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Absent in the Spring

Absent in the Spring
Absent in the Spring Agatha Christie A striking novel of truth and soul-searching.Returning from a visit to her daughter in Iraq, Joan Scudamore finds herself unexpectedly alone and stranded in an isolated rest house by flooding of the railway tracks.Looking back over the years, Joan painfully re-examines her attitudes, relationships and actions and becomes increasingly uneasy about the person who is revealed to her…Famous for her ingenious crime books and plays, Agatha Christie also wrote about crimes of the heart, six bittersweet and very personal novels, as compelling and memorable as the best of her work. Copyright (#u624afea6-250e-55a7-b1b7-c0f166fb8c7b) HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk) First published in Great Britain by Collins 1944 Copyright © 1944 Rosalind Hicks Charitable Trust. All rights reserved. www.agathachristie.com (http://www.agathachristie.com) Cover by ninataradesign.com (http://www.ninataradesign.com) © HarperCollins 2017 Agatha Christie asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library. This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. Source ISBN: 9780008131432 Ebook Edition © June 2017 ISBN: 9780007534982 Version: 2018-04-11 Dedication (#u624afea6-250e-55a7-b1b7-c0f166fb8c7b) From you have I been absent in the Spring … Contents Cover (#u794e7b95-71f8-53de-a979-9cb9cb2fa746) Title Page (#ub2433c63-4480-5c76-98c2-cd8160be83ad) Copyright Dedication Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Epilogue Also by Agatha Christie About the Publisher CHAPTER 1 (#u624afea6-250e-55a7-b1b7-c0f166fb8c7b) Joan Scudamore screwed up her eyes as she peered across the dimness of the rest house dining-room. She was slightly short-sighted. Surely that’s—no it isn’t—I believe it is. Blanche Haggard. Extraordinary—right out in the wilds—to come across an old school friend whom she hadn’t seen for—oh quite fifteen years. At first, Joan was delighted by the discovery. She was by nature a sociable woman, always pleased to run across friends and acquaintances. She thought to herself, But, poor dear, how dreadfully she’s changed. She looks years older. Literally years. After all, she can’t be more than—what, forty-eight? It was a natural sequence after that to glance at her own appearance in the mirror that happened, most conveniently, to hang just beside the table. What she saw there put her in an even better humour. Really, thought Joan Scudamore, I’ve worn very well. She saw a slender, middle-aged woman with a singularly unlined face, brown hair hardly touched with grey, pleasant blue eyes and a cheerful smiling mouth. The woman was dressed in a neat, cool travelling coat and skirt and carried a rather large bag containing the necessities of travel. Joan Scudamore was travelling back from Baghdad to London by the overland route. She had come up by the train from Baghdad last night. She was to sleep in the railway rest house tonight and go on by car tomorrow morning. It was the sudden illness of her younger daughter that had brought her post haste out from England, her realization of William’s (her son-in-law) impracticability, and of the chaos that would arise in a household without efficient control. Well, that was all right now. She had taken charge, made arrangements. The baby, William, Barbara convalescent, everything had been planned and set in good running order. Thank goodness, thought Joan, I’ve always had a head on my shoulders. William and Barbara had been full of gratitude. They’d pressed her to stay on, not to rush back, but she had smilingly, albeit with a stifled sigh, refused. For there was Rodney to consider—poor old Rodney stuck in Crayminster, up to his ears in work and with no one in the house to look after his comfort except servants. ‘And after all,’ said Joan, ‘what are servants?’ Barbara said: ‘Your servants, Mother, are always perfection. You see to that!’ She had laughed, but she had been pleased all the same. Because when all was said and done one did like appreciation. She had sometimes wondered if her family took a little too much for granted the smooth running of the house and her own care and devotion. Not really that she had any criticism to make. Tony, Averil and Barbara were delightful children and she and Rodney had every reason to be proud of their upbringing and of their success in life. Tony was growing oranges out in Rhodesia, Averil, after giving her parents some momentary anxiety, had settled down as the wife of a wealthy and charming stockbroker. Barbara’s husband had a good job in the Public Works Department in Iraq. They were all nice-looking healthy children with pleasant manners. Joan felt that she and Rodney were indeed fortunate—and privately she was of the opinion that some of the credit was to be ascribed to them as parents. After all, they had brought the children up very carefully, taking infinite pains over the choice of nurses and governesses, and later of schools and always putting the welfare and well-being of the children first. Joan felt a little gentle glow as she turned away from her image in the glass. She thought, Well, it’s nice to feel one’s been a success at one’s job. I never wanted a career, or anything of that kind. I was quite content to be a wife and mother. I married the man I loved, and he’s been a success at his job—and perhaps that’s owing to me a bit too. One can do so much by influence. Dear Rodney! And her heart warmed to the thought that soon, very soon, she would be seeing Rodney again. She’d never been away from him for very long before. What a happy peaceful life they had had together. Well, perhaps peaceful was rather overstating it. Family life was never quite peaceful. Holidays, infectious illnesses, broken pipes in winter. Life really was a series of petty dramas. And Rodney had always worked very hard, harder perhaps than was good for his health. He’d been badly run down that time six years ago. He hadn’t, Joan thought with compunction, worn quite as well as she had. He stooped rather, and there was a lot of white in his hair. He had a tired look, too, about the eyes. Still, after all, that was life. And now, with the children married, and the firm doing so well, and the new partner bringing fresh money in, Rodney could take things more easily. He and she would have time to enjoy themselves. They must entertain more—have a week or two in London every now and then. Rodney, perhaps, might take up golf. Yes, really she couldn’t think why she hadn’t persuaded him to take up golf before. So healthy, especially when he had to do so much office work. Having settled that point in her mind, Mrs Scudamore looked across the dining-room once more at the woman whom she believed to be her former school friend. Blanche Haggard. How she had adored Blanche Haggard when they were at St Anne’s together! Everyone was crazy about Blanche. She had been so daring, so amusing, and yes, so absolutely lovely. Funny to think of that now, looking at that thin, restless, untidy elderly woman. What extraordinary clothes! And she looked—really she looked—at least sixty … Of course, thought Joan, she’s had a very unfortunate life. A momentary impatience rose in her. The whole thing seemed such a wanton waste. There was Blanche, twenty-one, with the world at her feet—looks, position, everything—and she had had to throw in her lot with that quite unspeakable man. A vet—yes, actually a vet. A vet with a wife, too, which made it worse. Her people had behaved with commendable firmness, taking her round the world on one of those pleasure cruises. And Blanche had actually got off the boat somewhere, Algiers, or Naples, and come home and joined her vet. And naturally he had lost his practice, and started drinking, and his wife hadn’t wished to divorce him. Presently they’d left Crayminster and after that Joan hadn’t heard anything of Blanche for years, not until she’d run across her one day in London at Harrods where they had met in the shoe department, and after a little discreet conversation (discreet on Joan’s part, Blanche had never set any store by discretion) she had discovered that Blanche was now married to a man called Holliday who was in an insurance office, but Blanche thought he was going to resign soon because he wanted to write a book about Warren Hastings and he wanted to give all his time to it, not just write scraps when he came back from the office. Joan had murmured that in that case she supposed he had private means? And Blanche had replied cheerfully that he hadn’t got a cent! Joan had said that perhaps to give up his job would be rather unwise, unless he was sure the book would be a success. Was it commissioned? Oh dear me, no, said Blanche cheerfully, and as a matter of fact she didn’t really think the book would be a success, because though Tom was very keen on it, he really didn’t write very well. Whereupon Joan had said with some warmth that Blanche must put her foot down, to which Blanche had responded with a stare and a ‘But he wants to write, the poor pet. He wants it more than anything.’ Sometimes, Joan said, one had to be wise for two. Blanche had laughed and remarked that she herself had never even been wise enough for one! Thinking that over, Joan felt that it was only too unfortunately true. A year later she saw Blanche in a restaurant with a peculiar, flashy looking woman and two flamboyantly artistic men. After that the only reminder she had had of Blanche’s existence was five years later when Blanche wrote and asked for a loan of fifty pounds. Her little boy, she said, needed an operation. Joan had sent her twenty-five and a kind letter asking for details. The response was a postcard with scrawled on it: Good for you, Joan. I knew you wouldn’t let me down—which was gratifying in a way, but hardly satisfactory. After that, silence. And now here, in a Near Eastern railway rest house, with kerosene lamps flaring and spluttering amidst a smell of rancid mutton fat and paraffin and Flit, was the friend of so many years ago, incredibly aged and coarsened and the worse for wear. Blanche finished her dinner first and was on her way out when she caught sight of the other. She stopped dead. ‘Holy Moses, it’s Joan!’ A moment or two later she had pulled up her chair to the table and the two were chatting together. Presently Blanche said: ‘Well, you’ve worn well, my dear. You look about thirty. Where have you been all these years? In cold storage?’ ‘Hardly that. I’ve been in Crayminster.’ ‘Born, bred, married and buried in Crayminster,’ said Blanche. Joan said with a laugh: ‘Is that so bad a fate?’ Blanche shook her head. ‘No,’ she said seriously. ‘I’d say it was a pretty good one. What’s happened to your children? You had some children, didn’t you?’ ‘Yes, three. A boy and two girls. The boy is in Rhodesia. The girls are married. One lives in London. I’ve just been visiting the other one out in Baghdad. Her name is Wray—Barbara Wray.’ Blanche nodded. ‘I’ve seen her. Nice kid. Married rather too young, didn’t she?’ ‘I don’t think so,’ said Joan stiffly. ‘We all like William very much, and they are happy together.’ ‘Yes, they seem to be settling down all right now. The baby has probably been a settling influence. Having a child does sort of steady a girl down. Not,’ added Blanche thoughtfully, ‘that it ever steadied me. I was very fond of those two kids of mine—Len and Mary. And yet when Johnnie Pelham came along, I went off with him and left them behind without a second thought.’ Joan looked at her with disapprobation. ‘Really, Blanche,’ she said warmly. ‘How could you?’ ‘Rotten of me, wasn’t it?’ said Blanche. ‘Of course I knew they’d be all right with Tom. He always adored them. He married a really nice domestic girl. Suited him far better than I ever did. She saw that he had decent meals and mended his underclothes and all that. Dear Tom, he was always a pet. He used to send me a card at Christmas and Easter for years afterwards which was nice of him, don’t you think?’ Joan did not answer. She was too full of conflicting thoughts. The predominant one was wonder that this—this—could be Blanche Haggard—that well-bred, high-spirited girl who had been the star pupil at St Anne’s. This really slatternly woman with apparently no shame in revealing the more sordid details of her life, and in such common language too! Why, Blanche Haggard had won the prize for English at St Anne’s! Blanche reverted to a former topic. ‘Fancy little Barbara Wray being your daughter, Joan. That just shows how people get things wrong. Everyone had got it into their heads that she was so unhappy at home that she’d married the first man who asked her in order to escape.’ ‘How ridiculous. Where do these stories come from?’ ‘I can’t imagine. Because I’m pretty sure of one thing, Joan and that is that you’ve always been an admirable mother. I can’t imagine you being cross or unkind.’ ‘That’s nice of you, Blanche. I think I may say that we’ve always given our children a very happy home and done everything possible for their happiness. I think it’s so important, you know, that one should be friends with one’s children.’ ‘Very nice—if one ever can.’ ‘Oh, I think you can. It’s just a question of remembering your own youth and putting yourself in their place.’ Joan’s charming, serious face was bent a little nearer to that of her former friend. ‘Rodney and I have always tried to do that.’ ‘Rodney? Let me see, you married a solicitor, didn’t you? Of course—I went to their firm at the time when Harry was trying to get a divorce from that awful wife of his. I believe it was your husband we saw—Rodney Scudamore. He was extraordinarily nice and kind, most understanding. And you’ve stayed put with him all these years. No fresh deals?’ Joan said rather stiffly: ‘Neither of us have wanted a fresh deal. Rodney and I have been perfectly contented with one another.’ ‘Of course you always were as cold as a fish, Joan. But I should have said that husband of yours had quite a roving eye!’ ‘Really, Blanche!’ Joan flushed angrily. A roving eye, indeed. Rodney! And suddenly, discordantly, a thought slipped and flashed sideways across the panorama of Joan’s mind, much as she had noticed a snake flash and slip across the dust coloured track in front of the car only yesterday—a mere streak of writhing green, gone almost before you saw it. The streak consisted of three words, leaping out of space and back into oblivion. The Randolph girl … Gone again before she had time to note them consciously. Blanche was cheerfully contrite. ‘Sorry, Joan. Let’s come into the other room and have coffee. I always did have a vulgar mind, you know.’ ‘Oh no,’ the protest came quickly to Joan’s lips, genuine and slightly shocked. Blanche looked amused. ‘Oh yes, don’t you remember? Remember the time I slipped out to meet the baker’s boy?’ Joan winced. She had forgotten that incident. At the time it had seemed daring and—yes—actually romantic. Really a vulgar and unpleasant episode. Blanche, settling herself in a wicker chair and calling to the boy to bring coffee, laughed to herself. ‘Horrid precocious little piece I must have been. Oh, well, that’s always been my undoing. I’ve always been far too fond of men. And always rotters! Extraordinary, isn’t it? First Harry—and he was a bad lot all right—though frightfully good looking. And then Tom who never amounted to much, though I was fond of him in a way. Johnnie Pelham—that was a good time while it lasted. Gerald wasn’t much good, either …’ At this point the boy brought the coffee, thus interrupting what Joan could not but feel was a singularly unsavoury catalogue. Blanche caught sight of her expression. ‘Sorry, Joan, I’ve shocked you. Always a bit strait-laced, weren’t you?’ ‘Oh, I hope I’m always ready to take a broad-minded view.’ Joan achieved a kindly smile. She added rather awkwardly: ‘I only mean I’m—I’m so sorry.’ ‘For me?’ Blanche seemed amused by the idea. ‘Nice of you, darling, but don’t waste sympathy. I’ve had lots of fun.’ Joan could not resist a swift sideways glance. Really, had Blanche any idea of the deplorable appearance she presented? Her carelessly dyed hennaed hair, her somewhat dirty, flamboyant clothes, her haggard, lined face, an old woman—an old raddled woman—an old disreputable gipsy of a woman! Blanche, her face suddenly growing grave, said soberly: ‘Yes, you’re quite right, Joan. You’ve made a success of your life. And I—well, I’ve made a mess of mine. I’ve gone down in the world and you’ve gone—no, you’ve stayed where you were—a St Anne’s girl who’s married suitably and always been a credit to the old school!’ Trying to steer the conversation towards the only ground that she and Blanche had in common now, Joan said: ‘Those were good days, weren’t they?’ ‘So-so.’ Blanche was careless in her praise. ‘I got bored sometimes. It was all so smug and consciously healthy. I wanted to get out and see the world. Well,’ her mouth gave a humorous twist, ‘I’ve seen it. I’ll say I’ve seen it!’ For the first time Joan approached the subject of Blanche’s presence in the rest house. ‘Are you going back to England? Are you leaving on the convoy tomorrow morning?’ Her heart sank just a little as she put the question. Really, she did not want Blanche as a travelling companion. A chance meeting was all very well, but she had grave doubts of being able to sustain the pose of friendship all the way across Europe. Reminiscences of the old days would soon wear thin. Blanche grinned at her. ‘No, I’m going the other way. To Baghdad. To join my husband.’ ‘Your husband?’ Joan really felt quite surprised that Blanche should have anything so respectable as a husband. ‘Yes, he’s an engineer—on the railway. Donovan his name is.’ ‘Donovan?’ Joan shook her head. ‘I don’t think I came across him at all.’ Blanche laughed. ‘You wouldn’t, darling. Rather out of your class. He drinks like a fish anyway. But he’s got a heart like a child. And it may surprise you, but he thinks the world of me.’ ‘So he ought,’ said Joan loyally and politely. ‘Good old Joan. Always play the game, don’t you? You must be thankful I’m not going the other way. It would break even your Christian spirit to have five days of my company. You needn’t trouble to deny it. I know what I’ve become. Coarse in mind and body—that’s what you were thinking. Well, there are worse things.’ Joan privately doubted very much whether there were. It seemed to her that Blanche’s decadence was a tragedy of the first water. Blanche went on: ‘Hope you have a good journey, but I rather doubt it. Looks to me as though the rains are starting. If so, you may be stuck for days, miles from anywhere.’ ‘I hope not. It will upset all my train reservations.’ ‘Oh well, desert travel is seldom according to schedule. So long as you get across the wadis all right, the rest will be easy. And of course the drivers take plenty of food and water along. Still it gets a bit boring to be stuck somewhere with nothing to do but think.’ Joan smiled. ‘It might be rather a pleasant change. You know, one never has time as a rule to relax at all. I’ve often wished I could have just one week with really nothing to do.’ ‘I should have thought you could have had that whenever you liked?’ ‘Oh no, my dear. I’m a very busy woman in my small way. I’m the Secretary of the Country Gardens Association—And I’m on the committee of our local hospital. And there’s the Institute—and the Guides. And I take quite an active part in politics. What with all that and running the house and then Rodney and I go out a good deal and have people in to see us. It’s so good for a lawyer to have plenty of social background, I always think. And then I’m very fond of my garden and like to do quite a good deal in it myself. Do you know, Blanche, that there’s hardly a moment, except perhaps a quarter of an hour before dinner, when I can really sit down and rest? And to keep up with one’s reading is quite a task.’ ‘You seem to stand up to it all pretty well,’ murmured Blanche, her eyes on the other’s unlined face. ‘Well, to wear out is better than to rust out! And I must admit I’ve always had marvellous health. I really am thankful for that. But all the same it would be wonderful to feel that one had a whole day or even two days with nothing to do but think.’ ‘I wonder,’ said Blanche, ‘what you’d think about?’ Joan laughed. It was a pleasant, tinkling, little sound. ‘There are always plenty of things to think about, aren’t there?’ she said. Blanche grinned. ‘One can always think of one’s sins!’ ‘Yes, indeed.’ Joan assented politely though without amusement. Blanche eyed her keenly. ‘Only that wouldn’t give you occupation long!’ She frowned and went on abruptly: ‘You’d have to go on from them to think of your good deeds. And all the blessings of your life! Hm—I don’t know. Might be rather dull. I wonder,’ she paused, ‘if you’d nothing to think about but yourself for days and days I wonder what you’d find out about yourself—’ Joan looked sceptical and faintly amused. ‘Would one find out anything one didn’t know before?’ Blanche said slowly: ‘I think one might …’ She gave a sudden shiver. ‘I shouldn’t like to try it.’ ‘Of course,’ said Joan, ‘some people have an urge towards the contemplative life. I’ve never been able to understand that myself. The mystic point of view is very difficult to appreciate. I’m afraid I haven’t got that kind of religious temperament. It always seems to me to be rather extreme, if you know what I mean.’ ‘It’s certainly simpler,’ said Blanche, ‘to make use of the shortest prayer that is known.’ And in answer to Joan’s inquiring glance she said abruptly, ‘“God be merciful to me, a sinner.” That covers pretty well everything.’ Joan felt slightly embarrassed. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes, it certainly does.’ Blanche burst out laughing. ‘The trouble with you, Joan, is that you’re not a sinner. That cuts you off from prayer! Now I’m well equipped. It seems to me sometimes that I’ve never ceased doing the things that I ought not to have done.’ Joan was silent because she didn’t know quite what to say. Blanche resumed again in a lighter tone: ‘Oh well, that’s the way of the world. You quit when you ought to stick, and you take on a thing that you’d better leave alone; one minute life’s so lovely you can hardly believe it’s true—and immediately after that you’re going through a hell of misery and suffering! When things are going well you think they’ll last for ever—and they never do—and when you’re down under you think you’ll never come up and breathe again. That’s what life is, isn’t it?’ It was so entirely alien to any conception Joan had of life or to life as she had known it that she was unable to make what she felt would be an adequate response. With a brusque movement Blanche rose to her feet. ‘You’re half asleep, Joan. So am I. And we’ve got an early start. It’s been nice seeing you.’ The two women stood a minute, their hands clasped. Blanche said quickly and awkwardly, with a sudden, rough tenderness in her voice: ‘Don’t worry about your Barbara. She’ll be all right—I’m sure of it. Bill Wray is a good sort, you know—and there’s the kid and everything. It was just that she was very young and the kind of life out here—well, it goes to a girl’s head sometimes.’ Joan was conscious of nothing but complete bewilderment. She said sharply: ‘I don’t know what you mean.’ Blanche merely looked at her admiringly. ‘That’s the good old school tie spirit! Never admit anything. You really haven’t changed a bit, Joan. By the way I owe you twenty-five pounds. Never thought of it until this minute.’ ‘Oh, don’t bother about that.’ ‘No fear.’ Blanche laughed. ‘I suppose I meant to pay it back, but after all if one ever does lend money to people one knows quite well one will never see one’s money again. So I haven’t worried much. You were a good sport, Joan—that money was a godsend.’ ‘One of the children had to have an operation, didn’t he?’ ‘So they thought. But it turned out not to be necessary after all. So we spent the money on a bender and got a roll-top desk for Tom as well. He’d had his eye on it for a long time.’ Moved by a sudden memory, Joan asked: ‘Did he ever write his book on Warren Hastings?’ Blanche beamed at her. ‘Fancy your remembering that! Yes, indeed, a hundred and twenty thousand words.’ ‘Was it published?’ ‘Of course not! After that Tom started on a life of Benjamin Franklin. That was even worse. Funny taste, wasn’t it? I mean such dull people. If I wrote a life, it would be of someone like Cleopatra, some sexy piece—or Casanova, say, something spicy. Still, we can’t all have the same ideas. Tom got a job again in an office—not so good as the other. I’m always glad, though, that he had his fun. It’s awfully important, don’t you think, for people to do what they really want to do?’ ‘It rather depends,’ said Joan, ‘on circumstances. One has to take so many things into consideration.’ ‘Haven’t you done what you wanted to do?’ ‘I?’ Joan was taken aback. ‘Yes, you,’ said Blanche. ‘You wanted to marry Rodney Scudamore, didn’t you? And you wanted children? And a comfortable home.’ She laughed and added, ‘And to live happily ever afterwards, world without end, Amen.’ Joan laughed too, relieved at the lighter tone the conversation had taken. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve been very lucky, I know.’ And then, afraid that that last remark had been tactless when confronted by the ruin and bad luck that had been Blanche’s lot in life, she added hurriedly: ‘I really must go up now. Good night—and it’s been marvellous seeing you again.’ She squeezed Blanche’s hand warmly (would Blanche expect her to kiss her? Surely not.) and ran lightly up the stairs to her bedroom. Poor Blanche, thought Joan as she undressed, neatly laying and folding her clothes, putting out a fresh pair of stockings for the morning. Poor Blanche. It’s really too tragic. She slipped into her pyjamas and started to brush her hair. Poor Blanche. Looking so awful and so coarse. She was ready for bed now, but paused irresolutely before getting in. One didn’t, of course, say one’s prayers every night. In fact it was quite a long time since Joan had said a prayer of any kind. And she didn’t even go to church very often. But one did, of course, believe. And she had a sudden odd desire to kneel down now by the side of this rather uncomfortable looking bed (such nasty cotton sheets, thank goodness she had got her own soft pillow with her) and well—say them properly—like a child. The thought made her feel rather shy and uncomfortable. She got quickly into bed and pulled up the covers. She picked up the book that she had laid on the little table by the bed head, The Memoirs of Lady Catherine Dysart—really most entertainingly written—a very witty account of mid-Victorian times. She read a line or two but found she could not concentrate. I’m too tired, she thought. She laid down the book and switched off the light. Again the thought of prayer came to her. What was it that Blanche had said so outrageously—‘that cuts you off from prayer.’ Really, what did she mean? Joan formed a prayer quickly in her mind—a prayer of isolated words strung together. God—thank thee—poor Blanche—thank thee that I am not like that—great mercies—all my blessings—and especially not like poor Blanche—poor Blanche—really dreadful. Her own fault of course—dreadful—quite a shock—thank God—I am different—poor Blanche … Joan fell asleep. CHAPTER 2 (#u624afea6-250e-55a7-b1b7-c0f166fb8c7b) It was raining when Joan Scudamore left the rest house the following morning, a fine gentle rain that seemed somehow incongruous in this part of the world. She found that she was the only passenger going west—a sufficiently uncommon occurrence, it appeared, although there was not much traffic this time of year. There had been a large convoy on the preceding Friday. A battered looking touring car was waiting with a European driver and a native relief driver. The manager of the rest house was on the steps in the grey dawn of the morning to hand Joan in, yell at the Arabs until they adjusted the baggage to his satisfaction, and to wish Mademoiselle, as he called all his lady guests, a safe and comfortable journey. He bowed magnificently and handed her a small cardboard container in which was her lunch. The driver yelled out cheerily: ‘Bye bye, Satan, see you tomorrow night or next week—and it looks more like next week.’ The car started off. It wound through the streets of the oriental city with its grotesque and unexpected blocks of occidental architecture. The horn blared, donkeys swerved aside, children ran. They drove out through the western gate and on to a broad, unequally paved road that looked important enough to run to the world’s end. Actually it petered out abruptly after two kilometres and an irregular track took its place. In good weather it was, Joan knew, about seven hours’ run to Tell Abu Hamid which was the present terminus of the Turkish railway. The train from Stamboul arrived there this morning and would go back again at eight-thirty this evening. There was a small rest house at Tell Abu Hamid for the convenience of travellers, where they were served with what meals they might need. They should meet the convoy coming east about half-way along the track. The going was now very uneven. The car leapt and jumped and Joan was thrown up and down in her seat. The driver called back that he hoped she was all right. It was a bumpy bit of track but he wanted to hurry as much as possible in case he had difficulty crossing the two wadis they had to negotiate. From time to time he looked anxiously up at the sky. The rain began to fall faster and the car began to do a series of skids, zigzagging to and fro and making Joan feel slightly sick. They reached the first wadi about eleven. There was water in it, but they got across and after a slight peril of sticking on the hill up the other side drew out of it successfully. About two kilometres farther on they ran into soft ground and stuck there. Joan slipped on her mackintosh coat and got out, opening her box of lunch and eating as she walked up and down and watched the two men working, digging with spades, flinging jacks at each other, putting boards they had brought with them under the wheels. They swore and toiled and the wheels spun angrily in the air. It seemed to Joan an impossible task, but the driver assured her that it wasn’t a bad place at all. Finally, with unnerving suddenness the wheels bit and roared, and the car quivered forward on to drier ground. A little farther on they encountered two cars coming in the opposite direction. All three stopped and the drivers held a consultation, giving each other recommendations and advice. In the other cars were a woman and a baby, a young French officer, an elderly Armenian and two commercial looking Englishmen. Presently they went on. They stuck twice more and again the long, laborious business of jacking up and digging out had to be undertaken. The second wadi was more difficult of negotiation than the first one. It was dusk when they came to it and the water was rushing through it. Joan asked anxiously: ‘Will the train wait?’ ‘They usually give an hour’s grace. They can make up that on the run, but they won’t delay beyond nine-thirty. However the track gets better from now on. Different kind of ground—more open desert.’ They had a bad time clearing the wadi—the farther bank was sheer slippery mud. It was dark when the car at last reached dry ground. From then on, the going was better but when they got to Tell Abu Hamid it was a quarter past ten and the train to Stamboul had gone. Joan was so completely done up that she hardly noticed her surroundings. She stumbled into the rest house dining-room with its trestle tables, refused food but asked for tea and then went straight to the dimly lit, bleak room with its three iron beds and taking out bare necessaries, she tumbled into bed and slept like a log. She awoke the next morning her usual cool competent self. She sat up in bed and looked at her watch. It was half past nine. She got up, dressed and came out into the dining-room. An Indian with an artistic turban wrapped round his head appeared and she ordered breakfast. Then she strolled to the door and looked out. With a slight humorous grimace she acknowledged to herself that she had indeed arrived at the middle of nowhere. This time, she reflected, it looked like taking about double the time. On her journey out she had flown from Cairo to Baghdad. This route was new to her. It was actually seven days from Baghdad to London—three days in the train from London to Stamboul, two days on to Aleppo, another night to the end of the railway at Tell Abu Hamid, then a day’s motoring, a night in a rest house and another motor drive to Kirkuk and on by train to Baghdad. There was no sign of rain this morning. The sky was blue and cloudless, and all around was even coloured golden brown sandy dust. From the rest house itself a tangle of barbed wire enclosed a refuse dump of tins and a space where some skinny chickens ran about squawking loudly. Clouds of flies had settled on such tins as had recently contained nourishment. Something that looked like a bundle of dirty rags suddenly got up and proved to be an Arab boy. A little distance away, across another tangle of barbed wire was a squat building that was evidently the station with something that Joan took to be either an artesian well or a big water tank beside it. On the far horizon to the north was the faint outline of a range of hills. Apart from that, nothing. No landmarks, no buildings, no vegetation, no human kind. A station, a railway track, some hens, what seemed to be a disproportionate amount of barbed wire—and that was all. Really, Joan thought, it was very amusing. Such an odd place to be held up. The Indian servant came out and said that the Memsahib’s breakfast was ready. Joan turned and went in. The characteristic atmosphere of a rest house, gloom, mutton fat, paraffin and Flit greeted her with a sense of rather distasteful familiarity. There was coffee and milk (tinned milk), a whole dish of fried eggs, some hard little rounds of toast, a dish of jam, and some rather doubtful looking stewed prunes. Joan ate with a good appetite. And presently the Indian reappeared and asked what time the Memsahib would like lunch. Joan said not for a long time—and it was agreed that half past one would be a satisfactory hour. The trains, as she knew, went three days a week, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It was Tuesday morning, so she would not be able to leave until tomorrow night. She spoke to the man asking if that was correct. ‘That right, Memsahib. Miss train last night. Very unfortunate. Track very bad, rain very heavy in night. That means no cars can go to and fro from here to Mosul for some days.’ ‘But the trains will be all right?’ Joan was not interested in the Mosul track. ‘Oh yes, train come all right tomorrow morning. Go back tomorrow night.’ Joan nodded. She asked about the car which had brought her. ‘Go off this morning early. Driver hope get through. But I think not. I think him stick one, two days on way there.’ Again without much interest Joan thought it highly probable. The man went on giving information. ‘That station, Memsahib, over there.’ Joan said that she had thought, somehow, that it might be the station. ‘Turkish station. Station in Turkey. Railway Turkish. Other side of wire, see. That wire frontier.’ Joan looked respectfully at the frontier and thought what very odd things frontiers were. The Indian said happily: ‘Lunch one-thirty exactly,’ and went back into the rest house. A minute or two later she heard him screaming in a high angry voice from somewhere at the back of it. Two other voices chimed in. A spate of high, excited Arabic filled the air. Joan wondered why it was always Indians who seemed to be in charge of rest houses like this one. Perhaps they had had experience of European ways. Oh well, it didn’t much matter. What should she do with herself this morning? She might go on with the amusing Memoirs of Lady Catherine Dysart. Or she might write some letters. She could post them when the train got to Aleppo. She had a writing pad and some envelopes with her. She hesitated on the threshold of the rest house. It was so dark inside and it smelt so. Perhaps she would go for a walk. She fetched her thick double felt hat—not that the sun was really dangerous at this time of year, still it was better to be careful. She put on her dark glasses and slipped the writing pad and her fountain pen into her bag. Then she set out, past the refuse dump and the tins, in the opposite direction to the railway station, since there might, possibly, be international complications if she tried to cross the frontier. She thought to herself, How curious it is walking like this … there’s nowhere to walk to. It was a novel and rather interesting idea. Walking on the downs, on moorland, on a beach, down a road—there was always some objective in view. Over that hill, to that clump of trees, to that patch of heather, down this lane to the farm, along the high road to the next town, by the side of the waves to the next cove. But here it was from—not to. Away from the rest house—that was all. Right hand, left hand, straight ahead—just bare dun-coloured horizon. She strolled along not too briskly. The air was pleasant. It was hot, but not too hot. A thermometer, she thought, would have registered seventy. And there was a faint, a very faint breeze. She walked for about ten minutes before turning her head. The rest house and its sordid accompaniments had receded in a very accommodating manner. From here it looked quite pleasant. Beyond it, the station looked like a little cairn of stones. Joan smiled and strolled on. Really the air was delicious! There was a purity in it, a freshness. No staleness here, no taint of humanity or civilization. Sun and sky and sandy earth, that was all. Something a little intoxicating in its quality. Joan took deep breaths into her lungs. She was enjoying herself. Really this was quite an adventure! A most welcome break in the monotony of existence. She was quite glad she had missed the train. Twenty-four hours of absolute quiet and peace would be good for her. It was not as though there were any absolute urgency in her return. She could wire to Rodney from Stamboul explaining the delay. Dear old Rodney! She wondered what he was doing now. Not, really, that there was anything to wonder about, because she knew. He would be sitting in his office at Alderman, Scudamore and Witney’s—quite a nice room on the first floor looking out over the Market Square. He had moved into it when old Mr Witney died. He liked that room—She remembered how she had come in one day to see him and had found him standing by the window staring out at the market (it was market day) and at a herd of cattle that was being driven in. ‘Nice lot of shorthorns—those,’ he had said. (Or perhaps it wasn’t shorthorns—Joan wasn’t very good at farming terms—but something like that, anyway.) And she had said, ‘About the new boiler for the central heating, I think Galbraith’s estimate is far too high. Shall I see what Chamberlain would charge?’ She remembered the slow way Rodney had turned, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes and looking at her in an absent faraway manner as though he didn’t really see her, and the way he had said ‘boiler?’ as though it was some difficult and remote subject he had never heard of, and then saying—really rather stupidly, ‘I believe Hoddesdon’s selling that young bull of his. Wants the money, I suppose.’ She thought it was very nice of Rodney to be so interested in old Hoddesdon at Lower Mead farm. Poor old man, everyone knew he was going down the hill. But she did wish Rodney would be a little quicker at listening to what was said to him. Because, after all, people expected a lawyer to be sharp and alert, and if Rodney was to look at clients in that vague way it might create quite a bad impression. So she had said with quick, affectionate impatience: ‘Don’t wool-gather, Rodney. It’s the boiler I’m talking about for the central heating.’ And Rodney had said certainly have a second estimate but that costs were bound to be higher and they must just make up their minds to it. And then he had glanced at the papers piled up on his desk and she had said that she mustn’t keep him—it looked as though he had a lot of work to do. Rodney smiled and said that as a matter of fact he had got a lot of work piled up—and he’d been wasting time already watching the market. ‘That’s why I like this room,’ he said. ‘I look forward to Fridays. Listen to ’em now.’ And he had held up his hand, and she had listened and heard a good deal of mooing and lowing—really a very confused and rather ugly noise of cattle and sheep—but Rodney, funnily enough, seemed to like it. He stood there, his head a little on one side, smiling … Oh well, it would not be market day today. Rodney would be at his desk with no distractions. And her fears about clients thinking Rodney vague had been quite unfounded. He was by far the most popular member of the firm. Everyone liked him which was half the battle in a country solicitor’s practice. And but for me, thought Joan proudly, he’d have turned the whole thing down! Her thoughts went to that day when Rodney had told her about his uncle’s offer. It was an old-fashioned flourishing family business and it had always been understood that Rodney should go into it after he had passed his law exams. But Uncle Harry’s offer of a partnership and on such excellent terms was an unexpectedly happy occurrence. Joan had expressed her own delight and surprise and had congratulated Rodney warmly before she noticed that Rodney didn’t seem to be sharing in her sentiments. He had actually uttered the incredible words, ‘If I accept—’ She had exclaimed dismayed, ‘But Rodney!’ Clearly she remembered the white set face he had turned to her. She hadn’t realized before what a nervous person Rodney was. His hands picking up blades of turf were trembling. There was a curious pleading look in his dark eyes. He said: ‘I hate office life. I hate it.’ Joan was quick to sympathize. ‘Oh I know, darling. It’s been awfully stuffy and hard work and just sheer grind—not even interesting. But a partnership is different—I mean you’ll have an interest in the whole thing.’ ‘In contracts, leases, messuages, covenants, whereas, insomuch as heretofore—’ Some absurd legal rigmarole he had trotted out, his mouth laughing, his eyes sad and pleading—pleading so hard with her. And she loved Rodney so much! ‘But it’s always been understood that you’d go into the firm.’ ‘Oh I know, I know. But how was I to guess I’d hate it so?’ ‘But—I mean—what else—what do you want to do?’ And he had said, very quickly and eagerly, the words pouring out in a rush: ‘I want to farm. There’s Little Mead coming into the market. It’s in a bad state—Horley’s neglected it—but that’s why one could get it cheap—and it’s good land, mark you …’ And he had hurried on, outlining plans, talking in such technical terms that she had felt quite bewildered for she herself knew nothing of wheat or barley or the rotation of crops, or of pedigreed stocks or dairy herds. She could only say in a dismayed voice: ‘Little Mead—but that’s right out under Asheldown—miles from anywhere.’ ‘It’s good land, Joan—and a good position …’ He was off again. She’d had no idea that Rodney could be so enthusiastic, could talk so much and with such eagerness. She said doubtfully, ‘But darling, would you ever make a living out of it?’ ‘A living? Oh yes—a bare living anyway.’ ‘That’s what I mean. People always say there’s no money in farming.’ ‘Oh, there isn’t. Not unless you’re damned lucky—or unless you’ve got a lot of capital.’ ‘Well, you see—I mean, it isn’t practical.’ ‘Oh, but it is, Joan. I’ve got a little money of my own, remember, and with the farm paying its way and making a bit over we’d be all right. And think of the wonderful life we’d have! It’s grand, living on a farm!’ ‘I don’t believe you know anything about it.’ ‘Oh yes, I do. Didn’t you know my mother’s father was a big farmer in Devonshire? We spent our holidays there as children. I’ve never enjoyed myself so much.’ It’s true what they say, she had thought, men are just like children … She said gently, ‘I daresay—but life isn’t holidays. We’ve got the future to think of, Rodney. There’s Tony.’ For Tony had been a baby of eleven months then. She added, ‘And there may be—others.’ He looked a quick question at her, and she smiled and nodded. ‘But don’t you see, Joan, that makes it all the better? It’s a good place for children, a farm. It’s a healthy place. They have fresh eggs and milk, and run wild and learn how to look after animals.’ ‘Oh but, Rodney, there are lots of other things to consider. There’s their schooling. They must go to good schools. And that’s expensive. And boots and clothes and teeth and doctors. And making nice friends for them. You can’t just do what you want to do. You’ve got to consider children if you bring them into the world. After all, you’ve got a duty to them.’ Rodney said obstinately, but there was a question in his voice this time, ‘They’d be happy …’ ‘It’s not practical, Rodney, really it isn’t. Why, if you go into the firm you may be making as much as two thousand pounds a year some day.’ ‘Easily, I should think. Uncle Harry makes more than that.’ ‘There! You see! You can’t turn a thing like that down. It would be madness!’ She had spoken very decidedly, very positively. She had got, she saw, to be firm about this. She must be wise for the two of them. If Rodney was blind to what was best for him, she must assume the responsibility. It was so dear and silly and ridiculous, this farming idea. He was like a little boy. She felt strong and confident and maternal. ‘Don’t think I don’t understand and sympathize, Rodney,’ she said. ‘I do. But it’s just one of those things that isn’t real.’ He had interrupted to say that farming was real enough. ‘Yes, but it’s just not in the picture. Our picture. Here you’ve got a wonderful family business with a first-class opening in it for you—and a really quite amazingly generous proposition from your uncle—’ ‘Oh, I know. It’s far better than I ever expected.’ ‘And you can’t—you simply can’t turn it down! You’d regret it all your life if you did. You’d feel horribly guilty.’ He muttered, ‘That bloody office!’ ‘Oh, Rodney, you don’t really hate it as much as you think you do.’ ‘Yes, I do. I’ve been in it five years, remember. I ought to know what I feel.’ ‘You’ll get used to it. And it will be different now. Quite different. Being a partner, I mean. And you’ll end by getting quite interested in the work—and in the people you come across. You’ll see, Rodney—you’ll end by being perfectly happy.’ He had looked at her then—a long sad look. There had been love in it, and despair and something else, something that had been, perhaps, a last faint flicker of hope … ‘How do you know,’ he had asked, ‘that I shall be happy?’ And she had answered briskly and gaily, ‘I’m quite sure you will. You’ll see.’ And she had nodded brightly and with authority. He had sighed and said abruptly: ‘All right then. Have it your own way.’ Yes, Joan thought, that was really a very narrow shave. How lucky for Rodney that she had held firm and not allowed him to throw away his career for a mere passing craze! Men, she thought, would make sad messes of their lives if it weren’t for women. Women had stability, a sense of reality … Yes, it was lucky for Rodney he’d had her. She glanced down at her wrist watch. Half past ten. No point in walking too far—especially (she smiled) as there was nowhere to walk to. She looked over her shoulder. Extraordinary, the rest house was nearly out of sight. It had settled down into the landscape so that you hardly saw it. She thought, I must be careful not to walk too far. I might get lost. A ridiculous idea—no—perhaps not so ridiculous after all. Those hills in the distance, you could hardly see them now—they were indistinguishable from cloud. The station didn’t exist. Joan looked round her with appreciation. Nothing. No one. She dropped gracefully to the ground. Opening her bag she took out her writing pad and her fountain pen. She’d write a few letters. It would be amusing to pass on her sensations. Who should she write to? Lionel West? Janet Annesmore? Dorothea? On the whole, perhaps, Janet. She unscrewed the cap of her fountain pen. In her easy flowing handwriting she began to write: Dearest Janet: You’ll never guess where I’m writing this letter! In the middle of the desert. I’m marooned here between trains—they only go three times a week. There’s a rest house with an Indian in charge of it and a lot of hens and some peculiar looking Arabs and me. There’s no one to talk to and nothing to do. I can’t tell you how I am enjoying it. The desert air is wonderful—so incredibly fresh. And the stillness, you’d have to feel it to understand. It’s as though for the first time for years I could hear myself think! One leads such a dreadfully busy life, always rushing from one thing to the other. It can’t be helped, I suppose, but one ought really to make time for intervals of thought and recuperation. I’ve only been here half a day but I feel miles better already. No people. I never realized how much I wanted to get away from people. It’s soothing to the nerves to know that all round you for hundreds of miles there’s nothing but sand and sun … Joan’s pen flowed on, evenly, over the paper. CHAPTER 3 (#u624afea6-250e-55a7-b1b7-c0f166fb8c7b) Joan stopped writing and glanced at her watch. A quarter past twelve. She had written three letters and her pen had now run out of ink. She noted, too, that she had nearly finished her writing pad. Rather annoying, that. There were several more people she could have written to. Although, she mused, there was a certain sameness in writing after a while … The sun and the sand and how lovely it was to have time to rest and think! All quite true—but one got tired of trying to phrase the same facts slightly differently each time … She yawned. The sun had really made her feel quite sleepy. After lunch she would lie on her bed and have a sleep. She got up and strolled slowly back towards the rest house. She wondered what Blanche was doing now. She must have reached Baghdad—she had joined her husband. The husband sounded rather a dreadful kind of man. Poor Blanche—dreadful to come down in the world like that. If it hadn’t been for that very good-looking young vet, Harry Marston—if Blanche had met some nice man like Rodney. Blanche herself had said how charming Rodney was. Yes, and Blanche had said something else. What was it? Something about Rodney’s having a roving eye. Such a common expression—and quite untrue! Quite untrue! Rodney had never—never once— The same thought as before, but not so snakelike in its rapidity, passed across the surface of Joan’s mind. The Randolph girl … Really, thought Joan indignantly, walking suddenly just a little faster as though to outpace some unwelcome thought, I can’t imagine why I keep thinking of the Randolph girl. It’s not as though Rodney … I mean, there’s nothing in it … Nothing at all … It was simply that Myrna Randolph was that kind of a girl. A big, dark, luscious-looking girl. A girl who, if she took a fancy to a man, didn’t seem to have any reticence about advertising the fact. To speak plainly, she’d made a dead set at Rodney. Kept saying how wonderful he was. Always wanted him for a partner at tennis. Had even got a habit of sitting at parties devouring him with her eyes. Naturally Rodney had been a little flattered. Any man would have been. In fact, it would have been quite ridiculous if Rodney hadn’t been flattered and pleased by the attentions of a girl years younger than he was and one of the best-looking girls in the town. Joan thought to herself, if I hadn’t been clever and tactful about the whole thing … She reviewed her conduct with a gentle glow of self-approbation. She had handled the situation very well—very well indeed. The light touch. ‘Your girl friend’s waiting for you, Rodney. Don’t keep her waiting … Myrna Randolph of course … Oh yes, she is, darling … Really she makes herself quite ridiculous sometimes.’ Rodney had grumbled. ‘I don’t want to play tennis with the girl. Put her in that other set.’ ‘Now don’t be ungracious, Rodney. You must play with her.’ That was the right way to handle things—lightly—playfully. Showing quite well that she knew that there couldn’t be anything serious in it … It must have been rather nice for Rodney—for all that he growled and pretended to be annoyed. Myrna Randolph was the kind of girl that practically every man found attractive. She was capricious and treated her admirers with deep contempt, saying rude things to them and then beckoning them back to her with a sideways glance of the eyes. Really, thought Joan (with a heat that was unusual in her) a most detestable girl. Doing everything she could to break up my married life. No, she didn’t blame Rodney. She blamed the girl. Men were so easily flattered. And Rodney had been married then about—what—ten years? Eleven? Ten years was what writers called a dangerous period in married life. A time when one or the other party had a tendency to run off the rails. A time to get through warily until you settled down beyond it into comfortable, set ways. As she and Rodney had … No she didn’t blame Rodney—not even for that kiss she had surprised. Under the mistletoe indeed! That was what the girl had had the impudence to say when she came into the study. ‘We’re christening the mistletoe, Mrs Scudamore. Hope you don’t mind.’ Well, Joan thought, I kept my head and didn’t show anything. ‘Now, hands off my husband, Myrna! Go and find some young man of your own.’ And she had laughingly chivvied Myrna out of the room. Taking it all as a joke. And then Rodney had said, ‘Sorry, Joan. But she’s an attractive wench—and it’s Christmas time.’ He had stood there smiling at her, apologizing, but not looking really sheepish or upset. It showed that the thing hadn’t really gone far. And it shouldn’t go any farther! She had made up her mind to that. She had taken every care to keep Rodney out of Myrna Randolph’s way. And the following Easter Myrna had got engaged to the Arlington boy. So really the whole incident amounted to exactly nothing at all. Perhaps there had been just a little fun in it for Rodney. Poor old Rodney—he really deserved a little fun. He worked so hard. Ten years—yes, it was a dangerous time. Even she herself, she remembered, had felt a certain restlessness … That rather wild-looking young man, that artist—what was his name now? Really she couldn’t remember. Hadn’t she been a little taken with him herself? She admitted to herself with a smile that she really had been—yes—just a little silly about him. He had been so earnest—had stared at her with such disarming intensity. Then he had asked if she would sit for him. An excuse, of course. He had done one or two charcoal sketches and then torn them up. He couldn’t ‘get’ her on canvas, he had said. Joan remembered her own subtly flattered, pleased feelings. Poor boy, she had thought, I’m afraid he really is getting rather fond of me … Yes, that had been a pleasant month … Though the end of it had been rather disconcerting. Not at all according to plan. In fact, it just showed that Michael Callaway (Callaway, that was his name, of course!) was a thoroughly unsatisfactory sort of person. They had gone for a walk together, she remembered, in Haling Woods, along the path where the Medaway comes twisting down from the summit of Asheldown. He had asked her to come in a rather gruff, shy voice. She had envisaged their probable conversation. He would tell her, perhaps, that he loved her, and she would be very sweet and gentle and understanding and a little—just a little—regretful. She thought of several charming things she might say, things that Michael might like to remember afterwards. But it hadn’t turned out like that. It hadn’t turned out like that at all! Instead, Michael Callaway had, without warning, seized her and kissed her with a violence and a brutality that had momentarily deprived her of breath, and letting go of her had observed in a loud and self-congratulatory voice: ‘My God, I wanted that!’ and had proceeded to fill a pipe, with complete unconcern and apparently deaf to her angry reproaches. He had merely said, stretching his arms and yawning, ‘I feel a lot better now.’ It was exactly, thought Joan, remembering the scene, what a man might say after downing a glass of beer on a thirsty day. They had walked home in silence after that—in silence on Joan’s part, that is. Michael Callaway seemed, from the extraordinary noises he made, to be attempting to sing. It was on the outskirts of the wood, just before they emerged on to the Crayminster Market Wopling high road, that he had paused and surveyed her dispassionately, and then remarked in a contemplative tone: ‘You know, you’re the sort of woman who ought to be raped. It might do you good.’ And, whilst she had stood, speechless with anger and astonishment, he had added cheerfully: ‘I’d rather like to rape you myself—and see if you looked the least bit different afterwards.’ Then he had stepped out on to the high road, and giving up trying to sing had whistled cheerfully. Naturally she had never spoken to him again and he had left Crayminster a few days later. A strange, puzzling and rather disturbing incident. Not an incident that Joan had cared to remember. In fact, she rather wondered that she had remembered it now … Horrid, the whole thing had been, quite horrid. She would put it out of her mind at once. After all, one didn’t want to remember unpleasant things when one was having a sun and sand rest cure. There was so much to think of that was pleasant and stimulating. Perhaps lunch would be ready. She glanced at her watch, but saw that it was only a quarter to one. When she got back to the rest house, she went to her room and hunted in her suitcase to see if she had any more writing paper with her. No, she hadn’t. Oh, well, it didn’t matter really. She was tired of writing letters. There wasn’t much to say. You couldn’t go on writing the same thing. What books had she got? Lady Catherine, of course. And a detective story that William had given her last thing. Kind of him, but she didn’t really care for detective stories. And The Power House by Buchan. Surely that was a very old book. She had read it years ago. Oh well, she would be able to buy some more books at the station at Aleppo. Lunch consisted of an omelette (rather tough and overcooked), curried eggs, and a dish of salmon (tinned) and baked beans and tinned peaches. It was rather a heavy meal. After it Joan went and lay down on her bed. She slept for three quarters of an hour, then woke up and read Lady Catherine Dysart until tea time. She had tea (tinned milk) and biscuits and went for a stroll and came back and finished Lady Catherine Dysart. Then she had dinner: omelette, curried salmon and rice, a dish of eggs and baked beans and tinned apricots. After that she started the detective story and finished it by the time she was ready for bed. The Indian said cheerfully: ‘Good night, Memsahib. Train come in seven-thirty tomorrow morning but not go out till evening, half past eight.’ Joan nodded. There would be another day to put in. She’d got The Power House still. A pity it was so short. Then an idea struck her. ‘There will be travellers coming in on the train? Oh, but they go straight off to Mosul, I suppose?’ The man shook his head. ‘Not tomorrow, I think. No cars arrive today. I think track to Mosul very bad. Everything stick for many days.’ Joan brightened. There would be travellers off the train in the rest house tomorrow. That would be rather nice—there was sure to be someone to whom it would be possible to talk. She went to bed feeling more cheerful than she had ten minutes ago. She thought, There’s something about the atmosphere of this place—I think it’s that dreadful smell of rancid fat! It quite depresses one. She awoke the next morning at eight o’clock and got up and dressed. She came out into the dining-room. One place only was laid at the table. She called, and the Indian came in. He was looking excited. ‘Train not come, Memsahib.’ ‘Not come? You mean it’s late?’ ‘Not come at all. Very heavy rain down line—other side Nissibin. Line all wash away—no train get through for three four five six days perhaps.’ Joan looked at him in dismay. ‘But then—what do I do?’ ‘You stay here, Memsahib. Plenty food, plenty beer, plenty tea. Very nice. You wait till train come.’ Oh dear, thought Joan, these Orientals. Time means nothing to them. She said, ‘Couldn’t I get a car?’ He seemed amused. ‘Motor car? Where would you get motor car? Track to Mosul very bad, everything stuck other side of wadi.’ ‘Can’t you telephone down the line?’ ‘Telephone where? Turkish line. Turks very difficult people—not do anything. They just run train.’ Joan thought, rallying with what she hoped was amusement, This really is being cut off from civilization! No telephones or telegraphs, no cars. The Indian said comfortingly: ‘Very nice weather, plenty food, all very comfortable.’ Well, Joan thought, it’s certainly nice weather. That’s lucky. Awful if I had to sit inside this place all day. As though reading her thoughts, the man said: ‘Weather good here, very seldom rain. Rain nearer Mosul, rain down the line.’ Joan sat down at the laid place at the table and waited for her breakfast to be brought. She had got over her momentary dismay. No good making a fuss—she had much too much sense for that. These things couldn’t be helped. But it was rather an annoying waste of time. She thought with a half smile: It looks as though what I said to Blanche was a wish that has come true. I said I should be glad of an interval to rest my nerves. Well, I’ve got it! Nothing whatever to do here. Not even anything to read. Really it ought to do me a lot of good. Rest cure in the desert. The thought of Blanche brought some slightly unpleasant association—something that, quite definitely, she didn’t want to remember. In fact, why think of Blanche at all? She went out after breakfast. As before, she walked a reasonable distance from the rest house and then sat down on the ground. For some time she sat quite still, her eyes half closed. Wonderful, she thought, to feel this peace and quiet oozing into her. She could simply feel the good it was doing her. The healing air, the lovely warm sun—the peace of it all. She remained so for a little longer. Then she glanced at her watch. It was ten minutes past ten. She thought: The morning is passing quite quickly … Supposing she were to write a line to Barbara? Really it was extraordinary that she hadn’t thought of writing to Barbara yesterday instead of those silly letters to friends in England. She got out the pad and her pen. ‘Darling Barbara,’ she wrote. ‘I’m not having a very lucky journey. Missed Monday night’s train and now I’m held up here for days apparently. It’s very peaceful and lovely sunshine so I’m quite happy.’ She paused. What to say next. Something about the baby—or William? What on earth could Blanche have meant—‘don’t worry about Barbara’. Of course! That was why Joan hadn’t wanted to think about Blanche. Blanche had been so peculiar in the things she had said about Barbara. As though she, Barbara’s mother, wouldn’t know anything there was to know about her own child. ‘I’m sure she’ll be all right now.’ Did that mean that things hadn’t been all right? But in what way? Blanche had hinted that Barbara was too young to have married. Joan stirred uneasily. At the time, she remembered, Rodney had said something of the kind. He had said, quite suddenly, and in an unusually peremptory way: ‘I’m not happy about this marriage, Joan.’ ‘Oh, Rodney, but why? He’s so nice and they seem so well suited.’ ‘He’s a nice enough young fellow—but she doesn’t love him, Joan.’ She’d been astonished—absolutely astonished. ‘Rodney—really—how ridiculous! Of course she’s in love with him! Why on earth would she want to marry him otherwise?’ He had answered—rather obscurely: ‘That’s what I’m afraid of.’ ‘But, darling—really—aren’t you being a little ridiculous?’ He had said, paying no attention to her purposely light tone, ‘If she doesn’t love him, she mustn’t marry him. She’s too young for that—and she’s got too much temperament.’ ‘Well, really, Rodney, what do you know about temperament?’ She couldn’t help being amused. But Rodney didn’t even smile. He said, ‘Girls do marry sometimes—just to get away from home.’ At that she had laughed outright. ‘Not homes like Barbara’s! Why, no girl ever had a happier home life.’ ‘Do you really think that’s true, Joan?’ ‘Why, of course. Everything’s always been perfect for the children here.’ He said slowly, ‘They don’t seem to bring their friends to the house much.’ ‘Why, darling, I’m always giving parties and asking young people! I make a point of it. It’s Barbara herself who’s always saying she doesn’t want parties and not to ask people.’ Rodney had shaken his head in a puzzled, unsatisfied way. And later, that evening, she had come into the room just as Barbara was crying out impatiently: ‘It’s no good, Daddy, I’ve got to get away. I can’t stand it any longer—and don’t tell me to go and take a job somewhere, because I should hate that.’ ‘What’s all this?’ Joan said. After a pause, a very slight pause, Barbara had explained, a mutinous flush on her cheek. ‘Just Daddy thinking he knows best! He wants me to be engaged for years. I’ve told him I can’t stand that and I want to marry William and go away to Baghdad. I think it will be wonderful out there.’ ‘Oh dear,’ said Joan anxiously. ‘I wish it wasn’t so far away. I’d like to have you under my eye as it were.’ ‘Oh, Mother!’ ‘I know, darling, but you don’t realize how young you are, how inexperienced. I should be able to help you so much if you were living somewhere not too far away.’ Barbara had smiled and had said, ‘Well, it looks as though I shall have to paddle my own canoe without the benefit of your experience and wisdom.’ And as Rodney was going slowly out of the room, she had rushed after him and had suddenly flung her arms round his neck hugging him and saying, ‘Darling Dads. Darling, darling, darling …’ Really, thought Joan, the child is becoming quite demonstrative. But it showed, at any rate, how entirely wrong Rodney was in his ideas. Barbara was just revelling in the thought of going out East with her William—and very nice it was to see two young things in love and so full of plans for the future. Extraordinary that an idea should have got about Baghdad that Barbara had been unhappy at home. But it was a place that seemed absolutely full of gossip and rumours, so much so that one hardly liked to mention anyone. Major Reid, for instance. She herself had never met Major Reid, but he had been mentioned quite often in Barbara’s letters home. Major Reid had been to dinner. They were going shooting with Major Reid. Barbara was going for the summer months up to Arkandous. She and another young married woman had shared a bungalow and Major Reid had been up there at the same time. They had had a lot of tennis. Later, Barbara and he had won the mixed doubles at the club. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». 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