Authors: Caroline Graham
When Sheila Gregory had pointed out, with a derisory snigger, the advertisement for “A Murder Weekend: Thirties Style,” her husband's excitement had known no bounds. Ignoring her wails of protest he had booked up there and then and rushed out to post the letterâreturning with a brand-new deerstalker, bringing the grand total to seventeen.
Sheila had moaned and sulked and grumbled, but then Derek handed her a blank check to hire the appropriate costumes, which cheered her up no end. For although Derek was comfortable (very comfortable indeed), prizing the stuff out of him was about as easy as prizing open the door to the Royal Mint.
She watched him now, dressed for dinner but still wearing the Holmesian headgear. He had played a little Bercuse, very badly, on his violin, packed his pipe (the long cherrywood) with Bulwark tobacco and was now prowling happily about, leaving trails of smoke on the air behind him. He halted, directing a proprietorial gaze out at the park and the long avenue of pleached limes.
“Ah, Sheila,” he declaimed with as much satisfaction as if he had planted them all himself, “look at those elms. They're soâ¦immemorial.”
“They are,” agreed Sheila, powdering her retroussÃ© nose. “At least the ones that haven't keeled over with the Dutch clap.”
She studied her complexion closely. Sheila had the pale skin and freckles that often go with red hair, although the latter were invisible at the moment beneath a film of liquid ivory makeup. Her hair rippled gently into marcelle waves and was restrained at two points by diamantÃ© butterflies. She wore a cream-velvet floor-length dress with a little fantail train and three scarlet poppies pinned to one shoulder. Her lips were as red as the flowers and very thin, giving the lie to the commonly held notion that all voluptuaries had mouths that were rich and full, for Sheila had a very passionate nature. A fact of which her husband was largely unaware. She hung up her day clothes in the splendid mahogany wardrobe, then crossed to the bed, unzipped Derek's bloodhound pajama case and laid out his nightshirt.
“You should let the maid do that.”
“What a pair. That butlerâ¦he looks as if he were built into the foundations.”
“They are marvelous,” admitted Derek. Personally he had been rather hoping for a butler with a hump but life couldn't always live up to expectations. He resumed his prowling, stopping occasionally to tap on the carved, paneled wall. He pressed his ear close to a particularly bucolic scene as if hoping to catch the sounds of distant revelry. He had the strangest ears: large and pink and so thin they seemed almost transparent. They stuck out from each side of his head like fine shavings of gammon. Sheila had often thought that if ever pigs did have wings they'd look just like Derek's ears.
“I can't understand this.” He knocked loudly on a plowman hopefully rampant. “There must be a hollow somewhere. They're full of secret passages, these old housesâ¦”
“I wouldn't say this one's all that old.”
“It was in a room precisely like this, Sheila, that Doctor Bellini was found strangled. With an oxhide whip of singular strength and a clubbed ostrich foot for a handle.”
“The things some people collect.”
“The murderer escaped through a priest's hole.”
“A neat trick. Your jacket could do with a brushâ”
“Surely you remember,” urged Derek, taking off his dinner jacket and handing it over. “He stole a ruby from Count Markovitch. On the verge of discovery he flung it into the moat and came back for it later.”
Sheila frowned. “Was the ruby the size of a pigeon's egg?”
“The Case of the Constipated Moorhen.”
“Brilliant, wasn't it?”
Sheila only half remembered. Derek always read a chapter of a whodunit aloud each night before going to sleep. His wife, who would have preferred something a bit more on the athletic side, could never tell one from another. They all joined up into a never-ending stream of blunt instruments, clueless domestics, rare poisons, sinister daggers (always exquisitely wrought) and little gray cells. Often the plucky ingenue would break down at the end of some exceptionally stringent interrogation and cry: “I can't take much more of this!” and Sheila knew exactly how she felt.
She removed a magnifying glass from the pocket of the jacket, handed it back and picked up her shawl. This was a beautiful fringed eau-de-nil silk painted with tiger lilies and ferns. When she had arranged it to her satisfaction she told Derek it was nearly seven-thirty and why didn't he go and brush his hair. He did not reply. She turned to discover him standing stockstill in the middle of the mom, his nose twitching.
“Sheilaâwe are being watched.”
“Don't be silly. Why on earth should we be watched?”
“I can feel themâ¦” His voice sank sepulchrally. “Eyes following me around the room.”
“But you're not moving round the room. You're standing still.”
Derek, who had been facing the wardrobe, wheeled about. To the left of the four-poster was a somber oil painting of a very old man in judge's robes. Derek narrowed his eyes. He picked up the dressing-table stool and approached the painting by sidling sideways, dropping on his knees for the last couple of yards. Then he put the stool directly beneath the frame, climbed onto it and placed the tips of his index fingers on the judge's painted pupils. Crying: “Now we'll see who watches who!” he poked hard. There was a soft tearing sound.
“Oh, my God!” gasped Sheila. “What have you done? That might be worth thousands.”
“Nonsense.” Derek climbed down, briskly dusting off his hands. “The fabric was completely rotten; it's as old as the hills. They've probably been waiting for years for a chance to get rid of it. And we are”âhe roamed off into the en-suite bathroomâ“definitely under surveillance. I feel extremely discomposed. I wonder”âhe removed tooth mugs, paste and brushes from a shelfâ“if this mirror's two-way.”
“Don't touch it!” cried Sheila with such urgency that Derek abandoned any idea of unscrewing the glass from the wall and contented himself by merely draping it with a towel.
“I think we should go now,” continued his wife, “while there's still a stick or stone undamaged.” She crossed to the door and, as Derek prepared to follow, halted him. “Derek, we are about to attend a formal dinner on a lovely summer evening in a beautiful country houseâ¦”
“So take that ridiculous hat off.”
It was nearly seven. Bennet was turning down the sheets, leaving Gaunt briefly, magically alone. He reckoned each operation would take a good five minutes. Four to locate the bed, one to do the folding. Sometimes his brother's appalling eyesight could be a positive advantage.
Now Gaunt came into the vast kitchen, closing the door behind him with great care. The room, full of fragrant smells and the soft plop and bubble of simmering food, appeared to be empty, but he still checked the walk-in broom cupboard and washing-up annex before approaching the portable oven and easing open the vitreous enamel door a minim at a time, as if afraid it might creak. He peeped inside and let out a hiss of relief. Finding a hiding place had been a matter of some urgency and Gaunt had known, even as he stashed away the life-enhancing juniper juice, that the oven left a lot to be desired. It was so square and white and visible. Exactly the sort of place a certain person might suss first.
Gaunt resented deeply Ben's lack of faith. Really, it gave a man no encouragement to try. And Gaunt was trying. He had been cutting down for three weeks. He was pacing himself, preparing his lights and liver and other dependent tissue for the sustained shock which a gradual change in the constituency of their amniotic fluids must inevitably bring. For gradual the procedure had to be. You could not just suddenly stop imbibing alcohol. Gaunt had done this once (one Easter Sunday morning) to please his mother and had become a trembling heap of flummoxed jelly by lunchtime. No, easy was definitely the way to do it. Something the rest of the family either couldn't or wouldn't understand.
He unscrewed the cap from the gin bottle and looked around for a drinking receptacle. Nearest to hand was a cream jug. He filled this and drank the contents down, pausing to breathe halfway. Then he replaced the cap, puckered his forehead up into a frown of concentration and, Beefeaters in hand, started to wander round the room. But the more he wandered the more bereft did the kitchen seem of bottle-shaped nooks and crannies. Then he spotted a largeish stone crock that proved to be three quarters full of flour. There was a little brass scoop inside. Using this, Gaunt made a space, laid the gin tenderly to rest and covered it with the displaced flour. The cream jug had provided such a generous helping of nourishing reserves that Gaunt felt he might not need refueling till the morrow. But just in caseâ¦
A savage sudden ringing in his ears made him jump and another quick nip was necessary before he was able to once more take up his duties and answer the telephone.
The library at Madingley Grange was rarely used. The pristine books in their diamond-paned cases seemed never to have been sullied by anything so coarse as the perusal of the human eye. They were all in sets: leather bound, gold tooled. Sets of encyclopedias and sets of Dickens. Sets of Thackeray, Trollope and Austen. Though the various authors were bound in different cloths, the effect, even allowing for the thrusting scarlet BrontÃ«s, was virginal throughout.
“I think Uncle George bought them by the yard, don't you?” Laurie asked her brother. “Six of brown, three of green and one of red to brighten the dark corners. Isn't it sad there are no children's books?”
“What's sad about not having children? Grotty little pests.”
“No shabby Nesbits with cocoa stains and trapped cookie crumbs. No
Wind in the Willows
. No Poohâ”
“Oh, do shut up.”
“We're all nervous.”
“You're not nervous. You wouldn't be nervous if someone was pushing you off a
Laurie gave her damp lace handkerchief a wring, noticed the appalling state of her nails and tucked her hands out of sight. “It's the thought of them all up there rampaging about.”
“Nobody's rampaging. It's as silent as the grave.”
“Oh, Godâso it is!” Laurie sprang to her feet. “Why is it so quiet? What are they all doing?”
“Getting ready for dinner, I expect. Sit down.” Simon waved his long shagreen cigarette holder at her, and Laurie reluctantly sat, saying: “Then there's the cheese.”
“It's a full-time job keeping up with you. What cheese?”
“A pound of Double Gloucester for tomorrow
after lunch on Sunday. What if someone wants some tonight?”
“Thought you said the freezer was full.”
“You can't freeze cheese.”
“Family hold back then. I must say”âSimon smiled, hoping to jolly up the atmosphereâ“you look smashing in that shiny thing.”
“I don't feel it.” This was true. Blue lamÃ© slithered and slipped on chestnut leather. “I feel I'm going to start squeaking any minute.” To add to her discomfort Laurie was aware that her deep suntan stopped a good six inches from the neck of her dress. And that her recalcitrant hair, at the moment confined in a silver turban (sans egret), was just waiting its chance to sneak past those rigorous folds and bound about every which way.
“Hugh will be struck all of a heap,” continued Simon. “Where is he anyway?”
“How should I know?”
“I see.” Simon lifted his lip rodent fashion and stuck out his front teeth.
“You don't âsee' anything. Pacey isn't like that.”
“All girls are like that given half a chance.”
“Haven't you got anything to do?”
“All done. I've even managed to dig up some beer and a spot of Guinness for the god-awful Gibbses.”
“They're not awful. Mr. Gibbs was telling me he has a large business.”