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Authors: Margery Allingham

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BOOK: Death of a Ghost
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Mr Potter put a thin cold hand in Mr Campion's. ‘It's very fine this year – very fine,' he said, revealing a hollow voice of unutterable sadness, ‘and yet – I don't know; “fine”, perhaps, is hardly the word. “Strong”, perhaps – “dominating” – “significant”. I don't know – quite. “Fine”, I think. Art's a hard master. I've been all the last week arranging my little things. It's very difficult. One thing kills another, you know.' He sent a despairing glance into the corner whence he had come.

Belle coughed softly. ‘This is
Mr Campion, you know, Mr Potter,' she said.

The man looked up and his eyes livened for an instant. ‘Not the –? Oh, really? Indeed?' he said, and shook hands again. His interest faded immediately, however, and once more he glanced in misery towards the corner.

Campion heard the ghost of a sigh at his elbow and Belle spoke.

‘You must show your prints to Mr Campion,' she said. ‘He's a privileged visitor and we must take him behind the scenes.'

‘Oh, they're nothing, absolutely nothing,' said Mr Potter, in agony; but he turned quite brightly and led them over to his work.

At first sight of the array Mr Campion began to share Mr Potter's depression.

Red sandstone does not lend itself to lithography, and it seemed unfortunate that Mr Potter, who evidently experienced great difficulty in drawing upon anything, should have chosen so unsympathetic a medium. There was, too, a distressing sameness about the prints, most of which appeared to be rather inaccurate and indefinite botanical studies.

Mr Potter pointed out one small picture depicting a bowl of narcissi and an inverted wineglass.

‘The Duke of Caith bought a copy of that once,' he said. ‘It was the second year we started this posthumous show idea of Lafcadio's. That was 1923. It's now 1930: it must be seven years ago. That one has never gone again. I've put in a copy every year since. The picture business is very bad.'

‘It's an interesting medium,' said Mr Campion, feeling he was called upon to say something.

‘I like it,' said Mr Potter simply. ‘I like it. It's a strain, though,' he went on, striking his thin palms together like cymbals. ‘The stones are so heavy. Difficult to print, you know – and shifting them in and out of the acid is a strain. That one over there weighed thirty-seven pounds in the stone, and that's quite light compared with some of them. I get so tired. Well, let's go and look at Lafcadio's picture. It's very fine; perhaps a bit hot – a bit hot in tone, but very fine.'

They turned and walked down the room to where Belle, who had removed the shawl from the picture, was fiddling with an indirect lighting device round the frame.

‘This is Max's idea,' she said, shaking herself free from the tangle of flex. ‘People stay so late and it gets so dark. Ah, here it is.'

Immediately the picture sprang into prominence. It was a big canvas, the subject the trial of Joan of Arc. The foreground was taken up with the dark backs of the judges, and between their crimson sleeves one caught a vision of the girl.

‘That's my wife,' said Mr Potter unexpectedly. ‘He often painted her, you know. Rather fine work, don't you think? All that massing of colour. That's typical. Great quantities of paint too. I used to say to him – in joke, you know – it's lucky you make it yourself, John, or you'd never be able to afford it. See that blue on her scarf? That's the Lafcadio blue. No one's got that secret yet. The secret of the crimson had to go to help pay the death duties. Balmoral and Huxley bought it. Now any Tom, Dick, or Harry can get a tube for a few shillings.'

Belle laughed. ‘Both you and Linda do so begrudge anyone having the secret of his colours. After all, the world's got his pictures; why shouldn't it have his paint? Then they'll have the copy and the materials, and if they can't do it too, then all the more honour to Johnnie.'

‘Ah,' said Mr Potter, ‘remember Columbus and the egg. They could all make it stand up after he'd shown them how to crack it at one end. The secret was simple, you see, but Columbus thought of it first.'

Belle grinned. ‘Albert,' she said, ‘as one of the busiest investigators of our time, has the real significance of the Columbus story ever dawned on you?'

Mr Campion indicated that it had not.

‘That the egg was boiled, of course,' said Belle, and went off laughing, the white frills of her bonnet trembling.

Mr Potter looked after her. ‘She doesn't change,' he remarked. ‘She doesn't change at all.' He turned back to the picture. ‘I'll cover it up,' he said. ‘Lafcadio was a chap you didn't mind waiting upon. He was a great man, a great painter. I got on with him. Some people didn't. I remember him saying to me, “Potter, you've got more sense in your
gluteus maximus
than old Charles Tanqueray has in the whole of his own and his damned art committee's heads put together.” Tanqueray was more popular than Lafcadio, you know, with the public; but Lafcadio was the man. They all see it now. His work is fine – very fine. A bit hot in tone – a bit hot. But very, very fine.'

He was still muttering this magic formula when Mr Campion left him to rejoin Belle in the doorway. She took his arm again as they went into the house.

‘Poor Tennyson Potter,' she murmured. ‘He's so depressing. There's only one thing worse than an artist who can't draw and who thinks he can, and that's one who can't draw and knows he can't. No one gets anything out of it then. But Johnnie liked him. I think it was all the stones he uses. Johnnie was rather proud of his strength. He used to enjoy heaving them about.'

Her remarks were brought to a sudden end as they came into the hall by the appearance at the top of the stairs of an apparition in what Mr Campion at first took to be fancy dress.

‘Belle!' said a feminine voice tragically. ‘You really must exert your authority. Lisa – oh, is that someone with you?' The vision came down the stairs and Campion had time to look at her. He recognized her as Donna Beatrice, a lady who had caused a certain amount of flutter in artistic circles in 1900.

In 1900, at the age of thirty, she had possessed that tall beauty which seems to have been a peculiarity of the period, and she had descended upon the coterie which surrounded Lafcadio, a widow with a small income and an infinite capacity for sitting still and looking lovely. Lafcadio, who could put up with anything provided it was really beautiful, had been vastly taken by her and she was referred to as ‘his Inspiration' by those romantic feather-brained people who were loth to be uncharitable and at the same time incapable of understanding the facts.

There were two superstitions connected with Donna Beatrice. One was that in the days when everyone was chatting about the beautiful peacock strutting so proudly about the studio, she had approached Mrs Lafcadio and, in that sweet vacant voice of hers, had murmured: ‘Belle darling, you must be Big. When a man is as great as the Master, no one woman can expect to fill his life. Let us share him, dear, and work together in the immortal cause of Art.' And Belle, plump and smiling, had patted one of the beautiful shoulders and whispered close to one of the lovely ears: ‘Of course, my dear, of course. But let us keep it a secret from Johnnie.'

The other superstition was that Lafcadio had never allowed her to speak in his presence; or rather, had persuaded her not to by the simple expedient of telling her that her pinnacle of beauty was achieved when her face was in repose.

For the rest, she was an Englishwoman with no pretension at all to the ‘Donna' or the ‘Beatrice', which she pronounced Italian fashion, sounding the final ‘e'. Very few knew her real name; it was a secret she guarded passionately. But if in Lafcadio's lifetime she had been content to remain beautiful but dumb, on his death she had developed an unexpected force of character inasmuch as she had shown very plainly that she had no intention of giving up the position of reflected glory which she had held so long. No one knew what arguments she had used to prevail upon Belle to permit her to take up her residence in the house, but at any rate she had succeeded now, and occupied two rooms on the second floor, where she continued her hobby of manufacturing ‘art' jewellery and practising various forms of semi-religious mysticism to which she had lately become addicted.

At the moment she was dressed in a long Florentine gown of old rose brocade, strongly reminiscent of Burne-Jones but cut with a curtsy to Modernity, so that the true character of the frock was lost and it became an odd nondescript garment covering her thin figure from throat to ankle. To complete her toilet she had draped a long pink and silver scarf across her shoulders and the two ends rippled beneath her with the untidy grace of a nymph on the cover of

Her hair was frankly 1900. Its coarse gold strands had faded and there were wide silver ribbons amongst them, but the dressing was still that of the Gibson Girl, odd in a convention not old enough to be romantic.

An incongruous note was struck by a black cord running from beneath her hair to a battery on her chest, for her hearing, never good, had declined with the years and she was now practically stone-deaf except when equipped with this affront to her vanity.

Round her neck was a beaten silver chain of her own making, hanging to her knees and weighted by a baroque enamel cross. She was a figure of faintly uncomfortable pathos, reminding the young man irresistibly of a pressed rose, a little brown about the edges and scarcely even of sentimental value.

‘Mr Campion?' A surprisingly hard bony hand was thrust into his. ‘You've been seeing the picture, of course?' The voice was soft and intentionally vibrant. ‘I was so thrilled when I saw it again after all these years. I remember lying on the chaise-longue in the studio while the Master painted it.'

She dropped her eyes on the name and he had the uncomfortable impression that she was about to cross herself.

‘He liked to have me near whilst he was painting, you know. I know now that I always had a blue aura in those days, and that's what inspired him. I do think there's such a lot in Colour, don't you? Of course, he told me it was to be a secret – even from Belle. But Belle never minds. Dear Belle.'

She smiled at the other woman with a mixture of affection and contempt.

‘Do you know, I was discussing Belle with Doctor Hilda Bayman, the Mystic. She says Belle must be an old soul – meaning, you understand, that she's been on the earth many times before.'

Campion gave way to the embarrassment which Donna Beatrice's mystic revelations invariably produced upon her more acute acquaintances. Pampered vanity and the cult of the Higher Selfishness he found slightly nauseating.

Belle laughed. ‘I love to hear that,' she said. ‘A dear old soul, I always hope. A sort of old Queen Cole. Has Linda come in yet? She went to see Tommy Dacre,' she continued, turning to Campion. ‘He came back from Florence last night, after three years at mural work. Isn't it tragic? The students used to paint cathedral ceilings: now they paint cinema roofs.'

Donna Beatrice's still beautiful face adopted a petulant expression.

‘I really don't know anything about Linda,' she said. ‘It's Lisa I'm worrying about. That's why I wanted to see you. The creature simply refuses to wear the Clytemnestra robe tomorrow. I've had it let out. She ought to defer a little to the occasion. As it is, she simply looks like an Italian cook. We always look like our minds in the end – Belle, what are you laughing at?'

Mrs Lafcadio squeezed Mr Campion's arm. ‘Poor Lisa,' she said, and chuckled again.

Two bright spots of colour appeared on Donna Beatrice's cheek-bones.

‘Really, Belle, I hardly expect you to appreciate the sacredness of the occasion,' she said, ‘but at least don't make my task more difficult. We've got to serve the Master tomorrow. We've got to keep his name green, to keep the torch alight.'

‘And so poor Lisa's got to put on a tight purple dress and leave her beloved kitchen. It seems a little severe. You be careful Beatrice. Lisa's descended from the Borgias on her mother's side. You'll get arsenic in your minestrone if you tease her.'

‘Belle, how can you? In front of a detective, too.' The two bright spots in Donna Beatrice's cheeks deepened. ‘Besides, although Mr Campion knows it, I thought we'd agreed to keep Lisa's position here a secret. It seems so terrible,' she went on, ‘that the Master's favourite model should degenerate into a cook in his household.'

Belle looked discomforted and an awkward moment was ended by a peal on the front-door bell, and the almost instantaneous appearance of Lisa herself at the kitchen door.

Lisa Capella, discovered by Lafcadio on the slopes outside Vecchia one morning in 1884, had been brought by him to England where she occupied the position of principal model until her beauty passed, when she took up the household duties for Belle, to whom she was deeply attached. Now, at the age of sixty-five, she looked much older, a withered, rather terrible old woman with a wrinkled brown face, quick dark angry eyes and very white hair scraped back from her forehead. She was dressed completely in black, the dead and clinging folds which enveloped her only relieved by a gold chain and brooch.

She shot a sullen, vicious glance at Beatrice, sped past her on noiseless, felt-slippered feet over the coloured tiles, and swung the front door open.

A rush of cool air, a little dank from the canal, sped down the hall to meet them, and instantly a new personality pervaded the whole place as vividly and tangibly as if it had been an odour.

Max Fustian surged into the house, not crudely or noisily, but irresistibly, and with the same conscious power with which a successful actor-manager makes his appearance in the first act of a new play. They heard his voice, deep, drawling, impossibly affected, from the doorway.

BOOK: Death of a Ghost
2.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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