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Authors: S. T. Haymon

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BOOK: Stately Homicide
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‘Oh, they are! You can't have to do with a place like Bullen and not get involved.' Mrs Coryton looked about her, appreciative, but not starry-eyed. Stately homes like this, they begin to take on a life of their own. Frightening, in a way. You're having constantly to remind yourself that, however beautiful, however historic they may be, they're still only bricks and mortar: something somebody built up and something somebody can pull down.' She regarded her assembled guests with a rueful affection. ‘It'll be interesting to see what Mr Shelden makes of it all.'

‘I rather expected to see the Tollers.'

‘Percy and Mollie! You know them?'

‘Old friends.'

‘Oh, good! Francis and I absolutely adore the Tollers. Percy rang up to say Mollie had had one of her turns.' Mrs Coryton frowned. ‘I've never thought of Mollie as somebody who had turns.'

‘Me neither.'

‘I'll pop in tomorrow and see how she is. They live a few houses along the village street from us – I may say, the only welcoming faces in Bullensthorpe so far. It's quite rum, moving from the Hall to the village – like moving from one secret society to another. It doesn't seem to count that we've been living at Bullen for years. We still have to go through all the stages of initiation.' With a smile: ‘Must be something like joining the Police.'

‘It is, rather. Close-knit band of brothers, and all that. Trouble is, it does tend to cut you off from the world outside.'

Jane Coryton observed, with a directness the detective was to learn was characteristic of her: ‘That's probably why your girl friend's in Greece on her own.'

Jurnet answered with some bitterness: ‘Don't know about that. She's Jewish. She's got her own club.'

‘Oh! Quite an exclusive one, I understand.'

‘You're telling me! I've been trying to get into it myself for the past three years. Easier to marry into the Royal family!
She
won't marry me unless I become a Jew, and
they
won't let me become one if the only reason I want to is to marry Miriam.'

‘One can see their point of view,' Jane Coryton commented fairmindedly. ‘God has to come into it somewhere, don't you think? Or don't you believe in Him?'

‘It's not easy.'

‘And probably mutual. I'm sure He must find it dreadfully difficult to believe in us. Being a police officer, I suppose, so moral and upright, you can't find it in you to pretend to the rabbis even a teeny bit?'

Jurnet laughed, feeling suddenly light-hearted.

‘They'd see through it in a minute – just like He would.'

‘Life
is
complicated.' Jane Coryton sighed, appearing in no way cast down. ‘Now I really must circulate for a bit. But first, Detective-Inspector, who can I introduce you to that you'd find interesting?'

‘Nobody, if you're going to call me that. That's a sure conversation-stopper, if ever there was one.'

Chapter Five

In the event, Jurnet did pretty well on his own. Always having a proper respect for professionalism, in whatever field – even an expert villain earned his reluctant admiration – he attached himself first to a small knot of gardeners engrossed in the aberrant behaviour of a yew on one of the terraces that, shaped into a classical pyramid, persistently asserted its God-given right to grow square. A little further along a gathering of masons, who had done at least as much justice to the Corytons' wine as the gardeners, were deep in discussion of the condition of one of the stone bulls down by the bridge over the moat which had, it appeared, by the action of time and weather, found itself incontinently unsexed. ‘An' blow me if he ha' nt put on weight already!'

Danny March came over to see how his friend was doing.

‘Fine! Wined and dined like a lord! Did you know you can't cut a yew into a shape it doesn't want to go?'

‘Don't talk daft,' said the cabinet maker.

‘Not the wood. I mean the tree. Alive.'

‘Oh ah,' said the other, losing interest.

When Mrs Coryton came back, Jurnet greeted her with the same question.

‘Doesn't surprise me one bit,' was the answer. ‘What does, is how any self-respecting tree could let itself be hacked about like a French poodle. At least the dogs could bite back, poor things, if only they had the
nous
. You've been chatting up the gardeners, have you?'

‘I can also let you into a shameful secret concerning one of those bulls down by the moat.'

‘Don't tell me!' Mrs Coryton raised her hands in mock horror. ‘Bullen Hall has all the secrets it can stand, thank you! Actually, I came to conduct you to the seats of the mighty.'

‘You mean the new curator? Which one
is
he?'

‘There, on the settee under the minstrels' gallery, with Elena. Gorgeous, isn't he?' A slight frown appeared on Mrs Coryton's face, which made her look as vexed as it seemed possible for one of her nature to be. ‘That's Mike Botley down on the floor, leaning against his legs. I do wish he'd stop it. He only does it to tease poor Charles.'

‘Not the poor, seduced innocent, then?'

‘Mike? Dear me, no!' For all her annoyance, Mrs Coryton spoke with an amused indulgence. ‘Vicious little thug who should have been handed back to the midwife for recycling.'

Jurnet remarked: ‘The lady looks even more gorgeous.'

‘Oh, Elena. Elena Appleyard, sister of the great Laz. Elena's in a class by herself.' Mrs Coryton spoke quite without innuendo. ‘I'd better introduce you. She's bound to have noticed you already, and wondered what you're doing here. After all, she runs the place.'

‘I thought your husband –'

‘So did he, poor pet! Elena's very clever about not letting the strings show.'

‘But isn't there a trust –?'

‘There is, indeed. The Bullen-Appleyard Trust, to give it its full title. Consisting of Elena and old Cranthorpe, the solicitor in Angleby, who's worshipped the ground she walks on ever since she was out of nappies, and treats her slightest whim as if it were a directive from on high. Of course Steve – that's Laz's boy –' Mrs Coryton moved her head vaguely, not really trying to locate him – ‘comes into the estate when he's twenty-five – that's three years from now – but my guess is he'll be only too glad to leave things the way they are. It's the farm he's interested in. In the meantime, anyway, Elena rules us all with an invisible rod of iron.'

‘You don't like her,' Jurnet asserted, presuming on their brief acquaintance in his surprise at discovering Mrs Coryton to be capable of such a sentiment.

‘Oh, but I do – enormously!' Characteristically, she showed no resentment at the other's presumption. ‘Without her, Francis couldn't have lasted a week. He's far too much in need of being taken care of himself, poor pet, to be any good at taking care of anything else. I'll never be grateful enough to Elena for the way she's always allowed him to think something that's got done was
his
idea,
his
decision. I don't understand her, of course. But that's another matter.' Their way along the length of the lovely room, treading wide boards the colour of honey, was slow and circuitous, punctuated by many stops as Mrs Coryton paused to exchange pleasantries with her guests. Francis Coryton trotted towards them waving a wine bottle; only to swerve away at the last moment to fill a glass thrust forward for replenishment. Jurnet noticed the young couple he had last seen entwined under the oak tree. They were separated now, divided by a bulky, white-haired man who stood with an arm round the shoulder of each. Their faces were turned trustingly to his, and their laughter rose momentarily above the general hubbub. A pale, slight man with two sticks at his side, seated in a chair nearby, nodded approvingly at the sound, then turned his face back to the open window, to the tree-tops stirring in the night air and the starlit sky beyond.

Jurnet's progress brought with it a certain disillusion. The closer he came to Elena Appleyard, the older she grew: still gorgeous, but far from the breathtaking beauty he thought he had glimpsed from the other end of the room.

Absurd to have expected anything else. She was Appleyard of Hungary's sister, after all. She must be sixty if she was a day.

Still, in her day she must have been a smasher.

‘Funny she never married,' he remarked to his companion.

‘Oh, but she did. Twice – I think it was twice. It could have been three times.'

‘What happened to them?'

‘Ate them, I shouldn't wonder.'

Jurnet laughed.

‘There you go again!' he pointed out. ‘And yet you insist you like her.'

‘Perhaps “like” was the wrong word.' Mrs Coryton reexamined what she had said, with a readiness to admit error Jurnet found altogether commendable. ‘Elena's beyond the superficial words the rest of us use to define our mundane little relationships. You no more like or dislike her than you like or dislike a force of nature.'

‘Speaking for myself, I can think of quite a few forces of nature I should dislike very much, if I happened to run into them. An earthquake, a tidal wave –'

‘Would you really? What a waste of energy! I can't see the point of either liking or disliking something you can't do anything about. And Elena certainly comes into that category.'

Now Jurnet was close enough to the settee under the minstrels' gallery to see that he had been mistaken a second time. Elena Appleyard was both old
and
breathtakingly beautiful, one of these rare women who wear their years like a privilege conferred upon a lucky few. Take away a single line from that face – and there were more there than you might have expected from a woman in her sixties – and it would only have subtracted from her beauty. Her legs, slim and shapely as a girl's beneath the simple black dress she wore, had yet about the ankles a touch of the frailty of age; yet without that touch of frailty they would have been that much less shapely. Her arms, too thin, merely pointed up the elegance of her wrists and hands. The black hair streaked with silver which she wore in a simple chignon low down on her nape constituted the definitive statement for all time on the subject of hair.

‘I was wondering when Jane was going to bring you over.' The voice was low and pleasing. Elena Appleyard held out her hand. ‘How do you do, Inspector Jurnet?'

Jane Coryton said good-humouredly: ‘You've had your spies out, Elena.'

‘Of course! I gather the Inspector's here to reassure our new curator that he can sleep peacefully in his bed even though it
is
the wilds of East Anglia.' To Jurnet: ‘I don't believe you've yet met Mr Chad Shelden, though I'm quite sure you have heard of him.'

‘Biography of Rommel, wasn't it?' Jurnet's tone was suitably nonchalant.

The detective was not all that smitten with the new curator, if first impressions were anything to go by. A bit too good-looking, too arty-tarty. Still, he said, meaning it, more or less: ‘Wish you luck in the new job.'

‘Thanks very much!' Chad Shelden raised a hand and ran it through his tumbling curls. Jurnet noticed that the other hand remained resting lightly on Botley's shoulder. ‘I'll need it. It's going to be incredibly difficult to follow Francis.'

‘Tut, tut,' Jane Coryton said pleasantly. ‘You'd never guess, would you, Inspector, that he's planning to turn the Old Kitchen into a disco the minute Francis and I are out of the way?'

‘What a marvellous idea!' Shelden cried boyishly. ‘But seriously, Jane – Elena has been putting me in the picture and I can see that Francis has done a fantastic job.'

Elena Appleyard said: ‘And is about to do an even better one – isn't that right, Jane? He's taking us all up on to the roof for cold drinks and ices.'

‘Oh dear!' Jane Coryton exclaimed. ‘Didn't he tell you? Mr Benby was up there this afternoon and he said, out of the question: it was much too dangerous. But we've got some marvellous ice cream down here. Caroni's sent it over from Angleby in one of those containers you plug in, so it doesn't melt. Four flavours, no less! Would you like me to tell you what they are?'

The other woman shook her head. No one in the room looked less in need of refreshment. ‘I don't think so, Jane. It was just that the roof would have been –' a pause – ‘nice.' As she turned towards Jurnet again, the detective noticed for the first time that, when she turned, she moved, not just her head, but her whole body. He wondered whether to take the movement as an earnest of her complete attention, or put it down to the stiff neck very probable in a person of her years. If so, she was the first woman he had met to make rheumatism sexy.

‘If you step back a little, Inspector, you'll see there's a stair in the corner of the gallery that goes up to the roof. It's really glorious up there on a summer night.'

Jane Coryton said: ‘Francis and I often slept up there, in this sort of weather. As a matter of fact –' to Shelden – ‘we've left you the air bed, in case you ever feel like sleeping out, and have the energy to pump the thing up. The pump's there as well, just inside the door.'

‘Marvellous!' the new curator exclaimed enthusiastically. ‘I've only been up there in the daytime so far, but the view! I'm sure I glimpsed the sea glinting between the hills.'

‘At night,' said Elena Appleyard, ‘you can see to the end of the universe – or could, if only the Trust had the £200,000 it's going to take to repair the balustrades. We simply can't manage a sum like that out of the estate, and all the Government has offered us is £5,000. £5,000! But there!' She turned her cool, beautiful face and her body with it towards the new curator. ‘I'm sure Mr Shelden will come up with something.'

Mike Botley, his face that of a surly cherub, looked up from the floor and said: ‘I'll take the kind wi' them green nuts, ta.'

BOOK: Stately Homicide
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