The Murder of Busy Lizzie

Gladys Mitchell

Bradley 46


To my most delightful friend

Muriel Spence

chapter one

Holiday with Prospects

‘Who can despair whom hope doth bear?’

Sir Philip Sidney

Well,’ said Marius Lovelaine, taking back the letter he had given his wife to read, ‘there are few things in life more welcome than a well-earned, well-planned holiday.’

‘Well-earned maybe,’ responded his wife, ‘but I don’t see where well-planned fits in. It seems to me that Eliza is doing the planning, and from what little I remember of her…’

‘Oh, well, this is Easter. We have plenty of time. All the same, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, my dear, and, from the warm tone of this letter, I fancy that Lizzie’s pudding will be worth the sampling.’

‘Maybe. For my own part, I would sooner go to Southend or Margate or even to one of those holiday camps which Sebastian tried last year and did not like, than stay in your sister’s loathsome little boarding-house, on an almost uninhabited island.’

‘Private hotel, Clothilde. In fact, I believe she likes it to be known as a country club.’

‘What a lot of high-falutin’ nonsense! It’s nothing more than a very inferior guest-house. I don’t suppose it’s got so much as a table licence! As for her scale of charges, we could at least have had a package holiday abroad for that amount of money. Trust Eliza not to give something for nothing, even to her closest relative, and, as matters stand, you are scarcely that!’

‘She has merely sent me her printed brochure, my dear, with the letter of invitation, and even if she does expect to charge us something for board and lodging, we have to remember that the hotel is her only means of livelihood.’

‘Then what has happened to all the money which that eccentric old lady bequeathed her when she left her the house and grounds on that barren little island?’

‘I don’t think there can be much of that money left, dear. Lizzie must have spent the earth on converting the house into an hotel and putting in all those improvements.’

‘What improvements?’

‘Well, according to the brochure, she has built a considerable extension to the place—’

‘In the form of draughty little chalets—’

‘And then she mentions extra bathrooms in the house itself, a sunken garden, a hard tennis court, miniature golf, billiards, table tennis—’

‘Oh, in an outlandish place like that I expect she got all the work done on the cheap, unless her fancy man paid for some of it.’

‘She would hardly have a lover at her age, my dear. Besides, that old business was finished with when the baby was adopted. Look, Clothilde, I was sorry and ashamed when my parents quarrelled with her all those years ago, and I was most disappointed when you met her at our wedding and disliked her, so I regard this letter as a genuine olive-branch which we would be well-advised to accept.’

‘Olive-branch do you call it? She only wants us there so that we can be made to pay through the nose for poor food and a couple of attics.’

‘I hardly think she will expect us to roost in the rafters, my dear. However, that we shall see. But please allow me to finish. I am particularly anxious to accept the olive-branch I feel she is holding out, because I hope it may very well lead to our ultimate advantage, especially if we can prevail upon Sebastian and Margaret to go with us.’

‘Which they will refuse to do. I can tell you that before you ask them.’

‘Even if I point out that they may stand to gain by accompanying us to the island?’

‘I should have thought Eliza was the person who would stand to gain if we go. Three bedrooms and full board for a whole month! I can tell you what has happened. She has rooms going begging now that everybody either goes abroad or takes a touring holiday by car with nothing but over-night stops. She probably thinks it better to have our money than none at all. Besides, who wants to stay on a two-by-four island where the steamer calls only three times a week in mid-season, once a week at other times, and not at all if the weather is bad?’

‘You still don’t allow me to finish. The point is this: Lizzie, after all these years, has written to me in a friendly, sisterly way—’

‘In a grasping, sisterly way, I suppose you mean!’

‘Please, my dear! Compelled thereto by you and my parents, I may have cut myself off from her, but the fact remains that I am her next of kin. When she passes on—and perhaps I may remind you that she is seven years my senior and that my health has always been good—I stand the best chance of anybody of inheriting whatever she leaves.’

‘Oh, nonsense, Marius! Even if what she has to leave is worth anything, have you forgotten the boy Ransome?’

‘My dear, you know as well as I do that Ransome is a fly-by-night, born on the wrong side of the blanket when Lizzie was a headstrong girl of twenty. Long before he was born my parents had made all arrangements to have him adopted. I don’t suppose Lizzie has seen him since he was about six weeks old, if that. She couldn’t possibly have any feeling for him now.’

‘I wouldn’t be too sure about that. Blood is thicker than water—or so they say.’

‘They also say that it’s a good deal nastier, and that’s true, anyhow. No, no, my dear, Lizzie blotted her copybook and was only too thankful, I’m sure, to tear out the untidy page.’

‘That is not the story I heard. I was told—and on good authority, too—that the father would willingly have married Eliza if his wife could have been persuaded to divorce him. Ransome was a love-child, in every sense of the word, and we cannot lose sight of the fact that he may very well have remained so.’

‘After thirty years? Really, my dear, I can hardly believe that!’

‘Ransome is near enough thirty years old, then,’ said Clothilde in a reminiscent tone.

‘Oh, yes, he will be thirty on his next birthday, I suppose.’

‘Then, surely, Marius, he is old enough to know his rights and to insist on them. He will see that he is on the spot as soon as Eliza goes, and will help himself to the pickings, if there are any. You may depend on that.’

‘But if he was formally adopted he has no claim on Lizzie any more.’

‘Be that as it may, how do you know that she has not married and had legitimate children?’

‘Oh, we should have heard.’

‘I’d like to be certain of that. Besides, Ransome may not have been legally adopted. He may have been fostered.’

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