A Shilling for Candles, by Josephine Tey

Chapter 3

“Christine Clay! Christine Clay!” yelled the midday posters.

“Christine Clay!” screamed the headlines. “Christine Clay!” chattered the wireless. “Christine Clay!” said neighbor to neighbor.

All over the world people paused to speak the words. Christine Clay was drowned! And in all civilization only one person said, “Who is Christine Clay?”— a bright young man at a Bloomsbury party. And he was merely being “bright.”

All over the world things happened because one woman had lost her life. In California a man telephoned a summons to a girl in Greenwich Village. A Texas airplane pilot did an extra night flight carrying Clay films for rush showing. A New York firm canceled an order. An Italian nobleman went bankrupt: he had hoped to sell her his yacht. A man in Philadelphia ate his first square meal in months, thanks to an “I knew her when” story. A woman in Le Touquet sang because now her chance had come. And in an English cathedral town a man thanked God on his knees.

The Press, becalmed in the doldrums of the silly season, leaped to movement at so unhoped-for a wind. The Clarion recalled Bart Bartholomew, their “descriptive” man, from a beauty contest in Brighton (much to Bart’s thankfulness — he came back loudly wondering how butchers ate meat), and “Jammy” Hopkins, their “crime and passion” star, from a very dull and low-class poker killing in Bradford. (So far had the Clarion sunk.) News photographers deserted motor race tracks, reviews, society weddings, cricket, and the man who was going to Mars in a balloon, and swarmed like beetles over the cottage in Kent, the maisonette in South Street, and the furnished manor in Hampshire. That, having rented so charming a country retreat as this last, Christine Clay had yet run away to an unknown and inconvenient cottage without the knowledge of her friends made a very pleasant appendage to the main sensation of her death. Photographs of the manor (garden front, because of the yews) appeared labeled “The place Christine Clay owned” (she had only rented it for the season, but there was no emotion in renting a place); and next to these impressive pictures were placed photographs of the rose-embowered home of the people, with the caption “The place she preferred.”

Her press agent shed tears over that. Something like that would break when it was too late.

It might have been observed by any student of nature not too actively engaged in the consequences of it that Christine Clay’s death, while it gave rise to pity, dismay, horror, regret, and half a dozen other emotions in varying degrees, yet seemed to move no one to grief. The only outburst of real feeling had been that hysterical crisis of Robert Tisdall’s over her body. And who should say how much of that was self-pity? Christine was too international a figure to belong to anything so small as a “set.” But among her immediate acquaintances dismay was the most marked reaction of the dreadful news. And not always that. Coyne, who was due to direct her third and final picture in England, might be at the point of despair, but Lejeune (late Tomkins), who had been engaged to play opposite her, was greatly relieved; a picture with Clay might be a feather in your cap but it was a jinx in your box office. The Duchess of Trent, who had arranged a Clay luncheon which was to rehabilitate her as a hostess in the eyes of London, might be gnashing her teeth, but Lydia Keats was openly jubilant. She had prophesied the death, and even for a successful society seer that was a good guess. “Darling, how wonderful of you!” fluttered her friends. “Darling how wonderful of you!” On and on. Until Lydia so lost her head with delight that she spent all her days going from one gathering to another so that she might make that delicious entrance all over again, hear them say: “Here’s Lydia! Darling how —” and bask in the radiance of their wonder. No, as far as anyone could see, no hearts were breaking because Christine Clay was no more. The world dusted off its blacks and hoped for invitations to the funeral.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04