The Mistress of Alderleyby Robert Barnard
Well-known actress Caroline Fawley has given up a successful stage and television career for love and life in the country. International business titan Marius Fleetwood can't marry her. He already has a wife, though he claims they
Robert Barnard, one of the great contemporary masters of classic mystery, returns with a brilliant new tale of passion and deception.
Well-known actress Caroline Fawley has given up a successful stage and television career for love and life in the country. International business titan Marius Fleetwood can't marry her. He already has a wife, though he claims they are "just friends." But Marius has done something very special for Caroline: he has "bought" her Alderley, an elegant country home. If he should die, he's arranged to leave her enough money to maintain the extensive house and gardens.
Of course, some inquisitive villagers would be happier if Caroline and Marius were respectably wed. People in small towns know all, and they will talk, especially about a glamorous actress. Caroline's adolescent children, Stella and Alexander, seem to accept Marius's weekend visits without distress. And older daughter Olivia, an opera singer on the rise, is too involved in her own career and romantic intrigues to express much interest in her mother's personal life.
Caroline is happy and the world is good. Until one day when Caroline's life begins to fall apart. First, a mysterious young man backpacking his way through the countryside arrives at the door. He says his name is Peter Bagshaw, but Caroline sees instantly that he must be related to Marius; perhaps he's even his son.
What else has Marius hidden from Caroline? Who is this man, Marius Fleetwood? Is everything about him a lie?
When a murder occurs, detectives Mike Oddie and Charlie Peace must probe the lives of numerous suspects who had good reason to kill. As always in a Barnard mystery, the fun is in the details, the characters, the twists. With big houses, wealth, opera, and obsessive devotion as some of his ingredients, Robert Barnard gives us a witty, richly nuanced novel worthy of the crime-writing star that he is.
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Chapter One: Rural Idyll
When Caroline came in from the garden, she was pleased to find that Mrs. Hogbin had gone upstairs to do the bathrooms. Caroline had had cleaning ladies in the past whom she'd regarded as friends, whom she'd been more pleased to sit down with over a cup of tea and a scone than any of the theatrical people she called her friends. Mrs. Hogbin wasn't one of them.
She came through to the spacious hallway and poked her head around the door of what had once been a box room.
"Tea, Alex? Coffee, Coke, milk?"
"No thanks," her son said, hardly looking up from the screen that mesmerized him. "Mum, I need a whole lot of new software."
"Then you're going to have to need for quite a while."
"Oh Mum! I've got to have it! I bet Marius buys all the latest stuff for Guy."
That was a line Caroline always felt she had to nip in the bud. Guy was not the spoiled child of a rich man: he was not given lavish pocket money, or bought everything his young mind could covet.
"Maybe, and maybe not. Anyway, Guy is nearly twenty, he's Marius's son, and he's about to start a computer degree course at St. Andrew's University."
"So what? He's been computer mad for years, and has stuff I could only dream about. You have to start young to be really on top of them. I bet if I asked --"
"Don't even think of asking Marius. Just think of all the calls he has on his money. My God -- doesn't he do enough for us all?"
She shut the door on his already opening mouth. At least he'd looked up from that bloody screen. Unfortunately, before she could get to the sitting room she was caught by Mrs. Hogbin, descending the stairs with a bucket.
"I'll be finished in half an hour, Mrs. Fawley. If I could have your company, just to the bus stop -- "
"Of course, Thora. You never used to be so nervous, though."
"It's all those feedopiles. It doesn't feel like nobody's safe in their beds any longer."
As she waddled through to the kitchen it occurred to Caroline that Thora not only did not know how to pronounce "pedophiles," she had no idea what they were. So much for the educational mission of the popular press. The word had become for Mrs. Hogbin a synonym for what in Caroline's childhood used to be called a "sex maniac."
Luckily when the half hour was up and Mrs. Hogbin was pulling on her wholly unnecessary coat, Alexander said he needed to go down to the village shop for his chocolate supply. In fact he was going for cigarettes, but so far he had successfully kept this habit from his mother, and even from his sister Stella. He was a naturally secretive boy, who collected and collated information obsessively, but never willingly shared it.
Caroline went into the sitting room, then crossed to the large window that looked out onto the garden. The roses at the far end were looking better in their second flowering than they had in their first. There had been an interesting blend in the two big rose beds when she and Marius had taken the house over, and she had introduced one or two more unusual types that had enhanced the effect. People commented, and inspected the new varieties closely, and that pleased Caroline.
The lawn had been splendid all year, but that had not been due to her. The mowing had mostly been done by Alexander, and Mr. Wilks from the village had come to spray the lawn feed and keep down the moss and dandelions. The whole garden had looked a picture and when she had been asked, in an emergency, if the village fete could be switched to Alderley she had quite happily agreed. Everyone was complimentary, there had been no tensions or disapproving glances, and the rector had been sweet as always -- extra sweet, in fact.
So unlike the rector of Conningham, that Sunday when they'd gone to Communion there. She had coped well, with her stage training, but Marius had been fuming, and obviously so. Clearly there were Yorkshire villages still in the Dark Ages, as well as others, like Marsham, that had moved with the times.
Wandering round the house, which she rather liked having to herself for the odd half hour, Caroline felt suffused with happiness. She felt none of the pains of missing, which she had rather feared: acting was behind her, a thing of the past. She felt no nostalgia for the applause, laughter, or edge-of-seat involvement of a live audience, no retrospective affection for the recognition that appearances on television bring, no regrets for backstage backbiting, patently false compliments on her acting or appearance -- the whole fake superstructure of the acting profession (trade, she corrected herself) had disappeared from her life, and her life was the better for it.
Marius had done this for her. The transformation had been worked by him. And on Friday he would be down for another gorgeous, snatched, relished weekend.
From her bedroom window Caroline saw Alexander and Mrs. Hogbin going through the front gate. She'll be pumping him, she thought. Well, let her. She was ashamed of nothing about her present life. Anyway, she'd back Alexander against Mrs. Hogbin any day.
Alexander, in fact, in his secretive way, was rather enjoying himself. Knowledge was power, and though he had no desire to be a dictator, or even a prime minister, this was the sort of power he enjoyed, hoarding it, telling it over, like a miser his money.
"So Mr. Fleetwood will be coming down this weekend, will he?" Mrs. Hogbin asked.
"He generally does," said Alexander, using one of his strategies for avoiding a straight yes or no.
"And have Mr. Fleetwood and your mother any plans?"
"If they have they wouldn't involve me. I'm a big boy now. I do my own thing."
"Sit over that bleeding word progressor every hour God sends," said Mrs. Hogbin, who was always free with her opinions.
"That's not true," said Alexander. "I spend a lot of time meditating on life's great mysteries. Such as why you never see orange cars."
Mrs. Hogbin shot him a glance, then gave it up.
"But I meant -- like -- larger plans."
"Oh, I suppose everyone has plans and dreams, don't they?"
"Not when you get to my age, you don't. But your mother's still a young woman, and Mr. Fleetwood's not much older, I wouldn't think. Plenty of people that age get married."
"I expect you're right. I haven't studied the statistics."
"Stastistics?" spat out Mrs. Hogbin, exasperated. "I'm not talking about stastistics. I'm talking about being in love. And it's plain as the nose on my face that them two are in love. Even you must see that."
Alexander put on his pretentious-actor voice.
"Now you've lost me."
"What is love? 'Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter."
"It's a quote from Twelfth Night. My mother played Viola in Twelfth Night, but she was a bit too old for it by the time she was asked to do it. Come to that, she's been in Present Laughter as well."
Mrs. Hogbin frowned in bewilderment.
"You're getting off the point, Mr. Alexander. And the point is, if they love each other, they should be married. It would make people round here a lot happier if they were."
"Well, I never realized the purpose of marriage was to make other people happy. This has been an interesting conversation, Mrs. Hogbin. Here's your bus stop. Byee!"
It was an hour or so later, when Alexander was home and doing something or other at the far end of the garden -- which pleased Caroline, getting him out of doors and away from that damned computer -- that she heard a car draw up on the circular front drive, and then a ring at the doorbell. The car had a distinctive knock at slow speeds, and she knew who the visitor was.
"Jack!" she said, as she opened the door. "This is a pleasant surprise. Come in."
"You're sure I haven't come at an inconvenient time?" Jack said with his customary diffidence.
"I don't really have inconvenient times anymore," Caroline said, then added, "except at weekends, of course."
Sir John Mortyn-Crosse ("Bart." insisted his card, to distinguish him, as a baronet, from the myriad creation of knights and Life Peers over the last twenty years or so) was as estimable a man as Caroline had ever known: courteous, considerate, infinitely charitable within his straitened means. It was unfortunate that her children ignored all these qualities and focused on the workings of the poor man's insides, which were indeed like the plumbing of an old and neglected house, resulting in loud bubbling or heaving noises and periodical loud reports with consequent pervading smells. "Fart Fart the Bart" her eldest daughter would sing if she heard his car approach, and since Olivia was a dramatic soprano, Caroline was always afraid that Jack would hear her as he got out of the car.
As he sat down in the armchair that was "his," his stomach obligingly produced a noise like a maelstrom preparing for action. As always, Jack ignored it.
"I've come to ask a favor -- " he began.
" -- and you've got to say no if it's the least bit inconvenient."
"I'm not sure I'll promise that, but go on."
"I was wondering -- Meta and I were wondering -- if the arrangement for the fete this year could become a permanent one." He hurried ahead, out of some kind of embarrassment that Caroline thought excessive. "You see, it's been a delight having it at the Dower House all these years -- one small relic of the past, of former glories -- but in the end it is a bit of a chore, and though everyone is very nice, and takes care, and comes and helps with the clearing up afterwards, Meta does hate the damage to the garden. She's not getting any younger, you know, and we have no help, and the fact is the grounds here at Alderley are much bigger, and with people being able to use both the back garden and the front without traipsing through the house -- "
"Jack -- Jack! It's all right. I thought when we had the fete here it was ideal, and I enjoyed enormously having it, and all the people, and the things for the children. So I'd love it to come here, and I can see that you and Meta must feel you've done your bit, having had it all those years."
Jack looked at her impishly.
"I have to admit that, having said it was a delight having it for so long, I should have added that this year the delight was not having it."
Actually Caroline was rather surprised that Meta was letting the fete be transferred to Alderley, because she was a bit of a dragon, albeit a comic one, and was very hot on her position in the village. She frequently suggested by a succession of piggy stares that she disapproved of Caroline and Marius's unwed state. Still, with only two houses in the village capable of playing host to the fete, she didn't have a great deal of choice if she wanted to be rid of the burden.
Relieved to have that bit of business out of the way, Jack Mortyn-Crosse relaxed in the chair and settled in for a good session of village gossip, breaking wind at regular intervals. The rector's wife wanted to get a job, or at least wanted the income that a job might produce; Mr. Patel at the village shop-cum-post office was threatening to sell up or close; one of the (few) children in the village had been raiding the little patch of apple trees that was all that was left of Marsham Manor's orchard. The manor itself, where Jack's family had lived, if not for centuries, at least for a hundred and fifteen years, had been sold twenty years before, and its demolition had led to a large estate of instant homes on the site of house and grounds. Jack and his sister lived in the Dower House, in a relationship that veered between the just-tolerant and the downright hostile. Jack's long-ago wife, who had died in childbirth with the longed-for baby, was barely a memory in the village, though mention of her always brought a look of pain to Jack's pleasant face.
"And Marius will be down for the weekend?"
"Not yet, but no doubt something nice will emerge. Olivia's rehearsing with Opera North, so she may be able to get away for a bit. Not that she'd expect us to do anything special for her. She's happy shutting herself away and singing scales."
"Wonderful voice. I've heard her singing Schubert."
Caroline bent forward to fill his cup, hiding her reddening face.
"It's a bit too big a voice for lieder these days. Or perhaps it's personality. She seems to overpower the songs. Verdi's more the mark."
"And yet she's still young. It must be God-given....So, you and Marius will be able to get away to something or other?"
"Oh yes -- meal, play, or whatever. There's Dangerous Corner on at the Leeds Playhouse, and there was something or other on at the Palace, Manchester, that Marius said he fancied seeing. Manchester's just an hour or so away these days."
"Couldn't be too far, if I had my way. Don't you ever -- ?"
Jack had an infinite number of ways of asking whether Caroline missed the stage. The burden of his concern seemed to be that she was forsaking her Art -- one of many common-man touches in Jack's thinking. Caroline, as always, laughed.
"No, I don't long to be treading the boards still. I have no regrets about quitting the stage -- neither performing, nor all the backstage and offstage stuff."
"I expect you will, though."
"Jack! It's as if you want me to be frustrated and unfulfilled."
"Seems such a waste," Jack muttered. "Anyway, it's as well to have plenty of strings to your bow."
"I've got quite enough strings to my bow, thank you very much. My life is so restful now, Jack: so serene, so rich. I see more of my children than I ever have, and I love that. Even Olivia I see plenty of, though she has been out on her own for years now."
"I suppose you were building your career when she was young."
"That's right. And so was Rick, my first husband -- the archetypal Thespian nasty. Her life was all nannies and baby-sitters, poor love. It's no wonder that...Anyway, the main thing is, there's a base for all three of the children when they need it. And they all get on so well with Marius -- and with his brood, the few times they've met."
"Everyone would love it if -- "
"I know, Jack, I know. But I've been there, done that. Rick, my first, I can hardly bear to think about, let alone talk to. Evelyn, my second, the creature from the swamp, I had to bully my younger two to have the most minimal contact with before he took himself off to an embassy in Central America. I've given up reminding them when his birthday is: I just buy cards for them and guide their hands when they sign. Marriage is a disaster zone I don't intend to stray into a third time. In any case, as you well know, Marius is still technically married."
"But he could -- "
"I don't want him to, and there wouldn't be any point. End of conversation, please, Jack."
Which effectively put an end to the visit as well. Jack murmured something about "thought I ought to bring it up," like a rector apologizing for mentioning God every time he paid a visit, and then he went out to his car. As he got into his aging Honda Civic Shuttle he emitted a loud report that sent a passing squirrel scuttling up a tree. Alexander, coming round from the back with -- if his mother had only had a stronger sense of smell -- a whiff of nicotine about him, looked after the departing car.
"Fart Fart the Bart was looking a bit hangdog," he remarked.
"He brought up the business of marriage again."
"Why can't they let you alone to do what you want?"
"Amen to that."
"You've slaved away on stages and in studios long enough."
"You know," she said, looking around her, "I think it's this place, Alderley, that makes people do it. If Marius had set me up in a suburban semi they wouldn't think it half so important that he should make an honest woman of me."
"There wouldn't be any point in setting you up in a suburban semi: we had one already."
"True. Anyway, I think the appeal of Alderley is aesthetic to Marius."
"Don't talk to me about aesthetics, Mum. You know that's my blind spot. I suppose you just mean he likes a good lay in pleasant surroundings."
And Alexander drifted back indoors to continue his trawl through the fatuities and ego trips on the Internet.
Caroline rather enjoyed his last remark. It was characteristic of Alexander -- his instinct to ground everything, to deflate pretensions and pomposities, to prick bubbles. Not something she would have wanted in a lover, but something she found quite useful in a son. She was just turning to follow Alexander back into the house when she saw someone approaching from the direction of the village up the narrow country road outside the gate. So few walked it -- it only led by the most roundabout route to the next village -- that she stayed outside, wondering if it was a friend of one of her children.
It was a boy, a young man -- she soon saw that. He had a smallish rucksack on his back. The shorts and open shirt bespoke a hiker. The walk -- there was something in the walk that reminded her...of who? Not one of her husbands, thank God. When he got to the gate without seeing her, he stopped and got out a map.
As he stood there peering at it, Caroline got a good view of his face. Of course! What his walk and face reminded her of was Marius.
As she watched him from the shadow of the tree she was convinced he had not seen her, though his face was turned in her direction. After a minute or two with his finger tracing a route on the map, the young man folded it carefully, then continued on his way along the road.
Copyright © 2002 by Robert Barnard
Meet the Author
Robert Barnard (1936-2013) was awarded the Malice Domestic Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Nero Wolfe Award, as well as the Agatha and Macavity awards. An eight-time Edgar nominee, he was a member of Britain's distinguished Detection Club, and, in May 2003, he received the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement in mystery writing. His most recent novel, Charitable Body, was published by Scribner in 2012.
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Former renowned actress Caroline Fawley enjoys her life as a kept woman living in Marsham Village with two of her three children. Caroline enjoys the weekend visits of her married lover Marius Fleetwood, who pays her bills including residing at the luxurious Alderley Mansion. Accompanied by Marius, Caroline attends her oldest daughter Olivia¿s opera performance. Marius sneaks away as he usually does when he comes to an opera, but plans to return just prior to curtain call. Olivia is a success, but Marius fails to return. The next day, the police ask Caroline to look at the murdered corpse of an elegantly dressed man, who she identifies as Marius. As she worries about the future, the truths she believed about her lover begins to prove false, making her wonder about her beloved and why anyone wanted him dead. Though the story line takes its time to introduce the players, readers will relish the wait for once the plot shifts into gear, it never slows down until the end. The characters are fully developed even those who are off stage like Marius¿ wife so that the audience has a feel for what motivates the cast though much of what is learned about the victim proves untrue. Robert Barnard provides the audience with an entertaining mystery that emphasizes the main and support cast. Harriet Klausner