Monday, 30 July 2018

The Killing of the Thousand and Second Night Chapter 4

    Here is another chapter of my yet unpublished book. If you haven't read Chapters 1, 2, and 3 you can find them all on this blog.

Chapter 4                               

        Harriet had been unable to settle Charlotte down and she heaved a sigh of relief when Doctor Christie arrived. He had inadvertently been delayed and although another doctor could have attended, Charlotte refused to see anyone else, other than Christie. The medical practitioner had spent over an hour with his patient before informing Harriet that her friend was composed and was now in a fit state to speak with the police.

    Alexander Ashdown, Inspector MacGregor's second problem witness was easier to placate; after drinking some strong tea spiked with a good shot of dark rum, that Harriet had prepared for him, he collected himself and agreed to speak with MacGregor again, on the officer's return.

    With only five minutes to spare, before Guy was expected, Harriet made her way back into the library. The house was so quiet, even the coal ash from the burning fire, dropping down through the iron grate into the ash pan below it, made Harriet’s eyes search the room for an unexpected intruder.

   She shivered slightly, as she examined the stark surroundings she found herself in. The red velvet curtains that hung on a shabby wooden pole above the window frame and the polished wax cloth on the floor had certainly seen better days. Threadbare described them perfectly.  Harriet hadn’t noticed before, but her friend’s house didn’t demonstrate any of the wealth, the Ashdown’s were said to have.

    The sound of muffled voices and footsteps walking across the tiled hallway, made Harriet’s stomach flutter momentarily. She swallowed hard when the library door was knocked and then opened. “Come in,” Harriet rose up from the leather winged chair she had been sitting on, on seeing that her visitor was as she expected, Guy MacGregor.
    “Hello Harriet, I hope you’ve got good news for me,” Guy spoke with only a hint of a Glasgow accent. His move to London as a young policeman had meant that he had clipped his sing-song pronunciation.
    “Hello again Guy, yes I have. Both Charlotte and her father-in-law are now fit to answer any questions you may have of them. With whom would you like to speak with first?”
    “Mrs Ashdown please and if you care to stay with her, I don’t have a problem with that. She’ll probably be more at ease if you’re with her,” the truth was Guy MacGregor had no interest in Charlotte Ashdown’s well-being. He just wanted to spend a little more time with Harriet and familiarise himself once again, with her outstanding beauty. As Harriet went to walk passed him out of the room, he caught hold of her arm and said,
    “I’m sorry for my childish behaviour earlier Harriet.”
    “I know you are Guy,” Harriet stroked his hand gently and smiled, before leaving the room to get his much-anticipated witness. She knew he was sorry and had an impulse to hug him, but oh my goodness that would not be proper.

        Charlotte’s hysteria had passed, but her mood was subdued. Harriet tried to make polite conversation with her friend but found her very unresponsive. She prayed that she would be a little more forthcoming with Guy because he could be real bloody-minded when he wanted to be.

    Harriet descended the stairs in front of Charlotte, whom she knew was following her somewhat reluctantly. When both women were standing in the square-shaped reception hall, Harriet turned to her friend and said,
    “No need to be frightened, my dear. You've nothing to fear,” she couldn’t help but notice that Charlotte’s face had waned. Charlotte forced a smile and nodded in response to the words of reassurance from her friend. Harriet started to move towards the short passageway that led to the library when the door of the drawing-room opened and Guy appeared and he said,
    “Ladies this way please, Mr Ashdown thought you would be more comfortable in here, the fire in the library needs stoking,” before he disappeared back into the room Harriet observed that Guy had removed his outer coat and that he still cut a dashing figure. The tweed suit he was wearing, most definitely suited his tall slim stature.

    When the ladies entered the warm room, the policeman was standing with his back to them. But Harriet was aware that he was watching them in the overmantel mirror. His eyes followed every step they made and as he turned to face the two women he said,
    “Please sit down, ladies. I believe one of your servants has arrived Lady Harriet, she should be bringing some tea along in a moment.”
    “That will be Sarah my parlour maid, I sent a message earlier by cab, for her to come here and help out temporarily. I hope you don’t mind Charlotte?” Harriet looked for approval from the mistress of the house.
    “Thank you, Harriet. Well since, since, Jeannie,” Charlotte struggled with her words; she swallowed hard and continued, “I’ll need to find someone else.”
    “You can hold onto Sarah as long as you need, my dear,” Harriet was now sitting down beside her friend on a large shabby velvet sofa, opposite the fireplace. Temporarily she was overwhelmed by a similar feeling to that of a naughty schoolgirl who had been summoned to the Headmistress’s room.
    “I’m so glad the staffing problem has been solved for the time being,” the note of sarcasm in Guy’s voice didn’t go unnoticed by Harriet, but she decided not to retort. He carried on, “ Thank you for allowing me to speak with you Mrs Ashdown; I hope you’re feeling better,” he didn’t wait for her to reply, he continued, “I need to ask you about Jeannie. Although it seems you weren’t at home when her murder took place, I think you will be able to help me in finding out a bit more about your maid.” Harriet could see Charlotte visibly tremble when Guy used the word ‘murder,' but her friend took a deep breath and nodded in acknowledgement of Guy’s reasoning for questioning her.

    Harriet had never seen Guy with such a stern look on his face; sitting down on the club curb that surrounded the fire he opened his notebook and said, “Mrs Ashdown, how long has Jeannie been in your employ?”
    “I’m not sure, I’ve been here for six or seven years and of course she was working here before I ever became the mistress of the household.”
    “So you didn’t employ her?” Inspector MacGregor looked slightly puzzled.
    “This was my husband’s parental home and all the servants including Jeannie were hired by Mrs Ashdown, John’s mother.”
    “All the servants, I was under the impression that you only had the one and that was Jeannie?”
    “Yes, we do; I mean we did. Let me explain, several months before John and I married, his mother passed away. John was very concerned about his father as her long illness had also taken its toll on him. So John decided, it would be best that after we married, we move in with his father. Therefore I took over the day to day running of the house.”
    “I understand that, but what happened to the other servants?”
    “We no longer needed them. I was fit, young, healthy and as I had kept the home for my own mother until I married, I was capable of doing the day to day duties in a house this size, with only one servant.”
    “So who decided to keep Jeannie on?”
    “Both John and I knew that Jeannie was good with his father and he liked her. He can be somewhat difficult sometimes, therefore we decided that she was the correct person for the job. She could coax and cajole him into doing things that we never could have.”
    “How did you and Jeannie get along?”
    “We respected each other?”
    “So you didn’t like her much?”
    “She was rather brash and could be very coarse on occasions, which wasn’t to my taste, Inspector. But I didn’t dislike her, the main thing was that she served John's father well and caused me no problems.”
    “You say that your father-in-law liked her, so they never had a crossed word?”
    “He was very fond of her and I can’t remember a time that he ever complained about her or scolded her in any way. I believe she was originally employed as a tweeny and therefore grew up from girl to woman, in this household.”
    “You had no qualms about leaving your father-in-law alone with her?”
    “No of course not, she was true and loyal to him,” Charlotte’s voice became rather defencive.
    “When did you and John arrive home from your mother’s?”
    “Late last night,” Harriet noticed that Charlotte seemed to become uneasy, she was beginning to fidget and shuffle her feet across the floor.
    “And you were away for three weeks?”
    “Yes, we were. I had been tired of late and John thought it would be good for me to get a change of air.”
    “So you aren’t as healthy as you first thought?”
    “I was just a bit run down, we all have our off days Inspector,” Charlotte looked down at her folded hands.
    “And John was with you for the three weeks in Wemyss Bay, I believe that's where your mother lives?”
    “Yes she does live there and John accompanied me.”
   “ Mrs Ashdown, why do you think your father-in-law didn’t think it was strange that he hadn't seen Jeannie for a couple of days? he added quickly, "especially when she was looking after him.”
    “I’m sorry, I can’t answer that, you would need to ask him that.”
    “I did earlier, but I thought I would ask you too. I’ve already asked your husband.”
    “Oh, all I can think is that he forgot, sometimes he’s very forgetful,” Charlotte’s answer was hesitant, Harriet thought.
    “Finally Mrs Ashdown, can you confirm that it was your husband that discovered Jeannie’s body?”
    “Yes, he did; when there was no sign of her when we arrived home, I went up to her quarters in the attic. I knocked on her door and when I got no reply, I became concerned. I called her name out several times, but she didn’t answer,” Charlotte’s top lip quivered, then she continued, “I tried the door handle, but I found the door locked. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I came downstairs to ask John's advice.  It was he who suggested that we use the spare key. I was rather reluctant because she guarded her privacy, but John said we had no alternative. Because of my hesitancy, he said he would go alone; so he did and well the rest is history.” Charlotte’s voice wavered slightly but Harriet couldn’t help but admire her friend’s strength of character; having answered Guy’s questions so robustly.

    Guy flicked through the pages of his notebook, then rubbed his chin. Harriet could see that he was deep in thought. He raised his head, looking at Harriet firstly, she could feel his eyes penetrate hers. Unusually he made her feel rather self-conscious. He quickly turned his gaze away from her, he was now looking at Charlotte raptly and as he opened his mouth to speak, the door knocked then opened.
    “Excuse me, I’ve made some tea as requested Sir. It took me a bit longer than I expected. I was getting my bearings, finding where the tea things were. Sorry, but I couldn’t find any cake or biscuits. But I’ll get baking as soon as I find the flour and things,” Sarah, Harriet’s senior housemaid, put the tea tray containing four plain white cups, saucers, sugar bowl, milk jug and a silver plated tea-pot, down on the occasional table located between the two women and the policeman.
    Guy put his notebook into the inside pocket of his jacket and he said,
    “Thanks, Sarah, that’ll be all just now. I’m sure the ladies will welcome a cup of tea, I know I do,” he looked from one woman to the other, a smile gradually crept to his face  and he asked,” Will I be mother?”  Harriet could see Guy’s twinkle in his eyes had returned. His demeanour was no longer of a stern policeman; that appearance had been put away along with his notebook.

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