About the Author
Hometown:Portmahomack, Ross-shire, U.K
Date of Birth:October 28, 1938
Place of Birth:Blackheath, London England
Read an Excerpt
Pitt knocked on the assistant commissioner's door and waited. It must be sensitive, and urgent, or Cornwallis would not have sent for him by telephone. Since his promotion to command of the Bow Street station Pitt had not involved himself in cases personally unless they threatened to be embarrassing to someone of importance, or else politically dangerous, such as the murder in Ashworth Hall five months earlier, in October 1890. It had ruined the attempt at some reconciliation of the Irish Problem—although with the scandal of the divorce of Katie O'Shea, citing Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of the Irish majority in Parliament, the whole situation was on the brink of disaster anyway.
Cornwallis opened the door himself. He was not as tall as Pitt, but lean and supple, moving easily, as if the physical strength and grace he had needed at sea were still part of his nature. So was the briefness of speech, the assumption of obedience and a certain simplicity of thought learned by one long used to the ruthlessness of the elements but unaccustomed to the devious minds of politicians and the duplicity of public manners. He was learning, but he still relied on Pitt. He looked unhappy now, his face, with its long nose and wide mouth, was set in lines of apprehension.
"Come in, Pitt." He stood aside, holding the door back. "Sorry to require you to come so quickly, but there is a very nasty situation in Brunswick Gardens. At least, there looks to be." He was frowning as he closed the door and walked back to his desk. It was a pleasant room, very different from the way it had been during his predecessor's tenure. Now there were some nautical instruments on the surfaces, a sea chart of the English Channel on the far wall, and among the necessary books on law and police procedure, there were also an anthology of poetry, a novel by Jane Austen, and the Bible.
Pitt waited until Cornwallis had sat down, then did so himself. His jacket hung awkwardly because his pockets were full. Promotion had not made him conspicuously tidier.
"Yes sir?" he said enquiringly.
Cornwallis leaned back, the light shining on his head. His complete baldness became him. It was hard to imagine him differently. He never fidgeted, but when he was most concerned he put his fingers together in a steeple and held them still. He did so now.
"A young woman has met with a violent death in the home of a most respected clergyman, highly esteemed for his learned publications and very possibly in line for a bishopric: the vicar of St. Michael's, the Reverend Ramsay Parmenter." He took a deep breath, watching Pitt's face. "A doctor who lives a few doors away was sent for, and on seeing the body he telephoned for the police. They came immediately, and in turn telephoned me."
Pitt did not interrupt.
"It appears that it may be murder and Parmenter himself may have some involvement in it." Cornwallis did not add anything as to his own feelings, but his fears were clear in the very slight pinching around his mouth and the hurt in his eyes. He regarded leadership, both moral and political, as a duty, a trust which could not be broken without terrible consequences. All his adult life so far had been spent at sea, where the captain's word was absolute. The entire ship survived or sank on his skill and his judgment. He must be right; his orders were obeyed. To fail to do so was mutiny, punishable by death. He himself had learned to obey, and in due time he had risen to occupy that lonely pinnacle. He knew both its burdens and its privileges.
"I see," Pitt said slowly. "Who was she, this young woman?"
"Miss Unity Bellwood," Cornwallis replied. "A scholar of ancient languages. She was assisting Reverend Parmenter in research for a book he is writing."
"What makes the doctor and the local police suspect murder?" Pitt asked.
Cornwallis winced and his lips pulled very slightly thinner. "Miss Bellwood was heard to cry out 'No, no, Reverend!' immediately before she fell, and the moment afterwards Mrs. Parmenter came out of the withdrawing room and found her lying at the bottom of the stairs. When she went to her she was already dead. Apparently she had broken her neck in the fall."
"Who heard her cry out?"
"Several people," Cornwallis answered bleakly. "I am afraid there is no doubt. I wish there were. It is an extremely ugly situation. Some sort of domestic tragedy, I imagine, but because of the Parmenters' position it will become a scandal of considerable proportion if it is not handled very quickly—and with tact."
"Thank you," Pitt said dryly. "And the local police do not wish to keep the case?" It was a rhetorical question, asked without hope. Of course they did not. And in all probability they would not be permitted to, even had they chosen to do so. It promised to be a highly embarrassing matter for everyone concerned.
Cornwallis did not bother to answer. "Number seventeen, Brunswick Gardens," he said laconically. "I'm sorry, Pitt." He seemed about to add something more, then changed his mind, as if he did not know how to word it.
Pitt rose to his feet. "What is the name of the local man in charge?"
"Then I shall go and relieve Inspector Corbett of his embarrassment," Pitt said without pleasure. "Good morning, sir."
Cornwallis smiled at him until he reached the door, then turned back to his papers again.
Pitt telephoned the Bow Street station and gave orders that Sergeant Tellman was to meet him in Brunswick Gardens, on no account to go in ahead of him, and then took a hansom himself.
It was nearly half past eleven when he alighted in bright, chill sunshine opposite the open space and bare-leafed trees near the church. It was a short walk to number seventeen, and he saw even at twenty yards' distance an air of difference about it. The curtains were already drawn, and there was a peculiar silence surrounding it, as if no housemaids were busy airing rooms, opening windows or scurrying in and out of the areaway, receiving deliveries.
Tellman was waiting on the pavement opposite, looking as dour as usual, his lantern-jawed face suspicious, gray eyes narrow.
"What's happened here then?" he said grimly. "Been robbed of the family silver, have they?"
Tersely, Pitt told him what he knew, and added a warning as to the extreme tact needed.
Tellman had a sour view of wealth, privilege and established authority in general if it depended upon birth; and unless it was proved otherwise, he assumed it did. He said nothing, but his expression was eloquent.
Pitt pulled the bell at the front door and the door was opened immediately by a police constable looking profoundly unhappy. He saw that Pitt's hair was rather too long, his pockets bulging, and his cravat lopsided, and drew in his breath to deny him entrance. He barely noticed Tellman, standing well behind.
"Superintendent Pitt," Pitt announced himself. "And Sergeant Tellman. Mr. Cornwallis asked us to come. Is Inspector Corbett here?"
The constable's face flooded with relief. "Yes sir, Mr. Pitt. Come in, sir. Mr. Corbett's in the 'all. This way."
Pitt waited for Tellman and then closed the door. He and Tellman followed the constable across the outer vestibule into the ornate hall. The floor was a mosaic in a design of black lines and whirls on white, which Pitt thought had a distinctly Italian air. The staircase was steep and black, set against the wall on three sides and built of ebonized wood. One of the walls was tiled in deep marine blue. There was a large potted palm in a black tub directly beneath the newel post at the top. Two round white columns supported a gallery, and the main article of furniture was an exquisite Turkish screen. It was all very modern and at any other time would have been most impressive.
Now the eye was taken with the group of figures at the bottom of the stairs: a young and unhappy doctor putting his instruments back into his case; a second young man standing stiffly, his body tense, as if he wanted to take some action but did not know what. The third was a man a generation older with thinning hair and a grave and anxious expression. The fourth, and last, figure was more than half covered by a blanket, and all Pitt could see of her was the curve of her shoulders and hips as she lay sprawled on the floor.
The older man turned as he heard Pitt's step.
"Mr. Pitt," the constable said to this man, his face eager, as if he were bearing good news. "And Sergeant Tellman. The commissioner sent them, sir."
Corbett shared his constable's relief and made no pretense about it.
"Oh! Good morning, sir," he responded. "Dr. Greene here has just finished. Nothing to do for the poor lady, of course. And this is Mr. Mallory Parmenter, the Reverend Parmenter's son."
"How do you do, Mr. Parmenter," Pitt replied, and nodded to the doctor. He looked around at the hallway, then up the stairs. They were steep and uncarpeted. Anyone pushed from the top and falling all the way likely would be injured severely. It did not surprise him that in this instance such a fall should have proved fatal. He moved closer and bent down to look at the body of the young woman, holding back the blanket. She was on her side, her face half turned away from him. He could see she had been extremely handsome in a willful and sensuous fashion. Her features were strong, brows level and her mouth full-lipped. He could easily believe that she had been intelligent, but he saw little gentleness in her.
"Died from the fall," Corbett said almost under his breath. "About an hour and a half ago." He pulled a watch out of his waistcoat pocket. "The hall clock struck ten just after. I expect you'll be speaking to everyone yourself, but I can tell you what we know, if you like?"
"Yes," Pitt accepted, still looking at the body. "Yes, please." He noticed her feet. She wore indoor slippers rather than boots, and both of them had come half off in the fall. Carefully he examined the hem of her skirt, all the way around, to see if the stitching had come undone and she could have caught her heel in it and tripped. But it was perfect. On the sole of one of the slippers was a curious dark stain. "What's that?" he asked.
Corbett looked at it. "Don't know, sir." He bent down and touched it experimentally with one finger, then held it to his nose. "Chemical," he said. "It's dry on the sole, but there's still quite a sharp odor, so it's not been there long." He stood up and turned to Mallory Parmenter. "Did Miss Bellwood go out this morning, do you know, sir?"
"I don't know," Mallory answered quickly. He looked very pale and kept his hands from shaking by knotting them together. "I was studying ... in the conservatory." He shrugged apologetically, as if that needed some explanation. "Quietest place in the house sometimes. And very pleasant. No fire lit in the morning room then, and the maid's busy, so it was also the warmest. I suppose Unity could have gone out, but I don't know why. Father would know."
"Where is Reverend Parmenter?" Pitt enquired.
Mallory looked at him. He was a good-looking young man with smooth, dark hair and regular features which might easily appear either charming or sulky depending upon his expression.
"My father is upstairs in his study," he replied. "He is naturally deeply distressed by what has happened and preferred to be alone, at least for a while. If you need any assistance I shall be happy to offer it."
"Thank you, sir," Corbett acknowledged, "but I don't think we need to detain you any longer. I'm sure you would like to be with your family." It was a dismissal, politely phrased.
Mallory hesitated, looking at Pitt. He was obviously unwilling to leave, as if something he should have prevented might happen in his absence. He looked down at the still figure on the floor. "Can't you cover her up again ... or something?" he said helplessly.
"When the superintendent's seen everything he needs to, we'll take her away to the mortuary, sir," Corbett answered him. "But you leave us to get on with it."
"Yes ... yes, I suppose so," Mallory conceded. He swiveled on his heel and walked across the exquisite floor and disappeared through an ornately carved doorway.
Corbett turned to Pitt. "Sorry, Mr. Pitt. It seems like a very ugly business. You'll want to speak to the witnesses for yourself. That'll be Mrs. Parmenter and the maid and the valet."
"Yes." Pitt took a last look at Unity Bellwood, fixing in his mind's eye the way she lay, her face, the thick honey-fair hair, the strong hands, limp now but long-fingered, well cared for. An interesting woman. But he would probably not need to learn a great deal about her, as he had to in most cases. This one seemed regrettably clear, merely tragic, and perhaps difficult to prove before a court. He turned to Tellman, standing a couple of yards behind him. "You had better go and speak to the rest of the staff. See where everybody was and if they saw or heard anything. And see if you can discover what that substance is on her shoe. And be discreet. Very little is certain so far."
"Yes sir," Tellman replied with an expression of disgust. He walked away, shoulders stiff, a little bounce in his step as if he were spoiling for a fight. He was a difficult man, but he was observant, patient and never backed away from any conclusion, no matter how he might dislike it.
Pitt turned back to Corbett. "I had better see Mrs. Parmenter."
"She's in the withdrawing room, sir. It's over that way." Corbett pointed across the hall and under the white pillars to another highly ornate doorway.
"Thank you." Pitt walked across, his footsteps on the tiny marble pieces sounding loud in the silence of the house. He knocked on the door, and it was opened immediately by a maid.
Inside was a beautiful room, decorated in a very modern style again, with much Chinese and Japanese art, a silk screen covered in embroidered peacock tails dominating the farther corner—even the wallpaper had a muted bamboo design on it. But at the moment all Pitt's attention was taken by the woman who lay on the black-lacquered chaise longue. It was difficult to tell her height, but she was slender, of medium coloring, and her features were handsome and most unusual. Her enormous eyes were wide set, her cheekbones high and her nose unexpectedly strong. She gave the air that in normal circumstances she would smile easily and laugh at the slightest chance. Now she was very grave and kept her composure only with difficulty.
"I beg your pardon for disturbing you, Mrs. Parmenter," Pitt apologized, closing the door behind him. "I am Superintendent Pitt, from Bow Street. Assistant Commissioner Cornwallis has asked me to conduct the investigation into the death of Miss Bellwood." He did not offer any explanation. It seemed like an admission that they were prepared to conceal something, or to prejudge the depth and the outcome of the tragedy.
"Of course," she said with the ghost of a smile. "I understand, Superintendent." She turned a little to face him but did not move from her reclining position. The maid waited discreetly in the corner, perhaps in case her mistress should need further restorative or assistance.
"I imagine you need me to tell you what I
Pitt sat down, more to save her staring up at him than for his own comfort. "If you please."
She had obviously prepared herself, and her mind seemed very clear; there was only the slightest trembling in her hands. She kept her amazing eyes steadily upon his.
"My husband had taken his breakfast early, as he frequently does when he is working. I imagine Unity—Miss Bellwood—had also. I did not see her at the table, but that was not remarkable. The rest of us ate as usual. I do not think we discussed anything of interest."
"The rest of us?" he questioned.
"My son, Mallory," she explained. "My daughters, Clarice and Tryphena, and the curate who is staying with us at present."
"I see. Please go on."
"Mallory went into the conservatory to read and study. He finds it an agreeable place, quiet and warm, and no one interrupts him. The maids do not go in there, and the gardener has little to do at this time of year." She was watching him carefully. She had very clear gray eyes, with dark lashes and high, delicate brows. "Clarice went upstairs. She did not say why. Tryphena came in here to play the pianoforte. I don't know where the curate went. I was in here also, as was Lizzie, the down-stairs maid. I was arranging flowers. When I had finished them I started towards the hall and was almost at the doorway when I heard Unity cry out ..." She stopped, her face pinched and white.
"Did you hear what she said, Mrs. Parmenter?" he asked gravely.
She swallowed. He saw her throat jerk.
"Yes," she whispered. "She said, 'No, no!' And something else, and then she screamed and there was a sort of thumping ... and silence." She stared at him, and her face reflected her horror as if she were still hearing it in her head, replaying again and again.
"And the something else?" he asked, although Cornwallis had already told him what the servants had said. He did not expect her to answer, but he had to give her the opportunity.
She showed the loyalty he had expected.
"I ... I ..." Her eyes dropped. "I am not certain."
He did not push her. "And what did you see when you entered the hall, Mrs. Parmenter?" he continued.
This time there was no hesitation. "I saw Unity lying at the bottom of the stairs."
"Was there anyone on the landing above?"
She said nothing, avoiding his eyes again.
"I saw a man's shoulder and back as he went behind the jardiniere and flowers into the passage."
"Do you know who it was?"
She was very pale, but this time she did not flinch; she met his eyes squarely. "I cannot be sure enough to say, and I will not guess, Superintendent."
"What was he wearing, Mrs. Parmenter? What did you see, exactly?"
She hesitated, thinking hard. Her unhappiness was profound.
"A dark jacket," she said at last. "Coattails ... I think."
"Is there any man in the house whom that description would not fit? Do you recall height, build, anything else?"
"No," she whispered. "No, I don't. It was only momentary. He was moving very quickly."
"I see. Thank you, Mrs. Parmenter," he said gravely. "Can you tell me something about Miss Bellwood? What kind of a young woman was she? Why should anyone wish her harm?"
She looked down with a fractional smile. "Mr. Pitt, that is very hard to answer. I ... I dislike to speak ill of someone who has just met with a tragic death, in my house, and so young."
"Naturally," he agreed, leaning forward a little. The room was very comfortable, the warmth of the fire filling it. "Everyone does. I regret having to ask you, but I expect you understand that I must know the truth, and if indeed she was pushed, then it is going to be painful—and inevitably ugly. I am sorry, but there is no choice."
"Yes ... yes, of course." She sniffed. "I apologize for being so foolish. One keeps hoping ... it is not very sensible. You want to understand how such a thing could have happened and why." She remained still for some moments, perhaps searching for words to explain.
The rest of the house was in complete stillness. There was not even a clock audible anywhere. No servants' footsteps sounded across the hall beyond the door. The maid in the corner seemed like part of the elaborate decoration.
"Unity was very clever," Vita began at last. "In a scholastic sort of way. She was a brilliant student of languages. Greek and Aramaic seemed as natural to her as English is to you or me. That was how she helped my husband. He is a theologian, you see, quite outstanding in his field, but his ability with translation is only moderate. He knows fully the meaning of a work, if it is religious, but she could grasp the words, the flavor, the poetic instinct. But she also knew quite a lot of secular history."
She frowned. "I suppose that happens if you study a language?
You find yourself learning rather a lot about the people who spoke it ... through their writings, and so on."
"I should imagine so," Pitt agreed. He was quite well read in English literature, but he had no knowledge of the classics. Sir Arthur Desmond, who had owned the estate on which Pitt had grown up, had been good enough to educate Pitt, the gamekeeper's son, along with his own son, now Sir Matthew Desmond. But his learning had leaned toward the sciences rather than Latin or Greek, and certainly Aramaic had not entered his thoughts. The King James translation of the Bible was more than adequate to meet all religious enquiry. Pitt concealed his impatience with difficulty. Nothing Vita had said so far seemed in any way relevant. And yet it must be very difficult for her to bring herself to the point. He should not be critical of the cost to her of this honesty.
"The Reverend Parmenter was writing a theological book?" he prompted.
"Yes," she said quietly. "Yes, he has already written two, and a great number of papers which have been highly acclaimed. But this was to be of a much deeper nature than before, and possibly more controversial." She looked at him closely to make sure he understood. "That is why he needed Unity's skills in the translation of sources for the work."
"Was she interested in the subject?" He must be patient with her. This meandering might be the only way she could bring herself to tell the one bitter truth which mattered.
Vita smiled. "Oh, not the theological side of it, Superintendent. Not in the slightest. Unity is ... was ... very modern in her beliefs. She did not believe in God at all. In fact, she was a great admirer of the work of Mr. Charles Darwin." A look of deep distaste flickered across her eyes and mouth. "Are you familiar with it? Of course you are. At least you have to be aware of what he propounds on the origins of mankind. There was never a more dangerous and daring idea put forward by anyone since ... I don't know what!" She was concentrating fiercely, turning her body on the chaise longue until she faced him more fully, regardless of the discomfort it must have caused her. "If we are all descended from apes and the Bible is not true at all and there is no God, then why on earth should we go to church or keep any of the Commandments?"
"Because the Commandments are based upon virtue and the best social and moral order we know," he replied. "Whether they originate with God or with the long-fought-for and refined ideas of men. Whether the Bible is right, or Mr. Darwin is right, I don't know. There may even be some way in which they may both be. If not, I hope profoundly that it is the Bible. Mr. Darwin leaves us with little more than the belief in progress and human morality steadily ascending."
"Don't you believe it will?" she said seriously. "Unity believed it very strongly. She thought we were progressing all the time. Our ideas are getting nobler and freer with every generation. We are becoming more just, more tolerant and altogether more enlightened."
"Certainly our inventions are improving every decade," he agreed, measuring his words. "And our scientific knowledge increases almost every year. But I am not at all sure that our kindness does, or our courage, or our sense of responsibility towards each other, and they are far truer marks of civilization."
She looked at him with surprise and confusion in the shadows of her eyes.
"Unity believed we are far more enlightened than we used to be. We have thrown off the oppression of the past, the ignorance and the superstition. I heard her say so a number of times. And also that we are far more responsible for the care of the poor, less selfish and unjust than ever before."
A flash of memory came to him from the schoolroom thirty years ago. "One of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt used to boast that in his reign no one was hungry or homeless."
"Oh ... I don't think Unity knew that," she said with surprise—and what could have been a flash of satisfaction.
Perhaps she was at last approaching the truths which mattered.
"How did your husband feel about her views, Mrs. Parmenter?"
Her face tightened again. She looked down, away from him. "He found them abhorrent. I cannot deny they quarreled rather often. If I do not tell you, then others will. It was impossible for the rest of us to be unaware of it."
He could imagine it very easily: the expression of opinions around the meal table, the stiff silences, the innuendo, the laying down of law, and then the contradictions. There was little as fundamental to people as their beliefs in the order of things—not the metaphysics, but their own place in the universe, their value and purpose.
"And they quarreled this morning?" he prompted.
"Yes." She looked at him with sadness and apprehension. "I don't know what about precisely. My maid could probably tell you. She heard them as well, and so did my husband's valet. I only heard the raised voices." She looked as if she were about to add something, then changed her mind or could not find the words for it.
"Could the quarrel have become violent?" he said gravely.
"I suppose so." Her voice was little more than a whisper. "Although I find it difficult to believe. My husband is not—" She stopped.
"Could Miss Bellwood have left the study in a temper and then lost her balance, perhaps stumbled and fallen backwards, by accident?" he suggested.
She remained silent.
"Is that possible, Mrs. Parmenter?"
She raised her eyes to meet his. She bit her lip. "If I say yes, Superintendent, my maid will only contradict me. Please don't press me to speak any further of my husband. It is terribly ... distressing. I don't know what to think or feel. I seem to be in a whirlpool of confusion ... and darkness ... an awful darkness."
"I'm sorry." He felt compelled to apologize, and it was sincere. His pity for her was immense, as was his admiration for her composure and her dedication to truth, even at such personal cost. "Of course, I shall ask your maid."
She smiled uncertainly. "Thank you," she murmured.
There was nothing more to enquire of her, and he would not stretch out the interview. She must greatly prefer to be alone or with her family. He excused himself and went to find the maid in question.
Miss Braithwaite proved to be a woman in her middle fifties, tidy and sensible in manner, but at present profoundly shaken. Her face was pale and she had trouble catching her breath.
She was perched on the edge of one of the chairs in the housekeeper's sitting room, sipping a steaming cup of tea. The fire burned briskly in the small, thoroughly polished iron grate and there was a little-worn rug on the floor and most agreeable pictures on the walls, and several photographs on the side table.
"Yes," she admitted unhappily after Pitt had assured her that her mistress had given her full permission to speak freely and that her first duty was to the truth. "I did hear their voices raised. I really couldn't help it. Very loud, they were."
"Did you hear what they were saying?" he asked her.
"Well ... yes, I heard ..." she replied slowly. "But if you were to ask me what it was, I couldn't repeat it." She saw his expression. "Not that it was vulgar," she amended quickly. "Reverend Parmenter would never use bad language—it just would not be him, if you know what I mean. A complete gentleman in every way, he is." She gulped. "But like anyone else, he can get angry, especially when he's defending his principles." She said it with considerable admiration. Obviously they were beliefs which she shared. "I just didn't understand it," she explained. "I know Miss Bellwood, rest her soul, didn't believe in God and wasn't averse to saying so. In fact, took pleasure in it—" She stopped abruptly, a tide of color washing up her face. "Oh, God forgive me, I shouldn't speak ill of the dead. She'll know different now, poor soul."
"The argument was a religious one?" he deduced.
"Theological, I should say," she corrected him, ignoring her tea but still holding the cup. "About what certain passages meant. Wasn't often they could agree. She believed in the ideas of that Mr. Darwin, and a lot of other things about freedom which I would call indulgence. At least that was what she was always saying." Her lips tightened. "I did wonder sometimes if she said it for devilment, just to get Mr. Parmenter all riled up."
"What makes you think that?" he asked.
"Look in her face." She shook her head. "Like a child, pushing you so far to see what you'll do." She took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. "Not that it matters now, poor creature."
"Where did this argument take place?"
"In Mr. Parmenter's study, where they were working, same as always ... or nearly always. Once or twice she'd work downstairs in the library."
"Did you see or hear her leave?"
She looked away. "Yes ..."
"And Mr. Parmenter?"
Her voice dropped. "Yes, I think so. Followed her out into the corridor and up to the landing, to judge from the voices."
"Where were you?"
"In Mrs. Parmenter's bedroom."
"Where is that in relation to the study and the landing?"
"Other side of the corridor from the study, one door along, further away from the stairs."
"Was the door open or closed?"
"Bedroom door was open. I was hanging clothes up in the cupboard and putting away linen. I went in with my hands full, never bothered to close it. Mr. Parmenter's study door was closed. That was why I only heard part of what they were saying, even when they shouted at each other." She looked at him unhappily.
"But when Miss Bellwood opened the study door to come out, you might have heard what she said then," he pressed her.
"Yes ..." she acknowledged reluctantly.
"What was it?"
He heard footsteps in the passage, light and rapid, a click of heels, but they did not stop.
The color rose in Braithwaite's cheeks again, and she was obviously uncomfortable. Modesty and loyalty fought with her sense of duty to the truth—and perhaps fear of the law.
"Miss Braithwaite," he said gently, "I have to know. This cannot be concealed. A woman is dead. Perhaps she was a foolish woman, mistaken, unpleasant, or even worse, but that does not take from her the right to an honest enquiry into her death and the nearest to the truth of it that we can come. Please tell me what you heard."
She looked extremely unhappy, but she did not resist any
"He said she was an arrogant and stupid woman, for all her supposed brains, that she was too obsessed by her ideas of freedom to see that what she was actually talking about was chaos, disorder and destruction," she said. "He said she was like a dangerous child, playing with the fire of ideas, and one day she was going to burn down the house, and everyone would perish with her."
"Did Miss Bellwood reply?"
"She shouted that he was an arbitrary old man." She closed her eyes. The words obviously embarrassed her. "And he was too intellectually limited and emotionally crippled to be able to look with honesty at reality." She hurried the words to get them out as quickly as she could. "That's what she said, and wicked, ungrateful it was." She stared at Pitt challengingly. "Where would she be, I'd like to know, if it wasn't for gentlemen of importance, like Mr. Parmenter, giving her a chance to work for them?"
"I don't know. Was there anything else?" he prompted.
Her lips tightened.
"I do realize you hate repeating her words, Miss Braithwaite, and that it is far from your own opinion."
She shot him a look of gratitude. "Well, she said he was a spiritual coward trading in superstition and fairy stories because he had not the courage to face the truth," she said bitterly.
"It sounds like a very unpleasant quarrel indeed," he observed with a leaden feeling inside. "And you heard him follow Miss Bellwood out onto the landing?"
"I think so. I was trying not to hear. It ... it wasn't meant for anyone else, sir. I bent over and started putting the linen in the drawers. And I wouldn't hear their feet, because the corridor and the landing's carpeted. Next thing I heard was her giving a little cry, and then a sort of thump, and then her calling out."
"What words did she call out?"
"I ... I don't know as I'm not sure now," she equivocated, but the lie was naked in her face. She concentrated on her tea, setting the cup down carefully on the table near her.
"What did she say, Miss Braithwaite? I am sure you can remember if you try."
She did not reply.
"Do you not wish to help the police discover the truth of what happened?" he persisted.
"Well, yes, of course ... but ..."
"But what you heard is so damning to someone that you would rather protect him than repeat it."
She was thoroughly alarmed.
"No ... I ... you're puttin' me in the wrong, sir, and I've done nothing."
"What did you hear, Miss Braithwaite?" he said gently. "It is very wrong indeed to lie to the police or to conceal evidence. It makes you a part of whatever happened."
She looked horrified and her voice was sharp with fear. "I've no part in it!"
"What did you hear, Miss Braithwaite?" he repeated.
"She said, 'No ... no, Reverend!'" she whispered.
"Thank you. And what did you do?"
"Me?" She was surprised. "Nothing. Their quarrels is none of my business. I finished with the linen and started tidying the room. Then I heard Mr. Stander call out that there was something terribly wrong, and of course I went to see what it was, like we all did." She met his eyes unhappily. Her voice dropped. "And there was Miss Bellwood lying on the floor in the hall."
"Where was the Reverend Parmenter?"
She was sitting very still, her knees close together, her hands folded.
"I don't know. The study door was closed, so I suppose he was in there."
"You didn't pass him in the corridor?"
"Did you see anyone else?"
"No ... no, I don't think so."
"Thank you. You have been most helpful." He wished she could have told him something different, something that would make murder less likely, but he had pressed her hard, and she had told him the truth as she knew it.
He went upstairs and spoke to Stander, Parmenter's valet, who said very much the same. He had been brushing a suit in the dressing room and had caught only the occasional word, but he had heard Unity Bellwood cry out and then say 'No, no, Reverend!' as nearly as he could remember, and then Mrs. Parmenter call for help. He was extremely reluctant to admit it, but he knew Miss Braithwaite had heard the same, and he did not equivocate.
Pitt could no longer put off speaking to Ramsay Parmenter himself and asking him for his own account of what had happened. He dreaded it. If Parmenter denied his involvement then there would have to be a further investigation. Step by step, Pitt would have to draw from the family each miserable piece, until Parmenter was cornered and desperate, dragged down by the weight of detail, fighting against the inevitable.
If he confessed it would be quicker, but still a wretched and destructive affair, the sort of thing that, in spite of himself, he pitied, regardless how sordid or absurd.
He knocked on the study door.
"Come in." The voice was gracious, the diction perfect. He should have expected it. This was a man used to preaching in church. He was apparently on the brink of becoming a bishop.
Pitt opened the door and went inside. The room was oak-paneled and very formal. The left wall was lined with bookcases; to the right was a large oak desk. The windows ahead stretched almost from floor to ceiling and were curtained in heavy velvet which did not quite match the wine color of the Indian carpet on the floor.
Ramsay Parmenter was standing beside the fireplace. He looked older than Pitt had expected, considerably older than Vita. His hair was receding from his brow and was gray at the temples. He had regular features and must have been handsome enough in his youth, in a quiet way. It was a careful face, that of a thinker and a student. Now he looked harassed and deeply unhappy.
Pitt introduced himself and explained why he was there.
"Yes ... yes, of course." Ramsay came forward and offered his hand. It was an odd gesture from a man who had just been implicated in murder. It was as if he did not realize it. "Come in, Mr. Pitt." He pointed to one of the large leather chairs, although he himself remained standing with his back to the fire.
Pitt sat down, simply to convey that he intended to remain until the conversation was concluded.
"Will you please tell me what happened between yourself and Miss Bellwood this morning, sir?" he asked. He wished the man would sit down, but perhaps he was too tense to remain in one position. He was shifting his weight from foot to foot, even though he did not actually move from the spot on which he stood.
"Yes ... yes," Ramsay answered. "We quarreled, as I am afraid we did rather frequently." His mouth tightened. "Miss Bellwood was a very fine scholar of ancient languages, but her theological opinions were unsound, and she insisted upon airing them, even though she was well aware that everyone in the house found them offensive ... except perhaps my younger daughter. I am afraid Tryphena is rather willful and likes to feel she is independent in her thought ... whereas in fact she is rather easily led by someone of Miss Bellwood's power of conviction."
"That must have been distressing for you," Pitt observed, watching Ramsay's face.
"It was most displeasing," Ramsay agreed, but there was no increase of emotion in him. If he were angry he concealed it perfectly. Perhaps it had happened for so long he was used to it now.
"You quarreled," Pitt prompted.
Ramsay shrugged. He was obviously unhappy, but there was no sign of anxiety in him, still less of actual fear. "Yes, rather fiercely. I am afraid I said some things to her which I now regret ... in light of the fact that we no longer have the opportunity to find any resolution between us." He bit his lip. "It is a very ... very ... unfortunate thing, Mr. Pitt, to find you have spoken in anger your last words to someone ... the last words they will hear in their life ... before entering the ... hereafter."
It was a strange speech for a man of religion. It was obviously without heat, even without certainty. He was searching for words and casting aside what to Pitt would have been the obvious ones. There was no mention of God or of judgment. Perhaps he was more deeply shocked than he pretended. If he had indeed killed her, as Braithwaite seemed to believe, then he should be in a state of inner numbness.
And yet all Pitt could see in his face was confusion and doubt. Was it conceivable he had blocked the horror of it out of his mind and did not actually remember?
"Miss Bellwood left this room in considerable anger," Pitt said aloud. "She was heard shouting at you, or at least speaking very loudly and offensively."
"Yes ... yes, indeed," Ramsay agreed. "I am afraid I spoke to her equally offensively."
"From where, Reverend Parmenter?"
He opened his eyes wide. "From where?" he repeated. "From ... from here. From this room. I ... I went to the doorway, I followed her that far ... then ... then I realized the futility of it." His hands clenched. "I was so angry I was afraid I would say things I might later regret. I—I returned to my desk and continued to work, or tried to."
"You did not go after Miss Bellwood onto the landing?" Pitt kept the disbelief out of his voice with difficulty.
"No." Ramsay sounded surprised. "No. I told you, I was afraid the quarrel would become irreparable if I continued it. I was very angry with her." His face pinched with remembered irritation. "She was a remarkably arrogant and objectionable young woman at times." He shifted his weight again and moved a little farther from the fire. "But she was an excellent scholar, in her way, even though areas of her understanding were limited and biased by her own very eccentric beliefs." He looked at Pitt directly. "Rather more of emotion than of the intellect, I fear. But then she was a woman, and young. It would be unfair to expect more of her. Like all of us, she was limited by her nature."
Pitt regarded him carefully, studying his features to try to understand the emotions which prompted such a mixed and peculiar speech. That he had disliked Unity Bellwood was apparent, but it seemed he was trying to be both honest and as charitable as that dislike allowed him. And yet there was no discernible sense of tragedy in him, as if he had not grasped the reality of her death. Even the maid and the valet appeared to have more appreciation of the shadow of murder over them. Did Parmenter really feel that the reasons for her scholastic inabilities could possibly matter now? Or was this his way—at least temporarily—of escaping the horror of what it seemed he had done? Pitt had seen people retreat into trivialities to escape the overwhelming before. Women sometimes compulsively occupied themselves with food or housework in times of bereavement, as if the exactness of placement of a picture on a wall were of permanent importance. Silver must be polished like mirrors, ironing make fabric as smooth as glass.
Perhaps the attending to irrelevancies in reasoning was Parmenter's way of keeping his mind from the truth.
"Where were you when you heard Mrs. Parmenter call out for help and that something dreadful had happened?" Pitt asked.
"What?" Ramsay looked surprised. "Oh. I did not hear her. Braithwaite came and told me there had been an accident, and
I went to see what it was, naturally, and if I could help. As you know, help was impossible." He looked at Pitt without wavering.
"You did not follow Miss Bellwood out and continue your quarrel on the landing?" Pitt asked, although he knew what the answer would be.
Ramsay's rather sparse eyebrows rose. "No. I already told you, Superintendent, I did not leave the room."
"What do you believe happened to Miss Bellwood, Reverend Parmenter?"
"I don't know," Ramsay said a little more sharply. "The only thing I can suppose is that she somehow slipped ... overbalanced ... or something. I am not really sure why it needs a policeman from Bow Street to look into the affair. Our local people are perfectly adequate, or even the doctor, for that matter."
"There is nothing to trip over on the stairs. No carpets or stair rails to come loose," Pitt pointed out, still watching Ramsay's face. "And Stander and Miss Braithwaite both heard Miss Bellwood call out 'No, no, Reverend' just before she fell. And Mrs. Parmenter saw someone leaving the landing and heading in this direction."
Ramsay stared at him and slowly horror filled his face, etching the lines around his nose and mouth deeper. "You must have misunderstood!" he protested, but his skin was very white and he seemed to have difficulty forming his words, as if his lips and tongue would not obey him. "That is preposterous! What you are suggesting is that ... I pushed her!" He gulped and swallowed. "I assure you, Mr. Pitt, I found her most irritating, an arrogant and insensitive young woman whose moral standards were highly questionable, but I most certainly did not push her." He drew in his breath. "Indeed, I did not touch her at all, nor did I leave this room after our ... difference." He spoke vehemently, his voice rather loud. His eyes did not waver in the slightest from meeting Pitt's, but he was afraid. It was in the beads of sweat on his skin, the brightness of his eyes, the way his body was held rigid.
Pitt rose to his feet. "Thank you for your time, Reverend Parmenter. I shall speak to the rest of the household."
"You ... you must find out what happened!" Ramsay protested, taking a step forward and then stopping abruptly. "I did not touch her!"
Pitt excused himself and went back downstairs to look for Mallory Parmenter. When Braithwaite and Stander realized that everything rested upon their word, they might both retract their statements, and Pitt would be left with nothing, except a death and an accusation he could not prove. In a way that would be perhaps the most unsatisfactory outcome of all.
He crossed the spectacular hallway, the body of Unity Bellwood now removed, and found Mallory Parmenter in the library. He was staring out of the window at the spring rain now beating against the glass, but he swung around as soon as he heard the door opening. His face was full of question.
Pitt closed the door behind him. "I am sorry to disturb you, Mr. Parmenter, but I am sure you will appreciate that I need to ask further questions."
"I suppose so," Mallory said reluctantly. "I don't know what I can tell. I have no knowledge of my own as to what happened. I was in the conservatory all the time. I didn't see Miss Bellwood at all after breakfast. I assume she went upstairs to the study to work with my father, but I don't know that or what happened after."
"Apparently they quarreled, so Reverend Parmenter says, and according to the maid and the valet, who both heard them."
"That doesn't surprise me," Mallory replied, looking down at his hands. "They quarreled rather often. Miss Bellwood was very opinionated and had not sufficient tact or sense of people's feelings to refrain from expressing her beliefs, which were contentious, to put it at its best."
"You did not care for her," Pitt observed.
Mallory looked up sharply, his brown eyes wide. "I found her opinions offensive," he corrected himself. "I had no personal ill will against her." It seemed to matter to him that Pitt believed this.
"You live at home, Mr. Parmenter?"
"Temporarily. I am shortly to go to Rome, to take up a position in a seminary there. I am studying for the priesthood." He said it with some satisfaction, but he was watching Pitt's face.
Pitt was floundering. "Rome?"
"Yes. I do not share my father's beliefs either ... or lack of beliefs. I do not mean to disturb your sensibilities, but I am afraid I find the Church of England to have lost its way somewhat. It seems not so much a faith as a social order. It has taken me a great deal of thought and prayer, but I am sure of my conviction that the Reformation was a profound mistake. I have returned to the Church of Rome. Naturally my father is not pleased."
Pitt could think of nothing to say which did not sound foolish. He could hardly imagine Ramsay Parmenter's feelings when his son had broken such news to him. The history of the schism between the two churches—the centuries of blood, persecution, proscription and even martyrdom—was part of the fabric of the nation. Only a few months before—the past October, to be exact—he had closely observed Irish politics, rooted in passionate hatred between the two religions. Protestantism was immeasurably more profoundly and intensely critical, whether one agreed with those ethics or not.
"I see," he said grimly. "It is hardly surprising you found Miss Bellwood's atheism offensive."
"I was sorry for her." Again Mallory corrected him. "It is a very sad thing for a human being to be so lost as to believe there is no God. It destroys the foundation of morality."
He was lying. It was in the sharpness of his voice, the quick bright anger in his eyes, the speed with which he had replied. Whatever he had felt for Unity Bellwood, it was not pity. Either he wished Pitt to think it was or he needed to believe it himself. Perhaps he did not think a candidate for the priesthood should feel personal anger or resentment, especially towards someone who was dead. Pitt did not want to argue about the foundation of morality, although a rebuttal rose to his tongue. The number of men and women whose morality was founded in love of man rather than love of God was legion. But there was something closed in Mallory Parmenter's face which made the idea of reasoning on the subject pointless. It was a conviction of the heart rather than the mind.
"Are you saying, as kindly as possible, that Miss Bellwood's morality was questionable?" Pitt asked mildly.
Mallory was taken aback. He had not expected to have to reply. Now he did not know what to say.
"I ... I don't know in any immediate sense, of course," he denied it. "It is only the way she spoke. I am afraid she advocated a great many things which most of us would find self-indulgent and irresponsible. The poor woman is dead. I should greatly prefer not to discuss it." His tone was final, ending the matter.
"Did she air these views in this house?" Pitt asked. "I mean, did you feel she was influencing members of your family or your staff in an adverse way?"
Mallory's eyes widened in surprise. Apparently this was something that had not occurred to him. "No, not that I am aware. It was simply—" He stopped. "I prefer not to speculate, Superintendent. Miss Bellwood met her death in this house, and it appears more and more as if you are not satisfied it was accidental. I have no idea what happened, or why, and I cannot be of material assistance to you. I'm sorry."
Pitt accepted the dismissal for the present. There was nothing to be gained from forcing the issue now. He thanked Mallory and went to look for Tryphena Parmenter, who seemed to be the one most profoundly distressed by Unity Bellwood's death. He learned that she had gone upstairs to her bedroom, and he sent a maid to ask if she would come down to see him.
He waited in the morning room. Someone had now lit an excellent fire there, and already the chill was off the room. The rain beating against the windows was quite an agreeable sound, making him feel isolated in warmth and safety. The room was also furnished in highly fashionable taste, with a considerable Arabic influence, but softened to blend with the English climate and materials for building. The result was more to Pitt's taste than he would have expected. The onion dome shapes stenciled on the walls and echoed in the curtains did not seem alien, nor did the geometrically patterned tiles in green and white around the fireplace.
The door opened and Tryphena came in, her head high, eyes red-rimmed. She was a slender, handsome woman with thick, fair hair, excellent skin, and a very slight space between her front teeth that was revealed when she opened her mouth to speak.
"You are here to find out what happened to poor Unity and see that some justice is done her!" It was more a challenge than a question. Her lips trembled and she controlled herself with difficulty, but her overriding emotion at the moment was anger. Grief would probably follow soon.
"I am going to try to, Miss Parmenter," he answered, turning to face her. "Do you know anything that can be of help in that?"
"Mrs. Whickham," she corrected, her mouth tightening a little. "I am a widow." The expression with which she said the last word was unreadable. "I didn't see it, if that's what you mean." She came forward, the light falling bright on her hair as she passed under the chandelier. She looked very English in this exotic room. "I don't know what I could tell you, except that Unity was one of the bravest, most heroic people in the world," she went on, her voice charged with emotion. "At whatever the cost, she should be avenged. She, of all the victims of violence and oppression, deserves justice. It's ironic, isn't it, that one who fought for freedom so fiercely and honestly should be stabbed in the back?" She gave a sharp little shudder, and her face was very white. "How tragic! But I wouldn't expect you to understand that."
Pitt was startled. He had not been prepared for this reaction.
"She fell down the stairs, Mrs. Whickham ..." he began.
She looked at him witheringly. "I know that! I meant it in a higher sense. She was betrayed. She was killed by those she trusted. Are you always so literal?"
His instinct was to argue with her, but he knew it would defeat his purpose.
"You seem very certain it was deliberate, Mrs. Whickham," he said almost casually. "Do you know what happened?"
She gulped air. "She didn't fall; she was pushed."
"How do you know?"
"I heard her cry out, 'No, no, Reverend!' My mother was in the doorway. She'd actually have seen him except for the edge of the screen. As it was she saw a man leaving the landing and going back along the corridor. Why would any innocent person leave instead of going instantly to try to help her?" Her eyes were bright, challenging him to argue.
"You said it was someone she trusted," he reminded her. "Who might she have expected to attack her, Mrs. Whickham?"
"The Establishment, the vested interests in masculine power and the restrictions of freedom of thought and emotion and imagination," she replied defiantly.
"I see ..."
"No, you don't!" she contradicted him. "You have absolutely no idea!"
He put his hands in his pockets. "No, perhaps you are right. If I were fighting for those things, and were a woman rather than a man, I would expect a high official in the church to be the very bastion of entrenched privilege and the keeping of ideas exactly as they are. It is where I would expect my opposition, even my enemies."
The color rushed up her face. She started to speak and then stopped.
"Whom did she consider her enemies?" he pressed.
She regained her composure with an effort, her shoulders rigid, her hands stiff. The argument concentrated her mind, and it was easier than grief. "Not anyone in this house," she responded. "One does not expect such violence behind the face of friendship, not if you are utterly honest yourself and you approach everyone thoroughly openly and without fear or deceit."
"You had a very high opinion of Miss Bellwood," he observed. "Would you mind telling me something more about her, so that I can try to understand what must have happened?"
She softened a little, her face reflecting an obvious vulnerability and even a dawning awareness of being alone in a new and terrible sense. "She believed in progress towards more freedom for everyone," she said proudly. "All kinds of people, but especially those who have been oppressed for centuries, forced into roles they did not want and denied the opportunity to learn and to grow, to use the talents they possessed and could have refined into great art."
She frowned. "Do you know, Superintendent, how many women who composed music or painted pictures were obliged to publish or show their work only if they used their father's or their brother's names?" Her voice rose and she almost choked on her outrage. Her hands were clenched into fists at her sides, elbows bent a little. "Can you imagine anything worse than creating great art, the realization of your ideas, the visible mark of your soul's dreams, and having to pretend it was someone else's just to conform to an oppressor's vanity? It ... it is unspeakable! It is a tyranny beyond any kind of forgiveness!"