Storylandia 10 – Death Among The Marshes, by Kathyrn L. Ramage
Cover “Misty” by Eleanor Leonne Bennett
Storylandia, The Wapshott Journal of Fiction, Issue 10. The novella “Death Among the Marshes,” a murder mystery set in the Twenties by Kathryn L. Ramage.
Death Among the Marshes
A Murder Mystery Set in the Twenties
The Great War had made many boys into old men, but in spite of all he’d suffered, Frederick Babington still looked surprisingly youthful for his 26 years. He was a pale, intense, and solemn young man—more pale, Billy thought, since he’d been wounded so terribly. At least he no longer limped and the burn scars on the small and ring fingers of his left hand were now only puckered reddish skin. His dark hair had been cropped short during his last stay in a private nursing home over the winter past, but it was growing out again and beginning to curl just as it used to.
Billy watched as one loose curl fell forward over Freddie’s brow as he returned his attention to the book he’d been reading before the interruption, a newly published mystery novel titled Whose Body? When Freddie lifted his eyes from the page a moment later, Billy pretended an interest in the book.
“What’s that one about?”
“There’s a dead body that turns up in a bathtub, quite starkers—not a stitch on except for a pair of gold pince nez—and nobody seems to know who the dead chap is, not even the people who live in the flat where the bathtub is.”
“I don’t see how you can read such things, about dead bodies and such, after– well– after seeing so many dead folk yourself in the trenches.” Billy felt sure that dwelling on the subject of murder had done no good for Freddie’s state of mind.
But Freddie responded, “This is different. It’s not real, you know. The murders in these stories are always somewhat fantastic and never have the true stink and ugliness of death about them, not at all like the terrible things you and I have seen. And it’s all cleaned up in the end. I’m quite certain the detective chap in this one will find out who the naked body in the bath is and discover who put him there in the last chapter. They always do. It’s quite comforting in its way.”
He set the book down across his knee. “All the same, Billy,” he admitted, “I can’t help noticing how the war’s begun to creep in. I first started to read murder mysteries as a sort of escape into fiction. But in this one, the fellow who’s doing the detecting has been through it just the same as we have. He’s even been shell-shocked. The one I read before this, you remember, about that funny little Belgian detective? Well, he was a refugee and his sidekick was home on leave after being wounded. The war was all around the edges of that story. I think I prefer good old Sherlock Holmes to these modern mysteries. He’s a touch old-fashioned, but the worst you’ll find in those pages is poor Dr. Watson’s wandering wound from some Afghan campaign. Nothing to remind me of things I’d rather forget.”
They were within a few miles of the Downham Market rail station. As Freddie looked out at the familiar, flat countryside, he sighed.
“I could’ve come here when I was just out of hospital,” he told Billy. “The family would’ve been glad to have me home again, but I couldn’t do it. Marsh Hall is too noisy and crowded. Too full of well-meaning aunties who would make an endless fuss over me. Once I was through with the war, all I wanted to do was rest and read and try to pick up my life where I left it off in `14. I wouldn’t have come here now if it weren’t for Bertie’s dying so suddenly.”
“This cousin of yours,” asked Billy. “Was you and him close?”
“We grew up together at Marsh Hall,” Freddie answered. “He was my first half-cousin, just like Kell, but a year or so closer to my own age than Kell is.”
“I never heard you mention him `til you got that telegram about his being drowned.” Although the young Marshes had also visited Sir Hilliard’s home, now that Billy thought about it, he couldn’t recall meeting Mr. Bertram Marsh for himself. But there were so many Marshes; it was hard to keep track of them all.
“I hadn’t seen him in years, not since I went off to university. We were never very friendly, even as children,” said Freddie. “His father didn’t encourage it. Uncle Kellynch—the one my cousin Kell is named after—was always at his brother Lord Marshbourne’s right hand, you see, and since Kell has no brother of his own, Uncle Kellynch seemed to think that his son Bertie ought to stand beside Kell in the same way. He never liked that Kell and I were best friends and Bertie was pushed off to the side. After my parents died, Aunt Emily and Uncle Win became like another mother and father to me. I think Uncle Kellynch was afraid that they might adopt me. He saw me as a usurper, as if I’d taken the place that his son ought to have. Bertie must’ve had some of the same feelings, even if he wasn’t very fond of Kell and Kell didn’t like him.”
The train had been moving more slowly during the last few minutes and now it stopped at the Downham Market station. The two young men got out onto the platform and while Freddie surrendered both their tickets to the station master, Billy retrieved their bags from the porter. They went out through the wooden gate at the end of the platform.
A smart little bright red roadster sat idling in the paved area usually reserved for cabs and luggage carts. A handsome young man with honey-colored hair and a dimpled chin was at the wheel; at the sight of the pair, he waved a hand and called out, “Freddie, old thing!”
Freddie’s cousin Kell had come to meet them.
The Honourable Captain Kellynch Meredith St. George Marsh, DSO, DFC, MC, was the only son and heir to Lord Marshbourne. Since becoming an officer in the Air Corps during the final months of the war, he had grown a neat little tawny mustache that only made him look more dashing. Billy disliked him heartily. Kell Marsh was just the type to have every good thing in life come his way and receive it all as simply a matter of course. Not only had he enjoyed a brilliant and distinguished war record, but had come through it all without a scratch. So had Billy, but he resented Kell’s luck on Freddie’s behalf.
“Kell, hullo!” Freddie exclaimed in surprise. “How did you know which train we’d be on?”
“There aren’t that many running up this sleepy little line. Besides, Mother told me about your wire. You said you’d be here in time for dinner. Come on, hop in!”
“Can all three of us fit into this contraption?” Freddie looked doubtful.
“Of course.” Kell stretched one hand over his shoulder to flip open a tiny compartment on the back of the vehicle and reveal a third cushioned seat. “Your chum Billy can go in there with your bags tucked down at his feet. Plenty of room! In you go, Bill.”
Billy grumbled to himself as he climbed up into the seat, but it was either squeeze himself in with the baggage or let Freddie drive off with Kell and walk the seven lonely miles between Downham Market and Marsh Hall. He had barely settled in before the little roadster zipped off. The rail station was at the edge of the town and they were soon speeding along the northward road through the flat countryside toward Marsh Hall.
“By the way, I won’t be joining you for dinner,” Kell announced, shouting over the putter of the car’s engine. “Phil Tollarhithe’s taken a room at the George and Dragon at Marshbanks, and I’m staying with him.”
“I thought you and Phil had one of the cottages on the Hall grounds?” Freddie shouted back. Phillip Tollarhithe was a cousin of Kell’s on his mother’s side, as well as his closest friend. Phil was at Cambridge, but the last Freddie had heard he’d come to visit the Marshes during the Easter holiday break.
“We were, `til Father threatened to toss Phil off the property. Naturally, we couldn’t stay on after that.”
“We had a devil of row, Father and I, and I couldn’t stick it another minute. He rather suspects…”
“Well, you know. About me and Phil.”
Freddie did know all about Kell and Phil. “Do you want us to stay at the Inn while we’re here?” he asked.
“No, you’d better go on to the Hall. Mother’s expecting you. She’ll be delighted to see you, and you can work on Father on my behalf. He likes you. He’s always said you were a lad of uncommon sense, and he might listen to you. I’m going to need a friend, Freddie.”
“Of course,” responded Freddie. “But whatever for? Not over Phil?”
“No, not over Phil. There’s something else I haven’t told you about yet, old chap. Bertie wasn’t drowned. When they pulled his body out of the river, they found he’d taken a nasty cosh to the head. The police think he was murdered. They think I did it.”