As Daisy reached a second time for the gleaming brass knocker, the dark green front door opened.
"Oh, it's you, Daisy. Do come in," invited Muriel Westlea, an apologetic smile on her thin, perpetually worried face. A faded woman in her early thirties, she was drably dressed in a brown spotted challis well past its prime. "I'm sorry you had to wait, but it's our parlourmaid's day off. You haven't even got a coat."
"It's all right, I only live next door after all, and it's a simply spiffing day. The daffodils are about to burst into bloom. I adore spring."
Daisy stepped into the house. The sun, shining through the Victorian stained-glass fanlight and panels on either side of the door, cast green and purple blotches on white walls and polished parquet. On the hall table stood a vase of crimson hothouse roses.
"From one of Betsy's--Bettina's--admirers," said Muriel, following Daisy's gaze. "They never have the fragrance of the real thing."
"No, but they're jolly pretty. Your sister's real name is Elizabeth, is it?"
"Yes. She was always Betsy as a child and I can't get out of the habit."
"I know, it took me ages to stop calling Lucy by her school nickname, which she hates so much I shan't even repeat it to you." Daisy held out her empty jamjar. "I'm afraid I've come begging. I started to make a birthday cake for Lucy and discovered too late that I'm short of flour. Do you think your cook can spare a quarter of a pound or so?"
"Of course. Let's go down to the kitchen." She led the way towards the service stairs at the back of the hall. From somewhere in the depths of the house came the sounds of a piano and a female voice. "When is Lucy's birthday?"
"Tomorrow. I'm making a sponge because it's light and she's always watching her figure. I wish I had her strength of mind," Daisy added mournfully. "I shall never attain the no-bosom, no-bottom look."
"It wouldn't suit you," Muriel comforted her, "and anyway the fashion will change one of these days."
She opened the green baize door and suddenly the music was louder: Carmen warning her lover, "Si je t'aime, prends garde à toi!"
"Your sister's voice is lovely."
"That isn't Betsy, it's Olivia Blaise, one of Roger's pupils."
"Blaise? Sounds familiar. I think she came to Lucy to have her portrait taken," said Daisy as they started down the stairs. "Mr. Abernathy has referred quite a few of his pupils to her. Jolly decent of him. It must be wonderful to live surrounded by music," she added as the piano started on the introduction to another of Carmen's arias.
Muriel sighed. "If only one might have the music without the artistic temperament! I'm afraid 'If I love you, watch out,' or better still, 'If you love me, watch out,' nicely sums up most of them. That's the soloists, of course. Humble chorus members like me keep our heads down."
Daisy was dying to ask whether, as she suspected, Bettina was one of the artistically temperamental majority. She was saved from the temptation to dispense with tact by their arrival in the kitchen.
The cook filled Daisy's jamjar with flour and, when Daisy admitted to never having made a sponge before, gave her a few hints. "The kettle's on the boil, Miss Westlea," she said then. "You'll be wanting tea?"
"Will you stay for a cup, Daisy?" Muriel asked hopefully.
"I'd love to but I've already turned on the oven and broken all the eggs into a bowl. I think I'd better get back."
"I suppose so." Disappointed, Muriel ushered her back up to the hall.
This time the singing was on the other side of the baize door, coming from a room off the hall at the front of the house.
"Judex ergo cum sedebit, Quidquid latet apparebit: Nil inultum remanebit!"
Though Daisy didn't understand the words, she thought the rich voice sounded positively spiteful.
"That's Betsy. Verdi's Requiem, the part about the Day of Judgement when 'nothing will remain unavenged.' She's going to sing in it at the Albert Hall. Most of her appearances are with provincial opera companies so it's a great opportunity for her to be heard by the people who count."
"I hope it goes well," Daisy said with more politeness than truth. She had only met Bettina Westlea--alias Mrs. Roger Abemathy--a couple of times but she wasn't frightfully keen on her. In fact, she had put the singer down as a bit of a blister.
"She has a beautiful voice," Muriel said loyally, "and she's beautiful, too, perfect for an opera heroine. It's just a matter of the right people hearing her. Oh, do you think Lucy would likea pair of tickets to the concert as a birthday present? Betsy has a few complimentary tickets to spare. It's next Sunday, a matinée. To be precise, 3:00 P.M., 18th March 1923, is to be Bettina's moment of triumph."
"I don't know about Lucy. I'd love to go."
"Then you shall have them." Muriel's smile made her look years younger and almost pretty. "They're down in the music room. I'll bring them round later."
"Topping! Will you be singing?"
"Yes, it's the ProMusica Choir. Roger's our chorus-master, you know."
As Muriel reached for the door-handle to let Daisy out, the knocker rat-tatted. The gentleman on the doorstep was tall and lithe, youngish, and rather good-looking. His pale grey lounge suit was the last word in natty men's tailoring. However, a shock of brown hair much too long for fashion brushed his collar, where a white silk cravat supplanted a tie, and his shirt and the handkerchief in his breast-pocket were lilac. Clearly he laid claim to belonging here in Bohemian Chelsea.
Daisy did not recognize him, though the motor-car visible behind him out in Mulberry Place was familiar, a maroon Leyland Eight with the distinctive long, square bonnet.
He raised his grey Homburg. "Good-afternoon. I've come to fetch Miss Blaise."
"You had better come in and wait." Muriel's voice was colourless, her face set as she moved aside. "Miss Blaise should be up any minute. Daisy, do you know Mr. Cochran? He's to conduct the Verdi. Our next-door neighbour, Miss Dalrymple," she introduced Daisy as the conductor bowed slightly, giving the jamjar of flour a puzzled look.
"You live next door?" he said. "You must be the photographer Abernathy recommended for my publicity photos."
"That's my friend, Miss Fotheringay. She's very good."
"I'd have given her a shot, but my wife decided on a West End chap she had patronized before."
As Daisy nodded, the drawing-room door was flung open. "Muriel, for heaven's sake, how do you expect me to practise with all this noise?" Bettina demanded petulantly. "Who ... ? Oh, it's you, Eric." Her smile was the smile of a cat with a live mouse beneath its paw. "Have you come to meet dear Olivia? I do hope she'll be glad to see you."
Mr. Cochran's answering smile was decidedly weak, not to say unhappy. He appeared unimpressed by golden curls surrounding a perfect oval face and wide eyes of celestial blue with long lashes judiciously darkened. Bettina's blue silk dress, belted at the hips, its embroidered hem skimming the ankles in the latest fashionable length, matched her eyes and flattered her svelte figure. Beside her poor Muriel looked shabby, gaunt, and middle-aged.
"Hello, Bettina," said the conductor lamely. "Working hard on the Requiem, I trust?"
The singer gave him a scornful look.
Daisy was torn between dashing back to her oven and lingering in the hope of finding out what was going on between Eric Cochran, Bettina Westlea Abernathy, and Olivia Blaise. As a writer she had a duty to satisfy her insatiable curiosity about human relationships. At least, it was a good excuse.
But the gas bill would be horrendous if she left the oven burning. She was turning to Muriel to take her leave when footsteps at the back of the hall drew everyone's attention.
Olivia Blaise was the essence of chic. As she came closer, Daisy realized that her pale yellow coat-dress was too short for the new style and made of a cheapish jersey, yet she looked inarguably elegant. Perhaps it was the way she walked, with a supple grace eloquent of vitality restrained, Daisy thought enviously. Probably she'd look equally marvellous in rags. Hersmooth, dark, bobbed hair and rather sharp features gave her an elvish air. Daisy remembered that Lucy had raved over her bone-structure and predicted a brilliant career as a model should she come a cropper as a singer.
She grimaced as she saw the four standing in the hall.
Stepping forward, Cochran blurted out, "Olivia, let me give you a lift."
"Oh, all right," she said ungraciously. "I suppose it's better than taking the 'bus."
Behind her, emerging from the shadows at the back of the hall, trudged Roger Abernathy, a stocky middle-aged man, balding, with thick-lensed horn-rimmed spectacles. His face was drawn with pain and his lips had a bluish tinge.
"Roger!" cried Muriel, darting to his side. "You came up the stairs too quickly again. Sit down." Her arm around his shoulders, she urged him to a chair by the hall table.
Olivia swung round. "Gosh, it's my fault. I was in a hurry, hoping to avoid ... this." She gestured at Cochran and Bettina. "What can I do, Miss Westlea?"
"He hasn't got his medicine." Muriel was feeling in Abernathy's inside coat pockets. "If you wouldn't mind, Miss Blaise, there's a spare bottle of pills in the cloakroom, and a glass of water ... ?"
"My own fault," Abernathy muttered as Olivia hurried past him with a compassionate glance. "Better in a moment."
"When you're quite recovered, Roger," Bettina snapped pettishly, "I need your help with the Liber scriptus."
"Of course, my love." His gaze followed his beautiful wife, his wistful, doggish devotion obvious despite the heavy spectacles.
She disappeared into the drawing room, shutting the door with an irritable thump. A moment later, a piano chord sounded, followed by the richly glorious mezzo-soprano voice:"Liber scriptus proferetur," taking the awkward fifth leap in its stride.
Olivia Blaise returned with Abernathy's medicine. Cochran hovered awkwardly on the threshold, uncertain whether to remove his obviously unwanted presence. Daisy decided it was past time to remove hers.
"I'm off, Muriel," she said. "Thanks!"
Busy with the pill-bottle, Muriel gave her a distracted smile. "I'll see you later, Daisy."
Daisy dashed back to the "bijou" residence next door and down to the cramped semi-basement kitchen. Weighing out flour and sugar in advance, as advised by Muriel's cook, she set about vigorously beating up the eggs.
An hour later, she was at the kitchen table, just finishing a cup of tea with Mrs. Potter, the daily who "obliged" her and Lucy, when the doorbell rang.
"So I up and I tells 'im, 'not on your life you don't,' I says," the charwoman finished her story. Draining the last heavily sugared drop from her cup, she heaved herself to her feet. "I'll get the door, miss. Time I was scrubbing out the bathtub. Now don't you go peeking in that there oven, mind, or Miss Lucy's birthday sponge'll end up flat as a pancake, mark my words."
Her weighty tread mounted the semi-basement stairs. Daisy stared longingly at the gas-range. Surely if she just opened the oven door a crack, no harm would come to the cake? But the Abernathys' cook had said the same, and how Lucy would rag her if she made a hash of it after her airy claim that nothing was easier!
"It's miss from next door, miss," Mrs. Potter yelled down the stairs.
"Don't come up, Daisy, I'll come down," Muriel called. Light footsteps pattered down. "I've brought you the tickets."
"Thanks, Muriel, you're a brick. Sorry I hopped it like thatbut I felt a bit de trop. I'd have stayed if I'd thought you needed help."
"That's all right. Poor Roger has a weak heart but all he needs is his pills. He ought to carry them, only he forgets. Betsy knows his turns are not serious," she added in defence of her sister.
Daisy, her opinion of Bettina reinforced by the scene she had witnessed, said tactfully, "I'm glad Mr. Abernathy isn't gravely ill."
"So am I. He's always been very kind to me." Muriel's thin cheeks pinkened. "I'm sorry you ... that is, I'm afraid it was all rather awkward."
"You mean with your sister and Mr. Cochran and Miss Blaise?"
"Yes. You see, Miss Blaise expected to get the mezzo part in the Verdi, and then it was given to Betsy. I'm afraid there are hard feelings."
That was the least of it, Daisy thought. Hoping to hear the rest of the story, she said, "Would you like a cup of tea? This pot is stewed, but I can easily make some more."
"I'd love to," Muriel said regretfully, "but I must get back. With Beryl out, there's no one else to answer the door. I'll see myself out. I don't want to tear you away from your baking. Mmm, your cake smells delicious."
"Oh Lord, I'd forgotten the time!" Frantic, Daisy checked the clock. "Whew, still five minutes before I dare peek. If it turns out half-way decent, you must come over tomorrow and have a slice."
"I'd love to. Four o'clock? Betsy will be out all afternoon."
"We'll see you at four," Daisy agreed, suppressing with difficulty the temptation to say she'd meant elevenses. It would only upset Muriel. If she chose to allow her sister to ride roughshod over her, it was none of Daisy's business.
REQUIEM FOR A MEZZO. Copyright © 1996 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, NY 10010.