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Buffet for Unwelcome Guests
The Best Short Mysteries of Christianna Brand
By Christianna Brand, Francis M. Nevins Jr., Martin H. Greenberg
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Open Road Integrated Media
All rights reserved.
After the Event
'YES, I THINK I MAY CLAIM,' said the Grand Old Man (of Detection) complacently, 'that in all my career I never failed to solve a murder case. In the end,' he added, hurriedly, having caught Inspector Cockrill's beady eye.
Inspector Cockrill had for the past hour found himself in the position of the small boy at a party who knows how the conjurer does his tricks. He suggested: 'The Othello case?' and sat back and twiddled his thumbs.
'As in the Othello case,' said the Great Detective, as though he had not been interrupted at all. 'Which, as I say, I solved. In the end,' he added again, looking defiantly at Inspector Cockrill.
'But too late?' suggested Cockie: regretfully.
The great one bowed. 'In as far as certain evidence had, shall we say?—faded—yes: too late. For the rest, I unmasked the murderer: I built up a water-tight case against him: and I duly saw him triumphantly brought to trial. In other words, I think I may fairly say—that I solved the case.'
'Only, the jury failed to convict,' said Inspector Cockrill.
He waved it aside with magnificence. A detail. 'As it happened, yes; they failed to convict.'
'And quite right too,' said Cockie; he was having a splendid time.
'People round me were remarking, that second time I saw him play Othello,' said the Great Detective, 'that James Dragon had aged twenty years in as many days. And so he may well have done; for in the past three weeks he had played, night after night, to packed audiences—night after night strangling his new Desdemona, in the knowledge that his own wife had been so strangled but a few days before; and that every man Jack in the audience believed it was he who had strangled her—believed he was a murderer.'
'Which, however, he was not,' said Inspector Cockrill, and his bright elderly eyes shone with malicious glee.
'Which he was—and was not,' said the old man heavily. He was something of an actor himself but he had not hitherto encountered the modern craze for audience-participation and he was not enjoying it at all. 'If I might now be permitted to continue without interruption ...?'
'Some of you may have seen James Dragon on the stage,' said the old man, 'though the company all migrated to Hollywood in the end. But none of you will have seen him as Othello—after that season, Dragon Productions dropped it from their repertoire. They were a great theatrical family—still are, come to that, though James and Leila, his sister, are the only ones left nowadays; and as for poor James—getting very passé, very passé indeed,' said the Great Detective pityingly, shaking his senile head.
'But at the time of the murder, he was in his prime; not yet thirty and at the top of his form. And he was splendid. I see him now as I saw him that night, the very night she died—towering over her as she lay on the great stage bed, tricked out in his tremendous costume of black and gold, with the padded chest and shoulders concealing his slenderness and the great padded, jewel-studded sleeves like cantaloupe melons, raised above his head: bringing them down, slowly, slowly, until suddenly he swooped like a hawk and closed his dark-stained hands on her white throat. And I hear again Emilia's heartbreak cry in the lovely Dragon family voice: "Oh, thou hast killed the sweetest innocent, That e'er did lift up eye ..."'
But she had not been an innocent—James Dragon's Desdemona, Glenda Croy, who was in fact his wife. She had been a thoroughly nasty piece of work. An aspiring young actress, she had blackmailed him into marriage for the sake of her career; and that had been all of a piece with her conduct throughout. A great theatrical family was extremely sensitive to blackmail even in those more easy-going days of the late nineteen-twenties; and in the first rush of the Dragons' spectacular rise to fame, there had been one or two unfortunate episodes, one of them even culminating in a—very short—prison sentence: which, however, had effectively been hushed up. By the time of the murder, the Dragons were a byword for a sort of magnificent untouchability. Glenda Croy, without ever unearthing more than a grubby little scandal here and there, could yet be the means of dragging them all back into the mud again.
James Dragon had been, in the classic manner, born—at the turn of the century—backstage of a provincial theatre: had lustily wailed from his property basket while Romeo whispered through the mazes of Juliet's ball-dance, 'Just before curtain-up. Both doing splendidly. It's a boy!'; had been carried on at the age of three weeks, and at the age often formed with his sister such a precious pair of prodigies that the parents gave up their own promising careers to devote themselves to the management of their children's affairs. By the time he married, Dragon Productions had three touring companies always on the road and a regular London Shakespeare season, with James Dragon and Leila, his sister, playing the leads. Till he married a wife.
From the day of his marriage, Glenda took over the leads. They fought against it, all of them, the family, the whole company, James himself: but Glenda used her blackmail with subtlety, little hints here, little threats there, and they were none of them proof against it—James Dragon was their 'draw', with him they all stood or fell. So Leila stepped back and accepted second leads and for the good of them all, Arthur Dragon, the father, who produced for the company as well as being its manager did his honest best with the new recruit: and so got her through her Juliet (to a frankly mature Romeo), her Lady Macbeth, her Desdemona; and at the time of her death was breaking his heart rehearsing her Rosalind, preparatory to the company's first American tour.
Rosalind was Leila Dragon's pet part. 'But, Dad, she's hopeless, we can't have her prancing her way across America grinning like a coy hyena: do speak to James again ...'
'James can't do anything, my dear.'
'Surely by this time ... It's three years now, we were all so certain it wouldn't last a year.'
'She knows where her bread is buttered,' said the lady's father-in-law, sourly.
'But now, having played with us—she could strike out on her own?'
'Why should she want to? With us, she's safe—and she automatically plays our leads.'
'If only she'd fall for some man ...'
'She won't do that; she's far too canny,' said Arthur Dragon. 'That would be playing into our hands. And she's interested in nothing but getting on; she doesn't bother with men.' And, oddly enough, after a pass or two, men did not bother with her.
A row blew up over the Rosalind part, which rose to its climax before the curtain went up on 'Venice. A Street', on the night that Glenda Croy died. It rumbled through odd moments offstage, and through the intervals, spilled over into hissed asides between Will Shakespeare's lines, and culminated in a threat spat out with the venom of a viper as she lay on the bed, with the great arms raised above her, ready to pounce and close hands about her throat. Something about 'gaol'. Something about 'prisoners'. Something about the American tour.
It was an angry and a badly frightened man who faced her, twenty minutes later, in her dressing-room. 'What did you mean, Glenda, by what you said on-stage?—during the death scene. Gaolbirds, prisoners—what did you mean, what was it you said?'
She had thrown on a dressing-gown at his knock and now sat calmly on the divan, peeling off her stage stockings. 'I meant that I am playing Rosalind in America. Or the company is not going to America.'
'I don't see the connection,' he said.
'You will,' said Glenda.
'But, Glenda, be sensible, Rosalind just isn't your part.'
'No,' said Glenda. 'It's dear Leila's part. But I am playing Rosalind—or the company is not going to America.'
'Don't you want to go to America?'
'I can go any day I like. You can't. Without me, Dragon Productions stay home.'
'I have accepted the American offer,' he said steadily. 'I am taking the company out. Come if you like—playing Celia.'
She took off one stocking and tossed it over her shoulder, bent to slide the other down, over a round white knee. 'No one is welcomed into America who has been a gaolbird.' she said.
'Oh—that's it?' he said. 'Well, if you mean me ...' But he wavered. 'There was a bit of nonsense ... Good God, it was years ago ... And anyway, it was all rubbish, a bit of bravado, we were all wild and silly in those days before the war ...'
'Explain all that to the Americans,' she said.
'I've no doubt I'd be able to,' he said, still steadily. 'If they ever found out, which I doubt they ever would.' But his mind swung round on itself. 'This is a new—mischief—of yours, Glenda. How did you find it out?'
'I came across a newspaper cutting.' She gave a sort of involuntary glance back over her shoulder; it told him without words spoken that the paper was here in the room. He caught at her wrist. 'Give that cutting to me!'
She did not even struggle to free her hand; just sat looking up at him with her insolent little smile. She was sure of herself. 'Help yourself. It's in my handbag. But the information's still at the newspaper office, you know—and here in my head, facts, dates, all the rest of it. Plus any little embellishments I may care to add.' He relaxed his grip and she freed her hand without effort and sat gently massaging the wrist. 'It's wonderful,' she said, 'what lies people will believe, if you base them on a hard core of truth.'
He called her a filthy name and, standing there, blind with his mounting disgust and fury, added filth to filth. She struck out at him then like a wild cat, slapping him violently across the face with the flat of her hand. At the sharp sting of the slap, his control gave way. He raised his arms above his head and brought them down—slowly, slowly with a menace infinitely terrible: and closed his hands about her throat and shook her like a rag doll—and flung her back on to the bed and started across the room in search of the paper. It was in her handbag as she had said. He took it and stuffed it into his pocket and went back and stood triumphantly over her.
And saw that she was dead.
'I had gone, as it happened, to a restaurant just across the street from the theatre,' said the Great Detective; 'and they got me there. She was lying on the couch, her arms flung over her head, the backs of her hands with their pointed nails brushing the floor; much as I had seen her, earlier in the evening, lying in a pretence of death. But she no longer wore Desdemona's elaborate robes, she wore only the rather solid undies of those days, cami-knickers and a petticoat, under a silk dressing-gown. She seemed to have put up very little struggle: though there was a red mark round her right wrist and a faint pink stain across the palm of her hand.
'Most of the company and the technicians I left for the moment to my assistants, and they proved later to have nothing of interest to tell us. The stage door-keeper, however, an ancient retired actor, testified to having seen 'shadows against her lighted windows. Mr. James was in there with her. They were going through the strangling scene. Then the light went out: that's all I know.'
'How did you know it was Mr. Dragon in there?'
'Well, they were rehearsing the strangling scene,' the door-keeper repeated, reasonably.
'Now, however, you realise that she really was being strangled?'
'Well, yes.' He looked troubled. The Dragon family in their affluence were good to old theatricals like himself.
'Very well. Can you now say that you know it was Mr. Dragon?'
'I thought it was. You see, he was speaking the lines.'
'You mean, you heard his voice? You heard what he was saying?'
'A word here and there. He raised his voice—just as he does on those lines in the production: the death lines, you know ...' He looked hopeful. 'So it was just a run-through.'
'They were all sitting in what, I suppose, would be the Green-room: James Dragon himself, his father who, besides producing, played the small part of Othello's servant, the Clown; his mother who was wardrobe mistress, etcetera and had some little walking-on part, Leila Dragon who played Emilia, and three actors (who, for a wonder, weren't members of the family), playing respectively, Iago, Cassio and Cassio's mistress, Bianca. I think,' said the Great Detective, beaming round the circle of eagerly listening faces, 'that it will be less muddling to refer to them by their stage names.'
'Do you really?' asked Inspector Cockrill: incredulous.
'Do I really what?'
'Think it will be less muddling?' said Cockie: and twiddled his thumbs again.
The great man ignored him. 'They were in stage make-up, still, and in stage costume: and they sat about or stood, in attitudes of horror, grief, dismay or despair, which seemed to me very much like stage attitudes too.
'They gave me their story—I use the expression advisedly as you will see—of the past half-hour.
'The leading-lady's dressing-room at the Dragon Theatre juts out from the main building, so angled, as it happens, that the windows can be seen from the Green-room, as they can from the door-keeper's cubby. As I talked, I myself could see my men moving about in there, silhouettes against the drawn blinds.
'They had been gathered, they said, the seven of them, here in the Green-room, for twenty minutes after the curtain came down—Othello, Othello's servant the Clown, Emilia and Mrs. Dragon (the family) plus Iago, Cassio and a young girl playing Bianca; all discussing "something". During the time, they said, nobody had left the room. Their eyes shifted to James Dragon and shifted away again.
'He seemed to feel the need to say something, anything to distract attention from that involuntary, shifting glance. He blurted out: "And if you want to know what we were discussing, we were discussing my wife."
'"She had been Carrying On," said Mrs. Dragon in a voice of theatrical doom.
'"She had for some time been carrying on a love affair, as my mother says. We were afraid the affair would develop, would get out of hand, that she wouldn't want to come away on our American tour and it would upset our arrangements. We were taking out As You Like It. She was to have played Rosalind."
'"We heard footsteps along the corridor. Someone knocked at her door. We thought nothing of it till one of us glanced up and saw the shadows on her blind. There was a man with her in there. We supposed it was the lover."
'"Who was this lover?" I asked. If such a man existed, I had better send out after him, on the offchance.
'But none of them, they said, knew who he was. "She was too clever for that," said Mrs. Dragon in her tragedy voice.
'"How could he have got into the theatre? The stage door-man didn't see him."
'They did not know. No doubt there might have been some earlier arrangement between them ...
'And not the only "arrangement" that had been come to that night. They began a sort of point counterpoint recital which I could have sworn had been rehearsed. Iago (or it may have been Cassio): "Then we saw that they were quarrelling ..." Emilia: "To our great satisfaction!" Clown: "That would have solved all our problems, you see." Othello: "Not all our problems. It would not have solved mine." Emilia, quoting: "Was this fair paper, this most goodly book, Made to write 'whore' upon ...?" Mrs. Dragon: "Leila, James, be careful" (sotto voce, and glancing at me). Clown, hastily as though to cover up: "And then, sir, he seemed to pounce down upon her as far as, from the distorted shadows, we could see. A moment later he moved across the room and then suddenly the lights went out and we heard the sound of a window violently thrown up. My son, James, came to his senses first. He rushed out and we saw the lights come on again. We followed him. He was bending over her ..."
'"She was dead," said James; and struck an attitude against the Green-room mantelpiece, his dark-stained face heavy with grief, resting his forehead on his dark-stained hand. People said later, as I've told you, that he aged twenty years in as many days; I remember thinking at the time in fact he had aged twenty years in as many minutes: and that that was not an act.
'A window had been found swinging open, giving on to a narrow lane behind the theatre. I did not need to ask how the lover was supposed to have made his get-away. "And all this time," I said, "none of you left the Green-room?"
'"No one," they repeated: and this time were careful not to glance at James.
'You must appreciate,' said the Great Detective, pouring himself another glass of port, 'that I did not then know all I have explained to you. If I was to believe what I was told, I knew only this: that the door-keeper had seen a man strangling the woman, repeating the words of the Othello death-scene—which, however, amount largely to calling the lady a strumpet; that apparently the lady was a strumpet, in as far as she had been entertaining a lover; and that six people, of whom three were merely members of his company, agreed that they had seen the murder committed while James Dragon was sitting innocently in the room with them. I had to take the story of the lover at its face value: I could not then know, as I knew later, that Glenda Croy had avoided such entanglements. But it raised, nevertheless, certain questions in my mind.' It was his custom to pause at this moment, smiling benignly round on his audience, and invite them to guess what those questions had been.
Excerpted from Buffet for Unwelcome Guests by Christianna Brand, Francis M. Nevins Jr., Martin H. Greenberg. Copyright © 2013 Open Road Integrated Media. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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