As Daisy took her hat from the wardrobe shelf and turned to the looking glass, Nana capered hopefully around her heels. Daisy looked down and sighed.
“Sorry,” she said. The little dog’s feathery tail and ears drooped. “Believe me, I’d much rather take you up Primrose Hill than go to the dentist, but I’ve put it off too long already. I can’t pretend I’ve forgotten the appointment when the blasted tooth aches like billy-o.” With the tip of her tongue she probed the hole—big enough to swallow a dinosaur, or at least to trip one.
Setting the cloche on her shingled curls, she straightened it and admired her reflection. Lilac coloured, with a cluster of pale yellow primroses to one side of the narrow brim, it was new for spring, “And rather dashing, don’t you think, Nana?”
She had acquired vast quantities of new clothes since her wedding six months ago. Her mother-in-law and her friend Lucy, though disapproving of each other on sight, agreed on one thing: Daisy’s wardrobe was a disgrace. She had gone from the nursery to earning her own meagre living via school uniform and the exigencies of wartime shortages, and fashion had never been one of her priorities.
It was difficult to be enthusiastic when today’s styles stressed the straight-up-and-down boyish figure which one would never attain. She did have decent legs, though, and the latest spring hemlines for 1924 had risen again to near the knee, to the elder Mrs. Fletcher’s outrage.
Still, Daisy felt she had quite successfully split the difference between the expectations of her mama-in-law, widow of a bank manager, and Lucy, a smart young woman-about-town. At least, Lucy considered her new clothes dowdy, while Mrs. Fletcher thought them far too modish for a respectable suburban matron. Alec seemed satisfied, and in the end that was all that mattered.
Belinda had chosen the hat. Daisy, always clad in daisyprint dresses and daisy-decked hats in nursery days, had continued to follow the path of least resistance in that regard. Her ten-year-old stepdaughter was more adventurous on her behalf. On a joint shopping expedition, she had spotted the lilac cloche with its primroses and insisted that it was perfect for Daisy.
Its purchase had necessitated the ordering of a new spring costume to match, in lilac jersey, with a pale yellow silk blouse. Though it was tailored instead of off-the-rack in Selfridge’s Bargain Basement, Alec had not even blinked at the bill. “Worth every penny,” he had said appreciatively the first time she wore it.
“Yes, quite fetching,” Daisy said now, and powdered her nose. Lip rouge? No, it would only come off all over the dentist’s hands.
The dentist … ugh! At the thought, the tooth gave a particularly vicious twinge. She moaned, and Nana licked her hand anxiously.
“I’d better get going. Mustn’t risk annoying Mr. Talmadge by being late when I’m going to be entirely at his mercy. What a way to start off a new week!”
She hurried downstairs. The sun was shining outside, but the April morning had alternated between sun and showers so she took a light coat from the coat cupboard at the back of the hall. On the way to the front door, pulling on her gloves, she stuck her head into the sitting room to say, “I’m just on my way to the dentist, Mother.”
It still felt strange to call Mrs. Fletcher Mother. Not for any sentimental reason—her own mother, Lady Dalrymple, had rarely visited the nursery, and now Daisy visited the dowager viscountess as rarely as she could get away with. Mrs. Fletcher, on the other hand, was ever-present. Admittedly, having her continue to run the household allowed Daisy to pursue her journalistic career, but she was definitely a damper.
“Don’t forget your umbrella,” Mrs. Fletcher said, looking up from the menus she was planning for the next day. “You’ll have to hurry if you’re not to be late for your appointment. You won’t want to offend Mr. Talmadge. He’s a neighbour as well as a dentist, remember. An excellent dentist. Where’s the dog? Put it out before you go, please, Daisy. I don’t want it making a mess in here, burying bones under the carpet.”
The bone burying had been a single incident, several weeks ago, but Nana was a bone of contention. Mrs. Fletcher regarded her every misdeed as entirely Daisy’s fault, since she had persuaded Alec to let Belinda adopt the puppy. Daisy took her to the kitchen, where Dobson, busy with the lunch dishes, welcomed her with a crust of toast.
“She can go out while it’s sunny, ma’am. If she does trample a few daffies, well, there’s plenty, and at least she isn’t a digger, I’ll say that for her. I’ll call her in if it rains.”
“Thank you, Dobson. I shan’t be more than an hour or so. I hope.”
“The dentist, isn’t it, ma’am? Rotten luck, but Mr. Talmadge is ever so good. Everybody says so.”
Everyone said Raymond Talmadge was a good dentist, Daisy thought as she hurried, pillar-box red umbrella in hand, down the front path to the tree-lined street. In his middle thirties, Talmadge was presumably experienced at his profession without being out of touch with the latest techniques. He was also extremely good-looking, in a pale blond, square-jawed, rather Nordic way. She had met him and his wife at someone’s dinner party, and again for cocktails at someone else’s house. Also, the Fletchers had been invited to their house once, for drinks before Sunday lunch.
The demands of Alec’s profession enabled the two of them to avoid a good deal of the St. John’s Wood entertaining circuit. The demands of Alec’s mother ensured that they did not escape altogether. Mrs. Fletcher was determined to introduce Daisy to her circle.
Good neighbourliness also played a part. Daisy didn’t want to be thought above her company, labouring as she did under the disadvantage of the “Honourable” before her name. It had inevitably become known, though she rarely used it. (After all, a distant cousin was now Viscount Dalrymple of Fairacres, since Gervaise was killed in Flanders and their father had succumbed to the flu pandemic.) So, while reserving her mornings for work and declining invitations to morning coffee, she accepted those for lunch and afternoon tea when her schedule allowed. Naturally, these were usually hen parties, their unstated purpose the exchange of gossip.
Daisy was quite surprised at the innocuous nature of the gossip. Apparently the professional middle class were as solidly respectable as their reputation.
She had made two new friends, mothers of school friends of Belinda, but she didn’t feel she had come to know any of the other women well. Mrs. Talmadge, the dentist’s wife, she recalled as one of the smarter set, always impeccably dressed.
Daisy returned to the present as she turned into the street where they lived. Mr. Talmadge’s surgery was in his house. Many of the large, detached houses were halfhidden from the street by laurels and hollies, behind railings. The Talmadges’ was separated from the pavement by a low brick wall fronting a lawn with a big chestnut, not yet in bloom. Brick gateposts framed the gravel carriage drive, and on one of these was a brass plate: Raymond Talmadge, Dental Surgeon LRCS 9:30—12:30, 2:00—5:30.
The sight of it made Daisy’s tooth throb, and butterflies started frisking about in her stomach.
She glanced at her wristwatch. Dead on two. She was just in time. She crunched up the drive, flanked by a neat bed of daffodils and crocuses. A paved path led off to the front door, but a sign on the corner of the building sternly admonished her to continue around the side for the surgery.
Ahead, the drive continued past the house to a garage at the bottom of the garden. To Daisy’s left, the house had two side doors, some yards apart. She stopped at the first, which announced Surgery—Enter. The door was unlocked so she obeyed.
The waiting room was deserted. The chairs against the white-painted walls looked reasonably comfortable, but Daisy felt much too fidgety to sit still. She noted without interest a rack with a selection of magazines, including a Punch she hadn’t read and an old Town and Country with one of her articles. The view from the window was less than engrossing: the yellow gravel drive and a high brick wall, covered with greenish bronze Virginia creeper, just beginning to leaf out.
Daisy turned back to the room. The wall to her right had a door in it, guarded by a desk with a modern, glass-fronted cabinet full of files behind it. On the desktop were a telephone, an open appointment book, and a stack of three or four manila folders.
She went to look. The top folder had her name on it, so she flipped it open. Inside was nothing but a blank invoice form. Naturally—she hadn’t seen Talmadge before. She wondered vaguely whether she ought to try to track down the dental records from her childhood and get them sent to him. It was ages since she’d seen a dentist.
And now she was here, she wanted to get the horrid business over with. Her watch said nearly ten past. She knocked on the door of the torture chamber.
No response. At that moment, she realized that the nagging pain which had driven her hither had vanished. Obviously the hole in her tooth was nowhere near as large as her tongue had led her to believe. Anyway, no one was here to deal with it, so she might as well go home. If the ache returned, she could always make another appointment. She’d better make her escape while the going was good, and ring up from home to explain why she had left.
Daisy was halfway across the waiting room when she heard hasty footsteps crunching on the gravel outside. The door swung open and a young woman in a grey cloak and white nurse’s cap appeared, high-coloured and breathing hard.
“I’m so sorry I’m late,” she cried. Even in her flustered state she was quite pretty, though rather sharp featured. She stripped off her gloves, dropped them on the desk, and cast off her cloak to reveal a neat navy frock with white collar and cuffs. “I’m Nurse Hensted, and you must be Mrs. Fletcher. Mr. Talmadge hasn’t called you through?”
“No. I knocked and there was no answer.”
“That’s odd. He’s usually ever so punctual. But so am I, and look at me.” Miss Hensted checked the watch pinned to her bodice. “Nearly ten minutes late! Lucky for me he is too. I’ll just go set everything ready for you and by that time he’ll be here.”
Daisy resigned herself to going through with the dreaded business.
The nurse turned the handle of the connecting door, but it didn’t open. “Oh dear! I wonder why he locked it? Maybe he decided to go out to lunch. He usually leaves it unlocked when he’s in the house.”
“He must have been delayed,” said Daisy, seizing the chance of a reprieve. “I can come back another time.”
“Oh no, Mrs. Fletcher, I’m sure he’ll be here any minute. There’ll be plenty of time for an examination at least, even if you should need another appointment. I’ll tell you what, I’ll go round to the front door and check if he’s just got busy with something and not noticed the time. I expect that’s it. Why don’t you come with me?”
By this time Daisy was beginning to be distinctly annoyed with Talmadge. She was, after all, a neighbour as well as a patient, and he ought to have had the courtesy to be on time for her. Rather than twiddle her thumbs in the depressing waiting room, she accompanied Nurse Hensted, hoping for another opportunity to flee without looking like a coward.
A shower began to spatter down as they turned onto the paved path.
“Botheration,” said Daisy, “I’ve left my umbrella in the waiting room. I’d better fetch it.”
“It will wait,” Miss Hensted pointed out, apparently without humorous intent. “We’ll be inside in a moment, if you come along. Otherwise I may get left on the doorstep while the maid goes to find Mr. Talmadge. They all know Mrs. Talmadge gets snippy at me going through the house.”
She seemed quite apprehensive, so Daisy, with an internal sigh, agreed. They hurried to the front door and had just reached it when a taxicab turned into the drive.
Mrs. Talmadge emerged. She wore a smart fawn coat, its shawl collar and wide cuffs trimmed with dark bands of astrakhan, as was her cloche hat. Even her handbag had astrakhan trimmings. As she approached, she put up the hat’s short veil and Daisy saw in her face signs of agitation or distress, a redness around the eyes, not quite concealed by careful make-up.
“What is going on, Nurse?” she asked sharply, and then, “Oh, it’s you, Mrs. Fletcher, good afternoon. Is there something I can do for you?”
“Good afternoon,” said Daisy.
Before she could explain, Miss Hensted interrupted, sounding quite antagonistic. “It’s Mr. Talmadge. Mrs. Fletcher came for her appointment and he’s not there. The door’s locked so we came round to see if maybe he’s overslept his forty winks or something.”
Mrs. Talmadge, her hand on the door handle, glanced back. A brief look passed between the two women. A shared secret, with no trace of liking, Daisy thought. Did Raymond Talmadge sometimes drink too much at lunch? But no, his reputation as a first-class dentist would never have survived that kind of overindulgence.
“We had a difficult morning,” the nurse continued. “Two screaming kiddies, and old Mr. Pettigrew, who’s set on keeping all his teeth though half of them ought to be pulled.”
“My husband will be so sorry to have kept you waiting, Mrs. Fletcher. Do come in out of the rain.”
“Thank you, but I won’t stay. I can make another appointment and come back another day.”
“Oh no, you mustn’t do that. I know how difficult it is to nerve oneself to see a dentist. Raymond will certainly fit you in this afternoon.”
Curses, foiled again! Daisy meekly followed Mrs. Talmadge into the house, Nurse Hensted at her heels.
On her previous visit, Daisy had been too busy trying to recall the names and faces of new acquaintances to pay the house much heed. The hall was welcoming, parquet floored, with daffodils in a green glass vase on the glossy walnut half-moon table. Reflected in the looking-glass hanging over the table, the flowers glowed like an indoor sun. Beside the vase, a silver tray held a couple of calling cards and three or four unopened letters. Ignoring these, Mrs. Talmadge opened a door on the left and glanced into the room beyond.
“He’s not in his study. Surely he’s not still eating lunch. It’s Cook’s day off, so she left him a cold lunch.” As she spoke, Mrs. Talmadge crossed to the opposite door and opened it. “He hasn’t eaten it. I wonder if he decided to go out instead and something delayed him? Just let me check the drawing room.”
They all trooped into the drawing room, a large room at the back of the house, furnished in the elegantly simple style of Sheraton or Hepplewhite—Daisy could never remember the difference. The wallpaper, striped in muted tones of lilac and blue, was perfectly complemented by two vases of vibrant Dutch iris. Yet the overall effect was lifeless, almost museumlike, wonderful for entertaining but unattractive for a cosy evening at home. No books or magazines lay about, no chess or draughts board with a half-played game, no jigsaw puzzle begun and temporarily abandoned, not even a record left out on the gramophone.
It reminded Daisy of the Fletcher house before she had moved in and subverted the rigid order imposed by Alec’s mother. Unlike Alec, though, the Talmadges had no children, so excessive tidiness was more understandable, if not more inviting.
It had not, apparently, invited Raymond Talmadge to snooze on one of those stiff brocaded sofas. His wife turned back, looking upset.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Fletcher. Perhaps he wasn’t feeling well and lay down upstairs. Otherwise I’m afraid he must have gone out to lunch, though I can’t imagine what might have delayed him. Oh, Gladys,” she said to a maid who was coming down the stairs at the rear of the hall, “have you seen the master?”
“No, m’m, not since breakfast. We’ve been upstairs doing some mending, me and Miss Kidd. I was coming down to clear the table. If you just came in the front door, I ’spect you just missed him and he’s in the surgery by now.”
“Of course, we must have just missed him!” Mrs. Talmadge went on past the stairs, her heels tapping on the parquet.
Daisy followed. A short passage to the right, leading to an outside door, had a door on each side, one to the kitchen and one to the surgery.
Opening the latter, Mrs. Talmadge stepped in. “Oh!” she exclaimed, turning as if to bar the way.
But Daisy was already through the door. There was the dentist’s chair. In it slumped the dentist, his pale hair unmistakable above the mask of the nitrous oxide apparatus clamped to his nostrils, half hiding his moustache. His eyes were closed, his lips curved in a happy smile, almost a grin.
Not a drinker but a dope fiend! Or perhaps laughing gas didn’t quite count as “dope,” but if his patients found out he was addicted to the stuff, his practice was bound to suffer.
Realizing she was too late to stop Daisy seeing him, Mrs. Talmadge turned back, saying sharply, “Raymond, this is no time for … Raymond?” She clutched Daisy’s arm. “He’s awfully still!”
Daisy tore her gaze from Talmadge’s silly smirk. With a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, she observed that his chest did not perceptibly rise and fall. She extracted her sleeve from his wife’s grip and moved forward, her only thought to remove the mask from his face.
But would that release the gas into the room and put them all under? She glanced back. Mrs. Talmadge stood stock-still, eyes wide, her hand to her mouth. Where was the nurse when she was needed? “Call Miss Hensted,” Daisy ordered, and reached for Talmadge’s wrist.
The dentist’s skin was chill to the touch, and try as she might, she could find no pulse.
“He’s killed himself!” shrieked Mrs. Talmadge.
DIE LAUGHING. Copyright @ 2003 by Carola Dunn. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.