Authors: Nina de Gramont
She sat down on the bed beside me and clasped my hand. We stared at each other, eyes full. No matter what happened next, it had been worth it.
The poisons had been easy enough to obtain, though potassium cyanide was an odd purchase for winter, with no wasps afoot. I went to two different shops in London, one for the potassium cyanide and another for the strychnine, the beauty of a populous city, where nobody would remember me, or think to connect the substances with any death in Yorkshire. Archie may not have read Agatha’s books but I had. I knew poison was the
best way to accomplish a quick and easy murder – easy to perpetrate but not to solve.
Sister Mary Clare, now Mrs Marston, was so untrue and unthinking in her every word and deed. At the Bellefort Hotel she stared directly at me. Never into my face. Only glancing at the surface. Bess, too, she trained her eyes on both of us and spoke about herself. Just like at the convent, she smiled, she chatted, she landed her plump hands on our shoulders as if she believed herself fond of us. But when we appeared in her life again, there was nothing about either of us she recognized. To her all girls were the same.
It was Hamlet, wasn’t it, who said: ‘One may smile and smile and be a villain.’
To the man who’d never bothered to smile, at least at us – the ragwort – some girls stood out. Father Joseph knew Bess the moment he laid eyes on her. In the hotel dining room, doing what needed to be done, Bess had felt no fear. None at all. Only a gladness at witnessing his discomfort. Knowing he’d be dead before he could alert his wife to our identity.
Bess’s sister Kitty and her husband Carmichael, posing as an unhappy English couple, had caused the necessary diversion – a great row that commanded the attention of everyone present. Bess had been able to step forward and plunge the syringe into Father Joseph’s flank, then secret it back into the pocket of her dress almost before he felt the prick. Kitty – pretending to be a nurse – had flown to his side, not to help him, but to make sure he was dead. She had a secondary needle waiting in her own pocket just in case, but that proved unnecessary.
Bess couldn’t call it gladness, exactly, watching the man die. She wasn’t a cruel person. It was a distasteful but necessary task. The world had offered no justice so we made our own.
Kitty, the little girl Bess had told me about in Ireland – the
pretty twelve-year-old who’d wanted to be in pictures – had grown up to marry a young man blessed not only with a family fortune, but also with theatrical aspirations of his own. With his help Kitty pulled off the greatest performance of her career before it even began. She and Carmichael stayed on at the hotel afterwards, continuing the ruse, so no one would suspect their row was connected to Mr Marston’s collapse.
In my room at the Bellefort, with Chilton’s ear pressed against the door, I said, also loudly, ‘I do hope everything is all right.’
‘Yes,’ Bess said. ‘Everything is perfect.
’ Then, in a whisper that wouldn’t be heard no matter how closely Chilton hovered: ‘Kitty and Carmichael will stay on, and they’ve paid for your room through to the end of next week. But we’re leaving. Back to America. You should come with us.’
I shook my head, vehement.
She said, ‘Stay in England, if you must. But go back to London. Get out of here, fast as you can.’
‘That would only make me look guilty, wouldn’t it?’ But I wasn’t thinking about looking guilty. I was thinking about Finbarr’s arms, a brisk walk away. Soon enough I’d have to face my whole life without him. But I couldn’t do it just yet. I needed just a little while longer. Even if it did increase my risk of being caught.
Bess and I embraced, hands clutching at the other’s clothes, faces buried in each other’s necks. We had done what we’d come to do. Now the world would unfold however it needed to. Having removed Father Joseph from the world, Bess could go on with her life. In fact, we didn’t know she was leaving England already pregnant with a little girl who’d be born – the squalling picture of health – that September.
And I had taken care of Sister Mary Clare. By bringing a steaming cup of tea to her door and gently rapping.
‘Oh my dear,’ the former nun said, when I peeked into the room. ‘How good of you to come to me. I’m afraid I shan’t sleep a wink tonight. Not one wink.’ Her face was swollen and blotchy. She covered it with her hands and wept some more.
I walked to her bed and sat down, pressing the cup into her hands. ‘Drink this,’ I said in my most soothing voice. ‘There’s a bit of brandy in it.’ I wore a dressing gown, my hair loose. Hers was gathered up under a nightcap. I could see the gleam of cream upon her face, still tending to the usual ministrations, imagining a tomorrow despite her bereavement.
‘Oh, you’re a darling,’ she said to me. ‘That doctor gave me a sleeping draught but my nerves are overcoming it.’ She took the cup and sipped. The English love of tea as solution to life’s ills does make us easy to poison.
‘I can’t say where I’ll go tomorrow,’ she said. ‘We had a plan, Mr Marston and I, for where we’d go next. Manchester, where I lived as a girl, before I was sent off to Ireland.’ She was speaking to herself, not realizing I’d heard this story before. ‘But my family’s not there anymore. How can I do it without Mr Marston? I’ve never lived alone, you see. I used to be a nun, if you can believe that.’
‘Oh, I believe it, Mrs Marston. I do.’
She cried and sipped, cried and sipped. I sat beside her and patted her knee. It had only been seven years, and not years that particularly age a person. At twenty-seven I looked passably as I had at twenty. She’d seen me every day for months. She’d been with me when Genevieve first laughed. She was the last person I ever saw holding my baby. I stared and stared, willing her to stare back. The ghosts that ought to have haunted her fluttered away, unthinking.
‘You’re a dear,’ she said, handing me the empty cup.
I put it on the bedside table. Later, I would be sure to wipe it clean of fingerprints and residue. Sister Mary Clare lay back. She reached out and clasped my hand. ‘You’ll stay with me, won’t you? Until I fall asleep.’
‘Of course I will.’
Her eyes fluttered closed. If I waited, the poison would kill her. But unlike Bess, I wanted hands on my quarry. The coroner would find the strychnine. But I’d have her dead before it did its work. I hummed a few bars of the same haunting tune she was always so fond of, but even that didn’t make her realize. She smiled a bit and said – very quiet, eyes still closed – ‘Oh, I do love that song.’
A few more moments passed. The clock downstairs chimed but I didn’t count the hour. I picked up a pillow, no doubt it had lain beneath Father Joseph’s head the night before. Then I tapped her to make sure she hadn’t fallen asleep. Her eyes fluttered open. I smiled, dearly wanting her to see love and kindness in my face. She managed a wan, thankful smile in return. Then down came the pillow.
I took one risk, in the middle, taking the pillow away for the barest second. Sister Mary Clare rewarded me with the second honest expression of her life: fear and shock and anguish. I could have told her who I was, in that moment. But I liked adding confusion to the terrible emotions overcoming her. So I pressed the pillow back down. I held the woman down. Until she stopped struggling. Until she stopped causing harm. Until her body came to rest, and her breath ceased to flow. When I pulled the pillow away her face held no false cheer, no false kindness. Her lips spoke no empty promises. All she had were eyes newly made of glass, open but not seeing. Her mouth open, frozen in its useless attempt to find oxygen.
For years I’d been swept in directions I never meant to go. I’d made mistakes, acting by accident or imperative. Finally, in this moment, I was the author of my story. The universe must not have held it against me, because I was rewarded almost at once with my days in the Timeless Manor.
When Sister Mary Clare lay dead before me, how the air metamorphosed. Particles that had been charged became inert. The rage inside me quieted. A violent storm had ended.
The urge to murder. It never left me until the job was done.
Saturday, 11 December 1926
INBARR WAS DOWNSTAIRS
stoking the kitchen fire when Chilton and Agatha returned to the Timeless Manor. On the table were bottles of wine – he had helped himself to the collection in the cellar – along with a tray that held three loaves of fresh bread, various kinds of sausage, a wheel of Swaledale cheese and tins of peaches.
‘You said you were tired of tongue,’ he told Agatha. ‘So I went on a little scouting mission.’
‘Aren’t you a darling,’ she said.
Chilton frowned the slightest bit, looking from one to the other. Agatha sat, weary, the force of these days away, this time away, still not seeing the future take any shape she could recognize. Chilton pulled out a chair and sat beside her. In a calm voice he told Finbarr what they’d pieced together. The Marstons’ true identity and my hand in their murder.
Finbarr listened, his face unmoving and inscrutable. When Chilton had finished he said, ‘Good.’
‘Good?’ said Chilton. ‘Come now, man. You can’t mean that.’
‘But I do mean it.’
Agatha poured wine into a teacup. This seemed the right night to make an exception to her abstinence. It occurred to her
she ought to be glad of the thought, me headed to jail, which would not only get me out of the way but also punish me for the pain I’d caused her. But even before our escape, accidentally mutual, such a thing wouldn’t have made her glad. She wasn’t that sort of person and never would be. She might be capable of imagining other people’s plots of revenge and the bitterness that drove them. She could even sympathize with mine. But she never could carry them out herself. She was better than me in that way. Or else just luckier.
‘What happens next, then?’ Finbarr asked.
‘I’m afraid I’ll have to tell the Yorkshire police what I know,’ Chilton said. ‘About who the Marstons are. And what Nan and her friend are guilty of. I’m afraid the inquest will take it from there.’
‘Not today,’ Finbarr said. Agatha heard the rasp of mustard gas strangling his voice, worse than usual.
‘Yes,’ she agreed. ‘Not today.’
‘But Agatha.’ Chilton turned to her as if Finbarr couldn’t hear. ‘That will give him the time he needs to escape with her.’
‘Would that be so bad?’ Agatha said. ‘Sometimes an escape is precisely what’s needed.’
Chilton looked dubious. How many of his duties would he let float away before all this was over? What if Agatha wanted Nan to escape to form a road back to her husband? Though surely my arrest would net the same result. Archie would not have stood by me through a murder trial. He might not have stood by me if he heard me speak with the working-class accent I’d so carefully expunged.
‘One more day,’ Agatha said, softy, delightfully aware of the romantic power she had over Chilton. ‘Perhaps two.’
One more day undiscovered. Perhaps two. One more day
exempt from time and repercussion. One more day dispensing with propriety and responsibilities. One more day as if her mother had never died, and her husband had never left her – indeed, as if both of them had never existed at all, to cause her joy or pain. Why not two more days? Why not a thousand?
‘One more day,’ she said again. ‘Just one. We’ll decide tomorrow. We’ll make a plan?’ The question mark was a brilliant stroke. Implying he was in a position to argue.
‘Come with me,’ Finbarr said, as if they’d all reached an agreement. He picked up the tray and left the kitchen, moving his head ever so slightly, indicating that Chilton should collect the wine.
Upstairs the great room was nearly empty of furniture except for a settee covered by a dust sheet and a cluster of large pillows thrown to the floor (as if we had not been the first squatters the Timeless Manor had seen and someone else had sojourned here, and made free with what could be found). On the floor beside the settee sat a Victrola – of the gramophone variety, old fashioned even for the time, with a great mahogany horn.
‘I found it in the butler’s pantry,’ Finbarr said. He wound it up and placed the needle on its record, and scratchy big band music filled the cavernous room.