Death by the Lake
As days passed a very strange atmosphere was felt in Millgrove Water, compounded of two elements: suspicion and fear. Fear was written in faces and heard in conversation, the fear of an unknown killer who had struck once—at least—and might strike again. People reminded one another that the sinister Desmond Flitcher with the womanish face and the hands of a strangler had never been arrested and it was quite openly believed that he had returned and murdered George Garrison because he knew too much, and would do the same to anyone whose knowledge, conscious or unconscious, threatened him. Illogically children were kept indoors at night and women tended to walk home, if it were late, in twos or threes. All the old horror of previous events was recalled and one or two nervous ladies threatened to leave the place, or at least go away until this cloud had passed. Dr. Nantwich was consulted by several of these and was said to have prescribed tranquillisers for them.
Suspicion was more insidious, but Carolus attracted his share of it. Who was this mysterious widower (a questionable state at any time it seemed), who had just come to live in the place, asked questions about the five-year old incidents, had actually discovered the body of George Garrison and have been questioned by the police? It was not suggested that he had actually killed Garrison—“They’d have arrested him by now if he had”—but his presence in the place led to the frequently expressed opinion that he had “something to do with it”, or “knew more than he should”. Only the sturdy pub-mindedness of Stick, who was a good darts player with a kindred taste for shove-ha’penny and was enjoying a lucky run with the horses, saved Carolus from an unsavoury reputation and Mrs. Stick was worried about him.
“You can’t blame people for saying what they do after all the questions you’ve been asking and you finding that farmer with his throat cut,” she said.
“He was shot, Mrs. Stick.”
“It’s all the same. He was murdered anyway, wasn’t he? And you poking round the farm at the time when you ought to have known better. It’s a good thing Stick can tell them that you don’t mean any harm and only act this way because you’re always reading about murders and trying to find out about them is. Stick says he’s tired of telling them the truth and has to say you’re a bit soft in the head and can’t help behaving queer.”
“That’s very loyal and ingenious of Stick,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t put him off his game of darts.”
But it was not a pleasant situation for Carolus and he found it tiresome when conversations stopped abruptly as he entered the bar. He realized that there was only one way out of it, if he meant to enjoy his retirement in Millgrove Water, and that was to discover the truth about George Garrison’s death and the events of five years ago which were, or were not, connected with it. This he had in any case determined to do from the moment of his discovery of the body—if not earlier. His next step, whatever the difficulties, must be to make the acquaintance of Marie.
He had seen her making her way to the half-concealed doorway of the tiny workman’s cottage which she had restored and made habitable, a pale, rather lovely woman, quite unlike her more boisterous sister. He could believe all he had heard of her, her reticence and lonely way of living. He felt at first disinclined to attempt to intrude. After all, what right had he or anyone else to do so when the woman obviously wanted to be left alone? His sense of good manners, which had become blunted sometimes in the course of his investigations, told him that Marie was entitled to her privacy.
But there was another aspect of it. Alone in her small house, with nothing but a telephone as protection, might she not be in danger, if danger existed? If the guesses about Garrison were true, that he knew too much and had died because of it, how much more might Marie know and how much more stand in peril of a desperate man’s need to close her mouth? It was not far-fetched. Marie had kept silence for five years, but so presumedly had Garrison until something had made him seem to an observer about to reverse what he knew.
An observer—Carolus thought uncomfortably—an observer of what and in communication with whom? If Garrison’s death had been brought about by someone who had come from outside the village to kill him, that someone must have been warned of Garrison’s unreliability by an observer on the spot. If this had been caused through his own expressed intention to question Garrison, what might come from a similar approach to Marie? On the other hand, only by knowing what she had to reveal could he hope to gauge her need for protection.
Finally, after considering it for a couple of days during which nothing much happened, he decided to call on her. If, as he half expected, she closed the door on him, or even expressed her wish to be left alone, he would decide what to do.
There was yet another, to himself, somewhat unlikely aspect to the matter. He was attracted by Marie, her graceful figure and pale good looks, her area of remoteness and suggestion of mystery. He was anything but a susceptible man but something—perhaps it was Dr. Nantwich’s remark that she had been ‘hurt’—seemed to waken in him and interest of a kind he scarcely recognized. He waited until he saw her walking down the village street, coming from one of her long walks perhaps, then went to her cottage and knocked.
Then a pleasant and unprecedented thing happened. In an unfashionable but expressive term, they clicked. It was obvious to each of them, after the first few moments, that they liked one another.
When she first opened the front door and looked at him on the threshold she said, surprisingly, “Oh, it’s you,” as though she had been expecting him. With a smile she tried to cover up that brash remark. “I’ve seen you about. I’ve heard who you are. I knew you would want to ask me questions. Come in!”
But if this friendly reception led Carolus to think there would be any confidences from Marie, he was soon disillusioned. Without the smallest shyness or self-consciousness she invited him to sit in her pretty little room and made tea for them both; she asked him to smoke a cheroot—“I’ve seen you smoking them and I like the smell”—she talked about Lakeside House, his newly-found home, and gave him some of the history of it, but she never for a moment approached the subject of which both were conscious, although it seemed to be in the air about them, waiting to be touched on.
Carolus thoroughly enjoyed himself. He was quite content to let her talk and liked her well-toned speaking voice. It suddenly seemed to him that murders, whether long ago or recent, were somewhat sordid, even rather boring affairs, while Marie described, from report, events in the village before she came to live there, and characters who were long in the churchyard. He did not want to hear about Desmond Flitcher and his supposed murder of a security guard but listened eagerly to a legend of the last century, recalled by Marie with some of the narrative gift of a Victorian novelist, of how a boating party had gone out on the lake at nightfall and never returned.
“They never even found their boat,” said Marie. “Only one of the oars which was washed up on the other side of the lake.”
“Incredible,” said Carolus.
“I suppose there’s a good deal of local myth in this part of the world,” Marie told him. “Then as though veering away from a dangerous topic she said suddenly—“I hear your housekeeper’s a character.”
“Mrs. Stick? I suppose she is. And a very good cook.”
They began to talk about food, which men have learned to discuss as enthusiastically as women, and any hope of even an oblique approach to things he would like Marie to discuss was lost. But he was not worried. The tea-things were cleared away and half an hour later she offered him a drink. He attempted politely to leave but she did not seem to wish it. The party in fact was a decided success.
And during the following days the friendship grew. Carolus realized how rarely during the last years, in which he had been engaged in various investigations, he had allowed himself to enjoy a private relationship uninfluenced by the need, sometimes the mere wish, to find out about something or someone; a relationship of sincerity and happiness. This was just that. He liked Marie, he was becoming fond of her and she responded.
They went for long lakeside walks together, sometimes taking a picnic basket packed by Mrs. Stick because both had an old-fashioned liking for picnics and enjoyed them together.
Nor were these hours with Marie tainted by some secret Machiavellian wish to obtain information which she did not wish to give. As he grew more intimate with her, in fact, Carolus felt for the first time in the last twenty years that he would gladly abandon the whole inquiry if it were necessary in order to bring them more closely together.
This was not to say that he was not interested when Marie allowed herself to talk of the past. He was interested both for her own sake and from natural curiosity. But he did not question her or even try to lead the conversation in a direction which might bring her to reveal some fact or possibility he had not envisaged.
About George Garrison she talked more freely.
“Poor George. I used to be sorry for him,” Marie said. “He was such an unattractive selfish young man and he adored Jessie. I believe he even proposed to her once.”
“What did she do? Laugh?”
“No. She didn’t. That was probably why he adored her. Everyone laughed at George. He was a complete Billy Bunter. But Jessie listened to what he had to say without laughing and that won his heart. Then when Desmond appeared on the scene”—it was the first time that Marie had mentioned Desmond—“George seems to recognize that there was no more chance for him and made the best of it. He went about with the two of them like a fat bulldog. It was rather pathetic really.”
“Did you like Desmond?” Carolus asked. It seemed, even to Marie, a perfectly natural question.
“I did at first,” she said. “He had great charm in his rather cunning way. But later . . .”
“Look at that huge butterfly. Peacock, isn’t it? I have always loved butterflies, though I have never tried to catch them. This is the most glorious June I can remember in Millgrove . . .”
“Is it, Marie? I think so too.”
“I wish Margot was here. I’ve told you about Margot Denver, haven’t I? She is the greatest friend I’ve got. Known her most of my life. You would love her.”
“I am sure you would. She’s got so much life and humour. I must try to get her down here sometime. She works in Liverpool. Terribly competent and all that sort of thing.”
Carolus said nothing and soon afterwards they turned to walk back to the village.
Once Carolus seemed to have touched on a raw place, though it was not through something he asked about Desmond or Jessie. He had learned to feel that George Garrison as a subject for conversation was fairly safe.
“Marie,” he asked when they had been talking about him. “Who do you think murdered George Garrison?”
Marie paled and spoke in a hard and distant voice.
“I don’t know. How should I know? He wasn’t liked. It might have been anyone.”
“Do you think he knew more than he had ever revealed?”
Marie was silent for a moment, then turned to Carolus with a bright smile.
“Oh Carolus, what a bore you are about George! I really couldn’t care less who killed him. He was never a friend of mine. I never read murder cases in newspapers. They are dull and rather beastly. Besides, you should know, shouldn’t you? You’re supposed to be a detective.”
“Not very kind, Marie!”
“No. I shouldn’t have said it. Only keep off George and Desmond and Jessie and all the rest of it, then I’ll always love being with you as much as I do now.”
“All right. I will. But there’s one thing I have got to ask you. Aren’t you, sometimes, just a little bit frightened?”
She seemed astounded.
“Frightened? Of course not. What ever would make me?”
“You live alone. And according to local reasoning George was killed because he knew too much.”
“Do you suggest that I know too much?”
“Either too much or nothing at all.”
“I like that far better. Nothing at all. I know nothing at all, Carolus. Please remember that.”
“It’s not that I’m trying to get information from you, Marie. But I do want to know whether you’re in any danger. Any danger at all. And only you can answer that.”
“I can and I will. I am not,” said Marie cryptically but finally.
Yet that conversation left Carolus with a new uncomfortable doubt. How did she know she was not in any danger? If she had not the slightest idea who had killed George, how could she say with such confidence that there was no danger for her?
In the village their friendship had not passed unnoticed. Carolus felt that his fellow residents gave him an encouraging smile and Julie Nantwich said as much.
“I am so delighted,” she told Carolus. “I haven’t seen Marie so happy for years. She doesn’t seem to have a care in the world.”
Carolus, who knew this was far from the truth, thanked Julie, but when she went on to say—“I knew it would be good for her to confide in someone”—he said he wished her sister would tell him what was on her mind, but she had not done so as yet.
“She will,” said Julie enthusiastically. “You’ll know everything. I’ve always said that what she needed was a man to trust in.”
Carolus was not nearly so cheerful about it. But he continued to spend much time with Marie and caught himself thinking about her a great deal when he was away from her.
Mrs. Stick, to his surprise, gave her approval, or so at least was his interpretation of her attitude when she took to asking “Will be young lady be coming to lunch today?” every time she insisted on taking Carolus’s orders for the day as she had done for twenty years. The first time this occurred he faintly resented it.
“What young lady?” he asked rather sharply. Marie had only been to the house once at that time.
“Miss Marie, of course. Because if so there’s only the cold chicken and that will never do. I shall send Stick to get . . .”
“She won’t be lunching here today, Mrs. Stick. I can’t think what makes you ask.”
“Well, I’ve got eyes in my head, same as anyone else, and seeing she’s on her own where she lives . . .”
“I’ll tell you when to expect anyone to lunch,” said Carolus only to face that or a similar enquiry on the following day.
Whether or not Carolus could be said to be ‘in love’ was open to question, even to himself. But he was certainly deeply fond of Marie, and deeply concerned for her welfare and safety. And at about this time something happened which made him unsure about both.
They were sitting at tea in the tiny garden of her cottage when the ship’s bell which someone had given Marie to hang rather disproportionately at the front door was rung. She rose and left him, and was gone for what seemed a long time.
Without following her through the house to the door Carolus could hear and see nothing of what went on, but after a few minutes he came into the cottage and looking out of its front window was in time to see a burly youngish man with thick-lensed glasses turning away. Something about the evident heaviness and strength of this man, combined with myopic unsureness of movement, aroused his curiosity.
When Marie returned she was white-faced and for some time would not speak.
“Nothing. Someone who called to ask the way,” she said impatiently at last.
“Oh come now, you really mustn’t take me for an imbecile,” said Carolus. “What has upset you?”
Her eyes filled with tears.
“I can’t tell you,” she said.
“Why not, Marie? I have never asked you urgent questions before. This is something you must tell me about. Who was that man?”
“I don’t know.” Then quietly she added “He wouldn’t tell me his name.”
“What did he want?”
“Oh, the usual thing. Information. If you knew how utterly sick I cannot people thinking I’ve got information to give them and coming to pester me for it . . .”
“I haven’t done that.”
“Now’s different. I must know what has upset you. I must form a judgement about whether you’re in any danger or not. And you must tell me, at least that. Did you know that man?”
“I have never seen him before in my life.”
“But have you any idea who he was?”
Marie was silent.
“Have you? Please tell me, Marie.”
“I suppose I can guess. At least who it may be. Don’t ask me any more. He’s gone now. I don’t think he’ll come back.”
“This is impossible, Marie. A man comes to your door who obviously frightens you and you refuse to tell me who you think he is or what his business was. Very well, my dear. If you don’t trust me . . .”
“It’s not a matter of trust. I can’t tell you, Carolus. That’s all.”
Then I shall find out. I warn you, Marie, I shall find out everything. It’s gloves off between you and me, my dear. At least till I am sure about your safety. Meanwhile, I don’t think you ought to stay here alone. Isn’t there anyone who would come and stay with you? What about the friend in Liverpool you told me about? ”
Marie seemed actually a little amused at the suggestion.
“Margot? She has a business to attend to.”
Carolus was silent for a moment.
“Marie, I don’t question you about the past. I haven’t made friends with you to try to get information. I give you my word for that. But I . . . my dear, I’m fond of you. I worry about you. And there is danger in the situation now. Real danger. You can’t expect me not to concern myself.”
“I’m fond of you too, Carolus. If I could tell you everything I would.”
“At least tell me why that man came to you. Why he scared you somehow. Who you think he is.”
“I can’t. I can’t!” repeated Marie helplessly.
There was a sort of numbness between them as they went back to the little garden behind the cottage and they were silent for a long time. Marie brought out drinks and they raised their glasses like formal strangers. At last Carolus got up to go.
As he went through the cottage, leaving Marie in the garden, he noticed that the postman had been and that an envelope lay on the mat. He picked it up and recognized it as the official envelope in which the Post Office telephone accounts were sent out. He gazed at it thoughtfully. “It’s gloves off between you and me,” he had said. He slipped it in his pocket and went out to his car.