Authors: Caroline Graham
Rosemary sneaked a sidelong glance at the old lady, who had drawn open a silk reticule and was efficiently stripping the transparent wrapping off a large pork pie.
“She doesn't have a lot of pleasure,” continued Violet, “but you show her a dead body and watch her face light up.”
“Well,” said Rosemary nervously. “As long as it isn't mine.”
“Ooohâshe's sharp,” cried Fred. “Who's been round the knife box then?”
An attractive woman with smooth auburn hair climbed aboard, followed by a man wearing, in spite of the warmth of the day, a long overcoat. Fred declaimed: “This way for Castle Dracula.” Then introduced himself. “Gibbs is the name. Gibbs, Gibbs and Gibbs. Or in the vernacular, Fred, Vi and Mother.”
Sheila Gregory gave a chilly smile. Her husband turned and gazed piercingly at his new acquaintance. The cloth of his coat was a neat lovat check and the garment had a brief cape attached. He also wore a deerstalker, the flaps tied beneath his chin. He had a long, rather pointed nose which quivered slightly when he spoke, and he carried a violin case.
“You're dressed for it then, Sherlock,” continued Fred, giving the deerstalker a complicit nod. “This your Watson? He looks a touch iffy. I wouldn't like to bend down when he's around.”
“There's always one, isn't there?” muttered Sheila to her husband, who responded by lifting a schoolmasterly finger of restraint.
“Any more for the
, Cap'n?” queried the ship's joker.
Simon's reply was courteous but slightly distant. He had still not fully recovered from his first sight of Gibbs, Gibbs and Gibbs. How on earth people of that stamp came to be reading
was quite beyond his comprehension. Probably wrapped around their chips. “We're waiting for Mr. Gillette. And Mr. Lewisâhis train was due a few minutes ago.”
Two men now approached the bus, both with heavy bags. Mr. Lewis staggered under the weight of his; Mr. Gillette's was rolling meekly in his wake on little wheels. Like Mr. Gregory he carried a musical instrument case; long, narrow and round at one end. He refused to let Simon take this and tripped over it as he climbed the steps.
Mr. Lewis boarded first, ducking his head shyly at his fellow passengers. He wore a light grey suit and had a sweet, rather owlish look due largely to a lot of fluffy hair and round horn-rimmed spectacles. He settled behind the Gregorys, the back of his neck turning pink as he felt himself to be observed. Mr. Gillette (pale flannels, blazer) removed his boater and sat next to Mr. Lewis, who started nervously at the contact.
Fred, no doubt determined that the newcomers should not be left in ignorance of his family's appellation, either in or out of the vernacular, rose to his feet. As he did so Simon violently slammed the lid of the trunk.
“Aaaahhhâ¦!!!” cried Fred, slumping back in his seat. “They got me, Vi. I'm a gonerâ¦”
“Don't set me off,” said Violet with a hint of a rollick. “You know what I'm like.”
“Mother of God”âher husband clutched his chestâ“Is this the end of Freddo?”
“It'll certainly be the end of me,” said Mrs. Saville crisply, not bothering to lower her voice, “if I have to put up with much more of this.” She ignored Rosemary's hushings. “If you had come to Bath as I suggested, we could be in the Palm Court at the Royal Georgian by now, having an aperitif.”
“They give you the runs,” the old lady informed everyone. “Aperitifs.” She smacked her chops over the last crumb of pork pie, rolled the wrapping up into a tight ball and flicked it the length of the bus. It hit Simon on the back of the head as he was getting into the driver's seat.
“The gang's all here then?” demanded Fred.
Their cap'n forbore to reply. He drove off, making his way as quickly as the traffic would allow through Oxford, then taking the B480 for Toot Balden before branching off to Madingley. Many remarks were passed about the beauty of the landscape and Simon wondered who would be the first to say: “And so convenient for the M40.” It was Mr. Gillette.
“Have you done a murder weekend before?” asked Mrs. Gibbs, determinedly friendly to the couple in the front seat.
“Not precisely,” replied Derek Gregory. “But I am by way of being an afâ”
“You'll love it. Won't he, Fred?”
“He will that.”
“You're old hands then?” inquired Sheila politely.
“Old hands?” Mr. Gibbs made a clucking noise at the roof of the bus as if expecting it to burst into vocal support. “Old hands? I should think we are old hands. You'll have to get up early to beat us to the draw.”
At this remark Mr. Gregory sneered. His lip lifted, his nostrils widened and his whole face assumed an expression of the most infinite superiority. Mrs. Saville, sitting at an angle behind him, noticed this and, so precisely did it illustrate her own state of mind, warmed to him immediately.
“D'you remember that weekend,” Violet compounded her husband's felony, “when the victim got murdered twice? He were garrotted at breakfast, then given the kiss of life, then stabbed to death in the Palatine Lounge.”
“That weren't a murder weekend,” replied her husband. “That were a sunshine break. At Billericay.”
The coach sped on.
Simon had known Madingley Grange nearly all his life and was so used to its appearance that he was quite unprepared for the sudden gasps of surprise and murmurs of appreciation as the last curve in the road through the surrounding parkland was negotiated and the house suddenly swung into view. He tried to see it through his passengers' eyes and failed, merely observing to himself that hideousness on such a profoundly confident and flamboyant scale must surely be some sort of virtue in its own right. He was sorry to see, as he bumped over the drawbridge, that the swans were round the back, but one of the peacocks made up for this by elegantly sauntering into view as Simon crunched to a halt by the iron-studded main doors.
For the umpteenth time he congratulated himself on his idea of a thirties setting. The trio on the steps (where was Hugh?) could have stepped straight out of an early Christie. Reading from left to rightâGaunt, grave of feature in his swallowtailsâ¦Bennet, thin as the wind, lips clamped respectfully together, graying hair scraped back under her starched cap. And Laurieâ¦
Good old Laurie, thought Simon. She really has gone to town. His sister was wearing the geometric-patterned silk dress and high-heeled shoes. Her normally glowing complexion had quieted down to a smooth peach and her glossy wine-dark lips were parted in a determined smile.
Simon slid open the door of the bus and jumped down, suffused with satisfaction at the appropriateness of it all. And if there isn't a body in the library, he thought, by this time tomorrow, it won't be due to any lack of initiative on my part. He walked around to the trunk and started taking out the cases. Gaunt and Bennet flowed forward to assist.
Laurie greeted the first guest to descend: “HulloâI'm Laurel Hannaford. Welcome to Madingley Grange,” and found herself shaking a hand like a damp flounder. It belonged to a tall man now arched into a comma of eager salutation. He had round watery green eyes and a thick, dry, shaggy moustache like a little straw mop.
“I'm Arthur Gillette, known as Gilly. Hard G of course.” He gave a high-pitched, neighing laugh,
” and Laurie, imagining it ringing from the rafters for the next forty-eight hours, flinched.
She said: “I do hope your stay will be a happy one.” She had learned half a dozen opening gambits while waiting and now realized that she had completely forgotten the other five. I'm going to sound like a parrot, she thought, by the time we've got them all safely stowed away.
A pretty, hard-faced girl alighted next, followed by a tall woman of formidable aspect. She looked around, seeming especially taken with the gargoylesâno doubt in some kind of subliminal recognition.
“Delightful,” she exclaimed. “A noble house.”
Then came an aesthetic-looking man pointing like a gun-dog. The sun glinted on his steel-rimmed glasses and he gazed up at the great doors and dusty ivy in a seemingly ecstatic trance. “Marvelousâ¦marvelousâ¦Baskerville Hall to the lifeâ¦”
“Derekâyou're blocking everyone's way.”
Simon instructed Gaunt to show the Gregorys to the Vuillard room and they went off together, Derek still quite moony with delight. Gawping his way through the hall he bumped into a pedestal on which stood a large yellow and turquoise Chinese vase. Sheila caught it just in time.
Mother got stuck on the steps again. Laurie, alarmed, amused and repelled in equal measure by this occurrence, tried to help. Eventually the old lady came out with a forceful pop like a champagne cork and Laurie staggered back under the impact.
“Put that lady down.” Fred started as he meant to go on. “You don't know where she's been.”
“Pleased to meet you, dear.” Violet shook hands. “You'll be glad to get your breath back.”
“You and your husband are in the Hogarth suite,” said Laurie, once she had. “I thought as there were three of you you might appreciate a sitting room. And the other Mrs. Gibbs is just across the landing. Simon,” she added loudly, “will help you with your luggage.”
Simon, on the point of disappearing, came back rather tight about the mouth, and picked up two cases.
“Aaahhhâ¦” Violet sighed over one of the peacocks now making its stately way across the drawbridge. “Look at his lordship. Isn't he lovely? If you ask him, will he open his tail?”
“I'm afraid not.” Laurie's hard-won confidence fled. She felt an abject failure, convinced that the next two days would be full of people asking her to do and arrange things that were quite impossible.
“He's not trained then?”
“No.” She strove to justify such shameful lack of zeal. “They're very independent.”
“Mind of his own, has he?” said Fred. “You got to be firm with animals. Show them who's boss.”
“He's always had a way with dumb creatures.”
“Can't have a happy marriage otherwise, my love.” Fred stretched out his hand to the peacock. “Come on thenâ¦chuck, chuckâ¦”
The bird stopped, gave Mr. Gibbs a look of unspeakable disdain and made a mess on the planks. Mortified, Laurie turned her attention to the final guest and immediately a little of her confidence returned. For here was someone as shy and constrained as herself.
Mr. Lewis dropped his jacket, missed shaking hands and blushed. They exchanged tentative smiles and Laurie led the way to the Watteau room, where she left him standing with his suitcase in the middle of an expanse of aubusson and looking, she thought, rather endearingly lost.
t had been Aunt Maude's conceit to name each bedroom at the Grange after a famous artist and illustrate accordingly. But as Uncle George's reserves would not stretch to even the most modest original canvas of a famous artist, an Oxford painter had been hired to copy the works to be placed in situ. The results, though pleasant enough to an untutored eye, would not have fooled the serious gallery goer for a moment. Mrs. Maberley, however, quite unabashed, would describe them firmly to visitors as “My Renoir” or “My Degas,” and woe betide the first to quibble.
Later, in the Greuze room, beneath an overly vivacious representation of
The Spoiled Child
, Mrs. Saville surveyed her daughter critically.
“I don't know why it is, but even when young people get the costume and cosmetics and hairstyles of another period absolutely right, they still look unconvincing.” Complacently resplendent in coffee lace, Mrs. Saville had replaced her diamond earrings with star sapphires. Now she crossed to the dressing table and opened a black velvet case lined with crinkle satin.
“Mummyâ¦” Rosemary asked for the umpteenth time, “are you sure you wouldn't rather sleep in that adjoining room?”
“Quite sure, thank you, darling.”
“Onlyâthis opening directly on to the corridor might be noisier. People going by and so on.”
“I must have a room with a window,” declared Mrs. Saville. “You know me and fresh air.”
“That is an end to the matter, Rosemary.” Mrs. Saville removed a dazzling necklace from the case and returned to her original theme. “Our family have always understood the art of the ensemble. Your grandmother's tea gowns were the talk of Fuller's.”
“I couldn't have stood the underwear. Rubber suspenders, metal hooks and eyes. And all that slithery stockinette. Ugh.”
“Fasten this, please.”
Dutifully Rosemary came forward and took hold of the necklace. The clasp was two large flattish oval pearls. She linked them together, then stood at her mother's side facing the cheval glass. A long moment passed while Mrs. Saville admired Mrs. Saville and Rosemary admired her inheritance.