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Chapter 8 - Lilies at the Funeral by A.J. Hall

“So what on earth were you closeted with Julian Fleming so long for, after the service?”

Not for the first time, Sam blessed Sally Phillpotts for her directness, as well as the long acquaintance with Miss Marple which allowed her to exercise it without fear of censure.

“Hardly closeted, my dear. We were in the churchyard, in full view of everyone; though not, I’m glad to say, within earshot. Despite some very impressive efforts.”

“Miss Taylor and the Hon. Lavinia? Shameless, weren’t they?”

“Not having your advantages of proximity, naturally they were forced to improvise.” Miss Marple sounded severe, but the twinkle in her eye belied her words. “Though I’m afraid they wouldn’t have been much the wiser if they had eavesdropped. I wondered what the effect might be on Mr Fleming if I mentioned a case from St Mary Mead, some years ago, which seemed to show certain parallels.”

“And?”

“Oh, very interesting. Ye-es, I think it made a distinct impression. Of course, what happens now —”

There came a rapid knocking on the front door. Sally cocked her head on one side.

“I’d better get it. Edward will be in his study, dead to the world, and I gave Mary the evening off — her aunt isn’t well, and we always have cold supper on Sundays, anyway. Besides, I know that kind of knock —”

“Go at once, my dear. Don’t mind us.”

Left alone with Miss Marple, Sam cast her an imploring look.

“Have you found anything — anything at all — to help Hilary?”

She opened her eyes very wide. “Oh, a very great deal. I’ve been talking to all sorts of people — the Matron from the Cottage Hospital, for instance.”

“The Matron? But she despised Hilary!”

“Hardly that. I would say she was alarmed by her and a little resentful of her — not wholly without cause. Your aunt — it’s something I’ve noticed often among surgeons, you know, and your aunt is and always will be more of a surgeon than she is a general practitioner — does have the slightest tendency to undervalue expertise in fields which are not her own.”

Hot, defensive words sprung to his lips, and died there. James, after some bêtise last year on Hilary’s part, showing that she only had the faintest grasp of what an interior decorator did or why it mattered, had said much the same.

Miss Marple nodded, just as if he had spoken. “Running a cottage hospital is by no means an easy task. Especially not with the calibre of nurses available here. In any event, the Matron recognised your aunt’s talents as a doctor. Indeed, she was quite anxious to let me know that without Dr Mansell’s expertise and determination, Julian Fleming would have died.”

“Generous of her.”

“Indeed so, Mr Mansell. Especially in the circumstances. But she was particularly interesting on the subject of Mr Fleming himself. He was under her care for some weeks, after the Clyde Summers released him and before he was well enough to convalesce at home.”

“Did she like him?”

“A good deal, I gather. She made a particular mention of how good he was with the patients on the children’s ward; so difficult, of course, being ill at that age — the combination of discomfort and boredom is particularly acute. The Matron was full of stories about how he would keep little Betty and Christine amused for hours together — doing imitations and conjuring coins from their ears and silk scarves from mid-air and all that sort of thing.”

Learning Fleming had been the life and soul of the party was hardly to Sam’s taste.

“Sounds like a perfect paragon.”

Miss Marple shot him a very piercing look. “Not entirely, I understand. He did have one habit which no nurse could abide for a second; he would fiddle with things that weren’t any business of his. I understand the Matron was driven to speak quite sharply to him, after she’d caught him trying to get at his own case-notes. She always felt he bore a grudge about that — he sent her a bottle of most unsuitable scent for Christmas, something very expensive, heavy and vampy, and she thought that was probably what was behind it. It is the kind of joke a particular type of young man does think very funny, of course, when dealing with an older unmarried woman.”

Sam sincerely hoped Miss Marple didn’t think he was that particular type of young man, whatever it was.

“In any event, that gave me some ideas — one of the weak spots in the police case, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate, is why did so much hyoscine go missing from your aunt’s dispensary? Your aunt, of course, was fully aware of the lethal dose. And, if she had taken it from her stocks, why not alter her dispensary records to account for it?”

“Alter the dispensary records?” Sam’s voice, it struck him half a second later, sounded almost more shocked than it had at the initial accusation of murder.

“Well, my dear, there have been a number of cases of weak-willed doctors slipping about drugs. Morphine and so forth. And it’s particularly dangerous, because it’s so easy for someone in that position to tamper with the poisons book, so no-one knows how much they might be taking. D.C. Craddock was most struck by that point, when I made it to him. Fortunately the dispensary has been shut up since your aunt’s arrest. That made his search for fingerprints so much easier.”

“Fingerprints?”

“Yes; Julian Fleming’s. Very useful indeed. Though I — ah — I was able to assist with one or two suggestions as to where they might most probably be found.”

“But — he and Hilary were engaged. He was probably in and out all the time —”

“In her surgery, right on the High Street? When he was a patient of Dr Lowe? When they seem to have been trying to keep the engagement dark from everyone? No, Mr Mansell, that is very unlikely indeed. Not as a general rule. No; I expect we will be able to identify precisely when the visit took place. And then —”

The door opened about a foot. Sally put her head around it.

“Can the two of you come down at once, please? It’s Lisa Clare, she’s in the most tremendous stew, and she says she has to talk to you both, at once.”

With unexpected tact, Sally made herself scarce once she had shown them into the smaller drawing room where Lisa was sitting. Her version of “being in the most tremendous stew”, Sam noted with relief, did not involve tears or histrionics: just a brittle, self-conscious impersonation of her normal serenity.

“I’m so sorry to disturb you,” Lisa began immediately, “but I’m worried out of my mind. You know Agnes Jackson, that maid who found Elaine Fleming? Well, at the inquest I caught her looking at Rupert, sort of sideways, screwing up her courage. That horrid Mrs Theobald spotted her, too. She’d obviously leapt to her own conclusions and of course, it was nothing like that —”

Sam suppressed a snort of disbelief. One only had to see Rupert Clare, with his air of battle-weary, Continental sophistication to know it must have been exactly like that.

“Don’t look like that, Mr Mansell,” Miss Marple said. “I assure you, husbands and wives frequently understand each other far better than modern novelists and — ah — the makers of films would have us believe. Besides, I’ve met Agnes. She’s very bright — I don’t think she’d have gone into service at all if her mother had lived — and also very sincere. She’s not at all the kind of girl who would make use of a serious event like the inquest for that kind of purpose. Still less if she spotted Mrs Theobald watching.”

“So what was it?”

“She came up afterwards,” Lisa said. “She’d seen that thing on Pathé — you know, the rather frightful bit on war reporters they did the year before last. So she recognised Rupert and assumed he was here officially, for the paper. People never seem to think that journalists ever do things on their own account, off duty.”

Lisa screwed her face up into a rueful grimace.

“I’m not quite sure they’re wrong … But she called me this afternoon, from a call-box — she probably took the chance on her way back from church — and asked me to tell Rupert she needed to see him as soon as possible, and to come to the keeper’s cottage on the Larch Hill estate. I didn’t ask anything, because Rupert’s terribly secretive about what he calls ‘sources’, even to me; given the stories he does usually, he can’t afford not to be. So I passed on the message and he went out, and he’s not been back —”

Her voice trembled for a second; she steadied it with a visible effort. “There’s another thing. He’s got a gun. It’s an old Service revolver, it was his uncle’s. I know where he keeps it. When he didn’t come back, I checked. It’s missing.”

“And where do you think he may have gone with it?”

Lisa bit her lip. “After Julian Fleming.”

“Ah!” Miss Marple nodded, like someone who sees a game of patience coming out. “Did Agnes suspect young Fleming?”

“Well, not when we saw her after the inquest. And she couldn’t talk to Rupert long, not with the Larch Hill housekeeper waiting to pounce in case she stepped out of place. But I don’t think she likes him very much. He’s one of those people who thinks he’s being terribly insouciant and charming and spontaneous, and really they’re creating all sorts of muddles that some woman ends up clearing up, only they mustn’t let him suspect they’re clearing up after him, in case it hurts his delicate feelings.”

Miss Marple pursed her lips. “Is that what Agnes told your husband, or what you think yourself?”

“I suppose — a little of both.” Lisa’s brittleness eased under the influence of Miss Marple’s perceptiveness. “That is, I haven’t wanted to say anything to Hilary — it never does any good, anyway — but he really has been colossally selfish. Every time she’s wanted him to do something — quite sensible, ordinary things, like telling his mother or making job plans — he’s somehow managed to scupper it and make it all her fault.”

Sam recalled Hilary’s tension when the hotel manager told her there was a call from Gloucestershire. His fists clenched.

“Ah, yes.” Miss Marple’s tone was that of infinite experience. “And do you know what Agnes may have told your husband today?”

“I don’t know. But I don’t think he’d have taken the gun just to meet Agnes. Maybe, after they’d met, he came back to get it? There were about twenty minutes when I was down at the far end of the garden, gathering raspberries, and I thought I heard a door bang in the house, but when I got in, there was no-one there. Oh, God, it reminds me of one time, in Berlin, and I just can’t stand the waiting, not again.”

Miss Marple reached out and covered Lisa’s small white hands with her own dry, blue-veined ones.

“Don’t distress yourself, my dear. You think Agnes may have told your husband Fleming was about to make a run for it, and he’s followed him?”

“Not exactly. But — there’s a place —” Lisa gulped, steadied herself, and started again. “There’s a cave over at Mott’s Farm — actually, a bit more than that. A cavern system, with stalactites and things. It’s mostly flooded; no-one knows how far down it goes. The farm people have rigged up lights and so forth, to show visitors.”

“But why on earth would he go there?”

Her hair was silky smooth; it caught the light oddly as she moved her head.

“I gather Julian Fleming’s always been queer about it. Hilary told me about it. He’s taken her there, twice. It sounded absolutely horrible, both times. Look, could I possibly have a cigarette?”

Sam, conscious of dereliction of duty, pulled out his cigarette case and lit one for her. Lisa inhaled, deeply, but then made a face and stubbed it out in the ash-tray.

“Sorry. I keep thinking it’ll taste like it used to, and it doesn’t. Where was I? Oh, yes. The last time was the night they got engaged. Julian came over to my house in an absolute state; he was walking like a sleepwalker, and nothing I said could reach him at all. So when Hilary got in I told her to go after him, whatever happened. And it felt like hours I was waiting, and waiting, and then when they did come back — I’m not sure even Hilary saw me — but they were both soaked and trailing mud — the only thing that came into my mind, you know, it’s idiotic, but it looked like that bit in The Waste Land.”

Eliot was one of James’s passions; Sam knew the poem backwards. The image hit him like a blow:

—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing…

“And they had been to the cave?” Miss Marple prompted.

“Yes.” Lisa paused for a moment. “I think — piecing it together, from something Hilary said later — Julian must have tried to drown himself in the lake. In front of her. It all sounded absolutely dreary and terrifying. Oh, I do wish they’d never met.”

Fear death by water,” Sam said aloud.

Miss Marple got to her feet. “I am most perturbed; no, really, very much so. If only someone had said Julian Fleming was that type — oh, my dear, I know why you felt you couldn’t betray a confidence, but this changes matters entirely. We have to go there. Mr Mansell, would you be good enough to find Mrs Phillpotts and ask her if she’s able to drive us over to Mott’s Farm at once. Do impress upon her it is the gravest emergency.”

Mrs Phillpotts?”

Miss Marple looked at him with a pitying expression.

“Yes, Mr Mansell. To get us to Mott’s Farm before something terrible happens we will have to use all possible short-cuts and, I’m afraid, display very little regard for the speed limit. It would be neither safe nor seemly for a man of the cloth to drive in that way, and you have no local knowledge. In any event, you need to follow after, with the police.”

Sam opened his mouth and then shut it again. Out of the corner of his eye he caught Lisa’s sympathetic glance.

Out of her capacious handbag Miss Marple extracted a piece of paper with a telephone number scribbled on it in pencil.

“Detective-Constable Craddock is staying at the Feathers. If you can’t speak to him on the telephone, you must find him in person, yourself. It is most important.”

“Detective-Constable Craddock,” Sam repeated.

“Quite so. Tell him the police have to go after Rupert Clare and Julian Fleming at once. I’m afraid — I very much hope I’m wrong, but we cannot afford to assume that — that Fleming must now be quite desperate and desperate men are terribly dangerous. Oh, and the police must put a guard on Agnes Jackson. She’s clearly remembered something important she’d noticed, and if Fleming realises and doubles back she’s going to be in the most terrible danger. Now. Don’t wait about. We simply don’t have any time to waste.”