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Before entering the lounge, Rosemary paused to check her appearance in the mirror at the foot of the stairs. It was a proper, old-fashioned, full-length looking-glass in a solid rosewood frame, not like the cheap rubbish they turned out these days. That sort of thing might be just about adequate for checking whether your hair was presentable and your seams were straight, but was worse than useless when it came to showing how you looked at a glance, whole and entire.
And that was what mattered, Rosemary reflected, surveying the results of her scrutiny with a certain modest satisfaction. Details were important, of course, but she had been brought up to believe that people were more than the sum of their parts. Anyone with enough money could acquire the trimmings, but what really counted was whether you were the right sort. There was no buying that. It was something which registered instantly, without your even being aware of it.
Everyone had their allotted role in the play of life, and the fitting thing to do was to try and look your part. Miss Rosemary Travis was pleased to see that she had been eminently successful in this respect. From her tightly waved silver-grey hair and steady hazel eyes to her sensible tweed skirt and stout rubber-soled shoes she proclaimed herself for what she was, an elderly maiden aunt whose life had been outwardly uneventful but who was no fool, and did not easily suffer those who were.
She opened the door into the lounge. The marble clock on the mantelpiece read ten past four. Tea had not yet been served, but the other guests had already gathered. Colonel Weatherby was installed in his usual chair by the fireplace, reading The Times. Some distance away the wealthy invalid Mrs Hiram Hargreaves III, swathed in pullovers and blankets, was whiling away the time with a game of patience. At a table near the French windows giving on to the lawn, Charles Symes and Grace Lebon were bent over a jigsaw puzzle, their heads almost touching. His back pointedly turned to the beauties of the landscape, Samuel Rosenstein stood muttering into the telephone in a guttural undertone. Lady Belinda Scott sat rigidly upright on the piano stool, her fingers lightly touching the keys, while in the corner Canon Purvey nodded over a book. Only George Channing, the corned beef millionaire, appeared to be missing.
Rosemary made her way towards the bay window where her friend Dorothy Davenport sat absorbed in her knitting.
'I've got it, Dot!' she announced excitedly.
'I do hope it isn't catching, dear.'
'No, I mean I've worked out who did it.'
The clacking of Dorothy's needles ceased as she turned her pale, elfin face to Rosemary.
'Why, the murder, of course!'
Dorothy looked away and completed a few more stitches.
'Which murder?' she murmured. 'There have been so many.'
'Well, only two recently,' Rosemary replied. 'And of those it's Hilary Bryant's death which has really mystified us, because it seemed that none of the guests could have killed her-although of course one of them must have.'
Dorothy Davenport gave her friend a weak smile.
'I'm sorry I keep forgetting. I think it must be my medicine.'
'I'm just as bad,' Rosemary said quickly. 'Half the time I can't even remember which day it is.'
Dorothy laid down her knitting.
'Oh, I know that. It's the day Dr Morel is to call with the results of my tests.'
She winced suddenly. Rosemary bent forward and touched her hand.
'Is it painful?'
Dorothy shook her head.
'It's not that.'
Dorothy looked at her friend.
'I'm frightened, Rose.'
'But there's no earthly need to be frightened,' she declared in a peeved tone. 'I told you, Dot, I've solved the mystery. I know who the murderer is.'
Dorothy did not seem to hear. She gazed past Rosemary at the window, where the light was starting to fade.
'They'll send me to hospital,' she said. 'I know they will. And once they've got me there, they'll keep me, with tubes and wires stuck in me, like an animal in a laboratory. I won't even be able to die, Rose. What kind of life is that, when you aren't able to die?'
'Nonsense!' cried Rosemary scornfully.
Dorothy clasped her hand.
'And you won't be there to say "Nonsense!". That's what I mind most of all, Rose. That you won't be there.'
Rosemary looked away, disconcerted by the intensity of terror in her friend's voice. Then, with a visible effort, she turned back.
'Pull yourself together, Dot!' she snapped. 'There's simply no time for this sort of silliness. We've got work to do. There's a killer on the loose, and he-or she-may strike again at any moment.'
Dorothy's gaze gradually lost its intensity. She relaxed her grip on Rosemary's hand and took up her knitting again.
'Remind me where we'd got to,' she said.
Rosemary released a long sigh.
'Like Roland Ayres, Hilary was found dead in her bed one morning,' she went on. 'Dr Morel seemed satisfied that she had died of natural causes, and in due course signed a death certificate to that effect, but we knew better.'
'The rat poison kept in the potting shed . . .'
'. . . accessible through the kitchen garden . . .'
'. . . where all the guests went at one time or another in the days preceding Hilary's death . . . '
" . . . under a variety of more or less flimsy pretexts ranging from replacing a missing croquet hoop to questioning the gardener about his begonias.'
Dorothy picked up her knitting again and began to count her stitches.
'And of course they all had a motive,' she muttered.
Rosemary gestured towards Belinda Scott, who sat gracefully fingering the keys of the piano.
'Revenge! The only man Lady Belinda ever loved was Randolph Fitzpayne, the dashing youngest son of the Earl of Devon. Hilary Bryant dallied with his affections, then broke off the engagement. In despair, Randolph became a sheep farmer in Patagonia, where he was killed in a duel by a drunken gaucho. Lady Belinda never forgave the faithless temptress who had blighted both their lives.'
She pointed to the military man poring over his newspaper.
'As for Weatherby, he was the chief beneficiary of Hilary Bryant's will, which the colonel's flattering attentions had ill-advisedly induced the former beauty to change in his favour just a few weeks before her death . . . '
Rosemary's finger swung across the room to settle on the blanket-enshrouded form of Mrs Hiram Hargreaves III.
'. . . all unbeknownst to the dead woman's sister, who was under the illusion that she would inherit in the event of her sibling's untimely death.'
Dorothy smiled happily.
'Yes, it's all coming back to me. But what about Purvey? Surely a man of religion must be above suspicion.'
Rosemary shook her head
'As one of the guests, he is by definition a potential suspect. Besides, if you remember, we decided that Purvey is in fact no clergyman but the penniless actor whom Hilary married in her youth, only to abandon him when she met Randolph Fitzpayne.'
'While Grace Lebon is his present wife and accomplice, as yet unaware that their marriage is a hollow sham . . . '
'. . . and Charles Symes the raffish society burglar who is pretending to make love to her-a mutual deception which suits both their purposes-while plotting to steal the priceless but ill-fated diamond known as The Evening Star which Randolph Fitzpayne gave Hilary Bryant in a vain attempt to bind that faithless heart to his.'
Dorothy plied her needles energetically.
'In short,' she said, 'they all had a motive to poison her.'
'All except George Channing, the corned beef millionaire,' agreed Rosemary. 'Unfortunately they all had an alibi, too.'
Dorothy pointed to the Jew, who was still muttering urgent phrases into the phone.
'He seemed the most likely suspect for some time,' Rosemary admitted. 'Samuel Rosenstein had every reason to wish Hilary Bryant dead, since she was blackmailing him over the matter of his shady sharedealings. Moreover it was he who passed her the poisoned glass of wine at dinner that evening . . . '
'. . . and then knocked over his own glass, staining Grace Lebon's dress red in an eerie presage of the horrors to come . . . '
'. . . except that it wasn't his own but the poisoned drink,' Rosemary continued, 'which he was forced to spill deliberately in order to avoid having to drink it himself when Hilary, suspecting his murderous intent, cunningly switched their glasses. Yes, Samuel Rosenstein certainly planned Hilary's death, but he did not in fact kill her.'
Dorothy gazed eagerly at her friend.
'Then who did?' she breathed.
The door swung violently open and a thickset woman wearing stained blue overalls came rushing into the lounge.
'Where the fuck's Channing?' she bellowed.
No one moved, no one spoke. The woman stood panting in the centre of the room. Her skin was blotchy and uneven, her hair grizzled. Her eyes took in each of the residents in turn: the colonel with his paper, the elderly hypochondriac swathed in blankets, the gay couple by the window, the financier holding the telephone, the languid aristocrat at the piano, the mild-mannered clergyman reading in the corner.
Weatherby waved his folded newspaper.
'I say,' he called, 'is our tea at all imminent, do you happen to know?'
The woman strode over and struck him resoundingly across the face. She wheeled round on the others, her slim red tongue licking the tips of the fingers which had delivered the blow.
'The first thing I'll do to our George is make him tell me how he got out,' she said meditatively. 'If it turns out that any of you had a part in it, the only tea you'll get'll be Channing's piss, hot from the kidney.'
She jerked her arm up, making Weatherby flinch, and scuttled rapidly out.
The door wheezed shut on its pneumatic spring. After a moment the click of Dorothy's needles resumed.
'Then who did?'
Rosemary gave her a startled glance.
'Who did what?'
Her voice was low and tremulous. Dorothy gave her a searching look.
'For heaven's sake, Rose, I thought I was getting bad! Have you already forgotten what we were talking about? If Samuel Rosenstein didn't kill Hilary Bryant, who did?'
Rosemary breathed deeply in and then out. She flashed a smile at Dorothy.
Her friend was clearly taken aback.
'The corned beef millionaire? But we've agreed that he was the only person who had no possible motive.'
'Not as George Channing, no. But George Channing never existed.'
Dorothy gasped. Rosemary leaned forward confidentially.
'The man we know as Channing is none other than Randolph Fitzpayne, who went to Argentina to bury his sorrows after Hilary Bryant broke their engagement and his heart!'
Dorothy completed a row of stitches while she thought it over. There was now only a short length of yam left dangling.
'But Randolph was killed by a drunken groucho,' she objected.
'Gaucho,' murmured Rosemary. 'Yes, so we all assumed. But we have only Lady Belinda's word for that, don't forget. The truth is that Fitzpayne survived the attack and went on to make his fortune in the corned beef trade before returning to wreak his vengeance on the woman who had spurned him three decades earlier.'
Dorothy smiled blissfully.
'And now he's fled to evade capture,' she said, as the free end of the wool inched its way over her knuckles. 'It all fits together!'
She contemplated the panel of knitting for a moment before sliding it off the needle and starting to unravel it.
'Why hasn't Lady Belinda gone with him, though?' she remarked. 'After all, they must have been in it together.'
'She'll join him later, once the hunt for George Channing has been called off. Then they can settle down in the villa he's purchased in Antibes and savour the happiness denied them for so long.'
Dorothy rapidly unpicked the knitting she had been working on. Small knots in several places showed where the yam had previously been broken.
'Until the police come to arrest them, of course,' she said. 'After all, they can't be allowed to get away with it, can they?'
Rosemary shook her head gravely.
'That would never do, Dot.'
Another spasm passed across Dorothy's face.
'I'll just pop upstairs and fetch my medicine,' she said.
Rosemary looked at her with an expression of concern.
'Is it bad?'
Dorothy shook her head.
'It's just there. It's always there.'
'Let me go,' Rosemary offered.
Dorothy waved her away.
'I need to go to the lav anyway, and you can't very well do that for me!'
Rosemary watched her frail, diminutive figure recede across the lounge, passing each of the other residents in turn. By the empty fireplace, Weatherby sat slumped over the newspaper whose pages were yellow and brittle with age. Mrs Hargreaves lay on the sofa turning over a pack of battered postcards showing views of Bognor, Hove and Bournemouth, the written messages so blurred that they were no longer decipherable. The elderly couple were still poring over the jigsaw cannibalized from the surviving pieces of what had originally been several separate puzzles.
'Operator, get me the police!' urged the gaunt figure in an intense whisper, seemingly oblivious of the fact that the lead dangling down from the phone ended in a frayed mass of severed wires. Studiously ignoring everyone else, Belinda Scott sat draped over the piano whose strings and mechanism had long been removed. As Dorothy reached the door, Purvey looked up from the pages of his engagement diary for 1951 and smiled at her. 'Thank you once again so very much for letting me impose on your hospitality like this,' he said. 'I do hope I'm not being too much of a nuisance.'
Rosemary glanced at the clock, which still read ten past four. She turned towards the window, attracted by a sound outside. Owing to the plastic sheeting which had been taped over the glass to improve the insulation and reduce draughts, it was impossible to see anything outside and the lounge was never aired. On hot days, and in winter when the storage heaters were turned on, the residual stench of flesh and food and urine, always pervasive, became quite overpowering. She could still hear the noise which had drawn her attention in the first place. Then she had thought it might be a fly trapped between the glass and the plastic film, but now it sounded more like a distant growling interspersed with cries which might almost have been human.
Rosemary got up and raised the lower right-hand corner of the plastic, where the tape had come loose from the frame. Through the triangle of grimy glass she could see part of the overgrown lawn at the front of the house and the double row of copper beeches which marked the line of the driveway, but there was no clue as to the cause of the strange sounds, which had now ceased.