Authors: Caroline Graham
It really was the most magnificent piece. One large diamond blazed, subduing the fire from eight smaller gems. These shone in a setting of seed pearls and sapphires. Mrs. Saville had a superb swoop of a bosom. It started directly beneath the hollow of her neck and finished just a smidgen above what, if only a hint of indentation had been present, could have passed for her waist. As this splendid curvature rose and fell, the necklace oscillated and every color of the rainbow flashed into incandescent life. Darting and dazzling, blinding the eye, stopping the breath, filling the heart with wonder.
“I must say”âshe gave the jewels a final soothing pat as if to settle them for the nightâ“I'm pleasantly surprised by the standard of hygiene.” She wrapped a lace hankie around her little finger and ran it over the bedside table. Not a speck. “Fresh flowers too. And chocolate Bath Olivers. A really thoughtful touch.”
“The sheets smell of lavender.” Then, catching sight of a blue and white package next to her mother's evening bag, “Oh Mummyâ¦” Rosemary's voice filled with irritation. “You haven't brought your cards.”
“Of course. In a civilized gathering there are bound to be enough people to make up a rubber.”
“You only played on Thursday.”
“I did not play on Thursday. The game was canceled. Davina Bingley's mother, if you recall.”
“Mmm.” Rosemary twirled slowlyâeasily distracted by her own image. The sea-green dress was heaven, the slashed hem coming to eight deep points, each weighted with a single pearl, but were the shoes, especially dyed, a precise match?
“I intend to put plenty of distance between myself and those dreadful tinkers from the North.” Mrs. Saville made the North sound like the city of Dis. “We shall be lucky if they don't eat with their fingers.”
“That might not be so easy, darling,” said Rosemary, pulling a wisp of chiffon through her thin jade bangle. “I don't think there's anyone else here but the minibus load.”
Mrs. Saville blenched. “Surely,” she cried, aghast, “you're mistaken.”
“I'll check, shall I?” Rosemary dashed to the door. “Easily done. I'll count the places in the dining room.”
“Shan't be a sec.”
“Have you tidied your hands?” But she spoke to the air for Rosemary had gone. Pausing to reflect briefly on how apposite was her installation in a room boasting a portrait of
The Spoilt Child
, Mrs. Saville picked up her bag and checked its contents.
Powder, lipstick, comb, scent bottle. She crossed to the dressing table, opened her vanity case and extracted a tiny flask of lavender smelling salts. By the end of the evening she felt she might well be needing them.
In the bedroom of the Hogarth suite, happily innocent of the opprobrium their presence was causing to seethe in a bosom not a million miles away, the family Gibbs was getting into what Fred called their carnival clobber. Violet feeling the suggested thirties to be “a bit drab and warmongery,” they had opted for the roaring twenties. Fred had put on a brightly checked “bounder” jacket, then spoiled the period effect by adding a modern tie: a satin affair displaying a pair of female legs ending in sequined evening sandals kicking a champagne glass from which tumbled the letters OO-LA-LA!
“How do I look then?”
Fred turned and watched his wife, a positive delirium of cerise satin, orange feathers and swinging beads all balanced on legs like fat rosy sausages. “Beautiful, my duck. You'll be able to dance a right fandango in that lot.” He paused. “Give us a smile then.”
But Violet, finishing her turn, remained serious and thoughtful. “I'm worried about the girls.”
“Don't start again. We had enough of that on the train. Consuela can cope.”
“Emerald's got that rash.”
“It's nothingâI told you.”
“She might give it to the others.”
“Course she won't. Don't talk so daft.” Fred, having crossed to the fireplace, seized on
The Countess's Morning Levee
for a snappy change of subject. “Who's Hogarth when he's buying a round?”
“How should I know?”
“They were a comical lot.” He studied the picture more closely. “There's a bloke here in long pink drawers and his hair in curlers.”
“That's always gone on.”
“Suppose you're right. I've often wonderedâ¦you know? There's money in itâ¦”
“Certainly not, Fred. That sort of thing's disgusting.” Firmly Violet moved on. “Your mother's very quiet.”
mother!” Fred staggered in simulated amazement. “I thought she were your mother. All these years we've been putting up with herâ”
“Go and see what she's up to.”
Mother was on the sofa in the adjoining sitting room. Encased in iridescent jet, she glittered like a huge black beetle. Her mandibles moved rhythmically and she was clutching her reticule. Fred popped his head round the door.
“You're never still on the chomp. What you got now?”
The old lady opened her mouth, removed the remains of a bull's-eye, held it up between the thumb and forefinger of a knobbly mittened hand and popped it back.
“You won't want your supper.” Mrs. Gibbs made a loud sucking noise. “And you behave yourself when we get downstairsâall right?”
At his stern tone the old lady affected bewilderment and gave a timid smile. Beneath the little gray moustache, her remaining teeth showed, yellow and strong like tiny tusks, giving her the air of a puzzled walrus.
“You needn't look at me like that,” Fred went on. “You know what I'm on about. You try anythingâanything at allâ and home you go, toot sweet.”
“I'm as good as gold,” said the walrus.
“That'll be the day.”
“It's haunted, this place.”
“You reckon?” Fred's question was cushioned by respect. The words extrasensory perception could have been invented for his mother.
“I can smell it. Strong. Like raspberry jam on the boil.”
“Blimey.” Fred returned to the bedroom, closing the door carefully. “She says the Grange is haunted.”
“That should add a few laughs to the weekend then.”
“She is clean, 'ent she? You did check?”
“Course I did. Both her handbag and her suitcase. Clean as a whistle.”
Violet, having discovered the cookie barrel, was tucking in. The pretty little handwritten card said: “Drinks on the terrace at seven thirty,” but that was ages yet.
Her husband, saying: “You're as bad as she is,” opened the window and stepped out on the balcony to give the scenery a going over. “Gorr, Violet,”âhe shaded his eyes explorer fashionâ“you could hang a fair bit of washing out here.”
“The sort of people who live in these places don't have washing.”
“They must be a right mucky lot then.”
“Turn your socks down, Fred. You look as if nobody owns you. And have a Bath Oliver.”
“I've had a bath,” came the reply, quick as a wink. “And me name's not Oliver.”
While Violet munched and her husband obligingly made a neat cuff on each sock, Mother was sitting very still on her sofa in front of a little papier-mÃ¢chÃ© bezique table. The room was silent but for the silken slap and flutter of playing cards. The old lady halved a deck and lifted two horny thumbs. A lightning streak of white, a whir and the pack was whole again. Then in a flash it became a fan and, just as quickly, a tall tower.
Mrs. Gibbs flung her arms wide. The cards leaped from her right hand into a perfect arc and fell, slap flutter, into her left. She halved the pack again, zipped them together and laid out in one swift movement a line of seven facedown. She turned the first one over and was treating it to an intent, almost votive, scrutiny when a sound from the other room disturbed her concentration. The cards flew into the folds of her skirts like startled birds, and by the time her son and his wife came in, Mother's hands were clasped innocently in her lap and her face shone with an almost saintly demureness.
Rosemary dashed along the corridor and, without waiting to knock, burst into the Watteau room.
The young man with the round glasses jumped up from the window seat and came toward his visitor only to be almost knocked off his feet by the exuberance of her embrace.
“I've only got a sec. Ohhâ¦” She eyed him up and down, her expression ecstatic. “You look too, too divine. Goshâ” staring at his feet. “What are they?”
Martin looked down too. “Spats.”
“You don't wear spats with evening dress.”
“Of course not. You must take them off at once.”
“OK.” He returned to the window seat and started unbuttoning. Rosemary joined him, saying: “Isn't it wonderful? We're actually truly positively here.”
“So we are.”
“What did you think of Mummy?'
“Wellâ¦” Martin hesitated. He felt it would hardly delight his fiancÃ©e should he reveal his true opinion, which was that Mrs. Saville's profile had struck him as so alarming that he would prefer in future to view only its muted reflection, perhaps on the surface of a tea tray. “Hard to say, really. From a quick glimpse.”
“I had a terrible job getting her to come. She only agreed because I swore I'd given you up. Now you've got two whole days to make a good impression, starting tonight at dinner.”
“What if I'm not sitting next to her?'
“Use your initiative.”
“Or a megaphone. Ha-ha.”
“This is serious, Martin.”
“Have you got your toadying list?”
“Yes.” Martin slapped his breast pocket. “But I wish you wouldn't call it that. Makes me feel all oily.”
“Recite, please. Her favorite things. Nineteenth-century chinaâ¦”
“Nineteenth-century China. The charm of the Pekingese. Historical biography. Composersâ¦umâ¦ Tchaikovskyâ¦”
. And stick strictly to the music.”
“No discussion of their enigmatic variations?”
“Definitely not. And she's an admiral's daughter, so keep off Jutland.”
“Rightâ¦card fanatic. Loves a game of whistâ”
. She plays bridge.”
“Oh, God.” Martin pulled out his bit of paper. “I shall never remember all this lot.”
“You don't have to. Just one or two topics to keep you going through dinner. Then you can refer back before you talk to her again. There'll be lots of other opportunities.”
“You don't think it might be better if I was moreâ¦ wellâ¦ spontaneous?”
“No, Martin. This is no time to rely on natural charm. Mummy may not even notice that you have any. Oh, and angelâ¦” She flung herself onto his chest again. “My room is the last but one on the other side of the corridor.”
“That end. I'm afraid it opens off Mother's. I tried to get the outside one but she wouldn't budge. Don't worry,” Rosemary added, for Martin had gone quite pale, “once she's asleep a ten-gun salute wouldn't bring her round. When she's gone off I'll open my door the teensiest bit and that'll be the signal for you to come, and oh, darling! we'll be together
“Righto,” said Martin.