He handed her a cup of tea.
‘Will you have a hot scone or a sandwich, or this cake? We have an Italian cook and she makes quite good pastry and cakes. You see we have quite taken to your English afternoon tea.’
‘Delicious tea too,’ said Mrs Bantry, sipping the fragrant beverage.
Marina Gregg smiled and looked pleased. The sudden nervous movement of her fingers which Jason Rudd’s eyes had noticed a minute or two previously, was stilled again. Mrs Bantry looked at her hostess with great admiration. Marina Gregg’s heyday had been before the rise to supreme importance of vital statistics. She could not have been described as Sex Incarnate, or ‘The Bust’ or ‘The Torso’. She had been long and slim and willowy. The bones of her face and head had had some of the beauty associated with those of Garbo. She had brought personality to her pictures rather than mere sex. The sudden turn of her head, the opening of the deep lovely eyes, the faint quiver of her mouth, all these were what brought to one suddenly that feeling of breath-taking loveliness that comes not from regularity of feature but from some sudden magic of the flesh that catches the onlooker unawares. She still had this quality though it was not now so easily apparent. Like many film and stage actresses she had what seemed to be a habit of turning off personality at will. She could retire into herself, be quiet, gentle, aloof, disappointing to an eager fan. And then suddenly the turn of the head, the movement of the hands, the sudden smile and the magic was there.
One of her greatest pictures had been Mary, Queen of Scots, and it was of her performance in that picture that Mrs Bantry was reminded now as she watched her. Mrs Bantry’s eye switched to the husband. He too was watching Marina. Off guard for a moment, his face expressed clearly his feelings. ‘Good Lord,’ said Mrs Bantry to herself, ‘the man adores her.’
She didn’t know why she should feel so surprised. Perhaps because film stars and their love affairs and their devotion were so written up in the Press that one never expected to see the real thing with one’s own eyes. On an impulse she said:
‘I do hope you’ll enjoy it here and that you’ll be able to stay here some time. Do you expect to have the house for long?’
Marina opened wide surprised eyes as she turned her head. ‘I want to stay here always,’ she said. ‘Oh, I don’t mean that I shan’t have to go away a lot. I shall, of course. There’s a possibility of making a film in North Africa next year although nothing’s settled yet. No, but this will be my home. I shall come back here. I shall always be able to come back here.’ She sighed. ‘That’s what’s so wonderful. To have found a home at last.’
‘I see,’ said Mrs Bantry, but at the same time she thought to herself, ‘All the same I don’t believe for a moment that it will be like that. I don’t believe you’re the kind that can ever settle down.’
Again she shot a quick surreptitious glance at Jason Rudd. He was not scowling now. Instead he was smiling, a sudden very sweet and unexpected smile, but it was a sad smile. ‘He knows it too,’ thought Mrs Bantry.
The door opened and a woman came in. ‘Bartletts want you on the telephone, Jason,’ she said.
‘Tell them to call back.’
‘They said it was urgent.’
He sighed and rose. ‘Let me introduce you to Mrs Bantry,’ he said. ‘Ella Zielinsky, my secretary.’
‘Have a cup of tea, Ella,’ said Marina as Ella Zielinsky acknowledged the introduction with a smiling ‘Pleased to meet you.’
‘I’ll have a sandwich,’ said Ella. ‘I don’t go for China tea.’
Ella Zielinsky was at a guess thirty-five. She wore a well cut suit, a ruffled blouse and appeared to breathe self-confidence. She had short-cut black hair and a wide forehead.
‘You used to live here, so they tell me,’ she said to Mrs Bantry.
‘It’s a good many years ago now,’ said Mrs Bantry. ‘After my husband’s death I sold it and it’s passed through several hands since then.’
‘Mrs Bantry really says she doesn’t hate the things we’ve done to it,’ said Marina.
‘I should be frightfully disappointed if you hadn’t,’ said Mrs Bantry. ‘I came up here all agog. I can tell you the most splendid rumours have been going around the village.’
‘Never knew how difficult it was to get hold of plumbers in this country,’ said Miss Zielinsky, champing a sandwich in a businesslike way. ‘Not that that’s been really my job,’ she went on.
‘Everything is your job,’ said Marina, ‘and you know it is, Ella. The domestic staff and the plumbing and arguing with the builders.’
‘They don’t seem ever to have heard of a picture window in this country.’
Ella looked towards the window. ‘It’s a nice view, I must admit.’
‘A lovely old-fashioned rural English scene,’ said Marina. ‘This house has got atmosphere.’
‘It wouldn’t look so rural if it wasn’t for the trees,’ said Ella Zielinsky. ‘That housing estate down there grows while you look at it.’
‘That’s new since my time,’ said Mrs Bantry.
‘You mean there was nothing but the village when you lived here?’
Mrs Bantry nodded.
‘It must have been hard to do your shopping.’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Mrs Bantry. ‘I think it was frightfully easy.’
‘I understand having a flower garden,’ said Ella Zielinsky, ‘but you folk over here seem to grow all your vegetables as well. Wouldn’t it be much easier to buy them—there’s a supermarket?’
‘It’s probably coming to that,’ said Mrs Bantry, with a sigh. ‘They don’t taste the same, though.’
‘Don’t spoil the atmosphere, Ella,’ said Marina.
The door opened and Jason looked in. ‘Darling,’ he said to Marina, ‘I hate to bother you but would you mind? They just want your private view about this.’
Marina sighed and rose. She trailed languidly towards the door. ‘Always something,’ she murmured. ‘I’m so sorry, Mrs Bantry. I don’t really think that this will take longer than a minute or two.’
‘Atmosphere,’ said Ella Zielinsky, as Marina went out and closed the door. ‘Do you think the house has got atmosphere?’
‘I can’t say I ever thought of it that way,’ said Mrs Bantry. ‘It was just a house. Rather inconvenient in some ways and very nice and cosy in other ways.’
‘That’s what I should have thought,’ said Ella Zielinsky. She cast a quick direct look at Mrs Bantry. ‘Talking of atmosphere, when did the murder take place here?’
‘No murder ever took place here,’ said Mrs Bantry.
‘Oh come now. The stories I’ve heard. There are always stories, Mrs Bantry. On the hearthrug, right there, wasn’t it?’ said Miss Zielinsky nodding towards the fireplace.
‘Yes,’ said Mrs Bantry. ‘That was the place.’
‘So there was a murder?’
Mrs Bantry shook her head. ‘The murder didn’t take place here. The girl who had been killed was brought here and planted in this room. She’d nothing to do with us.’
Miss Zielinsky looked interested.
‘Possibly you had a bit of difficulty making people believe that?’ she remarked.
‘You’re quite right there,’ said Mrs Bantry.
‘When did you find it?’
‘The housemaid came in in the morning,’ said Mrs Bantry, ‘with early morning tea. We had housemaids then, you know.’