It didn't feel right, approaching the house by road, but then I hadn't supposed a man like Lamarr was up to the route on foot. We might easily have done it in an hour, taken the path across the hills, felt the wind on our faces, heard the sound of running water, but I'd taken one look at him in his pinstripe suit, and his leather soled shoes, and I hadn't even thought to suggest it.
He looked more or less like I'd imagined from our brief telephone conversation the week before, his voice slightly clipped and formal, a solicitor's voice, a pinstriped, three piece suit sort of voice:
"A delicate matter concerning your acquaintance with Mrs.
Pause. Clearing of throat; then measured tones, softly sympathetic, bad news to convey. I was to see him at my earliest convenience,... and I should bring some means of identification: a passport, a driving license.
Amanda Fleetwood was dead. She'd passed away in what had sounded to me like mysterious circumstances some six months ago now, though he assured me the police had ruled out any possibility of foul play.
"The causes were natural. Entirely natural, Mr. Rowan." And then: "It's very sad of course. She was no age. No age at all."
He drove the way he spoke, with stiff, formal movements of his body and he had an air of calm assurance, peering slightly over his nose like a headmaster on the lookout for signs of indicipline among other road users, of whom there were few that morning. It was no quicker by car. The only road that came anywhere near the valley of Drummaurdale took us around the far side of Ullswater, a distance of some twenty miles, much of it narrow, threading between hills and meadows and forest lush with midsummer greens. It was impressive country, but we heard and felt nothing of its wildness, smelled nothing but the perfumed polish of his car's immaculate interior.
As we closed on our destination, every moment felt like the violation of an ancient precept, for in my imagination that house did not have a road linking it to the outside world at all. It existed independently, a place apart, a place that could only be entered on foot and with one's senses first purified by the breath of mountains - not that it mattered now, I supposed, for with Amanda gone, and Beatrice too, how could this place hold meaning for me any more?
The way became more tortuous by degrees and less well maintained as we drove on past the last lonely farm,... the last telephone. Here there were great swells in the tarmac as grass and reeds strained to burst through from beneath. It was lonely country, yes, but here also the outlines of the hills became once more familiar to me. I saw the great grassy dome of Drummaur Fell, the rising monolith of Grey Crag, and the long ridge of the Roman Road running high above the trackless eastern valleys.
We were almost there now.
There was a gate at the end of the tarmac - closed to keep the beasts from wandering off the fell: the sheep, the deer, the wild ponies. I thought we might have left the car there, but Lamarr, fearful of rain, had me open the gate so we could drive through. We then proceeded at a walking pace, his shiny Range Rover striding cautiously over the bumps and hollows of the track. And so, somewhat ponderously, we skirted the open fell and finally drew up within sight of the wood that encircled the house.
"It's a queer old place," he said at last, as if to soften me up for the shock of it. "Very old fashioned."
He stepped out of the car and looked around at the hills. We were in the midst of them here, a ring of two thousand footers crowned with fine outcrops of shattered black rock - perfectly sculpted to comb the wind,... to make it moan. Lamarr seemed to shudder at the sound as if it were the baying of wolves.
"And it's terribly remote." he went on, again by way of warning.
"Lonely, yes," I replied.
The hills did not move him, I thought. He lived and worked in the middle some of the finest scenery in England, yet I fancied his eyes were rarely lifted above the plane of his desktop.
"I don't know how she managed for so long out here on her own," he went on. "Its so,... so,..." he searched for the right adjective, finally settling on 'inconvenient'.
"She did manage though," I reminded him.
He conceded that she had indeed managed - managed quite well in fact. "It's a question of getting used to it, I suppose,... of not minding,... of not missing life's little luxuries." He wrinkled his nose as if not quite believing his own sentiments.
"May I ask, when did you last see her, Mr Lamarr?"
"It was shortly before she died. We had lunch. She seemed perfectly well. It was very sad, Mr. Rowan. Very sad."
"I suppose you found me through her letters. I haven't seen her for a long time, but we wrote regularly. As her executor you must have come across letters,... they might have seemed a little strange."