House With Crooked Walls (1942)
“So you know House-on-the-Hill, Mr. Terhune?”
Local bookseller and amateur detective Theodore Terhune is asked to investigate the history of an ancient Kentish manor house for its new owner, Dr. Vincente Salvaterra. Recently arrived from Panama, Salvaterra wants to know why the house was shunned by the locals and abandoned for nearly a century, despite commanding the best views in the county. Terhune digs deep into the mansion’s past and find more than one unsolved—and disturbing—mystery, dating back hundreds of years. When tragedy later strikes the eccentric Salvaterra family in their new home, Terhune must determine if the cause is the Gothic House-on-the Hill itself, or whether a sinister human plot is afoot.
By Bruce Graeme (pseudonym of Graham Montague Jeffries)
Introduction by J F Norris, vintage crime historian
First published in 1942 by Hutchinson & Co Ltd
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One Tuesday morning a car drove into Bray-in-the-Marsh. It travelled evenly along the Ashford road until it arrived opposite Market Square; there, it unexpectedly slowed down as though the occupants were enchanted by the sleepy, old-fashioned, out-of-the-way Kentish village, and were deliberately lingering in the vicinity to savour its charm to the full. A second or two later appearances were proved deceptive. Behind the chauffeur a hand waved, a tapering, white-fleshed, immaculate hand; and the car moved forward, not to continue along the road, through the village, and so to Wickford or some other quaint, remote corner of Kent (for the road proceeded by nowhere in particular to nowhere at all), but to turn sharp left along the scrap of road which bordered Market Square on the east, and immediately sharp left again, so skirting the Square by its third side. There, having passed by the “Almond Tree,” the car came to a halt outside a bookshop.
Why Terhune should have glanced up at that moment was a problem to which, subsequently, he was never able to supply a satisfactory answer. It so happened that he was examining a parcel of books from the library of the Rector of Willingham, which had been submitted for his valuation, and when once Terhune became immersed in a book it usually took some catastrophe, or the tinkle of the shop-door bell, to distract him. Yet, curiously enough, on this Tuesday morning, although he neither heard nor saw anything to attract his attention, he looked up from the first edition of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, and through the plate-glass window saw a sequence of events which, in an absent-minded moment, reminded him of a short scene from a film.
He saw, as he looked up, a long, stream-lined car glide forward into his area of vision, and vaguely noted its luxurious, highly polished appointments. He, then saw a chauffeur spring smartly from the driving seat, hurry round the bonnet of the car to the near-side door, which he opened with an unusually obsequious air. A handsome fellow, this chauffeur; he was tall, possessed broad shoulders, and was clad in a tight-fitting dark green uniform.
With the door open, and his view, for the moment, unobstructed, Terhune was permitted a brief glimpse of the car’s interior. The upholstery of the car, he saw, exactly matched, in its colour scheme, the chauffeur’s uniform; though why this fact impressed itself upon his present, somewhat rambling thoughts and affected him with a slight feeling of irritation he knew no more than why he had looked out of the window in the first instance. But he was annoyed, perhaps because the matching colours suggested ostentation; perhaps because he resented the matching of a human being with the appointments of a piece of unhuman mechanism.
The reflection was fleeting, for he next became conscious of the car’s occupants. There were two, a man and a woman. He was unable to see clearly, not only on account of the light reflected by the plate glass of the window, but also because of the comparative dimness of the car’s interior; nevertheless, the faces of the two people were so alike as to be startling in their resemblance to one another.
Before he had time for further examination of the two faces, that of the woman was hidden as the man rose and stepped out of the car. By the time he had moved to one side, the chauffeurhad closed the car door, and Terhune could no longer see within. Besides, his attention was now riveted upon the one who had stepped out.
A strange little man, indeed. He was not a dwarf, but certainly he was the shortest man Terhune had ever seen. He wore a tall silk hat—a more incongruous sight had not been seen in Market Square for many a year. Beneath this hat his hair was long, and snowy white, it flowed about in the wind like a halo. He wore a long overcoat, and, beneath, an elaborate stock, black with white spots. His trousers were of black and white pin-striped serge. He wore boots.
Terhune grinned as he stared at the little man on the pavement, and imagined what a sensation would have been created in Market Square had he appeared on a Thursday morning. For Thursday was market day, the one day of the week when any real sign of life was to be seen at Bray. Upon all other days—with the exception of Sunday morning, when the younger membersof the local society visited the “Almond Tree” for cocktails—it was rare to see more than one car in Market Square, or, maybe, two farm vehicles.
Terhune’s amusement was not of long duration, for surprise took its place. The little man was walking across the pavement towards the book-shop with the obvious intention of visiting it. Before there was time to make a move, the door opened, and the high-pitched tinkle of the hanging door-bell echoed round the shop.
“Good morning,” the little man greeted in a voice cultured and strangely full for so slight a body. “Mr. Terhune?”
Terhune nodded affirmatively, surprised to learn that his name was known to his visitor.
“Good. I am calling here at the suggestion of Mr. Howard, of Messrs. Howard, Son, and Howard.”
Howard was a solicitor whom Terhune had met two or three times in the past twelve months. Surprise at hearing of the recommendation was, however, overshadowed by Terhune’s realisation that the little man was not British. True, the few words of English which he had spoken had been excellent, and, despite his diminutive size and old-fashioned attire, the cast of his face was British—Welsh, maybe. Yet, there was an indefinable something in his voice which suggested that he was a foreigner.
Terhune noticed more than this. He became aware of the purity of his visitor’s flesh. His complexion, without suggesting ill-health, was milky white, unblemished: a complexion such as most women would have given their souls to possess. His hands, too, were beautiful; narrow, sensitive hands, but they were marred—in Terhune’s opinion—by two rings, one on each little finger: the one a massive affair of solid gold; the other a large diamond solitaire.
Terhune nodded again; he could think of nothing that was particularly worth the saying.
“Before I speak of my reason for calling upon you, Mr. Terhune, allow me to introduce myself. Here is my card.”
The tapering fingers caressed the inside of the long overcoat, to produce a card which they passed over to Terhune with a fascinating flourish.
Dr. Vicente Salvaterra.
Doctor of medicine or of music? Terhune wondered. Whichever it was, the name confirmed that the man was a foreigner, or of foreign extraction.
“I understand from Mr. Howard that you specialise in buying and selling works relating to local history and personalities; and that you possess a private collection of books about Kent which isunrivalled in the county.”
The inflection of the voice was questioning, so Terhune smiled deprecatingly. “Mr. Howard has an exaggerated notion of the value of my collection, Dr. Salvaterra. I am scarcely rich enough to buy some of the rarer volumes which deal with Kentish history.”
“But, no doubt, the information to be found in your collection is extensive?” the little man persisted.
“I think I may safely answer, ‘Yes.’”
“Then I am going to ask a favour of you, Mr. Terhune. As you must have guessed from my name, I am not a countryman of yours. I am a native of the small Central American State of Panama, although my family came originally, not from Spain, but Portugal. Nevertheless, I am extremely fond of your dear country, and it is my intention to live in England for the next few years—or perhaps for the remainder of my life. Who knows?
“I am particularly attracted by the Garden of England, as I believe Kent is sometimes called. Some weeks ago, in compliance with my instructions, my London solicitors communicated particulars of my special requirements to the principal estate agents of this county, and asked for particulars to be sent of any property likely to suit me.
“Not to bore you with wearisome details, Mr. Terhune, of my visits to one property after another, this week-end I visited a house in this neighbourhood with which, frankly, I was immediately interested, not only on account of its position, but also its extraordinary, not to say fantastic, architecture.”
He paused, and glanced questioningly at Terhune, as if to see whether this description evoked an immediate recognition on Terhune’s part. He was disappointed.
“Perhaps there are several houses answering to that description,” Salvaterra continued, somewhat testily. “I speak of the building with the curious name of House-on-the-Hill. Surely it must beknown to you?”
He smiled his gratification upon seeing Terhune’s expression.