Tied Up In TinselNgaio Marsh
Tied Up in Tinsel
For my Godson, Nicholas Dacres-Mannings when he grows up
Cast of Characters
2 Christmas Eve
3 Happy Christmas
4 The Tree and the Druid
6 Storm Rising
7 House Work
9 Post Mortem
Also by the Author
About the Publisher
Cast of Characters
Of Halberds Manor, Landed proprietor
Staff at Halberds
Guests at Halberds
Colonel Frederick Fleaton Forrester
The Colonel’s wife
Colonel Forrester’s manservant
Mr Bert Smith
Authority on Antiques
Governor at The Vale
Downlow Police Force
Finger-print expert, CID
Sundry guests and constables
‘When my sire,’ said Hilary Bill-Tasman, joining the tips of his fingers, ‘was flung into penury by the Great Slump, he commenced Scrap-Merchant. You don’t mind my talking?’
‘Not at all.’
‘Thank you. When I so describe his activities I do not indulge in facezia. He went into partnership in a rag-and-bone way with my Uncle Bert Smith, who was already equipped with a horse and cart and the experience of a short lifetime. “Uncle”, by the way, is a courtesy title.’
‘You will meet him tomorrow. My sire, who was newly widowed, paid for his partnership by enlarging the business and bringing into it such items of family property as he had contrived to hide from his ravenous creditors. They included a Meissen bowl of considerable monetary though, in my opinion, little aesthetic value. My Uncle Bert, lacking expertise in the higher reaches of his profession, would no doubt have knocked off this and other heirlooms to the nearest fence. My father, however, provided him with such written authority as to clear him of any suspicion of chicanery and sent him to Bond Street, where he drove a bargain that made him blink.’
‘Splendid. Could you keep your hands as they are?’
‘I think so. They prospered. By the time I was five they had two carts and two horses and a tidy account in the bank. I congratulate you, by the way, upon making no allusion to Steptoe and Son. I rather judge my new acquaintances under that heading. My father developed an unsuspected flare for trade and, taking advantage of the Depression, bought in a low market and, after a period of acute anxiety, sold in a high one. There came a day when, wearing his best suit and the tie to which he had every right, he sold the last of his family possessions at an exorbitant price to King Farouk, with whom he was tolerably acquainted. It was a Venetian chandelier of unparalleled vulgarity.’
‘This transaction led to most rewarding sequels, terminated only by His Majesty’s death, at which time my father had established a shop in South Molton Street while Uncle Bert presided over a fleet of carts and horses, maintaining his hold on the milieu that best suited him, but greatly increased his expertise.’
‘I ? Until I was seven years old I lodged with my father and adopted uncle in a two-roomed apartment in Smalls Yard, Cheapjack Lane, E.C.4.’
‘Learning the business?’
‘You may say so. But also learning, after admittedly a somewhat piecemeal fashion, an appreciation of English literature, objets d’art and simple arithmetic. My father ordered my education. Each morning he gave me three tasks to be executed before evening when he and Uncle Bert returned from their labours. After supper he advanced my studies until I fell asleep.’
‘Poor little boy!’
‘You think so? So did my uncle and aunt. My father’s maternal connections. They are a Colonel and Mrs Forrester. You will meet them also tomorrow. They are called Fleaton and Bedelia Forrester but have always been known in the family at Uncle Flea and Aunt Bed, the facetious implication having been long forgotten.’
‘They intervened in your education?’
‘They did, indeed. Having got wind of my father’s activities they had themselves driven into the East End. Aunt Bed, then a vigorous young woman, beat on my locked door with her umbrella and when admitted gave vent to some very intemperate comments strongly but less violently seconded by her husband. They left in a rage and returned that evening with an offer.’
‘To take over your education?’
‘And me. In toto. At first my father said he’d see them damned first but in his heart he liked them very much. Since our lodging was to be demolished as an insanitary dwelling and new premises were difficult to find he yielded eventually, influenced I dare say, by threats of legal action and Child Welfare officers. Whatever the cause, I went, in the upshot, to live with Uncle Flea and Aunt Bed.’
‘Did you like it there?’
‘Yes. I didn’t lose touch with my father. He patched up his row with the Forresters and we exchanged frequent visits. By the time I was thirteen he was extremely affluent and able to pay for my education at his own old school, at which, fortunately he had put me down at birth. This relieved us to some extent from the burden of an overpowering obligation but I retain the liveliest sense of gratitude to Flea and Bed.’
‘I look forward to meeting them.’
‘They are held to be eccentric. I can’t see it myself, but you shall judge.’
‘In what way?’
‘Well – trifling departures from normal practice, perhaps. They never travel without green lined tropical umbrellas of a great age. These they open when they awake in the morning as they prefer their vernal shade to the direct light. And then they bring a great many of their valuables with them. All Aunt Bed’s jewels and Uncle Flea’s stocks and shares and one or two very nice objets d’art of which I wouldn’t at all mind having the disposal. They also bring a considerable amount of hard cash. In Uncle Flea’s old uniform case. He is on the reserve list.’
‘That is perhaps a little eccentric.’
‘You think so? You may be right. To resume. My education, from being conventional in form, was later expanded at my father’s instance, to include an immensely thorough training in the more scholarly aspects of the trade to which I succeeded. When he died I was already accepted as a leading European authority on the great period of Chinese Ceramics. Uncle Bert and I became very rich. Everything I’ve touched turned to gold, as they say. In short I was a “have” and not a “have-not”. To cap it all (really it was almost comical), I became a wildly successfu
l gambler and won two quite princely non-taxable fortunes on the Pools. Uncle Bert inspired me in this instance.’
‘Lovely for you.’
‘Well – I like it. My wealth has enabled me to indulge my own eccentricities, which you may think as extreme as those of Uncle Flea and Aunt Bed.’
‘For instance, this house. And its staff. Particularly, you may think, its staff. Halberds belonged from Tudor times up to the first decade of the nineteenth century to my paternal forebears: the Bill-Tasmans. They were actually the leading family in these parts. The motto is, simply, “Unicus” which is as much as to say “peerless”. My ancestors interpreted it, literally, by refusing peerages and behaving as if they were royalty. You may think me arrogant,’ said Hilary, ‘but I assure you that compared to my forebears I am a violet by a mossy stone.’
‘Why did the family leave Halberds?’
‘My dear, because they were ruined. They put everything they had into the West Indies and were ruined, very properly I dare say, by the emancipation of slaves. The house was sold off but owing to its situation nobody really fancied it and as the Historic Trust was then in the womb of time, it suffered the ravages of desertion and fell into a sort of premature ruin.’
‘You bought it back?’
‘Two years ago.’
‘And restored it?’
‘And am in process of restoring it. Yes.’
‘At enormous cost?’
‘Indeed. But, I hope you agree, with judgment and style?’
‘Certainly. I have,’ said Troy Alleyn, ‘finished for the time being.’
Hilary got up and strolled round the easel to look at his portrait.
‘It is, of course, extremely exciting. I’m glad you are still to some extent what I think is called a figurative painter. I wouldn’t care to be reduced to a schizoid arrangement of geometrical propositions, however satisfying to the abstracted eye.’
‘No. The Royal Antiquarian Guild (The Rag as it is called) will no doubt think the portrait extremely avant garde. Shall we have our drinks? It’s half past twelve, I see.’
‘May I clean up, first?’
‘By all means. You may prefer to attend to your own tools, but if not, Mervyn, who you may recollect was a signwriter before he went to gaol, would, I’m sure, be delighted to clean your brushes.’
‘Lovely. In that case I shall merely clean myself.’
‘Join me here, when you’ve done so.’
Troy removed her smock and went upstairs and along a corridor to her deliciously warm room. She scrubbed her hands in the adoining bathroom, and brushed her short hair, staring as she did so out of the window.
Beyond a piecemeal domain, still in the hands of landscape gardeners, the moors were erected against a leaden sky. Their margins seemed to flow together under some kind of impersonal design. They bore their scrubby mantling with indifference and were, or so Troy thought, unnervingly detached. Between two dark curves the road to the prison briefly appeared. A light sleet was blown across the landscape.
Well, she thought, it lacks only the Hound of the Baskervilles, and I wouldn’t put it past him to set that up if it occurs to him to do so.
Immediately beneath her window lurched the wreckage of a conservatory that at some time had extended along the outer face of the east wing. Hilary had explained that it was soon to be demolished: at the moment it was an eyesore. The tops of seedling firs poked through shattered glass. Anonymous accumulations had silted up the interior. In one part the roof had completely fallen in. Hilary said that when next she visited Halberds she would look down upon lawns and a vista through cypress trees leading to a fountain with stone dolphins. Troy wondered just how successful these improvements would be in reducing the authority of those ominous hills.
Between the garden-to-be and the moor, on a ploughed slope, a scarecrow, that outlandish, commedia-dell’-arte-like survival, swivelled and gesticulated in the December wind.
A man came into view down below, wheeling a barrow and tilting his head against the wind. He wore a sou’wester and an oilskin cape.
Troy thought: That’s Vincent. That’s the gardener-chauffeur. And what was it about Vincent? Arsenic? Yes. And I suppose this must all be true. Or must it?
The scarecrow rocked madly on its base and a wisp or two of straw flew away in the sleety wind.
Troy had only been at Halberds for five days but already she accepted its cockeyed grandeur. After her arrival to paint his commissioned portrait, Hilary had thrown out one or two airy hints as to the bizarre nature of his staff. At first she had thought that he was going in for a not very funny kind of leg-pulling but she soon discovered her mistake.
At luncheon they were waited upon by Cuthbert, to whom Hilary had referred as his chief steward, and by Nigel, the second houseman.
Cuthbert was a baldish man of about sixty with a loud voice, big hands and downcast eyes. He performed his duties composedly as, indeed, did his assistant, but there was something watchful and at the same time colourless in their general behaviour. They didn’t shuffle, but one almost expected them to do so. One felt that it was necessary to remark that their manner was not furtive. How far these impressions were to be attributed to hindsight and how far to immediate observation, Troy was unable to determine but she reflected that after all it was a tricky business adapting oneself to a domestic staff entirely composed of murderers. Cuthbert, a head-waiter at the time, had murdered his wife’s lover, a handsome young commis. Because of extenuating circumstances, the death sentence, Hilary told her, had been commuted into a lifer which exemplary behaviour had reduced to eight years. ‘He is the most harmless of creatures,’ Hilary had said. ‘The commis called him a cuckold and spat in his face at a moment when he happened to be carving a wing-rib. He merely lashed out.’
Mervyn, the head houseman, once a signwriter, had, it emerged, been guilty of killing a burglar with a booby-trap. ‘Really,’ Hilary said, ‘it was going much too far to gaol him. He hadn’t meant to destroy anyone, you know, only to give an intruder pause if one should venture to break in. But he entirely misjudged the potential of an old-fashioned flat-iron balanced on a door-top. Mervyn became understandably warped by confinement and behaved so incontinently that he was transferred to The Vale.’
Two other homicides completed the indoor staff. The cook’s name was Wilfred. Among his fellows he was known as Kittiwee, being a lover of cats.
‘He actually trained as a chef. He is not,’ Hilary had told Troy, ‘one hundred per cent he-man. He was imprisoned under that heading but while serving his sentence attacked a warder who approached him when he was not in the mood. This disgusting man was known to be a cat-hater and to have practised some form of cruelty. Kittiwee’s onslaught was therefore doubly energetic and most unfortunately his victim struck his head against the cell wall and was killed. He himself served a painful extension of his sentence.’
Then there was the second houseman, Nigel, who in former years had been employed in the manufacture of horses for merry-go-rounds and on the creative side of the waxworks industry until he became a religious fanatic and unreliable.
‘He belonged to an extreme sect,’ Hilary had explained. ‘A monastic order of sorts, with some curious overtones. What with one thing and another the life put too heavy a strain upon Nigel. His wits turned and he murdered a person to whom he always refers as “a sinful lady”. He was sent to Broadmoor where, believe it or not, he recovered his senses.’
‘I hope he doesn’t think me sinful.’
‘No, no, I promise you. You are not at all the type and in any case he is now perfectly rational and composed except for weeping rather extravagantly when he remembers his crime. He has a gift for modelling. If we have a white Christmas I shall ask him to make a snowman for us.’
Finally, Hilary had continued, there was Vincent, the gardener. Later on, when the landscape specialists had completed their operations
, there would be a full complement of outside staff. In the meantime there were casual labourers and Vincent.
‘And really,’ Hilary had said, ‘it is quite improper to refer to him as a homicide. There was some ridiculous misunderstanding over a fatal accident with an arsenical preparation for the control of fungi. This was followed by a gross misdirection to a more than usually idiotic jury and after a painful interval, by a successful appeal. Vincent,’ he had summed up, ‘is a much wronged person.’
‘How,’ Troy had asked, ‘did you come to engage your staff?’
‘Ah! A pertinent question. You see when I bought Halberds I determined not only to restore it but to keep it up in the manner to which it had been accustomed. I had no wish to rattle dismally in Halberds with a village trot or some unpredictable Neapolitan couple who would feed me on pasta for a fortnight and then flounce off without notice. On the other hand civilized household staff, especially in this vicinity, I found to be quite unobtainable. After some thought, I made an appointment to visit my neighbour-to-be, the Governor at The Vale. He is called Major Marchbanks.
‘I put my case to him. I had always understood that of all criminals, murderers are much the nicest to deal with. Murderers of a certain class, I mean. I discriminate. Thugs who shoot and bash policemen and so on are quite unsuitable and indeed would be unsafe. But your single-job man, prompted by a solitary and unprecedented upsurge of emotion under circumstances of extreme provocation, is usually well-behaved. Marchbanks supported me in this theory. After some deliberation I arranged with him that as suitable persons were released I should have the first refusal. It was, from their point of view, a form of rehabilitation. And being so rich, I can pay handsomely.’
‘But was there a ready supply?’