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Authors: Charlotte MacLeod

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BOOK: The Plain Old Man
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Emma Kelling must have known she was asking for trouble when she took on an attractive unknown who’d shown up at the tryouts with the vaguest of introductions from some neighbor or other. Jack Tippleton had never yet got through a production without making a play for one of the actresses. He’d almost been forced to pick Gillian this time, simply because the only other featured performers in the cast were his daughter, his wife, and Emma herself. Jack wasn’t inclined to bother much with members of the chorus, though he was quite willing to settle for a Pitti Sing or a Fleeta, and often had.

Maybe that had been another factor in Emma’s apportionment of the roles. If the affair got around to the point of throwing scenes and flouncing off in a huff, Emma wanted to make sure it was not one of her lead singers who flounced. She’d lost her Angelina that way, onetime when they were doing
Trial by Jury
with Jack as the Judge. It had happened the night of the dress rehearsal, as Sarah recalled. Aunt Emma, trouper that she was, had taken up another notch in her corsets, crammed herself into the wedding dress, and burlesqued the role to its ultimate limit. She’d brought down the house, but it had taken a lot out of her. Not even Emma Kelling would care to repeat such an experience as that one. Sarah hoped to goodness she wasn’t faced with it now.

Chapter 2

it appeared they had no crisis. Gillian showed up shortly after Heatherstone had brought in the tea, apologizing all over the place and telling some horrendous tale of a blocked gas line in her car. She was set to rehearse and the tiniest bit miffed when she found out they’d been able to manage without her. Charlie—magnanimously, considering the state of his big toe—said he wouldn’t mind running through their number again. Then Jack Tippleton arrived, ostensibly to pick up Jenicot. Gillian decided Charlie ought not to strain his gout any further today and started feeding cucumber sandwiches to Jack.

Jenicot took a dim view, as daughters will. “Daddy, don’t eat that. You know what cucumber does to your gall bladder.”

Brattishness pure and simple, yet Sarah found herself warming toward Jenicot. “Here, Jack,” she said, “have a ladyfinger and tell us about your gall bladder.”

That had not been a clever move; Sarah had forgotten what a strange effect she was having on men now that she was happily married and decently dressed. If Jack had a mustache, he’d be twirling it. Gillian Bruges was noticing and resenting. Oh dear, surely she hadn’t been taking this posturing old goat seriously.

It was possible, Sarah supposed, that Gillian didn’t see Jack as a posturing old goat. He was still handsome in an elder statesmanish sort of way and his technique, if one were susceptible to that sort of thing, must have acquired a high polish after so many years of practice. Maybe Gillian was into father figures, as Max’s nephew Mike would say. In any event Sarah decided she’d better keep a respectable distance from now on between herself and Jack Tippleton’s gall bladder. She could rather easily picture Gillian throwing up a second-best part, and there was no way Aunt Emma could sing Constance as well as Lady Sangazure.

Luckily a diversion presented itself in the person of Guy Mannering, son of the English horn. Guy was an art student at Worcester. Lately he’d taken to rushing back to Pleasaunce after classes so he could paint scenery with Mrs. Bittersohn, she being a glamorous and sophisticated older woman who might reasonably be expected to sympathize with a young aesthete’s higher yearnings. Sarah was not at all sure she did, but she assuredly valued Guy’s height and muscles for juggling the flats around. She’d nail him for that later; right now he wanted to talk art.

“What do you really think of the Romney?” he was asking her in a low, confiding tone meant to be suave but somewhat blurred by a bite of scone he hadn’t quite finished swallowing.

Sarah looked up at the life-sized portrait over her aunt’s fireplace. Complete with birdbath and white dove, it depicted a strong-featured woman in her middle years costumed as Venus, albeit in a far more covered-up style than Venus is usually shown wearing. Roses being appropriate to the goddess and flattering to full-figured ladies, the artist had painted in a great many of them, some twining around the birdbath, some wreathed in her hair and pinned to her bosom, one apparently being fed to the dove. Her first thought was that she hoped to goodness Aunt Emma wasn’t intending to will the portrait to her. With its wide, gilded baroque frame, the thing must measure at least six feet by eight, and where on earth would she ever find room to hang it in the kind of house she and Max were planning? Her second was that she’d hate to have the responsibility for anything that valuable. Her third was that Romney must have had either a highly developed sense of humor or none whatsoever. Her fourth was that she adored it. It was the fourth that she offered to Guy.

He looked at her in ill-disguised horror. “You do?”

“Oh yes, it’s so much like Aunt Emma.”

“Oh.” Guy chewed that over for a moment, along with the last of his scone. Then he gave her a kind, paternal nod. “Yes, I can see the resemblance. Was it her mother or somebody?”

Art history evidently wasn’t one of Guy’s current subjects. It was as well Emma Kelling hadn’t heard his question.

“Actually, no,” Sarah replied. “Romney died in 1802. This was Ernestina, the wife of an Alexander Kelling who was some kind of attaché to the Court of St. James’s shortly after the Revolution, when John Adams was minister. I believe they didn’t last long. She and Abigail didn’t get along very well.”

“Abigail Adams always felt she was slighted in London,” Sebastian Frostedd, who was sitting next to them, put in. “But I can’t imagine anybody had the gall to slight Ernestina. Then of course the Kellings were rich and the Adamses weren’t. That’s bound to create ill feeling.”

“Surely not with Abigail Adams,” Sarah protested. “I thought she’d have been above that sort of thing.”

“Nobody is.”

Sebastian stretched out a hand to the muffin stand Heatherstone was passing around. A cabochon ruby in the massive gold ring he was wearing caught a deep crimson spark from the candles the servant had lighted, for the sun was beginning its downward slide and the sky had grown overcast. April showers again tonight, Sarah thought. She hoped it would be fine tomorrow. Guy and a couple of his friends were coming early in the morning with a truck to move Sir Marmaduke’s mansion from the sun parlor over to the auditorium. She and Guy ought to be out there right now finishing those bushes instead of dawdling over the teacups.

Still it was pleasant to dawdle and actually there wasn’t all that much left to do. In a way Sarah was sorry they’d had only the one set to paint. That didn’t mean her work was over. As decorations for the auditorium Emma wanted great massed arrangements in osier baskets, for which complicated foundations would have to be constructed out of plastic dishpans, chicken wire, tape, and that spongy green stuff which takes up water and keeps cut flowers fresh.

Emma’s plan was to have Sarah cut and arrange the greens during the day tomorrow, then go out toward sunset and pick vast numbers of tulips and daffodils from the garden. These would be immersed up to their necks in water overnight for some esoteric reason Emma had learned at the garden club. The following day they’d be taken out of the water all fresh and turgid, another garden-club word, and popped in among the greenery. Getting the baskets ready sounded like a day’s work in itself.

Two days. One to pick and one to pop. Sarah was dreamily trying to remember how many for the foyer, how many for the refreshment area, how many for the orchestra when she realized Ridpath Wale had joined them, coming on little cat feet as was his wont.

Ridpath was their John Wellington Wells, another exemplar of Emma Kelling’s flair for casting. He projected to a dot the image of brisk businessman-cum-sorcerer. The first time Sarah had watched him rehearsing his potion-brewing scene with Alexis and Aline, she’d got a flash of sudden terror that he was going to pull off a workable spell. At the moment he’d joined Sebastian and Guy in front of the Romney, and was gazing up at the late Ernestina as if he wouldn’t mind trying to put a spell on her.

“Gad, that’s a beautiful thing,” he sighed. “I’d give my eyeteeth to own it.”

“Well, offer Emma a few hundred thousand and see what she says,” Sebastian told him. “What’s the going rate on Romneys these days, Sarah?”

“My husband could tell you better than I. I do know Madam Wilkins paid forty thousand pounds for the painting exactly like this which she bought for her palazzo back in 1907. Unfortunately, hers turned out to be a fake.”

“Emma’s is authentic, of course.” Ridpath managed to turn a declarative sentence into a mocking question.

“Absolutely,” Sarah informed him, turning a simple adverb into a pretty crisp rebuke. “In the first place, this portrait has never been out of the family since the original Ernestina brought it home. In the second, we’ve had it authenticated up, down, and sideways by about twenty different experts over the years, mainly because of that copy at the Madam’s. Mrs. Wilkins tried to claim Romney painted more than one portrait of Ernestina, the way he did of Lady Hamilton, but that’s absurd. Romney was a strange sort of man, but he wasn’t eccentric enough to keep on immortalizing the Kelling jaw. Anyway, Ernestina wasn’t in London long enough. Abigail Adams saw to that, I expect.”

“Forty thousand pounds, eh?” said Sebastian. “In that case, I’m afraid you’ll have to boost your offer half a million or so, Ridpath.”

The Sorcerer laughed. “Can’t manage it this week, I’m afraid. Well, ladies and gentlemen, are we going to rehearse or are we not?”

“I’m not.” Jack Tippleton got up. “Come along, Jenicot. Your mother will be wondering what’s kept us.”

“Oh, I hardly think so,” drawled the brat. “Thanks for the tea, Mrs. Kelling. Coming with us, Parker?”

“I’ve got my car, thanks.”

“Goody,” cried Gillian Bruges. “You can give me a lift back to the garage and save me another horrendous cab fare.”

Neither Jack Tippleton nor his daughter looked any too happy at this prospect. Regrettably, Parker Pence did. Maybe it didn’t mean anything. Parker was a good-natured young fellow, otherwise he mightn’t be able to hit it off so well with Jenicot. Nevertheless, Sarah had full confidence she’d soon be hearing some wonderment among the cast about what Gillian Bruges thought she was up to.

The whole thing was silly, Gillian was as much too old for Parker Pence as she was young for Jack Tippleton. Those winsome ways of hers, Sarah had decided at their first meeting early in the week, were more the result of long practice than of girlish exuberance. Well, it would all blow over, no doubt, once they’d done the show. In the meantime, she had her own attendant squire to command.

“Come on, Guy,” she said, “let’s finish that last flat.”

Guy Mannering was only too happy to follow Sarah out to the sun parlor. If he’d had any hopes of engaging her in aesthetic chitchat instead of painting bushes, though, he was soon disabused of them. Sarah could be a first-class drill sergeant, having got in plenty of practice on Edith, her late mother-in-law’s cantankerous maid, during her traumatic first marriage. They did in fact manage to get done with the hearts and flowers before Sarah had to change for dinner and Guy to go and do whatever it was he did when he wasn’t painting scenery at Emma’s.

If he hadn’t been wearing paint-stained jeans he might have got asked to dine with them, but Emma, whatever her other impetuosities, was too much a lady of the old school to allow for that. Sarah wasn’t surprised to find out she’d invited Charlie Daventer to stay, though; it would have been unusual if she hadn’t. What did surprise Sarah was that Ridpath Wale was still with them. He generally had some other engagement.

She put on a peacock-blue silk dress she’d picked up in Phoenix—being married to Max was giving her wardrobe a cosmopolitan flavor—and went down prepared to be bored stiff by endless talk about stage technique. To her surprise she found them still talking about the Romney. Rather, they kept coming back to it, especially after they’d returned to the drawing room for their after-dinner coffee.

Ridpath wanted to know how so large a painting had been fitted into that monstrous frame, and how they’d ever got it off the ship and out to Pleasaunce.

Sarah knew that. Ernestine had in fact been trundled over the roads in a brewer’s wagon. Emma told the story, and made an engaging comedy of it. As to the mechanics of the painting, there was no way she could extract much entertainment from them. The canvas was simply tacked in the customary way to a heavily braced wooden stretcher which in turn was held into the frame by large wood screws.

“The thing can be taken apart easily enough, then?” Ridpath remarked.

“Oh yes, it’s not hard, merely awkward because of its size and weight. We have Ernestine down every ten years or so for cleaning.”

“Looks to me as if she’s about due for another bath,” Charlie grunted.

“I’m afraid you’re right,” Emma agreed. “The oil heat leaves a film, you know, and I’m sure the smoke from the fireplace doesn’t help, even though we had those glass doors put on for that very reason. Heatherstone gets up on a ladder and gives her a wipe-down with a damp cloth every so often, and we flick off the cobwebs once a week with a marvelous long-handled feather duster I picked up in England ages ago. It’s begun to molt, poor thing, and I don’t suppose it accomplishes much. There was a nice man in Springfield who used to come out, but I’m sorry to say he’s died. I must call up the museum and see if they can recommend somebody.”

“The fellow who cleaned my Sargents did a satisfactory job, I thought,” said Ridpath. “I’ll ring him up tomorrow, and have him drop by to give you an estimate.”

“Not tomorrow, please, Ridpath. I must get this show over before I tackle any more projects. We have enough confusion around here already. I do hope we shan’t have a clash of temperaments over Gillian Bruges. That girl is a minx. I suppose I should have known better than to take her on in the first place, but she does make a divine Constance.”

BOOK: The Plain Old Man
10.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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