Authors: Ann Ripley
Tags: #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction
“I am a grower. And I did years of work on a red iris. Work that was stolen.”
“I see what’s at stake: your purported ‘ownership’ of the Sacred Blood iris. Oh, come on, Gasparra, you’re not really going to accuse me—”
“But you must have been in on it!”
Freeling was much taller than Gasparra; this, together with his beard, gave him a greater masculine presence. Looming over the other man, he said, “I came here for a weekend’s relaxation, and certainly not to get into an imbroglio with a stranger.” He arched an eyebrow ominously and jabbed a finger into Gasparra’s chest. “You well know, sir, that there is such a thing as forensic
. PCR and RFLP analyses not only help catch rapists and killers, they can also be used to prove that we did not use your plant in our experimental work. Therefore, if I were you, I would take those charges to the proper authorities, and stop exhibiting this penchant for street fighting. After all, this is
a country hotel. You might have brought a few manners with you.”
“You insulting….” spat out Gasparra, and pulled back a muscular arm with fisted hand ready to strike. Only his wife Dorothy’s strong hands on his shoulder stopped him from following through. Gradually, she eased him off to a corner of the veranda, where she quietly calmed him down. Louise was glad trouble had been avoided. She knew that growers were strong from hours of painstaking hand labor in their gardens—and she would hate to see Gasparra’s temper put to the test.
Freeling turned around and surveyed the rest of the guests, apparently surprised they were listening, though it was impossible to ignore the loud exchange. For some reason, he now appeared to Louise not a stuffy academic, but an almost rakish figure. Barbara Seymour had risen slowly from her chair, the candlelight flickering under her chin but leaving her face in darkness.
The professor put out a large, graceful hand. “No, Miss Seymour, don’t trouble yourself. This can be taken care of in another way, in another place.” His gaze passed over each one of them as he said, “And now I bid you all a very good night. I’ll see you tomorrow morning. I hope someone besides me wants to climb Bear Mountain. I hear it has a challenging pitch on the north side.” Without waiting for replies, he rapidly departed the veranda.
“That’s one way to ruin a good time,” complained Bebe Hollowell, giving the Gasparras a disgusted look. With a damper thrown on the party mood, the crowd began breaking up. Louise noted that the red nasturtiums in the mauve bouquets were wilting. Their perfect round petals now drooped onto the floorboards like Ball’s melting watches.
Bill yawned. “It’s time for an old fogy like me to go to my bachelor’s bed anyway. As one who just flew in from Europe, I’m bushed.”
Louise gave her husband a nostalgic glance, missing him
already. “You’re right, darling. Tomorrow we have a million things to do.” To Janie she said, “Come on, roommate, let’s go to bed.”
Nora remained seated. “I think I’ll stay here and have a quiet smoke.”
Chris gave her an inquiring look. “Are you sure, Mom?”
“Don’t worry—I’ll be along very soon,” she answered.
It had been an interesting evening of questions without answers, strains between people that were not obvious at first, and warnings of possible trouble to come. Louise hoped that she could at least get a good night’s sleep, to quiet her overactive mind and rest her tired body.
She threw a last glance at Nora, a lonely figure sitting at the table, smoking. She sat erect, obviously wide-awake—the flame in the hurricane lamp diminishing faster than she was. Suddenly Louise was quite sure the woman was waiting for the return of Jeffrey Freeling. With the way they were dancing, it would be no surprise if the assignation had been planned right there on that sexually charged dance floor. Yet there was more than one woman who would have given Jeffrey her heart tonight—based on his magnificent dancing alone.
OUISE WOKE UP WITH A START
alized she should be sleeping, but instead she was crumpled into a fetal position, as if defending herself against the demons of the night. Her shoulders felt as if they were encased in steel. Seeking comfort, she reached out to touch Bill, but her hand came upon a soft thigh, and not her husband’s flat, hard hip. And then she remembered where she was: in a country hotel, on a country weekend, sleeping in a high, antique bed next to her daughter.
She rolled over and looked at her
watch, straightening her body. Its illuminated dial read two A.M. She knew there was more than one reason she was wide-awake after less than two hours of sleep: too much riding in a car, no warm, familiar husband beside her, and a gathering worry in her mind about what was going on at Litchfield Falls Inn. The thought of getting up when the night had hardly begun was dispiriting, rather like being the only person left on the entire planet. Without the soothing presence of another living human—without Bill.
Yet she desperately needed to stretch her muscles. Moving carefully to the edge of the high bed so as not to wake Janie, she slid down until her feet touched the wide floorboards. A few seconds’ search and her feet had located her slippers. She put on her robe and quietly unlocked the door. But the darkness in the hallway unsettled her. It was as black as a tomb. Her eyes wide with trepidation, she considered crawling back into the safety of the bed. Until something inside her—that little voice that cried “Coward!” and more than once had driven her into deep trouble—made her continue out into the unlit hall.
Wouldn’t a hotel have hall lights burning during the night? She couldn’t even see the banister that encircled the upper hall or the precipitous twenty-foot drop beyond it. She caught her breath and went forward, edging her way along the inside wall of the hall. She became intimately acquainted with the inn’s fine carpentry as she ran her fingers silently over each recessed doorway. Finally she reached the little bay with the window bench. Quietly, she sat down and only then began to relax, her increased wakefulness making her more ready to handle the isolation of the hotel at two in the morning.
She half-closed her eyes and went into her miniexercise regime, extending her arms and twirling them in little circular motions. Next, she concentrated on neck stretches; this would prepare her for the challenge of spending six more hours in a bed not her own.
Tonight, even Puny the pillow hadn’t been comfort enough, for she was worrying. Worrying about Barbara Seymour, about Rod Gasparra, and about her friend Nora. Broodingly, she reviewed the ten hours since they’d arrived at the inn. The gradual getting-acquainted. First the newly-wed Posts, then the grumpy Gasparras. The Cooleys—or at least Jim; she had hardly exchanged a word with Grace. Frank and Fiona Storm, solid citizens. The interesting Jeffrey Freeling. And just peripherally, the contentious Bebe Hollowell. She had exchanged no words at all with Barbara’s niece Stephanie, or her husband Neil, and hardly more than “hello” with their hostess.
That baby-faced Neil Landry was a bad apple, she thought. But how bad? Maybe tomorrow, if she had time, she’d investigate. Just a little.
One more stretch, and she would be ready to go back to bed.
Then a door opened quietly. And then another. Louise had been focusing on her sore neck and her thoughts. Now, her eyes popped open wide and she strained to see. The darkness thwarted her. She could hear, though, hear
smell a faint rush, as if someone had slipped by and left behind the faintest fragrance. Was it a woman, or was that a man’s aftershave? Now Louise thought she heard yet another door open—and another. This was becoming ridiculous. Were all the guests from the upstairs bedrooms going to congregate out here? Surely she was imagining things.
Then a little sound, far down the hall—a door closing again, perhaps. She was sure this time. And then a rather loud thump that made her catch her breath, and a gentle creaking that told her someone was creeping down the stairs. Trembling slightly, she put a hand on either side of the bench, prepared to run, if necessary, from whatever was out there in the dark.
For a few moments, there was complete silence. Her heartbeat slowed and her body felt more under control.
Then, not more than twenty feet away: a yearning moan, a lover’s moan. Were two people embracing, perhaps thrusting their bodies together and making one out of two, in mankind’s eternal desire for procreation? In the
Surely not. And yet these were explicit noises, with a sense of movement. Next came muffled, low-pitched murmurs. And then silence again.
Her eyes fought against the dark, adjusting until she thought she could see two heads faintly silhouetted in a window at one end of the hall. Heads bent toward each other in fervent conversation. Then, a movement of one, — the other coming forward to meet it, a hand following to grasp the other person’s shoulder.
With a shock, she realized it was the silhouette of two men embracing.
Then the shapes disappeared. Had they seen her there?
Louise sat frozen on the window seat. Things had happened here tonight, but what, she didn’t know. It reminded her of the Restoration comedies she had read in an English class at Northwestern—ribald comedies where lovers hid behind screens and darted in and out of bedrooms for assignations.
Of course, she thought, Nora! She must be among this midnight traffic: the most romantic woman she knew—a woman unencumbered with middle-class hang-ups about sex. But it was at least two hours ago that Nora had been seated at that table, perchance awaiting a lover. Had it taken her this long to connect? And it was not Nora, but two men who had shared a passionate moment together at the window, and were probably together now in one of the rooms. Had just the two of them made all that noise?
As quietly as she could, she returned to her and Janie’s bedroom and closed the soundproof door. Louise felt the lump in the bed. The girl slept the tranquil sleep of the confirmed heroine, who this past day had helped save an old woman from grief. As she moved past the bed, her foot noisily bumped a chair and Janie emitted a tiny, quick
snort, then resumed the normal cadenced breathing of deep sleep.
Louise went to the windows and shoved aside the heavy draperies for an instant. As she suspected, it was raining out there in the almost moonless night. Bad news, perhaps, for tomorrow’s location shoots for
Gardening with Nature
. It wasn’t a heavy rain, but it was creating a kind of mist in the air that obscured the Georgian lines of the mansion and the neat white outbuildings beyond it, turning them into ghostlike apparitions. A shudder went through her, and she pulled the draperies closed.
Her nerves were so jangled that she knew she would be awake for hours, rethinking what she had seen—and heard. The sound of romantic lovemaking—or raw passion. The sound of someone fleeing.
As Louise lay back in the antique bed, she suddenly wondered: Had other people been eavesdropping in the night? Had others been awake, hidden under cover of the New England darkness?
Come into the garden, Maud,
For the black hat, Night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
And the musk of the roses blown
F THERE IS ANY QUESTION THAT GARDENS
are associated with romance, you need only open a book of verse. Flowers have been a romantic inspiration through the ages, from Virgil through
Milton, Shakespeare, Marvell, Spenser, Byron, Keats, and Tennyson. In Tennyson’s poem
, he mentions almost a dozen flowers, and the rose, many times. The flowers talk to him, and he likens his beloved to the “queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls.” It is clear from the start of the poem that though he captures the sight, the sound, the touch, and the smell of the garden, what moves him most is the fragrance.
That is what you should do, too, when you plan a romantic garden—appeal to all the senses, but especially the olfactory sense. The aroma of this garden should distinguish it from all others, for the scent of flowers and trees is romance itself—just as evocative as the perfume a woman wears. A perfume for which some flower, of course, laid down its life.