Authors: Marian Babson
“I’ll see to him!” Spoiling for a fight, Martha charged down the hall. Any fight would do.
Cho-Cho prudently withdrew. I watched wistfully as she melted away like the Cheshire Cat. I wouldn’t mind disappearing myself.
There was a brief explosion of voices at the door, then determined footsteps striding towards us, followed by a protesting Martha.
I wouldn’t say he was the last person I wanted to see. By now, there were so many candidates for that honour that it would be difficult to choose any particular one.
“How did you get in downstairs?” Evangeline demanded.
“Chap going out held the door for me,” he said. “Bit of a wimp, if you ask me. Wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes on the frozen tundra.”
“Not everyone has your courage and stamina, Banquo,” Edytha said fondly.
“I wish to make a complaint to the management about the security around here.” Evangeline skewered Jasper with a steely look. “There isn’t any. This place leaks like a sieve!”
“That isn’t fair.” Jasper tried to defend himself. “Your guest let him in.”
“Not mine.” Evangeline switched her attack. “Hers!”
There I was, back in the direct line of fire. I wondered if there were a quiet amiable convent somewhere which would accept a peace-seeking applicant and her cat.
“Right!” Jasper frowned at me with something like an underlying relief. I was obviously much less intimidating than Evangeline. “You’ve got to be more careful. This just isn’t on.”
“You leave Mother alone!” Martha stormed to my defence. “She can’t be responsible for what other people do when she isn’t even there to see them do it.”
“Poor boy … there, there … poor boy…” In the background, a low monotonous murmur had begun. I was vaguely aware that Edytha was stroking Banquo’s brow. “Poor, dear boy…”
“The shock!” Banquo moaned. “The shock! I can’t believe it!” He waved a piece of paper he was clutching in one hand. “Tell me it isn’t true!”
“Poor boy … dear boy … I’m sorry … so sorry…”
I gathered that Jocasta was no longer required to break the bad news. That would be a relief for her. Perhaps we could all get back to something resembling normality now.
“And to do it so unfeelingly—” Edytha’s voice rose as she realised she had our attention. “So cruelly. Just a photocopy of the obituary … sent to you anonymously…”
Evangeline had gone very quiet. I suddenly put my finger on what had been wrong about her recounting of her afternoon yesterday before she met Dame Cecile. The library! When was the last time she had gone voluntarily into a library? She didn’t even know where one was. Easy enough to find out, however, and libraries kept back numbers of newspapers—and photocopying machines.
“Evangeline…?” I whispered.
“One could hardly sign it ‘from a well-wisher’. Could one?” She chose to defend the anonymity rather than the enormity of her action. Fortunately, she kept her voice low and Edytha had everyone’s full attention now.
“It should have been broken to you gently—”
“You should have told me.” He pulled away from her hand and glared at her accusingly. “Someone should have told me.”
“We were working towards it.” Edytha looked around in growing frustration. All this emotion—and not a camera to record it. This wasn’t going according to plan at all. “When the time was right…”
When they had talked Jocasta into doing their dirty work, she meant. When Tom was standing by with his camera to record every tragic reaction.
“You needed time to recover from the exertions of your expedition, to get back into the rhythm of everyday life before you had to face … something like that.
“And now,” Edytha announced, turning to us quite as though we were waiting breathlessly for her diagnosis, “he is in shock!”
Banquo, his head recaptured and buried in her shoulder, nodded so vigorously that she staggered and had to brace herself.
“He should be lying down in a darkened room,” she prescribed. “With a cool compress on his brow and a glass of warm milk with brandy and freshly grated nutmeg. Lots of nutmeg!”
She glared at us challengingly, obviously waiting for someone to jump to it. Martha stared back stonily.
Evangeline had frozen at the word “brandy”—he wasn’t getting any of hers.
“Now—” Edytha prodded. “He needs it
“Then you’d better get him home and see to it,” Evangeline said.
“He shouldn’t be moved,” Edytha insisted. “He’s too deep in shock. It’s a wonder he made it this far.”
“I had to see
.” Banquo’s voice was muffled. He tried to raise his head, but Edytha caught it and shoved it back into her shoulder.
“Told me … you were here … had to come…” His voice faded and choked off, probably from lack of oxygen as Edytha kept his face rammed against her.
“You see? He’s at the end of his endurance. After the ordeal he’s been through—to come home to this! If you haven’t a spare bed, he can take one of the sofas in the living room.”
“Oh, no, he can’t,” Evangeline countered. “We’re not having anyone else move in here!”
“And that’s final!” Martha agreed. Again, they were implacably alike—and dangerous.
must see…” Edytha swung to face me.
“No!” I wasn’t the weakest link people sometimes mistook me for. “No, no, a thousand times, no!” I just barely refrained from breaking into the song.
“You’re brutes—all of you!” But against our united front, Edytha wavered. “Then, at least, the warm milk and brandy before I take him out into the cold.”
“The cold shouldn’t be a problem,” Evangeline said. “He’s used to it.”
“Heartless.” Edytha paused, but we weren’t to be shamed into anything. “Just the brandy then. Surely you can do that much.”
“No.” We spoke as one. We wanted these people out of here as fast as possible.
“It’s all right,” a defeated voice said from the doorway. “I’ll see to it.”
I might have known Jocasta would have been behind the door listening. The sound of Banquo’s voice would have drawn her out of her refuge, however ill-advised the move. She might not have wanted to face him, but she wanted to see his face again. “Moth to the flame,” as the old subtitle used to say. He had been gone a long time and, poor child, she was badly smitten.
“We’re out of brandy,” Evangeline lied firmly.
“And there’s no more milk.” Martha backed her up.
If this went on, Edytha and Banquo might begin to get the idea that they weren’t welcome here. One could only hope.
“Really? That’s strange. I was sure there was—” Jocasta started for the fridge. Martha stepped in front of her, blocking her way.
Jasper had been awfully quiet during this whole confrontation. Not surprisingly, perhaps. The children of highly dramatic theatrical people learned at an early age to lie low and melt into the scenery when temperaments began flaring. They brooded a lot, though. I considered it a tribute to both Juanita, who had brought up Jasper because his parents were endlessly touring, and myself that neither Jasper nor Martha had ever wound up at juvenile hall as so many of their peers had.
“What happened?” Banquo wrestled himself free from Edytha’s encircling arm and came up for air. “Melisande was young, healthy, strong—how could she have died?”
“I don’t know!” Jocasta shrank back, shaking her head in denial. “They called it misadventure. Anaphylactic shock. At first they thought it was something she ate. But everyone ate the same thing—”
“Except you!” Edytha said pointedly.
“There wasn’t enough for me. Melisande ate the last piece.”
“Piece of what?” Banquo demanded. “She was allergic to nuts. I thought everyone knew that.”
“There were no nuts in the mushroom quiche,” Jocasta said. “That’s why they decided one of the students must have snacked on peanuts before class and then shaken hands with Melisande. Or perhaps just breathed on her too heavily. I never knew she was allergic to nuts. No one did—or, or it might not have happened.”
“Nonsense!” Edytha said. “We all found out at that terrible scene she threw at their engagement party. Just because Isolde offered her the Brazil nut crisps she’d made especially for the occasion. A disgraceful scene! The hysterics could be heard for miles around! No one could avoid knowing she was profoundly allergic.”
“I didn’t know. I wasn’t there. I never met Melisande—or any of you—until after the marriage.” There was a world of regret in Jocasta’s voice—and something else. Regret that she had not met Banquo first, but also a sad recognition that she could never have offered any competition to Melisande’s beauty, ambition—and money.
“A terrible, disgraceful,
scene!” Edytha reiterated. “You’d have thought Isolde did it on purpose! Poor Isolde was quite, quite shattered! Those Brazil nut crisps were her special party piece.”
“Brazil nut crisps?” Martha’s professional interest was aroused. “I haven’t seen a recipe for those in the files.”
“You wouldn’t. Isolde was magnanimous enough to offer it, but Melisande rejected it—quite rudely. She said she wouldn’t use anything she couldn’t test personally.”
“I noticed there were never nuts in any recipe,” Jocasta said. “But I thought perhaps it was because peanuts seemed to be the only available nuts you find when travelling.”
“I’ll try that recipe,” Martha said quickly. “If Isolde—”
“No need, I can tell you right now,” Edytha said. “Any of us could. We have reason enough to remember it.”
“Yes?” Martha was already reaching for her pencil.
“Just as many Brazil nuts as you think you need. Shelled, of course. Put them in a pan of cold water, bring it to the boil, simmer for three or four minutes. Then drain and slice them lengthwise—” She paused thoughtfully. “That’s the tricky bit—they slide around, so watch your fingers and the knife. Then just spread the slices out in a baking dish, dot with butter, sprinkle with salt, and bake in a moderate oven—”
“That would be about a hundred eighty degrees Celsius,” Martha translated, writing briskly, with one eye on Banquo, who looked as though he was coming to the boil himself.
“For fifteen minutes or so, stirring once in a while,” Edytha concluded.
“It sounds as though that would work under a grill, or even in a frying pan,” Martha said thoughtfully. “And olive oil could be used. I’ll check it out and—”
“What about her EpiPen?” Banquo boiled over. “She always carried one. Why didn’t she use that?”
“What’s an EpiPen?” said Evangeline, as well she might.
I’d wondered, too. She and I were of a generation where all these new problems had never existed. I wondered if it were true, the theory that claimed the present generation had sanitised themselves out of the protection a few healthy germs used to give.
“It’s a preloaded syringe, ready for use, with an extra-long needle so that it can be used through clothing.” Edytha knew. “She always carried one with her. So did I, when I was working with her.” Jocasta got another accusing glare.
“No one ever told me,” Jocasta said. “That must have been why she rushed to the ladies’ room. She wanted to inject herself in privacy when she realised what was happening. Only…” Her voice faltered. “Only it was too late…”
“Oh, what does it matter?” Banquo threw out his arms dramatically. “Melisande is gone. My darling—dead! And I—I am left alone. Bereft! Robbed of my expectations, my plans, my future!”
It hadn’t done Melisande any good either.
“Poor boy…” Edytha’s hand snaked towards his brow again. “Poor, dear boy…”
“Gone!” He moved out of reach, a flicker of irritation in his eyes. This was
scene and he was not going to be upstaged. “The love of my life! My soul mate!”
He had a use for his brow himself. He smote it—actually smote it. I hadn’t seen a gesture like that since the days of the old silents.
“Dear boy, don’t upset yourself so. You’ll make yourself ill.”
myself ill? I
ill! Heartsick. Heartbroken. The only woman I ever loved is dead. I am dead, too. My life is over. There is nothing left for me until I join my darling Melisande in the grave. No other woman will ever touch my heart again. I will never love again!”
Jocasta gave a strangled sob and stumbled towards her room. Edytha didn’t look any happier herself.
“My next expedition shall be my last!” Banquo declared. “I will make sure I do not return!”
“Can we depend on that?” Evangeline murmured.
That did it. Edytha glared at her and laid a possessive hand on Banquo’s arm.
“Come away, dear boy,” she urged. “You need rest, a calming tisane, and a place of refuge to restore yourself. The atmosphere here is unsympathetic. The vibes are—” She shot a venomous glance at the retreating Jocasta. “Evil. Unhealthy. Poisonous!”
She began to shepherd Banquo down the hallway, then stopped, seeming to notice that something—or someone—was missing. She turned to focus expectantly on Jasper.
“Well, come along,” she ordered. “We’re leaving now.”
“Er, I’m … I wasn’t planning to leave just yet,” he said. “You go along.”
“Along where?” She was incredulous. “We’re in the middle of nowhere here. You can’t mean to let me try to find my own way back!”
Oh, couldn’t he?
“You got me to bring you here under false pretences.” His lips set in a stubborn line. “You had no intention of buying the property.”
“That has nothing to do with it!”
Wrong. For Jasper, it had everything to do with it. She had deliberately tricked him and, so far as he was concerned, she was on her own. She could walk home, he wasn’t wasting any more petrol on her. He was a chip off the old block, all right.
“But—we’re miles from anywhere here!”
“How—?” She turned to Banquo. “How did you get here?”
“Taxi,” he said. “I never thought of asking him to wait. I was too upset.”
“Of course you were, dear boy. That’s another reason why—”
“Just go down to the embankment,” Jasper said helpfully, “and follow the river. You’ll come to civilisation—eventually.”
“You unfeeling brute! You hulking oaf! You—” Edytha took a deep breath. She was just warming up.