The house stood at the end of a small cape, on the edge of a cliff over the sea. A 225 foot sheer cliff; a rock-strewn, churning sea. Rough Point, the house, rose up three stories with a chaotic assortment of ascending gables and towers and spires, in the style of a very English architect’s dream—or nightmare—of French châteaux.
A dirt road wound through a thick wood, mostly ash and copper beach, to arrive at Rough Point. The road looped back into itself, away from the façade of the ancestral home of Sir Elden Terry, and returned through the wood toward the town of Ilby-by-the-Sea.
Sir Elden’s nearest neighbors—dairy farmers both—had for their addresses roads off of the Rough Point road, miles away and well out of sight of the estate. From rugged herds of red-and-white Ayrshire, the two farmers had earned a hardscrabble living. But the one had no sons to carry on the farm, while the other’s son had no intention of abandoning the City clerkship he had earned—and even been interviewed in the Ilby Echo about—a month before. And so Sir Elden anticipated (not gleefully, of course; only with a sort of soberly pleased practicality) the day when no neighbors in sight would become no neighbors at all. Sir Elden enjoyed all the advantages his home afforded him: sea air, a wood teeming with wild game, and, most especially, seclusion.
A private gentleman by nature at any rate, Sir Elden trusted no banker’s vault with the document the safe behind the painting of his father in the study housed. The last thing he needed was meddlesome neighbors calling, surveying the house for the likeliest spot for the document to be. Mere rumor to Rough Point's longtime staff, and to the townsfolk in Ilby-by-the-Sea, and even unseen by the rest of the family, the document in question had reposed behind the safe since Sir Elden’s grandfather built Rough Point. Only twice a day—prior to his breakfast, prior to his bed—did Sir Elden himself open the safe wherein the precious paper lay. Before him and his father and grandfather, it had been handed from father to eldest son for generations, stretching back into dusty, dim, and unreal realms of forgotten history…
A butler, a housekeeper, a maid, a cook, and a kitchen maid sufficed to keep Rough Point in repair, and Sir Elden in freshly pressed, Savile Row tweed. He sat down to a full fry-up every seven o’clock a.m. (the kitchen maid’s prior predilection for late nights in town having thankfully subsided in the last three or four weeks, the quality of Sir Elden’s breakfast had greatly improved). Later each day he expected elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, and a supper of shepherd’s pie or some such staple finished up with spotted dick, served as unfussily as he remembered from his childhood.
In addition to privacy, Sir Elden insisted in his daily life upon routine, no fuss, and spotted dick.
This desire for seclusion, quiet, and routine was perfectly understandable for a gentleman of his age, Maribel Deleon—Sir Elden’s two decades younger stepsister—had reassured him, in the letter she wrote inviting herself up from London to Rough Point, “for just a weekend, Elden, dear?” He bitterly reflected, within an hour of Maribel’s arrival, that she had articulated in her letter only an understanding of his lifestyle—not any inclination to respect it.
Maribel Deleon flitted out of the hired car that had brought her from the station a mile outside of Ilby-by-the-Sea to Rough Point. She flitted up and down the stairs; she flitted from room to room. She beseeched the housekeeper (“I simply beseech you, Mrs. Lambdon!”) to permit her to move, from the seaside guest room she had occupied upon all of her previous visits—which, in fact, were few, the most recent having been not months but years before—to a smaller (“cozier”) room that overlooked the road. She fussed without end over how “even lovelier” everything was than she remembered, and she asked the cook to make treacle tart as a special treat, the day after her arrival at Rough Point—“if it isn’t the worst sort of bother, Mrs. Collie?”
No bother to Mrs. Collie, though Abigail the kitchen maid forgot herself and handled the almonds, to which she was mildly allergic, and broke out in a most maddening rash all up and down her arms.
But worse, far worse, than these disruptions wrought by Maribel upon Rough Point’s well-established tranquility, was when the young woman—a few minutes after 2 a.m. on the second night of her stay—gave an ear-splitting shriek, wakened the entire household, and was discovered, in the middle of the rug in her guest room, dead from the knife sticking out of her back.
When Sir Elden arrived at the scene—Mrs. Lambdon and Farley, the butler, having beaten him, the the maid and Mrs. Collie and Abigail the kitchen maid arriving after him, one after the other—he ordered the room emptied, the door shut, the (oh, horrors!) body undisturbed. He sent Farley to ring up the constable, who arrived within ten minutes and himself rang up Inspector Pugh.
Inspector Pugh, for his part, called the next day at 10:55 a.m. upon the cottage at 12 Foxwich Lane, Ilby-by-the-Sea, as he had so many times before.
“What have I told you one must always look for, Inspector?” asked Miss Georgina Small, elevenses over and a small, rectangular block of wood in her hand. For her hands were never still when she spoke to the Inspector: Her left held the small block, rotating it ever so slightly, every few seconds, while the right worked away with her favorite knife. The quiet crunch and scrape as slivers of wood were whittled away under her nimble hands were a comfort to Inspector Pugh.
“Look for what doesn’t make sense,” he said.
“And what, in the scenario of Miss Deleon’s demise, does not make sense?”
Scrape, scrape, scrape.
“Why did she ask so insistently,” said Miss Small, “to move from the room she’d always stayed in, the larger room with a view of the sea, to a smaller one on the opposite side of the house overlooking only the road?”
“Naturally, because she wanted to have a view of the road. And why would one want a view of the road, Inspector?”
“To see any cars arriving, I should think!”
“A car in the night arriving at Rough Point would, I have no doubt, attract the attention of others in the household. At the very least, the possibility would have to be considered, and guarded against. I think, therefore, Inspector, it was not a vehicle’s arrival, but rather a signal—flashing lights from the road, a safe way off from the house—that Miss Deleon anticipated.”
“But—a signal from whom?”
“For that we must ask ourselves: Why did the quality of Sir Elden’s breakfasts improve of late?”
“Mrs. Collie is an old friend, Inspector. Never underestimate the investigative value of old friends in old houses. She tells me Abigail—the kitchen maid—has reformed in her ways in recent weeks, and serves a better fry-up, better, at seven in the a.m. than she ever did before.”
“This change in Abigail, as observed by Mrs. Collie, began some ‘three or four weeks ago.’ Four weeks ago—as you might have read in the Ilby Echo, if you read the Ilby Echo—is precisely when young Cyril Watkins, son of the farmer due west of Rough Point, accepted a clerk’s position at what is, I gather, a very impressive banking firm within the City. You understand that I mean the City of London?”
Inspector Pugh made a face that he hoped would reflect his offense. He very nearly snorted. “Of course I understand!”
“What else does not make sense in this scenario, Inspector, is why Miss Deleon, in fact, should wish to visit her elder stepbrother at all. As Mrs. Collie further shared, the young woman has not done so in over two years.”
“So, why now?”
“Miss Deleon, living in London, met a young man who—what is the phrase?—swept her off her feet. She had made his acquaintance before, most likely, at the market or a country dance. But in London, with his new life ahead of him, she saw him altogether differently. She and the young man began to make plans.”
Inspector Pugh made another face, this time of frustration. “Plans for her to”—he faltered—“what, spend a weekend in the country?”
“My dear Inspector, you’ve heard the rumor, surely?”
“Of the document held in the eldest male Terry’s possession, for generations now untold!”
“To steal such a document—to ransom it—would enable Miss Deleon and Mr. Watkins to marry and live, as they say, in style. But she had to return to Rough Point to get it.”
“And he was there—?”
“Why, to take it, Inspector! I’ve no doubt, had she lived, Miss Deleon would have staged a frightful burglary that night, to misdirect Sir Elden. She could never have hoped the theft would go unnoticed for any length of time greater than fifteen or sixteen hours, for Sir Elden checked upon the document twice each day. If Miss Deleon left, with no other alteration in the household’s routine, and the document’s theft was discovered in the wake of her departure…”
“So he flashed the headlights at her, to signal her to unlock a window, to allow him entry—”
“Which, naturally, she did. But it was the treacle tart, you see, that gang-aglaid their best laid plans.”
“How’s what now?”
“Abigail, the kitchen maid, mightn’t have known who she’d been cast off for, after Mr. Watkins’s move to London. She might never have suspected Miss Deleon as her rival, but for the rash on her arms keeping her up that night.”
“She saw the two of them—”
“And she told Mr. Watkins, I feel safe in speculating, to leave. Miss Deleon must have believed her when she said she’d not turn in the two of them to Sir Elden.”
Inspector Pugh exhaled a whistling sigh.
“What is that document, anyway?” he asked. “I heard tell it’s a map to a secret undergound tunnel straight into the Tower of London.”
“No, my dear Inspector. It’s far more dangerous than that.”
“You are familiar, if only just, with the Prince Tudor variant theory of the British crown?”
“The document in Sir Elden’s safe, as the butler Farley has informed me, names the very distant direct male descendant of Elizabeth I.”
“You don’t say. Who is he?”
“The old farmer to the east of Rough Point, the one who has no sons.”