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Authors: Sarah Caudwell

The Sirens Sang of Murder

BOOK: The Sirens Sang of Murder
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To Billee,
for putting up
with the writing of it

PROLOGUE

There will be much disappointment, I fear, among my fellow scholars. From the Senior Common Room of St. George’s College, where anxious colleagues ask daily, “Finished yet, Hilary?” to the far distant lecture halls of Yale and Columbia, where I understand that the phrase “In Professor Tamar’s forthcoming publication” is constantly to be heard, the world of learning waits with impatient eagerness for my long-promised work on the concept of causa in the common law. How then am I to admit that I have yet again allowed myself to be led astray from the true path of Scholarship and that what I now offer my readers is no more than the chronicle of my defection?

Would it not perhaps be more seemly to refrain from publishing any account of my investigation of the Daffodil affair and to allow the whole matter to rest in obscurity? The mere facts of the case, after all, are hardly in themselves of sufficient importance to warrant publication. The reason for the high mortality rate among the advisers to the Daffodil Settlement; the identity of the white-robed figure seen on the cliffs on Walpurgis Night; how Julia Larwood came to be arrested in evening dress one morning on a beach in Jersey—of what serious interest or value can it be to my readers to be
informed of such matters? And yet the case provides so striking a demonstration of the methods by which Scholarship, when applied even to such trifling questions, may dispel Error and reveal Truth that it will perhaps afford not only instruction to the public but much needed encouragement to other scholars. I have accordingly been persuaded, despite my misgivings, that it would not be right to withhold an account of it.

It was far from being my intention, when I made my way to London shortly before Easter, to permit myself to be distracted from the labours becoming to the Scholar. My former pupil, Timothy Shepherd, now in practice at the Chancery Bar, finding himself obliged by a combination of his professional commitments and his arrangements for the Easter vacation to be absent from London for a period of some three weeks, had invited me to make during that time such use as I might wish of his flat in Middle Temple Lane. Happening to have reached a part of my researches which required frequent visits to the Public Record Office, and which therefore could not conveniently be pursued in Oxford, I accepted his invitation with alacrity and gratitude. I regretted, naturally, that Timothy himself would be absent, for I have always found him a most generous host; but the friendship I had long enjoyed with other young members of his Chambers at 62 New Square assured me of agreeable company when I sought respite from my labours.

There was nothing to forewarn me, on my arrival in the capital, of the dark and sinister events in which I was shortly to become embroiled. The sun was shining on Lincoln’s Inn Fields; the azaleas were blooming in the gardens at the edge of New Square; the barristers hurrying in wigs and gowns across Carey Street were exchanging
seasonable gossip about who was going to get Silk—it is on Maundy Thursday, as my readers are doubtless aware, that the Lord Chancellor announces which members of the Junior Bar are to be elevated to the eminent and lucrative rank of Queen’s Counsel.

My young friends in 62 New Square, when not engaged in deploring the inadequate remuneration negotiated on their behalf by their Clerk, Henry, with their instructing solicitors, were innocently employed in activities befitting to the Chancery Bar: Selena Jardine, if my memory serves me, in a lengthy and acrimonious piece of litigation relating to the rights of the debenture holders in a public company; Desmond Ragwort in advising on the construction of documents affecting the title to certain land in the West Country; Michael Cantrip in sundry possession actions in various county courts. In the Revenue chambers next door, Julia Larwood was peacefully studying the latest Finance Bill.

Everything, in short, was proceeding in a manner appropriate to its nature and the season, with no such departure from the natural order of things as might be expected to be the portent of hidden danger and mysterious death. Or so, at any rate, it seemed to me. I did not realize, of course, how odd it was for Cantrip to be sent to the Channel Islands.

CHAPTER 1

“No, no, let me go or I’ll scream,” cried the lovely Eliane, her beautiful eyes filling with tears and her bosom heaving under the delicate silk of her blouse as she struggled to free herself from the vile embrace of the brutal Barristers’ Clerk.

“Scream all you like, you little fool,” snarled the Clerk, his hideous features twisted in a vicious leer. “There’s no one left in Chambers to hear you.”

But at that very moment there appeared in the doorway of the Clerks’ Room the suave and aristocratic figure of the brilliant young barrister Martin Carruthers.

“That’s where you’re wrong, Toadsbreath,” he drawled with suave contempt. “Take your vile hands off Eliane this minute. She may be only a temporary typist, but she is too rare and fine a creature to be touched by the likes of you.”

“Mr. Carruthers, sir, I thought you’d gone home, sir,” stammered Toadsbreath, cringing like a whipped cur before the young barrister’s contemptuous suavity.

Eliane gazed at Carruthers with adoration in her lovely eyes.

* * *

Cantrip and Julia were collaborating in the composition of a novel, based on their experiences of life at the Bar and to be entitled
Chancery!
, which they confidently expected to earn them wealth beyond the dreams of avarice and so free them from the tyranny of their respective Clerks. It had fallen to Cantrip to write the first instalment.

Offered the signal privilege of glancing through the opening paragraphs, I was reading them by candlelight in the Corkscrew, the wine bar on the north side of High Holborn which is the customary resort of my friends in Lincoln’s Inn when the long day’s work is done. Cantrip sat watching me with the anxiety characteristic of the aspiring author. It occurred to me that at least in appearance he was a not unsuitable model for the hero of a novel—the blackness of his hair and eyes combined with the pallor of his complexion to suggest a certain romantic quality which I supposed might appeal to the more susceptible portion of the reading public.

“What do you think of it, Hilary? Pretty hot stuff, wouldn’t you say?”

I answered, well knowing the sensitivity of the creative temperament, that I could scarcely contain my impatience to read further.

“May I infer,” I continued, “since you tell me that your narrative is based on real life, that you have a new temporary typist in Chambers?”

“That’s right,” said Cantrip. “Lilian’s her real name. Pale and blonde and sort of wistful-looking. Makes you feel she’s probably an orphan, going out to work to support her aged parents.”

“So touching and unusual a predicament,” I said, “cannot fail to engage the sympathy of your readers.
And is it indeed the case that you have discovered your Clerk making unwelcome advances to her?”

“Oh, absolutely. Not exactly like I’ve put it in the book, of course—you’ve got to ginger things up a bit, haven’t you? But I went into the Clerks’ Room the other evening and Henry was sort of leaning over her and she was saying, ‘Don’t be silly, Henry, someone might come in.’ So I gave him a quizzical sort of look and asked if I was interrupting something.”

“And Henry cringed?”

“Well, not exactly. He said no, not at all, sir, he was just going to take Lilian for a drink in the Seven Stars, and shouldn’t I be reading the papers for my possession action in Willesden County Court? That,” said Cantrip with a certain vindictiveness, “was when I decided to call him Toadsbreath.”

The proposed collaboration, though I wished it every success, seemed to me to be fraught with difficulties. The difference in educational background—Julia was educated at Oxford, while Cantrip, poor boy, through no fault of his own, spent his formative years at the University of Cambridge—would lead, I feared, to an irreconcilable disparity of style. Moreover, I had difficulty in seeing how the labour of composition was to be divided between them.

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Cantrip. “We’ve done a lot of research, viz read a lot of these books that people make pots of money out of, and what we’ve noticed is that some of them have heroines who are sort of fragile and waiflike, like Lilian, and some of them have heroines who are more sort of regal and imperious. So to be on the safe side we’re going to have one of each. I’m doing the Eliane bits, and Julia’s doing the bits with the regal
and imperious one. Her name’s Cecilia Mainwaring, and she’s at the Tax Bar.”

“Dear me,” I said, “does Julia intend a self-portrait?”

“Well, not exactly. Cecilia’s what Julia’d be like if she wasn’t Julia, if you see what I mean—tremendously cool and poised and well groomed and never getting ladders in her tights or spilling coffee on her papers or anything. Oh, there’s Julia now—be frightfully nice to her, she got roughed up a bit in court this morning.”

Julia showed at first sight no manifest signs of ill treatment. Her hair was no more than usually dishevelled, her clothing no more than normally disordered, and she stumbled, in her progress towards the bar, over no more than the customary number of briefcases; but it was with feverish urgency that she purchased a bottle of Nierstein and with pitiful weariness that she sank at last into her chair. I enquired cautiously if she had had a difficult day.

“I suppose you could put it like that,” said Julia. “In the same sense that I suppose you might say that the early Christians had a rather trying time with the lions in the Colosseum. I have been appearing against the Revenue before Mr. Justice Welladay.”

“Come now, Julia,” I said kindly, “Mr. Justice Welladay couldn’t eat you, you know.”

“So I tried to persuade myself, but I found that I had grave doubts about it. It is a matter of observable fact that Welladay has twice as many teeth as anyone else, all of enormous size. He also has eyebrows which gather in a continuous line across his forehead, like some savage beast of the primeval jungle waiting to spring on its prey.”

BOOK: The Sirens Sang of Murder
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