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Authors: Charlotte MacLeod

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BOOK: The Plain Old Man
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“Unless somebody sneaked in the back door,” she said aloud.

Mrs. Heatherstone snorted. “That’s crazy, Sarah Kelling, if you don’t mind me saying so. That back door’s always locked, and it stays locked or I don’t stay in this kitchen. I said so to Mrs. Kelling as soon as I heard about what happened to that cook of the Terwilligers’, and she agrees with me one hundred percent.”

“Well, of course. I was only wondering. Now, about those scenery flats that were picked up this morning. Mr. Heatherstone says you stood right there and watched the men carry them out.”

“I did, not that they were what I’d call men. It was just that Mannering boy and a couple of his friends. One was Skip and the other was Chill. I suppose they must have real names, but I never heard ’em. Anyway, they took out the big square pieces first, that make up the house, you know, and then the other ones that have the bushes painted on them. I eyed them like a hawk the whole time because I was afraid they’d scar the nice, clean woodwork Mrs. Kelling just had repainted, and I’m willing to swear that was all they took. Mr. Heatherstone asked me if maybe the painting could have got carried out with the scenery. I told him I didn’t see how, though I could see where he got the idea, all of them being just canvas stretched over a framework.”

“Perhaps he meant they might have hidden it between two of the other flats.”

“Not unless they were magicians, they didn’t. Guy was scared stiff they’d scratch up the artwork, as he called it, and I was worried for fear they’d get smart and poke a hole in one of the windows, let alone mess up the paint, so we made sure each piece was handled separately. Furthermore, they’d have had to be taking an awful chance, pulling a stunt like that in broad daylight.”

Not really, Sarah thought, if Guy had taken the forethought to disguise Ernestine with a skin of new canvas painted to look like part of Sir Marmaduke’s mansion when she was taken out of the frame and stacked her with the rest of the flats. Theoretically, Guy could even have laid down a fresh ground and painted scenery right on top of the old canvas, but Sarah didn’t think Guy would have had enough time or skill to manage that, even if he’d had all night to work on the project.

Assuming for the sake of argument that Guy and his cronies had stolen Ernestina and managed to get her out of the house right under Mrs. Heatherstone’s nose, they’d have had to be awfully harebrained to truck her all the way to the auditorium. Guy must know Emma Kelling well enough by now to realize she was apt as not to swoop down for a pre-breakfast ride on her high-wheeled bicycle to make sure they’d got the scenery delivered safely, and that she’d know merely by the dimensions if one flat was actually her Romney.

Sarah supposed it wouldn’t hurt to go and take a look, but how could she? There was that fake Romney to be painted and all those baskets of greenery to be got ready before the cast started to arrive at half-past five this afternoon. Aunt Emma would be going down there soon; let her take a tape measure along and see what she might find. Nothing but scenery, was Sarah’s guess. As for herself, she must get to work. What a shame Cousin Brooks wasn’t around to build her a stretcher and help stretch the canvas. She herself was no good at that sort of thing.

Come to think of it, Cousin Frederick was. He’d taught himself to do all sorts of odd jobs for his tenants, in order to get out of paying a handyman. Surely he could nail four pieces of wood together and tack a piece of canvas over the middle. She wouldn’t have to tell him why it was needed, just that it was one of Aunt Emma’s bright ideas. She ran to the phone.

Chapter 5

F
REDERICK GROUSED A BIT
, but he came. By the time he’d assembled the stretcher, Sarah had completed a sketch of her aunt on a huge piece of brown wrapping paper, throwing in as much detail as she could recall from the Romney and adding a few touches of her own. Her birdbath was all right, but the dove turned out to look more like a Boston Common pigeon. She wasn’t going to worry about that. This was merely another piece of scenery. All that counted was the general effect.

Together, she and Frederick stretched the canvas, tugging at opposite sides of the crude frame, whanging in staples and tugging some more. Considering that this was a maiden effort for both of them, they didn’t do too badly. Sarah transferred her drawing to the canvas, corrected it here and there, and lined up her paints. By lunchtime she’d slapped on a vaguely gardenish background and got the figure blocked in. She knocked off gratefully for a quick bite and sup, then went back to work. By three o’clock she’d produced a reasonably credible likeness of Emma Kelling in her purple bustle, complete with roses and lorgnette. The lorgnette was a detail Romney hadn’t happened to think of. Nor, for a wonder, had Emma, but Sarah put one in anyway.

Then came the problem of getting Lady Sangazure into Ernestina’s frame. That took the combined efforts of Sarah, Frederick, Emma, and the Heatherstones, none of them any great shakes as weight lifters, but the consensus was that the effect was worth the effort. “And now, Sarah,” said Emma Kelling, “the baskets.”

The ladies from the garden club had known far better than Sarah how much greenery those big baskets were going to swallow. They’d stacked the flag-stoned flower room full of branches, along with plastic buckets of tulips and daffodils that were being, Sarah gathered, conditioned.

One kind soul had even stayed to help. So, for a wonder, did Cousin Frederick. The three of them filled dishpans with bricks of Oasis, taped chicken wire over this unlikely assemblage, forced the filled pans down inside the baskets, and began sticking the greens through the holes in the wire, into the Oasis. First, it turned out, stems had to be bashed to let the water up through. This was all news to Frederick, but he willingly elected himself chief basher so that Sarah and her new mentor, called Peg, could work off their aesthetic urges on the baskets.

Gradually the arrangements took shape. At four o’clock Heatherstone brought them cups of tea. At five, Peg had to go and pick up her daughter from dancing class. At half-past, they began to hear cast and orchestra members arriving. At a quarter to six, Sarah and Frederick thrust the last well-bashed branches into the baskets and called it quits.

There was to be no dressing for dinner tonight since there was no dinner, only the buffet set out in the sun parlor so that performers could help themselves as they wished during lulls in the rehearsal. Sarah and her elderly cousin merely washed off the pitch and joined the throng. That was when they heard about Charlie Daventer.

“You mean to say you didn’t know?” That was Sebastian Frostedd, spreading the news. He had a rather dark whiskey and soda in his hand, Sarah noticed. “The cleaning woman found Charlie this morning, in his pajamas. Evidently he’d got up in the night, slipped on the bath mat, and hit his head on the edge of the tub.”

“My God, you don’t mean Charlie’s dead?” Frederick stared at Sebastian for a second or two, then went and got himself an even darker drink.

Ridpath Wale came up beside Sebastian, shaking his head and making the right noises. “When you think we were all here together just twenty-four hours ago, having a fine time. Charlie looked great then. Didn’t you think so, Sarah?”

Yes, Sarah had thought so.

Ridpath finished his drink and slammed the empty glass down on the buffet table. “Well, the show must go on. Charlie wouldn’t have wanted us to stand around with long faces. Eat, drink, and be gay. Banish all worry and sorrow. Laugh gaily today, weep (if you’re sorry) tomorrow.”

His full baritone rose easily above the conversation. Others picked up the chorus. The show was going on. Only Emma Kelling was not singing.

“That’s all very well,” she snapped, “but what are we going to do for a Notary? Two nights before opening, and no time to rehearse. And Charlie gone.” She faltered, then threw up her head somewhat in the manner of Boadicea facing the Roman legions. “Frederick, you’ll have to take Charlie’s part.”

“Me?” Her cousin choked on his drink. “Emma, you’re out of your mind.”

“I am no such thing. You’ll manage splendidly. By the way, Frederick Kelling, I hope you haven’t forgotten who got you off the hook that time you got drunk on bathtub gin and wound up engaged to Cousin Mabel.”

“For God’s sake, Emma! That was in June of 1929.”

“It was 1928. And the statute of limitations hasn’t run out as far as I’m concerned. Frederick, you owe me. Furthermore, if you don’t come across, I’ll tell Mabel precisely how the disengagement was effected.”

“Emma, you wouldn’t.”

“Frederick, I would. I’m a desperate woman.”

She glared him down. At last Frederick sighed, shrugged, took a mighty swig from his glass, and muttered, “All right, Emma. What do I have to do?”

“Not a great deal, actually. You only have a few lines, and we can write them down on a habeas corpus or something for you to carry around with you. Come along, everybody. Finish your suppers and let’s get started.”

Thus ended the period of mourning. Emma was clearly heartsick over losing her devoted swain of more than half a century, but she was a trouper first and last. As for the others, Sarah suspected most of them were simply relieved. One person’s tragedy, she knew from too much experience, tends to be another’s social embarrassment. The younger members of the cast had barely known Charlie Daventer, since he’d had to miss so many rehearsals. The older ones were perhaps finding his sudden death too uncomfortable a reminder that such things could happen to anybody, any time, but were more likely to happen to people in their age bracket.

Whatever their motivations, they all acted glad of the excuse to tuck Charlie’s demise under the carpet for the time being. Telling each other they’d be working off the calories, they helped themselves recklessly from the buffet and the bar. Talk grew louder, more excited. Members of the chorus gathered to practice their footwork on the smooth tile floor. Featured performers made polite suggestions to their fellows about not hogging the footlights. The orchestra members, seasoned veterans that they were, concentrated on the refreshments.

Sarah concentrated on the company. Her aunt had hissed to her, “Make them eat. Don’t let anybody get tight, for goodness’ sake,” so she darted around to trouble spots with plates of sandwiches and kept a wary eye on the bar. As soon as she could decently assume they’d had enough, she started herding the players into the drawing room.

The first to allow herself to be herded was Martha Tippleton, their Dame Partlett. Hers is a small supporting role, like the Notary’s, but she does carry the distinction of having the first spoken lines in the show. Martha appeared to be finding this a ponderous responsibility, but then Martha often looked to be oppressed by one thing or another. Living with Jack Tippleton, Sarah thought, she naturally would.

Martha must have been absolutely stunning when she was young. She was still lovely in a middle-aged way, with huge, sad gray eyes in a pale, thin-boned face, and tiny hands that tended to flutter. She was not, perhaps, the ideal type for a pew opener, but Emma had determined her friend was not to be shunted into the chorus and there was no other part for a woman her age except Lady Sangazure. Martha hadn’t the physique or the voice for that robust role, even if Emma could have borne to step aside and let her take a whack at it:

What was going to happen to the Pirates of Pleasaunce once their
prima donna assoluta
hung up her bustle? Sarah had a feeling that without Emma thundering across the boards, the company would fall apart almost at once. This might not be only Emma’s swan song, but the whole company’s. Just now, it didn’t seem so unreasonable that Emma chose to put her production before her stolen portrait.

At least Ernestina’s absence wasn’t causing an uncomfortable stir. Sarah’s life-sized caricature of Lady Sangazure had been noticed and the air was full of “Too clever for words” and an “Utterly killing” that Sarah could have done nicely without now that she’d been presented with the uncomfortable coincidence of Charlie Daventer’s death on the same night his liege lady’s Romney disappeared. She could also have dispensed with Ridpath Wale’s comment about Emma’s having changed her mind rather suddenly, hadn’t she?

“What about?” Sarah asked him, all innocence.

“About having the Romney cleaned. She told us last night she wasn’t going to bother until after the show.”

“Who said she’s bothering? This is just a joke Frederick and I cooked up with the Heatherstones’ help. I’d got so carried away with scene painting that I couldn’t stop. Do put on
Ruddigore
next year so I can do the family portraits. You’d be divine as Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd. Whatever is Gillian Bruges doing over there? Oughtn’t she to be rehearsing with Cousin Frederick? Excuse me.”

Gillian wasn’t doing anything out of the way, but that was beside the point. Sarah only wanted to escape before Ridpath Wale asked her anything more about Ernestina. She didn’t know if he was just making conversation, or fishing to see what line the household was taking over a theft he wasn’t supposed to know anything about. She did know this was no time to explode another bombshell among the cast. Charlie’s death had already aggravated their preopening jitters. Dame Partlett was in a real state, from the look of her. Aline kept having fits of the giggles that sounded altogether too much like hysterics. Sir Marmaduke seemed to be hunting an excuse to throw a temperament.

Others were nervy, too, but the Tippletons were the worst. It must be more than Charlie Daventer that was bothering them. A full-scale family row just before they left home was a likely explanation. Sarah hoped they weren’t going to start it up again here. She was wondering how she might safely pour some oil on the waters when, to her amazement, Cousin Frederick hurled himself into the breach.

“Come here, Martha. It appears you get stuck with me at the end, so you may as well get used to me now. Show me what I’m supposed to do.”

“I’d love to, Fred, but not just yet. I’m on as soon as the chorus finishes the opening number. Stand by and give me moral support. You don’t appear till almost the end of the act.”

BOOK: The Plain Old Man
6.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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