Chapter 1 - Lilies at the Funeral by A.J. Hall
Sam’s initial sweep of the room showed no sign of his aunt. A pity: he’d missed lunch (the Henderson case again, blast it), so leapt at her invitation to tea with the alacrity of a schoolboy.
“Excuse me, sir.” The waiter’s murmur made him feel more than ever like an unclaimed parcel. He stepped aside to allow the cake trolley to pass, inhaling in the process a rich mixture of rum, vanilla, cream, chocolate and coffee which, in his famished state, turned him a trifle queasy.
Sam turned, to find a willowy, dark-haired man, some ten years his elder, standing at his elbow. Some friend of James? The velvet-collared jacket, frankly regrettable cravat and greenish pallor were more Chelsea than Mayfair, making him a fish out of water in the stuffy surrounds of Bertram’s Hotel.
Which was probably what the over-coiffeured dowagers rewarding grandsons with cake for having survived another half at Eton thought of Sam, too.
That flash of fellow-feeling unlocked his memory. He extended a hand. “West. How are things with you? How’s the play doing?”
“Splendidly, thanks. I’ve just escorted my Aunt Jane to the matinée. Do let me introduce you. I told her all about that business with the Reitveld chairs, and she was quite impressed. Which, I can tell you, takes some doing.”
Sam obediently followed West over to the far side of the room. Miss Jane Marple proved to be a fluffy, white-haired old lady, almost too perfect a maiden aunt, as if West had held auditions for the role.
She beamed at him. “So you’re the clever young solicitor Raymond’s been telling me about. I understand you saved him and Joan a very great deal of money. Such wicked people there are in the world, dear me, yes. And, as I remember telling Raymond, when he was quite a little boy and wanted to spend his pocket money buying a pair of pedigree rabbits from someone at his prep school, if a bargain seems too good to be true, then it so often is.”
Sam could not let the misconception pass. “Not a solicitor yet. I finish my articles next January — that is, unless —”
He fell silent. The dining room was a space frozen in time. Those schoolboys cramming buttered toast into their mouths could have stepped straight out of the sepia XIs and XVs on the walls of the school pavilion. No doubt their names would fit as interchangeably on the chapel memorial, once the balloon went up.
The eyes twinkling out of Miss Marple’s wrinkled, faded rose-petal face were shrewd.
“Yes, I do see.” She turned her head to glance across the dining room herself. “I first came to Bertram’s Hotel as a young girl, you know. Before the War. To look at it, you’d say it hadn’t changed much but it has. Oh, yes, indeed it has.”
She smiled, with a self-conscious brightness that chilled his blood. “But I’m running away with myself. Do help yourself to a muffin, Mr Mansell; you look positively famished (gentlemen so often miss luncheon, when they’re working — most unwise of them, I always think). I’m sure your aunt, when she arrives, will forgive my trespassing on her prerogatives; you really do look quite pale.”
Sam blinked. “My aunt? How did you know —?”
West laughed, a high and rather affected bray. “I should have warned you, Mansell. Aunt Jane’s quite a Sherlock in her own way. Scotland Yard call her in whenever they’re at their wits’ end.”
“Now, Raymond,” Miss Marple said. “I’m sure Mr Mansell doesn’t need to be bored with all that. If you’ll forgive me, you were obviously waiting for someone, and it seemed very unlikely that it was a gentleman — gentlemen do make this foolish pretence of being above afternoon tea, though I’ve noticed it doesn’t stop them — ah — ‘tucking in’ very heartily any time they get the opportunity.”
Taking that as an invitation, Sam reached for a muffin and buttered it. Miss Marple poured tea, talking all the while.
“In any event, a gentleman would have arranged a meeting at his club or in the smoking room downstairs. But you couldn’t be the host, because you’d have gone ahead and found a table and started ordering if that had been the case, especially” — the faded-rose acquired a touch of girlish pink — “if there’d been any question of a romance about it.”
Sam baulked at commenting. Bertram’s Hotel would be the last place he would consider for a romantic tête-à-tête. Miss Marple’s eyes narrowed a little, like those of a scientist whose preliminary experiments reveal a promising line of enquiry, though her tone changed not at all.
“So you had to be waiting for a woman relative — an older relative, of course: one who’d invited you out to tea since you were a boy, someone whose ways you knew very well indeed. Punctuality, you see. You know your aunt to be a punctual person; that’s why you were worried, rather than merely put out by her non-appearance. Ah! You can set your mind at rest now. Here she is.”
Sam turned, prepared to be amused at whichever elderly tabby Miss Marple had cast in the role of his aunt, and saw Hilary striding through the room like a borzoi amid Pekineses.
“Good Lord,” he said, swinging back to Miss Marple, “you are a Sherlock.”
Hilary arrived at the table.
“Sam, I’m so sorry,” she began, without preamble. “First, broken signals at Westbury, and then no taxis at Paddington. I’m so glad you haven’t been stuck here all on your own, dying of loneliness and thirst.” She nodded to West and his aunt. “Thank you so much for stepping into the breach.”
Miss Marple looked brightly up at Hilary. “Oh, no need for thanks. I’ve been delighted to meet your nephew. And it’s quite clear where he gets his intelligence from. You are very much to be congratulated, my dear.”
A most peculiar expression crossed Hilary’s face before, in a slightly strained voice, she said, “Yes, I think so too.”
“Well, you’re bound to have a very great deal to talk about. Indeed yes.” Miss Marple nodded, though no-one had shown signs of disagreeing. “We shouldn’t keep you. But I do hope, Mr Mansell, we can all have tea together properly soon. Believe me, I should like that very much.”
They found a table close by the window.
“Thanks for being around,” Hilary said; an unexpected opening. “I was rather at my wit’s end.”
Now that Sam came to look at her, she was looking somewhat frazzled. With any other woman he knew — his mother, say, or one of his tribe of cousins — that would have been amply explained by the fraught journey. This, though, was Hilary. Apprehension squeezed his stomach.
“Look — you are all right, aren’t you?” Another thought hit him: she was, after all, a doctor. “Dad’s all right? And Mother?”
She shook her head impatiently. “Nothing like that. Look, there’s no easy way of saying this, so I’d better come straight out with it. I’m getting married.”
The back-wash of relief was, in the circumstances, almost comical.
“You are? But that’s wonderful news.” He slid another look at her. While his experience of the matter was necessarily scanty, no-one would have pictured her as a blushing bride. Vague recollections of the seamier cases encountered while studying jurisprudence at Oxford flitted through his mind. “That is, it is all right, isn’t it? You — you’re quite sure of the chap and — and everything?”
Weary resignation tinged with defiance showed in his aunt’s face.
“Julian and I are very much in love.”
He fought the urge to say but that’s not what I asked and fell back on conventionalities.
“Well, that’s good. Julian? Do I know him?” Wildly unlikely, of course. He was doubtless someone she had met in that Gloucestershire backwater — not a patient, of course, but perhaps one of the surgeons, or maybe one of the governors of the cottage hospital. There was a solidly County sound about “Julian” which would do for either.
She hesitated. “Well — actually yes. It’s JR Fleming. The OUDS man you and James knew at Oxford. And, to save you the trouble of doing the calculation, he’s eleven years younger than me.”
On hearing JR Fleming was marrying, the age of the lady would not have been the first question that sprang to anyone’s mind. Not the mind of anyone who’d known him at Oxford, anyway. Sam hoped that thought was hidden.
“But surely no-one fusses about that sort of thing these days.”
Hilary smiled. “I assure you they do. But it’s nice of you to say not.”
A surge of unexpected protectiveness swept through him. “Look, is Dad getting sticky? Because you know what he’s like. In two months he’ll be behaving as if he introduced you himself.”
“No — that is, you’re the first of the family I’ve told.” She frowned. “It’s the other family. Julian’s mother. She’s taken our engagement badly; to be honest, I came up to London for a break from it.”
“Taken it badly?” His mind flicked back to JR Fleming as he recalled him from Oxford. “Apollo-class” James had said of his looks, and he supposed it was true, but no depth and a poor third, damn close to a pass, really. Sort of type who got into all sorts of messes in mid-Victorian novels. That twerp Basil, in Wilkie Collins, sprang to mind. Mrs Fleming should be on her knees thanking whatever she prayed to that someone like Hilary had condescended to give her son a second glance.
Hilary shrugged. “I don’t think she believes we’re quite — ah — ‘their sort’.”
Fury hit Sam with unexpected force. Not their sort? Hilary? He took a breath, and a faint glint of his normal humour reasserted itself. So much for his pride in not being a snob.
“What a pile of tosh. You need to set Great-Aunt Anne on her. ‘One of the oldest families in Shropshire —’”
“—‘and if we’d only backed the right King during the Wars of the Roses your father would be in the House of Lords and we’d all be paying calls at Buckingham Palace’,” Hilary completed automatically. The joke was older than Sam; initially it had been his grandfather who should have been in the House of Lords. Its familiarity eased the tension. Hilary laughed, summoned a waiter, and they settled to the serious business of tea.
He had just embarked on an anecdote from the firm’s outdoor clerk, who’d been at the Old Bailey during the Rattenbury case and knew details which had never reached Notable British Trials, when he saw he had lost his audience. Hilary was watching the hotel manager making his way towards them through the packed dining room with a fixed intensity which set hairs rising on the back of Sam’s neck.
The manager reached their table. “Dr Mansell?”
“Yes?” Hilary’s voice was coolly conversational.
“There’s a trunk call for you, Dr Mansell. From Gloucestershire. Would you like to take it in my office?”
She nodded, and stood. “Sorry about this, Sam. I’ll try not to be too long.”
According to his watch, it was a little over six and a half minutes; according to his internal clock it was half an age before Hilary reappeared in the dining room. She was wearing her coat and hat. Sam cursed himself for not having anticipated it.
He stumbled to his feet and made his way towards her, feeling the eyes of the whole room on them.
She started speaking very rapidly as soon as he came close enough. “Sam, I’ve got to get back. Don’t worry about the bill, I’ve arranged that with the manager, but I need to catch the next train from Paddington. That was Julian on the phone.”
“Not bad news, I hope?” The conventional words came out, but his eyes were fixed on his aunt. He knew what her answer had to be.
“I’m afraid so. That is — it’s Mrs Fleming. She’s dead.”
“Dead?” The word jolted him to the core; he hoped Hilary was not accustomed to announcing bad news in that way to her patients’ families.
Her face and voice were remote. In spirit she was already out of the room, hastening west.
“Yes. Some sort of seizure, I think — it was a terrible line, and of course Julian wouldn’t know the right questions to ask, even if he weren’t shocked out of his mind. I’ll get more detail when I get there and speak to Lowe — no.” He upraised hand forestalled the offer he had not yet made. “Don’t offer to come with me to the station, please, Sam. I need to be on my own to think.”
He would have gone with her to Cheltenham had she wanted him, and hang the Henderson case, but nothing struck him as more selfish than setting off to play Perseus to an Andromeda who had declined any assistance.
By way of salve to his conscience he walked her to the street and, to the doorman’s visible resentment, flagged down a cab himself. He had handed her into the back seat and closed the door when a thought struck him and he leant in through the window.
“Look here, what’s Fleming’s number? So I can call, and see how things are going, later on. I take it you’ll be there, and not on the usual one.”
She paused, as if to say something, then nodded. She fished in her handbag, pulled out a pencil stump and a small, leather-backed notebook and scribbled. “There. Leave a message with the housekeeper. Julian’s not — that is, he didn’t call from home.”
“Oh — sorry. The hospital, of course. Which one is it?”
Hilary’s voice sounded even more remote. “Actually — I said it was a terrible line — I don’t think he was at the hospital either. In fact — look, Sam, don’t tell your father this, and I’m sure there’s nothing in it and everything will be sorted out when I get there — but he sounded — he said — he was calling from the police station.”
She tapped, hard, on the glass partition behind the driver’s head. The cab whirled her into London’s early evening bustle, leaving Sam standing in the gutter.