Authors: Robert Goddard
I followed him across the orchard and caught my first sight of the farm. It was a low-roofed house of cob and thatch with a walled yard and tumble-down barns to one side. About it and the orchard hung an air of neglect, a suggestion of prolonged struggle recently abandoned. ‘Do you live here alone, Mr Doak?’
He nodded. ‘Since me wife died two year ago.’
‘We ’ad a son, but ’e died afore ’is mother, so alone is what
am now. Mebbe that makes this business rest easier on your conscience. Or mebbe you don’t ’ave a conscience. Your employer don’t ’ave one, so why should you?’
‘Will you keep any of it?’
‘Any of what?’
‘The farm, boy, the farm.’ He pointed towards the house through the trees. The barns needed re-thatching, I could clearly see, the yard gate re-hanging. There was a broken window on the upper floor of the house and another window, further along, sagging from its hinges.
‘No. I don’t think so. Except …’
‘’Cep’ what?’ He glared round at me.
‘The name. Mr Caswell likes the name. It’ll still be called Clouds Frome.’
‘Will it now?’
We had come to the farther edge of the orchard. Doak stopped and leaned against the wicket-fence. He pulled a drinking flask from his pocket, took a swig from it and offered it to me. I shook my head.
‘Caswell’s got ’is brother to take me on at the cider works in ’Ereford come next Lady Day. Did ’e tell you?’
‘It’s only for the sake o’ that I didn’ run you out of ’ere on a pole. For the sake of a job labourin’ for a family who’d ’ve laboured for us once. For the sake of—’ He spat over the fence. ‘Me family owned this land once. All of it.’
‘’Ard times, boy, ’ard times.’ He snorted. ‘’Cep’ for the Caswells o’ this world.’
‘It’ll be a wrench to leave, I imagine.’
He looked at me scornfully, as if I could not begin to understand what leaving Clouds Frome would mean to him. ‘Doaks owned and farmed this land when Caswells were scrabblin’ in the mud for pig-apples. So ’ow d’you think that makes me feel when one of ’em buys it from under me?’
I could give no answer, no answer that would not seem
trite or impertinent. I looked away in my embarrassment.
‘I can’t stop Caswell buyin’ Clouds Frome,’ Doak went on. ‘’E ’as the money an’ ’e thinks ’e ’as the right. But this I’ll tell you, boy, this I’ll tell you for nought. ’E can own this place, but ’e can’t be ’appy ’ere. ’E can live ’ere, but ’e can’t prosper ’ere. The time’ll come when Victor Caswell will rue the day he ever thought of buildin’ an ’ouse for ’imself ’ere – at Clouds Frome.’
I thought little enough of Doak’s remarks at the time. I dismissed them as the empty product of envy and disappointment. And so they probably were, though, strangely, none could subsequently have denied that Ivor Doak had been proved correct. Abundantly correct.
KNOWING ANGELA’S CURIOSITY
would be revived as soon as Consuela’s next court appearance was reported in the press, I took care to ensure that I had to leave the house uncommonly early the following Tuesday. I had secured a ten o’clock appointment in Whitstable with the secretary of a golf club aspiring to grander accommodation, so was obliged to set off for Victoria station whilst Angela was still in bed.
I had slept poorly since first hearing of Consuela’s plight, unable to rid my mind of the contrast between all that I remembered of her and the privations of a police cell in Hereford. Greater knowledge of the charges against her seemed likely to afford some kind of relief, so it was with eager haste that I bought a copy of
in Kensington High Street and sat on a bench to study the legal page.
A full hearing, it transpired, had now commenced in Hereford magistrates’ court. It was reported in detail and with a prominence which suggested that public interest in the case was heightening. Prosecuting counsel had addressed the bench at length, setting out the basis of the charge. It would be shown, he had said, by reference to certain letters found in the accused’s possession, that she had reason to harbour malice against her husband. It would be further shown that a quantity of arsenious oxide had been found in her possession along with the letters. On Sunday 9 September she had been due to take tea as usual with her husband and their daughter—
I broke off. They had a child. I had never supposed, never guessed, that they might have. It was an unremarkable discovery, yet a devastating one. It seemed suddenly to make everything far worse. Consuela and Victor had a child, whereas Angela and I … I forced my attention back to the newspaper.
Consuela, Victor and their daughter (whom the report did not name) had been about to commence tea in the drawing-room at Clouds Frome when unexpected visitors had arrived: Marjorie and her daughter Rosemary, who had called by on a whim whilst returning from a luncheon engagement with Marjorie’s brother and his family in Ross-on-Wye. The tea party had lasted about an hour, then Marjorie and Rosemary had pressed on home to Hereford. Several hours later, both Marjorie and Rosemary had been taken ill at Fern Lodge with symptoms of acute food poisoning, whilst Victor had fallen ill with identical symptoms at Clouds Frome. Rosemary’s was much the most serious case of the three, vomiting and diarrhoea giving place to paralysis, unconsciousness and death late the following evening.
The Crown’s contention was that the accused had placed sufficient arsenic in the sugar-bowl to kill her husband, who, unlike his wife and daughter, regularly took sugar in tea, but that Marjorie and Rosemary, who also took sugar, had inadvertently shared the dose and that Rosemary had somehow consumed the major part.
The prosecution’s first witness was Dr Stringfellow, who had attended all three patients. No impurity or tainting of food or drink could have accounted, in his judgement, for the severity of Rosemary Caswell’s illness. He had therefore felt obliged to withhold a death certificate until a specialist in the detection of poisons could carry out a
. He had also taken specimens of the other two patients’ urine for the specialist’s examination. The subsequent discovery of arsenic in these samples and in the body of the deceased had not surprised him; he had feared from the start that it would be so.
With Dr Stringfellow’s testimony the first day of the hearing had ended.
Poison has always seemed to me the most sinister of threats to life, lurking unsuspected in food or drink, masked by other tastes, then striking hours later when the meal is half-forgotten. Perhaps that is what Ivor Doak meant about Victor’s acquisition of Clouds Frome: that something in the land and place was bound to resist him and, in the end, do its best to destroy him.
Yet was it possible to see Consuela as the agent of that destruction? Surely not. She was no poisoner. The cold, scheming intelligence required for such a crime was alien to her nature. Clearly, however, the police believed otherwise and had evidence to support them in that belief. And what did I have? Nothing, except my distant memories of Consuela to stumble after in vain.
It was a few days after Easter, 1909, when I welcomed Consuela on her first visit to Clouds Frome. The builders had only been on the site for a fortnight and there was consequently little to see but mud and trench work. The last load of rubble from the farm had, however, been removed and I, at least, could begin to envisage the splendour of the finished house. The question was whether I could persuade others to do so, though even this can hardly explain the anxiety I felt about Consuela’s reaction.
She arrived in mid-afternoon, accompanied by her sister-in-law Hermione, in Mortimer Caswell’s chauffeur-driven motor-car, a high-roofed limousine with closed seats at the rear lacking the
joie de vivre
of Victor’s Mercedes. I had been talking to the foreman, George Smith, when I heard the sound of it approaching up the rutted track from the road and suddenly felt conscious of my shabby, mud-spattered appearance as I hurried down to meet them.
It was a perfect spring day and Consuela, as she stepped lightly down from the car, was in every sense its perfect
The simplicity of her dress was remarkable in that era of opulence: cream skirt and coat with the faintest of stripes, pale yellow blouse fastened by a brooch, straw hat delicately trimmed with feathers, white gloves and fringed parasol; but no boa, no veil, no conspicuous jewellery or unnecessary ornament. She smiled as if it was a genuine pleasure to see me and I could not help hoping it was.
‘Good afternoon, Mr Staddon.’
‘Good afternoon, Mrs Caswell.’ I held her hand briefly in mine. ‘I can’t tell you how delighted I am that you came.’
She looked at me intently for a moment and said softly, ‘I promised I would.’
At that instant Hermione completed her descent from the car. She was costumed in tweed, with a scarf fastened round hat and throat, taking no risks, it seemed, with fickle April warmth. She tolerated my courtesies with good-humoured impatience, then demanded to know when the tour would begin.
The tour comprised my attempts to explain where and to what effect the different rooms of the house would be located and how the gardens would be laid out. I had planned the house to face north, with the drive curving up past the orchard to reach the front. To the rear were to be ponds and ornamental gardens, with a pergola of wisteria or clematis leading out along a flagstoned causeway into the orchard, which fell away below with the slope of the land. Wilder, wooded gardens would lie north of the house on climbing ground, walled kitchen garden, glasshouses and gardener’s cottage to the sheltered east. The house itself was to be a compressed H, with two gables to the front and four to the rear supplemented by a pentagonal bay, kitchens, stables and garage adjoining to one side. By loading corridor space to the front, I ensured that all the principal rooms and most of the bedrooms had good southern views. The bay, moreover, gave light and grandeur to the drawing-room as well as the master bedroom. The materials were to be local sandstone and slate, the overall effect one of solidity and grace.
How much of this was apparent to Hermione I could not tell. She evidently preferred the method of things to their meaning. To my surprise, she found a soul-mate in Smith and was content to ply him with questions whilst I escorted Consuela up to the fringes of the wood north of the site, from where the best panorama was to be obtained. We stopped beneath the spreading branches of a horse chestnut and looked back down at the strew of cart-tracks and boardwalks, at the builders’ muddy gougings and the sea of apple blossom beyond – Doak’s last crop, which he would never harvest.
‘I thought,’ I ventured cautiously, ‘that a summer-house on this spot might—’
‘It would be perfect,’ she interrupted, glancing round at me. Sunlight and shade were dappled across her face, blurring her expression. But of her beauty there could be no blurring.
‘I’m glad you like the idea.’
‘It seems to me, Mr Staddon, that I like all your ideas. Victor was very lucky to find such a talented architect.’
‘You’re too generous. I’m only doing the best I can.’
‘I should like roses in the gardens,’ she said, her mood seeming to change suddenly. And, equally suddenly, I felt that nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of any request she might choose to make.
‘An arbour, perhaps,’ I said, thinking rapidly. ‘Or a rose-seat.’
‘They would remind me of home.’ Her voice was wistful and nostalgic. ‘Of the warmth and sweetness of the Brazilian sun.’
‘Where was your home, Mrs Caswell?’
A Casa das Rosas
.’ She smiled. ‘The House of Roses. Rua São Clemente, Rio de Janeiro. The house where I was born. The house my father built when he had made his fortune.’
‘Is it as delightful as it sounds?’
She made no reply and I sensed that the subject of her distant home was one best not preyed upon. Yet I could
let the opportunity to learn more about her slip from my grasp. I felt a sudden need to trespass upon her secret thoughts.
‘Do you miss it very much?’
She looked away and her gloved fingers tightened round the handle of the parasol. ‘How long will it take to build this house, Mr Staddon?’ she asked in a murmur.
‘Two years will see you and Mr Caswell in residence.’
‘No doubt that seems a long time, but I can assure you—’
She raised her hand to silence me. ‘It does not seem a long time.’ Her gaze drifted up into the woods behind us. ‘In some ways …’ She stopped and I knew she would not continue. In that instant there seemed more sadnesses and longings locked within her than one person could bear, far less one as beautiful as she.
‘Your sister-in-law is waving to us, Mrs Caswell. Perhaps we should rejoin her.’
Consuela flashed a glance at me that seemed to convey an immense impatience with the proprieties she was expected to observe. Then, as quickly, it was gone, replaced by lowered eyes and the faintest of smiles. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Of course we should.’ And with that she set off down the slope.
One of Angela’s most infuriating characteristics is her facility for unexpected changes of mood and tactic. She can summon anger from placidity at a moment’s notice and revert just as quickly. When one confidently anticipates a terrier-like pursuit of an unwelcome topic, she displays only a consuming indifference. So it was with the newspaper reports of Consuela’s hearing. For all Angela said about them one might have supposed she had not even noticed them. Though, somehow, I did not believe that was the case.
The second day of the hearing had been devoted to the testimony of the two people who had survived the alleged poisoning: Marjorie and Victor. Marjorie described returning from Ross-on-Wye with her daughter on the afternoon
question. They had decided to call at Clouds Frome on their way. Victor – not Consuela, she stressed – had invited them to stay for tea. Marjorie had noticed nothing unusual in anything that was said or done. Consuela was subdued, but not abnormally so. Marjorie had consumed two cups of tea with milk and sugar and a slice of fruit cake. Rosemary had consumed about the same. Tea had already been laid when they arrived and Consuela had waited upon them. She had poured the tea and sliced the cake, leaving her guests to help themselves to milk, lemon or sugar. Rosemary had, to the best of Marjorie’s recollection, been the first to spoon sugar from the bowl. They had left after about an hour. Later that evening, they had both begun to feel unwell. Neither had eaten any dinner. By ten o’clock Rosemary was being violently and repeatedly sick, Marjorie scarcely less so. Dr Stringfellow had been summoned. He had expressed concern about Rosemary’s condition in particular and had spoken of food poisoning as the likeliest explanation. A telephone call to Clouds Frome had established that Victor was also ill, but neither Consuela nor Jacinta—