JOURNEY WITH A STRANGER -4

3 Aug

JOURNEY WITH A STRANGER -4

“Two pounds a week?” put in Maria’s mother when the chauffeur-uniformed Mr Mason had suggested he pay that amount if she worked for him. “That’s quite a lot … a lot more than Mr Benson would pay you…”

They had gone into her cottage and were all three standing awkwardly in the middle of the only downstairs room. The fire was unlit but set in the hearth and a corner was set out as a simple kitchen. There was seating for three, but nobody had bothered to use it.

Mr Mason smiled grimly. “You might think two pounds is not enough by the time we’ve finished! I know it’s no fault of yours, but you’re involved in something that could be quite messy. Your father found that out…”

Maria turned to her mother. “He said dad was killed,” she said quickly, “he said he was killed and … and …buried in the garden at the Big House…”

“The funeral…” began Enid Bigelow, “we all went to the funeral at the church … we stood by his grave … we said goodbye to him…”

“I was there when it happened,” murmured Mr Mason. “I would have intervened if I could, but when you’re half a mile away looking through binoculars it’s hard to do something about what’s happening so quickly. But Benson murdered your husband, Mrs Bigelow, and he buried him in one of the gardens. I know that it sounds impossible, but it happened.”

“We weren’t allowed to look at his body…” almost wept Maria’s mother, “is that why? Because it wasn’t him in the coffin that rested on my table until they took it away to bury?”

Mr Mason nodded, took off his cap and scratched his head. “We don’t know who he put there and we could find out if the body was exhumed, but we’ll only do that as a last resort. It’s my job to get Benson behind bars, and after what I saw to put a rope round his neck. My best suspicion is it was the girl Jenna in the coffin… you know, the Benson’s daughter. They were ashamed of her, I know that. I never met her but from what I’ve heard she had, what shall we say, mental problems. I’d count it as a triumph if we got the right person in the churchyard for starters, though. Your husband, Mrs Bigelow, deserved that much.”

“Scotland,” muttered Maria’s mother, “that’s where they said she was, Scotland. When I was working there, in the kitchens before last Christmas, stuffing turkeys … they’re greedy in that house, you know, and have more than one bird! But when I was there Mrs Benson, foul-faced as ever, said as the girl was in Scotland. At her brother or uncle’s place, or summat like that.”

Mr Mason nodded. “We’ve picked up on that too,” he said. “I’m going up to Scotland very soon, to poke around and find out. And with your permission,” he turned to face Enid Bigelow square on, “with your permission I’d like young Maria here to come along. On wages, of course – what I said, two pounds a week plus expenses.”

“That’s a lot for a slip of a girl,” murmured Enid thoughtfully.

“Mummy! I’m no slip of anything!” protested Maria.

“She’ll earn it,” said Lambert Mason grimly. “And she’ll need a chaperone or people might start talking, a man of my years vanishing into the wilds of Scotland with a pretty slip of a girl…”

“I’m not…!” began Maria again.

He grinned at her, and she blushed. So he was teasing her, was he? Making light of her dad being murdered by teasing her?

“I was thinking you might want the job, Mrs Bigelow,” he said. “For two pounds a week as well. I’d offer more, but I’m not made of money. But if you choose to accept my offer I’ll need us to set off as soon as maybe, tomorrow, for instance.”

“Me? I don’t know … I’m expecting…” stammered Enid.

“You’re not expecting anything, mummy,” said Maria. “I know that for a fact! You never expect anything!”

“The egg man calls in the afternoon, regular as clockwork,” said her mother firmly. “Always has and always will, with a dozen of the best hens’ eggs for me. So there! And I’m expecting him tomorrow afternoon as is!”

“But nothing important?” asked Lambert Mason.

“Eggs is important!” frowned Enid.

“I mean, nothing more important than eggs?” he said with the faintest of smiles.

“Maybe not. I suppose I could get Maria to pop round and tell him…?”

“No! You mustn’t tell anyone if you’re coming along as chaperone,” put in Lambert quickly. “It would be best if nobody knew you were gone for days! Leave a note for your egg man, say you’re away down south for a few days, perhaps you’ve got a sick aunt down there? Someone he doesn’t know about and can’t get in touch with? Say you’ll let him know when you’re back, it’s all been so sudden. Say you went on the early train…”

“I don’t like lies…” began Enid.

“None of us do, dear lady,” said Lambert quietly. “It’s a wretched business all round, what with your dear Ted being done in the way he was and just shoved under the turves at the big house as if he were nothing more than a bag of old spuds… But we’ve got to do this properly, or word might get out, and then where will we be? So just tell a little white lie for the good of the dead, and we’ll be off tomorrow at dawn…?”

“For the good of the dead?” asked Maria.

“Evil things have happened, child, things that need stopping,” he murmured quietly. I’ll say more as we go along. Well, Mrs Bigelow, are you and your Maria coming? Two pounds each a week… all expenses paid, accommodation found, so are you coming?”

“What will I have to do, sir?” asked Maria.

Lambert Mason grinned at the “sir”. It told him she was already looking on him as an employer.

“I really only need your eyes,” he replied. “If Jenna is there you’ll recognise her, won’t you?”

“It’s been a long time…” began Maria, “but yes, of course I would. She was my friend and you never really forget friends, do you?”

“Well, that’s really all your job will amount to. And then, when this is over, you can settle down back home with your mum, or… who knows, I may find something else…”

“You’ll need work, child,” said Enid. “We can’t live on fresh air, much as I’d wish we could.”

“Is that settled, then? Tomorrow morning?” asked Lambert.

“Two pounds each a week,” agreed the older Bigelow.

“Then I’ll be off, and back at six sharp in the morning. My car’s a bit obvious and we don’t want too many people seeing it and associating it with you.” He replaced his chauffeur’s cap. “Six o’clock tomorrow! And pack a few things, like clothes. We need to get a proper and prompt start. It’s a long way to Scotland!”

He turned and walked off, out of the green door with its simple single pane of glass and to his car. They watched through the window as he drove off.

“Well well, Maria, what have you got us into?” asked Enid reflectively. “What indeed!”

© Peter Rogerson 03.08.15

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