Wisteria Lodge

Wisteria Lodge

by H.R.F. Keating

GO BACK TO SHORT STORIES PAGE

Young Doctor Eccles-Scott made a face. Amid all the loud chatter and noisy laughter from the medical students, dressers, and other newly-fledged MDs drinking under the flaring gaslights of the public house near King’s College Hospital it seemed the best way of answering his friend’s shouted query. But then, for some reason or none, the noise suddenly abated.

“No,” he said. “No, I’m afraid I’ll have to give the music hall a miss this Saturday. Got to go down to Surrey. Visit a maiden aunt.”

“A maiden aunt? I scarcely see you as cherishing maiden aunts.”

“Ah, but, you see, my Aunt Wilhemina is a very rich woman, and she tells me I’m her sole heir.”

“Oh, ho, I see it now. When the good lady closes her account it’ll be a house somewhere off Cavendish Square, a cook, a housekeeper, and two or three maids to look after your every want; a carriage too, of course. Oh, and yes, a boy in buttons to open your door to the patients who’ll come crowding along to the winner of the Bruce Pinkerton Medal.”

“I won’t conceal from you that my ambitions do lie that way.”

“So a visit to Surrey will be a small price to pay?”

Roger Eccles-Scott gave a grunt of a laugh. “I don’t know so much about a small price. Aunt Wilhemina’s a regular Tartar. I’m commanded to go down to Popham once a month at least. Afternoon tea, then absolute boredom while the old lady goes for her rest before dinner-as stodgy a meal as you’ll ever see, with just one small glass of wine-and next morning marched off to church before enduring an extremely depressing cold luncheon. And every minute of the time I’m thoroughly scared that I’ll blot my copybook somehow and she’ll leave every penny to the grim old parlourmaid she has to look after Fido, her nasty little brute of a dog.”

“Oh, come on. It can’t be as bad as that.”

“Can’t it, though? That woman is a pure monster. Listen, let me tell you about Baynes.”

“Baynes? Who’s he?”

“Not a he. A she. Miss Baynes is Aunt Wilhemina’s lady companion, and is always to be referred to as just Baynes. I suggested once she should call the poor creature Miss Baynes, or even Ruth. But she was having none of it. ‘Baynes is my employee,’ she said, ‘and I shall refer to her appropriately.'”

“Well, all right, that’s a bit fierce. But your aunt is providing the lady with a home.”

“Then let me tell you how that came about, and you’ll see why I’d rather be anywhere but at Popham on Saturday. Miss Baynes is the sole surviving daughter of the former rector, and as such when her father died the church put her into a little cottage beside the churchyard at a peppercorn rent. And for a few years the old dear was perfectly happy there. She’s a great gardener, and she made the place look a picture-beds full of flowers, roses galore, and from early summer onwards the whole smothered in wistaria.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“I’ll tell you. The wistaria, that was what was wrong. You see, Aunt Wilhemina, up in her big ugly barrack of a house, Popham Lodge, wanted nothing more than to have its walls a mass of long dangling lilac-coloured flowers every summer, but none of her gardeners ever managed to make her wistaria flourish. So guess what happened?”

“Tell me.”

“Aunt Wilhemina had the Archdeacon to dinner, and you can bet he got more than one small glass of wine. And then Miss Baynes, poor old soul, opened a letter one morning and found that in order to extend the churchyard her cottage was going to have to be demolished. Then everybody was saying how will the poor creature survive on the tiny income she has. All right, next step. Miss Wilhemina Eccles, of Popham Lodge, offers Miss Baynes a post as her companion-to read the paper to her, fetch and carry, and God knows what else. Much praise for my generous aunt. And, behold, early the next summer wistaria is blooming away like billy-o over one side of Popham Grange, and the year afterwards the place is covered with the stuff all the way up to the eaves. Nor is that all.”

“Well, what more?”

“It’s no longer Popham Lodge, it’s Wistaria Lodge. You know, if I’d been poor Baynes I’d have murdered Aunt Wilhemina the day she changed the name.”

When Roger Eccles-Scott, walking up from the railway station, reached the tall gates at the foot of the long drive to Wistaria Lodge, he saw Baynes in the distance. She was busy, coatless in the late autumn chill, directing Williams, his aunt’s aged and obstinate gardener, as up on a tall, perilously bending ladder he was cutting back the long leafless strands of fast-growing wistaria floating and dangling all over the wall. A moment later he saw Gregson, the stone-faced parlourmaid, coming round from the back of the house. “Miss Baynes,” he heard her say, her voice ringing out, “Madam sends a message.”

“Oh dear. Oh, yes. What-What is it?”

“She says do you know that Dr. Eccles-Scott will be here at any minute, and, she says, do you think he will like to see you hopping about out here like a wretched blackbird missing its tail.”

“Oh. Oh, no. I’ve forgotten about the time. You see, Williams won’t-oh well, never mind. I must go in. Yes, at once. At once.”

What a life she leads, Roger thought. But all the same, Aunt Wilhemina’s right-she does look like a tailless blackbird in those frightful black clothes she’s made to wear.

He saw Baynes stop at the corner as she trotted away to enter the house from the rear. “And Williams,” she called up to the old man perched on his swaying ladder, “when you come down you must pull all the seedpods off the laburnum. If they’re left there, the tree won’t last another year and it’s so pretty. And be careful not to let any drop. The seeds are poisonous, you know. If Fido chews one of the pods, it might be the end of him. And what would Miss Eccles do then?” She scuttled off, leaving a trail of “oh dear, oh dears” behind her.

Roger, as he strolled gently towards the house, was easily able to imagine her flurriedly discarding hat and gloves and dipping her head in at the kitchen where-he had seen the scene more than once-she would peer in to see that the silver teapot on its tray with the milk jug and sugar basin was polished to the gleaming pitch Aunt Wilhemina demanded. She would then look to see that the bread and butter on the cake-stand was cut just as thinly as day after day, week after week, it had to be, and that on the shelf below, a plate of his aunt’s favourite rock buns was piled high as it would go, each one browned to just the right golden yellow point, their rough surfaces glinting with the tops of a few of the raisins and pieces of candied peel within.

When a prim Gregson had admitted him at the front door, taken hat and coat, stick and Gladstone bag, and ushered him into the drawing room, he found Baynes standing penitently in front of his aunt, who was bolt upright in her high-backed chair with horrible little Fido on her lap. But whatever rebukes Baynes was to receive were cut short as Aunt Wilhemina offered him a withered cheek to kiss. Then, with the clock in the hall striking out four silvery chimes, in came Gregson once more bearing the tea tray, its silver gleaming to perfection, followed by a housemaid (surely another new one, Roger thought) carrying the cake-stand.

But here perfection, as Miss Eccles demanded it, unexpectedly failed. “Don’t leave the stand there, you stupid creature,” she snapped to the scared-looking young maid. “Can’t you see I shall not be able to reach it?”

“Sorry, mum. I ain’t never been told what to do wiv it.”

Aunt Wilhemina’s parchment cheeks flushed sharply red. “I will not have such vulgar language in front of me,” she shrieked like an enraged cockatoo. “Get out! Get out!”

The little maid shot off, a flustered mess. Clacking footsteps could be heard across the black and white tiles of the hall, a few snorting sobs, then a door thudding closed.

Baynes hurried to bring the cake-stand over to its customary position. But too zealously. As she settled it into place, it tilted fractionally and from the high pile of rock buns the topmost one slid inexorably to the floor.

Roger seized his chance. Baynes really did not deserve yet another scathing rebuke. He crossed over to where the toppled bun lay on the carpet, knelt and attempted, rather fumblingly, to retrieve it.

“There we are,” he said, rising at last to his feet. “No great harm done. Your carpet is as clean as a surgeon’s slab, Aunt.” He held the golden bun out to Miss Eccles.

“No, no,” she said. “I have not yet had my slice of bread and butter. You cannot conceive what would happen to my digestion if I ate anything as rich as a rock bun without having had something plain first.”

But Roger, evidently emboldened at having avoided being reprimanded for saving Baynes the humiliation of having to get down on hands and knees to retrieve the fallen bun, was not to be put off.

“No, Aunt,” he said, “this one is specially for you. I know Cook always puts the very best of the batch on top of the pile so that you get it before any of us. So take what is your due.”

Boldly he stepped up and put the rescued bun down on his aunt’s plate. And it seemed he had gotten away with it. Miss Eccles gave him an almost gracious nod and helped herself to a single dull piece of bread and butter.

“Baynes,” she said sharply, “are we never to get our tea? It will be stone cold before it occurs to you that it is time it was poured.”

“Oh. Oh, dear, I was-In all the trouble . . .”

“Baynes.”

Baynes picked up the milk jug and tipped a little into one of the cups.

“Baynes, since when has the milk been poured first in a gentlewoman’s house?”

“Oh. Oh, I’m sorry. I really-I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“That is plain enough, you silly creature. And no, don’t try to pour it back. You will only spill it. Put some more in and set it down for poor little Fido.”

But from then on things appeared to go more smoothly. Fido lapped happily. Miss Eccles ate three rock buns. Baynes incurred no other rebukes. And Roger contrived to produce the decently optimistic account of his work at the hospital which his aunt habitually required. It was with a sigh of relief, however, that when she said her digestion had suffered from all the fuss about the cake-stand he was able to escort her from the room somewhat earlier than was customary.

Then she died.

It was when Roger, after pulling his watch from his waistcoat pocket for the umpteenth time, wondering when the dinner gong would sound, heard the violent ringing of a bell from somewhere upstairs. He nearly ran up at once, but then he thought that it ought to be no business of his. Baynes was already upstairs, presumably changing for dinner from one shapeless black dress to another. She would go.

So he waited, not without a degree of impatience. His stomach, he noted, was actually rumbling. Then the door was flung open and Baynes was standing there, uttering little incoherent squeaks, apparently robbed of the faculty of speech.

“What is it? What is it?” he exclaimed, although he had a sharp feeling that he knew.

“She’s ill, terribly ill,” Baynes gasped out at last. “Can you come, Doctor Roger?”

“Of course, of course.” He hurried up the broad staircase, already guessing he might be too late.

He was. Aunt Wilhemina’s life had come to an end. There was nothing to be done. When, with the assistance of Gregson, they had cleaned and tidied the room as best they could, Roger stood there for a moment on the landing, watching the parlourmaid march stiffly off towards the servants’ stairs. Then he turned to the sobbing distraught form of Baynes.

“I’m afraid,” he said, “I shall have to send for the police. Miss Eccles did not die a natural death.”

Baynes straightened her back. Her tears ceased.

“I know what you mean, Doctor,” she said.

“Do you? Are you prepared to be asked some very awkward questions then?”

“Yes. Yes, I have been thinking about it all, these past few minutes while we were making things in there look right.”

Roger gave her a long somber look. “You know, if I am asked,” he said, “I shall not be able to withhold an account of all that I have seen of the relations between yourself and my aunt.”

She shot him a glance then that might have been almost vicious. “No, I suppose you will not.”

“Very well. So long as you are prepared.”

“But you, Doctor, are you prepared?”

“I don’t think I have any need to prepare myself. I shall just tell the truth as I have seen it.”

“And so shall I.”

There was something in the way she pronounced those few words that made him abruptly look across at her.

“Yes,” she said. “The truth. You see, I saw what you were doing when you fumbled about retrieving that rock bun from the floor in the drawing room. I suppose my letting it slip from the pile looked like a chance you felt you had to snatch at.”

“What-What the devil do you mean?”

She sighed. “You must have thought I was nothing but a silly, ignorant country dweller,” she said. “But perhaps you have forgotten that one of my duties here was to read the newspaper to my late employer. You see, she and I both knew as much about the notorious Dr. Lamson as you do yourself. How all it was necessary for that evil man to do, in order to remove the youth who stood between himself and that inheritance, was to just put a few grains of poison-a poison he could easily obtain as a medical man-into a raisin in a cake. Then it was simply a question of making sure the boy ate that particular cake rather than another.”

“Nonsense. You’re talking pure nonsense. A woman like you should not be allowed to read the papers if this is the result.”

Baynes smiled. “But your aunt insisted that I should read them,” she said. “And you know how ruthless she could be. Almost as ruthless as the man who, like that other doctor took advantage of his professional position in order to obtain the poison with which he filled the raisin I saw him inserting into Miss Eccles’ rock bun. Not that, at the time, I could think what it was you could be doing.”

“And you think the police would believe all this rigmarole?”

“Oh, I am sure they would. But they won’t ever have to decide.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you are going to go to your medical bag, aren’t you, and find something there that will end your life? I daresay more peacefully than you ended your poor aunt’s!”

He looked at her, white-faced. “And what if I don’t?”

“Then you will die at the end of the hangman’s rope. Which do you prefer?”

“You-My God, you call me ruthless! You could give me a hundred yards start in the ruthlessness race and still come out far ahead.”

“Ah, but there are two kinds of ruthlessness, doctor. There is your sort, and yes, your aunt’s sort-ruthlessness employed for its own ends. And then there is another sort-my own sort, perhaps. Ruthlessness necessary when, for instance, one is pruning roses or wistaria. Wistaria has to be ruthlessly cut back, you know, if it is to grow in the right way.”

“Aunt Wilhemina had the Archdeacon to dinner, and you can bet he got more than one small glass of wine. And then Miss Baynes, poor old soul, opened a letter one morning and found that in order to extend the churchyard her cottage was going to have to be demolished. Then everybody was saying how will the poor creature survive on the tiny income she has. All right, next step. Miss Wilhemina Eccles, of Popham Lodge, offers Miss Baynes a post as her companion-to read the paper to her, fetch and carry, and God knows what else. Much praise for my generous aunt. And, behold, early the next summer wistaria is blooming away like billy-o over one side of Popham Grange, and the year afterwards the place is covered with the stuff all the way up to the eaves. Nor is that all.”

“Well, what more?”

“It’s no longer Popham Lodge, it’s Wistaria Lodge. You know, if I’d been poor Baynes I’d have murdered Aunt Wilhemina the day she changed the name.”

When Roger Eccles-Scott, walking up from the railway station, reached the tall gates at the foot of the long drive to Wistaria Lodge, he saw Baynes in the distance. She was busy, coatless in the late autumn chill, directing Williams, his aunt’s aged and obstinate gardener, as up on a tall, perilously bending ladder he was cutting back the long leafless strands of fast-growing wistaria floating and dangling all over the wall. A moment later he saw Gregson, the stone-faced parlourmaid, coming round from the back of the house. “Miss Baynes,” he heard her say, her voice ringing out, “Madam sends a message.”

“Oh dear. Oh, yes. What-What is it?”

“She says do you know that Dr. Eccles-Scott will be here at any minute, and, she says, do you think he will like to see you hopping about out here like a wretched blackbird missing its tail.”

“Oh. Oh, no. I’ve forgotten about the time. You see, Williams won’t-oh well, never mind. I must go in. Yes, at once. At once.”

What a life she leads, Roger thought. But all the same, Aunt Wilhemina’s right-she does look like a tailless blackbird in those frightful black clothes she’s made to wear.

He saw Baynes stop at the corner as she trotted away to enter the house from the rear. “And Williams,” she called up to the old man perched on his swaying ladder, “when you come down you must pull all the seedpods off the laburnum. If they’re left there, the tree won’t last another year and it’s so pretty. And be careful not to let any drop. The seeds are poisonous, you know. If Fido chews one of the pods, it might be the end of him. And what would Miss Eccles do then?” She scuttled off, leaving a trail of “oh dear, oh dears” behind her.

Roger, as he strolled gently towards the house, was easily able to imagine her flurriedly discarding hat and gloves and dipping her head in at the kitchen where-he had seen the scene more than once-she would peer in to see that the silver teapot on its tray with the milk jug and sugar basin was polished to the gleaming pitch Aunt Wilhemina demanded. She would then look to see that the bread and butter on the cake-stand was cut just as thinly as day after day, week after week, it had to be, and that on the shelf below, a plate of his aunt’s favourite rock buns was piled high as it would go, each one browned to just the right golden yellow point, their rough surfaces glinting with the tops of a few of the raisins and pieces of candied peel within.

When a prim Gregson had admitted him at the front door, taken hat and coat, stick and Gladstone bag, and ushered him into the drawing room, he found Baynes standing penitently in front of his aunt, who was bolt upright in her high-backed chair with horrible little Fido on her lap. But whatever rebukes Baynes was to receive were cut short as Aunt Wilhemina offered him a withered cheek to kiss. Then, with the clock in the hall striking out four silvery chimes, in came Gregson once more bearing the tea tray, its silver gleaming to perfection, followed by a housemaid (surely another new one, Roger thought) carrying the cake-stand.

But here perfection, as Miss Eccles demanded it, unexpectedly failed. “Don’t leave the stand there, you stupid creature,” she snapped to the scared-looking young maid. “Can’t you see I shall not be able to reach it?”

“Sorry, mum. I ain’t never been told what to do wiv it.”

Aunt Wilhemina’s parchment cheeks flushed sharply red. “I will not have such vulgar language in front of me,” she shrieked like an enraged cockatoo. “Get out! Get out!”

The little maid shot off, a flustered mess. Clacking footsteps could be heard across the black and white tiles of the hall, a few snorting sobs, then a door thudding closed.

Baynes hurried to bring the cake-stand over to its customary position. But too zealously. As she settled it into place, it tilted fractionally and from the high pile of rock buns the topmost one slid inexorably to the floor.

The End

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *