- Lord Benjamin Petty . . . master of Dungarees Castle
- Lady Henrietta “Hetty” Petty . . . his wife, a former movie star
- Worth . . . the butler
- Mrs. Jolley . . . the cook
- Peter Moss . . . the gardener
- Gladys . . . the housemaid
- Countess Sophronia Lancaster . . . eldest daughter of the castle’s former owner
- Diogenes Pratt . . . local pharmacist and Petty’s nephew
- Lucinda Leaharian . . . buxom owner of the local bookstore
- J.K. Diebehnkorn . . . American film director
- Greta Frink . . . Diebehnkorn’s secretary
- Rodney Lawrence Plum . . . literature professor at West Chiswick School for Boys
- Zuzana Materska . . . the Countess’ maid
- Mick . . . Moss’ friend
Dungarees Castle, Monday, 7:45pm
As the first warning gong sounds for dinner. Professor Plum puts his pen down and closes his notebook. He rises and looks about his room, then crosses to the bed and slips the journal under the mattress. He checks himself in the mirror, slicks his hair, and makes his way downstairs.
The drawing room is deserted. He crosses the hallway and opens the door to the library, but it, too, is empty. He makes his way toward the dining room, where he can see the flicker of candlelight playing on the wall. He steps across the threshold and sees a woman, her back to him, standing at the head of the table.
Plum gently clears his throat and the woman whirls around, clutching her throat and emitting a little scream.
“Good grief!” Hetty gurgles, looking half-annoyed, half frightened.
“I’m sorry if I startled you – “
“Watch it, will you? Sneaky Pete’s give me the heebie-jeebies.”
“Again, my apologies,” says the Professor and backs out of the room. Hetty hurries after him, all smiles again.
“Hey Perfessor, don’t worry about it.” She grabs his arm and takes him into the hallway. “You made me jump, that’s all.” She strolls companionably with him to the bottom of the stairs. “You beat the dinner bell.”
“I’m afraid I have so little with me that I wasn’t able to dress for dinner.”
“Oh, you’ll pass.” She gives him one of her patented smiles. “All this formality makes me wanna scream.”
The Professor smiles wanly, growing dizzy with her closeness and the heavy scent of her perfume. Worth appears and bangs the second gong. One by one, the rest of the party assembles, resplendent in their evening wear, and they pair off to go in to dinner, with Hetty and the Professor leading the way, followed by Lord Petty and the Countess. Diogenes holds out his hand to Lucy, but she circles around him and slips her arm through that of J.K. Diebehnkorn. Diogenes watches them walk away, then turns to find Miss Frink blinking at him through her glasses. He looks her up and down and finds that, all in all, the woman doesn’t have a bad figure. His ego assuaged a bit, he offers her his elbow. As they walk to the dining room, Greta squeezes his muscle, as if considering the cut of a fine piece of meat.
* * * * *
The jovial mood of the company is almost immediately dashed by the host himself. As the guests are served their first course, Lord Petty leans over and glares at his plate, sniffing suspiciously.
“What the devil is this?” He looks around at the plates in front of the others. “Where’s my foie gras?”
“I had Mrs. Jolley fix you a salad,” says Hetty. “You’re getting all roly-poly, honey.”
Petty’s face slowly purples, as if a great force is building up inside. He lifts his plate in the air and roars, “Worth!” The butler steps forward. “Take this muck away. Feed it to the swine. And fetch me a big slab of that liver.”
Worth removes the offensive greenery, brings his master a serving of the patè and finishes pouring the wine. Petty raises his glass to his guests. “Good health and good eating to you all, from your roly-poly host . . . and his fat-mouthed wife.”
A shocked silence fills the room, broken by the hostess herself, who bursts into raucous laughter and drains half her glass. The rest of the company is too gracious – and the meal itself too sumptuous – to allow for further strain, and for a time the only sounds are of gustatory enjoyment.
“Mrs. Jolley has outdone herself with this beef!” Diogenes says, helping himself to another couple of slices.
“Mrs. Jolley is your cook?” asks the Professor.
“She’s a woman who comes in from the village. She used to run The Bells and Motley with her husband, but they’ve passed the place on to their son.”
“Now’s your chance to grab her for yourself, Uncle,” says Diogenes. “Nobody roasts a side of beef like Ma Jolley.”
“Don’t think I haven’t tried, but the woman refuses.” Lord Petty makes a sour look. “It’s the servant class these days, wanting to bask in retirement like a businessman.”
Diogenes, leans over and pats his uncle on the back. “Don’t worry, I’m in good with La Jolley. I’ll have a word with her and see if we can’t get her to extend her stay.”
“Let him try, Benjy,” Hetty calls out from her end of the table. “God knows she’s immune to your charms.” Again, the mood of the company falters, but Hetty, unaware, continues eating. The moment is saved by the Countess, who raises her glass and declares, “I don’t know when I’ve had a finer meal at this table.”
* * * * *
After dinner, Worth sets out a tray of liqueurs for the gentlemen. The Professor opts to join the ladies in the library, all except Hetty, who makes her excuses and sashays up the stairs.
“Come here, Countess, I want to show you something.” Sophronia follows Lucy to the desk. Miss Frink curls up on the sofa where Hetty had discarded The Corpse in the Coalbin that afternoon, picks up the book and begins to read . The Professor watches her with a soft smile, then joins the others as Lucy picks up a large tome from the top of one of the stacks of books covering the desk.
“I found this on my literary travels,” she explains, “and I felt sure that it rightfully belongs to you.” She hands the book to the Countess, who looks it over with delight. Lucy turns to the Professor. “It’s the most recent history of the Lancasters, by Lytton Strachey.”
“Dear Giles was a friend of my Uncle Ronald, Father’s youngest brother.” Sophronia turns pages and motions for the Professor to join her. He stands at her side and looks over her shoulder. He examines the photograph before him of a handsome uniformed officer.
“What a fine looking fellow,” the Professor murmurs. The Countess nods.
“That’s Ronnie. We lost him in the Battle of Cambrai. He was much younger than his siblings – Father practically raised him. He and Robin were more like the best of friends than uncle and nephew.”
She continues turning pages until she comes to another photograph, which she turns to show the Professor. It is of a laughing youth in fine dress, his trouser legs rolled up to his knees, shoes in hand, as he crosses a river
“My brother Robin,” the Countess says simply. Lucy joins them, placing a comforting hand on the other woman’s shoulder. Together the three of them stare at the photo, of the young man brimming with life and joy.
The Professor breaks the silence, intoning softly.
- “But death replied: ‘I choose him.’ So he went,
- And there was silence in the summer night;
- Silence and safety; and the veils of sleep.
- Then, far away, the thudding of the guns.” *
He sighs and shakes his head. “So many young men lost.”
“No, Professor. Not lost at war. This is the irony of that terrible decade,” says Sophronia. “My brother emerged from the war heroic and unscathed. He returned to London, and we were set to reunite with him there. But with the soldiers came the influenza.” She sighs, and Lucy takes her hand. “It was safer to remain in the country, and Mother begged Robin to join us here immediately. However, having served as a medic in the trenches, he felt he could still be of use to his country.”
The Countess stares down at the picture in silence for a moment, takes a deep breath, and continues. “He opened up the London house and set up beds for many of the soldiers who had taken ill and had nowhere else to go. He tried to get them the medical attention they required, but all was chaos in London. And then . . . Robin himself succumbed.”
Lucy says softly, “He was a hero twice over, my dear. How proud you must be of him.” Countess Sophronia looks at her with a grateful smile, then turns to the Professor, reaches out with her free hand and grasps his. They stand together, honoring the dead, until the library door bursts open and Diogenes Pratt stumbles in, a bottle clutched in his hand.
“Ah, the ladies,” he slurs. He staggers toward them. The Countess quickly retreats with the book to a chair in the corner of the room, but Professor Plum remains gallantly nearby as Diogenes bears down on Lucy. “Lucy Goosey, where have you been?” He plops down on the side of the desk, causing a stack of books to nearly topple. Lucy grabs the stack and rights it.
“Go to bed, Mr. Pratt,” she says coldly.
“Not till you show me what it is you do in here all day.” He waves his arm broadly around the room. “Wh-what mischief does one get up to in a – ” He pauses, losing his train of thought.
“In a library,” Lucy finishes. “One reads – a pastime you may or may not have had much practice at.” Diogenes jumps off the desk and the stack Lucy has righted spills over. She begins to place the books back into a neat pile as Pratt crosses to the center of the room and turns in a circle.
“So many, many . . . many books!” He giggles, takes a swig from his bottle, and then notices one that has fallen off the desk to the floor. He swoops down on the book and holds it out toward Lucy. “How do you figure out where all of them go?”
“That’s what your uncle has hired me to do.” She reaches to take the book from him, but Diogenes pulls it back and wags his finger at her playfully.
“I know what my uncle has hired you for.” He leers at her and then opens the book, pretending to read it. “And what about this one? Is it a rarity? Will it fetch a pretty penny?” He wets his finger and turns a page. Lucy crosses around the desk and snatches the book away from him.
“You’re just like your uncle. If you don’t know how to handle an old book, leave it alone.” She lays the volume carefully on the desk. With a laugh, Diogenes reaches out his hand to snatch it back. Lucy takes both hands, places them on her chest, and gives the drunken youth a hard shove. He staggers back, blinks a few times, then growls delightedly and makes a second assault. Lucy pulls her hand back and slaps him hard on the cheek.
With a gasp, Diogenes pulls himself upright, staring open-mouthed at Lucy, magnificent in her anger.
“You heard me – go to bed.” Unable to summon any retort, Diogenes turns around and finds himself face to face with Greta Frink. She holds out The Corpse in the Coalbin to him.
“Here,” she says. “Why don’t you take this with you? It’ll put you right to sleep.”
Young Pratt weaves for a moment, then snatches the book and exits the room. Lucy sits down shakily in the desk chair and rubs her temples. The others circle around her.
“Are you alright?” Sophronia asks.
“Oh, I’m fine,” Lucy replies. “Mostly embarrassed that I ever stepped out with that young fool.”
“Foolish – and handsome,” mutters Miss Frink. “An impossible combination.”
Lucy stares at her in surprise. “Why, Greta Frink! You are a mass of hidden depths.”
The door bursts open and Lord Petty stands there, gesturing to them all excitedly.
“Come to the drawing room. You’re in for a treat! My wife is going to entertain us!”
* * * * *
The Professor and the ladies enter the drawing room and, per their hosts instruction, find places on chairs and sofas and turn to face the grand piano, before which sits J.K. Diebehnkorn, splendid in his tuxedo, cracking his knuckles. Once all are seated, the director leans forward with the authority of a Stokowski and plays a series of dramatic arpeggios.
Hetty makes her entrance, and the audience gasps. Her gold satin gown – what there is of it – glimmers in the electric light. She has retouched her make-up. Her eyes beckon, her lips are form a sultry sneer. Tonight, she is every inch the Hollywood actress, inspiring the darkest desires in all who see her.
Diebehnkorn rises to escort her to her “stage”. A sort of electricity crackles between them as he promenades her before the group, leads her to the baby grand, and then, placing his hands sensuously upon her hips, lifts her off the ground and brings her down to sit upon the piano. Hetty stretches her limbs sinuously across the top of the instrument and sings:
“He’s not so good in a crowd
But when you get him alone
You’d be surprised.”
Her crooning is high and rather thin, yet her allure is not in the timbre of her voice but in the erotic power of her delivery. Her eyes burn as they rove from one man to the next, sending a seductive message that the words she sings are for him and him alone.
“He doesn’t look like much of a lover
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
He’s got the face of an angel
But there’s a devil in his eyes.”
The Professor is fond of popular music. Back home he owns a gramophone and hosts gatherings for his colleagues where they drink beer and play records. He recognizes the song as one made popular by Eddie Cantor, the American comic. In her presentation and delivery, Hetty is nothing like Mr. Cantor.
“He’s not so good at the start
But at the end of the week
You would be surprised.”
Hetty slithers gracefully off the piano and moves toward the easy chair where Lord Petty sits. She holds out her arms and sways like a cobra, luring her husband to her side. Their eyes lock and they begin to dance. And still Hetty continues to sing.
“He’s not so good in the house
But on a bench in the park
You would be surprised.”
He isn’t much in the light
But when he gets in the dark
You would be surprised.” **
As they turn and dance, Lord Petty pulls his wife into a more fervent embrace. She runs her fingers through his thick grey hair and nuzzles his neck. The moment is intensely discomfiting to the guests, so it may be forgiven that only Plum notices as Hetty rests her head on her husband’s shoulder – and stares adoringly across the room into the eyes of J.K. Diebehnkorn.
* * * * *
“Well, you were right.”
The Countess, usually loath to be pampered, is exhausted enough to put herself in Zuzana’s hands as she prepares for bed. The maid undoes her gown and hangs it up, then helps her mistress into the elegant pyjamas laid out on the bed. Sophronia slides gratefully under the luxurious duvet.
“I am always right, my lady,” says Zuzana, smoothing her mistress’ hair.
“I mean –“ Sophronia stifles a yawn, “ – about Lady Petty and her director. You would have enjoyed the spectacle she made of herself downstairs, Zuzana. It was quite provocative.
The maid stands rigidly beside the bed, arms folded, staring at her mistress as if coming to a decision. Then she turns, walks to the dressing table and returns with a decorative lacquer box. She removes the lid and dumps the contents onto the bed covers. A glint of green catches Sophronia’s eye. She gasps and sits up, suddenly alert.
Her emerald brooch winks at her from the top of the pile of objects, along with other pieces of jewellery of varying quality, including several rings, a man’s stickpin, a fine filigree necklace and a small, exquisitely carved scarab pin.
“Where – ?” The Countess pauses, astonished.
“In the little maid’s room, under the floor. She stole it all. I steal it back And look at this, my lady.” Zuzana points, and Sophronia sees, along with the finery, a packet of postcards bound by string and a small, thin book. She looks up at Zuzana, but the maid is looking away, her face a scowl. Sophronia reaches for the postcards and unties the string.
The images on the cards are beyond risqué. The Countess has not, she believes, led a particularly sheltered life, but this reaches heights of depravity she has never imagined.
“Such filth!” the maid says softly, her face still averted.
Sophronia tosses the packet to the bed as if the touch of them burns her and picks up the book. It is a dingy blue, like the exercise books she used to have for her lessons. One single word is scrawled in childish script on the cover: DIARY. Sophronia opens the book and leafs through the pages of densely written prose, with a growing sense of foreboding and disgust.
“My God,” she whispers. “What is this?”
“I have read this. Not all of it. I could not bear –“ Zuzana stifles a sob. “That people could do such things.”
Sophonia comes across an entry: “September 5, 1921.” As she reads the narrative, told in horrifically lewd detail, she grows aware of the ticking of the clock and her own raspy breathing. She looks up into the face of her maid, and exclaims,
“Who on earth is “Fatty” Arbuckle?”
* * * * *
Long after midnight, Pete Moss is cycling along the rocky coastline that leads from the village back to Dungarees. He has spent the evening looking in vain for Mick. Shelagh, his favorite barmaid at The Bells and Motley, tells him she has not spotted Mick in his corner since mid-week last. She offers him a pint, and he goes to sit by the fire, warmed by the pleasant atmosphere and the company of rough but ready workmen drinking together. They constitute what passes for a circle of friends to this solitary man.
None of them knows Mick to speak of, except by sight. To their knowledge, he doesn’t seem to live or work anywhere. Heavy drinkers to a man, they are of the shared opinion that Mick abuses his liquor. Some of them frankly view Pete with suspicion for having spent the previous evening in the man’s company, and it is of their opinion that if Mick caused any trouble up at the farm, then Pete got what was coming to him for associating with a stranger and drinking at home.
But if Mr. Moss fails at learning news of his missing friend, on this night three significant events will befall him that will lead to his own modest contribution to unraveling the monstrous chain of events unfolding at Dungarees.
The first event occurs after Shelagh brings Pete another pint from the bar. He is seated next to Daniel Pyke, known for two things: he is the oldest person in the village, and, despite having retired from running a trawler these past eighteen years, he always smells of fish. As Shelagh walks away, Old Pyke leans forward and taps his glass against Pete’s.
“Your health.” They drink. Then Old Pyke leans in again and says confidentially, “That feller Mick – he’s not the only stranger visiting up at the great house.”
Pete sips his ale and shrugs. “Whole party of strangers up at Dungarees tonight. Friends of His Lordship.” Pete’s sardonic tone sits agreeably with the retired fisherman, who grows more voluble.
“Ay, they’s all high-toned folk up there. Not real gentlemen and ladies, like as used to reside at the old castle. Upstarts, the lot of them.” Old Pyke leans away and spits into the fire.
“No, I’m talking about another feller. Scrawny, like a scarecrow, with a face like an owl.”
“Ah.” Pete nods and takes another drink. “That one is a stranger. His car crashed into our gate. His Lordship invited the man to stay while it’s being repaired. Seems harmless.”
Old Pyke takes a pull from a long, thin pipe in his hand, nodding sagely. For a moment, he is silent, and Pete thinks the conversation is over.
“I seen him.” Pete looks to Old Pyke for further elucidation. “I seen him around. Sitting over right in that corner two days ago, writing away in a book. I seen him strolling through the green and into the church. I followed him in there . . . he was just sittin’ in a pew, writing and writing. The next day, I seen him on the high street, leaning against the stone wall outside Essie Fotheringill’s teashop, just – watching the folks go by. Then he goes in and sits at a window seat, has tea, and watches and writes some more.”
Old Pyke draws on his pipe and then nudges Pete with a bony elbow. “I ask myself: what does he have to be writing about? What’s going on here that’s any of his business?”
Pete shakes his head. “I thought I heard that he was a teacher or something.”
Daniel Pyke leans back and shakes his head ominously. “Is he studying us? What can he want to know about our village? Is it something about the people in the great house? What gives him the right? That’s what I want to know.” Again he poke Pete with his elbow. “If I were you, I’d keep an eye on him.”
* * * * *
Moss has lived forever in this part of the country and can navigate the coastline road in pitch darkness. He pedals up the road, enjoying the soft clean air until he rides through the gates – and straight into the second queer event. The dark rows of windows along the castle wall beckon to him. He gets off his bicycle and stands in the sandy driveway, looking up at grim outline of the building. Replaying the conversation he had with Old Pyke, he imagines the Professor wandering the halls upstairs, peering into doors and writing down each secret he discovers..
Pete’s gaze travels downward to the great windows of the library, and something catches his eye: a flickering light, passing from one window to another. He feels a sudden cold chill wash over him, and his instinct is to retreat. Instead, he draws closer to the house with a silent tread until he is standing before the library windows.
He steps carefully onto the flower bed and presses his head to a window. Luckily there is no moon out to cast a reflection against the glass, but it is still near impossible to see the interior of the room.
At first, all is darkness within. And then the light, appears again, flickering and floating like a ghostly sprite. Someone is wandering through the room, carrying a candle, set upon some mischief.
What are you up to, little fairy? Pete thinks to himself. No good, I’ll wager.
He slowly backs away from the library window and returns to the bicycle, lifting it with care and silently walking back toward the farmhouse. He crosses the courtyard to the barn, enters and sets his bicycle wearily against the wall inside the door. The dogs whine when they hear his entrance, and he makes his way to their pen, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. He enters and sits down among them, patting their hindquarters and rubbing behind their ears as they joyfully greet him.
When the dogs have finally settled, Pete rises and leaves their kennel, He stands facing the wall of rabbit hutches, stares into the darkness and, for some unfathomable reason, feels a prickle of warning. Pete has never considered himself a man of instinct or one given to superstition. But he is overcome with a feeling, like when his father used to say someone was walking over his grave. Maybe the light in the library window has spooked him more than he realized, And yet for some reason his hands are tingling, as if warning him that something is off.
Pete returns to the doorway, grabs the lamp, and lights it. He walks toward the back of the barn, past the chickens, past the goats, where now one of them stands and fixes him with a steely eye. He moves to the wall of hutches and raises his torch. He passes the light across the wall, where the small, white-furred figures lay still in their cages.
He steps forward and opens Peter’s cage, extends a trembling hand and lets it rest upon the still, limp figure. He draws back, as if burned. In a growing state of panic, Pete opens cage after cage, holding the light on the forlorn creatures lying there.
Dead. All of them dead.
With trembling hands, he pulls Peter’s body from its cage and cradles his favorite in his arms one last time. He sinks to the floor and sobs until the morning light.
Thank you for reading. A special hug of gratitude to my friend Bev Hankins for her brilliant graphic, which shines a light on the immortal work of Ruth La Pale, the finest forgotten GAD crime writer since . . . well, since Brian Flynn!
As always, comments are appreciated.
See you next week!
* from “The Death Bed,” by Siegfried Sassoon
** “You’d Be Surprised,” 1919, by Irving Berlin