Authors: Martha Grimes
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and J. Mezzanine
and in memory of George Roland
“Â âWhoever loved that loved not at first sight?'Â ”
âAs You Like It
he doors of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre emptied another audience into a mean rain that always seemed to know the minute the performance ended. Tonight's play had been
As You Like It,
and the faces of the crowd wore that disoriented look that said they hadn't quite got their bearings, as if by some magical permutation the bucolic airiness of the Forest of Arden still glittered out here in the dark and the drizzle.
The crowd fanned out down walks and winding streets and disappeared into parked cars and pubs. The lights around the theatre went out, cutting bright coins from the river, as if a stagehand had thrown a switch in the water.
The Black Swanâor the Dirty Duck, depending upon the prospective patron's approachâwas strategically placed across the street from the side of the theatre. Its double-sided sign (flying swan on one side, drunken duck on the other) sometimes resulted in missed rendezvous for strangers to the town who agreed to meet at one and then came upon the other.
Five minutes after the curtain came down, the Dirty Duck was chock-a-block with people getting as drunk as possible before Time was called. The crowd in the room inside overflowed onto the walled terrace outside. Smoke from cigarettes hazed the night like one of London's old yellow fogs. It was summer and the tourist season was in full swing; most of the accents were American.
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One of these Americans, Miss Gwendolyn Bracegirdle, who had never had more than an ounce of sweet sherry at a time on the veranda of her huge pink-stuccoed house in Sarasota, Florida, was standing with a friend in a shadowy corner of the terrace getting sloshed.
This here's my secondâwhat do they call it?”
“Gin.” Her companion laughed.
“Gin!” She giggled. “I definitely
But she held her glass in a way that said she definitely could.
“Just pretend it's a very dry martini.”
Miss Bracegirdle giggled again as her glass was taken from her for a refill. From sweet sherry to martinis was a giant step for Gwendolyn Bracegirdle, if not for all mankind.
Smiling vaguely, she looked around the terrace at the other patrons, but no one smiled back. Gwendolyn Bracegirdle was not the type who would engrave herself on the memories of others, as others did on her memory. (As she had been telling her friendâif there was one thing she knew, it was faces.) Gwendolyn herself was unmemorableâshort, pudgy, and permed; the only thing that set her apart tonight was that she was overdressed in beaded brocade. Her glance fell on an elderly angular woman whose damp and lugubrious eye made her think of her mother. She sobered up a little; Mama Bracegirdle did not hold with spiritous liquors, at least none but the ones she herself took for medicinal purposes. Mama had a whole raft of ailments. Right now (given the five-hour time difference) she was probably fanning herself on the porch of the Pink Horror; at least Gwendolyn, now three thousand miles away, and used to daub and wattle and thatch, thought of it as a Pink Horror.
As another cold drink was put into her hand, and her friend smiled at her, Gwendolyn said, “I just don't know how on
I'll ever find my way back to my room again.” A dreary enough room it was, too: top-floor rear with a lumpy bed and a hot-and-cold basin. Bath all the way down the hall. She could have afforded much better, but she had chosen the Diamond Hill Guest House because it seemed so awfully English-y, staying at a Bed-and-Breakfast. Not being catered to like the others on her tour who were living in Americanized luxury at the Hilton and other expensive hotels. Gwendolyn believed firmly in the when-in-Rome theory, not lying back in the Hilton and calling room service just like you did in the States.
“I don't know how I'll get there on my own,” she said again, smiling coyly.
“I'll see you get home.”
The young girl behind the bar of the Dirty Duck was calling Time.
“Let's have one last one before we leave.”
But I'm hardly into
âwell, if you
insistÂ .Â .Â .”
During her friend's absence she gave herself a quick once-over in her pocket mirror, running her little finger around the outline of her Passion Flower lipstick. Seeing the pale lips and rougeless faces of many of the women around her, looking almost ghostly in the hazy darkness, she thought perhaps she had overdone the color.
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,” said Gwendolyn, fanning herself with her hand as the fourth gin appeared in front of her. “These pubs get so
I swear, it's hotter'n back in Sarasota. There's so many British going over there these days. But they go to Miami, I guess, when it's really the West Coast that's nicest.Â .Â .Â . Listen, wasn't that play wonderful? Wouldn't it be just
to have nothing to do all day but live in the Forest of Arden? I can't understand why what's-his-name was so
“Jacques, you mean.”
“Um. He reminds me of someone I know back in Sarasota. The actor, I mean. Like I told you, Mama always did say, âGwennie, it's absolutely
how you can know faces.' Mama always said I can read faces like the blind.” Actually, Mama had never said any such thing; Mama never told her anything nice about herself. Probably why she had this sort ofÂ .Â .Â . complex. Gwendolyn could feel her face burning, and she quickly changed the subject. “It's too bad I didn't see you before the play started. There was an empty seat next to mine up until intermission when some kid grabbed it. Could you see all right up there in the balcony?” Her companion nodded as the barmaid called Time again. Gwendolyn sighed. “I think it's too bad the pubs have to close up so early the way they do. I mean you're just getting all convivial and you have to stop.Â .Â .Â . Wouldn't it be nice if we could only go for a drive?” That made Gwendolyn think of the old Caddy Mama kept garaged all the time, only taking it out for weddings and funerals. Gwendolyn called it The Iron Maiden. The Caddy even reminded her of Mama, the way she was always dressed in hard-looking gray or black with a metallic sheen to the material, her gray eyes flecked with tiny bands like wheel spokes, her gray hair pulled back in a hubcap bun. Just like that old car.
“Well, we could go for a walk before you go home. I like to walk by the river.”
be nice,” said Gwendolyn. She emptied her glass, nearly choking on the harsh taste of the gin Mama considered a ticket to hell and gathered up her beaded purse. She felt overdressed in the blue brocade. But if you couldn't dress to go to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre,
when could you? Some of these people, she thought as the two of them walked out, would wear jeans to a Coronation.
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The Dirty Duck emptied in that near-magical way that pubs do. When they close, they close; it's as if suddenly the publican had grown five extra hands with which to whisk glasses from tables; and on the drinker's end of it, as if that last swallow, that final drop were the only thing keeping him from the dark Angel.
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As the two of them crossed the road, the lights were already dimming in the Dirty Duck. They took the unlit path that curved around the brass-rubbing center and walked on toward the churchâa leisurely walk in which they chatted about the play.
When they had circled round behind the Church of the Holy Trinity, her friend paused. “Why're we stopping?” asked Gwendolyn, hoping she knew. She tried to suppress the excitement building inside her, but it rose up much like the hatred had risen thinking of Mama. The dusty passion was something she didn't understand and was intensely ashamed of. But after all (she told herself), there was nothing wrong
you got those feelings about. And the shame was part of the excitement, she knew. Her face burned. Well, it was all Mama's fault. If she hadn't kept Gwendolyn garaged up along with the Caddy all these yearsÂ .Â .Â .
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Her friend's voice broke into her reflections, with a little laugh. “Sorry, but it must be all of those drinks. There are toilets over there.Â .Â .Â .”
They walked over to the whitewashed, tiny building, much used by tourists during the day, but as black as the path they had walked along at night. The excitement was building inside Gwendolyn all the while.
“I hope you don't mind.”
Gwendolyn giggled. “Well, of course not. Only, look. There's a sign says Out of Orderâ”
About as far as Gwendolyn Bracegirdle had ever got toward experiencing what Shakespeare called the act of darkness was when she'd had to remove the hand of a gentleman friend from her knee. She had realized long ago that she was painfully lacking in sex appeal.
Thus it was to her credit that when she felt herself gently pushed inside the public toilets, and felt hands on her shoulders, felt breath on her neck, and felt, finally, this looseness, as if brocade, bra, slip had suddenly fallen awayâit was to her credit that instead of fighting off this affront to her
person, she said to herself,
The hell with it, Mama! I'm about to be ravished!
And when she felt that funny, tickling sensation somewhere around her breast, she almost giggled, thinking,
The silly fool's got a featherÂ .Â .Â .
The silly fool had a razor.
illow-laced and sheeted with light, the River Avon flowed from the rose-hued brick theatre to the Church of the Holy Trinity. Ducks slept in the rushes; swans drifted dreamlike along its banks.
One would not have been surprised on such a morning, in such a place, to see Rosalind reading poems tacked to trees, or Jacques brooding beside the riverbank.
Indeed, from a distance, one might have mistaken the lady and gentleman by the river between the old church and the theatre as two characters who had wandered out of a Shakespearean play to this sylvan river to feed the swans.