A Colourful Death
A Cornish Mystery
By Carola Dunn
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Carola Dunn
All rights reserved.
Eleanor parked the aged pea-green Morris Minor in the Launceston station car-park, next to a snazzy red Mini. Teazle, perched on top of a bag of donated clothes on the back seat, gave a questioning yip.
"Yes, you can come. Wait a minute, you need your lead. Where did I put it?"
The lead was found on the floor by the passenger seat. Eleanor clipped it onto the Westie's collar and they went into the station.
"Afternoon, Mrs Trewynn," said the porter. "Beautiful day. Off to London, are you, you and the little dog?" He chirruped at Teazle, who was sniffing the turn-ups of his uniform trousers. She gave a perfunctory wag of her perfunctory tail.
"Good afternoon, Mr Lobcot. No, I'm meeting the down train. My neighbour, Nick Gresham, has been in town."
Lobcot glanced at the station clock. "Five minutes to wait. She's on time, seemingly. Ah, they'll be shutting us down any day now and you'll have to go to Bodmin Parkway to catch a train. At least, till they close that, too."
"Well, it is a bit closer to Port Mabyn, but the train journey takes longer and the fare's more. Besides, my niece works in Launceston. When I brought Nick to catch his train to London, I met her for lunch."
"That'll be Detective Sergeant Pencarrow, I expect?"
"That's right." Having spent her working life travelling the world, Eleanor was often amazed at how country-people seemed to know everything about everyone. She didn't even live in Launceston. But then, the papers had made hay with that nasty business ... Better not to think about it. She still shuddered at the memory of the dreadful photo that had seemed to show dear Megan arresting her. At least that one had been printed only in the Sketch, not the North Cornwall Times.
She nodded to the chatty porter and took Teazle for a stroll down the platform. It was indeed a glorious June day. A slight breeze ruffled Eleanor's white curls, flapped her cotton skirt, and gently herded puffs of cloud across the sky like a border collie with a flock of sheep. She would have liked to break into a few of her Aikido exercises, not having had time to practise today, though she had walked Teazle. How Lobcot would have stared!
As they turned at the end of the platform to head back towards the ticket office and waiting room, a whistle tooted in the distance. The train slid round the curve, pulled by a sleek diesel engine with far less noise, smell, and dirt than steam, though none of the charm.
"Nick's coming home," she said to the dog, who looked up at her expectantly with a vigorous wag. Teazle approved of Nick, a reliable source of scraps of batter from fried fish and other interesting tidbits. "I wonder how he's fared. The trouble with recommending one friend to another is that if it doesn't work out, one feels ridiculously guilty."
Quite a few people descended from the train, though nowhere near the crowds that would arrive later in the tourist season, after schools broke up. Eleanor spotted Nick's tall, lean figure as he waved to her and jumped down from the rear carriage, his long pony-tail swinging. For once his clothes appeared to be free of smears and splotches of paint. In fact he looked quite smart in his tan slacks and blue shirt, even though he wasn't wearing a tie. Eleanor wasn't sure he possessed one.
He carried his rucksack by the strap in one hand. He must have put his picture-carrier in the luggage van under the care of the guard rather than try to cram it into the rack. But he came to meet her rather than turn back to retrieve it.
Eleanor frowned. Nick was an even-tempered chap, surely not the sort to do anything drastic like destroy his best work because the gallery had turned him down. Besides, as he approached, she saw he was grinning.
He dropped the rucksack and picked her up in a hug. She yelped, and so did Teazle as the lead tightened.
"Sorry, girl!" He put Eleanor down, and stooped to ruffle Teazle's little white head. "I see Mrs Stearns gave you my message about the train. Thanks for coming. I tried to ring you from Paddington but you were always out, you gadabout."
"Probably walking Teazle. The weather's been so lovely, almost too warm for exercise in the afternoons, so we've been walking in the mornings. Nick, where are your pictures? What —"
"I didn't want Mrs Stearns to know before you did. Your friend Mr Alarian kept both of them. He's going to hang them, and if they sell reasonably quickly, he'll take a couple more. And if they sell reasonably quickly, he'll give me a show —"
"At least a shared one. He sent his kindest regards. What did you do for him, Eleanor, that he should be so grateful?"
"Heavens, I can't remember. It was in the Sudan we met — or was it South Africa? Anyway, he wouldn't have taken your paintings just for the sake of that old story. He's far too canny a businessman."
While they talked they had walked through the ticket barrier, Eleanor giving the ticket collector a smile in lieu of a platform ticket. The machine had been broken since before her return to Cornwall, and no one wanted to be bothered collecting tuppences, though he did take Nick's return stub.
"Alarian wouldn't have accepted the pictures at your request," Nick agreed, "but without it, I doubt he'd have given the work of an unknown a second look."
"Why not? How else is he to discover up-and-coming young artists?"
"Yes, he'd give a first look, but if the appeal wasn't obvious — I took a couple of the music pictures, you know. My best, I think. The Lark Ascending and Brahms's second Serenade. Risky, I suppose. If you don't know the music, you wouldn't know what they're about, though they might appeal on other levels."
"I like them," said Eleanor staunchly, though her travelling life had given her no opportunity to become familiar with classical music, let alone to learn to appreciate abstract art.
They paused to let Teazle take advantage of the long grass growing along the base of the car-park fence. The station staff had lost heart for keeping things spruce when they found out the line was to be closed.
"Alarian obviously hadn't a clue, but he asked if he could hang them in his office for a couple of days. I think he must have got someone who knows both music and art to take a look. I wish I knew who. I wonder if the Wreckers has a bottle of Aussie champagne at a price suited to my present budget rather than my great expectations." Nick's spirits were bubbling like Champagne. "Shall I drive?" he asked as they reached the car.
"Do. I left room in the boot for your rucksack."
Eleanor unlocked and opened the boot, congratulating herself on having remembered to lock it, and gave Nick the car keys. She went round to the passenger side and opened the door — Oh bother, she thought, she hadn't locked that! Teazle jumped in and scrambled between the seats onto the well-stuffed bags on the back seat. She didn't need help as Eleanor had been careful not to pile it high with donations, to allow for Nick's paintings in their carrier.
He unlocked the driver's-side door and folded himself into the little car. The starter caught on the second try. The Incorruptible ran pretty well, considering its age and its hard life up and down the hills of Cornwall, frequently heavily loaded.
"Books in that box in the back?" Nick asked.
"Yes, Major Cartwright, as usual. It's very good of him to keep giving them to LonStar when he could sell them on to the used book shop that just opened in Bodmin."
"Perhaps he doesn't know about it."
"Nick, I told him as soon as I found out."
"I was teasing. And don't worry, I'll go on buying his thrillers and detective stories from your shop and giving them back after reading."
As they drove up St Thomas Road past the castle, in ruins but still towering on its mound, Eleanor said, "Let's park and find anoff-licence. I'll buy a bottle of Champagne, or at least Asti Spumante, in case the Wreckers lets you down. But I thought you'd gone back to the Trelawny Arms since Donna decided you don't look sufficiently like Ringo."
He laughed. "Thank heaven! No, let's press on. One of the pubs is bound to have something sparkling, whatever the label. I want to get home. I've got a commission I need to get going with right away."
"You won't believe this. I went for a walk in St James's Park and there was a concert going on at the bandstand. The brasses were shining in the sun and they were playing Elgar, the first Pomp and Circumstance March. You probably know it as 'Land of Hope and Glory.'"
"Oh yes, I know that."
"Well, it gave me an idea. I started sketching and a girl who was sitting nearby asked if she could look. Turned out she was an American, on her honeymoon but her husband was busy taking photos of the Horse Guards or something. She'd walked on to listen to the band because she plays in one in the States. Alto sax, I think she said. To cut a long story short, she said she'd buy a painting of the band if I'd paint it."
"But it won't look like a brass band, will it?" Eleanor said doubtfully. "Or are you going to do something more like your landscapes?"
"No, I explained to her that I paint the images the music makes in my head. She said that's okay by her. She's sure she'll like it and it'll be a very special souvenir of England. Her family has some connection with England — supposedly an ancestor jumped into the Thames and saved Charles I's life, and they have an antique walking-stick to prove it."
"Before he had his head cut off, I take it?"
"Oh yes, before he became king, I think. Yes, must be, because she said her maiden name, Hazard, was bestowed by a grateful James I. Janice Hazard Harrison — what a mouthful! When I suggested a price she didn't even blink, just asked how much deposit I wanted. Her husband turned up and wrote a cheque on the spot."
"So now you have to paint it."
"Yes, before inspiration fades and before the Harrisons fly back to America, so I've got to get cracking. Besides, I want to get home and see what sort of mess Stella has made of my place. Her sculptures are so perfectly finished, it's hard to credit that she's such a slob in everything else."
"She dresses very nicely, dear. Except, I dare say, when she's actually sculpting. Is that the right word? It sounds rather odd."
"Yes, that's right. It can get pretty dusty, and then there's always the odd slip of the chisel and blood everywhere."
"Not likely for Stella. She works in serpentine, which isn't all that hard. Though she did talk about trying something in granite, something more recherché than her usual seals and seagulls. I don't know if it's just talk, or if she's started work on it. I haven't been to her studio in ages."
"In Padstow, didn't you say?"
"Yes, just outside. Did you see much of her while I was gone?"
"No, hardly anything. When I invited her over for lunch, she said she always brought sandwiches. Perfectly politely, but I'm afraid she doesn't have much time for little old ladies, unless they're customers."
"More fool her." Nick seized his chance between two lorries and swung round the roundabout onto the A30. The Incorruptible groaned a bit as they started the long climb up onto Bodmin Moor. "How's my favourite little old lady been while I've been gone? Busy as always?"
"Busy as always. The summer people have started to arrive. So many emmets seem to forget what they already have at their 'little place in the country,' especially in the way of kitchen stuff and linens. They bring more down and then give the old to LonStar. Joce is tearing her hair to try to fit everything into the stockroom. She says I'd better take a few days off from collecting."
"I can't imagine Mrs Stearns tearing her hair, under any circumstances. Do you think we can pass this exceptionally slow and smelly lorry?"
"No, Nick! Don't even try. You know the Incorruptible hates going uphill."
He obeyed, or more likely saw reason. They toiled upwards between hillsides patched with still-golden gorse and the pinkish-purple of heather coming into bloom. The bracken was bright green, not yet darkened by summer. Looking south towards Rough Tor, Eleanor saw a herd of wild ponies grazing on the spring grass.
She had often dreamt of these moors during the long years of journeying, usually to the hotter parts of the globe, working for the London Committee to Save the Starving. She and Peter had always intended to retire to their home county. When he was killed, in a riot in Indonesia, she had come sadly home without him. But she couldn't abandon LonStar, not when so many had so great a need. With their savings, she had bought a cottage in the small fishing village of Port Mabyn and turned her ground floor into a charity shop. Under the efficient guidance of Jocelyn Stearns, the vicar's wife, it was flourishing. If dear Joce was sometimes just a trifle bossy, it was a small price to pay for the pleasure of sending off the pounds, shillings, and pence to LonStar's headquarters.
"Made it!" said Nick in triumph as they reached the top of the long hill at Cold Northcott. There were more hills ahead, but none so trying to the Incorruptible's old bones.
A worrisome new rattle developed as they started down the steep lane that became Port Mabyn's only street.
"Do you hear that?" Eleanor asked.
"The church clock? Five o'clock. We've made reasonable time considering. Stella will still be at the shop. Like LonStar, I don't close till half past at this time of year. Oh, by the way, though I didn't tell Mrs Stearns, I did tell Stella about Alarian's offer when I rang up to say I'd be back this afternoon."
"Of course, she's a colleague. There, listen!"
But Nick was concentrating on parking — on the wrong side of the narrow street, with two wheels on the pavement and the car's nose inches from a no parking sign outside the LonStar shop. At the same time, a bustle of chattering pedestrians flocked out of the bakery opposite after their Cornish cream teas. Never mind, Eleanor thought. In the mysterious way of such things, the rattle might well disappear by tomorrow.
"Damn!" Nick exclaimed, putting on the hand-brake and turning off the ignition. "She's shut up shop early."
And indeed, the glass door of the next shop down the hill displayed a closed sign and the blinds were down.
Frowning, Nick opened the car door and twisted to get out in the narrow space between the car and the LonStar shop window. Teazle jumped over the brake and sprang down after him. Luckily Nick remembered her just in time not to shut the door on her. By the time Eleanor had climbed out on the street side, Nick was unlocking the door to his gallery, the dog at his heels.
"I'll just see if she's still here," he called over his shoulder to Eleanor. "I'll be back in a minute to help you unload."
Eleanor's words were drowned in a burst of laughter from some happy people full of splits with strawberry jam and clotted cream. Longing for a cup of tea, she followed Nick to retrieve Teazle, who by then had gone with him into the gallery.
"Bloody hell!" Nick stood just inside the door, gazing around wildly.
For a moment Eleanor couldn't see what was wrong. Then the first thing she noticed was that all the sculptures were gone. They had occupied a shelf on the wall to the right of the door — sleek seals, seagulls, and dolphins, carved from serpentine mottled and streaked in blues and greens and browns. Still there, drawing-pinned to the shelf, was the card with the sculptor's name: Stella Maris.
Star of the sea, Eleanor thought irrelevantly. Surely a pen-name, or the sculptural equivalent.
"Bloody hell!" Nick repeated violently, striding round behind a three-panelled screen hung with pictures.
Looking after him, Eleanor realised that the paintings hanging on the outer panels of the screen had been slashed. Someone had taken a knife to the two landscapes, making three parallel diagonal cuts in each canvas. The wildflower miniatures on the centre panel had been spared, perhaps considered insignificant.
Speechless, she followed Nick. White-faced, fists clenched, he was staring in stunned silence at three of what he called his "serious" paintings. Eleanor didn't understand or properly appreciate them, but these were the sort of things Alarian had chosen to hang in his prestigious London gallery. They, too, had been sliced diagonally but cross-wise, so that a sad triangle drooped from the centre of each. (Continues...)
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