Friday, 29 June 2012

February: The Martello Tower Murder

The closing days of January saw hectic preparations for the funeral of Indira Gayetri, the dowager Maharani of Maharashtra.

Elizabeth Mapp-Flint had reassured her husband Major Benjy that they would put in hand the arrangements for the burial of their "old family friend," the Maharani, together.

In practical terms, this meant was that the lady of the household worked feverishly upon the myriad of practical issues involved from arranging undertakers, the service and interment to extending invitations to mourners. It even fell to her to deal with the formalities of registering the death and arranging for the insertion of appropriate notices in the press.

Whilst all this was going on, the good Major made his own contribution. For the most part, this consisted sitting in his armchair in his study at “Grebe,” broodily looking through fading sepia snapshots taken during his dusty days stationed near Poona and nursing numerous tumblers of pre-war whisky.  He also arranged for his old Indian army uniform to be let out at virtually every seam, to be worn at the service.

Although the burden fell almost entirely upon Elizabeth’s not insubstantial shoulders, her many friends in Tilling did what they could to assist.

The Padre was able to accommodate her regarding the preferred date for the service in Tilling church.  Diva Plaistow assisted in arrangements for catering for the refreshments to be offered at “Grebe” afterwards. Both Algernon and Susan Wyse and Georgie and Lucia Pillson were happy to make their impressive Rolls Royce motor cars available to carry those attending the funeral and Lucia was eager to assist in putting together a selection of hymns and readings for approval by Mrs Mapp-Flint and the Padre.  
On receiving her handwritten note of the draft order of service for the funeral, Elizabeth was pleased to accept all Lucia's suggestions, save for a voluntary to be performed on the organ by Mrs Pillson herself  of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata."

Choosing her words carefully, Elizabeth thanked Lucia for her "thoughtful and refined suggestions", all of which she endorsed, "save for the organ recital." Here Elizabeth, "did not wish to usurp the role of the regular organist at Tilling Church, who might be offended if he were to be replaced by someone of  Lulu's standard of musicianship."

Elizabeth's remark (as she had surely intended it should) caused Lucia to wonder whether her musical competence was being applauded or denigrated. Though fairly certain it was the latter, Lucia diplomatically did not feel inclined to seek clarification.  She was quite content to be requested instead to give a reading, particularly in the light of what Elizabeth called, "your unforgettable performance of that speech by Lady Macbeth, during your thrilling lecture on the Shakespearean drama at the Literary Institute only a few  months ago: such a memorable treat for us all. Though perhaps on this occasion it will not be necessary to perform with your face lit only by a bright flashlight beam, dear? There's always a time and place for such stunts, don't you think, Lulu, sweet one?"

In an effort to be helpful, Lucia also contacted Lord Ardingly as Lord Lieutenant of the county to enquire discreetly as to the etiquette regarding the possible representation of His Majesty the King at the funeral of a Dowager Maharani.

Lord Ardingly was advised through what he described as "the usual channels" that "their Majesties well–remembered receiving the obeisance of the previous Maharajah of Maharashtra at the Coronation Durbar in 1911," and felt it, "entirely appropriate that they should be officially represented on this saddest of occasions by their representative in the locality."

It was understood that Her Majesty the Queen was particularly fond of a suite of fine emeralds given to her by the old Maharajah to mark the occasion, which the Royal jewellers subsequently incorporated into what became known as the "Poona Tiara." 
Snow and ice still gripped Tilling as February began with the day of the funeral. An impressive cavalcade of motor cars drew slowly away from "Grebe" that morning. Behind the long black hearse followed the Rolls driven by Cadman with Lucia and Georgie Pillson and Elizabeth and Major Benjy Mapp-Flint, as chief  mourners. 
There followed Lord and Lady Ardingly in the Ardingly Daimler, bearing the Lord Lieutenant's armorial shield.

Next was the Wyse's Royce, today driven by the bovine Boon, whose funereal demeanour was well-suited to the sombre occasion. Susan and Algernon were accompanied by Diva Plaistow and Evie Bartlett.

The cortege was completed by a black Riley driven by Inspector Morrison, wearing dress uniform,  with Bunty Morrison at his side.  The twins were at school that morning and, in any event, deemed too young for such an occasion.

The rest of those attending, such as Quaint Irene Coles, Diva's servant Janet, her sister's son Neville and his girlfriend Muriel Twistevant, went straight to the church and awaited in their pews as the  hearse arrived and the coffin and principal mourners were greeted and led ceremoniously down the aisle of Tilling Church by the padre, Kenneth Bartlett.

All present agreed that the service "went" very well indeed.  Hymns included "The Day Thou Gavest," and, "The Strife is O'er."   
Lucia had endeavoured to put together an eclectic selection of readings, beginning with her own rendition of Shakespeare's sonnet,   
"Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages."  
Lucia had aimed to distinguish between the heat and dazzling sunshine of the Raj and the icy chill of a February morning in Sussex, "thus encapsulating the sharp contrasts of Life's journey."  She thought she had succeeded quite well.

To broaden proceedings, Lucia had inventively included a touching poem by the Bengali writer Rabindraneth Tagore, "Farewell My Friends," to be given by her husband, which began,
"It was beautiful as long as it lasted
The journey of my life.
I have no regrets whatsoever
Save the pain I'll leave behind."   

As he sat down, much relieved after his reading, Lucia patted Georgie's hand and whispered, "Beautifully read, Georgino mio," and paradoxically adopted her "Beethoven expression" to listen to the organist's performance of a Bach fugue, which she was forced to admit was "passably competent," though privately she felt it lacked the poignancy of her own version of the "Moonlight Sonata."      
After the congregation essayed a spirited rendition of "Lead Kindly Light", Algernon Wyse gave a resolute reading of Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" with its final stanza so meaningful to Mesdames Mapp-Flint and Pillson, after their ordeal together on the Gallagher Bank, six or so years before:   
"For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar."   

Psalm 42, Hope in God, was followed by a reading of high sentiment by Major Benjy. The brittle leather of his old riding boots creaked and his spurs clicked and occasionally sparked on the stone  floor, as he marched stiffly to the bronze eagle of the lectern.    
Ignoring the neatly-typed copy of the poem allocated to him by Lucia, "Life," which Charlotte Bronte urged her readers to    
"..believe, is not a dream
So dark as sages say;
Oft a little morning rain
Foretells a  pleasant day."   
Instead, in a clear voice, the Major almost barked  "If "  by Rudyard Kipling. As delivered from memory, the lines seemed redolent both of the mores of the dusty plains of the Raj, as much as the muddy playing fields of a hundred public schools in England many thousands of miles to the north.     
As he concluded with the thundering assertion, "And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!" and a dramatic, shuddering salute, which rattled the row of campaign medals on his chest, more than one member of the congregation wondered privately at the relevance of the poem to an Indian Maharani.  Some thought the choice might have been intended as the mournful tribute of one son of Empire to another following the poet's sad passing shortly after the turn of the year.  No-one, however, denied the sincerity, and indeed volume, of the declamation. Only Major Benjy and Elizabeth knew that his reading was a father's farewell to the brave soldier son, he had never known. 

Gathered outside the West door after the interment, in the shadow of the flying buttresses, those attending were invited by Elizabeth Mapp-Flint to "a reception and simple fork buffet at home." From Tilling Church, the cortege, other than the hearse, retraced its tracks in the gently falling snow back across the marsh and out to "Grebe," where refreshments were laid out in the dining room in readiness.

As they removed their hats and outdoor coats in the hall, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint thanked Lucia as warmly as she was able for her hard work in preparing the service, which all agreed was, by Tilling’s standards, “so widely-based as to be positively ecumenical - and all the more uplifting for it.”

In her bohemian way, Quaint Irene Coles still eschewed female clothing even on such a solemn occasion.  Today, however, she showed some restraint by dressing in a dark blue double breasted suit with white shirt,  black tie and plain brogues. Georgie thought to himself that, with her short hair parted and brilliantined, Irene resembled the under-manager of a branch of Montague Burton.

Quaint Irene moved from one group of mourners to another as they quietly reviewed the events of the morning. She joined the Pillsons and Wyses next to the buffet table.

Her continued schwarm for Lucia soon evidenced itself in its charmingly artless way, “I simply loved your choice of readings, Lucia, so widely drawn and worldly. Just like you!” she gushed.

“Thank you dear,” replied Lucia, without showing the slightest embarrassment and receiving this praise from her most longstanding devotee as her due, “I was pleased with the overall effect and thought everyone read beautifully.”

“Of course, Lucia, after you set the standard with that lovely, lovely sonnet,” added Irene.

 “Though I thought the Kipling jarred just a little?” interjected Georgie, a little mischievously.

“You might be right,” Lucia replied, “I had intended Major Benjy to read a short piece by Charlotte Bronte, but he obviously decided to go ‘off piste,’ as you might say.”

“You have to admit the effect was, to say the least, authentic,” added Algernon Wyse, to which the assembled mourners nodded in unanimous assent.

Diva Plaistow approached the group, bearing in one hand a plate of jumbles and cream puffs and in the other sardine tartlets and pilchard turnovers. The reputation of her savoury offerings had gone before her and that plate was left untouched, whilst her friends assuaged their grief with her sweeter treats.

After agreeing yet again that the proceedings had “gone well,” Diva leaned forward conspiratorially and asked, “Did anyone ever actually meet the Maharani?”

“No, I cannot say, I had the honour to meet the good lady,” replied Algernon Wyse with a short bow, in the general direction of the grave yard by Tilling Church, where the deceased had lately been laid to rest.

“Me neither,” added Irene.

“Now you come to mention it,” said Georgie, “I don’t remember her ever being mentioned before last week, when we were told, ‘an old family friend had died’”

As meaningful looks were exchanged in time-honoured Tilling fashion, Lucia broke the pregnant silence, "I didn’t want to be the first to mention it….”

“But?” said Georgie, as Lucia’s voice trailed off.

“But,” she continued, “I couldn’t help but wonder, how it was that the Mapp-Flints had 'a close family friend,' who was a Maharani….”

“And never came to mention it!” added Georgie triumphantly, “I thought exactly the same thing. Heaven knows, if Elizabeth had royal connections I would have expected to hear about nothing else!”

“Morning, and night!” added Diva, pleased that her query had elicited such a response.

“It is of course entirely different when  one’s aristocratic connections are 'family ties',” observed Susan Wyse, uncomfortably aware that she and her husband rarely missed an opportunity to advertise their kinship with Count Cecco di Faraglione and his ancient Caprese lineage.

“Of course, Susan dear,” said Lucia reassuringly, “' La famiglia’ is entirely another matter.”

Having got this particular bit between her teeth, Diva was not yet content to let the matter rest. “And have you noticed, there’s never been a trace of her either at “Mallards” or here at Grebe?”

“Or in Major Benjy’s old house,” added Georgie, “Not so much as a photograph - or even a Christmas card.”

“That’s assuming Indian Dowager Maharanis send Christmas cards, Georgie old boy,” added Irene, who had by now found Benjy’s decanter of pre-war whisky and helped herself to it liberally.

“I suppose you’re right, Irene. Perhaps they send 'Divali cards' in Maharashtra?” he replied, without appreciating that her point had not been entirely serious.

“Anyway, I think it needs looking into,” concluded Diva meaningfully, whilst making a mental note to look up "Maharashtra" in her "Pears Soap Children’s Atlas," immediately she returned to “Wasters.”

Somewhat sheepishly – like pupils removing evidence of illicit sweets on the advent of a prefect – this line of conversation terminated on the approach of their hostess.

Smiling, as only the chatelaine of “Grebe” could smile, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint entered the circle, bringing with her Lord Ardingly, “I think you all know Lord Ardingly?” she enquired, assuming an ease that was intended to infer that his presence was an every-day occurrence and not at all unusual in her home.

“Of course, Elizabeth, dear,” replied Lucia, “So good of you to come today, Your Lordship. I’m sure their Majesties must be comforted to know that you have represented them so well on this difficult day.”

A general murmur of concurrence was followed yet again by one suggesting that “it had all gone very well.”

As the group fractured into several smaller ones, Lucia took the opportunity to remark, “ I do hope you will be able to attend my reception at "Mallards House" next week to mark the award of honours to our Mr Gascoyne and Inspector Morrison, Lord Ardingly?”

“Indeed, Mrs Pillson,” he replied, “I asked my secretary to confirm that Her Ladyship and I would be charmed. You should receive it shortly.”

“Excellent,” said Lucia, who had never entirely forgiven Lord Ardingly from, as she put it, “poaching” her estimable secretary to work for him at Ardingly Park, continuing,” I hear that Mrs Simpson has left you too now, Your Lordship? I trust your new one has settled in well?”

“Yes, Mrs Pillson, Miss Pilbeam has taken over the reins admirably, though I was sorry to lose Mrs Simpson. Plain, homely sort of woman, but efficient.”

“I seem to remember, she left you shortly after the Prince of Wales last came to Ardingly for the Hunt Ball?” asked Lucia.

“That was it; moved to London with her husband. Though she was American, she performed her duties admirably. I don’t suppose we shall hear of her again.”

“No, I suppose not,” agreed Lucia.

As his black Riley pulled away from “Grebe”and headed towards Tilling, Herbert Morrison turned to Bunty and said, for the umpteenth time that day, “Well, that went well, didn’t it, love?”

Bunty nodded, looking out upon the frozen marshes in silence.

“What are you thinking about?” Herbert asked.

“Nothing really, dear,” she replied, “It just seems a little sad really. She came all the way from the heat of India to our freezing winter and passed away like that, all on her own: bit of an enigma.”

“I see what you mean,” commented Herbert, “We’ve just spent the morning marking the passing of someone we don’t know in the slightest.”

“Exactly, dear,” Bunty agreed, "Dowager Maharani or whatever, I just feel very sorry for her. I wouldn’t like to go like that.”

“Now, now Bunty, don’t get carried away,” said Herbert, “It’s very unlikely that you will be buried thousands of miles away from home, by people who don’t know you from Adam. Or should it be Eve?”

“I still think it’s sad and I still feel sorry for her,” Bunty added.

“I don't disagree with you, but at least we made the effort and were all there to pay our respects. As I said, I think it was all done very well.”

“You’re right of course, Herbert. It was a very respectable send-off. But you mark my words, there’s a mystery there. Perhaps one day, we’ll know a little more about the Maharani.”

“Probably not dear,” said Herbert, whilst thinking to himself, “Not  if  Elizabeth Mapp-Flint has anything to do with it.”

Meanwhile, at home at  "Wasters" in her parlour, Diva Plaistow took down her atlas and turned to a map of the Indian sub-continent, coloured brightest red. She looked for the state of Maharashtra.

Diva found it and noted the Deccan Plateau, the Western Ghats and various rivers and cities. "There's Poona," she thought, "I'm sure Major Benjy mentioned it more than once, but I can't for the life of me think what he said. Oh, well, I'm sure it will come to me one day. Time for a quick cup of tea and then down to the Salts to watch the skating whilst the ice lasts."

Over the succeeding days Tilling endeavoured to raise its spirits by undertaking vigorous exercise in the bracing air of a frozen February.

The Town Salts teemed with skaters from dawn until dusk. Many were practising for the forthcoming Championship Gala of Tilling Skating Club.

The strict rules  precluded Lucia as President and Georgie as a Committee member from normal competition, but each was permitted to enter “hors concours.”   Thus the Mayoral couple enjoyed participation in their respective figures and were awarded special rosettes, though no official medal or silver cup.

It fell to Lucia as President to present the Club’s Victor Ludorum shield bearing her name to Algernon Wyse, who had naturally won both the gentlemen’s figures and freestyle skating competitions by a considerable margin.

After much heated debate over whether the rules permitted the entry of same-sex couples, both the pairs and ice dance competitions were won by Quaint Irene Coles performing with her maid Lucy. Lucy's height and remarkable upper body strength ensured that the many lifts, jumps and throws in their ingenious performances, in which her employer positively “flew” prodigious distances, were truly spectacular.

Unfortunately, Quaint Irene became somewhat over-wrought when awarded her winner’s medals by Lucia and flung her arms around her and kissed her repeatedly, until wrestled away by Lucy and Georgie. 

The crisp weather and enthusiastic adoption of winter sports ensured that the spirits of the town had lifted no end by the day of Lucia’s Mayoral Reception at “Mallards House.”

To celebrate the announcement in the King’s New Years’ Honours Lists of the award of OBE’s to Tilling’s leading dealer in antiques and Inspector of Police, Lucia declared she aimed for a more “inclusive gathering than was the norm.”

Accordingly, in addition to the Ardinglys and her closest intimes – the Mapp-Flints, Wyses, Bartletts and Mesdames Plaistow and Coles  - Lucia sought to cast her mayoral net more broadly.

Handing him the final guest list, Lucia had explained to Georgie that she wished to include representatives of the entire community and thus many more professions and even trades would be represented, ranging from medicine and the law, to banking, estate agency and local businesses. The Town Council and its clubs and organisations were also to be represented by well known and popular Tillingites who made such a contribution to the community, such as the brothers, Georgie and Per.

Thus, in addition to her usual circle, stiff cards of invitation were posted to Dr Dobbie and young Dr Brace, the Town Clerk, surveyors Messrs. Woolgar and Pipstow, Mr Causton, Lucia's solicitor and prominent shopkeepers, such as Harold Twistevant.

After lengthy thought, Lucia decided not to invite the fishmonger Mr. Hopkins to avoid causing any embarrassment to Elizabeth Mapp-Flint.  Elizabeth had never quite recovered from meeting him at “Taormina,” posing “au naturel” (save for little bathing drawers) as the model for Quaint Irene’s infamous portrait of Adam or the fact that he was know to be walking out with her parlour maid Withers.

After reviewing the list, Georgie handed it back to Lucia with the observation, “Very ‘democratic’ Lucia. I always thought you preferred to see yourself as Catherine the Great of Russia rather than Beatrice Webb handing out leaflets amongst the Fabians, but you live and learn!”

The Reception proved to be a lively affair. With Georgie by her side, Lucia as hostess greeted each guest and presented them to both impending honourees and their spouses.

Bunty turned to Hubert Gascoyne’s wife Deidre and remarked laughing, “It’s a little like the receiving line at a wedding reception, don’t you think? I feel like the mother of the groom.”

Deidre smiled in agreement as both earnestly shook hand after hand and thanked each new arrival for their congratulations and good wishes. Since the day was brisk but dry, guests were able to move freely between the drawing room and dining room in the main part of “Mallards House” and out, via the garden, into the Garden Room.

As usually happens at such functions, small groups of friends and acquaintances formed and reformed throughout the evening, holding glasses of champagne or wine and balancing plates of canapés.

Georgie and Per particularly enjoyed themselves, knowing virtually everyone present  by virtue of their lengthy connection with the Council, Gas Works and every sports club and charity functioning  in Tilling.

On this special occasion, Susan Wyse had for once agreed to remove her heavy sables, revealing her evening gown and proudly displayed upon her ample décolletage of her own Order of Member of the British Empire.

As ever, this crimson ribbon proved a veritable red rag to the bull that was Elizabeth Mapp-Flint. Hoisting her standard high, she rode into battle instantly, “Susan dear, so brave of you to display your Order this evening, of all evenings.”

Not knowing quite what was in store, Susan replied politely, “Thank you Elizabeth dear. I thought it apt to show solidarity, as the proud fellow recipient of an award from His Majesty. They are so few and far between in our area.”

“Yes dear, that is true,” Elizabeth responded, “But it is so unself-conscious of you to display such a lesser Order than we are here to celebrate tonight, don’t you think?”

As the colour rose in Susan’s plump cheeks  and Algernon’s brow furrowed with indignation, Quaint Irene chose this moment to intervene, “Well, at least Mrs Wyse has been recognised for her valuable work with Tilling Hospital and jolly well-deserved too if you ask me.”

As Susan and Algernon Wyse smiled weakly, Irene continued unchallenged, “ I don’t think they give out medals for hoarding groceries in times of national shortage or charging summer tenants more than you let on, do you, Lib-Lib - sweet one?”

As always, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint found Quaint Irene’s pointed insights insufferably insulting, but had no effective means of defence, let alone counter-attack and was obliged simply to make light of her barbs, “Now Irene, quaintest one, I’m sure we are all very proud of Susan and her little decoration – as we shall be of good Inspector Morrison and Mr Gascoyne. Let us just enjoy the evening.”

Subjects were immediately changed and the volume of small talk increased as safer ground was sought. Suitable distraction was soon found in the presence that evening of Dolores Brace, the young and pretty wife of young Doctor Brace, junior partner  of Dr Dobbie.

As Dr Brace exchanged pleasantries with his senior partner and Mrs Dobbie, Dolores stood at the centre of her own group of admirers consisting of brothers Georgie and Per, Harold Twistevant and Major Benjy, who by now had managed to imbibe five glasses of champagne, whilst his normally vigilant spouse was otherwise engaged.

Dolores looked particularly voluptuous in a  gown daringly based on one recently worn in a film by the American actress Mae West and ingeniously replicated by Miss Greele in the High Street. Everyone agreed, Tilling had not seen its like before.

Mrs Brace had been a great fan of Miss West, since her days as usherette at Tilling’s old picture place, lately replaced by the Bijou Cinema and assiduously copied her idol's clothing, hair, make-up and mannerisms.

This evening, after several glasses of sherry, Dolores was happy to be liberated from the hesitant banalities of conversation with the Dobbies and soon became the life and soul of the party.

Georgie and Per found her talk riveting and were particularly attentive in lighting her cigarettes and replacing her demure schooner of Amontillado with “something more interesting,” in the form of a large ports and lemon.

As their corner of the Garden Room grew more noisy and smoky and levels of laughter grew louder, so disapproval mounted elsewhere.

Still in full mourning, for the late-lamented Dowager Maharani, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint looked formidable and forbidding. Wearing her jet black tea gown, she glided about silently, combining the menace of  a killer shark with the mass of an iceberg. This was the third incarnation of the infamous garment in which she had fought a mortal battle with Diva Plaistow in both kingfisher blue and crimson lake.

This bruising experience had taught both ladies that a degree of liaison was well worthwhile and avoided both the embarrassment and ruinous expense involved in clashing in public in precisely the same frock, which then had to be re-dyed.

Looking at her husband cavorting in his dark suit with its black armband, Elizabeth tutted, “You wouldn’t think Benjy was in mourning would you, dear?” she asked, shaking her head, “Mind you I blame Dolores Brace for leading them all on - with her blond hair and low-cut dress. Look at them; they’re like little puppies, eating out of her hand. Sacre Bleu!  I never thought I’d live to see the day when Dolly Brace was flaunting herself at the piano in the Garden Room at “Mallards. Jamais!”

Diva knew that nowadays Elizabeth only tended to resort to exclamations in schoolgirl French, when “her blood was up” and thought it best to try to pacify her friend, but before she could start, Dolores and Benjy sat at the piano roaring with laughter and picked out a very hesitant duet of “Chopsticks” followed by the first few bars of “The Lambeth Walk.”

This caught the attention of Lucia, who was mortified to observe that  Dolores had placed her half-smoked cigarette in the mouth of the bust of the immortal Ludwig Von Beethoven, enshrined upon on its pillar beside the Steinway.

“That really won’t do at all,” she told Georgie and summoned Foljambe to divert the performers with a tray of canapés, whilst Grosvenor gently closed and locked the lid of the piano and discreetly removed the smouldering cigarette from Beethoven’s lips.

Watching this, Diva did her best to make light  of  the behaviour of Mrs Brace, “You mustn’t be too hard on her. Dolly was always a lively girl and she’s known Per and Georgie since they were all at school together. She really doesn’t mean any harm.”

“Be that as it may, Diva, dear,” said Elizabeth, wholly unconvinced, “I would rather like to know what excuse Benjy or Harold Twistevant might have; they’re both old enough to be her father – if not her grandfather!”

Since Diva had no answer to this apercu, Elizabeth continued, “I do understand that Dolly’s always been a little like that,” she admitted, “But she’s a married woman now. The wife of a doctor is expected to behave with a little decorum and not to flirt with every grown man in Tilling, who buys her a port and lemon. You know she’s in the public bar of the Traders Arms every night with one chap or another. It’s just not fair to her husband, now is it?”

Under this veritable barrage, Diva was forced to concede that Elizabeth “had a point,” but paused as Mrs Brace and her circle of gentlemen admirers headed for the door of the Garden Room en masse.

“Oh, no what now?” asked Elizabeth, “I expect Dolly is going to lead them in the 'Hokey Cokey' on the lawn outside.”

It emerged however  that with all the guests they had been requested to assemble in the dining room for supper and then speeches of congratulation addressed to the guests of honour prior to their investiture by the King.

Despite the fears of Mrs Mapp-Flint, for that evening no limbs or other body parts were “put in” or “out” or in any way, “shaken all about”…..

Later, Herbert and Bunty Morrison were conducting their usual post mortem on the events of the evening, as they unlocked the front door of “Braemar.”

After learning that the twins had behaved well, Bunty handed half a crown to young Muriel Twistevant,who had been baby sitting and let her out into the cold February night.

Returning to the kitchen, where Herbert was pouring cocoa into mugs, Bunty said, “ I thought Mrs Pillson did you proud tonight Herbert. Her speech was quite touching really, with all that about 'Tilling being grateful for your talent and hard work and proud of your success'.”

“Yes, it was good of her to say that,” he replied, “Lord Ardingly’s speech was very generous too. It’s quite something to live up to.”

“The rest of the evening was interesting, don’t you think, dear?” she asked, with a meaningful look

“I suppose you could call it that,” he replied with a smile.

“I wondered if the Mayor will be tempted to invite such a ‘broad’ mixture of people again?” Bunty asked, already knowing the answer.

“I doubt it, love. I thought things would settle down when they locked the piano, but that conga really was the last straw.”

“I thought Mrs Mapp–Flint was going to have a fit,” laughed Bunty.

“That may have had something to do with the way her husband was holding onto Dolly Brace, don’t you think?  At least Georgie and Per are single. It’s different for a married man.”

“Yes I do,” said Bunty, “I think it’s unlikely that Dolly will ever be asked again.”

“One port and lemon too many,” remarked Herbert

“'Several too many', I should say. Though it's Doctor Brace, I feel sorry for. Poor chap. He just had to stand and watch as she made a show of herself.  Dr Dobbie and his wife didn’t know where too look either. It can’t be good for the reputation of the practice.”

“Dolly was always high-spirited, even back at school,” Herbert pointed out, “It’s funny to think of her in the same class as Georgie and Per and me all those years ago at Tilling Juniors. Now, a respectable doctor’s wife,  she’s leading a conga out of the front door of the Mayor’s house and half-way down the High Street to the Trader’s Arms.”

“I wonder if Mr Meriton will mention that in his report in the ‘Hampshire Argus’?” Bunty asked, tongue firmly in cheek.

“I suspect not, dear. But there should be some fairly interesting gossip during the marketing hour in the High Street tomorrow, that’s for sure. Time for bed, I think.”

The marketing hour in Tilling next day, ran its usual acrimonious course. Tension was high. Susan Wyse and Quaint Irene Coles were distant with Elizabeth Mapp-Flint because she had belittled Susan’s  M.B.E.

Elizabeth, in turn, was irritated with Irene for insulting her with accusations of hoarding and profiteering. The only thing everyone agreed in was disapproval of the behaviour of Dolores Brace and sympathy for “poor put-upon Dr Brace.”

“No Major Benjy this morning, Elizabeth?” enquired Diva Plaistow.

“An acute migraine, I’m afraid, Diva dear,” she replied, well aware that everyone knew exactly what had discommoded her other half.

Irene Coles recognised what was expected of her and chipped in, “Nothing to do with downing the nine or ten glasses of Lucia’s champagne last night, I suppose?”

“Entirely unconnected, Irene, sweet one,” Elizabeth snapped,  “Also, while we are on this painful subject, I hate to say it, but I cannot absolve dear Lucia from all responsibility for the sad events of last night.”

“How can that be?” asked Diva, “She opened her home to celebrate a great honour to Tilling and the event was spoiled by the ill manners of others. How can it be her fault?”

“Well, if you don’t mind me saying,” asserted Elizabeth, “Such a thing would never have happened in my day. You would never have seen such a motley crew invited  into the Garden Room of 'Mallards,' when I owned it.”

Before Diva could reply Irene Coles exploded, “Really, Mapp !” she exclaimed, “You really take the biscuit, you really do. Lucia, out of the kindness of her heart,  for the first time invites a cross section of the decent people who really make Tilling tick - unlike the small clique who always went there in your day. She provides the best of food and wine. Some of her guests rudely take advantage of her hospitality and make fools of themselves – including, if you don't mind me saying, your own husband – and you have the nerve to blame dear generous Lucia. You should be ashamed of yourself, you really should! And what's more , you should make Benjy beg her apology, so there!”

At this, confronted with her usual inability to respond, let alone defeat, Quaint Irene in argument, Elizabeth simply clenched her fist, reddened in the face and stormed off, whilst Irene shouted after her,"That’s it Lib–Lib dear, run away. You really don’t like it when some one dares speak the truth, do you?” 
The hasty departure of Elizabeth Mapp-Flint, in the direction of the Land Gate and the road out to “Grebe,” freed her friends to discuss the behaviour of her spouse at “Mallards House.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever since him down quite so many glasses of champagne so quickly,” commented Diva Plaistow.

“After which, he was putty in Dolly Brace’s hands” added Irene.

“As was Harold Twistevant; and both happily married men. Foljambe told my Janet that she found a half-smoked Woodbine behind the left ear of the Beethoven bust and lots of marks and rings from glasses on top of the Steinway - like a four-ale bar. And a conga, indeed.  Dolly has a lot to ….”

Before Diva could add “answer for,” her voice trailed off and instead she smiled broadly, saying, “Good morning to you both. Lovely day isn’t it” as Mrs Dobbie, the doctor’s wife and his junior partner's mother, Mrs Brace, who was leaning heavily on her walking stick, left Twistevants. They hurried by as quickly as they could on the opposite side of the road.

“Do you think they heard?” asked Susan Wyse, deeply worried, “Poor Agnes Brace looked like she had the world on her shoulders. She worships that son of hers and will hate him being made to look like a fool.”

"I don’t think they could hear us,” replied Diva, in a failed attempt to reassure her.

“Well, even if they didn’t, they can’t have thought for a moment that anyone in Tilling would have any other topic of conversation this morning, could they really ladies?” asked Irene, “Anyway, enough of this tittle-tattle, I’ve got some real work to get on with. I must ask Mr Hopkins if he’s free to pose for me again on his half-day. Cheerio!”  

By the time that the forensic analysis of the social misdemeanours of Dolores Brace and the character defects of Major Benjamin Mapp-Flint had been completed in Tilling High Street, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint had reached “Grebe.”

Entering the drawing room, she mustered more sympathy than most would consider her husband’s self-imposed malaise merited and asked cheerfully, “Feeling any better, dear?”

Lifting the cold compress from his forehead, Benjy merely grunted and handed to his wife a typed  letter that had arrived by the second post that morning.

Picking it up, Elizabeth noted it came from a grand-sounding firm of solicitors in Lincoln’s Inn Field, which she read aloud, were “recently instructed in the administration of the estate of Indira Gayetri, the late dowager Maharani of Maharashtra.”

“Oh, Benjy, how exciting,” she exclaimed, “They respectfully ask you to contact them ‘at your earliest convenience, so that you might learn of something to your advantage.’ You must telephone straight away and make an appointment.”

“What? A trunk call?” exclaimed Benjy, shocked at the thought of the ruinous expense involved.”

“Yes,  dear. Needs must. Do it now and I’ll then ask Withers to bring in some tea.”

Next day, as Inspector Morrison walked out of his office at Tilling Police Station, he was surprised to see Dr Brace standing at the counter, engrossed in conversation with the Duty Sergeant.

Sensing something was amiss; he walked over and greeted him, “Good morning, Dr Brace. We don’t often see you here. Nothing wrong I trust?”  

“Good day, Inspector. I was just explaining to your Sergeant that I thought I should call in this morning. I’m very worried. It’s my wife Dolores. She didn’t come home last night.”

The Sergeant leaned over the counter and handed to the Inspector the buff manila folder containing the newly-completed missing person forms. Thanking him Herbert said, “That’s alright Sergeant, if you’ve competed the various formalities, I’ll just take Dr Brace into my office for a chat and I’ll call you in. Perhaps in the meantime you could arrange for some refreshments?”  
In the Inspector’s office, Dr Brace lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, “I knew we should never have accepted the Mayor’s invitation to her reception.”

“Why should you say that?” asked Herbert.

“Despite looking so extrovert , my wife really isn’t as confident as she pretends. Underneath she’s a bundle of nerves. She was terrified of an occasion, like that – with the likes of Mrs Mapp-Flint and Mr Wyse there – with her teeth and his airs and graces. And she found her nerve in the only way she knew how…”

“Port and lemons?” suggested Herbert.

“Exactly. The trouble is, after she has a few, there’s no saying where it will end.”

“As in the Lambeth Walk and a conga down the High Street?”

“I’m afraid so, Inspector. But it’s different this time.”

“In what way?” asked Herbert

“I have to admit that my wife has, what I suppose could be called, her ‘own circle of friends’.”

“You mean down at the Traders Arms, for example,” suggested Herbert, trying to be helpful.

“Yes. I’ve always known that she was not going to fit into a typical doctor's wife's life with its Mother’s Union,  Rotary  Club lunches and Masonic Dinners.”

“No, I suppose not.”

“But this is the first time Dolores has not come home. And I’m worried.”  
Before Dr Brace had left the Police Station, Inspector Morrison had deployed his force on a systematic search of the area, spreading out in concentric circles from the Brace residence in Starling Street. All constables out on the beat or about the area in motor cars or on bicycles were given a description of the "missing woman aged 29, of medium height, pale complexion with blonde hair, last seen on a pale summer dress and high heeled shoes."

As the search was put underway, news of the disappearance spread around the town and gave residents much to gossip about on their way in and out of the shops.

Terms ascribed to the young doctor's wife did not become noticeably kinder as the search progressed and the words, “shame”,  "irresponsible” and “no better than she ought to be” were used as often as “that poor young doctor.”

As the long hours passed, speculation increased as to her whereabouts with wild rumours about “Being driven by shame to catch the ferry from Seaport to Le Touquet” or “Raced off to London, to go on the stage.”

Through all this, Dr Brace and his mother stayed quietly at home, awaiting news.

Those who had joined in with the high jinks at the Mayor’s reception all protested their innocence and  played down their connection with Mrs Brace in a manner that was neither entirely generous nor remotely truthful.

Behind his till, Harold Twistevant was particularly unchivalrous in denying any connection with “that young woman,”as he called her, whilst Georgie and Per claimed that, "unused to champagne," they had "no recollection whatsoever of the events of the evening. "They did however ,"wish Mrs Brace, 'all the best.'"

Major Benjamin Flint in the meantime maintained the lowest of profiles and did not set foot outside “Grebe” for several days, whilst recovering from the most acute hangover in a singularly bibulous decade. He was particularly preoccupied with preparations for his impending appointment with the solicitors in London and engrossed in mental speculation as to what his "expectations" might be.

It was only after twenty four hours of fruitless conjecture that Tilling had the news for which it had been waiting.

Breathless and flushed, the Curate burst through the double doors into the Reception at Tilling Police Station, “Officer, officer!” he gasped, clinging to the polished mahogany counter,”A body. The body of a woman. Lying in a heap. Out at the Martello tower. It’s young Mrs Brace. A terrible accident. She’s dead!”    
Coming out from his office, Inspector Morrison took control of the situation and sent his Sergeant and two constables out in the patrol car to the spot described by the Curate. He followed in his Riley with the Curate,who grew more composed and explained what had happened.

“I was walking out along the Military Road past the harbour and along the canal to the first of the Martello Towers, Inspector.”

“Were you alone?” Herbert asked

“Yes, I was going to look for mosses and wild flowers as part of my project on 'Flora of the Sussex Foreshore.'”

“What happened?”

“Well, I  reached the Martello Tower and was noting some interesting specimens of moss on the lea side, when I saw this crumpled  heap on the ground.”

“And that 'heap,' was the body of Mrs Brace?”

“Yes , Inspector. She wasn’t breathing and there was nothing I could do for her. So I thought it best if I ran to the Police Station."

"Quite right, Curate, quite right," said Herbert as he pulled up in front of the Martello Tower.

By the time that the scene of death had been forensically examined and officially photographed and the Martello Tower and the surrounding area had been painstakingly checked for evidence, night had fallen. In the distance, a mile away
, the lights of Tilling twinkled brightly against the dark February sky.

The headlights of the ambulance taking the body to the pathologists for examination and the police cars returning to Tilling illuminated the deserted Military Road that ran beside the canal and made a slow and sad procession.
That evening, as a distraught Dr Brace was comforted by his elderly mother Agnes, there was only one topic of conversation in the homes and public houses around Tilling.

Everyone agreed that the accidental death of one so young and beautiful was indeed tragic.

This concern soon led to conjecture over whether Mrs Brace had fallen to her death from the top of the Martello Towed by unfortunate accident or whether the stress of the general disapproval of her behaviour at the Mayor’s reception had caused her to take her own life – when unhinged by guilt and embarrassment.  
Next day, Church Square resembled a scene from the Meistersingers, with excited citizens running hither and thither with but one topic of conversation.  This drama had everything from a poor thwarted young husband to the reckless beautiful wife, cut down in her prime by a cruel Fate or even her own hand, possibly as retribution for her own excesses.

At eleven 'o clock Inspector Morrison telephoned Dr Brace. After apologising for disturbing him, he asked him to call at the Police Station at twelve to deal with various formalities, such as official identification of Mrs Brace, once the initial pathologist's report was received.

As the clock on the church tower struck , Dr Brace in his best pin-striped suit, with a black arm band was ushered into the Inspector’s office.

Picking up a folder from his desk, Inspector Morrison spoke gravely, “I have the pathologist’s report Dr Brace, and I’m afraid I have some disturbing news.”

“What now, Inspector?” asked Dr Brace, barely able to conceive that his current situation could be any worse.

“Coming to the point, I must tell you that he pathologist says that the cause of your wife’s death was a strong blow with a blunt object to the back of the head and not the injuries sustained from her fall from the top of the Martello Tower. Mrs Brace was dead by the time she hit the ground”

“You mean, it wasn’t an accident, Inspector?”

“Yes, Dr Brace, I’m afraid we must conclude that your wife was murdered.”

“But who could have done such a thing, Inspector? My wife may have upset a few people, but I never thought she had enemies.”

“Sadly, it falls to us to try and work that out Dr Brace. I’m afraid we can’t afford to rule anyone out – even you.”

“Yes, Inspector, I understand. You must do your duty. What do you want from me now?”

“It will be the same for everyone known to have been  in contact with your wife,  Doctor. We will need to verify their whereabouts at the estimated time of death. Now where were you between two and three yesterday afternoon?”

As the interrogation of Dr. Brace continued at the Police Station, rumours of the pathologist's report spread about Tilling.

Groups stood exchanging views on the possible sequence of events and potential suspects.  The generally understood "somewhat hectic social life of the deceased" led her neighbours to compile a disturbingly lengthy list of those who seemed likely to be called upon to establish alibis. 

Those in question ranged from sundry drinking companions in the Traders Arms and their potentially jealous spouses to guests known to have frolicked with Dolores at the Mayor's reception and even their disgruntled other-halves. Mention was even made of the degree of irritation that the respectable Dr Dobbie might have felt at the damage done to the hard-won reputation of his practice by the antics of the wife of his junior partner.

Naturally in the circumstances, much outrage was felt amongst those tarnished by such “unfounded slanders.” 

Upon hearing some of them second-hand from Diva Plaistow, Elizabeth Mapp-Flint threatened “legal proceedings for slander against anyone uttering such spiteful, base and fabricated falsehoods against my Benjy.”
"Or you, dear?," suggested Diva, helpfully.
"Yes of course - or against me!" spluttered Elizabeth, who had not even dreamed that she fell within those classed as "suspects."

Mrs Dobbie was similarly infuriated and Agnes Brace, the widowed mother of Dr Brace was utterly mortified. She hobbled away from the High Street in tears, to be comforted at home.

During this maelstrom of rumour and innuendo, Inspector Morrison remained immured in his office, piecing together the movements of the widower of the deceased, who increasingly appeared to be his prime suspect.

During the key hours in the afternoon, Dr Brace had been alone in his surgery or out and about the neighbourhood in his motor car on his rounds. It was clear that he had ample opportunity to visit the isolated Martello Tower along the unused Military Road and to return to town unseen.     
As the day wore on, the prognosis for Dr Brace worsened. Georgie and Per were demonstrably occupied by their respective duties at the Gas Works and Town Clerk’s Department.

Domestic staff at “Grebe” confirmed that Major Flint, still suffering from “an acute migraine,” had not set foot over the threshold of “Grebe.”

Dr Dobbie was occupied with several of the great and good of the borough, including Susan Wyse M.B.E, attending the Board of Tilling Hospital.   

Equivalent certainty existed in respect of the whereabouts of the potentially jealous spouses of each of the leading male suspects.

After an interview of no less than five hours, both the interrogator and interrogatee were tiring.  As Inspector Morrison called for yet another pot of tea, his Sergeant interrupted, “Inspector there’s a visitor at the desk, says she need to speak to you most urgently.”

“She?” asked Herbert, realising almost immediately that the Sergeant did not wish to say more in front of Dr Brace,” Very well. I’ll come and speak to her.”

There at the desk, patiently waiting and leaning on her walking stick, stood the diminutive figure of Agnes Brace, septuagenarian mother of Dr Brace and mother-in-law of the late Dolores.

“Thank you for coming out to see me, Inspector,” she said, “I know you’re really busy, but I needed a very urgent word with you. This really has gone too far; much too far.”

“Of course Mrs Brace,” Herbert replied, “Perhaps we should go for a private word in the interview room?”

There, in a small airless room lit by a solitary electric bulb, across a plain wooden table sat Mrs Brace in her winter coat and cloche hat, of the kind fashionable fifteen or so years before.

Her handbag hung over one arm of the chair and her walking stick leaned on the other. Declining the offered cup of tea, Agnes Brace began, “I couldn’t let you go on Inspector. You see, it wasn’t my son that killed his Dolores.”   
“Really, Mrs. Brace” Herbert replied, “But if it wasn’t your son, then who was it exactly? Who did murder Dolores?”

“I’m afraid it was me, Inspector,” Agnes replied, disconcertingly.

“I beg your pardon,” gulped Herbert.

“Well, Inspector, you were there at “Mallards House" that night. You saw what happened. My son was so pleased and excited to be invited by the Mayor. It seemed as though he had at long last ‘arrived’ in Tilling and amounted to something. So they turn up, looking their best. I was so proud of them both when they left home that night. Then she goes and spoils it.”  
“Please continue, Mrs Brace,” said Herbert. 
“Instead of just passing a civilised evening with pleasant conversation, Dolly has to go and show him up. Three port and lemons and she’s playing the piano and leading a conga down to the Trader’s Arms. Everyone in Tilling – apart from my son of course – already knows she’s wayward and sees other people from time to time. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, she has to go and rub his nose in it right in front of the Mayor and half the Town Council.”

“But, was that really enough reason to murder her, Mrs Brace?”

Ignoring the question, Agnes continued, “You don’t know how much my son gave up to be a Doctor, Inspector,” she explained, “All those years of study. All those nights working late at his books whilst his friends were out enjoying themselves.  All those sacrifices – for him and me, a widow – to build his career. And Dolly goes and wastes it all and humiliates him, after three ports and lemons. I really had no choice you see.”     

“And what exactly happened out at the Martello Tower, Mrs Brace?”  
“Well, Inspector, it was quite simple really,” she replied, “I just told her she needed a walk to clear her head after the night before. I suggested we walk out to the Martello Tower after lunch. It’s always so quiet out there.” 

“It was very quiet. No-one saw us on the way. We talked about this and that and what happened at the Mayor’s House. I couldn’t believe that she didn’t think it mattered much at all.”

“What happened when you got there?” Herbert asked.

“Dolores insisted on climbing right up to the top of the tower to see the view down the coast. With all those steps, it took me quite awhile to catch up with her.”

“And when you caught up?”

“She just kept pointing out the places where she used to meet various chaps, like Harold Twistevant’s youngest son, the one that stole the money from our Christmas Club”

What happened then, Mrs Brace?”

“When she talked about meeting young Twistevant just below where we were standing at the Martello Tower, without any thought for my son, I just snapped…”


“I was carrying my Contadina’s umbrella, the one with the stout ivory handle, carved like a duck’s head. It’s heavy; I can lean on it like a walking stick”


“Dolly had her back to me pointing to where she has that last assignation with young Twistevant. She kept laughing. So I just hit her. I hit the back of her head so hard it broke the handle in two. And she fell off the tower onto the concrete below.”

“So Mrs Brace, you did this on purpose. It wasn’t an accident?”

“Yes Inspector, I meant to do it. I did it for my son. If you need to see my Contadina’s umbrella, it’s in the hall stand at home.”

“Thank you for that Mrs Brace,” said Herbert, “We certainly will need to collect it.”

Later that night, when Agnes Brace had been charged with murder and detained in custody pending an initial appearance before the local magistrates, Dr Brace returned to his cold and empty house. His mother’s Contadina’s umbrella had already been removed and placed in safe-keeping as evidence by Tilling Constabulary.

Inspector Morrison returned to supper with his wife Bunty at “Braemar” just outside the town. As they sat down by their fireside afterwards, Herbert completed his account of the day’s dramatic events.

In silence, they both thought privately of the innocent far-off days when they had both been in the same class as Georgie, Per and Dolly at Tilling Juniors.

After some moments, Herbert said, “It’s all about class really, isn’t it Bunty love? We were all in the same class once and it’s never comfortable trying to move from one to another.”

“You’re right dear. Sometimes, there’s a high price to pay; far too high.”

Copyright reserved in all appropriate territories  Deryck Solomon 2012 

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