At the breakfast table of Whimbrell House, Whimbrell Heath, Surrey, silence reigned. Daniel Lythewell, partner of the firm of Lythewell and Askern, Church Artists, Furnishers and Monumental Masons, the cause of the heavy and, he hoped, meaningful silence, had progressed from dissatisfaction to irritation and was now on the verge of downright annoyance.
He sighed, buttered a piece of toast, sighed again, poured himself a cup of coffee and rustled the Daily Telegraph in a significant way. Despite all this, Maud, his wife, remained oblivious. It was frankly appalling the way she ignored him.
Lythewell stolidly ploughed through the headlines, the political comment, glanced over the leader column, disagreed with it – silently – and turned to the classified adverts. Damnit, Maud knew he always commented on the morning paper.
He rustled the newspaper once more. Maud drank her tea, flicking through the pages of some fashion magazine or other. It was as if, Lythewell thought with a sense of outrage, as if she hadn't noticed. Hadn't noticed! Despite his determination to be silent, he was goaded – absolutely goaded – into speech.
He tossed the paper to one side.
'I really think you should reconsider your decision, Maud.'
'What decision, Daniel?' said Maud Lythewell absently.
'About the exhibition,' he said testily. 'What the dickens do you think I'm talking about?'
Maud smothered a yawn. 'I've really no idea.' She glanced down at the pages of Modern Woman and read at least three paragraphs. 'Is that why you're so grumpy this morning?' she said in a bored voice. 'You're like a bear with a sore head.'
'I don't think you realise how important the exhibition is, Maud. Naturally, I expected you to cancel any other appointments—'
'Cancel my appointments?' She gazed at him in wide-eyed bewilderment. 'Don't be silly, darling. I told you a week ago I had a dress fitting. I can't possibly cancel it.'
'I expect your support,' Lythewell continued, as if she hadn't spoken. 'I think there's every chance that the Winterbourne woman will place a commission.'
'Don't be silly, darling,' repeated Maud, picking up a piece of toast. Her gaze went back to Modern Woman. 'If Miss Winterbourne wants you to decorate her school chapel, she'll ask you whether I'm there or not.'
He breathed in heavily. 'If you don't want to come, then I suppose there's nothing more to be said. However, I must insist that Betty attends the exhibition with me.'
Maud put down Modern Woman. 'But I need Betty,' she wailed plaintively.
Betty Wingate was Daniel Lythewell's niece. Left unexpectedly stony-broke following the death of her father, Charles Wingate, she had come to live with the Lythewells three months ago.
Maud Lythewell had quickly realised that Betty had a great capacity for hard work. She liked, as Maud expressed it to herself, to be kept busy. Maud was indulgence itself in encouraging her to fulfil this particular liking.
'Betty's so useful when I'm in Town,' Maud protested.
Daniel Lythewell's forehead furrowed in a frown. 'Betty was a pupil at Rotherdean.'
'Rotherdean?' questioned Maud.
'Miss Winterbourne's school,' said Lythewell. 'We've been through this, Maud. As a former pupil, Betty knows Miss Winterbourne well. She might very well sway Miss Winterbourne's decision to award us the commission.'
Maud's gaze flicked back to the magazine. 'Decorating a chapel isn't like buying a new hat. Miss Winterbourne won't be swayed by Betty. She must be fearfully strong-minded. Headmistresses of girls' schools usually are, I imagine.'
'Nevertheless, I must insist.'
'You really are being completely unreasonable, Daniel.' She noticed his frown and decided to compromise. 'Oh, very well, have it your own way if you're going to make such a beastly fuss, but Betty's so useful when I'm in Town,' she said once more.
'Don't you think you sometimes treat Betty a little too much like an unpaid servant?' said Lythewell. 'She is my niece, after all.' He was still annoyed with Maud.
'A servant?' Maud was shrill with indignation. 'Are you mad? We've given her a home, made her welcome, been unfailingly generous. Of course she wants to help. Think of the poor girl's feelings. Of course she wants to show some gratitude. It's a matter of self-respect.'
'All right, Maud.' Lythewell shrugged. 'I sometimes feel sorry for her.'
'There's no reason whatsoever to feel sorry for her,' snapped Maud. 'If she wasn't so young and pretty, I doubt you'd feel quite so sympathetic, niece or no niece.'
Daniel Lythewell suddenly laughed. 'Don't tell me you're jealous.' He found the idea flattering.
'Don't be ridiculous.'
She was jealous, thought Lythewell. He cleared his throat to indicate a change of subject. 'It doesn't matter, anyway. I think there's every chance Betty won't be with us for much longer. From what I saw the other day I thought she seemed very taken with young Colin Askern.'
Maud didn't like Colin Askern, as he well knew. He derived real satisfaction from her snort of indignation.
'Colin Askern! Don't speak to me about Colin Askern.'
'Why not?' demanded Lythewell, determined to argue. 'He's a perfectly decent young feller. John Askern's son. There's nothing wrong with him. He's coming to the exhibition.'
Maud's shoulders went back. 'As Colin Askern is a member of the firm, of course he is attending the exhibition, but Betty has seen far too much of him in the last couple of weeks. His manner towards her is far too familiar. Perhaps she does not appreciate that informality may be construed in the wrong way. I will grant that he is a remarkably good-looking young man, but his looks are all he has to recommend him. Not only is he completely unsuitable but there have been unsavoury rumours about him.' She paused significantly. 'Need I say more?'
Daniel Lythewell's eyebrows shot up in enquiry.
Footsteps in the hall urged Maud Lythewell to be cautious. 'Signora Bianchi,' she hissed. 'And you know what they say about her!'
In her bedroom, Betty Wingate, the hem of her dress in one hand and a needle in the other, yelped as the needle slipped and jabbed into her thumb. Damn! She quickly grabbed her handkerchief and dabbed her thumb, anxious not to get any spots of blood on her old blue dress.
It might be old and the hem might need catching up, but it was one of the nicest dresses she had. She really hoped Uncle Daniel would persuade Aunt Maud to let her attend the exhibition.
Admittedly, an exhibition of church art didn't promise to be exactly rollicking, but at least it was better than fetching and carrying for Aunt Maud while she debated which hat and gloves she simply couldn't live without. It was hard – very hard – not to feel envious of the way Aunt Maud casually acquired some really lovely clothes, while she had to make the tiny income Dad had left stretch to almost impossible lengths. Every so often Uncle Daniel would slip her some spending money, which was nice of him, but it wasn't much.
Uncle Daniel's and Aunt Maud's invitation had come when she was nearly at the absolute end of her money and just about at the end of her tether. To act as Aunt Maud's unpaid companion was no sort of life, but at least she had a roof over her head and could eat.
If only she'd been trained for something! Then she could earn her own living, but training cost money. Rotherdean had provided an excellent education, but no training. The expectation was that the exceptionally gifted girls would go on to university and, eschewing husbands and the prospect of a family, embrace a teaching career, while the rest would marry. There really weren't many other options open, but Betty felt she'd tried them all.
Marriage ... It was almost inevitable that Colin came immediately to mind. She liked Colin, liked him a lot, and he liked her. She knew that well enough, even if he did treat her like a kid sister. Money was the key to that, too, she thought savagely as she sucked the blood from her thumb. Colin was a very practically-minded man. If she'd been well-off, she knew Colin's manner would be different. Less matey and more respectful. It wasn't that he was mean or grasping, but he was ... Well, practical.
All of which made his liking for Signora Bianchi even more mysterious. At the thought of Signora Bianchi, the needle nearly slipped again. What the hell did he see in her?
The rumours had flown thick and fast, but Colin seemed oblivious to gossip. Eventually, unable to stand the barely concealed innuendo, Betty had taken the bull by the horns and asked Colin outright what was going on.
The conversation, if you could call it that, predictably ended in a row, with Colin declaring it was none of Betty's business and if she wanted to listen to village gossip rather than trusting him, that was her affair.
But it was her business – or she'd like it to be, anyway. Betty had no doubt that Signora Bianchi was a man-eater, pure and simple. Colin had aquiline cheekbones, butter-coloured hair and vivid green eyes. He was a very good-looking man; exactly the sort to attract Signora Bianchi as a sort of ... of hobby, she supposed.
She really had her hooks into him, Betty thought savagely, her sewing suffering as a result. She couldn't have any real feelings for him and, if she did, that would be just pathetic. She was years older than Colin. She was like a cat, dark, sleek and sophisticated. Colin thought Signora Bianchi was glamorous. He referred to Betty as a nice kid.
It wasn't, thought Betty, reaching for her scissors, as if Colin was the only one. She hadn't mentioned this to Colin, as it really wasn't any of her business, but Colin's father, John Askern, had been seen leaving Signora Bianchi's cottage more than once. Mr Askern was still a very good-looking man. Daphne, his wife, was indulgent and pleasant and worth two of Signora Bianchi.
Men were fools, she decided, putting her dress on to a hanger. The hem would have to do. Signora Bianchi really was rotten to the core. Mrs Askern was a nice woman. She might not be sophisticated or glamorous, but she was generous and kindly and didn't deserve to be treated like that.
With a feeling of grim determination, Mrs Daphne Askern went into her husband's dressing-room.
John Askern paused in the act of adjusting his braces and looked at her enquiringly. At the sight of her expression his heart sank. She couldn't have found out, could she? He looked at her with a consciously enquiring smile. 'What is it, my dear?'
'Never mind the my dear. I want a word with you, John. I thought there was something wrong.'
Askern's stomach twisted. She couldn't know. She just couldn't know. 'Something wrong? You're mistaken, Daphne. I realise I may have seemed abstracted recently ...' Abstracted! That was an understatement! '... but you must realise how busy I've been with the exhibition coming up. I've had a tremendous amount to do.'
'Never mind the exhibition,' said Daphne Askern. She swept a coat off the dressing-room chair onto the bed and sat down, glaring at her husband. He fell silent under her accusing stare. 'It's not the exhibition I want to talk to you about, it's this.'
To Askern's horrified gaze she produced an envelope addressed to him. The envelope was written in a flowing hand in violet ink. He knew exactly what it was and who had written it. Carlotta Bianchi. How the devil had Daphne got hold of it?
'I found this,' said Daphne, 'in your coat pocket.' There was a steely glint in her eyes. 'I'll read it, shall I?'
Askern's mouth was suddenly dry. He made a noise in his throat as she took the letter from the envelope. 'I haven't got time to discuss the matter now, Daphne,' he blustered.
Daphne Askern's eyes were like gimlets. 'Oh yes you have. You never have faced up to unpleasant facts, John, but you are going to face up to this.' She unfolded the letter.
'Mio caro John,' she read, glaring over the top of her spectacles. 'That, I presume, is some sort of foreign greeting. I can see you this afternoon at three. We shall be alone. Carlotta. Well?'
Askern pinched his forehead between his thumb and his fingers. How could he have been such a fool as to leave that letter in his pocket? Anger, futile and ineffective, flared. 'What were you doing, poking round in my things?'
If Daphne Askern had been angry before, she was furious now. 'Poking round in your things! How dare you? I looked in your coat pockets because you had left your coat on a chair. I was hanging it up. I was looking after it for you. That, John, is the sort of thing a wife does. A wife, John.'
'It's ... it's not what you think,' he began weakly. 'No, it really isn't.' Sudden inspiration struck and, raising his head, he met her blistering stare. 'It's Colin.'
'I beg your pardon?'
'Colin,' he repeated, with growing confidence. 'I heard rumours he's been seeing the woman. I didn't want them to come to your attention. I ... I thought you'd be upset.'
He saw her expression change. 'As a matter of fact,' she said grudgingly, 'I know there's been some talk.'
Daphne Askern, a comfortably off widow, had married John Askern, a widower with a growing son, some years after her first husband had died. She'd thought John rather a romantic figure. He was an artist, a gifted artist, but a respectable one, a partner in Lythewell and Askern. Her more worldly friends, dwelling on both his lived-in good looks and his profession, warned her that there might be incidents, as they phrased it. Daphne had dismissed their warnings. She enjoyed having a husband, a stepson and a house to look after and, so far, she'd been very happy.
She was enough of a realist to know that John wouldn't have married her if she'd been badly off, but she had never troubled herself overmuch with ifs and buts and how things would be if the circumstances were different. Such speculations were, she thought, a complete waste of time.
She sighed deeply, considering the matter. She wasn't entirely reassured. Finding that note had been an awful shock and, although the note was short, it seemed very familiar in tone. For one thing, the woman had addressed him as John and signed it with her Christian name, but ...
Daphne Askern had a comfortable life and didn't want it disturbed. She had asked John to account for the letter and he had accounted for it. She knew her husband cared very deeply for Colin. That was believable.
'So you went to see Signora Bianchi to find out the truth of these rumours about her and Colin?'
'Exactly,' said Askern in relief. 'I wanted to know what was going on.'
'I see,' said Daphne guardedly.
'So I ... er ... made an appointment with Signora Bianchi.'
There was a pause while Daphne Askern took this in. 'And what is the truth behind the rumours about her and Colin?'
'Signora Bianchi assured me that there was nothing more than friendship between her and Colin.'
'Friendship?' Daphne Askern was incredulous. 'How on earth can they be friends? They can't have anything in common.'
Askern swallowed. 'Art, you know? And films. You know what a keen film fan Colin is. He talks to her about films and art and culture and photography and so on.'
Daphne considered this. It sounded credible. Colin, although he hadn't inherited his father's talent, was enthusiastic about modern art. He was certainly an avid film fan and was a keen amateur photographer.
John Askern saw her expression change. 'She takes a great interest in his photography,' he continued, pressing home the advantage. 'She's very cultured and she's travelled widely.'
'I see,' repeated Daphne. 'Is this the truth?' she asked sharply.
'Of course it's the truth, my dear. Do you honestly think a woman like that would hold any attraction for me?' He gave a laugh which, even to his own ears, sounded unconvincing.
Daphne hesitated for a long while, then folded up the letter. 'It's a great pity, John, you didn't see fit to confide in me.' She sniffed. 'I consider it to be a most unsuitable friendship for Colin, but he's a grown man and that's his own affair.'
'Unfortunately, I have to agree, but you can see why I was worried about the boy.'