Read The Plain Old Man Online

Authors: Charlotte MacLeod

The Plain Old Man (8 page)

BOOK: The Plain Old Man
8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Frederick took Martha’s arm and held it till she had to participate in the short recitative that leads to her stage daughter’s first solo. Sarah noted with amusement that Jack Tippleton tried to get close to Gillian and that Emma headed him off, backing him into a corner with Peter and Sebastian to await their upcoming cue.

The moral support Martha was getting from Frederick must be doing the trick. She was more relaxed now, projecting motherly concern in a sweet, true alto. Then Gillian began her mournful confession of unrequited adoration. Sarah could have smacked her for keeping her eyes fixed on Jack Tippleton instead of the kind and reverend rector as she lamented that his love alone could give her aching heart release. Nevertheless, Sarah had to admit Aunt Emma had been lucky to get so good a voice.

Gillian knew how to project to an audience, too. She ought to, Sarah thought nastily, she practiced on everybody who came handy. She was into her second stanza now, and giving young Parker Pence the treatment. Ridpath Wale, whom Sarah had hoped she’d shaken, was still there and much amused.

“Can’t she make up her mind which one she’s after?” he muttered.

“Neither,” Sarah murmured back. “She’s only trying to make you jealous.”

Maybe she was. Ridpath was no ladykiller like Jack but he was personable enough, some years younger, and a good deal richer according to Dolph Kelling, who always knew these things. Ridpath was also, at the moment, single. If Gillian simply wanted a man, why didn’t she look where the picking was better?

Unless she didn’t really want one at all. Perhaps all she cared for was the thrill of the chase. As did Jack Tippleton, according to Aunt Emma and a number of disgruntled Tessas and Gianettas. Well, good luck to them both.

Gillian finished her number and got her applause. Martha went back to stand beside Frederick, who reached over to pat her shoulder and let his hand rest there. Sarah wished Jack Tippleton would notice, but he was still eying Gillian like a cat after a canary. He moved again to escape, but Emma forestalled him. Dr. Daly was beginning his solo.

“Time was when love and I were well acquainted. Time was when we walked ever hand in hand.”

Sarah wasn’t buying that. She doubted that Sebastian Frostedd had ever given two hoots and a holler for anybody except himself. As for his having been a saintly youth with worldly thoughts untainted, one could but smile and shrug. Sebastian did project the aura of the pulpit to perfection, though, his rubicund face bland and gentle in the warm glow from Emma Kelling’s handsome brass and crystal girandoles.

Whatever his own feelings or lack of them, one could credit the possibility that time had been when ladies of the noblest station, forsaking even military men, could have gazed upon him rapt in adoration. A few might even be doing so now, though Sarah couldn’t see any indication of it. Any woman would have to be a fool to take Sebastian Frostedd seriously, but at least he didn’t have a wife and daughter in tow, and he’d probably be more fun on a date than Jack Tippleton.

Chacun à son gout.
Here came Sir Marmaduke, out of his corner at last with the brave Alexis in tow. There went Dr. Daly to offer them his best, his very best congratulations. Sarah decided the show could go on without her.

She wandered back out to the sun parlor and began checking the window fastenings. They were good, heavy, competent solid brass locks, showing no sign of having been tampered with. Sarah inspected them all nevertheless, heard the chorus shrieking that with heart and with voice they were welcoming this meeting, and refrained from going back into the drawing room. She herself wouldn’t welcome any meeting just now. This was the first chance she’d had all day to be alone and get her thoughts together.

As far as losing Ernestine was concerned, Sarah personally didn’t much care. The big Romney was not a painting she’d want to inherit. From what her aunt had said, Emma Kelling wasn’t going to pine away for Ernestina and her dove, either. Family heirlooms abounded in the Kelling family, and they were more apt to be nuisances and bones of contention than unalloyed joys. Still, Ernestina belonged. It was the wanton, deliberate action of thievery that couldn’t be tolerated. If only Max were here.

But he wasn’t and he wouldn’t be, not yet. She’d had a note from him this morning, scribbled at breakneck speed on hotel stationery from Lièges, saying he missed her like hell and had bought her a little souvenir. His last little souvenir had been a dainty gold filigree necklace set with chaste pearls and a few small diamonds, bought wholesale from a jeweler in Amsterdam who owed Max a favor. She’d love matching earrings, or some wonderful Finnish textiles for the new house they might some day build. Mainly, though, she wanted her husband.

She’d just have to want, though she hoped not for long. In the meantime she couldn’t sit around watching a trail go cold even if she wasn’t allowed to take the proper measures. She wished she could think of something more constructive than checking the windows, but she couldn’t, so she went on.

Emma Kelling had two dining rooms in her house; more properly a formal large dining room and a breakfast room she preferred to use for small, informal meals whatever the hour. The latter was more convenient for the Heatherstones, being next to the butler’s pantry. It was also far cozier, with its pale green walls and rosy chintzes. This was where Emma kept her luscious little Renoir and her wholesome Anders Zorn of a pink-cheeked girl eating a red-cheeked apple. This was where they’d eaten breakfast this morning and dinner last night. An ideal situation for drugging the Slepe-o-tite jug, Sarah thought. Only how could that have been managed without her knowing?

She shook her head and went on to the big dining room, a skating rink dominated by a vast black-walnut table and buffet, with matching chairs and side pieces enough to accommodate the whole Kelling clan, should it ever be possible to get them all sitting down in peace and amity. Sarah had had her own ups and downs with the relatives, but she’d always been on friendly terms with Aunt Emma’s dining-room furniture, because of the lions.

The buffet had a shaggy lion’s head in high relief roaring out of its towering back, and bas-reliefs of a whole pride decorating the cabinet doors. The table had great, flaring legs like a lion’s haunches, ending in paws with the toes and talons meticulously defined. The ponderous apron was about a foot deep, ribbed and swirled and curlicued all over to suggest a lion’s mane. Slipping in here alone to chat with the lions had been one of her childhood delights.

Tonight, though, Sarah found the lions standoffish and the deep wine-colored velvet hangings oppressive. Emma never bothered to replace them with lighter ones for the summer. Any large-scale entertaining she did during the hot weather was more apt to be an alfresco affair with many small tables dotted about the lawn and the sun parlor. The tables and their matching chairs would be rented, but Sarah knew the buffet held a stack of pink tablecloths laundered and ready for the summer’s first lawn party. She gave the roaring lion a pat for auld lang syne and went back across the hall to the library.

This had been Uncle Bed’s favorite room. Sarah could recall sitting on his knee and being allowed to cut the tip off his cigar with an elegant silver snipper. The cigar had smelled lovely when she sniffed its smooth, warm brown wrapper, less so when Uncle Bed put a match to the big end and puffed.

Emma must cherish her memories here, too. She often sat in the library, alone or with old friends like Charlie Daventer. This was where she kept the big silver-framed photograph of Uncle Bed looking stiff-upper-lippish as Kellings were wont to do when having their pictures taken by professional photographers. He’d have been thinking about how much the sitting was going to cost, and wondering why a snapshot from somebody’s old box Brownie wouldn’t have done as well.

There were other photographs: graduation portraits of her cousins Young Bed and Walter Alexander, and of their wives and their children, and a very grand one of Emma herself in evening dress and a great many pearls. It was a wonderful room. Sarah felt as if it had been desecrated when she looked up from Uncle Bed’s desk and saw what was pinned to the screen outside the window.

Chapter 6

H
ERE IT WAS, THE
note she’d been expecting but hadn’t really believed would come. The words weren’t cut out of newspapers, they were printed with a calligraphy pen, not very well but strictly by the book. The message was short and clear. “We want $5,000.”

Sarah was flabbergasted. Five thousand dollars for Ernestina? It was an insult to Romney. Then again, five thousand could seem like a lot of money when you didn’t have it. Sarah knew that as well as anybody. Maybe this was some misguided crew who simply needed five thousand dollars and didn’t think it quite nice to ask for more. More likely, they had no idea what the painting was worth and assumed five thousand dollars was a sum Emma Kelling could be pried loose from without too much fuss. Or else this was just a prelude to a larger demand.

Whatever it was, it couldn’t stay here. Sooner or later, some member of the cast would be dropping into the library for a respite from the hubbub and a nip from Uncle Bed’s cellaret, which Aunt Emma kept filled with whiskey and gin for sentimental reasons. Sarah tried to raise the screen, but it was the old-fashioned wooden kind that had to be got at from outside the house. She let herself out one of the side doors and ran around to the library windows.

It was an exercise in futility. She might have remembered she wouldn’t be able to reach that note from the ground; the house sat too high on its foundation. How had it been pinned there in the first place? She looked around the lawn for footprints, but there were none to be seen. The lawn was too well-kept to take them. Sarah did find a broken twig on one of the arborvitae that masked the foundation, but that didn’t tell her anything except that the window must have been got at by somebody climbing up from the ground. Thus ruling out stilts and levitation, she supposed, for whatever that might be worth.

Back when there’d been a gardener, he’d kept his ladders in the potting shed, a red-brick octagon with a silly domed roof, set off by itself at the bottom of the garden. She supposed they must still be there, found on investigation that they were, and lugged the most portable of them back up to the house. She felt awfully conspicuous propping it against the window in this burglar-conscious neighborhood but at least she belonged to the household. What about the person who’d climbed up here to attach the note to the screen? It must have been done sometime today, in broad daylight. Otherwise Heatherstone would have found it when he drew the curtain this morning.

Sarah mounted the ladder, wondering what sort of story she could make sound halfway plausible if some member of the group inside happened to spot her. (Jetting the note off the screen was no problem, anyway. It had merely been hung there by means of two paper clips linked together, one attached to the small sheet of paper, one bent to form a hook with its free end poked through the mesh. Carefully, she noted. It hadn’t made a hole.

She must remember to hold the note by the paper clips in case of fingerprints. If Max were here, he’d know how to test for them. Sarah supposed she could make a stab at it herself, but what would be the good? Even if she didn’t ruin the evidence, she could hardly go around fingerprinting the cast for comparison without exciting remark, to say the ultimate least. Especially not now, with everybody so edgy over losing Charlie and having to break in a new Notary practically on the eve of the performance.

Anyway, she had the note. Now to put away the ladder and sneak back to the rehearsal without attracting attention. That turned out to be a bit of a problem. There was a fairly stiff breeze now, and it was flapping the paper up around her hand. By the time she got the note back to the house, the only fingerprints would be her own. It would probably have made more sense to take the note in first and then carry the ladder down to the potting shed, but she hadn’t thought of that in time and wasn’t about to turn back now. She’d see if she could find two pieces of glass or something in the shed to lay the paper between.

Sarah didn’t mind an excuse to stay and poke around. The potting shed had always been one of her favorite places. She’d spent whole mornings and afternoons here when she was little, watching the gardener mixing his soils and cleaning his tools. Mr. Hosbin had been getting on in years by then; she supposed he’d been happy enough to putter around entertaining a child instead of going outside and doing the work he was getting paid for. Sarah had never thought of him as a friend, though; their relationship had been polite but formal. British by birth, Mr. Hosbin had known his place and expected his employer’s niece to keep hers. That was all right. Sarah’s parents had treated her much the same way.

The potting shed had a general flavor of mild decay about it nowadays. Sarah could see dust on the counters and cobwebs around the ceiling. She supposed the place didn’t get used much since the jolly men from the landscaping service had taken over. Aunt Emma had been in the habit years ago of going out with a green rubber kneeling pad, a big straw hat, and flowered gardening gloves with green thumbs to pull weeds from the rockery, but she probably didn’t bother these days. What with her committees and her blood pressure, she wouldn’t have much time for gardening. The jolly men would keep the area respectable with easily grown annuals and the rare plants would have gone to Emma’s son Walter and his nice wife, Cynthia, who loved to garden.

It would be Young Bed who’d inherit this place, Sarah thought, and then who? Little Bed wouldn’t want it, his ambition was to own a cattle ranch in Wyoming. An odd profession for a Kelling, but then Kellings were often odd. Sarah herself knew she was considered to be among the oddest now that she’d turned her Beacon Hill brownstone into a boarding-house, turned the boardinghouse over to Cousin Brooks and his wife, and married out of the tribe. Brooks, to be sure, had picked a more unlikely spouse and so had Cousin Dolph but Theonia and Mary didn’t count so much. Wives took their husbands’ positions.

BOOK: The Plain Old Man
8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Silver Rose by Jane Feather
Red Hope by J J (John) Dreese
Lovely Trigger by R. K. Lilley
Brother Kemal by Jakob Arjouni
The Blue Herring Mystery by Ellery Queen Jr.
Town in a Blueberrry Jam by B. B. Haywood
1 Life 2 Die 4 by Dean Waite