Authors: Ngaio Marsh
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #det_classic, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural, #Police, #England, #Alleyn; Roderick (Fictitious character)
When the Sword Dancer's mock beheading becomes horribly real, it is Superintendent Roderick Alleyn who must discover who had the best motive for murder.
also published as
Off With His Head
To anybody with the smallest knowledge of folklore it will be obvious that the Dance of the Five Sons is a purely imaginary synthesis combining in most unlikely profusion the elements of several dances and mumming plays. For information on these elements I am indebted, among many other sources, to
, by Douglas Kennedy, and
Introduction to English Folklore
, by Violet Alford.
Cast of Characters
Dame Alice Mardian
The Reverend Mr. Samuel
Dr. Otterly of Yowford, general practitioner
Simon Begg of Simmy-Dick’s Service Station
Superintendent Carey of the Yowford Constabulary
Police Sergeant Obby of the Yowford Constabulary
of the C.I.D., New Scotland Yard
Superintendent Roderick Alleyn
of Mardian Castle
Rector of East Mardian,
her great-nephew by marriage
her great-great-nephew and
son of the Rector
of Copse Forge
landlord of the Green Man
Over that part of England the winter solstice came down with a bitter antiphony of snow and frost. Trees minutely articulate shuddered in the north wind. By four o’clock in the afternoon the people of South Mardian were all indoors.
It was at four o’clock that a small dogged-looking car appeared on a rise above the village and began to sidle and curvet down the frozen lane. Its driver, her vision distracted by wisps of grey hair escaping from a head scarf, peered through the fan-shaped clearing on her windscreen. Her woolly paws clutched rather than commanded the wheel. She wore, in addition to several scarves of immense length, a hand-spun cloak. Her booted feet tramped about over brake and clutch-pedal, her lips moved soundlessly and from time to time twitched into conciliatory smiles. Thus she arrived in South Mardian and bumped to a standstill before a pair of gigantic gates.
They were of wrought iron and beautiful, but they were tied together with a confusion of shopkeeper’s twine. Through them, less than a quarter of a mile away, she saw on a white hillside the shell of a Norman castle, theatrically erected against a leaden sky. Partly encircled by this ruin was a hideous Victorian mansion.
The traveller consulted her map. There could be no doubt about it. This was Mardian Castle. It took some time in that deadly cold to untangle the string. Snow had mounted up the far side and she had to shove hard before she could open the gates wide enough to admit her car. Having succeeded and driven through, she climbed out again to shut them.
“ ‘St. Agnes’ Eve, ach, bitter chill it was!’ ” she quoted in a faintly Teutonic accent. Occasionally, when fatigued or agitated, she turned her short
’s into long ones and transposed her
“But I see no sign,” she added to herself, “of hare nor owl, nor of any living creature, godamercy.” She was pleased with this improvisation. Her intimate circle had lately adopted “godamercy” as an amusing expletive.
There arose from behind some nearby bushes a shrill cachinnation and out waddled a gaggle of purposeful geese. They advanced upon her screaming angrily. She bundled herself into the car, slammed the door almost on their beaks, engaged her bottom gear and ploughed on, watched from the hillside by a pair of bulls. Her face was pale and calm and she hummed the air (from her Playford album) of “Sellinger’s Round.”
As the traveller drew near the Victorian house she saw that it was built of the same stone as the ruin that partly encircled it. “That is something, at least,” she thought. She crammed her car up the final icy slope, through the remains of a Norman archway and into a courtyard. There she drew in her breath in a series of gratified little gasps.
The courtyard was a semicircle bounded by the curve of old battlemented walls and cut off by the new house. It was littered with heaps of rubble and overgrown with weeds. In the centre, puddled in snow, was a rectangular slab supported by two pillars of stone.
“Eureka!” cried the traveller.
For luck she groped under her scarves and fingered her special necklace of red silk. Thus fortified she climbed a flight of steps that led to the front door.
It was immense and had been transferred, she decided with satisfaction, from the ruin. There was no push-button, but a vast bell, demonstrably phoney and set about with cast-iron pixies, was bolted to the wall. She tugged at its chain and it let loose a terrifying rumpus. The geese, who had reappeared at close quarters, threw back their heads, screamed derisively and made for her at a rapid waddle.
With her back to the door she faced them. One or two made unsuccessful attempts to mount and she tried to quell them, collectively, with an imperious glare. Such was the din they raised that she did not hear the door open. “You are in trouble!” said a voice behind her. “Nip in, won’t you, while I shut the door. Be off, birds.”
The visitor was grasped, turned about and smartly pulled across the threshold. The door slammed behind her and she found herself face to face with a thin ginger-haired lady who stared at her in watery surprise.
“Yes?” said the lady. “Yes, well, I don’t think — and in any case, what weather!”
“Dame Alice Mardian?”
“My great-aunt. She’s ninety-four and I don’t think —”
With an important gesture the visitor threw back her cloak, explored an inner pocket and produced a card.
“This is, of course, a surprise,” she said. “Perhaps I should have written first, but I must tell you — frankly, frankly — that I was so transported with curiosity — no, not that, not curiosity — rather, with the zest of the hunter, that I could not contain myself. Not for another day. Another hour even!” She checked. Her chin trembled. “If you will glance at the card,” she said. Dimly, the other did so.
Mrs. Anna Bünz
Friends of British Folklore
Guild of Ancient Customs
“Oh dear!” said the ginger-haired lady and added, “But in any case come in, of course.” She led the way from a hall that was scarcely less cold than the landscape outside into a drawing-room that was, if anything, more so. It was jammed up with objects. Mediocre portraits reached from the ceiling to the floor, tables were smothered in photographs and ornaments, statuettes peered over each other’s shoulders. On a vast hearth dwindled a shamefaced little fire.
“Do sit down,” said the ginger-haired lady doubtfully, “Mrs. — ah — Buns.”
“Thank you, but excuse me — Bünz.
,” said Mrs. Bùnz, thrusting out her lips with tutorial emphasis, “or if
is too difficult,
will suffice. But nothing
!” She greeted her own joke with the cordial chuckle of an old acquaintance. “It’s a German name, of course. My dear late husband and I came over before the war. Now I am saturated, I hope I may say, in the very sap of old England. But,” Mrs. Bünz added, suddenly vibrating the tip of her tongue as if she anticipated some delicious tid-bit, “to our muttons. To our muttons, Miss — ah —”
“Mardian,” said Miss Mardian turning a brickish pink.
“Ach, that name!”
“If you wouldn’t mind —”
“But of course. I come immediately to the point. It is this. Miss Mardian, I have driven three hundred miles to see your great-aunt.”
“Oh dear! She’s resting, I’m afraid —”
“You are, of course, familiar with the name of Rekkage.”
“Well, there was old Lord Rekkage who went off his head.”
“It cannot be the same.”
“He’s dead now. Warwickshire family near Bapple.”
“It is the same. As to his sanity I feel you must be misinformed. A great benefactor. He founded the Guild of Ancient Customs.”
“That’s right. And left all his money to some too-extraordinary society.”
“The Hobby-Horses. I see, my dear Miss Mardian, that we have dissimilar interests. Yet,” said Mrs. Bünz lifting her voluminous chins, “I shall plod on. So much at stake. So much.”
“I’m afraid,” said Miss Mardian vaguely, “that I can’t offer you tea. The boiler’s burst.”
“I don’t take it. Pray, Miss Mardian, what are Dame Alice’s interests? Of course, at her wonderfully great age —”
“Aunt Akky? Well, she likes going to sales. She picked up nearly all the furniture in this room at auctions. Lots of family things were lost when Mardian Place was burnt down. So she built this house of bits of the old castle and furnished it from sales. She likes doing that, awfully.”
an antiquarian instinct. Ach!” Mrs. Bünz exclaimed, excitedly clapping her hands and losing control of her accent. “Ach, sank Gott!”
“Oh crumbs!” Miss Mardian cried, raising an admonitory finger. “Here
She got up self-consciously. Mrs. Bünz gave a little gasp of anticipation and, settling her cloak portentously, also rose.
The drawing-room door opened to admit Dame Alice Mardian.
Perhaps the shortest way to describe Dame Alice is to say that she resembled Mrs. Noah. She had a shapeless, wooden appearance and her face, if it was expressive of anything in particular, looked dimly jolly.
“What’s all the row?” she asked, advancing with the inelastic toddle of old age. “Hullo! Didn’t know you had friends, Dulcie.”
“I haven’t,” said Miss Mardian. She waved her hands. “This is Mrs. — Mrs. — ”
“Bünz,” said that lady. “Mrs. Anna Bünz. Dame Alice, I am so inexpressibly overjoyed —”
“What about? How de do, I’m sure,” said Dame Alice. She had loose-fitting false teeth which of their own accord chopped off the ends of her words and thickened her sibilants. “Don’t see strangers,” she added. “Too old for it. Dulcie ought to’ve told yer.”
“It seems to be about old Lord Rekkage, Aunt Akky.”
“Lori Loony Rekkage. Hunted with the Quorn till he fell on his head. Like you, Dulcie. Went as straight as the best, but mad. Don’t you ’gree?” she asked Mrs. Bünz, looking at her for the first time.
Mrs. Bünz began to speak with desperate rapidity. “When he died,” she gabbled, shutting her eyes, “Lord Rekkage assigned to me, as vice-president of the Friends of British Folklore, the task of examining certain papers.”
“Have you telephoned about the boilers, Dulcie?”
“Aunt Akky, the lines are down.”
“Well, order a hack and ride.”
“Aunt Akky, we haven’t any horses now.”
“I keep forgettin’.”
“But allow me,” cried Mrs. Bünz, “allow me to take a message on my return. I shall be so delighted.”
“Are you ridin’?”
“I have a little car.”
“Motorin’? Very civil of you, I must say. Just tell William Andersen at the Copse that our boiler’s burst, if you will. Much obliged. Me niece’ll see you out. Ask you to ’scuse me.”
She held out her short arm and Miss Mardian began to haul at it.
“No, no! Ach,
. I implore you!” shouted Mrs. Bünz, wringing her hands. “Dame Alice! Before you go! I have driven for two days. If you will listen for one minute. On my knees —”
“If you’re beggin’,” said Dame Alice, “it’s no good. Nothin’ to give away these days. Dulcie.”
“But, no, no, no! I am not begging. Or only,” urged Mrs. Bünz, “for a moment’s attention. Only for von liddle vord.”
“Dulcie, I’m goin’.”
“Yes, Aunt Akky.”
“Guided as I have been —”
“I don’t like fancy religions,” said Dame Alice, who with the help of her niece had arrived at the door and opened it.
“Does the winter solstice mean nothing to you? Does the Mardian Mawris Dance of the Five Sons mean nothing? Does—” Something in the two faces that confronted her caused Mrs. Bünz to come to a stop. Dame Alice’s upper denture noisily capsized on its opposite number. In the silence that followed this mishap there was an outbreak from the geese. A man’s voice shouted and a door slammed.
“I don’t know,” said Dame Alice with difficulty and passion, “I don’t know who yar or what chupter. But you’ll oblige me by takin’ yerself off.” She turned on her great-niece. “You,” she said, “are a blitherin’ idiot. I’m angry. I’m goin’.”
She turned and toddled rapidly into the hall.
“Good evening, Aunt Akky. Good evening, Dulcie,” said a man’s voice in the hall. “I wondered if I —”
“I’m angry with you, too. I’m goin’ upshtairs. I don’t want to shee anyone. Bad for me to get fusshed. Get rid of that woman.”
“Yes, Aunt Akky.”
“And you behave yershelf, Ralph.”
“Yes, Aunt Akky.”
“Bring me a whishky-and-shoda to my room, girl.”
“Yes, Aunt Akky.”
“Damn theshe teeth.”
Mrs. Bünz listened distractedly to the sound of two pairs of retreating feet. All by herself in that monstrous room she made a wide gesture of frustration and despair. A large young man came in.
“Oh, sorry,” he said. “Good evening. I’m afraid something’s happened. I’m afraid Aunt Akky’s in a rage.”
“My name’s Ralph Stayne. I’m her nephew. She’s a bit tricky is Aunt Akky. I suppose, being ninety-four, she’s got a sort of right to it.”
“I’m most frightfully sorry. If there’s anything one could do?” offered the young man. “Only I might as well tell you I’m pretty heavily in the red myself.”
“You are her nephew?”
“Her great-great-nephew actually. I’m the local parson’s son. Dulcie’s my aunt.”
. “My poor young man,” said Mrs. Bünz, but she said it absent-mindedly: there was speculation in her eye. “You could indeed help me,” she said. “Indeed, indeed, you could. Listen. I will be brief. I have driven here from Bapple-under-Baccomb in Warwickshire. Owing partly to the weather, I must admit, it has taken me two days. I don’t grudge them, no, no, no. But I digress. Mr. Stayne, I am a student of the folk dance, both central-European and — particularly — English. My little monographs on the Abram Circle Bush and the symbolic tea-pawt have been praised. I am a student, I say, and a performer. I can still cut a pretty caper, Mr. Stayne. Ach, yes, godamercy.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Godamercy. It is one of your vivid sixteenth-century English ejaculations. My little circle has revived it. For fun,” Mrs. Bünz explained.
“I’m afraid I—”
“This is merely to satisfy you that I may in all humility claim to be something of an expert. My status, Mr. Stayne, was indeed of such a degree as to encourage the late Lord Rekkage —”
“Do you mean Loony Rekkage?”
“— to entrust no less than three Saratoga trunkfuls of precious,
family documents to my care. It was one of these documents, examined by myself for the first time the day before yesterday, that has led me to Mardian Castle. I have it with me. You shall see it.”
Ralph Stayne had begun to look extremely uncomfortable.
“Yes, well now, look here, Mrs. — ”
“Mrs. Burns, I’m most awfully sorry, but if you’re heading the way I think you are, then I’m terribly afraid it’s no go.”
Mrs. Bünz suddenly made a magnificent gesture towards the windows.