- 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, Tuesday, 27 March
Lunch is a desultory affair: Lord Petty, usually a voluble host, appears contemplative, while beside him Diogenes still suffers from the previous night’s revelry. The Countess arrives late, murmuring apologies, and barely touches her food, while the lady of the house does not appear at all. After a strained meal,. Lord Petty retreats back into his study, while the others scatter about the house seeking solitude.
J.K. Diebehnkorn decides to take a stroll through the grounds. The pleasant morning has given way to a sultry afternoon. Dark clouds gather, and the air is heavy with impending rain. It perfectly matches the director’s mood, for he has been brooding ever since his ride with His Lordship, where matters had not progressed at all satisfactorily.
When he had arrived in England, Diebehnkorn felt that new vistas were opening up for him. Back in Hollywood, his career had stalled. When Sam Warner argued with his two brothers in 1925 that the studio should experiment with modernized sound technologies, J.K. had scoffed, mostly to signal agreement with Jack Warner. This had placed the director on shaky ground when the brothers finally came to an agreement and produced a hit using sound in The Jazz Singer.
And so Diebehnkorn had hopped onto the bandwagon, pitching an idea for a speakeasy musical murder mystery talkie called 100 Proof. And the Warners had agreed – provided that he could come up with enough capital to finance the project. He had retreated to his office and vented his anger to his secretary: no director of his stature should be reduced to grubbing for a budget! This was payback for not bowing low enough to Sam! How was Diebehnkorn expected to come up with such a hefty sum of cash. The redoubtable Frink had stared at him pitilessly, poured him a double shot of Macallan, and reminded him of Hetty Landless.
Another example of changing fortunes was our Hetty. Her star ascendant in 1925, she was labeled box office poison by 1926. But Hetty had landed on her feet, convincing her wealthy beau to make her his bride, and together they had crossed the great pond to England. And yet, despite the fatuous nature of most of his dalliances, with Hetty, J.K. had had a special relationship. With nothing to lose and a whole new chapter in his career to gain, Diebehnkorn booked passage on the Mauritania to visit his veddy good friends, the Pettys.
And now, as he trudges along the pathway surrounding Dungarees Castle, a light rain spattering the wide lapels of his tweed coat, J.K. ruminates how all his plans have come a cropper. His Lordship has happily offered to foot the bill – provided that 100 Proof become the comeback vehicle for his wife’s shattered career. And Hetty herself is deluded enough to believe such a thing could happen. Diebehnkorn can only imagine what Jack Warner would say if he returned to Hollywood with such a ludicrous proposition. The project would be as good as dead.
A hard clap of thunder disrupts his gloomy reverie, and as the rain picks up, Diebehnkorn makes a dash for the castle. He enters the hallway and finds it deserted. As he passes the drawing room, he sees Greta Frink curled up on a sofa reading. She notices him, puts the book down and rises. He signals for her to remain, then makes his way up the stairs and to his room.
He opens the door – and stops. The drawers of his dresser are open, his wardrobe ajar. The bedding is a shambles. He steps inside and closes the door. Somebody has clearly been making a thorough search of his room, but for what? Robbery? He goes through his things and can find nothing missing. His room had been in perfect order when he went downstairs to breakfast, but he had not had a chance to return until this moment.
For a moment, Diebehnkorn stares around the room, his face set in a hard, angry line. Then leaves the chamber, crosses the hallway, and knocks on the door opposite his own room. After a pause, the door opens, and Diogenes peers out, yawning and scratching his head.
“What is it, old boy?”
Diebehnkorn decides on a direct approach. “My room seems to have been searched.”
Diogenes squints at the director. “How’s that?”
“Someone has been going through my room. Nothing seems to have been taken, and I wondered if someone has been causing some mischief.” His thoughts turn to Hetty. “I hate to bother you, but I wanted to see if you noticed anything out of place when you came up from lunch.”
Diogenes yawns again and shakes his head. “Nothing out of the ordinary here. But then, my head’s not set on straight this morning.” He chuckles and then winces at the pain it costs him. “I tell you what: let me go through my room and if I find any evidence of foul play, inspector, I’ll knock on your door.”
Diebehnkorn smiles mirthlessly, thanks Diogenes and returns to his room. Again, he stares at the mess. He can almost picture Hetty groping around, throwing pillows to the floor and scrambling through his possessions.
“What are you up to, my girl?” he wonders.
* * * * *
After lunch, Lucy retreats to the library. The gloomy light from outside barely penetrates the curtained windows, casting a pall across the burnished walls and heavy furniture. She considers the disordered shelves, the stacks of books piled high everywhere, then makes her way to the desk, sinks into the deep comfort of the armchair, and closes her eyes. Her mind conjures up the image of Maida Truebody, the anemic young woman she has hired to cover her hours in the bookstore while Lucy frolics at the castle, cataloguing the Petty’s precious library connection and –
And what? Canoodling with Lord Petty? Lucy gives an involuntary shudder as she remembers his fat, greedy hands groping her bodice. She leans forward and rubs her temples. “Lucille, what the hell are you getting yourself into?”
A small, sudden snap causes her to sit up with a gasp. Someone has entered the room and switched on a lamp. She slowly rises until she can see over the multiple stacks of books on the desktop and the lanky figure of Professor Plum at a shelf in the corner, putting his hands, albeit gently, all over a first edition of Sense and Sensibility.
“May I help you?”
The Professor whirls about with a gasp, holding a hand to his throat with almost ladylike alarm.
“How you startled me!” he says.
“I’m sorry. I was so intent on my work that I didn’t hear you come in.”
“How industrious of you. But – don’t you find it difficult to work in the dark?” Lucy stares at him coldly, then wanders around the room, pulling back the curtains covering the high windows. She returns to the desk and summons a smile for the Professor.
“Better?” Then she sits down, pulls the ledger before her and grabs a book from the stack at her elbow. She cannot for the life of her focus on the work before her, but if she sits quietly at the desk, then maybe –
“Where is Emma?”
She freezes, closes the book she had been notating, and takes a deep breath.
“What’s that? Who is Emma?” When there is no answer, she stands up again. The Professor is in the same position, gazing at her inquiringly.
“I seem to have come upon a treasure trove of Austen here. Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, a truly beautiful set of Mansfield Park here. Everything but Emma.” The Professor smiles almost sheepishly. “I confess she happens to be my favorite.”
“Mine, too.” Lucy rises and crosses to stand by the Professor’s side. She examines the row of books dispassionately. “How odd. Well, as you can see, everything is still very much in disarray. Give me some time, and I’m sure we can find your favorite around here.”
And with that, she strides back to the desk, hoping he will see this as a dismissive gesture. It isn’t until after she has heard the quiet click of the door that Lucy feels the tension leave her body and she can take a full breath again.
* * * * *
Professor Plum stands outside the library door, restless but uncertain of where to go. Across the hall, he spies Miss Frink nestled on the settee of the drawing room, her head buried in a book. Is it Emma? No, it’s The Corpse in the Coalbin. As he stands there, trying to determine what his course of action should be, he is arrested by a hissing sound coming from the stairs. He turns to his left and sees the Countess at the top of the landing. As she glides down the stairs, she beckons for him to join her. Her face is flushed, and her hands flutter nervously.
“I wonder – “ She stops and looks around conspiratorially. “I wonder if I could impose upon you for a minute. I – I have to talk to someone.”
“Of course, your ladyship, I am at your service.” He flushes a little as she takes his hand and leads him to a door located behind the stairs. They enter a small, comfortable sitting room, with a cheerful flame in the hearth casting a warm glow upon the walls.
“I asked Worth to make a fire.” She indicates one of two chairs facing the mantel, and the Professor sits. Instead of joining him in the other, the Countess paces before the fire for several minutes. Finally, she perches lightly in the chair opposite his and regards him frankly.
“If I’m going to make you my confidante, you have to start calling me Sophronia.”
“Oh!” His eyes widen. “Oh – but I couldn’t!”
“Then Sophie. That’s what my brothers called me.”
“Then – then I shall call you Sophronia.” The Professor clears his throat, feeling the warmth exceedingly, whether from the fire or some other feeling he cannot be sure. “And I’m honored to be taken into your – “ She waves his niceties away, sits back in the chair and composes herself.
“I have told you about my poor dear Robin.” He nods sympathetically. “I may have also mentioned that I have another brother. A younger brother. Nicholas.”
“Y-yes, I believe you mentioned the name yesterday at cards. Is he also – “ He stops abruptly and clears his throat again.
“No, no, Nickie is not – he’s very much alive.” She pauses and then lets out a little sigh. “ It’s awful to say this, but – I sometimes wish he were not.” She sees the look of shock on his face and quickly moves on. “I’m putting this badly, but – well, you see, Nicholas was a surprise for my family. Oh, my mother is beautiful and charming, the perfect hostess, and now that I’m grown we have become quite good friends. But she was never very maternal, and I think that after Robin and me, she was relieved to have put those days behind her. And then, you see, the pregnancy was difficult, what with having a child so late in life – and, well, there were complications at his delivery . . . “ Her voice trails off and she is silent for a moment.
“At first, there were few apparent signs that something was wrong. He was a beautiful baby, and he scarcely cried. But as he grew older, we could tell that there was something . . . odd about Nick.”
It is not instinctive for the Professor to feel protective over another person. Yet as her eyes become moist, he gently reaches over and places a hand atop hers.
“He was always sensitive, and he could be loving. He worshipped his brother and the small menagerie of animals he collected. Although he was no scholar, he possessed a keen mind, and he devoted himself to causes. Even at a young age, he was a devout pacifist. Sometimes the boys at school would fight each other, and it could drive poor Nickie into hysterics.
“Finally, Father decided to pull my brother from school and have him tutored at home. He hired a man named Peter Armitage, who possessed a fine intellect and had a wonderful way with both my brothers. He was only a bit older than Robin, but he had seen much of the world and regales us all with the most delightful tales of his adventures.
“At first, we thought that all would be well. But then my brother began to develop the most extraordinary ideas. It disturbed him that Peter had been a soldier, had fought bravely in the Kenya revolt. He began to argue with his tutor over silly things. He complained that Peter was plotting against him. Oh, it was all nonsense. Peter was a dear, and he was very patient with Nick. And then one day, they went hiking off together on some botanical adventure. There was nothing Peter loved more than working in a garden.
“When they hadn’t returned by sunset, we began to really worry. Father went out himself with some of the servants. They didn’t return until well after midnight.”
The Countess puts her hand to her mouth, stifling a sob. Professor Plum fumbles in his waistcoat and draws out a handkerchief. She accepts his offer and dabs at her eyes as she continues.
“They found Peter first. He was lying unconscious in a ditch at the edge of our farmland. He had – he had been beaten, savagely, nearly killed. And my brother – “ She cries openly for a moment. Then she gathers her strength. “They found Nicholas wandering on the road toward the village. He was – he was a stranger – shambling along the road like an animal, babbling incoherently . . . “
Her hand tightens around the Professor’s, and then she draws back and sits upright in her chair, staring into the fire.
“Father had Nick hospitalized in Glasgow, the Gartnaval Asylum. My brother received the best of care there. My mother – she refused to see him, but I often visited him there. Sometimes, he seemed wonderful, almost the same as before, and then . . . he would grow terribly agitated. He strongly opposed the Great war. He warned Robin that the Germans were after him, as if they had begun hostilities against our family alone and not on all of Europe. When Robin died, Nick was . . . well, he was beyond inconsolable. He withdrew into himself and would not speak with me or anyone else. The dark side that we had seen on that terrible night took over, and my sweet, beautiful little brother was – no more.”
The Countess buries her head in her hands, weeping for several minutes. The Professor watches her helplessly
“I – I am so very sorry, my dear,” he murmurs.
“You cannot imagine the heartbreak – of losing both brothers to this war. At least I had the consolation of knowing that Nickie had excellent care. Maybe it was foolish of me to hope that, with the passage of time and the correct treatment, that the sweet part of him might return to us.”
She dries her eyes with the handkerchief. The emotion which overtook her has subsided. She is the strong, gentle woman that the Professor has come to admire after so short an acquaintance.
“A woman has the right to hope for these things, that her brother will be healed and that he will come back to her.” Her hands pull nervously at the edges of the handkerchief, then stop abruptly. She fixes a steely gaze at her companion. “And so you can imagine my surprise when this morning that man Moss appeared, giving chase to a stranger . . . and that stranger was my brother!”
* * * * *
A decanter of sherry stands on the table in the center of the room, and, despite Sophronia’s protestations, the Professor presses a glass on her and tells her it will do her good. As she sips it, his mind races over the images of the morning. How can one reconcile the ragged creature he saw with the sensitive younger brother the Countess has described?
“Have you rung up the hospital?”
The Countess rises and hands him back the glass. “I must do that. I must discover . . . “ She stops and stares at him wordlessly. “I think perhaps that I will lie down for a bit before I make that call. I know it’s foolish, but – “
“No, no, dear lady, not foolish. Not foolish at all. You have your rest and then we’ll make that call together.”
Sophronia reaches out her hands, and he takes them in his. She gives him a smile of gratitude and then makes her exit. The Professor remains behind a moment and then leaves the room and walks into the main hall. He looks to his left. The drawing room is empty. To his right, the library door is closed. He thinks a moment, then gives a slow shake of his head. Overhead he hears a tremendous boom of thunder.
And then the lights go out.
* * * * *
For the rest of the afternoon, the butler Worth embodies the merits of his name. He marshals his forces, consisting of Gladys, a bleary-eyed but efficient Moss, even a begrudging Zuzana, to set up oil lamps and light candles to ward off the encroaching night. He himself lays a fire in the drawing room hearth, and while he cannot convince Mrs. Jolley to set aside her scheduled evening off (“Must get back to me Jim before the cats and dogs start really droppin!”), he supervises her in putting together an assortment of cold provisions fit for royalty.
Lord Petty has emerged from his study brimming with excitement and barking unnecessary commands that the servants ignore.
“We’ll make a picnic of it in the drawing room tonight,” he cackles, rubbing his hands with glee. “We’ll play games in the candlelight and tell each other our darkest secrets.”
In the midst of all the emergency preparation, the front door bangs open, and Diogenes Pratt rushes in. He slams the door behind him, turns and stares at the bustling group who have temporarily ceased their bustle to watch rainwater pour off his soaked body and puddle onto the floor. His face bursts into a wide grin.
“Sorry! Caught in the rain!” and then he bounds across the hall and up the stairs to his room. Lord Petty and his servants, along with Lucy and the Professor who have chipped in to lend a hand, watch him disappear. As they are about to resume their activity, the front door opens again, and Greta Frink enters. She has a sleek raincoat on, and a man’s umbrella perched rakishly against her shoulder. She closes the umbrella, hangs it up on a stand beside the door, then turns and regards the soaked parquet floor.
“Did I do that?” she asks. She carefully circles around the mess and trots pleasantly past the others to the stairs. She is halfway up when Hetty makes her entrance at the top of the staircase. As always, she is dressed to kill. She surveys the group below, assessing the potential effect of her entrance and glares at Greta, whose slow cross past her disrupts the full effect of her presence. Once the secretary is out of the way, Hetty makes a deliberate descent, to an orchestra that only she can hear, and slithers her way across the hall until she stands before her husband. She reaches out and adjusts his bowtie.
“What’d I miss?”
It’s the perfect movie entrance, but the always observant Professor senses something amiss: a wild, nervous energy just below the surface, as if the blonde bombshell is actually going to explode.
An hour later, the company enjoys an informal supper in the drawing room, candle flame flickering dramatically against the walls, barely reaching the corners of the great room. Diebehnkorn sits at the piano, nimbly making up little tunes, and Hetty sits close beside him, twirling a lock of his hair with her fingers. Lucy and the Countess play a game of belote on the floor in one corner, while Diogenes pesters them to explain the rules and whines when he is ignored. The lord of the manor gorges himself on cold veal pie and other tasty viands, surveying his guests from an armchair beside the roaring fire with the sly contented smile of a cat.
The Professor sits perched on the edge of the sofa, his plate carefully balanced in his lap. Miss Frink sits nearby, absorbed in her meal. He clears his throat.
“Did you enjoy your book, Miss Frink?”
She finishes cutting a small piece of meat, puts it in her mouth and chews it slowly. He begins to think she hadn’t heard him, when she replies, “It wasn’t my book. I think it belongs to the lady of the house.”
Plum raises an eyebrow. Her drawling enunciation of the word “lady” implies a strong opinion of the opposite. He glances behind him and sees the shadowy figures of Hetty and Diebehnkorn at the piano, their heads together. He turns back to Miss Frink and finds she is staring at them, too.
“That woman . . . “ she mutters under her breath. Then she shrugs and returns back to her meal. “I enjoyed it. I didn’t find it as thrilling as the critics say. No doubt it is well written . . . and very clever.” Again, there is a sardonic note in her tone, and Professor Plum decides, perhaps unfairly, that he doesn’t much like Miss Frink.
At that moment, Worth enters and moves quickly to his master’s side. The Professor watches the butler whisper in Lord Petty’s ear, and then his attention is caught, for some reason to the dim recesses of the outer hallway, where he can just make out the figure of Moss, the gardener, standing with drooping shoulders, his head half bent to the floor.
The butler leaves, guiding Moss away with him with a hand on his arm. Lord Petty rises and taps his wine glass with a fork until he has everyone’s attention.
“I’m sorry to interrupt this lovely gathering, but I have some news to report.” He pauses as Hetty stifles a giggle. “My gardener reports that the storm has caused several trees outside the castle entrance to fall. This has unfortunately resulted in the road between Dungarees and the village to be hopelessly blocked. I’m afraid we’re all stranded here until help can arrive. Worth has tried to summon aid from the village, but the phone seems to be out of order as well.”
In the corner of the room, Diogenes struggles to his feet and walks to his uncle’s side.
“Uncle, I’m sure I can make it down the road on foot. If I set off now, I should bring help back by the morning.”
“Nonsense, my boy!” Lord Petty claps the lad on his muscular shoulder. “Listen to that storm outside! I’m sure we’ll have an easier time of it in the morning.” He pats Diogenes affectionately on the back and motions for him to sit down. Then he beams at the company with his Cheshire smile. “Besides, I have further news with which to regale you all. Today I had a call from Scotland Yard.”
The silence is absolute, and Lord Petty takes a moment to enjoy the effect his words have made before plunging into his explanation.
“It’s really quite an exciting tale, all having to do with the submarine plans that were stolen!” Everyone leans forward, taking in every word their host utters with intense interest. “Although the newspapers initially reported that the break-in happened on Sunday, it seems that the actual theft occurred three days earlier. Last Thursday evening, an intruder managed to knock out one of the sentries posted near the entry of the naval office. This person dressed in the unconscious guard’s uniform, made his way brazenly to the office where the plans were kept, and managed to steal them and escape.
“When the guard was found and had made his explanation, a massive search for the intruder began. The authorities had a great stroke of good luck when a passerby informed them that a man in uniform had been seen a few blocks from there hailing a cab; the man was overheard asking to be taken to Paddington station.
“The trail grew cold until late in the evening on Friday, when a call was made to Scotland Yard by a passenger line, who had found a military uniform rolled up and stashed behind a toilet in the lavatory. And where do you think that train had made its last stop?” He pauses and takes in the faces of every person gathered there. “Why, it was our little village.”
As the company makes a massive exhalation of breath, Lord Petty settles himself in the armchair with a sigh, taking a thirsty drink from his wine glass.
Hetty breaks the silence. “Well? What the hell does that mean? Honestly, Benjy, you should write a movie yourself!” She laughs harshly.
Lord Petty joins her in laughter. “It means, my darling, that the thief has made his way all the way from London – to here!” He struggles to his feet again. “And by here, I mean right – in – this – room!”
A shared sense of bafflement pervades the room Each guest makes furtive eye contact with another. Finally, Lucy speaks for all of them.
“I’m sorry, Lord Petty, but you really need to explain yourself more clearly. Are you suggesting that the person who stole the submarine plans is in this room?”
Petty chuckles again, but the others can feel a sense of menace behind his mirth.
“Let me add one little point to my tale,” he says. “When they examined the abandoned uniform, they found a slip of paper in one of the trouser pockets. There was only one word scrawled on the paper. And that word was —–
I am so sorry – I promised you all a murder, and the plot ran away from me!! Next week, for sure! Please come back. Please . . .