Mistletoe and Murder by Carola Dunn is the 11th installment of the Daisy Dalrymple Mystery series where the Dalrymple family's Christmas getaway is disrupted by murder.
In December 1923, the formidable Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple has decided that for Christmas the family will all gather at Brockdene in Cornwall at the invitation of Lord Westmoor. Her daughter – Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher – is something less than pleased but yields to the demands of her mother, especially as she'll be there just before the holidays working on another article for Town and Country about the estate itself. But the family gathering quickly goes awry. Brockdene, it seems, is only occupied by the Norvilles – poor relations of Lord Westmoor – and Westmoor himself won't be joining them. So Daisy, her husband Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher of Scotland Yard, and their family must spend their Christmas holiday trapped in an ancestral estate with a rich history of lore, ghost stories, rumors of hidden treasure and secret passageways with a family seething with resentments, grudges and a faintly scandalous history.
The veneer of civility that pervades the halls of Brockdene, however, begins to wear thin when long-held family secrets threaten to bubble over, and one of the Christmas guests is found savagely murdered. With few clues as to who committed the murder and with too many motives as to why, it is once again up to Daisy to sort out the truth that lies beneath a generation of poisonous secrets.
“Mother, you simply can’t!”
“It’s no good being difficult, Daisy.” The Dowager Viscountess’s smugness insinuated itself between the crackles on the wire. “Perhaps you didn’t catch what I said—this is a shockingly bad line. I wrote to Lord Westmoor as soon as Violet mentioned that you were going to Brockdene just before Christmas. And I must say I do think I shouldn’t have to wait to hear your news from your sister.”
“Sorry, Mother, I’ve been frightfully busy since Alec and I got home from America. But …”
“Westmoor was most obliging. It’s arranged already. We shall all join you on the twenty-third.”
“I warned Westmoor that you had married a policeman. You ought to have invited the earl to the wedding, Daisy. The Norvilles are relatives, after all.”
“Only just,” Daisy muttered rebelliously. “Second cousins by marriage twice removed, or something.” Still, that slight connection had emboldened her to ask his lordship’s permission to write about Brockdene, so she couldn’t very well complain—
—As Lady Dalrymple continued to do. Daisy had missed some of what she said, but she gathered Alec had not been banished from the family gathering because of his infra digprofession.
“And I suppose one can’t very well separate him from his little girl at Christmas.”
“I should hope not, Mother! Besides, Belinda is my daughter now, too.”
The telephone wafted a resigned sigh to her ear. “Yes, dear. And Violet tells me she and Derek are thick as thieves, so perhaps they will keep each other out of mischief.”
Or egg each other on, Daisy didn’t say. “What about Mrs. Fletcher?”
“Darling, do you think your mother-in-law would be quite comfortable in such company? A bank manager’s widow, I gather, and merely a bank branch …”
“Mother, Bel’s her only grandchild, and it’s Christmas we’re talking about!” An unconvinced silence forced Daisy to play her trump. “And she plays bridge. She’s out right now at her weekly bridge evening.”
“Hmmm.” There was a thoughtful pause, then the dowager snapped, “Oh, very well, since you’ve never bothered to learn the game. I did mention to Westmoor that she might come, and he raised no objection. Now really, Daisy, I can’t afford to go on chatting endlessly with the cost of trunk calls what it is. I’ll see you on Sunday. Good-bye.”
Daisy hung the ear-piece on its hook and hurried from the entrance hall back to the sitting room. It was a pleasant room, for which Daisy gave the credit to Alec’s first wife. The heavy mahogany furniture had been reupholstered with cheerful prints; the walls, no doubt once been covered with the sombre wallpaper beloved by the Victorians, were now painted white; while over the mantelpiece where—Daisy suspected—a Stag had stood endlessly At Bay, hung a colourful view of Montmartre.
Alec’s mother could not blame Daisy for that transformation. She did, quite rightly, hold her responsible for the lapse from rigid formality represented by books and magazines left open on tables, a half-completed jigsaw puzzle, a silk scarf flung over the back of a chair, and such depredations.
The worst of these sprawled on the hearthrug before the cheerful fire: Nana, Belinda’s multicoloured mongrel puppy, who sprang up when Daisy entered the room and pranced to greet her as if she had been gone for five months, not five minutes.
“Down, Nana!” said Bel, tossing back a ginger pigtail as she looked round from the game of chess she was playing with her father. “Sorry, Mummy.”
“It’s all right, darling, she didn’t jump up. She’s getting much better.”
So was Belinda. She no longer stammered when she addressed Daisy as “Mummy,” as she had at first, though she could barely remember her own mother. She was quite comfortable now with frequent hugs and other signs of affection, which her grandmother had withheld for fear of spoiling the child. She smiled and laughed much more often than when Daisy had first entered her life.
Daisy recognized her self-satisfied musing as an attempt to postpone revealing the Dowager Viscountess’s latest machinations. At least Mrs. Fletcher’s absence meant Daisy could let Alec break the news to her gently, later.
“Darling,” she began guiltily, just as Alec moved a bishop, looked up, and asked, “What did your mother have to say, Daisy?”
“You don’t want to know.” Daisy dropped into a chair. “You remember Mother was complaining that her house is too small to have the whole family visit for Christmas? But she wouldn’t accept Cousin Edgar’s invitation for all of us to Fairacres. I wish she’d be reconciled to Edgar and Geraldine. It’s nearly five years since Father died and the poor man inherited.”
“She might find it easier if the Dower House weren’t so close to Fairacres.”
“If it wasn’t that, it would be something else. When she’s in her coffin, she’ll complain if she’s buried five feet eleven and a half inches down instead of six feet.”
“Little pitchers,” Alec warned.
“Oh dear, forget I said that, Bel!”
“Said what?” Belinda asked, raising her eyes from the chessboard. “Daddy, I rather think you’ve cornered my queen.”
“Beast,” said Daisy, who hadn’t the patience for chess.
“He’s not! I told Daddy he mustn’t let me win.”
“And I told you, you mustn’t let him let you win. Quite right, darling. He’s still a beast.”
“No, he’s not,” Bel said anxiously. “He gave me four pawns before we started.”
“Right-oh, he’s absolved.”
“You’re not, though, Daisy,” Alec put in, grinning. “What has Lady Dalrymple been up to?”
“You are not going to believe this. She’s somehow coerced Lord Westmoor into inviting us all to spend Christmas at Brockdene. Vi and Johnnie, too. And your mother, of course.”
“Will Derek come?” At Daisy’s nod, Bel’s freckled face glowed. “Spiffing!”
“You did say Superintendent Crane is giving you Christmas off, darling?”
“Yes, I worked over both Christmas and New Year’s Day last year. I’ve no excuse to turn down Lord Westmoor’s invitation. Does he realize what he’s let himself in for, do you suppose?”
“He’s not going to be there, I’m pretty sure; but I bet you anything you like Mother thinks he will be. She didn’t give me a chance to break the news.”
“Our host won’t be present?”
“Well, when he gave me permission to write about Brockdene, he told me it was an ancient family custom to spend Christmas there, but the custom fell into abeyance ages ago. Now the house is inhabited by poor relations. I don’t believe he told Mother. Perhaps he was getting his own back for being manoeuvred into issuing the invitation. She’ll be furious!”
Nor would Mother be pleased to discover what the journey to Brockdene entailed, Daisy thought, stepping up onto the cobbled quay from the motor-boat which had brought her up the Tamar from Plymouth. She turned to wave good-bye to the boatman.
Lord Westmoor had warned her that Brockdene was quite isolated. Not only was the way by road tortuous in the extreme, but at this time of year the Cornish lanes were deep in mud. Motor vehicles attempting them frequently had to be rescued by cart horses. From the nearest station, at Calstock, one might walk a couple of miles to Brockdene along a miry public footpath, but the earl did not think Daisy would care for that. To hire a launch and go up the river was quicker, simpler, and cheaper than any alternative.
Though Daisy’s editor at Town and Country took some persuading that he wouldn’t be paying her expenses for a pleasure jaunt, eventually she convinced him. Nonetheless, the boat trip had been a pleasure.
For a start it was a beautiful day. Daisy was quite warm enough in her heather-mixture tweed costume, without her winter coat. The soft, mild air of the West Country had little in common with the dank chill of London’s atmosphere of coal smoke and petrol fumes. The sun shone through a high, shifting haze, bringing an intermittent sparkle to the blue-grey waters of Plymouth Sound. Herring gulls circled overhead. The chatty boatman, his Devonshire accent thick and rich as clotted cream, had announced the sights to Daisy as they put-putted past: Plymouth Hoe, Drake’s Island, the busy Royal Navy dockyards at Devonport, the Spanish Steps.
As they continued the channel narrowed and the water turned to grey-green. The Tamar wound between yellow reed beds and wooded cliffs, with the hills of Devon and Cornwall beyond to either side, a patchwork of green, gold, and brown. The boatman pointed out a tiny stone chapel right on the riverbank at Halton Quay. He told Daisy he’d heard there was another such at Brockdene, not visible from the river. Near the chapel, lime kilns belched smoke into the air, making quicklime for fertilizer.
“Doesn’t it burn the plants?” Daisy asked. She had a vague memory of reading about quicklime being used to destroy plague-ridden bodies.
“’Tis slaked wi’ water afore it be put on the fields,” the boatman assured her. “See them cottages? They do say in the old smuggling days a red petticoat hung on the washing line gave warning of the Preventives, and which end it hung told whereabouts they was searching.”
He spoke with a touch of nostalgia, Daisy noted with amusement, and she plied him for further tales of the smugglers. Maybe she could develop the stories into an article.
“They do say,” he finished, nosing the boat in next to the stone wharf at Brockdene Quay, “as one o’ the chief smugglers, Red Jack, were related to the family at Brockdene and they hid him from the dragoons when he were hurt bad. But that were nigh on a hundred years past, and what the truth of it might be, Oi couldn’t rightly say.”
“It’s an interesting story, anyway.”
“So ‘tis. Now these here docks are silting up, since they put in the railway to Calstock. Few years more and you’ll only be able to come in at high tide ’less they do dredge. Times surely do change. Thank ’ee kindly, miss,” he added as she tipped him. “There, let me put your bags ashore, then Oi’ll hold her steady for you.”
Daisy watched rather anxiously as he slung her baggage onto the quay, including her camera and tripod, early Christmas presents from Alec, and her portable typewriter. Then she disembarked and the boat put-putted away down river.
No one was about. Glancing around, she saw a small public house, a few cottages, a warehouse, more of the rather sinister smoke-belching lime kilns, and a lodge guarding a very steep drive. Brockdene itself, the fortified manor house, was invisible, presumably at the top of the hill.
Daisy looked at the hill, looked at her baggage, and groaned. Lord Westmoor had said he would notify the household of her coming, and she herself had written to Mrs. Norville to say when she would arrive. She hoped she was not as unwelcome as present appearances—or rather non-appearances—suggested.
At that moment a door slammed as a stringy youth in a jerkin, breeches, and gaiters came out of the pub and looked over to the quay. Seeing Daisy, he trudged towards her, trundling a handcart across the cobbles.
“Hello,” said Daisy. “I hope you’ve come from the house to take my baggage up?”
“Aye.” The youth, a gardener probably, touched his cap and silently loaded his barrow. Without another word, he set off.
Daisy scurried to catch up. In her usual friendly way she attempted to chat, but not only was he taciturn, when he did speak his Cornish accent was nearly impenetrable. She had the greatest difficulty understanding a single word and soon gave up hope of advance information about the household she was about to encounter.
In any case, before they reached the top of the hill she had no breath to spare for talking. Reluctant to arrive panting, she paused at the top. The gardener plodded on regardless, between a row of huge sycamores and a long, low building of lichened granite. It looked pretty ancient, though in excellent repair. A barn, perhaps, or stables? A faint odour of farm animals hung in the air. Daisy wondered whether there was a horse-drawn vehicle, if not a motor, to bring her mother up from the quay. The Dowager Lady Dalrymple would not appreciate being forced to walk.
Looking ahead again, Daisy saw the house. The three-story crenellated gatehouse with its tiny windows and narrow entrance arch looked fit to withstand a seige. It begged for a photograph.
“Stop!” cried Daisy. “Wait, please.”
The gardener turned and gaped at her.
She hurried to the handcart and abstracted her camera and tripod. “I want to take a photo while the light’s good,” she explained. “It may rain tomorrow.”
The youth looked vacantly up at the blue sky, from which even the slight haze had cleared. “Aye,” he said, and went on with the cart through the open, iron-studded door under the archway.
Daisy moved back and took several shots. She was getting better at it. Her editor no longer made ominous rumblings about sending a professional photographer with her. Not that the money mattered now she was married, but she had her pride.
Folding camera and tripod, she followed the gardener under the arch. The tunnel-like passage was cobbled, narrow enough to be easily defended, with two doors in the right-hand wall. Daisy wondered whether to knock at one—or both? There was nothing to distinguish one from the other, though, so she went on and emerged into daylight in a courtyard, with more archways and doors to choose from. Boy, barrow, and baggage had vanished.
It was not a frightfully auspicious beginning to her visit.
She took the path of least resistance, straight ahead, and banged with the iron knocker on the great double doors. After a few moments, one door was opened by a tall, lean man, slightly stooped, who blinked at her puzzledly through wire-rimmed glasses.
He wore a shabby tweed jacket over a green knitted waistcoat, a grey and pale blue woollen muffler around his neck, and navy blue trousers. Not the butler, then.
“Hello,” said Daisy, “I’m Mrs. Fletcher. I believe I’m expected?”
His look of puzzlement deepened. “Mrs. Fletcher? I’m sorry, do I know you?”
“No, not from Adam. Lord Westmoor …”
“Oh, you’re Lord Westmoor’s guest, of course,” he said, his face clearing. “The front door is round the other side of the house, actually, but do come in.”
Daisy stepped over the threshold into a baronial hall some forty feet long by twenty wide. The whitewashed walls were hung with banners and arms, from pikes and swords to muskets and horse pistols. A long table, black with age, ran down the centre of the room, and chairs with the uncomfortably carved backs of a more stoic age stood along the walls. Stained glass in the leaded windows depicted heraldic emblems and fleurs-de-lis. The roof, its timbers set in decorative patterns, rose high above the stone floor. A suit of armour beside the vast fireplace appeared to be warming its gauntleted hands at the stingy fire, and in fact indoors was colder than out, explaining the gentleman’s woolly scarf.
Returning her attention to him, Daisy said with a smile, “Not exactly Lord Westmoor’s guest, at least not yet. The earl is letting me write an article about Brockdene for Town and Country magazine.”
To her surprise, his sallow face brightened. “A wonderful subject,” he said enthusiastically. “I’ve lived here all my life and I fancy I’m something of an expert on the house and its contents. The contents are quite as wonderful as the house itself, if not more so. I am engaged in creating a detailed descriptive and historical catalogue … But I’m forgetting my manners. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Godfrey Norville.” As if unused to the gesture, he stuck out his hand, his bony wrist protruding from his sleeve.
“Daisy Fletcher.” It was rather like shaking hands with a filleted plaice. “How do you do.”
“Yes, yes, happy to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Fletcher. I’ve devoted my life to studying Brockdene, you know. I shall give you a tour, and then you must ask me any questions you like. Any questions at all! This is an excellent place to start. The Hall was erected in the late fifteenth century by …”
“I should love a tour a little later,” Daisy interrupted hastily. “But just now, if you don’t mind, I ought to wash my hands and present my credentials to Mrs. Norville.”
“Credentials to Mother?” He gave her a bewildered look. “Oh, I see! Yes, yes, I dare say that will be in order. I wonder where Mrs. Pardon would be at this hour?”
“The housekeeper. Lord Westmoor keeps a good staff here to preserve the house and its contents. Some of the contents are very valuable, very valuable indeed, both in monetary terms and to the scholar. The vambrace, for instance.” He started to wander off.
Though curious, Daisy did not permit the mysterious vambrace to distract her. “Mrs. Pardon?” she repeated.
“Oh, yes. I will ring the bell, but I rather doubt that it will bring anyone. They are not employed to wait on us, you see, just to take care of the house and grounds.”
What an odd arrangement, Daisy thought, wondering exactly what his relationship was to the earl. Her mother might know, but in general the dowager was more interested in her own grievances than in the details of distant family connections, at least those who had nothing to offer her.
Godfrey Norville seemed to see nothing out of the way. He tugged on a bell-pull by the fireplace, then turned to frown at the suit of armour.
Through an archway beyond the fireplace came a woman in a dark grey dress with white collar and cuffs. Norville turned at the sound of her footsteps.
“Mrs. Pardon, the armour needs polishing! See here, the left pouldron is beginning to tarnish.”
“I believe the armour is on my list for next week, Mr. Norville,” the housekeeper told him, at once soothing and dismissive. “I shall check. Mrs. Fletcher? The boy has taken your luggage up, madam. Your room is in the East Wing, as there is no modern plumbing in the rest of the house. If you would come this way, please?” She led the way through one of the doors at the end of the hall opposite where she had entered.
Daisy gathered—gratefully—that Lord Westmoor’s staff was prepared to wait on his lordship’s guests. The situation was not only odd but awkward. She couldn’t help regarding the unknown Mrs. Norville as in some sense her hostess, whether the earl had consulted her or simply presented her with a fait accompli.
“Do you have many visitors?” she asked, following Mrs. Pardon through a dining room and along a corridor.
“Not many at all, madam. Now and then his lordship lets a historian or some such come down to take a look at the house. It’s not like the old days when we’d have a house-party in the summer and all the family for Christmas. His lordship’s not been the same since the War, I’m afraid.” She sighed, as she opened a glass-panelled door into a spacious entrance hall.
“I hope my … our visit isn’t going to cause a lot of trouble,” Daisy said, glancing around. This hall was furnished in a more modern style: a rather battered pedestal table with a looking-glass hanging above it; a hat-tree sprouting tweed caps and woolly hats; an umbrella stand; several lyre-back chairs; and, oddly, a faded chaise-longue.
“Oh no, madam, we can manage. At least, Lady Dalrymple won’t mind eating with Mrs. Norville and the family, will she? It’d make my life easier, and that’s a fact.”
“No, why should she?” Curiouser and curiouser, thought Daisy. She hoped for an answer to her question, but Mrs. Pardon treated it as rhetorical.
“Would you like to leave your coat in the coat cupboard?” she asked, gesturing towards a door in the wall to the left of the front door.
“Thanks, I think I’ll take it with me.”
“Very well, madam. Up here now. You’ll notice the stairs have been built right across one of the old windows. This part of the house was altered in 1862 for the dowager countess of the time. My grandmother was housekeeper here then.” Mrs. Pardon sighed again. “She’d never have guessed what the family would come to. Here’s your room, madam, and the bathroom and lavatory just back there. Ring if there’s anything you need. My girls aren’t used to waiting on ladies, but they’ll do their best.”
“Thank you, I expect they’ll manage very well. Where can I find Mrs. Norville?”
“I’m sure it’s not my place to know where she is, madam, but her sitting room’s just at the top of the stairs, over the front door.”
Daisy’s room was small, crammed with heavy, dark, rather shabby Victorian furniture, but it had a wash-hand basin with running hot and cold. The window looked out over gardens and woods, with a glimpse beyond of the river, a small town which must surely be Calstock, and a railway viaduct. Daisy didn’t linger over the view. Having washed her hands and face, tidied her hair, and powdered her nose, she set out to find her hostess, the putative mistress of this anything but ordinary household.
Copyright © 2002 Carola Dunn.
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Carola Dunn is the author of the Daisy Dalrymple mysteries, the Cornish Mysteries, and over 30 Regencies. Born and raised in England, the author now lives with her dog in Eugene, Oregon, USA.