Storylandia, Issue 35
The Family Jewels
It was a beautiful, crisp, and colorful autumn afternoon. Frederick Babington, who was visiting his aunt in the Suffolk village of Abbotshill, decided to take a walk. Though the injuries he’d received during the Great War had taken a long time to heal, he was beginning to feel truly well again. His leg no longer pained him and he’d discarded his cane.
Billy Watkins, Freddie’s manservant who had saved his life during the war and looked after him diligently since, insisted that he take a coat in case the evening grew chilly and not tire himself by going too far. Freddie promised to be back in time for dinner and grabbed his tweed coat down from the rack by the front door on his way out.
He had a delightful time wandering the country lanes around Abbotshill, climbing the green hills and kicking up piles of golden and russet leaves that had fallen under the trees. At dusk, he headed back toward his aunt’s house by way of the Rose and Crown pub; a pint of the local beer seemed just the thing to complete his outing.
The taproom was crowded, but the girl at the bar smiled when she saw him. “We’ve been hearing some talk about you tonight, Mr. Freddie,” she told him as she filled a mug from the tap. Freddie didn’t understand this remark, until she lifted her chin to indicate a table in the corner behind him. “Bill’s been here near an hour, telling everybody what a fine detective you are. Our constable was interested in particular.”
Freddie turned to look over his shoulder and located Billy seated with the village constable, Robert Cochrane. The two were deep in conversation and hadn’t noticed his entrance. Curious as to what they were saying, Freddie picked up his mug and made his way toward their table.
As he approached, a familiar voice could be heard through the chatter of the crowd: “I tell you, Mr. Freddie’s awfully clever. He’s solved plenty of mysteries, private-like for his family, you understand, but he likes a puzzle even if it’s nothing to do with murder. If anybody can figure out this one of yours, Rob, Mr. Freddie can.”
Freddie was deeply touched by the recommendation. There was an old saying: No man is a hero to his valet—but Billy evidently thought well enough of him to sing his praises in public.
“So you think he’ll see me?” asked Rob.
“If I ask him to, he will,” Billy assured his friend. “Whyn’t you come up to Abbot House with me? We’ll put it before Mr. Freddie and see what he thinks.”
It was then he realized that Freddie was standing behind him; Billy’s face colored, his mouth opened and shut, and he ducked his head.
Freddie beamed at him affectionately. “Ask me what, Billy?”
“It’s Rob here.” Billy waved to indicate his friend. “He’s got puzzle as needs working out.”
“Bill says I ought to come to you, Mr. Babington, ’bout this matter I was called to look into,” Rob explained. “There’s been no crime as such, but it’s an odd thing. Billy was telling me you like to investigate odd things. I thought as you might want to have a look at it yourself.”
“What is it?”
Rob made as if to rise—he thought it disrespectful to be seated before a gentleman—but Freddie gestured for him to stay where he was. Rob remained seated, but sat up a little straighter in his chair as he reported, “There was a cottage broken into this afternoon on the far side of town—not burgled, Mr. Babington, as I say. Nothing’s been taken. But here’s the curious thing: the furniture’s been shifted about.”
“Shifted about?” echoed Freddie. “You mean, someone came in and rearranged their furniture?”
“Not so much ‘rearranged,’ more like pulled out of place. I’ve been constable in these parts for three years now, and it’s the most peculiar bit of mischief I’ve ever seen! Can you tell me why anybody’d want to do such a thing?”
The next morning, they accompanied Rob to visit the young couple who lived in the burgled cottage, Florence and Gerald Fairchild. Mr. Fairchild was a sturdy young man near Freddie’s own age, and his wife was a pretty girl with fair hair cropped in the latest fashion. They looked a little confused when the constable returned to their door with two strangers.
“Hello. Are you a police inspector?” Mr. Fairchild asked Freddie, but he looked rather doubtful; Freddie obviously had the appearance of a gentleman.
“This is Mr. Frederick Babington,” Rob introduced him. “He’s a private investigator. My friend, Bill Watkins here, works for him. He’s agreed to look into this trouble of yours.”
The Fairchilds brightened. The Babingtons were well-known as a county family of prominence. “How do you do?” Gerald offered his hand. “You’re Dorothea Babington’s nephew, aren’t you? We’ve had the pleasure of calling on her at Abbot House, though I’m sorry we’ve never met you there. She speaks of you often.”
Florence was more impressed by their visitor’s profession. “I’ve never seen a private investigator before! I didn’t know they existed outside of books. Can you really help us, Mr. Babington? Has the constable told you what’s happened?”
“Yes, in part,” Freddie replied as they went into the small sitting-room. “I’d like to hear more about it from you.”
“There isn’t much we can tell,” said Gerald. “We’d been asked to tea yesterday with an auntie of Florrie’s who’s been out of this part of this world for years—she’s visiting another aunt who lives nearby. We started to walk there, when Florrie realized she’d forgotten her hat, so we had to come back.”
“But that turned out to be lucky,” said Florence. “We hadn’t been gone half an hour, but we saw at once that someone had been in the cottage while we were out. That chest there,” she pointed to a tall walnut chest of drawers against the sitting-room wall– “was pulled out, and the rugs here and in the front hall had been thrown back from the floor.”
“The kitchen table had been moved too,” her husband added.
“And the funny thing is that it’s happened before,” said Florence.
“You didn’t say so yesterday, Mrs. Fairchild,” Rob chided.
“We were talking it over last night. We didn’t realize it at the time. If I saw that the wardrobe in our bedroom had been moved, I didn’t think it very odd. I assumed that Jerry must’ve had a reason for doing it. And he thought I had done it.”
“We didn’t think anything of it until yesterday,” Gerald finished. “It was hard not to see that something was going on when we came back unexpectedly and surprised whoever it was.”
“You didn’t see who it was?” asked Freddie.
The young man shook his head. “I told the constable here—they must’ve fled out the back door as we came in at the front. I went after them, but never saw anyone.”
“Nothing was taken?” asked Freddie.
Both shook their heads. “Nothing we’ve missed,” said Gerald.
Freddie had to agree that this sounded very odd indeed. “May I ask, Mr. and Mrs. Fairchild: how long have you lived here?”
“Three months,” Florence answered. “Uncle Bart let us have it just after we were married.”
“Bartholomew Taggart,” her husband explained. “The cottage belongs to him. I work in Ipswich and it seemed so much more pleasant to have a country home near Florrie’s people than a pokey little flat in town.”
“How long have these odd incidents been happening?” Freddie asked.
“They began last week,” said Florence. “At least, that’s the first time I can recall something being moved. The cottage used to belong to Uncle Bart’s mother, who died last year.” She let out a nervous little laugh. “I know you’ll think it silly of me, but I’ve sometimes wondered if we weren’t being haunted by Granny Julia’s ghost!”
When they left the Fairchilds, Freddie suggested that they call on Bartholomew Taggart. The Taggarts weren’t an old county family like the Babingtons, but had gained prominence a generation ago following the success of the Taggart boiled sweets factory in Colchester. Mr. Taggart was also the local MP. Freddie had met him once or twice at his aunt’s house on social occasions and, whenever he got off the train at Abbotshill Halt, couldn’t help seeing the conspicuously large and jarringly modern house where Mr. Taggart lived when Parliamentary duties didn’t keep him in London.
While Freddie wasn’t among Mr. Taggart’s constituents, many of his relatives were. When he gave his name to the parlormaid, he and his companions were shown into the drawing room. Mr. Taggart, a chubby man of about fifty dressed like a country squire, was in conference with a robust lady of middle age whom Freddie had also seen at his aunt’s and assumed to be his wife—but Mr. Taggart introduced her as his sister, Mrs. Broadbelt.
Once Freddie had explained what brought him, Mr. Taggart nodded solemnly. “Yes, Jerry told me something of this odd business last night,” he said. “Nettie and I were just discussing it. It sounds most peculiar.”
“I’ve heard of your investigations from your aunt, Mr. Babington,” said Mrs. Broadbelt, “although I had no idea that you’d taken it up as a profession.”
“I’ve only done it to help members of my family before this,” Freddie acknowledged. “I suppose this will be my first professional case.”
“It may not be, young man. I believe we are connected by marriage. Our youngest sister Ruby is married to Wilbur Chodeley, a cousin of yours?”
“Yes, Wilbur’s a distant cousin. I don’t know him well, I’m afraid.” But Freddie was aware that Wilbur’s house was barely half a mile from the Fairchild cottage. Was Ruby Chodeley the aunt they had been going to visit?
This slight marital connection was sufficient incentive for Mrs. Broadbelt to invite Freddie to sit down and tell them how they could assist him.
“I’d like to find out more about that cottage,” Freddie began as he took a seat. Billy and Rob remained shyly at the door, Rob with his helmet in his hands and Billy eyeing the cut-glass bowl on the sideboard filled with Taggart Toffee Treats and the red-and-white bull’s-eye candies known as Taggart Targets. “The Fairchilds tell me that it’s your property, Mr. Taggart. It used to belong to your mother?”
“Yes, that’s right,” said Mr. Taggart. “The cottage was Mother’s. She and our father lived there when they first married and when we were small children, before he came into prosperity. Father built this house for her when he had the money, but Mother preferred her old home. After he died, she returned there to live until she passed away last summer.”
“Did she live there alone?” Freddie asked.
“Her maid Dilly looked after her,” said Mrs. Broadbelt. “Doris Lavender—Mother always called her Dilly. She took care of Mother when she was a girl and looked after us when we were young. She never left Mother’s side until the day she died.”
“After Mother’s death, the cottage sat empty for months until young Florrie married,” her brother added. “I offered it to her and her husband as a honeymoon home.”
“Did anything odd like this happen when your mother lived there?”
“No…” Mr. Taggart glanced significantly at his sister.
“It’s the jewelry,” she concluded. “I’ve always said it was still in that cottage!”
“Jewelry?” said Rob, suddenly alert. “What jewelry is this, Ma’am?”
“Mother’s.” Mrs. Broadbelt explained in more detail, primarily to Freddie: “She had some lovely pieces—pearls, rings, a set of antique gold combs, and a famous emerald necklace worth more than all the rest together. You can see it, there.” She pointed to a portrait on the wall above the fireplace, depicting an elderly lady wearing a dress in the style of 1900 and a magnificent collar of green stones. Rob examined it more closely. “It’d been in Mother’s family for generations before their fortunes took a bad turn. All her own mother had left were these jewels and she held on to them to the end. Mother was just as loath to part with them.”
“I believe she sold a few small pieces to help Father begin his business,” Mr. Taggart interjected.
“Yes, but nothing she truly valued. That necklace was her prized possession. It had always gone from mother to daughter and Mother was determined to carry on the tradition. As her eldest daughter, I should’ve received it at her death.”
The door opened and another lady, more stylishly dressed that Mrs. Broadbelt, with a smart-looking girl of eighteen came into the room. “Bartholomew, dear–?” the lady began. “Oh, I beg your pardon. I didn’t realize we had visitors.” She examined Billy, then Rob, with a look of perplexity. “Why is the constable here?”
“Have you come about the burglary at Florrie’s?” the girl asked excitedly.
“It wasn’t a burglary, Meddy,” said Mr. Taggart. “Nothing was taken.”
“Only because the burglars were interrupted,” his wife replied. “Such things shouldn’t be allowed. It makes one feel quite unsafe. Something ought to be done about it.”
“We’re doing our best to put a stop to it, Ma’am,” Rob assured her deferentially. “That’s why I’ve brought Mr. Babington here.”
“Mr. Babington?” Mrs. Taggart’s eyes fell upon the young man seated beside Mrs. Broadbelt.
“He’s going to look into this matter for us, my dear,” her husband explained. “Mr. Babington, this is my wife and our daughter, Medora.” After the proper courtesies had been exchanged, Mr. Taggart went on, “Nettie and I were telling him about Mother’s missing jewelry. It may have something to do with this odd business at the cottage.”
“You said that your mother meant to leave her emerald necklace to her eldest daughter,” Freddie reminded them.
“Yes, that’s right,” said Mr. Taggart. “Mother made a list specifying which pieces were to be given to whom. The necklace, of course, was to go to Nettie, the pearls to Ruby, the combs to Opal, and other pieces were meant for Medora and my sisters’ daughters.”
“From eldest daughter to eldest daughter, it always was,” Mrs. Broadbelt repeated, “but since I have no children, Mother thought it more fair to divide her jewelry between all her daughters and granddaughters.”
“Mother Taggart was kind enough even to remember my niece Florence,” said Mrs. Taggart.
“Even though the girl was no relation to her,” added Mrs. Broadbelt, “except by marriage.”
Mrs. Taggart glared at her sister-in-law, and Freddie was afraid that the two ladies were going to quarrel.
“But the jewels was never given to anybody,” said Rob. “What happened to them?”
“Well, you know the way of old ladies,” said Mr. Taggart. “In her last days, Mother grew rather scatterbrained and began to worry about her jewelry box being stolen. We think that she must’ve hidden it someplace safe, but she never told us where. Perhaps she forgot. We went through her things after her funeral, searched the cottage, but never found it. That was well over a year ago.”
Also by Kathryn L. Ramage