The elderly, silver-grey Swift two-seater clattered and coughed to a halt. For a moment, the Honourable Phillip Petrie sat at the wheel with his sleek fair head cocked in frowning concentration. Was that a new rattle he'd heard? His fingers itched to investigate under the bonnet, but Daisy had a train to catch.
He transferred his frown to the narrow, white-stuccoed house beyond the iron railing on the other side of the pavement. Whatever Daisy said, it bally well wasn't right for two girls to set up house together--especially in Bohemian Chelsea--and work for their livings when they both had homes and families to take them in. If only her brother had inherited Fairacres and the viscountcy instead of being blown to kingdom come at Ypres ... .
But it was 1923; Gervaise was more than five years gone. No sense dwelling on past horrors. Phillip extricated his long legs from beneath the steering wheel, loped up the short garden path between leafless bushes and clumps of snowdrops and aconites, and rang the doorbell.
Lucy Fotheringay opened the door. Tall, with a fashionably boyish figure, dark, bobbed hair, and amber eyes, she regarded him as usual with an air of faint amusement. He found her rather daunting, though he'd have died sooner than admit it.
"Hullo, Phillip. Come in. Daisy's just putting on her coat. These are her traps." Lucy waved at a pile of luggage stacked near the door.
"Right-oh, I'll start loading up the old bus."
"Careful with my camera." She went to the steep staircase at the back of the tiny hall and called up it, "Daisy, Phillip's here."
"Good egg! I'll be down in half a mo."
He stowed a shabby portmanteau and a heavy Gladstone bag in the boot and returned to the house as Daisy came down the stairs.
Above neat ankles in the latest flesh-coloured stockings, her dark green tweed coat failed to entirely subdue unfashionable curves. An emerald green cloche hat with a dashing bow over one ear crowned a cheerful, roundish face, with guileless, smiling blue eyes. Her mouth, no pursed Cupid's bow, was lipstick red; the freckles Phillip recalled from childhood were hidden by a dusting of face-powder; but she was still the same good old Daisy. Nothing daunting about her.
"What-ho, old dear."
"Hullo, Phil. It's topping of you to give me a lift." She picked up the camera in its leather case. "Will you grab the typewriter? It's supposed to be portable but it weighs a ton."
"Right-oh. And the tripod. Is that the lot?"
"That's it." She turned to Lucy, kissing the air beside her in the peculiar way women had--to avoid smudging their lipstick, Phillip supposed. "Toodle-oo, darling."
"Pip-pip, Daisy darling. I hope Occles Hall is worthy of your pen, but have a spiffing time anyway."
They went out to the street and he put the typewriter and tripod in the dickey. As he opened the door for Daisy, she said, "Don't buzz along too fast, now, Phil, or my hat will blow off. It doesn't pull down properly however low I knot my hair."
"I could put the hood up if you like."
"No, don't. It's too deliciously mild for February."
Sliding in behind the wheel, Phillip glanced at the rolls of honey brown hair on the nape of her neck. "Why don't you have it bobbed?"
"I should. Keeping it long is just a last-ditch attempt to try to please Mother," she admitted ruefully.
"Going to live with her at the Dower House would please her."
"And drive me potty! Don't let's quarrel about that again."
"Sorry, old bean." He pressed the self-starter, cocking an ear as the aging engine rattled to life. No new vibrations, he decided, half disappointed. Messing about with machinery was one of the joys of life. He let in the clutch and the Swift moved smoothly away from the kerb.
"How is business in the City?"
"Fair to middling." He hurriedly dismissed the disagreeable subject. "Tell me about this place you're going to write about."
"Occles Hall, in Cheshire. It's one of those Tudor black and white manors, frightfully picturesque."
"Who lives there?"
"I wangled an invitation from a girl I was at school with, Bobbie Parslow, one of those hearty hockey girls. Her father's a baronet and her mother's Lord Delamare's sister."
"Not Lady Valeria Parslow!"
"Yes, do you know her?"
"Not personally, but my mother had a bit of a set-to with her on the Riviera a couple of winters ago--some rot about bookings for a suite with a balcony--and you know what a peaceable sort the mater is. If I'm not mistaken, Lady Valeria won."
"Probably. I've heard she's a bit of a battle-axe. Tommy and Madge Pearson met her in Cannes last year. Her son was with her, a rather spectacularly beautiful young man, Madge said, but they didn't mingle much. She kept him on a short leash, and Tommy thought she was afraid of him finding himself a wife and escaping her clutches."
"It sounds like a pretty ghastly household. Do you really have to go, old bean?" Phillip asked plaintively.
"I do. My editor at Town and Country is panting for another article. The Wentwater Court one was quite a hit, you know, even though Icouldn't write about all the exciting things that happened there."
He groaned. "Don't remind me! And now you're off to stay with another bunch of queer birds."
"Only for a few days," said Daisy, with her usual blithe optimism. But her voice was tinged with regret as she added, "Don't worry, old thing, lightning never strikes twice in the same place."
Arriving at Euston Station, Phillip bagged a porter and they plunged into the grimy, bustling cavern. He stood with Daisy in the line at the ticket window and was aghast to hear her requesting a second-class ticket.
"Here, I say, dash it," he protested, pulling out his wallet, "you can't go second-class." And despite her objections, he paid the difference for a first-class ticket. He'd have to lunch at a Lyons Corner House instead of the Piccadilly Grill, but Gervaise would have expected it of him. Let her travel second and there was no knowing what sort of queer fish she'd end up talking to. Daisy had no proper sense of her own position.
The porter bringing up the rear, they headed for her platform.
At the sound of her name, Daisy's face brightened. She swung round, smiling. "Mr. Fletcher! Phillip, you remember Detective Chief Inspector Fletcher."
Phillip scowled. He recalled the policeman all too well, recalled being interrogated at Wentwater and the baleful black brows over grey eyes that could pierce a fellow through and through, however innocent. And make one feel like a callow fool. What the deuce was the blighter doing here now?
Admittedly he looked quite gentlemanly, in a dark lounge suit, overcoat, and soft felt hat not unlike Phillip's own. But after all, the fellow was nothing more than a glorified copper in mufti. He had no business making up to the Honourable Daisy Dalrymple, nor she to be so pleased to see him. That was what came of letting respectable females mess about with writing and such tommy rot!
He nodded coldly.
The detective's mouth took on a sardonic twist and he turned back to Daisy. "I'm glad I caught you. I have to dash, but I've brought you this for the journey." He handed over a modest box of chocolates.
"Alec ... Mr. Fletcher, how too sweet of you! I shall make a pig of myself and they'll all be gone long before I change at Crewe."
Alec, indeed! In stern silence Phillip marched Daisy to her train, refusing to dignify the bounder's infernal cheek by any remonstrance.
"Buck up," said Daisy with a sunny smile, leaning out of the window. "On that subject Lucy would agree with you, but you must admit it might come in handy one day to have a policeman on one's side. Thanks for the lift, old dear. Cheerio!"
"Cheerio," Phillip echoed glumly.
Perched beside the weatherbeaten driver on the box of the station fly, Daisy could see over the bare hedges to the greening meadows of the Cheshire plain on either side of the lane. Fat, contented cows grazed on the new grass. Here and there in the distance, the towers of village churches stuck up from clumps of trees. Despite the grey sky, the air had a springlike softness, and celandines gleamed gold along the hedgerows.
The placid nag clopped onwards without much attention from its owner. Ted Roper, as he had introduced himself, was fully occupied in telling her all about his family. He was particularly proud of his eldest grandson, who had learned to drive "one o' they motor-lorries" and regularly hauled goods from Manchester to London.
Daisy was not surprised to find herself the recipient of a stranger's confidences. For some reason she had yet to fathom, people had a tendency to tell her all about themselves. While dispensing the appropriate murmurs of admiration or sympathy, she stored up details in her mind against the day when she'd find time to sit down and write a novel.
All, she felt, was grist to a novelist's mill.
The lane curled around a leafless spinney and suddenly a village street stretched before them.
"Occleswich," said Ted Roper. "See them chimblypots sticking up, up the top o' the hill? 'Tis Occles Hall."
The hill was a gentle slope, the most this part of Cheshire could provide. On either side of the rising street, identical white picket-fences surrounded identical lawns and flowerbeds in front of identical half-timbered cottages, in pairs. All was neat: snowdrops in bloom and daffodil spikes protruding through the weed-free soil; black-painted beams unfaded against the white walls; sparkling diamond-paned windows; slate roofs without a hint of moss or lichen. Even the chimneys, as if well trained, all emitted the same straight plume of blue-grey smoke into the still air.
"Oh, please stop, Mr. Roper," Daisy cried. "Would you mind waiting for just a few minutes while I take some photographs? This will make a perfect picture and who knows, it may rain the rest of my time here."
"Whoa, Hotspur!" His inaccurately named nag obligingly halted. "Take as long as you like, miss. This here's what they calls a model village," he informed her. "Hundred, hundred and fifty years past, the lord o' the manor had the owld village pulled down and this un built in its place."
"Yes, I've seen one like it in Dorset," Daisy said, climbing down and reaching for camera and tripod, "but this is even prettier. So well kept!"
"Good job you didn't see Occleswich afore Lady Valeria come to the Hall. 'Twere she brung money to the Parslows. Proper run-down they was, Hall and village both, and family, too, come to think on." Ted Roper laughed heartily, then sobered. "Not that I've a word to say 'gainst Sir Reginald, mind. A proper gentleman, he is, though hen-pecked something fierce. It's her ladyship wears the trousers."
"And it was Lady Valeria set the Hall and the village to rights?" Daisy enquired as she fixed the camera to the tripod. The pinkishsandstone church halfway up would make a good focal point for the picture, she decided, shifting her apparatus to the other side of the street.
"Aye, set 'em to rights, she did. They's her la'ship's pride and joy, after young Master Sebastian, that is, and she makes sure the tenants keep the place just the way she likes it. Nary a cabbage nor a Brussels sprout dares show its head in the front gardens. There's nobbut one man in the village'll cross her, any more'n her family do."
"Who is that?"
"You'll see when we get there, miss," said Ted Roper cryptically. "Can't miss it, you can't."
Daisy took several shots of the scene. After the Wentwater Court photos had turned out so admirably she was more confident of her ability, but it was just as well to be sure. Satisfied, she stowed the things in the trap and nimbly mounted to the box once more. The horse set off again without waiting for Ted Roper's lazy flick of the reins.
Just beyond the church, on the opposite side of the street, stood a building in the same style as the cottages but somewhat larger. A sign above the door announced it to be "The Cheshire Cheese Inn." Daisy laughed at the painting, which depicted a large, orange cheese with a mouse peeking from a hole in its side at a grinning cat.
"Fred Chiver, the innkeeper, wanted to change the name to Cheshire Cat," her driver revealed, "but her la'ship put her foot down, Cheese being the historical name, seemingly. That there picture's near as he could get. Painted by a Welsh artist chap as stayed a few days a while back."
"I like it." Daisy noticed an old man drowsing on a bench by the door, an equally somnolent dog at his feet, and she realized he was the first person she had seen in Occleswich. "Where is everyone?" she asked.
"Over to Whitbury, miss. 'Tis market day. Most o' the women take the early bus in to do their shopping. And the childer's in school, over yon behind St. Dunstan's, next the vicarage." As he gestured, heglanced back at the church clock. "They'll be out any minute, and the motor-bus from Whitbury's about due. Me and Hotspur's out of date, and that's a fact," he added sadly. "'Tis her la'ship keeps us going, for she don't like to see any motors in Occleswich saving her own. Spoils the view. The bus has to stop down bottom."
"It certainly sounds as if Lady Valeria is accustomed to having her own way!" Daisy exclaimed.
"Oh, aye, that she be," agreed Ted Roper.
Beyond the Cheshire Cheese, the street curved to the right. Curlicued lettering over one cottage's door proclaimed: "Village Store & Post Office," and a sign in the next-door window: "POLICE." Between them a fingerpost pointed along a gravel path to the Village Hall behind, hidden by a hedge. That appeared to be the entire extent of the commercial and social centre of Occleswich.
A hundred yards farther on, the street ended in a T-junction. On the far side of the crossroad, a high wall of the same pinkish stone as the church barred the way ahead. As Hotspur plodded patiently up the slope, Daisy saw a white wicket-gate in the wall.
"Where is the main gate?"
"Turn right and another quarter mile or thereabouts."
She glanced to the right--and gasped in astonishment. "My sainted aunt, what a simply frightful eyesore!"
The last cottage in the street was the village smithy, with living quarters beside and above the forge. Instead of a front lawn and flowerbeds, it had a paved yard. And the yard overflowed with heaps of rusting metal. Bent horseshoes and ploughshares, broken bedsteads, old-fashioned kitchen stoves and boilers, and countless bits of the bodies and innards of deceased motor-cars were precariously stacked higher than the sills of the grimy windows.
"Stan Moss, the blacksmith, he wanted to put in a petrol pump," said Ted Roper, grinning. "Her la'ship wouldn't hear of it, acourse. Spoil the pictureskew charicter o' the village, it would. Well, Stan do hold a powerful grudge. 'Tis a mite tidier round back, where he works. Nobbut a mite, mind."
"I'd have thought Lady Valeria would have forty fits. She lets him get away with that mess?"
"Not for want o' trying. Two year, now, they been battling. She brung in outsiders to clear it, but he chased 'em off. So she brung 'em back, and a couple o' coppers, too, when he was away to Nantwich. Well, blow me down if he didn't come back wi' a new load o' scrap, just like as if he guessed what she'd be up to."
"Irresistible force and immovable object," Daisy observed.
"No one don't move Stan," Ted Roper agreed. "Always was a cantankersome bloke, and young Gracie running off ain't sweetened his temper so's you'd notice. He lost her pay and his housekeeper all in one."
"His daughter. Went off wi' one o' they commercial travellers, couple o' months past. Mind you, there's not many as blames her. A pretty girl as liked a bit o' fun, and her drudging for Stan on her day off from parlour-maiding up the Hall, and him taking every penny o' her wages off of her. Oh lor', here come her la'ship. We best be on our way."
As he urged Hotspur to a trot, turning the corner, Daisy looked back to see a commanding figure emerging through the wicket-gate, followed by a liver and white pointer. Dressed in brown tweeds and a mannish slouch hat with a pheasant feather, Lady Valeria carried a hefty blackthorn walking-stick, brass-knobbed.
Glancing neither to left nor right, she marched across the road, picked her way between Stanley Moss's scrapheaps, and beat a thunderous tattoo on the door with her stick.
Trees hid the forge from Daisy, but above the sound of Hotspur's hooves she heard two irate voices raised in furious altercation.
"At it again," grunted Ted.
Her first glimpse of Lady Valeria was not promising. When, a few minutes later, the lodgekeeper swung open the wrought-iron gates of Occles Hall, Daisy passed between them with considerable misgiving.
THE WINTER GARDEN MYSTERY. Copyright © 1995 by Carola Dunn. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.