Thursday 30 – Friday 31 May 2013
For Rhonda and Kelly, who wanted a story where the butler did it . . .
Although she never actually used the phrase in her novel The Door, the American novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart (Aug. 12, 1876 – Sept. 22, 1958), is widely considered the source of ‘the butler did it’. Roberts Rinehart was often called the American Agatha Christie despite her first novel being published approximately fourteen years prior to Christie’s first. She is also considered to have created the ‘Had-I-But-Known’ school of mystery writing, where a central character (usually female) plays an important part in the story by withholding essential information from the investigating officer that could have concluded the case much sooner. Roberts Rinehart created a super-criminal, costumed of course, called ‘The Bat’. Bob Kane, creator of ‘Batman’, has cited ‘The Bat’ as one of his inspirations for the comic book superhero.
The blood-curdling scream echoed through the halls of Chidlington Hall, drawing everyone away from their activities and into the grand ballroom. The first to arrive was Admiral Cuthbert Bennett IV, resplendent in his naval uniform having just stepped into the foyer after having returned from a meeting in London. He was followed by Greaves, his driver, who dropped the Admiral’s bags outside before rushing in to join him.
‘Dear God, Admiral, what’s happened?’ Greaves shuddered as he spoke, the sight before him positively horrifying.
‘Not sure, Greaves, but it bloody well looks like old Battersea Wharburton’s bloody well gone and keeled over. That’s jolly well put a dampener on this weekend’s get together.’
As he spoke, the remaining occupants of the Hall arrived in the grand ballroom.
‘Keep the women out, for God’s sake, Greaves,’ the Admiral barked. Greaves turned on his heels and ushered Lady Margaret Finch, her daughter Olive, Penelope Wharburton, and Christine Jefferies from the room.
‘If I might suggest that you ladies wait in the dining room for the moment. This is not something that your sensitive natures should be burdened with,’ Greaves spoke gently to the women, not wanting to alarm them any more than they would be when they realised they had just seen Wharburton’s corpse.
‘Greaves, I don’t think it is up to you what we can and can’t see,’ snapped Penelope, ‘especially given that we’re all in my home.’
‘Ma’am, whilst I’d ordinarily agree with you, please . . . this is not something that you would want to look upon. Please, go into the dining room and relax for the moment.’
Penelope eyeballed the driver, squinting her eyes in an unflattering manner that almost made Greaves snicker, and then stomped her way to the dining room followed by the other women.
Lord Kenneth Finch was striding into the ballroom as Greaves returned to the Admiral’s side.
‘What the bloody hell is going on here? I heard a blood-curdling scream and got here as fast as I could. Cuthbert, do you want to explain to me what this nonsense is about?’
‘Use your bloody eyes, Kenny. Wharburton’s dead. What do you think is going on, man?’
‘What do you mean he’s dead?’ Lord Finch replied.
‘Are you a bloody idiot, Finch? He’s dead . . . as a doornail. Looks like he’s been clocked on the head with something.’
Lord Finch stepped closer to Wharburton’s body and poked it with his foot. Wharburton rolled slightly to one side before falling back into place.
‘Yes, I’d say he is dead. Anyone called the police yet?’ he asked. The Admiral looked at Greaves and back at Lord Finch and shook his head.
‘How you got to be a parliamentarian, Finch, I’ll never really understand. How the bloody hell could we have called the police when we’ve only just arrived here too? Damn it, man, use your head.’
The tension between Finch and Bennett was broken by the arrival of the always-whistling George Wharburton, a tennis racquet resting on his right shoulder.
‘I say, old chaps, which one of you let out that rather girlish scream? I heard it all the way from the tennis court.’
‘Ah, George, now look here, it’s your old man. It seems . . . well, it seems that he’s dead,’ Lord Finch said. George burst forward to witness the scene for himself. His face drained of colour until it was ashen and practically matched his tennis whites.
‘Bloody hell,’ he said, ‘what are we supposed to do about this weekend’s get together now? Typical father, not bloody thinking about when an appropriate time to die might be. Inconveniencing everyone, especially those who’ve travelled. Inconsiderate sodding bastard.’
‘I don’t think we should touch anything. Greaves? Get yourself out to the telephone and call the local constabulary, and after you’ve done that, call Simon Fairweather at the Home Office and tell him what’s happened. Get him to send someone down to assist with the investigation, and tell him it better be someone bloody capable, and not that fool Smith from Scotland Yard,’ the Admiral barked his orders again to Greaves. The driver quickly disappeared from the grand ballroom to complete his new tasks. Lord Finch intently looked around the room as if expecting a clue to jump out at him. Of course, nothing did because nothing was at all out of place.
‘So, Bennett, was it you that George heard screaming?’ Finch asked.
‘Don’t be a fool, Finch. Of course it wasn’t me. Nor was it Greaves. We heard the scream as we were entering the foyer. My bags are still outside where Greaves dropped them . . . remind me to give him instructions to bring those in, by the way. There was no one here except old Battersea.’
‘So,’ George spoke in hushed tones, ‘if it wasn’t you, who was it?’
The three men looked at each other but said nothing.
. . . To be continued . . .