Authors: Caroline Graham
“On the floor.”
“I'm not on the floor.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I'm not.”
“Well, one of us is.”
“It's you.” Laurie started to laugh, rocking in her chair. “Get upâ¦
“These wines,” said Simon, struggling to his feet and nearly pulling Laurie down in the process, “are something else.”
“I must find out what they are. An' write them on the menu cards.”
“Absolutely. Nowâopen up the Krug,” demanded Simon. “And let the sunshine in.”
Hours later, when Laurie felt herself capable, she returned to the cellar with a flashlight and a little stool and rubbed the dust from the three cages. It was then revealed that Friday's guests would be drinking Mouton-Rothschild '45 with their meat, a 1962 Louis Latour Corton-Charlemagne with their fish, and with their dessert a 1921 ChÃ¢teau d'Yquem.
“And all so divine,” muttered Laurie while amending her menu cards, “that I should think people would be prepared to pay two hundred and fifty pounds just for the privilege of tasting them.” And in so saying she spoke no more than the simple truth.
The next day Simon, still complaining of a faint buzzing in the ears, drove to Oxford to interview what he insisted on calling
. The pair were traveling down from London after apparently being alerted to Simon's advertisement in the
by a cousin in Witney.
The interview was to be conducted over tea at the Mitre, which Laurie thought a bit silly. After all, she said as her brother prepared to leave, the whole point of the operation was not to discover if they could sit nicely and be waited on but if they in their turn could wait. Simon replied that he could hardly expect the two of them to start handing round iced cakes and cucumber sandwiches in a perfectly strange hotel just to show him what they were made of.
Actually there seemed to be some discrepancy, thought Laurie, rootling through her aunt's boulle escritoire when her brother had departed, between his claim that he had been snowed under by applications and the solitary letter, wavily written on cheap lined paper, that lurked in the back of the spring clip “Murder” file. The envelope was covered with what looked like the meanderings of a spider who had lunched too well on overripe flies, then fallen into the nearest inkpot. The letter itself was brief. The scrivener, one A. Bennet (Mrs.), having had Simon's advertisement brought to her attention, wished to offer the services of herself and her brother for the brief period before they left to take up employment in Ireland with Lady Keele at Castle Triamory. They had previously been in service with the Hon. Mrs. Hatherley. Mention was made of the highest references. Indeed, the tone throughout was so high and the names dropped so grand that Laurie wondered briefly whether the references were to be offered or demanded.
She returned the letter to the file and took out the handful from Simon's punters. Here at least things seemed to be in order. Although they were one short of the ten he had hoped for, all the checks had gone through and the notepaper was, on the whole, what Simon referred to as “respectable.”
Laurie wasn't too sure about Mr. Gibbs, who wrote from Peep O'Day on a showy deckle edge stamped with two vivacious bikini-clad nymphettes playing with a beach ball, especially as he seemed to be bringing two wives. But Mrs. Saville (plain blue linen, raised Gothic script), Mr. Lewis (unadorned good-quality white), and the Gregorys (cream parchment distinguished by crossed magnifying glasses sejant and deerstalker crest over the words Grimpen Villas), were obviously made of the right stuff. Mrs. Gregory, who had rung up to ask about the food and other details, sounded really charming.
They were coming from Brize Norton, not too far away. But the Gibbses came from the North and Arthur Gillette from the even norther, namely Fishwick, Berwick on Tweed. So much, commented Simon bitterly, for the notion that no one would bother to travel far for a mere weekend.
On Thursday morning the costumes arrived and Laurie asked that the basket be placed in the washing-up annex off the kitchen. This was a vast room with a long deal table scrubbed white and much scarred in the center and three huge stone sinks linked by old wooden draining boards and used only when the flowers were being done. Three sides of the room had floor-to-ceiling mahogany cupboards filled with Mason's blue and yellow Regency Ironstone crockery. A hundred of everything including egg cups. Laurie, knowing the most her aunt ever did in the entertaining line was invite the Madingley Women's Institute to tea, once asked why she kept such an elaborate service. Mrs. Maberley had explained that one must keep up appearances.
“But no one knows they're there.”
“I know they're there, Laurel,” Aunt Maude had replied. “And that's what matters. Standards are maintained by all sorts of eccentric little practices. Like always wearing clean bloomers.”
Thinking of this formidable relative, even though she was by now safely in the middle of the Indian Ocean, made Laurie nervous. She was glad when Simon came back from the Mitre full of assurances as to the suitability of the interviewees, and they could turn their attention to the costumes. Simon had bought a long cigarette holder from Bowater's and lounged about with it while Laurie opened the basket.
The costumes, beautifully packed and shrouded with tissue, were beneath two boxes. Laurie lifted out the largestâand passed it to Simon who started greedily rustling through the paper. “It's hats!”
“What do we want hats for?”
“Here's yours.” Simon handed over a lamÃ© turban sporting white egret feathers secured by a glittering pin in the shape of a scimitar.
“I'm not wearing that!”
“Don't get acrimonious before we even start.” Simon delved again and came up with a boater and a large mustard-and-brown checked cap. “And this must be for me.” He put it on. Laurie shrieked. He took it off again. “Or possibly for Hugh. What's happened to him anyway? I thought he was coming for lunch.”
“He was. I expect he's got held up.” Laurie unpacked shoes, gloves, a sequined evening bag. “I must say they've done us proud.”
They turned their attention to the basket proper and Simon pulled out a canary-yellow waistcoat, a shirt patterned with winking foxes, brogues with lively questing tongues and snuff-colored plus fours. Laurie shrieked again. Simon took the clothes and laid them on the table next to Hugh's cap with such kindly reverence you would have thought them to be newly deceased, then brought out a swallowtail coat.
“Ah,” said Simon with deep satisfaction, “the butler's soup and fish. And this”âhe passed over a deep white piecrust frillâ“for the maid.”
Laurie placed it on her head. It fell straight down to the bridge of her nose and rested there. She bobbed. “Ow does oi look, zur?”
“Like a Neanderthal nun.” Simon slipped on a cream barathea dinner jacket and held the black braided trousers against his jeans. “How do I look?”
He looked very dishy but Laurie had no intention of saying so. “Like a shopsoiled gigolo. Where's the female equivalent?”
Simon waved a shimmering fall of ice-blue lamÃ© in front of his sister in the manner of a matador with a cape. She took it cautiously.
“It's a bit slippy. Rather beautiful though. Are these the shoes? Heavensâthey're like stilts.”
“The other day you were complaining because you're only five feet nothing.” Simon leaned across the basket and took his sister's hands. “Buck up, love. Try and enter into the spirit of the thing.”
“I shall look a right pig's ear in that lot.”
“Think of the money then. You'll be able to buy enough potting compost to cover the county. And seed trays. And cornsâ”
“Exactly,” said Simon with as much satisfaction as if he had just solved the Metternich-Carstairs equation. “Now we have”âhe hoiked out a coffee and cream geometrically patterned numberâ“your”âstudying the labelâ“tea gownâ”
“Tea gown! I don't believe it. You mean people actually changed for tea?”
“In some circles they still do.”
“Don't be so daft.”
“I suggest you wear it when welcoming them all tomorrow. You'll have to alter your makeup though. Or rather”âhe frowned at Laurie's freckled, sunburned countenanceâ¦ “start wearing some. Ruby-red lipstick was all the crack, I believe, if those god-awful magazines in the attic are anything to go by. Plus a very thin arched browâ”
“I have no intention of plucking my eyebrows.”
“Well, you can't swan around in backless lamÃ© with the ones you've got. They're like overhanging eaves.”
“They're fine.” Laurie smoothed the glossy dark wings with a fingertip. “And if the success of our whole enterprise depends onâ” She was interrupted by the shrill ring of a bell, cried “That's Hugh!” and ran into the hall.
The telephones at Madingley Grange had been installed in the forties and were great heavy Bakelite things with a receiver that put real demands on the muscles of the forearm. Laurie heaved it up to her ear. “Hugh? Where are you?”
“Still in Gloucester, darling. I'm most awfully sorry. The thing is, halfway to the station the Land-Rover blew a fuse or a gasket or whatever it is they blowâ¦and we had to wait simply hours before someone cameâ”
“Pacey was driving. I meanâsomeone had to return the thing.”
“They've got more than one car, surely?”
“Yes, but by the time we'd made it back to the Hall, Sir Piers had left with Frobisher in the Rolls, Nanny had gone in the Mini to visit Nanny Pargeter in Chipping Campden and Lady Kettersley-Gore had taken the Rover out shopping.”
“That's a bit quixotic, isn't it?”
“What?” A puzzled pause. “And by the time a car did become available it was too late to get a train that would connect to Oxford.”
“What about Betsy?”
“Toby's borrowed her pro tem. You're not miffed, are you, darling?” continued Hugh. “You sound a bitâ¦wellâ¦ distantâ¦”
“Hugh,” said Laurie, struggling to hold her voice steady and choosing her words with care. “You know our murder weekend starts tomorrow. I shall need all the help and moral support that I can get. Nowâyou will be here by teatime at the very latest, won't you?” In spite of her resolve, Laurie's voice broke on the last sentence and panic rushed through the gap.
“Positively. Although I'm sure you've got everything organized.”
“Well, I think I've got the food sorted. The costumes are a scream. We've laid out your plus fours.”
There was a brief hiatus; just long enough for a man who has received a nonfatal body blow to fall to the ground and pick himself up again, then Hugh said: “There must be something wrong with this line. For a minute I thought you said you'd laid out my plus fours.”
“Ohhh, noâ¦” replied Laurie, sensing a possible slackening of enthusiasm in her intended. “I saidâ¦umâ¦It's lovelyâ¦ outdoors.”
“Is it? It's raining buckets here.”
When Laurie returned to the annex Simon said: “You look shattered. Explain.” Laurie explained. “What's he doing down there anyway?”
“Toby Kettersley-Gore is his best friend. They were at Greshams together. Hypaetia and Poppy are Toby's sisters. Surely you remember Pacey. She was my best friend.”
“What do you mean, âmmm' ?”
“Perhaps he's succumbed to all that propinquity.”
“Rubbish. Poppy's a revolting little beast with pigtails who used to put toads in my bed when I went to stay. And Pacey's teeth stick out and she's always rushing at people.”
“How long is it since you've seen her?”
“A yearâ¦eighteen monthsâ¦”
“She might have got them fixed by now. And some men like being rushed at.”
Laurie ignored him, emptied the basket and started carrying the costumes upstairs.
t twelve noon on Friday Simon, having spaced the croquet hoops out on the lawns and cleaned the mallets, was preparing to drive into Oxford and collect the hired help.
“Don't forget,” he said to Laurie as he climbed into the bus, “you're the chatelaine and you do the bossing about. Use a firm hand. And no kindly queries about his gout or suggestions that she put her feet upâOK?” He paused, studying her frowning face. “Now what?”
“Do you think I'll have time before you get back to pinch out the tomatoes?”
“Don't you dare go anywhere near that greenhouse! Or that filthy herbaceous border. You'll never get the upper hand if they arrive and find you standing around with straws in your hair.”
So after lunch Laurie scrubbed her nails, got out of her old dungarees and into her periwinkle-blue frock. As she waited nervously in the hall she practiced an “in charge” voice and kept telling herself that he who paid the piper called the tune. She wished she wasn't quite so hazy as to what butlers actually did. She knew for certain only that they opened doors, received visitors' outer garments and rolled around smoothly on little wheels bearing silver trays.