Authors: Georgette Heyer
Behold, Here's Poison
It was going to be a fine day. There was a white mist curling away in wreaths over the Heath that told Mary, standing on the half-landing with the dustpan in her hand, and gazing out through the tall window, that it would be sunny and really warm by lunch-time. She would be able to wear the blue voile after all, in spite of Rose's gloomy forebodings. Rose said that it always rained on anybody's half-day. Well, it wasn't going to rain today, not if Mary knew the signs.
She leaned up against the window, watching the mist, approving the heavy dew that lay like a grey sheet over the lawn in front of the house.
It was early. The Heath, which later on would be scattered over with children, and nurses pushing perambulators, seemed quite deserted, nor was there any traffic upon the road that lay between the iron gates of the poplars and the edge of the Heath. Craning her neck, Mary could obtain a glimpse of the next-door house through a gap in the trees. Curtains still drawn on the backstairs, she noted. Well, she didn't blame the girls at Holly Lodge, she was sure. If your master and mistress went away to the seaside you were entitled to take your ease. Not but what those girls were a lazy lot of sluts, come to think of it. Common, too. Like mistress like maid, said Rose, and that was true enough. She wasn't any class, Mrs Rumbold.
Mary turned her head, transferring her gaze from Holly Lodge to the house on the other side of the Poplars. It was a smaller house, and she could not see much of it, but she noticed that the garage doors were open. That meant that the doctor had been called out early. It was a shame the way people sent for the doctor at all hours, and half the time for nothing more serious than an attack of indigestion, so Miss Stella said. A real gentleman he was, too, and ever so handsome! She didn't wonder at Miss Stella being sweet on him. It was a pity the Master had taken such a dislike to him. For they all knew in the servants' hall that he had, just as they knew about the trouble with Mr Guy, who wanted money for that queer business he ran with that Mr Brooke, and whom the Master wanted to send off to South America. You'd have to be a pretty fool if you didn't know most of what was going on in this house, what with the Master going in off the deep end and the doctor being called in for his Blood Pressure; and Miss Harriet coming out with bits of talk to anybody, even the kitchen-maid; Mrs Matthews taking to her bed because of all the worry about poor Mr Guy; and Mr Guy himself talking it all over with Miss Stella without so much as bothering to see if anyone was listening. Oh no, there were precious few secrets at the Poplars! Too many people cooped up together, thought Mary, vigorously sweeping the last six stairs. It never did to have two families under the same roof: there was bound to be a lot of squabbling, especially when you got an old girl like Miss Harriet behaving sometimes as though she was downright simple, and at other times showing you she was as sharp as a needle, and as mean as - Mary couldn't think of anything as mean as Miss Harriet. Potty, that's what she was. You'd only got to see her collecting all the little bits of soap left over, and using them up herself, just as though she hadn't a penny to bless herself with. Regular old magpie, she was. Now, Mrs Matthews wasn't like that, give her her due. She was a nuisance all right, what with her glasses of hot water, and trays up to her room, but she wasn't one to go poking her nose into storecupboards. You didn't really mind running round after Mrs Matthews, waiting on her hand and foot like she expected, because she always spoke nicely, and behaved like a lady. Nor you didn't mind Miss Stella, neither, in spite of the way she never put anything away, and was always wanting you to do things for her which weren't your work at all, properly speaking. And Mr Guy was that handsome it was a pleasure to wait on him. But when it came to Miss Harriet and the Master things were different. It was queer them being brother and sister, thought Mary, going slowly upstairs again to collect all the shoes which had been put out to be cleaned. Not a bit alike, they weren't. Mrs Lupton, now, from Fairview, over the other side of the Heath, you'd know anywhere for the Master's sister. She had the same domineering ways, though you weren't scared of her like you were scared of the Master. With the Master things had to be just as he wanted them, or there was trouble, and when the Master was angry you felt as though your knees were stuffed with cotton-wool. They were all of them scared of him, reflected Mary, picking up his shoes from outside his bedroom-door; even Mrs Matthews, though if anyone could get round him she could.
Mrs Matthews' shoes were the next to be collected, high-heeled, expensive shoes with Bond Street written all over them, thought Mary, pausing to admire them. The money Mrs Matthews must spend on her clothes! That was a sure sign she knew how to manage the Master, because it was common knowledge that her husband (him as was the Master's youngest brother) had left her pretty badly off. Good job for her she was so nice-looking and attractive, because though you couldn't ever call the Master mean you wouldn't catch him providing for a sister-in-law he didn't like, having her and her children to live with him, and all.
Yes, and didn't it get under Miss Harriet's skin, them being in the house and behaving as though money was no object like they did, thought Mary, picking up Miss Matthews' low-heeled, trodden-over shoes of black glace, and tucking them under her arm. There wasn't much love lost between her and Mrs Matthews, though to do her justice the old skinflint seemed to like Mr Guy and Miss Stella well enough.
Suede shoes outside Mr Guy's door; smart, they were, but a nuisance to clean. She'd have to do them, she supposed, because the under-gardener would be sure to put polish on them by mistake.
And lastly Miss Stella's shoes, two pairs of them, the brogues she wore on the Heath, and the blue kid shoes she went to town in.
She put all the shoes in her apron, and carried them down the back-stairs to the scullery. Cook, Mrs Beecher, was in the kitchen, and called her in for a cup of tea. It made all the difference to you, thought Mary, being in a place where the cook was good-tempered. She went into the kitchen, and took her place at the table between Beecher and Rose. Rose was sitting with her elbows on the table, and her cup between her hands, eagerly recounting what had passed between the Master and Miss Stella in the library last night.
'… And then he told her straight he wouldn't have Dr Fielding making up to her under his roof. The names he called the doctor you wouldn't believe! And then he said that bit I told you, about the doctor being a fool with no prospects, and if you ask me it was that which set Mrs Matthews against the doctor, because against him she is, and no one'll make me believe different.'
'You didn't ought to listen to what wasn't meant for your ears,' said Mrs Beecher.
'It does seem a shame about the doctor and Miss Stella,' said Mary. 'I am sure no one could be more gentlemanlike.'
'Ah, there's more to it than that,' replied Beecher, passing his cup across to his wife. 'They say he's a bit fond of the bottle. Not that I've ever seen him the worse for wear myself, but there's no smoke without a fire.'
'That I won't believe!' declared Mrs Beecher roundly. 'And what's more I'm surprised at you mentioning it, Beecher!'
Rose, avidly absorbing this fresh piece of scandal, said: 'There you are, then! and no wonder Mrs Matthews had one of her nerve-attacks! When I saw her I thought to myself at once—'
'Then you thought wrong,' interposed Mrs Beecher repressively. 'I haven't ever held with Mrs Matthews' nerves, and no more I ever shall, but if she had an attack, which I doubt, it wasn't along of Miss Stella whom she doesn't care two pins for, if you was to ask me, but because of Mr Guy being shipped off to Brazil.'
'Oh, the Master isn't ever going to do that, not really, is he?' exclaimed Mary, aghast.
'So I believe,' said Mrs Beecher, rising ponderously and moving towards the stove. 'Not that I'm one for nosing into other people's business, but I had it from Miss Harriet as long ago as last Thursday. It's time the Early Teas went up. Hand me over the caddy, Rose, there's a good girl.'
Rose complied with this request, and stood waiting while Mrs Beecher filled three little teapots, and one glass tumbler in a silver holder. 'You might carry Miss Stella's tray up for me, dear,' said Rose to Mary, receiving the tumbler of hot water from Mrs Beecher, and placing it upon a small tray.
Mary finished her own tea in two gulps, and got up. She had her own work to do, and plenty of it, but if you were only an under-housemaid it paid you to keep in with the upper servants. She picked up Miss Stella's tray, and followed Rose up the back-stairs, Beecher bringing up the rear with the Master's and Mr Guy's trays poised on his capable hands.
Miss Stella was not awake, and, as usual, she had left her clothes scattered about the floor. Mary drew back the curtains, tidied the clothes, and slipped out of the room again. Miss Stella wouldn't thank you for waking her.
Mr Guy's tray was reposing on the table in the hall, and Rose was still in Mrs Matthews' room. Mary could hear Mrs Matthews' slightly plaintive voice raised behind the shut door. She was just about to go and fill the hot-water cans, when the door of the Master's room opened, and Beecher came out rather quickly.
Mary stared at him. There was a queer, scared look on his face. 'Anything wrong, Mr Beecher?' she asked.
He passed his tongue between his lips, and answered in a shaken voice: 'Yes. It's the Master. He's dead.'
Her lips parted, but she could find nothing to say. A kaleidoscope of impressions flashed through her brain. It was shocking, awful, and yet thrilling. There might be an Inquest. She didn't want to have anything to do with it; she wouldn't be out of it for worlds.
Rose came out of Mrs Matthews' room. 'Well!' she said. 'Anyone would think there was no work to be done in this house! Where are my cans?'
Mary found her voice. 'Oh, Rose!' she faltered. 'The Master's dead!'
'Somebody's got to tell Them,' said Beecher, glancing at the four shut doors. 'I don't know who.'
Rose solved this problem for him. She broke into noisy tears, not because she had been fond of the Master, or disliked the thought of a death in the house, but because she was startled. The sound of her hysterical sobs brought the ready tears to Mary's eyes too. It also brought Miss Matthews out into the hall, with her grey hair in curlers, and an aged flannel dressing-gown huddled round her. She had forgotten her glasses, and she peered shortsightedly at the group before her.
'What is the matter? Rose—is that you, Rose? Disgraceful! If you've broken any of the china it will come out of your wages, and it's no use crying about it. The breakages in this house—'
'Oh, madam!' gulped Mary. 'Oh, madam, it's the Master!'
The door next to Miss Matthews' opened. Stella stood yawning on the threshold in peach silk pyjamas, and with her short hair ruffled up like a halo about her face. 'What on earth's all the row about?' she inquired fretfully.
'Stella! Your dressing-gown!' exclaimed her aunt.
'I'm all right. Oh, do shut up, Rose! What is it?'
Both maids were now sobbing gustily. Beecher said: 'It's the Master, miss. He's dead.'
Miss Matthews gave a shriek, but Stella, staring at Beecher for a moment, said: 'Rot! I don't believe it.'
'It's true, miss. He's — he's cold.'
Somehow that seemed funny. Stella gave an uncertain giggle.
Her aunt said: 'How you can stand there and laugh —! I'm sure I don't understand you modern girls, and what is more I don't want to. Not that I believe a word of it. I shall go and see for myself. Where are my glasses? Mary! my glasses!'
'I'll go,' said Stella, walking across the hall.
'Stella, not in your pyjamas!' screamed Miss Matthews.
Stella began to laugh again, trying to stifle the unbecoming sound by biting her lips.
Her uncle's room was in the front of the house, separated from his sister-in-law's by a bathroom. Beecher had drawn back the curtains, and set the early morning tea-tray down on a table beside the bed. It was evident, even to Stella, looking on death for the first time, that Gregory Matthews would never drink tea again.