DI Herbert Reardon is drawn into a world of secrets and lies when a body is discovered at a girls’ boarding school.
1930. When a body is discovered on the premises of the newly-established Maxstead Court School for Girls, Detective Inspector Herbert Reardon is called in to investigate. His wife Ellen having just accepted a job as French teacher, Reardon is alarmed to find the school a hotbed of scandalous secrets, suppressed passions, petty jealousies and wanton schoolgirl cruelty. As he pursues his enquiries, it becomes clear that the dead woman was not who – or what – she claimed to be. Who was she really – and why is Reardon convinced that more than one member of staff is not telling him the whole truth?
Then a pupil goes missing – and the case takes a disturbing new twist …
About the Author
Marjorie Eccles was born in Yorkshire and has since spent some time on the Northumbrian coast. Marjorie has written mainly crime novels, but also some romantic fiction. She is the author of the ‘Gill Mayo’ mystery series.
Read an Excerpt
The Property of Lies
A Herbert Reardon Historical Mystery
By Marjorie Eccles
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2017 Marjorie Eccles
All rights reserved.
The sign is large, still newish and shiny: MAXSTEAD COURT SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, it says, gold on dark green. It looks more welcoming than the deserted old lodge situated at the side, or the large, wrought-iron gates, which have a slightly forbidding look, and are indeed shut tight, if not locked. Ellen gets out of the car and tries them, but they won't budge. She mutters, having no desire to make any attempt at manhandling them open, but then she notices a smaller gate to one side, also of wrought iron, presumably for the convenience of people on foot, and tries it. At least that's open.
She goes back to her car, where there's plenty of room to park on the grass verge on the opposite side of the narrow country road, leaves it among the cow parsley and buttercups, and admits herself into the school grounds through the smaller gate. It probably isn't the best idea for the prospective French teacher to arrive at the doors in a smart little car anyway. The new, bull-nosed Morris is supposedly a shared convenience for both herself and her husband, although she knows it's really an inducement not to attempt solo-riding his big BSA motorcycle again. As if she ever would. The one and only time she'd attempted that, a journey into Shropshire she'd known was foolhardy by the time she was halfway there, makes her go hot and cold whenever she thinks about it.
She begins the walk towards the school. Trees line the long drive and give welcome shade on a day that promises to be hot. It has been a freak month or so, high winds and rain, bitterly cold spells alternated with periods of near heat waves, but that's English weather for you. Maybe last night's thunderstorm and today's rising temperature heralds a real change now that June is here.
Halfway down the drive she looks at her watch and sees she is ten minutes early for the appointment. She has a feeling that Miss Hillyard will be a stickler for punctuality, meaning neither too late nor too early an arrival, so she has time to take in the view of what she hopes might soon become very familiar to her.
At this point the drive begins to dip and the whole of Maxstead Court is visible. The building is new as a school, though ancient as the ancestral home of the Scroope family, who had owned it for generations before increasing taxes, death duties and a general lack of funds for maintenance had forced them to sell. It still looks rather grim, to tell the truth, even on this beautiful day. Grey and square, it rises like a fortress against the dark background of Maxstead Forest. That, too, had once belonged to the Scroopes, as had the hundreds of surrounding acres, and the village of Maxstead itself, come to that, until it was all sold off. The house – what is now the school – stands at one end of grounds that stretch out to its side. The large gardens have been retained, both ornamental and kitchen; new tennis and netball courts installed, and a playing field provided. A tidy sum it must have cost, to turn the large, draughty rooms of the ancient pile into suitable classrooms, dormitories and so on for the privileged young ladies who are boarders at the school, but the eye-watering fees are surely large enough to compensate. And presumably they'll bring in a profit, in time. The school hasn't been open long and scaffolding – just visible at one end of the building – is evidence that structural work is still going on. As yet, as Ellen was told at her first interview with the principal, it does not have its full complement of pupils; only about seventy girls in all, ranging in age from twelve to nearly seventeen.
Ellen is eagerly looking forward to taking up her career again, at last able to follow the work she was trained for and loves, though marriage and teaching don't go hand in hand, at least not for women. It's a ruling she considers outrageous and outmoded, but it's one that still applies, though it was conveniently waived when women were needed to step into the breach during the war and fill the gaps left, with so many male teachers away in the army. Women who now at last have the vote and have equal rights, in theory, with men. But this is a school run by a woman who once fought for women's rights and was later driving ambulances on the front line in France, and since she also owns the school, she is at liberty to scorn such views. Ellen smiles, looks at her watch and then continues her walk down the drive, feeling free at last from what she considers her long years of servitude, only able to use her skills for work as a private tutor or translating for a publisher – when she could get either. It's a long time since she has felt that everything is so well with the world.
But when eventually she comes to where the drive emerges on to the gravelled forecourt, a parterre with lozenge-shaped beds filled with a blaze of bedding plants, she sees that all is far from well with the world. Or not with the world of the man and woman who face each other angrily at the foot of the steps, not bothering to lower their voices.
The row appears to have been going on for some time and, even as Ellen registers what's happening, Edith Hillyard, that calm and dignified figure who had interviewed her a week ago, raises her arm and delivers a swingeing blow to the man's face. He is a well-built man, but she is almost as tall as he is and is no lightweight herself, and he rocks on his feet when it connects. Ellen, brought stock-still in her tracks, and feeling distinctly de trop by now, expects him to retaliate and gets ready to intervene – although what she, five foot in her stockinged feet, can do against such a pair is not immediately clear. Fortunately, there seems to be no need for her to do anything. The man simply stands there while Miss Hillyard turns contemptuously away and walks back up the steps and into the school.
He stares after her for a moment, then spins round and begins striding furiously up the drive. There is no way for him to avoid meeting Ellen, unless she darts away to find undignified shelter under the trees, but she doesn't see why she needs to do this. His quarrel isn't with her. All the same, as he passes her, scarcely taking in the fact that she's there at all, his face still contorted with self-absorbed rage, she feels an instinctive shrinking. Edith Hillyard may have won the fight, but Ellen doesn't think she has by any means won the battle.
She lingers as long as she can before reaching the door and ringing the bell, so as to give the headmistress time to pull herself together and regain her composure. She need not have bothered. Miss Hillyard, tall and stately, comes unruffled into the small room where Ellen has been asked to wait, with her hair freshly combed and perhaps a trace of powder on her calm face. 'Good afternoon, Mrs Reardon.' She smiles and offers a steady hand (the one which had nearly felled the man). It feels firm and cool.
Ellen is led into her study next door and tea follows almost immediately, brought in by the same rather nervous young maid who had answered the doorbell. 'Thank you, Ivy, you can leave it there on the small table. It looks very nice,' Miss Hillyard adds, smiling approval at the starched, lace-edged white tray-cloth, the shining silver teapot, pretty cups and saucers all nicely set out. Ivy blushes and departs.
'She's new, still learning,' explains Miss Hillyard, pouring tea and offering digestive biscuits.
Ellen is glad to see the headmistress is a woman who recognizes the value of encouragement. Despite what she has just witnessed outside, she feels her original judgement of her as a pleasant, even-tempered woman, firm but kind, wasn't entirely misplaced. She is distinguished and middle-aged, with a host of qualifications behind her. Her thick dark brown hair, drawn unfashionably back into a bun low on her neck, shows no signs of grey. She is brisk and businesslike, and when they have drunk their tea, she immediately begins a discussion of the details and conditions of Ellen's employment that were put forward at the preliminary interview. Now that Ellen has had time to consider and has agreed to them, Miss Hillyard says she would like her to start immediately, although it's mid-term. She will be working here three days a week – with occasional extra duties, perhaps, when called for?
Ellen hadn't really needed time to consider the terms offered – she'd jumped at the opportunity to work here – though she doesn't tell Miss Hillyard that; and the salary which has been offered is generous enough for her to comply with the request for extra duties, though not so eagerly that she doesn't stipulate certain limits and conditions of her own. One of which is that she might be allowed, on very odd occasions, to bring her dog with her. 'My neighbour's delighted to look after him while I'm here, but in case there happens to be a time when it's not convenient for Mr Levett to have him ... If there's somewhere he can be accommodated, that is?'
'Of course,' says Miss Hillyard smoothly, after only the slightest hesitation. 'I dare say the domestic staff will be delighted to do the honours.'
A glance at the headmistress's liquid-eyed cocker spaniel bitch, sitting quietly obedient in a basket by the fireplace, causes Ellen a slight qualm, wondering how this pretty little dog, whose name is Goldie, will respond to an exuberant Jack Russell, but there has been no suggestion of the two fraternizing, which is just as well, although Tolly has learnt a few manners and rules since his ownership was transferred to Ellen.
But Miss Hillyard has evidently felt it expedient not to object to the request. 'Of course, I understand, you have your private life to consider.' She refills their cups. 'Your husband is a policeman, I believe?' she asks after a pause, looking thoughtful.
'A detective inspector. That's what brought us to Folbury. They've recently opened a dedicated detective branch here and he's in charge. It's still quite small.' Consisting, to be precise, of Herbert Reardon himself, Detective Sergeant Joe Gilmour and two newly fledged detective constables. Neither a detective superintendent nor a detective chief inspector has so far been deemed necessary. Ellen hopes, against present evidence to the contrary, that this might soon prove to have been a mistake that will be rectified, confident that her husband is more than able to fit the bill for either position. If that happens, and with her job here, and the lovely little house they now have near the town centre, with a garden sloping towards a view of the River Fol, she can ask for no more.
'Well, I'm very glad you did come to live here, and that Mrs Ramsey remembered you. I can't be without a French teacher any longer. A reliable teacher,' the headmistress adds.
'Mademoiselle Blanchard was French, I understand?'
'Precisely,' says Miss Hillyard.
French, and therefore untrustworthy, is the implication. Not at all what Ellen had intended to suggest. But Miss Hillyard is evidently still smarting at the abrupt departure of Mademoiselle Blanchard. If she had been the sort of woman who sniffs, she would certainly have done so.
'I meant that a Frenchwoman might be a hard act to follow.'
'I can understand you might feel that, of course, and Mademoiselle was excellent as a teacher of French,' she admits, 'but I have no fears about your own abilities, Mrs Reardon, and Mrs Ramsey speaks highly of you. It was fortunate she could recommend you, and that you could come at such short notice.'
'Kate and I go back a long way. We taught together for some time.'
'So she told me. I've known Kate a long while, too.'
A bell rings and there are sounds of the school emerging from its classrooms. Miss Hillyard stands up to terminate the interview. 'I'm extremely glad you have decided to accept the position, Mrs Reardon. I'm sure you will be happy with us. I'll introduce you to the other teachers now, and then, if you wish, perhaps a quick tour round to familiarize you with everything? There wasn't enough time for either when we last spoke to each other, but since it's break now, I'm free for a while.' Although her reserved manner prevents her from showing it, it's evident she can't wait to show off her school.
Ellen says she would be delighted, but before they can set out there is a quick double knock on the door. At Miss Hillyard's invitation to enter, an athletically built woman bounces into the room, a whistle on a ribbon round her neck. She has thick, curly hair and is wearing a square-necked white blouse under a tunic similar to the ones the girls wear, navy blue serge with three box pleats back and front from a yoke, with a belt of the same material. It's short enough to reveal her knees and an inch of muscular thigh clad in beige lisle stockings. She stops short at the sight of Ellen. 'Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize ...'
The head introduces Ellen and explains, somewhat unnecessarily in view of the gymslip, evidently the woman's working garb, that Miss Cash teaches games and physical training.
'Daphne,' adds Miss Cash, responding to Ellen's outstretched hand with a strong grasp and a brief nod. They exchange pleasantries for a few minutes and then Miss Cash says, 'I came to tell you there's been another incident, Miss Hillyard. Gym knickers missing from Antonia Freeman's locker.'
'Well, that should narrow the list of suspects. There aren't many needing them that size,' says Miss Hillyard, evidently not bereft of humour, although she does not allow herself to smile. 'It's probably a joke – and Antonia shouldn't have left them in her locker. I'll look into it later.'
'Very well, Miss Hillyard.' The other woman doesn't look satisfied, but as Miss Hillyard has spoken dismissively, she has no option but to bounce off again, giving Ellen another casual, but not unfriendly nod. Miss Hillyard doesn't explain the reference to 'another incident'.
They have just emerged into the small anteroom where Ellen had waited when the telephone in Miss Hillyard's study rings. She hesitates. 'Oh dear, I rather think that may be a call I'm expecting, so if you'll excuse me, I must answer it. Do sit down and make yourself comfortable. I shouldn't be long.'
The anteroom is pleasant, with a couple of easy chairs and a small sofa where visitors can wait – and presumably girls too, before being admitted to see the head – which must be rather more reassuring for them than the traditional wait standing in the corridor, stomach churning at what is to come. Ellen strolls to the open window and looks out over the green lawns and paths where girls have appeared. Unlike Miss Cash, they are wearing their summer uniform of green print dresses with white collars and cuffs, an enlightened innovation, though it hasn't yet gone as far as dispensing with the universally hated black woollen stockings.
The window, which looks out over the stretch of grounds to the side of the house, is wide open, and Ellen perches on the cushioned window seat. The extensive lawn has just been cut and the sweet scent of mown grass drifts into the room. In the distance she can see the figure of a man pushing a mower back and forth over the playing field. Girls are moving around in pairs, arm-in-arm, or gathering in groups. One is lying on the grass just under the window, chin propped on her elbows, reading intently. Older girls perch on the low stone walls that run around several raised flower beds, giggling and gossiping, while younger ones toss a ball or simply chase about running off surplus energy. High-pitched chatter and shrill laughter fills the air. Why is it that any group of women, whatever their age, sound like a gaggle of geese, Ellen wonders, at the same time feeling a surge of contentment at being back in her own environment. She lets her imagination picture a day when her little goddaughter, Ellie, Sergeant Joe Gilmour's daughter, might well be a pupil here. Then she recalls the fees, laughs at the idea and puts the picture from her mind.
A short, stocky woman clad, despite the warmth of the day, in a tweed costume, plus tie, and a green Tyrolean hat, approaches the girl who is reading, and although she walks with the aid of a stick, it doesn't hinder her from moving briskly. The girl is so absorbed in her book that she hears nothing, and starts when the teacher prods her with the stick, none too lightly. A clipped, donnish voice comes clearly through the window. 'Get up at once, Catherine. Don't you realize how damp the grass is?'
The girl raises a vivid face, still eager and animated from what she has been reading. The animation fades as she sees the severe teacher and she scrambles up, finger in the book to keep its place. 'Oh, sorry, Miss Elliott, I didn't notice.'
Excerpted from The Property of Lies by Marjorie Eccles. Copyright © 2017 Marjorie Eccles. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
June 1930 Mrs. Ellen Reardon has arrived at the Maxstead Court School for Girls as a prospective French teacher. She is to interview with Miss Edith Hillyard, the Headmistress. The building and grounds had once belonged to the Scroopes family and houses girls from ages 12-17. Ellen is hired and asked to begin immediately. Ellen’s husband, Herbert Reardon, is a detective inspector. As Ellen is shown around the school, she finds that a wing was so old that it is under reconstruction but the builder passed away. Now, the area sits with nothing more done. Suddenly, Ellen spies a deteriorated body which is assumed to be that of the French teacher, Isabelle Blanchard, who had left the school so suddenly. Inspector Reardon and his men arrive to investigate. They interview the teachers at the school. After one student goes missing for a night, she is found locked in a room in the old wing. However, it appears that she may be lying about what she saw there. The investigation continues until a break in the case happens that surprises everyone. Things aren’t always as they may appear to be. This is the first of this author’s books that I have read. I found it to be slow and rather boring until, of course, the ending. I wish that the story had had more of a true mystery atmosphere to it. Copy provided by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.