In the 1920's, in post-WWI England, the Honourable Daisy Dalrymple, newly married to Detective Inspector Alec Fletcher, is asked by her brother-in-law to discreetly investigate a series of poisoned pen letters that many of the local villagers have been receiving. When the pompous and unbearable brother of the local vicar is killed by a very large rock dropped on his head from a great height, it seems clear to all that this campaign of gossip has escalated to murder. With the help of her husband, who'd rather she not get involved in murder, Daisy undertakes to uncover the identity of the viper in the local nest is and who that person has driven to murder before the murderer strikes a second time.
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July 01, 1999
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Excerpt from Styx and Stones by Carola Dunn
Darling, I wish I could. But Johnnie's taking me out to lunch and he'll be here any moment."
"Johnnie?" The hint of jealousy in Alec's voice tingled along the wires to Daisy's ear.
With a small, smug smile, she explained: "Johnnie Frobisher--Lord John--my brother-in-law."
"Oh, Lady John's Johnnie." His relief was patent, though he was several miles away, at New Scotland Yard.
"Lady John's Johnnie!" Daisy laughed. "I'm sure she asked you to call her Violet, darling. Anyway, he's come up to town for the day and invited me to lunch with him."
"The Ritz, I suppose, or the Savoy," Alec said gloomily. A Detective Chief Inspector's salary did not run to luncheons at the Ritz.
"Darling, you know I'd rather be with you at Lyons' Corner House eating Welsh rarebit, but how could I have guessed you'd be free today? Oh, there's the doorbell, I must run." She turned to call down the stairs to the daily char in the semibasement kitchen: "I'll get the door, Mrs. Potter! Alec, I'll ring you up at home this evening. Toodle-oo, darling."
Daisy carefully hung up the earpiece of the brand new telephone apparatus she and Lucy had splurged for not a week ago. Lucy had paid the whole cost of the extension to her photography studio in the old mews behind the "bijou" residence they shared, but Daisy's part of the expense was quite steep enough. They were back to living on eggs, cheese, and sardines, so a meal at a good restaurant was jolly welcome.
All the same, and much as she liked Johnnie, she had rather lunch with Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher. She had scarcely set eyes on her fianc? since that glorious weekend in the New Forest.
The memory brought back the small, smug smile as she glanced in the looking-glass over the hall table. She straightened the blue straw cloche garlanded with white rosebuds, which perched on her honey-brown shingled curls. The hat's colour matched her eyes, which Alec was wont, when, annoyed, to describe as "misleadingly guileless," though he spoke in more flattering terms when in a softer mood.
Daisy's linen costume was a darker blue piped with white. Quite smart, she thought, if only her figure were fashionably boyish. The straight lines and hip-level belt could not be said to suit her.
As she wrinkled her nose at the rounded curves Alec considered delightfully cuddlesome, she noticed three freckles. All very well in the country but not acceptable in town--she added a quick dab of powder. She had given up trying to hide the little mole at the corner of her mouth, since Alec told her an eighteenth-century face-patch placed in that position was known as the "Kissing."
With a sigh, she wished Johnnie had not happened to invite her to lunch on one of the few days when Alec was able to escape from the Yard at midday.
Pulling on her gloves, she went to the front door. As she opened it, a furnace blast met her. Even here in Chelsea, the August air of the metropolis stank of baking asphalt and petrol fumes.
"An absolute oven, isn't it?" Johnnie greeted her.
Like Alec he was in his mid-thirties and of middling height, but--unlike Alec--slight and fair. He was impeccably dressed in a light grey lounge suit of unmistakable Savile Row cut. Only the sun-browned face gave away that he was a country gentleman come up to town for the day. Against his tanned skin, the white line of a scar slashing from jaw to brow stood out sharply. Otherwise, his most distinctive feature was his nose, passed down in the family from generation to generation.
He fanned himself with the soft hat in his hand. "Whew!"
"Too frightful!" Daisy agreed. "What on earth tore you away from the depths of Kent on a day which must be heavenly among your orchards?"
A hint of colour tinted Johnnie's cheeks. "Oh, er, business," he said uneasily, adding hurriedly as he handed Daisy into his maroon Sunbeam touring-car, "I thought we'd go to the Belgravia, it's the closest decent place. Would you like me to put up the hood to keep off the sun?"
"No, thanks. We'd stifle."
Politeness forbade asking what sort of business was making him as jumpy as a grasshopper, but it didn't stop Daisy wondering. She hoped he was not in financial difficulties, as so many farmers seemed to be these days. His eldest brother, the marquis, was immensely wealthy, but Johnnie would hate to have to beg to be bailed out.
Perhaps over lunch he would succumb to the wiles of her guileless eyes and tell her what was wrong. Daisy never quite understood why people, even complete strangers, confided in her, but they did.
As he drove towards the Belgravia Hotel, she enquired after Vi and the boys.
"I thought you talked to her when you had the telephone put in," he said in surprise.
"That was nearly a week ago!" Daisy shook her head at his typically male incomprehension of the female need to communicate. No doubt he heard from his brothers only at births, marriages, and deaths.
"As a matter of fact--promise you won't tell Lady Dalrymple?"
"Cross my heart and hope to die," Daisy said promptly. "I never tell Mother anything unless I absolutely have to."
"Violet doesn't want her to know yet," Johnnie said, his face turning brick-red, "but she's just discovered she's ... er, she's expecting another baby."
"Spiffing! Congratulations. At least, she's not ill, is she? Is that what's troubling you?"
"No, no, she seems very well at the moment. But it is another reason why ... Well, that can wait. How is your writing going, Daisy?"
With this suggestion that all was to be revealed, Daisy managed to restrain the curiosity which was her besetting sin. She told Johnnie about the stately home article she had just finished for Town and Country magazine, and the London Museum article she was about to begin for her American editor.
Johnnie put in a "Really?" and an "Interesting!" but she suspected he did not hear a word.
"''Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe,'" she said as the Sunbeam turned into Grosvenor Gardens.
"It sounds like fascinating work. Here we are." He drew up in front of the hotel.
What was the matter?
Johnnie pulled himself together sufficiently to deal with commissionaire and maitre d'h?tel. They were seated at a quiet table in a corner. The restaurant was not busy, as all those in their right minds who could afford it were out of town.
Glancing vaguely at the bill of fare, Johnnie said, "What would you like, Daisy? They do very good oysters Rockefeller here. The all-pervading American influence, I suppose."
"August has no 'R' in it," Daisy pointed out. "You are distracted."
"Sorry," he apologized meekly.
"Luckily, I don't care much about oysters, anyway. Something cold to start with, please. Melon, perhaps, or do they do consomme Madril?ne?"
With a visible effort, Johnnie put his mind to the menu. Daisy refused a cocktail, since they always made her sleepy and she had to get back to work that afternoon. She settled on the chilled consomm?, followed by sole Colbert, chicken Mireille, and p?che Melba. Johnnie asked abstractedly for a cut off the joint.
"I shan't need to eat again for a week," said Daisy as the waiter left with their order. "How do you suppose one gets one's name affixed to a dish? Melba was Dame Nellie, of course, but who was Colbert?"
Johnnie blinked at her, bemused.
"Never mind! Though maybe I'll do a spot of research; it might make an amusing article." She leaned forward. "Now, tell me what's wrong, Johnnie."
"Well, it's ... I ... No, I don't want to spoil your meal. I'll tell you over coffee. Don't you think most dishes are probably named after the chefs who created them?"
"Probably. Too fearfully dull! But oysters Rockefeller must be after the millionaire, mustn't they? And I think Madril?ne is from Madrid." Daisy allowed herself to be distracted, though she was beginning to grow anxious about news bad enough to threaten to spoil such a divine lunch.
If Violet was well, was Johnnie ill? Had he been given six months to live, or something ghastly like that? Did he want Daisy to break the news to Vi? Gosh, how simply frightful!
He didn't look ill, only rather careworn. His valiant attempts at conversation tended to lapse into silence, and he toyed with his food. Daisy made herself deliberately savour each delicious mouthful, feeling a need to fortify herself both mentally and physically. Johnnie pushed his roast beef and French beans around the plate. He didn't even taste his p?che Melba, though the peaches and raspberries were fresh, not tinned, and simply too heavenly.
"Will you take coffee in the lounge, sir?"
Johnnie looked at Daisy, who shook her head, deciding it was easier to talk seriously where they were. Unaccustomed as she was to more than a snack for lunch, the food was having the same effect a cocktail would have. She was afraid she might succumb to the comfort of a lounge chair.
The coffee came. The waiter went. "Right-oh," said Daisy, "what's up?"
Shiftily avoiding her eyes, Johnnie said, "Well, after all, I don't think ..."
"Don't funk it now! You can't leave me in suspense, imagining all sorts of frightful things. You ... Your business in town wasn't in Harley Street, was it?"
"Harley Street?" Startled, he met her concerned gaze and his resistance crumbled. "No, no doctors, I'm healthy as a horse. Daisy, Violet's been telling me the most extraordinary stories about your detecting murderers right and left, and tracking down kidnappers and such."
"Well," said Daisy cautiously, wide-awake now, "I have given Alec a hand now and then, much as it pains him to admit it."
"I need help," Johnnie blurted out. "Could you come down to Oakhurst for a few days? Violet won't think it at all odd that you want to get away from town. In fact, she'll be delighted to have you come and stay. I'll tell you what, maybe Fletcher would let you bring his little girl with you. She and Derek hit it off like a house on fire at your engagement party. Same age, aren't they? Violet was saying only the other day that it's not good for a child to be stuck in the city in the summer heat." He sat back with an air of triumph.
Daisy brought him remorselessly back to the point. "All very well, and I dare say Belinda would be thrilled, but what sort of help do you need? With some kind of investigation? I'm not a private enquiry agent, you know. Alec's the detective."
"Not the police! It's not a police matter. I'm not even sure if it's a crime, and I certainly don't want anyone else knowing. So ..."
Johnnie tugged on a suddenly too-tight Old Harrovian tie. A dull flush once again crept up his tanned cheeks, showing up the scar, hitherto practically invisible in the diffuse indoor light. "Well, er ..."
"I have to know what I'm to investigate, Johnnie! Though, actually, I can't possibly spare the time just now, so that's all right, you need not Reveal All." Daisy drank the last drop of coffee in her cup and started to put on her gloves.
"No, please." He reached out a hand across the table. "I must tell someone or I shall go mad, and you are the only person I can bear to tell who might be able to give me practical advice. As a matter of fact, I've been getting perfectly horrible anonymous letters--what I believe our transatlantic cousins call Poison Pen letters."
"Good heavens!" Daisy exclaimed, adding candidly, "I can't imagine you doing anything you could be blackmailed over." Though she was fond of Johnnie, and he suited her sister very well, she had always considered him a bit of a dull dog.
"It's not exactly blackmail. Not yet, anyway, though I suppose it will come to that. No demands as yet, except to repent and sin no more, but one can't very well stop doing something one did only once, years ago, and repented as soon as it was done."
"Difficult, yes. What was it?"
Johnnie blenched. "Do you really need to know?"
"I take it you want me to try to find out who wrote the letters. How do you expect me even to begin if I've never seen them and don't know what they're about?"
"You will come, then?" he asked eagerly.
"I'm not sure. I just might be able to arrange it. But I'd have to see the letters, so unless you want me to learn about your evil deeds--sorry, deed--from the Poison Pen, you had much better tell me yourself."
"Yes." His shoulders slumped. "Yes, you're right. But not a word to Violet, or to Fletcher. Promise."
"I don't want you to think I'm trying to make excuses, but let me explain the circumstances."
"Go ahead," said Daisy.
The field hospital was swamped by casualties from the Third Battle of Ypres--Wipers, as the Other Ranks wryly called the ruinous remains of the Belgian town. From snug pill-boxes surrounded by a sea of mud, the Boches poured forth machine-gun fire and mustard-gas to wipe out mired British troops by the hundred thousand.
Exhausted medics stitched and amputated, and evacuated those who survived back behind the lines as fast as transports were available. No less overtaxed, the hospitals in the rear tidied up the human wreckage sent to them, and watched helpless as their patients died in droves, of infections and gas-corroded lungs.
Naturally, Major Lord John Frobisher received the best care available. The last scraps of shrapnel were dug out of his body. Nothing could be done for the crudely sewn-up wound on his face other than to keep it clean.
He was shipped home to England to recuperate, his cheek still swollen, the gash a lurid purple brand.
"I didn't care much as long as I was with the rest of the fellows," Johnnie told Daisy. "It didn't seem to matter when so many were so much worse off. Then we landed at Dover and everyone else went off on the troop train to London. I took the local to Oakhurst."
"Vi and the baby were in Worcestershire," said Daisy, "at home with us, at Fairacres."
"Yes, but I was very tired and tense, not fit for civilized society. I needed a day or two to put myself straight before I saw Violet. I felt I hardly knew her--we weren't married much more than a year, remember, before I went off to France, and I'd had only one fortnight's leave since then."
"Spent at Fairacres," Daisy recalled, "with Derek afraid of the stranger who claimed to be his Daddy, and Violet having to look after him because half the men were called up so the maids were doing their work. And Mother being Mother."
She exchanged a commiserating glance with Johnnie. Lady Dalrymple, now the Dowager Viscountess, would find something to complain about in Heaven. At the time, Daisy seemed to remember, the burden of her mother's song had been the injustice of her son-in-law's obtaining leave when her son, Gervaise, as yet had not. Gervaise had his fortnight later. He chose to spend half of it in London before returning to Flanders, to his death.
Some of the wounds of war were invisible, and slow to heal.
Daisy shook her head, shook the memories away. "You had to come to Fairacres," she said. "Kent was too dangerous, too close to the Continent, getting bombed regularly. Father wouldn't have let Vi go to Oakhurst."
"By George, no. I don't hold Lord Dalrymple to blame."
"But I understand why you wanted to go home first, after the hospitals and everything."
"I nearly didn't make it that day," Johnnie said. "Three changes, and I kept drowsing off. The trains were practically empty, what with so many women and children having been evacuated. When I reached Rotherden Halt, there was no station fly. Our chauffeur was in the service, of course, but no one was expecting me, anyway. I left my bags in the ticket office and walked into the village. It was just after opening time, so I decided to drop into the Hop-Picker to fortify myself for the slog up to the house."
"A mile from the station if it's an inch, and uphill all the way. A pick-me-up was just what you needed," Daisy agreed.
"The landlord's daughter, Maisy, whom I'd known all my life, screamed when she saw me. She pulled herself together and served me, but she couldn't bear to look at my face. Believe it or not, until that moment I hadn't considered what the effect would be on women. On Violet."
"I'd only seen nurses, who were used to much worse." He fingered the thin white scar. "It's nothing now, but then it was hideous, loathsome, and I didn't know how it would heal. I finished my whisky pretty quick, glad I'd ordered a double because I didn't have the nerve to ask for another. It was raining, luckily. I more or less slunk through the village without meeting anyone. Then the rain stopped and all at once the sun came out, just as I passed the Vicarage. You remember Rotherden?"
"Yes, of course." Since the War, Daisy had visited often. "The Vicarage is next to the church, which is right across the street from your gates, so you were safe."
"So I imagined."
Opposite the Vicarage, on the other side of the Oakhurst gates from the lodge, stood a small Queen Anne house, weath-erboarded and hung with tile in the local style. A pleasant residence, quite close to the street but with a large garden behind, it had been bought a year or two before the War by a childless widow. Mrs. LeBeau was then about thirty, an attractive and sophisticated woman.
John, newly married, settling down to wedded life and learning to run the estate left him by an uncle, had scarcely noticed her existence.
"She came out of her front door just as I passed. I knew her to pass the time of day--we'd been introduced at someone's house and I think Violet had invited her to morning coffee once or twice. That sort of acquaintance. At any rate, she called a greeting, asked was I home on leave. I couldn't very well ignore her."
He had turned his head to return her greeting. She swallowed a gasp as the westering sun struck full on his face.
"You poor man, you look exhausted," she said. "Are they expecting you up at the house? Lady John isn't there, I know. Come in and have a cup of tea and a biscuit before you go home. I was just going to return this book to Mrs. Molesworth, but it can wait."
After a chocolate bar from a station slot-machine for lunch, and a double whisky drunk much too fast, John felt greatly in need of tea, not to mention sympathy. He went in.
"You'll have guessed by now," he said to Daisy, staring down unhappily at his hands, "that I stayed the night."
Daisy didn't know what to say. Living in Bohemian Chelsea, she was acquainted with any number of people whose marriage vows were more honoured in the breach than the observance. She supposed it didn't matter much as long as neither husband nor wife minded. But it was different when her brother-in-law had been unfaithful to her own sister.
How would quiet, self-contained, self-possessed Violet, always unimpeachably correct, take it if she ever found out?
"Violet mustn't find out!" Johnnie broke into Daisy's silence. He looked at her with a sort of pleading defiance. "Especially now. Yet ... I told you I repented long since, but it was only half a repentance. I was not Mrs. LeBeau's first lover since she lost her husband, so I'd nothing to reproach myself with there. And she gave me the courage to face Violet."
Unwillingly, Daisy nodded. "Yes, I see that. It was just the once, and you've never told anyone else?"
"Not a soul."
"Then Mrs. LeBeau must have written the letters."
"That was my first assumption, but I can't believe it of her. I've met her quite often in company since the end of the War, and she's never let drop so much as a hint. Not even a sidelong glance. Besides, whatever your opinion of her morals, in other ways she's a lady through and through, well-bred, cultivated. The letters are badly written and spelled, as well as ... pretty filthy."
"That could be a disguise," Daisy pointed out. "Did you bring them to show me?"
"No. I wouldn't want them found on me if I was knocked down by a 'bus crossing the street," Johnnie said wryly. "I burnt the first one, but it's difficult to find an excuse to burn things in August. The rest are in a locked drawer in my bureau at home. Will you come?"
Suppose the next letter went straight to Vi? Daisy sighed. "Yes, I'll come. Give me a couple of days to research the London Museum, so that I can write the article at Oakhurst. I must get going, I've an appointment with the curator at three."
"I'll run you there." He pushed back his chair and came around the table to hold hers. "Er, where is it? I'm not much of a hand at museums."
She laughed. "Lancaster House, right next to St. James's Palace. No distance. I'd rather walk across the parks, thanks all the same. I need a few minutes to get my thoughts on the right track." As they left the restaurant, Daisy asked, "Did you mean it about inviting Belinda to Oakhurst?"
"Certainly. We'll be glad to have her."
"Her grandmother won't approve of 'giving her ideas above her station,' but I'm sure Alec will be pleased. I'll leave it to him to persuade Mrs. Fletcher. I'll telephone when I've settled on a date and train."
"I'll pay the fares, of course," Johnnie said gruffly.
Daisy stopped on the hotel steps and kissed his cheek. "You're a dear, Johnnie. I'll do my best to sort things out for you. Cheerio. See you soon."
"Cheerio, Daisy. Oh, by the way, I don't think I'm the only one getting letters. Something Lomax said made me think he might be another victim."
By the time she turned into Buckingham Palace Road, Daisy realized her folly. She groaned. In the first place, she hadn't the foggiest how to set about finding a Poison Pen. In the second place, if somehow she succeeded, how was she to stop the culprit broadcasting the victims' peccadillos to the world?