Clues to Christabel
‘It is not for you to exact vengeance on my behalf. Remember that.’
When successful novelist Christabel Strange dies suddenly aged 32, the bequests are hard to fathom. She leaves one wing of the ancestral home to good friend Marcia Wentworth for her ongoing use; the rest of the house remains in the hands of her mother, grandmother and siblings. Christabel made it known that Marcia would write her biography, but leaves her sixteen volumes of meticulous diaries to wily eccentric Grandmother Strange, who loathes Marcia and refuses to allow her to see them. Dr George Caradew, Christabel’s childhood friend, finds himself between opposing and increasingly hostile camps, and begins to wonder why Christabel behaved in such a peculiar way, and whether her death was really due to a fever. The possibility of foul play becomes a certainty when another murder occurs and a volume of the diaries is stolen. Gradually, Caradew pieces together the clues to Christabel’s hidden life.
By Mary Fitt (pseudonym of Kathleen Freeman)
Introduction by Curtis Evans, vintage crime historian
First published in 1944 by Michael Joseph Ltd
Available May 2023
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Dr. George Cardew walked out on to the veranda, where Dr. Fitzbrown and Superintendent Mallett were sitting, with their glasses of whisky on a round table between them, and watching with indifference the gnats dancing in the evening air, just out of reach of their cigar-smoke. Cardew was young, but his tread was firm and slow, like all his movements. He threw his hat on to a wicker chair and came forward.
When the greetings were over, and Cardew’s cigar was lit, Fitzbrown looked at him curiously: “You don’t seem to have benefited much from your holiday,” he said.
Cardew, frowning out into the twilight, did not answer. He turned to watch a white moth fluttering noisily against the shaded lamp in theangle of the veranda, and his face looked pale and set.
“Where’s your tan?” went on Fitzbrown, “not to mention your gnatbites. Cardew usually goes fishing,” he explained to Mallett, “when he can get off.” He sniffed the scented evening air enviously. “You country fellows are lucky! Pleasant places—wealthy patients—small panel—”
Cardew’s frown deepened, and his wicker chair creaked. Fitzbrown wished that he would either say something, or go and leave Mallett and himself to continue their easy conversation. There is no one so unwelcome as a guest who sucks all attention to himself like a vacuum, and gives nothing in return.
“What part of the river do you fish?” Mallett’s rich voice, tinged with mellow and sardonic understanding, invited the uncomfortable visitoreither to speak up or settle down or depart. Cardew muttered a distrait answer. Then he turned to Fitzbrown and burst out:
“Look here—I say, you know—I’m worried.”
“I can see that,” said Fitzbrown kindly. “Cardew and I were in hospital together,” he said to Mallett. “He has a worrying nature. But whenever we pooh-poohed him, the devil of it was, he was always right. Go on, George.”
Cardew directed a distrustful look at Mallett. “This is in confidence,” he said. “I don’t want any use made of what I say.”
Mallett laughed. “My dear sir, I don’t run round looking for work. It finds me. You two can have your consultation. I’ll pursue my own thoughts.” He blew a cloud of smoke towards the gnats, making them dance more wildly.
Cardew turned to Fitzbrown. There was resolution in the thrust of his jaw, but the deep frown still betokened divided counsel. “I didn’t go fishing!” he said. “I wish I had. I went to stay at—”—he hesitated—“at Christabel’s.”
“At Christabel’s?” echoed Fitzbrown. “But—Christabel died, didn’t she?” He peered at Cardew a little uncertainly. “I thought she had been dead for about a year.”
“She has,” said Cardew, “just over a year. But it’s still ‘Christabel’s.’ Nothing has altered except that Christabel isn’t there, and a lot of other people are. But it all has to do with her, you see—with her life. That’s what we’re there for.”
Fitzbrown said to Mallett: “I expect you’ve heard of Christabel Strange.”
“A writer, wasn’t she?” said Mallett drowsily.
“Yes. She wrote novels. One or two of them were filmed. She made a fortune. George and I both knew her as a little girl, though we didn’t know each other till later. George knew her better than I did. He lived near her home, and knew her people as well—didn’t you?”
George nodded. “Yes. I don’t know why I was such a fool as to let myself be dragged into all this nonsense. But—well, poor girl, I felt I owed it to her memory.” His voice, solemn and troubled, sank reverently. Then he broke out irritably: “I wish to God I hadn’t, though! Damned waste of time!”
“Really?” said Fitzbrown. “Why? What’s going on there?” His curiosity overlaid his sympathy. “Has the old grandmother gone completely off her head at last, or is it her daughter-in-law?” He turned to Mallett again. “There never was a better example of a name that fitted its owners, or if you prefer, of people who lived up to their name. They were all queer, in one way or another, except Christabel. Christabel was a really nice girl. At least, she was when I knew her. I don’t know if fame spoilt her.”
Cardew turned to him eagerly: “Do you think that the grandmother could be called insane?”
“Well,” said Fitzbrown more cautiously, “if you’re asking for a considered opinion, I wouldn’t certify her. But certainly she is queer. Not that I’ve seen her for several years. But I suppose she must be not far short of eighty by now, so probably her peculiarities will have developed. Isthat your problem? Do they want you to get her put away?”
Cardew shook his head. “No, no, nothing like that. Look here, if you don’t mind, I’d like to put the facts before you. Then I could judge better if there’s anything in what I think, or whether I’m imagining things. The atmosphere I’ve been living in for the past week may account for it—but I’m not sure.” He passed a hand over his forehead; then, seeing that Mallett was preparing to get up and leave them, he said: “If you would stay too, Superintendent, and give me your opinion, I’d be glad. It might be quite as much in your line as ours.”
Mallett settled back in his chair.