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Authors: Ngaio Marsh

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Last Ditch

BOOK: Last Ditch
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Last Ditch
Ngaio Marsh

For the family at Walnut Tree Farm

Cast of Characters
Young Roderick Alleyn (Ricky)
Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn
His father
Troy Alleyn
His mother
Inspector Fox
His godfather
Jasper Pharamond
Julia Pharamond
His wife
Selina & Julietta Pharamond
Their daughters
Louis Pharamond
Their cousin
Carlotta Pharamond
His wife
Bruno Pharamond
Jasper’s brother
Susie de Waite
Dulcie Harkness
An equestrienne
Cuthbert Harkness
Her uncle
Gilbert Ferrant
Of Deep Cove
Marie Ferrant
His wife
Louis Ferrant
Their son
Sydney Jones
A painter
Bob Maistre
Landlord of the
Cod-and-Bottle
Sergeant Plank
Of Deep Cove
Mrs Plank
His wife
Their Daughter
Dr Carey
Police surgeon, Montjoy
Bob Blacker
Veterinary surgeon
Police Constables Moss & Cribbage
Jim Le Compte
A sailor
Sundry fishermen, waiters and innkeepers
CHAPTER 1
Deep Cove

With all their easy-going behaviour there was, nevertheless, something rarified about the Pharamonds. Or so, on his first encounter with them, did it seem to Ricky Alleyn.

Even before they came into their drawing-room, he had begun to collect this impression of its owners. It was a large, eccentric and attractive room with lemon-coloured walls, polished floor and exquisite, grubby Chinese rugs. The two dominant pictures, facing each other at opposite ends of the room, were of an irritable gentleman in uniform and a lavishly-bosomed impatient lady, brandishing an implacable fan. Elsewhere he saw, with surprise, several unframed sketches, drawing-pinned to the walls, one of them being of a free, if not lewd, character.

He had blinked his way round these incompatibles and had turned to the windows and the vastness of sky and sea beyond them when Jasper Pharamond came quickly in.

‘Ricky Alleyn!’ he stated. ‘How pleasant. We’re all delighted.’

He took Ricky’s hand, gaily tossed it away and waved him into a chair. ‘You’re like both your parents,’ he observed. ‘Clever of you.’

Ricky, feeling inadequate, said his parents sent their best remembrances and had talked a great deal about the voyage they had taken with the Pharamonds as fellow passengers.

‘They were
so
nice to us,’ Jasper said. ‘You can’t think. VIPs as they were, and all.’

‘They don’t feel much like VIPs.’

‘Which is one of the reasons one likes them, of course. But do tell me, exactly why have you come to the island, and is the lodging Julia found endurable?’

Feeling himself blush, Ricky said he hoped he had come to work through the Long Vacation and his accommodation with a family in the village was just what he had hoped for and that he was very much obliged to Mrs Pharamond for finding it.

‘She adores doing that sort of thing,’ said her husband. ‘But aren’t you over your academic hurdles with all sorts of firsts and glories? Aren’t you a terribly young don?’

Ricky mumbled wildly and Jasper smiled. His small hooked nose dipped and his lip twitched upwards. It was a faunish smile and agreed with his cap of tight curls.

‘I know,’ he said, ‘you’re writing a novel.’

‘I’ve scarcely begun.’

‘And you don’t want to talk about it. How wise you are. Here come the others, or some of them.’

Two persons came in: a young woman and a youth of about thirteen years, whose likeness to Jasper established him as a Pharamond.

‘Julia,’ Jasper said, ‘and Bruno. My wife and my brother.’

Julia was beautiful. She greeted Ricky with great politeness and a ravishing smile, made enquiries about his accommodation and then turned to her husband.

‘Darling,’ she said. ‘A surprise for you. A girl.’

‘What do you mean, Julia? Where?’

‘With the children in the garden. She’s going to have a baby.’

‘Immediately?’

‘Of course not.’ Julia began to laugh. Her whole face broke into laughter. She made a noise like a soda-water syphon and spluttered indistinguishable words. Her husband watched her apprehensively. The boy, Bruno, began to giggle.

‘Who is this girl?’ Jasper asked. And to Ricky: ‘You must excuse Julia. Her life is full of drama.’

Julia addressed herself warmly to Ricky. ‘It’s just that we do seem to get ourselves let in for rather peculiar situations. If Jasper stops interrupting I’ll explain.’

‘I have stopped interrupting,’ Jasper said.

‘Bruno and the children and I,’ Julia explained to Ricky, ‘drove to a place called Leathers to see about hiring horses from the stable people. Harness, they’re called.’

‘Harkness,’ said Jasper.

‘Harkness. Mr and Miss. Uncle and niece. So they weren’t in their office and they weren’t in their stables. We were going to look in the horse-paddock when we heard someone howling. And I mean
really
howling. Bawling. And being roared back at. In the harness-room, it transpired, with the door shut. Something about Mr Harkness threatening to have somebody called Mungo shot because he’d kicked the sorrel mare. I think perhaps Mungo was a horse. But while we stood helpless it turned into Mr H. calling Miss H. a whore of Babylon. Too awkward. Well, what would you have done?’

Jasper said: ‘Gone away.’

‘Out of tact or fear?’

‘Fear.’

Julia turned enormous eyes on Ricky.

‘So would I,’ he said hurriedly.

‘Well, so might I, too, because of the children, but before I could make up my mind there came the sound of a really hard slap, and a yell, and the tack-room door burst open. Out flew Miss Harness.’

‘Harkness.’

‘Well, anyway, out she flew and bolted past us and round the house and away. And there in the doorway stood Mr Harkness with a strap in his hand, roaring out Old Testament anathemas.’

‘What action did you take?’ asked her husband.

‘I turned into a sort of policewoman and said: “What seems to be the trouble, Mr Harkness?” and he strode away.’

‘And then?’

‘We left. We couldn’t go running after Mr Harkness when he was in that sort of mood.’

‘He might have hit
us,’
Bruno pointed out. His voice had the unpredictable intervals of adolescence.

‘Could we get back to the girl in the garden with the children? A sense of impending disaster seems to tell me she is Miss Harkness.’

‘But none other. We came upon her on our way home. She was standing near the edge of the cliffs with a very odd look on her face, so I stopped the car and talked to her and she’s nine weeks gone.
My guess is that she won’t tell Mr Harkness who the man is, which is why he set about her with the strap.’

‘Did she tell you who the man is?’

‘Not yet. One musn’t nag, don’t you feel?’ asked Julia, appealing to Ricky. ‘All in good time. Come and meet her. She’s not howling now.’

Before he could reply two more Pharamonds came in: an older man and a young woman, each looking very like Bruno and Jasper. They were introduced as ‘our cousins, Louis and Carlotta’. Ricky supposed them to be brother and sister until Louis put his arms round Carlotta from behind and kissed her neck. He then noticed that she wore a wedding ring.

‘Who,’ she asked Julia, ‘is the girl in the garden with the children? Isn’t she the riding-school girl?’

‘Yes, but I can’t wade through it all again now, darling. We’re going out to meet her, and you can come too.’

‘We have met her already,’ Carlotta said. ‘On that narrow path one could hardly shove by without uttering. We passed the time of day.’

‘Perhaps it would be kinder to bring her indoors.’ Julia announced. ‘Bruno darling, be an angel and ask Miss Harkness to come in.’

Bruno strolled away. Julia called after him: ‘And bring the children, darling, for Ricky to meet.’ She gave Ricky a brilliant smile: ‘You
have
come in for a tricky luncheon, haven’t you?’ she said.

‘I expect I can manage,’ he replied, and the Pharamonds looked approvingly at him. Julia turned to Carlotta. ‘Would you say you were about the same size?’ she asked.

‘As who?’

‘Darling, as Miss Harkness. Her present size I mean, of course. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’

‘What is all this?’ Carlotta demanded in a rising voice. ‘What’s Julia up to?’

‘No good, you may depend upon it,’ Jasper muttered. And to his wife: ‘Have you asked Miss Harkness to stay ? Have you dared?’

‘But where else is there for her to go? She can’t return to Mr Harkness and be beaten up. In her condition. Face it.’

‘They are coming,’ said Louis, who was looking out of the windows. ‘I don’t understand any of this. Is she lunching?’

‘And staying, apparently,’ said Carlotta. ‘And Julia wants me to give her my clothes.’

‘Lend, not give, and only something for the night,’ Julia urged. ‘Tomorrow there will be other arrangements.’

Children’s voices sounded in the hall. Bruno opened the door and two little girls rushed noisily in. They were aged about five and seven and wore nothing but denim trousers with crossover straps. They flung themselves upon their mother who greeted them in a voice fraught with emotion.

‘Dar –
lings!’ cried Julia, tenderly embracing them.

Then came Miss Harkness.

She was a well-developed girl with a weather-beaten complexion and hands of such a horny nature that Ricky was reminded of hooves. A marked puffiness round the eyes bore evidence to her recent emotional contretemps. She wore jodhpurs and a checked shirt.

Julia introduced her all round. She changed her weight from foot to foot, nodded and sometimes said ‘Uh.’ The Pharamonds all set up a conversational breeze while Jasper produced a drinks-tray. Ricky and Bruno drank beer and the family either sherry or white wine. Miss Harkness in a hoarse voice asked for scotch and downed it in three noisy gulps. Louis Pharamond began to talk to her about horses and Ricky heard him say he had played polo badly in Peru.

How pale they all were, Ricky thought. Really, they looked as if they had been forced, like vegetables, under covers, and had come out severely bleached. Even Julia, a Pharamond only by marriage, was without colour. Hers was a lovely pallor, a dramatic setting for her impertinent eyes and mouth. She was rather like an Aubrey Beardsley lady.

At luncheon, Ricky sat on her right and had Carlotta for his other neighbour. Diagonally opposite, by Jasper and with Louis on her right, sat Miss Harkness with another whisky-and-soda, and opposite her on their father’s left, the little girls, who were called Selina and Julietta. Louis was the darkest and much the most
mondain
of all the Pharamonds. He wore a thread-like black moustache and a silken jumper and was smoothly groomed. He continued to make one-sided conversation with Miss Harkness, bending his head towards her and laughing in a flirtatious manner into her baleful face. Ricky noticed that
Carlotta, who, he gathered, was Louis’s cousin as well as his wife, glanced at him from time to time with amusement.

‘Have you spotted our “Troy”?’ Julia asked Ricky, and pointed to a picture above Jasper’s head. He had, but had been too shy to say so. It was a conversation piece – a man and a woman, seated in the foreground, and behind them a row of wind-blown promenaders, dashingly indicated against a lively sky.

‘Jasper and me,’ Julia said, ‘on board the
Oriana.
We adore it. Do you paint?’

‘Luckily, I don’t even try.’

‘A policeman, perhaps?’

‘Not even that, I’m afraid. An unnatural son.’

‘Jasper,’ said his wife, ‘is a mathematician and is writing a book about the binomial theorem, but you musn’t say I said so because he doesn’t care to have it known. Selina, darling, one more face like that and out you go before the pudding, which is strawberries and cream.’

Selina, with the aid of her fingers, had dragged down the corners of her mouth, slitted her eyes and leered across the table at Miss Harkness. She let her face snap back into normality, and then lounged in her chair sinking her chin on her chest and rolling her eyes. Her sister, Julietta, was consumed with laughter.

‘Aren’t children awful,’ Julia asked, ‘when they set out to be witty? Yesterday at luncheon Julietta said: “My pud’s made of mud,” and they both laughed themselves sick. Jasper and I were made quite miserable by it.’

‘It won’t last,’ Ricky assured her.

‘It had better not.’ She leant towards him. He caught a whiff of her scent, became startlingly aware of her thick immaculate skin and felt an extraordinary stillness come over him.

‘So far, so good, wouldn’t you say?’ she breathed. ‘I mean – at least she’s not cutting up rough.’

‘She’s eating quite well,’ Ricky muttered.

Julia gave him a look of radiant approval. He was uplifted. ‘Gosh!’ he thought. ‘Oh, gosh, what is all this?’

It was with a sensation of having been launched upon unchartered seas that he took his leave of the Pharamonds and returned to his lodging in the village.

‘That’s an upsetting lady,’ thought Ricky. ‘A very lovely and upsetting lady.’

II

The fishing village of Deep Cove was on the north coast of the island: a knot of cottages clustered round an unremarkable bay. There was a general store and post office, a church and a pub: the Cod-and-Bottle. A van drove over to Montjoy on the south coast with the catch of fish when there was one. Montjoy, the only town on the island, was a tourist resort with three smart hotels. The Cove was eight miles away, but not many Montjoy tourists came to see it because there were no ‘attractions’, and it lay off the main road. Tourists did, however, patronize Leathers, the riding school and horse-hiring establishment run by the Harknesses. This was situated a mile out of Deep Cove and lay between it and the Pharamonds’ house which was called L’Esperance, and had been in the possession of the family, Jasper had told Ricky, since the mid-eighteenth century. It stood high above the cliffs and could be seen for miles around on a clear day.

Ricky had hired a push-bicycle and had left it inside the drive gates. He jolted back down the lane, spun along the main road in grand style with salt air tingling up his nose and turned into the steep descent to the Cove.

Mr and Mrs Ferrant’s stone cottage was on the waterfront; Ricky had an upstairs front bedroom and the use of a suffocating parlour. He preferred to work in his bedroom. He sat at a table in the window, which commanded a view of the harbour, a strip of sand, a jetty and the little fishing fleet when it was at anchor. Seagulls mewed with the devoted persistence of their species in marine radio-drama.

When he came into the passage he heard the thump of Mrs Ferrant’s iron in the kitchen and caught the smell of hot cloth. She came out, a handsome dark woman of about thirty-five with black hair drawn into a knot, black eyes and a full figure. In common with most of the islanders, she showed her Gallic heritage.

‘You’re back, then,’ she said. ‘Do you fancy a cup of tea?’

‘No, thank you very much, Mrs Ferrant. I had an awfully late luncheon.’

‘Up above at L’Esperance?’

‘That’s right.’

‘That would be a great spread, and grandly served?’

There was no defining her style of speech. The choice of words had the positive character almost of the West Country but her accent carried the swallowed r’s of France. ‘They live well up there,’ she said.

BOOK: Last Ditch
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