The approach was not inviting. In spite of her spiffy new—well, not a 1926 model, but almost new—motor-car, Daisy felt discouraged.
First she had to navigate the grim, smoke-belching Potteries towns, one of those lists of names beloved of geography teachers: Stoke, Hanley, Burslem, Longton, Tunstall, Fenton. Amalgamating them into the city of Stoke-on-Trent hadn’t made them any prettier.
Beyond Derby came an endless series of equally grim, grimy mining villages; rows of tiny, grey cottages lining the steep-cobbled streets. Small shops, pubs, and chapels merged into the general dinginess. Here and there she saw the surface excrescences of mines—large, squat buildings of blackened brick, loomed over by tall chimneys and mysterious iron wheels.
In between, glimpses of green, precipitous slopes would have offered moments of relief had they not been wreathed in veils of autumnal mist. Daisy clenched the steering wheel with fingers crossed, praying she’d reach her goal before the mists turned to fog.
“I must have been mad to come,” she muttered to herself.
* * *
It had all started with a perfectly innocent letter.
Sybil Sutherby, née Richland, had been at school with Daisy. They hadn’t met for many years—in fact, not since Sybil left school in 1915, a year ahead of Daisy. An occasional Christmas card in the early years had reported her marriage followed by the birth of a daughter.
Daisy hadn’t been invited to either wedding or christening, but there was nothing to cavil at in that. Not only was Sybil a year older and little more than an acquaintance, the War had put paid to lavish celebrations of such events. As far as Daisy could recall, she hadn’t heard so much as a whisper from or about Sybil in ten years.
Nor had she wondered what had become of her school-fellow. They had never been close enough for that.
So she was surprised when the letter arrived. It was just a note, really. Sybil, living in the country, was coming up to London for a couple of days. She would love to see Daisy. Could they meet for coffee, perhaps, or lunch or afternoon tea?
On the day specified, Daisy had arranged to meet her best friend, Lucy, alias Lady Gerald Bincombe, for lunch at Maxim’s, in Wardour Street. Though Lucy would have preferred Monico’s or the Café Royal, Maxim’s was conveniently near the publisher of their book on the Follies of England. In ecstasies over the success of that venture, he was eager to discuss with them another book of photographs by Lucy with commentary by Daisy.
Succumbing to her besetting sin, curiosity, Daisy had written to Sybil asking her to join them—and posted the letter before mentioning it to Lucy.
“Sybil Richland?” Lucy’s outrage came clearly along the telephone wires. “Sybil the Swot?”
“Come on, darling, she wasn’t that bad. Some of the girls thought I was a swot.”
“You did have your nose in a book a lot of—”
“Lucy! You were no keener on games than I was, as I recall, though you never opened a book until forced to. In fact, I can’t imagine what you did with your time at school.”
After a moment for reflection, Lucy said candidly, “Neither can I, I’m thankful to say. I wonder what Sybil wants.”
“Why should she want anything, other than to look up old acquaintances?”
“If you’d thought that, you could have pretended to be out of town. I’m sure you, too, suspect an ulterior motive.”
“Not exactly, but I do think it’s a bit odd. Surely she must have plenty of closer friends in London.”
Lucy laughed. “Very fishy!”
“Besides, we haven’t been in touch for years. Even if she happened to notice in a newspaper when I was married, how did she know where to address a letter?”
“Daisy, you’re famous. She probably reads your magazine articles avidly and says to herself, ‘To think I was at school with her!’ She wants to be seen with a celebrity.”
“Your editor at Town and Country might have given her your Hampstead address, or your cousin, if she wrote first to Fairacres.”
“Geraldine would do that, without asking me first.” Daisy’s second cousin, Edgar, had become Viscount Dalrymple on the death of her father and brother. His wife, Geraldine, liked to have a finger in every pie.
“Bother, do you really think that’s it?”
“Who knows? Never mind, it’s only lunch,” said Lucy, “and we have an appointment directly afterwards.”
* * *
Daisy didn’t like driving in central London, so she took the tube from Hampstead and walked from Tottenham Court Road station to Maxim’s. The uniformed commissionaire ushered her in with as much deference as if a taxi had dropped her off outside the dazzlingly white façade with its gilded wreaths, silvered turret, and mauresque windows.
The maître d’hôtel greeted her inside.
“I’m meeting Lady Gerald Bincombe,” Daisy told him.
“Mais oui, madame, Lady Gerald arrived but a moment since. She requested a table on the balcony.” He crooked a finger at an underling, who relieved Daisy of her coat and escorted her upstairs.
Lucy had chosen a table next to the ornamental brass rail, banked with flowers, that separated the green-and-gold balcony from the oval opening to the main dining room below. Though a professional photographer, Lucy was also a member of fashionable society, from sleek, dark Eton crop to scarlet-painted fingertips to barely knee-length hemline. It was typical of her to want a good view of the other patrons of the establishment.
That was not the reason she gave for her choice. “Darling, I thought we’d better hide up here. I have a frightful feeling that Sybil has probably turned into the sort of dowd one doesn’t care to be seen with.”
“How unkind! Why?”
“You said she wrote from a farm, in Derbyshire of all places.”
“What’s wrong with Derbyshire? Ever heard of Chatsworth?”
“Of course, but the country seat of the Duke of Devonshire can hardly be compared to a farmhouse!”
“Hush, I think this must be Sybil coming up the stairs now. She looks vaguely familiar. And quite smart enough to associate with me, if not at your exalted level. You’re always telling me I have no notion of fashion.”
The young woman ascending the staircase wore a heather-mixture tweed costume. Daisy was no expert, but the skirt and jacket looked to her to be quite nicely cut, though well-worn, making the best of a figure somewhat on the sturdy side. The lavender cloche hat, adorned with a small spray of speckled feathers, matched the silk blouse. A string of pearls, silk stockings, and good leather shoes—low-heeled—completed the picture of a well-to-do if not fashion-conscious country dweller visiting the capital.
Sybil Sutherby certainly didn’t look like a typical farmer’s wife. Though, like Daisy, her only make-up was a dab of powder on her nose and a touch of lipstick, her face was not noticeably weathered. In fact, she was rather pale, accentuating a dismayed expression that Daisy put down to Lucy’s unexpected presence.
“Hello, Sybil. How nice to see you after all these years,” said Daisy, stretching the truth somewhat.
“Daisy, you haven’t changed a bit.” They shook hands.
The waiter seated Sybil, handed menus all round, and departed.
“You remember Lucy? Fotheringay as was.”
“Lucy. Of course.” She hesitated. “It’s Lady Gerald, isn’t it?”
“So you keep up with the news, Mrs. Sutherby,” Lucy drawled. “How do you do?”
“For pity’s sake,” Daisy said, annoyed, “we were all spotty schoolgirls together. Let’s not stand on our dignities. I’m going to decide what I want for lunch, and then I’d like to hear what you’re up to these days, Sybil.”
Discussing the choices on the à la carte menu thawed the ice between Lucy and Sybil a bit, to Daisy’s relief. Lucy, as usual, chose a salad for the sake of her figure. Daisy, who cared less for her figure and ate in superior restaurants far less frequently, picked the poulet rôti au citron et aux courgettes. She’d make up for it by having the clear consommé first. Sybil opted to follow suit. Daisy had the impression that she was preoccupied, her thoughts far from the delectable selection offered.
The waiter returned and took their order.
After a moment of slightly uncomfortable silence, Sybil said abruptly, “I’ve read some of your articles, Daisy. You write very well.”
Lucy gave Daisy a knowing look. “What about you, Sybil?” she asked with a hint of a sarcastic inflection. “Have you settled into a life of cosy domesticity?”
Sybil flushed. “Far from it. My husband was killed in the War. I was lucky enough to find a job quite quickly, as … as secretary to an author. A live-in job, where I can have my little girl with me.” Her hand went to her necklace. “I didn’t even have to sell Mother’s pearls. And I’ve been there ever since.”
Daisy decided it was a bit late to start expressing condolences, which would inevitably lead to further, endless condolences. Everyone had lost someone in the War including her own brother and her fiancé, or in the influenza pandemic, which had killed her father, the late Viscount Dalrymple. She seized on a less emotionally fraught topic. “Is your author someone I might have read?”
“I doubt it. A rather … specialised field. But I did hope to have a word with you, Daisy…” She glanced sideways at Lucy.
“About your work? Go ahead. Lucy won’t mind. Underneath the frivolous exterior, she’s a working woman, too.”
“I don’t think…”
“You haven’t got yourself involved in the production of ‘blue’ books, have you?” Lucy’s question was blunt, but for once her tone was discreetly lowered.
“Sorry. It’s just that the way you said ‘a rather specialised field’ tends to leave one to jump to conclusions.”
Daisy laughed. “I’m prepared to swear that’s not the conclusion I jumped to. What’s the matter, Sybil?”
“I’d prefer to talk to you later.”
“No can do. Lucy and I have an appointment with our joint editor immediately after lunch. But Lucy knows all my secrets—well, almost all. She’s not going to blurt out your troubles to all and sundry.”
“Silent as the grave,” said Lucy. “Cross my heart and hope to die. My lips are sealed.”
“Be serious,” Daisy admonished her severely, “or why should Sybil trust you?”
“It’s not so much—” Sybil began, but the waiter interrupted, arriving with their soup.
By the time he went away again, she had made up her mind.
“All right, if you say so, Daisy. I wasn’t sure whether … I know you married a detective, and I heard that you’ve helped him to investigate several crimes.”
“Lucy, have you been telling tales, after I’ve been crying up your discretion?”
“Darling, I’m not the only one aware of your criminous activities. What about your Indian friend?”
“I hardly think Sakari would have any opportunity to spill the beans to Sybil!”
“But there have been at least a couple of other old school pals you’ve saved from the hangman. Word gets around.”
“It’s nothing like that!” Sybil exclaimed. “Not murder, I mean. Just a mystery of sorts. There’s probably nothing in it.”
“In what?” Daisy asked.
“It’s an uncomfortable, troubled atmosphere, really. I feel as if something’s going on, but I can’t pin it down. That’s why I want your help.”
“If you can’t be precise,” said Lucy impatiently, “how do you expect her to advise you?”
“I was hoping you’d come and stay for a few days, Daisy. I’m hoping you’ll tell me it’s all in my imagination.”
Lucy looked at her as if she was mad. Daisy was intrigued. She had indeed been caught up in the investigation of a number of unpleasant occurrences, but they had all been concrete acts of a violent nature. A mysterious atmosphere would make a change and might prove interesting. What was more, with no crime in the offing, Alec could hardly object to her going to stay with an old friend.
In someone else’s house, she remembered. “Won’t your employer mind your inviting a guest?”
“Oh, no. I’m not just a stenotypist, you know, I’m Mr. Birtwhistle’s confidential secretary and … and editorial assistant.”
“Birtwhistle? I’ve never heard of an author by such a noteworthy name. Does he use a pen-name?”
“Yes,” said Sybil, but did not elaborate, as the waiter returned to remove the soup dishes and present the entrées.
Lucy, all too obviously disapproving, turned the conversation to her and Daisy’s publisher and what he might expect in the way of another photo book. Not until they parted on the pavement outside Maxim’s did Daisy have a chance to tell Sybil she was game and would write as soon as she knew when she could get away for a few days.
* * *
As a result, one dreary Monday in late September Daisy found herself driving nervously up a narrow, winding lane—two stony ruts with grass growing up the middle, between dry-stone walls. Apart from the rumble of the motor of her sky-blue Gwynne Eight, the only sound was an occasional bleat from the black-faced sheep on the misty hillsides beyond the walls. Outcrops of limestone were more common than trees, and in these bleak uplands the few ashes she passed were already turning yellow.
A fingerpost on her right directed her up a still steeper, narrower, twistier lane, not much more than a cart-track. One side was open to a grassy slope, blue with harebells, with a stream at the bottom and a rising hillside beyond. On the other side, a high bank cut off the view. Overgrown with nettles and thistles, it had an abandoned air.
Eyrie Farm—the name hadn’t struck her before, but now she kept thinking of it as “Eerie Farm.” She was glad to see the line of telephone poles following the track, a reassuring connection to the world. Every fifth pole or so provided a perch to a hawk or falcon, so perhaps the name Eyrie was appropriate. What had birds used for perches before telephone poles and wires?
More pertinent questions clamoured in Daisy’s mind. Sybil’s reply to her letter had not informed her of Birtwhistle’s pen-name. Perhaps he wrote ghost stories, or wrote about and even dabbled in the occult. What had her insatiable curiosity landed her in this time?
Lucy was right: She must be crazy to have accepted Sybil’s invitation.
Copyright © 2011 by Carola Dunn