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Ngaio Marsh

Black As He’s Painted

For

Roses and Mike

with love

The author’s warmest thanks are due to Sir Alister McIntosh, K.C.M.G., and P. J. Humphries, Esq., for their very kind advice on matters ambassadorial and linguistic.

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Mr. Samuel Whipplestone: Foreign Office (Retired)

Lucy Lockett: A Cat

The Ambassador for Ng’ombwana in London

A lady, a young gentleman, a youth: Of Messrs. Able, Virtue & Sons, Land & Estate Agents

Chubb: House Servant

Mrs. Chubb: His Wife

A veterinary surgeon

Mr. Sheridan: No. 1A, Capricorn Walk (Basement Flat)

His Excellency Bartholomew Opala, C.B.E.: The Boomer. President of Ng’ombwana.

An A.D.C.

Mr. and Mrs. Pirelli: Of the Napoli, Shop-Keepers

colonel Cockburn-Montfort: Late of the Ng’ombwanan Army (Retired)

Mrs. Cockburn-Montfort: His Wife

Kenneth Sanskrit: Late of Ng’ombwana. Merchant.

Xenoclea Sanskrit: His Sister. Of the Piggie Potterie, 12, Capricorn Mews, S.W. 3.

A mlinzi: Spear-Carrier to the Boomer

Sir George Alleyn, K.C.M.G., etc. etc.

Roderick Alleyn: Superintendent, C.I.D. His Brother.

Troy Alleyn: Painter. His Wife.

Inspector Fox: C.I.D.

Sir James Curtis: The Celebrated Pathologist

Superintendent Gibson: Special Branch, C.I.D.

Jacks: A Talented Sergeant, C.I.D.

Detective-Sergeant Bailey: A Finger-Print Expert

Detective-Sergeant Thompson: Photographer

Sundry police, Ng’ombwanan embassy guests and servants, and frequenters of the Capricorns, S.W.3.

I

Mr. Whipplestone

The year was at the spring and the day at the morn and God may have been in His Heaven, but as far as Mr. Samuel Whipplestone was concerned the evidence was negligible. He was, in a dull, muddled sort of way, miserable. He had become possessed, with valedictory accompaniments, of two solid silver Georgian gravy-boats. He had taken his leave of Her Majesty’s Foreign Service in the manner to which his colleagues were accustomed. He had even prepared himself for the non-necessity of getting up at seven-thirty, bathing, shaving, breakfasting at eight — but there is no need to prolong the Podsnappian recital. In a word he had fancied himself tuned in to retirement and now realized that he was in no such condition. He was a man without propulsion. He had no object in life. He was finished.

By ten o’clock he found himself unable to endure the complacent familiarity of his “service” flat It was in fact at that hour being “serviced,” a ritual which normally he avoided and now hindered by his presence.

He was astounded to find that for twenty years he had inhabited dull, oppressive, dark and uncomely premises. Deeply shaken by this abrupt discovery he went out into the London spring.

A ten-minute walk across the park hardly raised his spirits. He avoided the great water-shed of traffic under the quadriga, saw some inappropriately attired equestrians, passed a concourse of scarlet and yellow tulips, left the park under the expanded nostrils of Epstein’s liberated elementals, and made his way into Baronsgate.

As he entered that flowing cacophony of changing gears and revving engines, it occurred to him that he himself must now get into bottom gear and stay there until he was parked in some-sub-fusc lay-by to await — and here the simile became insufferable — a final towing-off. His predicament was none the better for being commonplace. He walked for a quarter of an hour.

From Baronsgate the western entry into the Capricorns is by an arched passage too low overhead to admit any but pedestrian traffic. It leads into Capricorn Mews and, further along at right angles to the Mews, Capricorn Place. He had passed by it over and over again and would have done so now if it hadn’t been for a small, thin cat.

This animal flashed out from under the traffic and shot past him into the passageway. It disappeared at the far end. He heard a scream of tyres and of a living creature.

This sort of thing upset Mr. Whipplestone. He disliked this sort of thing intensely. He would have greatly preferred to remove himself as quickly as possible from the scene and put it out of his mind. What he did, however, was to hurry through the passageway into Capricorn Mews.

The vehicle, a delivery van of sorts, was disappearing into Capricorn Place. A group of three youths outside a garage stared at the cat, which lay like a blot of ink on the pavement.

One of them walked over to it. “Had it,” he said.

“Poor pussy!” said one of the others and they laughed objectionably.

The first youth moved his foot as if to turn the cat over. Astonishingly and dreadfully it scrabbled with its hind legs. He exclaimed, stooped down and extended his hand.

It was on its feet. It staggered and then bolted. Towards Mr. Whipplestone, who had come to a halt. He supposed it to be concussed, or driven frantic by pain or fear. In a flash it gave a great spring and was on Mr. Whipplestone’s chest, clinging with its small claws and — incredibly — purring. He had been told that a dying cat will sometimes purr. It had blue eyes. The tip of its tail for about two inches was snow white, but the rest of its person was perfectly black. He had no particular antipathy to cats.

He carried an umbrella in his right hand, but with his left arm he performed a startled reflex gesture. He sheltered the cat. It was shockingly thin, but warm and tremulous.

“One of ’er nine lives gawn for a burton,” said the youth. He and his friends guffawed themselves into the garage.

“Drat,” said Mr. Whipplestone, who long ago had thought it amusing to use spinsterish expletives.

With some difficulty he hooked his umbrella over his left arm and with his right hand inserted his eyeglass and then explored the cat’s person. It increased its purrs, interrupting them with a faint mew when he touched its shoulder. What was to be done with it?

Obviously, nothing in particular. It was not badly injured, presumably it lived in the neighborhood, and one had always understood its species to have a phenomenal homing instinct. It thrust its nut-like head under Mr. Whipplestone’s jacket and into his waistcoat. It palpated his chest with its paws. He had quite a business detaching it.

He set it down on the pavement. “Go home,” he said. It stared up at him and went through the motion of mewing, opening its mouth and showing its pink tongue but giving no sound. “No,” he said, “go home!” It was making little preparatory movements of its haunches as if about to spring again.

He turned his back on it and walked quickly down Capricorn Mews. He almost ran.

It is a quiet little street, cobbled and very secluded. It accommodates three garages, a packing agency, two dozen or so small mid-Victorian houses, a minute bistro and four shops. As he approached one of these, a flower shop, he could see reflected in its side windows Capricorn Mews with himself walking towards him. And behind him, trotting in a determined manner, the little cat. It was mewing.

He was extremely put out and had begun to entertain a confused notion of telephoning the R.S.P.C.A. when a van erupted from a garage immediately behind him. It passed him, and when it had gone the cat had disappeared: frightened, Mr. Whipplestone supposed, by the noise.

     

 

2011 - 2018