Authors: Caroline Graham
Simon Says Do This
Fun And Games
hree greedy people were sitting around a table beneath a brilliantly striped umbrella on the terrace of a moated grange. Well, to be more precise, one was a very greedy person, one (present only in spirit) was a mildly greedy person and the last, an extremely pretty girl with dark curly hair, was hardly greedy at all. It is she who is speaking when our story opens.
“I still don't believe Hugh would agree to murder.”
“He did. I spoke to him last night.”
“You mean you got at him last night. When I rang him up at teatime he was as worried as me.”
“As both of us.”
Simon Hannaford tilted his chair back, rested his elegant pale gray loafers against the iron rungs of the table and looked across at his sister. Laurie was small and sturdy, her skin burned deep apricot and freckled brown by the sun. Her eyes were blue, the irises so dark they were almost navy. She had a very direct gaze that could disconcert the devious and thick brows she felt vaguely one day might be plucked and shaped into something a bit less riotous. She wore a washed-out summer frock the color of periwinkles and flat T-strap sandals. Her knees and nails were grubby, and a gardening trowel and hand fork lay on the table next to a glass of homemade lemonade. She took a long drink and said, “Murder makes such a mess.”
“We could hang him. Or her.”
“Oh God, Simonâ¦I don't know.”
“What about poison?”
“Aren't people sick if they're poisoned?”
“That's in real life, silly. This is just a game.”
Simon had had years of experience in meeting that forceful navy-blue gaze and met it now with calm determination. He could hardly have presented a greater contrast to Laurie. Tall and slim, yet so muscular no one could have called him lanky. And, although there was a silk paisley square at his throat and his thick fair hair was rather long, you couldn't have called him foppish either. His eyes were a peculiar grayish-green. The gray predominated when he was displeased; when he was confident and excited as now, the green came into play. He picked up a sheet of foolscap closely covered with columns of figures, rolled it up and waved it under Laurie's nose as if to bring her round from a faint. She jerked her head irritably away.
“I know what it says.”
“Then perhaps you can tell me how else we could make this sort of money in just two months?” He put the paper down. “And honestly.”
“I don't see what's honest about taking two hundred and fifty pounds off people for one weekend.”
“The murder makes it honest. And don't forget that includes their train fare. I thought that would be an added encouragement. Without denting profits too much. After all, no one's going to travel far just for two days.”
Laurie fretted her unruly brows. “It doesn't seem right in someone else's house. Especially as this is the first time Aunt Maude's asked us to look after the place.”
“And what if it's the last time she asks us to look after the place? We'll have missed the opportunity of a lifetime. And she did say we could have friends to stay.”
“She didn't mean this sort of thing.”
“How do you know what she meant? She and Uncle were never averse to making a shekel in their time. How d'you think they came by the ancestral pile in the first place?”
They fell silent. Behind them the pile, which was not all that ancestral, dating only from 1897, sheered up rosy and glowing in the sunset. Four stories of vermilion brick luxuriously barnacled with pepper-pot turrets and gargoyles and embellished with balconies, moldings, lintels, architraves and the thousand other ills that nineteenth-century Strawberry Hill Gothic is heir to. It was surrounded by a hundred and fifty acres of garden and woodland, the latter home to a herd of dappled deer that drove the gardeners mad. There was also a large lake.
Madingley Grange had been built by Aloysius Coker, an inventor of headache pills so innocently yet potently concocted that they had killed off thousands of Victorians and made him a millionaire. Aunt Maude's (actually she was a great-aunt but that was rather a mouthful) better half, Uncle George, who had accumulated a fortune during the war (officially in ammunitions) and developed it through many an unorthodox and enterprising sideline, had purchased the house plus the contents of the cellar, which he promptly attempted to absorb. Shortly afterward, overwhelmed by the splendor of his claret and worn out by his efforts to keep one step ahead of the Inland Revenue, George passed on.
His widow bought and ran a chain of dress shops for a while, striking terror into the hearts of staff and customers alike, for Aunt Maude was a formidable woman. Once the Grange had been broken into and, alerted by crisp telephone instructions, the police had arrived to find the burglar cowering behind a suit of armor in the baronial hall. It had taken a full Candles flickering on the crystal ahour, three cups of extremely strong tea and assurances of Mrs. Maberley's restraint to winkle him out. Now, having sold the business, Aunt Maude had retired and lived alone, occupying each of the twenty bedrooms in turn to keep them aired, then cruising off into the sunset for several weeks before starting all over again in the Fragonard room. The cook, Mrs. Posture, and the elderly domestic, Ivy Tiplady, were laid off during these periods of recuperation while the groundsmen, full time the rest of the horticultural year, came in once a week just to put an armlock on the more aggressive forms of creeping vegetation. Fitterbee, the chauffeur, having delivered his employer to her appropriate point of embarkation, then moonlighted with the elderly Rolls in London.
“They'll be mad about all thisâthe punters,” said Simon, gesturing proprietorially toward the parkland rolling away on every side. At the shaven lawns and vaunting statuary; the crumbling dovecote and artfully tousled herbaceous border.
“Can't you see them,” he continued, “sweeping down the great staircase in full thirties fig for dinner in the Holbein dining room. Candles flickering on the crystal and family silvâ”
“Candles flickering onâ”
“Dinner in the Holbeinâ”
“Earlier. Something about figs.”
“Oh. Full thirties fig.”
“That's it,” said Laurie. “You didn't mention dressing up.”
“It's essential. You can't have a country house murder without an adenoidal maid in starched cap and apron, a butler in full buttledress, son of the house in baggy plus fours and the daughter fetching in bugle beads.”
“That is not a country house murder, Simon. That is a country house farce.”
“They'll love it,” said her brother firmly. “Anyway, it can't be changed now. I've put it in the advertisement.”
“You'veâ¦! What advertisement?”
. âMurder at Madingley Grange'”
“Aunt Maude's only been gone five minutes.”
“No point in hanging about.”
“You had no right to do that. We've not agreed.”
“Well, you can put in another tomorrow cancelling it.”
“Laurie, we have twenty bedrooms here going to waste.
With one each for you and me and Hughâwe can put the staff downstairs in those two rooms by the kitchenâ”
“âthat still leaves seventeen. We should be able to let them all as doubles.”
“Now thirty-four times two hundred and fiftyâ”
“Simon, it is absolutely out of the question that we allow thirty-four complete strangers loose here. There are all the paintings, the ornaments, the rugs and furnitureâ¦”
“They're not going to come in moving vans.”
“So am I. Everything's fixed.”
“Then unfix it.”
“Can't be done.”
“I shall stand at the front door and turn them away.”
Simon removed his gray loafers from the table rungs and placed his feet firmly on the flagstones. “You always were a bossy little beast. Not to mention selfish.”
“How do you make that out?”
“Here am I offering ordinary run-of-the-mill members of the bourgeoisie a chance to live for forty-eight hours like landed gentry plus a little bit of mayhem on the side, and you wish to deny them that supreme pleasure. You ought to be ashamed.”
“You're not getting round me like that, Simon.”
“I really am on the bottom line.”
“Or like that.”
“You wouldn't believe my debts.”
“Get a job then. You've done nothing since you left University College.”
You call seven years of plotting and planning and wheeling and dealing nothing? I've had the most brilliant ideas. None of them got off the ground. And why? Lack of cash. If I weren't so poor I'd be a millionaire by now.”
“You talk as if you were in the gutter.”
“All of us are in the gutter, sister mine,” said Simon. “And some of us are sliding down the drain.”
“You'll have to marry a rich widow.”
“Don't think I'm not working on it. Meanwhile my overdraft's piling up and pressure is being brought to bear. Do you want to see me knee-capped and buried up to my side parting in cement?”
“Depends when it is. I've got to be in Oxford by seven.”
“You don't give a tuppenny cuss, do you? I can starve to death as far as you're concerned. OKâwhat about your own future? You want to get married, I suppose?” Silence. “You and Hugh? Dear old Hugh. Clodding and plodding and doggedly true.”
“You make him sound like a basset hound.”
“Oh, he's far too tall for a basset hound,” Simon laughed. “Wellâdo you or don't you?”
Laurie didn't really have to think about it. She and Hugh wereâ¦wellâ¦they just were. And had always been. They had grown up together; gone to nursery and prep school and childhood parties together. Shared their holidays and Christmases and now, unless Laurie could think of any cause or just impediment, they seemed all set to be spending the rest of their lives together. And she couldn't. Not really. Because she was very fond of Hugh. In the companion along life's highway stakes he had a fair bit going for him. He was quiet and patient and even-tempered. Tolerant when she was grumpy and kind when she was sad. He never forgot her birthday, though his presents were uninspiring, and even sat with her pretending to enjoy
on the telly. What more, pondered Laurie, could a girl ask?
Occasionally, and feeling guilty, she believed there must be something. At her cousin's engagement party Laurie had briefly found herself side by side with Charlotte titivating in the cloakroom. (Actually Charlotte had been titivating; Laurie had been moodily trying to flatten her hair with a damp brush.) As she did so she was sharply struck by her companion's shining countenance. Her own seemed positively dull by comparison. Charlotte's cheeks had been flushed and glowing, her eyesâLaurie balked at the comparison but it could not be gainsaidâwere like stars. Laurie had been wrongheaded enough to remark on this imbalance to Simon when she came upon him later in the evening, enjoying a
on the stairs.
“You look a bit wistful,” he had said, and she had told him why, concluding with the observation that she never saw stars when she was with Hugh, not even when he kissed her.
“You see stars,” Simon replied, “when someone knocks you out. Not when they kiss you.”
“But something's supposed to happen, isn't it?” persisted Laurie. “I read in a book once that the earth moved.”
“Oh, I shouldn't take any notice of Hemingway's Spanish period. The earth was always moving for him. Mainly because he was never more than five minutes away from a mass bombardment.”
So that was that. Laurie sighed and returned reluctantly to the present, aware that Simon was looking expectant. He hadn't given up. Simon never did.
“So if thirty-four is probably outâ”
“No probably about it.”
“How many would be in?”
Laurie poured herself some more lemonade. She wished she knew just how far below the water level this latest “bottom line” really was. Simon had been in a serious cash-flow situation for as long as she had been able to understand what the words meant, often lurching from plenitude to penury and back again in the course of a single day. Sometimes this was due to gambling, more often to his impulsive generosity. He was always buying presents chosen, unlike Hugh's, with wit and imagination. Laurie recalled the excited disbelief with which, on her twelfth birthday, surrounded by dreary books about ponies and sensible pens and new pajamas, she had unrolled a large poster-sized plan of a thirteenth-century monastery garden which Simon had copied from an old manuscript, blown up and painted. There was a key to all the plants, and even a gardener, a bent elderly monk, raking gravel. The picture was still on her bedroom wall.
“â¦I don't know.”
Laurie, knowing she was making a terrible mistake, said: “Six.”
. You do mean rooms?”
“That's ridiculous. It's not worth doing with less than twelve.”
“Let's not do it then.” Relieved, Laurie backtracked.
“Oh, don't be such a pain. House parties are terrific fun. And you know how you like people.”
“I do not âlike people.' I like being up to my elbows in potting compost and watering cans and flowers and seed trays.”
“Ten. A nice round figure”âhe carried on quickly as Laurie opened her mouthâ“and they're bound to be lovely upper crusters. Well behaved and stinking rich.”
“How d'you make that out?”
“Why d'you think I advertised in
I have no intention of giving house room to the sort of people whose table manners are more suited to a low-class dive. Ten?
Fatally, Laurie hesitated. She seemed to hear a note of real desperation in Simon's voice. But then she often did. And he was a born actor. He had been acting his way in and out of trouble, it seemed to Laurie, for as long as she could remember. Now he leaned over and kissed her.
“You're an angel. Thanks for saying yes.”
“But I haven't,” said Laurie, knowing that by keeping silent she had. She looked across at her brother. Success had given his pallid skin a rosy glow and his eyes shone greenly. He smiled. Laurie recognized that smile. It had been present fairly regularly throughout her childhood and bathed the recipient in a rosy glow while at the same time giving him or her a slight frisson of alarm. A feeling that something extremely hazardous had glided closely by.
She had seen it first when she was five and her widowed mother had brought up to the nursery Victor Hannaford, whom she planned to marry, and his thirteen-year-old son. Simon had stepped forward with tremendous self-assurance, shaken Nanny's hand, kissed Laurie on the cheek and smartly removed a box of chocolate marshmallows from the top of her toy box. She had watched anxiously as they disappeared downstairs for they were her favorite sweets, and she had been tremendously relieved when he returned to say good-bye and put the box back. Later it proved to be empty. Now she said: “And there's no need to waste that smile on me.”
“Your basking shark's smile.”
“Anyone would think you couldn't trust me.” Simon poured himself a third vodka and tonic, added lemon and ice. He swirled it round, admiring the silvery gloss on the surface before draining it in one swallow. “Right,” he said, becoming very brisk. “We've got ten at two fiftyâ¦less food, of course. We can raid the cellar for the wineâ”
“Oh, no, we can't!”
“Why on earth not? All those dusty crates of plonk slowly turning to vinegarâ”
“If it's plonk it'll have turned long ago. I shouldn't think anyone's been down there since Uncle George was carted up for the last time.”
“Exactly. We'd be doing Aunt Maude a favor clearing it out.”
“I doubt if she'd see it like that.”
“Anyway, it'll probably all be ours sooner or later.”
“Sooner or later isn't now. And don't count your chickens. We're not the only possible heirs.”
“We're the most likely.”
“There's Hazel's son.”
“Mervyn? Aunt Maude hates him. Says he looks like a constipated squirrel.”
Laurie giggled. “He does a bit. What about Jocelyn then? Or that weird cousin who had nervous palpitations and used to sleep in a fish tank.”
“Hetty? She went to Australia.”
“After that hushed-up flotation scandal? No,” repeated Simon firmly, âyou and I are by far the best bet. Nowâif we could please get back to business. How much do you think we shall have to pay the staff?'
“There you go again, harping on about staff. What staff?”
“We've got to have a butler and maid.”
“What's wrong with Mrs. Posture and Ivy?”
“Godâyou're so dim.” Simon explained slowly and clearly. “Apart from the fact that neither of them, however cunningly disguised, could ever be mistaken for a butler, there's the strong possibility that they'll tell Aunt Maude on her return what we've been up to.”
“You said she wouldn't mind.”
“Picky, picky. I shall put a help-wanted notice in the
“Safer to go to an agency.”
“I've no intention of paying a huge registration fee and inflated salaries, thanks very much. Especially as our profits have now been cut to the bone thanks to all this whining about numbers. The point of the weekend after all is to make a killing. I shall ask for references, of course.”
“I should hope so.”
Simon replaced his glass on the table and lifted his face to the warm early evening sun, calmly content. He had never in a million years thought that he would be able to persuade Laurie to go along with his plan. Or, should this persuasion miraculously occur, that she would agree to more than two or, at the very most, four visitors at a time. Huckster-like he had started by suggesting over thirty, knowing this would frighten the wits out of her, and now she had actually agreed to ten. Unbelievable. Tomorrow he really would put an advertisement in
. He said: “And the murder is still on?” When Laurie frowned he added quickly: “I'll organize it all.”
“What do you know about murder weekends?”
“Done lots of research.” Simon indicated a pile of brochures sitting next to some paperbacks by the lemonade jug. He picked up a copy of
Death on the Nile
and waved it about. “And got lots of ideas. I shall draw up a flexible plot outline, give everyone a stock character and let them get on with it.”
“It all sounds a bit vague.”
“Vagueness is vital. You've got to allow room for improvisation. Usually, according to these”âhe patted the brochuresâ“actors are involved, but I'm certainly not hiring any. They want what's called the Equity minimum. I was horrified when I discovered what it was. I thought they all did it for love. Like nuns and missionaries.”
“I shall want to vet all the replies to the advert.”
“And this butler and maid.”
“Of course. Though they'll really just be set-dressing. You can do lots of cooking before the guests arrive and tart up the house. You knowâput flowers in all the roomsâ”
“Thanks a lot!”
“I thought you liked flowers. Right, so that's the weekend after this. June fifteenth to seventeenth.”
“And what will you be doing whilst all this activity's going on?”
“I,” said Simon grandly, tilting his chair back again and resting his loafers once more on the rungs of the table, “will be pressing my plus fours.”
ddly enough, in one respect Simon proved to be correct. Once Laurie had really thrown herself into the business of organizing the weekend, her misgivings, temporarily at least, slipped away. She vacuumed and dusted and ran up and down stairs with piles of lavender-scented sheets and pillowcases, making sure that each guest had fresh flowers, fluffy towels, scented soap and plenty of reading materials. Plus, on their bedside tables, a handwritten menu card.
She had prepared for their delectation pigeon terrine, boeuf en croute, lemon and toffee puddings and, in case anyone was a vegetarian, some ratatouille and a Stilton and broccoli quiche. All this was in the freezer together with a hundred rolls and fifty assorted croissants and brioche. There were still pheasants to prepare and a whole salmon was in the fridge awaiting Saturday lunch. For the first time Laurie felt grateful to her aunt who, quaintly believing gardening to be no job for a lady, had refused to pay her niece's fees for the coming year at Pershore College until she had completed two full terms at the Tante Marie School of Cookery. Now, feeling crisp and capable, Laurie checked her housekeeping list over and over again, sure she had forgotten nothing. She was, of course, wrong.
Simon, as always once he had got his own way, was all sweetness, light and helpful assistance. He had driven the Mountfield Simplicity to great effect over the vast lawns, throwing up sparkling clouds of frail grass cuttings and leaving stripes of exquisite perfection. He had also obtained a minibus (all the guests having taken advantage of the free train offer) by trading in, temporarily, his old Karmann Ghia. The bus now stood washed and polished outside the front entrance. An amber sunstrip, boldly lettered MADINGLEY GRANGE, arched over the windshield. And yesterday they had braved the cellar.
Neither of them had been down there before and they were amazed at the size of the place. It was like a small aircraft hangar dimly lit by three sixty-watt bulbs suspended from frayed old electric cord. A cryptish smell prevailed, the floor was gritty under their feet and the dust made Laurie sneeze. There was no echo. Rather the sneeze was immediately trapped and enfolded in an atmosphere of overpowering fustiness. As they stood, rather close together, one of the bulbs sizzled briefly and went out.
“Great,” said Simon. “We could hardly see a thing before. I should have brought a torch.”
“I'll go and get one.”
“Don't you dare.” He caught his sister's eye. “And there's no need to sneer.” His voice wavered theatrically. “Who knows what horrors lurk at the bottom of the Black Lagoon?”
Laurie reached up and pushed the light. It swung backward and forward. Huge shapes loomed out of the dimness, receded, loomed again. Old furniture piled high, some trunks, an upturned ancient rowing boat. Tennis nets, bats and balls, a set of mallets for croquet. And crates and crates and crates of wine.
“My Godâ¦” breathed Simon. “An oenophile's paradise.”
“I bet it's all off.”
“One way to find out.” Simon moved toward the nearest stack. Each set of fifty crates was enclosed in a three-sided cage made of open wire mesh over a wooden frame. He pulled out a bottle.
“Don't swing it about like that. There's bound to be sediment.”
“So I spoil one. There's hundreds more. What sort do we want? You're the
chef de cuisine.”
“Some red and some white.”
“I'd have thought all that pricy training would have left you with a slightly wider grasp of chÃ¢teau and vintage than âsome red and some white'.”
“There's no point in being precise when I don't know what we've got.”
“Well, thisâ¦” Simon peered at a bottle. “The label's flaked off.”
“Should tell you on the cork what it is.”
“There's obviously some serious testing to be done here. We can't give the punters stuff we haven't had a go at ourselves. You take the next three down and I'll bring these.”
“Simonâ¦” Laurie had moved a few steps away. “Here a minute.”
Simon joined her. “Champers. Yum-yum.”
“It's Krug, 1955.”
“High time we polished it off then.”
“We can't do that. It must be worth a fortune.”
“You're not going to be tiresome, are you, Laurie?”
“What do the others say?”
Simon turned Laurie firmly toward the cellar steps and gave her a little push. “Go and find a corkscrew.” He collected three more bottles and followed his sister, nudging when she hesitated.
Back in the dining room he produced some long-stemmed tulip glasses, wiped the dirt and cobwebs from bottle number oneâit still looked quite blackâand eased out the cork. The wine glowed like rubies and a heavenly fragrance, massively opulent, arose from the glass. Black currants, cedarwood (or was it sandalwood?), plummy and rich. Laurie emptied her glass and gazed at Simon. She looked quite stunned.
Simon pulled a further cork. “This is a white one. I think you asked for one of each.”
The white one in its own way was equally superb. In color a lovely buttery yellow with a greenish edge. Disbelieving the first glass, they had a second. It smelled ofâ¦
“I wouldn't say that,” contradicted Laurie, wagging her head. “Seems to me”âinvestigating furtherâ“to have a rare and subtle oakinessâ”
“Spare me the wine babble.”
“One more word about rare and subtle oakiness and it all goes down the sink.”
“Behave yourself then.”
“Let's have no prating on about saucy little numbers with a quick good-bye.”
“No, Simon.” Laurie imbibed a little more. “Gorse bushes.”
“God, you're affected.” Simon broached bottle number three.
“That's the fish and meat then.”
“What we've just”âin a huge effort of concentration, Laurie frowned and gripped the edge of the tableâ“drunk.”
“I can see you're drunk. You're a disgrace to the family name.”
“Not true. Nowâ¦” Laurie laid a solemn and restraining hand on her brother's arm. “We want something to go with the pudding.”
“Pudding, madam?” Simon wrapped a clean tea towel around bottle number three. “Say no more.”
“I shall say what I like. Who you think you are?”
Simon poured. Hayfields newly mown under a baking sun. Mignonette crushed in the hand. Clover and wild flowers. A deep golden wine with a rim the color of burnt sugar, rich and sweet. Fat honeybee sweetness that stayed in your mouth. And stayed. And stayed.
“Now that”âSimon drained his glassâ“is bliss. As close, I fear, to heaven as I shall ever be in this world or the next. What are you doing down there?”
“On the floor.”
“I'm not on the floor.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I'm not.”
“Well, one of us is.”
“It's you.” Laurie started to laugh, rocking in her chair. “Get upâ¦
“These wines,” said Simon, struggling to his feet and nearly pulling Laurie down in the process, “are something else.”
“I must find out what they are. An' write them on the menu cards.”
“Absolutely. Nowâopen up the Krug,” demanded Simon. “And let the sunshine in.”
Hours later, when Laurie felt herself capable, she returned to the cellar with a flashlight and a little stool and rubbed the dust from the three cages. It was then revealed that Friday's guests would be drinking Mouton-Rothschild '45 with their meat, a 1962 Louis Latour Corton-Charlemagne with their fish, and with their dessert a 1921 ChÃ¢teau d'Yquem.
“And all so divine,” muttered Laurie while amending her menu cards, “that I should think people would be prepared to pay two hundred and fifty pounds just for the privilege of tasting them.” And in so saying she spoke no more than the simple truth.
The next day Simon, still complaining of a faint buzzing in the ears, drove to Oxford to interview what he insisted on calling
. The pair were traveling down from London after apparently being alerted to Simon's advertisement in the
by a cousin in Witney.
The interview was to be conducted over tea at the Mitre, which Laurie thought a bit silly. After all, she said as her brother prepared to leave, the whole point of the operation was not to discover if they could sit nicely and be waited on but if they in their turn could wait. Simon replied that he could hardly expect the two of them to start handing round iced cakes and cucumber sandwiches in a perfectly strange hotel just to show him what they were made of.
Actually there seemed to be some discrepancy, thought Laurie, rootling through her aunt's boulle escritoire when her brother had departed, between his claim that he had been snowed under by applications and the solitary letter, wavily written on cheap lined paper, that lurked in the back of the spring clip “Murder” file. The envelope was covered with what looked like the meanderings of a spider who had lunched too well on overripe flies, then fallen into the nearest inkpot. The letter itself was brief. The scrivener, one A. Bennet (Mrs.), having had Simon's advertisement brought to her attention, wished to offer the services of herself and her brother for the brief period before they left to take up employment in Ireland with Lady Keele at Castle Triamory. They had previously been in service with the Hon. Mrs. Hatherley. Mention was made of the highest references. Indeed, the tone throughout was so high and the names dropped so grand that Laurie wondered briefly whether the references were to be offered or demanded.
She returned the letter to the file and took out the handful from Simon's punters. Here at least things seemed to be in order. Although they were one short of the ten he had hoped for, all the checks had gone through and the notepaper was, on the whole, what Simon referred to as “respectable.”
Laurie wasn't too sure about Mr. Gibbs, who wrote from Peep O'Day on a showy deckle edge stamped with two vivacious bikini-clad nymphettes playing with a beach ball, especially as he seemed to be bringing two wives. But Mrs. Saville (plain blue linen, raised Gothic script), Mr. Lewis (unadorned good-quality white), and the Gregorys (cream parchment distinguished by crossed magnifying glasses sejant and deerstalker crest over the words Grimpen Villas), were obviously made of the right stuff. Mrs. Gregory, who had rung up to ask about the food and other details, sounded really charming.
They were coming from Brize Norton, not too far away. But the Gibbses came from the North and Arthur Gillette from the even norther, namely Fishwick, Berwick on Tweed. So much, commented Simon bitterly, for the notion that no one would bother to travel far for a mere weekend.
On Thursday morning the costumes arrived and Laurie asked that the basket be placed in the washing-up annex off the kitchen. This was a vast room with a long deal table scrubbed white and much scarred in the center and three huge stone sinks linked by old wooden draining boards and used only when the flowers were being done. Three sides of the room had floor-to-ceiling mahogany cupboards filled with Mason's blue and yellow Regency Ironstone crockery. A hundred of everything including egg cups. Laurie, knowing the most her aunt ever did in the entertaining line was invite the Madingley Women's Institute to tea, once asked why she kept such an elaborate service. Mrs. Maberley had explained that one must keep up appearances.
“But no one knows they're there.”
“I know they're there, Laurel,” Aunt Maude had replied. “And that's what matters. Standards are maintained by all sorts of eccentric little practices. Like always wearing clean bloomers.”
Thinking of this formidable relative, even though she was by now safely in the middle of the Indian Ocean, made Laurie nervous. She was glad when Simon came back from the Mitre full of assurances as to the suitability of the interviewees, and they could turn their attention to the costumes. Simon had bought a long cigarette holder from Bowater's and lounged about with it while Laurie opened the basket.
The costumes, beautifully packed and shrouded with tissue, were beneath two boxes. Laurie lifted out the largestâand passed it to Simon who started greedily rustling through the paper. “It's hats!”
“What do we want hats for?”
“Here's yours.” Simon handed over a lamÃ© turban sporting white egret feathers secured by a glittering pin in the shape of a scimitar.
“I'm not wearing that!”
“Don't get acrimonious before we even start.” Simon delved again and came up with a boater and a large mustard-and-brown checked cap. “And this must be for me.” He put it on. Laurie shrieked. He took it off again. “Or possibly for Hugh. What's happened to him anyway? I thought he was coming for lunch.”
“He was. I expect he's got held up.” Laurie unpacked shoes, gloves, a sequined evening bag. “I must say they've done us proud.”
They turned their attention to the basket proper and Simon pulled out a canary-yellow waistcoat, a shirt patterned with winking foxes, brogues with lively questing tongues and snuff-colored plus fours. Laurie shrieked again. Simon took the clothes and laid them on the table next to Hugh's cap with such kindly reverence you would have thought them to be newly deceased, then brought out a swallowtail coat.
“Ah,” said Simon with deep satisfaction, “the butler's soup and fish. And this”âhe passed over a deep white piecrust frillâ“for the maid.”
Laurie placed it on her head. It fell straight down to the bridge of her nose and rested there. She bobbed. “Ow does oi look, zur?”
“Like a Neanderthal nun.” Simon slipped on a cream barathea dinner jacket and held the black braided trousers against his jeans. “How do I look?”
He looked very dishy but Laurie had no intention of saying so. “Like a shopsoiled gigolo. Where's the female equivalent?”
Simon waved a shimmering fall of ice-blue lamÃ© in front of his sister in the manner of a matador with a cape. She took it cautiously.
“It's a bit slippy. Rather beautiful though. Are these the shoes? Heavensâthey're like stilts.”
“The other day you were complaining because you're only five feet nothing.” Simon leaned across the basket and took his sister's hands. “Buck up, love. Try and enter into the spirit of the thing.”
“I shall look a right pig's ear in that lot.”
“Think of the money then. You'll be able to buy enough potting compost to cover the county. And seed trays. And cornsâ”
“Exactly,” said Simon with as much satisfaction as if he had just solved the Metternich-Carstairs equation. “Now we have”âhe hoiked out a coffee and cream geometrically patterned numberâ“your”âstudying the labelâ“tea gownâ”
“Tea gown! I don't believe it. You mean people actually changed for tea?”
“In some circles they still do.”
“Don't be so daft.”
“I suggest you wear it when welcoming them all tomorrow. You'll have to alter your makeup though. Or rather”âhe frowned at Laurie's freckled, sunburned countenanceâ¦ “start wearing some. Ruby-red lipstick was all the crack, I believe, if those god-awful magazines in the attic are anything to go by. Plus a very thin arched browâ”
“I have no intention of plucking my eyebrows.”
“Well, you can't swan around in backless lamÃ© with the ones you've got. They're like overhanging eaves.”
“They're fine.” Laurie smoothed the glossy dark wings with a fingertip. “And if the success of our whole enterprise depends onâ” She was interrupted by the shrill ring of a bell, cried “That's Hugh!” and ran into the hall.
The telephones at Madingley Grange had been installed in the forties and were great heavy Bakelite things with a receiver that put real demands on the muscles of the forearm. Laurie heaved it up to her ear. “Hugh? Where are you?”
“Still in Gloucester, darling. I'm most awfully sorry. The thing is, halfway to the station the Land-Rover blew a fuse or a gasket or whatever it is they blowâ¦and we had to wait simply hours before someone cameâ”
“Pacey was driving. I meanâsomeone had to return the thing.”
“They've got more than one car, surely?”
“Yes, but by the time we'd made it back to the Hall, Sir Piers had left with Frobisher in the Rolls, Nanny had gone in the Mini to visit Nanny Pargeter in Chipping Campden and Lady Kettersley-Gore had taken the Rover out shopping.”
“That's a bit quixotic, isn't it?”
“What?” A puzzled pause. “And by the time a car did become available it was too late to get a train that would connect to Oxford.”
“What about Betsy?”
“Toby's borrowed her pro tem. You're not miffed, are you, darling?” continued Hugh. “You sound a bitâ¦wellâ¦ distantâ¦”
“Hugh,” said Laurie, struggling to hold her voice steady and choosing her words with care. “You know our murder weekend starts tomorrow. I shall need all the help and moral support that I can get. Nowâyou will be here by teatime at the very latest, won't you?” In spite of her resolve, Laurie's voice broke on the last sentence and panic rushed through the gap.
“Positively. Although I'm sure you've got everything organized.”
“Well, I think I've got the food sorted. The costumes are a scream. We've laid out your plus fours.”
There was a brief hiatus; just long enough for a man who has received a nonfatal body blow to fall to the ground and pick himself up again, then Hugh said: “There must be something wrong with this line. For a minute I thought you said you'd laid out my plus fours.”
“Ohhh, noâ¦” replied Laurie, sensing a possible slackening of enthusiasm in her intended. “I saidâ¦umâ¦It's lovelyâ¦ outdoors.”
“Is it? It's raining buckets here.”
When Laurie returned to the annex Simon said: “You look shattered. Explain.” Laurie explained. “What's he doing down there anyway?”
“Toby Kettersley-Gore is his best friend. They were at Greshams together. Hypaetia and Poppy are Toby's sisters. Surely you remember Pacey. She was my best friend.”
“What do you mean, âmmm' ?”
“Perhaps he's succumbed to all that propinquity.”
“Rubbish. Poppy's a revolting little beast with pigtails who used to put toads in my bed when I went to stay. And Pacey's teeth stick out and she's always rushing at people.”
“How long is it since you've seen her?”
“A yearâ¦eighteen monthsâ¦”
“She might have got them fixed by now. And some men like being rushed at.”
Laurie ignored him, emptied the basket and started carrying the costumes upstairs.
t twelve noon on Friday Simon, having spaced the croquet hoops out on the lawns and cleaned the mallets, was preparing to drive into Oxford and collect the hired help.
“Don't forget,” he said to Laurie as he climbed into the bus, “you're the chatelaine and you do the bossing about. Use a firm hand. And no kindly queries about his gout or suggestions that she put her feet upâOK?” He paused, studying her frowning face. “Now what?”
“Do you think I'll have time before you get back to pinch out the tomatoes?”
“Don't you dare go anywhere near that greenhouse! Or that filthy herbaceous border. You'll never get the upper hand if they arrive and find you standing around with straws in your hair.”
So after lunch Laurie scrubbed her nails, got out of her old dungarees and into her periwinkle-blue frock. As she waited nervously in the hall she practiced an “in charge” voice and kept telling herself that he who paid the piper called the tune. She wished she wasn't quite so hazy as to what butlers actually did. She knew for certain only that they opened doors, received visitors' outer garments and rolled around smoothly on little wheels bearing silver trays.