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Ngaio Marsh

Death And The Dancing Footman

For Mivie and Greg with my love

Cast of Characters

Jonathan Royal, of Highfold Manor, Cloudyfold, Dorset

Caper, his butler

Aubrey Mandrake, born Stanley Footling, Poetic Dramatist

Sandra Compline, of Penfelton Manor

William Compline, her elder son

Nicholas Compline, her younger son

Chloris Wynne, William’s fiancée

Dr. Francis Hart, a plastic surgeon

Madame Elise Lisse, beauty specialist, of the Studio Lisse

Lady Hersey Amblington, Jonathan’s distant cousin, beauty specialist of the Salon Herséy

Thomas, a dancing footman

Mrs. Pouting, Jonathan’s housekeeper

James Bewling, an outside hand at Highfold

Thomas Bewling, his brother

Roderick Alleyn, Chief Detective-Inspector, C.I., New Scotland Yard

Agatha Troy Alleyn, his wife

Walter Copeland, Rector of Winton St. Giles

Dinah Copeland, his daughter

Fox, Detective-Inspector, C.I., New Scotland Yard

Detective-Sergeant Thompson, a photographic expert

Detective-Sergeant Bailey, a finger-print expert

A Housemaid

Superintendent Blandish, of the Great Chipping Constabulary

Chapter I


On the afternoon of a Thursday early in 1940 Jonathan Royal sat in his library at Highfold Manor. Although daylight was almost gone, curtains were not yet drawn across the windows, and Jonathan Royal could see the ghosts of trees moving in agitation against torn clouds and a dim sequence of fading hills. The north wind, blowing strongly across an upland known as Cloudyfold, was only partly turned by Highfold woods. It soughed about the weathered corners of the old house and fumbled in the chimneys. A branch, heavy with snow, tapped vaguely at one of the library windows. Jonathan Royal sat motionless beside his fire. Half of his chubby face and figure flickered in and out of shadow, and when a log fell in two and set up a brighter blaze, it showed that Jonathan was faintly smiling. Presently he stirred slightly and beat his plump hands lightly upon his knees, a discreetly ecstatic gesture. A door opened admitting a flood of yellow light, not very brilliant, and a figure that paused with its hand on the door-knob.

“Hullo,” said Jonathan Royal. “That you, Caper?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Lighting-up time?”

“Five o’clock, sir. It’s a dark afternoon.”

“Ah,” said Jonathan suddenly rubbing his hands together, “that’s the stuff to give the troops.”

“I beg your pardon, sir?”

“That’s the stuff to give the troops, Caper. An expression borrowed from a former cataclysm. I did not intend you to take it literally. It’s the stuff to give my particular little troop. You may draw the curtains.”

Caper adjusted Jonathan’s patent black-out screens and drew the curtains. Jonathan stretched out a hand and switched on a table lamp at his elbow. Fire and lamplight were now reflected in the glass doors that protected his books, in the dark surfaces of his desk, in his leather saddle-back chairs, in his own spectacles, and in the dome of his bald pate.

With a quick movement he brought his hands together on his belly and began to revolve his thumbs one over the other, sleekly.

“Mr. Mandrake rang up, sir, from Winton St. Giles Rectory. He will be here at 5:30.”

“Good,” said Jonathan.

“Will you take tea now, sir, or wait for Mr. Mandrake?”

“Now. He’ll have had it. Has the mail come?”

“Yes, sir. I was just—”

“Well, let’s have it,” said Jonathan eagerly. “Let’s have it.”

When the butler had gone, Jonathan gave himself a little secret hug with his elbows and, continuing to revolve his thumbs, broke into a thin falsetto, singing —

Il était une bergère,

Qui ron-ton-ton, petit pat-a-plan.”

He moved his big head from side to side, in time with his tune and, owing to a trick of the firelight in his thick-lensed glasses, he seemed to have large white eyes that gleamed like those of the dead drummer in the Ingoldsby Legends. Caper returned with his letters. He snatched them up and turned them over with deft pernickety movements and at last uttered a little ejaculation. Five letters were set aside and the sixth opened and unfolded. He held it level with his nose but almost at arm’s length. It contained only six lines of writing, but they seemed to give Jonathan the greatest satisfaction. He tossed the letter gaily on the fire and took up the thin tenor of his song. Ten minutes later when Caper brought in his tea he was still singing but he interrupted himself to say —

“Mr. Nicholas Compline is definitely coming tomorrow. He may have the green visitors’ room. Tell Mrs. Pouting, will you?”

“Yes, sir. Excuse me, sir, but that makes eight guests for the week-end?”

“Yes. Yes, eight.” Jonathan ticked them off on his plump fingers. “Mrs. Compline. Mr. Nicholas and Mr. William Compline. Dr. Francis Hart. Madame Lisse. Miss Wynne. Lady Hersey Amblington, and Mr. Mandrake. Eight. Mr. Mandrake tonight, and the rest for dinner tomorrow. We’ll have the Heidsieck ’28 tomorrow, Caper, and the Courvoisier.”

“Very good sir.”

“I am particularly anxious about the dinner tomorrow, Caper. Much depends upon it. There must be a warmth, a feeling of festivity, of anticipation, of — I go so far — of positive luxury. Large fires in the bedrooms. I’ve ordered flowers. Your department, now. Always very satisfactory, don’t think there’s an implied criticism, but tomorrow—” He opened his arms wide—“Whoosh! Something quite extra. Know what I mean? I’ve told Mrs. Pouting. She’s got everything going, I know. But your department… Ginger up that new feller and the maids. Follow me?”

“Certainly, sir.”

“Yes. The party—” Jonathan paused, hugged his sides with his elbows and uttered a thin cackle of laughter. “The party may be a little sticky at first. I regard it as an experiment.”

“I hope everything will be quite satisfactory, sir.”

“Quite satisfactory,” Jonathan repeated. “Yes. Sure of it. Is that a car? Have a look.”

Jonathan turned off his table lamp. Caper went to the windows and drew aside their heavy curtains. The sound of wind and sleet filled the room.

“It’s difficult to say, sir, with the noise outside, but — yes, sir, there are the head-lamps. I fancy it’s coming up the inner drive, sir.”

“Mr. Mandrake, no doubt. Show him in here, and you can take away these tea things. Too excited for ’em. Here he is.”

Caper closed the curtains and went out with the tea things. Jonathan switched on his lamp. He heard the new footman cross the hall and open the great front door.

“It’s beginning,” thought Jonathan, hugging himself. “This is the overture. We’re off.”

Mr. Aubrey Mandrake was a poetic dramatist and his real name was Stanley Footling. He was in the habit of telling himself, for he was not without humour, that if it had been a little worse — if, for instance, it had been Albert Muggins — he would have clung to it, for there would have been a kind of distinction in such a name. Seeing it set out in the programme, under the title of his “Saxophone in Tarlatan,” the public would have enclosed it in mental inverted commas. But they would not perform this delicate imaginary feat for a Stanley Footling. So he became Aubrey Mandrake, influenced in his choice by such names as Sebastian Melmoth, Aubrey Beardsley, and Peter Warlock. In changing his name he had given himself a curious psychological set-back, for in a short time he grew to identify himself so closely with his new name that the memory of the old one became intolerable, and the barest suspicion that some new acquaintance had discovered his origin threw him into a state of acute uneasiness, made still more unendurable by the circumstance of his despising himself bitterly for this weakness. At first his works had chimed with his name, for he wrote of Sin and the Occult, but, as his by no means inconsiderable talent developed, he found his subject in matters at once stranger and less colourful. He wrote, in lines of incalculable variety, of the passion of a pattern-cutter for a headless bust, of a saxophonist who could not perform to his full ability unless his instrument was decked out in tarlatan frills, of a lavatory attendant who became a gentleman of the bed-chamber (this piece was performed only by the smaller experimental theatre clubs) and of a chartered accountant who turned out to be a reincarnation of Thaïs. He was successful. The post-surrealists wrangled over him, the highest critics discovering in his verse a revitalizing influence on an effete language, and the Philistines were able to enjoy the fun. He was the possessor of a comfortable private income derived from his mother’s boarding-house in Dulwich and the fruit of his father’s ingenuity — a patent suspender-clip. In appearance he was tall, dark, and suitably cadaverous; in manner, somewhat sardonic; in his mode of dressing, correct, for he had long since passed the stage when unusual cravats and strange shirts seemed to be a necessity for his aesthetic development. He was lame, and extremely sensitive about the deformed foot which caused this disability. He wore a heavy boot on his left foot and always tried as far as possible to hide it under the chair on which he was sitting. His acquaintance with Jonathan Royal was some five years old. Late in the nineteen-thirties, Jonathan had backed one of Mandrake’s plays; and though it had not made a fortune for either of them it had unexpectedly paid its way and had established their liking for one another. Mandrake’s latest play, “Bad Black-out” (finished since the outbreak of war but, as far as the uninstructed could judge, and in spite of its title, not about the war), was soon to go into rehearsal with an untried company of young enthusiasts. He had spent two days at the Winton St. Giles Rectory with his leading lady and her father, and Jonathan had asked him to come on to Highfold for the week-end.