Death on Romney Marsh, Chapter Three

Death on Romney Marsh

CHAPTER THREE

“And now that story,” said Carolus when he faced Aunt Vicky across the hearth on which fruitwood was burning.
“You will find it a dreadfully old-fashioned story,” said Aunt Vicky.  “The last event in it happened twenty years ago.”
“The last event so far.  I wouldn’t put events of some sort past that household I saw today.”
“I shall tell it as I remember it, then, from the time I came here in 1917.”
“In ‘old Sir Bamfylde’s time’,” put in Carolus.
“Don’t interrupt.  He had inherited the place about seven years before.  He was the only son of an only son and I believe he desperately wanted an heir.  There were heirs in those days, you know.  I mean heirs who had port laid down for them at birth and coming-of-age parties, and all that sort of thing.  You needn’t look so awed—it was in my lifetime and I am not a relic yet.
“Sir B, as we’ll call him, since you seem to find his name ridiculous, was what is called a fine man, less than fifty, retired Cavalry officer who had seen service in South Africa and on the North-West Frontier, though he had not been accepted for service in the war of that time.  He looked a fine man too; iron-grey moustache, upright bearing, a sabre cut somewhere, I believe, and Poona courtesy.  I don’t suppose he had a brain in his head but he was kind and generous and loved that frightful house because his grandfather had built it and he was born in it within a year of its completion.”
“How did you come here, Aunt Vicky?”
“How do you think?  Raymond was a subaltern in his regiment.  When Raymond was killed, old Sir B naturally wanted to help the gel Raymond had intended it to marry.  When he heard I meant to live alone he offered me Mortboys.  I insisted on paying rent—it was practically nothing then—and doing the place up myself.  We were good friends all his life.  In fact . . . he was a widower you see . . .”
Aunt Vicky picked up a piece of embroidery she was engaged on and seemed absorbed in it for a time. 
“Was there ever a thought of marriage, a mother for the girls?”
“No.  I never really thought of it and he engaged a governess for the girls.  She looked a real battle-axe but she was hopelessly incompetent I’m afraid.  Her name was Skipton and those two little monkeys were soon calling her ‘Skip’.”
“How old were they?”
“Let’s see, Robin was born in 1910 and Jenny in the next year, so they were seven and six.  Sir B’s tragedy—quite a common one at that time–was that he wanted a son.  There were stories that he had persuaded himself before the first girl was born that it would be a boy and refused to change the name he had chosen, Robin, when he was told the news.  These things run in families and, as I told you, both his grandfather and father had each fathered a son and no other children, so he may have felt there was a tradition.  But no, little Robin, a perfect baby and soon an endearing little thing came instead and before Jenny arrived we have got used to the idea.”
“What about his wife?”
“I never knew her.  She was glamorous, I believe, but what was called then no one in particular, an Admiral’s daughter.  She died in giving birth to Jenny.  So he lost all hope of an heir and had to make the best of the girls. 
“He was not a bad father but even by the standards of that time he taught his children to think too much of sport.  Robin particularly really was almost the son he had hoped for.  She rode to hounds . . .”
“Aunt Vicky, you’re overdoing it!”
“Not in the least.  Sir B was Master of the Cinque Ports Hunt.  Little Robin was in the saddle almost before she was out of her cradle, as they say, and Jenny was a beautiful horsewoman, too.  Sir B took them everywhere with him—he had a grouse moor and some fishing somewhere.  Some years after I came their mother’s sister came to stay, a very dignified lady, the wife of a clergyman who afterwards became a bishop, I believe, and there were most uncomfortable scenes.  She accused Sir B of bringing the girls up as savages, said Miss Skipton was an ignorant and inferior woman who could not speak French, then proposed to take the girls under her own charge.  Sir B said he couldn’t speak French either, but promised they should go to a school his sister-in-law recommended.  That was a dreadful failure.  They ran away after a month and refused to go back.  Robin’s only ambition, she told me, was to ‘bag a tiger’ when she was old enough.
“You would think that with a bringing-up like that the girls would have tended to be unfeminine, to develop into . . .”
“A pair of lesbians,” supplied Carolus. 
“Well, yes, Carolus.  I wasn’t going to use quite that term.”
“But it’s what you meant.  Go on.”
“Not of bit of it.  They grew into quite lovely creatures, very feminine in fact.  They confided in me a great deal, each in her own way.  During the 1920’s and 30’s they were quite famous for their looks, and were always appearing in the society papers.  They came out together in 1930 and were generally called the Two Graces.  It was said that they were in rather a fast set in London at the time, but I daresay that was jealousy.”
“They’d have been very dreary young women if they hadn’t been in what you call a fast set just then, Aunt Vicky.  You mean they were Bright Young Things.”
“Oh, nothing so vulgar, I hope.  They did bring some of their friends down for week-ends and I must say at the time I rather wondered.  It wouldn’t surprise me up bit today.  Things have changed.  But in the 1930s we weren’t used to quite such wild behaviour.  Nothing wrong, of course, but some of their cocktail parties . . .  I went to several and thought they were alarming.”
“You mean you couldn’t stand the pace?”
“Perhaps.  No, it was the noise.  Those gramophones.  But they seemed very happy young people and Robin and Jenny what obviously popular.  Robin was quite a ringleader in her way, I think.  They called them the dancing years, didn’t they?”
“How did Sir B take it?”
“Surprisingly well.  He wasn’t an narrow-minded man.  He liked to see them enjoying themselves.  The only thing was, they wanted to change everything in the house.  A young man they knew called himself an interior decorator and had wonderful plans for it.  All the furniture was to go, I remember, and the stuffed heads in the hall, and something he called pickled oak was to be used with white carpets.”
“He could scarcely have made it worse than it is.”
“Sir B wouldn’t hear of it.  He never interfered with the guests but he did say the young man wasn’t to come again.  ‘Called my house and mausoleum!’ Sir B told me, most indignantly.  ‘Said he couldn’t sleep at night for fear of a few . . . trophies on the wall.  I can’t have the place turned upside down by these youngsters, Vicky.’  So the furniture remained the same and they had to dance round it.  But the girls adored their father and were rather proud of him, too.  None of us knew that his type would die out in years to come and I think we’re the poorer for that.”
“What happened to Miss Skipton?” asked Carolus.
“She stayed on and on and became an institution.  ‘Skip’ was in everything, a bit of a joke, but the girls were fond of her and called her Miss Prism.  Then suddenly—she must have been nearer seventy than sixty—she announced that she was ‘embarking on a new venture’ and went into partnership with a slightly younger woman to start a tea-shop in Rye.  She had nothing to contribute but her savings but she calmly invested the locked.  They called it The Olde Tythe Barne though it occupied the premises of a stationer’s shop built in Victoria’s reign in an unpromising street near the station.  By one of those freaks of chance which contradicted all the prophecies and common sense of business people it prospered.  Skip used to be in the shop all day, selling her friend’s cakes and home-made jam.  She had grown rather deaf, she gave wrong change, she was easily flustered, sometimes rude and never knew the price of anything.  But something about her severe old face and stiff clothes, her inefficiency and helplessness touched people and they used to crowd into the ugly little place which had not even a warning-pan or a grandfather’s clock to recommend it, whilst splendid tea-rooms in Elizabethan premises full of genuine old oak and smiling waitresses languished.  She only died a few years ago and left a fortune to a nephew in Canada she hadn’t seen since he was five.”
“Delightful,” said Carolus.  “I do like stories with happy endings.  Now tell me about Mowlett.”
“Ah, Mowlett.  That’s another matter.  I can scarcely imagine him having a story with a happy ending, can you?  It must have been about the same time as the girls came out that he was first employed.  I suppose Sir B wanted the house run rather more grandly.  Mowlett was quite a young man then, in years, anyway.  He never looked like a young man, or behaved like one, always that sly, brooding face, but he can only have been about thirty.  He knew his job—I will say that.  Born to it.  His father or grandfather, I can’t remember the details, had started as a page-boy to the Duke of Cambridge and his mother was a lady’s maid to Mrs. Cornwallis West.  Or so he told my old Connie Churcher.  He knew he belonged to a dying profession—it may have been what gave him that sick-cow look, though it was rather the thing for the more important domestic servants to look like undertakers at one time.  At any rate he installed himself and everyone except Robin was a tiny bit afraid of him.  I’m sure Sir B was.  Not really, of course, but he used to address Mowlett in a rather loud militarily voice as though he wasn’t sure of himself.  I must say I never liked Mowlett.”
“Why?”
“He was bone lazy for one thing.  It took a woman to see that, I suppose.  Used to shut himself up in his pantry as much as he could and though he behaved impeccably I could tell he thought it was martyrdom to wait at table.  I once asked someone what he did on his phone.  The answer was, nothing.  He just sat.  I suppose that’s what he does now though I’m told he has his own part of the house and television and a motor-car.”
“Why not?  Wouldn’t anyone want it if he lived in that house?”
“No one would live in that house unless he had some extraordinary reason for doing so.  That is what I’ve never understood about Mowlett.  A professional servant serving with that blackguard Cuchran.”
“Really, Aunt Vicky, you mustn’t talk like that.  At least not until you have told me your grounds for calling Cuchran a blackguard.”
“I have told you.  He murdered his wife.  But I’m coming to that.  You asked about Mowlett.  Did you see him this afternoon?”
“Yes.  He opened the door.”
“You surprise me.  I never thought he did anything.”
“He even brought the tea.”
“Brought that tea?  Do they have tea?”
“What did you think they had?  Arsenic?”
“I thought Cuchran was always drunk.  You don’t mean she appeared?”
“Certainly.  Looking rather smart.  Heavily made-up, yes, but well turned out.  Do go on with your story, though.”
“I haven’t got to the story yet.  We’re still in the 1930’s.”
“Was Withers there then?”
Aunt Vicky smiled. 
“He was such a nice young fellow.  I was really quite taken with him.  He came as second gardener but he was soon in charge of the garden altogether.  He had quite a flair.  Sir B was only interested in roses and let him do what he liked with the rest.  They had been his wife’s favourite flower.”
“You didn’t pile it on, don’t you?  His wife’s favourite flower.  We’re living in the space age, my dear.  You must stop talking like Edna Lyall or Rhoda Broughton.”
“But they were.  Sir B told me so.”
“As you sat at tea on the lawn, I suppose, eating cucumber sandwiches.  Or was it in the conservatory, with a waltz tune coming from the band behind the potted azaleas?  I can take just so much period and no more.”
“Carolus, dear, this was another period, even if it’s only thirty years ago.  A period of transition, if you like, with the young people altogether different from their parents.  But still another period.”
“Get back to Withers.”
“He married.”
“The ’tween maid, I suppose?”
“No, a sickly-looking girl who had been a schoolteacher.  They never had any children and during the last war she died.  Cancer, I believe.  He went on living in his cottage and the place went more to waste.  But we’ll come to that presently.  He was there up till about ten years ago, and maybe still.  No one has seen him since then.  He didn’t mix with people in the neighbourhood.  I think one of the Churcher girls rather hoped, after his wife died, but nothing came of it.  What happened to him no one knows.  I would believe anything.”
“I know you would.  He may have simply moved away.”
“It’s possible.  But he was such a good-looking fellow when he first came.  So bright and cheerful.  You haven’t a drink, Carol, and I think this time I’ll have just a little one.  Thank you, dear.”
“You’re not tired?”
“No.  I love talking.  I’d like to know why you’re so is interested though.  It’s a very ordinary story, so far.  There were lots of families just like this.  Your own parents, for instance.  But you were only just born in 1930, I suppose.  I don’t remember our own family events nearly so well as the Sivier-Graces’.  I used to be almost one of the family.”
“Are you sorry you weren’t?”
“I don’t know.  I never think about it.  Everybody makes mistakes.  But I will say that until the time of the Second World War you couldn’t have had a happier family than the one I’m telling you about.  The girls were at the top of their form.  They were very well off and free with money.  I think Sir B rather encouraged them to be.  He liked young people, in spite of of the interior decorator.  Robin had a very fast and motor-car which I found rather frightening.  Sports model.  I forget the name . . .”
“Frazer-Nash?”
“That’s it.  She’d fly up to London in it at all hours, and come down with it loaded with young people.  But it wasn’t all parties, and that sort of thing.  It was a very happy household in itself.  Sir B had splendid health which I suppose was what matters most to man of his active habits.  And he liked entertaining, too—people of his own age, I mean—people we called ‘the county’.  Using the term without affection.  The Silvier-Grace family lived well.  I can still remember the breakfasts . . .” “
“Breakfasts?  What were you doing up there at breakfast time?”
“Enjoying myself.  More than at some of the stuffier dinner parties.  They all wanted me to come up to breakfast because everyone seemed at his best.”
“Good God!”
“Don’t be blasphemous.  Yes, it was a happy household.  You mustn’t imagine that what I have said about Mowlett cast any shadow.  Nothing did.  Until the war came.”
“How did the war affect it so much?  No ham for breakfast?”
“Oh, it ended it.  You can’t understand that.  It just put a stop to it.  They weren’t selfish people.  They wouldn’t have gone on that sort of life when London were being bombed even if they had been allowed to.  They were all in it—as far as they could be.  Sir B in command of the home guard.  Robin driving an ambulance.  Jenny in the A.T.S.  Withers in the Air Force.  There were leaves for the girls, of course, and some good times and parties, but it could never be the same again.  Besides . . .”
“Go on!”
“Jenny became engaged to Cuchran.  In 1940 that was.  That’s what really ended it.”
“You mean, ‘old Sir B never smiled again’?”
“Don’t be silly.  He didn’t know the truth.  I told you he wasn’t at all brilliant.  But he felt it.  We all did.  And that’s all I’m going to tell you tonight.”