Lessons for Suspicious Minds (A Cambridge Fellows Mystery)
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In the innocent pre-war days, an invitation to stay at the stately country home of a family friend means a new case for amateur sleuths Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith. In fact, with two apparently unrelated suicides to investigate there, a double chase is on.
But things never run smoothly for the Cambridge fellows. In an era when their love dare not speak its name, the risk of discovery and disgrace is ever present. How, for example, does one explain oneself when discovered by a servant during a midnight run along the corridor?
Things get even rougher for Orlando when the case brings back memories of his father’s suicide and the search for the identity of his grandfather. Worse, when they work out who the murderer is, they are confronted with one of the most difficult moral decisions they’ve ever had to make.
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Cambridge, June 1909
“Post, Dr. Coppersmith, Dr. Stewart.” Mrs. Ward, the housekeeper at Forsythia Cottage, bustled through the dining room door before neatly arranging the morning post on the table for her gentlemen to read once they’d dealt with their bacon and eggs.
“Thank you.” Jonty Stewart eyed his post eagerly. “That looks like Lavinia’s writing. I’ll save her epistle as a postprandial treat.”
“Unless you’re in trouble with your sister, again, in which case it’ll be a postprandial punishment.” Orlando Coppersmith, having put away the last bit of egg, picked up the other letter. It was addressed to him even though the handwriting was clearly that of Jonty’s mother. Her style could have been spotted a mile off, let alone from the other side of the table.
“Why’s Mama writing to you?”
“Not having the ability to see through paper, nor being able to read her mind, I couldn’t say.” Orlando deliberately took his time in opening the envelope and reading the contents, aware of Jonty almost bouncing with curiosity. It would do the man good to develop some patience. “We’ve been summoned. July. A visit to London and then off to somewhere called Fyfield. I’ve never heard of it.”
“Fyfield?” Jonty almost dropped his bacon in surprise. “It’s a house. Well, a house with a great big estate. I’ve not been there since I was a boy. Mama’s godmother lived there.”
“She still does, if she’s a dowager duchess. Alexandra Temple?”
“That’s the very one.”
“I thought as much, as your mother says she’s a very old friend of the Forsters. Is this Fyfield a nice place?”
“Nice?” Jonty consumed the bacon before it got either cold or dropped again. “It’s spectacular. Knocks the Old Manor into a cocked hat.”
“Oh.” The Stewarts’ country home in Sussex, an unfinished Tudor castle with later additions (ones never envisaged by the original owner, even before he—literally—lost his head), had seemed to Orlando the height of class and opulence. If Fyfield was better, it must be spectacular indeed. “Sounds like a treat, then.”
“Sounds like a case.”
Orlando looked up sharpish. A case. There’d been a steady stream of them over the last few months. Two had involved breaking old codes—which was meat and drink for him—and another had been solved by Jonty finding a parallel with Shakespeare and producing an outrageous piece of what he said was deduction and what Orlando vowed was pure luck. There was always room for another.
“What do you know that I don’t?” he asked.
“Nothing in the way of facts, but much regarding how my parents’ minds work.” Jonty made a face. “Must we go?”
Orlando could have sworn he’d heard his lover—colleague, best friend, fellow detective, everything that mattered—express a lack of enthusiasm for the invitation. He must have misheard. “I beg your pardon?”
“Must we go? To Fyfield.”
“Yes, we must.” Orlando tapped the letter. “This is articulated in the most forceful yet polite of terms, staying just this side of a three-line whip. And if there’s the chance of a case to investigate, we’d be mad not to go.”
“But I’ve a million things to do.” Jonty tapped the table with his fork, defiance writ large over his handsome face, although he seemed to be evading Orlando’s gaze. Could the contents of the man’s teacup suddenly have become so fascinating?
Orlando thought awhile before replying. This wasn’t how things usually went between the inhabitants of Forsythia Cottage. He was usually the one reluctant to take up offers of holidays or other novel, exhilarating experiences.
Drawing a bow at a venture and trying to hit bull seemed the best way forward. “This is not like you. You’re hiding something. When you act out of character, you’re usually up to no good.” How couldn’t Orlando know when he was being given the runaround? Especially when he’d seen that belligerently innocent look used many a time on the rugby pitch, usually when Jonty had dirty work afoot at the base of the scrum. “Out with it.”
“Guilty as charged.” Jonty smiled, then folded his hands together as if in prayer. “Forgive me my dissemblance. A sin of both commission—wanting to get out of the trip—and omission—not telling you about some of the things that happened there in my childhood years.”
“Oh.” The wind was taken out of Orlando’s sails. He knew how Jonty’s schooldays had been terribly blighted by bullying of the worst kind. Was this more of the same?
“No, not that,” Jonty said quickly, evidently reading his mind. “They’re a formidable family, the Temples. They always made me feel like a seven-year-old who’d been caught scrumping apples. Even when I wasn’t and hadn’t.”
Orlando grinned, delighted at seeing his lover’s discomfort. “You’ll just have to be brave.” How could either of them turn down a summons from Jonty’s mother, especially if it involved a commission? Even Admiral Nelson himself would have quaked in his shoes at the thought of crossing Helena Stewart. “We’ll have to discharge our responsibilities.”
“Our familial responsibilities? You’re a Stewart now?” Jonty grinned.
“As good as. We may not have spoken vows in a church, but am I not as wedded to you as your Lavinia is wed to her Ralph?”
“I suppose you’re right.” Jonty sighed. “And it’s been an age since I’ve seen Mama’s godmother. I suspect I was barely above being dandled on her knee. At least I don’t recall her being overpowering.”
“How old is the dowager duchess? And how has she avoided contact with such a gregarious rogue as you?”
Jonty lifted the lid of the teapot, looked disappointed, got up, and rang the little bell on the mantelpiece. “None of your business, and the Atlantic.”
“Atlantic?” Orlando frowned, as the housekeeper bustled in.
“Atlantic, Dr. Coppersmith? It’s an ocean.” Mrs. Ward smiled indulgently, as if doctors of mathematics had no knowledge of geography. In the case of most Cambridge mathematicians she might well have been right, but Orlando was that rare beast who occasionally got his nose out of Euclid and into an atlas. “Are you thinking of sailing it single-handed?”
“No such luck, Mrs. Ward.” Jonty grinned. “Could you oblige us with a pot of tea—we need more sustenance.”
“Coffee for me, please.” Orlando forced a smile, not sure whether he’d murder Jonty or their housekeeper first. Not that he’d ever commit the deed, but devising undetectable ways of doing it always gave him intellectual satisfaction.
“My pleasure. Any more toast?”
“No, thank you,” Orlando replied, just as Jonty piped up, “Yes, please.”
“Right you are, then.” Mrs. Ward, used by now to the contrasting ways of her two gentlemen, took it all in her stride. Half a rack of toast would appear with the tea and the coffee just as, on notable occasions, an apple crumble might appear on the table alongside a treacle tart.
“Where do you put it all?” It must be the umpteenth time Orlando had posed the question. Why Jonty wasn’t the size of St. Bride’s chapel was a mystery in itself, given the quantity of fodder he stuck away.
“Bottomless boots.” Jonty took his rightful place again at the breakfast table.
“And the significance of the Atlantic?”
“Alexandra Temple—the dowager duchess, remember?—has been living in America, Boston, I believe, the last few years, with her younger son. And before that she was globe-trotting. Getting over the shock of being made a widow at . . . at an age too young to be made one.” Jonty waved his hand airily.
“What did her family think of that? Plenty of scope for scandalous speculation, I’d have thought.”
“You’ve not met her, Orlando. Not yet, anyway. She’s such a pillar of rectitude she should be exhibited in Trafalgar Square as an example to the young people of today. She’ll be behind this commission, whatever it is. She likes righting wrongs.”
Orlando groaned. If the whole family were like that, no wonder Jonty felt cowed by them. “If she’s so self-righteous, I’m not sure I want to meet her.”
“I didn’t say she was self-righteous. Do you really think Mama would want somebody like that in charge of her favourite son’s spiritual welfare, even at one remove?” Jonty’s voice was laden with affection. “She probably went round the world doing good deeds—the sort of ones people actually want done to them as opposed to the usual kind—and hiding her light under a bushel en route.”
“We’ll see how kindhearted she is when she finds out what a rogue you’ve turned into. She’ll hand in her grand-godmotherly cards. Or whisk you off to a monastery. You’re certain there’s a case involved?”
“I’d put a tenner on it. Ah, thank you, Mrs. Ward!” The welcome arrival of the housekeeper with toast and tea took precedence over conversation.
“Coffee’s on its way, Dr. Coppersmith. I didn’t quite have enough hands.”
“Let me come and get it.” Orlando rose from the table, catching Jonty’s look of concern from the corner of his eye. What was that about?
By the time he’d returned, pot in hand, Jonty was buttering toast and getting crumbs everywhere—as usual—and reading the newspaper.
“Interesting article here about a man who lost his hat on a train and found it four days later in a cab.” Jonty pointed at the paper with a triangle of toast, signally thinking he’d changed the subject. Orlando wasn’t going to let the little toad get away with it.
“What’s up? Apart from having to go back to where you’ve clearly misbehaved as a boy?”
Jonty jerked his head away from the paper. “Why should there be something up? And I didn’t misbehave. I was angelic. If you want misbehaviour, talk to my brother Clarence.”
He was at it again, deflecting attention from where it should be. Same as on the rugby pitch, making it look like somebody else was playing dirty—usually one of the opposition.
“Come on. This isn’t like you, to be so reluctant to go somewhere.” Orlando leaned over and ruffled his lover’s hair. “No secrets, remember?”
Jonty smiled, leaning into the caress. “No secrets, then. I was just a touch worried you’d react to a new case in the wrong way. After last year and all the upset it caused after your grandmother died.”
Orlando rubbed his hand slowly and thoughtfully along Jonty’s cheek. His grandmother’s death, and the challenge she’d left him to identify the family who’d disowned her, had led to his finding he was the scion of a noble—and rather nice—Italian family. But it had almost lost him his reason, as it had probably cost his father his sanity. His great-grandfather’s rejection of his daughter had left a legacy of disquiet down the generations.
“You needn’t worry about me. I’m not a child.” Orlando felt inclined to slap Jonty’s backside for being such a fuss-box, but the chairs and the table precluded him. “I’ve never known you to refuse an invitation to join your parents, or one to visit somewhere you’ll be plied with food, drink, and recreation. No wonder the alarm bells started to ring.”
“I’m sorry. I really do have reservations about the Temples, but not about their cellar or kitchens. Nor their gardens.”
“Gardens?” Orlando rolled his eyes. “I won’t be dragged round them and given a long list of Latin plant names to bore me rigid?”
“Rigid? I love it when you’re rigid.” Jonty grinned.
“You can’t mollify me with smutty talk.” Not at that time of the morning, with their housekeeper in the offing, anyway. “And keep your voice down. Mrs. Ward will hear.”
“And do you think she would care? Do you think she doesn’t notice there’s only ever one bed slept in out of the nominal two?”
“I’m sure she does, but there’s a world of difference between us all knowing something and keeping quiet about it, and shouting the fact from the rooftops.” Discretion had always been their safety net—that and most people thinking they’d ended up having to share a house because no other sane person, woman or man, would put up with either for five minutes.
“Right, Fyfield. We’ll go, and we’ll take what we’re given, whether it be vintage champagne or a murder to solve.”
“Both, I’d hope. And some stunningly good vintage of red wine.” Jonty’s eagerness was waxing. “I’m almost looking forward to it.”
“Just so long as you don’t get so deep in your cups you spend all the time telling your grand-godmother about my foibles.” Orlando wrested one last cup of coffee from the pot.
“If I try to do that, she’ll soon knock some sense into me, as will Mama.”
“If your mother hasn’t managed to knock any sense into you by now, there’s no chance.” Orlando got up from the table with a yawn, a stretch, and a nod. “Summer’s sorted, then. Maybe for once we’ll get a nice, quiet holiday.”
“I really wish you hadn’t said that. Go out of the room, turn three times, and knock on the door to be let in or something.”
“I know I shouldn’t ask this, but I will. Why?”
Jonty pushed his cup and saucer from him with a sigh. “Because it’s as bad as mentioning Macbeth. Nice, quiet holiday? The universe will hear what you said and is bound to make us regret it.”
By the time July arrived on the calendar and Jonty and Orlando arrived at the Stewarts’ magnificent Georgian house in London, life in the Coppersmith and Stewart universe was rosy. They’d got all their university business up-to-date and everything concerning the new term had been put on a very low, almost imperceptible, flame. They staggered out of the Lagonda and into the waiting arms of Mrs. Stewart, with Jonty getting volubly overexcited about seeing Alexandra Temple again, and Orlando voicing doubts about whether he’d live up to the lady’s expectations.
At least the rapturous welcome he got from Jonty’s mother should have allayed any remaining fears—surely they could be no bigger than an electron?—that he wasn’t worthy to associate with England’s great and good.
“You’re looking well, dear.” Mrs. Stewart favoured Orlando with a dazzling smile, then turned to hug her son, coming out of the embrace to eye him up and down, and say, “And you’re looking a touch on the thin side.”
“Helena, he’s built like a bull of Bashan.” Mr. Stewart’s voice came booming from the path down to the mews.
“Papa!” Jonty gave his father’s hand an impassioned pumping-up-and-down shake, which was followed by Orlando doing the same, if not quite so energetically.
“Has Barrow put the car away?” Mr. Stewart looked wistful.
“Not yet. Still got to get all the baggage out.” Jonty patted his father’s shoulder. “We can go for a spin if you fancy.” Jonty registered that his mother’s outfit seemed to hint at motoring rather than afternoon tea. “You too, Mama.”
“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble . . .?” Mr. Stewart seemed to be holding back the urge to leap into the automobile right now.
“Not at all. Although might we have a cup of tea first? I’m parched, as I’m sure Orlando is.” Orlando also had his I’ve been cooped up long enough in the metal monster face on. Maybe Mr. Stewart could find him a nice book of bridge problems to get his nose into while they took a tootle out to Hampstead Heath.
“Of course. And some apple cake too, I think,” Mrs. Stewart added, with one eye on her son’s waistline.
“Is Lavinia coming to Fyfield too?” Jonty felt eager to get the subject away from his eating habits.
Mr. Stewart smiled an unusually mushy smile. “I’m afraid she’s too busy with young George.”
George had been the hit of 1909, Jonty’s third nephew and his sister’s first child. The eldest of the Stewart offspring, Sheridan, had already sealed the lineage by producing young Thomas; Clarence had provided a spare heir in case of emergencies, so the latest arrival was an extravagance. Not that the Stewarts were bothered about the title—Jonty’s father had claimed it but never used it, saying he’d never stoop so low as to attend the House of Lords.
George was now a bouncing two-month-old who was doted upon by all concerned. Especially Orlando because the baby had, the last time they’d seen him, possessed the good sense to throw up all over Jonty’s jacket and then fall asleep, cherublike, in Orlando’s arms. If George had been able to speak, and had asked any of those present to jump in the river, they’d have done it without hesitation.
“How is young Georgie?” Jonty beamed with avuncular pride. “Is he ready to take the entrance exam for St. Bride’s?”
“They’re naturally proud of him.” His father nodded. “He’s a little corker.”
Orlando snorted. “He must be, the number of times your son conjured up the excuse to wet his head. Several of them before he was actually born.”
“We had to have a practice run so we didn’t make a mess of things when the real thing rolled up. Maybe we can wangle doing it again with the duke and the rest of the Temple family?” Jonty bounced on his toes.
“You can wet his head again now, with tea.” Mrs. Stewart took Orlando’s arm and led him into the house.
The tea was drunk, the cake consumed, the book of bridge problems found, Orlando’s nose got into it, the trip in the Lagonda made, all in plenty of time to change for dinner.
Jonty barged through the interconnecting door into Orlando’s room without knocking. “I told them we know they’re up to something. And can you help me with this stud? It refuses to obey me.”
“Turn round.” Orlando quickly slipped the offending item into its rightful place at the back of Jonty’s collar. “What did they say?”
“Thank you.” Jonty twitched his collar straight. “Denied everything, at first, then came clean when I threatened to drop them off in the Old Brompton Road and make them walk home. There’s been a suspicious death at Fyfield. They said they’d explain more when they had your ear as well as mine. After dinner.”
Orlando frowned. “Couldn’t we persuade them to do it now? Then we won’t spoil the beef or salmon or whatever it is by fretting.”
“That’s an excellent point. So excellent I’d kiss you right now, but I wouldn’t want to risk spoiling that perfect bow tie of yours.” Jonty smiled. “Right. Once more into the breach . . .”
In imitation of the direct style of his hero Henry V, Jonty had barely taken a sip of sherry before he launched his first volley. “Papa, you’ve never been the best of dissemblers and you’re losing what knack you had.” He didn’t add, with age. “So can we have all this Fyfield business out in the open now?”
Mrs. Stewart waved her hand regally. “I did warn we’d never be able to keep anything secret once they were here, Richard. We’d better reveal all now.”
Orlando nodded. “If there’s mystery in the offing, we’re your men.”
“Splendid!” Mr. Stewart applied an expertly weighted slap to Orlando’s shoulder. Enough to show affection, insufficient to spill even a drop of sherry.
Mrs. Stewart, not to be outdone, gestured for Orlando to sit beside her on the sofa. “You see, there was an unfortunate death there earlier in the year, and it’s rather thrown everyone into a bit of a turmoil.”
Jonty turned to his father. “Was it in the papers?”
“I doubt it, at least apart from the local press. Everything kept very quiet. Derek—he’s the present duke, Orlando—would have pulled some strings to ensure it didn’t make the national papers I expect. Eh, Helena?”
“If he didn’t, I’ll eat my best hat.” Mrs. Stewart knocked back her sherry; this was clearly serious stuff. “You don’t feel you’ve been brought here under false pretences?”
Jonty wagged his finger, something he’d have never done when younger for fear of having his leg slapped. “Only if you don’t give us the facts right now.”
Mr. Stewart assumed his best storytelling voice, the one he’d be using with George. “I ran across Alexandra Temple at Easter, and we had a lot of catching up to do. I might just have been waxing lyrical about your prowess at solving mysteries, some of which no one else had been able to solve. It wasn’t boastfulness—she’d read the account of the Woodville Ward case in the Times. Extraordinary to think they get that in America, although I suppose it arrives on the late side.”
“Did she ask you there and then to get us to help? Has this been brewing for months?” If so, then Jonty had to give them credit for keeping it hidden so long.
“No. She wrote at the end of May, inviting us down to Fyfield. It was only as the proposal expanded to include you two, with especial consideration for when you’d be available for an extended visit, that I smelled a rat.”
Mrs. Stewart fixed her husband with a gimlet gaze. “Richard! Must you be quite so crude around the boys? Rats, indeed.”
Jonty came to his father’s defence. “Don’t worry, Mama. He’s using it in the investigational sense, which is acceptable. Did you flush your rat out, Papa?”
“I did. She soon confessed she wanted to offer a commission.” The last few words were spoken with an almost evangelical light in his eye. Mr. Stewart had often said—usually when tired and emotional—that the previous occasions when he’d been allowed to play at detectives had been some of the most rewarding experiences of a long and fruitful life.
“And how could we deny her under such circumstances? My own godmother?” Mrs. Stewart had clearly decided to try to look helpless and appealing, something that wouldn’t convince anyone, let alone her youngest child, who knew full well she was about as helpless as a battleship at full steam.
Jonty drew himself up to his full five feet, eight and a half inches—that half inch being very important, especially when Orlando topped six foot. “Why didn’t you tell us right away this visit would involve sleuthing? You know Orlando would hardly be likely to say no.”
“We were, um . . .” Mr. Stewart looked to his wife for support.
“What your father means, but seems unable to say, is that after the events of last year we weren’t sure how keen Orlando would be to take on another case. I had a horrible feeling he’d be put right off detecting.” The year 1908 had seen Orlando unable to cope with the revelation of his grandmother’s expulsion from the family home as a girl, and his own father’s bastardy. A bastardy that had probably driven him to take his own life. Orlando had gone on a crusade to find his true roots, and the Stewarts had gone on a crusade to find him.
Mrs. Stewart squeezed Orlando’s hand. “We wouldn’t want to do anything to upset you.” Orlando had a special place in Mrs. Stewart’s heart, not least because he’d brought Jonty a level of joy and peace he’d not had since his school days. Funny how both he and Orlando had been blighted with dark times and had eased each other into the light.
“You never could.” Orlando returned the squeeze and looked to his partner for support.
Jonty, smiling, came and sat on the other side of his mother, taking one of her hands in his. “You made the same mistaken assumptions that I did. You know, I did wonder why you spent Christmas so clearly avoiding all talk of murder and mayhem. We’d even come to the conclusion that it was you who didn’t want to talk about mysterious murders or the like, for some reason best known to yourselves.”
“Really?” Mr. Stewart managed to look both puzzled and horrified. “How stupid of us all. It seems like one of those horribly contrived comedies one goes to see and can’t believe how the people involved could ever let the events happen. People talking rot and inveigling each other into doing the most ridiculous things.” He studied his shoes, a sure sign that he was about to say something highly important and highly personal. “You’re certain it will be all right, old chap? You would say if it wasn’t?”
“Of course I would.” Orlando, in an unprecedented move, leaned over and kissed Mrs. Stewart’s cheek. “Thank you for being so concerned. But I—we—are happy to take on this case. Aren’t we, Jonty?”
“Of course,” Jonty just about managed to get out, before the arrival of Hopkins the butler to announce that dinner was served. His immaculate timing ensured that nobody disgraced themselves with an outburst of tears.
The journey to Fyfield was a pleasant one through the Berkshire countryside, especially when Mr. Stewart insisted on a surprise diversion to Monkey Island. Jonty loved the place, but hadn’t been there since he was a just a little sprat, and Orlando had never been at all. Another place the Coppersmiths would have denied themselves the pleasure of visiting.
As the carriage took them from Maidenhead station to Bray—their luggage having gone north the few miles to Fyfield in the capable keeping of Hopkins—Jonty bounced like an excited child. “You’ll have to assure Orlando there aren’t actually any monkeys there. He’s not fond of furry creatures.”
“Not monkeys, so much as monks, I believe. Canonical rather than simian.” Mr. Stewart beamed. “Although I suppose in either case they might be capuchin?”
Mrs. Stewart smiled indulgently. “Your jokes are getting worse. You see, Orlando, the island used to be owned by one of the local abbeys. Then there was something to do with the fire of London. Richard, you know the story.”
“I do, and it’s a boring one. About ballast and rubble and building the island up. Nothing as exciting as monks or monkeys, but there’s an excellent hostelry, and the gardens are lovely. By the way,” he added, “I’ve made some subtle enquiries, and I don’t think they’ll be there today.”
“They? Oh, them.” Jonty raised his eyebrows. “Might be a little awkward.”
“Might somebody enlighten me as to who they are and what’s so awkward about it?” Orlando looked daggers at Jonty.
“The royal family. Or selected members thereof.” Mr. Stewart narrowed his eyes. “You’re too sensible to want me to elaborate.”
“Indeed.” Orlando nodded. Mr. Stewart had been acquainted with the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha since childhood, when he’d been taken to play with the young princes as they then were. While they still remained on amicable terms, he couldn’t persuade his conscience to accept His Majesty’s “interesting” attitude to marital fidelity. Jonty’s father might have been able—after some soul-searching—to acknowledge his son’s unusual position on the matter of women, but an adulterer he couldn’t abide.
“As is the way of these things,” Mrs. Stewart stepped in adeptly to change the subject, “Monks’ island—or maybe it was monken island, who knows—became Monkey Island. And there are monkeys there, of a sort. Painted ones on the walls. Doing amusing things.”
Jonty, who’d seen the monkeys at the zoo doing things that would have made his mother’s eyes stand out like organ stops, stifled a snigger. He was still within leg-slapping range—both in terms of distance and age.
“So long as they’re not pursuing me, I’m happy.” Orlando looked stern, but the twinkle in his eye gave the game away. “It’s the sort of thing your youngest son would force on me.”
Mrs. Stewart wrinkled her nose. “Alas, you’re perfectly right. I don’t think he’ll ever improve with age, so we’ll just have to grin and bear him.”
“I heard that. You do know that I’m not some piece of pottery you can talk about and it’s none the wiser?” Jonty yawned, stretched, and strained his head to get a better view along the road. “Are we there yet?”
Mrs. Stewart rolled her eyes. “See? That’s just what he was like when he was a little boy.”
If Jonty had been the butt of jokes when they were en route, then Orlando had his turn when they reached the edge of the Thames and could see the full splendour of the island. The lodge and the temple looked beautiful in the bright sunlight, and the gardens promised many a botanical delight.
“Where’s the bridge?” Orlando asked, arms flailing around as though he were getting into practice for swimming across.
“There isn’t one.” Jonty savoured the expression of horror on his friend’s face. “We’ll have to go by punt.”
“Punt?” Relief lit Orlando’s face.
“Absolutely. And given you’re such an expert in the matter of propelling one, Mama will be delighted to be in safe hands.” Jonty nodded in the direction of his parents, who were trying to attract the attention of someone on the other bank. “She doesn’t trust Papa in one of the things. Feels he’s a bit too excitable, and she’d prefer you to a stranger. Be prepared for it to take a while though—she’ll want to look her best.”
“It’s a two-minute punt ride, not Ascot,” Orlando hissed, making a sheepish face at having uttered such treason.
“Ah, but she can’t be sure not to run across somebody she knows. Can’t risk making a sloppy impression—Cleopatra in her barge won’t be in the same league.”
When the punt arrived and the attendant had been bribed into letting Orlando take his place with the pole, Mrs. Stewart settled herself down elegantly and they set off from shore like the epitome of a late-Victorian boating party.
“Orlando punts beautifully.” Mrs. Stewart almost purred in delight. “Such an elegant, um—would one call it ‘stroke,’ Jonty?”
Jonty would have called it an elegant backside, given his current view of the situation, but he kept that to himself. “Stroke, I think, although I’m no expert. And you’re quite correct. Orlando took to punting like a duck to water and hasn’t looked back.” Same as applied to some of the other things he’d taken to with such aplomb, several of them involving Jonty’s bed.
“We’ll be at the bank soon.” Orlando fiddled about, searching for the perfect mooring point. “Mrs. Stewart, could you please sit as still as possible until I can secure the punt?”
“Yes, dear.” Mrs. Stewart sat regally, every inch the daughter of an earl, the punt demanding as much dignity as if it were the royal coach.
Mr. Stewart stood up, evidently showing he wasn’t afraid of the punt wobbling and any subsequent loss of dignity. “Can we disembark?”
“I think that would be in order. I’ll hop on shore and keep the vessel still.” Before anyone could argue, Orlando scrambled onto the grassy bank, holding out his hand for Mr. Stewart to follow.
“I’ll be fine, thank you, my boy.” Mr. Stewart waved aside the offer of help. “Not that I don’t appreciate your kindness, but I have to prove to myself I’m still sprightly. Otherwise young George will grow up thinking I’m ready for my Bath chair.”
“We can’t have any of the nieces and nephews thinking any the less of their grandfather’s stamina. At least one of them is convinced Papa’s actually younger than you.” Jonty grinned, leaping onto the bank and almost coming a cropper on a patch of damp grass.
“That seems to be a variation on pride coming before a fall, dear.” Mrs. Stewart let Orlando hand her out of the punt, the pair moving with enormous decorum and elegance. “I feel quite famished after that adventure. I hope they have luncheon ready for us.”
“What have you planned in the way of a nose bag?” Jonty felt as eager as a horse who’d spied the winning post. If his ears had been able to pin themselves back, they’d have done so.
Mrs. Stewart stopped to admire a particularly lovely rose. “I’ve ordered just a light meal, dear, as we’ll be dining royally tonight and I’d want you to be able to do justice to Derek’s cook.”
“Your son could eat three square meals every day and still do justice to a six-course banquet for supper.” Orlando wrinkled his nose. “I sometimes wonder if he has hollow legs.”
“He has his father’s . . . um . . . something or other. Richard.” Mrs. Stewart tapped her husband’s arm. “What was that thing you were telling me about the other day?”
“Metabolism.” Mr. Stewart nodded sagely, taking one of the rose’s petals and laying it in his wife’s hand. “It controls how our bodies work. I think. Mine must need the equivalent of a ton of coal a day to keep its furnaces going, and Jonty’s the same.”
Jonty picked a rose petal as well, holding it up to the light. “Strange to think of all those chemicals whizzing about the system. Our polymathic friend Dr. Panesar did try to explain it to us one day, but my poor little brain felt like it was about to explode. I’ll stick to sonnets. Such beauty, such aroma, and all because of a particular conglomeration of nitrogen and hydrogen and who knows what.” He gave the petal to Orlando, just as Mr. Stewart had presented one to his life partner, a sort of sacrament of their devotion.
“There are no right angles in nature.” Orlando took the petal, studying it. “Did you know that, Mr. Stewart? Not a single one, even though so much of mathematics is based upon them.”
“I didn’t know that.” Mr. Stewart shook his head. “How extraordinary.” He pointed at the lodge. “That’s built on them, every book I possess has the things, and yet they’re not natural. How can that have come about?”
“This is much too clever stuff for me, dear.” Mrs. Stewart grabbed Jonty’s arm and pulled him, emphatically, in the direction of the lodge. “All I hope for is a nice, square meal. And no more talk of geometry.”
Food had been eaten, wine drunk, the monkey pictures admired, and Jonty’s mama and papa left to sit in the dappled sunlight under a tree and maybe doze a bit.
Jonty looked as if he could do with forty winks, stretching himself on the carriage rug, which had itself been stretched on the grass. Orlando often thought of him as a great cat sunning itself, and the dappling of the light made him resemble a tabby.
“This island is a delightful spot.” Orlando couldn’t decide whether he preferred the lodge, the temple, or the pleasant grounds. That was like choosing between algebra, geometry, and calculus.
“It is that,” Jonty replied. “Do you know, there are two things which depress me about traditional depictions of heaven—no more sea and the equal light. Who would want a world in which there are no shadows to play on the grass or waves to play on the beach? I’ve always hoped that St. Peter, as a fisherman, would sort out the business of the ocean. Or else where will the whales disport themselves?”
“Will there be whales in heaven?”
“I sincerely hope so. Why would God create something so magnificent and then not make the most of it through eternity? I’ll be expecting glyptodonts too.”
Orlando didn’t answer. He’d tried to engage in sensible discussion on this sort of topic before, but he’d recently given up the exercise of pursuing whatever flight of fancy Jonty’s brain had gone on. There was no logic to his mental processes at times, nor was any logic expected in return. All that was required of the audience was to listen—or at least pretend to.
“I reckon we’ll have at least half an hour to disport ourselves here. Papa’s settled in that chair for a snooze and Mama, when she wakes, will force the gardener to talk to her about roses and peacocks and who knows what.” Jonty stretched again. “Bliss.” He turned over, leaning on his elbow. “Are you going to take advantage of the opportunity for a bit of shut-eye?”
“No, I’ve more important things to do.” Orlando sat hugging his knees. “I spent too much of my early life ignoring beauty and sticking my nose in books rather than looking around at the trees and the sky and the water. I want to take every opportunity now of drinking in the sublime.”
“You wonderful old softy. We’ll make a poet of you yet.” Jonty lay back again, arms behind head, staring up at the beech leaves. “Do you know, these are the best trees to hide from the rain under? Something about the arrangement of the leaves, designed to catch the most sunlight. It helps to keep out the rain as a wonderful side effect.”
“Where do you pick up all this stuff? Dr. Panesar been bending your ear again?” Maurice Panesar, fellow of St. Bride’s, possibly the most inventive brain in Cambridge. And with about as much practical common sense as a squid.
“Not this time. Mrs. Sheridan.”
Now there was someone possessed of acres of common sense to go with her brain. The sister of the master of St. Bride’s, and the only woman Orlando thought could hold a candle to Jonty’s mother.
“Talking of whom, when she’d finished with leaves, she told me the most amazing thing about squids’ brains. Did you know—”
Orlando held up his hand. “Stop. Tell me another time—I don’t want my brain filled up with any facts, no matter how fascinating.” Nor did he want to acknowledge that Jonty seemed to be developing almost telepathic qualities. Squids, indeed. “I just want to think of nothing and enjoy the quiet.” He sat back against a convenient tree stump and shut his eyes for no more than a minute.
“What is it?” Orlando’s eyes shot open. “Can’t I have a bit of peace?”
“According to my watch you’ve had ten of them, all accompanied by what sounded like a herd of piglets being driven to market. And before you argue, I have a witness to the fact.” Jonty pointed at a young man—one who seemed to be a gardener given the state of his trousers.
Orlando immediately attempted to spruce himself up, bounding to his feet to join the other two men. “Pleased to meet you.” He thrust out his hand.
“Tommy Covington, sir.” The gardener shook the hand offered him. “Dr. Stewart here says you’re the Cambridge gents who’ve an interest in mysterious deaths.”
Jonty grinned. “I think my parents have been talking and the word’s got around.”
“That would be almost right, sir. My mother waits at the tables here and couldn’t help overhearing part of your conversation. She mentioned it to me.”
“Why did she think you’d be interested?” Orlando had been having such a pleasant few minutes of reflection—of course he hadn’t been asleep!—and this interruption hadn’t yet proved its worth.
The gardener laughed. “She knows me too well. Always got my nose in what she calls a shilling shocker.”
“Young Covington thought we might like to hear about something odd which happened here. Something up our street,” Jonty added, encouragingly.
“Yes.” Suddenly Orlando felt entirely awake. “Yes, we would.”
“Dr. Stewart said as much. If you’ll follow me, sirs, I’ll tell you the story in the appropriate place.” The gardener set off.
“Hold on.” Orlando called him back. “Jonty, what about your parents? Won’t they be wondering where we are?”
“I’ve been assured they’re being entertained with tea and biscuits so they won’t miss us at all.” Jonty laughed. “This had better be worth missing out on refreshments. Lead us to the scene, Mr. Covington.”
And it was certainly a pleasure to go along with him. Covington was a handsome lad, in that ruddy-faced, muscular way that smacked of time spent in the fresh air. Orlando wondered whether his own slender, pale frame naturally suggested time spent behind a desk or in libraries musing over abstruse equations. Maybe he needed a fortnight in the sun to bring out his skin’s olive tones, which seemed to lose heart and disappear under the strain of a Cambridge winter.
“It was earlier this year. February.” Covington shook his head as he went along. “A man called Charles Livingstone. It was a case of suicide, or so they say.”
Orlando’s ears pricked up at the so they say. Suicide was of no interest to them, not in terms of their sleuthing, but it held an unpleasant association with his own history, given his father’s taking of his own life. Jonty cast him a quick, worried glance, which he acknowledged with a nod, trying to say, Don’t worry, it doesn’t upset me. Even so, he felt the frisson of discomfort that he knew wouldn’t be easy to shake off.
“Where was the body found?” There seemed to be plenty of places along the bank where debris of any kind might wash up—the island itself and the edges of the river were in places overgrown with reeds and rushes.
“It washed up just along a bit.” Covington pointed about ten yards along the bank. “See that little inlet? I saw him there one morning.”
The gentle waters of the Thames swirled and eddied along the side of the island, bringing with them odds and ends that had been discarded in the river. Some of these were caught in the vegetation or trapped by the island itself—maybe Mr. Stewart’s rubble playing its part. It was easy to imagine something larger, something that had entered the river upstream—of its own volition or otherwise—finding its way here and being unable to escape against a strong current.
“And the inquest ruled that it was suicide?” Orlando knelt down, touching the overhang of greenery, as though that might give him some idea of what had gone on. “They had no doubts?”
“I believe so, sir. I had to give evidence, having found the body. I hadn’t been to an inquest before, but the proceedings seemed fairly straightforward. The doctor was satisfied that Livingstone had drowned, even if he’d been in the water a few days before he washed up here.”
“But he could have been pushed. Even if there was no sign of violence on the body—his attacker might have known he was a poor swimmer.” Not like a man cutting his own throat in front of his family. There’d been no doubts back then, at the Coppersmith dinner table.
“Are you all right?” Jonty sounded far off.
“Yes, thank you.” Orlando was surprised by how shaky his own voice sounded. This was affecting him more than he’d anticipated. “I’m sorry, Mr. Covington. I knew somebody who took his own life. This has brought back some unpleasant memories.” Memories that he’d been confident had been dealt with and put away. “Something persuaded the coroner that this wasn’t murder?”
“Aye, sir,” the gardener replied cautiously. “There was a note on the body. Saying Livingstone was sorry, but he’d anxiously awaited the dawn of day although he couldn’t see no . . . I beg your pardon, couldn’t see any point in going on.”
Jonty looked doubtful. “A note? How could that have survived being washed about in the Thames? Even in an inside pocket it would have been soaked, surely?”
“Ah, that’s where Livingstone—or somebody else—was clever. This was done up all professional-like. Wrapped and sealed in waxed paper and all, like they do at sea.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I follow.” Orlando looked from Jonty to the gardener and back again; was he missing something terribly obvious?
“That’s what they do with important ship despatches, sir. They wrap them in waxed canvas so that they’ll be mulched against the elements and survive a good dousing. My uncle served in the navy and told me all about it.”
“There seems to have been a lot of planning involved for somebody just to throw himself in the river.”
“Apparently so. It came out at the inquest that he’d been telling his friends he’d come to the end of his tether. He’d announced his intention of jumping from the bridge at Maidenhead.” Covington drew in a deep breath through his nose, as if to emphasise what he had to say next. “But none of his so-called friends seemed to take it seriously. Leastwise they hadn’t stopped him, had they?”
“If a man’s set on taking his life, all the arguments in the world can’t change his mind.” Orlando spoke with a quiet authority, at which Jonty flinched.
The gardener seemed like he was choosing his words carefully before he spoke again. “Very true, sir. Livingstone was said to have settled up his immediate affairs, so maybe his mind was made up.”
“Then why have you been hinting that there’s more to this case than the usual sad story?” Jonty appeared uncomfortable.
“It’s that note. It struck me as odd. Why take a suicide note with him? Why not leave it where his family or friends could find it?” The gardener shrugged. “The body might have been washed all the way to London or beyond and that note never been found.”
Jonty caught Orlando’s eye and gave him a look that seemed to say, This Covington lad has spirit.
Orlando nodded. More spirit—and maybe more of a grasp of logic—than most of the dunderheads of his age. Shame that lads of his class so rarely had the opportunity to put their brains to better use.
“There’s no logic to it, none at all,” the gardener continued.
“Is there any logic to suicide?” Jonty kicked at the bank. “Sometimes things become so bad that you lose all sense of what’s right or wrong or sensible.”
The afternoon seemed suddenly cold, even though the sun beat down as fiercely; the uneasy silence that settled among the three men was chillier still.
“Excuse me.” Jonty was the first to speak, when the quiet had gone on far too long. “It’s not just Dr. Coppersmith who has been reminded of unpleasant memories by this case. I’ve seen a young man take his own life, and I shall never forget the sight. Still, it’s extremely rude for either of us to have made you put up with that. Back to the matter in hand. Was there any doubt expressed about the note itself?”
“You mean the handwriting, sir?” Covington wrinkled his brow. “Two of Livingstone’s friends said it was his handwriting and that the details seemed correct.”
“So if he wrote it, rather than the thing being a clever forgery, that just raises more questions. How on earth could a murderer have got their intended victim to write such a load of piffle and then calmly go for a walk down to the local bridge where he’d then wait around to be pushed off?” Orlando was happier back with logic and reasonable trails of evidence. “If I was a judge, I’d say there’d not been enough evidence given—that admittedly strange business with the note notwithstanding—to persuade me it wasn’t suicide.”
Covington coloured, evidently fighting a rising tide of anger. “Mother says I should go with what the judge said, but I can’t help but have my suspicions. I found the body, and I feel like it’s up to me to see he has justice done. I know I can’t couch this in logical terms, like one of your students might, but it doesn’t feel right.”
“You’d be surprised at how little logic my students employ.” Jonty was clearly trying to pour oil on the troubled waters. “We don’t mean to give you short shrift, but we need something to go on. A scent to put our noses to, as it were. Without that, we might as well be looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.”
Covington considered for a minute, then nodded. “I shouldn’t have expected you to do anything, sir. I know you’re bound to be busy with bigger fish than this. But thank you for listening. Nobody else, not even my mother, has taken what I have to say seriously.” The gardener wiped his hand again and held it out to be shaken.
“It’s been a pleasure,” Jonty replied.
“No fish is too small.” Orlando kept his eyes to the ground in case Jonty looked at him. “We’ll be taking on another commission in the near future, which will mean our time is severely limited, but if anything new turns up in this case, will you inform us? And if we have any ideas might we inform you?”
Covington couldn’t have worn a wider smile if he’d won a sweepstake. “I’d be honoured if you would. You can drop me a line here, or I could give you my home address. Mother would be impressed if I got a letter from Cambridge.”
“You do that.” Jonty dug in his inside pocket for pen and notebook. “Could you jot them here, please?” As the gardener wrote, Jonty turned to Orlando, smiled and mouthed, You’ve changed your tune. He got a silent So what? in response.
“And why did the tune change?” Jonty asked, as they parted company with Covington and made their way back to the punt.
“Because.” Orlando sighed. “Because I know what it’s like to have a bee in your bonnet about something and nobody take you seriously.”
“I took you seriously about your grandmother’s family, last year.” Jonty looked ahead to where his parents were waiting.
“I didn’t mean just that.” Orlando stopped. “I used to dream about going to Oxford and my father always made fun of such an ambition. When Covington said that nobody, not even his mother—whom he clearly loves—had taken him seriously, it struck a chord.”
“I’m so sorry. Why have you never told me this before? No.” Jonty raised his hand and tipped his head towards his parents. “Wrong time. Tell me later. If it would help.”
“Maybe. I think what would help most is to do something for that young man. So he isn’t left chewing it over, as I’ve done.”
“Do you think there’s a connection between Covington and the dead man? A platonic one he’d have mentioned, so a romantic—which he wouldn’t—must at least be considered, surely? Especially as he’s so determined to have the matter investigated.”
Orlando frowned. “If Covington was involved with Livingstone, and was unfortunate enough to find the man’s body, surely he’d have been more upset when he told us about it? His interest doesn’t strike me as being personal. Still . . .”
“Right.” Jonty rubbed his hands together, then—having got his investigational note-taking fingers warmed up—fished out his notebook. “Let’s start by checking the story with the local newspaper. They’ll have a report of the inquest, so I can verify all of what was said and get hold of some names. Maybe I’ll strike lucky and get a hint of somebody lying to the coroner, even if Covington didn’t.”
“And what am I to do?” Orlando, happier now he’d shared yet another of his troubles with his lover, almost managed a smile.
“Haven’t we already got a mystery to get our teeth into? The one we’ll have thrust at us when we get to Fyfield? You can take the lead on that—an independent eye, rather than one connected to the family. Are you going to be greedy and have two mysteries on the go at once?”
“Why not? If we share both it’ll come to one each in total.”
“I’ll have to lie down and think about the logic of that. Preferably with you at my side,” Jonty added, smirking.
“Fat chance of that at Fyfield,” Orlando whispered in return. “Come on. Your parents will be wondering what’s keeping us. I suppose we don’t have to solve Covington’s mystery within a specific time.”
“I suppose not. You could take it back to Cambridge with you to keep you warm on the cold winter nights.”
“Any more of your cheek and you’ll be lacking that which you normally have to warm your bed. Here or at home.” Orlando raised his voice as they neared the others. “Mrs. Stewart, are you ready to let me convey you again?”
“More than ready, dear. Have you been off exploring?”
“Mama, Orlando is thirty-one, not seven. He no longer makes rope swings or builds sandcastles.”
“Doesn’t he?” Mr. Stewart chipped in. “More’s the pity, then. I can think of nothing better.”
Orlando, with a smug grin and the sort of warm glow that only came when a man got one over on his lover, led the way to the punt.
Jonty hadn’t lied. Fyfield was magnificent, as they could see once the carriage turned into the main drive. And, while Orlando was prepared to argue till he was blue in the face that the homely, historical glories of the Old Manor made it a more attractive building, nobody could deny the splendour on show. A long, imposing edifice, beautifully maintained, with a splendid central block rising three storeys above the rest of the building. Set on a slope, or so Jonty explained, meaning that the house was far better proportioned when seen from the river, and the servants’ range was only below ground on one side.
They’d no sooner arrived than been swept onto the terrace for a cooling drink and the opportunity to take in the magnificent view down to the river. The duke and duchess themselves weren’t quite so splendid: Derek was tall, wiry, well dressed, but gave the impression of being fraught, while Beatrice didn’t quite have the carriage or the élan to carry off her clearly expensive costume. They were, however, both effusive and apologetic in their welcome, happy to have the Stewarts as their guests again but sorry that the dowager duchess wasn’t on hand to join them. She’d been feeling the effects of something she’d eaten that had disagreed with her, but was mustering her strength for coming down to dinner. It was suggested that if Helena didn’t mind dealing with an invalid, perhaps she could pop her nose around the door, as the globe-trotter was keen to see her favourite goddaughter again.
Mrs. Stewart had needed no second invitation, haring off to see Alexandra Temple as quickly as was decent and before the champagne had even been uncorked.
Glass in hand, Orlando stood on the terrace, admiring the early evening vista—lawns and trees, avenues of them, rising out of an ethereal mist which seemed determined to settle in. Just the thing to revive a man’s spirits.
“Lovely, isn’t it?” A familiar voice in Orlando’s ear announced the arrival of his light of love.
“Magnificent. You’re very fortunate in your family friendships. Although I’m feeling rather guilty about enjoying this place so much.” Orlando sipped his champagne.
“Why’s that?” Jonty leaned on the wall, fingers rubbing along the warm stone.
“Because I used to think there could never be so splendid a view as the one from my bedroom at the Old Manor.” Orlando was always given the best guest bedroom, and the view down the stream valley, with the willows and water meadows, was his constant delight. “I daren’t admire this or else I’ll feel treacherous.”
“Familial loyalty is a noble thing, but it shouldn’t blind one’s eyes to objective assessment.” Jonty cuffed his arm. “A man can like champagne and coffee without being disloyal to either. Although if you’re worried that Mama will smack your bottom again for harbouring such perfidious opinions, then I’ll keep your secret. What’s so wonderful about this view that it’s made you come over all soppy?”
Orlando quickly glanced around to see if anyone could overhear, before whispering, “Apart from the fact that it’s almost as breathtakingly beautiful as you are?”
“You big daft thing. Be serious.”
“I was. There’s a second factor, though. Sussex is natural—or at least it looks natural, even if the vista I see there was probably all planned and laid out by the hand of man. Here, it’s mathematical and precise.” Orlando swept his hand towards the two matching avenues of poplars. “See how their shadows cross the lawn. I’m sure they were planted to catch the evening sun, just as the ones opposite would have been planted to catch the sunrise. Those shadows are superb.”
“They are. However, much as I’d hate to spoil your wonderful theory, the sun does move, you know. Or maybe the earth does.” Jonty scratched his head. “Anyway, it only rises due east at the equinoxes. This time of year it’s already heading north of east, or maybe it’s coming back again. Anyway, the pattern of those shadows would vary throughout the year.”
“I know that,” Orlando said, just a touch too quickly to suggest to Jonty anything other than the fact he was lying. “That’s what I admire so much—the consideration of what it must look like in the different seasons.”
Jonty made a noise which might have been written as pfft, something remarkably like the hideous noise the man’s car made when the engine wasn’t quite firing as it should. “I’ve already caught Papa out having to string a bit of a story to our host, who doesn’t yet seem to be aware of the motive behind our being summoned here. His mother’s been as cagey with him as my parents were with both of us. I’ve got my eye in for a lie, and I believe you as little as Derek should believe Papa.”
Orlando’s reply was forestalled by the arrival of their hostess, who insisted on describing the planned landscape work at Fyfield in such detail that the preceding conversation was laid aside, at least until Orlando could get his lover alone.
Alexandra Temple appeared for dinner looking splendid in a dark-green dress, with emeralds to match, which made her daughter-in-law Beatrice’s bronze taffeta look dowdy. Even Helena Stewart, in a new dark-blue silk creation that exactly matched her eyes, was put in the shade by the dowager duchess. The woman must have been as magnificent in her youth as the estate she’d married into.
And the dowager seemed still to be genuinely nice, not seeking to dominate the conversation over dinner with tales of her travels, and taking a real interest in Orlando and his latest research. If it was all an act, the pretences of an experienced hostess, then it was an impressive one. After dinner the ladies retired, but the men weren’t far behind; the Stewart entourage had been told to report for briefing.
They found Mrs. Stewart and her godmother sitting together on a sofa, with the duchess on a chair to one side.
“It appears,” Beatrice said, with a smile that seemed to be directed to the room at large rather than her husband, “that we’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes. I told you there had to be a reason why Richard’s tame sleuths were coming here.”
Mr. Stewart’s voice, normally jaunty, had a nervous edge. “Guilty as charged, Beatrice. We couldn’t refuse such a commission.”
Jonty, who’d been on the verge of making some quip about subterfuge seeming to be de rigueur this summer, bit his lip. There was something in the air, some slightly perceptible feeling of discomfort, that had been in evidence since they’d been out on the terrace, something he couldn’t simply put down to his previous experiences with the family. They didn’t seem half as domineering as he remembered them.
“You did tell me there had to be a reason, Beatrice, and I refused to believe you.” Derek Temple looked over his spectacles at his mother. “Tuffnell?”
Alexandra set her hands in her lap. “Yes, dear. Tuffnell.”
“Oh, Mother.” Beatrice shook her head as though dealing with a four-year-old. “Captain Tuffnell killed himself.”
Both Jonty and his father glanced at Orlando at the words killed himself. Why on earth were echoes of his father’s suicide so determined to dog their footsteps?
“How extraordinary,” Orlando said quietly. “I assume you think he was murdered?” He addressed Alexandra, ignoring the slight squeak of protest from her daughter-in-law.
“Tell the boys everything.” Mrs. Stewart took her godmother’s hand. “You can rely on them for absolute discretion.”
“I’m not sure it’s absolute discretion I want, Helena. The time might have come to put the cat—a pair of intelligent and persistent cats”—she looked from Jonty to Orlando and back again—“among some complacent pigeons. If it was murder, I want the murderer to know I’m trying to flush him or her out.”
“Mother.” Derek’s voice had an edge of exasperation. “The inquest said Reggie Tuffnell took his own life while the balance of his mind was disturbed. Why can’t you accept that?”
“Because I can’t, dear. Please, let an old woman tell her story. If Richard and his boys think it’s a load of old nonsense at the end, then I’ll not say another word about it. Is that fair?”
“Eminently fair.” It was Beatrice, not her husband, who gave the answer. “Tell them everything. But don’t expect to convince them.”
Alexandra took a deep breath. “Just after Easter, we had a house party. Just like the old days, when my Douglas was alive, although this time only seven or eight guests with all their retinue. The third morning they were here—it was a Friday—Reggie Tuffnell was found dead. He had apparently hanged himself from the top of the four-poster bed.”
“You say ‘apparently,’” said Jonty. “But you’ve implied there was no ‘apparently’ at the inquest.”
“There was not. Too much circumstantial evidence, by which I mean that although there was no note, it was generally known that he’d been extremely worried about something. It was one of the reasons Derek invited him here, so that he could offer help.” She turned to Mrs. Stewart. “Derek was terribly upset about it, you know.”
“I am here, Mother, to speak for myself. I’m no longer seven and a half.”
“I’ve always been seven and a half to Mama.” Jonty immediately regretted what he’d said. This seemed to be the wrong time for any sort of frivolity.
Mrs. Stewart patted her godmother’s hand again. “Quite natural for everyone to be upset, dear. Such a thing to happen under one’s roof.” There was a look in her eye such as a prizefighter might have if he’d offered to fight all comers and was defying anyone to take him up on the challenge. “Did the nature of Captain Tuffnell’s worries ever come to light?”
“Oh, yes. His brother Ronnie appeared at the inquest, confirming that Reggie had gambling debts he was likely to be unable to pay back. That would lead to the loss of his good name and make him a—is the word ‘pariah,’ Derek?”
“As one who’s never had gambling debts in his life, I should be the last to know,” her son answered, occupying himself with a box of cigars. “But it seems as good—or as bad—a word as any. Horrible business.”
Mr. Stewart replied in tones that made it plain what he thought of those who reneged on their obligations. “Would the subsequent shame really have been enough to prompt him to take his life? Some people seem to thrive on not paying their debts off.”
“The captain was certainly one of the old school, like you, Richard. I have no doubt about his being ashamed should he not have been able to honour a bill.”
Orlando was first in with the question that was probably on everyone’s mind. “So in that case, why do you think it wasn’t suicide?”
“Because he could have paid off those debts, every one of them. At least he would have been able to do so had he just deferred the payment a few weeks.” As Alexandra spoke, Jonty kept his eyes on his hosts; they’d clearly heard this before and it cut no ice with them, unlike the Stewarts, who were surprised. “He stood to inherit a tidy sum from an uncle, one who was childless and intended leaving all his goods, chattels, and whatnot to his two nephews.” The dowager stopped and looked at each of her listeners in turn, triumphant.
Orlando asked, “But he’d have had to be able to predict the future to know that, surely? Unless he had the intention of hastening the old man’s demise.”
Mr. Stewart nodded his head gravely. “Occam’s razor, my boy. Please don’t multiply entities unnecessarily. One murder—if it is murder—is enough to be going on with. You’ve taken that into account, haven’t you, Alexandra?”
“Of course I have.” The dowager rolled her eyes. “The uncle was terminally ill, everyone was aware of that. Reggie Tuffnell told me he was on his last legs—I heard that snort, Derek. Please don’t upbraid me for my choice of words.”
Jonty repressed a snigger. Would he still be getting told off by his mother when he was rising sixty?
“I apologise. I keep forgetting your trip around the world has enlarged your vocabulary.” The duke smiled, crossing the room and taking the unoccupied place on the sofa at his mother’s side. “Nobody wishes to make light of your concerns. Tell your story.”
“Thank you, dear.” She kissed her son’s cheek. “To continue. Reggie knew he was due to benefit under the will. He told me so, in this very room.”
Orlando rolled his eyes. “So why didn’t you mention that at the inquest?”
“I was ready to, but Ronnie’s further evidence forestalled me. It wasn’t just gambling debts which were worrying Reggie, or so he said. He hinted at some deep-rooted personal anxiety blighting the man’s life. Derek also gave evidence to the same effect—he wasn’t aware of the gambling, at the time.”
“I wish I had been.” The duke ran his hands through his hair—a fine thatch, still, even if turned to grey. “I might have been able to help him. He should have asked me. Too proud by half.”
“Or maybe he didn’t ask because he knew he’d be solvent soon enough,” Alexandra retorted doggedly.
Beatrice proved just as dogged. “You can’t deny that he was in low spirits. I’d noticed a distinct deterioration from when we’d seen him last autumn.”
“No, dear, I can’t deny that he’d changed. Nor can I deny that he’d always been a little odd at times. That’s why I decided to keep my own counsel at the inquest. I had the feeling I was just being a daft old thing, seeing problems where there weren’t any.”
“But you must have changed your mind subsequently? Or else why ask the boys here?” Mrs. Stewart turned and gave her hostess a sweet, piercing smile. If she’d held up a sign saying I believe your mother-in-law even if you don’t, she couldn’t have made her feelings plainer.
“I don’t think it’s a case of changing my mind. I always had doubts, but I didn’t want to stir things up and cause trouble for the families concerned if I had nothing to go on but an old woman’s imagination.” Alexandra raised her hand. “And before you butt in, Richard, and make some remark about how I’m hardly an old woman, I would ask you to hold your tongue. You were always the smoothest talker of your generation, and I’ve noticed young Jonty is the same.”
Young Jonty kept his eyes firmly fixed on his shoes. He didn’t need to look up to know that Orlando was smirking.
“I’ll not say a word,” Mr. Stewart said, then immediately broke his promise. “Except to say that whatever your age, your wisdom and perception could never be doubted.”
Alexandra appealed to Helena. “You see what I mean?”
“They’re just men, dear. They can’t help it.”
“So,” Mr. Stewart continued, “if you have concerns, they’re hardly likely to be groundless. Was it just the matter of the debts which concerned you?”
“No. I’d not back a horse just on stable gossip. You need to know the ground conditions and the weights to get the full picture.” Clearly the dowager wasn’t ignorant of betting. “For a start, there’s the simple fact that the door to the bedroom wasn’t locked.”
“Why should . . . Ah, I see your point.” Mr. Stewart nodded. “One might expect Tuffnell to have sought privacy if he’d decided to do the deed.”
“Absolutely. And the absence of a suicide note bothers me, too, in the same way. I’d known Reggie when he was just a boy—he was a meticulous little chap then and nothing much seemed to have changed. Leopards don’t change their spots—and I’ve seen enough of the creatures, feline or human, to verify that. He was still just as careful and well organised, except in the matter of the gaming tables. The man was used to keeping a log, for goodness sake.”
“A log?” Jonty felt he might have lost the plot.
“He was a ship’s captain, dear. I should have made that plain.” The dowager tempered her words with a charming smile. “It simply would have been more in character for him to have left a note than not.”
Orlando spoke before Jonty had the chance to. “Those are excellent points.” More than they’d had about Livingstone’s note. He’d produced a notebook and propelling pencil from somewhere. The risk of not being able to take notes had evidently outweighed the risk of spoiling the line of his dinner jacket. He smiled at Jonty—a pale, troubled smile—before continuing. “Are there any more?”
“Aren’t those enough?” The dowager tipped her head to one side, narrowing her eyes and fixing Orlando with an interrogative look. “Do you want it too easy?”
“Of course not. Where’s the challenge in that?” Orlando wasn’t going to be browbeaten. “But the test has to be a fair one. How are we to contact all the guests who were here at the time? Surely the birds have flown?”
“They have.” Derek spread his hands, apologetically. “You’ll be chasing up and down the country, I’m afraid. Although his brother Ronnie lives only ten miles away. He’s not yet moved into the house he inherited from that uncle. And all the staff who were here then remain in our employ, should you need to question them, although I’m not sure what they can add.”
“Thank you.” Jonty felt he had to say something; he might have been asleep for all the contribution he’d made so far. Mustn’t let Mama’s godmother think he was a complete idiot. “May I just clarify some points about the finding of the body? Do you know if there was anything suspicious about the room? Something incongruous, for example?”
“You would have to ask the staff about that, dear.” The dowager smiled.
Derek sighed. “I’ll warn Hammond. He won’t like it, of course.”
“Please assure Hammond,” Mr. Stewart chipped in, “that the lads have acted for the highest in the land, in a case of the utmost delicacy. They won’t be going down to the servants’ hall and spreading wild rumours about mass murderers abroad, if that’s his concern.”
“I shall be my discreet and tactful best. And I’ll make sure Orlando does the same. He’ll put on his finest investigator manner and leave out all the bad words he uses to and about the dunderheads.” Jonty gave Orlando a sideways glance, but the man wasn’t rising to the bait.
“I’m not worried about your friend.” Alexandra tipped her head to one side and peered, slightly shortsightedly, at Jonty. “I was speaking to Janet Allender only the other day and received a glowing report on Dr. Coppersmith’s undercover—if that’s the right word—work at the time of Jennifer Johnson’s death. Any man who can go into costume and play a role with such discretion and conviction must be admired. If you and Richard can fulfil your role as he did, then I shall have no complaints.”
“Oh.” Jonty felt suitably abashed. The investigation into the ex-royal mistress’s death had been one of their more unusual cases, and one of Orlando’s shining moments.
“You realise the risk you run, Alexandra?” Mr. Stewart suddenly cut in. His voice was calm, but he was evidently holding back some strong emotion. “Flushing out a murderer, as you so neatly put it right at the start of this conversation, is a risky business. Have you considered that it might precipitate further violence, as it did in Jennifer Johnson’s case? The lads can look after themselves, but I wouldn’t want to see anything happen to you. Or anyone else in this household.”
Orlando nodded, his look of glee at Jonty getting his comeuppance soon covered up with a suitably grave expression. “Discretion might be the better part of valour, as the saying goes. What would we gain by finding justice for the dead man if we were to put your life at risk?”
“Discretion might be the right course sometimes, but in this instance it’s stuff and nonsense. I can look after myself as well as you can. Do your menfolk know that I sleep with a loaded pistol at my side, Helena?” The dowager tapped her goddaughter’s hand.
“I don’t think even I knew that, my dear, so how they were to have been privy to the secret, I couldn’t begin to imagine. What a forward-thinking woman you are.”
“Then do you take my commission?” Alexandra briefly glanced at Jonty and his father, but her words were aimed at Orlando.
“We do. If we can have free rein.” Orlando kept his eyes fixed on the dowager, although Jonty—and maybe everyone else—knew he was addressing her son.
Everyone looked at the duke, whose face bore an unreadable expression. Eventually, he said, “You do. Let’s clear this, if we must.”
An ugly silence descended on the room, broken by Mrs. Stewart, who spoke in her most tactful manner. “And Richard . . .”
“Yes, my dear?” Mr. Stewart seemed like a gladiator who’d been addressed by an overconfident lion.
“Don’t go dogging the lads’ footsteps and trying to hog all the fun to yourself. I’m sure Orlando will let you join in the sleuthing, but at the slightest hint of monopolisation I will have you sent out of the room.”
Jonty had to try to remove a nonexistent speck of dirt from his trousers, setting his face as near to stone as he could make it. From the corner of his eye he caught Orlando trying hard not to laugh, failing, and having to pretend to sneeze.
“I promise to behave myself.”
“Glory be!” The dowager threw her hands into the air. “Then there’s a first time for everything. Now, Derek, our guests could do with a touch of port or brandy.”
Amidst the palaver with decanters and glasses, Jonty caught Orlando’s eye. The game was afoot—two games, on the same day.
Cochrane’s writing is delightful and concise, her narrative perfect for the times along with their conversations and her characters, all of them, including Jonty, Orlando, and so many others are so well rounded and endearing that you mark every minute you are with them as time well spent.
. The witty dialogue and heartwarming passion that is consistent with the historical times and setting are the heart of the story.
[A] true Edwardian romance – loquacious without being verbose.
Loved it, love Jonty’s puppy like ebullience, his way of turning the most innocent of looks or words into something salacious, against Orlando’s more phlegmatic, pragmatic, logical, approach. They counter each other wonderfully, and make a superb team.
Wonderful setting with a tantalizing, psychological puzzle inside.