(warning – contains massive spoilers for this novel!)
‘But you said it wasn’t Miranda,’ Penny said. ‘You did say that, didn’t you? That at first you thought it was her but now you realised it wasn’t. So if it wasn’t Miranda, then who on earth was it?’
Dottie sighed. ‘Oh Penny, it could only have been one person. It was you.’
It was as if the earth had stopped turning. Then into the silence came Penny’s grating little laugh.
‘Oh Dottie! My dear child! What a perfectly idiotic thing to say!’
Everyone looked from Penny to Dottie and back again. They all looked incredulous. Mike was shaking his head. Only Miranda looked down at her hands, no longer interested in what was, for her, old news. The spotlight had moved off her now and it was cold in the shadows.
‘It was you, Penny,’ Dottie repeated. ‘Your love of attention is, if anything, even greater than your sister’s, though you lack her daring, her audacity. You were always overshadowed by her, I imagine: the big sister, so confident, so popular. You tagged along behind everyone like a little puppy, eager to be included but always dismissed as Miranda’s sweet little kid sister. You told me that yourself. And I’d even heard you talking to Gervase about how you had a crush on him when you were a teenager but how he didn’t even notice you.
‘But you didn’t have your sister’s flair for creating drama, did you? You’d never have thought of claiming a dead man as your lover and fainting, or running away from home to India. No, you stayed meekly at home and married the brother of the man you really loved but who saw you only as a friend. Men just never looked at you the way they looked at Miranda, did they? Even the black man you threw yourself at when he walked you back to the house that night. Surely his standards were lower than that of the others? But no, even he rejected you.
‘But it wasn’t just Richard Dawlish who failed to please you. It was you who killed both Margaret Scott and Reggie Parfitt.’
Around the room there were gasps and protests. Mike once again had to be persuaded to resume his seat, and Norman Maynard began to harangue the inspector. The constables came in and ‘helped’ Maynard to find his seat. Eventually order was restored, and this time it was the inspector who told Dottie she may continue.
‘Margaret knew you went out that afternoon just before Reggie was found dead. We came back from the lunch with Reggie and Deirdre, and immediately you and Miranda went up to lie down. You could easily have gone out again. No one would have known. I was in my room packing. Margaret would have been in the kitchen, I should think. Gervase has discovered that a phone call was made from your house to the Parfitts’ in the afternoon. I imagine it was picked up in the study by Reggie himself. You arranged to go and see him.
‘It would have been simple to go out of the house, drive over to Reggie’s, to go around to the study door and get him to let you in. He was expecting you. You probably said you needed to talk to him about Miranda. He wouldn’t have paused for a second. And then… it took no time at all. All you had to do then was to lock the study door to stop anyone getting in that way before you were ready. Close the study curtains. Break the pane of glass to make it look as though someone had broken in from outside. Then get home and lie down in your room. Easy.
‘But your coat was wet from going out in the rain. I noticed it when I went to use the phone, although the significance just didn’t dawn on me at the time. Somehow Margaret knew what you had done. Perhaps it was Reggie dying so soon after his scene with Miranda. Margaret wouldn’t have heard his comment about, ‘After all I’ve done’, which at the time I didn’t understand, but now it makes perfect sense. At first, she couldn’t believe it was true, but she thought about it and realised what had happened.’
‘This is all so entertaining, Dottie dear, really you ought to go in for writing adventure stories for Girls’ Own!’ Penny smiled, still poised and secure. ‘How exactly did Margaret find me out, pray do tell!’
‘I’m not sure. She saw you leave, perhaps,’ Dottie said, ‘Or she might have looked into your room, bringing you a cup of tea, or something like that, and found you gone. Or perhaps she saw your wet coat later and that gave her the idea. It could even have been that she heard the car start up. The garage is quite close to the kitchen, and if she was in there, working quietly, darning Simon’s socks for example, she would have heard you start up the car and drive away.’
‘Oh, this is fascinating!’ Penny clapped her hands softly as if applauding a play. Gervase, Mike, and the others frowned at her. She didn’t seem to notice that they were no longer on her side, but drinking in every word of Dottie’s, they were becoming convinced by her argument. ‘And I suppose I killed Margaret because she threatened to rat on me, I think that’s the word.’
‘Yes. She was horrified by what you’d done. And you knew she would tell Gervase everything, and he, as assistant chief constable couldn’t possibly ignore or overlook her information.’
‘Perhaps it was Reggie, not Artie, who was the father of her brat? Perhaps she thought I’d killed her lover?’ Penny’s voice was heavy with malice, and out of the corner of her eye, Dottie saw Deirdre start. Dottie couldn’t have Deirdre’s memory of her husband so tainted.
‘Neither Artie, nor Reggie was Simon’s father,’ she said softly. ‘I think we all know that much.’ There was an awkward silence around the room. She couldn’t bring herself to look at Gervase. But there was no point, that didn’t matter right now. ‘But yes, I think she told you what she knew, I think she told you she was going to the police. Perhaps she asked you for more money. She had her child to think of, after all, and wanted to get away to make a new life for herself and Simon. So yes, you lured her out to the garage on some pretext and hit her over the head. You bundled her body into the car, and then, at night when everyone was in bed, you disposed of her in the pond.’
Penny was leaning back now, calmly shaking her head and tutting every now and then. Her hands, though, wrung each other, the knuckles white and strained. Everyone in the room was focused on Dottie and collectively holding their breath.
She went on, ‘You took her clothes from the wardrobe and made a clumsy attempt at a suicide letter, making it sound as if she had a guilty conscience that she couldn’t live with any more. Unfortunately, you forgot Simon’s name once again, and a close examination of the letter shows that where there should be an S followed by an I in his name, it is in fact an S followed by a carefully adapted T. In any case, it’s nothing like her writing of his name on the picture in the kitchen. And because you’ve never done your own packing, you forgot to pack her underclothes and make-up. She wouldn’t have packed her outer clothes but no underwear or face powder, no woman would. But let’s not forget Simon. Margaret would never, ever have left behind her son.’
‘Well, she’s left him behind now!’ Penny’s voice was practically an insane cackle. There were horrified gasps all around the room.
‘But surely—I mean—how on earth could a kid of Penny’s age hang a full-grown, healthy man? No, Dottie, this all has to be absolute rot, and I’m not at all happy that Gerry has allowed you…’
She had a sudden brief attack of nerves, but she held up her hand to halt him. ‘I know this is not at all easy to hear, Mike. And yes, obviously Penny couldn’t have hanged Richard all on her own. No, Penny did what she always did in those days. She got her sister to help her out of a hole.’
‘No!’ Mike’s exclamation was more of shock than denial. Looking at him, Dottie could see that he was—in spite of his words—ready to believe it all. Convention and good breeding, even family loyalty might demand that he defend his sisters’ honour, but he wasn’t genuinely surprised.
‘I believe that Penny lashed out at Richard. The medical report mentions a blow to the side of the head. I think Penny threw herself at him as he walked her back to the house that evening. She was desperate to be seen and treated as a desirable woman and not as a child. She was so enraged by his kindness, and doubtless his scruples, that she hit him with something, I’ve got an idea it was…’
‘It was the wooden seat of the swing,’ Deirdre’s voice was so soft, it barely reached Dottie’s ears. Nevertheless she did hear it, and she looked from Deirdre to Gervase. Gervase was looking alert, sitting forward in his seat. This was further proof of what they suspected.
‘The wooden seat?’
‘Yes,’ Deirdre said. She looked up, her face was ashen, her hands trembled. Algy put an arm about her shoulders. She said, ‘Do you remember? The seat of the swing was made from a bit of the copper beech tree itself, a piece cut from a fallen branch. It was only about as wide as a cricket bat, and perhaps eighteen inches long. Anyway, it kept breaking off, it wasn’t really strong enough, and it broke again that evening. Penny said something about taking it to show the butler; she said he would send one of the gardeners out to fix it. I remember she was carrying it when she and Richard left to go back to the house, but when I saw her later, she didn’t have it.’
‘You saw her later?’ Gervase said. His tone showed everyone that this was significant. ‘That wasn’t in your statement. I thought you went home a few minutes later.’
‘I—I did, but I c-came back. Algy walked me home, he wanted to come in, but I said he couldn’t. I knew he was—well, you know—drunk and a bit amorous. I was frightened we’d get caught by my parents, so I said no. So he said goodnight at the gate, and I went in, but my parents weren’t back, so I ran to get a jacket—I thought I might get cold later—and I went back to the party. On the way, I heard Penny sobbing, and muttering, and then I heard Miranda saying, ‘It’ll be all right, you go in and go to bed, don’t say anything to anyone. I’ll get Reggie to help me, he’s practically eating out of my hand at the moment. Men are all out for what they can get, aren’t they? Well I’ll make him pay for it first.’ I didn’t really know what it meant at the time, then later, I couldn’t quite work out… I mean it’s only as you get older you understand about things. Anyway, I just turned and went back to the pavilion. Algy walked me home again two hours later, I got in just as the clock struck two. I put on my nightgown then went downstairs for a glass of water, and my parents came in just then. They thought I’d been back for hours.’
Dottie continued her narrative. ‘What we don’t know, is whether Richard was already dead at that point, or whether he was simply unconscious. We might never know. But Penny did what she always did when she was in a fix. As I said, she got Miranda to help her. And Miranda did what she always did, she turned to whichever man was enamoured of her at that particular moment. In this case it was Reggie who had been openly and noticeably following her about; ‘like an orphaned puppy’, one person said. If anyone other than her had asked him for help, I doubt he’d have been quite so forthcoming, but I’m sure she managed to put on a jolly good display of hysterics and no doubt she clutched at him and begged him, and he, only too willing to do anything for Miranda, would have gladly stepped into the breach.
‘Not that I believe for a minute he knew what had really happened. I’m sure she spun him a story about Richard taking liberties, her being forced to defend herself, or perhaps she simply said he’d tripped and fallen, I don’t know. But I doubt Reggie was sober and thinking straight, and somehow, she completely overcame all his scruples, and he helped her. They concealed the body, probably in the shrubbery—it’s quite dense there, thick with huge rhododendrons and things like that. No search appeared to have been made of other areas of the grounds apart from the bit by the beech tree. Then, when everyone else had gone, they carried his body to the swing, threw the seat aside, which Miranda had got from Penny, in the hope no one would connect that with the injury on the side of his head, or rather, no one would connect Penny or Miranda with it, then they hanged him with the rope of the swing, leaving him to be discovered a few hours later when the staff came to clear up after the party.’
Silence enveloped the room, deep and thoughtful. Dottie knew they were all with her, believing her, picturing the scene in their minds. No one denied or refuted. No one looked at Miranda or Penny. Deirdre wept softly into her hands, and Algy gave her his handkerchief. She took it and wiped her face.
‘And what about Reggie?’ she asked. ‘Did he kill Richard, then?’
Dottie said, ‘We don’t know. But he must have felt great guilt and regret over what happened all those years ago. Then to suddenly be faced again with Miranda’s betrayal: well, in fact she betrayed him twice. The first time when she left to go to India. I’m sure she had promised to marry him—or—or something, he was so in love with her, I feel sure that is what she would have said. The second time she betrayed him was when she came back a week ago and pretended not to recognise him. Miranda, that was a ridiculously stupid thing to do. I mean, yes it was heartless and cruel, but from your own point of view, it was stupid. If you’d only shown him a small sign of affection, if you’d simply hugged him and said, oh I don’t know, something like, ‘Oh Reggie, how lovely to see you again’, he’d have been easier to deal with. But you had to humiliate him, didn’t you, and that made him angry. After all these years I believe he was sick of keeping quiet about his part in your little drama that night. I’m sure he threatened to give away your long-held secret, purely because of that childish need you had to hurt him. And so Penny had to silence him.’
Miranda gave a sigh. But all she said was, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. And I certainly never asked him to hang Richard for me! That’s a completely ludicrous idea! If he did such an insane thing, he did it all on his own, obviously. Though I must now admit that he told me at the time what he’d done, and naturally I was horrified and appalled. That’s why I had to run away as soon as possible, I was afraid of his violent temper.’
Gervase was on his feet, shaking with rage. Dottie grabbed his arm, as did Algy, and held him back.
‘My brother did not have a temper, he was not a violent…’ He choked on the last word and sank down into the seat. ‘My brother,’ he said through his fingers, ‘My poor… if only he’d told me what had happened that night, I might have been able to do something.’
‘But you said nothing at the time,’ Dottie said to Miranda. ‘An innocent person would have spoken out.’
‘Oh, I was too young to understand!’ Miranda said airily. She gave a delicate little yawn. ‘Mike, dear, I’m rather bored with all this. Take me home now.’
Mike made no move, though. Miranda kept her seat, and Dottie thought she appeared tense.
‘Left to himself, Reggie would never have done such a terrible thing,’ Gervase said, and next to him, Deirdre nodded. ‘He’s always been a follower, never a leader.’ Gervase’s voice wobbled slightly, but he added, ‘And back then, he worshipped you, Miranda, he’d have done anything, absolutely anything you asked of him. I’m sure he did do exactly that. Poor old Reggie. He was never a go-getter, but he was a good man.’
‘Nonsense!’ Miranda snapped. She nudged her brother, ‘Give me a cigarette, Mike, I’m gasping.’
Mike lit her cigarette, and she made a show of leaning back in her chair, taking a long drag on it then slowly exhaling. Smoke wreathed the air, and slowly she smiled.
Watching this, Dottie thought with surprise, she’s going to confess, she’s enjoying this whole thing, and she’s going to confess!
‘Oh fine, I give in, you’re right of course,’ Miranda said. ‘Poor dear Reggie was putty in my hands. Another couple of drinks, a few minutes fumbling round the back of the pavilion and he was ready to do anything for me. I got him all riled up over what Richard had supposedly tried to do to me, told him I’d pushed him away, and he’d fallen and hit his head, and that he was dead. It was so easy to make Reggie think this was the best way out of a tricky situation. He didn’t see why my life should be damaged by Richard’s ungentlemanly behaviour. It was, after all, just an accident. Dear Reggie! I didn’t tell him I saw Richard’s chest moving—that he was still alive. Though not for long, of course.’ She gave a little laugh that chilled Dottie to the bone and made gooseflesh stand out on her arms. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Deirdre’s hand go to her mouth in horror.
Time to shift the spotlight, Dottie thought and said, ‘Of course this was all just to get Penny out of trouble. I imagine Penny expected to be the centre of attention somehow: the youngest one there, the sweet little schoolgirl Richard had been so kind to, her innocence horribly blighted by such a terrible occurrence. And then Miranda came forward with her big announcement and a theatrical swoon, and ruined that as well. It’s a good thing Miranda did go to India—who knows what Penny might have done to her in a fit of rage?’
Penny was now smiling again. In spite of the terrible indictment levelled against her, Penny preened as all eyes fixed on her once more. ‘I thought it was very clever of me,’ she said, and Gervase drew a sharp inward breath. Dottie thought, he’s thinking what I’m thinking, that this is another admission of guilt. ‘But yes actually, you’re right, Dottie dear. I was incensed by what Richard said. ‘Why would I want to stay here,’ he said, ‘it’s cold and it rains all the time. Back home I’ve got my darling girl and my whole future. Why anyone would want to stay here is beyond me.’ He was so—so ungrateful. He was just a–a common darkie, throwing all that back in our faces—the hospitality, the honour, the offer of a job in my father’s office, of a better life…’
‘Not for him,’ Dottie said. ‘It wasn’t a better life for him.’
‘I decided that I didn’t really like him after all. In fact I hated him. Hated the stupid way he touched my arm and said, ‘Don’t worry, Penny, you’ll meet someone. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.’ How dared he patronise me like that? He—oh, he deserved to die! I hated him for that!’ She was practically snarling. Saliva threaded down her chin, and her eyes were mashed tight. She was like a wild thing. Dottie was frightened. Gervase, still on his feet, drew close to her, sitting on the arm of the chair, his hand on her shoulder. The sudden turn of Penny’s temper had everyone taken aback; even Miranda was white-faced with shock. They’ve known her all her life, Dottie realised, and this is the first time any of them have seen her as she truly is.
‘What about Margaret?’ Algy asked abruptly, from the other end of Miranda’s sofa. His voice was calm though his fist clenched and unclenched on his knee. Dottie had a theory about that, but remained silent. Penny leaned forward in her seat to look across at Algy.
‘I’m so glad you asked, Algy, dear,’ she said in her usual voice, smiling at him sweetly, all trace of rage wiped away. ‘Dottie is right. I’m afraid Margaret confronted me about Reggie. She’d overheard my telephone call, and heard me go out. She wanted to have it out, she followed me outside. She was angry and upset—I know that, though I’m afraid I was too—and so I didn’t make allowances. Perhaps she might have calmed down given a little more time, but I couldn’t take the risk.’ She paused then continued in a lighter tone, ‘And you know, I’d been thinking of getting rid of her for some time, I really just don’t need her now that dear Artie is no longer with me, so I was planning on letting her go anyway.’
Dottie felt the nausea rising in her. How could someone sound so normal, so perfectly reasonable and yet be speaking words of madness? Penny actually gave a little chuckle, as if they were discussing something—ordinary. She seemed oblivious of the horror her words had instilled in all those present.
‘But Penny…’ Even Miranda’s voice shook. Her jaw was slack, her mouth slightly open, as if she were in shock.
‘Oh, I knew you’d all take her side.’ Penny said, waving Margaret aside with a flap of the hand. ‘Wonderful Margaret. Beautiful Margaret. How the men all flocked around her like flies on…’
‘But she had a little boy,’ Gervase said.
‘Oh yes, her little bastard. Well she’d have sucked my bank account dry. It would have been an impossible task to silence her. Even then, I’m sure at some point after the money ran out, her scruples wouldn’t have allowed her to keep what she knew to herself. She heard what I said to Reggie. There is just time to tell you about it before I go.’
‘Go? Go where, Penny?’ Gervase asked her gently.
‘Well I’m not staying here, am I? I don’t want to hang. I’d have thought that was obvious.’
Gervase nodded as if this made perfect sense. He said, ‘Sorry, I interrupted you. What had you been about to say?’
‘Well nothing much, that was it really, just that Margaret had to go, the stupid cow, she wasn’t sensible enough to keep her mouth shut. I knew I couldn’t trust her, so it just seemed easier to get rid of her and have an end of the matter.’ Penny stopped and looked around the room with a little frown. Several people were not even looking at her any more. Deirdre had her hands over her face, and Augustine was leaning against Mike, her eyes shut, her face a ghastly pallor. Gervase stared at Dottie. He was biting his lip as if wondering what to do next. The inspector nodded to the sergeant who got to his feet.
Suddenly bored with the whole thing, Penny slapped her hands on her knees and said, ‘Right then, I’ll be off,’ and got to her feet.
The inspector grabbed her right arm as the sergeant took her left. ‘Not so fast,’ the inspector said, ‘Penelope Parfitt, I am arresting you for the attempted murder of Richard Dawlish, and for the murder of Reginald Parfitt and Margaret Scott.’
He took two steps, pulling an amused Penny after him, when with a screech, Miranda launched herself across the room at him, pounding him and scratching at his face.
‘Let go of my sister! How dare you! Leave her alone!’
It took several minutes for the two constables and the sergeant to subdue Miranda, whilst the inspector took charge of Penny who began to wail and plead with them to let her go. Dottie sat and watched the whole scene as if it were some strange and unbelievable avant-garde stage show.