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Authors: Margery Allingham

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Little Venice ceased to look merely shabby and became interestingly Bohemian, as in its doorway Fred Rennie, magnificently unselfconscious in his leather apron and crimson shirt-sleeves, stood to receive the guests.

Fred Rennie was yet another denizen of Lafcadio's remarkable garden. Rescued as a child from a fever-infested canal boat by the painter, he had been taken into the household as a colour-mixer. His somewhat sketchy education he had received from Lafcadio himself, and he served the great man devotedly, grinding up the colour and experimenting with new mediums in the grand manner of centuries before. The old coach-house at the end of the garden had been turned into a little laboratory, and in the room above it Fred Rennie lived and slept.

When Lafcadio died, disdaining offers from several paint firms, he had remained with Lisa to form the domestic staff of Little Venice.

Even his service in the war had not uprooted him. For female society he depended upon the canal boats, so that his attachments were necessarily of a transitory nature. His life was peaceful, and it is probable that he enjoyed these annual ceremonies more than anyone save Max Fustian himself.

His costume was Donna Beatrice's idea, since the picturesque rags he had worn in Lafcadio's studio as a child were scarcely suitable for state occasions.

For the rest, he was a little wiry person with thick dark hair, quick eyes, and hands stained and bitten with acid.

He greeted Mr Campion as a friend. ‘We're very full now, sir,' he murmured deferentially. ‘A good many more than last year, I should say.'

Campion passed on down the wide hall, and would have gone on to the studio had not someone plucked at his arm in the dark corner by the basement stairs.

‘Mr Campion. Just a minute, sir.'

It was Lisa, Lisa bad-tempered and uncomfortable in a shiny purple gown only too evidently let out at the seams. In the shadow, with her dark eyes glittering at him, he caught a glimpse of her as she must have appeared that morning on the slopes of Vecchia. But the next moment she was the old wrinkled Italian woman again.

‘You must come up to see Miss Linda?' The foreign intonation turned the remark into a question. ‘Mrs Potter's with her in her room. Mrs Lafcadio told me to look out for you and to ask you to persuade her to come down. There are not enough people to greet. Donna Beatrice cannot leave her little jewellery table.'

The contempt on the last words were indescribable. Lisa's opinion of Donna Beatrice defied thought, much less print.

Mr Campion, whose role of universal uncle brought him many strange commissions, accepted this one without a thought, and with a word to Lisa he hurried up the six flights of stairs to the third floor, where, in one of the little attics under the slates, Linda had her studio.

The uncarpeted room with its uncurtained windows smelt vilely of oil-paint, and the usual paraphernalia of a work studio as opposed to the show variety was heaped about the floor.

Linda Lafcadio was leaning on her elbows at one of the windows looking down at the canal.

Mrs Potter stood in the centre of the disordered room. She was a little dowdy woman with iron-grey bobbed hair, capable hands, and an air of brisk practicalness which stamped her at once as one of those efficient handmaids-of-all-work to the arts who are capable of undertaking any little commission from the discovery of a Currier and Ives to the chaperoning of a party of society girl students across Europe. She was an expert embroideress, a connoisseur of bookbinding, and supported herself and, it was said, her husband by sundry art classes at fashionable day schools and a few private students.

She looked at Mr Campion uncertainly, and he introduced himself.

‘I know what you've come to say. You want me to come down,' she said, before he could get in a word of explanation. ‘Belle wants me. I was the model for this picture, you know – I don't like to think how many years ago. Well, I'll leave you to talk to Linda. Try and persuade her to come down. After all, we don't want to let anything spoil today, do we? So grateful to you, Mr Campion.'

She bustled off, leaving a tang of schoolmistress in the air. As Linda did not move, Mr Campion looked for somewhere to sit down.

Displacing a heap of paint-rags, an ash-tray, a bottle of glue, and a small plaster cast, he spread a handkerchief over the seat of the only chair the room contained and settled himself. He sat there for some time looking inoffensive, but hopelessly out of place. As the owner of the room did not move he took a wallet from his breast pocket and extracted a newspaper cutting. Adjusting his spectacles he began to read aloud.

‘DEAD HAND SPEAKS AGAIN. Today, in a little old forgotten corner of our wonderful London, the ghost of a great artist, thought by some to be the greatest artist of our time, entertains the glass of fashion and the mould of form for the eighth time in a twelve-year programme. Ambassadors, prelates, society matrons will all vie with each other in discussing John Lafcadio's new picture, which comes to us across the gulf of the years.'

‘Are you embarrassed when you meet a duchess? It may be your lot to rub shoulders with the nobility, or yours may be a humbler station, but, in whatever circle you move, you should be prepared at any moment to meet the most trying of social ordeals. What would you say if Royalty spoke to you, for instance? Would you stand tongue-tied, or break into hysterical laughter, thus wasting for ever a golden opportunity never to be
– Oh, I beg your pardon; I'm in the wrong column. This is all about a free booklet. Let me see; where were we?
Peeping in at a certain hotel in the Strand I found Lady Gurney laughing heartily over her husband's adventures in the East.'

There was still no sign from the figure in the window. He threw the cutting away disgustedly.

‘There's nothing else on that,' he said. ‘Should I sing, perhaps?'

There was a long silence after he had spoken, and presently she turned round and came towards him. He was startled by her appearance. Her pallor of the preceding night had gone and a vivid hue had taken its place. Her eyes looked dangerous, her mouth unnaturally firm, and her whole body stiffened and unnatural.

‘Oh, it's you,' she said. ‘What are you here for?' She did not wait for his answer, but walked across the room, and, taking up a palette knife, began to chip little flecks of colour off a partly finished canvas on the easel. She paid minute attention to the damage she was doing, her face very close to the knife.

Mr Campion, who recognized this symptom, bounded to his feet and caught her by the shoulders.

‘Don't be a fool,' he said sharply. ‘And for Heaven's sake don't make an exhibition of yourself.'

The unexpected vigour of this attack had the desired effect. Her hands dropped to her sides.

‘What's up?' he said, more kindly. ‘Tommy?'

She nodded, and for an instant her eyes were honestly angry and contemptuous.

Mr Campion sat down again. ‘Serious?'

‘It wouldn't be, if I wasn't such a fool.'

She spoke savagely, and her despair was evident.

‘You haven't seen her,' she said, after a pause, ‘have you?'

‘Who? The model?' Mr Campion felt he was coming to the root of the matter.

Her next remark startled him.

‘It's the hopeless interference of people who don't even understand the facts which is making me hysterical,' she said. ‘Claire Potter has been trying to explain for the last half-hour that in her opinion models are barely human, and it doesn't follow that just because a man brings one back from Italy he's in love with her. As if that came into it! If Tommy had fallen in love with Rosa-Rosa the situation would be very simple and I shouldn't feel so much like murdering him as I do now.'

She walked over to a cupboard and, after rummaging in its untidy depths, returned with a sketch-book.

‘Look at that,' she said.

Mr Campion turned over the pages and his casual interest suddenly deepened. He sat up and readjusted his spectacles.

‘I say, these are very fine,' he said. ‘Where did you get them?'

She jerked the book from his hand. ‘Tommy,' she said, ‘before he went away. And now he's doing stuff that would disgrace a magazine cover. Do you realize he's brought that girl over here to make wrappers for patent medicines? Don't you see, he's thrown everything away. It looked like madness when he gave up oils to go in for tempera.
Now
it's just suicidal, turning to this sort of thing.'

Mr Campion, who had been impressed by the sketches, could see this point of view, but could not work himself up into the quivering state of indignation which she had achieved. After all, in a cold world it seemed that if the fires of high art had died down in a man's heart a taste for commerce was not to be deplored. He said as much.

She turned on him, blazing: ‘Quite,' she said. ‘I've got nothing against commercialism. But it puts a man on a different plane. It's insufferable of him to expect the same sacrifices. If he hadn't brought Rosa-Rosa over the whole thing would probably never have arisen – at least, not violently.'

‘If I may say so,' said Mr Campion quietly, ‘I don't quite see how Rosa-Rosa comes into this.'

‘You're extraordinarily dense,' said the girl. ‘He married her first, of course. How d'you think he got her into England for keeps otherwise? That's what Max was getting at last night. That's why I hit him. As I say, if Tommy had been in love with her it wouldn't have been so bad.'

Here was a grievance that even Mr Campion could understand.

‘I see,' he said weakly.

She came towards him, looking for an instant like a passionately untidy child.

‘Can't you understand that if he'd gone on doing his own sort of stuff it wouldn't have mattered? I wouldn't have been insulted last night when he suggested that we should all three set up house together. The trouble of getting this girl into England permanently would have been a sufficient reason for his marriage, but if he simply needs her for commercial work he's not worth it. Oh, I wish to God he was dead!'

Campion felt that it was impossible not to sympathize with her, even if her point of view was not altogether his own. One thing remained clear; her grievance was not imagined.

‘Don't mention it to Belle,' she said quickly. ‘She'd be furious and it wouldn't do any good. Belle's very conventional.'

‘So am I,' said Campion, and a long pause ensued. ‘Look here, I'd better go down,' he said at length. ‘I don't see that there's anything I can say about this bad business, but if there's anything I can do you've only got to point it out.'

She nodded absently, and he thought she had returned to the window, but before he had reached the first landing she caught up with him and they went down together.

As they reached the hall the constant stream of incoming visitors had thinned, and was now jostled by a secondary stream coming out. Mr Campion and the girl were held up on the staircase by two old gentlemen who had taken possession of the bottom stair for a moment of conversation.

Noticing the young couple hovering behind them, the acquaintances shook hands hastily, and Brigadier-General Sir Walter Fyvie hurried out while Bernard, Bishop of Mold, strode down the hall into the studio.

CHAPTER 3
Murder at the Reception

–

T
HE
evening mist rising up from the canal had grown perceptibly thicker, Campion noticed as he walked behind the Bishop down the asphalt path, and the studio lights were blazing. Lisa had drawn the curtains over the tall windows to shut out the melancholy yellow sky, and the grateful heat and scented air of the crowded studio were comforting after the dankness of the garden.

The reception was drawing slowly to a close. The majority of the guests had gone, but the big studio was still alive with chatter and polite laughter.

Max had every reason to be satisfied with his organization. The gathering had been the most brilliant of its kind. The Ambassador and his satellites were still hovering about the picture, which dominated the room, and there was a fair sprinkling of personages among the lesser social and artistic fry.

No one could doubt that the gathering was an occasion. It seemed impossible that Lafcadio himself should not be there striding about, welcoming his friends, overwhelming in his size and magnificence.

But if it was a triumph for Max, it was also one for Belle. She stood in the centre of the studio greeting her guests, her black velvet frock severe and simple as ever, but her peasant bonnet of crisp organdie sewn with Valenciennes.

The Bishop went up to her with outstretched hands. They were very old friends.

‘My dear lady,' he said, his famous voice rumbling like the organ in his own cathedral in his efforts to lower it a little. ‘My dear lady, what a triumph! What a triumph!'

Mr Campion gazed round the room. It was evident that he would not be able to get near Belle for some time. He caught sight of Donna Beatrice, a startling vision in green and gold, talking psychomancy to a bewildered-looking old gentleman, whom he recognized as a scientist of world-wide distinction.

In the background, unnoticed and forlorn, he espied the melancholy Mr Potter, whose eyes turned ever and again with shuddering agony to the dismal display of prints upon the curtain.

He heard Linda catch her breath and he turned to see her gazing across the room. He followed her glance and caught sight of Tommy Dacre leaning by the table where the jewellery made by Donna Beatrice's protégées, the Guild of Women Workers in Precious Metal, was displayed. He was standing with his back to the table, half sitting on the edge of it, in fact. He was carelessly dressed, but had taken the precaution of conforming to the costume permitted by popular superstition to the artist.

By his side was a girl, a girl so striking, even startling, in her appearance that Campion recognized her immediately as the cause of the passionate resentment in the breast of the elemental young woman at his side. Rosa-Rosa looked less like an Italian than one would have thought possible. She had a curious angular figure whose remarkably well-developed muscles showed through her thin grey dress.

BOOK: Death of a Ghost
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