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“Were you surprised to see me?”

“I was, rather.”

“Why?”—

“Well—”

“Well?”

“The name, for one thing.”

“Oh, that!” he said, waving his hand. “That’s an old story. It’s my mother’s maiden name. Swiss. She always wanted me to use it. Put it in her Will if you’ll believe it. She suggested that I make myself ‘Smythe-Schramm’ but that turned out to be such a wet mouthful I decided to get rid of Smythe.”

“I see.”

“So I qualified after all, Verity.”

“Yes.”

“From Lausanne, actually. My mother had settled there and I joined her. I got quite involved with that side of the family and decided to finish my course in Switzerland.”

“I see.”

“I practised there for some time — until she died, to be exact. Since then I’ve wandered about the world. One can always find something to do as a medico.” He talked away, fluently. It seemed to Verity that he spoke in phrases that followed each other with the ease of frequent usage. He went on for some time, making, she thought, little sorties against her self-possession. She was surprised to find how ineffectual they proved to be. “Come,” she thought, “I’m over the initial hurdle at least” and began to wonder what all the fuss was about.

“And now you’re settling in Kent,” she said, politely.

“Looks like it. A sort of hotel-cum-convalescent home. I’ve made rather a thing of dietetics — specialized, actually — and this place offers the right sort of scene. Greengages, it’s called. Do you know it at all?”

“Sybil — Mrs. Foster — goes there quite often.”

“Yes,” he said. “So she tells me.”

He looked at.Sybil, who sat, discontentedly, beside the Vicar. Verity had realized that Sybil was observant of them. She now flashed a meaningful smile at Schramm as if she and he shared some exquisite joke.

Gideon Markos said: “Pop, may I show Prue your latest extravagance?”

“Do,” said his father. “By all means.”

When they had gone he said: “Schramm, I can’t have you monopolizing Miss Preston like this. You’ve had a lovely session and must restrain your remembrance of things past. I’m going to move you on.”

He moved him on to Mrs. Field-Innis and took his place by Verity.

“Gideon tells me,” he said, “that when I have company to dine I’m bossy, old hat and a stuffed shirt or whatever the ‘in’ phrase is. But what should I do? Invite my guests to wriggle and jerk to one of his deafening records?”

“It might be fun to see the Vicar and Florence Field-Innis having a go.”

“Yes,” he said with a sidelong glance at her, “it might, indeed. Would you like to hear about my ‘latest extravagance’? You would? It’s a picture. A Troy.”

“From her show at the Arlington?”

“That’s right.”

“How lovely for you. Which one? Not by any chance Several Pleasures?”

“But you’re brilliant!”

“It is?”

“Come and look.”

He took her into the library, a large library it was, and still under renovation. Gideon and Prunella were nowhere to be seen. Open cases of books stood about the floors. The walls, including the backs of shelves, had been redone in a lacquer-red Chinese paper. The Troy painting stood on the chimney piece: a glowing flourish of exuberance, all swings and roundabouts.

“You do collect lovely pictures,” she said.

“Oh, I’m a dedicated magpie. I even collect stamps.”

“Seriously?”

“Passionately,” he said. He half-closed his eyes and contemplated his picture.

Verity said: “You’re going to hang it where it is, are you?”

“I think so. But whatever I do with it in this silly house is bound to be a compromise,” he said.

“Does that matter very much?”

“Yes, it does. I lust,” said Mr. Markos, “after Quintern Place.”

He said this with such passion that Verity stared at him. “Do you?” she said. “It’s a lovely house, of course. But just seeing it from the outside—”

“Ah, but I’ve seen it from inside, too.”

Verity thought what a slyboots old Syb was not to have divulged this visit but he went on to say that on a house-hunting drive through Kent he saw Quintern Place from afar and had been so struck that he had himself driven up to it there and then.

“Mrs. Foster,” he said, “was away but a domestic was persuaded to let me catch a glimpse of the ground floor. It was enough. I visited the nearest land agency only to be told that Quintern was not on their or anybody else’s books and that former enquiries had led to the flattest of refusals. Mine suffered a like fate: there was no intention to sell. So, you may say that in a fit of pique, I bought this monster where I can sit down before my citadel in a state of fruitless siege.”

“Does Sybil know about all this?”

“Not she. The approach has been discreet. Be a dear,” said Mr. Markos, “and. don’t tell her.”

“All right.”

“How nice you are.”

“But I’m afraid you haven’t a hope.”

“One can but try,” he said and Verity thought if ever she saw fixity of purpose in a human face, she saw it now, in Mr. Markos’s.

v

As she drove home, Verity tried to sort out the events of the evening but had not got far with them, when at the bottom of the drive, her headlamps picked up a familiar trudging figure. She pulled up alongside.

“Hullo, Mrs. Jim,” she said. “Nip in and I’ll take you home.”

“It’s out of your way, Miss Preston.”

“Doesn’t matter. Come on.”

“Very kind, I’m sure. I won’t say no,” said Mrs. Jim,

She got in neatly and quickly but settled in her seat with a kind of relinquishment of her body that suggested fatigue. Verity asked her if she’d had a long day and she said she had, a bit.

“But the money’s good,” said Mrs. Jim, “and with Jim on halftime you can’t say no. There’s always something,” she added and Verity understood that she referred to the cost of living.

“Do they keep a big staff up there?” she asked.

“Five if you count the housekeeper. Like the old days,” Mrs. Jim said, “when I was in regular service. You don’t see much of them ways now, do you? Like I said to Jim: they’re selling the big houses when they can, for institutions and that. Not trying all out to buy them, like Mr. Markos.”

“Is Mr. Markos doing that?”

“He’d like to have Quintern,” said Mrs. Jim. “He come to ask if it was for sale when Mrs. Foster was at Greengages a year ago. He was that taken with it, you could see. I was helping spring-clean at the time.”

“Did Mrs. Foster know?”

“He never left ’is name. I told her a gentleman had called to enquire, of course. It give me quite a turn when I first seen him after he come to the Manor.”

“Did you tell Mrs. Foster it was he who’d called?”

“I wasn’t going out to Quintern Place at the time,” said Mrs. Jim shortly and Verity remembered that there had been a rift.

“It come up this evening in conversation. Mr. Alfredo, that’s the butler,” Mrs. Jim continued, “reckons Mr. Markos is still dead set on Quintern. He says he’s never known him not to get his way once he’s made up his mind to it. You’re suited with a gardener, then?”

Mrs. Jim had a habit of skipping without notice from one topic to another. Verity thought she detected a derogatory note but could not be sure. “He’s beginning on Friday,” she said. “Have you met him, Mrs. Jim?”

“Couldn’t miss ’im, could I?” she said, rubbing her arthritic knee. “Annie Black’s been taking him up and down the village like he was Exhibit A in the horse show.”

“He’ll be company for her.”

“He’s all of that,” she said cryptically.

Verity turned into the narrow lane where the Jobbins had their cottage. When they arrived no light shone in any of the windows. Jim and the kids all fast asleep, no doubt. Mrs. Jim was slower leaving the car than she had been in entering it and Verity sensed her weariness. “Have you got an early start?” she asked.

     

 

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