On arrival at Beaumont manor, I was ushered into the sitting room by a middle-aged maid whose eyes were red from crying. Finding a dead body is bound to have that effect.
“Please take a seat, Detective Thomlinson,” she sniffled. “Mr. Beaumont will be with you shortly.” She bustled off, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief.
I took in the grandeur of the sitting room, filled with dark-wooded furniture and artwork from every corner of the globe, before turning my mind back to the situation at hand. I knew little about the victim. The few items recovered from his body told little about his life: his overalls, shirt and boots, a set of keys, a pocket knife, a small box and ring, a handkerchief and some loose change. Hardly different to any other labouring man, if you didn’t count the pruning shears protruding from his chest.
Hank Beaumont, a bulky man with grey-tinged reddish hair and a ruddy complexion, filled the room with his presence. His moustache still bore traces of breakfast.
“Sorry to call so early,” I said, rising to shake his hand.
“No need to apologise, I appreciate you coming so quickly.”
We sat in seats opposite each other, divided by a coffee table where the maid soon deposited a tea tray.
“Bad business, this,” Beaumont said as he spooned sugar into his cup. “Austen Grey has been the gardener here nearly ten years. He was a magician with the roses.”
“It was the maid who discovered the body?” I asked, though I’d already read the report.
Beaumont nodded. “Poor thing. She’s completely beside herself.”
“And Mrs. Beaumont?” I asked. “How is she taking it?”
“Not well. She’s been locked away in her room all day.” He sipped his tea. “I suppose you’d like to see where he was found?”
He downed his cup and I left mine untouched, not really being much of a tea drinker. The green landscaped gardens bloomed with roses. The sweet scent was almost overpowering. Beaumont led me down a paved path to a small orchard of peach and pear trees.
He tucked his hands into his pockets and rocked on his heels. “The police took the body, but we’ve left the scene untouched.”
Austen Grey had been pruning the trees when the fatal event occurred. His ladder lay in the grass and, upon examination, I found the place where the ladder’s feet had gouged the soil. The pruning shears, covered in the gardener’s blood, had already been taken into evidence.
Beaumont coughed. “Looks like a nasty accident if you ask me,” he said. “Lost his balance on the ladder and fell on his own shears.”
“Except the police found him lying on his back with the shears sticking out of his chest.”
Beaumont coughed again and rocked on his heels more vigorously. “You mean to say he was murdered?”
“The coroner said there was no sign of a struggle,” I continued. “I’d say he was murdered by someone known to him?”
Beaumont’s face lost all colour.
“Of course maybe he was just taken by surprise,” I added. I indicated for him to walk with me back to the house. “Your manor is quite secure. Locked gates, high walls. It would be difficult for an intruder to enter your grounds?”
“Yes. A man of my wealth can’t be too careful against thieves.”
“Who was on the property at the time of Mr. Grey’s death?”
Beaumont thought it over. “I was in my study writing a letter to the bank and my wife had taken to her room with a migraine. Then there was Lotty, who found him when she went to take him some lunch.”
“Is that all?”
“My good friend, Professor Newell, dropped by earlier to leave me some papers, but he had left well before Lotty found Austen.
“I’d like to talk to Miss Lotty.”
We returned to the sitting room, where the tea tray had already been removed. Beaumont left me and returned with the frazzle-haired woman. After assuring me I would be able to find him in his study, Beaumont left the maid and I alone.
“Let’s start with how you found the body,” I prompted.
She nodded. “I was takin’ Austen his lunch like I always do when he’s workin’ in the orchard, only when I get there I see him layin’ there on the ground with his shears stuck in his chest.” She sniffled and pulled her handkerchief from her apron pocket.
“What did you do then?”
“I ran back to the house and told Mr. Beaumont and he told me to ring the coppers, so I did.”
“Has anyone ever expressed ill-intent towards Mr. Grey?”
The maid fidgeted in her seat and wrung her hands. “I-I shouldn’t say. I’ll lose me job.”
I leaned forward and gently took her hands in mine. “I know of a family who is hiring right now, if it comes to that,” I assured her.
She gulped. “It was two nights ago. I was just finishin’ up my duties when I heard yellin’ comin’ from Mr. Beaumont’s study. I shouldn’t have eavesdropped, but curiosity got the best of me. Mr. Beaumont was sayin’, ‘How could you do it to me, Scarlett? How could you desecrate our marriage bed with the gardener!’ I was in shock. I’d have never thought Mrs. Beaumont to be an adultress, but he was sayin’ clear as day that he’d seen her sneakin’ off with him. And she never argued back so she must have been guilty.”
“Did you hear anything else?”
“No. I heard footsteps towards the door then, so I got out of there quick as a wink.” She looked up at me with watery eyes. “Do you think Mr. Beaumont killed Austen?”
I left the maid to find the answer for myself. Mr. Beaumont was in his study, as he said he would be, and with him stood a tall, lean man in spectacles. Both smoked pipes as they studied some papers on the desk.
“Ah, Detective Thomlinson, you’ve finished speaking with Lotty, then. I’d like you to meet my good friend, Professor David Newell.”
I shook hands with the professor, whose handshake was limp in comparison to Mr. Beaumont’s.
“I teach architecture at the university,” he told me. “I’ve been helping Hank with some designs for a new building.”
“You were here the day Mr. Grey was murdered,” I said, turning down Beaumont’s offer of a smoke.
“Yes, dropping off some information on building structures. I was gone before it all happened, only heard about it later when Hank called me with the terrible news. Murdered, you say? Hank led me to believe it was an accident.”
“Well, I thought it had to have been,” Beaumont said gruffly. He took a few hard puffs of his pipe.
“You didn’t happen to see anything suspicious as you left the grounds, did you, Professor?” I asked.
“Not at all. You really think it was murder?”
“I’m afraid so. Would you mind giving me a few moments with Mr. Beaumont, I have some more questions to ask of him?”
“I’ll go implore Lotty for some of her delightful finger buns,” he said.
“How would you describe the state of your marriage?” I asked when I was sure the professor was out of earshot.
Beaumont walked over to the unlit fireplace and stared into its depths. Smoke puffed up from his pipe and only the sound of the mantle clock broke the silence. Finally he spoke.
“I suppose I might as well tell you everything, though it makes me look guilty as sin. I assure you, though, Detective, I had nothing to do with Austen’s death.” He took another few puffs on his pipe before snuffing it out and placing it on the mantle beside the clock. He turned to face me, his hands clasped behind his back. “Scarlett and I had an awful row the night before Austen died. I believed her to be having an affair with him.”
“What evidence did you have for such an accusation?”
“There had been… signs. The smell of a man’s aftershave on our bed sheets that wasn’t mine. Long walks that she’d come back from looking slightly dishevelled. Then I saw her one day from my bedroom window, sneaking off with the gardener. She was looking about, as though making sure no one would see them together. I didn’t follow them to catch her in the act—I couldn’t bear the thought of it—but that night I confronted her. She denied she’d been sleeping with him, but she couldn’t give me a reason why they’d been sneaking off together.” He looked at me imploringly. “I know you’re probably thinking I went out there and killed him in a fit of jealous rage, and believe me the thought crossed my mind, but I swear to you I am no killer. I’d planned on firing him that very morning and drawing up divorce papers, but David talked me out of it. With the new business expansion it would all be bad publicity and he convinced me to wait until after the grand opening. You can understand now why Scarlett is so distraught over his death and hasn’t left her room.”
After calling for a policeman to stay with Mr. Beaumont until we knew for sure one way or another if he’d killed his gardener, I announced myself at Mrs. Beaumont’s door.
“Come in,” came her sniffled voice from within.
Her room was in stark contrast to the rest of the house. There was no dark furniture within her light and airy room. Everything was painted in whites and decorated in pastels. The woman in question sat by the window in a peach-coloured nightgown. Strangely, the room smelled of pipe smoke, though the lady herself was not smoking and I could see no trace of a pipe.
“Please excuse me, Detective,” she apologised. “I’ve been terribly upset by this gardener business and I’ve not yet dressed.”
“Is it true he was your lover?”
Her brilliant blue eyes widened. “Oh no! It’s not true at all!”
“Your husband seems to think otherwise.”
Her face crumpled into a frown. “He’s got it all wrong.”
“Then why don’t you tell me how it really is.”
She bit her lower lip and glanced wistfully out of the window. “You’ll think badly of me, but really how could I help it. I was only seventeen when I married Hank, barely even a woman. He was already thirty-three, and a rich and worldly man. He showered me with gifts and took me places I’d never been. It was all very exciting for a young girl. Looking back, I know that I never really loved him, not now that I know what real love is.”
“You fell in love with Austen Grey?”
She turned to face me, her electric blue eyes full of passion. “I’m in love with David Newell.”
“It was almost an instant attraction. He understands me in ways my husband never has. We find ways to steal moments together. Sometimes when Hank is out of town or when David comes to drop off papers we’ll sneak off together behind the tool shed at the back of the garden. We try to be discreet.”
“But you got sloppy.”
“Yes.” She gazed back out of the window. “We weren’t careful enough and Hank started to suspect my unfaithfulness. Then he saw me stealing away with the gardener and thought he was my lover. I just know my husband killed him, and it’s all my fault. I should have told him the truth when he confronted me. My silence killed Mr. Grey.”
Tears ran down the woman’s pale cheeks and dripped onto her peach nightgown creating dark spots in the material.
“So why were you sneaking off with Mr. Grey?”
“He saw us – David and I – out behind the tool shed. He threatened to tell my husband everything unless I paid him off. That’s what Hank saw that day – I was giving Austen his payment.”
“I have one more question, Mrs. Beaumont. I can’t imagine you are so upset over this man’s death that you would spend all morning holed up in your room crying. In fact, I would think you would have been happy for him to be out of the way so he would no longer be able to threaten and blackmail you.”
Her orb-like eyes stared up at me. “Because I have ruined everything! David and I desperately needed for my husband’s new venture to go ahead so David could get paid for his contribution to the project and we could start our life together. Now with the murder, and all the bad publicity that will come from it…”
Mrs. Beaumont burst into hysterical sobs and I could get nothing further from her that was coherent. It seemed the case against Mr. Beaumont had grown stronger. Then again, Mrs. Beaumont and Professor Newell had equally good reason to have murdered Austen Grey. Perhaps he had asked for more money than they could afford to give him and, with the threat of their affair being revealed, one or both of them had silenced him permanently.
I had all the occupants of the house called together in the sitting room; I wanted none of them out of my sight until I’d determined who was the responsible party.
Scarlett Beaumont sat subdued on a red cushioned chair, chancing a quick glance at her secret lover. The professor avoided looking at her completely, instead studying the Monet on the wall opposite him. Hank Beaumont looked at his wife in a pained way before concentrating on lighting another pipe. The maid, Lotty, stood by the door, at the ready, should her master or mistress require something of her.
I cleared my throat to ensure I had their attention. “I think for us to get to the bottom of Mr. Grey’s death some truths need to come out into the open. The first of those is that Scarlett Beaumont was not having an affair with Austen Grey.”
Beaumont whipped his head around to face his wife. “You weren’t?”
“No, not with Austen,” she replied. “But I have not been faithful to you. I’m so sorry.”
“But then with whom?”
“That question can wait,” I interrupted. “For now.”
Beaumont’s jaw tightened, but he nodded. A dead man was more important than a faithless wife.
“Mr. Beaumont, tell me exactly what you were doing when you found out about Mr. Grey’s death?”
“It’s like I told you before, I’d finished my lunch and retired to my study to write a letter to the bank about getting a loan for the new building. I’d been at it for close to an hour when I heard Lotty come screaming up to the house. She was saying that Austen was dead. I told her to call the police.”
“And Mrs. Beaumont?” I asked, turning my attention to the lady of the house.
“I told my husband I had a migraine, but…” she looked at her husband guiltily, “but really I had company.”
Beaumont scowled and stepped towards her, but I held out a hand to hold him back. “In due time, Mr. Beaumont.”
He held himself off with effort and ground his teeth to prevent himself from speaking his mind.
“So assuming Mrs. Beaumont is telling the truth, both she and her company were occupied at the time. Lotty, you were taking Mr. Grey lunch and you saw no one coming from the orchard on your way there?”
“What did you do with the lunch when you found the body?”
“Did you drop it in shock, for instance?”
“No, it was still in my hand.”
“And you ran back to the manor?”
“Without dropping any of the lunch?”
Lotty frowned. “I guess not.”
“You’ve know Mr. Grey a long time?”
“Nearly ten years, ever since he came to work here.”
“You know him well then.”
Lotty glanced around at the others in the room, who were so caught up in their own thoughts of guilt and adultery they were barely paying attention to our exchange.
“You loved him?” I asked.
Lotty’s mouth opened and shut silently giving her the appearance of a goldfish. Her cheeks flushed red.
“You know what I think,” I said. “I think you and Austen Grey were lovers. I think when you overheard Mr. Beaumont accusing his wife of sleeping with Mr. Grey you thought your lover had been unfaithful to you. I think you went down to the orchard in a rage, knocked him off his ladder and stabbed him with his pruning shears.”
“No! It’s not true!” Lotty’s eyes welled up with tears and she wrung her apron between white hands.
The others looked at her agape.
“Lotty?” Mr. Beaumont said.
“This is all her fault!” she screeched, pointing a shaking finger at Scarlett Beaumont. “What was she doin’ sneakin’ off all the time anyway? What was she doin’ sneakin’ off with my Austen. If she wasn’t sleepin’ with him, she was still meetin’ with him for some secret reason. There shouldn’t have been no secrets between me and him.”
“He was blackmailing me, Lotty,” Mrs. Beaumont said. “I was paying him off so he wouldn’t tell Hank about my infidelity.”
Lotty eyed us all, as the new information slotted into place in her brain. “What did he need money for anyway? We were happy enough.”
“Perhaps I can answer,” I said. “The police found a small box in Mr. Grey’s trouser pocket – a box containing a small diamond ring.”
Lotty dropped to her knees and buried her face in her hands. “Sweet Lord, what have I done?”
I escorted the limp and pale maid from the manor.
As the voices rose within the manor, I somewhat doubted Mr. Beaumont’s new business project would be going ahead any time soon, at least not until he found a new architect.
Jo Hart’s author website: www.thegracefuldoe.wordpress.com
The Australian Literature Review