Will go, like the centre of sea-green pomp
…upon her irretrievable way.
‘The Paltry Nude Starts on a Voyage’,
The glass in the French window shattered. The guests screamed. Over the general exclamation could be heard the shrill shriek of Madame St Clair, wife of the ambassador, ‘Ciel! Mes bijoux!’
Phryne Fisher stood quietly and groped for a cigarette lighter. So far the evening had been tedious. After the strenuous preparations for what was admittedly the social event of the year, the dinner had been a culinary masterpiece—but the conversation had been boring. She had been placed between a retired Indian Colonel and an amateur cricketer. The Colonel had confined himself to a few suitable comments on the food but Bobby could recite his bowling figures for each country match for two years—and did. Then the lights had gone out and the window had smashed. Anything that interrupted the Wisden of the Country House matches was a good thing, thought Phryne and found the lighter.
The scene revealed in the flickering light was confused. The young women who usually screamed were screaming. Phryne’s father was bellowing at Phryne’s mother. This, too, was normal.
Several gentlemen had struck matches and one had pulled the bell. Phryne pushed her way to the door and slipped into the front hall, where the fuse box door hung open, and pulled down the switch marked ‘main’. A flood of light restored everyone except the most gin-soaked to their senses. And Madame St Clair, clutching melodramatically at her throat, found that her diamond necklace, reputed to contain some of the stones from the Tsarina’s collar, was gone. Her scream outstripped all previous efforts.
Bobby, who had a surprisingly swift grasp of events, gasped, ‘Gosh! She’s been robbed!’ Phryne escaped from the babble to go outside and scan the ground in front of the broken window. Through it she could hear Bobby saying ingenuously, ‘He must have broken the jolly old glass, hopped in, and snaffled the loot! Daring, eh?’
Phryne gritted her teeth. She stubbed her toe on a ball and picked it up—a cricket ball. Her feet crunched on glass—most of it was outside. Phryne grabbed a passing gardener’s boy and ordered him to bring a ladder into the ballroom.
When she regained the gathering she drew her father aside. ‘Don’t bother me, girl. I shall have to search everyone. What will the Duke think?’
‘Father, if you want to cut out young Bobby from the crowd, I can save you a lot of embarrassment,’ she whispered. Her father, who always had a high colour, darkened to a rich plum.
‘What do you mean? Good family, goes back to the Conquerer.’ ‘Don’t be foolish, Father, I tell you he did it, and if you don’t remove him and do it quietly the Duke will be miffed. Just get
him, and that tiresome Colonel. He can be a witness.’
Phryne’s father did as he was bid, and the two gentlemen came into the card room with the young man between them.
‘I say, what’s this about?’ asked Bobby. Phryne fixed him with a glittering eye.
‘You broke the window, Bobby, and you pinched the necklace.
Do you want to confess or shall I tell you how you did it?’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ he bluffed, paling as Phryne produced the ball.
‘I found this outside. Most of the glass from the window was there, too. You pushed the switch, and flung this ball through the glass, to make that dramatic smash. Then you lifted the necklace off Madame St Clair’s admittedly over-decorated neck.’
The young man smiled. He was tall, had curly chestnut hair and deep brown eyes like a Jersey cow. He had a certain charm and he was exerting all of it, but Phryne remained impervious. Bobby spread out his arms.
‘If I pinched it, then I must have it on me. Search me,’ he invited. ‘I won’t have had time to hide it.’
‘Don’t bother,’ snapped Phryne. ‘Come into the ballroom.’ They followed her biddably. The gardener’s boy erected the ladder. Mounting it fearlessly (and displaying to the company her diamanté garters, as her mother later informed her) Phryne hooked something out of the chandelier. She regained the floor without incident, and presented the object to Madame St Clair, who stopped crying as suddenly as if someone had turned off her tap.
‘This yours?’ Phryne asked, and Bobby gave a small groan, retreating to the card room.
‘By Jove, that was a cunning bit of detection!’ enthused the Colonel, after the disgraced Bobby had been allowed to leave. ‘You’re a sharp young woman. My compliments! Would you come and see m’wife and m’self tomorrow? A private matter? You could be just the girl we’ve been looking for, bless my soul!’
The Colonel was far too firmly married and full of military honours to be a threat to Phryne’s virtue, or what remained of it, so she agreed. She presented herself at ‘Mandalay’, the Colonel’s country retreat the next day, at about the hour when it is customary for the English to take tea.
‘Miss Fisher!’ gushed the Colonel’s wife, who was not a woman generally given to gushing. ‘Do come in! The Colonel has told me how cleverly you caught that young man—never did trust him, reminded me of some of the junior subalterns in the Punjab, the ones who embezzled the mess funds…’
Phryne was ushered in. The welcome exceeded her deserts and she was instantly suspicious. The last time she had been fawned over with this air of distracted delight was when one county family thought that she was going to take their appalling lounge-lizard of a son off their hands, just because she had slept with him once or twice. The scene when she declined to marry him had been reminiscent of early Victorian melodrama. Phryne feared that she was becoming cynical.
She took her seat at an ebony table and accepted a cup of very good tea. The room was stuffed to bursting with brass Indian gods and carved and inlaid boxes and rich tapestries; she dragged her eyes away from a very well-endowed Kali dancing on dead men with a bunch of decapitated heads in each black hand, and strove to concentrate.
‘It’s our daughter Lydia,’ said the Colonel, getting to the point. ‘We are worried about her. She got in with a strange set in Paris, you see, and led a rackety sort of life. But she’s a good girl, got her head screwed on and all that, and when she married this Australian we thought that it was the best thing. She seemed happy enough, but when she came to see us last year she was shockingly pale and thin. You ladies like that nowadays, eh? But all skin and bone, can’t be good…er ahem,’ faltered the Colonel as he received a forty-volt glare from his wife and lost his thread. ‘Er, yes, well, she was perfectly all right after three weeks, went to Paris for a while, and we sent her off to Melbourne brisk as a puppy. Then, as soon as she arrived back, she was sick again. Here is the interesting thing, Miss Fisher: she went to some resort to take a cure, and was well—but as soon as she came back to her husband, she was sick again. And I think…’
‘And I agree with him,’ added Mrs Harper portentously. ‘That there’s something damned odd going on—beg pardon, my dear—and we want some reliable girl to find out.’
‘Do you think her husband is poisoning her?’
The Colonel hesitated but his spouse said placidly, ‘Well, what would you think?’
Phryne had to agree that the cycle of illness sounded odd, and she was at a loose end. She did not want to stay in her father’s house and arrange flowers. She had tried social work but she was sick of the stews and sluts and starvation of London, and the company of the Charitable Ladies was not good for her temper. She had often thought of travelling back to Australia, where she had been born in extreme poverty, and here was an excellent excuse for putting off decisions about her future for half a year.
‘Very well, I’ll go. But I’ll go at my own expense, and I’ll report at my leisure. Don’t follow me with frantic cables or the whole thing will be U.P. I’ll make Lydia’s acquaintance on my own, and you will not mention me in any of your letters to her. I’ll stay at the Windsor.’ Phryne felt a thrill at this. She had last seen that hotel in the cold dawn, as she passed with a load of old vegetables gleaned from the pig-bins of the Victoria Market. ‘You can find me there, if it’s important. What is Lydia’s married name and her address? And tell me—what would her husband inherit if she died?’
‘Her husband’s name is Andrews, and here is her address. If she dies before him without issue, he inherits fifty thousand pounds.’
‘Has she any children?’
‘Not yet,’ said the Colonel. He produced a bundle of letters. ‘Perhaps you’d like to read these,’ and he put them down on the tea table. ‘They are Lydia’s letters. She’s a bright little thing, you’ll find—very canny about money—but she’s besotted with this Andrews feller,’ he snorted. Phryne slipped the first envelope and began to read.
The letters were absorbing. Not that they had any literary merit, but Lydia was such an odd mixture. After a dissertation on oil stocks that would not have disgraced an accountant, she indulged in terms of such honeyed sentimentality about her husband that Phryne could hardly bear to read it. My tom-cat has been severe with his mouse because she was dancing with a pretty cat at supper last night, read Phryne with increasing nausea. And it took two hours of stroking before he became my good little kitten again.
Phryne ploughed on while the Colonel’s wife kept refilling her tea-cup. After an hour she was awash with tea, and sentiment. The tone became whining after Lydia reached Melbourne. Johnnie goes out to his club and leaves his poor little mouse to pine in her mouse-house…I was ever so sick but Johnnie just told me I’d over-eaten and went to dinner. There is a rumour that Peruvian Gold is to start their mine again. Don’t put any money into it. Their accountant is buying his second car…I hope that you took my advice about the Shallows property. The land is adjacent to a church right-of-way and thus cannot be overlooked. It will double in value in twenty years…I have transferred some of my capital to Lloyds, where the interest rate is half a percentage higher…I’m trying baths and massage with Madame Breda, of Russell Street. I am very ill but Johnnie just laughs at me.
Odd. Phryne copied out the address of Madame Breda in Russell Street and took her leave, before she could be offered any more tea.