“COME AT ONCE -(STOP)- UNCLE SEB. DEAD -(STOP)- DEFENESTRATED BY UNSEEN HAND -(STOP)- FIDDLES”
“Rummy missive,” I said to Carnaby, steward of the Juniper Gentleman’s Club. He’d just read the telegram aloud for my benefit, my hands being otherwise occupied with a whisky and soda syphon. “What do you make of it?”
“I would hazard that someone of your acquaintance has been pushed from a window by a person or persons unknown, sir.” Carnaby gleaned this without so much as touching the paper, which he carried on a doily on a pewter salver.
“You’re quite certain it’s for me, Carnaby?” I asked, reclining now with my bracer in a worn leather armchair of a species native to deep, burgundy-toned salons with rosewood wainscotting and high, paned windows giving onto a clattering street in Mayfair.
“It was addressed to Mister Anthony Boisjoly, sir.”
Which was compelling, if not positively conclusive. Boisjoly is rarely pronounced correctly (it’s “Boo-juhlay”, for the record, like the wine region) but it’s equally rarely mistaken for, say, Jones. I’m also hard to miss, at the Juniper, being the only dashing young rake with a full head of chestnut locks in a sea of dozing grey noggins for as far as the salon stretches in any direction.
“Damning,” I confessed. “Best hand it over.”
A glance at the postmark brought the entire picture into sharp focus. The telegram was sent that very day — July 12, 1928 — from the post office in Fray, East Sussex.
“Got it in one, Carnaby,” I said. “The dearly departed in question is one Sebastian Canterfell.”
“May I offer you my condolences, sir.” Carnaby made his eyebrows bow solemnly, as only a club steward can.
“You may, Carnaby, so long as you don’t mind me pocketing them for later consumption. I barely knew the man. I was at school with his nephew, Fairfax, better known to you as Fiddles, author of this exercise in cryptography.”
“Please extend the commiseration of the Juniper.”
“Will do,” I assured him. “If you’ll just conjure me a taxi, I’ll be expressing your inexpressible sorrow before sunset.”
During that time anyone who knew me even slightly also knew that my life revolved around the Juniper. I was between valets, the most recent of an unbroken string of disasters ending with a fire in my flat that could be seen from Hampstead, and I was staying at the club until my affairs were in order. So an invitation to visit Canterfell Hall, circumstances aside, came as a welcome change of pace.
The Juniper is a capital club with a wine list to rival the Ritz and a Carnaby who could out-steward all challengers, but I know from several doleful summers down from Oxford that the Canterfell pile is dripping with the poetry of the English countryside. It’s one of those majestic scatterings of ramparts and barbicans occupying the headlands of a thatched village, itself preserved in aspic immediately upon tidying up after the War of the Roses.
Furthermore, the place is a positive embarrassment of luxury and decadence, with no expense spared in the thankless pursuit of impressing classmates of first-born sons. In the days of my youth, Canterfell Hall had a kitchen staff imported wholesale from France, including a dedicated wine steward who had once refused to serve King George a Chablis with his gigot d’agneau en croûte.
In the absence of a valet, I was forced to pack by process of looking at myself in a mirror and endeavouring to reproduce the effect in a satchel, four or five times over. This had the single happy side-effect of being quickly done, and I was at Charing Cross with enough time to spare for the 16:42 to Hastings that I was able to dash off a telegram to Fiddles, warning of my arrival.
It was one of those rich, sun-splashed afternoons, custom ordered for a journey by train and made all the more glorious by two whisky-sodas and the Surrey countryside chugging past, smelling of apple blossoms and coal dust. Nevertheless, I was pleased when just after departure the door to my otherwise lonesome compartment rattled open and a chap with a military bearing and suspicious moustache looked in and said “Hastings?” I leapt at the opportunity, of course, and sprang to my feet and offered him my hand.
“No,” I said, “Boisjoly.”
Sometimes spontaneous wit serves as a roaring great ice-breaker, sometimes it falls to the floor of the first-class compartment with a clang. It’s in the delivery, I expect. I blame myself.
“No,” said the chap, after a moment of uncertainty for which I feel partially responsible. “Is this the train to Hastings?”
I confirmed that it was and invited my travel companion to take the seat across from me, but he chose the place nearest the door. Doubtless he suffered from motion sickness.
In addition to a moustache that looked like an act of petty vandalism, the poor chap appeared to be wearing everything he owned on a hot afternoon in mid-July. I felt overdressed in a cotton driving suit and, were I alone, I’d have been sorely tempted to loosen my tie. And here was this fellow in a trench coat sort of affair in sidewalk grey, and low-brimmed fedora in the American style. In short, he was a mystery, and I knew without knowing why that he was going to play some role in the adventure which was about to unfold.
He was poring over a folder of hand-written notes on yellow paper, and studiously ignoring all manner of overture from an explicit “ahem” to my most seductive “hot, isn’t it?”, and so I resorted to a frontal attack.
“Anthony Boisjoly, that is,” I said, again offering my hand. Whatever else he may have been, he was an English gentleman, and so was left with no choice but to sigh like a commuter and shake my hand.
“Ivor Wittersham,” he pronounced himself.
“Oh yes?” I said. “Of the Wittersham Wittershams?”
“Distantly,” answered Ivor, with what I thought briefly might have been a hint of impatience.
“Giles Wittersham — Lord Tisham, now, if memory serves — was a year ahead of me at Oxford. Sent down for absconding with university property. He was selling Magdalen Chapel hymn books to tourists. One shilling six. Two shillings even if you wanted him to sign ‘Compliments of Baron Davidson of Lambeth, Archbishop of Canterbury’ on the inside front cover.”
“You don’t say,” said Ivor.
“I do say,” I confirmed. “A gross overreaction on the part of the college, in my view — the poor man was practically destitute. The family came out of the war with a title and little else. Invested heavily in Austro-Hungarian war bonds, I believe. Hard luck, for Lord Tisham, at any rate. Could have gone either way.”
Ivor stared at me with no expression, as though I had faded to transparency during my monologue and he was looking through me at the passing greenery.
“So,” I said at last, breaking the vigil. “Do you know Hastings well? I can recommend the castle, while it lasts; it was in a deplorable state when I was there in ‘25.”
“I’m not going to Hastings,” said Ivor. “I’m stopping at Fray.”
“That’s a coincidence,” I said, despite a looming suspicion that it was nothing of the sort. “So am I.”
“Do you know Fray, as well?”
“Intimately,” I said. “It’s the country seat of an old college chum, Fairfax Canterfell.”
“Any relation?” asked Ivor, referring to Fairfax’s father who sat, at the time, on the Conservative benches in Parliament.
“Beloved offspring to the honourable member and his late, lamented wife,” I said. “We called him Fiddlesticks, for Fairfax, and we called him Fairfax because his real name is Evelyn.”
“Seems a perfectly respectable name,” observed Ivor.
“Very respectable indeed,” I agreed. “But Fairfax had a cousin at school at the same time — Evelyn Harold Canterfell.”
“Whom you called, I assume, Harold.”
“Hal, actually, but you’re in the right lane.”
“And you’re calling on your old school friend? On a whim?”
There was something decidedly fishy about the way my new acquaintance spoke the word ‘whim’ as though it was underlined, and I felt a justifiable impulse to defend my impulsiveness.
“Hardly,” I said, cooly. “I have been invited. Urgently, I might add. There’s been a death in the family. The above-mentioned Hal’s father, as it happens — Sebastian Canterfell.”
“What is it that you do, Mister Boisjoly?” asked Ivor.
“Do? I flit, mainly, between club and theatre. I’m what the French would call a flaneur, if they knew me.”
“So you’re not a mortician then.”
“A mortician?” I said. “No, hardly. I gave a famously moving eulogy at my father’s funeral last year, parts of which were printed in the Times. They left out the funniest lines, in my view, but that’s modern journalism for you. And that’s the closest I’ve come to that noble undertaking, if you’ll forgive the pun.”
“A notary of some sort? Probate attorney?”
“Ah, I see what you’re driving at,” I said, the mists clearing. “No, I’ve been asked to look in because there’s apparently something quite peculiar in the manner of the passing of Sebastian Canterfell.”
“Oh, I see,” said Ivor. “You’re a police officer.”
“Oh my dear lord no,” I scoffed. “Not at all. Too much regard for my fellow man, I think. But I do enjoy a modest reputation among my kin and kind as something of a problem-solver. The one to whom they turn in times of turmoil. The Alexander to their Gordian knots.”
“Including death under mysterious circumstances?”
“Not as a rule, no,” I confessed. “Usually more matters of the heart, domestic disputes, that sort of thing. Did you read of the engagement earlier this year of Elspeth Finch-Epping to Milton Entwhistle Hardy?”
“No? Well, you never would, either, had I not intervened when Milton — we called him Melting at school, obviously — when Milton was sued for breach of promise by a music-hall performer who went by the stage name of Iva Gudden, if you will.”
“Bought her off, did you?” said Ivor, as though the practice of buying off music-hall singers was a late omen of the fall of man.
“Hardly,” I said. “No, I proposed to Miss Gudden myself.”
“Didn’t that just transfer the problem to you?”
“A problem shared is a problem halved,” I said. “Or, in this instance, divided by eleven, the sum total of all the men to whom Miss Gudden was engaged. When she sued me, too, for breach of promise, I was able to establish to the satisfaction of Elspeth and, above all, her mother, that Melting was the victim of a serial confidence trickster.”
“So this will be your first murder.”
“I’d hardly call it mine.”
“Seems more a matter for the authorities,” observed Ivor.
“Doubtless they’ll be informed in due course,” I said. “But you know how the police approach these things, arresting the first person who can’t prove that he was in the company of two vicars at the time of the murder. It’s a matter of incentive, you see. A career in law enforcement is built not on the number of guilty men hanged, merely the number of men hanged.”
“Is that a fact?”
“Take it from me,” I said. “The police will kick down the doors, arrest the footman and the gardener and, time permitting, the cook, and whichever had a grudge against the deceased and/or fails to account for his whereabouts wins a twine necktie.”
“I expect that police procedure is marginally more complicated than that.”
“Not by much,” I said, warming to the theme. “The Canterfell family is tremendously wealthy, you see. Plodders find that intimidating. They’ll be anxious to pin the affair on the lowest born pigeon. Drop an ‘H’ in close proximity to a cadaver of the ruling class and you’ll be in the Clink before you can say ‘garden gate’.”
“Magistrate. It’s Cockney,” I elucidated. “But forget you heard it. You’ll want to stay well clear of rhyming slang if ever questioned by an English policeman regarding your disposition at the time his lordship was biffed in the back of the head with a brass candlestick holder.”
“Was this Canterfell chap a lord?”
“I was speaking hypothetically,” I explained. “No, the Canterfell name is currently without noble ornamentation. But the family own most of the village and surrounding field and glen.”
“Ah,” said Ivor. “So you think the killer is closer to home. A family member, no doubt.”
“I don’t like to express an opinion before getting a firm handle on the facts,” I said. “I merely mean that one should approach this thing, as with all things, with an open mind. Might have been the gardener, might equally have been Laetitia Canterfell, the dead man’s wife, or his son, Hal.”
“Or your friend, Fairfax?”
“In a pinch. Speaking very frankly Sebastian Canterfell was not widely hailed as a fellow well-met.”
“Disliked, was he?”
“In places far and near. I met a man by chance in the bar car of a train from Paris to Marseille who, unprompted, compared Sebastian Canterfell unfavourably to rubella.”
“Unloved and wealthy. It seems open and shut.”
“That’s just what I expect the police will say,” I said. “But the treasure remains in the hands of the family patriarch, Evelyn Clarence Canterfell. We call him the major.”
“So who benefits from the death of Sebastian Canterfell?”
“There are those who would argue that we all do, in our way,” I said. “But his brother, Halliwell, right honourable member for Fray, seems to fit the bill. Except that he’s in Westminster as we speak, and in my own personal experience the man has all the penetrating intelligence of a country cabbage.”
“Indeed?” said Ivor, doubtfully. “His speeches in parliament are famous.”
“I daresay they are,” I agreed. “He frequently stands up in support of measures not currently under consideration by His Majesty’s government. Only this month, while the house debated the pensions act, he held the chamber spellbound for forty-five minutes on the subject of a national mollusc. I believe that he was agitating on behalf of the Selsey Cockle.”
The train from London to Hastings traces a wide arc through dense woodland before passing through Tunbridge Wells, and it was in that instant that it broke free of a canopy of summer leaves and the evening sun burst into our compartment like a Roman candle. Ivor seized the opportunity to avert his eyes and return to his notes, and I contented myself with counting down the Victorian-era red brick station houses until the village of Fray, just this side of Hastings.
Only Ivor and I alighted at Fray, and there was nobody waiting to board. This is considered heavy traffic for the little station, which owes its existence to a proposed junction line between Bognor Regis and points East, an initiative that has so far not broken ground. At the village side of the station was a dusty Morris Cowley, with the top town and an Oxford chum leaning idly against the boot, smoking a cigarette.
Fiddles hadn’t changed a bit since our days in college, apart from a monastic bald spot which got its start in his senior year, and the filling out of a tendency toward jowliness that he’d exhibited all his life. The result was a pleasant pudginess that somehow made him look younger every year. Doubtless in his dotage he would resemble a toddler. He was dressed as the gentleman farmer he’d become, all hobnails and shooting tweed.
“Anty,” he said. “Thanks for coming so quickly, old man.” We shook hands vigorously, not having clapped eyes on one another for over a year. Then he took in Ivor with a quizzical glance and said, “Inspector Wittersham, I presume.”