The Anodyne Necklace(3)
Author:Martha Grimes


    “Stop trying to be funny again, my dear Plant.”

    “Allow me to continue. Robert Ardry was my uncle. And I, to everyone’s consternation, am no longer the eighth Earl. There, now. All ship-shape and Bristol fashion.”

    “Kindly do not use such sordid, lower-class expressions. Your dear mother—”

    “My mother was indeed dear and she swore like a scullery maid.”

    “No respect for the family. Never had.”

    “You’re here, dear Aunt.”

    She played for time by rearranging the falls of bright-leaved chiffon, totally inappropriate for the day, and calling for Ruthven, Melrose’s butler.

    “Why are you dressed for an afternoon on the lawn, Agatha?” Melrose looked at her more closely. “And where’d you get that amethyst brooch? That looks like Mother’s, too.”

    Ruthven entered and she requested some more cakes. She would stagger her ‘elevenses’ right into luncheon if he weren’t careful, Melrose knew.

    Ruthven shot her a glance like a poisoned arrow and swanned out of the room.

    With that interruption she could now deftly turn the subject away from amethyst brooches. “I noticed Lady Jane Hay-Hurt paying special attention to you last Sunday.”

    Since Lady Jane was a fifty-eight-year-old maiden lady with prominent teeth and receding chin, Agatha no doubt thought it safe to imply a possible liaison between the lady and Melrose.

    “I’ve no interest in Lady Jane. But I shall find someone one day, never fear. The Ardry-Plants have always married late.”

    That made her gasp, as he knew it would. “Marriage! Whoever said anything of marriage? You’re a confirmed bachelor, Melrose. At forty-three—”

    “Forty-two.” He had found Littlebourne on the map and was ascertaining the best route.

    “Anyway, you’re rooted in your behavior and I really don’t think it would be likely that any sort of woman would put up with your odd little ways. And there’s no one round here for you to marry!” Triumphantly, she outreached her arms, making a sweep of the drawing room, as if once, indeed, marriageable females had crowded its couches and settees and wing chairs, but, alas, no more.

    Certainly, certainly, he thought. She had convinced herself Melrose was just waiting to die so that he could turn over Ardry End, its grounds and gardens, its crystal and calling-card cases, its armoires and amethysts to her, his only living relative. And not even a blood relative. And not even English. Agatha was a transplanted American, not, however, of Jamesian sensibility.

    Beneath his dressing gown, Melrose was wearing his traveling clothes. He had meant to get off around nine, but he had to spend a bit of time stalling her, putting her, indeed, off the scent. If she knew he was going to meet Superintendent Jury, she would be hiding out in the trunk of the Rolls. It had been sitting garaged for an age; Melrose had decided to take it as part of a cover he had not made up yet. You never knew when a Rolls would come in handy. He smiled.

    “What’s that smirk for?”

    “Nothing.” He folded his map. She thought she was such a dab hand at murder. Ever since jury—Chief Inspector it had been then—had come to Long Piddleton, Agatha had been talking about their “next case.” Keeping her out of his hair required a cunning befitting Crippen or Neil Cream. . . .

    “Why are you looking at me that way, Plant?” As she took another fairy cake, he saw her ring wink in the firelight.

    Where had she got that moonstone?





    TWO


    I

    LITTLE Burntenham was an ordinary village about forty miles from London, to which no one, until recently, had paid much attention. In the last year or so, Londoners had “discovered” little Burntenham and its accessibility to the city—it was now a stop on the main line. This soon resulted in a burst of activity in the estate market and the plucking up of some of its falling-down properties that the villagers wouldn’t have had on a bet. Great wads of money had exchanged hands, passing from those of the fools who would be parted from it to the estate agents always ready to grab it. The other change, which the older residents of the village greatly resented, was the respelling of the name so that tourists could find it more easily. It had been decided finally, that since Little Burntenham was actually pronounced Littlebourne, it might as well be spelled that way. It took a lot of the fun out of listening to strangers ask for directions.

    Littlebourne, surrounded by pleasant, open country, with one side hemmed by the Horndean wood, was pleasant but undistinguished, no matter how the new inhabitants might spend money on rethatching roofs and exposing beams and painting exteriors in pastel washes. The village had its one street, called the High, which divided halfway along so that it flowed round an irregular patch of carefully tended grass called Littlebourne Green. The High had its sufficiency of shops, just enough so that the villagers weren’t forced to go into the market town of Hertfield, four miles away, except when they wanted to browse through its many antique shops.

    As some wags liked to put it, the High contained, among other things, Littlebourne’s four P’s: one pastor, one post office, one pub, and one police station. There was a fifth P with whom the villagers would happily have dispensed: Littlebourne’s one peer.

    The fifth P—Sir Miles Bodenheim—was presently giving one of the other P’s the devil of a time. He was in the post office store making the postmistress’s life hell. There had been only one other person waiting for service before Sir Miles Bodenheim had decided to rejuvenate the British postal system. Now there were twelve, snaking down past the bread tray.

    “I should certainly think, Mrs. Pennystevens, that you could do the stamps a little quicker if you would keep the half-p’s separate from the others. You would do better to have some sort of system. I have been standing here a good ten minutes simply trying to post this one letter.”

    Mrs. Pennystevens, who had been tending a gouty husband for fifteen years, was proof against practically anything. She even refrained from pointing out that the whole of the ten minutes had been taken up with Sir Miles’s arguing the weight of the letter and claiming she was coming up too heavy. Finally, she had had to let him fool with the scales himself.

    Back in the bread-shadows, a voice was heard to mumble, “ . . . stupid old sod.”

    Sir Miles turned and smiled in a self-satisfied way, delighted to know that someone else was as quick at seeing Mrs. Pennystevens’s deficiencies as he himself. He turned back to her: “I still believe that your scales are malfunctioning. But I daresay there’s nothing to be done; the government has seen fit to place its faith in your judgment. Frankly, Mrs. Pennystevens, I would get a new pair of spectacles, were I you. Yesterday you shorted me two p on a half-loaf.”

    Shuffling, shuffling up and down the line and the woman behind Sir Miles whined that she was in the most dreadful hurry . . .

    “Yes,” said Sir Miles. “Kindly hurry it up, Mrs. Pennystevens. We’ve none of us all day, you know.”

    Mrs. Pennystevens looked at him with steel in her eyes and counted out his change, which he slowly recounted, as he always did, naming each coin. One would have thought, given the puzzled expression, that he was unused to the coin of the realm or the decimal system. Finally, he pocketed the money, nodded curtly to the postmistress, nodded again up and down the line as if they had come not to buy bread and milk but to be received by Sir Miles Bodenheim, owner of Rookswood. He bade them all adieu.

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