‘Mrs Badcock,’ said the vicar, turning back, lemonade in his hand, ‘the indefatigable secretary of the association. She’s one of our hardest workers. In fact I don’t know what the St John would do without her.’
‘I’m sure you’ve been wonderful,’ said Marina.
‘You don’t remember me?’ said Heather, in an arch manner. ‘How should you, with all the hundreds of people you meet. And anyway, it was years ago. In Bermuda of all places in the world. I was there with one of our ambulance units. Oh, it’s a long time ago now.’
‘Of course,’ said Marina Gregg, once more all charm and smiles.
‘I remember it all so well,’ said Mrs Badcock. ‘I was thrilled, you know, absolutely thrilled. I was only a girl at the time. To think there was a chance of seeing Marina Gregg in the flesh—oh! I was a mad fan of yours always.’
‘It’s too kind of you, really too kind of you,’ said Marina sweetly, her eyes beginning to hover faintly over Heather’s shoulder towards the next arrivals.
‘I’m not going to detain you,’ said Heather—‘but I must—’
‘Poor Marina Gregg,’ said Mrs Bantry to herself. ‘I suppose this kind of thing is always happening to her! The patience they need!’
Heather was continuing in a determined manner with her story.
Mrs Allcock breathed heavily at Mrs Bantry’s shoulder.
‘The changes they’ve made here! You wouldn’t believe till you saw for yourself. What it must have cost …’
‘I—didn’t feel really ill—and I thought I just must—’
‘This is vodka,’ Mrs Allcock regarded her glass suspiciously. ‘Mr Rudd asked if I’d like to try it. Sounds very Russian. I don’t think I like it very much …’
‘—I said to myself: I won’t be beaten! I put a lot of make-up on my face—’
‘I suppose it would be rude if I just put it down somewhere.’ Mrs Allcock sounded desperate.
Mrs Bantry reassured her gently.
‘Not at all. Vodka ought really to be thrown straight down the throat’—Mrs Allcock looked startled—‘but that needs practice. Put it down on the table and get yourself a Martini from that tray the butler’s carrying.’
She turned back to hear Heather Badcock’s triumphant peroration.
‘I’ve never forgotten how wonderful you were that day. It was a hundred times worth it.’
Marina’s response was this time not so automatic. Her eyes which had wavered over Heather Badcock’s shoulder, now seemed to be fixed on the wall midway up the stairs. She was staring and there was something so ghastly in her expression that Mrs Bantry half took a step forward. Was the woman going to faint? What on earth could she be seeing that gave her that basilisk look? But before she could reach Marina’s side the latter had recovered herself. Her eyes, vague and unfocussed, returned to Heather and the charm of manner was turned on once more, albeit a shade mechanically.
‘What a nice little story. Now, what will you have to drink? Jason! A cocktail?’
‘Well, really I usually have lemonade or orange juice.’
‘You must have something better than that,’ said Marina. ‘This is a feast day, remember.’
‘Let me persuade you to an American daiquiri,’ said Jason, appearing with a couple in his hand. ‘They’re Marina’s favourites, too.’
He handed one to his wife.
‘I shouldn’t drink any more,’ said Marina, ‘I’ve had three already.’ But she accepted the glass.
Heather took her drink from Jason. Marina turned away to meet the next person who was arriving.
Mrs Bantry said to Mrs Allcock, ‘Let’s go and see the bathrooms.’
‘Oh, do you think we can? Wouldn’t it look rather rude?’
‘I’m sure it wouldn’t,’ said Mrs Bantry. She spoke to Jason Rudd. ‘We want to explore your wonderful new bathrooms, Mr Rudd. May we satisfy this purely domestic curiosity?’
‘Sure,’ said Jason, grinning. ‘Go and enjoy yourselves, girls. Draw yourselves baths if you like.’
Mrs Allcock followed Mrs Bantry along the passage.
‘That was ever so kind of you, Mrs Bantry. I must say I wouldn’t have dared myself.’
‘One has to dare if one wants to get anywhere,’ said Mrs Bantry.
They went along the passage, opening various doors. Presently ‘Ahs’ and ‘Ohs’ began to escape Mrs Allcock and two other women who had joined the party.
‘I do like the pink one,’ said Mrs Allcock. ‘Oh, I like the pink one a lot.’
‘I like the one with the dolphin tiles,’ said one of the other women.
Mrs Bantry acted the part of hostess with complete enjoyment. For a moment she had really forgotten that the house no longer belonged to her.
‘All those showers!’ said Mrs Allcock with awe. ‘Not that I really like showers. I never know how you keep your head dry.’
‘It’d be nice to have a peep into the bedrooms,’ said one of the other women, wistfully, ‘but I suppose it’d be a bit too nosy. What do you think?’
‘Oh, I don’t think we could do that,’ said Mrs Allcock. They both looked hopefully at Mrs Bantry.
‘Well,’ said Mrs Bantry, ‘no, I suppose we oughtn’t to—’ then she took pity on them, ‘but—I don’t think anyone would know if we have one peep.’ She put her hand on a door-handle.
But that had been attended to. The bedrooms were locked. Everyone was very disappointed.
‘I suppose they’ve got to have some privacy,’ said Mrs Bantry kindly.
They retraced their steps along the corridors. Mrs Bantry looked out of one of the landing windows. She noted below her Mrs Meavy (from the Development) looking incredibly smart in a ruffled organdie dress. With Mrs Meavy, she noticed, was Miss Marple’s Cherry, whose last name for the moment Mrs Bantry could not remember. They seemed to be enjoying themselves and were laughing and talking.
Suddenly the house felt to Mrs Bantry old, worn-out and highly artificial. In spite of its new gleaming paint, its alterations, it was in essence a tired old Victorian mansion. ‘I was wise to go,’ thought Mrs Bantry. ‘Houses are like everything else. There comes a time when they’ve just had their day. This has had its day. It’s been given a face lift, but I don’t really think it’s done it any good.’
Suddenly a slight rise in the hum of voices reached her. The two women with her started forward.
‘What’s happening?’ said one. ‘It sounds as though something’s happening.’
They stepped back along the corridor towards the stairs. Ella Zielinksy came rapidly along and passed them. She tried a bedroom door and said quickly, ‘Oh, damn. Of course they’ve locked them all.’
‘Is anything the matter?’ asked Mrs Bantry.