A Lost Lady: A Roger Knight Mystery

Lowndes had found the note in a volume he had picked up in a used bookstore and brought it to the attention of the Knight brothers. Philip settled for Lowndes account of the note’s message but Roger was still studying it with undisguised interest.

“It is what a dealer might list under curiosa, Roger.”

“I wonder how long it was there,” Roger murmured.

“Here’s the book.”

The book was a first edition of Lather’s A Lost Lady and was in mint condition, another catalogue term, the metaphor apt enough since coins had been struck long before books were printed.

“Read the note aloud, Roger,” Philip suggested.

“‘When you read this I will be dead. This will make you feel superior, but you too are mortal. For God’s sake, repent of what you have done so my bodily death is not the cause of the death of your soul.”‘

Lowndes and Philip traded theories on what the note might mean but were soon in agreement that the writer was addressing someone responsible for her death.

“Her death?” Roger asked.

“Look at the inside cover.”

But Roger had already seen the ostensible owner’s name. Margaret Trimble, Rye, 1923. That was the date of the book’s publication; this was a first edition; presumably Margaret was the book’s original owner.

“But of course you found it in a used book store.”

“Raffles.”

“How many owners might it have had?”

“It’s in pretty good condition.

“Did you check to see who Margaret Trimble was?”

“And spoil your fun?”

There were no Trimbles in the Rye phone book, an unprepossessing volume. But of course it had been the out-of-the-wayness of Rye and the reduced and stately pace of life there that had attracted the Knight brothers when Philip had decided he had had enough of the modern city. His livelihood depended on the misbehavior of men but he preferred to see Original Sin as productive of problems to be solved rather than a daily menace. Neither were there Trimbles in the vicinity. Roger settled down to his computer to see how far back in the layers of time one must go to find Trimbles in Rye. In a turn-of-the-century town directory an Arnold Trimble was listed as living at 302 Maple.

“Where’s Maple?” Philip asked.

“It seems no longer to exist.”

“Do streets die?”

“Are buildings razed? Do cities fall and then disappear under silt and debris, awaiting the arrival of an archeological team?”

“I thought only men were mortal.”

“Only partly, Philip. As Margaret Trimble suggested to her addressee.” This only made Philip uncomfortable. Roger was a genius, so his conversion to Catholicism could not be attributed to stupidity. But neither did Philip consider himself stupid for not understanding it. Of course he knew that Roger considered it only a matter of time before he too became a Catholic.

Strange as the notion of survival after death seemed, it had its attractions. On the other hand, Margaret Trimble’s note suggested that the next life need not be a happy one.

A tall man in the courthouse whose massive mustache seemed compensation for his egg-bald head welcomed Roger’s inquiry with the eagerness of a clerk whose services are seldom made use of. His name was Poussiere and he spoke incessantly as he scattered plat books and old maps on the large tables in his domain.

“There are still Oak and Elm and Walnut and Fir. Of course there was a Maple.”

“What happened to it?”

“Progress.” But Poussiere spoke the word with contempt. “The first courthouse was on Maple.”

The building they were in was more than a century old, but it turned out to be the new courthouse, at least as time was computed by Poussiere.

“There were some protests at the time. I have files. But the sense of the preciousness of the past was still the majority view.” He had fetched a folder and was now dealing newspaper clippings onto the table. Roger, impressed by Poussiere’s devotion to his job, looked at them. He was glad Phil had not come in. He would not have had the patience for this.

The original courthouse and eventually three blocks of what would now be called inner-city housing were sacrificed to the Maxwell Department store and the new boulevard that accommodated trolley tracks in its center and made Maple Street and the residences that had lined it things of the past.

“Maxwell?” Roger asked.

Poussiere folded his arms and looked at the ceiling. “It’s being used now as a center for the homeless but scheduled to be knocked down in its turn.” Poussiere sighed. “Once cities fell to natural disaster or military defeat. Now they are undone by their own citizens. Imagine a European city subject to such depredations.”

Roger might have reminded him of what Hausmann had done for Paris or Mussolini to Rome, but he took the archivist’s point.

“Maxwell’s fled the city for the mall, first chance they had.”

Roger frowned. “Is there a Maxwell’s store at the mall?”

“More irony. They were bought out by a Canadian chain that went bankrupt. What you will know as Taylor’s is the Maxwell store that was.”

“You certainly know a lot about it.”

Poussiere smiled away the compliment. “My mother was a Maxwell.”

“Was?”

“She died a year ago.”

“May she rest in peace.” Poussiere obviously appreciated the sentiment. He actually shook Roger’s hand. “There are not many of us left.”

“How many?”

“Only one who still bears the name. My Uncle Drew.”

“Drew Maxwell?”

“He is a resident at Oak Rest.”

“To think that I came here to check up on Trimbles.”

“Trimble! My grandfather married a Trimble.”

“Margaret?”

“No. Maureen. Margaret was her sister.”

“Tell me about the Trimble family.”

“If you visited Uncle Drew you could ask him.” This was clearly a ruse to get visitors for his uncle at the rest home. Roger suspected that Poussiere knew all about the Trimbles. But he took up the suggestion willingly. How often does one have an opportunity to satisfy his curiosity and perform a corporal work of mercy at the same time?

It is with old people as it is with Likes, they all look alike at first, but the seeming sameness of the aged conceals very different lifetimes of experience. The differences are further disguised by the egalitarian regime of a nursing home. There was little to distinguish Drew Maxwell’s suite from those of others who were in the penultimate stage of Oak Rest’s services. Patients were allowed as much autonomy as they could handle until daily medical care became a necessity. One difference about Maxwell’s apartment was that no roar of television came from it. The old man sat in casual clothes, at a desk. His expression was impassive as he watched Roger waddle across the room to him. “How much do you weigh?” Maxwell asked as he took Roger’s hand.

“Too much.”

“You’ll never live to my age, carrying that kind of weight around.”

“I do as little carrying as possible.”

The face seemed to crack into a smile. “I am told you have been asking about me.”

“It began because of my curiosity about the Trimbles.”

“My wife was a Trimble.”

“That’s why I’m here.”

“She was a wonderful woman.”

“I’m sure she was,” Roger said, lowering himself onto a sofa with a great sigh.

“Even so, it was seldom that it was my relation to her rather than vice versa that interested people.” He said it simply as a matter of fact.

“And her sister was Margaret?”

Maxwell pressed backward in his chair. “How do you know all these things.”

“Most of them I found out when I spoke to your nephew at the court house.”

“Grandnephew. Why did you question him?”

Looking at the solidity of the old man, his heavy upper body, the bald head set like a boulder on his broad shoulders, Roger had the sense that the whimsicality of his pursuing a note found in a secondhand book would be met with incomprehension by Maxwell. “Have you ever read a book called A Lost Lady? It was written by Willa Cather.”

“What kind of book is it?”

“A novel.”

“I never read novels. Never did.”

“A copy of the novel was recently bought in a local secondhand bookstore. The copy belonged to Margaret Trimble.”

“Margaret was a reader. She was a dreamer.”

“Was she younger or older than you?”

The bullet head went back and forth. “We were the same age.”

“You and Margaret Trimble?”

“Perhaps I was a year older.”

“And you married her sister Maureen?”

“I did.”

“A note was found in the book.” Maxwell waited for Roger to say more. Roger took the note from his pocket and unfolded it. Maxwell followed this action warily.

“Is that it?”

“Yes.”

“What does it say?” Roger heaved himself to his feet and gave the note to Maxwell, standing before him while he studied it. His lips moved as his eyes scanned the note. Then he read it again. He turned the sheet over and looked at the opposite side, then read the legend again, half aloud.

“This doesn’t look old enough to be genuine.”

“The book too is in very good condition.” Roger said. “This is her handwriting.”

“You’re sure?”

“Quite sure. We were close, Margaret and I. For several years, when we were young, we were engaged.”

“But you married her sister.”

“Time had elapsed, of course.

“You should sit down again,” Maxwell said, but he did not offer to return the note.

“She never sent this,” he said, when Roger was settled again on the sofa.

“To whom would she have sent it?”

The old man’s eyes seemed to look at him from a century back. “To me.” Two words, two syllables, but they were wrung from the depths of the man’s soul.

Roger let the silence develop after this surprising remark. The note was addressed to someone the writer regarded as her assassin. The clock on Maxwell’s desk became audible, seeming to mock rather than record the passage of time. When Maxwell spoke again his tone was sepulchral. “I do not read novels, but there is a line of poetry I remember. ‘Each man kills the thing he loves.’”

“Oscar Wilde. ‘The coward does it with a kiss, the brave man with a sword.”‘

“I was a coward, but I learned to be brave.”

“If the note were meant for you, she says you are responsible for her death.”

His body heaved with a dry laugh. “Margaret was given to such excessive remarks. She reacted badly when I proposed to Maureen. Margaret and I had not seen one another for more than a year. Margaret had changed, but Maureen—she was Margaret as she had been, as I had loved her.”

“She took your marriage badly?”

“Didn’t young Poussiere tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

“She disappeared a few days before the wedding date. Gone without a trace. Of course the wedding had to be postponed. I assumed that was what she had intended. But after some months, Maureen and I married.”

“You never saw Margaret again?”

“It was more difficult for Maureen than it was for me.”

Roger told Philip and Lowndes what he had learned. Maxwell had given up the note reluctantly when Roger explained that it did not belong to him.

“You should have let him keep it,” Lowndes said. “I’ll give it to him, if you like.”

But a call to Oak Rest the following day informed him that Drew Maxwell was indisposed. Bedridden. This continued to be the case for several days. On the third day, when he and Philip were out in the van, Roger suggested that they stop where the former Maxwell Department store was being razed. That is why they were there when the body was found.

It was the remains of a woman whose neck had been broken. The bones were found when the wrecking ball swung into a wall, which burst and revealed its grisly occupant, sealed behind plaster for God knew how long.

“It must have happened when the building was under construction,” Philip Knight said to Roger.

“Only her neck was broken.”

Philip shook his head at the general mystery of life. “The wrecking ball could have done that.”

Roger reminded him of his conversation with Drew Maxwell. “Philip, I wonder if this could possibly be the missing Margaret Trimble.”

“The woman who wrote the note Lowndes found in that book?”

A Lost Lady.”

“Would the sister have been distraught enough to do herself in?”

“Or the bridegroom distraught enough to kill her?”

In the event, the identification of the remains could only be approximate. Dental records, fingerprints, the usual means were not available. Poussiere gave blood and a DNA expert gave it as his opinion that Poussiere was descended from the woman whose remains had been found sealed in a wall of the Maxwell building. When Roger returned to Oak Rest he learned that Drew Maxwell had been moved to intensive care. A stroke had immobilized him. He was conscious but could not speak. His large eyes clung to Roger when they were left alone.

“Margaret’s body has been found.” Maxwell’s eyes closed, then opened. Roger took his hand.

“They think she killed herself.”

No reaction.

“Or was killed.” Roger leaned forward. “‘The brave man with a sword . . .'”

Maxwell’s hand exerted pressure on Roger’s.

“Would you like to see a priest?”

A long minute went by and then Maxwell squeezed Roger’s hand.

Roger told Father Rowan that the old man could respond to questions with pressure of his hand.

“He wants to go to confession? I didn’t know he was Catholic.”

“He just remembered himself.”

Lumbering down the polished floor of the hallway toward double doors leading to the land of the hale and hardy, Roger considered that the wish expressed in Margaret’s note was being realized at last. Soon, please God, Drew and Margaret, and Maureen too, would all be together where men and women are not given in marriage.

MENU