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The glories of our blood and state
`No,' said Mrs Maisie Carruthers somewhat breathlessly. She was lying propped up in a hospital bed looking very frail, a tiny little figure amidst the pillows. `Never.'
`But Mummy ...' Ned Carruthers still called his mother that largely because he had lacked the courage to change when change had been possible. Now his mother objected to change of any sort.
Which was part of the trouble today.
`No,' said Mrs Carruthers again. She started drumming her hands on the sheets.
`But Mummy, the doctor says ...'
Mrs Carruthers had lived too long to be overly concerned with medical opinion. `The doctor said I wouldn't lived more than a year.'
`That was when you were a baby,' responded Ned patiently, having heard this tale many times before. `Things were different then. Now, Mummy, the ward sister suggests that ...'
`No,' said Mrs Carruthers rather less breathlessly.
`The doctor says,' repeated Ned, reverting to the higher medical authority and trying hard to think of his mother as a particularly difficult and recalcitrant client and treat her accordingly, `that you're not fit to go home and live there alone any longer.'
`He can't stop me.' Mrs Carruthers folded her matchstick arms across her chest in an attitude that the behavioural psychologists had good reason to deem aggressive.
`And neither can you,' remarked Mrs Carruthers belligerently.
It was significant that Ned Carruthers was not looking at his mother but was instead staring out of the window of the ward. He was a landscape architect by profession and had in his mind's eye already redesigned for the better the singularly unattractive hospital grounds. Wouldn't the powers that be ever understand that the sight of a decent garden induced as much healing as did their precious pills and potions?
`No, Mummy,' agreed Ned absently. In his mother's case it hadn't been pills and potions that she had needed but an operation. It had been an accident -- a fall, actually -- that had taken her into hospital, the classic 'old lady's accident' that had resulted in the broken neck of a femur. Now she'd got a spanking new hip and they'd said she could go on for years.
But not at home.
`I'll just die in here instead,' said Mrs Carruthers, at the same moment as, in his mind, Ned had grubbed out those ghastly yew trees -- a reminder of a churchyard if ever there was one -- and mentally moved a barely tolerable flower bed. He continued his train of thought, in imagination restocking the flower bed with low-maintenance, sweet-scented flowering shrubs and resiting it over by the rustic garden bench presented in memory of a former -- and late -- patient.
`Or at home,' his mother added, since he didn't appear to be paying attention.
Ned's wife, Stella, was on record as having said that she didn't think her mother-in-law had any intention of dying in the hospital, at home or anywhere else.
`Yes, Mummy,' he said. `I mean, no.' He took a deep breath and reluctantly abandoned thinking about the desirability of having a pleached horn-beam trellis put in to catch the eye at the far end of the grounds and disguise what looked suspiciously like a mortuary chapel. `However, as it is, the Manor at Almstone ...'
`No,' said his mother.
`The Manor at Almstone,' he persisted, `just happens to have an empty room.'
Maisie Carruthers sat up. `Who's died?' she asked sharply.
`Someone called Mrs Gertrude Powell,' he said unwillingly, a spasm of genuine pity crossing his face. After all, it couldn't be much fun living on and watching all your friends and contemporaries predecease you. `Did you know her?'
`Me, know Gertie Powell?' The old lady gave a high cackle. `Course I did. The Pride of the Regiment, we called her.'
`I'm sorry ...' he stumbled.
`Catnip to men,' said Mrs Carruthers succinctly.
`I understand that Captain Markyate is a patient there at the Manor, too,' said Ned. Peter Markyate had been a feature of his own childhood in the shadowy role of honorary uncle.
`All gong and no dinner,' said the old lady elliptically.
Ned thought he'd better get back to the matter in hand. `Because of Mrs Powell having died,' he said, `they're willing to have you at the Manor as soon as you're ready to leave here.'
This was more than could be said for Stella, who was most definitely not willing to have her mother-in-law to live with them in their house. Ned was hoping that he would be able to avoid having to say this.
`Immediately, in fact,' said her son.
`You're eligible to go there because of Daddy,' persisted Ned. He had already discussed his mother's position at length with the doctor, the ward sister and the social worker. What he hadn't liked about their discussions was the constant use by the healing professions of the phrase `disposal of the patient'. It smacked to him rather too much of the phrase `disposal of the remains'. Glancing down at his mother now he realized that perhaps those three experienced professionals weren't quite so far off the mark as he'd first thought. She was nothing but a bag of bones.
`No,' said Mrs Carruthers again.
A bag of bones with a mind of its own, of course, sighed Ned to himself. And a tongue. He said aloud, `It's a very nice place. Some people would give their eye teeth to get in there ...'
The Manor at Almstone -- one of the younger Robert Smythson's minor works -- had been the ancestral home of a young man killed in 1915 in that fearsome culling of heirs called the Battle of Loos. His sorrowing parents, without other lineal descendants, had left a perfect jewel of a Calleshire Tudor manor house to their son's old Regiment -- the Fearnshires -- in perpetuity 'for the comfort and welfare of former members of the Regiment and their families for all time ... the Colonel of the Regiment for the time being and the Regimental Chaplain to be joint trustees'.
`No,' reiterated Mrs Carruthers with spirit.
`Daddy always wanted you to go there,' ventured Ned, although he knew that this could not by any stretch of the imagination be called a trump card. The late Major General Hector Carruthers might have been a fine figure of a man, a force to be reckoned with in regimental affairs and a pillar of society, but it was generally agreed that his remit had never ever run inside his own front door.
`No,' said the major general's widow flatly.
It took the best part of an hour, during which she had conducted a strategic retreat worthy of a five-star general, before Mrs Maisie Carruthers agreed to be admitted to the Manor at Almstone. She had fought every yard of the way, only yielding an inch at a time, before tearfully dismissing her only son as heartless and uncaring. She finally conceded defeat, sinking dramatically back on her pillows, her eyes apparently closed in both mental and physical pain.
Ned Carruthers, wrung dry of every emotion save guilt, bent down and kissed her forehead, brushing aside her wispy white hair to do so. `Bye-bye, Mummy,' he said, feeling reduced to a frazzle and fit for nothing -- and most certainly not for his wife's tart observations. Stella, he knew, would be notably unsympathetic to his exhaustion. `I'm sure you'll settle down there all right,' he said, sounding unconvincing even to himself.
Mrs Carruthers waited until she heard the ward door close behind him before she opened her eyes again. Making sure that Ned had really and truly gone and that she was now quite alone, she sat up and removed her dentures. Then she sank back on her plumped-up pillows, an expression of great satisfaction on her old face.
From the very beginning she had always had every intention when the time came of ending her days at Almstone Manor. However, she had seen no reason at all for giving in and going there without a struggle.
Now if she found anything there not to her liking it would be well known that she had never wanted to go to the Manor in the first place -- even, perhaps, that she had been forced there against her will by her unfeeling family.
Which should make it very much easier for her to leave the place in high dudgeon if things didn't work out the way she wanted.
Most important of all, though, was that before she got to Almstone Manor, Brigadier Hamish MacIver should hear that she hadn't ever wanted to come there in the first place ...
The morning after she arrived there the gentleman in question was preparing to mount the steps of the great brass lectern in Almstone Church. He had been invited -- as befitted his position as one of the most senior residents at the Manor -- to give a reading at Mrs Gertude Powell's funeral. Brigadier Hamish MacIver was every inch the retired military man. That is to say he was as spick and span as it was humanly possible for an elderly officer with arthritis but without a batman to be.
He had marched from his pew to the foot of the lectern just as one day long ago he had marched across the parade ground at Sandhurst. He had halted in front of the two carpeted steps and climbed them stiffly now with a care not entirely unassociated with the wearing of bifocal spectacles.
`The reading,' he announced, `is from the Book of Psalms.' As he straightened the page, he spared a glance for the front pew and still registered an absentee from Gertie Powell's obsequies. It was just as he had thought when he had first cast a look in that direction from his own pew. Gertie's son, Lionel, wasn't there.
He gave a silent sniff. Trust that stiff, acidulous windbag Lionel Powell not to get to the church on time, even for his own mother's funeral. Civil servants were like that, of course. In his own mind, the Brigadier had always equated civil servants with the General Staff. Good on paper; no good at all when it came to action on the front line. Only they would call the front line the `cutting edge' or something equally meaningless these days ... nothing was the same any more.
`Psalm one hundred and twenty-one,' declared MacIver. He saw, though, that there was a brace of young girls sitting in the front pew reserved for the family mourners. Most probably, decided the Brigadier, they were Lionel's two daughters -- Gertie's granddaughters -- and kept from her as much as possible by Lionel and his stuffy wife. What a pity it was, he thought in passing, that the wooden fronts of the pews in this church went all the way down to the floor because one of the girls looked as if she might have good ankles.
Hamish MacIver gave a nostalgic sigh, gripped the sides of the lectern firmly, and began to read aloud. `I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,' he said, `from whence cometh my help ...'
Only the help had never come, not when he had wanted it, two days out of Mersa Matruh in that terrible wadi. All he had seen then when lifting his tired, sand-blown eyes to the hills were enemy tanks. Unbidden as usual, the memory of desert warfare intruded into his thoughts. He strove, as always, to banish the spectre. Cognitive therapy, they called the treatment for shell-shock now. They even called shell-shock something else these days.
Nothing stayed the same any more. Nothing.
`My help cometh from the Lord,' he read, concentrating on the words in front of him. He'd noticed these flashbacks were happening more and more frequently these days. `Which made heaven and earth.'
Perhaps Lionel Powell hadn't come to the funeral today on purpose -- making a last gesture of disapproval towards the mother whom he'd always regarded more than a little censoriously. The Brigadier dismissed this possibility almost at once. Not only, until the service had started, had the front pew's two occupants kept on turning to look expectantly towards the south door but, in his book, Lionel didn't have enough spunk to do something like that.
Damn silly name to give a boy ... Hamish MacIver pulled himself up with a jerk as he remembered why Gertie's son was given the name of Lionel. Only Gertie would have named her son after the most senior officer in the battalion and not her husband. Trust Gertie. She just didn't care. Never had.
`He will not suffer thy foot to be moved,' read on the Brigadier evenly, `he that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep ...' At least the psalmist knew what he was writing about -- that bit might have been written especially for watch-keepers and ... sentries. Don't even think about sentries, the old soldier adjured himself sternly, and certainly not about a foot that moved. Think about something that didn't matter. Think about whether Miss Ritchie was here in the church today and whether she'd contrived to sit next to old Walter Bryant as usual. No power on earth could keep Miss Ritchie out of a church if she wanted to enter it and well she knew it. There was no ecclesiastical law yet about whom you sat next to in church, either, whatever Walter Bryant's two daughters might have liked.
The Brigadier worked his way through the psalm, conscious that at least as far as Gertie Powell was concerned the reading had been a better choice for the occasion than the anthem. The Rector had chosen the anthem -- but then the Rector hadn't really known Gertie. Not in her heyday, anyway. Otherwise he wouldn't ever have had all those innocent-looking choirboys up there singing Purcell's famous anthem `Thou Knowest Thou, Lord, the Secrets of Our Hearts' while looking as if butter wouldn't melt in their mouths. He, Hamish MacIver, could tell them a thing or two about secrets, all right.
`The Lord is thy keeper,' declaimed the Brigadier in his customary clipped military tones. `The Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night ...'
He nearly faltered then. The sun had smitten them all day in the wadi and the moon had brought no comfort at all ... With a conscious effort of will, Brigadier Hamish MacIver contemplated the two girls -- young women really -- in the front pew. One of them looked so like her grandmother that he didn't need to see what her ankles were like.
He could guess.
The other girl had more of the look of Lionel's tedious wife, Julia. Lionel's wife's ankles were no good at all -- and the rest of her wasn't much better. And condemnatory with it into the bargain. Not that Gertie had cared about that either.
`The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil.' He tried to read the rest of the psalm automatically and without thinking about the words. He didn't quite succeed. `He shall preserve thy soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in ...' Only He hadn't. Not in the wadi. Not everyone. `From this time forth, and even for evermore.' MacIver shut the Bible firmly and said, `Amen'.
`Amen,' said the congregation.
The Brigadier found getting down from the lectern more difficult than getting to it had been. Not only was there his gammy leg but there was his arthritis ... Matron -- Mrs Peden -- knew only too well about both disabilities and was watching him from the other side of the church. He could see her out of the corner of his eye looking at him now, as anxious as he was that he didn't fall. He murmured her little aide-memoire under his breath -- the rest of the congregation probably thought he was praying. `Up with the good, down with the bad,' he chanted to himself, as he carefully sank his weight onto his wounded leg, bringing the good one gratefully down beside it without disaster. He rephrased the mnemonic. `Good foot first to heaven, bad foot first to hell.' That wasn't such a bad sentiment for reciting in church anyway.
Hamish MacIver straightened his shoulders and marched back to his own seat, resolving that as soon as he decently could he'd make his way over to Matron and find out if she knew why Lionel and Julia Powell weren't there at the funeral. She'd know what had happened to them. Bound to. Matron -- like all matrons -- made it her business to know that sort of thing. Indeed, Mrs Peden always did know everything -- well, very nearly everything.
But even Muriel Peden didn't know where Lionel Powell and his wife were. And at that precise moment only a very few people did.
One of those who did know was Detective Inspector C.D. Sloan of F Division of the Calleshire Constabulary.
This was because Lionel and Julia Powell were at the police station in Berebury.