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She had no sooner hung up her receiver than the telephone rang again.

“Damn,” said Verity, who hankered after her cold duck and salad and the telly.

A vibrant male voice asked if she were herself and on learning that she was, said it was Nikolas Markos speaking.

“Is this a bad time to ring you up?” Mr. Markos asked. “Are you telly-watching or thinking about your dinner, for instance?”

“Not quite yet.”

“But almost, I suspect. I’ll be quick. Would you like to dine here next Wednesday? I’ve been trying to get you all day. Say you will, like a kind creature. Will you?”

He spoke as if they were old friends and Verity, accustomed to this sort of approach in the theatre, responded.

“Yes,” she said. “I will. I’d like to. Thank you. What time?”

iii

Nobody in Upper Quintern knew much about Nikolas Markos. He was reputed to be fabulously rich, widowed and a financier. Oil was mentioned as the almost inescapable background. When Mardling Manor came on the market Mr. Markos had bought it and when Verity went to dine with him, had been in residence, off and on, for about four months.

Mardling was an ugly house. It had been built in mid-Victorian times on the site of a Jacobean mansion. It was large, pepper-potted and highly inconvenient: not a patch on Sybil Foster’s Quintern Place, which was exquisite. The best that could be said of Mardling was that, however hideous, it looked clumsily important both inside and out.

As Verity drove up she saw Sybil’s Mercedes parked alongside a number of other cars. The front door opened before she got to it and revealed that obsolete phenomenon, a manservant.

While she was being relieved of her coat she saw that even the ugliest of halls can be made beautiful by beautiful possessions. Mr. Markos had covered the greater part of the stupidly carved walls with smokey tapestries. These melted upward into an almost invisible gallery and relinquished the dominant position above an enormous fireplace to a picture. Such a picture! An imperious quattrocento man, life-size, ablaze in a scarlet cloak on a round-rumped charger. The rider pointed his sword at an immaculate little Tuscan town.

Verity was so struck with the picture that she was scarcely conscious that behind her a door had opened and closed.

“Ah!” said Nikolas Markos, “you like my arrogant equestrian? Or are you merely surprised by him?”

“Both,” said Verity.

His handshake was quick and perfunctory. He wore a green velvet coat. His hair was dark, short and curly at the back. His complexion was sallow and his eyes black. His mouth, under a slight moustache, seemed to contradict the almost too plushy ensemble: it was slim-lipped and, Verity thought, extremely firm.

“Is it an Uccello?” she asked, turning back to the picture.

“I like to think so, but it’s a borderline case. ‘School of’ is all the pundits will allow me.”

“It’s extraordinarily exciting.”

“Isn’t it, just? I’m glad you like it. And delighted, by the way, that you’ve come.”

Verity was overtaken by one of her moments of middle-aged shyness. “Oh. Good,” she mumbled.

“We’re nine for dinner: my son, Gideon, a Dr. Basil Schramm who’s yet to arrive, and you know all the rest: Mrs. Foster and her daughter, the Vicar (she’s indisposed) and Dr. and Mrs. Field-Innis. Come and join them.”

Verity’s recollection of the drawing-room at Mardling was of a great ungainly apartment, over-furnished and nearly always chilly. She found herself in a bird’s-egg blue and white room, sparkling with firelight and a welcoming elegance.

There, expansively on a sofa, was Sybil at her most feminine, and that was saying a great deal. Hair, face, pampered little hands, jewels, dress and, if you got close enough, scent — they all came together like the ingredients of some exotic pudding. She fluttered a minute handkerchief at Verity and pulled an arch grimace.

“This is Gideon,” said Mr. Markos.

He was even darker than his father and startlingly handsome. “My dear, an Adonis,” Sybil was to say of him and later was to add that there was “something” wrong and that she was never deceived, she sensed it at once, let Verity mark her words. When asked to explain herself she said it didn’t matter but she always knew. Verity thought that she knew, too. Sybil was hell-bent on her daughter Prunella encouraging the advances of a hereditary peer with the unlikely name of Swingletree and took an instant dislike to any attractive young man who hove into view.

Gideon looked about twenty, was poised and had nice manners. His black hair was not very long and was well kept. Like his father he wore a velvet coat. The only note of extravagance was in the frilled shirt and flowing tie. These lent a final touch to what might have been an unendurably romantic appearance but Gideon had enough natural manner to get away with them.

He had been talking to Prunella Foster, who was like her mother at the same age: ravishingly pretty and a great talker. Verity never knew what Prunella talked about as she always spoke in a whisper. She nodded a lot and gave mysterious little smiles and, because it was the fashion of the moment, seemed to be dressed in expensive rags partly composed of a patchwork quilt. Under this supposedly evening attire she wore a little pair of bucket boots.

Dr. Field-Innis was an old Upper Quintern hand. The younger son of a brigadier, he had taken to medicine instead of arms and had married a lady who sometimes won point-to-points and more often fell off.

The Vicar was called Walter Cloudsley, and ministered, a little sadly, to twenty parishioners in a very beautiful old church that had once housed three hundred.

Altogether, Verity thought, this was a predictable Upper Quintern dinner-party with a unpredictable host in a highly exceptional setting.

They drank champagne cocktails.

Sybil, sparkling, told Mr. Markos how clever he was and went into an ecstasy over the house. She had a talent that never failed to tickle Verity’s fancy for making the most unexceptionable remark to a gentleman sound as if it carried some frisky innuedo. She sketched an invitation for him to join her on the sofa but he seemed not to notice it. He stood over her and replied in kind. “Later on,” Verity thought, “she will tell me, he’s a man of the world.”

He moved to his hearthrug and surveyed his guests with an air of satisfaction. “This is great fun,” he said. “My first Quintern venture. Really, it’s a kind of christening party for the house, isn’t it? What a good thing you could come, Vicar.”

“I certainly give it my blessing,” the Vicar hardily countered. He was enjoying a second champagne cocktail.

“And, by the way, the party won’t be undiluted Quintern. There’s somebody still to come. I do hope he’s not going to be late. He’s a man I ran across in New York, a Doctor Basil Schramm. I found him—” Mr. Markos paused and an odd little smile touched his mouth, “quite interesting. He rang up out of a clear sky this morning, saying he was going to take up a practise somewhere in our part of the world and was driving there this evening. We discovered that his route would bring him through Upper Quintern and on the spur of the moment I asked him to dine. He’ll unbalance the table a bit but I hope nobody’s going to blench at that.”

“An American?” asked Mrs. Field-Innis. She had a hoarse voice.

“He’s Swiss by birth, I fancy.”

“Is he taking a locum,” asked Dr. Field-Innis, “or a permanent practice?”

“The latter, I supposed. At some hotel or nursing home or convalescent place or something of the sort. Green — something.”

Not ‘gages’!” cried Sybil, softly clapping her hands.

“I knew it made me think of indigestion. Greengages it is,” said Mr. Markos.

“Oh,” said Dr. Field-Innis. “That place.”

Much was made of this coincidence, if it could be so called. The conversation drifted to gardeners. Sybil excitedly introduced her find. Mr. Markos became grand signorial and, when Gideon asked if they hadn’t taken on a new man, said they had but he didn’t know what he was called. Verity, who, apolitical at heart, drifted guiltily from left to right and back again, felt her redder hackles rising. She found that Mr. Markos was looking at her in a manner that gave her the sense of having been rumbled.

     

 

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