Authors: Charles Todd
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective
Table of Contents
with love . . .
PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF
“SUPERB . . . CLAIM[S] OUR INTEREST AND HOLD[S] US FAST UNTIL THE LAST CHILLING PAGE.”
“READERS WILL CONTINUE TO BE CAPTIVATED BY TODD’S PORTRAIT OF THE DANGEROUSLY UNRAVELING DETECTIVE, AND HIS EQUALLY INCISIVE EVOCATION OF THE GRIEVING POST-WAR WORLD.”
“MUCH MORE THAN YOUR AVERAGE ENGLISH COUNTRY HOUSE MYSTERY.”
—Mystery Lovers Bookshop News
New York Times
Notable Book of the Year
“TODD GIVES US A SUPERB CHARACTERIZATION OF A MAN WHOSE WOUNDS HAVE MADE HIM INTO A STRANGER IN HIS OWN LAND, AND A DISTURBING PORTRAIT OF A COUNTRY INTOLERANT OF ALL STRANGERS.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“TODD DEPICTS THE OUTER AND INNER WORLDS OF HIS CHARACTERS WITH AUTHORITY AND SYMPATHY AS HE CLOSES IN ON HIS SURPRISING—AND CONVINCING—CONCLUSION.”
“THE EMOTIONAL AND PHYSICAL CARNAGE IN WORLD WAR I IS USED TO REMARKABLE EFFECT.”
THE TWO WOMEN SAT HUDDLED TOGETHER IN THE
small carriage, looking around them in dismay, staring at the filthy, closed-in street, the drunken old man sprawled in one of the doorways, the tall tenements ugly and bleak and perilously ill-kept. There was no grace here, only an air of despondency and gloom and poverty.
“It’s a horrible place!” one said at last. She was the elder, but not by much. They were both young and very frightened.
“Are you quite sure this is the street we want? I can’t believe—” Her companion, the reins lying in her lap, let the words die.
In answer, the passenger dug in her purse for the tattered piece of paper, pulled it out, and read it again. Her lips were trembling, and she felt cold, sick. “Look for yourself.
—” The paper slipped from her fingers, and she caught it just before it tumbled into the fetid running gutter beneath the wheel.
It was the street and the house they had searched over an hour to find.
There was silence, only the rain and the whistle of a train somewhere in the distance making any sound at all. The horse waited patiently.
“You’ll remember, won’t you?” the older woman went on breathlessly. “I’m Mrs. Cook. And you’re Sarah. My mother had a housekeeper called Mrs. Cook. And a sewing woman called Sarah. That makes it easier for me—” She stared at the house. “It’s a cursed place, dreadful.”
“I only have to remember who you are. And I’ve called you that all day. Mrs. Cook. Don’t fret so—you’ll make yourself ill!”
“Yes.” She smoothed the rug across her knees, felt its dampness.
The horse blew, shifting uncomfortably in the rain.
Finally the older woman squeezed her companion’s hand and said, “We must go in, Sarah. We’re expected. It must be nearly time.”
They climbed stiffly out of the carriage, two respectable young women looking as out of place here as they felt. The stench of bad sewers and boiled cabbage, overlaid with coal smoke and dirty streets, heavy in the dampness, seemed to wrap itself around them. A miasma of the city.
They made their way up to the door, stepping over old newsprint and brown sacking that had been turned to the consistency of porridge by the downpour. Lifting the latch, they could just see down a dark, awful tunnel that was only a rubbish-littered hallway but seemed like the final path to hell.
The door they were after was the second on the left, a barely discernible
on a grimy card marking it. Someone shouted “Come!” to their tentative knock, and they found themselves in a bare, high-ceilinged room with a half-dozen broken-down chairs and no windows. It was cold with damp, smelled of cigars and stale beer, and to their fastidious eyes hadn’t been cleaned in years.
They could hear someone crying in the next room beyond a second door.
The older woman caught her friend’s hand and said, “F—Sarah—I’m going to be sick!”
“No, it’s only fright. Here, sit down.” She quickly found the best chair and brought it forward, then took another one for herself. It wobbled, one leg uneven.
A nondescript paint, peeled from the walls and ceiling, gave the floor a dappled look, and the old brown carpet in the center seemed to be woven of all the hopelessness that had been brought here.
The older of the two began to tremble. “I’m not frightened—I’m terrified!”
“It will be all right—wait and see.” It was a comforting lie, and they both recognized it for what it was.
They sat there for a time, not speaking, their hands gripped together, their faces blanched with the thought of what must lie ahead. The crying went on and on, and overhead there was the sound of furniture being shifted, first this way, then that, an endless screech that seemed half human, half demon. Somewhere in the hallway a man’s voice shouted, and they both jumped.
Watching the inner door, they could feel the minutes drag into the half hour. “Sarah” found herself wishing it would open, then dreading that it would. They’d been here a very long time—why had no one come out to speak to them? They had been expected at two sharp—
If only the crying would
Suddenly the older woman stood up. “No, I can’t do it!” Her voice was thick, unnaturally loud to her own ears.
“You must! He’ll kill you if you don’t!”
“I’d rather kill myself. Oh, God, I can’t carry the memory of this place around with me for the rest of my life, I can’t—! It was a mistake, I want to go home! Sarah—take me home, for the love of heaven,
take me home
Her friend, compassion in her eyes, said, “You’re sure? It’s not to be done again? I can’t borrow the carriage again without questions being asked.”
“No, just take me home!” She was shaking in earnest, cold with dread, cold with fear, cold with the decision she knew she dared not make. Her friend put an arm around her shoulders, and in the hallway, she was sick, leaning there for several minutes in such pain that she seemed to collapse in on herself, frail and helpless. Weak to the point of fainting, her breath a sob, she pressed her forehead against the drab, dirty paint, grateful for its coolness.
They could hear voices behind the other doors, barely muffled—children crying, a man swearing, a woman singing something mournful and off-key. A cat meowing impatiently, pans banging, and thumps, as if somewhere someone was beating a carpet. But mercifully no one came out into the hall. Still—they might—at any moment—
“Can you walk as far as the carriage?” her companion asked softly.
” The older woman straightened herself with an effort and pressed a handkerchief to her lips. “I wish I’d never come here—I wish I’d never heard of this place, much less seen it! If I died, how would I have faced
with this place on my soul!”
“He would understand. He would. It’s what made him special, poor man.”
“Yes.” They linked arms for comfort and walked unsteadily back to the outside door. It swung open as they reached it, and a man smelling strongly of sweat and too much beer grinned knowingly at them for an instant, eyes raking both of them. The tenants here must be aware of what went on in Number Three. “Sarah” felt herself flush with embarrassment. But the man held the door wide and let them pass unmolested.
It was all the older woman could do to climb back into the carriage. Once there, she slumped to the side, clinging to one of the braces that held the top in place. Her companion gently wrapped the damp blanket around her and looked pityingly at her.
What were they to do?
What were they to do?
She took her own seat, remembered she hadn’t untied the horse, and climbed down again. Several people were coming down the street now, hurrying past, heads bowed, their shoes splashing in the puddles. Three children, grubby-faced and thin, stopped to stare at her, knowing her for a stranger, before running on. A sudden gust of wind sent skirts whipping, and two houses away a man’s hat blew off, to roll down the street like a top. The rain began in earnest and she barked her shin climbing back to her seat. Close to tears herself, she lifted the reins and spoke to the horse. “Walk on.”
It was a very long drive back to where they’d come from. Long and cold and wet and dreary. She glanced at the other woman from time to time, saw that she was silently crying with her eyes closed, her lower lip caught between her teeth. Her pale face reflected misery and exhaustion.
I don’t know how I’d feel, “Sarah” said to herself despairingly. In her shoes. Bleak of heart. Afraid. But I’ll think of something. God help me—
I must think of something!
We can’t come back here again. We haven’t the
It was very late when they reached their destination. The town was dark and still, a dog howling somewhere, the wind whispering around the church tower and swooping among the gravestones of the churchyard—as if confiding the latest news, “Sarah” thought, turning the old horse toward his stable.
I’m so weary, I’m imagining things.
She glanced for the hundredth time at the woman beside her. Her eyes were still closed, but she wasn’t asleep.
“We’re home,” she told her friend gently, trying not to startle her. They were wet through, hungry because they’d been reluctant to stop along the way at the rough pubs or places where decent travelers stayed. They had been afraid of being seen, of being recognized. Of someone remembering that they’d been on the road from Glasgow, where they weren’t supposed to be.
“Yes.” She opened her eyes, saw the churchyard, and shuddered. The cold white stones seemed to be pointing fingers. “I wish I were dead too!”
Following a path through the stones with her eyes, the younger woman murmured with infinite sadness, “So do I.”
THE LETTERS BEGAN TO ARRIVE IN THE MIDDLE OF
June, hardly more than a few words scribbled in cheap ink on cheap paper.
Fiona never discovered who had received the first of them. Or even—in the beginning—what had caused the coldness toward her. It seemed over the course of the month that one by one the women who were her neighbors found excuses not to hang out their laundry or weed their gardens when she worked in the inn yard. The friendly greetings across the fence, the occasional offer of flowers for the bar parlor or a treat for the child, stopped. Soon people no longer nodded to her on the street. And failed to speak in the shops. Custom fell off at the bar. Men who often came in for a pint in the long summer evenings avoided her eyes now and hurried past the inn door. The coldness frightened her. She didn’t know how to fight it because there was no one to tell her what lay at the bottom of it. She wished, for the hundredth time, that her aunt were still alive.
Even Alistair McKinstry, the young constable, shook his head in bewilderment when she asked him what she had done to offend. “For it
be that,” she told him. “Someone’s taken a word wrong, or I neglected to do something I’d promised. But what? I’ve tried and tried to think of anything!”
He had seen the looks cast her way behind her back. “I don’t know. Nothing’s been said in my hearing. It’s as if I’m shut out as well.”
He smiled wryly. Half the town must know how he felt about her. “It may be a small thing, Fiona. I’d not take it to heart.” Which was no comfort at all. She had already taken it to heart, and wondered if that was the intent, to give her pain. But
On the first Sunday in July, the old woman who invariably sat in the back of the church hissed at her as she came in with the little boy, leading him to their accustomed place. The single word was lost in the first hymn, but she knew what it was.
It made her flush, and the woman grinned toothlessly in grim satisfaction. She had meant to hurt.
The shunning had been supplanted by attack.
The sermon that morning was on Ruth and Mary Magdalen. The good, faithful woman who had kept her place at her mother-in-law’s side and the wanton whose sins Christ had forgiven.
The Scottish minister, Mr. Elliot, made no bones about which he’d have favored, in Christ’s stead. His harsh, loud voice made it clear that good women were jewels in the sight of God. Humility was their shibboleth—such women knew their place and kept their hearts clean of sin. It would take Christ Himself to forgive a sinful woman—they were beyond redemption, in his personal view.
You’d have thought,
Fiona told herself,
that Mr. Elliot
knew better than God Almighty what ought to be done about
sinners—stone them, very likely!
He had a very Old Testament view of such matters, a cold and self-righteous man. She had never been able to like him. In three years, she had not found an iota of generosity or compassion in him, not even when her aunt was dying. He had thundered at the ill woman, demanding to know if all her sins had been confessed and forgiven. Reminding her that Hell was full of horrors and demons. In the end, he had had no comfort to give. Fiona had simply shut him out. She found herself wondering if Mr. Elliot had forgiven her for doing that.
As he warmed to his theme now, she felt eyes moving toward her surreptitiously, a merest glance cast from under the brim of a hat or from under pale lashes. She knew what they were thinking. The point was being made publicly that in Duncarrick she herself was Mary Magdalen. A wanton. Because of her child?
That made no sense: they’d all been told when she brought the boy here that she had lost her husband in the war. Even her aunt, a stickler for propriety, had held her and cried, then taken her around the town to meet everyone of consequence, lamenting the tragedy of a lad growing up without his father, and the wicked fighting in France that had killed so many good men.
Fiona wasn’t the only young widow in the town. Why had
been singled out in this fashion? Why had people suddenly—and without explanation—turned so strongly against her? She’d never so much as looked at another man since 1914. She had never
another man in place of the one lost.
On the following Monday morning, outside the butcher’s shop, someone shook a letter in her face and demanded to know what Fiona meant by walking boldly amongst decent folk, putting all their souls in danger.
Managing to reach the letter in the red, waving fingers of the woman who did washing for a living, she took it and smoothed it enough to read it.
Have you taken in her washing? The sheets soiled by her
wickedness and the linens that have touched her foul flesh?
Have you no care for your own soul?
It wasn’t signed—
The shock turned Fiona’s heart over in her chest. She read the lines again, feeling sick. Mrs. Turnbull was watching her, something avidly nasty in the set of her face, as if she relished the pain she’d caused.
“You don’t do my laundry—” Fiona began, bewildered, and then realized that it didn’t matter.
But who could have written such a thing?
! She was speechless with the cruelty of it.
. . . sheets soiled by her wickedness . . . her foul flesh . . .
There were no names mentioned—
Then how had Mrs. Turnbull settled so quickly on Fiona as the intended target of such venom? She wasn’t a clever woman, nor one overly endowed with either imagination or vindictiveness. How had she picked
out as the evil woman? Because Fiona hadn’t lived here all her life? Because her aunt was dead now and she had to run the inn alone, without proper chaperoning—it hadn’t occurred to her that she needed any! Was that it, the impropriety of a respectable young woman serving men in the bar? Since the war, the inn hadn’t paid well enough to keep a barmaid. . . .
“This is malignant nonsense! Where did you get it?” Fiona demanded.
Mrs. Turnbull said, “It was under the mat by my door. And I’m not the first.
the last! Wait and see!”
. . . not the first, nor the last . . .
There had been other such letters. Fiona tried to absorb that and couldn’t. Had all the people who shunned her now received malicious, unsigned messages like this one? But how could they believe such things? Surely someone could have warned her—a friend, a neighbor—
The washerwoman snatched the letter from Fiona’s hand and strode off, self-righteousness in every line. She was a simple woman known for her stringent faith and her narrowmindedness. Both had given her the courage to speak out in her own anger. And fear.
Like the old woman at the back of the church, Mrs. Turnbull had found the bravado of the mob.
IN LATE JULY
there was a policeman at Fiona’s door. Constable McKinstry stood on the step, uncomfortable and flushed, stiffly in uniform.
“Don’t shut the door in my face,” he said placatingly. “I’ve come to ask— It’s about the lad. There’s— Well, there’s been talk going around, and I don’t know what to make of it.”
Fiona sighed. “You might as well come in. I’ve seen one of the letters myself. They all say the same, do they? That I’m a fallen woman?”
Alistair said, remaining where he was on the step, casting a swift glance up and down the quiet street, “Those letters? Nasty piece of work, they are. I’ve just been shown a number of them. You don’t want to hear what’s in them! Cowardly—unsigned— meant to be cruel. Mark my words, a woman’s behind it, a woman with nothing better to do than stir up trouble with lies.”
“But people are believing these lies, Alistair, and I don’t know how to put a stop to it. They’re talking about me behind my back—they must be—but no one will speak to
about it. I’m shut out, treated as if I’m invisible.”
“The best thing is not to try stopping it. It’ll wear thin in another week or two.” He cleared his throat. “No, it’s not the letters that’ve brought me here. Not directly. Fiona—now it’s said that the boy’s not yours.”
“Not mine?” She stared at him, frowning. “If I’m a fallen woman, how can he not be mine? It’s the sin I’m accused of! Wantonness.”
“I told you, it wasn’t to do with those letters. They’re no more than wicked nonsense. No, what’s brought me here is another matter. Serious enough for the police to be looking into it.” He hesitated, searching for words, awkward with his discomfort. “There’s a suspicion that—er—that you killed his mother—and took the child.”
He could see the shock in her eyes, the draining of warm color from her face. It cut him to the heart.
“I don’t believe you!” she whispered. “No, I don’t believe you—it’s all part and parcel with the whispers!”
“Fiona,” Alistair said pleadingly, “Mr. Robson sent me here, I didn’t want to come. He said, ‘No need to make a fuss. You’ll do it best.’ But I don’t know how to do anything of the sort—”
Mr. Robson was the Chief Constable. Serious, indeed.
She became aware that they were still standing in the door, where all the world could see. “Come in. There’s no one about. There never is anymore.”
Fiona led him down the narrow passage that connected the inn to the little wing built into the side of it a hundred years earlier. She’d lived there since before her aunt died. And run the inn as well, from the time her aunt fell ill until custom dried up in June.
He followed her, staring at her straight back and her trim waist. And felt sick. Removing his hat, he tucked it under his arm. His boots clattered heavily on the wooden floor. His uniform seemed to choke him.
In the small room that served her as parlor, she gestured to the best chair and said, “I haven’t harmed anyone. It’s
to say that I have!”
“I’m not liking it myself, to tell you the truth!” He turned away to stare at the tall clock that ticked quietly in the corner. He didn’t feel like sitting down, nor did he want to stand there and hear his own voice speak the words. But it had to be done. “They’re saying that—” His throat seemed to close.
“That what? You may as well tell me the rest!”
He flushed darkly and said, “—that you’ve got no marriage lines. You call yourself Mrs. MacLeod, but it isn’t true, you’ve never been married.” It came out in an anguished rush. “Could I please see your marriage lines? It will stop the talk, it’s all I need.”
Alistair had liked her for years. She’d had a suspicion that he was in love with her. Now she knew it must be true.
The cat came in, twining herself about his legs, leaving a blur of hairs on the dark fabric of his trousers. White on blue. She could hear her purring. She had always been partial to Alistair. If he sat down, she would be in his lap instantly, head stretched up to rub his chin, an expression of serene self-indulgence on her face.
Dragging her thoughts back to the policeman, away from the man, Fiona said, “And what difference does it make to anybody if I did have the child out of wedlock? I’ve done no harm to anyone. And I wouldn’t be the first to have loved a man while I could! The war has butchered them without compunction—so young that most of them cried out for their mothers. Tell me why it’s the world’s business, and not my private affair?”
It was a tacit admission. Alistair recognized it and felt a great sadness for her.
Gently he said, “Well, then, could you prove the boy is your own? Could a doctor examine you and say with certainty that you’ve borne a child?”
She stared at him. Her face answered him before she could prevent it.
After a moment, he went on. “If you haven’t had a child of your own, then how did you come by this one? That’s the question, Fiona! They think the mother’s buried here in the inn—under the floor, most like, or in the cellar. That you killed her and took the child and buried her where nobody would find her.”
“In the inn—!” She blinked, disbelieving.
inn? I had the boy with me when I first came to Duncarrick. How could the mother be buried here? It’s preposterous!”
“I told them that. I told them your aunt was alive then and would never have been a party to such a thing. They don’t want to listen.”
“Who is this ‘they’ so full of accusations! I have a right to know.”
“Mr. Elliot has seen several of the letters sent to his parishioners—”
“And done nothing about them! He didn’t speak to me once about them!”
“I know, Fiona. It was wrong of him, he should have scolded half the town for paying any heed to them. He’s a man of some weight—”
“I didn’t want him to scold the town, I wanted him to call these things
! To tell me he didn’t believe what they said. To come here and sit with me, as proof that I am a decent woman! It would have been a
Alistair! Instead he’s turned his back on me too.”
“Aye, but listen to me, Fiona. Three days ago a letter came for him, this one mailed, not left on a doorstep. It wasn’t like the others. It wasn’t accusing; in fact, it tried to defend you. It said that you couldn’t be—er—a fallen woman, that you’d never been wed and you’d borne no children of your own. The letter didn’t intend to cast doubts, it was meant to show the rumors and whispers were false. It went on to say that it wasn’t possible to produce the lad’s true mother, to prove these claims. She’d died after giving birth, and you’d taken the lad away, keeping him for yourself. The writer swore she didn’t know where you had buried the woman’s body and ended by saying your aunt had been told lies, she hadn’t taken any part in what was done.”