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Authors: Margery Allingham

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Georgia put about.

‘My pretty,' she said, stretching out both hands. ‘Come and comfort me with clothes. I'm in a tragedy.'

Her fine strong body was beautiful as she swung forward and a warmth of friendliness went out to meet the other girl. Val responded to it cautiously.

‘I've got just the dress for it, whatever it is,' she said lightly. ‘The ultimate garment of all time.'

Georgia drew back. She looked pathetically hurt behind her smile.

‘I'm afraid it's a real tragedy,' she said reproachfully.

‘My pet, I'm so sorry. What is it?' Val made the apology so unjustly forced from her and her eyes grew wary.

Georgia glanced over her shoulder before she spoke. Ramillies still stood swinging on his toes, his glance resting
consideringly upon the small boy in the corner. Georgia shook her head.

‘Tell me about the lovely dresses,' she said, and added before Val or Campion could speak, ‘Who is this?', a demand which brought Dell forward with the conviction that there had been a general disinclination to present him.

He shook hands with unexpected gaucherie and stood blinking at her, suffering no doubt from that misapprehension so common to shy folk, that he was not quite so clearly visible to her as she was to him.

Georgia regarded him with that glowing and intelligent interest which was her chief weapon of attack.

‘The second last person on earth to find in a dress shop,' she said. ‘My dear, are you going to enjoy all this? Have you ever been to this sort of show before?'

‘No,' he said and laughed. ‘I stayed to see you.'

Georgia blushed. The colour flowed up her throat and over her face with a charm no seventeen-year-old could have touched.

‘That's very nice of you,' she said. ‘I'm afraid I'm going to be very dull. Something rather beastly has happened to me and I'm just behaving disgustingly and blurting it out to everyone.'

It was a dangerous opening and might well have proved disastrous but that her gift of utter directness was a lodestone. Dell's sudden gratified sense of kindly superiority was communicated to them all and he murmured something bald about seeing her in trouble once more.

‘
The Little Sacrifice
?' she said quickly. ‘Oh, I adored that woman Jacynth. I found myself putting all I'd ever known or ever felt into her, poor sweetie. It was very nice of you to go and see me.'

From that moment her manner changed subtly. It was such a gradual metamorphosis, so exquisitely done, that Campion only just noticed it, but the fact remained that she began to remind him strongly of the heroine in
The Little Sacrifice
. Touches of the character crept into her voice, into her helpless little gestures, into her very attitude of mind, and he thought ungenerously that it would have been even more interesting, besides being much more easy to follow,
if the original part had only been played in some strong foreign accent.

Dell was openly enchanted. He remained watching her with fascinated attention, his blue eyes smiling and very kind.

‘It was a long time ago and all very sad and silly even then.' Georgia sounded both brave and helplessly apologetic. ‘He was such a dear, my sweet moody Richard. I knew him so awfully well. We were both innately lonely people and . . . well, we were very fond of one another. When he simply vanished I was broken-hearted, but, naturally, I couldn't admit it. Could I?'

She made a little fluttering appeal to them all to understand.

‘One doesn't, does one?' she demanded with that sudden frankness which, if it is as embarrassing, is also as entirely disarming as nakedness. ‘I mean, when one really is in love one's so painfully self-conscious, so miserably mistrustful of one's own strength. I'm talking about the real, rather tragic thing, of course. Then one's so horribly afraid that this exquisite, precious, deliriously lovely sanctuary one's somehow achieved may not be really solid, may not be one's own for keeps. One's so conscious all the time that one can be hurt beyond the bounds of bearing that in one's natural pessimism one dreads disaster all the time, and so when something does happen one accepts it and crawls away somewhere. You do know what I mean, don't you?'

They did, of course, being all adult and reasonably experienced, and Mr Campion, who was shocked, was yet grudgingly impressed. Her tremendous physical health and that quality which Dell had called ‘confiding' had clothed an embarrassing revelation of the ordinary with something rather charming. He glanced at Val.

She looked past him and did not speak aloud, although her lips moved. He thought he read the words ‘strip-tease', and regarded her with sudden respect.

Georgia did not let the scene drop.

‘I'm so sorry,' she said helplessly. ‘This is all so disgustingly vulgar of me, but oh, my dears! – suddenly to see it on the placards, to make Ferdie leap out of the car and get a paper, to snatch it away from him and then to look and find it all true . . . ! They've found his skeleton, you see.'

Her eyes were holding them all and there was real wretchedness in the grey shadows.

‘You never think of people you know having skeletons, do you?'

‘My dear, how horrible!' Val's ejaculation was startled out of her. ‘When did all this happen?'

‘Now,' said Georgia miserably. ‘Now, just as I was coming here. I'd have gone home, my pet, but I couldn't let you and everybody else down just when we were all so rushed. I didn't realize it was going to have this dreadful loquacious effect upon me.'

‘Darling, what are you talking about?' Ferdie Paul slipped his arm round her and drew her back against him. His face over her shoulder was dark and amused, but there was more in his voice than tolerance. ‘Forget it. You'll upset yourself.'

Georgia shivered, smiled, and released herself with a gentle dignity, directed, Campion felt, at himself and Dell. She glanced at her husband, who came forward promptly, his natural springy walk lending him a jauntiness which added considerably to his disturbing air of active irresponsibility.

‘That's right, Georgie,' he said, in his flat staccato voice. ‘Forget the fellow if you can, and if you can't don't make an ass of yourself.'

Even he seemed to feel that this admonition might sound a trifle harsh to the uninitiated, for he suddenly smiled with that transfiguring, sunny happiness usually associated with early childhood. ‘What I mean to say is, a lovely girl looks very touching grizzling over a corpse, but she looks damned silly doing it over a skeleton. She's missed the boat. The great lover's not merely dead, dearest; he's dead and gone. Should I be a bounder if I asked for a drink?'

The last remark was directed towards Val with a quick-eyed charm which was ingratiating.

‘Certainly not. You must all need one.' Val sounded thoroughly startled. She glanced at Rex, who had been hovering on the edge of the group, and he nodded and disappeared. Ferdie Paul resumed his hold on Georgie. He had a gently contemptuous way with her, as if she were a difficult elderly relative of whom he was fond.

‘We're going to see the great dress for the third act first,' he said. ‘I want to make sure that when Pendleton gets you by the throat he can only tear the left shoulder out. It's got to be restrained and dignified. I don't want you running about in your brassière. The whole danger of that scene is that it may go a bit
vieux jeu
if we don't look out . . . nineteen-twenty-sixish or so. Lady Papendeik wants us to see the dress on the model first because apparently it's pretty hot. Then I want you to get into it and we'll run through that bit.'

Georgia stiffened.

‘I'm not going to rehearse here in front of a lot of strangers,' she protested. ‘God knows I'm not temperamental, sweetheart, but there are limits. You're not going to ask me to do that, Ferdie, not this afternoon of all times?'

‘Georgia.' Paul's arm had tightened, and Campion saw his round brown eyes fixed firmly upon the woman's own with a terrifying quality of intelligence in them, as if he were trying to hypnotize some sense into her. ‘Georgia, you're not going to be silly, are you,
dear
?'

It was an idiotic little scene, reminding Campion irresistibly of a jockey he had once heard talking to a refractory horse.

‘We'll go. Mr Campion and I will go, Miss Wells.' Alan Dell spoke hastily and Paul, looking up, seemed to see him for the first time.

‘Oh, no, that's all right,' he said. ‘There's only a few of us here. It's a purely technical matter. You're going to be reasonable, aren't you, darling? You're only a bit jittery because of the boy-friend.'

Georgia smiled at him with unexpected tolerance and turned to Dell with a little deprecating grimace.

‘My nerves have gone to pieces,' she said, and it occurred to Mr Campion that she might easily be more accurate than she realized.

It was at this moment that Tante Marthe came over with one of her small coloured pages at her elbow.

‘
The Trumpet
is on the phone, my dear,' she said. ‘Will you speak to them?'

Georgia's hunted expression would have been entirely convincing if it had not been so much what one might have expected.

‘All right,' she said heavily. ‘This is the horrible part of it all. This is what I've been dreading. Yes, I'll come.'

‘No.' Ramillies and Paul spoke together and paused to look at one another afterwards. It was the briefest interchange of glance and Mr Campion, who was watching them both, became aware for the first time that the undercurrent which he had been trying to define throughout the entire afternoon was an unusual, and in the circumstances incomprehensible, combination of alarm and excitement.

‘No,' said Ramillies again. ‘Don't say a thing.'

‘Do you mean that?' She turned to him almost with eagerness and he did not look at her.

‘No, dear, I don't think I would.' Ferdie Paul spoke casually. ‘We'll put out some sort of statement later if it's necessary. It's not a particularly good story, so they won't get excited. Tell them Miss Wells is not here. She left half an hour ago.'

The page went off obediently and he watched the child until it disappeared, his figure drooping and his prominent eyes thoughtful. Georgia looked at Dell, who moved over to her.

‘That must be a very great relief to you,' he said

She stared at him. ‘You understand, don't you?' she said with sudden earnestness. ‘You really do?'

Mr Campion turned away rather sadly and became aware of Val. She was looking at the other woman and he caught her unawares. Once again she surprised him. Jealousy is one emotion but hatred is quite another and much more rare in a civilized community. Once it is seen it is not easily forgotten.

Chapter Four

THE GENTLE ART
of putting things over had always interested Mr Campion, but as he sat down beside Alan Dell to watch the house of Papendeik at work he was aware of a sudden sense of irritation. There was so much going on under his nose that needed explanation. The strangers were vivid
personalities but not types he recognized and at the moment he did not understand their reactions at all.

Meanwhile an impressive if informal performance was beginning. Val and Tante Marthe were staging an act and he was entertained to note that they worked together with the precision of a first-class vaudeville turn.

Tante Marthe had seated herself on the largest of the settees between the two most central windows and had made room for Ferdie Paul beside her, while Georgia had been provided by Rex with a wide-seated gilt chair thrust out into the room a little.

She sat in it regally, her dark head thrown back and her lovely broad face tilted expectantly. Even so she contrived to look a little tragic, making it clear that she was a woman with a background of deep emotional experience.

Val stood behind her, slender and exquisite and very much the brilliant young artist about to display something that might well prove to be the masterpiece of the century.

The rest of the conversation piece was furnished by the staff. Every available saleswoman had assembled together at one end of the room, as though for prayers in an old-fashioned household. There was a flutter of expectancy among them, a gathering together to admire a creation for which they all took a small degree of personal responsibility. Their very presence indicated a big moment.

Dell caught Campion's eye and leant forward.

‘Wonderfully interesting,' he whispered with professional appreciation.

There was a moment of silence and Rex slid forward to give an entirely unnecessary flick to the folds of a curtain. Lady Papendeik glanced round her and raised a small dark paw. The staff sighed and the dress appeared.

At this point Mr Campion felt somewhat out of his depth. He looked at the dress and saw that it was long and white, with a satisfactory arrangement of drapery at the front, and that it had an extraordinary-looking girl in it. She caught his attention because she was beautiful without being in any way real or desirable. She had a strong superficial likeness to Georgia, inasmuch as she was not small and was dark with broad cheek-bones, but there all similarity ended. Where
Georgia was coarse the newcomer was exquisite, where Georgia was vital the other girl was dead.

Campion glanced at Tante Marthe and was delighted to see her sitting back, her hands in her lap, her eyes half closed and an outrageous expression of fainting ecstasy on her face. Ferdie Paul looked thoughtful but by no means unimpressed and the staff whispered and preened itself.

Campion and Alan Dell looked at the gown again, each trying to discover why it should be so particularly pleasing, and were both on the verge of making the same thundering mistake by deciding that its charm lay in its simplicity when Georgia dropped the bomb.

‘Val, my angel,' she said, her lovely husky voice sounding clearly through the room, ‘it's breath-taking! It's
you.
It's
me
. But my pet, it's not
new.
I saw it last night at the Dudley Club.'

BOOK: The Fashion In Shrouds
12.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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