A Miss Marple Pastiche - Inspired by the West Cliff in Whitby, which we always called, 'The Agatha Christie Walk'.
The hotel restaurant was emptying after dinner but a number of guests were enjoying coffee, drinks and desserts in the palm court terrace conservatory room, where the light spilling through the high dome of the glass and wrought iron ceiling created a warm summer evening atmosphere indoors, although it was only May. A string quartet played mildly in the background.
Behind a plate of explosive looking fresh cream meringues, as yet unbroached, a pair of observant eyes, unobserved themselves, took in the scene. Among the most flamboyant of the guests staying there, was a particular group, who addressed one another constantly by name like calling birds, so that any audience could not be unaware of them, nor what they talked of in an open conversational roundelay. They were clearly on display for one another and any other listener and very little was not on show.
There was, first and foremost, Cecelia 'Cissy' Lambert, stylish enough to be able to wear a cloche hat without appearing extinguished. A woman in her early forties, with an eye catching set of mannerisms to match her wardrobe, she was the centre of the group's attention, to whom the men of the set played up, regardless of wives alongside. She had long white hands dressed with aquamarine rings to mirror the liquid shimmer of her pale, limpid gaze and affected an ethereal quality.
With her was her ward, a young girl of eighteen or so, with a Eurasian look about her small frame and features.
"My gift from Burma, aren't you, darling," Cecelia would cry when introducing her, as she did, regularly to anyone beyond her immediate party, for she talked to everyone.
"My little Doris, left to me by my cousin, who had some kind of mission school going on."
Doris, who had the inexpressive, watchful air of someone who might have a secret score to settle, never demurred at 'Aunt Cissy's' introduction of her in this way and merely replied to the usual questions that:
"No, she didn't miss Burma as she had been very little when she came to Aunt Cecelia and really couldn't advise as to the advantages or otherwise of the weather over there."
The observer drew her knitting out of the bag that was always handily alongside and remarked to her nearest neighbour that the light was just right in here for working on a delicate feather pattern she was knitting into a pink baby's dress.
" I tell you, Archie," admonished Cecelia. "You really must not hesitate about an offer like that! Your very own doctor's practice, rather than being a partner! Why, take the job man!"
It was Archie's wife, Iris, who had been speaking of hesitating at the prospect of a complete family uproot and Cecelia's response seemed to suggest he should be a man, regardless of his wife's timid reservations.
" We can't all live our lives like you, Cissy," laughed Archie. " You make decisions as if jumping off a bridge had no consequence."
"Well it doesn't, unless you let it," she returned, debonair.
"Oh, don't be ridiculous, Cissy," said Archie's wife, Iris, but indulgently. " You don't care a fig about house and home, do you? You and Doris flit about like a pair of butterflies from one rental to another."
"You know me, darling. Material things do not concern me," fluted Cissy airily.
" They would if you didn't have plenty of money left to you to please yourself with, my girl," said another of the men, jovially intimate.
" Do you think I like being a widow?" returned Cecelia. " I loved the dear Major. I was so young, Doris," (turning to her ward to tell a tale, it seemed, often told), " younger even than you."
"I've been old enough to marry for two years, aunt," replied Doris, matter of factly.
" Tut, child", said her aunt. " You're still my baby girl."
There were those who had wondered and rather audibly too, whether this were likely to be literally the case, but it was more spite than meaningful conjecture, the elderly knitter had concluded, after overhearing this particular gem muttered between wives.
An observer herself, she had already had several conversations with the young ward, who seemed to have a fairly clear eyed overview of the gathering. This was, that they all hung around like this due to Aunt Cissy's money, which she could either withhold or be capriciously generous with. They were all, in some way, distantly related, through blood or marriage.
"My kissing cousins," she calls them, Doris had relayed during one such talk over afternoon tea in the palm conservatory, which Miss Marple had found came in very handy for such matters over the past week of her stay.
" 'I must invite my kissing cousins. You know how they love my company,' she says. She's quite aware of what she's doing, you know, Miss Marple."
"Oh my dear, I do hope so," said Miss Marple, evidently unconvinced. " I should have thought it rather a dangerous game myself."
She privately concluded that this explained the rather stagey dynamic between this group, the way they all cooed about Cecelia Lambert like noisy woodpigeons preening for her attention.
Miss Marple had had a conversation, too, with another of Mrs Lambert's guests, a middle aged man who had been the much younger brother of the now deceased major, who found himself explaining, after exchanging pleasantries and hearing that Miss Marple's holiday was courtesy of her nephew, Raymond, by way of convalescence from a rather nasty winter chest infection which had lingered into the spring -
("So thoughtful, I'm sure you'll agree," she said, handing him a skein of wool to help her roll into new balls.
"Oh quite, happy to oblige, ma'am" he said, holding out his wrists obediently to be wound around) -
"Cissy over there invited us all to come for a stay and sea air. She's renting down here for the summer with her ward and wanted us all to come and take a look. Her treat, you know."
"Oh!" said Miss Marple, winding her wool. "How very generous of her."
" I like to keep an eye on her," he said avuncularly. " So I was happy to pop along. She was still so young when my brother died, Miss Marple, and she relied on him completely. You see, she never likes to be alone, you know. Probably why she was so happy to take young Doris on when er, well , " he added when prompted by Miss Marple, an adept at encouraging people to say far more than they had intended.
"Oh, quite. Indeed," murmured Miss Marple. " And has Cecelia never been tempted to remarry?"
"More than once, I should say," returned Percy Lambert (for so he had introduced himself). " But I think the poor chaps never quite live up to whatever dream she's conjured up of them and so she breaks off the engagement every time. Personally, despite the age gap, I don't think she ever got over losing poor old Bruce. I like to feel that in some small way I'm standing in, as it were."
"Oh, how very kind," replied Miss Marple, taking in as she had, his daily efforts to appear young and burnished in his best blazer, (though it was always the same one), clean shaven to show off a rather fine chin, and hair brilliantined to make the most of its remaining waves.
"How was it that your brother died, Mr Lambert?" she enquired.
" Heart attack on the golf course, bless him. Ironically while trying to stay fit and healthy. More exercise, they told him. If you ask me, it's what did him in. Vastly overrated in my opinion, exercise" said Percy comfortably, settling back with a brandy and soda.
In the palm court terrace, the current conversation was still continuing in the conservatory over the question of buying a new practice for Archie, skirting round the edge of the need for enabling funding to support the enterprise, with Cissy evading the question like a paddler jumping neatly out of the way of the waves of an incoming tide,
"Oh, my dear chap," she cried finally. "Take the plunge and see it out, or you never will know!" and on that note of half challenge, half promise, she gathered up her ward and bade them all goodnight, reminding them that she had booked the hotel tennis courts for the morning and that she and Doris were holding 'a little cocktail party' in the afternoon at their place. " The garden's half decent and it's to be lovely weather" she promised them.
"Aunt Cissy," Doris paused to ask, noticing Miss Marple with her knitting. " May I invite Miss Marple? She's been staying here on her own all week, you know."
" Really?" said Cecelia, glancing vaguely in Miss Marple's direction. "Well, if you've made a friend, Doris, why not?"
Her charm refocused, she came to shake Miss Marple's hand in greeting, speaking to her directly for the first time.
"You will come, won't you, Miss Marple? It's not far to walk, and Doris shall come to fetch you."
"Oh, er, yes, thank you, my dear," the old lady with pink cheeks and fluffy white hair answered. "That will be most pleasant. Actually, I'm quite a good walker you know, for my age. Well, er , yes. I shall certainly come," she concluded fussily. "Thank you, Doris."
That young person studied her gravely and said:
"I will be here at exactly two thirty, Miss Marple. You may depend upon it."
Her aunt then moving off, she took the opportunity to add, sotto voce:
" I think you should be there, Miss Marple. For safety's sake."
"Who's safety, child?" enquired Miss Marple, but Doris had already gone out after her aunt and they left the hotel together for the evening.
Miss Marple continued to knit peaceably in her corner, and to listen in as the other guests began to grumble, no longer on parade.
" Goodness me, I do hope you and Archie give it a rest tomorrow," said a sallow looking woman, whose black dress, Miss Marple noted, did nothing for her colouring.
"Why? So you can get in about your guest house needing a new roof?" asked Archie's wife unkindly. " A bit of a busman's holiday for you, Mary, isn't it, staying here? More upmarket though, of course."
" I keep an establishment for permanent residents, as well you know," said Mary, bridling stiffly. "It's not an hotel."
"You mean, it's the only way you can keep hold of your parents' place, old girl," said Archie, backing up his wife. " That house has been falling down since death duties did it in, not to mention the servant problem."
" I haven't got a servant problem," returned Mary spiritedly. "I'm a Paris trained chef and have kitchen staff. I send the laundry out and Julia loves to clean."
"That's putting it mildly, Mary," laughed another woman. " Cousin Julia's away with the fairies, always has been. She doesn't love to clean, she's obsessed with it."
"Either way, it's her home and it keeps her happy. It's the only way I can manage to keep her living there."
"Does she still never leave the house?"
"No, of course she doesn't."
"It's a good job you want to stay there, too, then."
"What choice do I have?" asked Mary scratchily. " Anyway, my point is, that it's not fair for Archie to bang on about needing money for a new practice all the time we're here."
"Yes, we know Cissy's rather quixotic in giving her favours, old chap," put in Percy. "Least said sometimes, and she's giving us a jolly decent holiday as it is."
" Oh, I know she's seen you all right already, Percy. I saw Cissy handing you some nice big bank notes yesterday. Another unexpected downturn on the stock exchange?"
"Really! Private matters, Archie. Rather shocked," responded Percy, moving smartly away from further interrogation under the cover of decent outrage.
He took advantage of Miss Marple's presence, noticing her and taking a seat alongside.
" I don't know what you must think of us, Miss Marple?" he enquired testingly.
" I?" she said, engaged in studying her pattern closely. "Oh, I'm afraid I've been far too taken up with a difficult section of this baby's dress to pay much attention. I'm afraid I've chosen something particularly intricate, but, you see, it's for rather a special baby, who was very delicate at birth, so I wanted to make something especially beautiful for her. Now, I wonder, Mr Lambert, if you wouldn't mind helping me out with these meringues, which look far too much for me to deal with."
Mr Lambert's figure testified to an enjoyment of sweetmeats and he was happy to oblige, following which, Miss Marple retired to her room to write a letter to her nephew, she explained. They said their goodnights and that particular evening drew to a close.
After breakfast in the white clothed dining room, where the linen matched the crisp wave crests in view from the big bay windows, Miss Marple took a walk to the left across the wide grassy cliff top, which led on to the tennis courts and golf course, then a gabled club house set on the edge of the curving path, which then led steeply down to the beach and a long promenade walk by the sea back to the pier and the small town. It was a bright, still May morning, where in a clear light, all the building lines were very sharp and the grass green and freshly springy, inviting bare feet and, indeed, ahead of her, dangling her sandals in one hand, was the small figure of Doris, enjoying walking slowly through it.
"Good morning, Doris!" hailed Miss Marple, catching up with her briskly. " Aren't you joining in the tennis today, my dear?"
"Good morning, Miss Marple" returned Doris. " I expect I shall have to play a set later but I'm leaving them to it, for now. I'm to check on the morning coffee arrangements at the club house," she explained, nodding towards the gabled building they were approaching. The noise of balls being struck, laughter and teasing came across to them vividly in the unusually quiet air.
"Then, I shall walk along with you as far as that, Doris," Miss Marple stated. " Now, I won't beat about the bush, my dear. What did you mean when you said you wanted me to come to the party 'for safety's sake'?"
"I think you may be a good influence, Miss Marple," Doris said, with her serious gaze turning upon that lady. "Your presence may shame them into giving Aunt Cissy a break and stop circling her like the bunch of hyenas they are. I know it doesn't seem so, but she's really rather lonely, you know. Aunt Cissy doesn't possess the gift of making real friends. That's why she keeps the kissing cousins at heel."
"Yes", Miss Marple answered thoughtfully. "It puts me in mind of Mrs Armitage and the church fete at St. Mary Mead, where I live, Doris." She shook her head. " It was all most unfortunate."
"Church fete, Miss Marple?" Doris asked, a rare smile crossing her features. "That's hardly Aunt Cecelia's kind of affair."
"Oh, but it's the same thing, you see, Doris. Courting popularity in all the wrong ways. It never ends well. Do you know," she added, reflecting, "You are the second person to suggest that your aunt is really rather vulnerable."
"My Aunt Cissy is not vulnerable at all," declared Doris. " I thought you understood, Miss Marple. The point is, she has no real perception of how much she sets people against one another, as she hasn't an idea about what makes them tick."
"Oh, but she is vulnerable, Doris. Now may I ask a rather impertinent question?"
Doris nodded guardedly.
" As her ward, has your aunt made proper financial provision for you?"
"In the future, you mean, I suppose, Miss Marple. No, I don't mind at all your asking. There's some kind of trust fund set up for when I'm twenty one, I believe," stated Doris in her forthright way. "Aunt Cissy says it's in case she finally does marry some fool or other and wants to make sure that I will be all right."
"Well, marriage, yes....that would be one kind of a future I suppose," answered Miss Marple. "And is there a current beau?"
"I don't know, Miss Marple," said Doris, thinking. "Unless it's Colin. He's someone new we've met here. He's taken us for a drive a few times to show us the scenery, and he calls in."
Miss Marple, who had noted her use of his first name only, smiled and suggested,
"And have you thought, perhaps, that it may not be your Aunt Cissy whom Colin may be interested in?"
"It's rather hard to say, isn't it?" said Doris flatly. "With Aunt Cissy about nobody else really gets a look in do they? He's coming today, I think, so you will meet him then, Miss Marple." A small dimple appeared in one cheek. "Perhaps you will be kind enough to let me know?" she added.
"I shall do my very best, my dear," promised Miss Marple. " With all of them. You may be assured of that. Now, we're nearly at the Club House, so here is where I turn back to finish my morning walk. I will see you in the palm terrace conservatory at two thirty, Doris."
Doris, who had old fashioned manners, shook hands and agreed that she would see Miss Marple there later.
Doris duly appeared and looked less of the schoolgirl than usual, having put up her hair and smudged the upward tilt of her eyes with kohl, giving their dark bloom a less penetrating look. She wore a crimson tea dress, which set off the womanliness of her petite figure. Miss Marple hoped that this would not be lost on Colin, whoever he turned out to be, for Doris, Miss Marple discerned, was ready to fly Aunt Cecelia's nest, though whether she would be allowed to do so might be another matter.
They walked to a neat square Georgian town house, the door a rich blue, with a large gold knocker and knob dead centre over a polished letterbox, a distinguished looking portico and fanlight above. The door was opened to them by a matronly looking woman, who greeted Miss Marple pleasantly and took her coat, while giving Doris a running commentary upon tasks done and to be done, more in the mode of addressing a maid than a young mistress, giving Miss Marple a further idea of Doris's standing in her Aunt Cecelia's household.
"Now, Miss Doris," she was saying. "The finger sandwiches are done and set out in the kitchen covered with a cloth. A nice bit of ham and some of his best potted beef delivered fresh from the butcher not an hour ago. There's a salad in the pantry, good and crisp and I've made some devils on horseback and maids of honour specially. One of the other ladies is down in the kitchen just now, Miss," she sniffed. " I don't see why, Miss Doris, but I suppose it's not my place to ... well, she's making canapés she says. Lot of fancy nonsense if you ask me, the amount of trouble she's taking over some bits and bats of pastries and no one else to think of touching them."
"Oh, that's all right, thank you, Mrs Sutcliffe," said Doris, neatly avoiding the injured tone in the woman's voice. "That will be cousin Mary making one of her contributions." She added, drily. "I expect someone's rattling up some special cocktails as well, aren't they?"
" Well, now that you mention it, Miss, one of the gentlemen asked for a large tray and some soda water, to set up his extra ingredients on, he said, Miss. Brought out a whole case of bottles of his own, he did. Now, Miss Doris, will you be all right finishing off the tables in the garden as I must get off to see to poor old Mr Driffield's tea? Poor soul can hardly move from his chair, these days," she explained to Miss Marple, apparently for her benefit. "I do for a few of the old folk around here, ma'am and I believe the word 'treasure' has been mentioned of me."
"Oh, do you? Do you, indeed, Mrs, er ? Well, you see, I myself am only a visitor, you know, or I'm sure it would really be quite, er, yes..."
" Come on in, Miss Marple," said Doris firmly. "Thank you, Mrs Sutcliffe. I'll take it from here."
The guests from the hotel had in the main already arrived and Percy took Miss Marple under his wing while Doris went about laying plates, glasses and napkins on the two long tables set out in a large, well kept garden. There, Cecelia was seated in a light wicker chair against a backdrop of white rhododendron bushes in full bloom, their delicate rosettes framing her cream silk shot dress and the spiral ringlets her dark blonde hair was twirled into this afternoon, emphasising rather good cheekbones. A slender silver circlet with a drop pearl rested on her forehead.
"Dear God!" muttered a kissing cousin within earshot of Miss Marple. "She's gone all Victorian virginal on us. Where is the siren this afternoon?"
"Don't be such a cat, Iris," replied the confidante, enjoying it. "I think she looks lovely. Cecelia always dresses so well."
"Bit long in the tooth for that look, " replied Iris (for it was Archie's wife). "Maybe Doris is getting in on the act these days and Cecelia's feeling it."
"Oh, Doris! She's such an odd little thing, isn't she?"
"Herbert and his adventures. I've always wondered if she were really his daughter, you know. I've never thought these missionary types were all they ought to be."
"Yes, but, Herbert!"
At the recollection of the now passed on missionary, the two women burst out laughing and moved on. Percy, meanwhile, was warning Miss Marple to be careful of any cocktails or nibbles offered to her that seemed unfamiliar.
"They mean no harm, you know," he was saying. "But really, they go to such lengths to impress Cecelia that things become quite unpalatable. Walter's cocktails are a thing of mystery. I could never recommend them." He patted her hand. "And as for Mary's canapés..."
"Oh, yes, I do see. Thank you," replied Miss Marple. "No, I shall be quite all right with a simple sandwich and a nice cup of tea. I will sit on that bench over there with my knitting, I think, Mr Lambert. You musn't feel obliged to keep me company."
She had observed his anxious glances in Cecelia's direction, surrounded as she was by the many other suitors for her attention and having seen Miss Marple seated on her selected garden bench, Percy went off happily enough to join them.
After a while, the garden gate opened and a lively looking dark haired young man entered. He had a quick, intelligent air, outgoing rather than introspective and a healthy, summer glow about him which suited the day.
He gave a glance around the company and went straight to the hostess, who sprang up to greet him, holding out both her hands to grasp his, rather theatrically. She was above medium height and he slightly less, so that they found their gaze locked at eye level, like lovers, while she held onto his hands.
"My dear Colin!" she thrilled. "I'm so delighted you could find the time to come."
"Well why not?" he returned easily. "It's not as if I have a million other things to do on a Sunday afternoon, is it? Or any other, come to that."
"Oh, poor chap," said Archie sympathetically. "Down on your luck?"
"Not really," replied Colin. "Bored stiff since I inherited. I was a pilot, you know. Adored it! But the old man was sure I'd buy it if I went on, so stipulation of the will, give all up in favour of the riches."
"I say, is that true?" breathed Veronica (an unmarried kissing cousin on the look out), sidling closer with her bare ring finger showing.
"Not a bit of it. Pack of lies, " Colin answered cheerfully. " But every party needs a good story to get it going, wouldn't you say? Now, where is that ward of yours, Cecelia? Stuck in the kitchen I'll be bound, weighed down with doilies no doubt."
"Doris?" queried Cecelia waftily. "Oh, she's around here somewhere. I'm sure she will be back in a minute."
"Well, I shall go and find her, lend a hand with the handing round," he stated and with that, he withdrew, rather expertly, from her grasp and left in search of Doris.
Round one, Miss Marple thought, to Colin, who had sewn the seeds of consternation amongst the kissing cousins within minutes. Was he, or was he not, a rival for Cecelia's money, or indeed, another potential fiancé? None of them thought for a second that he had any interest in Doris, a simple enough ruse to stoke the fires of desire in Cissy, if she thought to do more than sit back to attract him.
In due course, and rather longer, Miss Marple thought, than setting out a few sandwiches might have taken, Colin and Doris came back out wheeling a tea trolley between them laden with delicacies and behind them, came Mary, with a silver tray of tiny dainties prepared by her own Parisian trained hands, or so she claimed. Miss Marple had been privy to overhearing a conversation alleging that Mary had in fact run off to work in a German pastry shop, that this was in truth where she had learned her expertise and not only that, but that she had very nearly married the Austrian owner, before being carted back by her English parents to spinsterhood, being an honourable and caring for her deranged sister. They were not, Miss Marple had considered, if true, the makings of a happy woman.
Colin and Doris deftly set out the tables between them and in Miss Marple's view, Doris's crimson tea gown looked rather better among the rhododendrons than her aunt's. Mary handed round the canapés with a slightly vengeful air of having something better than others to offer.
"They do look so lovely," said Miss Marple, peering at them. "But, my dear, I'm afraid at my age, you know, sadly, only the simple things in life suit what one has to eat. It's most disappointing, I know and most of all, for me. I believe there are ham sandwiches and a little salad?"
"Indeed so," said Mary, not taking offence, for this was an unimportant guest. " I shall send Doris to you directly."
"Oh, not at all, my dear, I shouldn't dream of it," Miss Marple objected. " I shall simply go and help myself. It's all the thing these days, isn't it, at these delightfully informal occasions? Yes, well, do excuse me."
She joined the small crowd around the tables and chatted harmlessly, while taking a finger sandwich and a maid of honour on to her plate.
"I say, don't overdo it, Miss Marple," admonished Walter, one of the more rakish kissing cousins, busy shaking cocktails vigorously. " Is that all you're having? Try one of these. Pep you up nicely."
He poured a pretty, bright drink into a tiny glass, saying:
"Now you down it in one and then suck this slice of lemon. Don't worry about the salt on the glass rim, it's intended."
" Good heavens, Walter, it looks positively poisonous, " declared one of the younger women, still in her twenties but sturdy, with a round open face and seeming rather nicer than many of the rest. "I'd better have it. Do let me rescue you. Nancy Speed," she introduced herself. "A sort of cousin of Cissie's, you know."
"Yes, I think I know. Thank you. Most kind of you, Nancy. Miss Marple," she responded.
"Look at Percy stuffing all the potted meat sandwiches over there," Nancy commented. "You'd think he's not sure when he'll eat after this holiday."
"Well, my dear, perhaps he isn't," replied Miss Marple. "I don't suppose he's entirely alone in that, do you, Nancy."
"Gracious, Miss Marple, are you a radical? How refreshing, to be thinking of the great unwashed at a garden party!"
Miss Marple revised her opinion of Nancy's niceness.
"Well, if I were," she said, with some asperity, "It would be to consider, that like most people, they would prefer to be both clean and comfortable. Don't you agree, Nancy?"
"You are a scream, Miss Marple," said Nancy, laughing exaggeratedly. " I say, Cissie, do hear what lovely Miss Marple has just said!"
She moved, satellite like, into Cecelia's orbit, having latched on to something to seize a moment of her sought after attention with. Miss Marple sighed, considered that it was perhaps time for a cup of tea and then, after a decent interval, a return to the hotel with her knitting.
She was not, she felt, doing very well in living up to Doris's hope that she would be a good influence upon the kissing cousins. Although, she reflected, it was quite pleasant watching Doris and Colin walking about and coming together occasionally quite naturally. If she got an opportunity, she thought, she would ask him what his real circumstances were, when he wasn't being silly about it.
Miss Marple had one moment of deep concern, however, when Cissy, having been handed a cocktail, suddenly choked on it and appeared to be unable to catch her breath for a few distressing moments but recovered after being patted on the back.
"What a very strong smell of almonds!" she cried, coughing still. "And so bitter!"
Miss Marple's antennae went up immediately.
"Well of course, Cissy. It's Amaretto, a liqueur made of almonds and I simply added a dash of Angostura, " Walter told her. "One of my specials."
"It's quite horrid. Don't give me another," spluttered Cissy.
"Acquired taste, old girl. For sophisticates only," Walter said, giving Cecelia another of his winks, which he appeared to think charming, although Miss Marple doubted that the appellation of 'old girl' would be likely to do him any favours with Cissy.
"I'm sophisticated enough without that, thank you," returned Cecelia, still coughing.
After this, the little party began to break up. Mrs Sutcliffe reappeared to clear and wash up, having 'done' for her old people. Cissie went for a nap. Doris and Colin had quietly gone off for a walk, observed only by Miss Marple, and everyone else walked back the short distance to the hotel.
Percy gallantly gave Miss Marple his arm to the door, and having had rather enough of all of their company for the day, Miss Marple went to make a collect call to her nephew from the hotel lobby to tell him how much she was enjoying her stay and retired to her room, where she knitted, listened to the radio and admired the sunset from her window.
The party had gone well, without anything untoward happening, but it was during the night at the hotel that Miss Marple was awoken by a commotion and then the sound of ambulance bells. She looked out to see one parked on the hotel forecourt and then a stretcher being wheeled out. All was quiet after this and she retired again but at breakfast in the morning, a familiar face was missing and an earnest discussion was underway amongst the kissing cousins.
"Well, you're a doctor, Archie, couldn't you do anything?"
"I did my best. Looked like food poisoning of the worst kind. Botulism. Then the poor chap had apoplexy. Wasn't in the pink to start with exactly, was he, old Percy?"
"Where would you get that?"
"Potted meat, my dear girl and from where I was standing, Percy bolted the lot of those sandwiches. You wait and see, but I'm right."
Miss Marple recalled Mrs Sutcliffe's account of the provisions and thought that the local butcher would not be happy to hear his best, freshly delivered potted beef had come under suspicion.
" The police will want to find out if anyone else who bought that from the butcher were taken ill," suggested Miss Marple. " A sudden death like that will have to be looked into, you know. Poor Mr Lambert, rather a nice man, in his way, I thought."
"He was all right, old Perce, apart from still hoping to step into dead men's shoes."
"Bruce's, you mean?" said Miss Marple. "Oh, but surely, none of you could have taken that seriously for a moment. Cecelia certainly didn't pay him any of that kind of attention. I thought she felt rather sorry for him."
"Did you, indeed, Miss Marple" bridled sallow Mary, acquiring all the tone of her social position in an instant. "I'm surprised you presume to know so much about Cecelia and her family."
"Oh, I'm so sorry, my dear," flustered Miss Marple. "I meant no offence. Only, it's all very sad. I was so hoping that, well, that it wouldn't turn out to be like Mrs Armitage, after all."
"Who? Who's Mrs Armitage, Miss Marple?"
But Miss Marple didn't enlighten them and they returned to conversation amongst themselves.
"Has anyone told Cecelia and Doris yet?" Miss Marple enquired after a while of being deep in thought.
"No. Gosh! Quite right, Miss Marple!" cried Nancy. "I shall go down to them at once."
"Yes, I think one of the family should, certainly, yes," concurred Miss Marple.
She then excused herself and returned to her room, where she would have an excellent view should the police arrive shortly. In due course, she saw an officer in uniform arriving and making her way unobtrusively downstairs, was in time to hear him asking for Dr Archibald Summerskill.
The doctor, as she had anticipated, chose to speak to the officer discreetly in the conservatory, empty at that pre morning coffee time. There was talk of an inquest due to the doctor's medical findings.
"No doubt at all. Botulism," declared the doctor. "Followed by apoplexy."
"Investigations will be undertaken, sir, into the butcher's produce, as your medical opinion is so decided," said the officer.
" Certainly, certainly," said the doctor. " Don't want some local poisoning epidemic on your hands, I expect. Main thing though, I knew the man for years. Gluttonous. Never took care of himself you know and a stranger to exercise. Dangerous age, the fifties, man like that."
A man in his fifties himself, he studied his reflection complacently in a large wall mirror just beyond the officer's shoulder. At this point, Miss Marple emerged unexpectedly from behind a large fern.
"Oh, good morning, doctor, good morning, officer, " she greeted their startled faces. "Only I really must protest. You see, I hardly think it could be botulism. Mrs Sutcliffe was most particular that it was the butcher's best potted beef, freshly delivered and surely a speciality of his that he takes pride in? The apoplexy, yes, but that would be an entirely different matter."
"Miss Marple," the doctor said, raising a humouring eyebrow man to man at the policeman. "Where did you spring from?"
"Oh, I'm terribly sorry. I was just here doing my little bit of knitting. Rather a special baby, officer, and, er, I couldn't help overhearing. I felt I really must, well, I'm sure you understand."
"Yes, Miss," said the policeman, humouring her and choosing to side matily with the doctor. " Well, investigations will be underway as to the poor gentleman's cause of, um..."
"Yes, quite, officer," said Miss Marple, saving him the difficulty of saying the words 'death' or 'demise' in the hearing of one of her advanced years. "Well, I shall leave you professional gentlemen to it, " she concluded, busily putting away her knitting and bustling off, pausing to add,
"I think I may pay a call on Cecelia. There's no time to be lost. An independent eye, you know, can be invaluable on the right occasion."
"I dare say, Miss Marple," said the doctor indulgently, smiling conspiratorially at the policeman, but he was looking quizzically after Miss Marple, as if something she had said had struck a distant chord. She called back to him:
"You might remember me to your inspector, constable. I'm sure he will recall, if not me, my nephew, Raymond, for they were well acquainted at one time. Good day to you."
"Extraordinary old bat, that one," said the doctor, rather rudely. " Seems to be everywhere at once."
"Yes," smiled the constable. "I believe that is one of her attributes."
"Oh, you know her, then?"
"By reputation only, sir", replied the constable respectfully. "If I have the right lady in mind. I will be sure to mention her to the inspector. I think he will find her presence here, as Miss Marple would say herself, most interesting."
Miss Marple arrived at the Town House to find Cecelia, though no doubt genuinely distressed, making the most of the news by conflating Percy's death with that of her long deceased major.
"Two brothers together!" she sobbed, wringing her large white hands.
"Aunt Cissie, Bruce died twenty years ago or more," Doris was saying reasonably."
Miss Marple noted that Colin was already there and looking supportive around Doris, a sensible seeming young man, she thought, despite a taste for having a joke at the expense of the eagerly gullible. She enquired as to Nancy and was assured by Doris that she had been and gone, no doubt, Miss Marple thought, encouraged to depart.
"Now, my dears, " said Miss Marple. " I need you to take courage and face up to something very serious indeed. I wonder, if Mrs Sutcliffe is here, if we might all have a nice cup of tea."
Mrs Sutcliffe wasn't there but Colin volunteered to do kitchen service and when he handed Miss Marple her cup, she took the opportunity to ask him, knowingly, if there were any truth in the pilot story.
"I'm afraid not," he said with smiling aplomb. "I'm a fearful liar if I can get away with it. The truth is, I'm a humble businessman. I have a gents outfitters in town.
"Then you and Doris will do splendidly. She strikes me as having the makings of an excellent book keeper," Miss Marple told him.
"But I'm trade!" he said, with mock deference.
"Oh, my dear, Doris's origins are not as high born as all that and really, these days, class isn't everything it was. Now if you will have the goodness, I must have a private word with Cecelia and then with Doris. Perhaps you can entertain her meanwhile. After that, we must go to the hotel and assemble everyone."
Some time later, shortly before luncheon, all the guests of Cecelia's party had been gathered together and Miss Marple addressed them with solemnity in the palm court terrace conservatory.
"I must begin by telling you all that there has very nearly been a grave miscarriage of justice. I have no doubt at all that what caused poor Mr Lambert's death was no more or less than..........natural causes. It was, clearly, as the doctor did correctly diagnose, apoplexy of the heart, like his brother. However, despite these facts, the suspicion of murder could soon have hung over everyone here and given the way you all carry on, it wouldn't be long before, having thought one of you had begun bumping off the opposition to get at Cecelia's money, the murder business began in earnest. For let us be honest, there is no love lost between any of you.
"Let me explain. I am quite sure that the butcher's reputation will remain unsullied. No botulism will be found in his potted meat. This suggestion, which the police are investigating even now, was due to an unfortunate misdiagnosis made by Dr Summerskill , who, I don't know if the rest of you are aware, has in fact been struck off for performing illegal abortions. Hence his need for money to buy his way into a new practice where he would be unknown."
A ripple of shock passed through the company.
"Now, that is by the by," continued Miss Marple. " But due to his professional insistence that botulism was the primary cause of death, police questioning would undoubtedly find no ill effects as a result of the butcher's other sales, and therefore it would have to have been in that batch only, which would raise the spectre of deliberate contamination with the intent of poisoning. Which would mean one of those present at the party. You see, despite appearances, I have experience in these matters. Now, of course, there was no botulism and no poisoning but with such a group as yourselves, any hint of murder would have set you all off and who knows how things might have ended? There are some very dangerous cliffs here where all kind of unfortunate accidents might happen.
" I must further tell you all that I have had a very serious discussion with Cecelia about the way she has been going on and I'm happy to say that she has agreed to settle a once in a lifetime amount on each and every one of you, a generous one, to come into force immediately. She will be making an appointment later today and will meet her solicitor at his earliest convenience."
A certain tension left the guests' demeanour and they were clearly refraining from asking how much.
"Until that time, when she will of course also be making a proper will to benefit young Doris, here, as her rightful heir, (most lax to leave these things undone), Cecelia will be with me. I'm taking her with me directly to St Mary Mead. She is in need of a new set of friends, it appears to me, and there is plenty of scope in a village such as mine, where there is at present a most suitable house to let. I shall, of course, be at hand to guide her.
"It is quite clear to me that Doris will shortly leave her to live her own life, as is only right and fitting, so Cecelia too will need a fresh start. My honest suggestion is, that once in receipt of your money, you all do the same.
"And now I must leave you, to telephone my nephew, Raymond, with the news of our arrival. Good day to you all. Now, come, Cecelia, say your farewells, for we must go and pack your things. Do you know, " she said confidingly, taking Cecelia's arm and leading her away, " my nephew too is unmarried, never having met someone suitable, he tells me. I wonder, my dear, are you at all fond of a rubber of bridge? Now, I think, perhaps, that you might begin to call me Jane, rather than Miss Marple."
So the old lady with pink cheeks and fluffy white hair killed the golden goose without spilling a drop of blood and shepherded Cecelia to safety, adding to her, chatting quietly on as they left the terrace:
"My nephew will be charmed to know that for once I have enjoyed one of his kindly meant holidays without having an actual murder to solve. I must say, it has been a most refreshing change."
The assembled kissing cousins, their teeth and claws drawn, looked after them in bewilderment.
"I say" said Colin , who had been looking on in admiration. "What a woman! Come on, Doris, I have something in particular that I want to ask you."
"The answer's yes, of course," said Doris.
"Good girl. You know, you never did finish telling me the story of who your mother and father were, out in Burma?"
""Oh, I've no idea," said Doris, incuriously. "I expect I'm illegitimate, don't you? What else are mission orphanages for if not to cover up the odd mistake?"
"Probably," he agreed. "Excellent, no in laws to speak of. Couldn't be better," and with that, hand in hand, Colin and Doris too left the party on the terrace to wonder just how much money they would each, finally, get, after their years of devoted service.
Behind them, the string quartet began to play as other hotel guests came in and they decided to stay on for luncheon, since, after all, their holiday was all expenses paid.