Sunshine, parties and a murder; a typical summer for Campionclassic British crime writing at its best
Campion's glorious summer in Pontisbright is blighted by death. Amidst the preparations for Minnie and Tonker Cassand's fabulous summer party, a murder is discovered, and it falls to Campion to unravel the intricate web of motive, suspicion, and deduction with all his imagination and skill.
About the Author
Margery Allingham (1904–1966) was a crime writer best-known for her novels featuring gentleman sleuth Albert Campion.
Date of Birth:May 20, 1904
Date of Death:June 30, 1966
Place of Birth:London
Place of Death:Colchester, Essex, England
Education:Endsleigh House School, Colchester; the Perse School, Cambridge; and the Regent Street Polytechnic, London
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TWO DEAD MEN
IT was no time for dying. The summer had arrived in glory, trailing fathomless skies and green and gold and particolour as fresh as sunrise, yet death was about, twice.
All through what was left of the first day, one body lay hidden between the steep sides of the dry ditch, secret on a bed of leaves. From the moment when it had toppled so suddenly from the plank bridge leading to the stile it had vanished from sight. The green waves of ribbon grass and periwinkle which fringed the verges had parted as it passed, to swing up again immediately, so that there was now only one way of catching a glimpse of it. That was to step down on the other side, where the chasm was wider and less overgrown, stoop under the bridge where lichen and black fungus made an evil ceiling, and peer into the translucent tunnel beyond.
On the second day only one person did that and no one else passed that way at all.
On the third day in the very early morning, when the sky was a dazzling white and the grass was grey and beaded with dew, there was much unusual foot traffic on the path which led over the stile from the house to the village. Among the first to pass were two rather alarming old women. Each carried a sinister bag, wore very tidy clothes, and spoke with hushed excitement. They rested at the stile, discussing death and the grisly office they had come to perform for it, but neither glanced behind her at the hanging grasses or dreamed for one moment that beneath them lay a second waiting form whose stiffened limbs would have, by that time, taxed all their experience.
Later on that day, when the sun was up, there was much coming and going. Several people from the house made short cuts to the village, and one shook out a shopping bag over the ditch so that with the dust three small items fell idly through the leaves. These were a pin and a paper-clip and a small bronze bead.
The undertaker himself walked that way, since the journey was so much shorter from his wheel-wright's shop than if he had got out his car and gone round by the road. He tripped through the meadows, looking incongruous in his black suit with his rule sticking out of his breast pocket and his face carefully composed for his first glimpse of the bereaved.
After him, in the afternoon, came the ladies, walking in twos and threes, wearing hats and gloves and carrying kind little notes and nosegays to leave at the door. Nearly all paused on the stile for a first glimpse of the water-meadows, flower-spangled and lace-edged in the yellow light, but not one noticed if there was any new and unusual wear on the planks, or observed that there was something dark and different on the edge of a rusty ploughshare which lay on a bald patch under the oak overshadowing the bridge.
It was dark before the one person who now knew the way dared to clamber down under the planks and, with head bent to avoid the lichen, lit a single match and held it high. The body was still there.
It was still there on the next night and the next, but by now it was limp and shrunken into the earth which would not open to receive it.
On the evening of the sixth day there was a quarrel at the stile. Two country lovers met there and the boy was restless and importunate. But the girl, who was at that strange age when every sense is sharpened, took a sudden inexplicable loathing to the place and would not listen. He argued with her and his smooth face was hot and his hair-grease reeked of roses as he nuzzled into her neck. He whispered that the place was so deserted, so hidden with the spreading tree above them making for darkness, and the steep artificial slope of an embankment providing a screen on one side. But her disgust, which was not for him as she supposed, was overpowering and she thrust him off. He caught at her dress as she climbed away but she struck out at him, caught him more sharply than she had intended, and rushed off down the path sobbing, principally in apprehension. He remained where he was, frustrated and hurt, and he was almost in tears when he dragged the packet of cigarettes out of his pocket. He had only two left of the posh kind which, together with the hair-grease, he kept for courting nights, and when he lit the second one he threw the empty carton over his shoulder into the periwinkle fronds. It slid down out of sight and came to rest on a crumpled lapel.
The boy finished his angry smoking very quickly and kicked the stub into the planks at his feet. Finding he derived a sort of satisfaction from the exercise, he went on kicking, doing a certain amount of damage to the surface of the wood, and afterwards, when he stepped into the meadow, he kept clear of the uncut hay-crop from force of habit but trod the other way under the tree and kicked a lump of iron he found there, lifting it up at last with the toe of one of his best shoes and sending it neatly into the path. It was grey dusk by then and he did not look at the thing at all closely, but suddenly wearying both of the pursuit and of all women turned abruptly and walked back to the village and the telly, which would be showing in the back bar of The Gauntlett.
He had been gone a full twenty minutes before the watcher, who had been sitting up behind a bramble bush on the high embankment throughout the entire proceedings, came sliding down to the path. Once again the nightly performance with the match took place, but this time the glance in the flickering light was perfunctory and the investigator withdrew hastily and went along the path for the ploughshare. A foot turned it over gently and the match flame spurted once more, but by now the stains which had been dark were brown as the rust on the iron. The feet slipped away.
A police constable in uniform, taking a walk in the scented night in an unenthusiastic search for something he would have described as "certain activities only natural but about what there have been complaints", found the ploughshare by falling over it. He picked it up, saw what it was by the light of the stars, and carried it almost into the village. On the outskirts he passed a rubbish dump sunk in the hollow of a dried-up pond and decently screened by shrubs. The constable had size and strength and in his youth could fling a quoit with any man in Suffolk. Spreading his chest, he swung his arm once, twice, and at the third time sent the share with the stain and the single shred of fur-felt still upon it, high and free into the arch of the sky. Seconds later he heard the satisfying crash and tinkle as it came to rest amid a nest of old iron and broken bottles.
On the seventh day, the one person who had watched over the body robbed it systematically. It was unpleasant work but it was done thoroughly, in daylight at dinnertime, the one sacred hour in rural England when all visiting is taboo and no one walks abroad. There were no observers and it was entirely fortuitous that when the pathetic shred of a thing was again at peace the cigarette carton lay under the withered right hand.
On the eighth day the inevitable occurred and a large and sagacious dog came into the field.
"Good-morning. What a nice little funeral it was, wasn't it? Just the right time of year for flowers. That always makes it so much more gay."
The sensible-looking woman with the white collar on her neat cotton frock went on cutting faded blossoms out of the wreaths on Uncle William's grave, and the wind, which always played round the hilltop church at Pontisbright, ruffled the few strands of grey in her glossy hair.
Mr. Campion, who was standing rather foolishly holding a belated wreath which the village postman had given him, because he "didn't think it quite the ticket for the old P.O. to deliver direct", wondered who on earth she was.
"That's another, is it?" she enquired, scarcely glancing up. "Give it here and I'll see what I can do with it. Dear me, it has got knocked about, hasn't it?"
She rose easily to her feet and, taking the tribute with firm capable hands, held it at arm's length, turning it round to find the card.
"From all in the Buffer Company, Swansea, to the best old Buffer of all," she read aloud. "How extraordinary. Oh I see, they're acting one of his musical comedies. How inefficient theatrical people are, aren't they? Two days late and not really a very suitable message."
"Better than 'best wishes'," said Mr. Campion, his pale face flushing slightly.
She stared at him and laughed. "Oh yes, of course," she said, only too obviously turning up his card in some mental filing system, "you're so amusing, aren't you?"
Mr. Campion took off his spectacles and gave her what was for him a long hard look. She was coming back to him now. He had seen but not spoken to her. She had sat some pews ahead of himself and Amanda at the funeral service and had worn a black suit and a nice sensible pot hat. She was somebody's secretary and had one of those nicknames which indicate the somewhat nervous patronage of employers — Jonesy, was it? Or no, he had it now, Pinky, short for Pinkerton.
Presently, as he had said nothing, she started to tell him about himself in a helpful way, as though he had forgotten his own name or where he was. He thought at first that she was only refreshing her own memory, or airing it, rather, to show him how splendidly efficient she was, but after a moment or so he realised that he had misjudged her and she was merely taking the opportunity to straighten out some of her facts.
"You like to be known as Mr. Albert Campion," she said, and although her tone was arch she spoiled any ingratiating effect by keeping her eyes on a really dirty little rosebud which did not care to be detached from its wiry bed. "And you've been on holiday at the Mill House with your wife and little son for nearly a fortnight while Miss Huntingforest who lives at the mill is in America. Miss Huntingforest is a New Englander."
Mr. Campion made an affirmative noise, or the beginning of one, but she forestalled him.
"I do like to get everything tidy," she explained, starting on a solid cross of red carnations. "I know you both knew the village long ago when your wife lived here with Miss Huntingforest, and you were mixed up in all that romantic business when her brother regained the title. But Lady Amanda refers to Harriet Huntingforest as her aunt, and yet Lady Amanda is not an American."
"Er — no," said Mr. Campion.
"But you both called Mr. Faraday Uncle William," Miss Pinkerton continued, fixing him suddenly with very clear and intelligent hazel eyes and tapping on the grave with her scissors as if William Faraday was actually visible. "He has been living here at The Beckoning Lady with the Cassands for the past twelve years and Minnie Cassands is half an American."
The tall thin man with the very smooth yellow-white hair and the blank expression met her gaze with deceptive mildness.
"Quite," he agreed.
She was misled into sharpness. "Quite?"
"Quite half. Minnie Cassands' father was Daniel St. George Straw, who was the second most famous American painter of the Victorian-Edwardian golden age. His great-great-grandmother, so he always said, was Princess Pocahontas, and she was as American as the Eagle."
"Was she indeed?" Either she was not interested or she did not believe him. Her mind was still on the family. "Yet Mr. Faraday was no relation?"
"Nor of yours either."
"I see." It was evident that she gave up for the time being and she continued her work on the flowers. "Eighty-two and he drank, didn't he?" she remarked just as Campion was turning away. "What a very happy release for everybody."
Before this monstrous epitaph Mr. Campion paused aghast. He was no graveyard man by nature and the pompes funèbres had little charm for him, but Uncle William had been Uncle William and he was quite prepared to see him sitting up suddenly among the petals, looking like the mannequin from the cover of Esquire and 'dotting', as he would have described it, this ministering female with the half-bottle which was doubtless in his shroud.
Mr. Campion turned back. "Forgive me," he said with the gentleness of studied attack, "but who are you?"
She was not put out, merely amazed. "Oh dear!" she exclaimed, conveying he was a silly man, wasn't he, "how odd you must have thought me. I'm Pinky." And then, since he still looked vague, "Mr. Genappe, you know. I'm his secretary, or one of them. I've been with him for nineteen years." The slight bridling movement, the bursting pride and the drop in the voice put him in the picture and explained the 'wholly more important than thou' approach. Here was the loyalty of the devotee, the reverence of the acolyte. He realised that the mystique must be money and not the man. She could hardly feel that way about poor old Fanny Genappe, who had not that sort of personality. Goodness knows where he was, poor beast. Sitting on his little rock in the Hebrides watching a bird, very probably, both of them bored as sin.
Francis Genappe was the most unfortunate of the three last multimillionaires in Europe, for he had inherited not only his family's money but also their reputation for philanthropy, two attributes which, taken in conjunction, approximated as far as Mr. Campion could see to the dubious honour of being the original butter in the mouth of the dog. As Campion recollected him, he was civilised, over-sensitive and something of a wit, the last person on earth to have to encounter his fellow-men almost solely through the medium of the heartrending hard-luck story. Doubtless the lady with the scissors was part of his armoured plate. She seemed to have the right surface. He said aloud:
"I heard he'd bought the farm on the hill. Potter's Hall, isn't it?"
"Not now," she assured him with a brief kind smile. "Mr. Genappe has so much of the surrounding land that it's now called the Pontisbright Park Estate, to distinguish it from the Earl's little holding. He's your brother-in-law, by the way."
Mr. Campion knew he was, but forebore to comment. She was still speaking and still snipping.
"Lord Pontisbright only owns the Mill and the woodlands, and he lives in South Africa most of the time." She made it sound a complete explanation. "Potter's Hall has been utterly transformed now that so much work has been done on it. If you'd care to see it while you're down here I'm sure Mr. Genappe wouldn't mind."
"Has he seen it?"
"Not since the alterations. Mr. Genappe is out of England, naturally."
Mr. Campion hesitated. This was all very well in its chatty way, but what exactly the good lady thought she was doing fiddling about with Uncle William's obsequies remained obscure. He indicated the expanse of granite and marble, the ancient crosses and the modern bird-baths.
"Have you taken over this too?"
She considered him for a full second and decided it was a joke.
"Not yet," she laughed, entering into the jolly spirit of the thing. "We merely pay for it, I expect, through the rates. No, I'm just doing this to help Mrs. Cassands. I always do what I can for her. I'm sure Mr. Genappe would approve of it. She's always very busy with her house and her painting, so I'm saving her the walk. I'm like that, everyone's dogsbody." She shook her neat head. "I can't think why Mrs. Cassands works so hard at her pictures, but with that extraordinary husband never there I suppose — —"
"She's an A.R.A." protested Mr. Campion mildly, giving the institution its due.
"Oh I know. And Mr. Genappe not only likes her work but has been assured by experts that it's quite sound and may even appreciate. We've bought several canvases as a matter of fact, from Fang's in Bond Street, but I do think it's very hard work for her. She never scamps anything. Frankly I wonder that Mr. Cassands doesn't live more at home instead of flitting in and out wasting his time on idiotic things. That so-called musical instrument of his — well really!"
The thin man chuckled reminiscently, as did most people now that the brief scarifying popularity of the inspired noise-maker which Tonker Cassands had achieved had faded decently into the shadow of jokes-over. The name was so beautiful. 'Tum tee tee, tum tee tum — ON my Glü-bal-ü-bal-um!'
"Don't!" Miss Pinkerton dropped her scissors and clapped her hands over her ears. "Please don't. You know what happens. One goes on humming it all day and it's so silly. Really, that winter when everyone was doing it drove me nearly mad. Horrid vulgar thing! It looked so dreadful."
"I don't know." Campion wondered idly if there was anything else she could mention which would inspire him immediately to defend it. "One has to put an arm through many of the wind instruments. In this, one merely had to add a leg, that was all."
Excerpted from "The Beckoning Lady"
Copyright © 1955 Margery Allingham.
Excerpted by permission of Ipso Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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