Talented potter Suspiria Freeland and her painter husband, Theo, survived the Blitz and are living among fellow artists in a bombed-out London suburb. But since the war’s terror ended, Theo’s drunken self-loathing has become even harder for his long-suffering wife to bear.
When Dennis Forbes enters their lives, Suspiria is immediately drawn to the handsome young mechanic. Though he obviously shares her passionate attraction, he is fourteen years her junior and she, of course, is married . . . until Theo’s lifeless body is discovered.
Theo’s death from poison leaves his widow free to love and marry her much younger paramour. But their newfound happiness is soon threatened on all sides—by a community’s gossip and mistrust, by a legal system determined to enact justice at any price, and by the lovers themselves, as suspicion continues to mount that one of them is a murderer.
This stand-alone novel of forbidden love, suspicion, and suspense is further evidence why the Financial Times called Edgar, Agatha, and Gold Dagger Award–winning author Ellis Peters “a cult figure of crime fiction.”
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About the Author
Ellis Peters is a pseudonym of Edith Mary Pargeter (1913–1995), a British author whose Chronicles of Brother Cadfael are credited with popularizing the historical mystery. Cadfael, a Welsh Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbey in the first half of the twelfth century, has been described as combining the curious mind of a scientist with the bravery of a knight-errant. The character has been adapted for television, and the books drew international attention to Shrewsbury and its history.
Pargeter won an Edgar Award in 1963 for Death and the Joyful Woman, and in 1993 she won the Cartier Diamond Dagger, an annual award given by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain. She was appointed officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1994, and in 1999 the British Crime Writers’ Association established the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award, later called the Ellis Peters Historical Award.
Read an Excerpt
Most Loving Mere Folly
By Ellis Peters, Karl Kotas
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1953 Edith Pargeter
All rights reserved.
Collision Between Two Worlds
Great Leddington is still twenty-five miles from the factory fringe of London, and produces no electric clocks, biscuits, nor bentwood furniture to this day. Thirty years ago it was a small market town, surrounded by comfortably prosperous farms and rich nursery-gardens, and linked with the capital by a good and rapidly developing road. At the end of the twenties the first restless wave of Bohemia, reaching out after something more remote and archaic as a setting for always potential but never-realised pearls, washed over it and gave it, for a few years, a hectic self-conscious vogue. All its derelict mills became studios, all its more crumbling cottages were taken over by earnest sandalled women and their frail parasitic young men, and aestheticism broke out like a rash between the hay-fields and the shire stud and the good stone cross. Some people still regard this as the heyday of the town, and its subsequent history rather as a decline and fall.
Suburbia, in its more ambitious form, followed Bohemia hop-skip-and-jump along the high road in a ribbon of villas, keyhole estates, petrol stations and road- houses in by-pass Tudor. The infection reached Great Leddington, found a fashionably preoccupied territory there still not overcrowded, and spread into a growth of new housing estates hanging on the edge of the town. The district now led a treble life, with some disinterested fraternisation, but little understanding.
The outbreak of war in 1939 suddenly erased much that was false from the picture, for Great Leddington was no longer remote enough for those abortive aesthetes who had the money to move elsewhere. They uprooted themselves and took wing for Ireland, or the Outer Hebrides, or the lesser-known villages of Cornwall, leaving behind them an astonishing, if small, residue of genuine artists, who had somehow become entangled in the original invasion in their search for space and cheapness, or who now found well-appointed studios going for a song because they were too near to the bombing.
Once Bohemia had abandoned it, Great Leddington was a practical paradise for artists, far less expensive than London, far more peaceful in ways which had nothing to do with the incidence of bombing, yet conveniently close to town, and from long experience adept at that cold metropolitan tolerance which refrains from mocking eccentricity less out of sympathy than indifference. It was possible to work there without exciting curiosity or inviting interference. To the beauty and serenity of a country town it added the urbane attitude of a city. After the war costs went up there, but so they did everywhere. The ribbon development along the road scarcely affected the farming side of the town, and served to keep out new invasions without disturbing overmuch the survivors of the old. So they remained, and Great Leddington was used to them, and made no complaint. They were not the kind of people who could not be ignored; most of them were quiet, hard working, not very well off, indistinguishable in the street from the tradesmen and housewives of the town. A few, according to art critics whose writings Great Leddington vaguely heard about but never read, had a certain distinction, and so were counted amoung the assets of the place.
The fact remained, of course, that they were an alien race. Local people had friends among them, rather as they might have cultivated friendships, equally without comment, among the French or the Dutch, and even learned to speak, for friendship's sake, a few words of those outlandish languages. But the foreigners remained foreigners. Great Leddington, rapidly accomplished in the adaptation of country prejudices to new sophistication, looked upon them always with cool, incurious, civilised eyes, and stood ready to claim their accomplishments and reject their distresses, to acknowledge them as sights, and hold them at bay as human beings.
But the artists did not care. They were there precisely because they cared essentially for only one thing, and to that they devoted themselves. They had kept their eyes fixed on it all through the war, not because they were unable to see right and wrong, or danger and safety, but because these seemed to them minor matters, to be endured, evaded and transcended by any means whatsoever in the pursuit of that one sacred thing, so durable above their transcience. When other people lost sight of it in the smoke, it was all the more essential that they, who could still see it, should abandon everything else, and serve it.
Theo Freeland had painted all through the war, kicking aside casually, almost unnoticed, two or three tentative offers of commissions as an official war artist. He was not capable of being an official artist of any kind, or of going where he was sent, or doing what he was told. As for his wife, she had gone on steadily making pottery the whole time, and she was at it yet. Could there be anything more unimportant, during a world war? True, she had turned out occasionally at night and driven an ambulance, with a fierce efficiency and ruthless fury which arose, probably, from her feeling that this chaos of the world's imbecility had got between her and her wheel, and must be cleared out of her way before she could proceed. She was not popular with the W.V.S. She never said the right things; she had a derisive smile, cool, personal and reserved, when others said them. She was one of the aliens; she always would be.
On the surface, however, the two streams of Great Leddington's life appeared to flow very equably together. It needed a natural catastrophe of hurricane proportions to shake them apart into their divided beds; and in the mild latitudes of near-suburbia storms of that magnitude are few and far between.
Suspiria leaned on her forearms, and watched the bowl grow between her hands. It had opened like a lily, coiling the prints of her fingers higher and higher round its rising rim, until it hid the jagged shape of the asbestos bat on which it was rooted, and now it was of the exact spread of the wheel itself, and still growing.
Sometimes, though rarely, she fell into a kind of trance when she was throwing, through her eyes which were dazed with the whirling concentration of the wheel, through her ears which were drowsy with its heavy, purring note, and the faint, slippery hiss of the wet clay through her entranced hands, which fell into a voluptuous rhythm, loving the creaming smoothness and ardour of the clay as they caressed it, and feeling themselves as passionately caressed; and then she lost the impulse to control this tension of creation, and let it run away with her, and made monstrosities, prolonged beyond her wish, grown out of her conception.
Tonight her will was too acutely alive in her to let her wander into that closed tower of self-indulgence. There was another and more intense pleasure in directing exactly the shape of her creation, in feeling form flow down from the centre of her personality, and out through the braced intelligence of her palms and along the strong, soiled fingers to the alert and responsive clay, where it sprang into visible being.
The rim of the bowl opened, flowering. She smoothed it in the soft hollow between her thumb and forefinger, until the edge of the silvery-blue clay glistened like glass. In the background of her consciousness she heard the car, but without relating it in any way to herself or any part of her life. Stepping back from the wheel, she watched the shape of her bowl flow round as perfect in its poise as a spinning top. She groped into the slurry of water and clay which surrounded the wheel, and fished up impatiently two or three improvised tools before she found the piece of hoop-iron she wanted, bent at right-angles, with an obliquely finished edge. She set the wheel moving faster, and bending, pressed the shaving-tool inward along its surface to cut round the base of her bowl. The wheel shrieked and jarred, and a long, pleated tongue of clay flew outward from the knife and fell into the mess of water. She pressed inward firmly against the outward force of the wheel's motion until she was satisfied, and then dropped the knife into the slurry with as little regard as for the discarded thong of clay, and smoothed the new surface with her finger-tips. Instantly taller upon its narrow base, the bowl revolved, immaculate.
She heard the house-door crash open, heard Theo's voice roaring for her. A quiver of annoyance made the shape of her pleasure tremble for a moment, but was smoothed away again as quickly. She reached for a ragged little Turkish sponge, which leaned on the end of its stick out of a cracked jam-jar, and mopped out the excess moisture from the bowl. She forgot Theo, though she knew he was there, falling about in the living-room, and yelling to her to come and entertain some odd creature he'd picked up on his way home. Let him yell! He was seldom so far gone that he couldn't avoid smashing things, and he was almost never sick. It might be as well if he fell down quickly and went to sleep, of course, but the odds were that he wouldn't do much damage, even if he stayed lively. She let his shouts flow past her ears with an impervious calm, full of the lovely thing she had just made.
A bowl, one would think, is a sufficient description of a certain fixed and understandable shape; and yet the infinite range of its variations has never been half explored, and the whole of time remaining will hardly be enough to exhaust its possibilities. She had been fully six minutes in making this one, which was unconscionably slow, but the shape stood, and the glistening surface, on which the marks of her fingers spiralled faintly, had not suffered for her slowness. Her hand was in, she had the mood on her for manipulating beauty.
Intermittently she heard her name being called. Poor Theo! In a little while she would rescue him. She took the asbestos bat by its corners, and twisted it free from its anchoring clay. It slid to the pressure of her hands, and she eased it clear and stood it aside to dry. Then she moistened her four wedges of clay once again, and pressed another bat down on them, twisting it tightly into place. She had a pitcher to make for some woman Theo had brought in from London once. She couldn't remember her name. Not a bad sort of person! She knew about pots, enough to select at sight the one piece Suspiria was never going to sell. Nor would she offer to try to make a second like it!; it was a jar she might live her life out and never recapture. But she had been moved to promise something of her best, because of that unerring election of what she herself loved.
She unrolled another lump of clay from the damp cloth in which it was wrapped, wet her hands in the surface of the slip which lay lake-like round the wheel after two hours of throwing, and slapped the clay into the middle of the revolving bat. She centred it strongly, and began to draw it up into a cylinder.
The crash which resounded from the living-room was no louder than those which had preceded it; it was merely the final pecking blow at the damaged shell of her serenity, letting the world in upon her in a flood of exasperation and rage. She felt the cylinder of clay slur out of the true, and watched it revolve under her eyes with an ugly, lopsided motion. She rummaged along the near edge of the bench with one hand for a palette-knife, sliced the distorted lump of clay from its place, and kneading it together roughly, rolled it again into its cloth. It was over. Her divided mind had loosed its hold on the mood for making things. She might as well go. If she got Theo to bed, and his crony out of the house, she might be able to go back to her work with a whole heart. There was all night yet.
But she was bitterly angry. She swept off the lights with a furious lunge of her elbow, because her hands were thickly coated with wet clay, and it was second nature to her to manipulate every piece of domestic apparatus in the house, on occasion, without benefit of hands. In the sink in the work-shop she had only cold water, and on cold days preferred to clean herself in the scullery. She hooked the door to behind her with her toes, and it shut with a slam which rattled the sieves along the wall.
In the stone farmhouse corridor, broad and reverberant as a cave, her steps echoed loudly. She heard Theo's voice in triumph: 'Here's my wife!' and someone falling over himself – probably drunk, too. A hand fumbled at the door; he wanted to make his escape, perhaps. She swung her arm, and swept back the curtain.
Theo was sprawling in a chair, trying to haul himself up by the bookshelves, from the lowest of which he had spilled a pile of books as she came in, but she stepped out of his reach, holding her glistening silver-grey hands cupped before her, and looking with imperious surprise at the young man who stood nervously gazing back at her from the doorway.
Not the usual kind of lame duck Theo picked up – not at all! True, his tastes were not at all narrow, he was as likely to attach to himself an inoffensive suburban type as one of his own rackety equals. The only person one need not expect him to bring home like a beloved brother was the person he was never likely to meet. And how did he come to meet this one? So young, and gawky, and allergic to eccentricities, with that shut face of outraged respectability on him, and those large, inimical and apprehensive eyes. There was no need whatever, she thought critically, for so determined a reserve, he could have very little of anything to hide. As limited as a small bottle, and as obvious as a fair-ground ornament. Not, however, as ugly! Not quite pretty enough as a child to stop maiden ladies in the street, perhaps, not quite handsome enough as a young man to set up notable and flattering jealousies among the girls in his circle, but always liable, with those fresh and unwary good looks, to the occasional shock of being too clearly approved. He stood rather self-consciously against the door, looking at her defensively and wondering what to say; and it was clear to her, even in the way he held himself, that he did not like feeling in the slightest degree ridiculous. What was Theo doing with an innocent little shop-walker like that? No, she corrected herself at once, not a shop-walker. His hands, however conscientiously washed, were slightly seamed with oil in their deeper lines. Then she remembered where she had seen him before. Of course, George Grover's young man from the garage! There was no longer any mystery about him, except how he came to let himself be inveigled into this. Most young men working for private employers have had to find ways to defend their precarious leisure. Was this one too soft-hearted? Or too poor-spirited? Or both?
Theo waved a hand benignly towards his unlikely companion. 'Spiri, this is a friend of mine – name of Dennis Forbes. Be nice to him! Very fine fellow, my friend Forbes, drove me home from George's. Got a queer idea I'm drunk, both of 'em! But kind, excessively kind!' He looked upon her with pride, while she stood immobile in the curtained doorway, holding her clay-covered hands away from her overall, and regarding the stranger with the shadow, but not the substance, of a severe and faintly derisive smile. 'I've been calling you a long time,' said Theo, willing to sound injured, but incapable of holding for a whole sentence a mood so directly opposed to his present feelings. 'Didn't you hear me?'
'I heard you,' she assured him, her eyes flickering downward over him in one quick glance. 'I was working.' She looked over him at the boy Dennis, who had made no sound yet, beyond an embarrassed murmur in acknowledgement of the introduction. 'I'm afraid you're hardly used to hearing men in my husband's state quite so voluble, Mr Forbes. If you wouldn't mind amusing yourself by listening to him for a few minutes, I'll wash off this clay. There's whisky in that cabinet there, and glasses. Will you help youself? And better give him one, too. There'll be trouble if you don't, and it won't have any appreciable effect. This is about as far as he goes.'
Excerpted from Most Loving Mere Folly by Ellis Peters, Karl Kotas. Copyright © 1953 Edith Pargeter. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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