Read The Fashion In Shrouds Online

Authors: Margery Allingham

The Fashion In Shrouds (6 page)

There was a moment of scandalized silence. The Greek chorus in the corner gaped and Rex's nervous giggle echoed inopportunely from the background. The formal conversation piece had turned into a Gluyas Williams picture.

Lady Papendeik rose.

‘My dear,' she said, ‘my dear.' Her voice was not very loud or even particularly severe, but instantly all the humour went out of the situation and Georgia was on the defensive.

‘Oh, my dear, I'm so sorry.' She turned to Val impulsively and the most ungenerous amongst them could not have doubted her honesty. ‘There's been some hideous mistake, of course. This whole day is like a nightmare. I did see it. I saw it last night and it fascinated me. I can even prove it, unfortunately. There's a photograph of the Blaxill woman wearing it in one of the morning papers . . . the
Range Finder,
I think . . . on the back page. She's dancing with a Cabinet Minister. I noticed it, naturally. It wiped the floor with everything else.'

Val said nothing. Her face was quite expressionless as she nodded to the horrified group at the other end of the room. There was a discreet scurrying towards the door and a rustle of chatter as they reached the hall. Georgia stood up. Her tall, graceful body towered over Val, making the other girl look as if she belonged to some smaller and neater world.

‘Of course it hadn't your cut,' she said earnestly, ‘and I don't think it was in that material, but it was white.'

Lady Papendeik shrugged her shoulders.

‘That is Bouileau's
,' she said, ‘woven to our design.'

Georgia looked like helpless apology personified.

‘I had to tell you,' she said.

‘Of course you did, my dear,' murmured Lady Papendeik without thawing. ‘Of course.'

There was no doubt that the incident was a major catastrophe. Everybody began to talk and Paul crossed the room to Val's side, with Ramillies, casual and unaccountable, at his heels.

Mr Campion was puzzled. In his experience the duplication of a design, although the most dispiriting of all disasters to the artist concerned, is seldom taken seriously by anyone else, unless hard money has already been involved, and he began to wonder if this explosion was not in the nature of a safety-valve, seized upon gratefully because it was a legitimate excuse for excitement actually engendered by something less politic to talk about.

The other person who might possibly have shared Mr Campion's own Alice in Wonderland view of the situation was the small boy. He sat staring into the inside of his Haverleigh cap, his forehead wrinkled, and was apparently unaware of any crisis.

The return of Rex was dramatic. He came hurrying in with a perfectly white face, a newspaper in his outstretched hand. Lady Papendeik stood looking at the photograph for some moments and when she spoke her comment was typical.

‘Only a thief would permit a woman with a stomach to commit such sacrilege. Who dresses her?'

The others crowded round and Dell turned to Campion again.

‘It's a leakage,' he murmured. ‘You can't stop it in any show where designs are secret. It's an infuriating thing.'

‘It's a miracle the photograph is so clear,' said Georgia forlornly. ‘They're usually so vague. But you can't miss that, can you? It was in ribbed silk. I couldn't take my eyes off
it.' She put an arm round Val's shoulders. ‘You poor sweet,' she said.

Val released herself gently and turned to Rex.

‘Who is that woman's

‘Ring her up.' Ramillies made the outrageously impolitic suggestion with all the vigorous irresponsibility which turned him into such a peculiarly disturbing element. ‘Say you're a magazine. Georgia, you do it . . . or will I. Shall I?'

‘No, darling, of course not. Don't be an ass.' Georgia had spoken casually and he turned to her.

‘Ass be damned!' he exploded with a violence which startled everyone. ‘It's the only intelligent suggestion that's been put forward so far. What's the woman's name? She'll be in the book, I suppose?'

His fury was so entirely unexpected that for a moment the main disaster was forgotten. Campion stared at him in astonishment. His thin jaws were clenched and the little pulses in them throbbed visibly. The reaction was so entirely out of proportion to the occurrence that Campion was inclined to suspect that the man was drunk after all, when he caught a glimpse of Ferdie Paul. Both he and Georgia were eyeing Ramillies with definite apprehension.

‘Wait a moment, old boy.' Paul sounded cautious. ‘You never know. We may be able to pin it down here.'

‘You may in an hour or so of fooling about.' Ramillies's contempt was bitter. ‘But that's the straightforward, elementary way of finding a thing out . . . ask.'

‘Just one little moment,' murmured Tante Marthe over her shoulder. ‘This is not a thing that has never happened before.'

Ramillies shrugged his shoulders. ‘As you please. But I still think the intelligent thing to do is to get on the phone to the woman. Tell her all about it if you must. But if I was doing it myself I should say I was a magazine and get it out of her that way. However, it's nothing to do with me, thank God.'

He swung on his heel and made for the door.

‘Ray, where are you going?' Georgia still sounded apprehensive.

He paused on the threshold and regarded her with cold dislike which was uncomfortably convincing.

‘I'm simply going downstairs to see if they've got a telephone book,' he said and went out.

Val glanced at Georgia, a startled question in her eyes, but it was Ferdie Paul who answered her.

‘Oh no, that's all right. He won't phone,' he said, and looked across at the small boy, who nodded reassuringly and, sliding off his chair, passed unobtrusively out of the room. It was an odd incident and Dell glanced at Campion.

‘Astonishing chap,' he said under his breath and regarded Georgia with increased interest.

Meanwhile Rex, who had been permitted to get a word in at last, was talking earnestly to Tante Marthe. He had a nervous habit of wriggling ingratiatingly and now, all the time he was talking, he seemed to be making surreptitious attempts to stroke his calves by leaning over backwards to get at them. But his observations were to the point.

‘I know Leonard Lôke used to dress her,' he said, ‘and if the design has gone there of course it means it'll be turned over to the worst kind of wholesalers and produced by the hundred. It's a tragedy.'

‘The Premier who made it, the vendeuse, Mrs Saluski, the child in the fitting-room, you, myself, and Val,' murmured Lady Papendeik, shooting her little lizard head up. ‘No one else saw the finished dress. The sketch was never completed. Val cut it on the living model.'

Rex straightened.

‘Wait,' he said in an altered voice. ‘I've remembered. Leonard Lôke is two partners, Pretzger and Morris. Pretzger had a brother-in-law in the fur trade. You may remember him, Madame; we've dealt with him once or twice? A fortnight ago I saw that man dining at the Borgia in Greek Street and he had Miss Adamson with him.'

The dramatic point of this statement was not clear to Mr Campion at first, but, as all eyes were slowly turned upon the one person in the room who had hitherto taken no interest whatever in the proceedings, the inference dawned slowly upon him.

The mannequin had remained exactly where she was when the general attention had first been distracted from her. She was standing in the middle of the room, beautiful, serene and entirely remote. Her lack of reality was almost
unpleasant and it occurred to Campion that her personality was as secret as if she had been a corpse. Now, with everyone staring at her rather than her dress, she did not come to life, but remained looking at them blankly with brilliant, foolish eyes.

‘Caroline, is this true?' demanded Tante Marthe.

‘Is what true, Madame?' Her voice, a jews' harp with a Croydon accent, came as a shock to some of them. Campion, who knew from experience that the beauty of porcelain lies too often in the glaze, was not so much surprised as regretfully confirmed in an opinion.

‘Don't be a fool, my dear.' Lady Papendeik betrayed unexpected heartiness. ‘You must know if you've eaten with a man or not. Do not let us waste time.'

‘I didn't know whose brother-in-law he was,' protested Miss Adamson sulkily.

‘Did you describe the model? Did it slip out by accident? These things have happened.'

‘No, I didn't tell him, Madame.'

‘You understand what has occurred?'

Miss Adamson did not change her expression. Her dark eyes were liquid and devastatingly unintelligent.

‘I didn't tell him anything. I swear it, I didn't.'

Tante Marthe sighed. ‘Very well. Go and take it off.'

As the girl floated from the room Val made a gesture of resignation.

‘That's all we shall ever know,' she said to Dell, who was standing beside her. ‘There's a direct link there, of course, but she was quite emphatic.'

Campion joined them.

‘I thought I noticed a certain clinging to the letter,' he ventured.

‘That was the diagnosis that leapt to my mind but I didn't care to mention it,' Dell said, and added with the smile which made him attractive, ‘she's too lovely to be that kind of fool.'

‘No one's too lovely to be mental, in my experience,' remarked Lady Papendeik briskly. ‘What diagnosis is this?'

‘We thought she might be a letter-of-the-law liar,' Dell said, glancing at Campion for support. ‘She didn't tell the man, she drew it for him. They're the most impossible
people in the world to deal with. If you pin them down they get more and more evasive and convince themselves all the time that they're speaking the literal truth . . . which they are, of course, in a way. In my experience the only thing to do is to get rid of them, however valuable they are. Still, I shouldn't like to convict the girl on that evidence alone.'

Tante Marthe hesitated and it went through Campion's mind that she was suppressing a remark that might possibly turn out to be indiscreet.

Ferdie Paul, who had remained silent throughout the interview, looked down at her.

‘Send her to Caesar's Court,' he said. ‘She's too lovely to lose. Margaret is down there, isn't she? Turn this kid over to her. She can talk about the gowns there as much as she likes; she won't see them until they're ready to be shown.'

‘Perhaps so,' said Tante Marthe and her black eyes wavered.

Georgia resumed her seat.

‘I think you're very generous, Val,' she began. ‘I'm broken-hearted. I could weep. You'll never make me anything so deliriously lovely again.'

‘No,' Val said, a cloud passing over her face, ‘I don't suppose I ever shall.'

Georgia stretched out a strong hand and drew the other girl towards her.

‘Darling, that was mean,' she said with a sweet gentleness which was out of period, let alone character. ‘You're upset because your lovely design has been stolen. You're naturally livid and I understand that. But you're lucky, you know. After all, Val, it's such a little thing. I hate to repeat all this, but I can't get it off my mind. Richard's poor murdered body has been found and here are we all fooling about with stupid idiot dresses for a stupid idiot play.'

She did not turn away but sat looking at them and her eyes slowly filled with tears and brimmed over. If she had only sounded insincere, only been not quite so unanswerably in the right, the outburst would have been forgivable: as it was, they all stood round uncomfortably until Mr Campion elected to drop his little brick.

‘I say, you know, you're wrong there,' he said in his quiet, slightly nervous voice. ‘I don't think the word “murder” has
gone through any official mind. Portland-Smith committed suicide; that's absolutely obvious – to the police at any rate.'

Val, who knew him, guessed from his expression of affable innocence that he hoped for some interesting reaction to this announcement, but neither of them was prepared for what actually took place. Georgia sat up stiffly in her chair and stared at him, while a dark stream of colour rose up her throat, swelling the veins in her neck and passing over her expressionless face.

‘That's not true,' she said.

With what appeared to be well-meaningness of the most unenlightened kind, Mr Campion persisted in his point, ignoring all the danger signals.

‘Honestly,' he said. ‘I can reassure you on that question. I'm hand in glove with the fellow who found the body. As a matter of fact, I was actually on the spot myself this morning. The poor chap had killed himself all right . . . at least, that's what the Coroner will decide, I'm sure of it.'

The quiet plausible voice was conversational and convincing.

‘No.' Georgia made the word a statement. ‘I don't believe it. It's not true.' She was controlling herself with difficulty and when she stood up her body was trembling with the effort. There was no doubt at all about her principal emotion and it was so unaccountable and unreasonable in the circumstances that even Mr Campion showed some of the astonishment he felt. She was angry, beside herself with ordinary, unadulterated rage.

Campion looked to Ferdie Paul for assistance, but he did not intervene. He stood regarding her speculatively, almost, it seemed to Campion, with the same sort of puzzled conjecture that he felt himself.

It was left to Tante Marthe to make the inquiry that was on the tip of everybody's tongue.

‘My dear child,' she said, with faint reproof in her tone, ‘why be so annoyed? The poor man has been dead these three years. Had he been murdered it must have meant that someone killed him and that would entail trouble for everyone who knew him. If he killed himself no one need think of him with anything except pity.'

‘Oh, don't be so silly, angel.' Georgia turned on the old woman in exasperation. ‘Can't you see the damage a story like that can do once it gets about? I won't believe it. I know it's not true.'

Other books

Steal My Heart by Eugene, Lisa
Hanging Time by Leslie Glass
Madam by Cari Lynn
The Rolling Bootlegs by Ryohgo Narita
Death by Design by Barbara Nadel
Laughing Down the Moon by Indigo, Eva
The Arrow Keeper’s Song by Kerry Newcomb
Come Home by Lisa Scottoline