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Authors: Ngaio Marsh

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Horror, #det_classic, #Mystery & Detective, #Suspense, #Police Procedural, #Police, #Mystery fiction, #Alleyn; Roderick (Fictitious character)

Grave Mistake

BOOK: Grave Mistake
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Grave Mistake
( Roderick Alleyn - 30 )
Ngaio Marsh

A bit snobbish and a trifle high-strung, Sybil Foster prides herself on owning the finest estate in Upper Quintern and hiring the best gardener. In fact, she is rapturous over the new asparagus beds when a visit from her unwelcome stepson sends her scurrying to a chic spa for a rest cure, a liaison with the spa's director… and an apparent suicide. Her autopsy holds one surprise, a secret drawer a second. And Inspector Roderick Alleyn, C.I.D., digging about Upper Quintern, may unearth still a third… deeply buried motive for murder.

Ngaio Marsh
Grave Mistake

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Verity Preston of Keys House, Upper Quintern

The Hon. Mrs. Foster (Sybil) of Quintern Place, Upper Quintern

Claude Carter, her stepson

Prunella Foster, her daughter

Bruce Gardener, her gardener

Mrs. Black, his sister

The Reverend Mr. Vicar of St. Crispin’s-in-Quintern

Walter Cloudsley

Nikolas Markos of Mardling Manor, Upper Quintern

Gideon Markos, his son

Jim Jobbin of Upper Quintern Village

Mrs. Jim, his wife; domestic helper

Dr. Field-Innis, M.B. of Great Quintern

Mrs. Field-Innis, his wife

Basil Schramm, Medical incumbent, (né Smythe) Greengages Hotel

Sister Jackson, his assistant

G. M. Johnson, Marleena Briggs Housemaids, Greengages Hotel

The Manager of Greengages Hotel

Daft Artie, Upper Quintern Village

Young Mr. Rattisbon, Solicitor

Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn, C.I.D.

Detective-Inspector Fox, C.I.D.

Detective-Sergeant Thompson, C.I.D.; photographic expert

Detective-Sergeant Bailey, C.I.D.; fingerprint expert

Sergeant McGuiness, Upper Quintern Police Force

P.C. Dance, Upper Quintern Police Force

A coroner

A waiter

Chapter 1: Upper Quintern

i

“Bring me,” sang the ladies of Upper Quintern, “my Bow of Burning Gold.”

“Bring me,” itemized The Hon. Mrs. Foster, sailing up into a thready descant, “my Arrows of Desire.”

“Bring me,” stipulated the Vicar’s wife, adjusting her pince-nez and improvising into seconds, “my Chariot of Fire.”

Mrs. Jim Jobbin sang with the rest. She had a high soprano and a sense of humour and it crossed her mind to wonder what Mrs. Foster would do with Arrows of Desire or how nice Miss Preston of Keys House would manage a Spear, or how the Vicar’s wife would make out in a Chariot of Fire. Or for a matter of that how she herself, hard-working creature that she was, could ever be said to rest or stay her hand much less build Jerusalem here in Upper Quintern or anywhere else in England’s green and pleasant land.

Still it was a good tune and the words were spirited if a little far-fetched.

Now they were reading the minutes of the last meeting and presently there would be a competition and a short talk from the Vicar, who had visited Rome with an open mind.

Mrs. Jim, as she was always called in the district, looked round the drawing-room with a practised eye. She herself had “turned it out” that morning and Mrs. Foster had done the flowers, picking white prunus-japonica with a more lavish hand than she would have dared to use had she known that McBride, her bad-tempered jobbing gardener, was on the watch.

Mrs. Jim pulled herself together as the chairwoman, using a special voice, said she knew they would all want to express their sympathy with Mrs. Black in her recent sad loss. The ladies murmured and a little uncertain woman in a corner offered soundless acknowledgement.

Then followed the competition. You had to fill in the names of ladies present in answer to what were called cryptic clues. Mrs. Jim was mildly amused but didn’t score very highly. She guessed her own name for which the clue was: “She doesn’t work out.”

“Jobb-in.” Quite neat but inaccurate, she thought, because her professional jobs were, after all, never “in.” Twice a week she obliged Mrs. Foster here at Quintern Place, where her niece Beryl was a regular. Twice a week she went to Mardling Manor to augment the indoor staff. And twice a week, including Saturdays, she helped Miss Preston at Keys House. From these activities she arrived home in time to get the children’s tea and her voracious husband’s supper. And when Miss Preston gave one of her rare parties, Mrs. Jobbin helped out in the kitchen, partly because she could do with the extra money but mostly because she liked Miss Preston.

Mrs. Foster she regarded as being a bit daft: always thinking she was ill and turning on the gushing act to show how nice she could be to the village.

Now the Vicar, having taken a nervy look at the Vatican City, was well on his way to the Forum. Mrs. Jobbin made a good-natured effort to keep him company.

Verity Preston stretched out her long corduroy legs, looked at her boots and wondered why she was there. She was fifty years old but carried about her an air of youth. This was not achieved by manipulation: rather it was as if, inside her middle-aged body, her spirit had neglected to grow old. Until five years ago she had worked in the theatre, on the production side. Then her father, an eminent heart specialist, had died and left Keys House to her with just enough money to enable her to live in it and write plays, which she did from time to time with tolerable success.

She had been born at Keys, she supposed she would die there, and she had gradually fallen into a semi-detached acceptance of the rhythms of life at Upper Quintern, which in spite of war, bombs, crises and inflations had not changed all that much since her childhood. The great difference was that, with the exception of Mr. Nikolas Markos, a newcomer to the district, the gentry had very much less money nowadays and, again with the exception of Mr. Markos, no resident domestic help. Just Mrs. Jim, her niece Beryl, and some dozen lesser ladies who were precariously available and all in hot demand. Mrs. Foster was cunning in securing their services and was thought to cheat by using bribery. She was known, privately, as The Pirate.

It was recognized on all hands that Mrs. Jim was utterly impervious to bribery. Mrs. Foster had tried it once and had invoked a reaction that made her go red in the face whenever she thought of it. It was only by pleading the onset of a genuine attack of lumbago that she had induced Mrs. Jim to return.

Mrs. Foster was a dedicated hypochondriac and nobody would have believed in the lumbago if McBride, the Upper Quintern jobbing gardener, had not confided that he had come across her on the gravelled drive, wearing her best tweeds, hat and gloves and crawling on all fours toward the house. She had been incontinently smitten on her way to the garage.

The Vicar saw himself off at the Leonardo da Vinci airport, said his visit had given him much food for thought and ended on a note of ecumenical wistfulness.

Tea was announced and a mass move to the dining-room accomplished.

“Hullo, Syb,” said Verity Preston. “Can I help?”

“Darling!” cried Mrs. Foster. “
Would
you? Would you pour? I simply can’t cope.
Such
arthritis! In the wrists.”

“Sickening for you.”

“Honestly:
too
much. Not a wink all night and this party over one, and Prue’s off somewhere watching hang-gliding” (Prunella was Mrs. Foster’s daughter) “so she’s no use. And to put the final pot on it, ghastly McBride’s given notice. Imagine!”


McBride
has? Why?”

“He
says
he feels ill. If you ask me it’s bloodymindedness.”

“Did you have words?” Verity suggested, rapidly filling up cups for ladies to carry off on trays.

“Sort of. Over my picking the japonica. This morning.”

“Is he still here? Now?”

“Don’t ask me. Probably flounced off. Except that he hasn’t been paid. I wouldn’t put it past him to be sulking in the toolshed.”

“I must say I hope he won’t extend his embargo to take me in.”

“Oh, dear me, no!” said Mrs. Foster with a hint of acidity. “You’re his adored Miss Preston. You, my dear, can’t do wrong in McBride’s bleary eyes.”

“I wish I could believe you. Where will you go for honey, Syb? Advertise or what? Or eat humble pie?”

“Never that! Not on your life! Mrs.
Black
!” cried Mrs. Foster in a voice mellifluous with cordiality, “
how
good of you to come.
Where
are you sitting? Over there, are you?
Good
. Who’s died?” she muttered as Mrs. Black moved, away. “Why were we told to sympathize?”

“Her husband.”

“That’s all right then. I wasn’t overdoing it.”

“Her brother’s arrived to live with her.”

“He wouldn’t happen to be a gardener, I suppose.”

Verity put down the tea-pot and stared at her. “You won’t believe this,” she said, “but I rather think I heard someone say he would. Mrs. Jim, it was. Yes, I’m sure. A gardener.”

“My dear! I wonder if he’s any good. My dear,
what
a smack in the eye that would be for McBride. Would it be all right to tackle Mrs. Black now, do you think? Just to find out?”

“Well—”

“Darling, you know me. I’ll be the soul of tact.”

“I bet you will,” said Verity.

She watched Mrs. Foster insinuate herself plumply through the crowd. The din was too great for anything she said to be audible but Verity could guess at the compliments sprinkled upon the Vicar, who was a good-looking man, the playful badinage with the village. And all the time, while her pampered little hands dangled from her wrists, Mrs. Foster’s pink coiffure tacked this way and that, making toward Mrs. Black, who sat in her bereavement upon a chair at the far end of the room.

Verity, greatly entertained, watched the encounter, the gradual response, the ineffable concern, the wide-open china-blue stare, the compassionate shakes of the head and, finally, the withdrawal of both ladies from the dining-room, no doubt into Syb’s boudoir. “Now,” thought Verity, “she’ll put in the hard tackle.”

Abruptly, she was aware of herself being under observation.

Mrs. Jim Jobbin was looking at her and with such a lively expression on her face that Verity felt inclined to wink. It struck her that of all the company present — county, gentry, trade and village, operating within their age-old class structure — it was for Mrs. Jim that she felt the most genuine respect.

Verity poured herself a cup of tea and began, because it was expected of her, to circulate. She was a shy woman but her work in the theatre had helped her to deal with this disadvantage. Moreover, she took a vivid interest in her fellow creatures.

“Miss Preston,” Mr. Nikolas Markos had said, the only time they had met, “I believe you look upon us all as raw material,” and his black eyes had snapped at her. Although this remark was a variant of the idiotic “don’t put me in it,” it had not induced the usual irritation. Verity, in fact, had been wondering at that very moment if she could build a black comedy round Upper Quintern ingredients.

She reached the French windows that opened on lawns, walks, rose-gardens and an enchanting view across the Weald of Kent.

A little removed from the nearest group, she sipped her tea and gazed with satisfaction at this prospect. She thought that the English landscape, more perhaps than any other, is dyed in the heraldic colours of its own history. It is
there
, she thought, and until it disintegrates, earth, rock, trees, grass: turf by turf, leaf by leaf and blade by blade, it will remain imperturbably itself. To it, she thought, the reed really is as the oak and she found the notion reassuring.

She redirected her gaze from the distant prospect to the foreground and became aware of a human rump, elevated above a box hedge in the rose-garden.

The trousers were unmistakable: pepper-and-salt, shapeless, earthy and bestowed upon Angus McBride or purchased by him at some long-forgotten jumble sale. He must be doubled up over a treasured seedling, thought Verity. Perhaps he had forgiven Sybil Foster or perhaps, with his lowland Scots rectitude, he was working out his time.

“Lovely view, isn’t it?” said the Vicar. He had come alongside Verity, unobserved.

“Isn’t it? Although at the moment I was looking at the person behind the box hedge.”

“McBride,” said the Vicar.

“I thought so, by the trousers.”

“I know so. They were once my own.”

“Does it,” Verity asked, after a longish pause, “strike you that he is sustaining an exacting pose for a very long time?”

“Now you mention it.”

“He hasn’t stirred.”

“Rapt, perhaps, over the wonders of nature,” joked the Vicar.

“Perhaps. But he must be doubled over at the waist like, a two-foot rule.”

“One would say so, certainly.”

“He gave Sybil notice this morning on account of health.”

“Could he be feeling faint, poor fellow,” hazarded the Vicar, “and putting his head between his knees?” And after a moment: “I think I’ll go and see.”

“I’ll come with you,” said Verity. “I wanted to look at the rose-garden, in any case.”

They went out by the french window and crossed the lawn. The sun had come out and a charming little breeze touched their faces.

As they neared the box hedge the Vicar, who was over six feet tall, said in a strange voice: “It’s very odd.”

“What is?” Verity asked. Her heart, unaccountably, had begun to knock at her ribs.

“His head’s in the wheelbarrow. I fear,” said the Vicar, “he’s fainted.”

But McBride had gone further than that. He was dead.

 

ii

He had died, the doctor said, of a heart attack and his condition was such that it might have happened anytime over the last year or so. He was thought to have raised the handles of the barrow, been smitten and tipped forward, head first, into the load of compost with which it was filled.

Verity Preston was really sorry. McBride was often maddening and sometimes rude but they shared a love of old-fashioned roses and respected each other. When she had influenza he brought her primroses in a jampot and climbed a ladder to put them on her window-sill. She was touched.

An immediate result of his death was a rush for the services of Mrs. Black’s newly arrived brother. Sybil Foster got in first, having already paved the way with his sister. On the very morning after McBride’s death, with what Verity Preston considered indecent haste, she paid a follow-up visit to Mrs. Black’s cottage under cover of a visit of condolence. Ridiculously inept, Verity considered, as Mr. Black had been dead for at least three weeks and there had been all those fulsomely redundant expressions of sympathy only the previous afternoon. She’d even had the nerve to take white japonica.

When she got home she rang up Verity.

“My dear,” she raved, “he’s
perfect. So
sweet with that dreary little sister and
such
good manners with me. Called one Madam which is more than — well, never mind. He knew at once what would suit and said he could sense I had an understanding of the ‘bonny wee floods.’ He’s a Scot.”

“Clearly,” said Verity.

“But quite a different
kind
of Scot from McBride. Highland, I should think. Anyway — very superior.”

“What’s he charge?”

“A little bit more,” said Sybil rapidly “but, my dear, the
difference
!”

“References?”

“Any number. They’re in his luggage and haven’t arrived yet.
Very
grand, I gather.”

“So you’ve taken him on?”

“Darling! What do you think? Mondays and Thursdays. All day. He’ll tell me if it needs more. It well may. After all, it’s been shamefully neglected — I know you won’t agree, of course.”

“I suppose I’d better do something about him.”

“You’d better hurry. Everybody will be grabbing. I hear Mr. Markos is a man short up at Mardling. Not that I think my Gardener would take an under-gardener’s job.”

“What’s he called?”

“Who?”

“Your gardener.”

“You’ve just said it. Gardener.”

“You’re joking.”

BOOK: Grave Mistake
12.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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