The small inn was filled with Mr. Albert Campion's pleasant tenor voice, much to Lugg's irritation.
"Never thought I'd fall, but when I hear you call,
I'm getting sentimental over you."
Lugg walked into his employer's room just as that worthy personage was carefully adjusting his tie. He helped Campion put on his best white coat and was thanked with a grateful nod and another verse of that repulsive song.
"Things you say and do just thrill me through and through,
I'm getting sentimental over you.
I thought I was happy I could live without love,
Now I must admit, love is all I'm thinking of."
"Don't know what you're so jolly about," Lugg growled. "I thought you was a bit sweet on that Ms. Bow-cheer. You weren't overly 'appy when you 'eard about her engagement. It don't make no sense for you to be caterwaulin' all over the place now, the day of 'er wedding."
"You're quite wrong on both matters," Campion said primly. "First of all, I am not 'caterwauling,' but am rather gracing you with the latest bit of brilliance from Tommy Dorsey's Orchestra." Lugg snorted at that. "Secondly, I may have been 'a bit sweet' on Ms. Bourchier when we were children, but love died when she ratted me out for putting a frog in her bed. I was so heartbroken that I went off my pudding for a full fortnight. Luckily, hearts mend easily when you're still in short pants."
"Maybe, but I still 'old that you wasn't exactly thrilled when you read about her marrying that 'ampton bloke."
Campion scowled. "You're right about that part. This chap she's marrying, Sir Richard Hampton? I knew him at school, under the pseudonym of Dastardly Dick. I can't claim to have known him well since he was in his final year when I was a first-former, but even us lowlies were familiar with his reputation. He was one of the most brutal bullies to ever walk those hallowed halls; even Pig Peters was but a gifted amateur in comparison. Since I find it difficult to believe that age might have mellowed him, I can't imagine what Libby was playing at in accepting his proposal. There must be something else going on there, but I'm blowed if I can figure it out."
Lugg nodded thoughtfully. "'is reputation ain't improved none since he came into his title, I'll tell you that much. The lads at the public say he's dead brutal on his staff. Only one girl has been able to stick the job for more than a few months; many barely last a fortnight. That long-term girl? She's not a local so no one knows much about her, but everyone holds that she must be off 'er rocker to stay on." He scowled before continuing. "I even 'eard tell that he uses his fists more often than he do 'is raised voice. 'e's indiscriminate-like when he's been drinking, and the townsfolk reckon that 'e drinks a fair bit of the time."
Campion's face went completely blank. "I don't like the sound of that," he said slowly.
"Me neither!" Lugg said fervently. "That Ms. Bow-cheer is a right proper girl and don't have no business marrying a thug like that." He sighed mournfully. "Such a nice girl. I wish she would've taken you in 'and. You coulda done well with a wife like that."
"Watch yourself," Campion warned him, "or you'll be looking for another job."
"Fine. You say that's not on, so I guess that's that."
"Good of you."
"But that don't mean she shouldn't at least have someone what's worthy of her."
"Yes," Campion said slowly. "Of course, I haven't seen him in nearly fifteen years and he might have improved since school. The people of the village might be exaggerating his poorer qualities for the entertainment of a stranger. Or he might work off his more anti-social tendencies on his staff, thus proving the most congenial of souls to his family…" He trailed off dubiously and then shrugged. "I guess I'll soon see."
"You won't see nuthin' if you don't get a move on," Lugg observed.
"Well, then, why don't you run down and get the car started." Campion looked in the mirror once more, smiled momentarily in satisfaction at his reflection and then followed his man downstairs.
The local constable waylaid Campion immediately after the wedding. The young man followed crime reports avidly and had read up on several of Campion's past cases. Anxious for excitement, he had convinced himself that Mr. Campion was in town to investigate a mystery of some kind and was most reluctant to accept a more mundane explanation for his presence. He had clearly hoped that having a well-known detective in residence would lead to fantastic crimes that would catapult him up the ladder of his chosen career. Mr. Campion was quite sorry to disabuse the bored lad of this pretty notion and would have invented a case if he could have thought of one on the spot that would neither embarrass his friends nor lead to needless intimidation of some innocent soul. Lacking the imagination needed to console Constable White, Campion bought the disappointed young man a drink at the local pub and fed him some details of the Barnabas case that hadn't made their way into the papers.
The reception was already hopping by the time Campion was able to break away from Constable White. The gramophone was playing loudly enough to be heard throughout the house and well-shaken cocktails flowed freely. Crowds milled everywhere, except in the living room where the younger and soberer guests were dancing. Within moments of his arrival, Campion found himself with a highball in one hand, a prawn vol-au-vent in the other, and a swarm of various chums clustered about him. Despite his misgivings over Libby's marriage, he was glad that he'd come.
After greeting everyone, Campion found his mind returning to his earlier conversation with Lugg. "Rum business," he mused aloud. "Libby marrying Dickie Hampton. Not the first chap that I would have guessed to win her heart."
"Rum? Downright peculiar, I'd say!" Giles Pagett said heartily. "Why would she want to go and marry a tick like that? She had other prospects, after all. For instance, I was quite keen on her before I met my darling Isopel and she never showed the slightest amount of interest in me."
"That's probably because you're an utter prawn, old bean," drawled Michael Prenderby.
"Prawn I may be, but it normally takes girls a few weeks of my acquaintance to realize that. Libby was off me right from the beginning." Everyone in the group laughed, causing Giles to blush furiously. Nevertheless, he manfully struggled to make his point. "All right, all right. Less of that. Still, I defy a single one of you to deny the fact that I am far better looking, better mannered, and altogether more human than Dickie Hampton on his best day." Nary a man there could dispute that assertion, so Giles continued with considerably more confidence. "And what about you, Michael? Or Guffy there? Or even old Farquharson, clever as a cat and rich as Midas? All of you tried to win the fair Libby at various times and she shot you all down flat. And yet Dickie Hampton, of all people, succeeds where we all failed? Women may be inexplicable as a general rule, but they're usually a bit more explicable than that!"
Since no one disagreed with Giles, the group treated the topic as fully explored and moved on to a spirited discussion of Aldous Huxley's latest novel. Mr. Campion, however, was more intrigued than ever. He'd had no idea that so many of his friends and acquaintances had been in love with Libby at one point or another, or that she'd had so many potential suitors lined up. What was she playing at, marrying a cretin like Hampton? It simply didn't add up.
Bored with his current companions, Campion began scouring the room for the bride. When he finally located her near an intricate circular staircase, he had to catch his breath. Every bride looks beautiful in a church, but many seem to lose their luster in more mundane environments. Libby was, if anything, even more beautiful. Black hair cut in a stylish bob, a brilliant smile on her face, and a gauzy white gown made her look like an angel. Even from across the room, she had the glow about her that is uniquely reserved for young people in love. Love? With Dastardly Dickie Hampton? Curiouser and curiouser.
Interest definitely piqued, Campion braved the gaggle of females surrounding Libby in order to go greet her. The only one who seemed to mind his intrusion was a delicate blonde bridesmaid with curly hair and a slightly proprietary air. She glared at him as he took Libby's hand and bent to kiss it. Libby laughed and pulled him in for a hug instead.
"Albert!" she squealed delightedly. "I'm so glad you came! It's been far too long."
"Hullo, old thing," he drawled back at her. "You're looking a bit less repulsive than usual tonight."
"Why, thank you. You look semi-acceptable as well. At least, I haven't seen any of my friends screaming off into the night at the sight of you, so you must have done something right in the grooming department."
"Only for you," he assured her blandly. She giggled and he grinned foolishly, which just made her laugh harder.
Their moment was broken by an unsubtle cough. Libby started, and then put an arm around the blonde. "Oh, I am sorry. Albert, this is Hyacinth Fitz-Hugh." Campion bowed slightly before giving the girl one of his most idiotic smiles. She relaxed at that and Libby smiled at the release of tension. "And Hyacinth, I'd like you to meet one of my oldest friends, Albert uh…" She stumbled over his surname, having clearly forgotten his chosen pseudonym.
He quickly intervened before Libby could give away his true identity. "Campion. My name is Albert Campion. I'm pleased to meet you Ms. Fitz-Hugh. Were you two at school together?"
"We were," Libby said happily. "Hyacinth became my dearest and closest friend while we were at school, and she has remained so until this very day."
Hyacinth smiled shyly, causing Campion to like her more than he had before. "There's a bit more to us than that. My father was deeply invested in the New York stock market and was wiped out in that bad business a few years back." Campion nodded sympathetically. "After he… well, afterwards… I needed a job. Luckily, Sir Richard's son was due to come out of the nursery about that time, so he hired me on as William's governess. I guess I'll soon be calling Libby 'Lady Elizabeth,' or perhaps even 'Madame'."
Libby giggled at that. "Never!"
Campion ignored the byplay between the girls to ask about a detail that didn't seem to fit. "Dickie already has a son? Aren't wives normally involved in that process?"
"His first wife died in childbirth," Libby said sadly. "The poor boy has never had a mother, only a series of nameless wet nurses until Hyacinth came along to serve as his governess. Despite everything, however, William's a wonderful boy. I'm so glad that he's my son now."
Campion was more puzzled than ever. Why would a girl as promising as Libby entangle herself with a widower, and one with a child to boot? He knew that most people detested children less than he did, but it still seemed an odd thing for an eligible girl to do. Unable to respond to the ongoing conversation, he smiled stupidly and changed the subject. "I say, Libby. You wouldn't care to dance, would you?"
She regarded him suspiciously. "Will you step on my feet?"
"My dear girl, you are looking at the most dapper jitterbug in England. Lindies languish in despair until I've hopped them. Foxes gawp in unadulterated envy at my trot. You ain't seen a thing until you've seen me swing. I--"
"All right!" she laughed. She turned towards Hyacinth and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. "Be back soon."
As Campion took Libby's arm to lead her out to the dance floor, he suddenly remembered a forgotten nicety. "Congratulations on your wedding. I'm quite broken up about it, you understand, but still, congrats."
Libby laughed again. Their childhood romance was an old joke between them. "You were the one that broke it off, as I recall."
"I?" Campion was frankly incredulous. "I certainly did not!"
"You put a toad in my bed," she said with mock severity. "Not the most subtle of pushes, but it got the message across."
"Is that what you thought? My dear young idiot." Campion dipped her so that he could gaze into her eyes soulfully. "First of all, it was a frog; not a toad. Even a girl should be able to recognize the nicety of difference there! Secondly, that frog was meant as a token of my eternal love for you. My allowance didn't stretch to diamonds in those days, what with being a younger son and all, but I thought a frog would convey the emotion just as nicely."
Libby waited until he finished spinning her before responding. "And to think that Richard owes all his good fortune to a simple misunderstanding…"
"Ah! Now there's a topic that wants exploring!" Campion threw his arms out expansively, narrowly missing one of his fellow dancers. "Why him? You must tell little Albert everything!"
"Well, if you must know, Mr. Nosey Parker…"
"I must!" he insisted. "You see—"
Applause erupted as the song ended, thus cutting Campion off. A waltz started up and Libby turned towards her friend. Reluctant to let her go, Campion grabbed her arm and pulled her close. "One more, please. We haven't finished catching up."
Libby hesitated, uncomfortable with the slower pace of the song. She suddenly shrugged and settled into his embrace. "One more," she agreed quietly.
Campion didn't resume his questions immediately. Instead, he took a minute to enjoy the feel of a beautiful woman in his arms. He wondered if he might still be a tad bit in love with Libby after all. He wouldn't have thought so five minutes ago, but really, this was awfully nice.
Still, Campion had never been one to allow an opportunity to slip past him, and this was his best chance for answers. "Uncle Albert is waiting," he pointed out indelicately.
She snickered rudely. "What does Uncle want to know?"
"How did you meet? Did you introduce your friend to Dickie, or was it the other way 'round?"
"Are you sure you're an uncle?" she demanded. "You sound like more of an Agony Aunt." Campion didn't respond to that, just waited patiently. Just as the silence was beginning to become awkward, she sighed and answered. "The latter. Hyacinth loves her charge, but that is all that she loves about her job. She hates the country and was absolutely miserable at the estate. I used to go cheer her up as often as I could and Richard, well, noticed me. After my third or fourth visit to Hyacinth, he began courting me."
"And you fell in love with him," Campion guessed. "An innocent girl, flattered by the attention of an older, wealthier man."
Her body stiffened at that and Campion knew that whatever response she made would be fraudulent. He wasn't surprised when she responded, "Exactly! An innocent girl (despite her thirty-one years) and the wealthy older man (well, not quite as wealthy as the girl's aged father, but not exactly on the dole either). Could almost be the plot of a Mills and Boon romance novel."
"You're not a stock character, Libby," he assured her. "You're so much more than that."
"I hate to disappoint the great detective," he snorted at that, "but you're wrong."
He knew that he wouldn't get anything further from her and that an accusation of lying would be rather awkward, so Mr. Campion decided not to respond at all. They danced the rest of the waltz in silence, almost uncomfortable but not quite. There was an intimacy between them that he didn't notice in the other couples, and he hoped that he wasn't damaging her reputation. Despite his fears, he gently kissed her on the top of her head as the waltz ended before placing a hand in the small of her back and escorting her to her friend.
As they walked back towards the stairs, Campion noticed that Hyacinth was no longer alone. She had been joined Libby's groom and he looked mad enough to spit, as the Americans say. Campion's late dance partner gulped audibly and skirted away him. She didn't try to mollify her new husband, however, but rather went to stand next to Hyacinth. This seemed to make Hampton even angrier.
Behind Campion's bland exterior, he studied the other man closely. Sir Richard Hampton was a large man, slightly taller than Campion (a rare occurrence), but much broader in the shoulders. Despite his size, he presented the feel of a man who had gone slightly to seed. His coloring was florid, suggesting that the rumors about his drinking were not pure calumny. He stood slightly hunched over, as if he were coddling a colicky stomach. Although he had a full head of hair, Hampton was prematurely gray. Campion knew that he had to be in his late thirties, but he would have pegged the man as closer to fifty if he had passed him on the street. Libby clearly didn't choose her husband for his looks.
Hampton may have looked like a common street thug, but a deep, cultured voice completely belied his appearance. "I'm curious, m'dear, as to what you think you're playing at," he commented with deceptive mildness. "Two dances with a man not your husband, and one of them a waltz? Not good form for a bride at her wedding; not good form at all."
"My fault, I'm afraid," Mr. Campion said blandly. "I asked Libby to help me avoid the hordes of females at this little shindig of yours. Two dances with an unavailable woman have relieved me of many of my social obligations."
"I don't see what your anti-social tendencies have to do with my wife," Hampton said somewhat belligerently.
"As an old friend, Libby was simply helping me out." Campion sighed dramatically but continued quickly before Hampton could respond to his first statement. "I've been cruelly cursed by nature, you know. As you can see, I'm a devilishly attractive fellow. Women are always throwing themselves at my feet, disturbing the nap of carpets and getting unsightly drool stains on my shoes. My man has had quite enough of it and assured me that he would tender his notice if I didn't do something to ensure that my shoes remain lipstick-free for the evening."
"I don't think you look so blasted attractive," Hampton observed with a return to his previous mildness. "More of a gormless twit, I'd say."
"I believe the correct terminology is 'twerp,'" Campion observed mildly, "but the point is taken."
"Richard!" Both men turned to look at a furious Libby. "Albert is a friend of mine—"
Hampton sneered. "Albert, is it?"
"Campion," Mr. Campion added helpfully.
Libby ignored both interruptions. "As he has previously stated, Albert is a very old and very dear friend of mine. I won't have you talking to him like that!"
"And I won't have you talking to me like that, my dear," Hampton said with a pleasant but chilling smile. "In case the events of the past three hours have slipped your small mind, you're my wife now."
Libby's eyes flashed. "Your wife, but not your property."
"Not at this particular moment," Hampton conceded. "Not when our house is full of people. But consider, my dear: our guests will leave and we will then be alone in our conjugal bliss." He sneered, a coarse expression completely at odds with his cultured voice. "The term 'property,' will describe you rather nicely at that point, and you had better hope that I don't feel like breaking my toys when that moment arrives."
Campion watched this exchange with astonishment. Dancing with a guest was a small matter to elicit comment, and Hampton's petty insult towards him was an even more trivial. Why such instant rage from Libby and easy threats of violence from Hampton? Mr. Campion was left with the uncomfortable conviction that this marriage made even less sense than he had thought previously.
Hoping to avoid an unpleasant scene, Campion pulled out a handkerchief. "I say," he said in a falsetto voice, the one that always disarmed others. "I know a rather neat conjuring trick involving broken toys!"
"Shut up, Albert," Libby snarled. "I need to get a few things straight with my new lord and master. Why don't you go step on the toes of some other unfortunate girl!"
Stunned by the unwarranted attack (and somewhat wounded by the equally undeserved comment on his dancing), Campion withdrew. A sense of foreboding, however, led him to stake out a position where he could keep a close eye on the circular stairway. A few minutes later, Libby's friend Hyacinth came over to join him.
"Interesting view you've got here, Mr. Campion," she said wryly. "Do you mind if I join you?"
"Not at all, Ms. Fitz-Hugh," he said suavely. "I enjoy company at the pictures."
She barked out a short laugh. "I'm afraid that you'll find them a bit less entertaining than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers."
"Ah well," he sighed. "I believe I'll stick it out in any case. As you've no doubt read in letters to the editor, we young people are most indiscriminate when it comes to entertainment. We're positively starved for it, or so I have been informed by The Times."
Hyacinth shrugged in wordless reply and turned to stare unsubtly at Libby and Hampton. Campion positioned himself so that most of the room would believe that she was staring vacantly into space in order to avoid his conversation. Libby and Hampton were well within his peripheral vision.
Outwardly, they appeared to be a happy young couple. Neither raised their voice, and they smiled pleasantly at passing well-wishers. Both stood a little too straight, however, and smiled a little too broadly to be genuine. Studying them closely, Campion could see the tense postures that well-bred members of society adopt when struggling with a desire to bop someone on the nose.
"So, Ms. Fitz-Hugh," he began conversationally. "Is this your first stakeout?"
"Stakeout?" Hyacinth shot him a quick puzzled look before turning back to the newlyweds. "I don't believe I'm familiar with the—" She broke off with a gasp as Hampton suddenly struck Libby across the face. Her knees seemed to buckle from the force of the blow, though she neither fell nor cried out. "That monster! I'll kill him!"
Campion grabbed Hyacinth's arm instantly, before she could run over to her friend. "Careful," he hissed into her ear. "Libby won't thank us if we draw attention to her little problem. Let's walk over there. Gently, gently. As if we were dancing on daisies." She glared at him, but his grip upon her arm was too tight for her to do anything other than follow his lead. He smiled idiotically and she turned away in disgust.
It only took a few moments to cross the room, but that was long enough for Hampton to pull his arm back for another potential blow. Before he could strike her again, however, Campion grabbed the upraised arm and twisted it until he had Hampton in a choke hold. He pushed the man under the stairs so that they would be less visible to the room at large before turning to check on Libby.
Her cheekbone glowed, red and angry. He suspected that it would bruise rather badly in a day or two, but she should be able to hide it for tonight. "Get her upstairs," he told Hyacinth curtly. "Redo her makeup then return as quickly as you can, or there'll be a scandal."
Hyacinth looked ready to engage in violence herself. "The hell I will," she said hotly. "The honorable Sir Richard can entertain the guests by himself. I'm putting Libby to bed!"
"No, Hy," Libby said wearily. "He's right." With that, she slipped an arm around Hyacinth's waist and the two women wearily left the alcove. Campion listened attentively until he heard their footsteps as they ascended the stairs.
Mr. Campion turned his attention to the problem at hand. Hampton was struggling against the lock Campion had on him, but wasn't getting very far. In fact, Campion held the larger man rather easily, as his strength didn't seem at all proportional to his size. Nor was this unexpected weakness the only surprising thing about Hampton. Given their proximity, Mr. Campion was in a position to notice that Hampton's thick gray hair was dark black near the scalp. Campion was baffled as to why Hampton would make himself look older than he was by dyeing his hair gray. Although he was intrigued, Campion decided that this was an unimportant matter and that he should concentrate on Hampton's treatment of Libby.
"Now then," he said in a conversational tone. "We're going to have a little chat about decorum in marriage and proper behavior towards the fairer sex."
"Who the devil are you to lecture me about my marriage?" Hampton panted. "Libby's my wife and I'll treat her any damn way I choose."
"That's where you're wrong," Mr. Campion observed with deceptive blandness. "Libby belongs to no one, not now and not in the days to come." He smiled idiotically, hoping to emphasize his next sentence by placing it at odds with his facial expression "Make sure you're very clear on that point, or I will be forced to break your arm."
"You're threatening me in my own home, at my own wedding reception?" Hampton sounded incredulous. "That's some bally nerve you've got, old chap."
"You're right, of course," Campion said regretfully. "Dreadful of me, really. Mother would be mortified. Of course, she's mortified by so many things that I do that perhaps one more won't matter." He smiled again. "Tell me, Dickie. Is your mother proud of you? Where did you learn to hit girls, anyway? I'm certain they never taught that at good old Botolph Abbey! Or perhaps they did and I was playing hooky that day. I so often did, you know. The headmaster was always--"
Hampton stomped on Campion's foot, prompting the latter to break off with a pained "oof." Hampton took advantage of the momentary silence to ask, "If I promise to apologize to Elizabeth, will you let me go? Or if you can't do that, perhaps you can at least cease your prattling?"
"It's of no concern to me whether you apologize or not," Campion said with a shrug. "The only thing I care about is Libby's safety."
"Are you planning to hold me for the next forty years?" Hampton asked. "If not, you might as well let me go now. You can't prevent me from talking to my own wife forever."
Hampton was right. Unless he wanted to swoop in and carry Libby off like Rudolph Valentino, he was stymied. Campion shrugged and released Dastardly Dick. Plastering a vacuous grin on his face, Mr. Campion bowed slightly and backed away without a word.
Hampton stomped up the stairs, and the determined set of his shoulders made Campion distinctly nervous. He contemplated following Hampton when he happened to recall a snippet of conversation from earlier. He had one more card to play, and he suspected that it was rather a good one; he wasn't stymied after all.
It took Mr. Campion several minutes to locate Libby's father. This was not through lack of diligence on his part, but rather an unfortunate consequence of his own gregarious nature. He knew far too many people to pass unseen at a party.
He eventually located the old boy amidst a group of his peers, most of whom knew his mother well enough to scowl disapprovingly at him. This disapproval became even more pronounced when he pulled Sir Charles off to the side.
"Albert," he boomed with genuine delight. "Good to see you, my boy! How's your grandmother keeping herself?"
"Quite well," Campion responded. "Thank you."
"Glad to hear it! Glad to hear it. Why, I recall the—"
Campion had always liked Libby's father, finding him far less terrifying than most of his mother's acquaintances, but the urgency of his errand caused him to ruthlessly cut the old boy off. "Yes, yes. I remember that too. But listen here, Sir Charles; I need your help. Can you find either Libby or Sir Richard?"
Charles looked a trifle vague. "I'm sure they're around here somewhere…"
Campion shook his head. "They were last seen headed upstairs; could you go up and get one or the other? It's rather urgent." Charles looked longingly towards his friends, so Campion decided that a slight embellishment of the truth was called for. "It's about my wedding present, you see. I gave them a Komodo Dragon, which is a rather large lizard. I'm afraid that Lulubelle has eaten three kitchen maids and the remaining staff is somewhat upset about it. They've fallen behind on their work and several trays are only half full! Either the lord or the lady of the house must go to the kitchen in and assure them that the creature is too full to devour any more staff and that they should therefore get back to work."
Charles gaped at him. "You aren't serious, are you?"
"I'm afraid so. Guffy Randall made a rather biting comment when he discovered that there were no more foie gras canapés to be had, and—"
"No," Charles thundered. "I mean you weren't serious about a ruddy great lizard rampaging through the kitchen, were you?"
Campion said nothing, merely grinned idiotically and gave his best impression of a person who, yes, was daft enough to deliver a large Malaysian reptile to a quiet estate in the English countryside. Libby's father stared incredulously for a moment before biting off a curse and scurrying towards the stairs.
As soon as Charles was gone, Mr. Campion laughed aloud and snagged a Diamond Fizz from a passing waiter. He toasted himself silently, glorying in the knowledge that Uncle Albert had sorted everything rather nicely. Sir Charles would see first hand what sort of man his daughter had married, and would use his considerable influence to nullify the marriage. Libby would be free of that dreadful brute, society would shun Hampton, and little Albert's role in the affair would remain unknown by all. A rather neat bit of work, if he did say so himself.
It was in this expansive mood that Campion downed first one cocktail and then another. He was debating whether he wanted a third one, or if he should instead find a pretty girl to bedazzle with magic tricks, when a loud commotion broke his equanimity.
Campion followed the crowd to the front hall, the apparent center of whatever maelstrom had hit the party. His eyes were immediately drawn to the top of the stairs, where Hampton stood looking horrified and Libby had her face buried in Hyacinth's shoulder. None of the guests appeared to be looking up at them, however, but rather at something at down on the ground. A slight jump to see over the heads of others revealed Sir Charles Bourchier at the bottom of the stairs. Even from a distance, the angle of his neck stood out as unnatural and wrong. Libby's father was dead.
Although it wasn't even midnight when Mr. Campion crawled between the sheets back at his room, he felt that the events of the evening warranted a lie-in on the following day. Thus it was that Lugg had already had lunch before bringing breakfast in to his employer.
" Eventful evening, was it?" he asked dourly.
"It was pleasant enough," Campion replied smoothly. " At least until the final act…"
"'eard about that," Lugg grunted. "S'all anyone wants to talk about today."
Campion sat up straight and put on his spectacles. "Is that so? And what is the consensus of the worthies down at the local pub?"
Lugg leaned against the dresser and crossed his arms. "Well, early on, there were a presumption that his Nibs must have been roaring drunk to go falling down those stairs like 'e did. Not that anyone blamed 'im, since it were 'is daughter's wedding and all, but still, most folks figured that the Devil Drink must 'ave done 'im in." Lugg looked almost cheerful at that, clearly enjoying the moral element of his tale. "But then one of the lads from up at the estate came in and said that it ain't true. Apparently, Old Bow-cheer were sober as a judge! Soberer, even. He drank a single sip of bubbly when toasting the bride and groom, then put down a full glass. Other than that, no one served 'im anything other than orange juice all night." Lugg smiled. "So, wotcher think of that?"
"Interesting," Campion admitted. "I was delayed on my way to the reception so I missed the toast, but I agree that he seemed in full control of his faculties when I talked to him. I also agree with the Man on the Street that something's not right here."
Lugg suddenly stopped smiling. "'ere now!" he objected. "I didn't say nothing of the sort! There's nothing going on here that should keep us from going back to London!"
Campion ignored his man's anguished plea, too absorbed in his own thoughts. "Talk to the manager. Tell him that we'll be staying on for a few days longer; no need to be more specific than that. I'll go to town tomorrow to pick up enough clean shirts for us to stay for another week or so."
Lugg sighed heavily and moved to the door, muttering his hatred of the country as he went. Mr. Campion pretended not to hear him.
Campion waited until teatime to call on Libby. Although the butler was doubtful that either Lord or Lady Hampton wanted visitors, he dutifully ushered Mr. Campion in to the parlor.
"Mr. Campion!" Looking around, that gentleman noticed his new friend, Constable White, in the corner. "Good to see you! I should have known you'd come around."
"Should you have?" Campion looked puzzled. "I don't know why."
Constable White grinned conspiratorially. "For the mystery, of course! I knew there was a mystery behind Old Man Bourchier's death—knew there would be a mystery before his death, actually, given your presence in the village--but the Chief Constable wouldn't even consider the possibility." He scowled suddenly. "Silly old ass!"
"Having never met the Chief Constable," Campion commented mildly, "I'm not in a position to make a comment upon his compus mentis. I will say, however, that he isn't so far off in this particular case. I do not follow mysteries and they do not follow me. You, young man, are not so much jumping to conclusions as bounding over them."
The young man glared at Mr. Campion as if he was debating whether his current companion should join the Chief Constable as a prime example of the perils of inbreeding. As was his custom when faced with that particular look of disapproval, Campion grinned foolishly. White's scowl turned belligerent, as did his tone. "Then tell me this, Mr. Campion. How did a completely sober man—elderly, true, but in full possession of his faculties, by all accounts—come to fall down the stairs?"
Campion shrugged. "Perhaps he regressed and was trying to slide down the banister?" He shook his head, sadly. "Tricky things, banisters."
The young constable ignored the inane suggestion. "And why is it that three separate people have informed me that the last person anyone saw talking to Sir Charles Bourchier was you, Mr. Campion?" White pulled out a small notebook and began flipping through it. "Moreover, that conversation seems to have left him quite agitated or, in the words of one of the waiters, 'cheesed off, right and proper.'" Constable White read the last bit directly from his notebook with a triumphant flourish. "What, exactly, did you say to the deceased, Mr. Campion?"
"Oh, you know," Campion muttered uncomfortably. "This and that. Mostly I pointed out that the bride and groom had both disappeared and suggested that he bring down one or both of the hosts."
"And that's another thing!" White said excitedly. "Why were they both absent from their own party? And why will neither one talk to the police today, unless they have something to hide!"
"Well, Mrs. Hampton's father did just die. Perhaps the poor girl isn't feeling terribly chatty. What about Sir Richard?"
White sneered. "I'm informed that Mr. Hampton is too ill to talk to me."
"Now, that is interesting," Campion remarked. "Interesting and quite, quite convenient, I'd say."
"That's what I thought!" the constable said eagerly. "Of course, there is a doctor here at the moment, so it may be true, but it still seems a bit suspicious to me." He moved closer to Campion before continuing conspiratorially. "Say, listen here. You're a friend of the family; could you talk to them for me? Perhaps pass along anything you learn that might be of interest to the magistrate? Anonymously, of course."
"I can but try," Campion said doubtfully.
As if on cue, the butler entered at that moment. "Madame will see you, Mr. Campion. I'm to guide you to her private parlor, upstairs."
Constable White gave him an unsubtle wink before loudly proclaiming, "Well, I guess there's nothing more to be learned here. Please thank Lord and Lady Hampton for their hospitality. I'll be going back to work now."
Campion fought down the urge to roll his eyes at the young man's amateurish performance and followed the butler upstairs. As they reached the top, an elderly man with an extraordinary mustache and an unmistakable black bag came out of the first room on the left. He closed the door firmly behind him before heading for the stairs, and Campion.
"Excuse me," Campion said as the man approached him. "But are you the doctor? I'm wondering how Sir Richard is doing."
"Not well at all," the doctor said promptly. "I say. You're aren't planning to visit him, are you? He really isn't up for visitors. I'm expressly forbidding them, as a matter of fact."
"No, no," Campion assured them. "I'm just interested to know his condition."
"Not well," the doctor repeated. "This colic of his keeps getting worse and the devil if I can figure out why!"
"Has he always suffered from colic?"
"No," the doctor said musingly. "Just this past week, though the silly ass didn't call me in until yesterday. And I say! Who, exactly, are you?"
"Albert Campion," he said with a grin. "I'm a friend of Lady Elizabeth's and want to learn all I can about her new husband. Rather like checking the teeth of a hunter, you know, to see that the horse is sound."
"Hmm…" he said suspiciously. Campion widened his grin, looking even more foolish than usual. Evidently deciding that there was no harm in talking to such a witless fellow, the doctor continued. "Sir Richard has always been the very image of health, which is what makes this colic so surprising. He's also seemed to come down with a bit of gout, which is a bit less surprising, but I've never seen it develop so quickly before."
Campion would have liked to ask why the doctor expected Hampton to develop gout, but he was afraid that a pointed question about the patient's drinking habits would cause the doctor to clam up again. Instead, he commented, "Colic and gout don't often go together, do they?"
"Oh, I'm sure they're unrelated," the doctor proclaimed confidently. "Like I said, the gout never comes on this quickly. I'm certain he must have been having pain for a while and simply ignored it until yesterday."
"It seems a bit odd, calling a doctor on one's wedding day," Campion observed.
"That's what I thought," the doctor exclaimed. "But the poor devil was in too much pain to get through the day without some help from me. I gave him laudanum and he did just fine. I doubt anyone guessed that he was in distress."
Mr. Campion was surprised. "Laudanum? Rather strong stuff, I believe."
The doctor shrugged. "My mother used to give it to me and my brothers when we were babies and it never harmed any of us. And it's useful for treating pain and, erm, the less pleasant symptoms of colic. Still, I don't think I want to increase the dosage. Damn inconvenient when he's getting worse, but like you said, laudanum can be dangerous."
The butler coughed unsubtly. "I'm sorry, sir, but Madame is waiting and has been for some time."
"Ah yes, of course!" Campion shook his head stupidly before sticking his hand out to the doctor. "So nice to meet you, Dr…"
"So nice to meet you, Dr. Trumbull," Campion continued. "I do appreciate you filling me in. I'll pass your diagnosis on to his wife."
"Oh, would you?" The doctor shook his hand warmly. "I'd appreciate it."
After bidding Dr. Trumbull farewell, Campion turned to follow the butler once more. They didn't go far before turning on to a side passage. Hyacinth and a boy who looked to be five or six years old stood by the largest down along the corridor, almost as if they were guarding it. The boy challenged Mr. Campion as soon as he spotted the newcomer. "My new mommy is sad," he informed Campion gravely. "My new grandfather died, and now Elizabeth is sad. I don't think you should be here!"
"It's all right, William," Hyacinth assured the boy. "This is Mr. Campion. He's a friend of your mother's. He's here to help Elizabeth."
"You're certain?" William asked plaintively.
Campion squatted down until he was at eye level with the boy. "I'll do my best," he said seriously. The boy nodded and Campion stood up. "It's nice to meet you, William."
"It's nice to meet you, Mr. Campion," the boy responded politely. Hyacinth hugged him and they went off, hand in hand. Campion, whose governess had been a rather hard-bitten woman, watched their evident affection for each other with some surprise.
Dismissing the boy and his governess from his thoughts with a shrug, Campion knocked lightly. "It's the most devastatingly handsome man in England," he sang out grandly.
Libby's voice drifted through the door. "Are you alone, Albert?"
"Then come in," she commanded him.
The room was dark. The curtains were drawn and a solitary candle burned in the corner. Despite the gloom, Campion immediately spotted what it was that Libby was attempting to hide.
"Had a bit of a set-to with the settee, did you?" he asked mildly. "Closet door packs a mean left hook, does it? And just what did your face say to that poor anvil to set it off like that?"
"Oh, you noticed the eye, did you?" she asked sourly. Receiving no answer, she sighed and rose to pull the curtain. "Now you know why I refused to see that tiresome police officer. He would have gotten the wrong idea entirely."
Campion smiled politely. "And what idea would that be, I wonder? That your husband is a vicious beast who enjoys inflicting violence upon others? I can't imagine that he'd think any such thing…"
"No," she snapped. "He'd think that this…" she pointed vaguely at her swollen eye and bruised cheekbone, "that this has something to do with Father's death. It doesn't!"
Campion was surprised. "Doesn't it?"
"Of course it doesn't! Why would you think that it did?" Campion considered his friend carefully. She no longer looked beautiful, and not just because she wore an old cardigan rather than a wedding gown. Truth be told, not even the cuts and abrasions on her face were enough to render her unattractive. It was bitterness, grief, and unfocused hostility that had stolen all the beauty she'd had just the night before; it saddened Campion. "What, exactly, is going through that imbecilic mind of yours?"
"I'm imagining that events played out something like this." Campion pushed up his glasses with one finger and sat down on the chair furthest from Libby. "Someone informed your father that you and your husband had both disappeared upstairs. He came looking for you and found Dastardly Dick in the process of thrashing you. Being a decent man and loving father, Charles tried to intervene. Perhaps he even threatened to have your marriage annulled. Unwilling to lose you and the financial assets you were bringing to the marriage, your husband threw Charles down the stairs and broke his neck. With mother, father and two brothers dead, you are left with a substantial fortune and no relatives to champion your cause. Dastardly Dick's triumph is complete."
She sagged, all outrage suddenly draining out of her. "It wasn't that… deliberate," she sighed.
"An accident..." Campion murmured. "Well, manslaughter should suit nearly as well as murder for your purposes."
"And what purpose might that be?"
Campion was surprised that she needed to ask. "Why, to put Hampton behind bars and to extract you from this marriage, of course!"
And just like that, Libby was just as angry as she had been before. "Leave it, Albert! I've married Richard and I intend to stay married to Richard. 'Until death do us part,' and all that. I won't corroborate any part of your story if it's likely to result in my husband's arrest."
Mr. Campion's eyes narrowed. "You can't put Constable White off forever, you know. Sooner or later, he'll get in to see you. He'll see the state you're in. He'll see for himself what a brute your husband is and that will be all the evidence he'll need to initiate a formal inquest."
Libby giggled joylessly. "Why, Albert, I have no idea what you're talking about." She waved vaguely at herself before continuing in an unnaturally high voice. "Richard had nothing to do with this. I was so upset about my father's death that I threw myself on the bed and missed. I was lucky that I didn't give myself a concussion. Why, ask Hyacinth and Richard; they were both there, and can confirm that I really am that silly." Her eyes glittered oddly but her voice returned to normal. "I assure you, Albert, that you'll wind up looking just as silly as me if you push for an official inquest."
Campion gaped at his old friend, a woman he apparently didn't know at all. "You can't mean that, surely?" Seeing from the look in her eyes that she did, he sighed unhappily. "What about your father? Don't you think that his death deserves to be avenged in some way? Shouldn't his killer be brought to justice?"
"Oh, there will be justice for Daddy," Libby purred. "I promise you that."
Mr. Campion's blood suddenly ran cold as a sense of foreboding overtook him. "Why? What will you do?" he whispered.
"Do?" she laughed. "Why, darling, I'm not planning to do anything!"
Campion's dread increased. "Alright, then, what have you done?"
"Why should I have done anything? I've told you: Father's death was an accident."
"You haven't answered the question," Campion observed mildly.
She continued on as if he had never spoken. "A terrible, horrific accident, but an accident all the same. You'll not shake me from that story, regardless of whom you send to badger me."
Campion knew when he was defeated. "Fine," he said unhappily. "That's how we'll leave it for now. But see here. I have to go to London tomorrow, but I'll come back the day after and perhaps you'll be more sensible then."
Libby smiled mischievously, and for the first time since their dance the night before, he could see the ghost of the girl he'd befriended over twenty-five years earlier. "I'm seldom, sensible, Albert. You know that."
He smiled back at her. "We're very much alike in that."
"So we are." Her smile turned wistful. "So we are."
As it happened, Campion was not able to return as promised. He had only gone to town to get more shirts for his extended stay in the country, but found a note from Stanislaus waiting for him when he entered his flat. The inspector needed his help for another case and Campion was unable to refuse. Thus it was actually four days, rather than one, before he was able to drive up to the Hampton estate once more.
He hadn't forgotten Libby while in London. In between his work for Detective Oates and the London Police Department, Campion had instituted some discreet inquiries concerning Sir Charles Bourchier's estate. As he'd suspected, the bulk of it would probably go to Libby and her new husband. He'd already known that both of Libby's brothers died in the Great War (indeed, Percival had been a good friend and Campion still missed him terribly. George hadn't been a bad fellow either, when all was said and done. and the world was poorer for his absence.), but Campion was surprised to discover that Libby's cousin had also died recently in an automobile accident. With two sons and nephew gone, the closest male relative was a distant cousin that Sir Charles had detested. While Charles had been left with no choice but to leave his lands to his cousin, nothing said that he had to pass on the estate in good financial health. For the past two years, Charles Bourchier had been siphoning off as many portable assets as he could and stashing the monies from these sales in an account for his daughter. The funds involved were quite large.
Now that he fully understood what Hampton had to gain from Sir Charles' death, Campion felt that it was time to pay the man a visit. Suspecting that the butler might not want to let him in to see Hampton, Campion thoughtfully decided not to trouble the servants at all. He could let himself in.
Campion left his car in an open field a mile or so from Hampton's estate. After walking the remaining distance, he went to the back of the house and 'cased the joint' until he was certain that all the servants were about their duties elsewhere. Then, employing skills that his family wished he didn't have, Mr. Campion picked the lock of the service entrance and made his way towards the stairs. He made it upstairs without incident and immediately headed for the room that Dr. Trumbull had exited a few days ago. Seeing a maid heading his way, Campion decided to forego niceties and enter the room without knocking.
He almost gagged the moment he opened the door. The stench of illness was overpowering and completely unmistakable. Any lingering doubts Campion may have had about Hampton's health were answered.
"What the hell are you doing, coming in here unannounced?"
Campion smiled like a loon. "But my company is such a delight to all that no one can withstand the anticipation of a visit from little Albert. I thought I'd spare you that exquisite agony and make my visit a wonderful surprise instead."
"Oh, it's you," Hampton grunted. Campion turned towards the sound and got his first solid look at the man. He was shocked at what he saw. Even in an easy chair, Hampton was hunched over as if in excruciating pain. His face, now covered by an oddly shaped rash, was drawn and wasted; he'd clearly lost weight in the few days since Campion had last seen him. He had propped a cane up against his chair, but looked too unwell to stand even with its assistance. It was inconceivable that this wreck of a man was just a few years older than his uninvited guest. "I thought it was Quinn," Hampton explained. "I was going to sack him for not knocking."
"That seems a bit harsh," Campion observed.
"Perhaps I'll sack him anyway," Hampton threatened. He no longer sounded refined or elegant; whatever illness had struck him had ruined his voice just as thoroughly as it had his appearance. "I can't believe that fellow allowed you in here when he knows I'm not well enough for company!"
"Oh, he didn't!" Campion was stricken to think that he'd cost an innocent man his employment. "I let myself in, using the skills of a misspent youth."
"It's just as well, I suppose." Campion was surprised at this capitulation, and Hampton coughed out a laugh at his facial expression. "I wanted to apologize to you in any case."
"Apologize?" Mr. Campion was even more surprised. "Whatever for?"
"I was abominably rude to you the night of my wedding. You didn't deserve it."
Campion's voice hardened. "If you mistreated anyone that night, it was your wife. It's Libby who deserves an apology from you."
"The hell she does!" Hampton snarled. "I understand that Elizabeth is a friend of yours, Campion, but she's a terrible woman. Terrible. But rest assured, I'll improve her, just as soon as I'm better."
Campion's blood ran cold at the implied threat against Libby, but he allowed none of his fear to show as he asked mildly, "Is she? I've always found her to be rather pleasant girl, leaving aside her appalling ignorance of the difference between frogs and toads."
"You say that, but only because you don't know her like I do." He smiled unpleasantly. "Would you like to learn more about that 'pleasant girl' you're so anxious to defend?"
There was no doubt that the offer for information was meant as a threat, a blatant warning that he wouldn't like whatever Hampton had to say. Unfortunately, Mr. Campion had never learned how to mind his own affairs. Uncle Albert had to know all if he was going to help, and he always helped if he could. Knowing that he'd regret it, Campion answered, "Yes. I would."
Hampton gave a skeletal grin. "Elizabeth came to visit a week or so before our wedding, to meet with the vicar. While she was here, cook came to me with question about the menu for the reception. I didn't know what to tell her, so I went looking for my bride-to-be. When I couldn't find her anywhere, I decided to go to her room and leave a note on her bureau." He grinned again, and Campion's foreboding grew. "There was a note there already. I picked it up, thinking that it might give me a clue as to where I might find her. The note was actually a love letter addressed to Elizabeth, from someone who knew her far more intimately than I did."
"That's what comes from reading other people's mail," Campion said virtuously. "One always finds out things that one wishes you didn't know."
Hampton ignored the interruption. "I confronted her as soon as I saw her. She didn't even have the decency to deny it! Laughed at me, in fact. Told me that if I wanted her father's money, I'd have to accept that her lover came along with it." Campion raised his eyebrows in surprise. That did sound rather brazen, and not at all like the girl he thought he knew. "She knew that I didn't have a choice and took advantage of that fact, damn her."
"I don't understand," Campion interjected. "Why didn't you have a choice? Surely you aren't that hard up…"
Hampton smiled humorlessly. "Consider the size of this old pile. It's devilishly expensive to maintain, you know. A woman with a large amount of cash but none of the responsibilities of maintaining an estate? Every landowner in England dreams of winning a wife like that."
Campion nodded his understanding, and Hampton continued his tale. "As you might imagine, I suspected every man I saw of being Elizabeth's mysterious lover. She didn't interact with many of my neighbors, so I wondered if she was having an impossible affair with one of my servants. I bullied every man on my staff into tending his notice, but Elizabeth didn't seem to pine over any of them. A complete turnover in staff had no effect at all."
"Other than earning a nasty reputation for yourself for abusing your staff, of course," Mr. Campion observed mildly. "The village has quite a bit to say on that particular matter."
"Why should I care about that?" Hampton asked dismissively. "No, the important thing was Elizabeth's lover, and my inability to find him. It drove me mad for days. And then, the blighter turned at my wedding of all places... or so I thought."
Campion was incredulous. "Me?"
"Seems ridiculous, doesn't it?"
"Well, not that ridiculous," Campion grumbled.
Hampton smiled unpleasantly. "Other than her one obligatory dance with me, Elizabeth hadn't danced with a single man all night. And then, Campion, she waltzed with you. You don't look like a serious threat to a man like me, but no one else even came close to fitting the bill. It seemed clear to me at the time that you must have been the one to write that letter to Elizabeth. You weren't, and I apologize for the mistake. In my defense, I can only say that I was crazed with jealousy and somewhat fogged by laudanum."
Mr. Campion would have liked to dispute Hampton's easy assertion that he was incapable of winning the love of a woman like Libby, but something else bothered him more. "You sound like you've changed your mind about me since our first meeting. I'm curious, how did you decide that I wasn't Libby's lover? I could have been, you know."
Hampton smiled maliciously once more. "Do you remember the events of that evening? Elizabeth and William's governess went upstairs, we talked for a few minutes, and then I went upstairs to talk to my wife. Do you know what I saw when I entered her room?" Hampton's eyes glittered crazily and the lump in Campion's throat grew. "I found her in a passionate embrace with the bally governess! I had been searching for a man, while all the time that Les had been having an affair with another woman, right under my own damn roof!"
Campion had been prepared to be shocked, and was surprised to find the dénouement to be rather pedestrian. Radclyffe Hall's novel had made it dashed difficult for lesbians in England, so it made sense to Campion that his friend would try to hide her sexuality in marriage. As to the fact that Libby was a lesbian in the first place, well, he'd known too many chaps at Cambridge with 'special friends' to be repulsed by the female equivalent. All in all, he was under whelmed by Hampton's revelation. Judging by the wild look in his eye, however, Campion suspected that Hampton wouldn't like it if he made light of Libby's indiscretion. Besides, he still didn't understand Sir Charles' death, which led Campion to ask, "What did you do then?"
"I've already admitted that I was crazed with jealousy," Hampton snapped. "What do you think I did next?"
Campion lost his usual vacuous expression as his face hardened. "A gentleman would have sat down with a cup of tea and discussed the matter rationally. Judging by Libby's appearance the other day, I'm guessing that you are not a gentleman." Hampton shrugged unrepentantly. Enraged, Mr. Campion abandoned his plan of subtly eliciting Hampton's account and got right to the heart of his suspicions. "Not even the lowest of fellows, however, would normally react to betrayal by pushing the girl's father down a flight of stairs. That seems a bit excessive, old man."
"Pushing her father—" Hampton gaped at Campion. "Is that what you believe happened?"
"Isn't it? You married Libby partly for her fortune and partly for herself. Once you decided that she was unacceptably flawed, all you wanted from her was her trust fund. Why not increase the size of that fund by 'bumping off' her father?" Campion put his hands in his pockets, afraid that he might take a swing at the sick man if he didn't. "Presumably, your future plans include Libby's unfortunate demise and a transfer of her inheritance from her trust fund to your own. You're to be applauded. It's all very neat. Neat… and utterly despicable!"
"And completely wrong," Hampton asserted. "Sir Charles' death was an accident! If I could change the events of that evening, believe me, I would!"
"Why don't you tell me what those events were, then?"
Hampton sighed heavily and rubbed his hand over his face before answering. "You already know that I struck Elizabeth," he began.
Mr. Campion nodded. "Repeatedly, from the look of her."
"Yes, repeatedly, as you say." Hampton sighed again. "To be perfectly honest, I was not in complete control of myself. And yet, despite what I'd witnessed, I tried talking to her at first. She was… horrible. She had refused to apologize about having a lover when I confronted her with that damn letter the week before, but she was worse that night. Seemed almost proud of herself." Hampton started to stand up, perhaps feeling the need to pace, but immediately sat back down with a wince of pain. "Blasted gout. Anyway, the more Elizabeth went on about her perverted love affair, the angrier I became. Eventually, I lost interest in talking and I struck her. The moment I touched her, I went a bit mad. I did maintain enough control, however, to avoid hitting Ms. Fitz-Hugh. Even in my manic state, I somehow knew that if I struck her, I probably wouldn't stop until she was dead. Despite what you may believe, killing the guests at my wedding—killing anyone!--was not my intention for the evening!"
"I'm getting to that," Hampton snapped. "Now, Ms. Fitz-Hugh is not the type of woman who will sit by idly while her lover is being beaten. She tried several times to pummel me from behind or to grab on to my arms. I shook her off so many times that I ceased to be aware of her, or of anything other than my desire to punish Elizabeth. I can't imagine what the scene looked like to Sir Charles when he entered the room, but it must have horrified him. He tried to pull me off of Elizabeth, but I assumed that it was Fitz-Hugh interfering once more. I thought I was throwing off a small girl, and thus wasn't prepared for Sir Charles' greater height. My fist connected with the side of his head—accidentally, mind!--and my new father-in-law collapsed right in front of me."
"You killed him with a blow to the head?" Campion was horrified. "Why hasn't either woman told that story to the police then? And whose idea was it to throw the corpse down the stairs?"
"No one suggested that we throw a corpse down the stairs," Hampton said testily, "because there wasn't any bally corpse to throw. I might have been strong enough to kill an old man with a single blow at one time in my life, but I wasn't feeling my best that night. No, Sir Charles wasn't dead, but merely unconscious."
Campion nodded thoughtfully. That seemed plausible. He himself had noted that night that Hampton's strength didn't seem to match his build or physical appearance. Sir Charles probably would have survived such a blow.
Seeing that Mr. Campion accepted his story thus far, Hampton continued. "The girls and I forgot our quarrel as we all tried to revive Sir Charles. We got him on his feet, but he seemed a bit shaky. We should have kept him there, but he insisted on going back to the party. He said that someone had to be in charge until the three of us cleaned ourselves up." Hampton looked puzzled. "He was babbling about giant lizards and kitchen maids--which should have been a hint that his wits were more than a bit addled--but Sir Charles was adamant about returning downstairs, and so we let him go. A dizzy spell must have hit him when he neared the stairs, for he had barely left the room when we heard a terrible thumping noise. All three of us ran after him, but he was already at the bottom of the stairs. Dead."
Campion stared at Hampton for a long, uncomfortable moment. The invalid squirmed under Campion's gaze, then winced as his movement caused him pain. Mr. Campion relented at that point and asked, "And that's it? That's your entire involvement with Sir Charles' death?"
"Of course it is!" Hampton growled. "I feel dreadful about what happened to the old man!" He lifted both hands to his head and ran them through his hair in agitation. He then thrust his hands, both filled with tufts of hair, towards Campion. "See here! I'm so upset about the situation that I'm losing my hair. What other signs of contrition do you want from me?"
Campion started to move Hampton's hands away before a sudden thought struck him. He impulsively grabbed one of Hampton's outstretched hands and took several hairs from it. To Hampton's disgust, Campion studied them closely.
Each of the strands of hair was identical to the next. Approximately nine-tenths of their length was a distinctive silver color, with the last bit being dark black in color. The black portion of the strands was far thicker and coarser than the silver bits. He brought the hair closer to his left eye and discovered that there were actually two black sections, not one, and that a needle thin band of silver separated the two.
Appalled, Campion turned his scrutiny towards Hampton's face. The rash that he had noted and dismissed when he entered the room was quite distinctive. It wasn't particularly dark or angry looking, but the shape of the rash bore an uncanny resemblance to a butterfly. That rash, combined with the odd loss of hair could mean only one thing: he was looking at a dead man.
Expression more vacuous than it had ever been before, Campion burbled his goodbyes to Hampton and extricated himself from the man's room. Campion was so overwhelmed by his sudden realization that he was later unable to remember a single thing he said or did afterwards. The time between his identification of the rash on Hampton's face and his entry to Libby's room existed in an unreal haze.
Mr. Campion came back to reality as soon as he found Libby. She was seated on the floor in her room, cross-legged, with young William on her lap. Either her face had healed or she'd covered up all signs of her recent beating with make up; she looked beautiful again. Hyacinth Fitz-Hugh was with them, waving about a closed storybook, while the other two stared at her adoringly. All three were laughing gaily at something. They made a charming tableau and Campion felt like an utter bounder for interrupting them.
"Hullo," he said with an artificial grin. "Mind if I join you?"
"Come in, Albert," Libby sang out happily. "I'd wondered what happened to you!"
Campion slapped his forehead and smiled foolishly. "Oh, yes. I'd forgotten that I promised to come back sooner. Couldn't be helped, I'm afraid."
"Detective work in London?" she asked archly.
"No, no," he assured her, oddly reluctant to be honest with her. "I lost a packet at Ascot and had a deuce of a time avoiding my bookie. Determined bloke. Do you know, he followed me all the way to Aberdeen before I was able to give him the slip?"
The two women stared at him disdainfully but said nothing. William had a different concern. "I didn't hear a car approach. What sort of motor do you have that it's so quiet? It must be a beaut, if you went to London then Scotland and then back here in just a few days!" He ran over to the window and stared out. "I don't see any car out there. How'd you get here?"
Reluctant to discuss his burglarious activities, Campion lied again. "I flew. From the village."
"Walked, you mean," the boy said scornfully. "I wouldn't walk if I had a car! I'd drive everywhere! Why—"
"That's enough," Hyacinth said firmly. "Mr. Campion doesn't want to hear about your absurd obsession with motor vehicles."
"Not now, anyway," Campion conceded. "Perhaps later."
"And we should get back to our lessons in any case," Hyacinth continued. "Why don't you say goodbye to your mother and Mr. Campion, and then go get your Latin primer."
Campion expected William to object (as most small boys do at the suggestion of Latin lessons), but he'd underestimated the boy. William smiled agreeably, kissed Libby on the cheek, and then shook Campion's hand with a gravitas far beyond his years. "Nice to see you again, Mr. Campion," he said solemnly.
"And you, Master Hampton," Campion responded with matching somberness. William giggled at that salutation and scampered off. Hyacinth trotted after her charge, leaving Campion alone with Libby. "I say," he told her. "Your stepson is considerably less beastly than most little boys."
"He's lovely," she said fervently.
He smiled awkwardly at that but said nothing. An uncomfortable silence sprang up between them, one that both tried to break simultaneously. "I've just been—" Campion began at the same time that Libby declared "You won't—"
They both laughed nervously before Campion flourished a hand and declared, "You first."
Libby's face hardened. "I've been thinking about it, Albert. You shan't shake me. I will not assist you in your insane crusade against Richard."
"Very well, then," Campion said airily. "If you're determined, I won't press you on it."
She looked startled, as if she'd been gearing up for a fight and didn't know what to say now that the battle had failed to materialize. "Uh… thank you. I'm very grateful."
"As you said, your father's death was an accident."
"Yes, it was," she murmured with increasing confidence.
"A simple mischance, rather than a premeditated act of malice."
"Yes, exactly!" she said with rising exultation.
"Not at all like the cold-blooded murder of your husband," Campion continued with a studied blandness.
"The murder of—" Libby let out a high-pitched screech that was no doubt intended to approximate laughter. "Why, Albert, what on earth are you on about?"
"Your husband," Campion repeated firmly. "Perhaps you're familiar with him? Tall chap? Broad in the shoulders? You were looking right at him when you stood in front of the vicar and promised to love, cherish, and obey. Don't see how you could have missed him." He shook his head sadly. "Young people are so unobservant these days..."
"Albert," she began warningly, but Campion rushed on before she could say anything further.
"Of course, Richard might have fared better if he'd asked that you promise not to murder him, but I suppose one can't think of everything. I must remember to put that in my vows, should I ever marry. Do remind me of that when the time comes, will you?"
"Albert!" she screeched. He feigned a look of surprise, which seemed to unbalance her even more. "Do tell me what you're blathering on about!"
"I've told you: your dead husband, Sir Richard Hampton."
Libby looked trapped and desperate, but her voice was even as she objected, "But Albert, Richard isn't dead. He's fine, other than a slight stomach ache. I can take you to see him, if you don't believe me."
Campion's facial expression changed, his usual look of absent foolishness replaced by a grim hardness. "I've been to see him already," he informed her. "Based upon the symptoms I observed, Dr. Trumbull is wasting his time treating Richard; he's been beyond the effective reach of medical science for almost a fortnight now." He paused dramatically before continuing, "Your husband gives every indication of having been poisoned with thallium sulphate." His pronouncement was somewhat marred by Libby's blank look, so he elaborated a bit further. "You no doubt know it as Zelio paste, a rat poison manufactured in Germany."
Libby blanched, but gamely tried to brave it out. "But that's ridiculous. If someone had poisoned Richard, he'd be dead already, wouldn't he? And I don't know why you're pointing the finger at me in any case. No one has been in to see him for days other than Quinn and the doctor (and you, apparently). I couldn't have slipped anything into his soup even if I'd had the inclination to do so; I haven't had the opportunity."
Campion smiled humorlessly. "You are correct that death occurs rapidly with most poisons, but thallium is rather special. Like many of its effective brethren, thallium is colorless, odorless, tasteless, and dissolves easily in liquids. Unlike other poisons, however, it takes somewhere between eleven and sixteen days to kill the victim, thus giving the murderer plenty of time to arrange his, or her alibi."
"What an extraordinary imagination you have, Albert." She giggled hysterically. "Whatever could have led you to such a bizarre conclusion?"
"Digestive distress can have many causes, which is why poison hasn't occurred to the doctor as a possible explanation. The number of ills that result in nerve damage that approximates gout is far fewer, but again, there's no particular reason to jump to external causes. Gross hair loss, on the other hand, is highly suggestive of poisoning by a heavy metal, particularly when the hair is much darker near the roots than it is on the rest of the strands. This probability became a certainty, however, when I noticed that there were two distinct bands of blackness on Richard's hair, a certain indication that he ingested a heavy metal on two separate occasions in order to achieve a fatal dose… an incredibly unlikely occurrence if the ingestion had been accidental." Campion walked over to the window and leaned against the pane, trying to appear carefree as he completed the indictment of his friend. "The kickers, however, are the slow progression of the poison and the butterfly-shaped rash on Richard's face. Neither of these symptoms would occur with anything other than thallium sulphate."
"Even if I were to believe you," Libby began hotly. "Which I don't, by the way. Not for a second! But even if I were to believe you, why on earth would you think that I was your hypothetical poisoner." She grabbed his hand and held on with a desperate strength. "You know me, Albert!"
"You're right, my dear, I do know you." Campion sighed unhappily. "I know that you're too sensible to have your head turned by Hampton's status and position. I know that you're too strong to put up with his bullying and brutality. I know that you're a romantic and would never marry for anything other than love. And lastly, I know that you're not in love with Dickie Hampton because you're loyal, and your heart is already given to Ms. Fitz-Hugh."
Libby looked sharply at Campion when he mentioned Hyacinth, but she deflated so quickly that he knew he was on the right track this time. "What are you going to do?" she asked weakly.
"I don't know," he replied honestly. "Why did you do it? You don't need Hampton's money or social position, even if you wanted it, so there's little to gain from his death. And if you married him to distract others from your relationship with Hyacinth, a living husband would be far more effective in that role than a dead one. I don't understand your reasoning!"
She smiled humorlessly. "It was because of William, you see."
"Actually, I don't see," Campion complained. "What does William Hampton have to do with you poisoning his father? Or are you claiming that it was William who administered the rat poison to Richard rather than you?"
"No, no. It was me. I did it!" She seemed almost happy, now that she had nothing left to hide. "But I did it because of William, and Hyacinth too, I guess." She stood up and began pacing about the room. "Do you remember when Hyacinth told you a bit about herself? That her father lost everything in America and then committed suicide?"
"She didn't mention suicide, per se, but she may have hinted at it."
Libby nodded. "Well, her father did kill himself, and in doing so, he put Hyacinth right in the soup. I would have loved to have her come stay with us indefinitely, but that would have been difficult to explain to Daddy and she refused in any case. She said she didn't want to be dependent on me, which was ridiculous, but I loved her even more for her bravery. So, instead of coming to me, Hyacinth searched everywhere for a job. She found one here, with Richard."
"And found the position to be less than ideal," Campion guessed.
"You could say that," Libby snorted. "It took very little time for Hyacinth to discover that Richard is a beast, a complete monster. But despite my pleas, she wouldn't leave. It was William, you see."
"I'm afraid I still don't see what he has to do with this," Campion commented.
"Hyacinth wasn't trained as a governess," Libby said passionately. "It wasn't what she was ever meant to be. She didn't know how to be professional, how to maintain an impersonal relationship with her charge. She fell in love with the boy, as if he were her very own son, and refused to leave him. She was afraid of what Richard might do to William if there was no one there to protect him."
"But she couldn't stay forever," Campion continued. "William will start school in a year or two, and there'd be no place for her at that point."
"Exactly," Libby exclaimed. "She was worried sick about that boy. He was all she could think about, so of course I promised to help her. How could I not? I would have done anything to help her, so when she pointed out that a stepmother—"
"A stepmother would have a permanent place in the boy's life," Campion finished for her. "A stepmother could never be discharged or outgrown, and neither would the stepmother's best friend." She nodded. "Well, that explains why you married Dastardly Dick, but I still don't understand why you killed him."
"You call him Dastardly Dick because the other boys called him that at school," she said, "but you have no clue how accurate that title is. You feel sorry for him at the moment because he's dying, but you have absolutely no idea what a loathsome man he truly is." She came close to Campion, looked searchingly into his eyes, willing him to understand her. "I couldn't live out my life as his wife, I couldn't! But I also couldn't live without Hyacinth. And once I got to know William, I couldn't live without him either. I may have agreed to take on William for Hy's sake, but he's really taken me on as his mother and I can't abandon him." She laughed bitterly. "But, like I said, I couldn't spend forty years with a brute. Marrying Richard and then killing him seemed like a perfect solution."
The blatant immorality of Libby's "solution" left Campion speechless. He understood what she was saying, but, "It's still murder, Libby."
"Murder of a worthless worm," she objected. "No one will miss him." Libby clapped her hands in girlish glee, and Campion began to wonder about her sanity. "I'll tell you what, Albert. Come to the funeral! As you've guessed, Richard will be dead in a few days, so the funeral will be sometime next week. I promise you, promise you: if even a single person grieves for Richard, I'll turn myself in to the police. If, as I suspect, nobody expresses any more regret than decorum absolutely demands, you'll say nothing You'll leave me and my new family in peace."
Campion gaped at her in disbelief. "You're seriously suggesting that I simply ignore a murder?"
"I'm asking that you keep an open mind," she cajoled.
In the end, and against his better judgment, Campion agreed to wait a week before going to the police. He wasn't certain how he'd sleep in the meantime.
The day of the funeral dawned bright and glorious. As Libby had predicted, the funeral was poorly attended and none of the attending mourners appeared to be particularly upset by Richard Hampton's untimely death.
Campion spent the entire service staring at young William Hampton. The boy held on to Libby, Hyacinth, or both at all times throughout the entire funeral. While the adults maintained the polite fiction of pretending to regret Hampton's passing, the boy was too young to keep up such a pretense. Instead, he smiled beatifically throughout the service, periodically gazing up at one of his caretakers adoringly. He clearly felt that his life was perfect, now that it was just him and the two women that loved him.
Not even Constable White suspected foul play in Richard's death, and there had been no call for an inquest. As long as Campion kept his knowledge to himself, there was no reason that Libby and Hyacinth wouldn't get away with murder. It would be trivial to prove thallium poisoning, however, once it occurred to the authorities to look for it. If Campion were to gently voice his suspicions, Hyacinth and Libby would be in prison in very short order.
And William would be completely alone.
Campion couldn't do it. He couldn't give the game away and ruin the life of that ecstatic little boy. Apparently, a large enough wrong could create a right, or at least a happily ever after.
Mr. Campion skipped the wake and left immediately after the burial. Lugg, who rather enjoyed a nice funeral, wasn't best pleased by this decision.
"Don't see why we couldn't have a tipple or two back at the 'ouse," he grumbled. "It wouldn't 'ave 'urt you none to spend an extra hour or two with the widow."
It would have hurt, and hurt terribly, but Campion preferred not to explain why that was so. Instead, he commented, "Perhaps not, but I've had quite enough of this part of the country for a while. London is the place for me for the foreseeable future."
Lugg's face broke out in an uncharacteristic smile. "Now you're talking, cocky!"
Campion didn't respond to that, nor to any of Lugg's other conversational gambit. Instead, he spent the entire ride back home staring blankly at the countryside while he engaged in a bitter but silent battle with his conscience.
He wished he knew who won.