Read an Excerpt
A Daisy Dalrymple Mystery
By Carola Dunn
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Carola Dunn
All rights reserved.
A last teeth-rattling sneeze escaped Daisy as she stepped out to the front porch. The tall, spare solicitor, locking the door behind them, gave her a worried look. That is, she thought she detected anxiety, though the layer of dust on his pince-nez obscured his expression.
Having dusted off his hat, Mr. Irwin carefully settled it on his thinning hair, then took out a large white linen handkerchief to polish the pince-nez. "Oh dear, I expect I ought to have had cleaners in before I showed you the house."
Being too well brought up to voice her hearty agreement, Daisy said politely, "It wouldn't have been so bad if I hadn't taken the dust sheet off that rocking chair and wafted it about a bit." Glad she'd worn grey gloves, she brushed down her lovat green costume.
"I'm afraid the late Mr. Walsall's staff let things slide. The butler and housekeeper were as aged as he himself, having been with him for a great many years. The unfortunate condition of the interior may deter you from taking up your abode in the house; perfectly understandable."
"You said the electrical system is quite new."
"It was installed in 1910, I believe. I should not describe fifteen years as precisely new. There have been great improvements in such things in the past fifteen years."
"New enough. The building itself seems sound. No damp patches in the attics, no creaking floorboards, no smell of drains."
"Structurally," he said with obvious reluctance, "I believe the house is comparatively sound."
"I'm glad to hear it."
"Though there's no knowing what defects a surveyor might find. Dry rot, perhaps? If you decide to sell the property, I shall, of course, be happy to handle the conveyancing for you."
"But, if I understand you correctly, the way my husband's great-uncle left things, we don't inherit his money unless we live in the house. It goes to the Home for Aged Donkeys."
"Superannuated and Superfluous Carriage Horses."
"I suppose there must be a great many about, what with motor-cars and all."
"I dare say," Irwin grunted. He didn't seem any happier at the prospect of the horses getting the money than at the prospect of the Fletchers moving into his late client's house. "It is only one of several worthy causes to be benefited according to the instructions in Mr. Walsall's last will and testament, should you decline to reside in the house."
"Does that include the proceeds of the sale of the house?"
He cheered up. "No. The proceeds would be yours — your husband's — free and clear. Apart from any taxes due, naturally. So you'll be able to purchase a more suitable residence elsewhere."
More suitable? Daisy gazed across the cobbled street at the communal garden in the middle of the ring of houses. In central London, it would have been a square, but one couldn't very well call it a square, because it was round.
In the slanting sun of the late September afternoon, it was bright with neat beds of chrysanthemums and the red and gold leaves of bushes and the ring of trees that enclosed the whole. Directly opposite her, a paved path sloped down across the lawn, levelling off to circle the marble-rimmed pool in the centre, with park benches on either side. The pool had a fountain, a marble maiden in vaguely Greek draperies holding an urn on her shoulder from which water spilled.
Three small children toddled about under the watchful eyes of a pair of uniformed nannies. In next to no time, Miranda and Oliver would be old enough to play with them.
"Mrs. Fletcher?" the lawyer ventured tentatively.
"Sorry, Mr. Irwin, I was thinking. Is that an alley I see between those houses down there, on the other side of the communal garden?"
"Not exactly an alley. It might better be described as a foot passage, leading down to Well Walk."
"How convenient! And where is the Heath?"
"Hampstead Heath. It can't be too far away?"
"Oh, the Heath. Just around the corner — literally. If you would care to descend the steps and walk to the corner ..."
Running up the side of the house and garden was a cobbled alley leading to a block of carriage houses now used as garages for motors. Beyond these, the way narrowed to another foot passage ending with a gate onto a lane, and on the other side of the lane was the Heath. It couldn't be more perfect for Belinda and her friends, and for the twins when they were old enough. They'd have many of the advantages of both town and country life.
Not to mention being able to give the dog a good run without the dreary trudge through the streets to Primrose Hill. Daisy would walk Nana much more often when it was so easy, and perhaps at last she'd take off a few of those extra pounds.
Once again, Daisy apologised for her abstraction. As she pondered, she had strolled back to the foot of the steps up to the front door of number 6, Constable Circle. Now she stepped backwards to the edge of the pavement and looked up at the façade. It was an attractive place, a detached house built in the last decade of the nineteenth century of red brick, the first floor hung with matching tile in alternating bands of plain and patterned. The front porch was set back between protruding wings, and the paired gables in the tile roof had a dormer between. Four stories from semibasement to attics, it was considerably larger than their semidetached in St. John's Wood.
Now that the twins were mobile, Nurse Gilpin really had to have a nursery maid whether they moved or not. Their present house would be terribly crowded when Belinda came home from school for the holidays. Besides, poor Bel deserved more than the tiny box of a room she had nobly put up with over the summer. For Alec, the journey to Westminster would actually be easier from Hampstead when he went in by tube, not having to change at Baker Street, and by car it was very little farther. Nor would Daisy and Belinda be far from their St. John's Wood friends.
The rates were bound to be higher, plus their share of the upkeep of the garden, and Mrs. Dobson would need the help of a house-parlour maid as well as a full-time daily woman. But if they kept the house, they'd keep old Mr. Walsall's fortune, as well.
Logic told her to jump at the prospect. Then why did it make her so uneasy?
Perhaps her reluctance was just sentimental, an atavistic — was that the word she wanted? — attachment to family land, bred in the blood by her aristocratic ancestors. But, Daisy's brother having been killed in the War, the Dalrymple estate now belonged to a distant cousin. The suburban semi bought two or three decades ago by Alec's father was scarcely in the same category as Fairacres.
More likely, Daisy decided with cynical honesty, she just didn't want to face the disruption of the move. Yet if they sold, the sensible thing to do with the money would be to buy a bigger house elsewhere, which would involve hunting for one, as well as the horrors of moving.
"We'll keep it!"
"But Mr. Fletcher hasn't even seen it yet."
"He said it's for me to decide." Though Daisy might wish Alec had not left the decision to her — it was his great-uncle's legacy, after all — she wasn't going to acknowledge that to the solicitor.
"But ... but —"
"I'm the one who'll be spending most of my time here, with the babies and working."
"Yes, Mr. Irwin, working. I'm a journalist."
"Oh. How ... how enterprising," he said weakly. Then he rallied. "Mr. Fletcher will have to sign all the documents, of course."
"Naturally. Mr. Walsall was his relative. I'm afraid he's out of town at present, though, and I don't know when he'll be back."
"I suppose in his ... er ... his occupation, he is often away."
Daisy was inured to the way even the most law-abiding people looked askance at a Scotland Yard detective, not to mention his wife. The average suburban solicitor rarely, if ever, came into contact with a criminal investigation.
Mr. Irwin must have carried out his own investigation into Alec's life before approaching him about his great-uncle's will, if only to make sure he was really the heir. Old Mr. Walsall seemed to have cut off all connection with his sister's family long ago. Alec had only the vaguest memory of his mother once mentioning a rich uncle.
Naturally, Daisy was dying to know the reason for the breach.
She wouldn't dream of asking her mother-in-law, though. The elder Mrs. Fletcher would not only undoubtedly refuse to tell her, she'd make snubbing remarks about people prying into other people's business and curiosity killing cats. Which was most unfair, as what was Alec's business was surely his wife's business, and if one didn't ask questions, how was one ever to find out anything?
Daisy resolved on the spot that nothing should be allowed to suppress her own children's sense of curiosity. Besides, Alec's mother had obviously failed with him, or he wouldn't have become a detective.
"Yes, his work often takes him away. But I know he'll love the house." She looked up at it again, already with a proprietorial pride.
It was altogether a substantial house, the sort of house even her own mother could not possibly object to. The Dowager Lady Dalrymple might even consider it worthy of her spending the odd night in the spare bedroom.
Now there was a prospect that failed to please. "Oh dear!" said Daisy.
"Are you having second thoughts, Mrs. Fletcher?" the solicitor enquired hopefully. "You have time to consider, and to consult Mr. Fletcher. Mr. Walsall set a time limit for the decision, to ensure the funds reaching his chosen charities without excessive delay should you decline to live here, but he was not unreasonable. You have two months from the date Mr. Fletcher received my communication with regard to the will. I'm sure he ought to visit the house. He may take it in dislike."
"I'll ask him, but I'm sure he's much too busy. I expect Tommy — Mr. Pearson, that is, our solicitor — will want to go over the figures with you to make sure we won't be biting off more than we can chew. But assuming, as you say, that we'll have enough funds to cover increased expenses, we'll move in as soon as possible."
Mr. Irwin sighed heavily. He seemed less than thrilled by her decision. In fact, thinking back over the past hour, she suspected he had done his best to present the house in the worst-possible light, without going so far as to claim an infestation of deathwatch beetle. She could only suppose that he had hoped to profit from the conveyancing fees if they sold it.
"In that case," he said gloomily, "perhaps you would not be averse to meeting your future next-door neighbours?"
"The neighbours?" Daisy asked in astonishment. Though she had never been in precisely this situation before, she couldn't believe the duties of a solicitor included introducing neighbours to one another.
"My daughter, Mrs. Aidan Jessup, resides at number five. She and her mother-in-law expressed a wish to make your acquaintance should this situation arise, if you would be so kind as to step in for afternoon tea."
Had he told his daughter that Daisy's father had been Viscount Dalrymple? He must have found out while investigating Alec. She gave him a frosty look with eyebrows raised, one of the Dowager Lady Dalrymple's armoury of pretension-depressing weapons. Much as Daisy abhorred the possibility of becoming in any way similar to her mother, she was fed up with people whose only interest in her was the accident of her aristocratic birth.
It was even worse than their shying away on learning her husband was a detective. That, at least, had been her own choice.
The solicitor responded to her chilliness with stiff rectitude. "I've told Audrey and Mrs. Jessup only that you and Mr. Fletcher may move in next door. Any other information I may have gathered is, of course, confidential."
"Of course," Daisy said apologetically. This was the third or fourth time she'd had to apologise to him. However perfect the house, did she really want to live next door to a relative of someone who kept putting her in the wrong? "I'll be happy to make their acquaintance."
What else could she say?
The house next door was similar in style to number 6 but lacked the pleasing symmetry. A neat young parlour maid answered Mr. Irwin's ring.
"Good afternoon, Enid. Tell your mistress I've brought Mrs. Fletcher to meet her."
"Oh, yes, sir, madam told me you might." The maid admitted them to the hall, trotted off, and returned a moment later to usher them to the back of the house and into a vast, glittering room.
After a startled moment, Daisy realised that the room was actually quite small. A multitude of mirrors created an illusion of illimitable space, reflecting one another and themselves and the windows in endless reduplication. Practically everything that wasn't mirror was gilt, she observed, dazzled. Even the rococo plasterwork of the ceiling (not mirrored, thank heaven) was picked out in gilt. In the centre hung a ballroom-size chandelier. Countless crystal drops sparkled in the glow of its electric bulbs.
From the midst of this outré magnificence came forth a petite silver-haired lady with bright, shrewd blue eyes. Her milky skin was beautifully made up, with a discreet touch of rouge, and she wore a well-cut navy silk tea frock. In contrast to the flamboyance around her, her only jewellery was a triple strand of superb pearls and a large diamond on her ring finger.
"Mrs. Fletcher, I'm Mrs. Jessup." Her voice was unexpectedly resonant for such a small frame, and had an intriguing hint, the merest flavour, of an accent. "How do you do? It's very kind of you to accept our unconventional invitation."
"Not at all. It's kind of you to invite me." Daisy smiled at the younger woman who came up behind her hostess.
Mrs. Jessup introduced her daughter-in-law. Mrs. Aidan Jessup's peaches and cream complexion would never need powder or rouge, nor develop freckles, Daisy thought enviously. She was as thin as her solicitor father; the still-current straight up and down style with hip-level waistline suited her boyish figure. However, she had considerably more hair than Mr. Irwin — a smooth flaxen bob — and less twitchiness.
"We ought to have waited for you to move in and then left our cards," she said placidly, returning Daisy's smile. "We hoped you might be encouraged to know you have friendly neighbours. Father seemed to doubt that you'd want to come to live here."
Mr. Irwin shot her an irritated glance. "Not at all," he muttered. "But the house has been standing empty, and there's no knowing what condition —"
"That's just it, Father," Audrey Jessup broke in, her tranquillity undiminished; "we don't care for living next door to an empty house."
"As for the condition," said Mrs. Jessup robustly, "it's only a couple of months since Mr. Walsall went to his reward, and Maurice — my husband, Mrs. Fletcher — visited him twice a week right up to the end for a game of chess. These past few years, he was the only person the poor old fellow would see. He was nervous of burglars, so Maurice always checked upstairs and down before he left to make sure all was secure. He'd surely have noticed if anything was seriously amiss."
So much for Mr. Irwin's excuse for trying to put Daisy off the house.
She was intrigued by these first hints of Alec's great-uncle's personality. All she'd known of him before was that he had cut off all communication with his sister, but mightn't that have been the sister's fault as much as his? Judging by her offspring, Alec's mother, she could well have been an extremely difficult person to get along with.
"You will stay for tea, won't you, Mrs. Fletcher? And Jonathan? Audrey, ring the bell, please."
"You must excuse me, ladies," said Mr. Irwin. "I have another appointment. The taxicab should be at the door any minute. Mrs. Fletcher, you'll let me know when your husband returns to town?"
"Of course. In the meantime, please arrange for a surveyor to inspect the house."
"When Mr. Fletcher —"
"I see no need to wait." Daisy was growing impatient with his incomprehensible delaying tactics. "You said yourself that it would have to be surveyed anyway if we decide to sell. I should like to have a report to show Alec when he gets home."
"I'll see what I can do," he promised glumly. "These things take time. Audrey, you'd better telephone for a taxicab when Mrs. Fletcher is ready to leave."
"Thank you for the thought, Mr. Irwin, but I don't need one. I left my car in Well Walk."
"Your car!" Shaking his head at the shocking state of the modern world, the solicitor departed.
"I'm afraid Father is frightfully old-fashioned," said Audrey Jessup as they all sat down on chairs upholstered in gold brocade. "What kind of car is it?"
"An Austin Chummy. Alec didn't need it today, and I was in a bit of a rush. I don't usually drive in town, but it's nice for a ride in the country, just big enough to squeeze in my twelve-year-old stepdaughter, two babies and their nurse, and a picnic."
"Good heavens!" the elder Mrs. Jessup exclaimed, laughing.
Excerpted from Black Ship by Carola Dunn. Copyright © 2008 Carola Dunn. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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