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Authors: S. T. Haymon

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BOOK: Stately Homicide
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‘I've got to open up.' With an effort Anna March stemmed the flow. ‘Sorry about that. Conduct unbecoming. In front of a police officer too! You'll be wondering what on earth I've been up to. Come back to tea and I promise you'll find me my usual scintillating self.' The woman ended, with more intensity than the words seemed to warrant: ‘Don't say anything to Danny.'

‘If you say so.'

Jurnet became conscious of noises behind and about him: shutters being folded back, doors opening. Wheeling about, he discovered that whilst his back was turned the place had completely changed character, from a pueblo to a touchingly improbable version of Merrie England, well-heeled and deodorised.

Open for business, the one-time stables revealed themselves as workshops where craftsmen who appeared never to have heard of the Industrial Revolution pursued their ostentatiously labour-intensive crafts, or set out their not all that essential wares for sale. There must, thought Jurnet, be a limit to the number of corn dollies the trade would bear.

Wrought-iron trivets and weather vanes festooned one set of doorposts; clusters of baskets another where a young man in frayed jeans and T-shirt, his face shadowed beneath a hat of coarse straw, sat recaning the seat of a Victorian chair. From a third stable came the whirr of a potter's wheel. In yet another, a pallid woman, draped in what looked like recycled sacking, sat at a loom, her fingers moving hypnotically among the threads like a harpist's among the strings of her instrument. Somebody had thrown back the double doors of the great coach house, letting out the sweet smell of wood shavings.

Notwithstanding the ever-increasing number of people about in the yard, trade, Jurnet noticed, seemed to be on the slow side. Keeping the twentieth century at bay didn't come cheap. Anna's productions were distinctly pricy, as were both the potter's vases and the luminous tapestries filled with shapes ambiguous and erotic which the pallid Lady of Shalott, for all her flat-chested gentility, conjured from her consenting loom. The
Angleby Argus
had carried an article recently on the Hungarian bookbinder on the east side of the yard; and Danny March's furniture, so satisfying in its uncompromising honesty, like Danny himself, was being bought by museums – none of which, the detective decided, could give much satisfaction to visitors eager to take home souvenir mugs and tea cloths with a picture of Bullen Hall on them. Baulked of their desire, they moved from workshop to workshop with the thrifty conscientiousness of visitors to the Zoo determined to miss none of the outlandish creatures they had paid to see; and, the chore accomplished, moved away thankfully towards the lake and the illusory coolness of the surrounding parkland.

Jurnet, who accepted the world as it was, plastic tat and all, reflected that it was lucky for the craftsmen that – as Danny had confided to him – they got their workshops and living accommodation rent-free from the trust which administered the Bullen Hall estate. He returned his attention to Anna, who had opened up her shop, and now sat at her work bench, absorbed, the wretchedness eased from her face. Because he no longer felt her to be making emotional demands on him, he prompted gently, concerned for the wife of a friend: ‘Care to tell me about it?'

Instantly hag-ridden all over again, Anna March jerked her head up from her work and stared at the detective with a blank-visaged hostility.

‘Tell you about what, for Christ's sake?'

Chapter Two

In the great house, across the moat where giant carp moved sluggishly through the sun-warmed water, the blinds were two-thirds down to protect the precious furnishings. They excluded the worst of the heat but substituted for it a depleted atmosphere in which Jurnet, for one, found it hard to concentrate on the pictures and the furniture, the Persian carpets and the magnificent china, the carved cornices and the painted ceilings which the guide book he had purchased along with his ticket unrelentingly instructed him to admire. He felt himself seized with a monumental ennui. How on earth had the Bullens and the Appleyards, who had once owned the house, and whose dead, demanding faces stared out at him from every wall, managed to survive beneath the sheer weight of their possessions? For the first time in his life Jurnet felt that he understood why archaeologists had to dig for their booty. Century by century this tonnage of high-toned jumble must be sinking down, drawn by the inexorable pull of gravity, until not even the little gilt flags on the pepper-pot turrets outside would be showing above the enveloping turf.

And a good thing too.

‘George Bullen, Viscount Rochford, the original builder of Bullen Hall,' said a voice at his side in the Library. ‘Brother of Queen Anne Boleyn, of course.'

‘Of course,' Jurnet agreed absently, discovering that his eyes, all unseeing, had been directed towards a dark expanse of canvas out of which a man with black hair and a long, lean face above a collar of exquisitely painted lace glowered with an air of moody disdain. ‘Funny thing –' the voice went on – ‘seeing you here, alongside of him. When I saw you come through the door I couldn't hardly believe my eyes. If I've told Mollie once I've told her a hundred times, that there picture of His Nibs is the spitting image of Inspector Jurnet.'

Jurnet swivelled round, his face warm with annoyance. That Tudor ponce! Why the hell couldn't he, Ben Jurnet, look like everybody else? Then: ‘Good Lord! It's Percy Toller!'

The little man who had spoken jigged with pleasure at being recognised. He carefully put down the catalogue of the room's contents which he had been carrying importantly under his arm, and seized the detective's right hand in both of his.

‘Mr Jurnet! It's a pleasure to see you! It really is!'

‘Good to see you too, Percy,' said Jurnet, meaning it. ‘But –' face darkening with sudden suspicion – ‘here? What're you doing here, Percy?'

The little man laughed.

‘No need to take on, Mr Jurnet. I'm retired. Done me last job I don't know when. Been drawing my pension three years an' more. You ha'nt seen me for three years, Mr Jurnet – now, have you?'

‘Could be you're just getting cleverer.'

‘Me?' The little man burst out laughing again. ‘Never! You know me, Mr Jurnet. Could just as well have rung you up an' told you the address and where to pick the stuff up while I was about it. Saved a lot of time an' trouble. Born to be caught, that was me.'

Jurnet smiled down at the small, spruce figure with real affection.

‘If it's any consolation, all of us over at Headquarters were always properly grateful. The Superintendent often said where would our figures for convictions obtained be, if it weren't for good old Perce?'

The little man's face glowed with pleasure.

‘Did he say that?' With a shake of the head: ‘All the same, I should 'a' listened to my Mollie. “Percy Toller,” she always said, “you're as much cut out for a burglar as I am to be Miss World.”'

Jurnet said: ‘Never saw a Miss World yet could hold a candle to Mollie.'

Percy Toller beamed, his false teeth white and gleaming.

‘Wait till I tell her what you said! She's always had a soft spot for you, Mr Jurnet, you know that. Always says you treated me a bloody sight better 'n I deserved.'

‘My pleasure.' Jurnet accepted the compliment with becoming grace. ‘So, if it isn't the silver you're after, what
are
you doing here at Bullen Hall?'

‘Conservation, Mr Jurnet,' the other returned with dignity. ‘Preserving our national heritage. We got a nice little bungalow in the village, Mollie an' me, and, I mean, they're always asking for helpers, so here I am. All the upper crust hereabouts go in for it, and I don't mind telling you we've met a very nice class of people. I'm not boasting, Mr Jurnet, when I say Mollie and me are very well thought of here in Bullensthorpe.'

‘So you should be.'

‘Winters, when the Hall's closed to the public, we have lectures to learn about the Bullens and the Appleyards so's we can answer questions people ask us – and as I'm doing History and English Literature for the Open University, it seemed right up my alley.'

‘You're doing an Open University course! You're never!'

‘In't it a scream?' The retired burglar appeared to take no offence at the other's tone of disbelief. ‘Percy Toller, B.A. – that'll be the day! But Mollie says she don't see why not. You know what, Mr Jurnet?' The little man looked at the detective with eyes trusting as a child's. ‘A man got a wife what believes in him and gives him a belief in hisself, there's nothing he bloody can't do once he puts his mind to it.'

Reminded with a sudden pang of Miriam, Jurnet elected to change the subject.

‘I can't imagine what put it into your head I look anything like that bloke up there on the wall.'

‘Evidence of my own eyes, Mr Jurnet!' Percy Toller contemplated the portrait of Anne Boleyn's brother with the air of a connoisseur. ‘It's the Valentino look,' he pronounced finally. ‘You both got it. You know, don't you, Mr Jurnet, that's what they call you, down at the nick?'

Jurnet frowned. His dark, Mediterranean looks were a sore trial to him. Bad enough to have your mates call you, even if it was carefully behind your back, after some brilliantined gigolo of the Twenties. But to think that the clients, the villains on the other side of the counter, had cottoned on to it as well!

‘How come he's Bullen and she's Boleyn?' he demanded. ‘Didn't they know how to spell their own names, in those days?'

‘Bloody sight more sensible than we are. Spelled a word any way that took their fancy. What's the difference, long as you could read it?' The retired burglar studied the portrait further. ‘It's the nose, Mr Jurnet, and those eyes. Smouldering. Very romantic, if you don't mind me saying so. Not English.'

‘Well, I am –' pushing away ancestral memories of the medieval Jew who had gone by the name of Jurnet of Angleby
1
– ‘and so was he, wasn't he?' Jurnet jerked his head at the picture. ‘Queen's brother. You can't be more English than that.'

‘That's just where you're wrong, then!' Percy Toller smiled with the complacency of superior knowledge. ‘Half the queens of England – intending no disrespect, of course – frogs an' dagoes, the lot of 'em. Not that this bloke was. English as roast beef, for all his looks. And Anne Boleyn, his sister, the same. She may have looked like bring on the castanets, but she weren't only English, she was Norfolk, and you can't say more English 'n that.'

‘Fat lot of good it did her.'

‘Lost her nob, you mean? I don't know –' The little man pondered judiciously: ‘I sometimes think they must have looked at things different in the olden times. I mean, nowadays, every time we step out of doors, who's to say we won't be run over by some ruddy juggernaut? Yet it don't mean we stay in for ever, do it, on the chance it might happen. An' every time we fly to Benidorm, how are we to know there's not a bomb in the luggage compartment ready to go off an' sprinkle us over the Costa Brava like cheese on a plate of spaghetti? It's been done. But that don't stop us booking up for next year the minute we take down the mistletoe.

In olden days, I reckon, the only difference was that instead of lorries and bombs, it was plagues and having your head cut off. What I mean is, there's always something. I reckon Anne Boleyn, knowing what that bugger Henry the Eighth was like, didn't have to be told what she could be letting herself in for. And I reckon, give her a second chance, and she'd 'a' done the same thing all over again. I mean, to be a queen, that's something, even if you do end up with your head tucked underneath your arm.'

Jurnet smiled at the little man, so spry in his light blue slacks, white shirt, and nautical blazer with a handkerchief folded carefully into the breast pocket. It was the first time the detective ever remembered enjoying a history lesson. He hoped the Open University appreciated what a treasure it had netted.

He looked again at the portrait of George Bullen.

‘
He
didn't do badly out of it, at least, if this place is anything to go by.'

‘Executed 17th May, 1536,' Percy Toller announced with unction. ‘Accused of carrying on carnally with his sister, if you'll excuse the expression. His own sister – imagine! And her queen of England!'

‘Anything in it?'

‘Load of codswallop!' The little man spoke with the certainty of one in the know. ‘Bad enough Henry give 'em both the chop, he didn't have to go blacking their characters into the bargain!' Abashed by his own vehemence: ‘Sorry, Mr Jurnet. It's just that, looking as he does, so much like you, an old friend as you might say, it always churns me up to think of it.'

‘Remind me to come to you for a reference next time I need one.' Jurnet lingered, reluctant to break off human contact and move on from the vast, panelled Library to more rooms, more possessions, more yawns. ‘Bullen Hall been in the family ever since, then?'

‘Ever since Queen Elizabeth. Now, there was a woman! Henry grabbed the estate, like he grabbed everything else he could get his paws on, but Lizzy, she had a soft spot for her ma's family, and she give it back, to a man called Ambrose Appleyard that everyone knew was George Bullen's son really, and so the queen's first cousin, even if it was on the wrong side of the blanket. And Appleyards ha' been at Bullen Hall ever since. Young Istvan Appleyard – Steve, that is, to his pals –' the ex-burglar's face became suffused with a snobbery exquisite in its unselfconscious purity – ‘he's always popping in and out of our place. Says Mollie's Victoria sponge is the stuff dreams are made of. William Shakespeare,
The Tempest
, Act IV, Scene I.'

‘You don't say! Istvan. Funny sort of name.'

BOOK: Stately Homicide
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