Authors: Daphne Coleridge
Tags: #Traditional British, #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
“I am here to support Laura; and I will be judging the best flower arrangement competition.”
“And it is “sublime” not “supine” although I understand that you would find it hard to differentiate between the two. Anyway, I wonder that you are participating – since when was a display of dried meat either art or craft – unless Laura has included a farmers produce section at the fair?”
“Simply because my presence ensures the attendance of the press and a little publicity for her venture,” responded Sebastian complacently.
Unfortunately this was quite true and Samantha was, for once, silenced. She maintained a dignified interest in her bacon.
“As a matter of fact, I have brought an easel and oils and will be painting a record of the day. I have a four foot square canvas,” continued Sebastian. “I was hoping to twist Floyd’s arm to follow suit, if he can deal with a little friendly rivalry.” He looked towards the door as if hoping that Floyd would enter. As it was, Delilah and Conran Hawkes came into the kitchen.
“I hope you left some for me?” Conran, a short, dark man with a round, pleasant face headed for the stove and helped himself to a plate and started piling food on it.
His wife, a slim and immaculately dressed woman who topped her husband by at least six inches wrinkled a delicate nose and headed toward the large refrigerator. When she joined the others at the table, it was with a small pot of Greek yogurt in front of her.
“So, what have you been drafted in to do?” Samantha pointedly addressed her question to Conran, for whom she had some respect. His art gallery, The Hawkes Gallery, had held exhibitions of exquisite traditional works which she had reviewed favourably and with real interest – right up until the point when Delilah had arrived and started to impose her taste onto the formerly quiet, reserved little gallery.
“There will be an open air exhibition of works by the Claresby Art Society. I will be choosing the winner and presenting the inaugural trophy: I’m rather looking forward to it. Will you be painting al fresco, Sebastian?”
“Indeed – I had hoped that Floyd would join me, but I think he is setting up stall with some of his works. I imagine that will be the job of Jane or Jinny, or whatever the dear little thing he recently married is called. One wonders that women continue to marry Floyd, given his track record.”
“He could have sketched portraits, like they do at Montmartre,” commented Samantha.
“Where is Floyd this morning anyway?” asked Delilah, who had scraped out the remains of her yogurt and licked it delicately off her spoon with the tip of a pink tongue. “And why aren’t Rupert and Laura up yet?”
Laura, fully dressed in a summer frock of a cream material sprigged with roses and a little white shrug to protect the fair skin of her shoulders, was staring at her husband with incredulity.
“Dead! Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure,” nodded Rupert with a furrowed brow. “I didn’t touch or move him, but there was something so very dead about his whole demeanour, I didn’t need to.”
“Couldn’t he just be unconscious? I mean, no one can drink themselves comatose like Floyd.”
“Not with his eyes wide open and fixed on the ceiling. No, Laura, Floyd is dead.”
Laura moved about the room and opened a wardrobe almost absentmindedly and picked out a straw hat with a red ribbon about it.
“That is peculiarly awkward,” she said slowly. “So many people have so much going on today, and a death in the house is rather distracting. Any idea how he died – I mean, it was natural wasn’t it?”
“I didn’t examine him; there were no signs of violence, if that is what you mean. He was just dead – untouched and staring up, as if it was sudden and unexpected.”
There was something about Rupert’s slightly dazed and detached demeanour that irritated Laura.
“You are not suggesting that someone crept in and performed the Avada Kedavra curse, are you! I imagine it was a heart attack or something. One way or another Floyd was always going to drink himself to death.”
“I was not suggesting anything,” replied Rupert, mildly, “except that there was something odd, if not about the body, about the room. Someone – and it may have been Floyd – had put inscriptions on the wall.”
“What sort of inscriptions?”
“Well, it was gloomy in there, and I was rather taken aback, but my impression was that they were hieroglyphs.”
“Hieroglyphs! Why would Floyd be scrawling hieroglyphs on my bedroom wall?” This time Laura really was astonished.
“I don’t know,” mused Rupert, “but it does make me want to check up on a couple of things. I’ll put in an appearance downstairs – I think they have sorted out their own breakfasts – and then try and make sense of this. We don’t need to call anyone in straight away, do we? – after all, I might not have noticed that Floyd was dead.”
“To be honest, no one would question Floyd Bailey’s non-appearance, even if it was his own exhibition; not even his current wife. No, you do what you like and sort it out,” said Laura briskly. “I must see to things outside. And, anyway, if anyone can make sense of hieroglyphs, it would be you.” Suddenly Laura paused and then added, with some show of real feeling, “I actually rather liked Floyd.”
After Laura had left Rupert started to act with some purpose. First he went down the stairs and quietly into his study. He could hear the rumble of voices from the kitchen, but was intent on finding something in his desk, indifferent to the summer’s morning sun which filled the room, winking off two silver andirons in the fireplace and illuminating an elegant room furnished in an eighteenth century style. Soon he had found the notebook and pencil which he had wanted and made his way back up the stairs and into the cool gloom of Floyd’s room. There was an uncomfortable feel to the bedroom, not least because the light through the green curtains created an eerie glow, but also because the inscriptions on the wall had been written in gold and seemed to gleam ominously. The presence of the corpse with its staring eyes fixed on the ceiling didn’t help. Although it would have been both helpful and reassuring to open the curtains and let in some daylight, Rupert was determined to disturb nothing. Instead, squinting a little, he started to copy down the hieroglyphs from the wall.
As a Cambridge graduate in Archaeology and Anthropology, Rupert was not a complete stranger to the forms in front of him, and it helped that they were often illustrative of their meaning. A circle with a dot in the middle was clearly a sun disc. The profile of a bed with a shape on it was a mummy on a bier – or was it Floyd on his bed? A set of legs walking backwards – someone running away? Sometimes the symbols could represent sounds, but what he was looking at seemed quite rudimentary – pictures to tell the tale. He took them down quickly into his little book and left the room, closing the door softly behind him.
When Rupert reached the kitchen he found the Hawkes’ still there.
“Not much left for you,” apologised Conran. “One sausage I think. Your good wife just popped in for coffee and a croissant. Any sign of Floyd?”
“I did call in to him, but he wasn’t very responsive,” said Rupert with complete honesty as he popped a sausage between two slices of bread.
“He’ll probably emerge mid-afternoon; we’ll go and help Jinny set up his stall. I think he has some prints to display.” He stood up and Delilah followed him out of the room.
Rupert dispatched the sausage in no more than two bites and headed through the Great Hall and out of the double doors at the front of Claresby Manor. The sun was full on the eastern side of the medieval building and the lawns stretched away to where the fair was taking shape. Stalls, awnings, tents, canopies and gazebos were being erected and he could already see woven baskets, dried flower arrangements and other craft works being unloaded from the boots of cars and backs of vans. He saw Bill Smith of Claresby Art Club setting up boards on which to mount the display of paintings under a striped gazebo. Bill, a diminutive, rotund, rosy cheeked man in his late sixties who reminded Rupert of a robin redbreast gave a cheery wave which Rupert returned. He could see Laura’s pretty flowery dress and despite preoccupations a smile rose to Rupert’s face at the sight of her. She seemed to be holding a heated discussion with two men, both of whom towered over her. Nonetheless, he could tell from the body language of the players that it was his wife who was exerting her authority. In one corner of the grounds, he could see Jinny Bailey setting out Floyd’s stall and his stomach seemed to twist within him. Laura had caught sight of him and came over.
“You would think that two grown men could agree to share the sale of ice creams between them without my having to threaten to bring in the UN,” she sighed. “How are you doing?”
“All right. Did you want an update on the Floyd thing?”
“Yes. Is it bad news?”
“Not really. I took down a note of the hieroglyphs; let me show you.” Rupert displayed the little drawings.
“Not any the wiser,” commented Laura as she glanced at them “What are these things, and who drew them on the wall?”
“Well,” began Rupert, with something of a scholar’s enthusiasm, “this one is the best.” He pointed to a cluster of hieroglyphs which looked to Laura like a feather, saw, wave, circle, line and crouched figure. “This is Amun-Ra, kind of top Egyptian god. The circle and dot represent the sun. This one I don’t get,” he pointed to a horizontal shape. “It is a mummified crocodile.”
are you talking about! A mummified crocodile! Why would Floyd be drawing these things on the wall? And what do they have to do with his death?”
“Well,” hesitated Rupert. “I wonder if he did draw them. You see Floyd, Sebastian and I ended up in the junk room last night – Floyd wanted to borrow an easel as Sebastian was trying to get him to paint today and...” Before he could say more, one of the ice cream men advanced on Laura and she was obliged to turn away. Rupert gave her a sign to mean that he would try and talk to her later and then headed back to the house.
In fact Rupert’s memories of the previous night were coloured by the fact that he and Sebastian had been helping Floyd in the matter of the bottle of Armagnac. They had been in the Great Hall when the banter between the two rival artists had resulted in Floyd agreeing that he too would make an alla prima painting of Claresby Manor in full view of the fair-going public. All he required was an easel and Sebastian would allow him to use the paints and brushes that he had brought along for the purpose. This led to the three men repairing to the junk room of Claresby Manor. The contents of that room did fit the category of “junk”, virtually everything worthwhile having been sold to pay death duties in the past. Somehow the Armagnac had made its way up with them, and Floyd and Sebastian had rifled through the artefacts, crockery, old prams and discarded paintings that filled the room.
“Some abominations here,” commented Floyd of the paintings. “Now Laura has some money she should stock up on some real artworks for Claresby,”
“Well, she tried,” responded Sebastian acerbically, “with my
Pickled Toad with Diamonds
; but some drunken fool consumed it!”
“Oh, you heard about that,” said Floyd, sheepishly. “Well I did replace it with my lovely portrait of the fair lady, so all’s well.”
“You robbed posterity!” exclaimed Sebastian, but without any real rancour.
At this point Floyd had yanked an old suitcase out of a corner. It had a brown leather strap around it and the initials T.M. embossed on it. Floyd proceeded to pull out some clothes and papers. Amongst the papers was a leather bound sketch book which Floyd flicked through.
“These aren’t half bad,” he commented showing the other two men a series of sketches of Egypt. “Nice watercolour of the Sphinx at Giza; oh, and someone went to the Valley of the Kings too – typical nineteenth century English tourist: I’m surprised he didn’t bring a mummy home with him, bandages and all.”
“Who was the owner of the case?” asked Rupert, with some interest in Laura’s ancestors.
Floyd flicked through the papers and said, “Tom Mortimer – he signed his pictures and dated them. 1882, I think. There are a few notes on the back of the pictures.” He poked through the suitcase a bit more and picked out a dirty looking ring and tried to rub it down with the cuff of an old shirt which was still in the case. “Valuable artefact, perhaps?”
“No,” replied Rupert firmly. “No family disposed of everything of value more effectively than the Mortimers. Just a trinket from the market, probably.”
“Let me see?” Sebastian put down the broken umbrella he had been trying to open and reached out a hand for the ring. Just at that moment a voice called in to them.
“If you lot can leave the brandy alone and come down, somebody ordered enough Chinese takeaway to feed an army – the Great Hall will smell for days,” added Laura with distaste.
“Oh, that was me,” smiled Sebastian, happily. “Special set dinner for four, twice: my treat!” They all stuffed the things they were holding back where they came from and followed Laura down the carved oak staircase towards the tempting aroma of Chinese food.
Returning to the junk room in the morning light, Rupert saw that the suitcase had been left open, the clothes and sketch books stuffed in any old how. He couldn’t now remember if it was Floyd who had been still holding the ring or if Sebastian had taken it and whether or not it had been returned to the suitcase. Unbidden, stories of ancient Egyptian curses and scenes from
films rose to the forefront of his mind. Carefully he took the sketch book from the case and read all the notes that Tom Mortimer had written as a record of his trip to Egypt. Then Rupert searched through the mess of clothes and other personal effects until he saw the ring. It was tarnished and grubby, but appeared to be a turquoise stone set in gold. The stone may have been just a stone, but Rupert had a nasty feeling that there was just the suggestion of the scarab about it. He took a fresh linen handkerchief from his pocket and carefully lifted the ring within it and folded it up, returning it to his pocket.