Ellis Peters - George Felse 13 - Rainbow's End

BOOK: Ellis Peters - George Felse 13 - Rainbow's End
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Rainbow’s End
Ellis Peters
Felse Family 13

A 3S digital back-up edition 2.0
click for scan notes and proofing history

Contents

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Also by Ellis Peters and published by Macdonald

A NICE DERANGEMENT OF EPITAPHS

BLACK IS THE COLOUR OF MY TRUE LOVE’S HEART

THE KNOCKER ON DEATH’S DOOR

THE HEAVEN TREE trilogy

(Ellis Peters writing as Edith Pargeter)

THE HEAVEN TREE THE GREEN BRANCH THE SCARLET SEED

CHAPTER ONE

The gate-posts, until recently shorn of their crests and leaning drunkenly out of true, now stood up regally on either side of the drive, crowned with a pair of baronial lions, gripping in their paws escutcheons certainly not native either to the building, which was in fact a rather monstrous eighteenth-century vicarage, built by a wealthy pluralist in the days when such remote parishes carried a stipend fit for a prince, or the present owner, who was a come-lately antique dealer from Birmingham, the first landlord since 1800 to be able to duplicate the founder’s extravagant fancies. No doubt the lions had been acquired in the course of business, but they looked sufficiently imposing, looming whitely in the early September dusk between dark-rose brick, and backed by clipped, cavern-dark cypresses. And hadn’t the gate-posts themselves been upped by a couple of feet, to tower so high above George Felse’s Volkswagen as he drove in? It was a fair preparation for what was to come.

The drive was newly-surfaced, the grass on either side shorn like a second-year lamb. Nicely-spaced cypresses accompanied the traveller, with the occasional life-size nymph or satyr, possibly marble, probably lead, posed against their darkness in antique pallor. Posed, as George noted, very tastefully, every dimension studied as meticulously as if this remote upper end of Middlehope, the rim of the world between England and Wales in these parts, had been the serene preserve of Stourhead, in Wiltshire, the final perfection of the landscape garden in these islands. Every tree placed with care, every vista calculated with the precision of a master-photographer, every view not so much an accident of nature as a dramatic composition. Between the trees sudden blazons of flowers shone in noble golds and burnished bronzes, like flares lit in the cradling dark.

‘How long did you say he’d been installed here?’ asked Bunty dubiously, hunching her right shoulder against her husband’s left, like a loyal colleague in a battle-line closing ranks.

‘Three months. Oh, I’ve no doubt most of these garden-gods were lying around here, it was that sort of set-up once before. Either flat on their faces or breast-deep in grass and shrubs. It wouldn’t take so long to get them set up again. And from all accounts he’s got the money to indulge his fancy. They’ll be glad of the jobs, they’re hanging on by their teeth here, the older ones. The kids head on out, more’s the pity. He could be a blessing if he employs local labour.’

‘He knows his stuff,’ admitted Bunty, gazing wide-eyed at the Psyches and Graces flickering by. Bunty knew hers, though her field was music rather than landscaping, and could appreciate authority when it showed. So why wasn’t she happy? Three months isn’t very long, and the extreme head of a valley climbing over frontier hills from England into Wales is hypersensitive territory, critical and aloof, resentful of mere mechanical aids like expertise.

‘In several fields, apparently,’ said George drily. ‘And does his homework, too.’ For one of the newcomer’s interests was also music, and he had arrived already primed with the knowledge that Bernarda Elliot, once a promising mezzo-soprano with a bright future before her, was one and the same with Bunty Felse, long since dwindled into a wife, and to the newly-promoted head of the Midshire C.I.D. of all people. The sole reason they had been invited to this house-warming, according to Bunty, was because she had let herself be conned into acting as secretary to the Comerbourne Musical Association, and their host showed every sign of planning a takeover bid for that earnest body, and was recruiting support at every opportunity.

‘I know I got myself into this,’ admitted Bunty frankly.

‘But you could easily have got out of it if you’d wanted to. I wonder why you didn’t?’

‘Curiosity, mainly. It pays to take a close look at every major development in these parts.’ He didn’t go into details, there was no need. The remorseless waves of urbanisation had rippled outwards from the lowlands into the ramparts of Middlehope, and reached as far as Mottisham, which was the halfway mark, but Abbot’s Bale and the scattered hill-farms round it remained a fortress of tribal solidarity. Lucky valley, still viable for a limited population, owing to sheep-farming and small personal craft industries, beautiful enough and just near enough to more populated centres to attract those commuters most grimly determined on peace and rural society, while remote enough to discourage the merely rich and pretentious. By no means a closed community, it had assimilated a number of retiring, and retired, artists and academics, and tolerated a few suburban hangers-on, who, given the atmosphere, would either adapt, or lose heart and sell out to more congenial arrivals. Middlehope was expert in providing the atmosphere, though it condemned no one on sight. At any given moment there might be three or four newcomers on probation, of whom one or two would survive to become initiates. Not always the most obviously inoffensive candidates, either.

‘Is he really good?’ asked George curiously.

‘Musically? Yes, very. I don’t think he’d waste time on anything at which he couldn’t excel.’

‘Or stop short of a take-over in anything at which he can excel?’

‘It’s early days yet to judge.’ They were just turning a curve in the drive, so screened with bushes that the view beyond should spring upon them with instant effect; and there, foursquare and arrogant and large in the afterglow, was the house itself, once the Old Rectory, now Abbot’s Bale House, a great sweep of russet gravel before it, already stippled with the sharp colours of cars, and backed by a rise of two terraces, sporting new terracotta vases along their balustrades. ‘It has got a lord of the manor look about it, hasn’t it?’ said Bunty dubiously. ‘He must have unloaded quite a lot of money to get all this done in the time. He’s rather committed himself, hasn’t he, with a stake like that ploughed into the property?’

‘Investment. He expects a set-up like this to sell antiques for him more effectively than any town shop, and it probably will.’

They were approaching the open space under the terraces, where the old, blocked-up portal glared darkly from the centre of the heavily-pillared undercroft. ‘You remember what this place used to be, five years or so ago?’ asked George, as he slid the Volkswagen neatly into line beside Willie Swayne’s ancient Land-Rover. ‘A special school for delinquents with abnormally high IQs. One of those gallant experiments we used to float on waves of good intentions, forgetting how much they were going to cost. It couldn’t hope to last long, but it went the length of ten years before the county finally gave in and acknowledged it couldn’t be kept going. One or two of my brightest first-offenders landed up here. There were enough idealists to provide the kind of advanced education to keep them interested and out of mischief. More or less, anyhow! Some of them did the place credit in the end. The bright get so abysmally bored when there’s nothing tough enough to stretch them.’

‘I bet it didn’t look like this then,’ said Bunty, eyeing the massed flowers along the balustrades as she got out of the car.

‘No, the spending was rather on personnel. It was plain living and very high thinking. The place has been derelict for want of a buyer ever since the school folded.’ He looked along the array of cars, many of them known to him. ‘It looks as if everyone who is anyone is here.’

‘Yes,’ said Bunty simply. ‘They would be.’ She did not add that Arthur Everard Rainbow had joined the Golf Club, the Arts Association, the Angling Society, and every other body that contained important people among its members, and if he could have got the entry to a club of which God was a member he would undoubtedly have invited God to his house-warming. They were about to play a small part in a very ambitious public-relations exercise. But she was not yet sure how fair she was being to Rainbow. After all, the very best of men might show as over-anxious to be accepted, in the circumstances. Give him the benefit of the doubt until all doubt was at an end. ‘Here we go, then,’ said Bunty, shaking out her long skirt and patting her short chestnut hair into order. At forty-seven she could still look thirty. ‘Let’s go and see what he’s done to the interior.’

Broad, curving staircases, gleaming whitely where new stone had been inserted to make good the dilapidations of time, swept round from either end of the terraces, and brought them to the huge, wide-open double doors of the house, where noise and light gushed out to meet them. There is no other sound quite like that of a large and widely-assorted party which has not yet imbibed enough alcohol to shake its inhibitions and get off the ground. A loud but slightly wary noise, of many voices dutifully making conversation, pitched slightly higher than normally, and curiously blended, some conversations loose and easy with old friends, others tight and superficial, weighing up new acquaintances. At this stage parties are hard work. George was not looking forward to contributing very much. He might, on the other hand, learn quite a lot. He was, after all, only an adjunct of Bunty here. Whatever his ambitions, Rainbow wasn’t aiming to join the police!

They stepped into a grandiose cube of a hall that went up two storeys, with a double staircase and a large gallery at its inner face, and musicians in the gallery, playing not tea-dance trifles or modern mood-music, but Vivaldi. The nearest few of a mobile and congested gathering turned heads to look at them, and a man in a polo-necked silk shirt and lightweight pale grey suit, with a black cummerbund, bore down on them instantly with cries of pleasure. The get-up was so polite and adaptable, so nicely calculated to be all things to all men, that Bunty suffered a shock of revulsion for which there was no logical reason. Poor Saint Paul! Kipling was right, it must be hell to mislay one’s self, not to be anyone in the effort to be everyone.

He was about George’s age, which was not far off fifty, and very much George’s build, rangily made, carrying too little weight rather than too much. He had a long, narrow head, and elongated, somewhat severe features that wore his broad, welcoming smile like a mask, framed fashionably in dark, greying, abundant hair that swayed in disciplined waves to his nape, and there curved to a halt in the most discreet line possible. And to offset this mildly ascetic appearance, he had a large, hearty voice.

‘Mrs Felse!’ he cried. ‘I’m so glad you could spare an evening for us. I’m only too well aware that you know everybody here much better than I do – well, there could be a few of my own fraternity around, you’ll discover them as you circulate. But here I’m in your home territory, and very glad to be.’

‘Nice to see the old house coming to life again,’ said George noncommittally. ‘You’ve done wonders with it.’

‘You like the results? You must look round the whole interior, everything’s open tonight. A man likes to have his efforts appreciated. We made slides, you know, of the entire house and grounds – before and after. We’ll have a show of them later on, if people are interested. Now, would you like to keep your stole, Mrs Felse? I think you’ll find it rather warm in here. My wife will take care of you…’

He looked round, mildly displeased not to find her at his elbow, and swept a commanding glance round the crowded room. ‘Ah, there you are, Barbara! I think you haven’t yet met Mrs Felse – and Superintendent Felse, our new C.I.D. chief…’

There indeed she was, sweeping down upon them from a corner of the room with a long, graceful stride, leaving a scented, swirling wake behind her, like the wind through a field of corn and poppies, and drawing along after her, as if in the same impetuous breeze, no less than three bemused men, even the oldest and staidest of whom followed her several paces before he came to rest. The other two, younger and even more dazed, were swept half across the room before they span aside, one either way, and melted into new groupings and new conversations, reluctantly but resignedly. George knew neither of them, which meant that they did not belong in these parts. They had the half-patronising, half-apprehensive look of strays from the city, and their clothes were just one degree too far removed from the casual valley norm. One was dark and one was fair, and both were in pursuit, how seriously there was no telling, of Barbara Rainbow. And no wonder! Clearly Rainbow was well aware of it, and that had not been the circumstance that displeased him. Probably he enjoyed having one of his loveliest possessions admired and coveted. Possibly he also found it useful?

She couldn’t have been more than twenty-seven or twenty-eight, twenty years younger than her husband. She was tall and slender, almost lean, and as dark and bright as Carmen, with glittering, iris-shadowed eyes, and a mane of thick dark curls that cascaded down to her shoulders, and stopped short there in a pruned thicket of thorns, formidable as the briar hedge about the Sleeping Beauty. A straight, fierce nose and a wide, dark-red mouth that smiled with a slow assured ferocity. Very beautiful, very expensive, and probably worth every penny. The gypsy type, in modern, sophisticated gypsy clothes, a long, billowing skirt built in three tiers, in three different shades of red and three different flower-prints; a black, embroidered blouse that spilled low to leave her shoulders bare, and half her high breasts into the bargain, while shrouding her arms to just below the elbow. A lot of beads, heavy, tangled and bright, a lot of bangles in a dozen colours. And what looked like a new dishcloth twined round her hips and knotted on the left. When her feet showed as she strode, they were seen to be bare, but for some sinuous patterns in henna, and scarlet nail-varnish. She was well-named Barbara, everything about her was barbed.

But her voice, when she greeted them, was young, fresh and deep, very pleasantly pitched. ‘Hullo, you’re Bunty, aren’t you? And – George, if I may call you that? I’ve been talking to a lot of people who know you, you see. I’m Barbara!’

 

‘Whew!’ breathed Bunty, clutching a pink gin and gazing after the mane of blue-black hair as it surged away into the crowd. ‘Isn’t that something?’

‘A sales aid?’ wondered George as softly. ‘Or an
objet d’ art
for sale?’

‘The Laird of Cockpen,’ said Bunty. ‘ “He wanted a wife, his braw house to keep.” And “down by the dyke-side a lady did dwell, at his table-heid he thought would look well”.’

BOOK: Ellis Peters - George Felse 13 - Rainbow's End
12.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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