STORM IN A TEA SHOPPE

(a Daisy Dalrymple mystery story)

Carola Dunn

"We could have had a cup of tea in the museum refreshment room," Lucy grumbled as they waited for a gap in the traffic.

"They only serve Indian," said Daisy, "stewed to death, by the cup from an urn, with milk already added. You always insist on China at tea-time. Besides, the Bluebell has utterly divine toasted tea-cakes, all spice and currants. Since I'll never achieve a ‘no bosom, no bottom’ figure like yours however hard I try, I'm going to have one."

She hitched the strap of Lucy's camera higher on her shoulder. Lucy carried the tripod, as the camera's strap would have spoiled the line of her tailored costume. It was jolly decent of her to have volunteered to photograph the dinosaur bones and models in the Natural History Museum for Daisy's magazine article. Daisy owed her a good cup of tea even if she refused a tea-cake.

An impatient taxicab honked abuse at an old-fashioned hansom; a whistling errand boy on a bicycle dodged between a horse-van advertising McVities & Price Digestive Biscuits and an open royal blue Wolseley-Siddeley with a uniformed chauffeur. Behind the chauffeur sat an imposing matron in a vast Edwardian hat swathed in a motoring veil.

"Oh too, too tiresome," Lucy exclaimed as the matron raised a commanding hand, "it's Aunt Eva. She will wear those simply ghastly hats. Here, take this blasted tripod or I'll never hear the last of being seen in the street bearing the tools of my much despised trade."

But the chauffeur spotted a space between a motor-bus and a brewer's dray, and Lady Eva was whirled away down the Cromwell Road. Moments later, Daisy and Lucy crossed and turned down a narrow side street.

A placard in the window of the Bluebell Tea Rooms announced Morning Coffee, Light Luncheons, Afternoon Teas.

"They do a good lunch," Daisy said, pushing open the door. "Frightfully good soups, home-made, not tinned. Look, it's rather nice, isn't it?"

Windsor chairs surrounded the round tables, which had cloths to match the curtains: pale green chintz flowered with bluebells, buttercups, and scarlet pimpernel. The china was white painted with bluebells. Vases on the windowsills and mantelpiece bore arrangements of ox-eye daisies, foxgloves, honeysuckle, and ferns. Wildflower prints hung on the walls, and a shelf of wildflower books supplemented the rack of magazines provided for solitary customers.

The clientele was respectable enough not to offend the fastidious Lucy. If not waiting for their chauffeurs, at least the chattering ladies at the flowery tables would go home by taxi. The shopping bags on the floor beside them came from nearby Harrod's and the superior shops of Knightsbridge.

 It was late for tea and the place was not crowded. The middle-aged waitress, dressed in a blue frock and white apron and cap, showed Daisy and Lucy to a table next to a window. To Daisy she looked far from well, but grimly determined. In her situation she couldn't take a day off just because she was under the weather.

"Pot of tea for two, madam?" she asked.

"Yes, please. China, with lemon. And I'll have a tea-cake, with lashings of butter. Lucy, are you sure you won't join me?"

"No, thanks," said Lucy with admirable firmness, leaning the tripod against the wall by her chair.

"How about a piece of cake, madam?" the waitress suggested. "There's a nice Victoria sandwich."

"Just tea, thank you."

As the woman turned, the light caught her face, revealing a dark shadow on her cheekbone beneath heavy cosmetics. Daisy watched as she went back to the kitchen with the order. She walked heavily, as if her back hurt, even limping slightly.

"I do believe the rotten brute has been bashing her about again," Daisy said in a low, angry voice. "And badly this time."

"What are you talking about, darling?" Lucy had taken out her powder-puff and pocket-mirror and was busy repairing imaginary damage to her face.

"The waitress. There's a bruise on her cheek and she walks as if she'd had a bad fall."

"I didn't notice anything wrong."

"No one does notice a waitress."

"Except you." Lucy sighed. "I suppose she's another one who's poured out her heart and her life story into your ever-ready ears."

"Well, yes," said Daisy, remembering.

It had happened several weeks ago. After a day at the V. and A. gathering material for her London museum series, Daisy had stopped at the Bluebell for a cup of tea and, guiltily, a toasted tea-cake. Poring over her notes, she didn't notice the time until she looked up to find herself the only customer left. The sign in the window had been turned to read OPEN on the inside, CLOSED on the outside. The waitress was nowhere to be seen.

Hastily collecting her papers, Daisy went to the heavy swing door at the back of the room and pushed it ajar. "I'm so sorry to have kept you from clearing up," she called. "May I have my bill?"

"One minute, madam," answered a strangled voice, followed by what sounded to Daisy very like a badly suppressed sob.

She surrendered, without much of a battle, to her besetting demon, Curiosity (plain nosiness, Lucy called it). It led her to open the door wide and step through into the brightly lit kitchen.

A savoury odour rose from a steaming cast-iron soup kettle on the white enamel gas stove. On a high stool at a well-scrubbed table the waitress perched, pencil in hand, writing up Daisy's bill on her pad. The other hand pressed a sopping wet cloth to her left eye. A heavy white cloth, a napkin or a tea-towel, not a hanky—if her tears had soaked that to dripping point, she must have wept absolute floods.

Hearing Daisy's footsteps, she glanced up. Her uncovered eye wild, she slipped down from the stool, turning her back. "I'll be with you in just a moment, madam."

"What's wrong?" Daisy asked, advancing. "Can I help?"

The thin shoulders shook. "Oh no, madam. I'll be all right directly. I just got something in my eye."

"Do let me look. I'm rather good at getting things out of people's eyes."

"No, it's no use... Actually, it's not something in my eye. I knocked it against... against..." Her good eye rolled around the kitchen, seeking some plausible obstacle.

Daisy pulled her unresisting hand down to reveal puffy red flesh, already discolouring in a pattern suggestive of knuckles. "You're going to have a shocking black eye. What really happened?"

"Oh no, the cold compress will stop it. I'll hide it with face-powder." The woman slumped back onto the stool. "It was my own fault. I forgot to buy yeast for tomorrow morning's baking, and he starts on it long before the shops open."

"So he hit you."

"Not hard. He hardly ever hits me really hard."

"He has no right to hit you at all!" said Daisy, fuming. "You should call the police."

"They won't do nothing, madam." Her look pitied Daisy's ignorance. "They're all men, aren't they? You can bet half of them knock their wives around."

"Then you should leave your husband."

"My brother. My husband was killed in the War. I can't leave, I've nowhere to go. Besides, the shop is half mine, I can't simply walk out. What could I do? I'm just a waitress, and I haven't even got any references. He's the one who trained as a chef," she added bitterly.

"A chef? I must say your food is frightfully good."

"Thinks himself wasted on a mere tea shop, he does. I do all the shopping and serving and washing up, and I'm up till all hours cleaning and polishing till I'm half dead on my feet. Then it's up at daybreak, beating batters, kneading doughs, rolling pastries, chopping up stuff for his famous soups. He won't wear his glasses in the kitchen because they steam up, and he claims he's too short-sighted to chop. Wouldn't want a bit of finger in the soup, would we?"

"What's left for him to do then?" Daisy enquired with sympathetic interest.

"He does the menus and makes out the shopping lists—he was the one who forgot the yeast, not me! He weighs out ingredients, mixes anything that doesn't take too much effort, tastes, adds a pinch of this and that here and there...Tastes! That's what he mostly does. Spends half the afternoon sitting there by the stove tasting tomorrow's soup, adding bits and pieces, tasting again. He's getting so fat he can hardly make it up the stairs. We live upstairs. I can't get away from him."

She swung round on the stool, folded her arms on the table, laid her head on them, and wept.

Helplessly, Daisy patted her on the shoulder. Tea, she thought, the sovereign remedy. A large tea-kettle steamed on the stove next to the soup, so she made a pot of tea and poured a cup. Pulling herself together, the waitress, as she sipped, explained how she and her brother had inherited the cafe from their parents, "done it up nice," and made a thriving business of it.

"But it's ever such hard work," she finished dolefully. "I'm not getting any younger. One of these days the work's going to kill me, if he doesn't first."

"There must be something you..." Daisy started, but the woman held up her hand, her head cocked. Beyond the door in the far corner, stairs creaked under heavy footsteps.

"It's him! Oh, please, madam, you must go now, quickly. Never mind the bill. Please go!"

So Daisy went. A few days later, she dropped in for lunch and to pay the unpaid bill. The waitress made no attempt to bare her soul further, but her extra attentions to Daisy seemed to show her gratitude.

"She just needed a sympathetic listener," Daisy told Lucy. "I only wish I had been able to give her useful advice."

"People rarely take kindly to advice, darling," said Lucy.

"Well, I want some. Explain again why the photos I took last week came out so badly."

"In a minute. I must just pop to the lav."

While Lucy popped, Daisy took down one of the wildflower books. When she flipped through it at random, it fell open at the Foxglove page, Digitalis purpurea. There was a beautifully accurate colour picture of a spire of purple bells, with a close-up of a single blossom, its lip spotted with black dots surrounded by white.

Daisy riffled through the pages, glancing at the illustrations. Having grown up in the country, she knew most of the commoner flowers. Oddly, the book kept insisting on opening itself at Foxglove, so she started to read about it. She was getting lost among bracts and axils, stigmas and corollas, when Lucy came back. Closing the book, Daisy set it aside and Lucy put her vanity-bag on it to make room for the tea, which arrived at the same moment.

As they talked about Daisy's photographic failures, the other customers gradually departed. When the waitress came to ask if they wanted more hot water, they realized they were alone.

"Heavens, it's late," Lucy exclaimed.

"Just the bill, thank you," said Daisy, smiling at the waitress.

With a strained smile in response, she fished in the pocket of her apron for the bill. Daisy paid. She and Lucy collected their impedimenta while the waitress bore off the tray of china.

Then came a scream and a crash.

Dropping her handbag and Lucy's precious camera on the table, Daisy sped between the tables to the kitchen. Without hesitation she thrust open the door. The waitress stood just inside, immobile as Lot's wife.

"What's the matter?" Daisy demanded of her rigid back.

The woman swung round, her hands clapped to her mouth, her eyes horrified. "Nothing, honestly," she gabbled. "I didn't mean to scream. It was the shock. Of dropping the tray, I mean."

At her feet lay the tray and a litter of broken china. But Daisy was certain she had heard the scream an instant before the crash. She moved forward. The waitress reflexively stepped aside to let her pass.

On the floor between the table and the stove a stout man in a cook's apron lay inert, a wooden spoon in his flaccid hand. His mouth was open in a frozen gasp and his eyes stared blankly at the ceiling. Dropping to her knees beside him, Daisy felt for a pulse in the pudgy wrist.

"He's dead."

"I didn't want to disturb you and your friend. It must be heart failure. He was complaining of chest pains." She avoided Daisy's gaze. "He thought it was heartburn, indigestion, but he would go on tasting the soup anyway. Mulligatawny, his favourite, though it's not that popular with our customers."

Daisy became aware of a smell of curry powder. She stood up and looked at the stove. A yellowish liquid seethed in the soup-kettle, small, unidentifiable bits of vegetables bobbing on the surface. Chopping the vegetables for such a quantity of soup must be quite a job.

A job done by the downtrodden sister, not the short-sighted brother. Why did the foxgloves in the vases in the tea-room, the book which insistently opened at the foxglove page, come to mind?

Digitalis, Daisy thought. Her father had taken it for his heart, and he had joked that he could save money by grazing on the foxgloves in the Fairacres woods. He had been warned that an overdose could cause rather than prevent a heart attack.

How much was an overdose? How much soup had the cook swallowed?

Reaching across his body, she took the wooden spoon from his hand and slowly stood up. His sister stared at her, terror in her bruised face. She hadn't meant to scream—but sometimes a half-expected event came as more of a shock than did a complete surprise.

Daisy crossed to the sink and tossed the spoon in.

"You won't want to open the cafe tomorrow," she said, her voice unnaturally calm. "I should think you might as well pour that soup down the drain. You have no telephone, have you? I'll ring from the nearest box for a doctor."

She picked her way through the broken china and out into the tea-room.

Lucy, looking bored, was flipping through a small book. She glanced up, dropping it on the table. "What happened?"

"The waitress's brother, the cook, has died of a heart attack. I said I'd telephone for a doctor."

"No great loss if your story's true," Lucy said dryly.

"Except that his soups really were delicious."

As Lucy turned to pick up her tripod, Daisy reached for the camera and noticed that the book had once again fallen open at the Foxglove page. All parts poisonous, the last line read. She scooped up the book and tucked it into her handbag.

"Somehow," she said with a sigh, "I don't think I shall be eating here again." 



First published in Crime Through Time, ed., Monfredo & Newman, Berkley 1997

 

Learn more about Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple mysteries published by St. Martin's Press in hardcover, Kensington in paperback at Carola Dunn’s website

Death at Wentwater Court

The Winter Garden Mystery

Requiem for a Mezzo

Murder on the Flying Scotsman

Damsel in Distress

Dead in the Water

Styx and Stones

Rattle His Bones

To Davy Jones Below

The Case of the Murdered Muckraker

Mistletoe and Murder

And find ebooks of many of Ms. Dunn’s Regencies on the Belgrave House website