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Authors: S. T. Haymon

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BOOK: Stately Homicide
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‘Then you can go and get it yourself, you little horror,' Jane Coryton returned with unruffled humour. ‘You must be giving Mr Shelden pins and needles as it is, only he's too kind to say so. And while you're getting it, get a plateful for Charles as well. He's over there by the window, as if you hadn't noticed, looking dreadfully hot and bothered.'

‘Don' want –' the young man began. Then: ‘Hey – watch it!' He scrambled to his feet with a shout as the new curator, rising abruptly from his place, caught him in the rear. Charles Winter came hurrying across the room, rendered momentarily sober by loving anxiety.

‘Did he hurt you, Mike darling? What happened?'

‘On'y kicked me in the balls, that's all.'

‘Don't be ridiculous!' Chad Shelden said, not bothering to smile.

‘Nobody hurt anybody.' Jane Coryton took charge with her usual cheerful firmness. ‘Mike wants to try the pistachio ice cream.' Holding the potter and his beloved each by an arm, and pointing them in the right direction: ‘It's in the metal thing that's making a humming noise like a bomb at the back of the table, and it's absolutely delicious.'

Charles Winter swayed, but did not throw off his hostess's grasp. He seemed grateful for the support.

‘Why do you and Francis have to be the ones to go?' he demanded loudly, ‘instead of that ringleted dolly bird? Neither of you two'd ever kick anybody in the balls.'

‘I wouldn't bet on it,' Jane Coryton said. ‘There's always a first time.' She regarded the potter with the amused tolerance she seemed to extend to the greater part of the human race. ‘This is my party, Charles – Francis's and mine – and, dearly as I love you, I'm not going to have it spoiled by some tiresome little tyke who hasn't even been housetrained. So when you've fed him his ice cream take him home, dear man, and lock him up so he can't come back, because otherwise I might find it necessary to tip him out of the window into the moat before the night's out. I used to teach P.E., you know, and I can do it.' Without changing tone, she ended as pleasantly as she had begun: ‘Do try some of the maple walnut too, while you‘re about it.'

Chapter Six

Chad Shelden flung his arms wide in an extravagant gesture of welcome.

‘Anna!' he cried. ‘Anna Weston! I can't believe it!'

‘Anna March,' she corrected him, sounding pleased and excited. ‘I think you met Danny the day you went round the workshops. I was away –'

‘Danny – of course!' Shelden seized Danny March's hand and wrung it with the exaggerated heartiness of a television host greeting a guest he had never clapped eyes on until a couple of minutes before the show. Jurnet, whilst he did not care for it, charitably reminded himself that he was, after all, at a party; and parties were gatherings where it was only manners to lay the bonhomie on thick, and clap on the back people you would just as soon kick up the arsehole.

The new curator turned sparkling-eyed to Elena.

‘We knew all the same people in London. Everyone was head over heels in love with her.'

Anna protested, with a giggle Jurnet would never have thought her capable of: ‘That's a slight exaggeration!'

‘No, really! I know I was!' Shelden insisted, with that bright, boyish looked which was indeed wonderfully attractive.

‘Looking at her tonight,' said Elena Appleyard, ‘I can't imagine how you can put it in the past tense.' Studying the younger woman with an ungrudging approval: ‘You're looking lovely, my dear.'

Chad Shelden exclaimed: ‘I can see that marriage agrees with her.'

All the while Danny, thick as two planks except when he had a piece of wood in his hands, when he became a genius, stood smiling, holding his wife by the hand. Jurnet glanced down at his watch. Still half an hour to midnight. When it struck, would the naughty dress that showed everything change back to one of those dreary old kaftans, encasing the dreary old Anna with her too-sharp nose, her mysterious woes, and her maddening habit of ticking you off for not knowing the capital of Pongo Pongo?

Elena Appleyard said to Jurnet: ‘I understand Danny is a friend of yours, Inspector.'

‘We were at school together.'

‘Having a friend is always enjoyable.' She might have been speaking about a hot bath. ‘Better than the opposite, certainly. I shouldn't think Mr March would make a very good enemy.'

Jurnet stared.

‘Danny? You're joking! Danny wouldn't recognise an enemy if one came at him with guns blazing!'

‘Do you think so?' She returned with a detached air: a matter of small importance. ‘No doubt you know your friend best.'

To cheers from the immediate bystanders, the white-haired man Jurnet had seen in conversation with the young couple crossed the floor balancing a small table upside down on his head. Behind him, carrying some tissue-wrapped objects, came the lady weaver who, in honour of the occasion, had draped a length of Chinese silk over her basic sacking.

‘The moment is come!' the man announced, setting the table down in front of the settee. He spoke with a pronounced foreign accent. ‘Where is the birthday boy?'

The weaving lady, busy at the table unwrapping tissue to reveal a desk set of beautifully tooled leather, objected shyly: ‘It isn't a birthday, Ferenc.'

‘Certainly it is a birthday! Today, Jane and Francis are born naked and squealing to a new life, am I wrong? They are out of the womb of Bullen Hall at last, and we are here like the Magi bringing gifts to celebrate their safe deliverance.'

The weaving lady, who had blushed scarlet at the word ‘womb', crumpled the tissue paper with distracted fingers and then didn't know what to do with it. Jane Coryton, thoughtful as ever, took it from her unresisting hands and dropped it without fuss behind the settee.

‘Delivery, not deliverance,' she corrected the white-haired man. ‘Nobody's been holding us captive.' She looked in admiration at the desk set. ‘Jeno's done it beautifully. I hope it means he's feeling better.'

‘Jeno is feeling absolutely OK! Yesterday he is in the Norfolk and Angleby and the clever doctors there say they can do nothing for him. So it stands to reason – if nothing is to be done, is no illness, right?'

‘He still looks peaky. And I see he still needs those sticks.'

‘That man will do anything for effect.' The Hungarian stopped playing the fool, and said with calm intensity: ‘Don't worry about Jeno, you hear? Jeno is my worry. If he gets no better I will take him to London, to Harley Street, where the doctors keep a list of illnesses that in Angleby they have never heard of, and is only available to people who pay fifty guineas.'

Jane Coryton bent over the table and picked up a blotter.

‘Keep your hands off, woman!' The Hungarian warned her away with a large, upraised palm. ‘Is not your present! Is nobody's present till I make my speech. Ring the bell, Geraldine, my love. Let us begin.'

At his command, the lady weaver, blushing afresh at the endearment, produced a silver-plated dinner bell from among her draperies. It took some time for its genteel tinkle to gain the attention of the crowded room.

Francis Coryton came quietly to his wife's side. He had taken off his glasses and Jurnet could see for the first time that there was indeed a face behind them. Not a foolish face, either.

‘Ladies and gentlemen – inmates of Bullen Hall both voluntary and certified –' the Hungarian beamed at an audience already showing its determination to be appreciative – ‘I have been chosen to make this most important speech tonight because I speak so good English. Also because I am bigger than any of the others who wanted to make speech but were afraid to say so because I am bigger.' Again the man waited for the laughter to die down. ‘But I think I am best chosen because, not to be modest, I am a public monument – No, I promise you –' raising a hand in rebuke – ‘now I do not make jokes. Bullen Hall is public monument to George Bullen, Viscount Rochford, and I am public monument to Laz Appleyard, also of Bullen Hall, Appleyard of Hungary – a little knocked about a bit, as you say, but still good for a few more years even if my stonework, like on the roof over our heads tonight, isn't what it used to be.

‘So – now you have my credentials you hear me with a proper respect, eh, when I speak of our friend Francis, who today leaves us for ever. It is true he moves only to the village and, unless we are very careful, we shall be knocking into him all the time and saying to ourselves, “Who is that old buffer? I seem to remember him from somewhere,” but just the same it is an ending: and I speak for all our sorrows when I say that I am sad he goes from Bullen Hall. I fear that our new curator, who looks so kind and beautiful –' the speaker half-turned towards the settee and sketched a mock obeisance – ‘will give us not nearly so much trouble, and then where shall we be for something to complain about? But there – I make jokes again. That is the worst of allowing a bloody foreigner to make a speech. They never stop trying to prove that they too have the English sense of humour. So now I will be serious. To Francis I need say no more than two words – “thank you.”'

From the applause that ensued it appeared that many of his listeners thought the Hungarian had finished. He waited for the noise to die down, and continued, however.

‘But this is ridiculous! Two words! I must speak more, or you will say is no speech. So I ask myself, what is this “thank you” you make such a clapping about? The man was paid. It was a job.

‘But I answer myself, no: is more than a job, the way Francis has done it. So I say, for us all, thank you, Francis, for the respect you have always given equally to the best of us and the least of us; for the way you have looked after us with love and understanding: for the much you have given and the little demanded in return. And so I say – so we all say – thank you, Francis, with this little gift we give from the heart with warm wishes to you and Jane for your new life, and –' summoning a humorous ferocity which seemed designed to counterbalance his un-English display of emotion – ‘with warning to Mr Shelden that he will have to be bloody good to deserve for himself half so good a present from us when comes his time to go!'

The applause this time was long and deafening. Jane Coryton put her arms round her husband and kissed him. The retiring curator took some notes from his pocket and put his glasses back on again. The glasses twinkled with complacency at having resumed their proper position in society.

Coryton's acknowledgment of his gift was graceful, but not unduly prolonged. The ritual accomplished, he called out, his voice loud and strong: ‘Can you hear me at the back? I've got something to read to you, and I want to make sure you can all hear.'

When the room had quietened to his satisfaction, he selected a piece of paper from among the sheets he had deposited on the table. ‘I thought of bringing along the original, but it's a mite frail.' Again he waited. Then: ‘I want to read you a letter. A letter that will alter your view of a whole period of English history.'

Certain now of every one's attention, the retiring curator went off at an apparent tangent.

‘I doubt if any of you here, except for Mr Benby, looking for yet another hole in the fabric, has ever been inside that funny little tower some joker in the eighteenth century stuck on to the house in the north-west corner of the North Courtyard. I've hardly been there myself, I'm ashamed to say, except that, a couple of months ago, with the date of my retirement looming ever nearer, I decided that I really had to do something about the stuff that's stored there. I didn't want the incoming curator to write me off as a complete slut when it came to keeping my house in order. So up I went, with my duster and mop, so to speak, to do what I could in the way of tidying up.

‘In justice to myself, I should say it's not quite the shambles I'm making it sound. Everything is tagged and packed away – stuff we simply can't find a place for elsewhere in the house. The Appleyards, over the centuries, though they accumulated ever more possessions, never threw anything away – which is why, as a caretaker now surplus to requirements, I'm getting out of Bullen Hall fast before I too find myself in one of those rooms under the eaves, trussed up in a dust cover and labelled “old retainer, second half of twentieth century”.'

Coryton waited for the laughter to subside.

‘It was the room at the top I was chiefly bothered about. It's full of chests of drawers stuffed with papers of one kind and another – rent books, old deeds, and so on. Fascinating social history – and the Bullen Hall mice love it, and, even more, the string, tape, or whatever, that's been used to tie the various bundles together. As it happened, when I'd last been in Angleby, on the Market Place, I'd come upon some balls of plastic string that tasted so revolting – the chap flogging it obligingly gave me a bit to try – I didn't think even our mice could stomach it. So I bought a whacking great ball, and what I was really in the tower for, that day, was to retie as many as I could of the bundles that needed it. If it led to Bullen Hall mice dying of malnutrition – well, that would be Mr Shelden's problem.'

This time, the glasses quelled the incipient mirth with an imperious flash:

‘By now,' Francis Coryton observed, ‘you'll be all agog, waiting for me to reveal the Secret of the Tower. What you're going to hear are the details of my own utter imbecility in not discovering it years ago, when I first catalogued the papers stored there. One of the chests, as I knew very well, is full of old scrap books, albums, folios of watercolours done by young ladies of the Appleyard family in Victorian times. The ribbon ties on one of these folios had been eaten through, and as I wrestled with my plastic string – it turned out to be hell to cut – out tumbled a kind of home-made wallet I had noticed several times previously – frayed silk stiffened with muslin, or something similar, and a pocket on the inside; the kind of thing some young lady of the 1880s might well have made as a Christmas present for Mama. It had an embroidered motif on the outside, and, sawing away at that blasted string – what it really needed was secateurs, not scissors – I had plenty of time to look –
look – at it as it lay there on the floor looking up at me. The motif, in a kind of lozenge on the faded green silk, was yellowed with age, and it took a little while for it to dawn on me that it had once been white: that it was, in fact, a white falcon.'

BOOK: Stately Homicide
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