It was estimated that Lady Adeline Courtenay-Hooper had been dead at least a week, quite possibly longer than that. A post-mortem examination could not establish a definitive cause of death, but did rule out any idea of foul play. She was found to be in poor physical condition having lost over half of her body weight. Her hair had fallen out in large clumps and she had apparently given-up on personal hygiene altogether such was the state of her bedroom. Despite her age, not quite fifty years, her passing was declared as a death by natural causes by the coroner and her body was released for burial.
Aside from her late brother, Spencer, Louisa did not recall ever hearing Lady Adeline make mention of any other, extended, family. Both parents were long deceased and an obituary in the London Times failed to draw anybody to the funeral that was not even peripherally known to Louisa.
It had fallen upon Louisa’s shoulders to arrange the interment of Lady Adeline Courtenay-Hooper in the family vault as nobody else seemed willing or able to take the responsibility.
“It’s almost as though she was a ghost, darling” she told her husband the night before the ceremony. “I cannot believe that she made so little impact when she was still with us.”
“Unfortunately, honey, you heard what that snippy woman said, Lady Nancy Something-or-Other.”
“Well, yes, but she was being catty, surely?”
“Maybe so, maybe not, but the sad fact is that there is a more than a kernel of truth in what she said. Lady Adeline had cut herself off from her social set these past months and she had let herself go in quite an alarming manner, dear.”
“I know. It is so sad. I wish I knew why.”
“Why she let herself go, so. She was always so polished, so well turned out, so classy and utterly beautiful. It all changed when poor Spencer died.”
“That would appear to be the catalyst, I agree” Stuart Calleray said. “We may never know all the answers darling” he offered kindly as Louisa allowed him to enfold her in his protective embrace. “Let us get through tomorrow as best we are able, okay?”
“Of course” Louisa agreed, turning to face her husband. “I don’t know what I would have done without you these past weeks. I love you so much” she told him before placing a lingering kiss on his waiting lips.
Now, walking away from the Courtenay-Hooper family vault Louisa fought back her tears and personally thanked the few old associates and former friends who had taken the trouble to say a final farewell to one of their own, even if she was a troubled and hurting soul at the end.
The newly-installed telephone rang shrilly. Louisa answered it herself.
“Mrs. Louisa Calleray?” a deep male voice asked politely.
“Speaking” Louisa responded.
“Ah, Mrs. Calleray, my name is Arthur Thorndyke and I am a senior partner with the firm of solicitors that revels under the name of Blessington, Thorndyke and Chatworthy.“ There was humour in his tone that Louisa automatically found herself warming to.
“How can I help you, Mr. Thorndyke?” Louisa asked.
“Indeed, how can you help?” Thorndyke said, his voice dropping to a low, regretful near-whisper. “Well, yes, the thing is this, you see. Our late client, the recently departed miss – that is, Lady – Adeline Courtenay-Hooper, has left us here at B, T and C in a bit of a pickle, you see.”
“Oh dear, I am so sorry to hear that” Louisa said, trying very hard to not giggle at Arthur Thorndyke’s unusual telephone manner. “How may I be of help to you?” she enquired.
“Well, Mrs. Calleray, that’s the thing of it, you see. I am not really at liberty to actually say what it is that you personally can do to render B, T and C any sort of assistance, hmm?” Thorndyke said.
Totally confused and fighting an almost-lost battle against the giggles that were desperate to escape her, Louisa covered the mouthpiece of the telephone and drew in two deep breaths in rapid succession.
“Mr. Thorndyke, sir,“ she said into the mouthpiece once she had assured herself that she would not behave inappropriately for the remainder of the telephone call’s duration, “Please excuse me if I seem a trifle confused. If you are unable to tell me what help I can be to you and your firm may I ask why you called me?”
“Ah, now, you see, that is where you are actually mistaken, young woman” Thorndyke said brightly.” “I actually said, did I not, that I was not at liberty to actually say what help we require of you. Is that not that fact of the matter, Mrs. Calleray?
Louisa was by now so confused that she could not have sworn under oath to exactly what Mr. Thorndyke had actually said. However, the general gist of his words seemed to her recall to be along the lines he mentioned.
“Yes, sir, I believe that is perhaps what you said” she agreed cautiously.
“No perhaps about it, for sure!” Thorndyke exclaimed. “Now, the point is that, although I am duty-bound to keep mum on this terrible contraption about you-know-what, here in my own inner-sanctum at the respected and long-established firm of Blessington, Thorndyke and Chatworthy, well, bless me, pretty-much anything goes, yes?” he offered.
“Anything goes, Mr. Thorndyke?”
“Why, yes, of course, dear lady. In my office I can do as I damn-well please, if you’ll pardon my language. Anyway, the thing is that although I cannot actually breathe a word of this to you, what I can most assuredly do, yes indeedy, is let you see what’s to be done. Good, eh?” he announced, sounding very pleased with himself.
“Please indulge me, Mr. Thorndyke. I wish to clarify for myself the situation you have, uh… Anyway, if I understand you correctly, you are unable to speak of these matters over the telephone but you are happy to show me something in your office, is that the nub of it?” Louisa asked.
“Splendid! It is such a joy to talk with a sensible, level-headed woman. Right-ho, I will see you promptly in my office at ten sharp tomorrow morning” Thorndyke said and then abruptly disconnected the call.
Utterly bemused by the unexpected call and the manner in which it had ended left Louisa shaking her head, but smiling.
“What a wonderfully eccentric chap!” she exclaimed to the empty hallway. Then a new thought suddenly struck her.
“Oh my, I have no idea where the firm of Blessington, Thorndyke and Chatworthy is actually located. They could be anywhere!”
The amused smile that had moments before adorned her face was replaced immediately by a frown of concern.
“What am I to do? Really, this is most inconvenient” she muttered to herself.”
With no other ideas coming into her head Louisa picked-up the telephone handset again.
“Operator here. How may I be of help?” a bright and cheery youthful voice asked.
“Oh. I don’t know if you can help me.” Louisa said uncertainly.
“Well, if you tell me what the problem is I’ll see if I have a solution. If not, maybe we can work something out between us. How does that sound?” the operator said helpfully.
Louisa decided that the voice disguised the owner’s true age. Nobody very young could be that accommodating to a stranger, she felt.
“I received a call just a few minutes ago. The caller made an appointment with me for tomorrow morning, but failed to tell me quite where the appointment is.” Louisa succinctly explained.
“And I’m assuming that you do not have the caller’s telephone number to call them back?” the operator said.
“You assume correctly” Louisa answered. “Is there anything you can do to help?” she asked hopefully.
“I can connect you with the caller. Would you like me to do that for you?”
“Oh, that would be wonderful!” Louisa exclaimed. “Thank you ever so much.”
“My pleasure. Just a moment please”.
Louisa listened while a series of bleeps and clicks ended with the voice of the operator advising another female voice that she had a call to connect. Seconds later Louisa was talking to the weary-sounding receptionist at Blessington, Thorndyke and Chatworthy solicitors. She explained what had happened.
“Ah, dear Mr. Thorndyke. He does this often, I’m afraid. He is a dear, dear man but quite ga-ga now” the receptionist told Louisa.
“Oh dear me. That’s a bit of a worry for you all, I’m sure” she sympathised.
“The partners all look after him as best they are able, you know. They try to give him as little…, difficult stuff to handle. He gets muddled so easily nowadays.”
“Oh dear.” Louisa said again.
“I have to advise you that although he has made you this appointment he may not remember doing so by tomorrow morning.”
“Gosh! Does that happen often?”
“Not too often now. We try to avoid these situations by intervening before he contacts clients. Unfortunately he got to you before we could, if you will excuse the terminology.”
“Of course” Louisa said absently. “So, should I arrive for my appointment at ten o’clock, as arranged?” she asked.
“Most certainly. I shall see to it personally that Mr. Thorndyke is fully aware that you will be arriving.” the receptionist promised with sincerity. It seemed to Louisa it was a promise she had made many times in the past.
After noting down the telephone number and address of the office – in a busy London suburb just a few miles away from her home – Louisa ended the call and replaced the handset again.
‘That was the most odd and unusual few minutes of my life for a long time’ she said to herself, smiling and shaking her head in amusement. She was already looking forward to meeting the obviously much-loved Mr. Thorndyke.
Arthur Thorndyke turned out to be a dapper little man of advanced years who was as tall as he was round. His ruddy face, bulbous nose and bright beady eyes peering at Louisa through a pair of pince-nez glasses put Louisa in mind of a Dickensian character; Mr. Pickwick, perhaps. His suit jacket had wear patches at the elbow and the cuffs were slightly frayed, which served to reinforce the Dickensian impression.
“Ah, Mrs. Calleray. Mrs. Louisa Calleray?” his bass voice rumbled from deep in his chest.
“Yes, I am Louisa Calleray” Louisa confirmed.
“Well, yes, good. Of course you are” Thorndyke said. “Now, what can I do for you Mrs. Calleray?”
Nonplussed, Louisa stared dumbly at the funny-looking solicitor… who looked right back at her.”
“I, well… Mr. Thorndyke, you invited me to this appointment.” she managed to stammer.
“I did?” Thorndyke asked, clearly confused.
“I did!” he exclaimed as the various synapses connected. “You are Louisa Calleray, nee Tavistock, formerly companion to the late Lady Adeline Courtenay-Hooper!” he said excitedly.
“Yes, sir. That is me.” Louisa sighed.
“Well, Mrs. Louisa Calleray, nee Tavistock, it is a personal delight and pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Arthur Thorndyke beamed as he rose awkwardly to his feet and proffered a small, pudgy hand.
He grasped Louisa’s hand and pumped it vigorously for several moments before seeming to deflate suddenly. He slumped heavily into his chair, leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Louisa watched, concern etched on her face.
“Are you alright, Mr. Thorndyke?” she asked nervously.
“Right? Yes, of course I’m alright. Now, where were we?” Thorndyke asked brusquely, sitting upright and staring at his guest.
Louisa sighed again. She was beginning to regret attending this most unusual of appointments. There were many other pressing issues that required her attention back at the Connolly House Project that she could be attending to rather than playing this rather bizarre game with the equally bizarre Arthur Thorndyke. She drew in a deep breath and exhaled it slowly.
“Mr. Thorndyke, sir,” she began slowly, “you telephoned me yesterday regarding the late Lady Adeline Courtenay-Hooper. You said there was a matter you needed to discuss with me in person rather than over the telephone. That is why I am here this morning.”
“Of course, of course.” Thorndyke agreed, beaming a most charming smile at Louisa. “You see, Mrs. Calleray…”
“Louisa. Please call me Louisa” Louisa encouraged.
“As you wish Mrs.… I mean, Louisa. The situation is like this you see” Thorndyke said as he rummaged amongst an untidy pile of papers on his desk. “Lady Courtenay-Hooper left a will that bequeathed her home et al to some distant and, if I’m to understand correctly, rather disreputable, cousins who live abroad somewhere hot and sunny.” He smiled uncertainly at Louisa. “All families have them you know” he said.
“I’m sorry?” Louisa queried.
“Black sheep. Blaggards. Wrong ‘uns” Thorndyke said, winking conspiratorially at Louisa. “All these nobs and toffs all built their fortunes off the backs of underhand dealings and the like. Can’t trust a one of them in my books. Ah! Here it is!” he exclaimed as he pulled a handwritten sheet of paper from somewhere near the very bottom of a large pile of correspondence.
Confused beyond words, Louisa felt that any sort of response to Thorndyke’s ramblings to be an exercise in futility. The likelihood was that further confusion would ensue, so she remained silent while the elderly solicitor read the sheet of paper he had sought so diligently.
“Yes, the thing is you see, Mrs. Calleray; that is, Louisa, if you please”. He paused, winked at Louisa and turned his attention back to the paper. Louisa could not help but smile. Frustrated she indeed was by Thorndyke, but also amused by him.
“Yes, the thing is that, well, these damnable cousins actually don’t want anything to, umm, anything to do with the house. You know, the house their late cousin left them in her will” Thorndyke said. He removed the pince-nez and rubbed the reddened bridge of his nose before replacing them.
“How strange” Louisa commented, beginning to wonder what all this had to do with her.
“Not really, young lady. Not strange at all.” Thorndyke commented as he again removed his glasses and polished them on a spotlessly clean white cotton handkerchief he withdrew from the breast pocket of his suit jacket. “You see, these chappies buggered-off to South America back in the twenties and made their fortunes, either through fair means or foul, and live the high life there.” he explained as he returned his glasses to his nose once again.
“I see” Louisa said blandly. She still had no clue as to where this conversation, as interesting as it was, was heading.
“Do you really?” Thorndyke asked, a twinkle in his eye as he peered at Louisa. “Do you see indeed?” He chuckled to himself. A pink blush suffused Louisa’s cheeks.
“To be perfectly frank, Mr. Thorndyke, I am at a loss to understand where I fit in to this narrative.” she said diplomatically.
“Ah, ha!” Thorndyke suddenly burst forth. Louisa started with surprise. “Where do you fit into this narrative, Mrs. Calleray? Why, right in the very middle of it, that’s where!” Thorndyke announced excitedly.
“I do?” Louisa, hand over her pounding heart, asked.
“Goodness me, but yes indeedy. You, m’dear, are, as it were, the lynchpin, the hub and indeed, the engine driving this whole affair.”
“I am?” a totally confused and disconcerted Louisa asked.
“Really, it is all very simple and straightforward, Louisa. The cousins, the disreputable buggers who inherited the house, want you to sort the whole mess out” Thorndyke explained in his most patient tone of voice.
He grinned at a clearly puzzled and discomfited Louisa.
“I have here a telegram from Charles and Walter Killeen. They are the disreputable buggers I have referred to several times already. the cousins the late Lady Adeline Courtenay-Hooper left her estate to.” Thorndyke said, waving around the sheet of paper he had been reading a few minutes before.
“They ask, in the most polite terms possible; bloody unusual for a couple of ruffians like that, I can tell you. If I was a gambling man, which I most assuredly am not, I would wager that someone else composed the wording of this telegram” he said brandishing the paper like a weapon.
“I am sure you are most probably correct” Louisa offered tentatively.
“No question of it. Someone else composed this telegram. “Thorndyke declared decisively. “Anyway, that is not the point.” he continued. “No, the point is that they – Charles and Walter Killeen - have asked this firm of solicitors, Blessington, Thorndyke and Chatworthy, on their behalf, to instruct a person of good standing and integrity to do that which they have neither the will nor need to undertake.” he said grandly.
Louisa, was none the wiser.
“So, the cousins want someone to effectively act as executor of Lady Adeline’s will?” she asked.
“Good Lord, no!” Arthur Thorndyke gasped. “No, never that. Indeed, no.” he appeared agitated at the suggestion.
“In that case, Mr. Thorndyke, I am still at a loss to comprehend what my role in this situation is” Louisa said. There was a slight note of frustration and a little impatience in her tone, which Thorndyke was quick to pick up on.
“Really, Mrs. Calleray, there is no necessity for you to be so put out so.” he said in what was meant to be a soothing tone. “Really, we are nearly done now” he told her.,
“Are we?” Louisa asked. “I really do hope so, Mr. Thorndyke for I am extremely busy and extremely confused. Please, if there is nothing further for us to discuss I will take my leave of you” she said, rising to her feet.
“One moment more, Mrs. Louisa Calleray, nee Tavistock” Thorndyke said solemnly. “I believe that I may have offended you, for which I am truly repentant. That was not my intent. Indeed my sole intent was to pass along to you good news indeed. Please be seated again”
Louisa immediately felt a wave of shame and guilt wash over her as she sat down. She chided herself for her lack of tolerance and patience. Mr. Arthur Thorndyke had his own way of conducting his business which, although not strictly as professional as she would have liked it conducted, was his way and she should have respected that.
“No, please accept my most humble apologies. I was churlish and rude. Please, do continue, sir” she said in the most humble tone.
“I know I am a bit dotty and hard work at times,” Thorndyke said with an engaging grin on his face, “but I do get there in the end. Your gracious apology is accepted. Let us conclude this matter, shall we?”
“Yes, please, let us do that” Louisa agreed with a smile of her own.
In his halting style of delivery Thorndyke went on to explain that the cousins, due to their work and lifestyle commitments on the other side of the world, did not really have the time to spare to travel to London to sort out the house.
“The upshot is that they have asked that you, Louisa, undertake that task” Thorndyke said.
“Really? That is what this has all been about?” Louisa asked, trying to keep annoyance out of her tone.
“No, not at all, m’dear” Thorndyke beamed.
“You see, not only do Charles and Walter Killeen want you to take care of the house and its contents they also want you to take possession of the contents of their late cousin’s house!” Thorndyke rose to his feet again. “Congratulations, Mrs. Calleray, you are now the sole inheritor of every possession previously owned by the late Lady Adeline Courtenay-Hooper.”
Dumbfounded beyond belief, Louisa felt her hand being vigorously pumped by Arthur Thorndyke, but she was unaware of anything he was saying now. An air of unreality surrounded her. However, unlike learning of her inheritance from the Connolly sisters, Louisa did not faint dead away this time.
To be continued...