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Authors: Ngaio Marsh

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #det_classic, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural, #Police, #Traditional British, #Alleyn; Roderick (Fictitious character)

Light Thickens (9 page)

BOOK: Light Thickens
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“I got you.”

“If they know it’s there, they’ll start talking a lot of nonsense.”

“Are you all right, sir?”

“Perfectly,” said Peregrine. “Just a jolt.”

He straightened up and drew in his breath. “Right,” he said and walked onstage and down to his improvised desk in the auditorium.

“Call Scene Three,” he said and sank into his seat.

“Scene Three,” called the assistant stage manager. “Witches. Macbeth. Banquo.”

Scene Three was pretty thoroughly rehearsed. The witches came in from separate spots and met onstage. Rangi contrived an excretion of venom in voice and face, egged on by moans of pleasure from his sisters. Enter Macbeth and Banquo. Trouble. Banquo’s position. He felt he should be on a higher level. He could not see Macbeth’s face. On and on in his beautiful voice. Peregrine, exquisitely uncomfortable and feeling rather sick, dealt with him, only just keeping his temper.

“The ladies will vanish as they did before. They get up to position on their
Banquo and Macbeth, all hail
.”

“May I interrupt?” fluted Banquo.

“No,” said Peregrine over a vicious stab of pain. “You may not. Later, dear boy. On, please.”

The scene continued with Banquo disconcerted, silver-voiced, and ominously well behaved.

Macbeth was halfway through his soliloquy. “
Present fears
,” he said, “
are less than horrible imaginings
and if the gentleman with the fetching laugh would be good enough to shut his silly trap
my thought whose murder yet is but fantastical
will probably remain so.”

He was removed by the total width and much of the depth of the stage from Banquo, who had been placed in a tactful conversation with the other lairds as far away as possible from the soliloquist and had burst into a peal of jolly laughter and slapped the disconcerted Ross on his shoulders.

“Cut the laugh, Bruce,” said Peregrine. “It distracts. Pipe down. On.”

The scene ended as written by the author and with the barely concealed merriment of Ross and Angus.

Dougal went into the auditorium to apologize to Peregrine. Banquo affected innocence. “Cauldron Scene,” Peregrine called.

Afterward he wondered how he got through the rest of the rehearsal. Luckily the actors and apparitions were pretty solid and it was a matter of making the lighting manager and the effects man acquainted with what would be expected of them.

The cauldron would be in the passage under the steps up to what had been Duncan’s room. A door, indistinguishable when shut,
would
shut at the disappearance of the cauldron and witches amidst noise, blackout, and a great display of dry-ice fog and galloping hooves. Full lighting and Lennox tapping with his sword hilt at the door.

“You’ve seen our side of it,” Peregrine said to the effects man. “It’s up to you to interpret. Go home, have a think. Then come and tell me. Right?”

“Right. I say,” said the effects man, “that kid’s good, isn’t he?”

“Yes, isn’t he?” said Peregrine. “If you’ll excuse me, I want a word with Charlie. Thank you so much. Good-bye till we three meet again. Sooner the better.”

“Yes, indeed.”

The men left. Peregrine mopped his face. I’d better get out of this, he thought, and wondered if he could drive.

It was not yet four-thirty. Banquo was not in sight and the traffic had not thickened. His car was in the yard. To hell with everything, thought Peregrine. He said to the assistant stage manager: “I want to get off, Charlie. Have you fixed it up? The sword?”

“It’s okay. Are you all right?”

“It’s just a bruise. No breakages. You’ll lock up?”

“Sure!”

He went out with Peregrine, opened the car door, and watched him in.

“Are you all right? Can you drive?”

“Yes.”

“Saturday tomorrow.”

“That’s the story, Charlie. Thank you. Don’t talk about this, will you? It’s their silly superstition.”

“I don’t talk,” said Charlie. “
Are
you all right?”

He was, or nearly so, when he settled. He could manage. Charlie watched him out of the yard. Along the Embankment, over the bridge, and then turn right and right again.

When he got there he was going to sound his horn. To his surprise, Emily came out of their house and ran down the steps to the car. “I thought you’d never get here,” she cried. And then: “Darling, what’s wrong?”

“Give me a bit of a prop. I’ve bruised myself. Nothing serious.”

“Right you are. Here we go, then. Which is the side?”

“The other. Here we go.”

He clung to her, slid out, and stood holding onto the car. She shut and locked the door.

“Shall I get a stick or will you use me?”

“I’ll use you, love, if you don’t mind.”

“Away we go, then.”

They staggered up the steps. Emily got the giggles. “If Mrs. Sleigh next door sees us she’ll think we’re tight,” she said.

“You needn’t help me, after all. Once I’ve straightened up I’m okay. My legs are absolutely right. Let go.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course,” he said. He straightened up and gave a short howl. “Absolutely all right,” he said and walked rather quickly up the steps into the house and fell into an armchair. Emily went to the telephone.

“What are you doing, Em?”

“Ringing up the doctor.”

“I don’t think —”

“I do,” said Emily. She had an incisive conversation. “How did it happen?” she broke off.

“I fell on a sword. On the wooden hilt.”

She repeated this into the telephone and hung up. “He’s looking in on his way home,” she said.

“I’d like a drink.”

“I suppose it won’t do you any harm?”

“It certainly will not.”

She fetched him a drink. “I’m not sure about this,” she said.

“I am,” said Peregrine. He swallowed it. “Better,” he said. “Why did you come running out of the house?”

“I’ve got something to show you but I don’t know that you’re in a fit state to see it.”

“Bad news?”

“Not directly.”

“Then show me.”

“Here, then. Look at this.”

She fetched an envelope from the table and pulled out a cutting from one of the more lurid Sunday tabloids. It was a photograph of a woman and a small boy. They were in a street and had obviously been caught unaware. She was white-faced and stricken. The little boy looked frightened. “Mrs. Geoffrey Harcourt-Smith and William,” the caption read. “After the verdict.”

“It’s three years old,” said Emily. “It came in the post this morning.”

“My God,” Peregrine said. “I remember. It was a murder. Decapitation. The last of five, I think. The husband was found guilty but insane and he got a life sentence.” Peregrine looked at the cutting for a minute and then held it out. “Burn it?” he said.

“Gladly.” She lit a match and he held the cutting over an ashtray. It turned black and disintegrated. He let it drop.

“This too?” Emily asked, holding up the envelope. It was addressed in capital letters.

“Yes. No. No, not that. Not yet,” said Peregrine. “Put it in my desk.”

Emily did so. “You’re quite sure? It is your little William?”

“Three years younger. Absolutely sure. And his mother. Damn.”

“Perry, you’ve never seen the thing. Put it out of your mind.”

“I can’t do that. But it makes no difference. The father was a schizophrenic monster. Lifetime in Broadmoor. They called him the Hampstead Chopper.”

“You don’t think — it’s — anybody in the theatre who sent this?”


No
.”

Emily was silent.

“They’ve no cause. None.”

After a pause he said: “I suppose it might be a sort of warning.”

“You haven’t told me how you came to fall on the claymore.”

“I was showing the girls and Rangi how to fall soft. They don’t know what happened. They’ve each got a special place. The sword was halfway between two places, under the tarp covering the mattresses they fall on.”

“It was there when they fell?”

“Must have been.”

“Wouldn’t they have seen it? Seen the shape under the cover?”

“No. I didn’t. It’s very dark down there.”

They were silent for a moment. The sound of London swelled into the gap. On the river a solitary craft gave out its lonely call.

“Nobody knew,” Emily ventured, “that you were going to make that jump?”

“Of course not. I didn’t know myself, did I?”

“So it being you that got the jab in the wind was just bad luck.”

“Must have been.”

“Well, thank God for that, at least.”

“Yes.”

“Where was it? Before someone hid it?”

“I don’t know. Wait a sec. Yes, I do. The two wooden claymores were hung up on nails, on the back wall. They were somewhat the worse for wear, in spite of having cloth shields on the blades. One was split. Being Gaston’s work they were carefully made: the right weight and balance and grip but they were really only makeshift. They were no good for anything except playing soldiers.” He stopped and then hurriedly said: “I won’t elaborate on the sword to the doctor. I’ll just say it’d been left lying there and nobody cleared it up.”

“Yes. All right. True enough as far as it goes.”

“And as for William, beyond taking care what we talk about, we ignore the whole thing.”

“The play being what it is —” Emily began and stopped.

“It’s all right. He shouted out, ‘He got his comeuppance, didn’t he?’ last week, just like any other small boy. At rehearsal, I mean.”

“How old was he when it happened?”

“Six.”

“He’s nine now?”

“Yes. He looks younger. He’s a nice boy.”

“Yes. Does it hurt much? Your side?”

“If I move it’s unpleasant. I wonder if for the cast there’s some chronic affliction I could have had at odd times? The result of something that happened long before
Macbeth
.”

“Diverticulitis?”

“Why diverticulitis?”

“I don’t know why,” said Emily, “but it seems to me it’s something American husbands have. Their wives say mysteriously to one: ‘My dear! He has diverticulitis.’ And one nods and looks solemn.”

“I think I’d be safer with a gimpy leg. Perhaps I wrenched it years ago?”

“We can ask the doctor.”

“So we can.”

“Shall I have a look at you?”

“No, we’d better leave well enough alone.”

“What a dotty remark that is. After all,” said Emily, “the bit in question is a bit of you that is
not
well, so how can we leave it alone? I’ll get our dinner instead. It’ll be a proper onion soup and then an omelet. Okay?”

“Lovely,” said Peregrine.

Emily made up their fire, gave Peregrine a book to read, and went to the kitchen. The onion soup was prepared and only needed heating. She cut up bread into snippets and heated butter in a frying-pan. She opened a bottle of Burgundy and left it to breathe.

“Emily!” called Peregrine.

She hurried back to the study. “What’s up?”

“I’m all right. I’ve been thinking. Nina. She won’t be satisfied with the chronic gallstones or whatever. She’ll just think my chronic thing coming back now is another stroke of bad luck.”

They had their dinner on trays. Emily tidied them away and they sat with modest glasses of Burgundy over their fire.

Peregrine said: “The sword and the photograph? Are they connected?”

“Why should they be?”

“I don’t know.”

The doctor came. He made a careful examination and said there were no bones broken but there was severe bruising. He made Peregrine do painful things.

“You’ll survive,” he said facetiously. “I’m leaving something to help you sleep.”

“Good.”

“Don’t go prancing about showing actors what to do.”

“I’m incapable of even the smallest prance.”

“Jolly good. I’ll look in again tomorrow evening.”

“Thank you.”

Emily went to the front door with the doctor. “He’ll be down at the theatre on Monday come hell or high water,” she said. “He doesn’t want the cast to know he fell on a sword. What could he have? Something chronic.”

“I really don’t know. Stomach cramp? Hardly.” He thought for a moment. “Diverticulitis?” he suggested. And then: “Why on earth are you laughing?”

“Because it’s a joke word.” Emily put on a grave face, raised her eyebrows, and nodded meaningfully. “
Diverticulitis
.” she said in a sepulchral voice.

“I don’t know what you’re on about,” said the doctor, and then, “Is it something to do with superstitions?”

“That’s
very
clever of you. Yes. It is. In a way.”

“Good-night, me dear,” said the doctor and left.

Chapter 4
FOURTH WEEK

Rehearsals went well during the first four days of the next week. The play had now been completely covered and Peregrine began to polish, dig deeper, and make discoveries. His bruises grew less painful. He had taken a high hand and talked about his “bad leg” in a vague, brief, and lofty manner and, as far as he could make out, the cast did not pay an enormous amount of attention to it. Perhaps they were too busy.

Macbeth, in particular, made a splendid advance. He gained in stature. His nightmarish descent into horror and blind, idiotic killing was exactly what Peregrine asked of him. Maggie, after they had worked at their scenes, said to him, “Dougal, you are playing like the devil possessed. I didn’t know you had it in you.”

He thought for a moment and then said: “To tell you the truth, nor did I.” And burst out laughing. “Unlucky in love, lucky in war,” he said. “Something like that, eh, Maggie?”

“Something like that,” she agreed lightly.

“I suppose,” he said, turning to Peregrine, “it is absolutely necessary to have Marley’s Ghost haunting me? What’s he meant to signify?”

“Marley’s Ghost?”

“Well — whoever he is. Seyton. Gaston Sears. What’s he meant to be, silly old fool?”

“Fate.”

“Come off it. You’re being indulgent.”

“I honestly don’t think so. I think he’s valid. He’s not intrusive, Dougal. He’s just — there.”

Sir Dougal said: “That’s what I mean,” and drew himself up, holding his claymore in front of him. “His tummy rumbles are positively deafening,” he said. “Gurgle, gurgle. Rumble. Crash. A one-man band. One can hardly hear oneself speak.”

“Nonsense,” said Peregrine and laughed. Maggie laughed with him.

“You’re very naughty,” she said to Dougal.

“You’ve heard him, Maggie. In the banquet scene. Standing up by your throne rumbling away. You do know he’s a bit off-pitch in the upper register, Perry, don’t you?” He touched his own head.

“You’re simply repeating a piece of stage gossip. Stop it.”

“Barrabell told me.”

“And who told him? And what about your fight?” Peregrine made a wide gesture and swept his notes to the floor. “Damn,” he said. “Nothing dotty about that fight, is there?”

“We’d have been just as good if we’d faked it,” Dougal muttered.

“No, you wouldn’t, and you know it.”

“Oh, well. But he does rumble. Admit.”

“I haven’t heard him.”

“Come on, Maggie. I’m wasting my time with this chap,” Dougal said cheerfully. Peregrine heard the stage door shut behind him.

He had begun painfully to pick up pages of the notes he had dropped when he heard someone come onstage and cross it. He tried to get up but the movement caught him. By the time he had hauled himself up the door had opened and closed and he did not see who had crossed the stage and gone out of the theatre.

Charlie had hung the claymore with its fellow on the back wall. Peregrine, having put his papers in order, labored up onto the stage and made his way through pieces of scenery and book wings that had been set up as temporary backing. Only the working light had been left on and it was dark enough in this no-man’s-land for him to go carefully. He was quite startled to see the figure of a small boy, its back toward him. Looking up at the claymore.

“William!” he said. William turned. His face was white but he said, “Hullo, sir,” loudly.

“What are you doing here? You weren’t called.”

“I wanted to see you, sir.”

“You did? Well, here I am.”

“You hurt yourself on the wooden claymore,” the treble voice stated.

“What makes you think that?”

“I was there. Backstage. When you jumped, I saw you.”

“You had no business to be there, William. You come only when you are called and stay in front when you are not working. What were you doing backstage?”

“Looking at my claymore. Mr. Sears said I could have one of them after we opened. I wanted to choose the one that was least knocked about.”

“I see. Come here. Where I can see you properly.”

William came at once. He stood to attention and clenched his hands.

“Go on,” said Peregrine.

“I took it down; it was very dark. I brought it into the better light. It was still pretty dark but I examined it. Before I could get back there and hang it up, the witches came and started rehearsing. Down on the main stage. I hid it under the canvas. I was very careful to hide it where I thought nobody would fall. I hid, too. I saw you fall. I heard you say you were all right.”

“You did?”

“Yes.”

After a considerable pause, William went on. “I knew you weren’t really all right because I heard you swear. But you got up. So I sneaked off and waited till there was only Charlie left and he was whistling. So I bolted.”

“And why did you want to see me today?”

“To tell you.”

“Has something else happened?”

“In a way.”

“Let’s have it, then.”

“It’s Miss Gaythorne. She keeps on about the curse.”

“The curse?”

“On the play. Now she’s on about things happening. She makes out the sword under the cover is mixed up with all the things that go wrong with
Macbeth
, with” — William corrected himself — “the Scots play. She reckons she wants to sprinkle holy water or something and say things. I dunno. It sounds like a lot of hogwash to me but she goes on and on, and of course the claymore’s all my doing, isn’t it? Nothing to do with this other stuff.”

“Nothing in the wide world.”

“Anyway, I’m sorry you’ve copped one, sir. I am, really.”

“So you ought to be. It’s much better. Look here, William. Have you spoken to anyone else about this?”

“No, sir.”

“Word of a gentleman?” said Peregrine and wondered if it was comically snobbish.

“No, I haven’t, not a word.”

“Then don’t. Except to me, if you want to. If they know I’m hurt because of the claymore they’ll go weaving all sorts of superstitious rotgut about the play and it’ll get about and be bad for business. Mum’s the word. Okay? But I may say something. I’m not sure.”

“Okay.”

“And you’ll get your claymore but no funny business with it.”

William looked blankly at him.

“No swiping it around. Ceremonial use only. Understood?”

“I’ve understood, all right.”

“Agreed?”

“I suppose so,” William muttered.

Peregrine reminded himself that William was certainly unable to raise the weapon more than waist-high, if that, and decided not to insist. They shook hands and paid a visit to the Junior Dolphin at a quarter to six, where William consumed an unbelievable quantity of crumpets and fizzy drink. He seemed to have recovered his sangfroid.

Peregrine drove him home to a minute house in a tidy little street in Lambeth. The curtains were not yet drawn but the room was lit and he could see a pleasant picture, a fully stocked bookcase, and a good armchair. Mrs. Smith came to the window and looked out before shutting the room away.

William invited him in.

“I’ll deliver you but I won’t come in, thank you. I’m due at home. Overdue, in fact.”

A brisk knock brought his mother to the door. A woman who was worn down to the least common denominator. She was dressed in a good but not new jacket and skirt and spoke incisively. “Yes?”

“Hullo, Mrs. Smith,” said Peregrine. “I’ve got a call to make in this part of the world so I’ve brought William home. He’s doing very well, may I add.”

“Thank you, Mr. Jay.” She smiled briefly at him and ushered William in as all three said good-bye in chorus.

Peregrine drove home in a state of some confusion. He was glad the hidden-sword mystery was solved, of course, but uncertain about how much, if anything, of the explanation should be passed on to the company. In the end he decided to say something publicly to Gaston about his promising to give the wooden sword to William and William hiding it. But what about Nina Gaythorne and the others? According to William, Nina knew about the sword. How the hell did the silly old trout find out? Peregrine asked himself. Charlie? Perhaps he let it out. No. No. I’ve got it. Banquo. He was there, probably lurking around before his entrance. He could have seen. And pretty well satisfied that this was the truth, he arrived home.

Emily heard the story of William. “Do you think he’ll keep his word?” she asked.

“Yes, I do. I’m quite persuaded he will.”

“What was it like? The house. And his mother?”

“All right. I didn’t go in. Tiny house. Their own furniture. She’s as thin as a lath and definitely upper-class. I don’t remember if her circumstances came out at the trial but my guess would be that after the legal expenses were settled there was enough to buy the house or pay the rent and furnish it from what they had. He had been a well-heeled stockbroker. Mad as a hatter.”

“And William’s at a drama school?”

“The Royal Southwark Drama School. It’s good. They get the whole works, all school subjects. Registered as a private school. There must have been enough for William’s fees. And she’s got some secretarial job, I fancy.”

“I’ve been trying to remember what it was like when I was six. What was he told and how much does he retain?”

“At a guess, I’d say he was told his father was mentally very ill and committed to an asylum. No more.”

“Poor little man,” said Emily.

“He’ll be a good actor. You’ll see.”

“Yes. How’s your bruise?”

“Better every day.”

“Good.”

“In fact, everything in the garden is —” He pulled up. Emily saw that he had crossed his first and second fingers.

 

The next day shone brightly. Peregrine and Emily drove happily along the river, over Blackfriars Bridge, and turned right for Wharfingers Lane and the theatre. The entire company had been called and had nearly all arrived and were assembling in the auditorium.

It was to be a complete run-through of the play, with props. This would be the last one entirely for the actors. After that would come the mechanical, effects, and lights rehearsals with endless stops, adjustments, and repositionings. And then, finally, two dress rehearsals.

Emily knew a lot of the company. Sir Dougal was delighted that she had come down to rehearsal. Why did they not see more of her in these days? Sons? How many? Three? All at school? Wonderful!

It struck her that he was excited. Keyed up. Not attending to the answers she gave him. She was relieved when he strolled away.

Maggie came up to her and gave her a squeeze. “I’ll want to know what you think,” she said. “Really. What you think and feel.”

“Perry says you’re wonderful.”

“Does he? Does he, really?”

“Really and truly. Without qualifications.”

“Too good. Too soon. I don’t know,” she muttered.

“All’s well.”

“I hope so. This
play
, Emmy, my dear.”

“I know.”

She wandered away and sat down, her eyes closed, her lips moving. Nina Gaythorne came in, draped in a multiplicity of hand-woven scarves. She saw Emily and waved the end of one of them, at the same time making a strange grimace and raising her faded eyes to contemplate the dome. It was impossible to interpret; some kind of despair? Emily wondered. She waved back conservatively.

The man with Nina Gaythorne was unknown to Emily. Straw-colored. Tight mouth, light eyes. She guessed he was the Banquo. Bruce Barrabell. They sat together, apart from the others. Emily had the uncomfortable feeling that Nina was telling him who she was. She found herself momentarily looking into his eyes, which startled her by their sharpness and the quick furtive withdrawal of his gaze.

Macduff, Simon Morten, she recognized from Peregrine’s description. He was physically exactly right; dark, handsome, and reckless, and, at the moment, nervous and withdrawn. A swashbuckler nevertheless.

Here came the three witches, two girls gabbling nervously and Rangi: aloof, indrawn, anxious. Then the Royals: King Duncan, magnificent, portentous, and his two sons, to whom he seemed to lend a condescending ear. Two Murderers. The Gentlewoman and the Doctor. Lennox and Ross. Menteith. Angus. Caithness. And, coming over to Nina Gaythorne, a small boy. So that’s William, she thought. Last: huge, brooding, his claymore held upright in its harness, Gaston, the sword-bearer.

I’m thinking about them as they are in the play, mused Emily. And they are behaving as they do in the play. No. Not behaving. How absurd of me. But they are keeping together in their groups.

The front curtains parted and Peregrine came through.

“This,” he said, “is an uninterrupted run-through, with props and effects. It will be timed. I’ll take notes at the end of the first half. There has been a slight tendency to drag. We’ll watch that, if you please. Right. Act One, Scene One. The Witches.”

They went up through the box.

Peregrine came down the temporary steps into the house and to his desk. His secretary was beside him and the mechanical people behind.

Emily’s heart thumped. A faint, wailing cry, a gust of moaning wind, and the curtain rose.

There are times — rare but unmistakable — in the theatre when, at rehearsal, the play flashes up into a life of its own and attains a reality so vivid that everything else fades into threadbare inconsequence. These startling transformations happen when the play is over halfway to achievement: the actors are not in costume, the staging is still in its bare bones.

Nothing intervenes between the characters and their projection into the void. This was such a day.

Emily felt she was seeing
Macbeth
for the first time. She was constantly taken by surprise. Perfect, Wonderful. Terrible, she thought.

Duncan arrives at the castle. The sound of wings fluttering in the evening air. Peaceful. Then the squeal of pipes, the rumble of the great doors, the opening and the assembly of servants. Seyton. Lady Macbeth a scarlet figure at the top of the stairs.
Don’t go in, don’t go in
.

But she welcomes him. They all go in and the doors rumble and close on them.

Afterward Emily could not remember if the sounds Shakespeare introduces actually were heard: the cricket, the owl, the usual domestic sounds that continue in an old house when the guests are all asleep in bed. Other ambiguous sounds the Macbeths think they hear…

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