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Sister Beneath the Sheet
The Nell Bray Mysteries
By Gillian Linscott
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 1991 Gillian Linscott
All rights reserved.
THE STORY BEGAN FOR ME in the middle of April, only nine days after I was let out of Holloway. I'd been relaxing at my home in Hampstead, enjoying being able to take baths when I wanted to and getting to know my cats again, until a cab drew up outside and Emmeline Pankhurst stepped out of it.
'Nell, my dear, I want you to go to Biarritz at once.'
'Oh,' I said, 'I'm not really so bad. Two days at Cookham will do very well.'
I can never resist teasing Emmeline a little. She has many strengths, but a sense of humour is not one of them.
'It's a delicate situation. A woman has died there, in distressing circumstances, and left us a great deal of money.'
'Possibly as much as fifty thousand pounds.'
'Wonderful. That would mean we could support fifty suffrage candidates at the next election. Who was she?'
For once Emmeline seemed at a loss for words.
'It's not easy for me to tell you, Nell.'
'Surely we know her name.'
'Apparently she was a Miss Brown.'
'She had a nom de guerre, so to speak. Topaz.'
I waited again.
'She was a ... a ...'
I took pity.
'If she was the Topaz Brown I've heard of, she was a highly successful prostitute.'
Emmeline nodded, colouring up like a débutante.
'It seems she killed herself. Worn out, I suppose, by her degraded way of life.'
'And left us all her money. Was she one of us?'
'I don't see how she could have been. The question is, should we take it?'
'Fifty thousand pounds? Of course we should take it.'
I knew the state of our finances better than Emmeline did.
'I thought that would be your attitude. It makes you the most appropriate person to go to Biarritz and look after our interests. You even speak French.'
I didn't relish the prospect of weeks of French and English lawyers and probably litigious relatives, but fifty thousand is fifty thousand. Also, curiosity is one of my favourite vices and I was already very curious about the legacy of Topaz Brown.
'How did we hear about this?'
Emmeline looked grim. 'I received a long telegraph message yesterday from Roberta Fieldfare. It seems she's staying in Biarritz. Goodness knows why.'
'Bobbie? I shared a cell with her mother, Lady Fieldfare.'
She was serving three months for throwing horse dung at a cabinet minister. Her sister Maud, who's sixty-nine years old but has a sounder aim, actually hit the target and got four months. The Fieldfares, aunt, mother and daughter, are as enthusiastic as they come in our cause of votes for women, but all of them as wild as hares. They are not Emmeline's favourite allies.
'I'll call on young Bobbie as soon as I get there. Did she say where she was staying?'
'I should prefer that you didn't, Nell. In fact, I think it would be best if you keep your activities as discreet as possible while you do what has to be done in Biarritz.'
In other words, ease the legacy quietly into the bank account of the Women's Social and Political Union without creating any additional gossip about its source.
I promised to do my best, made arrangements with my neighbour to take care of my long-suffering cats and looked up timetables. I left Charing Cross at ten o'clock on Monday morning. At seven twenty-seven on Tuesday morning I stepped on to the sunlit platform of Biarritz station after travelling through the night from Paris. It was six days since Topaz had been found dead. I'd consulted my Baedeker on the journey and found a reasonably priced pension, the St Julien, listed in the Avenue Carnot, away from the sea but not far from the town centre. I took a cab there, secured a room, deposited my suitcase then breakfasted off coffee and croissants in the café next door. As I ate and drank I considered what I should do first.
One of the few things I'd been able to find out before leaving London was that Topaz Brown was found dead in her rooms at the Hôtel des Empereurs. I decided to take a stroll and look at the place. I'd never been to Biarritz before and, although I knew the King's visits had helped to make it fashionable, I was struck by the luxury and gaiety of it, especially after the greyness of prison life. Most of the grand hotels were clustered around the casino and main bathing establishment, behind a rocky headland called the Atalaye. Long sandy beaches stretched away to the north, more beaches southward to the Spanish border. The waves thumped in with shattering force against the headland and a stiff Atlantic breeze blew, but the early strollers parading in front of the hotels looked as if they'd come straight from Mayfair. Manservants pushed elderly invalids along in bath chairs, women struggled to hold on to hats with decorations of bird wings and silk streamers that seemed designed to make them take flight, uniformed nursemaids clung to the hands of children in sailors' suits. In another few years, probably, the fashionable world would move on and Biarritz would be left to the waves and the fishermen. Meanwhile the grand hotels towered along the parade like a line of great ships at anchor.
The Hôtel des Empereurs was easy to find, one of the largest and newest in the resort. It was built in a modern baroque style with wrought iron balconies bulging out from every floor, its frontage a surge of garlands, gymnastic nymphs and sea horses in terracotta. Two caryatids stood left and right of the front steps, stretching to the first floor and supporting a balcony on their heads. At either end, seven or eight floors up, were round turrets roofed with copper domes, the shape of inverted egg cups. There were rooms in each turret with windows facing north, south and out to sea. In the one on the right the blinds were down. I stood for a while, watching people going in and out of the hotel, wondering what it would feel like to be so tired of it, or so disgusted with it all that extinction would seem preferable. I was as eager as anybody to take Topaz's money, but thought I owed it to her to find out something more about her.
'Speaking for myself ...' the solicitor said. He got up from his desk, fidgeted with a pile of papers, walked over to the window, as if reluctant to commit himself. 'Speaking for myself, I can only say that I found Miss Brown a very affable and businesslike woman. In fact, until this business of the will, we found her the ideal client.'
Topaz's lawyer had turned out to be English, and to have an office in the same building as the consulate. Apparently with so many rich and influential English people spending several weeks of the year in Biarritz, their professional advisers migrated with them.
'She'd been a client of yours for some time, then?'
'For some weeks. We were engaged in a property transaction on her behalf.'
He was being rather more forthcoming than I'd expected. There'd been just the suspicion of a wince when I introduced myself to him, but lawyers tend to be cautious when faced with people who've served prison sentences for throwing bricks through the window of 10 Downing Street.
'Was her will drawn up recently?'
He looked surprised, suspicious even.
'You haven't been told?'
'We know none of the details.'
'Last Wednesday afternoon.'
He said the three words very quickly and turned away to the window, as if disclaiming any responsibility for them.
'But ... I thought ... didn't she?'
'Miss Brown was found dead by her maid on Thursday morning.'
'So she made the will only half a day before she died? Did you see her? Did you have any idea ...?'
The lawyer walked heavily back to his desk. He was quite a young man, but bald, and the sun glinted on his pink head.
'Miss Bray, I am in an awkward position. You may not know that Miss Brown's brother is challenging the will on the grounds that she could not have been of sound mind when she made it. I assume that your organisation may find itself contesting this in court. You will therefore appreciate that, in the circumstances, there's nothing more I can say to you.'
I did appreciate it. I thanked him for his politeness and told him that he'd be hearing officially from the Women's Social and Political Union in due course. As he showed me out I said: 'You mentioned a maid. I suppose there'd be no objection to my speaking to her.'
'None that I can see. You may find her a little ... er ... embattled. She was very loyal to Miss Brown.'
'Do you know her name, or where I can find her?'
'Tansy Mills. She's still at Miss Brown's suite at the Hôtel des Empereurs. Miss Brown had paid for the suite till the end of the month, and somebody must pack her things.'
'When is the funeral?'
'That is yet to be arranged.'
From the way he said it, I gathered there were difficulties there, but he wouldn't be the one to tell me about them. It was mid-morning by then. I made my way back to the Hôtel des Empereurs and, at the reception desk, asked for Topaz Brown's maid.
I got some curious looks, but a boy in a pill-box hat and gold-braided uniform took me up in the lift from the back of the foyer. The gates opened at the seventh floor. He led me along a crimson-carpeted corridor, and knocked at a pair of double doors painted in white and gold.
'Who's there? Who is it?'
The voice, speaking English with traces of an East London accent, came sharply from inside. The boy shrugged and walked away.
'My name's Nell Bray. Are you Tansy Mills?'
'Yes. What is it?'
'I'd like to talk to you about Miss Brown.'
'Did the lawyer send you?'
It wasn't far from the truth and seemed to be the only way I'd get in.
'Wait a minute.'
There was a pause, the sound of a key turning, then one of the doors opened. The woman on the other side of it couldn't have been much more than five foot two in height, but broad shouldered and with a sense of pugnacity about her. Her nose was long, her eyes brown and angry. She was wearing a plain black dress and her hair, already showing signs of grey, was pulled back into a tight pleat. She looked a most respectable little body.
'You're English? Thank goodness for that. I'm tired to the bone with all of them jabbering away in French to me, except that lawyer, and he's not much better even if it is in English. And none of them listening to a word I say.'
She'd closed the door behind me and we were standing in a wide entrance hall, with doors leading off it, in the centre and to the right. To the left I noticed a small lift cage.
'Well, what do you want to know? Are you going to listen, or do you just want to jabber like the rest of them?'
'I want to listen.'
She looked at me and pushed open the door in front of us.
'You'd better come in and sit down, though it's all a muddle. I've been trying to pack up her things. Mr Jules is helping, but the more you pack the more there is.'
It was an enormous round room, with windows looking out over the promenade and up and down the coast. I realised that I was inside one of the two towers I'd looked at early that morning, the left-hand one. Islands of good furniture were scattered round it, armchairs and chaise longues with small tables beside them. Almost every available surface was heaped with gleaming piles of dresses, cloaks and shawls, or piled with papers, envelopes and leather cases. Tansy swept an armful off a chair for me.
'I suppose you want a cup of tea.'
As she took a spirit lamp from a cupboard, I tried to explain myself.
'Miss Brown left our organisation a very large sum of money. We know almost nothing about her.'
She put down a small tea kettle and stared at me, fists on hips.
'You're the ones who've been causing all the trouble over votes?'
Feeling the anger radiating out of her, I decided not to add to it.
She walked across the room, trying to stamp her feet, hindered by the thickness of the carpet.
'Of all the silly things she ever did ... Still, it was no use arguing with her once she'd made up her mind.'
She filled the kettle, with much clashing of metal and china. It was obvious that if Topaz Brown had been an unlikely convert to our cause, she'd had no success in convincing her maid.
Once the kettle was on, Tansy plonked herself down opposite me, sitting on the edge of a chair crowded with guides and railway timetables.
'What do you expect me to tell you, then?'
'All you can remember about the day before she died.'
It was clearly no use beating about the bush with Tansy, and it looked as if our claim to that fifty thousand pounds would hinge on Topaz's behaviour on that last day. To my surprise, Tansy seemed almost pleased.
'I'll do that. I'd tell anybody, only they won't listen.'
She took a deep breath. 'The whole day before? Well, it was ten o'clock on the Thursday morning when I found her. If you go back a day from that, that's ten o'clock on the Wednesday. I'd taken her breakfast on a tray as usual, jug of chocolate, thick and creamy, those little twisty French rolls she liked. I tapped on the door and said, "Your breakfast ma'am." I always started the day formal.'
'In this room?'
'No, in her bedroom, of course. Where else would she be?'
'On her own?'
The question had to be asked, but it annoyed Tansy.
'Of course she was on her own. I wouldn't have disturbed her otherwise, would I?'
'I suppose not. How did she seem?'
'Just like she always seemed in the mornings, curled up in the sheets like a big sleepy cat. Naturally lovely, she was, and don't let that woman on the other side or anybody else tell you different. Like that, only better.'
She pointed to a picture on the wall. I hadn't noticed it when I came in because the light wasn't on it, but when I looked at it, it seemed to glow with its own light. It was done in pastels, in tones of tawny, gold and apricot and showed a woman lying back, hair loose, among gold draperies and smiling a kind of lazy, satisfied smile. A replete cat rather than a predatory one.
'That was done by one of her artists. She liked being painted. You asked me what she was like that last morning, and it was just like that. Anyway, I put the tray down on the table by her bed and drew back the curtains to let the sun in, like I always did, and she asked me if the post had come.'
'Did she seem anxious about anything in the post?'
Again, she seemed aggrieved at the suggestion.
'No, she did not, and I'll tell you how I know. I'd got the post ready on the table outside the door, so I brought it in to her. It was much the same as it always is, all those square stiff envelopes with the crests on them and the foreign gentlemen's smells ...'
'You know, the oil they put on their hair and their beards and so on. She just glanced at them, put them to one side without even looking at them properly and said to me, "Have you heard from your little sister?" That's the kind of lady she was. A handful of European nobility and she puts them aside to ask after my sister, a ten-bob-a -week seamstress in a sweat shop off the Mile End Road.'
She glared at me as if challenging me to contradict her. I kept quiet, realising that I must let her get on with it in her own way.
'So I said no, I hadn't heard anything from Rose, and she said, "Do you think she'll come?" You see, two weeks before she'd caught me looking down in the mouth and got it out of me that I was worrying about Rose. Even then, though, I only told her the half of it, that Rose wasn't strong, not a work-pony like me, and I was worried about her working all hours, lodging in a fleapit of a place. Topaz said, without even stopping to think about it, "Well, you must write to her and tell her to come over here. I'll pay her to keep my underwear in good order." I thought she was joking, but there was no satisfying her until I'd written a letter to Rose and sent it off, with a ten pound note that Topaz had given me for her fare. And that last morning, she wasn't asking about Rose because she was worried about her ten pounds, don't think that.'
I said I was sure she wasn't. Tansy got up and poured a jet of boiling water into a silver teapot, swished it round, poured the water into a basin. She was angry with the world, with me, with everything including the tea kettle, but she still didn't forget to warm the pot. She was silent while she finished making the tea and I thought of what she'd told me so far. If Topaz had killed herself in a fit of madness or self-disgust, there'd apparently been no signs of it at the start of her last day. That is, if Tansy was to be believed. She poured the tea and put a white and gold cup on the table beside me, pushing papers away to make room for it.
Excerpted from Sister Beneath the Sheet by Gillian Linscott. Copyright © 1991 Gillian Linscott. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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