Authors: Caroline Graham
He had maneuvered Mother and Mrs. Saville to the far end of the terrace simply by picking up their table and walking off with it. They had followed as if attached by invisible reins before immediately sinking into the chairs he had repositioned and going on with their game.
Gaunt, having struck the gong at his third attempt, limped and hunch-hobbled over to his employer. Simon braced himself for a lengthy gripe about the winter of his minion's discontent.
“Miss Laurel asks should she send the soup out, sir.”
“Give it five, Gaunt. Get the bibs tied on.”
“Very good, sir.”
Rosemary appeared, her lips freshly painted shiny geranium red, and the boating party made their way toward the house, brief midday shadows preceding them. They had enjoyed a pleasant morning once the musical accompaniment had ground to a halt. Gilly had wielded the punt pole with great Ã©lan while his companions reclined plumply, trailing their hands in the water. Violet admired the waving fronds of willow, the immense bronze dragon and the ducks and moorhens skimming about and Fred questioned their boatman as to his reasons, “your
reasons, mind,” for being present at the Grange. He then offered his own theory and Gilly argued in vain that he was neither hit man nor minder, simply a clerk for the Electricity Board seizing the chance to live and breathe thirties-style for a short spell.
He was still protesting as they crossed the drawbridge and Fred stopped, almost in midstride, and stared. Violet bumped into him and Gilly said: “What is it? What's the matter?”
Fred turned and looked at his wife, his nostrils pinched with anger. “I thought you said she was clean.”
Violet followed his gaze. “She was. I looked through all her luggage, her clothes, everything.”
“She must have had them in that bloody bag. You could get the crown jewels in there. It's the size of an elephant's scrotum.”
“She didn't. I checked.” Violet stumbled after Fred as his step quickened. Gilly, still in the dark but scenting drama, scuttled along behind.
On the terrace the ladies played on, Sheila standing behind Mrs. Saville's chair. Mother, aware of her son's approach, ignored it. Mrs. Saville, in the grip of the game, her eyes glued to the cards in her fist, did not hear Fred even when he spoke.
She was in a state of feverish excitement, having just examined her new hand and discovered that she was only one card short of a royal flush. This delightful revelation was all of a piece with the story so far. Things were going supremely well. Six games had been played; five had been won. On fortune's cap Mrs. Saville was the very button. The dark forces, on the other hand, having won the toss and the first round, were definitely on the skids.
Not that the five games had been easy. On the contrary. In spite of her experience Mrs. Saville had felt herself to be occasionally on dizzyingly unfamiliar ground. Sometimes almost on the verge of losing control as if a tugging, dancing spirit were abroad and leading her astray. Yet still she was winning, subjugating that humped, toadlike shape opposite that had hardly raised its eyes since play began.
“I shouldn't have any truck with her, missus.” Fred's voice finally penetrated this flood of self-congratulation. He leaned over the table and picked up the deck.
“What do you think you're doing?” cried Mrs. Saville. Then, when he showed signs of stowing the pack away: “They belong to me.”
“Beg your pardon.” Fred put them back. “Only you're out of your class, Mrs. S.”
“She's doing very well,” said Sheila.
“He doesn't mean to be rude, dear,” said Violet. “But there's no point in playing against someone who's got the gift.”
“I might be more impressed by that sort of superstitious mumbo-jumbo if I wasn't winning. And five games to her one.”
“You're on the seventh now?”
“Yes. And don't waste your time exchanging significant glances.” Mrs. Saville reached out, briefly touching the five twenty-pound notes tucked under her aperitif glass. “I have no intention of giving up at this stage, I assure you.”
“You don't understandâ”
“I understand perfectly,” retorted Mrs. Saville. “You bring her down here, you neglect her dreadfully, going off boating or whatever, and then, when I take pity on the poor old thing and try to give her a little pleasure, you feel guilty. Never mind, Mrs. Gibbs.” Mrs. Saville forced herself to reach out and pat the gnarled old fist, all knobs and bones. She didn't want the old lady to think her family's aspersions had fallen on receptive soil. “I'm discarding.” She pushed out the rogue card. “If you would be so kind?”
Mrs. Gibbs, with a token and patently insincere cringe away from her son, dealt a replacement from the top of the pack. Her whiskery chin rested on her breast and her lip quivered. “Never have any funâ¦”
“Aren't you ashamed?” said Mrs. Saville, turning over her card. “Your own mothâ” Her eyes widened. Sheila Gregory gave a low whistle and Mrs. Saville turned and glared. “You must
do that. The whole point of pokerâ¦” But she spoke to empty air. Sheila had spotted the drinks trolley and wafted off.
Everyone started to sit around the long table, and a moment later Simon joined the gamesters. “We're having lunch now, ladies.”
“Ohhhâ¦” A fan of cards pressed against her bosom, Mrs. Saville turned an expression of exquisite suffering upon her host. “Not
. We're in the middle of a game. And I haveâ” She struggled to modify the strength of feeling in her voice, “â¦quite a good hand.”
“I got to check on the cellar. See if Flash Harry's back.” Mother started to struggle up from her seat. “Gizza lift, daughter.”
“Wait! Simonâcouldn't you be a sort of refereeâ¦?” Mrs. Saville thrust her five cards at him. “Keep them in your pocket and then bring them back when we're sitting down after lunch. So we can continue the game with the same hand.”
“Happy to.” Simon stored the cards away. “I'd better keep yours as well then, Mrs. Gibbs.”
“Shouldn't we get someone else?” said Mrs. Saville quickly. “You might just forget which hand is in which pocket.”
So Gilly was asked and put Mother's cards away carefully inside his blazer. Assisted by Violet she disappeared into the house, Fred and Simon joined the others and Mrs. Saville was left briefly alone at the far end of the terrace.
She sat, her back to the rest of the company, restively alert, her stomach churning. Little point in trying to tackle food; she would not be able to swallow a single mouthful. She closed her eyes, seeing again the three stylized royals with their ginger scrolls of hair and pinched, weak mouths. And the nine and ten pips attending. A straight flush! When she discarded the three of clubs she knew, even with her present run of amazing luck, what her chances were of picking up the nine of hearts in return. Yet pick it up she did.
The only hand that could beat her now was a royal flush. Ace high. And while Mrs. Saville appreciated that the odds against her partner's holding such a prize were phenomenal, such prodigious coincidence could occasionally occur. There was, of course, one way of finding out.
Mrs. Saville hesitated. She had never cheated at cards in her life and regarded anyone who did as disgracefully dissolute. Never, ever, not under any circumstances, could she have imagined herself belonging to that number. Yet could the step she now realized she was seriously considering be called cheating? Not really. Technically it was more sort ofâ¦ checking. It would not tell her what cards Mrs. Gibbs held. (That really would be cheating.) Simply the ones that she did not.
And after all, Mrs. Saville argued with herself, had she not experienced something very strange, something alien and disturbing emanating from her partner during their half-dozen games together? Nothing so ridiculous naturally as superhuman power, but was there not a talent there (Mrs. Saville thought of Mother's tricks) that was altogether out of the ordinary? And consequently a needâone might almost argue a dutyâto redress the balance somewhat? To make things a little more fair.
Mrs. Saville's hands stole out toward the cards. She watched the fingers, encouraged and dismayed. Watched them pick up the deck and flip quickly and quietly through. All four aces were there. The hands crept back into Mrs. Saville's lap.
She expected to feel triumph. Or shame. Or pleasure and excitement. Instead, she felt an instant, deep, abiding calm. When Rosemary called: “Mummee,” she calmly left the table and calmly joined the others and in no time at all was calmly enjoying an aperitif.
The first course had been served and was being zestfully dispatched before Violet and Mother rejoined the company. Violet slipped quietly into her seat. Her face was pale, stained with Dutch-doll circles the color of foxgloves. She caught Fred's eye and, as he made to speak, frowned, shaking her head. A bare movement.
Mother came to rest more noisily, wheezing and puffing. She looked fierce: suffused with energy and satisfaction. The salmon arrived reposing on a sea of aspic the color of butterscotch and surrounded by rosettes of mayonnaise and transparent slices of cucumber. Bennet brought out the sauce, new potatoes and salad and everyone helped themselves to wine. Today there were no place cards, so people sat where they liked, Mrs. Saville, in spite of her virtuous concern for Mrs. Gibbs's well-being, coming to rest as far from the family as she possibly could.
Simon at the head of the table inquired courteously after the ghost hunters' results (Mrs. Gibbs looked waggish, Violet shrugged), then turned to his younger companions. Rosemary, petulant at losing his attention even for a moment, paused in the act of lifting a silver fork weighted with
saumon Ã la sauce verte
to her lips and spoke.
“Don't you just
“In moderation,” replied Simon, pleasurably aware of the pressure of Sheila Gregory's calf against his own.
“You can't adore anything moderately, silly,” giggled Rosemary. Her tongue, prettily pink like a cat's, slipped out, catching a tiny rivulet of straying sauce.
“Oh, I don't know,” said Sheila. “I adore some things, and some people, very moderately indeed.”
Gaunt, still sluggish but fairly frisking along in comparison with his earlier revs per minute, grabbed at the occasional shoulder for support as he attempted to top up the guests' glasses.
“I think,” said Simon, “that people can continue to help themselves, Gaunt. Less chance of flooding.”
“If you say so, sir.”
As the butler staggered off, Fred called down the table:
“You get him from Battersea Dogs' Home, Simon?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Him being a lurcher, like?” Delighted with his wit, especially when Martin as well as Violet laughed, Fred cracked his knuckles and helped himself to more potatoes. “Nothing like dining ay la fresco, is there, Martin?”
“No.” Martin smiled, but absently. He had gradually become aware that ever since he woke, overshadowed by all his aches and pains and the upset with his ex-fiancÃ©e, there had been at the back of his mind a quiet but persistent desire to see Laurie again. He was disappointingly conscious of the empty chair facing Simon at the other end of the table but had no intention of asking his host where his sister might be. Apart from a natural disinclination to draw attention to himself, such a query might well evoke some sarcastic response from Rosemary. He watched her now, her hand on Simon's arm, prating on about the landscape.
“You must need absolutely oodles of staff.” She dragged out the “oo” through a scarlet rosebud.
“Just a couple full time. And there's a boy.”
“I can't be doing with gardening,” said Violet, looking slightly more like her old self. “Too much like outdoor housework. And talk about language. All that pricking out and hardening off. There's a time and place for remarks like that. I wonder that man in the muddy wellies at Pebble Mill can look his neighbors in the face.”
When Bennet came to remove the plates, Martin caught her attention and, keeping his voice low, asked the whereabouts of Miss Hannaford.
“She's up to her eyes at the moment, sir. What with Gaunt being one leg short of the pair, so to speak. She's eating on the wing. That's why I didn't lay her place.”
“Then whoâ?” Martin watched the wreckage of the salmon being borne away. He glanced around the table. The alfresco lunch was plainly a success. Flushed from smiling mouths by copious drafts of wine, streams of easy chatter flowed. Even Mrs. Saville, no doubt recalling her stunning collection of cards in Simon's pocket, parted with a modicum of steely bonhomie. It was getting quite bacchanalian. But where in this merry throng, thought Martin (having comprehended the reason for the empty chair), was Derek?
There was Mrs. Derek, giddily throwing back her head and laughing at one of Simon's sallies. And there was everyone else apparently having the time of their lives. But of the great detective, no sign. Martin wondered if the other guests knew something he didn't. If some plan encompassing Derek's disappearance had been made earlier when he, Martin, was still asleep. Surely it was not possible that no one had noticed the man's absence? Much more likely, assumed Martin, feeling a pang of sympathy for the ridiculous sleuth, that it had not been considered of sufficient interest to spend time discussing. He waited for a bit of conversational slack, then said very clearly: