Read The Old Contemptibles Online
Authors: Martha Grimes
Adam looked up at him, sadly. “Your mother. What can I say? What can I say or do?”
Alex looked away.
Lady Cray raised her chin a bit. “Nothing. There’s nothing anyone can say or do. I doubt he came here to cry on your shoulder. He doesn’t look at all the type. He’s like Andrew.”
Whoever Andrew was, Alex smiled at her businesslike manner.
Somehow, it took the sting out. She said she was very happy to meet Alex and then was quickly gone.
“She’s nice. Who is she?”
“Just some woman.” Adam waved dismissively. “Now tell me what the hell’s happened.”
As Alex told him, he thought his great-grandfather seemed to age visibly, a bit more and a bit more, as if a special effects expert were working on him for a film. Alex knew he was also thinking of his father; his father had been one of old Adam’s favorites. Two suicides.
“It’s unthinkable,” said Adam, as if he’d been following Alex’s thoughts. “Jane’d never have done that. Not to herself, and not to you.”
Alex relaxed, took a cigarette from the lady’s pack. After he’d drawn in deeply, he told Adam about the “new one.”
“That librarian-fellow old Crabbe hired?”
Alex liked that “old Crabbe.”
“Only he’s not a librarian.” Alex told him about the talk in the tree house. “So I’ve
to go to police, don’t I? I’m the only one—except whoever did it—who knows about those pills.”
Before Adam could answer, the door opened and Maurice Kingsley entered, smiling. “Glad to see you’re here, Adam. Who’s your company and whoever he is, I presume he came through the window. Looks like you, must be another Holdsworth. Don’t Holdsworths
use doors?” He put out his hand.
Automatically, Alex shook it.
He was the man on the bench outside their house in Lewisham.
“ ‘Crinkle Cottage,’ I call it,” said Fellowes, once they were inside the old gatehouse. “I named it after Crinkle Crags, that wavering line of fells. You been up there?”
Been up there? Was he joking? “No. Remember, I just got here. Haven’t had much time to do any exploring.” Never would, either, if Melrose could help it.
“I always feel it’s a good metaphor for my mind, Crinkle Crags.” Paintings were stacked five, six, seven deep against all four walls, and Francis was pulling them out, shoving them back, making various sounds of displeasure in looking at his own work. “Damned if I know where it is. Here someplace.”
Crabbe had released Melrose from his relentlessly boring discourse on—what was it this morning?—Rydal Mount—to send him along to see if the cousin could locate Graham Holdsworth’s painting of a view of the famous Wordsworth-Southey place. Melrose knew he’d have to visit it. Sometime.
“Here’s one. Not bad.”
“Of course not. All of his were bad. Mine.”
It was yet another view of Wast Water and the Screes and was, indeed, “not bad.” “Your ability to handle lights and shades is impressive. That sounds pompous.”
“Hell, who cares. I can use all the encouragement I can get.”
Melrose picked up a largish painting of a lakeland scene. “Whose is this? Not Ibbetson or Graham Holdsworth’s.”
“That? That’s a Thompson. He’s very good. The colors are so thick you’d think it’s an oil. But it’s watercolor. Look at
lighting. Look at the green. Viridian.” Fellowes’s thick finger made a trail across the horizon.
“Looks like Sorcerer’s eyes.”
Fellowes had again turned back to the collection. “Ah! Here’s an Ibbetson. Take it.”
The view of Greta Hall was, Melrose thought, saccharine and unimaginative. It made no difference whether one had seen it; the painting had no more character than the others on the library walls.
“Just for the fun of it, I tried aping his style. Thought perhaps I could pass it off on Crabbe.” He sighed. “But I hadn’t the heart, in the circumstances.”
“What circumstances?” There were two paintings, one a downward-looking view at a bit of Wast Water and Wasdale Head. The other a tedious look at crags, a high-walled mountain with a large crevice, clouds like flakes.
“It was the day Virginia died. I told you, she took a fall when she was climbing Scafell. Broke her neck on the rocks below. I told you I came in for some heavy questioning. She liked Scafell, too; she wanted to make the ascent from Borrowdale because of the magnificent scenery, but I insisted going up by way of Brown Tongue. I told her I wasn’t killing myself just to—sorry, no pun intended.” Francis was sitting in the single stuffed chair packing down his pipe.
Melrose stared. “Just a minute. You mean you were
Francis looked up, drawing hard on the pipe. “That’s right. That’s why police were so interested in me.” He shrugged. “But one needs a motive, after all, and I certainly hadn’t one. Except perhaps I was very fond of Ginny and they tossed about the idea of jealousy. That was nonsense.” Fellowes smiled and puffed.
“Where’s the site?”
“You mean where Virginia had her accident?”
“Where you did the painting.”
“Some yards down the Eskdale side of Scafell. Virginia was determined to get to Mickledore by way of Broad Stand. That’s the tricky
rock-face that bars it. Otherwise, you have to double back and go round another way.”
Melrose ran his hand through his hair. He was thinking of Alex last night, how he had separated himself from that tree, how he had been all but invisible. “Why were you suspected at all?”
Francis laughed. “Like Hilary, because I was there.”
“But that’s ridiculous. Someone
could have been there.”
“But that’s the point: someone else
have, or I’d have seen them. Anyone else would have had to go by me, unless the person was a very experienced climber.”
Melrose frowned. “How could you have seen anyone? You were painting this view of Wasdale Head. Your back was turned.” Melrose frowned. “Unless you were looking directly at the mountainside, here.” Melrose indicated the second watercolor.
“I forgot; you don’t know the way Ibbetson painted.” Francis walked through the clutter of canvases, papers, jars to a battered desk, opened a drawer and tossed something to Melrose. “It’s a Claude glass.”
From a leather wallet Melrose drew a small convex mirror that fit the hand. He looked questioningly at Fellowes.
“Claude Lorrain, like Salvator Rosa, influenced a whole way of seeing and painting. One of the worst perversions of ‘seeing’ I’ve come across. It reminds me, sometimes, of the way people ‘see’ a photo; a snapshot, that is. I’ve watched tourists do it. Snap their friends in front of Dove Cottage, say, then gather round to see what they look like in the picture, instead of looking at the real thing.”
“What’s that to do with this?” Melrose held up the mirror.
“That device was very popular with painters of the ‘picturesque’ school. You paint what’s behind you, not what’s in front. The mirror acts as a ‘framing’ device. Claude believed in painting exactly what you see. You don’t ‘interpret’—although, obviously, it’s impossible not to—so that what you paint supposedly duplicates what’s actually there. It’s extremely artificial and as close to a mirror-image as one could get. It’s the same as Ibbetson’s idea of ‘framing’ the painting with trees, for example. In addition of course to tossing in sentimentalized people and animals in postures more lugubrious than the regulars at the Old Con. How many times have you ever sat down with a cow, for God’s sake?”
Melrose tried not to think of Agatha.
“So you hold this Claude glass thing in your hand and look at what’s behind you.”
Fellowes nodded. “It would make a poet like Wordsworth die a thousand deaths. To him, perception was actually creation.” He knocked his pipe against the pottery jar. “Ever read Thomas West?”
“Oddly, yes.” He hadn’t finished his acquisition from the Wrenn’s Nest, however.
“Then you know he believed tourism should be a set of perfectly arranged pictures or settings. It’s the start, in a way, of Baedecker and all of those guides. You’re told precisely
to look at. Tourists come here to see Dove Cottage, Grasmere, Hawkshead Church, Coniston Water, Ruskin’s house, Beatrix Potter’s cottage, and so on. A set of perfectly arranged pictures. And this school loved Gothic elements, too. Ruined castles, twisted trees. You know, one of my favorite writers is Jane Austen, and one of her best characters is Edward Ferrers, who was really taking the piss out of the heroine’s sentimentality. ‘I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages.’ ” Fellowes laughed.
Melrose thought for a moment. “If I wanted to get up to this spot where you did your painting”—he shuddered at the thought of climbing anything higher than the stairs of Ardry End—“which route would I take?”
“You? Pardon me, but I somehow can’t imagine you kitting yourself out for a climb up Scafell.”
“Neither can I. But which?”
“The easiest. The one I took, or we did. From Wasdale Head, the other end of Wast Water. You’d begin at the Wasdale Hotel—”
Melrose would just as soon end there, too.
Ah, Wordsworth! Ah, Inns!
Dr. Maurice Kingsley had appeared not to recognize him.
Alex couldn’t be sure. The only light on that night had been the reflected one from the open door of their house and the spurt of a flame as Kingsley had fired up a match. And certainly the doctor had been drunk enough not only to have forgotten the face of William Smythe, but to have forgotten the whole evening. Blotto, he’d been.
Or had he?
The doctor’s expression showed nothing else but concern. “I’m sorry, Alex. About your mother. I liked her,” he said simply. Kingsley looked away and back. “Look, come round and have a talk sometime if you feel like it. It helps talking—”
“You should know, Kingsley,” said Adam. “You do enough of it.” Adam took out his teeth and dropped them in a tumbler by his chair.
Kingsley laughed. “Oh, come on, Adam. Break out one of those cigars you keep squirreled away that you smoke against orders.”
Prissily, Adam mimicked Nurse Lisgrove: “ ‘Oh, Doctor, he’th been thmelling up hith room again.’ Bloody hell, she’s got a case on you. God knows why. Though I expect all the women round here do . . . except Helen Viner. She’s got too much sense.” Adam bent over, rooting round under his bed. He brought out a box of hand-rolled cigars and tossed one to the doctor.
“Undoubtedly, she has.” His smile was enigmatic. “Thanks.”
All the while this exchange was going on, the doctor was watching Alex. It was true, Kingsley did strike Alex as a sort of ladies’ man, but he also looked like a man who’d be running to fat in ten years. From booze, probably. Would his mother be attracted to him? He was friendly, but glib. Shrewd, Alex thought.
Whether his concern was feigned, Alex didn’t know any more than whether the boozy drunk had been an act. The trouble was, Alex was having a hard time of it seeing the truth in
face, except for his great-grandfather’s and Millie’s. This policeman’s friend, Mr. Plant. He saw truth there and was surprised he was so convinced of it. He was momentarily comforted by having the man around.
It made him feel, even, reckless.
“What happened to you, Alex? Your family’s been beside themselves . . .” Kingsley stopped.
The “family.” Alex wiped all expression from his face. Kingsley certainly knew from someone—his granddad, Dr. Viner, someone—how much Alex would believe the family had been worried about his welfare. “I was in London. I holed up in an hotel. I didn’t want to be badgered by police anymore, or anyone else. What’d they ask you?”
The cigar still unlit, the hand holding it dropped to Kingsley’s side. “ ‘They’?”
Adam was saying nothing. His grandfather could “seize up” with stillness, nearly vanish from the scene, if he thought the occasion warranted.
Kingsley frowned. “Police? Why, nothing. I mean, other than asking me if I knew Mrs. Holdsworth. Should they have done?” He smiled slightly.
“Mrs. Holdsworth.” Not “Jane.” That, thought Alex, was a nice touch. Kingsley wasn’t on that bench in evening clothes waiting for any “Mrs. Holdsworth.” He was thinking hard, half-hearing Dr. Kingsley talking about police always asking questions . . .
“. . . in cases of—sudden death.” Discreetly, he looked away. “Dr. Viner can tell you more. She knew your mother far better.” He paused, looked from the blank face of Adam to the blank one of Alex. “Listen, are you saying the police suspect something else?”
Tonelessly, Alex replied, “No. I’m saying I do.”
Maurice Kingsley broke the silence finally by saying, “Trauma often results in—phantasies, strange thoughts, Alex. I’m not, for Lord’s sake, saying you’re
But I wish you’d come and talk to me about it.”
It’s a wager, thought Alex, like the track, like cards, like any wager. If he remembers me or suspects
was the William Smythe on that bench, he’ll do something.
“I’ve an appointment, sorry.”
“We’re not,” said Adam, giving him a toothless smile. “Better get to your office before Lady Cray cleans it out.”
Kingsley gave Alex a good-humored smile that said
I’m used to it
and left with his unlit cigar.
• • •
“What in hell was
all about?” asked Adam, plucking one of his cigars from the box and trying to gum the end off.
Granddad. Outside our house on the night—” Alex stopped, utterly befuddled now. “Sitting on a bench in the park, drunk as a lord, mumbling about being stood up, asking me for a fag.”
in the park for?”
“I’ll tell you later, never mind,” said Alex impatiently.
Adam said, round a damp and shredded cigar, “You mean . . . bloody hell. It was
the coppers got there?”
Alex nodded. “You’re not going to say it could have been a coincidence.”
Adam said, “I’m saying tell the police. Your aunt and Genevieve were in London that night, too. That makes three.” Adam puffed, stared out at the dry fountains, the misty day. “Three we know about.”