- Lord Benjamin Petty . . . master of Dungarees Castle
- Lady Henrietta “Hetty” Petty . . . his wife, a former movie star
- Worth . . . the butler
- Mrs. Jolley . . . the cook
- Peter Moss . . . the gardener
- Gladys . . . the housemaid
- Countess Sophronia Lancaster . . . eldest daughter of the castle’s former owner
- Diogenes Pratt . . . local pharmacist and Petty’s nephew
- Lucinda Leaharian . . . buxom owner of the local bookstore
- J.K. Diebehnkorn . . . American film director
- Greta Frink . . . Diebehnkorn’s secretary
- Rodney Lawrence Plum . . . literature professor at West Chiswick School for Boys
- Zuzana Materska . . . the Countess’ maid
- Mick . . . Moss’ friend
Dungarees Castle, Tuesday, 27 March, 8:00am
The weathered stone of Dungarees Castle is bathed in the brilliant morning light. Gentle clouds waft across an azure sky, and a mild breeze augurs a warm spring to come. The air is alive with birdsong. Even on the first floor of the castle, on the door of the south corner bedroom, one can hear the “rat-a-tat-tat” of – is it a woodpecker? No, it’s merely Greta Frink, stenographer’s pad clutched against her starched blouse, persistently knocking on her employer’s door.
From inside, she hears the thrashing of a body against heavy bedding, then a raspy voice: “Go . . . ‘way . . . “ Miss Frink sighs, knits her brow in steely determination, and resumes the “rat-a-tat-tat”. Harsher epithets follow, not to be repeated in polite company. The secretary grasps the doorknob, gives it a firm twist, and pushes the door open. She marches into the room and closes the door, none too gently, behind her. The figure tangled in sheets on the bed gives a jump and then remains still.
“J.K.!” Greta says pitilessly. “It’s eight o’clock. You wanted to send a telegram to Jack Warner. You wanted it out by first post. You made it sound like it was important. Have you changed your mind?”
A slight snore issues from the bed. She strides to within inches of the unconscious director, leans down, grabs his pyjamaed leg, and begins to shake it. She jumps back with a start as the leg shoots out, nearly colliding with her solar plexis. Greta throws the steno pad onto the bed, hurries over to the windows, and flings the curtains aside. The room is bathed in sunlight, and J.K. reacts with a snarl, throwing the covers over his head. Greta returns to his side and pulls the covers off the bed. She drags an armchair to the side of the bed, sits and composes herself, ready for dictation. After a moment, she reaches over and grabs a leg.
“I’m awake!” comes the voice in clearer tones from under the covers. Diebehnkorn drags himself up to a sitting position. He glares at the girl, hating her efficiency, hating his dependence on it. He waggles his hand, and she finds his cigarette case on the bedside table and hands it to him. He pulls out a Regie, lights it, inhales deeply, then blows the smoke at Greta. She doesn’t flinch. He hates her for that, too.
“Dear Jack . . . “ Greta’s hand flies over the pad as J.K. dictates the news about acquiring backing for 100 Proof. “ . . . and with Robinson secured, all that’s required is for you to secure Del Rio from Fox. We should discuss songwriters for her big torch number. Kern lacks bite, and Berlin has no sensuality. I think Warren and Dubin will – “ He stops, noticing that Greta has ceased dictation and is looking at him thoughtfully. “What’s the matter? I can’t be going too fast for you! You’re a machine!”
Greta ignores the gibe. “You think Dolores Del Rio is going to be in this picture?
Diebehnkorn’s eyes narrow. “I know Dolores Del Rio is going to be in this picture.” He leans over and viciously stubs out the cigarette on the top of his case. He expels one last blast of smoke reluctantly, leans back in his pillows and shuts his eyes. “Look! I have both script and casting approval. If I want Del Rio, I get Del Rio. Who’s to stop me?”
There is a knock on the door. Greta smiles at him, rising as the door opens, and Hetty bursts into the room swathed in lace. She ignores the secretary and fixes the man on the bed with a seductive smile.
“A moment of your time,” she simpers. Greta looks at her boss, steps past her hostess and out of the room. Hetty closes the door and flings herself onto the bed, causing J.K. to rock queasily.
“My God, woman!” he groans. “Can you take it easy? I have such a head – “
Hetty clucks and covers his forehead with kisses. Then she nestles into his arm.
“Listen,” she says. “Benjy woke me up this morning and gave me the wonderful news.”
Diebehnkorn squirms uneasily. “Yeah? What news is that, baby?” Hetty reaches up with a beringed finger and toys with his moustache.
“Silly! He told me he’s going to finance the movie and that you want me to star! Oh, J.K.! My heart’s been palpitating since I heard!”
She kisses his forehead again, over and over. Her head slips lower and the kisses become more amorous. J.K. Diebehnkorn accepts her lovemaking passively, his mind racing. The image of Dolores Del Rio, guitar in hand, sitting on his lavish movie set, creating box office gold with her luscious body and voice, all of it begins to ripple in his head like a reflection on water.
Suppressing his panic, he pulls Hetty off him with surprising gentleness and gives her a weak smile.
“Listen . . . Hetty.” She leans back and regards him, a faint frown appearing between her eyes. “You know that I would give anything to see you back where you belong. But . . . “
“What’s the problem, lover?” She makes The Face, that mischievous pout that had once appeared to great effect on the silver screen. Saucy, but with a sense of an innocence not quite lost. Diebehnkorn gave an inward shudder. Nobody is buying that look anymore.
He proceeds cautiously. “Well . . . you know what the problem is. Do I need to spell it out for you?
To his surprise, she laughs. “Oh . . . that.” She sits up and faces him, her face no longer childlike, but practical. “Well, J.K. we all have . . . reputations. Even you.” She pinches his cheek, and he flinches.
“Yes, but . . . “ He weighs his words carefully. “I’m only behind the camera, whereas you . . .well, you were a star.“
She rises from the bed, grabs a cigarette from his case, and paces the floor with it in her hand, unlit. It’s like a scene from Passion’s Interlude, one of her last good pictures. She paces back and forth, talking rapidly.
“I will be again, honey lamb, you leave it all to me. I’ve got the dope on those high and mighty men at the top. I know plenty about their wives, too. Always looking down their noses at me. If I need to, I can light a fire the likes of which you’ve never seen! You see if I can’t!” She stops, nostrils flaring, and wheels round to face him squarely. “It’s time to seal the deal with my husband, sweetheart.” She holds out her arms, moves forward and envelops him in her lacy web. Then she draws back. “Or . . . are you having second thoughts?” Before he can say anything, she leans in closely to his ear, her whisper like a kiss. “I wouldn’t try anything, honey lamb. You may work behind the camera, but I’ve got enough on you to nix your whole career.”
Again, she presses her lips to his. This time, he can’t control his shuddering.
* * * * *
Countess Sophronia rises early from a troubled sleep, dresses and makes her way downstairs and straight for the front door.
“Coffee?” She starts and turns to face the portal leading into the dining room. Lucy, stylishly dressed and beaming, sits at the table and raises her coffee cup invitingly.
“I was just going to take a little walk.”
“Of course. Have at it. It’s such a beautiful morning.”
Sophronia hesitates. “Would you care to join me?”
Lucy half lowers her cup. “Are you sure? Sometimes we find more solace in solitude.”
The Countess relaxes. “I had a bad night. But I’d like the company.”
Lucy rises and slips her arm through Sophronia’s. “Lead the way, Captain.”
The Countess proves to be an able guide, steering Lucy through the gardens and down into the farmland, stopping to regale her with tales of childhood antics, of the tomboy she used to be trying to impress a rambunctious and beloved older brother and his friends.
“Let me show you the barn.” They walk down a side path and enter the courtyard, desolate in the bright morning sunlight. They find the barn door shut but unlatched. A bit warily, Sophronia pulls the door open and stares into the gloom.
“Hello?” She turns and looks at her companion quizzically. “I would imagine their gardener knows better than to leave this open. An animal could wander away.”
“Oh, didn’t the man work for you before?”
“Oh, no. Old Mr. Dodd worked for Father for – well, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was sixty years. We never had the heart to ask him to retire. He passed away only a year ago. I believe Moss worked at the vicarage before Lord Petty scooped him up.
The Countess puts a finger to her lips and motions for Lucy to follow her into the barn. A cacophony of animal noises greets them. The hens scatter about their pen, clucking in alarm. The goats bleat, which sets the dogs to barking. Sophronia steps warily into the center of the barn and carefully observes the state of affairs.
“These goats haven’t been milked.” She examines the chickens as Lucy moves to the dogs’ pen. One of the pups noses forward, sniffs her curiously, and allows her to scratch his ears. Sophronia says, with mounting disapproval:
“Nobody has collected the eggs. What is going on?”
Suddenly, Lucy’s ears become attuned to another sound: the sonorous rasp of a human being in slumber. She turns her head to the right, then signals to the Countess. Together they move to the far corner of the room, and stop in horror. Against the wall, someone has built a series of small wooden cages. In each cage, an animal lays, inert and silent.
Lucy grasps Sophronia’s shoulder and points to the floor. A man lies curled upon the ground. His arms cradle another one of the still animal figures. His chest rises and falls in a labored fashion as if, even in sleep, he is engaged in some immense struggle.
The Countess approaches the figure, kneels before him, and lightly touches his shoulder. Moss jerks up with a start, his eyes wide in shock. He looks up at the two women, trying to focus, and then looks down at the inert form in his hands. Incredibly, he begins to weep.
Together the women struggle to bring Moss to his feet. With gentle patience, the Countess wrests the dead rabbit from his hands and places it back in an open, empty cage. Then they lead Pete out of the barn and toward his shack. His feet stumble a bit, but he is compliant. They stop at his door, and the Countess says, “ Lucy, take him inside. See if you can make him some tea. I’m going to get help.”
When they’re safely inside, Sophronia strides purposefully across the courtyard, then stops and stares at the barn door. She re-enters, locates feed for the chickens, then returns to examine the rabbit hutches. One, two, three . . . she counts a dozen bodies. Heavy-hearted, she reaches into the open cage and touches the stiff little figure that Moss had been holding.
Then she notices the lettuce leaves.
* * * * *
In the kitchen, Mrs. Jolley, more sleek and youthful-seeming than her name would suggest, ignores the preparation of breakfast to fix one of her special concoctions for the wreck of a man who now rests his head on the heavy wooden table, moaning pathetically.
“Come, dearie, Edna’s gonna fix you up.” She cradles his head in her arms and raises the glass to his lips. “You drink it all up, me boy. It’s the hair of the dog that’ll cure you.”
With the weakness of a shorn Samson, Diogenes gratefully accepts the cook’s tender ministrations and drinks down the potion. He lays his head back down and closes his eyes., while washes the glass, gives her porridge a stir, and wonders not for the first time where Moss must be with the morning’s eggs. She returns to her patient and tenderly rubs his temples. Diogenes begins to purr like a kitten.
“How does it feel?” she coos in a tone that couldn’t be called entirely motherly.
“Better,” he grunts.
“Sure, and I’ve nursed you through many a morning after, me boy. Now you get upstairs and soak in a bath, and let Edna finish the Master’s breakfast. I have to get back to the village and help me own family out.”
Diogenes rises shakily and wraps his benefactress in a tight hug. “You’re so good to me, Ma.”
Edna Jolley, once accused by her mother-in-law of being too much of a free spirit, spends a wistful moment enjoying the scent of this muscular young man she has known since he was in nappies. Then she pulls away a bit brusquely.
“Off with you now.” At that moment, the outside door opens and the Countess enters. A bit flustered, Mrs. Jolley curtseys and murmurs, “Your ladyship.” Diogenes ignores Sophronia and stumbles out of the kitchen toward the main hall. Mrs. Jolley smooths her hair and looks inquiringly at her esteemed visitor.
“I’m sure you were waiting for these.” The Countess holds out a basket filled with eggs
The cook receives the basket eagerly. “What happened to Moss? I’ll murder that man!”
“Moss is indisposed this morning. I happened to be passing by – a little journey through a nostalgic haze – and thought I could be of some help.”
“Well, I thank yer most kindly.” Mrs. Jolley curtseys again. “His Lordship is particular about getting his eggs every morning.” She bustles over to the stove and sets out a clean saucepan.
“Was Mr. Pratt unwell?”
The cook chuckles affectionately. “Mr. Pratt is suffering from the gentleman’s ailment. I fixed him up all right.”
“That was kind of you.”
“Ah, he’s a favorite of mine, is young Diogenes, always has been. Visits me here every day, and does he make me laugh! Besides, nobody knows better than me how to fix a hangover. I’ve had enough practice with me own husband and all the customers.”
The Countess laughs, watches her for a moment, and then says,
“I enjoy your cuisine so much, Mrs. Jolley.”
That fine woman’s shoulders give a shrug. “Just plain cooking, is all.” But she sounds pleased.
“I feel terrible about last night. You went to all that trouble to fix a special salad for Lord Petty, and then he didn’t eat it.”
Mrs. Jolley’s voice becomes acid. “She comes in in the morning, she does. Says he wants slimming. Orders me to fix a salad for his dinner. A fine one she is to talk about eating well. And I had the menu all planned out. Oh!” Mrs. Jolley’s face colors. “Begging your pardon, my lady. I spoke out of turn.”
The Countess smiles sympathetically. “Mum’s the word. It does us all good to vent a little.” She turns to leave and is stopped by Mrs. Jolley’s parting shot.
“Truer words were never said. I gave Diogenes an earful last night when he came in before dinner for a nice cup of tea with his Edna. Oh, yes, that boy is such a good listener.”
* * * * *
The shack is in disarray and terribly cold. Lucy can find neither the rudiments for tea nor a stick of wood, and so she pulls the meagre blanket off the bed and wraps it around the gardener. She leads him to a chair, gently makes him sit, and speaks to him like a nursemaid to her youngest charge.
“I’m going to fix us a fire, won’t that be nice?” Lucy exits the shack, exploring the courtyard in search of a woodbin. She finds one around the corner of the primitive domicile, grabs a couple of logs and some kindling and returns. Moss is standing in the middle of the room. He has thrown off the blanket and is shaking violently in agitation. He turns at the sound of her entry, startling her so that she drops the wood.
“Where is he?” he mutters. Lucy shakes her head in bewilderment. He looks down at his hands, fists clenching and loosening. He raises them as if again cradling the rabbit he held in the barn. Then he looks back up at Lucy, wild-eyed. He advances toward her, and she instinctively takes a step backward. The door behind her is half open. If she could only turn around, she could make a run for it. And yet she’s having trouble willing her body to move.
Moss closes in on her, reaches out and grabs hold of both her arms. His touch is surprisingly gentle. He leans forward and whispers in her ear.
“I’ll kill him.”
Then with the same eerie gentleness, he moves her aside and disappears through the doorway, out into the courtyard and beyond.
* * * * *
Of all those present at Dungarees, it is Professor Plum who rises the latest this morning. Unaccustomed to rich food and stimulating company, his first evening at the castle has exhausted him. After checking his pocket watch, he rises out of bed is a state of embarrassed alarm, makes quick work of his toilet, and hurries downstairs.
In the dining room he finds the butler setting silver trays on the sideboard. The maid polishes the gleaming surface of the table. Worth sets down the tray in his hand and faces the professor inquiringly.
“Good morning, sir.”
“Oh,” says Plum vaguely. “I’ve missed everybody.”
“You’ve missed breakfast, sir, but I can have Mrs. Jolley put together a tray.”
“Oh, dear me, no. Please don’t bother. I shall wait and eat with the others. Thank you.”
The Professor backs out of the room with a little bow, feeling shamed by his own indolence. He turns, marches to the front door, and walks outside into radiant sunshine. Shading his eyes, he surveys the vast driveway. In the distance, he spots a woman bustling in the direction of the entrance gate. His eyes are not very good, but from the movement of her figure it appears to be Miss Leaharian.
He raises his arm and waves in a futile gesture of greeting, then puts his hands in his pockets and decides to explore. He begins a circulatory route around the castle, pausing to admire the varied flora and fauna that strike his fancy. The fresh air invigorates him, and his pace quickens. His thoughts wax poetic.
“I have heard
The cock, that is the trumpet of the morn,
The cock, that is the trumpet of the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day.”
Don’t be silly, he scoffs inwardly, it’s nearly noon. But then, to his surprise, he hears the crowing of a cock. He makes his way toward the sound and comes upon a wide courtyard containing several buildings, including a small barn, from where the birdsong seems to have emanated.
Before he can investigate, another sound enters his consciousness: the galloping of horses. Sure enough, Professor Plum sees two men astride a pair of steeds enter the courtyard. The pace of the horses slows, and Plum can now make out the figures of his host and that oddly named film director. The latter cuts a better figure, but it is the corpulent Lord Petty who seems more at ease on a horse.
“Whoa!” His lordship clucks as the animals come to a full stop. “Good morning, old chap,” Lord Petty hails the Professor. He leaps off the horse and watches with some amusement at Diebehnkorn’s awkward descent. Petty looks about. “Moss! Moss!! Confound it! Where is that man?”
“You ride very well, sir,” says the Professor. His Lordship turns back with a grin.
“Yes, I do,” he says with a frank lack of modesty. “I learned from the best.”
“Yes, you were going to tell me . . . “ Diebehnkorn’s voice trails off as his foot gets tangled in the reins. The Professor hurries to assist him.
“It’s an interesting story. Let’s get these horses fed and watered, and I’ll tell you about Buck Haggarty.”
Lord Petty grabs the reins of both horses and leads them with surprising gentleness to a small stable he himself has erected a short distance behind the barn.. A brings the horses to trough filled with fresh rainwater, then fetches a brush and begins to comb down the animals.
“Not many men can tell you that they learned to ride from one of the biggest Western stars in the movies, but when I met Buck Haggarty, he was a fish out of water on the streets of London. His real name was Aaron Hooper. He hailed from a small town in Colorado, where his father ran a successful feed business. Longing to see the world, Aaron enlisted in the army and managed to make his way across Europe without seeing a bit of combat. He arrived in London, and when I bumped into him, quite literally during a party in the streets celebrating the war’s end, he was quite drunk and quite homesick.
“I wasn’t in much better shape myself, I have to say. My medical practice was a success, but work was piling up and I was frankly a lonely man. You might say that Aaron and I, polar opposites though we may be, reached out and saved each other. He was enthused by my services as a guide and I enjoyed his homely simplicity and Yankee appreciation for everything I showed him. We caroused together for a several weeks, even as the city began to be ravaged by the flu. There wasn’t a moment when my services weren’t in demand. It was exhausting and not a little frightening. Imagine, then, my feelings when young Aaron proposed that we journey together back to his home. He inspired in this older man the same spirit of adventure that had led him to enlist. And so we went.”
“To Colorado? But how – “
“Believe me, it was difficult! To book passage on a Transatlantic flight had become impossible. But Aaron wired to his father, and you can’t blame the man for wanting his son back home. He pulled some strings and less than two weeks later I found myself on a sprawling ranch house in the real-life Wild West.
“Gunnison, Colorado was a mountain town, and in the midst of a panic over the influenza encroaching on their community. The citizens welcomed me as one of their own and appreciated my medical advice. Since two railroads ran through the town, connecting Gunnison to major cities like Denver, the townspeople believed they were at great risk of being decimated by the disease, and I concurred. We shut the town down for several months: shunning visitors, prohibiting large gatherings, schooling children at home. We even banned church services, which believe me, didn’t go down well with the local clergy. But, through rigid enforcement, we got through the worst of that catastrophe, and there was not a single case of flu in Gunnison while I was there!”
J.K. has been listening carefully. “How lucky you were to have found this Eden.”
Petty laughs. “After the madness of London, I felt I was in paradise. And in the Hooper family I found friends for life. I treated Mr. Hooper successfully for gallstones and delivered his granddaughter. And Aaron taught me how to ride and care for horses, regaling me with stories of the people he met on his travels and of his growing love for the cinema. He talked about movies he had seen. He loved them all, especially the Westerns. It was a growing obsession of his, to be like one of those cowboys up on the movie screen.
“After a year in Gunnison, I was becoming admittedly restless, and so I offered to accompany Aaron to Los Angeles, acting as his chaperone and agent, to see if he had the stuff to be a part of the film business. And as you know, J.K., he more than fit the bill. The studios changed his name to Buck Haggarty, and his career took off. I remained his close friend, and we purchased a nice property in Hollywoodland that resembled a castle. Perhaps that is why I was drawn to . . . “ He looks fondly around his vast property.
“So . . . you stopped being a doctor?” the Professor asks.
“Not quite. Many of Buck’s new friends in the industry often found themselves in need of medical treatment and advice. Being in the public eye, they preferred their privacy. Buck would bring them around to the house, and I would offer my services. Some of them introduced me to certain business enterprises and my own fortunes increased. And then, one day, in walked my Hetty . . . “ His voice trails off. He returns his attention to grooming the horse. Professor Plum exchanges glances with the director.
“Ah, the stories you could tell,” says Diebehnkorn wryly.
Lord Petty clears his throat. “A gentleman never tells.”
Sensing a presence behind him, the Professor turns and sees Countess Sophronia appear from around the side of the barn. She approaches him, and he waves his hand in a friendly manner, but she doesn’t seem to see him. She is staring over his shoulder, her face grey, her eyes wide in shock. Plum turns around and at first, he sees nothing but his companions. Then, from the other side of the barn, two men emerge. One of them is the gardener Moss, and he is giving chase to another man, a ragged creature with wild hair and a worn, unshaven face. Moss bears down on the other, then gives a great leap and tackles him to the ground.
“Killer! Killer!” he cries, scrambling to trap his quarry’s body with his own. His fists rise and fall upon the cowering, whimpering figure underneath him.
“Nooo!!” The Countess runs past the others, falls to her knees beside both men and grabs Moss’ arm, struggling to stop him from leveling blows on the other. “Stop it! Please!!”
“Moss!” Lord Petty calls out harshly. “Stop that at once!”
The three men hurry over. Professor Plum raises the Countess to her feet and protectively leads her away, as Petty and Diebehnkorn pry the two men apart. As soon as he is free, the ragged man scrambles forward, rights himself, and dashes away around the corner. Moss struggles, moaning, and then collapses limply in the arms of his captors.
“We’ll take him back to the house and sort this out,” Petty tells the others. Plum feels the Countess’ hand gripping his arm tightly.
“Please, take me back,” she whimpers. He nods and begins to escort her toward the castle. At that moment, Worth appears from the direction of the courtyard, an incongruously calm figure. He addresses Petty.
“You have a telephone call, m’lord,” he says.
“Well, tell them to call back, man, can’t you see –“
“It’s the police, sir.” Both the Countess and Professor Plum emit a gasp. Lord Petty seems undecided for a moment, then instructs the butler to help Diebehnkorn take Moss back to his shack. The two men escort the gardener away, and Petty strides toward the castle. Plum and the Countess follow. At the door, she nods her head to him in mute thanks and glides, ghostlike, down the hallway and up the stairs. Plum watches after her, then follows the retreating figure of Lord Petty. He watches the man disappears into his study, and for several moments afterward, Plum remains standing in place, staring at the study door.
* * * * *
Petty places the receiver back on the telephone, leans back in the leather chair behind his desk, and closes his eyes. His mind races, stimulated by the earlier recounting of his American adventures, and by the outrageous behavior exhibited by his gardener. And now, remembering the startling information the inspector has just imparted to him over the phone, he envisions a whole new adventure about to play out!
His eyes wander around the study until they come to a portrait on the wall. One of the lesser Lancasters, he believes. He snorts. Oh well, it makes a good cover. He rises, crosses to the portrait and removes it from the wall, exposing the large, built-in safe. He turns the knob left and right, opens the safe and withdraws the shabby valise that the Professor had given him for safekeeping.
Lord Petty returns to his desk, sits down and lays the valise before him. He leans back and half-closes his eyes. For a moment, it appears as if he has dozed off. Then he snaps forward and, with a greedy smile, he opens the valise.
It seems I’ve gone on and on. So sorry, but next week . . . . MURDER!
See you then.