Exactly three months before the killing at Martingale Mrs Maxie gave a dinner-party. Years later, when the trial was a half-forgotten scandal and the headlines were yellowing on the newspaper lining of cupboard drawers, Eleanor Maxie looked back on that spring evening as the opening scene of tragedy. Memory, selective and perverse, invested what had been a perfectly ordinary dinner-party with an aura of foreboding and unease. It became, in retrospect, a ritual gathering under one roof of victim and suspects, a staged preliminary to murder. In fact not all the suspects had been present. Felix Hearne, for one, was not at Martingale that week-end. Yet, in her memory, he too sat at Mrs Maxie’s table, watching with amused, sardonic eyes the opening antics of the players.
At the time, of course, the party was both ordinary and rather dull. Three of the guests, Dr Epps, the vicar and Miss Liddell, Warden of St Mary’s Refuge for Girls, had dined together too often to expect either novelty or stimulation from each other’s company. Catherine Bowers was unusually silent and Stephen Maxie and his sister, Deborah Riscoe, were obviously concealing with difficulty their irritation that Stephen’s first free week-end from the hospital for over a month should have coincided with a dinner-party. Mrs Maxie had just employed one of Miss Liddell’s unmarried mothers as house parlourmaid and the girl was waiting at table for the first time. But the air of constraint which burdened the meal could hardly have been caused by the occasional presence of Sally Jupp who placed the dishes in front of Mrs Maxie and removed the plates with a dextrous efficiency which Miss Liddell noted with complacent approval.
It is probable that at least one of the guests was wholly happy. Bernard Hinks, the vicar of Chadfleet, was a bachelor, and any change from the nourishing but unpalatable meals produced by his housekeeping sister -- who was never herself tempted away from the vicarage to dine -- was a relief which left small room for the niceties of social intercourse. He was a gentle, sweet-faced man who looked older than his fifty-four years and who had a reputation for vagueness and timidity except on points of doctrine. Theology was his main, almost his sole, intellectual interest and if his parishioners could not always understand his sermons they were happy enough to accept this as sure evidence of their vicar’s erudition. It was, however, accepted in the village that you could get both advice and help from the vicarage and that, if the former were sometimes a little muddled, the latter could generally be relied upon.
To Dr Charles Epps the dinner meant a first-class meal, a couple of charming women to talk to and a restful interlude from the trivialities of a country practice. He was a widower who had lived in Chadfleet for thirty years and knew most of his patients well enough to predict with accuracy whether they would live or die. He believed that there was little any doctor could do to influence the decision, that there was wisdom in knowing when to die with the least inconvenience to others and distress to oneself and that much medical progress only prolonged life for a few uncomfortable months to the greater glory of the patient’s doctor. For all that, he had less stupidity and more skill than Stephen Maxie gave him credit for and few of his patients faced the inevitable before their time. He had attended Mrs Maxie at the births of both her children and was doctor and friend to the husband in so far as Simon Maxie’s bemused brain could any longer know or appreciate friendship. Now he sat at the Maxie table and forked up chicken soufflé with the air of a man who had earned his dinner and has no intention of being infected by other people’s moods.
“So you’ve taken Sally Jupp and her baby, Eleanor?” Dr Epps was never inhibited from stating the obvious. “Nice young things both of them. Rather jolly for you to have a baby about the house again.”
“Let us hope Martha agrees with you,” said Mrs Maxie dryly. “She needs help desperately, of course, but she’s very conservative. She may feel the situation more than she says.”
“She’ll get over it. Moral scruples soon give way when it’s a case of another pair of hands at the kitchen sink.” Dr Epps dismissed Martha Bultitaft’s conscience with a wave of his podgy arm. “She’ll be eating out of the baby’s hand before long, anyway. Jimmy’s an appealing child whoever his father was.”
At this point Miss Liddell felt that the voice of experience should be heard.
“I don’t think, Doctor, that we should talk about the problem of these children too lightly. Naturally we must show Christian charity” -- here Miss Liddell gave a half bow in the direction of the vicar as if acknowledging the presence of another expert and apologizing for the intrusion into his field -- “but I can’t help feeling that society as a whole is getting too soft with these girls. The moral standards of the country will continue to fall if these children are to receive more consideration than those born in wedlock. And it’s happening already! There’s many a poor, respectable mother who doesn’t get half the fussing and attention which is lavished on some of these girls.”
She looked around the table, flushed and began eating again vigorously. Well, what if they did all look surprised? It had needed saying. It was her place to say it. She glanced at the vicar as if enlisting his support but Mr Hinks, after his first puzzled glance at her, was concentrating on his dinner. Miss Liddell, baulked of an ally, thought irritably that the dear vicar was just a little greedy over his food! Suddenly she heard Stephen Maxie speaking.
“These children are no different, surely, than any others except that we owe them more. I can’t see that their mothers are so remarkable either. After all, how many people accept in practice the moral code which they despise these girls for breaking?”