CAST OF CHARACTERS
Verity Preston of Keys House, Upper Quintern
The Hon. Mrs. Foster (Sybil) of Quintern Place, Upper Quintern
Claude Carter, her stepson
Prunella Foster, her daughter
Bruce Gardener, her gardener
Mrs. Black, his sister
The Reverend Mr. Vicar of St. Crispin’s-in-Quintern
Nikolas Markos of Mardling Manor, Upper Quintern
Gideon Markos, his son
Jim Jobbin of Upper Quintern Village
Mrs. Jim, his wife; domestic helper
Dr. Field-Innis, M.B. of Great Quintern
Mrs. Field-Innis, his wife
Basil Schramm, Medical incumbent, (né Smythe) Greengages Hotel
Sister Jackson, his assistant
G. M. Johnson, Marleena Briggs Housemaids, Greengages Hotel
The Manager of Greengages Hotel
Daft Artie, Upper Quintern Village
Young Mr. Rattisbon, Solicitor
Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn, C.I.D.
Detective-Inspector Fox, C.I.D.
Detective-Sergeant Thompson, C.I.D.; photographic expert
Detective-Sergeant Bailey, C.I.D.; fingerprint expert
Sergeant McGuiness, Upper Quintern Police Force
P.C. Dance, Upper Quintern Police Force
Chapter 1: Upper Quintern
“Bring me,” sang the ladies of Upper Quintern, “my Bow of Burning Gold.”
“Bring me,” itemized The Hon. Mrs. Foster, sailing up into a thready descant, “my Arrows of Desire.”
“Bring me,” stipulated the Vicar’s wife, adjusting her pince-nez and improvising into seconds, “my Chariot of Fire.”
Mrs. Jim Jobbin sang with the rest. She had a high soprano and a sense of humour and it crossed her mind to wonder what Mrs. Foster would do with Arrows of Desire or how nice Miss Preston of Keys House would manage a Spear, or how the Vicar’s wife would make out in a Chariot of Fire. Or for a matter of that how she herself, hard-working creature that she was, could ever be said to rest or stay her hand much less build Jerusalem here in Upper Quintern or anywhere else in England’s green and pleasant land.
Still it was a good tune and the words were spirited if a little far-fetched.
Now they were reading the minutes of the last meeting and presently there would be a competition and a short talk from the Vicar, who had visited Rome with an open mind.
Mrs. Jim, as she was always called in the district, looked round the drawing-room with a practised eye. She herself had “turned it out” that morning and Mrs. Foster had done the flowers, picking white prunus-japonica with a more lavish hand than she would have dared to use had she known that McBride, her bad-tempered jobbing gardener, was on the watch.
Mrs. Jim pulled herself together as the chairwoman, using a special voice, said she knew they would all want to express their sympathy with Mrs. Black in her recent sad loss. The ladies murmured and a little uncertain woman in a corner offered soundless acknowledgement.
Then followed the competition. You had to fill in the names of ladies present in answer to what were called cryptic clues. Mrs. Jim was mildly amused but didn’t score very highly. She guessed her own name for which the clue was: “She doesn’t work out.”
“Jobb-in.” Quite neat but inaccurate, she thought, because her professional jobs were, after all, never “in.” Twice a week she obliged Mrs. Foster here at Quintern Place, where her niece Beryl was a regular. Twice a week she went to Mardling Manor to augment the indoor staff. And twice a week, including Saturdays, she helped Miss Preston at Keys House. From these activities she arrived home in time to get the children’s tea and her voracious husband’s supper. And when Miss Preston gave one of her rare parties, Mrs. Jobbin helped out in the kitchen, partly because she could do with the extra money but mostly because she liked Miss Preston.
Mrs. Foster she regarded as being a bit daft: always thinking she was ill and turning on the gushing act to show how nice she could be to the village.
Now the Vicar, having taken a nervy look at the Vatican City, was well on his way to the Forum. Mrs. Jobbin made a good-natured effort to keep him company.
Verity Preston stretched out her long corduroy legs, looked at her boots and wondered why she was there. She was fifty years old but carried about her an air of youth. This was not achieved by manipulation: rather it was as if, inside her middle-aged body, her spirit had neglected to grow old. Until five years ago she had worked in the theatre, on the production side. Then her father, an eminent heart specialist, had died and left Keys House to her with just enough money to enable her to live in it and write plays, which she did from time to time with tolerable success.
She had been born at Keys, she supposed she would die there, and she had gradually fallen into a semi-detached acceptance of the rhythms of life at Upper Quintern, which in spite of war, bombs, crises and inflations had not changed all that much since her childhood. The great difference was that, with the exception of Mr. Nikolas Markos, a newcomer to the district, the gentry had very much less money nowadays and, again with the exception of Mr. Markos, no resident domestic help. Just Mrs. Jim, her niece Beryl, and some dozen lesser ladies who were precariously available and all in hot demand. Mrs. Foster was cunning in securing their services and was thought to cheat by using bribery. She was known, privately, as The Pirate.
It was recognized on all hands that Mrs. Jim was utterly impervious to bribery. Mrs. Foster had tried it once and had invoked a reaction that made her go red in the face whenever she thought of it. It was only by pleading the onset of a genuine attack of lumbago that she had induced Mrs. Jim to return.
Mrs. Foster was a dedicated hypochondriac and nobody would have believed in the lumbago if McBride, the Upper Quintern jobbing gardener, had not confided that he had come across her on the gravelled drive, wearing her best tweeds, hat and gloves and crawling on all fours toward the house. She had been incontinently smitten on her way to the garage.
The Vicar saw himself off at the Leonardo da Vinci airport, said his visit had given him much food for thought and ended on a note of ecumenical wistfulness.
Tea was announced and a mass move to the dining-room accomplished.
“Hullo, Syb,” said Verity Preston. “Can I help?”
“Darling!” cried Mrs. Foster. “Would you? Would you pour? I simply can’t cope. Such arthritis! In the wrists.”
“Sickening for you.”
“Honestly: too much. Not a wink all night and this party over one, and Prue’s off somewhere watching hang-gliding” (Prunella was Mrs. Foster’s daughter) “so she’s no use. And to put the final pot on it, ghastly McBride’s given notice. Imagine!”
“McBride has? Why?”
“He says he feels ill. If you ask me it’s bloodymindedness.”
“Did you have words?” Verity suggested, rapidly filling up cups for ladies to carry off on trays.
“Sort of. Over my picking the japonica. This morning.”
“Is he still here? Now?”
“Don’t ask me. Probably flounced off. Except that he hasn’t been paid. I wouldn’t put it past him to be sulking in the toolshed.”
“I must say I hope he won’t extend his embargo to take me in.”
“Oh, dear me, no!” said Mrs. Foster with a hint of acidity. “You’re his adored Miss Preston. You, my dear, can’t do wrong in McBride’s bleary eyes.”
“I wish I could believe you. Where will you go for honey, Syb? Advertise or what? Or eat humble pie?”
“Never that! Not on your life! Mrs. Black!” cried Mrs. Foster in a voice mellifluous with cordiality, “how good of you to come. Where are you sitting? Over there, are you? Good. Who’s died?” she muttered as Mrs. Black moved, away. “Why were we told to sympathize?”
“That’s all right then. I wasn’t overdoing it.”