I met a murderer once. She wasn't nearly as dramatic as murderers in books. It was this way. Oh, thanks, I'd love a drink. It was in '67. No, it wasn't really, it began in '63. Where did you get this gin? It's lovely. Yes, it began in '63. Have I told you how I came to be a nanny? I'm not surprised, it's very boring. I was born in Canada. My father drowned. My mother had never been very healthy, her health collapsed and she died. I was a month old. I was sent home on the net boat, to live with my aunt, who had not much money and no children, in York. Yes, thanks, I'd love another drink. My aunt died in '63 and I set off into the big wide world to make my fortune. I hadn't done too well at school and had no professional qualifications. I decided to become a nanny. I was twenty then. I had a friend who was at university and laughed at this. She said I should go to secretarial collage and get a job in a big hotel. Apparently "all the girls" were doing this. I wouldn't know. It wasn't exactly the Swinging Sixties at my aunt's. She was born in the reign of Queen Victoria, and she didn't let you forget it.
I got a position almost at once. It was a big house up in the Lakes. The master of the house was a Mr Perrivale, quite old, probably genuine Queen Vic himself. He and his wife had taken in the two children of his last surviving son, who had died. Yes, I know I said he was surviving, I meant that he survived long enough to have children. The others all died young, and not, I'm afraid, very respectably. His daughter-in-law had died too, so it seemed only natural that the children should go to their only surviving relatives. They were twins, a boy, Robert, and a girl, Elaine. They had just turned three. No sooner had they come to live with the Perrivales than Mr Perrivale's wife died. Mr Perrivale said he knew nothing about children, and I must agree with him, but he didn't want to turn them away just when they arrived. He believed in family, did Mr Perrivale, and family duty. There was a maid, which they couldn't really afford but the Perrivales knew nothing about housekeeping. There was also a nephew of Mr Perrivale's, who had been disgraced out of the army—I'm not sure what he'd done—and who really, now ran the farm. The farm had been in the family forever. Mr John, I called this cousin. Anyway, Mr Perrivale thought he had better have someone to look after the children properly, as the maid didn't have a spare moment.
I liked the house, it was called Krakholl, and stood on a cliff over-looking a lake, with a little path down through the meadows to a rocky beach. Very old, weathered grey stone. Inside there were lots of steps and passages and crannies. None of the floors were quite level. Must have been a pain to clean. And it took me weeks to remember where anything was. I remember now, there was a flight of steps leading up to a little room at the end of the passage on the first floor, and right on the other side of the door were steps leading down again. I never understood that. But I liked the feeling of absolute solidity, of having stood here against the elements for centuries, I liked, oh, I don't know, I just liked the feel of the place, of standing on top of the turret and leaning over the parapet watching the sun go down over the hills, turning them all pink and gold, and casting long purple shadows over the lake, and the wind came up from the lake, just a bit cold. The house was full of books. Mr Perrivale said I could read anything I liked. There were funny little odds and ends everywhere, that dead and gone Perrivales had brought home from afar. I liked Krakholl a lot. Biscuit? Thanks.
I liked Mr Perrivale, too. He could be a pain, and I'd have pitied any lazy girl whom he's hired. But he was very generous with his money, and he genuinely appreciated the work I did with the children.
And the children! Two little darlings. Absolute darlings. Oh, they could be scamps. We did some very naughty things. I'm afraid I might not have set the best example in obedience, quietness, being a little lady and gentleman. I don't think anyone does at twenty. But they were really very sweet. Always happy, always cheerful, so funny. Never whined, never arm-twisted, never had a sulk or lied or were mean or spiteful. Robert was really very perceptive for his age, and I'm afraid he noticed people slighting him or talking down to him, when they didn't mean him to. The resultant temper could be quite something. But nothing compared with when he was about five and another boy was really quite spiteful to Elaine, who wouldn't give him a kiss in some silly spin-the-bottle game. I believed he was going to kill him, I really did. It was all I could do to pull him off him. I've never seen a child like that, not crying or anything, just thumping and clawing and scratching and beating his head on the ground. Yes, Robert was one to be watched, when annoyed. But I'll say this. When he had a complaint, I was on his side. With the complaint, not his way of dealing with it. I had to tell him firmly how gentlemen settle disputes. And he listened, and told me he would try to do as I asked. I'm not sure which I find funnier now. His solemn devotion to everything I said, as if it were handed down to Moses on the mountain, or that "try". Never made a promise he couldn't keep, that Robert.
I beg your pardon, I know that you're anxious to get on to the murder. But really, you won't understand what happened unless you understand the Perrivales.
Elaine was a real lady. I mean that how my aunt meant it. Quiet, completely self-controlled, dignified, never underestimated twice. She never shouted, swore or cried, but three years old or no, the play-ground thug learned to fear her tongue. She got it off her grand-father. And she had that scornful look that simply annihilated her enemies with their own unworthiness. Yes, Elaine, I felt, would go far. Elaine had a little kitten, which she called Fluffy. Mr Perrivale planned for him to be a mouser, but he was too lazy. Elaine spoilt him in kittenhood, and spoilt him for life. Even as a fully-grown cat, he still acted like a kitten. Destructive, too. But cats always are. He meant the world to Elaine. When I look back now, I see Elaine asleep on the rug in front of the fire, with Fluffy curled up on her throat. The mutual adoration. It could have been a Christmas card.
No thanks, I've had enough to drink.
In the spring of '67, I was the happiest young woman in England. I certainly can't imagine a happier. The children were strong and healthy and happy. We walked, we rode, we went boating, we went swimming. They showed me their first stories, the first ones they had written all by themselves. I honestly believe we wanted for nothing. Nothing in the whole world. It was too good to last, of course.
Her name was Ruby Harris. She was young, about my age. She came from London. She was the daughter of a friend of Mr Perrivale's. They had been in the army together, and I can't remember which one saved the other one's life, but it was the usual life-saving story. Anyway, this friend had died. His wife was long dead, he had left his only child, this Ruby, alone and penniless. Well, she said penniless. She played the hard-luck angle for all it was worth. And I dare say it wold work on a man, who wouldn't know about these things, but I saw her perfume and the nail varnish she bought, and I tell you, if she was penniless, I'm the Queen of Sheba.
I guessed she had been dumped by some boy-friend of hers up in London, otherwise she would never have come to an out-of-the-way place like this. Complained constantly she did. Oh, not in Mr Perrivale's hearing! Too clever for that. But to me, she complained constantly.
She came with her father's dying wish—or something—that she become Mr Perrivale's secretary. To my knowledge, she had never been to secretarial school and didn't know short-hand. And I haven't the faintest idea why Mr Harris thought Mr Perrivale wanted a secretary anyway. Anyway, Mr Perrivale insisted that she stay with him "as one of the family". Wouldn't dream of treating old Harris' daughter like a servant, all that kind of thing. And that Ruby stood there in her nice big room and purred like the cat who had got the cream. Bright red dress, she wore. One of these fancy hats—not in her bed-room, but she had one. High-heeled shoes, the most unsuitable kind for the country. Now, I'm not a prude, I like my war paint as much as the next girl, but there's no need to have the stuff an inch thick. Oh, she was pretty, I admit that, the cheap, obvious prettiness that men go mad for and any woman can tell comes out of a bottle. A regiment of bottles, I expect. Twirling in front of that mirror, with her hard, cold, painted face wreathed in smiles like a child.
Then Fluffy, always keen to be in on the action, came trotting through the door. Still not much bigger than a kitten. Very fluffy, slightly dishevelled from where he had been running in terror from a mouse.
"Eugh!" Ruby sprang away. "Horrid thing."
"That's Fluffy." I picked him up and rocked him against my chest. "He's Elaine's cat."
"Oh." She wrinkled her nose. "Get it out. It'll drop fur everywhere."
"He can't help it." I didn't like her tone. And I certainly didn't like the way she snapped her fingers at me. As if I were a servant. I was, but so would she have been if Mr Perrivale hadn't started getting all sentimental over his dead mate.
"I'll need lavender bath oil," she said. "I'll need the hot water turning on twice a day, nine and seven. I need the window opening at half past nine, but closed at half past ten."
For a moment I was speechless with shock. I could have done with Mr Perrivale's tongue at that moment, but even if I had it, I couldn't use it on Mr Perrivale's precious Ruby.
"I suggest you talk about it with Mr Perrivale," I said eventually.
I went away clutching Fluffy, my chest burning.
That burning became a long, smoky smoulder of resentment over the days and weeks. Ruby was quite willing to spend Mr Perrivale's little money. Shoes, bags, hats, perfume. She wore nothing more than once. We needed the money to invest in the farm, to invest in the children's future. Not on my fine lady's bags and shoes. Only Mr John dared to take it up with her. She ran off to Mr Perrivale, crying like a spoilt five-year-old, and he shouted at Mr John. Mr John couldn't stand up to him. He might have been too much for the army to handle, but nobody's too much for Mr Perrivale to handle, when he makes his mind up. And he had made his mind up that Ruby was an angel on Earth, she was always right, nothing was too good for her.
He indulged her every whim. At first because she was Mr Harris' daughter. Then because he fell in love with her. I don't mean he was one of those awful old men who do nothing but chase pretty young girls. I like to think I'm not too bad—why, thank you!—and he never chased me. There was a photo on the side-board of him and his wife, only she wasn't his wife then, she was his girl-friend, and they were both sixteen. I've never seen a picture of any other woman, apart from family gatherings, of course. But really, with Ruby around, he didn't have much choice. She set her sights on him like a machine gunner and he was just as helpless. She was a man-eating tigress, or at least, a money-eating tigress. And what money there was around here was Mr Perrivale's. I dare say some young women might have loved him for his own sake. Not Ruby. She was very stupid and intellectual conversation only bored her. Only two things could get her interested in a man. Looks and money. Mr Perrivale's looks had faded long ago—but judging from Mr John he must have had them once. Now there was only his money.
Mr John and I realised the danger at once. He pointed the real danger out to me. Mr Perrivale was tough as nails, was he was getting old, he had never led the kind of old age the guide-books recommend. Too much booze and either no exercise or charging around as if he were back in the army again. He might marry her, die, and leave her his money. Mr Perrivale was a loving husband. He would never disinherit his wife. And where would we be then? A "young mistress" acting like a spoiled adolescent. A "young mistress" who would probably sell Krakholl and buy somewhere in London. And God knew what she would do with the children. She hated all three of them. Krakholl and the children.
She wouldn't help on the farm. She complained that it was dirty work, that it ruined her shoes. Yet she wouldn't accept the shoes I offered her. She complained about the cold, the old-fashioned house, the rough paths, the cold lake, there was nothing that would satisfy her.
And she hated the children. Because they weren't falling for her baby-angel act. She called them "sweeties". She tried to make them kiss her. "I only kiss Miss Wilson," said Robert. We hadn't exactly got off to the best start, but that, that was war. I went from an insignificant blot on the land-scape to a thorn in her ego. After a few days of saccharine sweetness, she tried mockery and cruel jibes. When she got as good as gave, or they just glared at her, she sulked. She had been beaten. She had been beaten. Wheedling, charming, simpering, had failed. Rudeness, smugness, petty cruelty, had failed. She was left with nowhere to turn to and nothing to do but fume. Yes, if the children were left in her clutches, they'd be better off with the Emperor Herod. She'd cart them off to a children's home or a boarding school.
And she hated me. Hated me because I refused to let her act like the mistress of the house. Refused to be her unpaid lady's maid. She tried to make me clean her clothes, brush her hair. I told her that wasn't my job. She sulked, and went to tell Mr Perrivale. Mr Perrivale shouted at me, and Mr John stood up to him. The children cried. It was the first time I had seen either of them cry. Normally they controlled themselves like troopers. Really, I don't belong to the thou-shalt-not-cry school of child-rearing. Certainly not on days like the anniversaries of their parents' deaths. It could be slightly scary. But they cried then. It broke my heart. I sat up with them all night, fed them cocoa, told them stories, tried to comfort them.
"Why does everyone hate each other?" said Elaine.
My aunt told me that the cruellest and most cowardly thing you can say to a child is "you're too young to understand" and leave them worrying and fretting. But there was nothing I could say that they would understand. All right, you try saying to a seven-year-old "Your grandfather was seduced by his best mate's daughter".
"Mr John had a fight with your grand-father," I said.
"Because…" I searched for an answer that was both simple and true. I found none. "Because of Ruby."
"I hate Miss Harris. I wish she'd go away."
"She's all right really."
"No, she isn't," said Elaine. "And you know it."
"Will you have to go away?" said Robert.
"Of course not," I tried to laugh. "What makes you think that?"
"I think Mr Perrivale likes Miss Harris better than you."
There was nothing I could say to that. I told him not to worry—what a silly, what a stupid, meaningless sentence—and waited until they had gone to sleep before going to my own room. I tried not to cry—a proper lady never cries, said my aunt—and succeeded. I tried to sleep and failed.
Above all, I tried—and failed—not to think about what Mr Harris had said to me, coldly, cruelly, so unlike his old self. "You're just the hired help, my girl, and don't you forget it. When I don't need you, I can turn you out of my house. And with another woman around, maybe I won't need you."
She hated Fluffy. The hatred was mutual. She bullied him, swore at him, accused him of vandalising her property and attempts on her life. And Fluffy couldn't have done any of those things, because after the first couple of days he avoided her like the plague. Once friends came round, and she tried to play with him picturesquely, but he wriggled out of her arms and flounced off, leaving her fuming. I don't know who was laughing harder, I or the children. The next morning, she found Fluffy asleep on a hat on which she had left on a window-sill. She was furious. She threatened in front of the entire house-hold to have Fluffy put down. Elaine sobbed broken-heartedly for hours, until her tears ran dry, and then she sobbed dry for hours more. She clutched Fluffy to her, swearing to God and the Devil that she would never let "the bitch-dog" get him. It was the first time I had ever heard Elaine swear. I suppose a good nanny would have scolded her dreadfully. I'm afraid that I agreed with her and always thought of her as the bitch-dog after that.
But—oh, no, it gets worse—the real war was over names. She insisted that I call her Miss Harris and I refused. She insisted that the children call her Ruby, and they called her Miss Harris. I ought to have told them off, but I didn't. It was a little gesture of solidarity. We were all on the same side. We all hated Ruby. Then came the day when Ruby tried to make Robert call her mother. He refused. She slapped him. And I flung my glass bottle at her head. Oh, we had been sitting in the garden with bottles of ginger beer. The children, Ruby, Mr John and I. Well, it scratched her God-awfully perfect face. She looked at the blood running between her fingers in horror. I felt a hot rush of glee from some place inside me that I hadn't even known existed. I heard myself talk. The voice didn't sound like mine, it sounded half-crazed. "Devil-woman! Harpy! Get out of this house! You don't belong here! I bet you're not Mr Harris' daughter at all. You're his mistress and you fucking poisoned him! Bitch! Devil bitch!" I didn't say anything particularly original, it doesn't sound much afterwards, but it meant something then. I was shaking with rage, white-hot, the rage of someone who had completely snapped. I could feel it. I felt dangerous.
She was scared, really scared, for a minute, then she started screaming right back at me. "Go to Hell! Go to Hell! I'll tell Mr Perrivale, he'll have you sacked! He'll have you sacked! You're just a fucking servant!"
Then Mr John hit her, properly hit her, back-hander across the face. She fell over, her nose bleeding. I had never seen anyone punch someone right over before. I thought it only happened in books. "Go to Hell yourself!" he said quietly. "Go to Hell and rot there, and if you speak to Miss Wilson like that again, I'll break you're fucking neck." We all remembered that the army couldn't handle him, and had no doubt that he was speaking the absolute truth. His voice was like broken glass. I still remember it…
That night there was an epic row. Mr Perrivale threatened Mr John with disinheritance, with being thrown out on the ear, publicly disgraced and disowned. The children wept inconsolably, I'm not surprised. Their grandfather and their uncle, at it hammer and tongues, shamelessly, all night. Swearing, ranting, death threats. "You swine!" screamed Mr Perrivale. "You filthy, depraved, animal!" And Mr John right back. "You didn't hear what she said to Miss Wilson! She might play sweet and innocent for you, but she's the fiend incarnate. She's playing you like a fool." They must have felt that their world was falling apart.
I felt awful about dropping Mr John in it, but the good news from my point of view was that this wholly unexpected behaviour from chivalrous, charming Mr John had driven me wholly out of Ruby's mind, and while she might have had me sacked, Mr Perrivale, even furiously angry, knew that he couldn't run the farm without Mr John. He would never have really thrown him out on the ear, though it can't have been pleasant to listen to. The other good news was that Ruby was perfectly polite to me for the next few days. Oh, no, I didn't really know anything about her poisoning Mr Harris or being his mistress or anything. I wouldn't put it past her to be anyone's mistress, but from Mr Perrivale said, Mr Harris wasn't the sort of man to keep over-made-up, under-dressed air-heads as mistresses. Too much the period piece. And I don't think Ruby would poison anyone. Oh, she was mean all right, but I don't think she'd have the nerves for a poisoner.
It was at the end of the next few days that she killed Fluffy.
It was evening. I should explain that the nursery was on the same corridor as Ruby's room, and I slept in a little tower up a flight of steps from the nursery. Robert had come in to bed, and I was sitting on my bed mending one of Elaine's frocks, but Elaine had gone to look for Fluffy. The men were out locking up the cows.
She came back with a set face, a hard, grim, unchildlike face, her eyes staring into space. Her face never twitched, even as the tears gushed down her cheeks in floods, silently. I'll never forget that face. Not for as long as I live. It was horrible, seeing the pain and terror of a whole life in a little girl's face.
"What happened?" I asked, putting down my sewing.
She shook her head, speechless.
"What happened?" I was frightened, now, and horribly afraid it showed in my voice. "What's wrong?" One often reads in books of people whose sixth senses tell them "something terrible had happened". Never mock those books. I used to. But I tell you in that moment I was sick and faint and shaking with the utter certainty that something terrible had happened.
Elaine couldn't speak, but she stretched out her hand. I went over and hugged her, her cold, tear-streaked little cheek against mine. But she didn't just want a hug, she pulled at my hand, pulled me after her. I followed her down the passage to Ruby's room. On the threshold I almost fainted. What was I going to see? What could possibly have caused this dumb horror? But I took a deep breath. I remembered what my aunt had said, about how a lady can hold it together when she needs to, and I knew I had to be strong for Elaine.
A little bloody bundle of fur lay on the bed. His eyes were open and glazed, he looked like a broken doll. He was clearly dead.
Elaine clutched at me, the tears rushing harder and faster but still silently. I felt the tears in my own eyes, not only for Fluffy, poor little thing, but for Elaine, shaking like a rabbit in a snare, barely breathing.
"What happened?" I asked. "Did he fall?"
"No." She gulped. She could speak now, faintly, between tears. "She…" Her voice tailed off. She swallowed again. "He sat on one of her hats. She was angry. She killed… she killed him…" she whispered incredulously.
There was no need to ask who "she" was. I looked where Elaine was pointing and saw the congealing red-brown smear on the white-wash where Ruby had dashed Fluffy to death. I felt hotter, purer rage in that moment than I have ever felt before or since. Who… what does that to an animal? What does that to a child? A woman? I wanted to kill her. I wanted to kill her myself. I had never, never felt such longing to crush the life out of another human being. "Where is she?" I hissed, as soon as I could breathe for rage.
"There," whispered Elaine. I looked down by the side of the bed. Elaine had beaten me to my heart's desire. She looked like a blood-stained doll, with her painted face and silk dress. Whatever she looked like underneath her armour of powder, she looked much the same to me. Vacant and cross, as always. The blood that covered her could just as easily have been red paint, except for the brownish tint where it was congealing in her hair. The poker was rammed into her throat like a vampire's stake. It looked so silly. I laughed. I flung my head back and really laughed, for the first time since Ruby had come to live at Krakholl. I was so light, I could have flown. The nightmare was over. It had cost Fluffy his life, but we were free.
"Why are you laughing?" said Elaine. She sounded hurt. "Fluffy's dead!"
"I know, sweet-heart," I said. "It's sad that Fluffy's dead, but don't you see! The bitch-dog's dead, too!"
Elaine thought about this for a moment, then smiled. "Good."
Elaine's smile faded. "What are we going to do now?"
That brought me back to earth. Elaine had slain the bitch-dog, but we still needed to deal with its corpse. Pity we couldn't have flung it in a lime kiln.
"Grown-up's say murder's wrong. They might punish me."
I looked at Elaine. She had come to me for help, in absolute trust, to show me the gory deed. The thought of anyone punishing her broke my heart. What does one do with a seven-year-old murderer? They couldn't send her to prison because she wasn't old enough to be tried. Foster parents? Orphanages? Approved schools? (Approved by whom? For what?) The nightmares crowded one on top of the other. My angel would be better off in Hell than sent to live with strangers as a "case", a "problem child".
But surely these nightmares were groundless? For why should anyone know that Elaine had committed the murders? True, the men must know it was one of us, for they had been out with the cows. But the police wouldn't know that, the coroner wouldn't know that. Who's most likely to kill anyone, in virtually any country in the world? Their boyfriend or girlfriend. Why wouldn't the police think the same in this case? But, of course, they wouldn't be able to punish Mr Perrivale either, because there was no proof whatsoever. So what if the police thought it was me? Or a flying space unicorn, a conspiracy, all of us together like on the Orient Express? This was every murderer's dream. No proof whatsoever.
But we could make sure…
"We have to move Fluffy," I said. "No one should connect Fluffy with the crime, and he belongs to you. If he's connected with the crime, you are." I really think Elaine understood the logic of what I was saying. She picked up Fluffy and wrapped him her handkerchief.
Then came the footsteps on the stairs. I grabbed Elaine and dragged her from the bedroom into the nursery, where we wrapped Fluffy in towels and I hid Elaine's bloody dress behind the dresser. Then I put the children to bed, just as usual, tried to soothe Elaine's distress over poor little Fluffy's untimely end and listened to it all kick off next door.
Not at once, oh, no. And all the better from my point of view. The more confusion, the better. The more certainly we were all in the nursery with the door closed, the better. But, inevitably, Mr Perrivale wanted to see his "darling dearest". I tried not to laugh at his tears and horror. Oh, I know it sounds cruel, but don't you see? He was so much better without her. He could be carefree on his farm with his family and save his money for his farm and his descendants, rather than being hen-pecked into the grave by a needy she-devil who spent money like water.
My glorious high continued all evening. I tried to keep an appropriately sober face when I caught sight of Mr Perrivale, or the police were tramping around. Mr Perrivale would have taken anything less than horror and distress as a personal insult. I insisted that the police could not speak to the children. It would upset them, I said. I was quite sure it would, too. But my real fear, the one cloud on my horizon, was that they might get confused under questioning, and, if not blurt out everything, make a fatal slip. Oh, I accepted that they would have to be questioned sooner or later, but later rather than sooner. They were too shocked, too exhausted, too fragile right now. Better wait until they had calmed down, had their wits about them and I had given them a bit of coaching in what to say, and what not to say. Children's minds are easily confused. They might even get their lies confused with the truth, which would make it all the more convincing.
I honestly can't remember what I said to the police. I had it all pat, straight out of detective stories. I didn't bat an eye-lid. I was the perfect nanny. Shocked and upset, but not too shocked and upset. Innocent, but not too innocent. I had done nothing, seen nothing, heard nothing, knew nothing, suspected nothing. I was the boring suspect. And now, if nothing remained to done, could I…? But of course, I must go to bed, get some rest. All the shock and strain.
I went to bed that night satisfied at work well-done. The future was bright. We could all return to the way things had been before, forget that Ruby had ever existed. Mr Perrivale would get over her. The police would abandon the case. And that was that. Case closed. A few minor details to clear up, but really, Elaine couldn't have committed a better murder if she had planned it. Probably better. It's the planning where murderers always go wrong. Spur-of-the-moment jobs are almost impossible to prove. Suspect, yes. Strongly suspect. But prove, no.
Oh, no, I'm afraid that's not all. It would be very nice if it were…
I had just dropped off when I was woken by soft but persistent knocking at my door.
"Come in!" I called. Who on Earth could it be?
It was Mr John. "Didn't want to wake the kids," he said. "But we need to talk, now."
"About what?" I asked. I wondered for a moment if he were going to go on his knees, produce his ring and say that now the past was behind us… Yes, I really was that foolish at twenty-four.
"Who knows?" I was genuinely confused.
"Knows what?" I was still half asleep, but this startled me.
"Knows, or at least strongly suspects, the truth."
I was wide awake then. The words went through me like ice. I heard them roaring in my head. We were undone, we were doomed… We had lost it all. The future I had dared to imagine was unravelling before my eyes.
I forced myself to breathe. I spoke calmly and clearly. Fool that I was, I still thought I could bluff. "What do you mean?"
He saw through me. "You know what I mean. I suspected it. Or something like it. Well, Perrivale's been mulling it over all evening like a vindictive rhinoceros. He's sworn me to deadly secrecy, Scout's honour and grandmothers' graves and all that. And I thought I'd better warn you because he's going to the police in the morning."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
He laughed. "Don't try that line with me. You can trust me." He smiled. "We're on the same side, remember?"
I gave up on my pretences then. "Is.. is he quite sure?"
"Oh, quite. He says he's found the culprit and he's going to turn you in tomorrow."
I thought I'd heard wrong. "He's going to turn me in tomorrow, did you say?"
"Well, yes." He smiled, I must have looked surprised. "He's not going to go chasing round after the police at mid-night, they'd dismiss him as a lunatic."
But I wasn't interested in whether he went to the police now or tomorrow. Only that Mr John had said that he suspected me. Perhaps Mr Perrivale was wrong. If he thought it was me, then everything was all right. I could look after myself. It was only that he might find out the truth and get Elaine into trouble that worried me.
"I'm going to talk to him."
"Sure you don't want back-up?"
"Really." I tried to smile. I found it easier than I had expected. The hope that Mr Perrivale was wrong after all buoyed me up.
"But I don't want to leave you with him. You know what he's like."
"He might listen to reason from me. You're still in the dog-house. I don't think I ever thanked you for that? Thank you. And you know what you can be like. Can you really promise to control yourself?" He hesitated. "This calls for feminine tact." What I really wanted to do was find out how much Mr Perrivale really knew.
I hurried out of the room and crept passed the children before he could reply, and went to Mr Perrivale's room.
"You." He was shaking with rage. Cold, concentrated, deadly rage. I could feel it's force just stepping into the room. "You harridan."
"I don't know what you're talking about. I only came to see if you wanted a hot drink." I tried to look concerned. I did feel sorry for him. It must be awful to suddenly lose the woman you think you love.
"Don't play innocent with me devil-woman. I know what you've come for. That chivalrous, sentimental twit John went telling tales, didn't he?"
"I don't know-"
"Well I do know! I know everything!" His voice was quiet, but it cut like a dagger.
"Then I'll give you money," I said. I still wasn't afraid. If push came to shove, I could up sticks and run for the border. Let him lay his precious conclusions before the police.
"You have no money."
"I'll give you everything I have. I'll get more…" I considered asking to borrow it, but I fancied my chances better running for the border than at the money lender's.
"I don't want your money, girl. My darling dearest's been clubbed to death with a poker. And there's no money in the world, none in the world that can bring her back." He choked up, and I bit down a strong urge to explain how much better off he was without her. "I know you hated her. You couldn't see her for the angel she really was. So gentle, so kind, so loving…" I'm afraid I couldn't restrain an amused snort. "You heartless bitch!" he shouted, so loud only the thick walls stopped him raising the house. "You're as bad as she is!"
That struck me cold. "Who?"
"Oh, don't pretend you don't know, girl. The three of you have been laughing about it, I dare say. That filthy bastard."
"After I invited her into my home... Cared for her like my own daughter… Loved her… gave her everything she wanted... And she cared more about that… that wretched, lazy… failed mouser than about her own mother!"
"Ruby was not her mother!" I shouted, nearly as loud as Mr Perrivale. "She was nearly her step-grandmother. But "I married grandfather's savings" don't make you popular with a girl." I took a deep breath. "And no one calls her a filthy bastard in my hearing or out of it."
"She's a murderer, do you understand? She murdered my Ruby. Snuffed her light out. Her whole life. Gone. To die like that… with a poker… The heartless devil."
"Ruby was the devil! And you were too infatuated to see it."
"Infatuated? I loved her. Loved her with a pure, spiritual, transcendent love that I have never felt before." He said some other stuff, about Ruby's hair and eyes. I said that if he had loved her that much, he should have something to say about her other than bad poetry.
"I loved that girl! And that spiteful, vicious little bitch killed her."
"You can't prove it!" I said. "You can think what you like. You can't prove it."
"I've seen the crime scene, I've seen the corpse. I know an awful lot about dead bodies, Miss Wilson. I've seen plenty in the army. A fair few weren't slain in strictly official capacity, either. I know damned well she killed my Ruby."
"All right, I admit it." I took a deep breath and stood up as tall as I could. "I killed her."
"So that's the way, is it? You think you can shake me off with a confession? I dare say that idiot John got the wrong end of the stick, as usual, and thought I was suspecting you. Chronic Sir Lancelot, your boyfriend. Oh, don't blush. If he ain't your boy-friend, it ain't because either of you don't want it."
I didn't think my feelings for Mr John were relevant right now. "I've confessed. What are you going to do about it?"
"Don't be daft. You're a strong woman, I've seen you ride and swim. Got good arms. And women are always twice as strong when they're mad, and poker murders are always angry murders. You could have killed her with one blow. It took three or four."
"I… I was so angry… I couldn't stop hitting her… I just wanted to destroy her." It was true. Watching Elaine sobbing I had wanted to destroy her, wanted to smash the life out of her. I could see myself killing her, let all my rage into my voice. It didn't fool him.
"Don't be silly, girl. There's all the difference in the world between blood bled by a live body and blood leaked by a dead one. Ruby did a fair amount of struggling before she died." He choked up again, remembering that Ruby was dead. "And would you really have killed her because she bumped off a stupid animal, which rejected all discipline?"
That was true. I was angry with what she had done to Fluffy, but the real homicidal hatred was from what she had done to Elaine.
"How… how did you know it was about Fluffy?"
"Well, where is he? He didn't put in an appearance all afternoon. Normally, they're inseparable. Besides, there was a blood-stain on the bed with cat-hair in it. You might have hidden the corpse, my girl, but you didn't have time to clean the sheets." He looked at me, eyes burning with vindictive triumph. "That devil-child killed my angel. And the three of you covered it up. Well, now she's going to pay."
"Won't you have mercy, sir? She's young, she's… hurting. Won't you be reasonable?"
"Reasonable! I have a cold-blooded murderer in my house. Do you want me to pat her on the head and feed her chocolate."
"She's your grand-daughter. She's your son's child!"
"And as my family she owes me a duty to respect my decisions and the members of my house-hold. She has killed Ruby." He gave me a dangerous look, cold and hard. Like a tiger. No, like a hawk. "My angel." He began to cry again, but the look in his eyes only got more dangerous. "I loved her. I can't begin to describe how much. She was the light of my life the centre of my world. My everything. She was young and pretty and happy. And that bastard killed her from pure spite."
"And the light of my life?" I said. I looked into his eyes and saw no mercy. I was desperate. I flung myself on my knees. "Please, sir. I'm begging you. Please…" I tried to say "I'll do anything" but choked on the words. My throat had dried up, I could no longer hold back tears. I really would have done anything. If you've ever seen the person you love most in the world in danger, so would you.
It was no good. He was as cold and hard as rock. "Get up off your knees, girl, and stop acting like a lunatic."
There was no shaking him. I never saw such cruel spite in any human face. He hated Elaine. He wanted revenge, to hurt her just as Elaine had wanted to hurt Ruby. And he was equally unstoppable.
That night was the worst and longest night of my life. I didn't sleep a wink. I couldn't get Elaine's sobbing face out of my head. Awful, cruel legal terms floated round my mind. "Ward of court… restraining order… approved school… psychiatric facility…" What would happen to my baby in an approved school? It would crush the soul out of her, be the death of her. People commit suicide in approved schools. What if we were to run away? To India or Canada or Australia or somewhere? They would find us and shoot us down. I didn't mind going out shot to bits, we all have to go out one way or another, but I thought of Elaine, bleeding to death on the ground, the bullet holes, the roar of machine guns, and I felt sick. I have never felt so weak, so helpless. I was beyond tears, beyond pacing or fuming. I lay on my bed and wished I were dead. I wouldn't wish a night like that on anyone. The hours slipped by. One 'o' clock. Two 'o' clock. Elaine's doom came nearer. And, blissfully ignorant, she slept in the next room.
At my lowest ebb I prayed. My aunt was very keen on praying. Like a good girl, I went to church every Sunday until she died. The Perrivales never went and that suited me just fine. Prayers are never answered, so where's the point? I prayed now, silently, I begged. I offered Him anything. Giving up on God, I asked the Devil. I've been told he takes care of his own. I guess by conventional morality that includes murderers. I've always got the feeling, you know, that the Devil is on our side. All the things he tempts us to do are very pleasant. And he keeps his promises, even if he does want our souls in return. Well, I offered him my soul. I offered him everything, if he would save my Elaine now.
And there in the darkness, in the well of despair, I saw the light. I don't know which of them it was. Maybe it was just me. The strength of despair and all that. I had said I would do anything. Very well, I would do anything. Elaine had come to me for help, in complete trust. I couldn't fail my little angel. I wouldn't fail her. I got up. The clock said three 'o' clock. Krakholl was an early-rising house, I didn't have much time. I considered asking Mr John to help me, but decided against it. He had been willing to help me while he thought I was the guilty one, but would he risk his neck for Elaine? No, I couldn't ask him for help, not worth the risk.
I sat down at the desk and typed a suicide note. I had killed Ruby. She had cheated on me. I found out (good old love letters left lying around trick, not subtle, I know, but all too common), flew into a rage and killed her. Now I was tortured by guilt and couldn't face life without my darling. There was only one way to atone for my sins, only one way I could still hope, perhaps, to be with Ruby. I was quite proud of the effect. I signed the note A. Perrivale and put it in an envelope. I went down-stairs and left the note on the kitchen table. Then I went to Mr Perrivale's room.
"You again," he said. "What do you want?" But he sounded nervous as much as angry. Did he suspect something, for a moment?
"Sir, I think Mr John's run off."
"What do you mean, "run off"?" He hadn't been expecting that. His defences went down.
"I think, sir, that he may intend to do something desperate. Hand himself in to the police. I don't know… I'm worried about him..."
"Why on Earth would he do such a damn fool thing as turn himself in to the police?"
"Well, sir…" I managed to blush quite easily. It really was rather embarrassing. "He… he believes…" I tailed off delicately.
"Oh, I see." Mr Perrivale snorted. "Playing Sir Lancelot, is he? Ridiculous twit. Pointless piece of chivalry, too. Even if he does turn himself in, there's nothing whatsoever to connect him with the crime."
"You know what the police are like, sir. Anything for a quick, easy, cheap case. This is just want they want. Open and shut…"
"Hmmm…" I could tell that Mr Perrivale was seriously considering what I had said. Was I a melodramatic, silly little woman, or did I have a point? Well, I pride myself on never being melodramatic and I wasn't now. He was willing to believe me, why would I lie? And he didn't really want his young nephew to be carted off to the gallows.
"So you want me to help you run round the country-side after this young man?"
I nodded, with what I hoped was a brave-little-woman air.
"Very well, I'll find him. And it'll serve him right if when I do I blast him to Hell! Interfering with the work of justice! And when I've got him out of the way," he smiled grimly. "I'll see justice done, with my own hand if the police won't do it!".
"Oh, yes, sir."
He glared at me.
"You've changed your tune."
My lip wobbled and my eyes filled with tears. "I've had all night, sir, to think about it. I think I'm only now understanding the full horror of it. I haven't been able to sleep." That much was true. "Couldn't get the pictures out of my head…" I choked, took a deep breath, and controlled myself.
"I'm glad you've come to your senses. Realised what a tragic and awful business this is."
"Yes sir," I said quietly. "At first… it… it didn't seem real. I've had a sheltered life. It took a while to adjust to… a real murder…"
"There, there." Mr Perrivale patted me awkwardly on the shoulder. "Come on, now, let's find John."
"Oh, yes… From the way he was talking before, I really think he was going to kill someone…"
The touch-and-go moment was as we passed the kitchen door. But Mr Perrivale didn't go in, we went out through the front door and across the meadow to the edge of the cliff. It was a beautiful spot, with views right across the lake to the purple hills on the other side. The moon was high in the sky, and the surface of the lake shone silver. Very pretty, I thought as I pushed him over the edge of the cliff. I wished I didn't have to do it, because I really liked Mr Perrivale before he fell under the influence of the bitch-dog Ruby. But that's life, I suppose. It was him or Elaine, and I couldn't let Elaine suffer.
I turned and walked back across the cliff-top, the wind in my hair, a weight off my shoulders. Now I could breathe easy, now I could laugh, now I was free. The sun rose, that cold, clear light just faintly tinged with pink round the edges of the lake.
John was standing in the porch, he shot-gun in his hand, a dead police-man at his feet.
He smiled. "You didn't think they were going to let a house full of murder suspects to their own devices all night, did you?"
I blushed. I must admit I felt rather foolish.
"It's at night that murder suspects go around destroying evidence and blackmailing each other and all sorts of fun things."
"Oh… And did he…?"
"Oh, he was sneaking out onto the cliffs when I caught him. Cops always seem to move like a herd of elephants. I don't know whether it's the boots or what it is. So I thought to myself "It'll be a pretty rough deal for Miss Wilson to bump off the old man only to come home and find the cops giving the twins the third degree"."
"The… twins…" I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Did everyone know the truth? How on Earth. "You know…?"
He grinned. "I guessed. I saw you skipping across the cliff-top with the old man and thought you must be going to bump him off. And if it was you he was after, you'd have come to me. Well," he blushed. "I thought you'd come to me. Whom else would you push someone off a cliff for?"
I burst into tears of relief. "John, you're a saint. I didn't know if you'd cover for the twins, so I didn't ask for your help."
He looked so awkward when he patted my arm that I laughed. "Of course, I'd cover for them. They're my niece and nephew. You… can trust me, you know…"
"Yes." I dabbed at my tears with John's handkerchief. "I can trust you."
Oh, yes, that is the end. We threw the cop's body over the cliff and arranged a "rockfall" for him. Cops aren't geologists, there's no way they'd realise it would take a meteor to make that granite give way.
Mr Perrivale left Krakholl to Mr John in his will. He made him guardian of the twins, too. And when John married me, we adopted them. Oh, now they're grown up, married, both of them, lots of lovely children of their own. John's dead, been dead a good few years, but he had a good innings. No, I've never felt inclined to marry anyone else. Krakholl and the children and grandchildren are enough to keep me busy. And Elaine's cats, of course. She has about a million of them. Oh, I meant to ask. Could I have the recipe for that delicious apple pie?