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Who killed solo violinist Lucy Carless during a concert by the Markshire Orchestra? Was it her first husband? Or her second? Womanizer Bill Ventry? Or perhaps the clarinetist and fellow Polish émigré, Zbartorowski, with whom she'd had a violent argument? "A plot compounded of musical knowledge, a Dickens allusion, and a subtle point in law is related with delightfully unobtrusive wit, warmth, and style." - The New York Times
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The Wind Blows Death
by Cyril Hare
Copyright 1949 Alfred Alexander Clark.
This edition published by Reading Essentials.
All Rights Reserved.
The Wind Blows Death
Planning a Program
The Eve of the Concert
In Search of a Clarinetist
A Concert Interrupted
Interview with an Absentee Organist
Interview with a Bereaved Husband
A Conference with the Chief
Lunch at the Club
Pettigrew Unbosoms Himself
The Truth About Ventry
The Truth About K.504
Madam How and Lady Why
In his time Francis Pettigrew had aspired to, and even applied for, a number of appointments of different kinds. He had in fact held not a few, most of them honorary. But the last job that he had ever expected to come his way was that of honorary treasurer to the Markshire Orchestral Society.
It was, he reflected as he sat in Mrs. Basset’s over-furnished drawing room, one of the many unexpected things that he owed to his marriage—itself perhaps the most unexpected event in his career. As a middle-aged bachelor, marrying for love a woman young enough to be his own daughter, he had been philosophically prepared for a good many surprises, and he had certainly had them. Possibly the greatest had been the ease with which he had accomplished the transition to a life of domesticity in the country after so many years bounded by the Temple, the circuit and the club. For this the break in his professional life occasioned by the war was, he recognized, largely responsible. It had always been a remote and distant dream of his one day to retire to some pleasant spot on the Southern Circuit within comfortable reach of London, there to indulge in a genteel and strictly localized practice until such time as the stanchest clients should write him off as hopelessly senile; but the chains of habit had been too strong, and the prospect of loneliness had appalled him. But when, at the end of hostilities, he thankfully escaped from the trammels of Government service, the proposition suddenly seemed quite feasible after all. Hitler had left the Temple with barely half its buildings and less than half its charm; the difficulties of resuming his London work seemed, to a man who had been consistently overworking for four years, insurmountable; and he was no longer alone in the world. Furthermore, he candidly admitted, the money which Eleanor brought with her made the prospect of retirement, alleviated by such pickings as the circuit might afford, considerably more attractive. Now, two years later, he was able to regard with detached amusement the unspoken but obvious conviction of his cronies on circuit that he must be miserably unhappy.
All the same, he told himself as he looked round the room, he had not bargained for this. It had begun innocently enough, when Eleanor had confessed to a passion for music. Pettigrew had raised no objection. He had a liking for music himself, though through laziness and pressure of other interests he had done little to cultivate it. Next it appeared that she not only enjoyed listening, but herself could play the fiddle passably well. So far, so good. No reasonable husband could object, particularly when this blameless occupation was coupled with an undertaking, scrupulously carried out, to practice only when he was out of the house. From that it followed logically enough that within a few months of their settling in Markhampton she should establish herself among the second violins of the county orchestral society. The trouble really began when he allowed himself to be called in, quite unofficially, to advise the committee over an absurd quadrangular dispute in which the society had involved itself with the Markhampton City Council (as lessors of the City Hall), the Commissioners of Inland Revenue (who were interested in the collection of Entertainment Tax) and the Performing Rights Society. He did not find it very hard to compose the difficulties, but in an unguarded moment he let fall the opinion that they would never have arisen if the accounts of the society had been kept in a more orthodox manner. From that moment he was a doomed man. It was in vain that he protested that he knew nothing of bookkeeping, that his personal accounts were in a disgraceful state of confusion. He had unwittingly acquired the reputation of a sound, practical man of affairs, and there was no escaping it. Remorseless pressure was brought to bear upon him from every side, and when he learned that Mrs. Basset, who led not only the orchestra’s cellos but also an important section of Markhampton society, was making Eleanor’s life a burden on the subject, he capitulated. And here he was, perched uncomfortably on one of Mrs. Basset’s hard, shiny sofas, dutifully attending a committee meeting.
“I call on the secretary,” said Mrs. Basset in her high, neighing voice, “to read the minutes of the last meeting.”
Robert Dixon was the secretary—a middle-sized man in his early forties, with smooth dark hair and a smooth face that was so utterly undistinguished as to make Pettigrew perpetually uncertain whether he would recognize him again, often as he might meet him. Dixon’s presence on the committee had somewhat puzzled him at first. He was, for one thing, obviously not a music lover in the sense that the other members were. Indeed, he appeared to treat the whole business of concert giving with an easygoing contempt that only just stopped short of being offensive. But it was certainly a contempt born of familiarity, Pettigrew observed; for along with a complete indifference to music as such, went a surprisingly intimate knowledge of the mechanics of music treated as a business. Agents and their terms, the idiosyncrasies of soloists and the lowest fees they would be likely to accept—matters of this order were at his finger tips. It was all most useful, and, in view of his attitude to the subject matter, extremely aggravating. Pettigrew had often wondered how Mrs. Basset put up with him.
Enlightenment had come when something let fall by Mrs. Basset had sent him to the Markshire County Library to consult Debrett. Research there had established the fact that Dixon was the great-grandson of a viscount. That explained everything. For in the armor plate with which that angular, elderly lady confronted and imposed upon the world there were two weaknesses, and two only. One of them was snobbery—a snobbery, moreover, of a rare and delicate variety. She did not merely, as the grosser type of snob will do, love a lord; she reveled in the faintest tincture of blue blood, the remotest connection with the humblest title, and she had an uncanny gift for tracing them. It was she, and not Eleanor, who had disclosed to Pettigrew that his wife’s maternal great-uncle had been a baronet, and she had done so with the happy air of one conferring some rich gift. Indeed, Pettigrew formed the view that she took a collector’s pride in nosing out whiffs of aristocracy in unlikely places, and that she would prefer the joy of meeting the second cousin of a peer of her own discovery to the more obvious thrill of being introduced to a duke. On the other hand, he had never seen Mrs. Basset being introduced to a duke and he could not be sure.
“Mr. Pettigrew! We are waiting for the treasurer’s report.”
Guiltily recalled from his daydreaming, Pettigrew hastened to present his accounts. They had been previously subjected to a private and searching audit from Eleanor, so they had no difficulty in passing the scrutiny of the committee. This duty discharged, he had intended to slip away, for a glance at the agenda had shown that his presence at the rest of the meeting would be purely decorative. But a glance through the open door of Mrs. Basset’s dining room had shown a promising assortment of refreshments for those who stayed the course, and there was besides a certain pleasure to be gained merely from sitting there and observing the inhabitants of the strange world in which he now found himself. He decided to remain.
“Programs for the season’s concerts,” announced Mrs. Basset importantly. “Mr. Evans”—her hard visage softened perceptibly—“what suggestions have you for us?”
If the aristocracy was one of Mrs. Basset’s weaknesses, Clayton Evans, the creator and conductor of the orchestra, was the other. She worshiped him with an uncritical adoration that in anyone less formidable would have been ridiculous. For his sake she worked like a slave in the interests of the society, cajoling troops of her reluctant friends to subscribe to its funds, visiting with her wrath any playing member who missed a rehearsal. For his sake she endured long hours of practice until by sheer determination she had made herself into a very passable cellist. His slightest wish was her law, a word of approval from him would send her into ecstasies. Above all, she made it her mission in life to stand between her idol and any outside annoyance, and this she performed with terrible efficiency.
In all fairness, Pettigrew thought, one had to concede that Evans was a worthier object of adoration than widows in middle life are apt to find. He was an impressive figure as he sat in an armchair in the center of the group, his domed, bald head sunk on his chest, his long legs thrust out in front of him, peering myopically from side to side through the enormously thick lenses of his spectacles. Exactly how near Evans was to complete blindness was a matter of speculation among members of the orchestra. It seemed fairly certain that his vision from the rostrum did not extend beyond the first two desks of the strings, and his habit of cutting friends dead in the street was proverbial. On the other hand, he appeared to be able to read music with uncanny ease, though to what extent he in fact relied upon a phenomenal memory rather than on the score before him was open to doubt. Since the orchestra seldom ventured on modern works the matter was not easily put to the test. The important point was that Evans was by training and temperament a musician of a high order. Debarred by his disability from a career elsewhere, he devoted himself to the musical life of the county. The inhabitants of Markshire, as was to be expected, rewarded him by taking him very much for granted, and expressed surprise when visitors from outside commented on their good fortune in possessing such a distinguished resident.
Evans drew some papers from a pocket of his baggy suit and held them close to his nose.
“I take it that we shall give our usual four concerts this season,” he said in his thin, clear voice. “Two before and two after Christmas?”
There was a general murmur of agreement.
“I have provisionally booked the City Hall for the first Thursday in November,” said Dixon. “That should suit for the first concert.”
“Very well. I take it further that our subscribers will expect something in the way of a concerto at each of them?”
“You’ll never get people to come without one,” observed Miss Porteous with a sigh. She was a plump, rosy young woman, an excellent violinist, but perennially and unreasonably pessimistic about everything.
“Yes, we want a draw,” Evans went on in a resigned tone. “I was going to suggest a fiddle for the first concert—say Lucy Carless. She tells me she will be back in England by then.”
The name of Lucy Carless, which was familiar to Pettigrew from concert advertisements, met with almost unanimous approval. The one person who hesitated to agree was, unexpectedly enough, Mrs. Basset. She pursed her lips, raised her eyebrows and then leaned across towards Dixon. Pettigrew, who was sitting next him, caught the quick exchange of words without in the least understanding them.
“You’re quite sure you wouldn’t mind, Mr. Dixon?”
“Mind? Me? I couldn’t Carless!”
“Lucy Carless!” said Mrs. Basset, a shade too emphatically, turning to Evans. “That will be delightful! And what is she to play?”
“Oh, the Beethoven, Mr. Evans!” yearned Miss Porteous. “Please let it be the Beethoven!”
“Steady on!” broke in the rich voice of Mr. Ventry from a far corner of the room. “We had the Beethoven only the year before last. There are other composers, y’know.”
Evans paid no attention to either disputant. “We are a bit overdue for the Mendelssohn centenary,” he observed, “but better late than never. Lucy really plays the Mendelssohn concerto quite passably. We’ll try that.”
“I wonder if people want to hear Mendelssohn nowadays,” Miss Porteous began doubtfully, but Mrs. Basset cut her short.
“Nonsense, Susan. If they don’t like it, they ought to. And they’ll come to hear Lucy Carless, anyway.”
“The Mendelssohn won’t take it out of her too much,” Evans went on, “so I shall ask her to play a group of solos after the interval. That will mean one less work for the orchestra to rehearse—and I don’t intend us to be underrehearsed this season if I can help it.”
“Oh, quite, quite!” Mrs. Basset breathed her earnest agreement.
“It’ll mean paying for an accompanist, too,” Miss Porteous pointed out.
“That shouldn’t be a large item,” Evans observed. “I don’t know who accompanies for her now.”
“Lawrence Sefton,” answered Dixon promptly. “He ought to be cheap enough. She never paid him much and now she pays him nothing. She married him last year,” he explained. The fact seemed to cause him saturnine amusement.
“So much for that,” Evans went on. “Then to finish up with, I propose we should do the Mozart Prague Symphony.”
“Oh, the Prague!” said Mrs. Roberts (viola), speaking for the first time. “That’s the one that goes da-di-da-da, pom-pom, isn’t it?”
“No,” answered Evans, kindly. “It isn’t. But it’s very nice all the same, and well within our scope.” Taking the meeting’s approval for granted, he went on: “All we want now is a shortish piece to open with.” He paused and peered towards the corner of the room. “Ventry, I believe you had a suggestion to make?”
Ventry cleared his throat and answered without hesitation, “Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I had. I thought it was about time we gave old Handel a break. There’s a ripping piece by him, I had in mind—it’s an organ concerto as a matter of fact—you’ll know it, of course, Evans, but I expect it’ll be new to the rest of you. The Alleluia, it’s called.”
“The Hallelujah Chorus?” asked Mrs. Roberts brightly.
“Oh, Lord, no! Nothing to do with that. It’s in B flat, the second book. I forget the op. number—”
“Opus 7, number 3,” said Evans.
“That’s the chap. Two short movements, and plays for about twelve minutes, so it would be just about right for a curtain raiser. I’ve always wanted to have a stab at it on the City Hall organ—splendid instrument—so if you could see your way to put it in the program, I, for one, would be grateful.”
“I’m sure you would, Mr. Ventry,” said Miss Porteous, rather acidly.
“Mind you,” Ventry hastened to assure her, “it’s got a simply corking part for the orchestra. Really, that was what I had in mind when I suggested it. I thought we could do it with Henry Wood’s scoring, if you agreed, Evans—with clarinets. Adds a bit of color to it.”
“By all means,” said Evans. “That is, if the rest of the committee agree. Personally, I think the Alleluia concerto would suit our purposes very well.”
Mrs. Basset, rather pink in the face, echoed him. “I am sure we are all greatly obliged to Mr. Ventry,” she said. “It sounds a most delightful piece.”
“Oh, it is, Mrs. Basset, I assure you. You’ll love playing it.”
To an outsider, Evans’s deference towards Ventry in the matter of Handel’s Alleluia organ concerto was in odd contrast to the autocracy he had displayed with regard to the rest of the program; but Pettigrew knew enough of the affairs of the society to appreciate the little comedy that had just been staged. Ventry was a coarse, stout young man with a flair for music and a great deal of money. He owned a large house just outside Markhampton which contained a fine collection of musical instruments and an organ. Pettigrew had been there with his wife and had formed the opinion that Ventry was no more than a mediocre performer, though his enthusiasm for the instrument was beyond dispute, and he was certainly a passionate admirer of Handel. He was sure that, left to himself, Evans would not have selected Ventry as a soloist at one of his concerts. For that matter, left to herself, Mrs. Basset would probably not have tolerated him on her committee. Unlike Dixon, he had certainly no hidden aristocratic strain in his pedigree, and he was decidedly not of the type to commend itself to her. But as treasurer to the society Pettigrew was well aware that they had not been left to themselves. For some years past the balance sheets of the society had shown an annual deficit. On each occasion the gap between income and expenditure had been filled by a donation—sometimes quite a considerable one—from an individual invariably referred to by Mrs. Basset as “an anonymous donor.” (Many innocents, even on the committee, believed that the generous unknown was Mrs. Basset herself, and she had certainly never troubled to disillusion them.) Now the anonymous donor had decided to come forward and claim his reward. It was as simple as that.
Somewhat dazed, the rest of the committee accepted Clayton Evans’s proposal that the concert should open with the piece favored by Ventry, and the program was complete. Pettigrew intercepted something very like a wink from Dixon as he jotted down the items on the minutes. Then Evans became severely technical on details of scoring and the provision of orchestral parts, and the hon. treasurer’s attention wandered. It was recalled by an unexpected breeze which blew up over the somewhat esoteric question of the wood wind. Pettigrew, whose knowledge of orchestral music was extremely limited, was vaguely aware that at the back of the orchestra were a number of more or less inconspicuous persons who blew into or through variously shaped instruments, and he was surprised to find that the provision of these presented a problem of difficulty and long standing.
“As usual, we look like being horribly weak in wood wind,” Evans remarked. “Fellowes is quite a passable flute, but apart from him there’s nobody capable of playing first in any of the instruments, and we simply haven’t an oboe at all. It’s such a nuisance—it makes the rehearsals so difficult. Dixon, you’ll have to engage the professionals as usual. Let’s see, that will be two oboes, one clarinet—”
At this point Ventry and Mrs. Roberts began to speak at once. Ventry got in first.
“Young Clarkson isn’t at all bad on the old clarinet now,” he said. “He’s come on a lot lately.”
“I know,” said Evans. “I’m allowing for him. He can play second to a good first quite capably.”
“Young Clarkson,” Ventry persisted, “is dead keen to play first this season. He asked me to mention it particularly.”
“He’s not good enough.”
“Young Clarkson says that if he can’t play first this season he won’t play at all.”
“Very well,” said Evans curtly. “Arrange for two clarinets, will you, Dixon, please?”
It was apparent from his manner that there was a point beyond which even anonymous donors could not presume on the conductor’s tolerance, and Ventry subsided with a flush of annoyance. But the matter was not concluded. Mrs. Roberts had not yet had her say.
“Oh, Mr. Evans,” she broke in rather breathlessly, “if it’s a question of a clarinet, I’ve got just the man.”
Pettigrew was decidedly fond of Mrs. Roberts. She was an unassuming, good-natured woman, with an untidy mop of gray hair and a perennially worried expression, which usually proved to be due to a kindly preoccupation with somebody else’s troubles. She was the wife of a competent, successful man of business, the leading auctioneer in Markhampton, and most unfairly had been allowed by fate to become the mother of a long string of competent, successful children, with the result that her highly developed instinct for helping those weaker than herself had to be satisfied outside the circle of her family. A lame dog had but to look at a stile in Mrs. Roberts’s presence to find himself firmly and kindly lifted over to the other side. She had become notorious in this respect, and it was plain from the tightening of the muscles round Evans’s jaw that the prospect of a lame dog among his wood winds did not appeal to him any more than young Clarkson had done.
“Really, Mrs. Roberts,” he said, “don’t you think it will be best if we leave the clarinets in professional hands in the usual way?”
Mrs. Roberts assumed an air of determination entirely foreign to her except where someone else’s interests were concerned.
“He is a professional,” she answered. “That’s just the point. At least, he used to be. Just at present he’s a Pole.”
There was a pause during which the meeting digested this remark, and then Evans, who, like Pettigrew, had a soft spot for Mrs. Roberts, said kindly: “Perhaps you had better tell us all about him, Mrs. Roberts. What is his name, in the first place?”
“Tadyoose—Oh, dear! I never can remember it properly—let alone pronounce it. I’ve got it written down somewhere.”
She fumbled in her bag, and produced a piece of paper, which she passed to Evans. On it was written in block capitals the name Tadeusz Zbartorowski.
“Yes,” said Evans, noncommittally, “I see that he’s a Pole.”
“He is really a most deserving man,” Mrs. Roberts insisted. “He can’t go back to Poland, he tells me, because of being massacred—if he does go back, I mean. I am most anxious to help him, and I promised—”
“Quite. But what makes you think he can play the clarinet?”
“Oh, he can certainly play—he’s playing now in the Silver Swing Dance Band—that’s only in the evenings, of course. I think he works in the black market when he’s not playing—so sad, isn’t it? But he’d much rather play in a real orchestra, I know.”
“I hardly think—” Clayton Evans began.
“He used to play at the Warsaw Opera House before the war,” Mrs. Roberts added as an afterthought.
“Oh! . . . That’s put rather a different complexion on the matter. If your friend is everything you say, perhaps we could do something for him.” Evans looked at his watch. “It is getting rather late, and we have three more programs to settle yet. Dixon, you have some knowledge of Poland, I think. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind seeing this man, and if he is really as well qualified as Mrs. Roberts suggests you could use your own discretion about engaging him.”
“I’ll put him through it all right,” said Dixon, somewhat grimly. “I didn’t live five years in Warsaw for nothing.”
“Now as to the second concert,” Evans went on. “I suggest . . .”
At this point the treasurer passed into a deep coma.
For Mrs. Basset the high light of the evening came after the meeting had dispersed. Following a custom that had become a convention, Evans remained behind for a few minutes of gossip while he drank a modest brandy and soda, prepared by her own aristocratic hands. It was a delicious interlude of rare intimacy with her idol which she savored to the full.
“Well, Charlotte,” he said. “I thought the meeting went off pretty well, didn’t you?”
“You managed it beautifully, Clayton. You always do.”
Nobody had ever heard Mrs. Basset address him publicly otherwise than as “Mr. Evans” and, since the death of Mr. Basset ten years before, no human being had been known to have the temerity to call her “Charlotte.” The surreptitious exchange of Christian names never failed to give her the exciting sense of secret indulgence in a guilty pleasure.
With faintly glowing cheeks she went on: “You don’t think there’ll be any trouble with Mr. Ventry, do you?”
“Not the slightest, I should imagine. He’s really not a bad performer when he gives his mind to it, and the Handel piece is quite within his powers. He deserves a run for his money, I think. We may have a bit of trouble about the tuning of the organ, though. I must speak to the city organist about it.”
“I wasn’t thinking about that, but about Mr. Clarkson. Mr. Ventry seemed quite upset over him.”
“I don’t think we need worry about that,” said Evans carelessly. “He’ll soon forget it. Clarkson is quite impossible, anyway. I shall be glad to be rid of him. Why can’t we get anybody to take up these wind instruments seriously, I wonder?”
But Mrs. Basset was not, for the moment, interested in wind instruments as such.
“It wasn’t like Mr. Ventry to show such anxiety about befriending a man,” she observed.
Evans laughed. “Well, his reputation doesn’t run in that direction, so far as I know,” he said. “I’m not well up in these matters myself, but—”
Mrs. Basset pursed her lips.
“There is a Mrs. Clarkson, I know,” she said, reflectively. “I must make inquiries.”
“You think that that may be where Ventry’s interest lies? Well, that’s certainly the oddest motive I’ve ever heard for trying to foist a dud onto an orchestra. But aren’t you being a bit too imaginative, Charlotte?”
“Perhaps I am, Clayton. But Mr. Ventry is a deep person, I am afraid; very, very deep.” She shook her head solemnly, and added: “And fond of women. The very opposite of my idea of what a man should be, in fact.”
“Quite,” said Evans quietly to his glass of brandy. He knew his Charlotte too well to take her more high-flown remarks literally, but the picture she had conjured up of the ideal man who should be a shallow misogynist was a little too much for him. To change the subject, he said: “I hope you approve of the programs.”
“Of course I do!” Mrs. Basset breathed loyalty, into which she contrived to put a hint of reproach that her loyalty should ever have been questioned. “I was afraid for a moment that there might be a little awkwardness when the name of Lucy Carless was mentioned, but fortunately it all passed off very well.”
“Awkwardness? I know Lucy can be awkward enough sometimes, but why should anyone be awkward about her?”
“Didn’t you know that Mr. Dixon had been married to her?” Mrs. Basset asked solemnly.
“Really? I knew Lucy had been married before her present venture, but I never connected her with Dixon. I’m so bad about people, I’m afraid. Are you sure?”
Debrett had materialized in Mrs. Basset’s hand, apparently of its own volition.
“Married, first, 1937 (marriage dissolved, 1942), Lucille, only child of Count I. Carlessoff; secondly, 1945, Nicola, eldest daughter of Henry Minch, Esquire,” she read. “I wish I could find out who Henry Minch was,” she added. “But Mrs. Dixon is very reserved.”
“Well, that’s Lucy all right,” Evans remarked. “She must be the only violinist on record with a foreign name who prefers to play under an English one. She always was a perverse little cuss. But I hope I haven’t put my foot in it with Dixon.”
“Oh no,” Mrs. Basset reassured him. “He is quite unconcerned about it. In fact, he made a little joke about it—I can’t remember what it was, but I know it was very witty. People are so modern about divorce nowadays, I can’t think why. But of course, Mr. Dixon had something more important to think about this evening. Do you think I ought to have congratulated him or not? It is so awkward.”
“What on earth are you talking about, Charlotte?” Evans stifled a yawn.
“Didn’t you see this evening’s paper? I thought you must have noticed.”
“I certainly saw the paper, but I didn’t observe anything about Dixon in it.”
“Lord Simonsbath’s only son,” said Mrs. Basset portentously, “has been killed in a motor car accident.”
“It seems an odd subject for congratulation, at first sight, Charlotte, but I presume that that book in your hands has something to do with it.”
Mrs. Basset nodded.
“On the failure of the elder branch,” she said, in a hushed tone, “our Mr. Dixon will inherit the peerage.”
“Dear me!” said Evans flippantly. “What a disappointment for Lucy. She always had a hankering after titles.”
“The matter isn’t quite so simple as that,” Mrs. Basset went on. “We can’t be sure yet whether the elder branch has failed.”
“Not be sure? With Debrett to go by? I thought that he at least was infallible in such matters.”
“I’m not saying a word against Debrett,” said Mrs. Basset reprovingly. “Of course not. That’s not the point. But the young man who has just died leaves a widow, and the paper says—papers are so crude nowadays—that she is—I prefer to say, in an interesting condition.”
“Interesting appears to be the word,” Evans yawned openly this time. “I shall look forward to the next installment in this drama in high life. If I were in Dixon’s shoes I should pray that it should be a son. I can’t imagine anybody wanting to be a lord in these times.”
Before Mrs. Basset had had time to recover from this blasphemous observation, he had thanked her for his entertainment and taken his leave.
Meanwhile, the great-grandson of the second, and prospective heir presumptive to the sixth, Viscount Simonsbath was discussing much the same topics with Nicola, eldest daughter of Henry Minch, Esquire.
Nicola was getting ready for bed when Dixon reached home. He found her sitting at her dressing table, brushing her thick auburn hair with slow, languid strokes, as if at any moment she might stop for sheer exhaustion. She was not really tired, he knew, but merely temperamentally incapable of doing anything in a hurry. She had probably been going to bed for the last hour, and she might continue to brush her hair for another ten minutes, merely because it was too much trouble to stop. He sat down quietly on the bed and watched her with a connoisseur’s approval. Some day, he reflected sadly, Nicola was going to get fat, if she didn’t brisk up a bit and take more exercise; but just at present she was enormously attractive. She had the creamy complexion that sometimes accompanies hair of her particular shade; fine, regular features and particularly beautiful rounded arms. Presently she caught his eye in the looking glass and smiled lazily.
“Well?” she asked, without stopping the slow, rhythmic movement of the hairbrush. “What sort of an evening was it?”
“Much as usual. I’ve been left to do the donkey-work for the concerts, of course.”
“Well, Robert, you know you enjoy doing it, God knows why, so don’t complain. Have you fixed up anything interesting?”
“We’ve fixed up Lucy for the first concert, if you call that interesting,” said Dixon.
Nicola laid down her brush and turned round to look at him.
“The hell you have!” she said softly.
“Not a bit. It’ll be rather interesting to see what she looks like now. Pretty gaunt and scraggy, I should imagine, from the way she was going when we saw her last.” She turned back to the glass and contemplated her own pleasing curves with complacence. “Was Billy Ventry at the meeting?” she asked abruptly.
“Oh, very much so. Why do you ask?”
“Nothing . . . He rang me up just after you had gone this evening.”
“What ever for?”
“Well, nominally it was to ask you what time the meeting was fixed for. Actually, it turned out, it was to invite me to come to the pictures with him tomorrow afternoon. I wonder how he found out that you were always kept late at the office on Thursdays?”
Dixon laughed dryly.
“That man is the most unblushing womanizer at large,” he remarked. “Did you accept?”
“I told him I was going to tea with Mrs. Roberts, which happened to be perfectly true. But it interested me, because presumably it means that his present affair with whoever it is is petering out and he’s nosing round for someone else. How do people like Billy manage to get away with it, Robert?”
“Search me,” said Dixon, getting up. “Come on, it’s time we were in bed.”
As he was getting into bed, some twenty minutes later, Robert Dixon remarked: “By the way, you saw the evening paper, I suppose?”
“You left it lying about downstairs,” replied Nicola with a yawn, “but the headlines didn’t look very interesting, and I hadn’t backed anything, so I couldn’t be bothered to open it.”
“Well, if you had, you’d have seen that my cousin Peregrine’s dead. Car smash.”
“Good Lord!” Nicola remained silent for some moments. “There’s no one else between you and old Simmy, then?”
“That’s just the point. There may be. We shan’t know for a month or two. Peregrine’s widow is expecting.”
Nicola began to laugh quietly. “How damn funny!” she remarked.
“I don’t see there’s anything funny about it. It’s a confoundedly embarrassing position for me to be in—for both of us, for that matter.”
“Darling, I know it is.”
“And old Mother Basset gnashing her teeth at me in agonies of silent excitement only made it worse,” Dixon went on.
“She’ll gnash still more when she hears about me.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Well,” said Nicola, “I’ve got a strong notion I’m on the same tack as Peregrine’s widow. I didn’t want to tell you till I was quite sure.”
“Well, well!” said Dixon. He stared at the ceiling in silence for a moment or two and then reached up and switched off the light.
Ventry’s house outside Markhampton was a roomy, ugly Victorian place. Ventry would have sold it long before but for the fact that some previous owner had added to it a large, lofty billiard room which, after some ruthless and expensive alterations, served very well to house his organ and an extensive library of music. On returning home from Mrs. Basset’s he went straight to this room, poured himself out half a tumbler of neat whisky, lodged it precariously on the music-rest of the organ, and proceeded to play from memory, with great dash and inaccuracy, the C Major Toccata of Bach. It was one of his favorite pieces, both for its own sake and because the long pedal passage with which it opens leaves the performer’s hand free to pick up a glass when required. When the whisky and the Toccata were both finished he sat for a moment filled with that exquisite feeling which, before the word acquired a political flavor, was known as “appeasement.” The sensation gradually ebbed away as he became conscious of two facts. The first was that his cook had that morning threatened to give notice if her sleep was again disturbed by “noises in the middle of the night”; the other that the telephone was ringing persistently in the hall.
Swearing under his breath, Ventry swung his thick legs off the music stool and went to attend to the more tractable of the two troubles.
“Darling,” said a high-pitched voice, as soon as he lifted the receiver, “You’ve been ages answering. Is anything the matter?”
“How did things go at the meeting?”
Ventry was still under the potent influence of whisky and Bach, and for the moment he could think of the meeting only in terms of the City Hall organ.
“Oh, damn well,” he replied incautiously. “Really very well indeed.”
“Then it’s all right about Johnny?” said the voice hopefully.
It was on the tip of Ventry’s tongue to say, “What about Johnny?” but his brain cleared in time. Distastefully, he conjured up a vision of Johnny Clarkson, with the rabbity teeth and narrow, suspicious eyes.
“Oh, Johnny!” he said. “Well, I’m afraid Evans wasn’t inclined to be very helpful so far as Johnny was concerned. In fact, he turned him down flat. I’m awfully sorry, Vi, and I did my best, of course, but there it is.”
“Darling, how sickening!” wailed the voice. “Can’t just nothing be done about it, not even to please pore little Violet?”
“Not unless he’ll come in as second again,” answered Ventry shortly. Mrs. Clarkson’s kittenish manner, he reflected, sounded its worst over the telephone.
“And that’s just what he won’t do—he’s got a positive thing about it. You know what he is when he’s like that. Billy boy, what are we going to do? If he isn’t in the orchestra it’ll mean he’ll be at home every evening, and you know what a suspicious devil he is. We shan’t have a chance to see each other.”
“I know.” Ventry did not sound unduly distressed at the prospect.
“It’s only because he’s out at his Masonic meeting I’ve had the chance to ring you up,” Violet went on peevishly. “It’s like living with a detective in the house, having him around. D’you know, I’ve been wondering if he hasn’t begun to suspect something lately. Can he have found out anything, do you think, Billy boy?”
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