He ripped open the envelope with some annoyance, having taken the letter into his study. Pages. Simply pages.
As he read, the old enchantment swept over him again. She adored him, she loved him more than ever, she couldn’t endure not seeing him for five whole days. Was he feeling the same? Did the Leopard miss his Ethiopian?
He half-smiled, half-sighed. That ridiculous joke – born when he had bought her a man’s spotted dressing-gown that she had admired. The Leopard changing his spots, and he had said “But you mustn’t change your skin, darling.” And after that she had called him Leopard and he had called her his Black Beauty.
Various unwanted clothes, Iris knew, had been packed away in a trunk upstairs. She started hunting through it… It was then that she came across an old dressing gown that had belonged to Rosemary and which had somehow or other escaped being given away with the rest of Rosemary’s things. It was a mannish affair of spotted silk with big pockets.
Iris shook it out, noting that it was in perfectly good condition. Then she folded it carefully and returned it to the trunk. As she did so, her hand felt something crackle in one of the pockets. She thrust in her hand and drew out a crumpled-up piece of paper. It was in Rosemary’s handwriting and she smoothed it out and read it.
Leopard darling, you can’t mean it…. You can’t – you can’t…. We love each other! We belong together!
[Note: These two excerpts come the other way round in the book, because of the flashback format.]
observations: Rosemary had an adulterous affair, caused a lot of trouble, and died at a party in her honour: this was filed as suicide, but we obviously know better. It’s her sister Iris who finds the dressing gown and letter, which add to her feeling that there's something wrong. There’s a lot more to come.
I think this is one of the top 10 of Christie’s books. The individual characters are very well done: the trick that Stephen Farringdon plays on his future wife, the fact that every brooding character in the book is gazing at someone else, and probably knows more than they’re supposed to. The original victim, Rosemary, is just seen in glimpses, but she is real too, and so is her grief over her lover. As ever, Christie is very good at creating an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust. The people in the book could be stock characters – rich or lazy or manipulative or ambitious or dimwitted – but they are not: this is a memorable and uneasy tale.
When I started Clothes in Books, I made an initial list of favourite clothes scenes in books that I hoped to illustrate, and this was one of them. I have searched and searched for the right dressing gown, and never quite found it – but this picture, with its spotted robe, the couple kissing, the cigarettes, seemed to have the right louche atmosphere for the adulterous pair. And so I am delighted to offer it as the 900th entry.
For anyone interested, other items on the original wishlist were Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (the whole book just about, from Pauline’s black velvet to the audition dress jap linings at one and six three a yard, plus most of the rest of the Streatfeild oeuvre as well); Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat; endless Nancy Mitford, but particularly Fanny’s fur hat and Schiaparelli cardigan;
Anne of Green Gables and the puff sleeves; Nancy Mitford (again) putting Evelyn Waugh right about jewellery fashion; and the marriages of Jane Eyre and Harriet D Vane (still haven’t found the gold lame wedding dress, but got it into this Guardian blog piece).
The top picture is from the Library of Congress.