It is the early 1970s, and times are tough in the upper reaches of British society. To survive the changing times, the Earl of Ornum has done the previously unthinkable and opened his estate to wandering tourists. One day, a hyperactive little boy and his family are roaming Ornum House delightedly. The curious tyke sees a full suit of armor and lifts the visor . . . only to see a face staring out at him.
As Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan soon finds, the man in the suit of armor is dead—and there’s a slew of suspects waiting to be interviewed. Was it the ditzy duchess? The disappointing nephew? One of the servants? The earl himself? It’s up to Sloan and his wisecracking sidekick, Detective Constable Crosby, to find out before the murderer strikes again.
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The Stately Home Murder
A C. D. Sloan Mystery
By Catherine Aird
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1970 Catherine Aird
All rights reserved.
Ornum House was open to the public, which did not help the police one little bit.
On the contrary, in fact ...
It was open every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday from April to October, and to parties at other times by prior arrangement with the steward and comptroller.
It was also open—as all the guidebooks said—Bank Hols (Good Friday excepted). Henry Augustus Rudolfo Cremond Cremond, thirteenth Earl Ornum of Ornum in the County of Calleshire, drew the line at opening Ornum House on Good Friday.
"Religious holiday. Not a civil one. No beanfeasts in my house on Good Friday," he had decreed, adding, as he always added when the subject came up, "Don't know what m'father would have thought about having people in the house for money."
There was usually someone on hand to make a sympathetic noise at this point.
"Guests, family, and servants," his Lordship would go on plaintively. "That was all in his day. Now it's half Calleshire."
This understandable repugnance at having his family home tramped over did not, however, prevent him taking a close interest in the daily tally of visitors. At the end of every open day, Charles Purvis, his steward, was summoned to give an account of the numbers—much as in Scotland on the days succeeding the Glorious Twelfth of August, the gamekeeper presented himself each evening with the game bag totals.
Ornum House, attractive as it undoubtedly was, did not really compete in the Stately Home League Tables—it was too far off the beaten tourist track for that. Nevertheless it did have a respectable number of visitors each year. It was sufficiently near to Berebury to constitute a "must" for people coming to that town, and sufficiently far from the industrial complex of Luston to be an "outing" for people living there.
The outing was usually extended to cover visits to the thirteenth-century church of St. Aidan or the twentieth-century roadhouse The Fiddler's Delight—but seldom both.
On this particular Sunday in June the little church by the big house offered its own attractions. It was both quiet and cold and it was possible to sit down in a pew in peace and surreptitiously slip off shoes grown too small on a hot afternoon. It had the edge—temporarily, at least—on The Fiddler's Delight, which would not be open until six o'clock.
Mrs. Pearl Fisher was a member of the public who had come to see over Ornum House and her feet hurt.
She hadn't even got as far as the house itself yet and they hurt already. This was partly because they were crammed into her best pair of shoes and partly because she had spent too long standing on them. In the ordinary way she spent her Sunday afternoons having a quiet nap, but this Sunday was different.
Just how different it was going to be had not yet become apparent to Mrs. Fisher when she and the twins and the rest of their party spilled out of the coach just before lunchtime.
The house and grounds were both fuller than usual. It had been wet for three weekends in a row, and now, suddenly, it was flaming June with a vengeance. There had been picnickers all over the park since noon disporting themselves among the trees in a manner not envisaged by Capability Brown when invited to lay out the great park in the then modern manner. (That had been after one of the Earls of Ornum had clapped a Palladian front on the south side of the medieval house. And that had been after he had got back from his first Grand Tour.)
The public, though, seemed to have got the idea of Capability's pleasances. They were positively full of people taking conscious pleasure from walking in them, enjoying their alternating sun and shade and the smooth grass underfoot, and, every now and then, exclaiming at an unexpected vista carefully planned by that master craftsman for them to exclaim at.
At least two people had entered into the spirit of the folly, which was set on a little rise some way from the house.
"No," said Miss Mavis Palmer.
"Go on," urged her ardent young man.
"No," said Mavis, less firmly.
"Be a sport."
They had come to Ornum House for the day with a coach party from Luston, and there was no question but that they were enjoying themselves.
Mrs. Pearl Fisher, who had come on the same coach, wasn't quite so sure she was. Apart from her feet, which were troubling her more than a little, there were the twins, Michael and Maureen, whom she had brought with her for the ample reason that Mr. Fisher would never have forgiven her for leaving them at home. His Sunday was sacrosanct to The King's Arms and his own armchair.
Like Miss Mavis Palmer and her young man, Bernard, she came from Paradise Row, Luston. Any student of industrial philanthropy would immediately recognize this as a particularly grimy part of that particularly grimy town. By some Victorian quirk of self-righteousness the street names there varied in inverse proportion to their amenity.
The coach had been booked from door to door—which was one of the reasons why Mrs. Fisher had put her best shoes on. What she had not reckoned with was the distance within the doors. There was no distance to speak of inside the house in Paradise Row, Luston, but there was a great deal of it once through the portals of Ornum House.
It had been an old house by the time Capability Brown saw it, and now it was an architectural nightmare. It was true to no one period, representational of nothing but a series of improvements by a series of owners. Behind the Palladian south front were Tudor bricks and behind those the remains of a donjon—a reminder that before the house there had been a castle with a great central keep.
Lord Ornum himself never forgot this.
"Those were the days," he would sigh. "Drawbridge, portcullis, and broadsword in that order and you were all right. Keep all your enemies at bay. But now"—here he would open his hands expressively—"now to keep out the enemy"—(he was referring to Her Majesty's Commissioners of Inland Revenue)—"I have to lower the drawbridge and let everyone else in."
Mrs. Pearl Fisher and the twins didn't join the other picnickers in the park.
They had their sandwiches near the little church that was not far from the house. Churches were something that the utterly urban Mrs. Fisher understood. She mistrusted large areas of grass and woodland. Grass other than corporation grass behind railings was outside her experience and such woodland as she knew in the ordinary way in Luston was no place to take thirteen-year-old twins.
"Let's go in them woods, Mum," suggested Maureen.
Mrs. Fisher set her lips. Like Disraeli, she never apologized, she never explained. She took a deep breath. "You'll have your sandwiches over there by them graves."
"I don't want to go near the moldy old church," protested Maureen, but both the twins recognized the note of flat command in their mother's voice and obediently settled themselves down among the headstones. Afterwards, while waiting for the next conducted tour of the house to begin, they went inside the church.
In view of what was to happen later, this was a pity.
True, Mrs. Fisher promptly sat down in a pew and eased off her shoes, but it was too early in what was to prove a very long day for her to have any real benefit from this short period of shoelessness. Besides, there was the discomfort of getting feet back into shoes now too small ...
While she sat there Michael and Maureen scampered about the church in a singularly uninhibited fashion. Mrs. Fisher had noticed before that there had been no wonder left in either twin since they had gone to a brand new comprehensive school in the middle of Luston that had everything—including showers, which Mrs. Fisher didn't think were quite nice. (This last opinion was in no wise influenced by the fact that there were no bathrooms in Paradise Row.)
Not unexpectedly, the chief objects of interest to the Fishers in the little church were connected with the Ornums. The family pew, for instance, with its coat of arms emblazoned on the wooden door. Strictly speaking, both family pew and coat of arms should doubtless have gone with the abolition of pew rents, but as the Earl of Ornum was patron of the living the question had—somehow—never arisen.
"Mum ..." That was Michael.
"What is it now?"
"What does 'atone' mean?"
"What do you want to know for?" temporized Mrs. Fisher.
"It's on this picture thing." Michael traced out the heraldic lettering on the coat of arms with a grubby finger. "It says here, 'I will atone.'"
"Does it?" said Mrs. Fisher with genuine interest. "I wonder what they got up to then?"
But Michael Fisher had by then moved on to a tomb where a stone man lay in effigy, his stone wife by his side, his stone hands clasped round the hilt of a sword. A little stone dog lay at his feet—which Mrs. Fisher thought silly—and his legs were crossed, which privately Mrs. Fisher thought sillier still. Everyone knew you straightened out someone's legs when he died. Mrs. Fisher, who had been in at nearly every death in Paradise Row since she married (marriage was the emotional coming-of-age in her part of Luston), lost interest in that particular Earl of Ornum who had gone to the Crusades.
Maureen was standing before a much later memorial. There was enough color still to attract the eye to this one and a lot of gold lettering on black marble. Two figures—man and wife—were kneeling opposite each other. On either side of them was a row of smaller kneeling figures.
"Four, five, six ... six girls," Maureen called across to her mother.
"Don't shout," said Mrs. Fisher automatically.
"Mum, there's six little girls on this grave thing. Aren't they sweet? And four little boys."
"Them's their children," said Mrs. Fisher. "Big families they had then." Mrs. Fisher was one of nine herself. There was something very nice about big families. And as for the children in them—well, her own mother used to say children in big families were born with the corners rubbed off. Which was more than you could say for the twins.
Maureen wasn't listening. "I've found some more children round the side, Mum, only you can't tell whether they're boys or girls ..."
Mrs. Fisher got to her feet. "Time we was going," she said decisively.
"What are they round the side like that for, Mum?" Maureen Fisher was nothing if not persistent. "You can hardly see them."
Mrs. Pearl Fisher—without benefit of ecclesiology, so to speak—could guess. The tapestry of life in Paradise Row was every bit as colorful and interwoven as that of the aristocracy—only the middle classes were dull. Aloud she said, "I couldn't say, I'm sure. Now, come along, do ..."
They walked across from the church to the house.
Maureen sniffed. "Lilac blossom everywhere," she said with deep contentment.
"Only on the lilac trees," her twin corrected her.
Mrs. Fisher scolded them both with fine impartiality and they joined a small queue of people who were waiting to go inside the house. It was a queue that was turned into a party with one collective sweep of the guide's eyes.
That was Mr. Feathers.
He was a retired schoolmaster who lived in the neighboring village of Petering. There were several guides at Ornum House and their work was done on the principle of one guide per public room rather than one guide per party. This was the fruit of experience. One guide per room ensured the safety of the room and contents. There had been lost—not to say, black—sheep in the days when it had been one guide per party.
"Is that the Earl, Mum?" asked Maureen loudly.
"No," said Mrs. Fisher, though for the life of her she couldn't have said why she was so sure. Perhaps it was because this man had glasses. Earls, she thought, didn't wear glasses.
Mr. Feathers, having assembled his flock, led them into the great hall.
"Early Tudor," he said without preamble, trying to assess the group and measure their interest in such things as king posts and hammer beams. He positioned himself in the center of the floor. "When they first built this room they used to have the fire where I'm standing now ..."
"What about the smoke?" asked someone.
"The smoke," continued Mr. Feathers smoothly, "was left to find its own way out as best it could. As you can see"—here he pointed upwards, past a substantial chandelier, towards the roof—"it ... er ... kippered the beams very nicely."
Thirty-five pairs of eyes obediently looked towards the roof. The thirty-sixth pair belonged to Michael Fisher, who was taking a potentially dangerous interest in the inner workings of a very fine clock by Thomas Tompion. Fortunately the thirty-seventh pair was watching Michael Fisher. Mr. Feathers had forty years' teaching experience behind him and was quite capable of pointing in one direction and looking in another. He also knew the vulnerable places in the great hall and bore down upon Michael at speed.
Michael's mother, who was usually the first person to stop Michael doing something, was perversely annoyed when Mr. Feathers did so.
She was hotly defensive at once.
"He never touched it," she said, though in fact she had been looking at the kippered beams at the time. "Not a finger did that child ..."
Mr. Feathers' voice carried easily and clearly across the great hall and above hers. "After about a hundred years they got tired of choking from the smoke and in 1609 they put in the chimney at the far end."
Everyone—including Michael Fisher this time—looked at the chimney and fireplace. It was a truly magnificent affair, running for half the width of the far end of the room. Inside it was space enough for a dozen people. There was a huge andiron there on which rested several young tree trunks by way of winter fuel. Behind was a fireback carrying the same heraldic message as did that on the family pew.
"What does it mean, Mum?" hissed Maureen, sotto voce.
"Property of the Earl of Ornum," said Mrs. Fisher smartly. "Same as on the corporation buses."
Mr. Feathers cleared his throat and resumed his hortatory address. "The little cupboards on either side of the fire were for salt. That way it was always kept dry. Salt, you know, had quite some significance in olden days. It was by way of being a status symbol—"
"Below the salt," put in a rather earnest-looking woman, who was clutching A Guide to Calleshire.
Mrs. Fisher changed her not inconsiderable weight from one foot to the other and wished she could sit down. The only status symbol recognized in Paradise Row was a wedding ring—which served to remind her of Mavis Palmer and her young man, Bernard. If she was any judge, Mavis would be needing one fairly soon.
Mr. Feathers turned back to the center of the hall and sketched a quick word picture for them. "You can imagine what it must have been like here in the old days. The Earl and his family sat on that dais over there—"
"Above the salt," chimed in the earnest one irritatingly.
"And his servants and retainers below the salt in the main body of the hall. He would have had his own men-at-arms, you know, and one or two of them would always have been on guard." Mr. Feathers gave a pedantic chuckle. "The floor wouldn't have been as clean then as it is just now ..."
Pearl Fisher—Pearl Hipps, that was, before her marriage to Mr. Fisher—was with him at once. As a girl she had seen the film in which Charles Laughton had tossed his chicken leg over his shoulder with a fine abandon. Henry the Eighth, she thought, but Charles Laughton she was sure.
That had been in the days when she sat in the back row of the one and ninepennies at the flicks with Fred Carter. Actually they only paid ninepence and then used to creep backwards when the lights went out, but it came to the same thing. Mrs. Fisher came out of a reverie that included Fred Carter (he had been a lad, all right) and inflation (you couldn't get a cinema seat for nine-pence these days) to see Mr. Feathers, his back to the fireplace now, pointing to the opposite end of the room above the dais.
A minstrels' gallery ran across the entire width of the great hall.
"The music came from up there," said Mr. Feathers, "though it was music of a somewhat different variety from that which you would hear today. They would have had lutes, and probably a virginal ..."
Excerpted from The Stately Home Murder by Catherine Aird. Copyright © 1970 Catherine Aird. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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