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Introducing the Honourable Phryne Fisher
Become addicted to Phryne's first three riveting mysteries
By Kerry Greenwood
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2011 Kerry Greenwood
All rights reserved.
Will go, like the centre of sea-green pomp ... upon her irretrievable way.
'The Paltry Nude Starts on a Voyage', Wallace Stevens
The glass in the French window shattered. The guests screamed. Over the general exclamation could be heard the shrill shriek of Madame St Clair, wife of the ambassador, 'Ciel! Mes bijoux!'
Phryne Fisher stood quietly and groped for a cigarette lighter. So far the evening had been tedious. After the strenuous preparations for what was admittedly the social event of the year, the dinner had been a culinary masterpiece—but the conversation had been boring. She had been placed between a retired Indian Colonel and an amateur cricketer. The Colonel had confined himself to a few suitable comments on the food but Bobby could recite his bowling figures for each country match for two years—and did. Then the lights had gone out and the window had smashed. Anything that interrupted the Wisden of the Country House matches was a good thing, thought Phryne and found the lighter.
The scene revealed in the flickering light was confused. The young women who usually screamed were screaming. Phryne's father was bellowing at Phryne's mother. This, too, was normal. Several gentlemen had struck matches and one had pulled the bell. Phryne pushed her way to the door and slipped into the front hall, where the fuse box door hung open, and pulled down the switch marked 'main'. A flood of light restored everyone except the most gin-soaked to their senses. And Madame St Clair, clutching melodramatically at her throat, found that her diamond necklace, reputed to contain some of the stones from the Tsarina's collar, was gone. Her scream outstripped all previous efforts.
Bobby, who had a surprisingly swift grasp of events, gasped, 'Gosh! She's been robbed!' Phryne escaped from the babble to go outside and scan the ground in front of the broken window. Through it she could hear Bobby saying ingenuously, 'He must have broken the jolly old glass, hopped in, and snaffled the loot! Daring, eh?'
Phryne gritted her teeth. She stubbed her toe on a ball and picked it up—a cricket ball. Her feet crunched on glass—most of it was outside. Phryne grabbed a passing gardener's boy and ordered him to bring a ladder into the ballroom.
When she regained the gathering she drew her father aside.
'Don't bother me, girl. I shall have to search everyone. What will the Duke think?'
'Father, if you want to cut out young Bobby from the crowd, I can save you a lot of embarrassment,' she whispered. Her father, who always had a high colour, darkened to a rich plum.
'What do you mean? Good family, goes back to the Conquerer.'
'Don't be foolish, Father, I tell you he did it, and if you don't remove him and do it quietly the Duke will be miffed. Just get him, and that tiresome Colonel. He can be a witness.'
Phryne's father did as he was bid, and the two gentlemen came into the card room with the young man between them.
'I say, what's this about?' asked Bobby. Phryne fixed him with a glittering eye.
'You broke the window, Bobby, and you pinched the necklace. Do you want to confess or shall I tell you how you did it?'
'I don't know what you mean,' he bluffed, paling as Phryne produced the ball.
'I found this outside. Most of the glass from the window was there, too. You pushed the switch, and flung this ball through the glass, to make that dramatic smash. Then you lifted the necklace off Madame St Clair's admittedly over-decorated neck.'
The young man smiled. He was tall, had curly chestnut hair and deep brown eyes like a Jersey cow. He had a certain charm and he was exerting all of it, but Phryne remained impervious. Bobby spread out his arms.
'If I pinched it, then I must have it on me. Search me,' he invited. 'I won't have had time to hide it.'
'Don't bother,' snapped Phryne. 'Come into the ballroom.' They followed her biddably. The gardener's boy erected the ladder. Mounting it fearlessly (and displaying to the company her diamanté garters, as her mother later informed her) Phryne hooked something out of the chandelier. She regained the floor without incident, and presented the object to Madame St Clair, who stopped crying as suddenly as if someone had turned off her tap.
'This yours?' Phryne asked, and Bobby gave a small groan, retreating to the card room.
'By Jove, that was a cunning bit of detection!' enthused the Colonel, after the disgraced Bobby had been allowed to leave. 'You're a sharp young woman. My compliments! Would you come and see m'wife and m'self tomorrow? A private matter? You could be just the girl we've been looking for, bless my soul!'
The Colonel was far too firmly married and full of military honours to be a threat to Phryne's virtue, or what remained of it, so she agreed. She presented herself at 'Mandalay', the Colonel's country retreat the next day, at about the hour when it is customary for the English to take tea.
'Miss Fisher!' gushed the Colonel's wife, who was not a woman generally given to gushing. 'Do come in! The Colonel has told me how cleverly you caught that young man—never did trust him, reminded me of some of the junior subalterns in the Punjab, the ones who embezzled the mess funds ...'
Phryne was ushered in. The welcome exceeded her deserts and she was instantly suspicious. The last time she had been fawned over with this air of distracted delight was when one county family thought that she was going to take their appalling lounge-lizard of a son off their hands, just because she had slept with him once or twice. The scene when she declined to marry him had been reminiscent of early Victorian melodrama. Phryne feared that she was becoming cynical.
She took her seat at an ebony table and accepted a cup of very good tea. The room was stuffed to bursting with brass Indian gods and carved and inlaid boxes and rich tapestries; she dragged her eyes away from a very well-endowed Kali dancing on dead men with a bunch of decapitated heads in each black hand, and strove to concentrate.
'It's our daughter Lydia,' said the Colonel, getting to the point. 'We are worried about her. She got in with a strange set in Paris, you see, and led a rackety sort of life. But she's a good girl, got her head screwed on and all that, and when she married this Australian we thought that it was the best thing. She seemed happy enough, but when she came to see us last year she was shockingly pale and thin. You ladies like that nowadays, eh? But all skin and bone, can't be good ... er ahem,' faltered the Colonel as he received a forty-volt glare from his wife and lost his thread. 'Er, yes, well, she was perfectly all right after three weeks, went to Paris for a while, and we sent her off to Melbourne brisk as a puppy. Then, as soon as she arrived back, she was sick again. Here is the interesting thing, Miss Fisher: she went to some resort to take a cure, and was well—but as soon as she came back to her husband, she was sick again. And I think ...'
'And I agree with him,' added Mrs Harper portentously. 'That there's something damned odd going on—beg pardon, my dear—and we want some reliable girl to find out.'
'Do you think her husband is poisoning her?'
The Colonel hesitated but his spouse said placidly, 'Well, what would you think?'
Phryne had to agree that the cycle of illness sounded odd, and she was at a loose end. She did not want to stay in her father's house and arrange flowers. She had tried social work but she was sick of the stews and sluts and starvation of London, and the company of the Charitable Ladies was not good for her temper. She had often thought of travelling back to Australia, where she had been born in extreme poverty, and here was an excellent excuse for putting off decisions about her future for half a year.
'Very well, I'll go. But I'll go at my own expense, and I'll report at my leisure. Don't follow me with frantic cables or the whole thing will be U.P. I'll make Lydia's acquaintance on my own, and you will not mention me in any of your letters to her. I'll stay at the Windsor.' Phryne felt a thrill at this. She had last seen that hotel in the cold dawn, as she passed with a load of old vegetables gleaned from the pig-bins of the Victoria Market. 'You can find me there, if it's important. What is Lydia's married name and her address? And tell me—what would her husband inherit if she died?'
'Her husband's name is Andrews, and here is her address. If she dies before him without issue, he inherits fifty thousand pounds.'
'Has she any children?'
'Not yet,' said the Colonel. He produced a bundle of letters. 'Perhaps you'd like to read these,' and he put them down on the tea table. 'They are Lydia's letters. She's a bright little thing, you'll find—very canny about money—but she's besotted with this Andrews feller,' he snorted. Phryne slipped the first envelope and began to read.
The letters were absorbing. Not that they had any literary merit, but Lydia was such an odd mixture. After a dissertation on oil stocks that would not have disgraced an accountant, she indulged in terms of such honeyed sentimentality about her husband that Phryne could hardly bear to read it. My tom-cat has been severe with his mouse because she was dancing with a pretty cat at supper last night, read Phryne with increasing nausea. And it took two hours of stroking before he became my good little kitten again.
Phryne ploughed on while the Colonel's wife kept refilling her tea-cup. After an hour she was awash with tea, and sentiment. The tone became whining after Lydia reached Melbourne. Johnnie goes out to his club and leaves his poor little mouse to pine in her mouse-house ... I was ever so sick but Johnnie just told me I'd over-eaten and went to dinner. There is a rumour that Peruvian Gold is to start their mine again. Don't put any money into it. Their accountant is buying his second car ... I hope that you took my advice about the Shallows property. The land is adjacent to a church right-of-way and thus cannot be overlooked. It will double in value in twenty years ... I have transferred some of my capital to Lloyds, where the interest rate is half a percentage higher ... I'm trying baths and massage with Madame Breda, of Russell Street. I am very ill but Johnnie just laughs at me.
Odd. Phryne copied out the address of Madame Breda in Russell Street and took her leave, before she could be offered any more tea.CHAPTER 2
Or old dependency of day and night Or island solitude, unsponsered, free Of that wide water, inescapable. 'Sunday Morning', Wallace Stevens
Phryne leaned on the ship's rail, listening to the sea-gulls announcing that land was near, and watched for the first hint of sunrise. She had put on her lounging robe, of a dramatic oriental pattern of green and gold, an outfit not to be sprung suddenly on invalids or those of nervous tendencies—and she was rather glad that there was no one on deck to be astonished. It was five o'clock in the morning.
There was a faint gleam on the horizon; Phryne was waiting for the green flash, which she had never seen. She fumbled in her pocket for cigarettes, her holder, and a match. She lit the gasper and dropped the match over the side. The brief flare had unsighted her; she blinked, and ran a hand over her short black cap of hair.
'I wonder what I want to do?' Phryne asked of herself. 'It has all been quite interesting up until now, but I can't dance and game my life away. I suppose I could try for the air race record in the new Avro—or join Miss May Cunliffe in the road-trials of the new Lagonda—or learn Abyssinian—or take to gin—or breed horses—I don't know, it all seems very flat.
'Well, I shall try being a perfect Lady Detective in Melbourne—that ought to be difficult enough—and perhaps something will suggest itself. If not, I can still catch the ski season. It may prove amusing, after all.'
At that moment there came a fast, unrepeatable grass-green flash before the gold and rose of sunrise coloured the sky. Phryne blew the sun a kiss, and returned to her cabin.
* * *
Still wrapped in her robe, she nibbled a little thin toast and contemplated her wardrobe, which was spread out like a picnic over all available surfaces. She poured a cup of China tea and surveyed her costumes with a jaundiced eye.
The weather reports promised clear, mild conditions, and Phryne briefly considered a Chanel knitted silk suit, in beige, and a rather daring coat and skirt in bright red wool but finally selected a fetching sailor suit in dark blue with white piping and a pique collar. The waist dropped below her hips leaving five inches of pleated skirt, which even the parochial taste of Melbourne could not find offensive.
She dressed quickly and soon stood up in cami-knickers and silk stockings which were gartered above the knee, and dark-blue leather shoes with a Louis heel. She examined her face in the fixed mirror as she brushed ruthlessly at her perfectly black, perfectly straight hair, which fell into a neat and shiny cap leaving the nape of her neck and most of her forehead bare. She pulled on a soft dark-blue cloche, and with dexterity born of long practice, sketched her eyebrows, outlined her green-grey eyes with a thin kohl pencil, and added a dab of rouge and a flourish of powder.
She was pouring out her final cup of tea when a tap at the door caused her to dive back into the folds of the robe.
'Come in,' she called, wondering if this was to be another visit from the First Officer, who had conceived a desperate passion for Phryne, a passion which, she was convinced, would last for all of ten minutes once the Orient docked. But the answer reassured her.
'Elizabeth,' announced the caller, and Phryne opened the door and Dr MacMillan came in and seated herself on the stateroom's best chair, the only one free of Phryne's clothes.
'Well, child, we dock in three hours, so that affected young Purser told me,' she said. 'Can you spare the rest of that toast? That blighted woman in steerage produced her brat this morning at three of the clock—babies seem to demand to be born at benighted hours, usually in a thunderstorm—there's something elemental about babies, I find.'
Phryne passed over the tray—which still bore a plate of bacon and eggs and more toast than Phryne could possibly eat after a long day's famine—and surveyed Dr MacMillan affectionately.
She was forty-five if a day, and having had the formidable determination to follow Dr Garret Anderson and struggle to become a doctor, she had had no time for anything else. She was as broad and as strong as a labourer, with the same weatherbeaten complexion and rough, calloused hands. Her hair was pepper-and-salt, cut ruthlessly into a short Eton crop. For convenience, she wore men's clothes, and in them she had a certain rather rugged style.
'Come up, Phryne, and watch for the harbour,' said Dr MacMillan. Phryne slipped the sailor suit on and joined her in the climb to the deck.
Phryne leaned on the rail to watch Melbourne appear as the Orient steamed steadily in through the heads and turned in its course to find the river and Station Pier.
The city was visible, the flag on Government House announcing that the Governor was at home. It appeared to be a much larger city than Phryne remembered, though admittedly she had not been in any position to see it clearly when she had clung to the rail on the way out. Dr MacMillan, at her side, threw a foul cigar overboard and remarked, 'It seems to be a fine big city, well-built stone and steeple.'
'What did you expect? Wattle-and-daub? They aren't savages, you know, Elizabeth! You'll find it much like Edinburgh. Possibly quieter.'
'Ah well, that will be a change,' agreed the doctor. 'Are your trunks packed, Phryne?'
Phryne smiled, conscious of three cabin trunks, two suitcases, a shopping bag and a purse in her cabin, and seven large trunks in the hold, no doubt under a lot of sheep. Her dangerous imports into her native land included a small lady's handgun and a box of bullets for it, plus certain devices of Dr Stopes' which were wrapped in her underwear under an open packet of Ladies' Travelling Necessities to discourage any over-zealous customs official.
They leaned companionably into the wind, watching the city come nearer. The little book in the cabin had informed Phryne that Melbourne was a modern city. Most of it was sewered, had water and in some cases electricity laid on, and there was public transport in the form of trains and trams. Industry was booming, and cars, trucks and motorcycles outnumbered horse transport thirty to one. Most streets were macadamized and the city was well served with a university, several hospitals, a cricket ground, the Athenaeum Club, and a Royal Arcade. Visitors were urged to attend the Flemington races or the football. (Collingwood were last year's premiers, the pamphlet claimed, to Phryne's complete bemusement.) Ladies would appreciate a stroll around the Block Arcade, the shopping highlight of the city, and would admire Walter Burley Griffin's interesting addition to Collins House. The Menzies, Scott's, or the Windsor Hotel were recommended for first-class passengers. Phryne wondered where the steerage passengers were advised to stay. 'Elevator House, I expect,' she said to herself. 'You can always rely on the Salvation Army.'
'Eh? Yes, splendid people,' agreed Dr MacMillan absently, and Phryne realized that she had spoken aloud. Had she been at all used to blushing, she would have blushed, but she wasn't, so she didn't.
Excerpted from Introducing the Honourable Phryne Fisher by Kerry Greenwood. Copyright © 2011 Kerry Greenwood. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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