Читать онлайн "Grave Mistake" автора Marsh Ngaio - RuLit - Страница 13

 
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Prunella broke into a run. She knelt by her mother and looked into her face. There was a moment’s hesitation and then she kissed her.

“Darling Mummy,” she said.

Verity turned to the car.

There she sat and watched the group of three under the orange canopy. They might have been placed there for a painter like Troy Alleyn. The afternoon light, broken and diffused, made nebulous figures of them so that they seemed to shimmer and swim a little. Sybil had put her sunglasses on again so perhaps, thought Verity, Prue won’t notice anything.

Now Gideon had moved. He stood by Sybil’s chair and raised her hand to his lips. “She ought to like that,” Verity thought. “That ought to mean she’s yielding but I don’t think it does.”

She found it intolerable to sit in the car and decided to stroll back toward the gates. She would be in full view. If she was wanted Gideon could come and get her.

A bus had drawn up outside the main gates. A number of people got out and began to walk up the drive. Among them were two men, one of whom carried a great basket of lilies. He wore a countrified tweed suit and hat and looked rather distinguished. It came as quite a shock to recognize him as Bruce Gardener in his best clothes. Sybil would have said he was “perfectly presentable.”

And a greater and much more disquieting shock to realize that his shambling, ramshackle companion was Claude Carter.

vi

When Verity was a girl there had been a brief craze for what were known as rhymes of impending disaster — facetious couplets usually on the lines of: “Auntie Maude’s mislaid her glasses and thinks the burglar’s making passes,” accompanied by a childish drawing of a simpering lady being man-handled by a masked thug.

Why was she now reminded of this puerile squib? Why did she see her old friend in immediate jeopardy: threatened by something undefined but infinitely more disquieting than any nuisance Claude Carter could inflict upon her? Why should Verity feel as if the afternoon, now turned sultry, was closing about Sybil? Had she only imagined that there was an odd immobility in Sybil’s face?

And what ought she to do about Bruce and Claude?

She pulled herself together and went to meet them.

Bruce was delighted to see her. He raised his tweed hat high in the air, beamed across the lilies and greeted her in his richest and most suspect Scots. He was, he said, paying his usual wee Saturday visit to his puir leddy and how had Miss Preston found her the noo? Would there be an improvement in her condeetion, then?

Verity said she didn’t think Mrs. Foster seemed very well and that at the moment she had visitors to which Bruce predictably replied that he would bide a wee. And if she didna fancy any further visitors he’d leave the lilies at the desk to be put in her room. “She likes to know how her garden prospers,” he said. Claude had listened to this exchange with a half-smile and a shifting eye.

“You found your way here, after all?” Verity said to him since she could scarcely say nothing.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “Thanks to Bruce. He’s sure she’ll be glad to see me.”

Bruce looked, Verity thought, as if he would like to disown this remark and indeed began to say he’d no’ put it that way when Claude said: “That’s her, over there, isn’t it? Is that Prue with her?”

“Yes,” said Verity shortly.

“Who’s the jet-set type?”

“A friend.”

“I think I’ll just investigate,” he said with a pallid show of effrontery and made as if to set out.

“Claude, please wait,” Verity said and in her dismay turned to Bruce. He said at once: “Ou, now, Mr. Carter, would you no’ consider it more advisable to bide a while?”

“No,” said Claude over his shoulder, “thank you, I wouldn’t,” and continued on his way.

Verity thought: “I can’t run after him and hang on his arm and make a scene. Prue and Gideon will have to cope.”

Prue certainly did. The distance was too great for words to be distinguished and the scene came over like a mime. Sybil reached out a hand and clutched her daughter’s arm. Prue turned, saw Claude and rose. Gideon made a. gesture of enquiry. Then Prue marched down upon Claude.

They faced each other, standing close together, Prue very upright, rather a dignified little figure, Claude with his back to Verity, his head lowered. And in the distance Sybil being helped to her feet by Gideon and walked toward the house.

“She’ll be better indoors,” said Bruce in a worried voice, “she will that.”

Verity had almost forgotten him but there he stood gazing anxiously over the riot of lilies he carried. At that moment Verity actually liked him.

Prue evidently said something final to Claude. She walked quickly toward the house, joined her mother and Gideon on the steps, took Sybil’s arm and led her indoors. Claude stared after them, turned toward Verity, changed his mind and sloped off in the direction of the trees.

“It wasna on any invitation of mine he came,” said Bruce hotly. “He worrumed the information oot of me.”

“I can well believe it,” said Verity.

Gideon came to them.

“It’s all right,” he said to Verity. “Prue’s taking Mrs. Foster up to her room.” And to Bruce: “Perhaps you could wait in the entrance hall until Miss Prunella comes down.”

“I’ll do that, sir, thank you,” Bruce said and went indoors.

Gideon smiled down at Verity. He had, she thought, an engaging smile. “What a very bumpy sort of a visit,” he said.

“How was it shaping up? Before Charmless Claude intervened?”

“Might have been worse, I suppose. Not much worse, though. The reverse of open arms and cries of rapturous welcome. You must have done some wonderful softening-up, Miss Preston, for her to receive me at all. We couldn’t be more grateful.” He hesitated for a moment. “I hope you don’t mind my asking but is there — is she — Prue’s mother — I don’t know how to say it. Is there something—?” He touched his face.

“I know what you mean. Yes. There is.”

“I only wondered.”

“It’s new.”

“I think Prue’s seen it. Prue’s upset. She managed awfully well but she is upset.”

“Prue’s explained Charmless Claude, has she?”

“Yes. Pretty ghastly specimen. She coped marvellously,” said Gideon proudly.

“Here she comes.”

When Prunella joined them she was white-faced but perfectly composed. “We can go now,” she said and got into the car.

“Where’s your bag?” asked Gideon.

“What? Oh, damn,” said Prunella, “I’ve left it up there. Oh, what a fool! Now I’ll have to go back.”

“Shall I?”

“It’s in her room. And she’s been pretty beastly to you.”

“Perhaps I could better myself by a blithe change of manner.”

What a good idea,” cried Prunella. “Yes, do let’s try it. Say she looks like Mrs. Onassis.”

“She doesn’t. Not remotely. Nobody less.”

“She thinks she does.”

“One can but try,” Gideon said. “There’s nothing to lose.”

“No more there is.”

He was gone for longer than they expected. When he returned with Prunella’s bag he looked dubious. He started up the car and drove off.

“Any good?” Prunella ventured.

“She didn’t actually throw anything at me.”

“Oh,” said Prunella. “Like that, was it.”

She was very quiet on the homeward drive. Verity, in the back seat, saw her put her hand on Gideon’s knee. He laid his own hand briefly over it and looked down at her. “He knows exactly how to handle her,” Verity thought. “There’s going to be no doubt about who’s the boss.”

When they arrived at Keys she asked them to come in for a drink but Gideon said his father would be expecting them.

“I’ll see Godma V in,” said Prue as Gideon prepared to do so.

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