Chapter 1 - The Lady of Capensthwaite Hall by A.J. Hall
Monstrous lorries pounded the Great North Road, their mighty wheels relentless as the mills of God. Moorland stretched to the horizon on either side, sere and hopeless beneath weeping skies.
Harriet, who had been biting her tongue since well before Pontefract, found she could do so no more.
“The problem with Helen —” she began, and then stopped.
Peter pursed his lips. “The problem with Helen? Had we but world enough and time, domina —”
“It’s another fifteen miles to Scotch Corner, and then seven or so more along the A66, and then we turn south onto the B-something or other for three and a bit, and Capensthwaite Hall is about a quarter of a mile off the road, up a private drive.”
“Dearest Harriet. Always so practical. But were the miles ahead of us as numerous as the sands of the sea, the tally of Helen’s transgressions would o’ertop them. I take it you have something specific in mind?”
Her gesture encompassed both the road in front and the brown paper parcel, wrapped in string and sealed with wax, that had rested on her knee all the way from Denver.
“She’s absolutely shameless, and the moment you concede an inch, you’re done for. ‘Just a small favour for Lady Lucinda’s godfather’ becomes ‘It’s only a few miles out of your way, since you’re going to Scotland anyway’ and ends up with her not bringing round the proofs yesterday, when she got in from Town, and instead showing up with them at the Dower House at half-past eight this morning, with no apology and only ‘It’s far more sensible to leave after breakfast, and break your journey; I’ve telegraphed Mr Pemberton and he’ll be delighted to put you up’ by way of explanation. And it’s not just us and him she’s inconveniencing. When we sent Bunter up on the overnight sleeper, we told him to expect us in Gatehouse-of-Fleet tonight.”
“Staying not for brake, nor yet stopping for stone,” Peter agreed, “And with every intention of quaffing a cup in the Anwoth before the landlord calls last orders. But that’s Helen all over. Rearranging everyone’s lives to suit no-one’s convenience but her own. However much he wanted his proofs, our host probably didn’t expect to have to host two complete strangers as the quid pro quo.”
“It’s his insisting on having his proofs hand-delivered at all that puzzles me.” Harriet tried not to sound as if she were speaking from between clenched teeth, but feared her effort was but a poor one.
Peter pulled smoothly out to overtake a pantechnicon, slotting the Daimler back into the narrowest of gaps between it and the next smoky Leviathan seconds before a motorcycle, throttle at its widest, cleared the brow of the hill in the other direction and screamed off southwards.
Manfully, Harriet forebore to flinch. Peter flicked her an acknowledging glance.
“I’ve carried plenty of your proofs to your publishers with my own fair hands.”
She hissed exasperation through her teeth. “In that direction, yes. Once you’ve marked them up, proofs are priceless. But going the other way, if the Royal Mail does lose them, all the publisher needs to do is mail out another set, pronto, with apologies. And if only Helen had told me what the book was, first.”
A flat stretch of road opened ahead. Peter did not respond until they had left Leviathan lumbering in their wake.
“Helen is sublimely uninterested in the minutiae of the writing trade. Provided that the author is of sufficient pedigree — his being the godfather of someone in Helen’s set is proof enough of that — and has neither a reputation for lewdness nor political unsoundness (for strictly Helen values of unsound, you understand) then she wouldn’t care whether his magnum opus is a treatise on the waterfowl of Japan or a rollicking pirate yarn, afloat on a sea of gadzookery and improbable incident. Into which camp does our Mr Pemberton fall?”
She drew a deep breath. “Neither. He’s in the ‘eerie tales’ line. I thought there was something familiar about the name when Helen first mentioned him, but — well, my attention wasn’t entirely on what she was saying —”
Mischief danced at the corners of Peter’s mouth.
“A dashed difficult thing, keeping one’s mind from wandering when Helen’s in full flood, I grant you.”
She shook her head at him, and continued.
“It’s could have been ‘Pemberley’ or ‘Penwortham’ or ‘Pendleton’ or heaps of similar things. It was only when I saw the name on the package that I made the connection.”
“My publishers held one of those cocktail parties last month — you know, thimblefuls of tepid sherry, and saucisses so petits as to be practically invisible, but one can’t not attend, it isn’t fair to the poor beasts of authors down the lists, who can’t afford not to be there. So it was just as dreary as I’d imagined, until I bumped into Rob. He’s a reader for my publishers and rather a pal of mine. Anyway, he’d just been told that a book he’d recommended ages ago had been picked up for the autumn list, and was rather cock-a-whoop about it. That was this Mr Pemberton’s. It’s his first novel, though he’s had short stories published here and there. All atmospherics and a lingering sense of dread. You know the sort of thing.”
“Mm. Now you mention it, I rather fancy I read one of them in a John o’ London’s anthology I picked up in a hotel smoking room once. Set in a field hospital in Mesopotamia. Chap with fever from a baddish leg wound, glimpsing legionaries performing the rites of Mithras seventeen hundred years before. Bit purplish in spots, but no doubting the man can write.”
Peter swung wide to overtake an entire cycle club, faces grim and legs pumping like pistons as they sought to crest the brow of the next hill.
“Amazing what hard work some people put into their pleasures. Sorry, domina, You were saying —?”
“Rob said in his opinion Mr Pemberton was the new Sheridan le Fanu. I mean, he didn’t just say that to me. He said so in his report.”
Peter’s eyebrows went up and the Daimler’s speed increased perceptibly.
“Ah! So then, I take it, you said that you hoped the book would be a great success, and then asked him how his — does he garden?”
Harriet snorted, only partly from amusement. “He forages. He’s working his way through Neglected Edible Treasures: you know, that book on eating hedgehogs and blackberries and so on, by that poor man Harrison who was murdered by his wife’s lover a few years back.”
“Ah, yes. Interesting little book, what? Scholarly, in that puttering, precise sort of way you often find with auto-didacts. Wish I’d known Harrison. Of course, I remember the trial. The wife gave evidence. I didn’t greatly care for her. Scotland Yard thought she was lucky not to have been charged herself, and, on balance, I agreed with them.”
“By now, I’d be surprised if she thinks herself lucky.” Harriet’s voice sounded brittle in her own ears. Peter, for a moment, looked so stricken that she reached out, and covered his hand with her own, where it rested on the gear-stick.
“Peter, I don’t deserve you. Not just because I’m cranky and snappish and drag up stuff better left buried and you still put up with me, but because — well. How many women’s husbands would understand the mere words the new Sheridan le Fanu would thick my blood with cold and force me to change the subject in a hurry?”
“Dearest Harriet, give me some credit. No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. I hate this jargon where everyone has to be the new Sargent or the new Ranjitsinji. It’s as absurd as calling something the new Lafite ‘78. Something may be an outstanding wine, but it’s the product of its own vines, and its season’s own sun and rains. But I think I see what you’re driving at. As a well-known le Fanu scholar —”
A few fat drops of rain spattered onto the windscreen, as the low-level drizzle intensified into a squall.
“Poppycock. Your paper in the Review made quite a bit of noise, in rarefied academic circles, at least. Helen’s Mr Pemberton can hardly fail to have read it, if spook stories are his line. So you’re worried in case he’s dragged you up to his house using the proofs as a pretext, and hopes to lean on you to endorse him as the pretender to le Fanu’s throne?”
Harriet stared gloomily into the murk. “That’s about the size of it. Oh, Peter, I wish we were carrying on to Galloway tonight, and not stuck having to be polite to this Pemberton man all evening.”
His nearer hand left the wheel, caught her hand and squeezed. “Never fear, domina. We’re in this together. Trust me to freeze him out if he starts doing any encroaching, what? And look: there’s the sign for Scotch Corner.”
Shortly after turning onto the B-something or other, the bare moorland on either side of the road gave way to dense woodland, the interlinked branches of which met above the road, shutting out even more of the dubious light. After some time, growing suspicion became near-certainty that they had missed their turning. Peter reversed the car, using a handy field entrance, while Harriet donned her mackintosh and sou’wester.
By dint of her hopping out each time they spotted a lane branching off from the road, they at last found the drive entrance, which lay between solid stone pillars, topped by carvings of heraldic beasts which had been weathered to indistict forms of vague menace. A few hundred yards bumping down the potholed, unmetalled track brought them out in an open, paved area before the front elevation of Capensthwaite Hall.
Peter stopped the car. For a moment they both surveyed the Hall in silence. Then he let out a low whistle.
“Mm.” Harriet tilted her head, so as to look at the facade from a different angle. “I was planning to ask Mr Pemberton why he decided to go in for Gothic — it’s pretty unfashionable at the moment — but I rather think it may have been the other way round.”
“Quite so. Shades of my alma mater. I detect the hand of a Waterhouse or a Pugin, or, more likely, one of their provincial imitators. Though incorporating an original 13th century peel tower into the whole mix is a stroke of perverse genius, even for the high priests of 19th century uglification and derision. I trust that’s not where we’ll be sleeping.”
“Ssh, Peter. They must have heard the car. Someone’s coming out.”
“Our host himself, at a guess. Good afternoon, sir.”
Despite the portents of his house, Mr Pemberton was neither a tall and cadaverous gentleman with black hair falling to his shoulders, nor yet an ill-favoured near-dwarf with a cast in one eye and the suspicion of a hunched shoulder. He looked, in fact, exactly as a country gentleman approved by Helen, Duchess of Denver might be expected to look. That is, he possessed a rubicund face, shaved to a nicety and framed by short grey hair, and sported well-worn tweeds of restrained pattern and impeccable cut. He leant heavily on a silver-topped cane.
He smiled genially at them both, and gestured towards his front door, from which warm light spilled out
“Good afternoon. Miss Vane — Lady Peter Wimsey, I should say. And Lord Peter, too. Welcome to Capensthwaite. It’s very kind of you to come so far out of your way, just to deliver my proofs. And in such miserable weather, too. Do come right in and have a cup of tea straight away, or something a little stronger, perhaps. I believe we can fairly declare this the cocktail hour, can we not? No, don’t bother with the car. My man will see it safely stowed in the carriage house.”
He steered them competently through a black and white tiled entrance hall, rather less garnished with stag’s heads, stuffed fish and displays of antique weaponry than Harriet would have betted, given the Hall’s exterior, and into a sitting room whose mix of very good Chippendale furniture, very bad proportions and Ben Nicholson curtains and cushions made her head spin.
A blonde woman, perhaps a year or so younger than Harriet, was sitting on a Cubist pouffe, gazing pensively into the caverns of a dying fire. Her charcoal-grey, silk-crepe day-dress set off an enviable figure, while not detracting from the impression created by her pose: that of a mind above earthly matters.
“Beautifully staged,” Harriet thought, then gave herself a mental shake. An absurd reaction to a woman she had never met before and who had yet to speak a word! Perhaps the popular Press was right, and all women were, at bottom, cats.
Their host broke in.
“You’ve not met my wife, of course. Peggy, this is Lord and Lady Peter Wimsey. I told you they’d very kindly volunteered to come out of their way to bring me my proofs. They’ve driven all the way up from Duke’s Denver today.”
The woman’s hand went to her lips.
“Heavens, what time can it have got to? How rude you must think me. But I find it so terribly easy to sit before a fire and become lost in my thoughts, for hours, sometimes.”
She rang the little handbell which rested by her shapely ankle. When a maid appeared, she said, “Tea, please, Maud” without any further preamble. Her husband had been moving towards the array of decanters on the sideboard, and her decisive action left him curiously wrong-footed. Harriet had, indeed, far more need of a hot drink than a cocktail at that precise moment, but thought it shone an interesting light on their hosts’ relationship.
“Tea! The very thing. The cup that cheers, and so forth. Charming thought, Mrs Pemberton. Nearly as charming as you, if you’ll permit me to say so. Dashed pleasant surprise to meet you; even more so in that my sister-in-law never mentioned your existence. Confoundedly remiss of her, what?”
Harriet’s nerves twitched. If Peter had swapped into his ‘Silly Ass’ manner, either he was very bored indeed, or something had stimulated his detective instincts. She hoped not the latter. Not tonight. Especially not if it forced them to stay any longer than they had to beneath the gargoyled and turretted roof of Capensthwaite Hall.
“Please don’t blame her Grace,” Mr Pemberton protested. “It was a very quiet wedding, and so recent that we’ve not really got round to telling anyone yet.
Maud re-entered, bearing a tray loaded with tea things. The combination of Clarice Cliff tea-cups and Paul de Lamerie silver teapot and milk jug increased Harriet’s sense of there being something fundamentally dislocated about this ménage, a sense which did not dissipate as Mrs Pemberton poured tea, enquired about milk and sugar, and handed parkin and biscuits. Her hostess did nothing out of place, nothing which would provoke the likes to Helen to utter the damning words, “A nice enough woman, of course, in her own way, but not quite — quite.” She was most perfectly the lady of Capensthwaite Hall. And yet, that sense of everything being a carefully composed tableau deepened the longer Harriet watched.
“If an artist were to sketch this scene, now,” she thought, “he wouldn’t dream of calling it Capensthwaite Hall, interior, at the tea-table. It would have to be Mrs Pemberton of Capensthwaite Hall, pouring tea.”
It was with genuine interest she asked the obvious (and, in the circumstances, only polite) question.
“How did the two of you meet?”
“Oh, by the most tremendous stroke of luck.” Mr Pemberton perched himself on the edge of a spindly chair, and gestured enthusiastically with a Garibaldi biscuit. “I was gathering local colour for another book — Mr Trufoot warned me, when we signed the contract, that I needed to be sure to have always something on the go, to keep up the momentum.”
She smiled at him. “That’s so very true. Writers can’t ever afford to rest on their laurels. So where did you go?”
“I booked myself on a coach trip with the Historical Houses and Gardens people. To the Welsh Marches. They get you into some unusual places, and the tour leaders really know their stuff. I suspect ours was a junior don, supplementing his stipend in the long vac. Also, they do everything for you; hotels, travel, luggage. It helps a lot — I’m not as agile as I used to be.” He gestured with the silver-topped cane. “It so happened Peggy had booked the same trip. She was unlucky enough to twist her ankle on the first day —”
“So foolish of me,” Mrs Pemberton murmured. “I didn’t look where I was putting my feet.”
“Anyway, the two of us were the walking wounded for that week. Always trailing around at the back. But it gave us a chance to talk. Turned out we had a surprising amount in common. Me being a widower and she a widow, for one thing. We kept up a correspondence after I got back — Peggy writes the most wonderful letters — and, well. One thing led to another, as they say. We married at Easter.”
Peter blinked. “How perfectly charming. I must tell Helen. You may not think it to look at her, but my sister-in-law’s got an uncommonly romantic streak beneath that somewhat formidable exterior, what?”
At this bold assertion, Harriet blinked. She saw a familiar muscle twitch at the corner of her husband’s mouth and felt her stomach lurch. Whatever was behind this, it wasn’t boredom.
She sat upright in the elegant but uncomfortable posture demanded by really good Georgian furniture, and awaited whatever Peter was proposing to spring on her.
“Anyway, we would have loved to stay and hear more about your wedding over dinner. And about the new book, too. But I’m afraid I’ve a confession to make. Something’s come up, and we’ll have to get back onto the road as soon as we’ve finished our tea. Terribly sorry to put you out, after you’ve been so kind, but you see, I rang my man from the road-house where we stopped for lunch.”
They had, in point of fact, picnicked in the car from a basket put up by the Dowager Duchess’s cook, which had featured, inter alia, a magnicent shooter’s sandwich with hand-made pickles, and vast hunks of rich fruit cake, as well as a noble burgundy. Harriet lifted her tea-cup, the better to conceal her expression, and let Peter’s tarradiddle unfold as it would.
“As Helen may have told you, sir, we’ve taken a house up in Galloway for a month, so m’wife can work on her latest book while I take a crack at the early sea trout. My man Bunter — splendid man, Bunter, don’t know what I’d do without him — went up early to make sure all the beds were aired and the chimneys swept and so forth. I called him to tell him not to expect us, we’d be staying with you, and also to check the three dozen of Cockburn ‘08 I’d ordered in from Plummet & Rose had arrived all present and correct. But when I called, it turned out that what should have happened, when he opened up the shutters this morning and started getting down to giving the place a good airing, but a visit from Sir Maxwell Jamieson — he’s the Chief Constable in those parts — hoping he could pick my brains urgently about a case they’re stumped with. You see, I helped the force in those parts with a murder investigation, a few years ago.”
“Murder?” Mrs Pemberton’s tone combined revulsion with fascination. No doubt she was the sort one encountered at crime fiction talks from time to time, who insisted on making the whole event about their exquisite sensitivity.
Peter’s lips had an odd twist.
“Well, the jury brought it in manslaughter, with a strong recommendation to mercy. I daresay if they hadn’t had the defendant’s confession, they’d have probably contrived to find it ‘Not Proven’. Dashed useful, the Scottish verdict, isn’t it?”
Harriet recognised her cue, even if she was damned if she knew what Peter was up to. “I don’t think Wilkie Collins would agree with you, Peter.”
Mr Pemberton brightened perceptibly. “Ah! You mean The Law and the Lady. I have a first edition of that which even a noted bibliophile such as you, Lord Peter, might find of interest. A much underrated work, in my opinion. A masterly examination of the psychological pressure upon the defendant in such a case — free in the law’s eyes, but still, in the court of public opinion, stained with guilt.”
That came close to the bone. Harriet took a hurried, too-hot gulp of tea. Oblivious, Pemberton continued.
“For instance, I’ve often wondered about the later life of Madelaine Smith. And her children (she did have children, did she not?) Now that would be a topic for a novel.”
“Dearest! Stop. Please.”
All three of them turned their heads at Mrs Pemberton’s exclamation — almost, in truth, a shriek. Harriet gave herself a mental kick on the ankle, by way of reminder that even people who made a parade of their own sensitive feelings might have unsuspected reserves of tact.
Mrs Pemberton flushed prettily.
“I’m so sorry. But really, dearest, if Lord and Lady Peter need to get off to Scotland, there’s not a moment to waste. It’s a tremendous disappointment, and I’ll have to pacify Cook, but you can’t possibly let the Chief Constable down. But the roads are so bad round here, you’ll need to get onto the A66 before the weather worsens and even if you make your best time you can’t hope to get in until well after midnight, poor things.”
She rang the bell again. “Maud! Ask Mathews to bring Lord Peter’s car round to the front, and if our guests’ luggage has been taken upstairs already, get it brought down again, and loaded into the boot.”
They had retraced their route to the A66 by the time Harriet spoke, and then it was only a single word.
“Domina? By the way, we don’t have to drive through the night if you don’t want to. I expect the Bull at Brough will find us a room. I must try and catch up with Sir Maxwell when we arrive tomorrow morning, though. Dashed rude to take a man’s name in vain, and the least I can do is explain the circumstances in person. He’s a discreet old bird, thank God.”
“Yes, an explanation would be nice. Quite apart from anything else, I’m more likely to be interrogated by Helen about the whole business than you are, if Mr Pemberton mentions it to her.”
“Helen! Oh, Lord. Look here, if she does grill you, stick like glue to the party line. She’s the very last person —”
He paused, and then, abruptly said, “Light me a cigarette, please, Harriet.”
She fumbled for cigarette case and matches, and lit one for herself at the same time. Only then did Peter speak again.
“I said I attended Harwood Lathom’s trial, didn’t I?”
“The Manaton murderer? Yes. You said the wife gave evidence — Oh. Peter. What was the wife’s name? If I’ve ever known, I’ve forgotten.”
“Margaret. I recognised her the moment I came into that unspeakable room. I’m not sure if she recognised me; I was only in the public gallery, after all. But the combination of Harriet Vane, detective novelist and Lord Peter Wimsey, amateur of crime as well as first editions was, I rather fancy, matter enough to make the galled jade wince when we showed up on her doorstep.”
“Oh God. Peggy short for Margaret. And of course she was a widow.”
“Indeed. Anyway, feel free to call me a coward all you like. But the moment I knew who she was, the prospect of sitting across from her for dinner and breakfast, my knowing who she was, and her wondering whether I was going to say anything became completely impossible. Hence the romance at short notice.”
She giggled, a little shakily. “If it weren’t for that pesky thing, conscience, I’d wish you did that every time Helen gets a notion in her head. Though I suppose it really wouldn’t do, not in the long term.”
“Pity, but I daresay you’re right.”
“Peter, do you think Pemberton knows?”
The pause before he spoke stretched out long enough to scrape her nerves to ribbons.
“I doubt it. And could you be the one to tell him? Knowing that with no charge ever brought, or any chance of one’s being brought, her guilt or innocence could never be proved, and so it would be hanging over both of them forever?”
There was, in the end, only one answer, and she would never know whether she spoke it in cowardice or justice.
“No. Never.” She thought for a moment. “He will be all right, won’t he?”
Peter frowned. “There is that, isn’t there? But I can’t think it’s likely. Thanks to Parker, I got to read all the dossier that went to Pugh, not just the bits that ended up in court. Even if she had anything more to do with Harrison’s death than saying a lot of wild stuff in letters which Lathom chose to act on, much to her horror, I fancy she’s too downy a bird to risk a second go ‘Specially not with the likes of you and me taking an interest. After all, even George Joseph Smith came a cropper through repeating his effects, and no doubt the moral has sunk in with the brighter class of miscreant. Look here, the clouds are clearing over the high fells. Fancy making a try for Galloway after all?”
“They’ll have fleet steeds that follow,” Harriet murmured, curling down among the rugs.
The great car sprang forward along the empty road.