Chapter 7 - Lilies at the Funeral by A.J. Hall
“Oh, goodness, don’t worry about that!” His hostess’s laugh rang out across the dining room. Sally Phillpotts (née Hakesmere) was a red-faced, jolly person whom one somehow pictured in sensible tweeds even when (as here) she was wearing an impeccable dark-blue grosgrain evening dress with lace trim.
“Miss Marple’s known me since I was knee-high to a grasshopper and used to lead gangs of the village boys on Amazon expeditions through the Bantrys’ orchards. Of course you’re welcome to come to dinner on however little notice you like. This whole business is just — if you’ll forgive the language — a complete pile of dung, and the neighbourly thing to do about it is to shift a few spadefuls wherever one can and hope it’ll all be cleared up eventually.”
“The parable of the Samaritan with the shovel,” the Rev. Phillpotts observed, helping himself to asparagus. “Though really, my dear, I’m not quite sure that you’ve thought that metaphor through, fully. Leaving aside the circumstances, Mr Mansell’s company is delightful in itself. We are both very fond of Hilary, and any relative of hers is always welcome at the vicarage.”
“Well, quite so. I’m sure Mr Mansell’s far too sensible to take umbrage at me getting my metaphors in a muddle. Certainly if he’s got anything like Hilary’s temperament. How she put up with some of the ladies on her roster I really cannot imagine. To say nothing of Elaine Fleming. Anyone might have felt tempted to give her a good slap.”
“My dear.” This time the vicar’s voice was more assertive. “De mortuis, you know.”
Miss Marple looked up from her Dover sole. “But not here, I’m afraid. I mean — perhaps I’m expressing myself very badly — but after all, Elaine Fleming was murdered. And murder is such an extreme business, that it almost has to arise out of some very extreme emotion — hatred or fear or — I’m sorry to say — greed. We can only hope to find out how that happened by talking about who might have felt those kind of emotions towards her — and, as a result, what she might have done to provoke them. So, I’m afraid, we have to put charity on one side for the time being.”
“Easier than it ought to be, when it comes to Elaine Fleming.” Sally Phillpotts gave a quick, sidelong look at her husband. “Sorry, Edward. But I did not like that woman, and you won’t make me change my mind, no matter what anyone tells me she suffered.”
“But —” Sam caught sight of Miss Marple’s urgent, warning finger, and fell silent.
“Suffered, my dear? Do you mean in her last hours?” Miss Marple’s eyes were bright and alert, like a blackbird’s.
“Oh, no.” Sally shook her head. “I mean, I don’t know anything about how she died, but surely, Edward, you must have seen it? After all, with the Parish Council, you saw far more of her than I did.”
“Seen what, my dear?” The vicar looked at his wife in frank bafflement. She looked back with the air of a woman who, having pulled a child out of the garden pond, found herself called upon to explain the concept of “sopping”.
“Please, do go on. This sounds most significant.”
Sally paused for a moment, and then described a circle in the air with the tip of her knife, as if she could trap her thoughts inside it.
“I once saw one of my father’s keepers lose half a finger trying to free a badger that had been caught in a poacher’s trap. Terrible mess. Well, the first time I met Elaine Fleming was just after the old King had died. We were all in mourning, but she was wearing something impossibly chic in black-and-white which made every other woman in the room look as if she hadn’t made enough effort. Anyway, all the way home after that there was something niggling at me, like having something stuck between your teeth that you can’t dislodge. And then, just as I got to the vicarage door, I realised what it was. She’d reminded me of that badger.”
“The badger?” Sam, belatedly, hoped that hadn’t come out too rudely.
Sally nodded. “Yes; I expect it was the outfit at first, but really, there was something about her manner. Like an animal in the most terrible pain and fear, but if you tried to get close enough to help you’d be savaged. And, of course, with that terrifically soignée appearance covering it all up. And after that, of course, I couldn’t not see it, every time we met. What’s more, I think I wasn’t the only one. They used to give these fearful New Year’s Eve parties — of course, Edward and I couldn’t not go, though we used to have fun guessing who’d have cried off with ‘flu this year — and Elaine Fleming would circulate, very correctly, and you could see the chill spreading as she approached and people visibly remembering to breathe again when she’d passed along.”
“But how interesting.” Miss Marple leant forward, across the table. “Did you ever get a hint — perhaps from the other ladies in the village — what might lie behind it?”
“Gossip? About Elaine Fleming. You bet!”
“I’ve frequently mentioned,” the vicar said, his lips twitching with amusement, “that running the Wolf Cubs has had a terrible effect on your vocabulary.”
Sally, perhaps to prove his point, stuck her tongue out at him. Then her face grew more serious. “Sometimes, I think playing jungle explorer was the best preparation I could have for being a vicar’s wife. No, Edward. If you could only sit in on my coffee mornings you’d have more than that one grey hair I saw you squinting at in the mirror this morning; you’d go quite white with shock.”
Miss Marple gave her a knowing look.
“Ah, I can see Mr Mansell and your husband scoffing and thinking about old tabbies inventing tittle-tattle over the coffee cups, but really, my dear, as you’ll know yourself, the terrifying thing about village gossip is how often it turns out to be perfectly true!”
Sally tossed back her head. “Oh, yes. Especially in this case. Anyone who took half a look at Julian Fleming would realise that he couldn’t possibly be Richard Fleming’s son.”
“My dear. Whatever anyone says, you’ve no business repeating that as fact. How can you know what Richard Fleming looked like? We’ve hardly been here three years, and he was killed in 1918.”
“Oh, Edward! You don’t have to live right on top of someone to know them.”
“Quite so,” Miss Marple said. “And you did know Major Fleming?”
Sally nodded. “But he wasn’t a Major then. Just one of those young men with a good income and connections, and a decent seat on a horse. Very eligible, I suppose, and all that.”
She broke off a bit of bread, buttered it, fiddled with it a little and then left it uneaten by the side of her plate.
“Back then, no-one serious hunted this side of the county. That doddery old idiot Murchison was Master of the local pack; he didn’t know much himself, but he wouldn’t let the hunt servants do their jobs without him interfering. That’s what Daddy said, anyway. So lots of extra people came over to hunt with us, and put up with friends or at inns in the district. Richard Fleming was one of those. He stayed to dinner a few times, and also, he would often stop off for a drink or tea if they’d killed near our house. I remember him quite well.”
“And what was he like?”
“Odd. No, that’s unfair.” She pursed her lips, thinking. “Tremendously generous, sometimes. One time I had a bad fall on my pony. Daddy hadn’t a bit of sympathy; dusted me off and told me I hadn’t broken anything and to get straight back on was the best thing. But Richard Fleming spotted I was really shaken. He insisted on riding home with me, though he’d just swapped onto his second mount. He missed a legendary run, too. But that’s what I mean about odd. Next time I saw him he practically ran away. I don’t think we got properly back on chatting terms ever.”
The little maid was hovering in the doorway; Sally signalled for her to clear the plates.
“Of course,” Sally added, after the door had closed behind her, “he was tremendously self-conscious, especially when it came to his good deeds; almost more terrified of people knowing about them than if they’d been the other sort. I think he was pretty devout, but he’d been to one of those frightfully hearty schools where they talk about Christ as if He were the captain of the XV. He might have made a good monk, you know, if he’d been born in the fifteenth century rather than the nineteenth. Flagellated himself for the glory of the Lord in his cell, and concealed the scars under his robe. But, anyway, Edward, since you asked: he had one of those nice, friendly, ugly-monkey faces, and if you think he fathered that cinquecento vision, then you’re on your own.”
There was a resounding silence. Miss Marple gave a little, old-maidish cough.
“Of course, since Julian Fleming was the acknowledged child of Major Fleming and his wife, financially I don’t expect anything anyone said about his parentage could have the smallest effect on him. Emotionally — well, that is often so very difficult to predict isn’t it? Especially since, though his mother no doubt knew all the gossip, and decided to stay on here and face it out, it’s most unlikely Julian Fleming would have heard anything about it, at least, not as he was growing up. Young men are much less likely to have spiteful gossip thrust in their faces. At least, not without there being something quite out of the ordinary to provoke it.”
Such as the announcement by the local squire of his engagement to a significantly older and poorer woman, perhaps.
Sam gulped. “But how would Julian Fleming react, if he learnt he wasn’t his father’s son?”
Miss Marple bobbed her head. “Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? It would all depend.”
“Depend? On what?”
She opened her forget-me-not blue eyes very wide. “On the circumstances of his — ah — conception, of course. After all, given what Sally has just told us — you always were an extremely observant little girl, dear, I recall that time Tommy Jenkins brought a snake into choir practice, and when everyone else was foolishly running around shrieking about adders you gave a perfectly good description from which we could tell it was one of Professor Blenkinsop’s pythons — anyway, from your descriptions of Elaine and Richard Fleming it does seem rather unpleasantly suggestive, does it not?”
Rev. Phillpotts looked as baffled as Sam felt.
“Well, yes. Sally described a young man capable of acts of considerable generosity, but who then found it almost unbearable to be in the presence of those to whom he had displayed it. And I do understand that after Julian’s christening he returned to France; he’d not returned for over two years when he was killed.”
“Miss Marple! How can you possibly — ” Sally burst out.
“Well, my dear, I haven’t been idle. I bumped into Mrs Lamington —Elaine Fleming’s sister, you know — in the village shop. I mentioned that I was staying at the vicarage and she made a point of showing me the war memorial. We had quite an interesting little chat. She did need to talk about her sister — grieving people do, you know — and while of course she was hardly going to share family secrets with a stranger, nevertheless one does pick up hints. Their parents were really rather narrow-minded, censorious sorts of people, though, of course, Mrs Lamington didn’t put it quite like that. But while the older girls got away as soon as they could, in their different ways, Elaine, the youngest, was stuck at home. The War came as a priceless opportunity for escape. I know this may sound shocking, but it was so for a lot of women at the time.”
Miss Marple put her head on one side. “I think Mrs Lamington was quite proud of her baby sister, going off to war, without even her parents’ blessing. They, I’m sorry to say, predicted disaster from the moment she announced she intended to be a VAD. So foolish; all that does is make a child more determined. And it means that if things do in fact go wrong, they’re less likely to swallow their pride and ask for help.”
She paused and then added, “I understand the family were surprised but — given there was a war on, life was very uncertain and the connection was quite irreproachable — not unhappy when Elaine announced that she was getting married to Richard Fleming on less than a fortnight’s notice.”
Sally’s mouth made an “O”. Miss Marple shook her head.
“Mrs Lamington made it quite clear that Julian was, if anything, a little small at birth. Quite consistent with his making his appearance about eight and a half months after his parents’ wedding day. That is, she mentioned the date of the wedding and I’d already checked Julian’s birth date in the parish register.”
She nodded, thoughtfully. “Yes. You described Elaine Fleming as someone who had obviously suffered a very great injury. Given Richard Fleming, who seems to have been an almost morbidly generous young man, stepped in to — ah — ‘lend her the protection of his name’ even before —” Miss Marple became a little pinker. “Even before any necessity could have become apparent, I think we may safely conclude the nature of the injury. Julian’s real father must have been a very bad man. Which gives rise to all sorts of questions on its own account, does it not?”
Sam blinked. “Do you mean — that Julian’s real father may have returned? And murdered Elaine Fleming?”
The expression in Miss Marple’s face could only be described as pitying.
“Well, I suppose that’s something we shouldn’t rule out. But I was rather thinking closer to home. I mean, small children are so very sensitive to anything that strikes them as unsettling about the adults looking after them, and it must have been so difficult, being so close to all that tightly banked down pain and rage, and no doubt coming to feel he was the cause of it all — and, indeed, with that face he would have been a constant thorn in her flesh, too. Terribly sad, and then, too, terribly dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” Sally sounded as if she thought she knew the answer to her question, but was hoping to be proved wrong.
“Well, my dear, what did your father do about the badger you told us about?”
Sally made a face. “Shot it. I was frightfully cut up; I’ve always been a bit besotted with badgers — the bishop is, too, funnily enough. But it wouldn’t have done any good trying anything else. Not when the poor beast was in too much pain to think straight and would only harm others if it could.”
“Quite so, my dear. Quite so.”
Her voice was gentle, her well-modulated tones those of a nicely brought up old lady. Sam thought he had never heard anything so inexorable.