Death by the Lake
To the surprise of Carolus, Margot turned out to be a nervous passenger who begged him to drive slowly. None of the arguments used by the drivers of fast cars to convince others that safety lay in well-controlled speed rather than erratic slowness did much to convince her.
“After all, there’s no hurry,” she said.
“I thought you wanted to swim in the lake.”
“Yes. But in the cool in the evening. That’s when I like it. Take it easy, Carolus. Let’s have lunch somewhere on the way as you suggest. We don’t need to arrive before tea-time. Marie will like that. She’s a great girl for afternoon tea.”
“Just as you like. We’ll get to Lancaster for lunch.”
“If you want to go so far.”
“The Royal King’s Arms at Lancaster, I think. We’ll get a decent lunch there.”
They did, but Margot wanted to take time over it and insisted on going through to the hotel lounge for coffee.
“Can’t do without my coffee,” she explained.
It was past three when they got on the road again and at Minthorpe Margot wanted to turn off the main road and go by a roundabout way, through Grange-over-Sands.
They finally arrived at Millgrove, after several stops to “buy something for Marie”, at nearly five o’clock. Margot grew more animated when they pulled up outside Marie’s cottage.
“Suppose she’s out?” she suggested.
Carolus smiled patiently.
“You might have thought of that before.”
But Marie was in, and rushed out to kiss Margot and greet Carolus.
“You see! Carolus and I have got together,” said Margot.
Maria seemed confused.
“How did this happen? Where have you come from, you two?”
Since Carolus knew she had been on the ’phone to Margot warning her of his anticipated arrival in Liverpool, this seemed a rather strange thing to say, and Marie’s look of astonishment on seeing them was, Carolus thought, somewhat exaggerated. However, he said nothing and followed the two women into the cottage.
They chattered excitedly. “So long since you’ve been here!” “It’s wonderful to see you! I told Carolus we must run down and surprise Marie!” “I’m thrilled that you did!”
“What did you think of the Supermarket?” asked Marie. “Quite something, isn’t it? And all done by my little friend here.”
“I was most impressed,” said Carolus, wondering how fatuous this sort of conversation could become.
But the two women continued to chirp with pleasure at seeing one another.
“How will you get back?” asked Marie suddenly. I suppose Carolus brought you here. Is he going to drive all the way back to Liverpool?”
“No. I sent Racking on with the car. He’ll drive me back on Monday.”
“Racking?” said Marie. Her face clouded for a moment. “Is he here?”
“Of course, darling. He came up last night. You know how Racking likes to be sent ahead.”
“I don’t know anything about Racking,” said Marie, almost sulkily.
But in a few moments the cloud lifted.
“I should like to stay with you here,” said Margot.
“Or at my house?” Carolus suggested. “Mrs. Stick will look after her,” he added to Maria.
“Where would you like to stay?” asked Maria. “Here, cramped and uncomfortable, or in luxury at Carolus’s?”
“You know I don’t mind. It’s so wonderful to be here!”
“But you’ll have to make up your mind, darling. Where are your bags?”
“I never thought of that Racking brought them in the car, of course. He must have taken them to the Waterman.”
“Oh no! Why didn’t you tell him to bring them here?”
“It was to be a surprise for you,” said Margot. “Carolus and I wanted to turn up on the doorstep unexpectedly. I wonder where Racking is.”
This absurd piece of conversation, suggesting a no less absurd misunderstanding, for some reason disquieted Carolus. He asked Maria’s permission to use her telephone as she and Margot prepared to sit in the little garden behind the house and, when they were out of hearing, called his own house.
“Well, yes,” said his housekeeper doubtfully. Only I don’t know where you’ve been, sir, and there’s a man here leaving two suit-cases which he says belong to a friend of Miss Maria’s who’s coming here this evening. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t like the look of him at all, and Stick says he’s been staying at the Waterman, but that’s not to tell you anything about him, is it?”
“You don’t need to know anything about him, Mrs. Stick.”
“Very likely you don’t, only as I tell you, there’s something I don’t like about him and I don’t know what to do with the bags he left.”
“Put them in the spare room, Mrs. Stick. They belong to a Mrs. Denver who’ll be staying the night. The man who brought them is Mrs. Denver’s chauffeur.”
“We, so he may be, sir, but if I know anything about it, there’s something wrong about him.”
“I shall be home within an hour. Could you manage a little cold meal for Mrs. Denver, Miss Marie and me?
“I don’t know about cold, sir. I was going to do a nice pair of ducklings I’ve got.”
“That will be all right, only I don’t know what time we shall want to eat.”
“Then I shall wait till you come home, sir, and it’s to be hoped you won’t be long. I’ll get the spare room ready. So long as this fellow’s not coming here.”
“Which fellow? Oh, the chauffeur. Don’t be ridiculous, Mrs. Stick.”
“So it may be ridiculous only I don’t like it and Stick says he was stopped outside of Miss Marie’s cottage for a long time this morning.”
“Do you mean his car was?”
“That’s what Stick said. A Jaguar he told me and this man I don’t like the look of must have been in the house. You wouldn’t have thought Miss Marie would have encouraged that, would you?”
As a matter of fact Carolus wouldn’t. He looked preoccupied as he went to join Marie and Margot in the garden, but was careful not to shew them that anything was amiss.
Marie brought tea out and they dawdled over it. It was approaching seven o’clock when Margot announced that she was longing to see Carolus’s house and they drove the few hundred yards to his home.
Mrs. Stick looked put out.
“What time would you both like to eat?” asked Carolus of Marie and Margot. Margot answered.
“Would it be a frightful nuisance if we just had something to eat after we came in? I do so long to go on the lake now it’s getting cool and it would be heaven just to eat something afterwards.”
She smiled at Mrs. Stick, who did not return the smile.
“Of course, madam,” she said stiffly. “I could arrange a little cold supper for later if you wish it.”
“Oh do,” said Margot. “Then I can have my swim.”
“I beg your pardon, but did you say swim?” asked Mrs. Stick. “You couldn’t be meaning to go in the water at this time of night! After all that’s happened on this lake it would be tempting Providence.”
“All that’s happened?” asked Margot, apparently amused. “What has happened?”
The little woman stood her ground.
“I don’t believe everything,” she announced. “Only my husband’s been told about these people who went out in a boat one evening and were never heard of again, or the boat, either, for that matter.”
“But that was years ago,” said Margot. “Some time in the last century.”
“So it may have been,” said Mrs. Stick. “But it was this time of year when the evenings are growing long and sometimes you get a mist over the water. Besides, it’s not healthy to go swimming at night with the mosquitoes and everything.”
“It’s very kind of you to be so concerned, she said. “But I can look after myself.” She turned to Carolus. “We aren’t going, aren’t we?”
“Up to you,” Carolus said.
“I told Racking to get the dinghy ready,” Margot went on. “As a matter of fact that was one reason why I sent him ahead. I remember Marie’s old dinghy. I thought the engine would need looking over.”
“It always does,” agreed Marie. “I scarcely ever use the thing.”
“Did it belong to your sister Jessie?” asked Carolus. “I was told she used to go out on the lake a lot with her husband.”
This, which sounded like a deliberate gaffe, caused an awkward silence. It was at last broken by Marie who said shortly, “Yes. It was Jessie’s.”
Mrs. Stick brought drinks and they sat on the little terrace which overlooked the lake while the landscape slowly darkened.
“Well, what about it, boys and girls?” said Margot cheerfully. “Are we ready?”
“I shall be, in a few minutes,” said Carolus and left them. He came down, to Mrs. Stick’s amazement, wearing shorts and an open-neck shirt. But this was not so startling as Margot’s get-up. She had apparently changed into something like a bikini, modestly wrapped about by a very cumbersome bath robe.
“You must excuse this,” she said gaily. “I’m never cold in the water but I like something warm to pull on afterwards. Till we get back,” she added
Only Marie made no change for the occasion.
Mrs. Stick watched with astonishment and disapproval while they gathered in the hall. She could not contain herself.
“If you’re going out like that, sir,” she said, “I won’t be responsible. It’s tempting Providence and I shall have you ill for a month from the night air. You know what the doctor told you, don’t you?”
Margot smiled reassuringly.
“He’ll be all right, Mrs. Stick,” she said. “We shall all be back in half an hour or so, roaring for supper like the lions at Whipsnade. Shan’t we, Marie?”
“It’s to be hoped so,” said Mrs. Stick as she watched them go down the steps to the lakeside.
At the little landing-stage that belonged to the house, Racking was awaiting them. A dinghy with an outboard motor was made fast to it; evidently Margot’s idea of organized preparation. He said nothing as Marie went on board.
But now a small contretemps occurred. Carolus, who had behaved so mildly and obligingly all day, spoke with some authority. Before Racking could follow them aboard, he said, “I will take the engine. We don’t need your chauffeur.”
Margot was evidently nonplussed.
“Oh but he’ll be so useful. You don’t want to be bothered with that wretched little outboard motor.”
“But I do,” said Carolus firmly. “I’m used to a thing like this.” He turned to Racking. “You stay ashore,” he said, and, starting the little motor, left the chauffeur staring after them from the landing-stage.
Margot decided to shew no ill-humour the Carolus had seen enough of her to gather that she disliked not having her own way.
“All right,” she said. “Only you must let me take over presently.”
“Of course,” said Carolus. “Whenever you like. It was just that I thought the three of us would be better on our own.”
“Perhaps you’re right. Ranking’s rather a bore. I didn’t know you cared for boats.”
It was certainly a glorious night, one of those nights which happen really but wonderfully when there is fine weather round about midsummer. Although they could not see for any great distance over the lake, the starlight above them was brilliant and there was a harvest moon.
“Now you see why I wanted to come, and why I insisted on us coming out on the lake after it had grown nearly dark? I’m thrilled with this!”
Marie remained curiously silent. Carolus felt that there was something like tension or anxiety in her failure to join in her friend’s cheerful comments.
“Let me take over now,” said Margot and Carolus agreed. But in changing places an unfortunate mishap occurred. Margot had left her bag on the seat beside her, a pretty little bag, quite unsuited to the occasion. In trying to pick it up and hand it back to her, Carolus lost his balance and nearly fell in the water. When he recovered himself he apologised.
“My dear, I’m terribly sorry. Your bag . . .”
It had dropped into the water and sank at once.
“How can I have been so clumsy? Had you anything valuable in it?”
Once again Margot shewed no ill-humour.
“Some bits and pieces of jewellery,” she said. “Nothing valuable.”
“I am so sorry,” Carolus repeated.
“Don’t worry. It could happen to anyone. I shouldn’t have brought it, anyway.”
Meanwhile Margot had steered the dinghy towards the centre of the lake.
“Is this where you want to swim?” asked Carolus.
“A little farther on.”
“You seem to know our lakes very well,” commented Carolus. Even in semi-darkness.”
“I came here once with Marie. Didn’t I, Marie? But I haven’t forgotten it.”
She suddenly switched off the engine and silence descended on them. A faint rippling of water and that was all. It seemed that no other boat was in hearing as no other was in sight. Faintly distinguishable was the outline of the hills. They seemed remote and very dark under the stars.
Margot, in the stern of the dinghy, stooped down apparently to remove her shoes, while Carolus remained close to Marie. There were a few moments of tension then, turning away from the others, Margot removed her heavy bath robe.
“Well, this is it,” she said cheerfully and prepared to dive in. As she did so, she laughed and it was not a pleasant sound.
Carolus watched her surface and strike out strongly away from the dinghy. Then without giving her the smallest warning he struck Marie a blow over the head. She collapsed and was silent, but a new sound was audible in the boat, a curious gurgling. With no hesitation to examine the cause of this, Carolus seized Marie under the arm-pits and dragged her into the water over him. Then he commenced that operation, not difficult with practice, but dangerous if someone lose his head and try to struggle, the life-saver’s back-stroke.
The shore was no less than five hundred yards away but Carolus had that confidence in his own powers which had guided him throughout the successive small crises which, to him who was narrowly observing events, the day had been. He was, of course, a good swimmer and in very fair training. Paralysis is as a child had been an inspired invention. So long as Marie remained more or less inert in his arms there was little danger.
But what about Margot? Above the rush of water about his ears another sound was audible to Carolus, the cry of a woman in distress. More than that—in agony. Cramp, thought Carolus, that enemy of even the best swimmers.
“Carolus! Carolus!” she screamed desperately.
But Carolus, with the burden of Marie’s inert body, was already fifty yards away and swimming strongly towards the shore. The dinghy, as though someone creating a landscape had wilfully painted it out, had disappeared utterly.
As Carolus swam Marie began to struggle.
“Keep still!” Carroll’s voice was urgent, yet steady. “Keep still, Marie, and I can get you ashore. I can’t if you struggle.”
He did not speak again, nor did Marie. Carolus could not tell whether she were unconscious, semi-conscious or awake to her danger but wise enough to do as she was told. As it will in such a crisis, the shore seemed to recede or come nearer at intervals, the task of reaching it easy or nearly impossible, but Carolus was making steady progress.
“All right. We can make it,” he gasped.
They did, but it was almost half an hour from the time he dragged Marie from the sinking dinghy that they finally staggered to the shore.
Marie had recovered consciousness but lay utterly exhausted on the sedgy grass of the lakeside. A road passed a few yards away and Carolus stumbled towards it.
“Now’s the time to see whether motorists stop for someone in trouble or not,” he thought.
The first that passed did not.
“Can’t blame him,” thought Carolus, imagining what he must look like seen by the side of a lonely road. But as if to restore his faith in the goodness of people, a second car stopped. It was driven by man who had his wife beside him.
“What’s the trouble?”
“A boating accident. There is a girl here pretty nearly dead. Can you take us to Millgrove?”
The man left his car, and Carolus took him to Marie, then the three of them returned. They managed to lift her into the back seat of the car and Carolus got in beside her.
The man was co-operative.
“Shall I drive you to the hospital?”
“There is a doctor in Millgrove. Dr. Nantwich. That would be best.”
“I know where it is.”
A few minutes later they drew up at the house, and relief came.
• • • • •
It was some days later when the body of Margot was recovered and by that time Carolus, having made exhaustive statements to the police, was able to walk around from his house to that of Dr. Nantwich, where Marie remained. Superintendent Radlett brought the news.
“Could you identify the body of Mrs. Denver?” he asked Marie.
“I suppose so,” said Marie listlessly.
“Not Mrs. Denver,” Carolus interrupted. “But Miss Morton can certainly identify her sister, Jessie Flitcher. Can’t you, Marie?”
There was silence for a moment, then Marie spoke with sudden determination.
“Yes. I can,” she said.