Read The Christie Affair Online
Authors: Nina de Gramont
An awful pain seared, sharp enough to snap her into a moment of clarity. The car lurched and she slammed on the brakes, smacking her head into the windscreen.
Now there was a new pain, and blood trickling into her eyes. She pushed the door open and stepped out of the car. Terribly cold. Head clearing. And terribly lonesome – a dark country road in the dead of night. For a moment Miss Oliver could understand. She was not a young girl on the way to a party, but a confused old woman who had driven miles from home and then off the road. The car sat there, looking whole and well. Not even needing a push. If she could just crank it back up, she could turn around and drive on home to her own bed.
‘What was I thinking?’ Miss Oliver said, crossing her wrists and pressing her hands to her chest. ‘I might have been killed.’
Oh, it was hot. The fog descended upon her again. She took off her wool coat and threw it upon the driver’s seat.
‘I must get to the party,’ she said. ‘My hostess will be so worried if I’m late.’
She walked off into the night, leaving her car by the side of the road, not heading back towards home, but straight into the brush and brambles. Nettles scraped across her wrists. Still she kept walking, even when her feet began to sink into murky water, icy enough to feel like something was biting her about the ankles.
‘I might lie down a bit,’ she said to no one, and sank to the ground, feeling not at all well, and rather cold, and wondering where on earth her coat had gone.
Saturday, 4 December 1926
HE SUN HAD
been up for hours when a maid knocked on Archie’s door. I lay in bed across the hall reading
The Great Gatsby
. This, I thought, turning another page, is the kind of book I would write, if I were an author. Not detective stories.
Despite the thickness of the walls I could hear the maid’s voice clearly. ‘Colonel Christie,’ she said, ‘there’s a telephone call for you. The lady says it’s urgent.’
The rush of air that followed indicated Archie used too much force opening the door. Then I heard his sure-footed steps, following the maid down the hall. I could guess the words going through his mind. No doubt he thought – as I did – that the call must be from Agatha, in the midst of unbearable torment, longing for him to come home and calling it urgent. I shivered under the covers, glad I wouldn’t be the one to hear her tears and pleas.
I closed my book and rose to dress. At least Agatha hadn’t shown up on the Owens’ doorstep. There’s no telling what someone will do, in a true state of bereavement. Especially a woman.
The Owens kept their telephone in their sitting room. When I got downstairs Archie was just emerging, wearing a dressing gown, a broad scowl on his face.
‘Was it Agatha?’ I whispered.
‘It was Honoria,’ he said, tightening the sash around his trim waist. ‘She claims Agatha has gone missing.’
‘Oh dear,’ I said. ‘I hope she’s all right.’
‘I’m certain it’s just histrionics. A ruse to get me back to Styles. I’m ashamed of Honoria, that she’d go along with it.’
‘But Archie.’ I reached out my hand to touch his elbow. ‘Shouldn’t you find out? Make sure everything’s all right? There’s Teddy to think of.’
He frowned at my misstep, sounding like an admonishing wife instead of a mistress. I stepped closer and placed my hand on his chest. ‘Indulge her,’ I said. ‘She’s hurt. Badly hurt.’
Archie’s face softened. He nodded. I felt a pang of humiliation on Agatha’s behalf. That kindness from her husband should be directed by me. He jogged up the stairs and I went to join the Owens in the dining room to take breakfast. I’d already finished my jam and toast when Archie bustled in, fully dressed and holding his pocket watch. I looked on impatiently while he poured himself a cup of coffee. It seemed important that he hurry off home and make sure all was well.
The door bells chimed. After a few moments a maid came in looking puzzled. ‘So sorry to interrupt,’ she said, ‘but there’s a policeman here.’
Noel got to his feet. ‘I’ll see what this is about.’
The maid said, ‘He’s asking for Colonel Christie.’
‘Well, then,’ Noel said, with the confidence of a man who rules the police, and not the other way around. ‘I suppose you’d best show him in.’
‘I’m on my way out,’ Archie said. ‘I’ll see what he wants as I go.’
He nodded to me and I took this as instruction to stay where I was. The men went into the hall and when Ursula followed
them I decided I might as well, too. By the time I reached the foyer Archie had gone rather pale.
Noel was scolding the police officer. ‘This is preposterous, Thomas,’ he said. ‘Surely you can trust the man to see to his business on his own.’
‘A lady’s missing,’ the policeman said. He was young – still spotty across his chin – and the effort it took to contradict Noel Owen was evident in the quaver of his voice. ‘I’ve been told to bring Colonel Christie back to Sunningdale.’
‘I’m sure it’s all a mix-up.’ Archie recovered himself, willing colour back to his cheeks. ‘I’m happy to go home and clear it up, obviously that’s what’s needed, but if I could just drive my own car, so I don’t have to send someone round for it . . .’
‘Sorry, sir.’ The officer looked pained to say it. He wasn’t looking forward to a drive with Archie. ‘I do have my orders.’
‘I’ll drive your car to Styles,’ I said.
Everyone turned towards me at once. The police officer raised his brows. I could see his eyes dart about the hall, searching for a husband to go with me. A husband who didn’t already belong to someone else.
Archie had taught me to drive on the country roads through Berkshire and Surrey, but this was the first time I’d done it alone. The novelty of driving solo chased other thoughts from my head. I was not especially worried about Agatha, not yet. I sympathized with her impulse to run away, and I also believed that, one way or another, the world protected people like her. I drove slowly and arrived to see the young police officer from Godalming heading home, no doubt relieved to be rid of Archie from his passenger seat.
By the time I arrived at Styles, the local constable’s car was parked in front of the house, so I drove around the back and walked inside through the servants’ entrance. In those days, doors were seldom locked anywhere outside London. Since the war had ended there was very little to fear. I tiptoed through the house into the front hall where I saw the new parlourmaid, Anna, her ear pressed to the sitting-room door. Archie must have been in there with the police. The book I’d bought Teddy lay on a little table by the stairs, still wrapped in its package. I retrieved it and tucked it under my arm.
Anna turned towards me. She was a plump, pretty, freckled girl who blushed easily. Archie claimed she flirted with him, and I had no patience for such girls, who preyed on husbands – or even available men – simply to better their own circumstances. I regarded her sternly as she stepped back from the door, blushing at being caught eavesdropping.
‘Oh, Miss O’Dea,’ she said. There were people, at the time, who regularly came and went from Styles and I was one of them. ‘I didn’t know you’d come round. Is there anything I can get you?’
‘No thank you,’ I said. ‘I have a gift for Teddy. Is she nearby?’
‘I believe Teddy’s upstairs in the nursery. Would you like me to take it to her?’
‘May I take it myself? You do look busy.’ I said this in a way that promised I wouldn’t say a word about her eavesdropping, so long as she didn’t stand between me and the nursery.
‘Yes, that would be fine.’ Anna gestured towards the stairs.
I made my quick detour into Archie’s and Agatha’s room and observed her dress still on the floor. Then I went to the nursery. The door was slightly ajar. Teddy sat cross-legged, playing with toy soldiers and a little wooden dog. At the sight of me she
jumped to her feet, ran to the doorway and threw her arms round my waist.
‘Miss O’Dea!’ she said, the delighted sort of greeting only a child can perform.
I returned the hug, happy to find her alone, without Honoria hovering. Teddy was small for her age, with delicate bones. She raised her little face up towards me. Her cheeks were pale and she had violet marks under her eyes, as if she hadn’t slept well.
‘Look at you, you little beauty.’ I took her chin in my thumb and forefinger, the way Agatha had mine the other day. ‘Everything all right?’
‘Everything’s fine.’ Teddy sighed in the tentative way of a child who knows things are amiss but doesn’t want to say so.
‘I brought you a present.’
She stepped back to expend some effort untwining the string. When she’d managed to unwrap the book she tossed the brown paper to the floor. At her age I would have found a proper place to discard the wrappings but this was the life Teddy lived. Not aristocratic, but posh enough that clothes and rubbish were simply flung aside for someone else to clear away. Once I became her stepmother I’d encourage her to be the sort of person who folded her clothes and put them away, who attended to her own discarded wrappings. But for now it wasn’t my place to say a word.
‘Oh,’ Teddy said, smiling at the cheerful pink cover. ‘What a funny little bear.’
I sat myself down on the round woven rug and leaned against the wall. Teddy climbed into my lap. Her hair tickled my chin and I leaned my cheek against the crown of her head as I read. It was a lovely book, inexplicably touching, Christopher Robin wandering off to find the Hundred Acre Wood.
‘But don’t you ever wander off like that,’ I said to Teddy. ‘Your mum and dad would miss you terribly.’
‘I won’t.’ Her mouth opened into a great yawn as she added, ‘Thank you for this book, Miss O’Dea. I do like it.’
Teddy read one page to me herself, then I continued reading it aloud even as I could feel Teddy’s breath slowing down, her little head tilting forward. I hoped the evenness of my voice and the sweetness of the prose might help her continue with the sleep she so dearly needed. And before long I found my eyelids fluttering closed, my head resting on the top of hers as I fell asleep, too.
‘How dare you.’
Honoria spoke in a furious hiss, designed to wake me while allowing the child to sleep. Peter trotted into the room, tail wagging, and for the first time I felt alarm. Agatha took the dog with her almost everywhere.
Teddy stirred sleepily and Honoria scooped her up and laid her on her cot. Then she gestured furiously with her head. I kissed Teddy on the forehead, then followed Honoria into the hallway.
Just at that moment Archie crested the stairs. ‘Good Lord,’ he said to me. ‘This won’t do, Nan. We can’t have your name wrapped up in all this.’ It was something he’d said repeatedly, about the divorce. Now that police were afoot it seemed to have become doubly important – getting me out of the way.
‘Wrapped up in all this what?’ I asked. ‘Where is Agatha? Is she all right?’
‘Of course she’s not all right,’ Honoria said. ‘This is all owing to you, Nan O’Dea. Don’t pretend it’s not.’
‘That will do, Honoria,’ Archie said.
She refused to retreat, crossing her arms defiantly. Archie took me by the elbow and led me downstairs to his study, where he closed the doors behind us. The room was cold. Someone had allowed the fire to go out.
‘Agatha drove off late last night and nobody’s seen her since.’ He didn’t look at my face as he told me the rest. Her Morris Cowley had been discovered in the wee hours of this morning, at the lip of the chalk pit below Newlands Corner. Off the road, its lights shining until the battery ran out. The bonnet of the car rested in the shrubbery. In the back seat were a fur coat, a packed suitcase and a driving licence. There were frustratingly few clues and it was disturbing to think that she might have wandered into the cold night without her coat.
‘Honoria says her typewriter is gone.’ Archie lay his hands flat on his desk, where Agatha sometimes wrote during the day while he was at work. His hands looked as though they were trying to absorb her last moment of industry, as if her work above all else would hold a clue to her whereabouts.
Despite the chill, a fine layer of sweat formed on Archie’s brow. He mopped it with his handkerchief. When he returned the cloth to his pocket, he drew out a folded letter. After staring at it for a moment, he ripped it into bits and threw it on the fire.