A Man Lay Dead
And in Memory of
“And There Were Present…”
Nigel Bathgate, in the language of his own gossip column, was “definitely intrigued” about his week-end at Frantock. At twenty-five he had outgrown that horror of enthusiasm which is so characteristic of youth-grown-up. He was actually on his way to Frantock, and in “colossal form” at the very thought of it. They were doing it in such grandeur, too! He leaned back in his first-class corner seat and grinned at his cousin opposite. Odd sort of fellow, old Charles. One never knew much of what went on behind that long dark mask of his. Good-looking bloke, too; women adored him, reflected Nigel, mentally wagging his head — still flattered and made up to him although he was getting on in years… forty-six or seven.
Charles Rankin returned his young cousin’s ruminative stare with one of those twisted smiles that always reminded Nigel of a faun.
“Shan’t be long now,” said Rankin. “The next station is ours. You can see the beginnings of Frantock over there to the left.”
Nigel stared across a patchwork landscape of little fields and hillocks to where a naked wood, fast, fast asleep in its wintry solitude, half hid the warmth of old brick.
“That’s the house,” said Rankin.
“Who will be there?” asked Nigel, not for the first time.
He had heard much of Sir Hubert Handesley’s “unique and delightfully original house-parties” from a brother journalist who had returned from one of them, if the truth be told, somewhat persistently enthusiastic. Charles Rankin, himself a connoisseur of house-parties, had refused many extremely enviable invitations in favour of these unpretentious week-ends. And now, as the result of a dinner-party at old Charles’s flat, here was Nigel himself about to be initiated. So: “Who will be there?” asked Nigel again.
“The usual crowd, I suppose,” answered Rankin patiently, “with the addition of one Doctor Foma Tokareff, who dates, I imagine, from Handesley’s Embassy days in Petrograd. There will be the Wildes, of course— they must be somewhere on the train. He’s Arthur Wilde, the archaeologist. Majorie Wilde is… rather attractive, I think. And I suppose Angela North. You’ve met her?”
“She’s Sir Hubert’s niece, isn’t she? Yes, she dined that night at your flat with him.”
“So she did. If I remember, you seemed to get on rather pleasantly.”
“Will Miss Grant be there?” asked Nigel.
Charles Rankin stood up and struggled into his overcoat.
“Rosamund?” he said. “Yes, she’ll be there.”
“What an extraordinarily expressionless voice old Charles has got,” reflected Nigel, as the train clanked into the little station and drew up with a long steamy sigh.
The upland air struck chill after the stale stuffiness of the train. Rankin led the way out into a sunken country lane, where they found a group of three muffled passengers talking noisily while a chauffeur stowed luggage away into a six-seater Bentley.
“Hullo, Rankin,” said a thin be-spectacled man; “thought you must be on the train.”
“I looked out for you at Paddington, Arthur,” rejoined Rankin. “Have you met my cousin, all of you? Nigel Bathgate… Mrs. Wilde… Mr. Wilde. Rosamund, you have met, haven’t you?”
Nigel had made his bow to Rosamund Grant, a tall dark woman whose strange uncompromising beauty it would be difficult to forget. Of the Hon. Mrs. Wilde he could see nothing but a pair of very large blue eyes and the tip of an abbreviated nose. The eyes gave him a brief appraising glance and a rather high-pitched “fashionable” voice emerged from behind the enormous fur collar:
“How do you do? Are you a relation of Charles? Too shattering for you. Charles, you will have to walk. I hate being steam-laundered even for five minutes.”
“You can sit on my knee,” said Rankin easily.
Nigel, glancing at him, noticed the peculiar bright boldness of his eyes. He was staring, not at Mrs. Wilde, but at Rosamund Grant. It was as though he had said to her: “I’m enjoying myself: I dare you to disapprove.”
She spoke for the first time, her deep voice in marked contrast to Mrs. Wilde’s italicized treble:
“Here comes Angela in the fire-eater,” she said, “so there will be tons of room for everybody.”
“What a disappointment!” said Rankin. “Marjorie, we are defeated.”
“Nothing,” said Arthur Wilde firmly, “will persuade me to drive back in that thing with Angela.”
“Nor I neither,” agreed Rankin. “Famous archaeologists and distinguished raconteurs should not flirt with death. Let us stay where we are.”
“Shall I wait for Miss North?” offered Nigel.
“If you would, sir,” said the chauffeur.
“Do get in, Marjorie darling,” murmured Arthur Wilde, who was sitting in the front seat. “I’m longing for my tea and bun.”
His wife and Rosamund Grant climbed into the back of the car, and Rankin sat between them. The two-seater sports car drew up alongside.
“Sorry I’m late,” shouted Miss Angela North. “Who’s for fresh air and the open road and the wind on the heath and what-not?”
“They all sound loathsome to us,” screamed Mrs. Wilde from the Bentley. “We are leaving you Charles’s cousin,” she opened her eyes very pointedly at Nigel. “He’s a fine, clean-limbed young Britisher. Just your style, Angela.” The Bentley shot away down the lane.
Feeling incapable of the correct sort of facetiousness, Nigel turned to Angela North and uttered some inadequate commonplace about their having met before.
“Of course we did,” she said. “I thought you very nice. Get in rather quickly, and let’s catch them up.”
He climbed in beside her, and almost immediately had his breath snatched away by Miss North’s extremely progressive ideas on acceleration.
“This is your first visit to Frantock,” she observed, as they skidded dexterously round a muddy bend in the lane. “I hope you like it. We all think Uncle Hubert’s parties great fun… I don’t know why, quite. Nothing much happens at them. Everybody comes all over childish as a rule, and silly games are played amidst loud cheers and much laughter from those present. It’s going to be Murders this time. There they are!”
She caused the horn to give birth to a continuous belching roar, mended their speed by about fifteen or twenty miles an hour, and passed the Bentley as it were in a dream.
“Have you ever played Murders?” she asked.
“No, nor yet suicides, but I’m learning,” said Nigel politely.
Angela laughed uproariously. (“She laughs like a small boy,” thought Nigel.) “Feeling flustered?” she shouted. “I’m a careful driver, really.” She turned almost completely round in her seat to wave to the receding Bentley.
“Soon be over now,” she added.
“I expect so,” breathed Nigel.
The wrought-iron posterns of a gate flashed past them, and they dived into the rushing greyness of a wood.
“This wood’s rather pleasant in the summer,” remarked Miss North.
“It looks lovely now,” Nigel murmured, closing his eyes as they made for a narrow bridge.
A few moments later they swung into a wide curve of gravelled drive and stopped with dramatic brevity in front of a delightful old brick house.
Nigel extracted himself thankfully from the car and followed his hostess indoors.
He found himself in a really beautiful hall, dim with the smoky greyness of old oak and cheerful with the dancing comfort of a huge open fire. From the ceiling an enormous chandelier caught up the light of the flames and flickered and glowed with a strange intensity. Half drowned in the twilight that was already filling the old house, a broad staircase rose indefinitely at the far end of the hall. Nigel saw that the walls were hung conventionally with trophies and weapons… the insignia of the orthodox country house. He remembered Charles had told him that Sir Hubert possessed one of the finest collections of archaic weapons in England.