Read Death of a Ghost Online

Authors: Margery Allingham

Death of a Ghost (6 page)

BOOK: Death of a Ghost
6.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Rosa-Rosa's frizzy yellow hair was parted in the centre and hung obliquely round her head. Her face was beautiful, but fantastic. She had the dark mournful eyes and arched brows of a Florentine Madonna, but her nose was long and sharp and her lips thin and finely curled. Like all natural models she moved very little and then only to drop from one attitude into another, which she held with remarkable faithfulness.

At the moment she was listening to Dacre, who was chatting to her in Italian, his head thrown back, his hands thrust deep into his pockets and his black hat crushed under one arm.

She was leaning forward, her chin tilted slightly, her weight supported on one foot, her arms hanging at her sides. It was an arrested movement, perfect in its way and utterly unexpected and striking.

She looked, Campion thought, less like a human animal than an example of decorative art.

Linda walked across the room towards them and he followed her. Dacre's smile vanished as he caught sight of the girl, but he did not look embarrassed, and as a layman Campion wondered afresh at the oddities of the artistic temperament.

He was introduced to Rosa-Rosa, and as he spoke to her he understood some of Linda's fury. Rosa-Rosa had another of the perfect model's peculiarities; she was unbelievably stupid. She had been trained not to think, lest her roving fancy should destroy the expression she was holding. For the best part of her life, therefore, her mind remained a complete blank.

‘I've brought Mr Campion to admire the exhibits,' said Linda.

Dacre slipped off the table and turned round lazily to survey its display.

‘I'm minding them for Donna Beatrice,' he said. ‘She wanted to toddle off and chat to her friends. I don't know if she's afraid someone'll walk off with this junk – kleptomaniacs, and that sort of thing. Pretty terrible stuff, isn't it?'

They stood looking down at the handiwork of the industrious Guild of Women Metalworkers and the depression induced by the contemplation of the useless and the unlovely descended upon them.

‘Modern design approached from the outside by the eighteen-ninety mentality can be rather terrible, can't it?' said Dacre, indicating a pair of table-napkin rings in enamelled silver.

Rosa-Rosa pointed to a pair of lapis lazuli earrings.

‘Attractif,' she said.

‘Don't touch,' said the man, pushing her away as though she had been an over-eager child.

She rewarded him with a blank stare and relapsed into a pose indicating respectful submission.

Mr Campion felt Linda quivering at his side. The situation was very trying.

‘What do you think of the
pièce de résistance
?' said the girl. She indicated a pair of scissors with slender blue blades some nine inches long, and handles so encrusted with chunks of coral and cornelian that it seemed impossible they could ever be used.

‘Toys,' said a voice behind them. ‘Rather stupid toys.'

Max hovered for an instant behind Campion. ‘You should be looking at the picture, my friend. I am afraid it is going out of the country. I cannot say any more just now – you understand? But – in your ear – the sum was fantastic.'

He sped off again and they had the satisfaction of seeing him waylaid and captured by Donna Beatrice.

‘Flatulent little tuft-hunter,' said Dacre, looking after him.

Rosa-Rosa endorsed this remark with a gesture of startling and violent vulgarity, which took them all completely by surprise.

Dacre reddened and admonished her sharply in her own language. She did not look crestfallen, but merely bewildered, and stepped back a little.

Linda was still looking at the scissors. ‘It's a pity to waste steel like that,' she said. ‘The blades are beautiful.'

For the first time the young man in the horn-rimmed spectacles had an inkling of danger in the wind. It was nothing in the girl's tone, of that he was certain; but a wave of alarm passed over him for no apparent reason. Mr Campion was not a person given to psychic experiences, and the phenomenon irritated him, so that he put it hastily from his mind. But the impression had been there and it had been very strong.

His thoughts were diverted at this point by a guffaw from Dacre.

‘Max is in the toils,' he said. ‘Look.'

The scene he indicated was amusing. Donna Beatrice was talking volubly to Max Fustian. Knowing her, Mr Campion shuddered to think of the matter of her discourse. It was evident that her victim could not escape.

Linda, who had been watching them steadily, laughed contemptuously.

‘She's telling him all about the time in the Turkish bath when she was likened to the Rokeby Venus. That's all there is to it, but it goes on for hours. Once she's on the subject you can't stop her, and today Max can't even be rude to her to any good purpose because she's taken off her ear thing. She always does on state occasions, so that she's as deaf as an egg and about as intelligent.'

‘I think,' said Rosa-Rosa with the
naïveté
of a child, ‘I shall now go to the water-closet,' and went off, leaving them all a little embarrassed.

Mr Campion caught sight of Belle standing in the middle of the room unattended for the moment, and seized the opportunity to pay his respects.

‘Oh, my dear,' she said, clutching at his arm, and speaking with that charming trick of hers which gave each newcomer the impression that he and he alone was the reason for the gathering. ‘I'm so glad you've come. Isn't it a crush? I'm so tired. Wouldn't Johnnie have loved it? Look at him up there, smiling all over his face.' She nodded her bonnet at the Sargent portrait. ‘I do hope he's not tormenting Charles Tanqueray at some heavenly peephole.'

She paused for breath and, leaning heavily on his arm, gazed round anxiously at the visitors.

‘There's whisky and soda on the balcony,' she murmured. ‘I think Max has got a cocktail bar there too. I'm not supposed to approve. I don't know whether I do or not. I can't get over the feeling that gin's so vulgar. It always was when we were young. But now, since it's come into money, as it were, I suppose it's all right. Look at the dear old Bishop,' she continued practically in the same breath, ‘standing over there. Doesn't he look a dear? Don't breathe a word to a soul – but his bootmaker pads his gaiters just a little bit. I know, because he came to dinner here one night and got his feet so wet I made him take them off. He sat in front of my fire with a quilt over his knees. We talked about sin, I remember.'

‘John Lafcadio should be very grateful to you,' said Mr Campion. ‘It's a very brilliant gathering.'

She sighed, a little murmur of satisfaction, and her faded brown eyes twinkled.

‘It's wonderful,' she said. ‘It makes me feel thirty-five again. Everyone here – everyone admiring Johnnie. It's all going smoothly; everyone being polite, very silly, and very flattering.'

As the last word left her lips there was a faint whirr over their heads and every light in the studio went out, leaving the brilliant assembly in complete darkness save for the faint glow from each fire. Belle's grip on Mr Campion's arm tightened involuntarily.

‘The shilling in the meter!' she murmured huskily. ‘Oh, Albert, I forgot it!'

The immediate effect of the sudden darkness was such as is usual in such emergencies: there was the familiar pause in the conversation, the startled giggle of some half-wit female, somebody whispered and someone else stumbled over something. And then politeness reasserted itself, and conversation went on only a little more quietly than before.

Mr Campion felt in his pockets. ‘I've got one,' he said. ‘Leave it to me.'

He set off, crossing the room cautiously. The majority of people had the intelligence to stand still, but there were a few who moved about, aimlessly it seemed.

Campion found his way to the little doorway under the balcony with some difficulty; he also experienced some delay because Mr Potter, who had grown tired of standing beside his ‘lithographs', had placed a chair for himself with its back against the door.

It was while Campion was removing this obstruction that he noticed some commotion on the far side of the room, somewhere near the jewellery table. He thought nothing of it at the time and hurried into the cold concrete passage within, where, with the aid of his cigarette lighter, he located the meter and inserted the shilling.

As he came up into the once more brilliantly lighted room he became aware again of the disturbance near the table, and for an instant the wild notion came to him that some sort of smash-and-grab raid had taken place.

The next moment he saw that it was a case of faintness. One or two people had gathered round a figure doubled up beside the table. The rest of the guests were studiously taking no notice of the incident, and, miraculously, it seemed, a long queue had already formed to take leave of Belle.

Max, flustered a little by the incident, but keeping his head admirably, was assisting the old lady, and Donna Beatrice was making her way towards the door to shake hands with her acquaintances after they had parted from Belle.

Lisa and Fred Rennie were among the group by the table, and even as Mr Campion looked he saw Rennie bend down and hoist a figure up before taking him out to the model's room through the little door from which Campion had just emerged. That young man, seeing nothing else that he could do, joined the queue.

The business of saying farewell seemed to be an interminable affair and the queue moved very slowly.

He had allowed his attention to wander, and it must have been a good seven minutes later, when he had moved up some six feet or so in the line, that he became aware of Lisa staring at him intently as though she would force his attention by sheer personal magnetism. As soon as he caught her eye she beckoned to him furiously.

He stepped out of the line and hurried over to her. She led him over to the little door under the balcony, her bony fingers biting into his arm. Once they were out of sight he turned to her enquiringly and was startled by her appearance. The little woman in the tight purple dress was staring at him, her yellow face a mask of horror. When she spoke her lips moved stiffly and her voice was strangled.

‘It was young Mr Dacre,' she said. ‘He's dead. And the scissors – oh, Mr Campion, the scissors!'

The young man put his arm about her as she tottered towards him.

CHAPTER 4
‘Not I!'

–

T
HE
steady stream of departing guests flowed slowly out of the studio. A gloom had descended upon the gathering, although the majority had no idea at all that anything unusual had happened; much less that one of their number now lay dead in the little model's room behind the panelling, surrounded by a terrified group, and guarded by a bewildered doctor.

The atmosphere was rather one of cold inhospitality than horror, as though the lights had never regained their former brilliance and the occasion had been somehow disappointing.

Nevertheless, probably everyone save the immediate members of the household and Mr Campion might have left the house without being aware of the tragedy at all had it not been for Rosa-Rosa, who suddenly burst through the little doorway under the balcony, screaming.

The noise she made attracted everyone's attention, and her appearance did the rest.

Her training had made her face expressive, and now she presented a picture of such exquisite terror that it was impossible to disregard it. Her yellow hair, crimped like a Botticelli angel's, hung stiffly round her face; her eyes, widened to their utmost, were black pits of fear, and her wide mouth was drawn up into a blue O in her pallid face.

‘
Santa Maria! Madre di Dio! È morto! cosa posso fare? Il mio marito è morto
–
ucciso!
'

The shrill Italian ended and she began to shout in English.

‘Murdered! Murdered! Right through the stomach. They did it with scissors.'

It took Max just those three seconds to get across the room and seize the girl by the arms, while the shocked silence in the room deepened into a growing perception of horror.

Max spoke to the girl softly and volubly in her own language. She began to sob noisily, great gulping animal sounds which whipped the already jolted nerves of the company to the point of agony.

A few of the diehard school of manners clung to their standards and talked together quietly, affecting not to have noticed this second disturbance, whilst they edged as unobtrusively as possible towards the exit.

But the majority forgot themselves sufficiently to stand silent and agape, watching the girl as Max led her firmly back to the door under the balcony.

These were rewarded by the unusual spectacle of Sir Gordon Woodthorpe, that eminent society physician who had been present at the reception, hurrying out of the little concrete passage, his elegant white hair dishevelled and two patches of crimson burning in the sides of his throat, while he licked his lips feverishly, a nervous habit that had persisted since childhood.

He hurried over to Belle, who was standing in her place by the door, superbly gallant and unruffled in the nightmare crisis. He spoke to her for some moments and even the diehards looked curiously in their direction.

After the first few moments Sir Gordon appeared to be arguing with the old lady, offering, it appeared, to take a duty from her shoulders, but she repulsed him gently. Taking his arm, she leant heavily upon it and raised her voice, which was still clear and soft in spite of her age and emotion.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,' she began, and then her voice quivered, and she stood looking at them, her old mouth trembling slightly.

There was silence instantly. The moment was one of drama and those minds which had hastily dismissed Rosa-Rosa's outburst as a regrettable, hysterical, or drunken incident suddenly wheeled round to face the half-formed fear which had secretly assailed them all.

BOOK: Death of a Ghost
6.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Man O'War by Walter Farley
Hack:Moscow by W. Len
Secret Delivery by Delores Fossen
The Amber Keeper by Freda Lightfoot
A Brief Moment in TIme by Watier, Jeane
The Bride Tournament by Ruth Kaufman
Bios by Robert Charles Wilson
Paper, Scissors, Death by Joanna Campbell Slan