Cool repentance, p.1
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       Cool Repentance, p.1

           Antonia Fraser
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Cool Repentance

  Cool Repentance

  Antonia Fraser

  Series: Jemima Shore [4]

  Published: 1997

  Tags: Mystery


  * * *


  Celebrated actress Christabel Cartwright trades her country house, its staff of servants, and her husband for a reckless affair. She also thought she could resume her career--her director was delighted, and so was Megalith Television. But one person in Christabel's circle had doubts. What happens next is murder, and it brings Jemima Shore, the author's elegant alter ego, into the fray. She trails her man (or is it woman?) through the thickets of human emotion. "Glorious fun...the ending is genuinely surprising." (The Spectator)

  Cool Repentance

  Antonia Fraser

  For Fred and Simone and Laverstock where Jemima Shore was

  'And with the morning cool repentance came.’

  Sir Walter Scott


  Spring Flowers 1

  Back to Normal 5

  Sea-Shells 12

  Watching Christabel 19

  I’ll be Safe' 28

  'Mummy, Mummy, Mummy' 39

  Her Last Hour 50

  Late at Night 57

  Forbidden Thoughts 68

  A Real Killer 79

  Arrested Rehearsal 89

  Weak Flesh 99

  Simply Guilty 107

  Happy Ending 116

  Your Lady's Instinct 124

  Death of a Seagull 132

  Obsession and After 140


  Spring Flowers

  'Glad to be back?'

  The questioner sounded urgent but the woman putting spring flowers carefully into a low vase merely smiled in reply, said nothing. The deep window to her left was open and from time to time the wind stirred her hair gently as she worked - hair the same colour as the daffodils at her feet. The flowers too stirred in their glass container, when the breeze touched them. The newspaper on the floor held white narcissi with bright red perianths, as well as trumpet-shaped daffodils, whose colour ranged from pale yellow to ochre, and other delicate flowers of the spring; sometimes the newspaper rustled. Everything was bright. Nothing was still.

  The curtains of the drawing-room at Lark Manor also appeared to have been chosen with spring in mind. Hanging thickly to the floor, lined and interlined, they were made of yellow and white chintz, while twin gold mirrors, with brackets containing fresh white candles on either side, further reflected the lightness of the sunshine outside. The carpet, patterned and Victorian-looking, was grass green: it matched the colour of the grass exactly, just as the daffodils, blowing and rippling on either side of the drive to the hills beyond, were perfectly co-ordinated with the yellow and white chintz. Where the hills drew back like curtains to reveal a small but distinct patch of sea, that colour was pale azure. But the sea was not forgotten in the Lark Manor drawing-room: small bright-blue cushions, piped in white, reposed on the big yellow sofas by the fireplace, reminding you pleasantly but inexorably of its part in the view.

  'Glad to be back?' the person repeated. 'You must be glad to be back.'

  Christabel Cartwright gave another smile, not quite as marked as the first, and lifted her eyebrows. She picked up the garden scissors and shortened the stem of a jonquil. There were spring posies and pots of

  clear blue hyacinths everywhere in the large drawing-room. The flowers which Christabel was arranging stood on a highly polished Sheraton table and would form a centrepiece of the room when they were finished.

  'Those are pretty, aren't they? A new variety. Or new to Lark. You were surprised to find them out there by the woods when you went picking, weren't you?'

  Christabel Cartwright, a jonquil in her hand, hesitated and then put it down. She continued to inspect the glass vase with concentration.

  'Perhaps you wouldn't have planted them? Or if you had planted them, perhaps you wouldn't have planted them just there. By the wood, I mean.'

  'I think they're beautiful,' Christabel said at last. Her tone was surprisingly deep for a woman, without being at all husky; it had a charming melodious timbre. 'I noticed them at once.'

  'It's just the sort of thing you do notice, isn't it? Flowers, and dogs.' The voice sounded increasingly pressing about it all. 'Didn't you go to the corner of the wood, where they buried Mango, at once? Immediately, I mean. Straightaway? Dreadful smelly old dog.' The person questioning Christabel gave a sudden violent shudder of disgust and the person's tone grew rougher. 'I wasn't a bit sorry at what happened to him.' Perhaps there were tears, one tear, in Christabel's eyes. The person continued in a more satisfied calmer tone: 'Didn't you notice that the trug was waiting for you, and the scissors, your special scissors, all bright and clean?'

  Christabel, who had picked up the scissors again, put them down. She did so fastidiously. But then all her movements tended to be precise, as well as graceful. With the modulated beauty of her voice, and her careful management of all gestures, however small, it was easy to believe that she was - or had once been - a famous actress. The tear - if indeed it had been a tear - had vanished.

  'What was the first thing you did when you came back?' went on the voice, as though Christabel had given it some sort of answer. ‘Do you remember? Can you think back? Oh, do try.' There was a pause.

  Christabel looked at the floor. The pile of flowers, with their long thick pale-green stems ranged on the newspaper, had diminished. Out of the glass vase their white and yellow heads were now springing airily like the quills of an ornamental hedgehog. Christabel bent her soft golden head which gave the impression of a kind of halo; in her bright-blue clothes, contrasting with the grass-green carpet, with the white flowers in her hand, she might have been part of an Annunciation scene by Rossetti. Then she picked up the corner of her blue skirt and rubbed the half-moon table on which the vase stood; despite all the care taken, the paper laid down, a drop of water had fallen on the polished wood. Christabel eliminated it.

  'Did you take a photograph of Lark with you when you went, by the way? Do cast your mind back. You're getting so forgetful these days. I don't want to sound horrible, but perhaps it's your age, your time of life. You would have taken a special one, your favourite angle perhaps, the corner of the wood, Mango's grave, taken it with your own camera. No, wait.1 There was a sharp intake of breath and another laugh. But the roughness had also come back into the voice: the person talking to Christabel looked heated, either in anger or triumph.

  'No, wait, it wasn't Mango's grave then, was it? You would hardly have known that corner of the wood was going to be Mango's grave. Seeing as that awful old Mango was still alive when you left him, left him to die. Still, you always did love that corner .. .' The voice trailed away and there was quite a long pause.

  'Otherwise,' it resumed briskly, 'there were always the photographs in the press. Newspaper photographs. There were plenty of those.'

  Christabel was picking up the last flower from the newspaper. It was a narcissus. She touched her cheek with the fluttery white petal and smelt it. Then she inserted the narcissus deftly into the vase like a bullfighter inserting a banderilla. She stepped back and gazed at her work.

  'No one can arrange flowers like you,' said the person thickly: the voice now sounded admiring, almost gloating. 'I've always said that. It's been my firm contention all along.' There was another long pause.

  'What a pity it is, a great pity, that you have to die.'

  For the first time in the conversation - if such it could be called -Christabel Cartwright gazed directly at her interlocutor. Her eyes were enormous, blue like the distant sea, just a little less vivid than the cushions on the sofas. Round her eyes a network of tiny but distinctly visible lines radiated out
wards so regularly that they might have been drawn on to her face; the effect was not unbecoming. Her strongest feature, an indisputably Roman nose, scarcely noticed beneath the radiance of the big eyes.

  Otherwise there were no hard lines or planes on her face; everything was soft, some of it a little too soft perhaps - her small chin was almost lost in the folds of the blue and white chiffon scarf which ruffled at her neck. Together the frills and the daffodil hair, waving lightly back from her forehead, gave a slightly eighteenth-century effect: the powdered head of a Gainsborough portrait perhaps. The light powder and delicate patches of pink on her cheeks contributed to this illusion.

  Christabel Cartwright, in the sunlight of the Lark Manor drawing-room, no longer looked young: but she did still look oddly girlish. With her pink and white complexion and the pronounced lines on forehead and chin as well as round her eyes, she gave the impression of a much younger woman made up to look old.

  Even her figure - although she was quite plump in her soft blue cashmere jersey and skirt - was not exactly middle aged. For her legs remained excellent, really quite astonishingly pretty legs, and in their patterned navy-blue stockings, they commanded attention from the slight heaviness of the hips and bosom which the years had brought.

  'No, really,' the voice went on, 'you didn't expect to get away with it, did you? Surely not that. Just to say you were sorry, just to repent.' The voice put a very nasty emphasis on the word repent as if describing a most unpleasant activity. 'Was it going to be like the song then, his song, cool, oh so coo-ool repentance?' The person picked up a long-stemmed flower and pretended to use it as a microphone: then the voice crooned the last four words slowly, mockingly, gloatingly. 'Was that what you thought - that you would come back, come back here to beautiful Lark, and get away with it, did you expect that? I can hardly believe it, even of you ...

  'So you see, one of these days I shall really have to kill you. Just to teach you a lesson. A lesson you'll never forget: that you can't just get away with things. I shall probably kill you before the spring flowers are over. Then we needn't have all those ghastly wreaths at the funeral. Just cut flowers only. Just what you would have wanted.'

  Christabel continued to stare with her lovely eyes wide open; they were pools of pure colour: there was no expression in them at all.

  'We need some more flowers, don't we - for the study?' Christabel said at length in her low musical voice; she sounded perfectly normal. 'I should have thought of it before. I'll go out and pick some more. There's plenty of time before lunch.'

  She picked up the tray and walked in her careful graceful way towards the french windows. At the steps she paused and said with the air of one delivering lines at the end of an act: 'Yes, darling, in answer to your original question, I am glad to be back. Of course I'm glad to be back. I've come back to look after everybody. Everybody - including you.'

  Then she walked away into the garden.

  The person who had been questioning Christabel Cartwright decided to leave her alone for the time being. Let her vanish alone into the greenness, through the trees, before reappearing on the verge of the drive where the daffodils grew. The person realized that Christabel had forgotten her scissors. It was not too late to do something about that. The person decided to think hard about the scissors and what they might do to Christabel when she came back to fetch them.


  Back to Normal

  The enormous bedroom upstairs was still quite dark, although everywhere in the garden at Lark Manor the sunlight was seeking out the grass beneath the tall trees.

  Regina Cartwright, guiding her white horse down the path from the stables to the drive, careful of the surrounding flowers, could see that the bedroom curtains were still drawn. She patted the horse's neck, pulled his head up where he had decided to chomp the grass, and said, rather self-consciously: 'You see, Lancelot, everything's back to normal.'

  The remark was caught by her sister Blanche, emerging or rather slouching out of the open french windows of the kitchen. Blanche was dressed in tight white cotton trousers and a sun-top. She wore one sandal, and held the other, which seemed to be broken, in her hand.

  'Really, Rina, you are a baby. Still talking to that horse at your age. And does he answer back, then?'

  'I may be a year younger than you,' retorted Regina, 'but I used to be in the same form at school, don't forget, so who was the baby then? And by the way Blanche you're far too fat for that sun-top,' she went on more automatically than scornfully. Then her voice changed. Those are my trousers, my white trousers, give them back you thieving little bitch, you've swiped them.'

  Blanche starting to scream back in her turn at one and the same time turned and fled in the direction of the kitchen windows. Regina on Lancelot thundered after her, now careless of the paths. The shrubs shivered, and shed flowers as the big white horse passed. A host of fallen red camellias lay to mark his tracks.

  Even when she reached the kitchen where Blanche had taken refuge, Regina did not dismount from Lancelot but simply urged the horse in through the french windows. Uneasily he stepped onto the cork floor,

  placing his hooves carefully on the surface as if aware of the heinous nature of the gesture. The animal's enormous shoulders filled the opening making the large airy room, with all its polished wood surfaces, seem quite dark.

  It was at this moment that Julian Cartwright, yawning slightly, entered the kitchen by its inner louvred swing doors. He wore a navy-blue silk dressing-gown, piped in white, over blue pyjamas. His dressing-gown was firmly belted in the centre. His dark hair - the same thick dark straight hair which Regina had inherited, but flecked with grey - was neatly combed and his feet shod in dark-red leather slippers. He looked gentlemanly and rather relaxed, despite the early hour, and gave the impression that he would probably always bear himself with similar distinction, whatever the hour of the day.

  His words, however, were not relaxed,

  'Oh really girls, really Rina, really Blanche, haven't you any consideration at all? You know how Mummy likes to sleep on in the mornings. That noise would wake them in the church at Larminster.'

  He did not seem to have noticed the presence of the horse.

  'They're awake in the church at Larminster,' pointed out Blanche from her position of advantage behind the polished wood kitchen bar; her tone was extremely reasonable. 'It's Easter Sunday morning. Are you and Mummy going to church?'

  'Don't be so silly, Blanche,' Julian Cartwright sounded even more irritated, although whether at the idea of going to church himself or at the idea of anyone going at all, was not quite clear,

  'I expect Daddy meant: wake the dead at Larminster Church,' suggested Regina from her station on Lancelot at the window, 'Wake Grannie Cartwright and old Mr Nixon and Cynthia Meadows' little sister - that's all the most recently dead we know, and the ancient dead are probably more difficult to rouse. But there could be others from the village—'

  'Regina!' Julian Cartwright suddenly shouted in a very loud voice indeed. 'Get that horse out of the kitchen!'

  Regina hastily backed Lancelot out of the french windows; he trotted off in the direction of the drive. She shouted something over her shoulder which sounded like 'my trousers', but could not be heard clearly.

  It was a few minutes later that Christabel Cartwright appeared at the entrance to the kitchen, swinging the doors open with both hands so that she stood for a moment as if framed. She wore silver mules edged with swansdown and a thin wool kaftan of a very pale blue, embroidered in white. Her hair, which stood up becomingly round her head, looked as if it might have been blown in the wind, rather than combed. She wore no make-up at all and her face had a slight shine on it. Without concealment of powder, she looked very beautiful, if haggard, and slightly dazed.

  Blanche's plump face, with its lack of contours, and mass of fine hair surrounding it, as well as its too-strong nose, showed what Christabel had perhaps looked like long ago - but Christabel must always have had beauty. Blanche a
t the present time had none.

  'What a frightful row!' Christabel began. 'You woke me up.'

  'It was all Rina's fault,' said Blanche in a voice which suggested sobs might be on the way if its owner were harshly treated.

  'No, not you darling, though by the way Blanche, it's far too cold for those kind of clothes today. It's only April, you know. As for that top -well, we'll talk about that later. No, Daddy woke me up. Yes you did, darling. I was having a beautiful sleep at the time. I know I was. I didn't even need to take a second pill. Seriously, I thought the bull had escaped from the top field.' Christabel, who had sounded rather faint when she first spoke, was now coming back quite strongly. She went on: 'Well, as I am awake, shall we all have breakfast together? Blanche darling? Julian?'

  Her eyes fell on a breakfast tray already laid on the bar. The service was of bone china, ornamented by sprigs of lily of the valley, with the exception of the coffee pot, which had a dark-green and white ivy pattern. The voile tray-cloth and single napkin were embroidered with lilies of the valley.

  'Whatever happened to the coffee pot belonging to this set?' Christabe! demanded quite sharply. There was a silence.

  'It got broken,' said Blanche. 'I think Mrs Blagge broke it.'

  'Then I think I'll have the ivy-leaf set for the time being,' Christabel broke off and gave a little laugh. 'Sorry, darling - I'm being quite ridiculous. I know I am. But you know how I feel about things that don't match. I just can't help it.'

  Julian put his arm round his wife's shoulders and kissed her cheek.

  'Goodness, you do look pretty this morning,' he said. 'Doesn't she, Blanche? Eighteen, going on nineteen. Blanche's age exactly. And Blanche is looking pretty good this morning too.'

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