made the connection he’d felt certain was there, between his two cases and the element that connected them both. Me.

‘Funny,’ Agatha murmured. ‘My mother-in-law comes not far from Sunday’s Corner.’

‘Oh,’ Miss Armstrong said, turning to Chilton. ‘Is your mother Irish?’ At his vague nod she said to Agatha, ‘Mrs Marston was such a jolly person. Wasn’t she, Mr Chilton?’

He nodded again, just as dishonestly. Mrs Marston had the
precise sort of jolliness he’d never believed in. The sort that masked something, or else the lack of something. He wished there were a way to convey this to young Miss Armstrong. It seemed an important lesson for a young person. It wasn’t only the angry people that should make one wary. The jolly ones could be even more dangerous.

‘And where do you return to, Miss Armstrong,’ Agatha asked, ‘when you go home?’

‘Mundesley.’

‘Lovely,’ said Agatha. ‘How I prefer the sea, Miss Armstrong, to this countryside. Even in the winter. I don’t care what sort of natural springs a place has to offer, or how they try to lure me. This is all well and good but there’s no place so refreshing as the sea. Do you know, my mother believed salt water cured everything, from spots to heart disease?’

‘My father says the same,’ said Miss Armstrong.

‘Give me a plunge in the cold brine.’ Agatha actually looked cosy, even refreshed, by the hot water. She sank low so that it covered her ears for a moment, as if someone might contradict her and she didn’t want to hear it.

From outside a cold wind blew, strong enough for a little chill to creep in, the glass ceiling rattling as if flimsier than promised. Agatha’s love song to the seaside was a welcome sound to Chilton. Very welcome indeed.

Chilton and Agatha bundled back into their clothes and headed outside with their hair still damp. Strands froze; Agatha scrunched a handful to hear them crackle.

‘You know what I like to imagine?’ she said, as they walked towards the road.

Neither had discussed what they’d learned, not yet, only come to a silent agreement. That’s love, thought Chilton, when your mind works in concert.

Agatha seemed to know better than him, at the moment there were more important things to think of than their romance. She said, ‘I like to imagine it wasn’t just Nan. That every single woman staying at the Bellefort had a hand in it. When you think of all the girls who passed through that place, and others like it. Seems a pity for just one to have revenge when so many deserve it.’

This was the last thing Chilton expected. He said, ‘I suppose I’ll have to get a confession out of Nan.’

‘You’ll do no such thing.’

‘But Agatha. This is murder we’re talking about, not a game.’

‘What some call murder others might call justice.’

Chilton stopped walking but Agatha continued, firm and determined footsteps. He put his hands in his pockets – first hoisting the useless one – and thought of the killing he’d done in the war. The bodies beneath his feet as he ran through no man’s land. All of it sanctioned, in fact demanded, by the world. Perhaps a woman has a different kind of measuring stick. For when it might be acceptable, or even necessary, to commit a murder.

Here Lies Sister Mary

N
OT LONG AFTER
my escape, Fiona was released from the convent to work as a housemaid for a family in Sunday’s Corner. She dutifully attended Father Joseph’s services at the parish church. Her misspelled letters to me swelled with her old false cheer, claiming she couldn’t be happier or safer, and that she prayed every day for her little boy. ‘I hope he’s never told where he came from,’ she wrote. ‘The nuns always knew what was best for us, didn’t they?’

Upon reading that line, I ripped Fiona’s letter into a hundred pieces, the fiercely torn shreds turning up for weeks when I swept my room.

‘Don’t be angry at Fiona,’ Bess wrote. ‘She was raised by the nuns. If believing in them keeps her from going mad, who are we to take that away from her?’

I couldn’t stop myself sitting down and writing to tell Fiona how her little boy would always have a memory of her, deep in his bones and blood. That’s how it works with humans. ‘A baby never entirely leaves a mother’s womb,’ I wrote. ‘Traces of your boy – the very cells that comprise his living form – are still contained inside of you.’

She wrote back to tell me the roses that year were the most
beautiful she’d ever seen. And she’d gone to the convent to buy milk and radishes for her household, and all the nuns seemed wonderfully well.

In Philadelphia, Bess tried to be happy. It shouldn’t have been so difficult. Her husband was a kind man who adored her, and he found good work as the manager of a shipyard. They lived in a white clapboard house in a pleasant neighbourhood. There were two bedrooms waiting to be filled with children: her husband wanted two boys, two girls. But when Bess walked into these rooms, she didn’t see them as empty of future children, the family she couldn’t convince herself to start. She saw them empty of Ronan, who’d kicked and swum inside her, promising his arrival, and then emerged as a cold, unbreathing bundle.

‘Do you remember how beautiful he was?’ she would ask her husband late at night. He held her close in his arms and kissed her hair, and hoped one day she could find a way to move past it all.

‘But I can’t move past it,’ she confessed to her doctor. He was bald, with shockingly dark eyebrows and a compassionate bearing. ‘It’s left me so afraid.’

‘You’re perfectly healthy,’ Dr Levine promised her. ‘There’s no need to be afraid. You’re young.’

‘Do you think,’ she said, ‘that it was the priest who caused it? The stillbirth?’ She had told Dr Levine what she’d endured, on previous visits, to explain scarring he’d found when he first examined her and worried her husband was the perpetrator.

He raised his eyes to the ceiling before answering. Thinking. Wanting to give her an honest answer.

‘I can’t say for certain one way or the other,’ he finally said. ‘But I do know it can’t have helped.’

She wept, and he patted her shoulder. Bess hadn’t left Ireland unable to accept human touch from a man. She could take comfort from Dr Levine’s kind thumping. She could enjoy making love with her husband. Father Joseph hadn’t taken that away from her.

But she couldn’t recover what she believed with all her heart he
had
taken from her. She would walk outside her cosy house, a mug of coffee in her hand (a full-fledged American now, no more tea), to wave goodbye to her husband as he walked off to catch the train to work. Once he was out of sight, the mothers began emerging, to play in the pretty yards with their children. Bess would see, so clearly, her Ronan. Whatever age he would have been. Riding in a pram. Toddling after a cat in the garden. Rolling a toy truck along the drive. Chalking the sidewalk.

He should be here. He should be here, he should be here, he should be here.

‘I want to leave my old life behind,’ she wrote to me. ‘I send letters to you and Fiona and my sister Kitty. Apart from that I’m only interested in what’s here for me, here and now.’

Even as she wrote the words she knew they weren’t entirely true. Bess wanted children. She would have happily, joyfully filled those rooms upstairs. But not while Father Joseph drew breath and Ronan didn’t. The hatred in her heart had nothing to do with being a mother. And only one thing in the world would vanquish it.

Such a thing never seemed possible. Until a letter from Fiona arrived with the gossip from Sunday’s Corner. Sister Mary Clare and Father Joseph had fallen in love and renounced their vows.

‘She was in the village, chatty as ever,’ Fiona wrote. ‘She told
me they’d be married next month and then leave for Yorkshire to honeymoon at a place called the Bellefort Hotel. She told me I might as well start calling her Mrs Marston as that would be her name soon enough.’

Bess could easily imagine the cheery laugh that followed. A plan had to be hatched quickly. But she knew it would be easier to complete, now that Sister Mary Clare and Father Joseph would be together, in England. And she’d have such a willing accomplice in me.

The Disappearance

Day Five
Wednesday, 8 December 1926

B
ESS AND
I knew perfectly well Chilton was listening at the door. Not because we’d heard him – he was quieter than a mouse – but because we expected him to be watching us. We’d known we’d be facing perils enough, with our plans to murder two seemingly innocent people. Little did we know we’d also have to contend with my lover’s wife and the inspect- or who was searching for her. Not to mention Finbarr, come to reclaim me.

‘Donny’s had a telegram,’ Bess said, so loudly I nearly laughed at the contrivance of it. ‘We have to cut things short. Go back to the States.’

BOOK: The Christie Affair
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