Last Nocturne: A Mysteryby Marjorie Eccles
What could make a successful, happily married man take a gun and shoot himself? What made a young artist on the brink of fame throw himself to his death?
These are the questions facing Chief Inspector Lamb and his assistant, Detective Sergeant Cogan. Neither victim left a note behind to explain what drove him to take his own life, and it appears/p>/i>… See more details below
What could make a successful, happily married man take a gun and shoot himself? What made a young artist on the brink of fame throw himself to his death?
These are the questions facing Chief Inspector Lamb and his assistant, Detective Sergeant Cogan. Neither victim left a note behind to explain what drove him to take his own life, and it appears that nothing untoward had occurred in the weeks preceding their deaths. Having briefly met both victims, Lamb struggles to connect the impression he gained of the men with their final actions, and his close attention pays off when a postmortem reveals some surprising results.
With one case now looking like a suspicious death, Lamb looks for links between the two men. All paths seem to lead to the enigmatic figure of Mrs. Isobel Amberley and a mysterious event that took place one winter’s night in Vienna.
Beautifully written and highly evocative of the bustling streets of London and Vienna in the early twentieth century, Last Nocturne is an intriguingly complex mystery of passion and the devastating repercussions of a single action.
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By Marjorie Eccles
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 Marjorie Eccles
All rights reserved.
It wasn't Grace's new outfit, worn in hopeful anticipation of spring, that helped her to decide, so much as the ridiculous hat belonging to Mrs Bingley-Corbett in the pew in front. Its brim was wide and flat as a cartwheel, its outsize round crown entirely studded with velvet bees and tiny flowers, so that at a distance it resembled nothing so much as a plum pudding on a plate, perched uncompromisingly on top of her elaborate coiffure. Grace suppressed an urge to laugh but could scarcely help envying Mrs B-C the self-assurance that let her wear such a monstrosity, especially to Evensong.
Not that Grace had any desire to emulate her, modish as such creations now were, restraint in that and many other matters having been abandoned in the years since the death of the puritanical old queen. Indeed, standards had altogether dropped now that Edward, her decidedly more liberal-minded son, occupied the throne, said Robert, disapprovingly. But it would have been nice to be able to think that one could do exactly as one wished for once; to know that being the late Canon Thurley's daughter didn't for ever place one in the shapeless tweeds and dreary hat brigade, something she had at least managed to avoid so far. Yet ... although her own new hat that evening was entirely becoming (burnt straw with silk trimming in shades of yellow and cream, worn with the costume she had made herself, in the new otter-brown colour), seeing that other one had undoubtedly provoked not only a smile, but also fuelled the spark of rebellion and excitement already kindled by that letter. Rebellion about a great many things in her life ... making her reject a more obviously sensible outfit to wear that evening, for instance.
Anyone with any sense would have foreseen that despite the day's sunshine, it might turn chilly at eight o'clock of a Birmingham evening in late March ... but though she was young and fair and pretty, and clever enough to avoid displaying how intelligent she really was, the desire not to be forced into a mould sometimes led Grace to be a little unwise. Shivering in the freedom of the unconstricting corded silk, she was forced to admit that Robert's sister Edith had undoubtedly scored a point by wearing the thick maroon tailor-made, hideous and heavy though it was, and wished that she herself was not so often compelled to try and prove something or other – albeit only to herself.
Still, there it was; and as she came out of church on Robert's arm, she knew her mind was finally made up, and all because of Mrs Bingley-Corbett's hat. In the face of all advice to the contrary, she would accept Mrs Martagon's offer and – here her resolution almost, but not quite, faltered – give Robert his ring back.
Awkwardly sharing an umbrella with him down the Hagley Road – for rain had now added to the unpleasantness of the evening – provided no opportunity to broach the subject. Robert was obsessed at the moment by the necessity to persuade his father to buy a motorcar in which to make their rounds, rather than the pony-trap his father, Dr Latimer, had always used and trusted and saw no reason to forsake. Such an outmoded form of transport did not become an up-and-coming young doctor, said Robert, and he could lately think and talk of nothing else but the relative merits of Wolseley and Siddeley, notwithstanding the outlay of a couple of hundred pounds. Understanding nothing of either, Grace could only listen and interject non-committal remarks at suitable intervals.
Later, feeling slightly warmer in the steamy heat of the gloomy conservatory at his family home in Charlotte Road, her back to the sodden lawns and even gloomier shrubbery beyond, she managed to screw up her courage. The first fatal words having been uttered, Robert stood facing her, outraged.
'The Honourable Mrs Martagon?' he repeated, as if unable to believe his ears. 'London?' As though Mrs Martagon were the Empress of China and the capital, not above a hundred miles distant, Outer Mongolia.
Straddle-legged, well-barbered, clean-shaven, thumbs in his waistcoat pockets, he waited for further enlightenment, but it seemed that her original astonishing explanation had exhausted in Grace any further capacity for speech, and she faced him uncharacteristically dumb, with lowered eyes. They were her best feature, a dark, smoky blue, but she was afraid they might give her away.
'Well?' Although not yet quite thirty, Robert Latimer was already inclined to plumpness, and the unprecedented announcement had caused his face to grow quite pink, giving him a slightly porcine appearance. 'Why was I not informed of all this earlier?'
Despite his pompousness, Grace was beginning to feel that perhaps she had behaved badly in not having acquainted him with Mrs Martagon's letter the moment it had arrived. She was, after all, engaged to be married to him (when he considered the time was ripe; when he had established himself, as he put it. Meaning, Grace assumed, when his father had retired from the medical practice they shared, an event which did not seem at all likely in the foreseeable future), so he did have the right to know. On the other hand, if she had told him, she knew with certainty that he would have dismissed the matter out of hand before she'd had time even to consider it, as he was all set to do now.
'I think you owe me an explanation,' he asserted, reasonably enough. He never made a diagnosis until he was fully in possession of all the facts, and now he led her to the rather uncomfortable wrought-iron bench between a bank of ferns and a glossy aspidistra, and took her hands, which were trembling and cold even now, and still bore the engagement ring on her finger.
Grace was afraid her explanations weren't going to satisfy him. Even her mother was against her only child committing herself to what was being suggested, despite – or more likely because of – her long acquaintance with Edwina Martagon.
The letter had come out of the blue. Mrs Martagon had written to ask if her dearest friend Rosamund would be prepared to let Grace help her out over the period of the next twelve months: she was in need of someone of good family, nicely brought up, who wouldn't be an embarrassment living in her house in London, to assist her with her voluminous correspondence and keep track of all the details of her extremely busy social life. Especially would this be necessary over this coming year when she was already making preparations for her daughter Dulcie's coming out, next year. Such help as Grace would be required to give would not be onerous, Mrs Martagon had assured them, and though one didn't wish, naturally, to dwell on such things, there would of course be a small remuneration – a delicate reference to Rosamund Thurley's reduced circumstances after the death of her husband. And perhaps Grace might also act as companion to Dulcie until she came out and found a suitable man to marry, which occurrences, Mrs Martagon confidently implied, would be simultaneous. And all this, of course, would also mean the opportunity for Grace to get about in society and become acquainted with people ... and perhaps to find a suitable young man for herself. Mrs Martagon had allowed her correspondence with 'her dearest friend' Rosamund to grow desultory over the years, and she didn't yet know of Grace's recent engagement.
'All the same, you can't possibly do it,' said Grace's mother, quite sharply for her. 'I know Edwina. What she really means is that she wants you to run after her and pick up the pieces and deal with all the boring things, like addressing her envelopes and sorting her stockings. I never knew a more disorganised girl – how she managed to be always so well turned out was the greatest mystery – and I don't see why she should have changed.'
'Doesn't she have a maid?'
'Now, now, Grace, you know perfectly well what I mean. Of course she has a maid. Edwina has never had to lift a finger for herself in all her life. The only reason she's written now is because she can't find anyone else ... you'd never have a moment to call your own. Her last secretary – for in plain words that's what you'd be – went downstairs one morning with her bags packed and a taxicab waiting, and smashed all the china in the breakfast room before she left for ever. Nervous breakdown, poor thing. Don't forget, I've known her a long time, since we came out together, when she was still Edwina Chaddesley.'
To prove her point, Mrs Thurley lifted the plum-coloured, velvet-covered, seed pearl-embroidered album from the sofa table and opened it at a photograph of two eighteen-year-old girls taken in the dresses they had worn to their first ball: both in white, of course, Rosamund fair and sweet, with a chaplet of roses on her head, her companion a proud-looking beauty even then, with a glorious mass of wavy hair, a firm chin and a determined lift of the head. Yet, of the two, Rosamund had been the first to marry, and it had been for love. Only a younger son who had gone into the Church, alas, and one, moreover, who was never destined to reach high clerical office, but it had been a love which lasted all their life together. Whereas Edwina, who had been expected to marry into the aristocracy at least, had not received any such offers and had eventually settled on Eliot Martagon, the scion of an undistinguished family. There were compensations, however, which presumably made up for her disappointment. Eliot's father, as a young man, had gone out to South Africa for a spell and had made a great deal of money in the goldfields.
New money of this sort paved the way to a life of idleness for many a young man, but it did just the opposite for Eliot, freeing him to pursue more seriously his particular interests, which lay in the visual art world. Eliot was an artist manqué, but he was honest enough to see and admit soon enough the gap between his ambitions and his capabilities. Although frustrated, he hung around the fringes of the art world for a while, until eventually he found he did have a gift after all – one which lay in discovering and promoting those more talented than himself. He had begun by making a modest but interesting collection of pictures on his own behalf, which led to commissions to do the same for friends and acquaintances. After his father died, he had been able to buy a small and exclusive gallery, the Pontifex, just off Bond Street. As his knowledge increased, the scope of his enterprise widened considerably, necessitating much time spent in the various capitals of Europe and later in America, where he found patrons with wealth enough to buy what they wanted and what he could supply. After that, there had been no stopping him.
'I suppose they complemented each other,' said Mrs Thurley, closing the album. 'Edwina is asked everywhere – perhaps not into the very grandest circles, but by people with the right connections, you know – which cannot but have helped him. And she's always been known as a brilliant hostess.' She mused on this for a while. 'She would make a slave out of you.'
'Only if I let her,' Grace had replied coolly.
'Dearest, I really don't believe I should give this idea my blessing,' Mrs Thurley said, though not quite as firmly as she might have done had she not been thinking of the opportunities such a sojourn in society might open for Grace ... if only she hadn't already been engaged to be married, that is. 'Besides, there's that other matter.'
'Mama, that was something Mrs Martagon couldn't possibly help.'
'Of course not. But it leaves a stain on the family.'
There had never been any satisfactory explanation for why Eliot Martagon, a man in excellent health whose private life was beyond reproach, his business flourishing, his affairs in perfect order, his wife and children excellently provided for, should have shot himself dead six months ago. To be sure, his business assistant had stated at the inquest that he hadn't seemed quite himself for some little time, though he couldn't specify in precisely what way, and could offer no explanation of anything that might have been troubling him. He'd left no note behind him to explain why such a good-humoured, popular and kindly man at the height of his success should have taken this terrible step, and a verdict of accidental death while cleaning his gun – more acceptable than suicide – had eventually been given.
'It's only for a year, Mama.' Grace, for all the level-headed self-control she tried so hard to maintain, couldn't keep a trace of wistfulness from her voice. That one year beckoned so very enticingly: twelve months in a world far removed from her placid, uneventful, boring existence here, largely bounded by church activities, arranging the flowers, doing a little shopping, and passing a feather duster over her mother's more cherished ornaments. A life which would be replicated a hundredfold when she married Robert.
Rosamund sighed as she met the blue, direct and sometimes incomprehensible gaze of her only child. She and Grace were very close, but there were times when she failed to understand her daughter. She took her face between her hands and kissed her forehead. 'Dear child, I'm very aware you haven't had the chances you should have had in life. But you're a good daughter, and I wouldn't want to see you making mistakes. It's your own decision, of course, but do think very carefully about what it will mean. To you – and to Robert,' she added, hesitating slightly. 'A year can be a very long time.' She was determined to like Robert and always tried to be fair to him, since Grace had accepted to be his wife.
So Grace had agreed dutifully to consider before making a decision, and now that she had, she'd made a fudge of it, in telling Robert so baldly. And here he was, standing in front of her, arms folded, tapping his foot, still waiting for her reply.
He drew in his breath and she felt him taking hold of his temper. 'Come, Grace, this isn't at all like you. What can you be thinking of – putting yourself at the beck and call of this woman? What on earth is it all about, hmm?'
Surely one should be able to confide one's deepest feelings to the man one had, until half an hour ago, been about to marry? Goodness knows, Grace had tried, so many times before, but any attempt to do so invariably brought a frown of embarrassment to Robert's face. At the beginning of their acquaintance, she'd hoped for so much. Just after her father had died, she had been sad and lonely, eager for affection, and Robert had been kind and, at first dazzled and admiring of someone so different from himself and his sisters, only too willing to give it. They'd played tennis together and shared country walks, bicycle rides and lectures at the Margaret Street Institute ... Robert took himself and his pleasures seriously. They saw each other constantly. Only gradually did she face the fact that he automatically decried the things which amused and interested her ... books, concerts, theatres or art exhibitions, all of which he regarded as frivolous; when he couldn't avoid them, he gulped them down as if they were some of the nastier medicines he doled out to his patients. Once or twice lately, it had occurred to her that their paths were running on parallel lines which would never converge. She had pushed such thoughts to the back of her mind. Now, she couldn't help being thankful that her eyes had been opened in time, before either of them had truly committed themselves, finally and irrevocably, to a marriage that could only in the end prove stale and unprofitable.
'Plunging into this without thought,' he was continuing, his tone appreciably colder at her failure to reply, 'I regard it as an irresponsibility. You are considering no one but yourself in this matter, Grace.'
That wasn't quite fair. Her mother, and the difference it would make to her, had been a very real factor in Grace's decision. The 'small remuneration' Mrs Martagon had offered was in fact extremely generous and would relieve Rosamund of responsibility for Grace and enable her to go and live at Frinton-on-Sea with her sister Lettie, also widowed, which was what she wanted above all things. Mrs Thurley had always disliked Birmingham.
'You must think again,' Robert commanded, 'but I have to say, Grace, as the man who is shortly to be your husband, I think you are being extremely selfish.'
'Perhaps I am, in a way, but please don't be bitter, Robert.' She was very distressed at having hurt him – and he hadn't yet heard the worst of it. She breathed deeply. 'I – don't believe either of us has been very wise to think of marrying each other.'
Excerpted from Last Nocturne by Marjorie Eccles. Copyright © 2008 Marjorie Eccles. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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