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Hired by the terminally ill widow of a scoundrel to return a collection of ill-gotten "Old Master" paintings to their original owners, Mrs. Pargeter is distressed to learn that the art has been pilfered again on the eve of their rightful return, this time by an amiable but slippery band of thieves. Reprint.
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Simon Brett is the author of five previous Mrs. Pargeter novels, most recently Mrs. Pargeter's Plot and Mrs. Pargeter's Pound of Flesh. He is also the creator of the Charles Paris mysteries and of three suspense novels, including A Shock to the System, which became a film starring Michael Caine. Well-known in Britain as a television and radio dramatist, he is a former president of the British Crime Writers' Association. He lives with his family in an Agatha Christie-style village in the south of England.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Gary the chauffeur whistled, as the spiked gates opened automatically. 'Bennie Logan done all right for himself, didn't he, Mrs Pargeter?'
'Yes,' the plump, white-haired lady in the back of the limousine agreed. 'Pity he didn't live longer to enjoy it.'
What Bennie Logan didn't live longer to enjoy was the Elizabethan manor house up whose drive they were proceeding at an appropriately decorous pace. The exceptionally warm September afternoon showed the building at its best. Chastaigne Varleigh was a monument to elegance in discreetly mellowed red brick, punctuated here and there by fine leaded windows. It had been sympathetically restored to its earlier magnificence, and the surrounding grounds showed the same punctilious attention to cosmetic detail. No mole would have dared to break through the even green of the lawns, no weed would have had the effrontery to poke up through the valeted gravel that led to the front door of Chastaigne Varleigh.
Mrs Pargeter's pull on the chain of the doorbell was answered by Veronica Chastaigne. What the house's owner saw on her doorstep was a well-upholstered woman in a bright silk print dress. The visitor had beautifully cut white hair, and her body tapered down to surprisingly elegant ankles and surprisingly high-heeled shoes. There was about the woman an aura of comfort and ease. Though this was their first encounter, Veronica Chastaigne felt as if they had met before, and as if here was someone in whom she would have no difficulty in confiding anything.
The house's interior reflected the same care and discreet opulence as its exterior. The sitting room into which Veronica Chastaigne ushered her guest was oak-panelled, but prevented from being gloomy by the bright prints which Upholstered its sofas and armchairs. Sunlight, beaming through the tall leaded windows, enriched their glow. The room had nothing to prove; it manifested the casual ease of the genuine aristocrat, to whom such surroundings were nothing unusual.
And Veronica Chastaigne looked as if she had lived in them from birth. Though now nearly eighty, she still had a majesty in her gaunt features, an ancestral hauteur in the long bony fingers that handled the silver and fine china of the coffee tray. But she quickly disabused her guest of the notion that she had always lived in the house.
'Oh, no,' her effortlessly patrician vowels pronounced. 'Bennie changed our surname to Chastaigne when we bought the place.'
Mrs Pargeter looked appropriately surprised. 'I'd assumed Chastaigne Varleigh had been in your family for generations.'
The older woman chuckled. 'I'm afraid nothing stayed in my family for very long -- estates, paintings, jewellery -- it all had to be sold off eventually. We were the original titled spendthrifts. Bennie was the one who accumulated things.'
She then showed Mrs Pargeter some of the 'things' that her late husband had 'accumulated'. They were hung in a panelled Long Gallery which ran the length of the third floor of the house, and some of them were very old 'things' indeed. Old Masters, in fact. Though Mrs Pargeter had no formal training in art, she could recognize the translucence of a Giotto, the russet hues of a Rembrandt, the softened shadows of a Leonardo. And, coming more up to date, she had no difficulty identifying the haziness of Turner, the geometry of Mondrian, the tortured whorls of Van Gogh. (In artistic appreciation, she had always followed the precept of the late Mr Pargeter: 'I don't know much about art, but I know what it's worth.')
'They're quite magnificent,' she breathed to her hostess in awestruck tones.
'Yes, not bad, are they?' Veronica agreed briskly.
Then came the innocent enquiry, 'Do you open the gallery to the public, Mrs Chastaigne?'
The elderly aristocrat got as near to blushing as her upbringing would allow. 'No, I don't think that would be quite the thing.' In response to an interrogative stare, she continued, 'You see, my dear, all of these paintings are...in the terminology of the criminal fraternity...hot.'
Mrs Pargeter nodded comfortably. 'Oh. I see.'
It was after six o'clock when they returned to the sitting room. 'Certainly time for sherry,' Veronica Chastaigne announced in a tone which admitted no possibility of disagreement.
Not that Mrs Pargeter would have disagreed, anyway. She was of the belief that there were quite enough unpleasant things in life, and that it was therefore the duty of the individual to indulge in the pleasant ones at every opportunity. She raised her crystal glass of fine Amontillado to catch the rays of the September evening sun.
'Cheers,' she said, waiting patiently for the information which she knew must come. Veronica Chastaigne had invited her to Chastaigne Varleigh for a purpose. Soon she would discover what that purpose was.
But the old lady was in nostalgic mood, caught in bitter-sweet reminiscence of her late husband. 'No woman could have asked for a more considerate companion than Bennie. Or more loving. The moment he first burst on to my horizon when I was twenty-one years old, I was totally bowled over. I'd never met anyone like him.'
'Oh?' Mrs Pargeter knew to a nicety how minimal the prompts to confidence needed to be.
Veronica chuckled. 'Could have come from another planet. You see, up to that point my social life had all been the "season" and hunt balls. I'd been surrounded by chinless wonders. People of "our own sort". The "right class of person".'
'So your parents didn't approve of Bennie?'
'Hardly. They were absolutely appalled. Mind you, I was far better off with him than I would have been with any of the titled peabrains they were offering. And the day we were married, Bennie promised that he would keep me in the lifestyle to which I was accustomed.'
'Hence Chastaigne Varleigh?'
'Yes. And, er, the pictures.' The old lady gave a sweet and innocent smile. 'I never thought it proper to enquire into the sources of my husband's wealth.'
'Very wise.' Mrs Pargeter had had a similar arrangement with the late Mr Pargeter.
'Shortly before Bennie died...' Veronica Chastaigne spoke more slowly as she approached the real purpose of their encounter, 'he assured me that, if ever I needed any assistance...assistance, that is, in matters where an approach to the police would not have been the appropriate course of action...'
Mrs Pargeter nodded. She knew exactly what the older woman meant.
'...I should contact his "good mate", Mr Pargeter.' She focused faded blue eyes on her guest. 'I was therefore not a little surprised when my summons was answered by you rather than by your husband.'
'I'm sorry to say that Mr Pargeter is also...no longer with us.'
'Dead,' Mrs Pargeter amplified readily.
'I understood the first time.' Veronica Chastaigne's face became thoughtful, and even a little disappointed. 'Mmm. So perhaps I will have to look elsewhere for assistance...'
'Don't you believe it,' Mrs Pargeter hastened to reassure her. 'I regard it as a point of honour to discharge all of my husband's unfinished business.'
This news brought a sparkle back to the old lady's eye. Her guest leant enthusiastically forward in her armchair. 'So tell me -- what is it needs doing?'
There was only a moment's hesitation before Veronica Chastaigne also leant forward and began to share the problem that had caused her to summon Mrs Pargeter to Chastaigne Varleigh.
Copyright © 1998 by Simon Brett
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