Authors: Caroline Graham
hree greedy people were sitting around a table beneath a brilliantly striped umbrella on the terrace of a moated grange. Well, to be more precise, one was a very greedy person, one (present only in spirit) was a mildly greedy person and the last, an extremely pretty girl with dark curly hair, was hardly greedy at all. It is she who is speaking when our story opens.
“I still don't believe Hugh would agree to murder.”
“He did. I spoke to him last night.”
“You mean you got at him last night. When I rang him up at teatime he was as worried as me.”
“As both of us.”
Simon Hannaford tilted his chair back, rested his elegant pale gray loafers against the iron rungs of the table and looked across at his sister. Laurie was small and sturdy, her skin burned deep apricot and freckled brown by the sun. Her eyes were blue, the irises so dark they were almost navy. She had a very direct gaze that could disconcert the devious and thick brows she felt vaguely one day might be plucked and shaped into something a bit less riotous. She wore a washed-out summer frock the color of periwinkles and flat T-strap sandals. Her knees and nails were grubby, and a gardening trowel and hand fork lay on the table next to a glass of homemade lemonade. She took a long drink and said, “Murder makes such a mess.”
“We could hang him. Or her.”
“Oh God, Simonâ¦I don't know.”
“What about poison?”
“Aren't people sick if they're poisoned?”
“That's in real life, silly. This is just a game.”
Simon had had years of experience in meeting that forceful navy-blue gaze and met it now with calm determination. He could hardly have presented a greater contrast to Laurie. Tall and slim, yet so muscular no one could have called him lanky. And, although there was a silk paisley square at his throat and his thick fair hair was rather long, you couldn't have called him foppish either. His eyes were a peculiar grayish-green. The gray predominated when he was displeased; when he was confident and excited as now, the green came into play. He picked up a sheet of foolscap closely covered with columns of figures, rolled it up and waved it under Laurie's nose as if to bring her round from a faint. She jerked her head irritably away.
“I know what it says.”
“Then perhaps you can tell me how else we could make this sort of money in just two months?” He put the paper down. “And honestly.”
“I don't see what's honest about taking two hundred and fifty pounds off people for one weekend.”
“The murder makes it honest. And don't forget that includes their train fare. I thought that would be an added encouragement. Without denting profits too much. After all, no one's going to travel far just for two days.”
Laurie fretted her unruly brows. “It doesn't seem right in someone else's house. Especially as this is the first time Aunt Maude's asked us to look after the place.”
“And what if it's the last time she asks us to look after the place? We'll have missed the opportunity of a lifetime. And she did say we could have friends to stay.”
“She didn't mean this sort of thing.”
“How do you know what she meant? She and Uncle were never averse to making a shekel in their time. How d'you think they came by the ancestral pile in the first place?”
They fell silent. Behind them the pile, which was not all that ancestral, dating only from 1897, sheered up rosy and glowing in the sunset. Four stories of vermilion brick luxuriously barnacled with pepper-pot turrets and gargoyles and embellished with balconies, moldings, lintels, architraves and the thousand other ills that nineteenth-century Strawberry Hill Gothic is heir to. It was surrounded by a hundred and fifty acres of garden and woodland, the latter home to a herd of dappled deer that drove the gardeners mad. There was also a large lake.
Madingley Grange had been built by Aloysius Coker, an inventor of headache pills so innocently yet potently concocted that they had killed off thousands of Victorians and made him a millionaire. Aunt Maude's (actually she was a great-aunt but that was rather a mouthful) better half, Uncle George, who had accumulated a fortune during the war (officially in ammunitions) and developed it through many an unorthodox and enterprising sideline, had purchased the house plus the contents of the cellar, which he promptly attempted to absorb. Shortly afterward, overwhelmed by the splendor of his claret and worn out by his efforts to keep one step ahead of the Inland Revenue, George passed on.
His widow bought and ran a chain of dress shops for a while, striking terror into the hearts of staff and customers alike, for Aunt Maude was a formidable woman. Once the Grange had been broken into and, alerted by crisp telephone instructions, the police had arrived to find the burglar cowering behind a suit of armor in the baronial hall. It had taken a full Candles flickering on the crystal ahour, three cups of extremely strong tea and assurances of Mrs. Maberley's restraint to winkle him out. Now, having sold the business, Aunt Maude had retired and lived alone, occupying each of the twenty bedrooms in turn to keep them aired, then cruising off into the sunset for several weeks before starting all over again in the Fragonard room. The cook, Mrs. Posture, and the elderly domestic, Ivy Tiplady, were laid off during these periods of recuperation while the groundsmen, full time the rest of the horticultural year, came in once a week just to put an armlock on the more aggressive forms of creeping vegetation. Fitterbee, the chauffeur, having delivered his employer to her appropriate point of embarkation, then moonlighted with the elderly Rolls in London.
“They'll be mad about all thisâthe punters,” said Simon, gesturing proprietorially toward the parkland rolling away on every side. At the shaven lawns and vaunting statuary; the crumbling dovecote and artfully tousled herbaceous border.
“Can't you see them,” he continued, “sweeping down the great staircase in full thirties fig for dinner in the Holbein dining room. Candles flickering on the crystal and family silvâ”
“Candles flickering onâ”
“Dinner in the Holbeinâ”
“Earlier. Something about figs.”
“Oh. Full thirties fig.”
“That's it,” said Laurie. “You didn't mention dressing up.”
“It's essential. You can't have a country house murder without an adenoidal maid in starched cap and apron, a butler in full buttledress, son of the house in baggy plus fours and the daughter fetching in bugle beads.”
“That is not a country house murder, Simon. That is a country house farce.”
“They'll love it,” said her brother firmly. “Anyway, it can't be changed now. I've put it in the advertisement.”
“You'veâ¦! What advertisement?”
. âMurder at Madingley Grange'”
“Aunt Maude's only been gone five minutes.”
“No point in hanging about.”
“You had no right to do that. We've not agreed.”
“Well, you can put in another tomorrow cancelling it.”
“Laurie, we have twenty bedrooms here going to waste.
With one each for you and me and Hughâwe can put the staff downstairs in those two rooms by the kitchenâ”
“âthat still leaves seventeen. We should be able to let them all as doubles.”
“Now thirty-four times two hundred and fiftyâ”
“Simon, it is absolutely out of the question that we allow thirty-four complete strangers loose here. There are all the paintings, the ornaments, the rugs and furnitureâ¦”
“They're not going to come in moving vans.”
“So am I. Everything's fixed.”
“Then unfix it.”
“Can't be done.”
“I shall stand at the front door and turn them away.”
Simon removed his gray loafers from the table rungs and placed his feet firmly on the flagstones. “You always were a bossy little beast. Not to mention selfish.”
“How do you make that out?”
“Here am I offering ordinary run-of-the-mill members of the bourgeoisie a chance to live for forty-eight hours like landed gentry plus a little bit of mayhem on the side, and you wish to deny them that supreme pleasure. You ought to be ashamed.”
“You're not getting round me like that, Simon.”
“I really am on the bottom line.”
“Or like that.”
“You wouldn't believe my debts.”
“Get a job then. You've done nothing since you left University College.”
You call seven years of plotting and planning and wheeling and dealing nothing? I've had the most brilliant ideas. None of them got off the ground. And why? Lack of cash. If I weren't so poor I'd be a millionaire by now.”
“You talk as if you were in the gutter.”
“All of us are in the gutter, sister mine,” said Simon. “And some of us are sliding down the drain.”
“You'll have to marry a rich widow.”
“Don't think I'm not working on it. Meanwhile my overdraft's piling up and pressure is being brought to bear. Do you want to see me knee-capped and buried up to my side parting in cement?”
“Depends when it is. I've got to be in Oxford by seven.”
“You don't give a tuppenny cuss, do you? I can starve to death as far as you're concerned. OKâwhat about your own future? You want to get married, I suppose?” Silence. “You and Hugh? Dear old Hugh. Clodding and plodding and doggedly true.”
“You make him sound like a basset hound.”
“Oh, he's far too tall for a basset hound,” Simon laughed. “Wellâdo you or don't you?”
Laurie didn't really have to think about it. She and Hugh wereâ¦wellâ¦they just were. And had always been. They had grown up together; gone to nursery and prep school and childhood parties together. Shared their holidays and Christmases and now, unless Laurie could think of any cause or just impediment, they seemed all set to be spending the rest of their lives together. And she couldn't. Not really. Because she was very fond of Hugh. In the companion along life's highway stakes he had a fair bit going for him. He was quiet and patient and even-tempered. Tolerant when she was grumpy and kind when she was sad. He never forgot her birthday, though his presents were uninspiring, and even sat with her pretending to enjoy
on the telly. What more, pondered Laurie, could a girl ask?
Occasionally, and feeling guilty, she believed there must be something. At her cousin's engagement party Laurie had briefly found herself side by side with Charlotte titivating in the cloakroom. (Actually Charlotte had been titivating; Laurie had been moodily trying to flatten her hair with a damp brush.) As she did so she was sharply struck by her companion's shining countenance. Her own seemed positively dull by comparison. Charlotte's cheeks had been flushed and glowing, her eyesâLaurie balked at the comparison but it could not be gainsaidâwere like stars. Laurie had been wrongheaded enough to remark on this imbalance to Simon when she came upon him later in the evening, enjoying a
on the stairs.
“You look a bit wistful,” he had said, and she had told him why, concluding with the observation that she never saw stars when she was with Hugh, not even when he kissed her.
“You see stars,” Simon replied, “when someone knocks you out. Not when they kiss you.”
“But something's supposed to happen, isn't it?” persisted Laurie. “I read in a book once that the earth moved.”
“Oh, I shouldn't take any notice of Hemingway's Spanish period. The earth was always moving for him. Mainly because he was never more than five minutes away from a mass bombardment.”
So that was that. Laurie sighed and returned reluctantly to the present, aware that Simon was looking expectant. He hadn't given up. Simon never did.
“So if thirty-four is probably outâ”
“No probably about it.”
“How many would be in?”
Laurie poured herself some more lemonade. She wished she knew just how far below the water level this latest “bottom line” really was. Simon had been in a serious cash-flow situation for as long as she had been able to understand what the words meant, often lurching from plenitude to penury and back again in the course of a single day. Sometimes this was due to gambling, more often to his impulsive generosity. He was always buying presents chosen, unlike Hugh's, with wit and imagination. Laurie recalled the excited disbelief with which, on her twelfth birthday, surrounded by dreary books about ponies and sensible pens and new pajamas, she had unrolled a large poster-sized plan of a thirteenth-century monastery garden which Simon had copied from an old manuscript, blown up and painted. There was a key to all the plants, and even a gardener, a bent elderly monk, raking gravel. The picture was still on her bedroom wall.