I had been standing under this tree, against these railings, looking at that house from the corner of my eye for almost ten minutes now while I waited for my heart to stop dancing. It was beginning to dawn upon me that I waited in vain. I scanned the windows once more - all seventeen of them; I had counted - but saw no movement anywhere. I glanced along the street both ways, hoping for an excuse to abandon the enterprise, and found none. I looked down at myself, wondering whether my disguise would pass muster, and concluded that it would. So, ignoring the watery feeling in my legs, at last I marched across the road, mounted the steps and pulled hard on the bell.
Stupidly, I had imagined having to conjure up a performance of nerves for the looming interview. I had even doubted whether I could pull it off, for I have no dramatic experience beyond Christmas charades at home each year and one pageant at my finishing school in which I started as Clytemnestra but was so unconvincing that I ended up as a broken column, wrapped in a bed sheet and clutching a fern.
Today, I need not have worried: when the door swung open and my name was demanded of me there was nothing theatrical at all in my answering squeak.
'Miss Rossiter,' I said. 'To see the mistress.'
The butler did not answer - did not so much as blink as far as I could tell - but merely turned his back and sped away, leaving me to close the door and scurry after him.
Miss Rossiter, squeaking like that, was evidently a bit of a ninny for I had given her an impressive professional history andshe might have been expected to take this new chapter more easily in her stride. I on the other hand, Dandy Gilver, could be forgiven. I had a handful of cases under my belt but this was, without a doubt, my first job.
The letter had come on an ordinary Tuesday morning at the end of April, in amongst a typical batch of thank-you notes, invitations and demands for subscriptions and looking so much like another of them that, as I slit it open and scanned it through, I was already moving it towards the 'bore' pile at my left elbow, always so much taller than the 'fun' pile at my right.
Dear Mrs Gilver, it began in a clear but feminine hand, the ink bleeding a little into the good, thick paper. My husband is going to kill me, and I would rather he didn't.
I had jerked up in my seat, sending the bore pile cascading and making Bunty - asleep on the blue chair - twitch her ears, although her eyes remained shut. I took a closer look at the address: Mrs Philip Balfour, 31 Heriot Row, Edinburgh. One of the most respectable streets in that most respectable of cities and a name to match it.
I cannot arrange to meet you, the letter went on, because he would have me followed if I tried. I am followed whenever I leave the house now. Naturally, I cannot telephone either and I must implore you not to telephone to me. However, I have thought of a way to manage it. I have recently lost my maid and am seeing girls next Friday, hoping to find a new one. If you could come along, suitably attired, at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, we could be sure of some time in private when I might explain. Please do not send a reply to this - he would steam it open as he does everything.
Until Friday then. Yours faithfully, Walburga Balfour.
The butler passed through the outer hall with its hat glass and umbrella stands and into the chilly grandeur of the stairwell, where a row of wooden chairs was set against the banister wall. He nodded me towards one of them and I sank down onto its edge, tucking my feet in and holding my bag handlesin both fists. I had learned the pose from a girl on the train. (This was in the third-class carriage; I had decided to get into character good and early.) The butler was clearly beguiled by it, and he proceeded to set me at my ease by slipping his hands into his trouser pockets and putting one foot up on the spar of the chair beside mine.
'Come far?' he asked.
'Perthshire,' I said, in all honesty. 'And it was ever such a slow train.'
The butler gave me a long, enquiring look before he spoke again and I prayed that my face would not colour, for this of course was the greatest hurdle: my triumph or my undoing lay in the voice, in the quashing down of my own perfectly accentless, perfectly neutral way of talking and the cloaking of it in Miss Rossiter's words and Miss Rossiter's sounds - particularly in the strange notes of Miss Rossiter's vowels.
I had unearthed from a trunk the standard-issue grey wool coat and skirt from my days as a nurse-volunteer - they were still in excellent condition, since I had not worn the vile things above twice, and they smelled most appropriately of camphor and attic - and had daubed my oldest brown brogues with black polish to make maid's shoes of them (this was successful enough, but I did fear the polish coming off onto my stockings). No amount of scraping and pinning could produce a bun out of my short hair, but I had washed it straight, parted it in the middle and fixed it behind my ears with three grips each side until there was nothing of the shingled bob left about it anywhere. (And it felt delicious, I must say, to be free of setting lotions again after fifteen years of their fumes and itching.)
But all of this should be as nothing and as a thing of naught without the voice and I peeped up at the butler, once again free of the need for any acting. He was rather older than me, perhaps fifty, with a pleasant, open countenance - red cheeks, red lips, not quite the long nose which can be such a help to a butler when it comes to looking down it, and black hair in crisp curlsacross his head like a bad drawing of a choppy sea, but very short and twinkling at the back against his neck.
At length, he smiled.
'I'd have said you come up from the south, not down-a-ways,' he said and picking up the silver card salver from the hall table he breathed on it and then polished it by rubbing it hard on the seat of his striped trousers.
'Northamptonshire, prop'ly,' I said, trying not to boggle at the antics with the salver. My reply had the virtues of being true and of ending all enquiry, since the county of my birth and childhood is as obscure as it is dear to me.
'Cornishman myself,' said the butler and I could tell that he revelled in his association with such an effortlessly more thrilling corner of England. 'Come up to London and kept on going, I did.'
Before we could continue the discussion, before I had the chance to regain some stock with news of my mother's Cornish relations, there came from one of the back rooms of the house, the unmistakable sound of a conversation ending: a voice lifted to deliver the closing courtesies and the movement of chair legs against a hard floor. I glanced at my wrist, but Miss Rossiter wore no watch.
'Don't you worry,' said the butler, seeing my sudden movement, 'you'll be all right.'
'What's she like?' I asked, hoping that this was not too familiar. Evidently not.
'No trouble,' he said. 'Just a kid, really. She married well - it's him that's got the money and the family, you know.'
A door opened and a stout girl in grey serge, holding her bag up under her chin, emerged. A voice drifted out from behind her.
'If you would see Miss Allan out, Faulds. Is the next ... Oh, splendid.'
The butler, hands out of pockets, both feet flat on the floor, and nose as long as he could make it, swept away towards the hall doors. I shared a look with Miss Allan as she passed me and then turned to the voice.
'Miss Rossiter, mem,' I said.
'Indeed,' said the young woman in the doorway. 'Please come on through.'
She ushered me into a morning room, where another of the plain wooden chairs was set at an intimidating distance in front of a small papier mâché writing desk. It was a typical Edinburgh room, so recently decorated that the fussy Adams plasterwork which picked out the cornice and the chimneypiece in green and white had not yet had time to grow sooty. There was a very fine carpet - the thin kind which is treacherous if wrinkled, but which here was as smooth as a pond - and some good but dull pictures, badly hung. An exquisite long-case clock, gleaming with polish, ticked away a kind of endless bass lullaby.
Mrs Balfour herself, when I took a good look at her, struck me - thankfully - as a sensible sort of girl. (The letter had been so extraordinary that I had half suspected an hysteric, but there was no hectic flush nor twitch of unease about her.) She was in her mid-twenties, with a healthy figure just too full to be coltish, although there was something equine about it somewhere, and had that light Scotch hair which is not quite red and that thin Scotch skin which is not quite freckled. These are looks which go over very quickly, but for now she was pretty enough in an unremarkable way. As she folded herself into the seat at the desk she smiled at me.
'Mrs Gilver,' she said. 'Thank you so much for coming.'
I sat back in my seat, put Miss Rossiter's bag down on the floor and crossed my ankles.
'I could hardly do otherwise,' I said. 'Your letter was ... rather compelling.'
'I didn't know where to turn,' said Mrs Balfour. 'But I remembered reading about that terrible business last winter.'
I could feel my face twist at the memory; it would be a long time before I stopped going over the Castle Benachally affair every night in bed and it was a source of pain that the first of my cases to be trumpeted in the newspapers should also have been the one where I stood by and watched murder be done.Alec Osborne, my friend and Watson, always squashes me flat when I describe it that way (and I cannot help thinking that being firmly shut up, whenever one tries to talk about what is troubling one, is pretty cold comfort and not likely to bring a speedy end to the fretting).
'Sorry,' said Mrs Balfour, seeing the look. 'I've put my foot in it, but what I meant was that it would have been so much more terrible but for you that I was sure you'd be able to help me now.'
'Tell me about it,' I said, mentally shaking myself. I might have my regrets but this poor girl had a husband plotting her grisly end and deserved all of my attention.
'Yes, of course. Well, I've been married for five years and my husband is ...' She stopped and looked around herself at the apartment. I waited. 'My husband is ...' she said, and looked around again. I sat forward a little and looked around too. Of good fortune, I thought, judging by the clock and the pictures. Yet I had never heard of him, so he probably was not a gentleman as such, but then Edinburgh has lots of not gentlemen as such who have been beyond question for generations. A banker, perhaps.
Mrs Balfour sat up a little straighter in her seat.
'My husband is ... a devil.' She gave a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. 'There. I've said it. And finding out was so unexpected that it still seems not quite real. I didn't know him for long before we got engaged but I could see straight away - or thought I could - that he was a poppet. I mean to say, his name's Pip.'
'And when you say he's ... unsatisfactory,' I prompted, but Mrs Balfour laughed and shook her head.
'He's a monster, Mrs Gilver. A nasty, brutish, bullying, philandering, dishonest, beastly ... pig.'
'And you think he's going to kill you?'
'Oh, I'm sure of it,' she replied. 'He told me so.'
'I see. And can I ask why?' She stared dumbly back at me. 'Does he want to marry someone else?'
'That's an idea,' she said. 'I haven't seen any signs of it, mind you.'
'You said - just now - that he was a philanderer,' I reminded her.
'Yes,' she said, frowning. 'Yes, I did, didn't I? He is. Faithless, adulterous, underhand ... it must be that. Why else, if not?'
'Well,' I said, 'to quote a police acquaintance of mine on the subject of murder: it's either love or money.'
'I haven't a bean.'
'Are you insured?' Mrs Balfour looked rather startled. It is difficult always to remember how far I have travelled along the road from where I used to be, where she still was, in that warm glade of gentle womanhood where such things would never occur to one. I felt as though I should have narrowed eyes and a cigarette in one corner of my red lips as I grilled her.
'I've no idea,' she said, blinking, 'but Pip has heaps of his own anyway.'
This was interesting; it is always interesting to hear how anyone manages still to have 'heaps of his own' in these dark days, but it was probably not to the point and so I passed on.
'And when you say he told you, do you mean he threatened you? Might he merely have been blustering? Was he very angry about something at the time? Or - forgive me - had he been drinking?'
Mrs Balfour laughed again.
'Pip? Drunk? No, that's not the kind of man he is at all. I shall try to explain.' She picked up a pen from her desk and fiddled with it as she spoke, gouging the nib into her blotter.
'It was at Christmas-time when it started - really started, I mean. It was Boxing Day, the servants' party, and if anyone had had too much "good cheer" I think it was me, because my memory of it is very peculiar, somehow. Mrs Hepburn had made her hot punch and I wonder if perhaps one of the other servants might have embellished it. Our chauffeur is a bit of a scamp. Anyway, the party was in its last stages, everyone rather hot and getting too tired for more dancing, and all of a suddenthere was some kind of trouble with one of the maids - lots of shrieking - and Faulds, the butler ... Oh, but of course you met him, didn't you? ... had to haul her off and give her a talking-to. He was most displeased. And we all went to bed a bit flattened. But I couldn't get to sleep and I certainly couldn't face ringing down for someone to bring tea - it had all been so unseemly and embarrassing - so I went to fetch some for myself, or milk anyway which is easier, and when I got back up to my room, Pip was there, and he was ... Well, he was ... He was like a man possessed. He was in a complete rage and that's when he told me for the first time that he was going to kill me.'
I considered the story in silence. If I had heard it the morning after the events took place, I should have brushed it off without a murmur: servants' parties are notoriously ticklish affairs even without the adulterated punch, and what with maids and masters dancing together - mistresses and scamps of chauffeurs too, if I were reading correctly between the lines - then the lady of the house creeping back down in her nightgown, a husband breathing fire was hardly astonishing. However ...
'For the first time?' I repeated.
'Yes, and since then it's been drip, drip, drip,' she said. 'He's perfectly ordinary during the day, when someone might see him, but sometimes at night he comes to my room and simply revels in it. Telling me that he loathes me, that he curses the day he met me, that he'll get rid of me if it's the last thing he ever does - you get the general idea.' Her smile was still brave but her voice had got a wobble in it and her eyes were shining. 'And the worst thing of all is that since that first time I've come to realise that there were hints of it all along rumbling away underneath that I was too naive or too trusting to see.'
'But he hasn't actually done anything,' I said.
'No,' said Mrs Balfour.
'Which is odd, if he really means it,' I said. 'I mean, he's had months. What do you suppose he's waiting for?'
I wondered if this was a little too callous, but Mrs Balfour merely shrugged.
'I have no idea,' she answered, 'but he's not going to wait much longer.'
'He's going away to our place in the Highlands for the first of August,' she said. 'And, as I wrote to you, I can't leave the house any more unwatched and I can't telephone without being listened in to, but I taunted him - one beastly night when he was at it as usual - I said what made him think that I wouldn't pack my things and run off when he went shooting, and he said I'd be long gone by then. He said - I shall never forget it - he said, "Naturally, this will have to be tidied up by the end of July. I'm not going to miss the stags over it."' She gave a little sob as she spoke and then caught her bottom lip in her teeth.
'Mrs Balfour,' I began, after another long moment's consideration.
'Oh, Lollie, please,' she said. 'Not Mrs Balfour when I've just told you all that - too ridiculous for words. And certainly not Walburga.' There was a ghost of a smile.
'Well, Lollie,' I resumed, 'it's a most fantastical tale. He sounds not only insupportable - that almost goes without saying - but actually mad. He sounds as though he needs some kind of rest cure or some clever doctor. However, he is not my concern.' I gave her a stern look. 'You are. And your instincts are sound. You should do just what you threatened to. Pack your bags and go, my dear girl. Or leave your bags behind and go. Just go.'
'But go where?' said Lollie. 'My parents are dead, I have no friends that aren't his friends too, I have no means of getting any money without his approval. And besides ...' Her voice trailed off.
'Are there children?' I asked, guessing that they would be a heavy anchor.
'Not yet,' said Lollie. 'I mean, no. See?' she went on wildly. '"Not yet"! I still can't convince myself that this is actually happening to me.'
'Is he in the house at this minute?' I asked. She shook her head. 'Well then, you can walk out of the front door along with me. Come home with me. And then telephone to a doctor, or to the police. To both.'
'You do believe me then?' said Lollie. 'He always reminds me that I have no proof or witnesses and tells me that anyone I speak to will think I'm mad. And that he'll give them lots of help to think it when they come to ask him about me.'
'Hm,' I said. She was right about the evidence and witnesses, of course, when I looked at the matter coolly. On the other hand, waiting until what they witnessed was her murder could not be recommended.
'Is there any way you can try to be even more careful?' I asked. 'Has he ever given any hints of his proposed method?'
'Oh yes,' said Lollie. 'I should have told you. It would be impossible to go on if I thought every dish might be poisoned or I might be shot in the back at any moment. No, I think he's going to strangle me at night in my bed.'
'He told you that?'
'Not in so many words,' she said. 'He whispers as he comes and goes, you see.' She leaned forward and spoke very softly. 'The rain set early in tonight, the sullen wind was soon awake, it tore the elm-tops down for spite, and did its worst to vex the lake.'
I could feel a nasty prickling feeling creeping up my back towards my neck, where a nasty shrinking feeling in my scalp waited to meet it.
'What on earth?' I said, thoroughly rattled.
'I wondered for the longest time,' said Lollie, 'and then I found it. Well, a line of it - in a volume on the Carlyles.' I must have looked impressed at this example of her reading habits, because she went on: 'A volume that Pip left on my desk for me to find, open at the right page. It's Robert Browning: a horrid, horrid poem all about strangling his mistress.'
'I don't know it, I'm glad to say.' I shook my shoulders to drive off the last of the shivering. 'So. You need a reliable witness and you need protection in the night-time. You need, in fact, someoneto sleep in your room with you. Do you have a sister?' She shook her head. 'An old nanny?' Another shake. 'A trusted maid of stout heart? Well, stout everything would be best, really.' Lollie opened her hands in a gesture of despair. 'Oh! Yes, of course,' I said. 'Your maid left, didn't she, hence today's interviews. Well, what about the girl before me then? She looked pretty sturdy.'
'The girl before you,' repeated Lollie, a beseeching look in her eyes. It took me a moment to see what was being besought.
'Ah, now,' I said. 'Well, as to that. I mean, I don't think that would be possible, I'm afraid.'
'Why not?' she asked me.
'One would have to ... Well, one would have to know what one were doing,' I said, 'which I don't. At all.'
'But in the newspapers ...' said Lollie.
'Oh no, I don't mean the detecting. I certainly know what I'm doing as far as that goes. And I can see that it would be wonderful to be stowed away in the heart of the household getting to the bottom of it - very practical - but as to the actual ... I'd be seen through in a minute. I thought Faulds out there had uncovered me as soon as I opened my mouth. Gosh, if I tried to mix up freckle cream or launder lace ...'
'But I'd help,' said Lollie. 'I wasn't brought up with my own maid and I know most of it. We could muddle along together. And if it's your fee that's worrying you--'
'I assure you it's not. No, my worry is Mr Faulds. And Mrs ... Hepburn, was it? And the chauffeur? And you mentioned a maid or two at the Christmas party? That's too many to take into your confidence and I couldn't begin to fool them - not over days and weeks.'
'Twelve,' said Lollie.
'Twelve what?' I asked her.
'Servants,' she replied. 'Butler, cook, kitchenmaid, scullerymaid, tweenie, parlourmaid, housemaid, a valet, a footman, a hall and boot boy, and the chauffeur.'
'Twelve servants?' I echoed.
'Including you,' she said, smiling.
And a small part of me wonders even now how much of my agreeing sprang from a desire to find out how, in the name of heaven, in these days of desperate and universal retrenchment, they were managing it.
DANDY GILVER AND THE PROPER TREATMENT OF BLOODSTAINS. Copyright © 2009 by Catriona McPherson. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.