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Chapter 6

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« on: January 31, 2023, 05:58:39 am »

APART from the fact that half the house was down, the famous eau-de-Nil drawing-room full of unexpected furniture from other rooms, and no one looked in the least bored, Mr. Campion felt that nothing very fundamental had changed when he and Peter Onyer walked in on Johnny Carados's reassembled household. They were all there except Eve, all a little older, all intensely anxious, but all infinitely more competent to deal with any situation for being once again together. It was a little before noon, and sherry was in circulation.

But below the chatter the atmosphere of tension was very noticeable. Johnny sat at the piano playing scraps of Scarlatti. He was wearing the trousers of his uniform, but his torso was covered by a remarkable, multi-coloured brocaded jacket, with a quilted collar; a garment which belonged to a fashion dead for thirty years. He sat with his chin thrust out, and his eyes half closed. His short fingers were delicate on the notes, but there was a surliness about him out of keeping with his fancy dress. To all appearances he was unconscious to the rest of the room.

In a corner on the floor and shut in by a sort of playpen of chairs, sat Ricky Silva. His plump babyishness was encased in the battle-dress of a private of the British Army, but his bare feet were in sandals, and his gentle eyes were fixed on a box of scraps of coloured silk which he was matching and contrasting with earnest interest. As usual he was absorbed in himself and completely unconscious of the picture he presented.

Gwenda Onyer, sandy and petitely graceful, like a whippet, was talking to Captain Gold on the couch before the fire; her fawn head was bent and she did not look up as the others came in. Dolly Chivers, a picture of brisk usefulness, was heartily busy with the glasses.

Onyer advanced purposefully. He was unhappy but determined, and he took the drink which Dolly thrust into his hand without looking at it.

"I say," he said. "Just a moment, everybody. There's something I think you'd all better know."

Johnny brought his music to a sudden end.

"The Moppet was murdered," he said, "don't tell us again, old boy. She was murdered and my dear mother can't quite remember exactly where she found the corp. Don't repeat it, we've got that far."

He began to play again, more vigorously this time, and over in his corner Ricky laid a cerise ribbon across a piece of rust-red satin and paused, his eyes half closed, to admire the clash. Onyer shrugged his shoulders and drank his sherry.

"As long as you know," he said. "We're waiting for the police, I suppose, or have they been?"

"We imagine they're on their way, Peter." Gwenda spoke quietly from the couch. She had a restrained, semi-tragic note in her voice which made Campion look at her sharply, wondering if she could possibly be enjoying the situation.

"Gwenda was at Number Twenty when Lady Carados came back with the Inspector," said Dolly, briefly making everything clear. "She found out a little of what had happened, and came back to tell us. It seems Lady Carados has altered her story a little since that A.R.P. man disappeared."

"She means well," said Captain Gold, revealing an unexpectedly deep voice for so small a man, "but then she always does."

"I say, Johnny, you must get some sense into her. It's serious, you know." Onyer's appeal was urgent and once again Carados took his hands from the piano.

"Don't be a mug, Pete," he said, lazily. "When did I ever have any control over Mother? She's decided how to save us and save us she will, no doubt. By the way, we've had other excitements. The wedding is postponed, the Admiral says so, he's full of good ideas. He's going to get everything shipshape, he and I are going to clear up the trouble, uncover the mystery, and get the whole thing straightened out. 'Pronto,' I think he said, Gwenda, didn't he?"

He turned as he spoke, and catching sight of Campion smiled with genuine welcome. "Hullo. Nice to see you, just the man we want. Got any ideas?"

"I collected him from Police Headquarters," Onyer remarked warningly.

"They picked you up, did they, Campion?" Johnny was not waiting for replies. "My poor chap, what trying friends you've got."

"Johnny dear." Gwenda's yellow eyes peered at him over the back of the couch. "Johnny, do be sensible, we don't know what to do, darling."

"If the Admiral is in this as well as your mother, we're in for hell's delight, leaving the police out of it," said Onyer seriously. "What line is he taking?"

"Action." Johnny's mouth curled, but his eyes remained gloomy. "Straight from the shoulder, go-in-and-win action. He's in the house now, you know."

"'Strewth," said Major Onyer, "where?"

"Downstairs phoning 'someone with authority'--at the Admiralty, I suppose. He doesn't know it's murder yet. He came in just after Gwenda broke it to us and no one had the nerve to tell him. The suicide had got him down. He rushed over, postponed the marriage, leaving me here in Aunt Carados's wedding token, and is now getting his big guns on to the job. I think he'll get us all hanged. What do you think, Campion?"

The thin man in the horn-rimmed spectacles sat down. He had bullied Onyer into letting him call in at his Club and was now comparatively neat and clean, but he was still weary. He looked at his host with interest.

"It's a wedding present, is it?" he enquired.

"The wrap?" Johnny jerked at the lapel of his brocaded coat. "Yes, from a thrifty aunt. Something my late uncle had by him and thought too precious to wear. I'm not sure he wasn't right."

"I should like to do a room for it," said Ricky, looking up from his corner. "Something Edwardian in green, and a rather hot red."

"Oh don't. Don't play the fool," Gwenda burst out wretchedly. "You're all so terrified you're just sitting about being silly."

"That's where you happen to be wrong, my dear girl." Ricky's full, childish lips narrowed spitefully and his soft eyes were near tears and annoyance. "I simply don't feel it's anything whatever to do with me, that's all."

There certainly was an irritating smugness in his voice, but no one was prepared for the irritation it produced in Gwenda.

"How dare you, Ricky," she said, leaning up on the couch, her cheeks flushing and her hair a little untidy. "You're just the same; always trying to shirk responsibilities. You who wept and howled in rage like a baby only last week because you were so afraid that when Johnny got married and the family split up there'd be no place for you any more."

"I didn't. You're a beast, Gwenda. My God, how I loathe you. I didn't. I didn't weep or--or howl." The man was on the verge of weeping now, and in any other circumstances must have made a supremely comic figure standing amid his coloured silks, every line in his plump body strained and his face crimson.

Johnny sat looking at him gloomy-eyed, but with the little muscles at the corners of his mouth twitching still.

"Oh, be quiet, Ricky," said Onyer, laughing.

"I shan't. You always take her part." His childishness was extraordinary, but there was no silencing him. "She's practically accusing me and I don't see why she should. If anybody really hated the idea of this marriage, she did, and you too, Peter. You both swore it would be the end of everything and you're both of you quite capable of staging this perfectly revolting thing to get your own way. In fact, everybody in this room is. Old Gee-gee Gold had as much to lose as anybody. Besides, what about Eve? She's been looking like death lately. If Johnny's decided to let us all down I don't see why you should decide that I was the one to do something about it."

"Ricky, shut up." Johnny spoke quietly, but there was tremendous authority in his voice.

"I shan't. I've been accused, and I shall have my way. Gwenda's always..."

Johnny got up and went over to him.

"I'll break your neck, Ricky," he said.

"Do," said Ricky recklessly. "You've got like everybody else since this blasted war. You're like the animals I have to spend my time with. I'm having hell, I tell you, absolute hell."

It dawned on Mr. Campion that he was probably speaking the truth. The life of a man like Ricky Silva as a conscript private in the British Army did not bear consideration. Something of the same idea had evidently occurred to Carados; he dropped his arms and his shoulders sagged a little. He looked old for his years, and weary, and once again Campion was aware of some far greater trouble than the one which appeared on the surface.

"Where are you lunching, Ricky?" said Johnny.

"I was going to old Carrie Larradine's. She's got some glorious dresses which belonged to her great-grandmother, and we were going to have them out and discuss them. She wants my advice. She promised me ages ago."

"I see. Well, would you like to go?"

Ricky looked at his wrist watch. He was trembling so violently that he could scarcely see the time, but his objection was as sulky as a child.

"I shall be fearfully early. Besides, I want to look at these scraps of mine. This is the only opportunity I have to study my own job. I don't care if you are all against me; I tell you I've got used to that. You've no idea what I have to put up with, but I've learnt to be cautious, I..."

"My dear chap, get out, will you?"

"All right, if you're in that mood. I think you're being very silly, Johnny. You think you can trust all these people, but you can't. Every single one of them was in London when this woman must have died. I know, because I saw them. Oh yes, I was here too, but I can prove what I was doing. They've all been on leave longer than you think."

He was moving as he talked, and the last words brought him to the doorway.

"This war's made people awfully reckless and--coarse," he said, and went out.

In the silence which followed his departure, Captain Gold began to laugh. He had a deep-throated chuckle like a very old dog beginning to growl.

"Poor Ricky," he said, "if this army is anything like the last he must be in purgatory."

Onyer, who appeared to feel some sort of responsibility for his Service, nodded. "Frightful," he said. "They keep him clerking, I suppose? He's a ghastly little cat, though. Gwenda and I have been in town since Friday, by the way, Johnny; I got leave earlier than I expected and we stayed at the Dorchester over the week-end. I didn't mention it because it didn't arise."

"I came up on Saturday myself," said Gold. "I'm not explaining where I've been. Does it matter?"

"And I've been here the whole time," said Dolly Chivers briskly. "I..." Her hearty voice ceased abruptly as the door opened. Ricky had come back. He wandered in with the studied nonchalance of the naughty child, a square parcel in his hands.

"I found this in the hall, Johnny," he said. "It's another wedding present, I suppose. You'll have to send them all back. What a pity, isn't it?"

He spoke quite seriously and stepped back to await the unwrapping. His curiosity was so frank and innocent that Campion saw for the first time a reason why Carados had ever liked him sufficiently to allow him to live in the house. There was an honesty about his faults which was engaging.

The interruption was welcome; no one in the room was comfortable after his little confession, and Johnny plucked at the knots with nervous relief.

"Oh cut it," said Ricky, drawing a little penknife from his blouse. "I'll do it, shall I?"

As he watched the operation Mr. Campion was struck by something unexpected about the box and its wrapping, but he did not identify the impression immediately. Carados pulled off the brown paper, lifted the lid of the stout cardboard box within, and turned its contents on to the table.

"Mainly paper," he said, and paused. Something in the rigidity of his pose caught the general attention. As they watched the angry colour poured into his face. "What the hell's the meaning of this?" he said furiously.

Lying amid the crumpled tissue was a battered, artificial rose around the stem of which was wound a string of unconvincing pearls. It was a curious trophy, possibly in bad taste, but by far the most interesting thing about it was its effect upon Johnny Carados. The man was outraged, he was so angry that it occurred to Campion that he must be also startled.

"What a damn silly trick, Ricky," he said. "Who put you up to it?"

"Me? I haven't done anything. I only saw it in the hall and brought it in to you."

There was no mistaking the genuineness of the squeal of protest and Carados turned from him impatiently.

"Where did it come from?" he demanded. He was in command of himself again, but his eyes were wary and there was no longer any hint of a smile on his mouth. They all looked at him blankly. The Onyers appeared puzzled, Gold uncomfortable, and Dolly Chivers slightly amused.

"I found it in the hall," Ricky repeated.

Carados turned to Onyer. "Was it there when you came in?"

"I really don't remember, do you, Campion?"

"I didn't notice it. It may have been."

"Well, where did it come from?" Carados had raised his voice and for the first time he seemed aware of the unexpectedness of his own reaction. "I'd like to know," he said more normally. "Do you make anything of it, Campion?"

The man in the horn-rimmed spectacles turned over the wrapping. "It's old stuff," he said, "that's what struck me when Silva brought it in. It's a Welby & Smith parcel, the sort of thing they sent out before the war. There's no packing like this these days. This is out of someone's junk cupboard, I should think."

"I believe I've seen that rose before," said Gwenda. "I don't know why you're getting so excited, Johnny. Isn't it out of the dressing-up box, Dolly?"

"Yes, of course it is." Miss Chivers smiled to find a prosaic explanation. "There's any amount of rubbish in there, and the brown paper's kept there too. It's probably some sort of joke."

The big man took up the dilapidated yellow flower, and carried it over to Gwenda. "Are you sure you recognize it?" he said. "Come here, Dolly. Has this been in the house before?"

The two women glanced at each other.

"I think so," said Miss Chivers at last. "I'll go and look in a minute; there may be some more like it. We had a lot of this sort of thing for the musical comedy party in 'thirty-eight. Do you remember? I don't see the point of it though. Does it matter?"

Johnny hesitated. "It matters quite a bit if it came from outside," he said. "If it came from inside--well, I'm not particularly amused."

The threat was unmistakable, and once again they all looked at him. In the silence the door burst open, and Admiral Dickon came in.

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