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Authors: S. T. Haymon

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BOOK: Stately Homicide
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There was quite a lot of clapping when it was clear that the speech was really over, though exactly what people were applauding was less clear. His pretty blue eyes, as likely as not, thought Jurnet, who had long ago tumbled to the fact that speeches which went on for more than two minutes, so far from imparting information, actually sucked it out of the atmosphere like some linguistic vacuum cleaner, leaving its listeners, if anything, more ignorant than before.

Francis Coryton, in a puzzled kind of way, inquired of the room at large: ‘What did he mean, “Whatever comes of them”?'

Chapter Eight

Chad Shelden returned to the settee to find that the Hungarian, Ferenc Szanto, had taken his place, and was deep in conversation with Elena Appleyard.

The latter greeted the new curator's return with: ‘I've been telling Ferenc that he's to be your translator, when it comes to anything in Magyar.'

‘But that's marvellous! I'll try not to be too much of a nuisance. Though, of course, Mr Szanto, quite apart from that, I'll be pumping you for your own personal memories of Laz Appleyard.'

‘Ah!' returned the Hungarian, who appeared fairly impervious to the new curator's charms. ‘Memories, is it, you want? I thought, from what you said just now about warts and all, that what you wanted was the truth.'

Shelden, looking startled but wary, protested: ‘But of course! Your memories of what really happened.'

The Hungarian shook his head in a parody of astonishment.

‘This from a writer of biography? To equate what happened with the memory of what happened? Elena, you sure you hired the right guy?'

Still smiling, if with a little less than his usual eagerness to please, Chad Shelden said: ‘I think you can take it I've had enough experience to make a proper allowance for the fact that any description of a person or an event is inevitably filtered through the mind and personality of the observer. Besides, I warn you –' back to the playfulness which normally served him so well – ‘I never accept anything as fact until I've checked it out against every available alternative source.'

‘Until, you mean, you've checked it against the memories of other men who also have their own personal vision of what is and what is not reality?' The big man chuckled, and wedged his broad shoulders deeper into the cushions at his back. He regarded the new curator with a kindlier eye. ‘You mustn't mind me. I'm an old tease. Elena will tell you. The truth is – there, you see! I myself use that foolish word as if it actually meant something – that I am jealous of you, Mr Shelden, of your youth and your sublime cheek. Only the young believe it possible to find out the truth about anything or anybody. It takes the passing years to reconcile yourself to the fact that the best one can hope to do is select the most plausible lie.'

Elena Appleyard observed mildly: ‘It's very naughty of you, Ferenc, to try and put Mr Shelden off before he's even begun. He'll do his best, I'm quite sure.'

Chad Shelden declared robustly: ‘It won't be for want of trying.'

People were beginning to leave. In ones and twos they came up to the Corytons to say thank you, and to receive thanks in return. Several of the guests glanced at the new curator as if uncertain what was called for; but only a few summoned up the courage to go and say a few words.

Charles Winter shambled over to the settee and bent over Elena Appleyard.

‘Did you hear what the bugger said about charging us rent? Or was it your idea all along?'

‘Move further off, Charles,' Miss Appleyard commanded, neither flinching nor stoical. ‘You smell horrid.' When, without contesting the order, he retreated a little, she said equably, but with precision: ‘You know quite well that I've never interfered in any way with Francis. Equally, I've no intention of interfering with Mr Shelden. If you've anything to discuss, you must deal with him direct.'

‘Any time!' Chad Shelden interrupted in his enthusiastic way. ‘Let me say I only mentioned the Coachyard rents as one option among several –'

‘Go and screw yourself,' Charles Winter said dismissively; and to Elena: ‘Where'd you find a shit like that? He'll send the place to the dogs. You'll see.'

Jane Coryton disengaged herself from the embraces of two elderly ladies, and came over.

‘Charles, this isn't doing your blood pressure a bit of good. Please! Let Mike take you home.'

‘Mike doesn't want to go home – do you, Mike?' – wheeling round to confront the young man who stood staring at Shelden. ‘Mike would much rather shack down here for the night – wouldn't you, Mike?'

‘Can't have everything we want in life, can we?' With an impudent swagger of hip the youth went up to the new curator, so close that, for an appalled moment, Jurnet thought he was going to kiss the man on the lips. ‘G'night, Mr Shelden. Lovely to meet you.'

‘Goodnight to you both,' returned Chad Shelden, pushing his hair back from his forehead.

‘Do it for Jane,' Winter announced suddenly. ‘Go home for Jane. Only friend in the world and I spoilt her party. Did I spoil your party, Jane darling?'

‘On the contrary,' said Jane Coryton. ‘You made everyone's evening. Given them something to talk about for the next six months. But now –' she finished good-humouredly – ‘for God's sake go before I forget I'm a lady and land you one on the hooter.'

When the two had gone at last, she turned, calm and smiling, to Jurnet. ‘When your girl friend gets your letter about the Bullen Hall party she'll be kicking herself, wondering what she's doing, frittering her time away in boring old Greece.'

‘I think I'll tell her, hurry back for the next round. If Mr Sheldon means all he says, I reckon it's only the beginning of the fight.'

‘Oh, he means it all right. That's what he's been hired for.'

‘Your husband seems to be taking it very well.'

‘Francis?' Mrs Coryton's eyes crinkled at the corners. ‘But it was his idea in the first place. It really wasn't very grateful of Mr Shelden to make him out such a fossil. Francis wrote a report to the trustees over a year ago, saying that, awful as it was, and though he himself wasn't the one to do it, he couldn't see any other way of keeping the place going. These days, it's only the National Trust that can get by without gimmicks.'

‘Was it Mr Coryton who chose Mr Shelden, then?'

The other smiled.

‘Mr Shelden chose himself, baiting the trap with the biography. Seems Appleyard of Hungary was his childhood hero. Good thing, too!' she added quickly. ‘I'm sure he's right for the job. Under that romantic exterior there's a tough cookie who'll be able to get the necessary changes through with a minimum of aggro. And he
is
a first-rate writer.' After a moment, with reluctance but an apparent relief at actually articulating her misgivings: ‘I only wish I could say the same for Francis.'

The boy and girl Jurnet had noticed with such sentimental approval came over to say goodnight. They were a remarkably handsome pair whose beguiling youth moved the detective to modify his usual mental strictures upon good looks in the male. Close to, the young man's resemblance to the young Laz Appleyard was startling, though there was a softness which Jurnet did not remember from the photographs in the Appleyard Room. The great man's son hardly seemed the type to snatch prime ministers from the jaws of ravening Reds. But then, Jurnet could not recall ever hearing that heroism ran in families.

‘I don't think you've met Steve and Jessica,' Mrs Coryton said. ‘Steve, this is Detective-Inspector Jurnet, who's been hanging about on the chance that the ghosts of Anne Boleyn and George Bullen will show up at the party, and then he can run them in for unnatural vice.'

The young man laughed.

‘What a family, eh! Whatever must people think of us?'

Jurnet grinned. ‘You've got a nice little pad here.'

‘Not my pigeon, thank goodness. I'm at agricultural college. With luck, in the fullness of time, I'll be able to take over the management of the farm and the rest of the estate.' Adding with a likeable modesty: ‘Not that I can ever see even that happening. Driving a tractor's about my mark.'

Jane Coryton said with unusual warmth: ‘You ought to take more interest in the house, Steve.'

‘I'll wait till Mr Shelden's finally dragged Bullen screaming into the twentieth century. Then I can run the Dodgems while Jessica looks after the shooting gallery. How about it, Jess?' The girl blushed, but said nothing, pressed closer to the boy. ‘Anyway, Aunt Elena is going to live for ever, so my services, such as they are, won't be needed. Excuse us – we've got to go over and say hail and farewell to her. Oh – and Uncle Ferenc!' At the summons the big Hungarian looked round with a face full of love. ‘Jeno wants to go home. I told him to stay and wait for you. I didn't want him walking more than he had to. He
is
going to be OK, isn't he?'

‘Jeno is already OK. Soon he will be OK plus. I will make him give me a piggy-back, back to the Coachyard, so you can see for yourself how OK he is.'

The man lumbered away like an amiable bear. The others watched as he came to the chair where his compatriot was sitting, his hands gripped tightly on the two canes, his face shadowed with melancholy or fatigue. At his friend's approach he pressed down on the sticks and stood up, swaying. There followed some kind of argument.

Jane exclaimed: ‘I bet he's insisting on not going without taking formal leave. These Continentals are such ones for doing the correct thing! I'd better go and let him kiss my hand or he'll be here all night.'

She hurried away. After a moment of silence, Steve Appleyard said: ‘We ought to be getting along too.'

Jurnet said: ‘Nice to have met you. And you, Miss –'

‘Oh – Chalgrove. Jessica. Everybody calls me Jessica.' Suddenly the girl looked apprehensive. Jurnet knew without asking that she was dreading the imminent encounter with Elena Appleyard.

Yet, when the two went over to her, the older woman could not have been more gracious, kissing first the boy and then the girl; a mere touch on the forehead, but performed with apparent tenderness.

‘How are you, my dears? Though I'm not speaking to Steve, miserable boy! Now that he's moved away, he never comes to see me.'

The boy at least was perfectly at ease, the bright blue eyes slightly aslant in the tanned face. The Magyar inheritance, Jurnet supposed.

‘You make it sound as if I'd gone to the moon,' the boy objected, ‘instead of only across to the stables.'

‘Since you never come to see me, it could just as well be the moon.' Elena Appleyard turned to the girl. ‘If he won't come, then you must.'

‘I – I'd love to –' the girl managed.

Steve Appleyard said: ‘I've got to run Jessica home, Aunt Elena.'

‘Goodbye, then, you thoughtless boy.' The woman leaned forward and kissed the girl again. ‘Don't forget your promise, now. And please remember me to your father. He never comes to see me either.'

‘Yes, I will.' The girl spoke happily, the ordeal over. The two young people went towards the door, holding hands tightly.

When Jane Coryton came back, Jurnet said: ‘Time I was pushing off, too. Thank you for having me.'

‘Thank you for coming. But don't go just yet, do you mind? It's even possible you may be needed in your professional capacity. Francis and Mr Shelden are having a little difference of opinion, and it sounds as if it could be physical.'

Francis Coryton, however, was looking more bemused than aggressive.

‘I don't understand!' he was saying, as his wife and the detective came up. He gave the impression they were words which he had repeated several times already. ‘It isn't as if there's any copyright in them.'

‘That's true!' The new curator turned his most engaging smile on the new arrivals. ‘Francis and I were chatting about those marvellous letters.'

Coryton's glasses were off. He said to his wife: ‘You speak to him, Jane. I can't seem to get through.'

‘Speak to him about what?'

‘You know I handed over the key ring this afternoon? Well – the key to the study drawer was there with all the others. All I have to do is ask for it when I want it, I thought. Well, silly me! I thought wrong.' Coryton swung back to Shelden. Anger had firmed the flaccid contours of cheeks and jaw, giving them definition. ‘If I'd taken copies, there's not a damn thing you could have done about it.'

‘You're absolutely right!' Shelden made the words sound like praise. ‘I don't mind saying, I'm amazed you didn't. In your place, it's the first thing I'd have done.'

‘In my place,' Francis Coryton said with a bitter deliberation, ‘you'd have known what a twister you had to deal with. As it was, I was waiting for Harbury in the Records Room at Angleby to get back from his holiday. The letters are so fragile I wanted to be sure there was no danger of damaging them on the copying machine. If I'd had even the slightest idea –!'

‘Please don't think I don't understand!' Chad Shelden's face was wreathed in commiseration. ‘But you do see, Francis – or I'm sure you will, after you've had time to think – that the Trust has no alternative but to take steps to protect itself.'

‘Protect itself from what, for heaven's sake? In what possible way can I be a danger to the Trust?'

‘Oh dear!' Shelden rumpled his curls, and looked at Jurnet with a pleading air. ‘I'm sure the Inspector understands my predicament. He must often find himself obliged to do something he absolutely hates, but still he has to do it, because it's his duty. Well, I have a duty to make sure the Anne Boleyn letters are used in the Trust's best interests. We mustn't –' with a winsome smile – ‘go charging in like a Bullen in a china shop. First, they have to be officially authenticated –'

BOOK: Stately Homicide
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