Ellis Peters - George Felse 09 - Mourning Raga

BOOK: Ellis Peters - George Felse 09 - Mourning Raga
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Mourning Raga
Ellis Peters
Felse Family 09

A 3S digital back-up edition 1.0
click for scan notes and proofing history

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Copyright © 1969 Ellis Peters

First published in 1969

by Macmillan & Co. Ltd, London

First published in paperback in 1988

by HEADLINE BOOK PUBLISHING PLC

109 8 765

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

ISBN 0 7472 3121

Printed and bound in Great Britain by

Collins, Glasgow

HEADLINE BOOK PUBLISHING PLC

Headline House

79 Great Titchfield Street

London W1P7FN

I

The whole affair began, as the unexpected and chaotic so often did, with Tossa’s mother. And as usual, on the telephone.

Tossa’s mother was herself unexpected and chaotic, though contained in as neat and trim a package as you could wish, slim and brown and perennially young, even after three marriages and two widowhoods. She had begun life – indeed, she still continued it, with unflagging verve and success – as Chloe Bliss, a perfect name for the stage though it also happened to be her own by the grace of fate; had been in succession Chloe Barber, until Tossa’s professor father inconsiderately died in his charming prime, Chloe Terrell, until the infinitely less interesting and less suitable Herbert Terrell fell off a mountain in Slovakia and got the worst of it in the consequent collision with a slab of white trias limestone, and Chloe Newcombe, which after two years, rather surprisingly, she still was. Perhaps Paul Newcombe, on the face of it a depressingly solid and stolid type of business manipulator, was more durable than he looked; perhaps, even, there was more to him than met the eye. If he was to hold Chloe’s vagrant interest much longer there would certainly need to be.

The enchanting creature who was such a problem to her husbands was no less a headache to her daughter, with the rueful difference that there was only one daughter, and she could never shuck off the load on to a successor. It was late now for Chloe to produce a co-custodian, even if she did still look no more than thirty. In lieu of a son she had cheerfully set up a stake in a prospective son-in-law. In any case, Chloe could never resist putting on her maximum charm for any young man who was drawn into her orbit. Usually they succumbed; in Dominic Felse’s case she was content to play it as a delicious game, and close her devastating purple-brown eyes to the consideration of whether she was winning or losing. After all, Miss Theodosia Barber was her daughter, and in her complex and evasive heart Chloe had a natural love for her, and – even better – a very healthy and wary respect.

They were in Tossa’s rooms in a genteelly decaying corner of north Oxford when the call came through, and Dominic’s recently-acquired third-hand Mini was sitting at the kerb outside, waiting to take them down for the Christmas vacation. They were looking forward to a peaceful celebration in the bosom of his family, and privately congratulating themselves on the fact that Chloe was frantically filming, well behind schedule, somewhere in Somerset, and hardly likely to give a thought to her daughter’s activities while the panic lasted. Conscience prompted her to manifest mother-love from time to time, with an over-exuberance which was designed to make up for the long neglects in between; but conscience knew better than to interfere with business. Consequently the maternal interludes usually came when they could do the most devastating damage to Tossa’s plans, and none whatsoever to Chloe’s.

The phone rang in the hall below. Across the case on which Dominic was kneeling they looked sharply and speculatively at each other. Dominic’s left eyebrow elevated itself dubiously. He said: ‘Uh-huh!’ in a tone Tossa was inclined to resent, though she herself frequently said very much more on the same subject.

‘It may not be for me,’ she said, convincing nobody.

But it was for her. Her landlady’s voice called up to her with the promptness of a derisive echo, and she went down resignedly to fend off the inevitable. Distant and guarded, gruffer than usual with defensive tension, her miniature baritone eddied up the staircase:

‘Tossa Barber here – Oh, yes… hullo, Mother! How are you? How is the shooting going?’ Side-track her back into her proper sphere, that was the strategy; but Chloe could always talk twice as sweetly and three times as fast. ‘Yes, well, darling, you know we were going up to Midshire…’

Were
going! Dominic stopped wrestling with the recalcitrant lock of Tossa’s big case, and conveyed himself across the room and halfway down the stairs in a hurry, to a position where he could sit and brood balefully over the conversation, and make entirely sure that his interests were not forgotten. Every time she raised her eyes she could not help but see him, shamelessly listening and willing her to harden her heart. Chloe had a particularly annoying way of erupting just when they were all set for a holiday.

Computing the total content of a telephone conversation from one end of it, and the passive end at that, is never easy. With a kingfisher mind like Chloe’s at the far end of the line it was next door to impossible.

‘Yes, I remember you said she had… terribly interesting! Oh, really! Well, but what can I…’ A long interval of the distant purring, while Tossa’s eyes took on a stunned and glazed look first of shock and then of total non-comprehension. Something fearful was going on. Dominic loomed threateningly, and she flashed him a helpless glance and shook her head at him to show she hadn’t forgotten everything they had arranged between them. ‘
Where
? But… No, but you’re serious? I… well, of course I do see how marvellous, but… So
far
! And I’d be scared, alone! Oh!… Oooohh!’ she breathed in a long, awakening sigh, and a gleam came to life, far behind the glassy astonishment of her eyes, and grew and grew, like a moonrise. A hint of excited colour flicked her cheeks. Drat the girl, she was falling for it, whatever
it
was, after all her years of experience with that infuriating, lovely mother of hers. Dominic shuffled his feet and cleared his throat menacingly, and Tossa looked up and smiled at him with the eerie bliss of a sleepwalker. ‘But would she really… for
both
of us? Well, of course, I do realise it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance… But, gosh, Mother, I don’t know! I
would
love to… I bet he would, too… Look, let me talk to him and call you back…’

‘Yes,’ said Dominic grimly, just too quietly to be heard at the other end, ‘you do that! Get her off there and give
me
a chance to get some sense into you.
That Chloe
!’

‘A quarter of an hour, Mother, yes, I promise. Give me that number again…’

She cradled the receiver and came drifting up the stairs muttering it to herself, and Dominic gave her his ball-pen to write it down, before she lost herself among the digits. She looked a little drunk, on what manner of intoxicant he couldn’t imagine.
She
was usually the one who had all the evasions ready when Chloe sent out distress signals. She, after all, could be as cynical as she liked about her own mother; Dominic knew better than to venture on the same terms. He had an instinct for the exact line where his privilege ran out, and he was light on his feet, and could always stop short of it. He took her by the hand and towed her back into her own room. Her knees gave under her; she sat down dreamily on the bed, staring through him into the pale December sky.

‘Now, look, we were going to my parents in Comerford, remember?’ Help, she’d got him talking in the wrong tense now! ‘We are going!’

‘Yes, of course! I haven’t forgotten anything. If you say so, when you know… if
they
say so, that’s where we’re going. I wouldn’t ditch them for anybody in the world. You know that. But wait till I tell you what she offered us…’

‘Us!’ Yes, give her that, Tossa had made sure that he was included.

‘It isn’t what you think, she doesn’t want us to go to her for Christmas! Not a thought of it! She’s totally taken up with this film, all they’ll do about Christmas is throw a party right there on the set, and get as high as kites, and then go right back to work. That’s the stage they’re at, I’ve seen it all before. No, this is something that only happens once. That’s why I didn’t just say no. I
couldn’t
! I mean, with only one lifetime, and money not all that easy to come by… Well, what would
you
have said?’ she challenged warmly.

‘How do I know, until I know what you’re talking about? What
does
she want us to do?’

‘She wants us,’ said Tossa, her voice growing faint with mingled wonder and disbelief, ‘to take a little girl to India.’

Dominic sat down abruptly on the suitcase and the stubborn lock, as if electing itself a sign and portent for the occasion, clicked smugly into place, ready for off. Though it wasn’t as simple as that; for India, at this time of year, you’d want… what? Not the winter casuals of workaday Oxford, at any rate. Cottons? Light sweaters? Good lord, what was happening? He was taking it seriously, and it could only be some sort of mistake, or somebody’s idea of an elaborate joke. He sat staring at her warily, and pushed resolutely out of his mind visions of temples and royal palms, and the legendary beach at Kovalam, and…

‘You did say “India”? And you’re sure that’s what
she
said?’

‘I asked her again. She said it twice. She said “Delhi”, too. There isn’t any mistake.’

‘And
both
of us can go?’

‘She said so. I said I’d be scared alone.’ That was a useful formula, and he knew it; what it meant was: ‘Not without Dominic!’ and he was duly grateful for it. There were many things of which Tossa was wary and suspicious, after her experiences with parents and step-parents, but very few of which she was scared.

‘All expenses paid?’ That was how it had sounded.

‘Money’s no object.’

‘But
whose
money?’ The only little girl Chloe had was sitting there on the edge of the bed, staring at him with eyes so wide in wonder that the highlights in them soared into silvery domes like the Taj Mahal. And in any case Chloe spent her money as fast as she earned it, not to mention making formidable inroads into her husband’s as well.

‘Dorette Lester’s. It’s her little girl we’re supposed to escort to Delhi.’

‘Who’s Dorette Lester?’ demanded Dominic, unaware of his blasphemy. Only Julie Andrews shed more sweetness and light, but then, the few films he did see never seemed to be that kind of film.

‘She’s the American star they brought over to play Marianne in this film Chloe’s making. I told you. Everybody thought they’d fight like tigresses, and they fell into each other’s arms on first sight, and have been as thick as thieves ever since. That’s how it comes that Chloe’s willing to lend me to help out Dorette over the kid. She wants us to drive down to Bath and hear all about it, and get fixed up about dates and everything. I suppose we could do that much, anyhow, couldn’t we?’

‘Today? Now?’

She nodded. The scintillation of desire, fever-white, was still in her eyes. You don’t get offered India on a salver every day. ‘We can still say no, if we want to.’ But she didn’t want to, and neither did he. Not if this was on the level. They eyed each other thoughtfully, still chary of believing in such luck.

‘There has to be a catch in it,’ said Dominic firmly.

She didn’t argue; she knew her mother even better than he did, and it was a reasonable assumption that they would trip over a string or two sooner or later. ‘It would have to be a big one to tip the scale much, wouldn’t it?’ she said honestly.

Dominic got up and hoisted the suitcase on which he had been sitting. The coy lock held, ready for any journey. ‘You’d better call her back, hadn’t you,’ he said, rather as if it had been his idea all along, ‘and tell her we’re coming.’

 

Some youthful genius from down in the boutique belt, who hatched outrageous ideas on the side and sold them in much the same way as he did outrageous clothes, had come up with the improbable inspiration of making a big musical out of
Sense and Sensibility
, and with his usual luck had found suckers all round him ready to buy the notion that Jane was with it. He had besides – and it was his chief asset – a gift for concocting elegantly dry, agreeable and piquant music, so witty that it turned the most banal lyrics into epigrams, and it was an even bet that the film he had conned his less well-read contemporaries into making would turn out to be not merely a box-office bonanza, but also a surprisingly good film. They had gone the whole hog on casting it. Most of the money in the venture was American, and the producers had insisted on getting Dorette Lester to play Marianne, the ‘sensibility’ half of the two sisters. The English director, with equal certainty, had declared that no one but Chloe Bliss would do for Eleanor. Chloe’s daughter might have cocked a quizzical eyebrow at the idea of her mother standing for ‘sense’, but it was what she could suggest before the cameras that mattered, not what she really was, and before the cameras or an audience there was nothing Chloe could not be, from an electrifying Ariel in
The Tempest
to an awe-inspiring grande dame in Wilde. Musicals were something new for her, but she took to the form like a duck to water. She sang the outrageously clever songs of the boy genius, half-pop, half-avant-garde, with such conviction that even the composer was startled. He had never taken them all that seriously himself. What he did was juggle the notes and words around a little, and the money came rolling in. He had never ceased to find it funny, but was a little unnerved when he found it could also be moving.

One of those ladies hired to play the youthful Dashwood sisters was turned forty, and the other was thirty-six, and there were plenty of genuine teen-age actresses to be found, what with half the pop singers taking to the boards or the screen or both as to the manner born; yet nobody seemed to find the casting at all strange. Only a year ago Chloe Bliss had added a superlative Peter Pan to her repertoire. And as for Dorette Lester, one of her most passionate admirers had once said that she couldn’t sing, couldn’t dance, couldn’t really do very much in the acting line, and didn’t have to; just looking at her was enough. But if she had to act, it had better be in some such part as the hypersensitive and emotional Marianne Dashwood, where over-acting, controlled by an intelligent director, wouldn’t show.

Dorette had been married in her early twenties, before she became a star. Tossa told Dominic all about it, or as much as she herself had gleaned from Chloe’s thumbnail sketch, on the way down to Somerset in the Mini.

‘The way I see it, she can’t have been much then, and apparently he was rich, and must have been no end of a catch. A couple of years later, and she probably wouldn’t have looked at him. He was a graduate from the University of the Punjab; doing post-graduate work in research physics and chemistry over in the States. Anyhow, she married him. And they had this little girl. And then things clicked into place, the way they do at the wrong moment, and she made a hit and grew into a star. And I suppose she got very busy and involved with her job, and he was just as busy with his, and maybe they were too far apart ever to make a go of it. Anyhow, they didn’t. She divorced him years ago, and gave herself wholly to her career. And he went back to India, and presumably devoted himself to his.’

BOOK: Ellis Peters - George Felse 09 - Mourning Raga
12.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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