Murder At Muirfield – Episode 14

LATER that afternoon, I was sent with a late basket of food to the bothy. Mrs Pearson was at sixes and sevens, having decided to clear out the cupboards in advance of the house party.
I left her surrounded by a heap of bowls and plates. Janet was running around like a cat on hot tiles. Every so often the cook would bellow an instruction for her.
I knew I wouldn’t be missed for a while. I’d made up my mind to slip away and visit the summerhouse and lake where Ellen had met her end.
I hoped to see Adam, but he wasn’t at the bothy. I went inside and set the basket on the battered wooden table. I looked about for a sign he’d been around.
It was a neat place. I knew that was Peter’s doing. I’d seen the older man sweeping the floor. Whenever he was there to take the basket, he made a good show of cleaning the table before laying out the food.
I was touched to see a small glass jar with a posy of late flowers in it. I leaned in to smell them. There was a faint scent of lilac. Had Adam set it there? It was hard to imagine him doing so.
With confused emotions, I straightened the cloth over the basket and went outside. I glanced back towards the house. There was no-one visible.
With anticipation I headed away from the house. I’d not been further than the bothy and its attached cottages before.
After the cottages and the row of long greenhouses, the woodlands began. Great oak trees and silvery birches dominated. Here and there the deep, red berries clustered on rowans. A few thrushes flew up from feeding on them.
It was raining now, the drizzle earlier having thickened into proper droplets. I wished I’d brought a cloak or umbrella.
As I reached the summerhouse, it looked a bleak sort of place, out of season and in the wrong weather. It was meant for searing, hot sunny days, with boating on the lake and picnics and champagne. Now its painted wooden walls were trickled with rain and the door facing the lake was firmly shut.
I stepped up on to a wooden raised platform on which the summerhouse was built. For a moment I stared out at the lake. Its surface was grey and pitted with the rain. The edge was fringed with slimy water plants.
I shivered, thinking of Ellen and where her body had ended up. It wasn’t a pleasant thought. The margins of the lake were muddy. I remembered Gracie’s words: “There were signs of a scuffle in the mud at the edge of the lake.”
There was a boat floating on the lake, tied to a stake. Further out, a flotilla of ducks rose and dived with an occasional squawking cry.
I was suddenly aware of the isolation. It was as if the summerhouse was miles from anywhere, instead of a short walk from the house. I realised it had been designed that way. It provided a quiet retreat or a perfect summer party venue depending on one’s mood. I was quite alone.
Determined not to be scared, I walked on the platform round to the summerhouse door. I pulled at the doorknob. For a second it didn’t budge and I thought it must be locked. But then, with more force, the door sprang open.
An aroma of cured wood, mould and something unidentified hit my nose.
I stepped inside. The door swung shut on creaking hinges behind me. There was a large space within a circular room with a wooden shelf all around at the height for sitting on. The shelf was covered in large, long cushions.
I sat for a moment. The cushions were faintly damp.
Still, I imagined being a visitor to the Dawtons in the summer. I imagined the good food packed by Mrs Pearson into a picnic hamper to be brought here; the young men pouring wine for the ladies; the laughter and good cheer. Then the inevitable boat trip across the lake, to be followed perhaps by a walk in the woods. I sighed. It was a life far different from mine.
I saw there were inset cupboards under the seating. I kneeled down. What could be inside?
I reached out my hand to open one and froze. There was a creaking of wood from outside. My heart pounded and I stood up quickly.
The door slowly opened. I put my hands to my mouth to stifle a scream.
A man entered. He was taken aback to see me there.
I recognised him. It was Arthur Sankey, the policeman who’d been coming to Muirfield regularly. This was the first time I’d seen him up close. I let out the breath I’d been holding. I felt sure he’d do me no harm.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded. “Identify yourself immediately.”
“Hannah Miller, sir.” I dipped a curtsey and lowered my gaze.
“Hannah Miller? I’ve seen you before. You’re a maid at the house, aren’t you? What are you doing in the summerhouse?”
That was a very good question. And one to which I didn’t want to give the true answer. I could hardly say I was trying to do his job and catch a murderer. Instead I played the foolish girl.
“Oh, sir, I wanted to feed the ducks.”
Since the ducks were a distance off on the far side of the lake, and I was in the middle of the summerhouse with the door shut, it was not the best answer I could have managed. However, he didn’t challenge me. Instead, with a frown and a swipe of his fingers along his profuse moustache, he advised me to return to the house.
“This isn’t the time to be wandering alone in the grounds. There’s a murderer on the loose, don’t you know?”
“Oh, yes, sir, it was silly of me.” I blinked.
“No matter. We’ll say no more about it. But you must go back to the house now. I’m interviewing all the staff.”
“Again?” It was cheeky but the words were out of my mouth before I filtered them.
He stared at me.
“A girl’s gone missing. From the village. It’s very likely she’s met with the same fate as Ellen. Hurry along now, and stick to the path.”

Tracey Steel

Having worked on a number of magazines over the years, Tracey has found her perfect place on The Friend as she’s obsessed with reading and never goes anywhere without a book! She reads all the PF stories with a mug of tea close by and usually a bit of strong cheese too!