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False Pretences

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Harriet returned to London the following day, unsure of what her journey had accomplished. The dons had certainly given her a different and wholly unexpected view of Lady Celia, but she wasn’t sure how what she’d learned fit into the puzzle of Lady Celia’s death. Further questioning had established that Lady Celia had gone about with several men at Oxford, but hadn’t stayed with any one of them for long. Although she’d probably left a few bruised egos in her wake, the dons were unaware of any major disturbances. It seemed unlikely that someone Lady Celia had spurned years ago would only now be avenging himself, but Miss Martin had promised to have a discreet word with her counterparts in the men’s colleges to see if they might know something.

When she reached home, she learned that Lord Peter had wired to say he hoped to return the following day. “At least his work is going smoothly,” Harriet thought, as she struggled once again with revisions. She’d finally declared herself satisfied with the replacement chapter she’d written and had moved on to touching up other chapters. They’d decided to enlarge the role of the Colonel’s great-nephew, Sebastian, and she was trying to make him appear to be the obvious suspect who is revealed early in the novel and then discarded, only to turn out to be the murderer after all.

While the forefront of her mind was focused on making Sebastian appear so guilty that no reader would suspect him, the back of her mind kept returning to the problem of Lady Celia. Was she truly as bad as the dons had supposed? It was difficult to tell with Miss Hillyard, whose view of the world had apparently been distorted by bitter experience, but Miss Martin was very sound and she, too, had mistrusted Lady Celia, as had Miss Edwards. Harriet found herself wondering what her detective, Robert Templeton, would have made of it all.

He would have understood it, she ruefully concluded, because she had made him entirely too good at everything. That hadn’t been a single, conscious decision on her part, but the cumulative result of too many occasions when she’d needed him to be accomplished at something to get himself out of a scrape or solve a crime. She was nearing the point where it was going to be difficult to create obstacles for him, and if he could solve any crime within the first five minutes, then what kind of plot could she have?

Perhaps she should abandon him and start all over with another detective. Of course, that wouldn’t keep her readers from asking after Robert Templeton, which would be tiresome. No, what she needed, or rather, what Templeton needed, was a good dose of amnesia. What if he were injured in an accident—no, better, attacked by a villain—and couldn’t remember his name, much less most of the things he’d once known? She could give him some physical challenges to overcome, as well, and perhaps he would never fully recover from the mental or physical damage. That should challenge him nicely, but how best to do it? He could be tossed off a building or struck by a lorry or shot in the head...

A car backfiring in the street startled her out of her reverie. Harriet belatedly realised she’d been wool-gathering, although it was some very interesting wool indeed. She jotted down a few rough notes that would later become her most popular novel and resolved to return to the problem of Sebastian. Only she hadn’t been thinking of Sebastian, had she? She’d been thinking of Lady Celia, and wishing she understood her better.

Lady Mary might understand her. Harriet decided to spend another hour besmirching Sebastian’s reputation before rewarding her efforts with a visit to her sister-in-law. Having settled on a course of action, she found herself able to focus once more on writing. In fact, things flowed so well that she continued working long after the appointed hour was over. “And now it’s too late to call without disturbing the children’s dinner,” she thought, glancing at the mantel clock. “I’d best wait a bit longer, until they’re tucked up in bed.”

Accordingly, she presented herself at the Parkers’ flat shortly after nine. “Mary. I hope it’s not too late to call, but I wanted to speak to you.”

“Come along in,” Lady Mary said, smiling at her, “but do keep your voice down. The little beasts should be asleep by now but I don’t want them to hear your voice if they aren’t; they’d be down here like a shot. Would you care for anything?”

Soon they were settled at the kitchen table, drinking coffee. Lady Mary sighed contentedly as she said, “You have no idea how wonderful it is simply to sit quietly at the end of the day. I love my children, but having a few minutes’ peace isn’t possible while they’re awake. What did you want to discuss?”

“You’ve heard about Lady Celia?”

“Yes,” Lady Mary said. “I knew her, of course, but not well. We don’t travel in the same circles. Were you hoping I could tell you something about her?”

“I was hoping you could help me understand her. We spoke briefly last week, and she was unhappy about her parents’ expectations. She felt that she was being treated like a broodmare.” Harriet hesitated, then softly added, “And that I was.”

“Do you feel that way?” Lady Mary said in surprise. “Surely Peter isn’t pressuring you...”

“Far from it,” Harriet said. “We’d both like to have children, and I expect that will happen in time, but everyone, even my readers, keep asking me about becoming a mother, and Lady Celia overheard...”

“And assumed your feelings would be similar to hers,” Lady Mary said.

Harriet nodded. “I gather she felt a prisoner to her breeding, and I’m not sure I understand why she felt so trapped.”

“But you thought I might. I suppose you’re right. When I was quite young, everyone assumed I’d marry well some day, and my life would consist of social events and charitable works and producing the next generation of Lord So-and-So’s family. As I grew older, I came to the realisation that I didn’t want that at all, but I didn’t know how to escape it.”

“But you did escape it,” Harriet said. “You married someone you wanted to, not someone your family had chosen.”

“It wasn’t quite that simple,” Lady Mary said. “Gerald controlled my trust. If he’d been a different sort of man, he might have insisted I marry Lord So-and-So or be cut off entirely.” Her shoulders sagged slightly as she admitted, “Some of my friends from finishing school were forced to marry in that way.”

“How are they now?”

“One of them is genuinely happy, I think,” said Mary. “Another one is desperately pretending to be happy, but I’d say she’s wretched. The other two have made their peace with it—they produce children and meet social obligations, as expected, but otherwise lead lives quite apart from their husbands. They… endure, and are carving out a space in their lives where they can be content. I suppose if I’d been forced to marry someone I didn’t care two pins for, I should have found a way to do the same, but I’m dashed glad I didn’t have to. All the same, my upbringing didn’t equip me for the life I have now, and it’s been a struggle at times. Still, I would rather be here with Charles than somewhere else with Lord So-and-So, even if marrying Charles had meant being cast out of the family.”

“I can see how that would be a daunting prospect for many young women,” Harriet said thoughtfully, “but Lady Celia had a trust from her great-aunt. Even if her father disinherited her, she would have had plenty of money.”

“Plenty is relative,” Lady Mary said, smiling. “The girl I was at eighteen would be astonished to learn how content I am with the modest income we have now. That will be Charles,” she said, turning her head expectantly at the sound of the front door opening.

A moment later Parker stuck his head into the kitchen, “Hullo, Harriet,” he said, while stooping to kiss his wife. “I rang the house and was told you’d gone out. Do you know when Peter will be back? He sent a note saying he’d been called away again.”

“Tomorrow, perhaps,” Harriet said.

“Are you hungry, darling?” Lady Mary asked.

“Famished,” he said. “It’s been a very full day.” As Lady Mary got up to warm his supper, Parker turned to Harriet and said, “I interviewed your Mr. Fox. What an insufferable wart!”

“Does he have an alibi?” Harriet said.

“None at all. Claims he was put out by how poorly this novel of yours is being handled and went out for a drive. He stopped for dinner at a pub, but can’t remember which village he was in.”

“Was he scratched?”

“No. He complained bitterly about being asked to remove his shirt, but he did it in the end, and there wasn’t a mark on him, which makes him less likely to be X. I’ve interviewed several other hotel guests and they don’t seem suspicious either, although I have men checking their alibis, and Inspector Hamilton is still questioning people at his end.”

“What about Lady Celia’s flat?” asked Mary. “Weren’t you going there today?”

“I did, and found a few things worth investigating. It’s a service flat, so Lady Celia didn’t have any personal servants, but I was able to interview the servants who work in that block of flats. She had few visitors, apart from her parents, and was seldom there. I took along one of Mr. Fox’s books to show the servants his photograph, but none of them had ever seen him.”

“Did she have any male visitors, apart from her father?” Harriet said.

Parker smiled. “One, and it wasn’t a man she wanted to be seen with. One of the maids saw Lady Celia speaking to him and heard her say, ‘Edward, I told you never to come here.’ When I asked the maid for a description of the man, she gave it and then told me that she’d seen him in a play once.”

“An actor,” Lady Mary said. “Lord Dalrymple wouldn’t have cared for that. Did she happen to remember the play?”

“No,” said Parker. “She couldn’t recall the title of the play, and her description of the plot would have fit any number of romantic comedies. She couldn’t even say which theatre she went to—she often goes out to plays and the cinema on her day off—but she was certain she’d seen the play on or near the August Bank holiday. I’ve already begun making inquiries.” Turning to Harriet, he said, “Have you been down to Oxford? I know you were considering it.”

“I went, but I’m not sure I learned anything that could help you,” Harriet said. “There was a general feeling that Lady Celia was the sort of person who takes advantage of others.”

“That’s something,” said Parker. “X may have been someone who objected to being used by her.”

“Such as an actor she didn’t care to be seen with?” Lady Mary suggested.

 

Harriet revisited what she’d learned over breakfast the following morning. Lady Celia had had a flat she’d seldom used. Had she traveled constantly, or had there been another flat somewhere—perhaps one where Edward the actor had been welcome to call? Had Lady Celia been in love with him? Perhaps that was why she’d been so reluctant to do her parents’ bidding.

Lady Celia had slept with someone shortly before her death. Had X been her lover as well as her killer? Perhaps she’d broken off their relationship and left London, only to be pursued by him. But would she have slept with him again if she’d been trying to be rid of him? Perhaps it had been the other way round. What if he’d tired of her and she’d threatened him in some way. Could he have come to her, pretending remorse, and killed her to remove the threat? If X and Edward were the same person, what hold could she have had over him?

It was easier to see what hold an actor might have had over Lady Celia. If X had threatened to tell Lady Celia’s parents she was seeing an actor, perhaps she would have slept with him to placate him temporarily. But if that were true, why had he killed her? Had he seen through the deception and strangled her in a fit of rage? If that were the case, why would he have had a grappling hook handy and how could he have known when the car park would be unattended? As ever, why take the body to the car park when it could have been tipped into the nearest ravine or tumbled off a cliff?

“Enough procrastinating,” she thought. “Once Charles finds this actor, we’ll likely know why the car park was chosen. In the meantime, there’s still Sebastian to be dealt with, and I really should pass along some of Peter’s suggestions to Lady Markham.”

She spent the rest of the morning composing a letter to Lady Markham and dealing with Sebastian. A brief review of her work told her she’d done a good job of making him suspicious; Miss Montague, who’d taken the next chapter, would need to introduce a little misdirection to make those suspicions seem unfounded.

Misdirection. Was the underground car park a misdirection? Had Lady Celia been left there to focus attention on the car park and not the actual scene of the murder? If so, that would mean that X had feared the scene of the crime could lead back to him in some way. Did Inspector Hamilton have anyone looking for it?

“Blast!” she said aloud. “I know enough about this crime to want to solve it, but not enough to actually do so. I wonder what Lady Celia did in Town?”

She was prevented from following this line of thought by the return of Lord Peter. “Hullo-ullo! See, the conquering hero comes,” he said, as he came over to kiss her.

“I take it this trip went better than the last one,” Harriet said.

“I believe so. I hope so,” he said, sinking into a nearby chair. “I should like not to be needed again for some time. Tell me, how go the murders, both fictional and factual?”

Harriet’s reply to that query took several minutes, during which Lord Peter leaned back with his eyes closed. As she spoke, Harriet noticed the tiredness in his face, particularly around the eyes, and wondered whether she could dissuade him from joining Charles that afternoon.

To her relief, after she’d finished recounting the events of the past few days, Lord Peter said, “I suppose I should be on the chase with old Parker-bird, but I haven’t the energy for it. I’m afraid I shall need to sleep for the next year. I trust you will excuse my bad manners and make good use of my absence. Perhaps by the time I’ve awakened, you will have finished another novel of your own.”

“Actually, I’ve had some ideas about that,” Harriet said, and her account of the difficulties presented by Robert Templeton’s competence carried them through luncheon.

“I can see the appeal of tarnishing your idol,” Lord Peter said, when she’d finished. “In some ways, it’s better than creating a new detective. If you made a new detective out of whole cloth who had all the aspects of Templeton you like best, some would accuse you of being unoriginal.

“I would advise you to be merciless in your pruning with respect to his abilities; if you later find you need some bit of him you’ve tossed away, he could experience a belated restoration. I’ve no idea whether that’s how that sort of thing works, but your readers would likely accept it. What would be much harder to bring off is a detective who forgets then remembers then forgets again.”

“Point taken,” Harriet said, with a smile.

Lord Peter yawned widely, then said, “Pray forgive me. I simply must have a lie-down. I don’t suppose I could entice you away from Sebastian for an afternoon? Embarrassing as it is to admit, I sleep more soundly when you’re there.”

“I’m supposed to be writing his confession,” she said indecisively.

“Bother confessions,” Lord Peter said. “Nasty depressing things. Usually, they’re filled with lies and self-pity.”

“I shall remember that when I compose Sebastian’s confession,” Harriet intoned. Lord Peter gave her a pleading look. “Later,” she added, with a smile.

 

Harriet rose after an hour’s nap, but Lord Peter slept throughout the afternoon. “Harriet! I awoke to find myself bereft of your divine presence. Are you casting me off for another man?” he asked, as he slipped into the drawing-room just before sunset.

“That happened some hours ago,” Harriet replied, looking up from a sheet of paper covered with scribbles. “Sebastian has told all. I only regret that someone else will have the privilege of describing his demise. I am currently dealing with something far more complex than Sebastian’s machinations.”

“Which is…?”

“Dinner invitations. Between your mother and Helen, we’ve been introduced to half of London, and dined with several of them. How and when do we repay their nosiness with an invitation? To be perfectly frank, some of them were unpleasant people I should be quite happy never to meet again, but I haven’t worked out which ones we can afford to offend. Even for the people whose company I enjoy, I don’t know whether they do or don’t get on with someone else we might invite. Where do I begin to sort this out?”

“Get Mother to help you. For politeness’ sake, we’ll have to entertain nearly all of them at least once, but Mother can tell you who’s compatible with whom. If you don’t want to be troubled with some of them again, Mother can likely tell you whom to invite in addition to the unwanted parties, to make sure the undesirables have a rotten time.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Harriet said. “I’m supposed to invite them to be polite, but then do my best to make sure they’re unhappy?”

“While seeming oblivious to the unpleasantness you’ve caused,” Lord Peter said, nodding. “I should think Mother and one or two of her most trusted acquaintances would enjoy helping with that. Lady Mirabelle at the top of her form is something to behold. She knows where all of the bodies are buried going back several generations, and doesn’t care a jot whom she offends.”

“So this could actually be fun?”

“Only if you’re wicked,” Lord Peter replied, whilst contriving to look very wicked indeed.

At this moment, Mr. Parker was ushered into the drawing-room. “Wimsey! I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” he said. “When did you get back?”

“Late this morning, but I was exhausted, so I went to bed. Feeling nearly human now. Harriet’s told me everything you talked about last night. What else has happened?”

“Two very important things. First, we’ve managed to identify the actor seen speaking to Lady Celia at her flat. He is one Edward Sandborn, a mildly successful character actor and wholly unsuccessful playwright.”

“Oh, good show! That was quick work,” said Lord Peter. “And the other thing?”

“He’s dead.”

 

“Dead?” said Harriet. “Was it murder?”

“Apparently, it was a heart-attack,” Parker answered. “One of my men went round, to take a statement from Sandborn as to his whereabouts last weekend. According to the landlady, Sandborn had been ill for a few days. She has the flat directly beneath him. She heard a loud thump yesterday afternoon and went upstairs to check on him. When there was no response, she let herself in with a pass-key and found him collapsed on the kitchen floor. He died in hospital last night.”

“The deadest of dead ends,” said Lord Peter.

“Not so dead an end,” Parker replied. “Sandborn had deep scratches on the left side of his face and the right side of his neck.”

“O-ho!” said Lord Peter. “It’s a pity he didn’t have that heart-attack a week earlier. Lady Celia might still be alive.”

“Has anyone gone through his flat?” Harriet asked.

“I have two men there, guarding the flat and taking photographs and fingerprints. I don’t have any specific reason to view this as a suspicious death, but I mistrust coincidences. Would you care to come along?”