Dalgliesh was on the point of making tactful murmurings of imminent departure when his companion said, "I suppose, dear boy, I couldn't bend you to my will? I want to spend a couple of hours at the Dupayne Museum in Hampstead. Why not join me? You know the Dupayne of course?"
"I've heard of it but never visited."
"But you should, you should. It's a fascinating place. Dedicated to the inter-war years, 1919 through 1938. Small but comprehensive. They have some good pictures: Nash, Wyndham Lewis, Ivon Hitchens, Ben Nicholson. You'd be particularly interested in the library. First editions and some holographs and, of course, the inter-war poets. Do come."
"Another time, perhaps."
"You never manage another time, do you? But now I've caught you, regard it as fate. I'm sure you have your Jag tucked up somewhere in the Met's underground garage. We can drive."
"You mean I can drive."
"And you'll come back to Swiss Cottage for tea won't you? Nellie will never forgive me if you don't."
"How is Nellie?"
"Bonny, thank you. Our doctor retired last month. After twenty years together it was a sad parting. Still, his successor seems to understand our constitutions and it might be as well to have a younger man."
Conrad and Nellie Ackroyd's marriage was so well established that few people now bothered to wonder at its incongruity or to indulge in prurient speculation about its possible consummation. Physically they could hardly have been more different. Conrad was plump, short and dark with inquisitive bright eyes and moved as sprightly as a dancer on small nimble feet. Nellie was at least three inches taller, pale-skinned and flat-chested, and wore her fading blonde hair curled in plaits on each side of her head like earphones. Her hobby was collecting first editions of 1920s and 1930s girls' school stories. Her collection of Angela Brazils was regarded as unique. Conrad and Nellie's enthusiasms were their house and garden, mealsNellie was a superb cooktheir two Siamese cats and the indulgence of Conrad's mild hypochondria. Conrad still owned and edited The Paternoster Review, notable for the virulence of its unsigned reviews and articles. In private life he was the kindest of Jekylls, in his editorial role an unrepentant Hyde.
A number of his friends whose wilfully overburdened lives inhibited the enjoyment of all but necessary pleasures somehow found time to take afternoon tea with the Ackroyds in their neat Edwardian villa in Swiss Cottage with its comfortable sitting-room and atmosphere of timeless indulgence. Dalgliesh was occasionally among them. The meal was a nostalgic and unhurried ritual. The delicate cups with their handles aligned, the thin brown bread and butter, bite-size cucumber sandwiches and homemade sponge and fruit cakes made their expected appearance, brought in by an elderly maid who would have been a gift to a casting agent recruiting actors for an Edwardian soap opera. To older visitors the tea brought back memories of a more leisurely age and, to all, the temporary illusion that the dangerous world was as susceptible as was this domesticity to order, reason, comfort and peace. To spend the early evening gossiping with the Ackroyds would, today, be unduly self-indulgent. All the same, Dalgliesh could see that it wouldn't be easy to find a valid excuse for refusing to drive his friend to Hampstead.
He said, "I'll drive you to the Dupayne with pleasure, but I might not be able to stay if you plan a long visit."
"Don't worry, dear boy. I'll get a cab back."
It took Dalgliesh only a few minutes to collect the papers he needed from his office, hear from his PA what had happened during his absence and drive his Jaguar from the underground car-park. Ackroyd was standing near the revolving sign looking like a child obediently waiting for the grown-ups to collect him. He wrapped his cloak carefully around him, climbed into the car with grunts of satisfaction, struggled impotently with the seat belt and allowed Dalgliesh to strap him in. They were travelling along Birdcage Walk before he spoke.
Excerpted from The Murder Room by P. D. James Copyright © 2003 by P.D. James. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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