Actions

Work Header

Death in the Tuileries

Work Text:

From the 12 March 1915 obituary column of The Times:

 

 

HARRINGTON, Lt. Charles James Oliver of the Rifle Brigade, second son of Lord James Harrington, grandson of the 14th Earl of Presnell. Of accidental death on 22 February in Paris, at the age of 19.

*****

 

The lieutenant colonel looked over the fair-haired young man in front of him and decided it could have been worse. He had the semi-dazed look of all new officers, but his face wasn't quite as scrubbed raw as the university recruits, and at 24, he was positively mature compared to some.

"You were at Eton with one of the support company officers?"

"Major Morris, yes, sir."

"Good, well, he suggested you might be our way out of this ..."

The lieutenant colonel paused to think of a word that would adequately convey what he felt at being ordered to find time in the middle of a war to investigate the death of an aristocratic sot fool enough to drown himself in two feet of water.

"... situation," he finished, finally. "Harrington was looked over by one our doctors, of course, and it seemed an obvious accident."

Not to the Countess of Presnell, however, nor her very dear friend, a certain HRH with friends in the ministry.

"The body's long since returned home, of course, but the doctor's report is in the file my adjutant's given you. Harrington's full service record is there, and I believe an interview with someone from his unit who saw him the night before." The senior officer paused, not sure what to make of the younger man's reserve. "Your major said you had an eye for detail."

His major had said no such thing. He'd confirmed that yes, he did have a younger son of a duke sitting around at the front, looking like Sir Percy Blakeney, and if the lieutenant colonel wanted to borrow him, he'd trade him for a good quartermaster and a higher place on the munitions list. The lieutenant colonel was just grateful that Morris had remembered where he was assigned. Younger sons were underfoot everywhere, but locating one highborn enough to satisfy the ministry might have taken a few weeks.

"Yes, sir," the lieutenant said. "Happy to be of assistance."

"You've been in Paris before?" The lieutenant colonel rose from behind his desk, signaling the end of the meeting.

"Before the war, yes, sir."

"Good, good. Still, you'll need a driver -- there should be a man from the pool waiting for you outside. He'll take you wherever you need to go."

"Thank you, sir." The lieutenant saluted and walked out, pausing by the adjutant's desk in the outer office to pick up his case and the rather slim file on the late Lt. Harrington.

He stepped down onto the sidewalk and looked up at the gray Paris sky. It was early April, and for once the rain seemed to be taking its time in making an appearance.

A discreet cough made him turn his attention back to the street. A tall dark-haired chap stood in front of a large car. Taking the Sherlock Holmes thing to heart, the lieutenant deduced that this was his driver.

"Corporal ...?"

"Bunter, sir."

Corporal Bunter took his case and held the car door open, the look on his face one of deferential noninterest, but his tone suggesting that if it were to rain while the lieutenant stood out gaping at the sky, he for one would not be surprised.

"Excellent," the lieutenant said, climbing aboard. "I'm Wimsey. We've got two days to dry a poor mother's tears, Corporal, so let's start at the morgue."

 

 

*****

 

Lord Peter Wimsey, second son of the Duke of Denver, recently commissioned officer of the Rifle Brigade, was under no illusions as to his assignment, or the presumed reasons for his appointment. He was less clear on whether that meant they assumed he would find nothing, or that there was indeed nothing to find.

"Tout arrive en France," he said, sighing.

Corporal Bunter, intent on steering a course through a street jammed with both vehicular and equine transit, did not reply.

Wimsey picked up Harrington's file and thought again as he opened it that even allowing for wartime, it was on the thin side. He'd spent most of his two months since making the crossing organizing trench work at the front, but surely even in Paris it wasn't every week that one of England's brave young men wandered into the Tuileries Garden in the dead of night and keeled over into a pond?

Drunk, was the doctor's opinion, scribbled on an addendum to the more formal report. A pity, but not unusual.

Captain Rogers was more affable in person, but saw no reason for doubt. "Young officers," he told Wimsey, eyeing the lieutenant's own person with a kindly eye, "often overestimate their capacity. And those who've recently seen action all the more so, in my experience."

A muffled cough was heard somewhere in the next room and Wimsey exchanged a look with Bunter. He had thought Rogers was alone in the dimly lit morgue, but now he realized they were merely in one of a warren of rooms that entered into each other. He looked closer at the outlines on the walls and realized they were in a converted art gallery.

"Harrington had just come back from the front, then?" he asked.

"What? Oh. I think, well, that is to say, I don't really know," Rogers said. "I just see the type."

Wimsey opened his mouth, then thought better of it. He glanced down at the file and then tried again.

"Who found him?"

"Local boys, don't know their name," Rogers said. "He'd been in the water several hours, that much was clear, when they brought him in here it seemed a simple enough matter, so I wrote up the report straight away and that was that."

"Was there an examination at all?" The doctor bristled and Lt. Wimsey realized he hadn't quite been successful at keeping his tone neutral.

"Of course! What do you take me for?" Rogers looked offended. "It had to wait a day, we had a whole rush of bodies that came in right after we had to process, but we took a proper once over after that and cleaned him up nicely before sending him home."

"And you saw nothing to indicate your earlier diagnosis was incorrect, of course?" Wimsey kept his tone soothing and Rogers relaxed.

"No, he drowned all right. Mind you," he added, "he might have died anyway, even if someone had been there to fish him out. He took a pretty nasty bump on the head going in."

Wimsey's attention sharpened. "On his temple, was it?"

"No, the back of his head, up top." Rogers reached around his own head to demonstrate. "The water washed away whatever blood was there, of course. That was good, made it easier for us to make him look presentable. There were a couple of bruises on his face, but I reckon he got those in a fight, yes? Makes sense, you don't go wandering off in the gardens in the middle of the night unless your mates have deserted you."

"Right," said Wimsey. "I suppose we do know he was actually drinking that night?"

Rogers chuckled. "Look around lad, we hardly have the space or equipment to go examining stomach contents. And the stink of pond overrode everything else. But would a sober man walk around in the Tuileries in February?"

"In other words," said Wimsey, as he walked back to the car with Bunter, "we know damn all."

Bunter murmured something that might have been acquiescence or might have been a comment on the weather. He put on his riding gloves and looked anticipatorily in Wimsey's direction.

"Oh all right, let's go look at this blasted pond, as long we've still got a bit of daylight."

"Right you are, sir," the corporal said, and put the car in gear.

 

 

*****

 

"War is not kind to men or gardens, corporal."

"No, sir."

The great plan of Le Notre was still in place, but the Tuileries Garden showed the same weariness as the rest of Paris. Carpets of grass lay trampled under regimental drills, the ground flecked with bits of color as lonely flowers struggled to send up shoots despite nearly a year of neglect.

No paper boats sailed on the great reflecting pond and sandbags piled high around each of its honor guard of statuary. Lord Peter stared up at the lumpen mounds and thought absently of Lot's wife.

And this was April, he reminded himself. How much more desolate must the landscape have been two months prior.

"Well, quand le vin est tiré, il faut le boire, I suppose," Wimsey said. "We're here, let's try our hand at this sleuthing game."

Wimsey stood with his back to the Louvre and gestured at the expanse of the pond in front of him.

"Found: One lieutenant in the pond, in deceased condition. Ah, there's a point, do we know what end of the pond?" Bunter looked on while Wimsey consulted his notes briefly. "No, of course we don't. Ah well, it probably doesn't matter.

"Let's assume Harrington came from the Rue de Rivoli at any case. He found himself by the pond and ... what?" Wimsey put his hands on the stone rim of the pond and leaned over.

"Did he want a drink of water? And then he bent over and slipped? And banged his head? How could he possibly have hit it hard enough?" Wimsey stood up and moved a few feet away from the pond, looking over toward where Bunter was standing.

"Perhaps he decided to jump into the pond -- but how did he hit his head then? Could he have taken a running start and dived? Surely that's a bit extreme, even for someone soaked to the gills."

"If I may, sir?"

"Yes, go on."

"Captain Rogers said the injury was to the back of Lieutenant Harrington's head so he wouldn't be facing the pond, would he, sir?

"There's a point. Good man." Wimsey turned his head to look over his shoulder back at the pond. "I still don't see how it solves the problem of force, however. It seems even less likely he decided to do a running back flip into the pond."

"I was thinking ..." Bunter stopped, and Wimsey waved impatiently at him. The corporal lifted his arms and made pushing movements with his hands.

Wimsey raised an eyebrow. "Yes, corporal that had occurred to me as well, but I don't think it gets us any nearer how. If it was a weapon that delivered the blow, it's probably halfway down the Seine by now. And why hit him in the back of the head? Surprise? His pocket watch and the few coins he had were still with him when he entered the tender care of Captain Rogers -- they're accounted for on the list of his belongings sent back to London. And if it was someone he knew who lured him here, surely the trees would offer better cover than the pond, even on a February night.

"Not to mention, if it was murder, we'd be even further from why," Wimsey said in exasperation. "I mean to say, alcohol may not be the hope of all men and every nation, but it is at least an explanation, if not necessarily the correct one."

He reached down to brush the dust off his trousers where he'd knelt by the pond.

"Meantime, I need to find my billet and meet Major Morris."

"Very good, sir," said Bunter.

 

 

*****

 

Peter had fond but few memories of George Morris from school. He had been from Norfolk, he thought, and took a keen interest in cricket. Little else remained, except a long-ago hint from another old boy that Morris had left Cambridge under a cloud, type unspecified.

He had proved himself an able officer, and Peter was not surprised Morris had ascended so rapidly to the rank of major. And if cynics suggested that his most recent promotion was helped by the government's interest in building an airfield on one of his father's farms, Lieutenant Peter Death Bredon Wimsey was not in a position to argue the matter.

"It's a good job they were able to spring you from the front," Morris said over supper. "The princess and her cronies have been leaning on the colonel in regular rotation for weeks now. I told him if we could find your unit you'd be just the chap to do the rounds for us."

Wimsey blew on his soup. "Did you know Harrington, then?"

"Oh sure, in passing. There aren't that many officers regularly posted here, we all get about together eventually."

"He was regularly posted here? I thought he had just returned from the front?"

Morris laughed. "Harrington? Hardly. Anytime it looked like he'd get close, he'd maneuver out of it." He scrunched up his eyebrows. "I say, do you think that ... No, surely not."

"What?"

"Well, it's no secret -- pass me the salt -- it's no secret his unit was due to be sent to Neuve Chapelle and of course that turned into a mess, but I don't really think he could have gotten out of it that time. Do you think that's why he was drinking?"

"Do we know he was?" Wimsey asked. "I mean, it's a reasonable conclusion but if I'm going to have to tell the Countess that yes, her darling boy really did drown in a butt of malmsey, it'd be nice to be sure."

Morris looked surprised. "Isn't it in the file? I took the statement myself. Fairfield, I think the name was. Said he and Harrington lifted quite a few before he went off on his own somewhere."

"Where can I find Fairfield, do you know?"

"Ah." Morris put his glass down. "Well, Neuve Chapelle. Were you there?"

"On the outskirts," Wimsey said. "We didn't lose many men."

"Well, Harrington's old unit was in the thick of it. Fairfield wasn't the only one who didn't come back."

Wimsey sighed. "On ne meurt qu'une fois, et c'est pour si longtemps."

"And more to come soon, I'm afraid," Morris said. "I wager we'll start a new offensive before the end of the month."

"Yes," said Wimsey. "I could rather tell the colonel thought this expedition of mine was a waste, even if it's just for two days."

"What do you think?" Morris asked.

Wimsey paused to consider. His military life so far had consisted mostly of going where he was told and doing what they told him when he got there. In this it reminded him of school, with its firm commands and petty rebellions. Older now, he saw the point of such discipline. Philosophy, like hot baths, were a luxury of his youth.

"I don't know enough about the war effort on a grand scale to judge how -- or whether -- these two days might have been better spent," he said finally. He put down his spoon and looked Morris in the eye. "I do think in an abstract sense, every death should be investigated. Truth is important everywhere, even here. Maybe especially here?"

Morris smiled. "Ah, the true mark of the university man."

 

 

*****

 

In a more crowded hall in a different part of Paris, Corporal Mervyn Bunter was considering the impact of his impromptu detection efforts on the size of his wallet. Sergeant Bill Warren was on his fourth glass of cheap ale and showed no signs of stopping.

A few discreet inquiries among the other drivers earlier in the evening and Bunter had discovered that Warren, whose service on the pool had predated his, had been Harrington's most frequent driver. Now attached to the battalion's support company, his description of the late lieutenant showed little respect for persons living or dead.

"Harrington? Biggest hypocrite of the bunch. He'd be friendly to you and then drop you as soon as it suited him. Saw it all the time. Always sucking up to senior officers, too. Would you believe it? He actually reported me for drinking on duty. One glass I had!"

Bunter averred that he understood Harrington himself was known as a drinker.

"That tight-laced bastard? Catch him in a pub? Don't make me laugh. He'd confiscate liquor all the time and it never went down his throat that we could smell. No idea where he stored it."

Warren gave a loud honking noise and blew his nose with his shirt cuff. Bunter winced and leaned back from the table.

"Another?"

Bunter sighed and ordered another round. Warren clutched it with two hands and took a deep swallow.

"Mind you," he said laughing unpleasantly. "There were rumors."

"Rumors?"

"Well, we never saw Harrington drink, but there's other uses for alcohol, if you catch my drift." Warren nudged Bunter with his elbow and laughed again.

"You think he was engaging in black market trade?"

"Ha!" Warren put his mug down with a thud. "Though I suppose that's one way of looking at it. Only one thing worth more than alcohol around here." He winked at Bunter. "And alcohol's a pretty good way of getting it."

 

 

*****

 

Lord Peter listened in silence to this information the next day, striding along a row of trees on the Seine side of the Tuileries.

"Good work, Bunter," he said finally. "Excellent initiative."

He stopped to lean over one of the exedra, looking down on the sunken lawn below.

"So now we have a man who didn't drink who was drunk enough to fall in a pond and drown, with a blow on the back of his head deadly enough to kill him, yet no obvious way he could have received it. Add to this the interesting fact that he'd avoided posting to the front for months, but was this time apparently unable to do so, and the less unusual fact but perhaps even more important one that Harrington was apparently a total rogue when it came to women."

Wimsey sighed and bent his head over the cold stone. When he lifted it, he saw with surprise that they were no longer alone.

An older Frenchman in rough clothes was making his way down a far row of trees, picking up the bigger of the branches felled by a recent storm and tossing them in a hand-pulled cart.

"What ho," Wimsey said. "I had no idea there were still workers tending the garden."

Bunter followed his line of sight. "Yes, sir. They don't work every day, maybe for a few hours here and there as their main war assignments allow. They didn't do any planting this autumn, of course, but they've been here most of the spring. They finally finished placing sandbags around the last statue only last month."

Wimsey opened his mouth and then shut it quickly. "Wait here, corporal."

Bunter watched as the lieutenant trotted over to the older gardener. He could hear they were conversing in French, but not the content. He wondered if ... but surely that would only explain the how. Why remained a mystery to him.

 

 

*****

 

"I hear you filed your report," Morris said.

Wimsey turned around sharply. He had been expecting the major to come from the Rivoli side, instead of from the river, and had been warming his hands under one of the sandbags piled high against one of the encircling statues.

The night was cool, but not as bitter as it had been. Morris stood on the opposite side of the reflecting pond, facing Wimsey, his coat unbuttoned and his hands in his pockets.

"Yes," Wimsey said. Morris started to come round the circle toward him. "Why don't you stay where you are, George." His voice was sharper this time.

"Your report confirms the first account," Morris said. "Accidental death by drowning."

"Yes," Wimsey said. "They want me to deliver it in person, so it looks like I may miss the next go round."

"I, on the other hand, won't be missing it," Morris said. "The colonel informed me I was being transferred to a company near Ypres." He paused. "Your idea, I take it?"

"Yes."

"What did you tell him?"

"Le scandale est souvent pire que le péché."

Morris offered a strangled laugh. "Do you really believe that?"

"No," Wimsey said, shrugging. "Not in peacetime, anyway. But there are important things at stake just now."

"God for Harry, England and St. George?" Morris mocked.

"Let's just say I think there are better ways you can die for your country than a single bullet to the head. No, don't move your hands." Wimsey raised his hands as a warning as Morris started to move again.

"I mean it," he continued. "And I don't mean a bullet to the head by your own hand, either. I don't know why exactly you killed Harrington, though I suspect if I got in touch with one of the Cambridge dons," -- Morris looked up sharply at that -- "I could find out why. I can guess now, anyway."

"It wasn't a lover's quarrel," Morris said defiantly. "I'm not, that wasn't, he wasn't ..."

Wimsey lowered his hands and spoke in an even tone. "I never said it was. He was a blackmailer, obviously. How else to explain the alcohol he used up but never drank and the constant reassignments just in time to avoid action? But then came Neuve Chapelle and I'm guessing even you couldn't swing that."

"He was a stupid boy," Morris said fiercely. "Did he really think anyone cares about who sleeps with who now? Here? They would have sent him anyway, and sent me as well and if we were lucky enough to come back alive, then they'd keep sending us until we didn't."

"They do still care about it back home, unfortunately" said Wimsey. "And your father ..."

"Yes."

The two men stood opposite each other in silence. A gust of wind set off ripples through the pond.

"Why did you want to meet?" Morris said finally.

"Ah. Yes," said Wimsey. "I need you to tell me which statue."

"What?"

Wimsey inclined his head toward one of the shapeless sandbag piles surrounding the pond. "I talked to one of the gardeners. You got lucky, you know. Sometimes they went weeks between statues. If they'd been working every day, someone would have more likely noticed that you'd switched the bags from one statue to another.

"Shall I tell you what I think happened?" Wimsey continued, not waiting for a reply. "I think Harrington dragged you down here to have another go -- most blackmailers like seeing their targets squirm -- and when he wouldn't listen to reason you lost your temper and hit him. But it was dark -- no moon that night, I checked -- and neither of you realized how close he was to the statue.

"Harrington falls back, slams his head on the statue and you have a dead blackmailing lieutenant on your hands and no way to explain it."

Morris nodded his head. "Bravo. And it was the statue second from your left."

"Bad luck for you." Wimsey said. "But good luck for you, too, when those other boys didn't come back either." He held up a hand as Morris started to protest. "I'm not accusing you of playing King David -- that was genuine luck, not malice."

Morris took his left hand out of his pocket and rubbed his nose. "You, on the other hand, show no such compunction."

"As I said, I do think the sin matters," Wimsey said. "Why don't you toss whatever's in your right hand into the pond, by the bye."

Morris hesitated. "You don't think I'll shoot you?"

"I think you've had time to calm down. Shooting me only makes this a bigger mess for you -- my mother knows a lot more people with HRH in front their names than Harrington's.

"And frankly," Wimsey said coolly. "I don't think you're that good a shot." He turned and walked away.

In the distance, he heard a short splash.