Miles Off Course: A Rowland Sinclair Mystery #3

Miles Off Course: A Rowland Sinclair Mystery #3

"Norman Lindsay is a complete and utter bastard!" With this curse heaped upon the renowned real-life Australian artist and cartoonist, Miles Off Course gets underway. It is early in 1933, ...

About The Author

Sulari Gentill

After setting out to study astrophysics, graduating in law and then abandoning her legal career to write books, Sulari now ...

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Chapter One

“Norman Lindsay is a complete and utter bastard!”

Rowland Sinclair sat down and buried both hands in his dark hair as he vented his frustration. It had been a long day. He fell back and loosened his tie.

Milton Isaacs closed his book and rose from the comfort of his armchair to pour his friend a drink. He charged two glasses from the crystal decanters. The poet was nothing if not empathetic.

“What’s old Norman done now?”

Rowland took the sherry and drained it in a single swig. He felt a little better. Perhaps intoxication was the answer. “Rosalina Martinelli.”

“The model?”

Rowland simply groaned in reply, his temper exhausted by the trials of the day. The invitation to contribute a piece to the impending exhibition of classical figures at the Art Gallery of New South Wales had been an unexpected recognition of his work. A portrait artist, Rowland had acquired a quiet but growing reputation for his paintings of the female form. He was considered, by some, a protégé of Lindsay, though there were many who would say Sinclair had a lighter touch with oils, a greater finesse with the medium of paint. Rowland’s nudes were somehow different, his work moved those it did not offend. He was a young man, and so he painted women as a young man would—with a kind of wondrous excitement that came out in the stroke of his brush. There was, however, nothing wondrous or exciting about the last few hours.

“What’s the problem with Miss Martinelli?” Milton refilled his glass. “She looked pretty enough to me.”

Rowland’s dark blue eyes flashed.

“Let’s just say there’s a reason why Lindsay was so damned happy to lend her to me…and it had nothing to do with being magnanimous. I swear I’m going to deck the old blighter when I see him next.”

Milton smiled, intrigued. Rowland was most definitely put out. What on earth was wrong with the girl? Outwardly, Rosalina Martinelli was a very attractive young woman: blond and fair- skinned despite her Mediterranean heritage, with the kind of gentle rounded figure that Rowland preferred. Of course she’d been dressed when Milton had seen her leave. Perhaps there was some hideous deformity hidden beneath the modest dress. How unfortunate.

“All right,” he said, “out with it. Is she missing a body part or does she have an extra one?”

Rowland choked on his sherry.

“God, no…she’s beautiful. She just can’t model.”

“Come on, Rowly.” Milton sat down. “All she’s got to do is take her jolly clothes off.”

Rowland sighed. “No, she’s also got to keep still—something of which Miss Martinelli is apparently incapable.”

“Oh…fidgets, does she?” Milton looked more closely at Rowland. His hair was damp with perspiration, but the day was not that warm. “What on earth have you been doing, Rowly?”

“Miss Martinelli feels the cold,” Rowland replied tersely. “Insisted I have no fewer than two kerosene heaters going full bore as well as the fire.”

Milton laughed softly. He swirled his glass, apparently searching for inspiration in the movement of the amber liquid. “Her radiant shape upon its verge did shiver, aloft her flowing hair like strings of flame did quiver.”

“Shelley.” Rowland was neither soothed nor impressed by the recitation.

Milton owed his reputation as a poet to his ability to quote the works of the great bards at will, and without acknowledgement. It was unlikely that he had ever penned a line of original verse. It had become a tradition of sorts for Rowland to make the attributions that Milton blithely omitted.

“I’ve just wasted the whole sodding day,” Rowland muttered.

“Chin up, old mate…there’ll be something worthwhile in all the preliminary sketches—you couldn’t have spent all your time stoking the fire.”

Rowland shook his head. “Aside from the fact that Miss Martinelli was constantly moving and complaining about the cold in English and, somewhat more stridently in Italian, the room was so hot that the paint dried too quickly. I’ll have to toss the entire canvas…there’s nothing worth salvaging.”

Milton was amused now. Rowland had studied languages at Oxford and had a reasonable understanding of spoken Italian, but Rosalina Martinelli had probably not known that. Still, Milton tried to be helpful. “Perhaps the studio is a touch draughty… why don’t you try painting her here?” He glanced about the sun-drenched sitting room of the Grand Majestic suite. It looked out upon the lawns and gardenesque grounds of the Hydro Majestic Hotel, Medlow Bath, in which they had taken up temporary residence for most of the summer. The suite was lavish and well lit, and the sitting room had a most agreeable outlook. Milton supposed that it would appeal to both Rowland and his model.

Rowland grunted. “I’m afraid Miss Martinelli is shy. She’ll only pose with the curtains drawn, in case the gardeners should peer in.”

Milton chuckled. This was just getting better. “You could always let her go,” he suggested. It was the obvious solution, but he doubted Rowland would take it. His friend was incapacitatingly civil, and it was difficult to sack a person politely.

Rowland looked pained. “Every time I broach the subject, she wails like a banshee. Apparently, she needs the income.”

“So pay her.” The cost of a model would mean nothing to Rowland, whose family fortune was vast enough to support his natural and determined generosity.

“I tried.” Rowland’s mouth twitched. He was starting to see humour in his predicament. “She’s proud…refuses to take charity.”

“Well, you can’t insult people, Rowly.” Milton grinned. The poet, of course, had no misgivings about being the beneficiary of Rowland Sinclair’s significant patronage. It was something they had both come to accept.

Rowland smiled now. He folded his hands behind his head and lay back in the couch. “I’m going to deck Lindsay.”

“What are you going to do about the exhibition?”

“Lord knows. I’ll have to paint her, I suppose.” Rowland was resigned.

“You can’t use Ed?”

The young sculptress, Edna Higgins, had regularly modelled for Rowland in the past. His reputation owed much to the way he painted her.

Rowland declined regretfully. “She’s not well enough yet, Milt.”

Milton didn’t labour the point. Edna was almost completely recovered, but Rowland was particularly protective of her.

“Ed’s too thin at the moment, anyway,” Rowland added. “It won’t paint well.”

The dose of strychnine, which had nearly killed the sculptress just a few weeks before, had lingered in its effect upon her appetite. She had lost weight. Rowland still thought her beautiful, but the current slimness of her figure did not suit the style or subject of the impending exhibition.

Their present sojourn at Medlow Bath had allowed Edna to receive treatment. The Hydro Majestic offered guests the most modern hydropathic therapies. Rowland remained sceptical about the value of the various baths, wraps, and douches, but his Aunt Mildred had been insistent that it would help Edna recuperate. It seemed Mark Foy, who had built the sanatorium, had been a friend of Rowland’s father—apparently that settled the matter for Mildred, who revered her late brother. In the end Rowland had given in. It had been, at the very least, an opportunity to escape the worst of the Sydney summer.

“Where’s Clyde?” Milton asked, reopening his book.

“He set out this morning in search of trees to paint.” Rowland had never shared Clyde’s interest in landscapes—he had neither the patience nor the talent for trees.

Clyde Watson Jones had, like Milton and Edna, lived as a guest of Rowland Sinclair for a number of years. A fellow artist, he and Rowland shared a love of paint and canvas, though they had come to their craft by way of vastly different circumstances. All the years that Rowland had spent at Oxford, Clyde had survived on the wallaby, moving from town to town, getting what work he could, and sleeping wherever it was dry.

It was a quirk of fate, that while Rowland had been born into the most lofty social circles, he had little interest in the right sort of people. Indeed, the youngest son of the late pastoralist, Henry Sinclair, seemed determined to fraternise with scandal.

“Old Foy dropped off a few bottles of mineral water while you were working,” Milton informed him, thumbing through the text for his place.

“Good Lord…you didn’t try to drink it did you?”

Mark Foy was convinced that the mineral water he imported from Germany was some kind of miracle elixir, and he encouraged all his guests to drink it regularly. He claimed the bitterness was proof of its medicinal potency. Rowland maintained that the water had been spoiled in transport.

“It’s all right if you mix it with scotch,” Milton advised. “Don’t want to offend the old boy. He wanted to talk to you about those drawings, by the way.”

Rowland sighed.

He’d been trying not to think about Mark Foy’s drawings. Rowland had made the promise in return for the suite. The three superlative suites of the therapeutic resort, with their valets and personal cooks, had all been previously booked. Mark Foy had used his influence to ensure the Grand Majestic fell suddenly vacant. But he had wanted something from Rowland in return.

“Who does he want you to draw?” Milton enquired, smiling.

It was not the first time that some respectable gentleman had requested a picture of his mistress to secrete beneath the marital bed. If it was drawn rather than photographed it could apparently be considered art, should it ever be discovered. Rowland usually declined such requests on artistic rather than moral grounds. Unlike most artists, he had the economic freedom to choose his subjects.

“Not who—what.” Rowland shook his head. “Foy wants me to draw up plans for his tomb.”

“His what?”

“His tomb. He wants to make sure that when the time comes, he’s interred in a manner befitting.”

“Is he ill?”

“No, just eccentric.”

“What kind of tomb?”

“Well, Foy’s rather taken with the pyramids.”

Milton started to laugh. “You’re not serious.”

“I’m afraid I am. He’s had an acre on the grounds marked out for it.”

Milton sipped his scotch and mineral water and put his feet up on the upholstered footstool. “You know, Rowly, I think being idle has driven the upper classes completely bonkers.”

Rowland nodded. “Yes, dangerous thing being idle.”

There was a brief knock at the door, a perfunctory announcement of impending entry rather than a request to be admitted. Edna Higgins breezed in, pausing briefly to look through the open door of Rowland’s makeshift studio. Her skin was rosy, her copper tresses still damp. She was noticeably thin, but otherwise she looked well and in good spirits.

“Hello, Ed,” Rowland murmured, as she perched on the rolled arm of the couch. “How was your morning with Dr. Lindbeck?”

Lindbeck, the Hydro Majestic’s resident physician, was a specialist in the hydropathic therapies offered at the resort. A small, wiry man who had a fondness for spats, he barked accented orders at the uniformed matrons as he supervised the treatments.

“Lovely, thank you. A hot immersion, a cold douche, a compression wrap and then another hot bath—I must say I’ve never before felt so extraordinarily clean.”

“Are you hungry?” Rowland asked. “Shall I have Mrs. Murray cook something for you?”

Milton chuckled. “Rowly’s trying to fatten you up for his own purposes.”

Edna smiled. “Really? What purposes, Rowly?”

“He needs a model,” Milton replied for him. “Miss Martinelli isn’t working out,” he added in an exaggerated stage whisper.

“Oh, that.” Edna laughed. “I saw your painting when I came in—you can’t blame the poor girl for that, Rowly. It’s your palette. You’ve got far too much crimson in your flesh tones.”

“I know how to mix paint, Ed. It’s jolly impossible to get a reasonable skin tone when your model won’t stop blushing,” Rowland replied brusquely. “I could have painted her with undiluted scarlet.”

“Oh dear, the poor thing. Whatever did you say to make her so uncomfortable?” She poked the disgruntled artist playfully.

“I think it was ‘good morning’.”

“I’m sure she’ll settle down once she gets used to you. Modelling is not as easy as it looks, you know.” Edna was firm. “And you could be quite intimidating, I imagine.”

“Me? How?” Rowland was genuinely surprised.

Edna thought back to all the times she had modelled for Rowland Sinclair. She remembered the clear intensity of his gaze, the blue eyes that seemed to leave her more than naked.

“It’s the way you pose your models to look straight at you,” she replied finally. “It’s hard to hide any part of yourself from someone looking directly into your eyes. It takes a little getting used to.”

Rowland snorted. “I have no idea what Miss Martinelli’s eyes look like. She all but covered her face.”

Edna persisted. “Come on, Rowly, be a sport.” She put her hand on his arm. “I was very nervous on my first jobs too. I’ll talk to her if you like—help her relax.”

Rowland sighed. It didn’t appear he had a choice.

Milton glanced at him and shrugged. It seemed Edna was adopting the hapless model as a personal crusade. It was better that Rowland give in now.

Rowland smiled faintly. Edna had not as yet met Rosalina Martinelli. It was very easy to be compassionate when you weren’t standing in an overheated room with someone who complained about everything and couldn’t sit still.

He waited till Edna had departed to inform the valet that they were ready for tea, before he muttered to Milton, “I’m going to deck bloody Norman Lindsay.”

Reviews of

Miles Off Course: A Rowland Sinclair Mystery #3

“Gentill’s third reads like a superior Western, alternating high adventure with social and political observations about prewar Australia.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Set in Australia in 1933, Gentill’s entertaining third mystery featuring portrait artist Rowland Sinclair will appeal to fans of Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher … Gentill matches Greenwood’s skill at blending suspense with a light touch.”

Publishers Weekly

“Rowland is an especially interesting character: at first he comes off as a bit of a layabout, a guy who feels he’s entitled to a cushy life by virtue of his aristocratic roots, but, as the story moves along, we realize he has a strong moral center and a compulsion to finish a job once he’s started it. A great addition to a strong series and a fine read-alike for fans of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels.”