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Authors: S. T. Haymon

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‘Ah. That's account of his granny, the countess. Hungarian for Stephen. Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Istvan. That's what it ought to be, only it don't rhyme with “even”. One of the Karhazy family, the old countess,' the little man went on. ‘Owned half of Hungary, till the Reds took it away. You can read it all in that guidebook you got there.'

‘Oh ah. Dull as ditch water. They always are. The people in charge here ought to put you on to writing a fresh one.'

‘Funny you should say that.' Percy Toller's glow became positively incandescent. ‘Mollie's always on at me about that very thing. Will she be chuffed to hear I ran into you! Mr Jurnet!' – the little man repossessed himself of the detective's hand – ‘How about a bite of tea with us after we shut up shop here? It'd be an honour! We close at six sharp, and it don't take me ten minutes to bike home. There's a nice bit of ham – I got it myself in Bersham this morning, to be sure it's fresh in this heat, so I know there's plenty for three, an' Mollie's always got a cake in the cake tin on the off-chance someone may drop in –'

‘Stuff dreams are made of, eh?' Jurnet had no difficulty in making his voice suitably regretful. Ham and Victoria sponge with the undemanding Tollers was infinitely to be preferred to the high fibre and high thinking to be expected at the Marches. For a moment he was tempted. Then: ‘Only wish I could say yes. Previous engagement, I'm afraid. Like the Yanks say, can I take a rain check on it?'

‘Any time, Mr Jurnet! Pippins, Bullensthorpe. Anyone 'll direct you.'

‘I'll do that. Meanwhile, give Mollie my love and say how much I look forward to seeing her again soon. I must be getting on,' Jurnet finished without enthusiasm. ‘I suppose if I keep going I'll end up in the Appleyard Room eventually?'

‘You'll see a sign at the end of the passage.' Percy Toller shook his head in wonderment. ‘Fancy you, a police officer of all people, an' never been there before!'

‘There has to be a first time for everything.'

‘No offence meant,' the little man responded quickly, ‘and none taken, I should hope. It's only – I mean, a man like that, one of our great English heroes, like Nelson and Lawrence of Arabia, and him local, too –'

‘I'm not much of a one for heroes,' Jurnet said, not for the first time that day.

‘But he was a wonderful man! A modern Scarlet Pimpernel.'

‘Give me Leslie Howard any day of the week.'

‘Now I know you're joking! Just you wait till you see all the things they got there about him.'

‘Drowned, wasn't he? I seem to remember something –'

‘Ah, that was a tragedy, all right. Down by the old mill. You can actually see it from the Appleyard Room – well, not this time of year, but in the winter when the leaves are down. Falling to pieces even then, so they say. Bit of the old grid, or whatever it is they call it, regulates the flow of water, suddenly dropped and caught him square on the back of the neck, just as he come swimming by. Nearly took his head off, by all accounts – just like George Bullen, his ancestor.' The little man looked suitably portentous. ‘History repeating itself, as you might say.'

‘Not quite in the same class as going to the block for incest.'

‘Beheaded, I mean. Not a common way to die nowadays, not in a civilised country. Funny thing, too – he was exactly the same age as Lord Nelson when he got killed at Trafalgar, and Lawrence of Arabia when he come off that motorbike of his. Forty-seven, all three of 'em. Makes you think, don't it?'

‘If you mean, to think twice before you join the Navy or ride high-powered machines you don't know how to control, and to keep away from rotting mill sluices when taking a dip, I couldn't agree more.'

‘Dying like that, Mr Jurnet!' the other persisted. ‘After all the terrible dangers he'd been through without a hair of his head harmed, to go in what you might call a purely domestic way –'

‘Best thing that could have happened, probably. After hitting the high spots everything that came after had to be downhill all the way. Whom the gods love die young, that's what they say, isn't it? Not that forty-seven is as young as all that.'

‘Menander, Ancient Greek poet, 324–292 B.C.' Responding with due modesty to the other's admiring astonishment: ‘Mollie give me a Dictionary of Quotations for my birthday. Learn a new one every day, she says, and I should get by all right. She reckons if you're a bugger with a lot of culture to catch up on, like I am, that's as good a way as any to go about it.'

‘Did you say Percy Toller, B.A.? Percy Toller, Ph. D., more like it!'

‘Mr Jurnet! Just wait till I tell Mollie what you said!'

  1. See Death and the Pregnant Virgin

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Chapter Three

The Appleyard Room had once been a ballroom or a conservatory, or possibly a combination of the two. Tagged on to the north side of Bullen Hall, it was mercifully invisible from the front of the house, whose lovely line betrayed no hint of the absurd glass bustle disfiguring the rear. Within, it looked like a cross between Liverpool Street Station, the Paris Opera, and Harrod's Food Hall, and, as such, may well have embodied all those elements which the Hungarian countess, whose money had paid for its building, had considered desirable in the way of architecture.

In such surroundings it was asking a lot to expect anyone to take even a hero seriously, and Jurnet did not even try, mindlessly following the prescribed route past cases filled with bric-à-brac and faded photographs to which he accorded only the most perfunctory glance. Even had he been a one for heroes, the detective felt pretty sure that the secret of what made them tick was not to be discovered in these reverently salvaged bits and bobs.

Out of the lot only two photographs stayed with him: one of a tow-headed toddler with a black-haired girl-child a couple of years older, who held the younger one's hand tightly, and regarded him with great dark eyes full of an anxious love: ‘Lazlo, aged three, with Elena, his sister.' The second showed the same children older, on the verge of adolescence, the fair and the dark, mounted on their ponies. They were dressed alike, in gentrified versions of the loose blouses, baggy trousers, leather aprons and broad-brimmed hats of the horsemen of the Hungarian
puszta
: and this time, instead of one who watched and one who stood unheeding, the two had turned to each other faces full of a gleeful complicity.

Two immense blow-ups – one of a turreted country house against a background of wooded mountains, the second of a Russian tank mowing down a crowd of students in a Budapest street – next commanded Jurnet's reluctant attention. Bludgeoned by their very size, he felt compelled to read the captions beneath.

Already, he learned, long before the rising of 1956, the tow-headed toddler, grown to manhood, had made a secret journey to Kasnovar – the great estate which the countess had brought into the Appleyard family – to rescue some cousins who had survived the war only to fall foul of the new Stalinist régime. When, for a brief seven days, it looked as if Hungary had succeeded in throwing off the Soviet yoke, he was back there again – whether to celebrate the liberation of a country he loved as his own, or to investigate the possibility of salvaging some of the sequestrated family assets, was not made clear. Whichever it was, he was there in Budapest when the Russian tanks treacherously re-entered the city; when the Avo, the hated Secret Police, re-emerged from under their stones, and the price had to be paid in blood for the impertinence of preferring freedom to slavery.

A hundred and seventeen people, Jurnet read – intellectuals, workers, army officers who had thrown in their lot with the insurgents – owed their lives to Laz Appleyard; one of them Mara Forro, the daughter of Prime Minister Nagy's right-hand man, and the woman who eventually became his wife. Overtopping his actual achievements was a magnificent failure – his attempted rescue of Imre Nagy and his companions, kidnapped in a Budapest street by the Soviet MVD and carried off to imprisonment in the turreted country house, the former royal summer palace in Sinaia, Romania.

Perversely refusing to go along with the Appleyard scenario, the Prime Minister had, in the event, rejected the chance of escape; but Pal Maleter, the military leader of the rising, and Janos Farro, the father of Mara, had got away, though only to be surprised and retaken within the week, sheltering in a so-called ‘safe' house near the Yugoslav border. Their deaths had followed within days. Nothing but the chance that Laz Appleyard had been away from the house at the time, reconnoitring the last few kilometres to sanctuary, had saved him from suffering a similar fate.

Better for him if he had, Jurnet decided. Nelson knew what he was about, putting on the flashy coat that made him such an easy mark at the Battle of Trafalgar. Heroes would never come back, if they knew what was good for them.

The last photograph in the display showed Laz Appleyard with a laughing youngster, tow-headed as himself, perched on his shoulders; and, at his side, a pale, exquisite young woman who did not look happy.

‘It is – Inspector Jurnet, is it not?'

‘It is,' Jurnet confirmed, wondering, who now? Someone who, despite the bumbling affability, the baggy flannels and the old safari shirt bulging with felt tip pens, must be more than met the eye. The man had come into the Appleyard Room by the door marked WAY OUT, and, in Jurnet's experience, only members of the criminal classes and those in positions of authority possessed the nonchalance to enter through doors marked, as this one must surely be on the outside, NO ENTRY.

‘You won't remember me, of course,' the other said comfortably, beaming through his thick-lensed glasses, as if to be utterly unmemorable were matter for self-congratulation. ‘Francis Coryton. It must be three years at least. I came into Angleby to find out whether we ought or ought not to install burglar alarms here at Bullen.'

‘In that case, it couldn't have been me, sir. You'd have seen our crime prevention officer.'

‘Indeed I did! But only after your much appreciated intervention. For some reason I had a little difficulty in making clear to the young sergeant at the desk whom I wished to see and for what purpose. You happened to be standing close by and you were most kind. When I got home I particularly remember telling Jane, my wife, how very kind you'd been.'

Jurnet, who had no recollection of having rendered any such service, murmured: ‘Happy to have been of assistance.'

‘Most kind!' the other repeated. ‘In fact, I was saying to Jane only a few days ago that I mustn't forget to let Mr Shelden know that Inspector Jurnet's the one to ask for at Angleby should the need ever arise.'

‘Mr Shelden?'

‘Our new curator. This is my last day in that august office. I assumed you'd seen it in the
Argus
. It was all over the front page – not my going, of course, but Mr Shelden's coming. It's a tremendous coup for the Trust to have obtained a man of his calibre. You know, of course, he got the D'Arblay prize for his biography of Rommel?' Without waiting for an answer – which, Jurnet thought, was just as well – the man continued: ‘Look here – if you aren't doing anything this evening why not come along to our little party and meet him in the flesh? Any time from 8.30 on. He's a delightful chap, he is, really, and it can only be to your mutual advantage to know each other at the outset, just in case anything ever comes up. Do come! Just a drink and a nibble before I bow out gracefully.'

Jurnet looked about him, at the cases filled with Appleyard flotsam, at the giant photographs of the Russian tank and of the palace at Sinaia which looked more like one of the hotels on the front at Cromer than a backdrop for deeds of derring-do.

‘You'll miss all this,' he suggested, finding it easier to change the subject than make polite excuses.

‘Oh, I shall still be around.' Mr Coryton's glasses twinkled, seeming themselves to be the source of the merriment rather than a mere reflection of it. ‘I shall be sitting in the Library, quiet as a mouse, working on some research of my own and thanking my lucky stars somebody else is shouldering the day-to-day burden of running Bullen Hall.'

‘Interesting job just the same, I should have thought.'

‘Undoubtedly, if you happen to have a talent for administration. Unfortunately, I have none.' Mr Coryton laughed, and Jurnet, who had fleetingly wondered if the outgoing curator had not been sampling the party fare ahead of time, realised, not without a pang of envy, that it was happiness, not alcohol, which was the intoxicant. ‘I'm going to write a book! And not just any old book, let me tell you! I've written several before, which were excessively dull, and are mercifully out of print. But now –' the man's voice positively lilted – ‘I'm going to sit down quietly and I'm going to –' He broke off. ‘But come along tonight and hear all about it. Official announcement of the utmost importance! Until then, not another word! We're in the west wing – you'll see a wooden footbridge over the moat, and a door. It's the tied house, so to speak, which goes with the job. Actually, we moved to the village a couple of days ago, but we thought the flat would be a more convenient venue, and of course it's much larger and grander than our new, modest abode.'

‘I don't –' Jurnet began. He was in no mood for a party, especially one where he wouldn't know a soul apart from his host, if their brief encounter could be said to constitute knowing. Then, suddenly remembering something Anna had said: ‘You aren't expecting Mr and Mrs March, by any chance?'

‘Danny and Anna? Of course! All the workshop people will be coming. Do you know them? Splendid! They can make sure you don't lose your way.'

What the hell!
If Miriam could spend her evenings downing the ouzo with some greasy Greek in some filthy taverna, why shouldn't he, Ben Jurnet, have his own little bit of fun, even if – as seemed more than likely – it consisted of a glass of sweet plonk plus unidentifiable gobbets enrobed in salad cream and served on squares of soggy toast?

BOOK: Stately Homicide
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