“By the way, old chap, are you going to Martia Vannery’s party next week, by any chance?”
Elroy Flemming asked his question in a deliberately casual manner, but Blair Derreker chuckled at the tone—it was just a shade too casual.
Flemming had buttonholed Derreker in Regent’s Street and had stood drinks with inexplicable generosity, chattering happily about nothing in particular, until Derreker had said, “Time I was rolling along.” Then Flemming had produced his question about Martia Vannery’s party, and Derreker guessed that that question had been the cause of little Elroy’s unusual generosity in the matter of drinks.
“They say a straw shows which way the wind blows, and that the direction of Elroy Flemming’s nose indicates the focus point of tomorrow’s gossip column,” laughed Derreker, quite good-humouredly, “but why this interest in Martia Vannery, small man?”
Elroy’s rabbit-like nose twitched, as it always did when he was really interested.
“I’ve heard people talking about her lately—in the sale-rooms, y’know. Remarkable woman, artistic flair and a rare bargainer. You’d expect her to be unusual—Gabriel Vannery’s daughter would be. Amazing old man, Vannery.” Elroy studied his companion’s face and continued more carefully, “That great house of hers—must be a magnificent building. Said to have the finest studio in London, and some of old Vannery’s canvases still on the walls. Fact is, I’m dead keen on Regency architecture, and I’ve never been inside that house—”
“And you want me to take you to Martia Vannery’s party? Well, I don’t see why not. She’s got a crowd coming, I believe. Who you want to meet there? Not Martia, certainly. She’s too large for one of your size.”
“Thanks very much, Derreker. March 5th, isn’t it. Could you dine with me first?”
Flemming jumped at the main point, which was that Derreker would take him to Martia Vannery’s party, and ignored the other comments.
“Sorry. I’m fixed for dinner. I’ll get Miss Vannery to send you a card, since you’re so set on it,” replied Derreker. “Rather off your line of country, what? You’ll find the Vannery studio a bit austere, not like your Tom Fool shows in Chelsea, all beer and tinsel.”
“Ah, I’m told it’s a magnificent period design,” babbled Flemming, and Derreker cut in:
“Period design my eye! I’ll see you have a card. Cheerio, Flemming. Time I buzzed off.”
Elroy Flemming trotted off a moment later, quite satisfied with the results of his expenditure. He did not often have to stand drinks, and he very seldom had to pay for his own dinners, because he had a host of acquaintances who found him useful. “Ask Flemming. He’ll know all the latest bits and pieces, and he’s an amusing small ass.” So said those who could afford to dispense meat and drink in return for the latest gossip, the latest tall stories, the latest indication of scandal in high places.
Elroy Flemming was an opportunist, with a very good memory and a positive genius for nosing out trifling information and putting two and two together. Most women liked him, because he had a charming knack of appearing intensely interested in them. Most men tolerated him because he would dispense useful tips concerning speculation, sporting or financial. In his own line as a gossip, he had undoubted ability to foresee in which quarter society would next concentrate its fickle attention.
Martia Vannery’s name had cropped up once or twice lately, among the dilletantis of the fashionable world who liked to foregather with what Flemming called “the Chelsea crush,” and Flemming wished to make the lady’s acquaintance.
Martia was the daughter of that once-famous painter, Gabriel Vannery. Old Gabriel had passed his prime before Flemming had been old enough to take an interest in the iniquities which were attributed to that remarkable old man. In fact, when Flemming first caught sight of Martia Vannery’s immensely tall figure and had learnt her name, he muttered to himself, “Vannery, Vannery, what the devil … ?”
“Yes, the devil knew all about old Gabriel. Amazing old sinner!” had chuckled a voice beside Flemming. “That’s Gabriel’s daughter. Keep an eye on her, Flemming. She’ll be news one day.”
In the interval which elapsed between Flemming’s conversation with Derreker and the evening when he arrived at the party in the great studio at St. John’s Place, close by Regent’s Park, the diligent little gossip had busied himself in learning all that was known of Martia Vannery’s history.
Meeting Derreker shortly after his arrival at the Vannery studio, Flemming had asked to be introduced to his hostess, and had then slipped back to the end of the studio under the gallery, in order to observe those about him before he chose a likely-looking informant to be discreetly pumped for information.
Flemming had a small mind as well as a small body. Trivialities were his stock-in-trade; he was incapable of apprehending anything on a large scale, and despite his verbal protestations of artistic appreciation he had no real sense of form or proportion. The immense studio in which he now found himself made no appeal to his imagination; he simply saw it as a damned great barn of a place. Martia Vannery’s superb presence made him uncomfortable, she was too tall, too statuesque, too overbearing for small Flemming to feel happy in her presence. In his careful, small-minded way he summed up what he had recently heard of her character. “Hard as nails over a business deal, and a damn’ good business head, but generous to the verge of stupidity when her feelings are moved. Given to doing things in the grand manner, like old Gabriel. Surprising old man, was Gabriel.” Thus said Brand Sharp, the veteran dramatist, and it was from Sharp that Flemming had learnt something of Martia Vannery’s history. Standing in a corner of the studio, glass in hand, Flemming pondered over what he had heard.
Gabriel Vannery had been a notable character: as a painter he had produced work showing greater extremes of excellence and vileness than any other Academician of the last century. It was the contrast in his work that was so amazing—and so provocative. On the one hand he covered enormous canvases with the smoothest, most accomplished, most worthless narrative pictures, of a sentimental and popular quality which was either adored or despised. In contrast he painted portraits which could only he described as satires, and nudes in the veritable Cezanne tradition which showed a power almost equal to the greatest of the Post-Impressionists. The “academic” Vannerys commanded enormous prices in England in the late nineties, when prosperous business magnates bought Academy pictures as a token of their wealth, and the impressionist Vannerys sold on the Continent for almost equally large sums.
The old man must have made a fortune, meditated Flemming—but he lived too long. The last thirty years of his life showed a steady decrease in power of earning coupled to steadily increasing extravagance. In 1900, at the age of sixty, Vannery had astounded London by marrying his latest model—“I don’t know which is the greater fool, the bride or the bridegroom,” had commented Baines, the sculptor. Certainly the lovely, tongue-tied girl who married the famous old man for his money must have repented her bargain. She died, after ten years of bullying, leaving Martia, a strange dark-eyed child, to be brought up by the tempestuous old painter.
Vannery died in 1930, at the age of ninety. Ten years before that Martia Vannery had run away from her father’s house and lived abroad, only to reappear in London after her father’s funeral, heiress of the wreck of Vannery’s fortune. An heiress of debts and nothing else, it was thought at the time, but few people realized Martia’s quality as a business woman. Somehow she managed to sell the remainder of Vannery’s own work and his collection of famous drawings so that she cleared his debts and left herself free—with St. John’s Place still as her own. It was a huge echoing house of the Regency period, its painted stucco exterior showing all the grace with which Nash and Decimus Burton endowed the domestic architecture of their day, its interior planned as a nightmare to servants, and as a weariness to those who lived in it.
Even over the house Martia Vannery achieved the unexpected. She refused to sell it, though the local agents pestered her, telling her of the value of “this unique building plot” in these days of towering flats. After Vannery’s debts were settled, Martia disappeared abroad again for a couple of years, leaving St. John’s Place shut up. When she returned to London, she had builders into the house dividing it up into flats; she kept the vast studio and the ground door rooms for her own use, letting off the floors above for the best price she could command—and very good prices she got.
Flemming was right in his observation that Martia combined artistic flair with business ability. She had made up her mind to live in St. John’s Place, to oust the bitter memories of a father whom she had hated—and justifiably hated, so the gossips said. Here, in old Gabriel’s studio, she felt she had the laugh on her side at last. It was hers, hers to show to the world, hers to open to the sunshine, and the shadow of the bitter-tongued, hectoring old bully was laid low. The very thought of Gabriel’s fury at the idea of his house being let off in floors was pleasant to her. It was the one way she could make enough money to live in the house as she wished to do, and if the arrogant old ghost chafed in the shadows of the cellar-like basement, so much the better.
Elroy Flemming moved over to a seat behind one of the pillars which supported a small gallery at one end of the studio. From here he could study the gathering and overhear more comments inasmuch as he was partially screened from observation. He saw Martia Vannery standing beside Yates, the dealer, and seeming to tower above him, so tall was she, so short the scowling little man in the badly cut dinner-jacket. Martia was built as a Juno amongst-women—too tall, thought Flemming, too commanding, and yet somehow missing beauty, for all her sculptured fineness.
“I’m sorry for Martia.”
Flemming pricked up his ears. It was old Senbright, the portrait painter, who was speaking confidentially as to one whom he knew well.
“Why? She does herself pretty well these days, doesn’t she?—and she’s a grand creature to look at.”
This was in a woman’s voice.
“Too grand,” said Senbright. “She gets her size and build from Gabriel, and her features too. She’s missed everything a woman ever wanted, and there’s Gabriel’s hot rage behind her steady front. If you’re full of hot blood it’s a drawback to look like a statue … . There’s too much of the man in her for her to be a successful woman, and yet sometimes I see her looking like her mother—that lovely little fool.”
“Martia’s no fool. Yates says she’s the hardest bargainer in London,” said another voice. “Is it true she studied in old Lemoine’s studio in Paris?”
“Not to my knowledge” said Senbright. “I’ve never heard of her painting at all.”
“Some one said she cooked up some of Gabriel’s old canvases and got them into the salerooms after his death,” chuckled the third speaker. “It’s a grand idea, Martia keeping her painting quiet, and using it to endow old Gabriel with posthumous canvases. I wouldn’t believe that story of many women—but Martia! She looks capable of anything.”
“If she could paint like that, there’d have been no need for her to let off her house in bits to the highest bidders.” said the woman’s voice, and Senbright chuckled.
“Don’t agree with you. Martia’s got business sense. Quite true about her driving a hard bargain. She learnt to do that in the school of grim necessity after she bolted from that old devil of a father of hers. I think she’s shown great wisdom. She’s got for herself the only part of the house she wanted, and her tenants carry the expenses of it and keep her in clover. Funny to think of Gabriel’s daughter as a shrewd economist. Must have got that sense from her mother.”
Flemming got up and joined the group, appearing unobtrusively from behind the pillar.
“I expect you have seen this studio under very different circumstances from tonight, sir.”
Senbright nodded his white head in affirmation and allowed himself another chuckle.
“I’ll grant you that. I’ve been here during Gabriel’s life-time, and seen him drink his party under the table, man by man. By gad, sir, men of Gabriel’s size don’t live any longer. He may have been master of all the vices, but he indulged in them in the grand manner. I’ve a sneaking affection for Gabriel’s memory, and I respect his daughter. I’m glad to see her living here, and glad to know that all the difficulties of her girlhood didn’t poison the place for her. But for Martia, Vannery’s studio would have been pulled down long ago, and there’s not much left in London on this scale.” He looked down the great room and sighed. “We live in holes and corners these days, but you can’t imagine Martia Vannery in one of these pathological flats people inhabit nowadays.”
“Martia’s too large for a modern flat,” said the girl to whom Senbright had first spoken. “She’d explode if she were shut up in the box where I live—pathological flat just about describes it.”
“My dear Miss Romney,” apologized Senbright in confusion, and Elroy Flemming picked up his ears at the name. Romney … What the devil had he heard about the Romneys? There was a story somewhere …
Taking his opportunity a moment later, when the group near at hand reformed, Flemming attached himself to the tall girl named Romney, holding out his cigarette case and saying,
“I believe we’ve met before, Miss Romney— at Monte, wasn’t it?”
She turned and looked at him with an expression which Flemming had often seen on the faces of modern young women, half bored, half speculative, as though asking “Is this worth while?” Tall, slender, and excessively thin, Juliet Romney had beauty of a kind, but her small pointed face looked too haggard and feverish, and her eyes were restless. Surprising eyes they were, very blue under black eyebrows.
“Have we?” she replied. “I’ve the world’s worst memory for faces. As a matter of fact, I did live on the Riviera for a year or so, but I’ve been over at Hollywood working on Stein’s new film for the last few months. My sister-in-law, Thelma Romney, had a villa behind Cannes last year. Perhaps you’re thinking of her. She’s got one of the flats in this house now. I should love one myself, but Martia Vannery won’t oblige.”
Flemming’s excellent memory had filled the gap. Thelma Romney. He remembered now. Her husband had died while they were living on the Riviera: overdose of a sleeping drug. Nothing ever proved. One of those cases people had gossiped about, though. He smiled at his companion and kept the conversation going.
“Do you really want to live here? These old houses have so many drawbacks, they don’t convert well.”
“There are drawbacks everywhere,” grumbled Juliet Romney, with a twitch of her pencilled brows. “Philosophy of life in a nutshell. Life consists of steering one’s way through the drawbacks and not being landed permanently in one. I feel the flat I live in now is pretty pathological, as that old boy said just now. It’s loathsomely commonplace. This house isn’t commonplace. There’s a something to it. It has character and a name that people remember. Old Vannery’s sins invested it with a cachet. Then Martia herself is a character.”
“So I’ve heard,” said Flemming. “I can quite see that the house is an interesting one, and its tenants unusual. I expect that Miss Vannery showed her usual flair in choosing them.”
Juliet Romney shrugged her white shoulders.
“Martia’s unaccountable. She either extorts money like a Shylock or just gives things away. Thelma says she’s mad—”
“And you, more long-sightedly, see the method in her madness,” suggested Flemming. “Do tell me about the other tenants here. I expect you know all about them,”
Again Juliet Romney’s queer, tired, beautiful eyes met Flemming’s speculatively, as though seeking a hidden meaning behind his words.
“Oh, no, I don’t,” she said. “It’d take more wits than mine to fathom everyone in this house—but they’re an interesting lot, I grant you. Waller Caird lives on the first floor. You’ve heard of him, I take it?”
Flemming nodded. “Yes. Pre-war matinee idol of the cloak and dagger school. Won a packet in the Calcutta Sweep and left the stage. It was said that he raked in such a pile that it might last him even though he lived to be a hundred.”
“Does a pile ever last? I often wonder if old Caird’s not nearly through his little lot. Trust an old actor to let the money rip. He’s got some gorgeous stuff in his flat; you ought to go and see him if you’re interested in antiques. His flat’s on the first floor. Thelma has the one above.”
“Thelma Romney … She was on the stage at one time, surely? Ingénue parts—didn’t she play in Braid’s Snub for Sully?”
“She did. You’ve got a good memory, haven’t you? It was a good long time ago. She left the stage soon after that. Sensible of her. One can’t go on playing ingénue parts all one’s life. Have you really met her?”
The blue eyes stared straight into Flemming’s in a rather disturbing way, and he replied hastily:
“No, no. I don’t think so. It’s just the name that’s familiar. Isn’t that Caird over there?”
Juliet Romney nodded and waved a hand at the old actor. Caird was tall, with burnished silver hair and piercing dark eyes. His stock and monocle suited him well, and he carried his years gallantly, looking even more picturesque as an old man than he had looked on the boards in his youth. Flemming felt that his evening was panning out well. Martia Vannery, Waller Caird, Thelma Romney—all acceptable names from the gossip’s point of view. Moreover, he sensed something unusual about the girl he was talking to. Behind her modern way of discussing her hostess and her hostess’s affairs there was a restless, feverish nervousness which intrigued Flemming.
“Caird was on the stage, likewise Thelma Romney,” he smiled. “Are the other tenants theatrical people too?”
“Oh, no. There are the Bryands, Anton and Valetta, you know. Of course, they’re rolling in money. Do you know them?”
Flemming shook his head. “Bryand? No. Who are they?”
“My dear man! They’re V. A. B. Strong. They collaborate, you know, and nobody knows which of them does the actual writing. They sold 80,000 copies of Gangways.”
Flemming whistled. This was a real plum, if it were true. Gangways had been the most talked-of novel of last year, and the secret of its authorship had been well kept.
“However did you find that out?” he inquired.
“Thelma knows. She’s one of the people who gets told everything. It’s true. It is really.”
Flemming tried not to look skeptical. It sounded too him almost too good to be true.
“Do you know them—the Bryands?”
“More or less. I’ve talked to them on the stairs. Look here, if you’re interested, let’s go upstairs and look them up. They’re rather attractive. I’m tired of this studio. It’s too impressive. Gets me down somehow, and makes me feel a failure. I generally get what I want, somehow, and tonight I haven’t got it.”
Flemming followed Juliet Romney with alacrity. If there were any chance of meeting the author—or authors—of Gangways he felt his luck was in. She led him through a small room where cocktails and sandwiches were being served—it opened out of the studio by a door under the gallery—saying:
“We can get into the main hall this way. I’ve never been in any house where there are so many doors as there are in this. You can walk round in circles everywhere.”
Passing through the next doorway behind his guide, Flemming looked at the fine stairway which swept in a curve from one corner of the marble-floored hall and soared up to the first storey—an absurdly long staircase it seemed, in these days of nicely spaced little flights, but the house was an absurdly lofty house.
“No lift. There wouldn’t be,” he murmured. “D’y’ know, Miss Romney, I should hate living in this house. There’s something grim about it, and this great staircase effect—it’s uncomfortable. Gives me a feeling there’s some one watching up above, and listening. No privacy in a place like this. I like my cosy little hole better.”
Juliet Romney stood still, three steps up the wide staircase, and looked down at Flemming.
“Everyone yearns for the commonplace nowadays,” she said scornfully. “Mass production, cut to pattern, parts supplied, no deviation from the normal tolerated … Haven’t you any feeling for atmosphere, any desire to live in a place that’s out of the common rut?”
Flemming looked up at her, and into his cautious, trivial mind came a feeling of unease. There was something dramatic in her poise, in the slender, tense figure, and the rebellious, discontented face. Those vivid blue eyes under their dark pencilled brows, the line of close-shut, obstinate lips, the gesture of long, red-nailed fingers—it was an actress’s pose and expression, but Flemming preferred drama on the other side of the footlights, or at least in the company of his fellows. He suddenly wondered why he had left the crowded studio to go on what he suspected was a wild-goose chase with Juliet Romney.
“Oh, me for comfort every time,” he said feebly. “I recognize my limitations, but I do like security.”
She laughed. “I wouldn’t have credited you with so much imagination! You feel that this place is weird—haunted. So do I. It’s because it feels like that that I want to live here. Martia living at the bottom of the stairs, and her old witch at the top. Come on. If we’re to find Valetta and Anton we’ve got to climb the stairs some time—unless you’ve changed your mind?”
Flemming heard the mockery in her voice and shrugged his shoulders, setting his foot on the lowest stair.
“Lead on and I follow—but I mean it when I say that I shouldn’t like to live here. What do you mean by the old witch?”
She dropped her voice as she replied:
“There’s an incredibly ancient old thing who lives right up at the top, in the very rooms I yearn for. What Martia’s got her here for I just can’t imagine, but Martia always has her reasons, even for inviting people to parties. Caird lives on this floor. It’s a gorgeous flat, atmosphere or no atmosphere.”
They had arrived at the first landing, whose proportions, Flemming noticed, were spoilt because a partition had been put up half-way across its breadth to shut off the flat. The height remained, the breadth was halved, and the result was an uncomfortable feeling of narrow loftiness.
“Only two more flights. Grand exercise and good for the figure. Thelma lives above this one, then the Bryands, and the witch at the very tip-top. Come on!”
By the time Flemming had reached the third flour he was panting. It was a long time since he had ascended so many stairs, but at least he could console himself with the prospect of another good story——Martia Vannery’s house, with Juliet Romney as showman. It was cold on the stairs—no central heating in this establishment apparently, and the chill of the marble door in the hall far below seemed to reach upwards. Flemming shivered a little, for all the exercise he had taken.
“My God!” he puffed. “It beats me why you yearn to live here. It’s like a mausoleum!”
“Better than a parrot-house, anyway, and it’s quiet,” she retorted. “Listen! Is there anywhere else in London so still?”
Flemming listened. Not a sound from the studio below penetrated to the landing on which they stood. Not even the throb of the London traffic was perceptible.
“Quiet? Yes, I’d say it is. It’s quiet in a grave, I’ve no doubt,” he replied. “While I’m alive, I like to feel that I’m alive. This house is fit for corpses and ghosts.”
“They say old Vannery haunts the basement,” said Juliet, one finger on the bell-push beside the doorway outside which they stood. “If you’ve got the jitters on these stairs, I wonder what you’d feel like in the cellars. They’re spooky, and then some. Martia’s shut them up now. She tried to get a house-man to live down there, but he bolted after a week. Said he saw things …”
The door was opened to them suddenly—Flemming had not heard a sound from within—and a tall young man looked at them with a glance of inquiry. An extraordinarily attractive young man, Flemming noticed instantly, with chestnut hair and deep-set hazel eyes. Flemming always noted charm when he saw it. Juliet stared at the red-headed fellow for a second before she found her voice.
“Is Miss Bryand at home, or her brother?”
“No. I’m afraid not. They’re away. They’ve lent me their flat.”
“Bother,” said Juliet calmly. “People are always away when I want them to be at home. We were at the party in the studio downstairs, and thought we’d come upstairs for a change.”
“I say, Darbley, I’ve got the contraption to work,” called another voice from inside the flat. “It’s an outsize in noises.”
An outburst of some incomprehensible tongue in the distorted throaty blare of a very loud loudspeaker accompanied the words, and another man crossed the entrance hall of the flat and glanced at Juliet Romney and her companion.
“Hello, little Elroy, good man! Come to try the beer what? Roll in and tell us some stories, small man, and help finish the sausages.”
Flemming recognized the speaker—a lively youth named Nigel Standish, who was reputed to be one of the most daring amateur pilots of the day.
“We’ve just gate-crashed out of one party,” said Flemming, sidling past the red-haired youth who had opened the door, and glancing round the little lobby. “I think yours might be less of an intellectual effort than the one downstairs … hello, my chaperon doesn’t seem to think so.” His last remark referred to Juliet Romney, who had turned away from the doorway and gone farther along the landing.
“I’m all for sitting out on stairs, but you’ll want fur coats if you’re going to practise the technique here,” said Standish in the slightly thickened articulation of the semi-drunk.
“God! This is a house!” sighed Flemming, “It’s more like a vault. Is this where I play the game of looking for the missing lady?” He turned back to the landing. “Makes me think of corpses and coffins and creeping crawling things in catacombs—”
“And crematoriums and catastrophes,” put in the young man named Darbley. “The lady didn’t seem to like the look of you, Standish. She’s just melted away, or perhaps she’s gone on to another party upstairs, not liking the others she’s tried.”
“Gad, it is a spot chilly here,” said Standish. “Are you coming in, Elroy, or going to look for the disappearing lady? Is it a game, or a treasure hunt, or something intellectual?”
“God knows. I’m toddling off home,” said Flemming. “Sorry you were tr-r—oubled. Go back to Moscow calling. Cheerho and all that!”
“I believe she’s batty,” said Flemming to himself as the door was closed by the grinning Standish. “Why the hell did she …” He broke off in his self-question and stood still just as he was about to hurry downstairs. A sound had come from the archway which presumably led the last of these interminable flights of stairs—a sound of someone tripping or falling, Next second Juliet Romney reappeared, her hand stretched out to support herself against the wall, and Flemming saw that her face had become drawn and ghastly, the rouge standing out in patches on a skin drained of its natural colour.
“I say,” broke out Flemming, “anything wrong? You look pretty shattered.”
She gasped when she saw him, and a start ran through her limbs:
“Oh—you … I thought you’d gone in there. It’s nothing. I slipped and wrenched my ankle. Sorry about the Bryands. Let’s go down again.”
She advanced towards him along the landing, but instead of going downstairs, as she evidently intended him to, Flemming stood his ground.
“What’s up?” he inquired, “Why did you go off like that? Why did you come up here, for that matter—and what’s happened upstairs?”
She stood leaning against the wall, looking at him in the queerest way, and Flemming suddenly pushed past her and walked to the alcove from whence she had just appeared. An electric light was burning there, illuminating the last steep flight of stairs which led to the topmost storey, and the short length of passage which led to the stairs from the landing on to which Darbley’s door had opened. The unshaded rays of the strong bulb shone onto a huddled black-clad figure which lay prone at the foot of the stairs, and gleamed on the silver-white hair of the old woman who lay grotesquely bunched there, one arm out-thrust, a minatory finger pointing along the polished floor.
“My God!” said Flemming. “The old witch … God! What a story!”