The Burden Agatha Christie A superb novel of possessive love.Laura Franklin bitterly resented the arrival of her younger sister Shirley, an enchanting baby loved by all the family. But Laura's emotions towards her sister changed dramatically one night, when she vowed to protect her with all her strength and love. While Shirley longs for freedom and romance, Laura has to learn that loving can never be a one-sided affair, and the burden of her love for her sister has a dramatic effect on both their lives. A story of consequences when love turns to obsession…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 (#ulink_b8efccc3-f250-5a5d-9c39-69738d6cfe8b) HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk) First published in Great Britain by Heinemann 1956 Copyright © 1956 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: 9780008131456 Ebook Edition © June 2017 ISBN: 9780007534999 Version: 2018-04-11 Epigraph (#ulink_b90bc2fe-8536-5a72-8a66-6c4740758638) ‘For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ ST MATTHEW, Ch. 11, v.30 ‘Lord, Thy most pointed pleasure take And stab my spirit broad awake; Or, Lord, if too obdurate I, Choose Thou, before that spirit die, A piercing pain, a killing sin, And to my dead heart run them in!’ R. L. STEVENSON Contents Cover (#u2f2f4235-d2dc-5370-99fa-9def293e288b) Title Page (#u267709fa-5797-5cb8-a4eb-07eff18fcb1d) Copyright (#u45fbedf6-6569-5d3f-9743-5cd5d2c97fc0) Epigraph (#ue607bedc-6e44-5c97-9c41-e41d6703b76c) Prologue (#u3ea017cd-547d-585a-82af-086820e6bf15) PART I. Laura—1929 (#u8f066657-5f6e-56ea-b148-3e67d388da59) Chapter 1 (#u25a6f470-6b10-5a1d-bd26-ef4837f090b8) Chapter 2 (#uc80de71d-62c0-57d6-a92f-6d5947395529) Chapter 3 (#uc80d5f37-4594-5648-8c8d-856af7a40c67) Chapter 4 (#u1265e46f-d9cb-5b9e-a2b8-2557a0192f82) Chapter 5 (#u29de1ba1-6dc6-557c-90a4-4d5d50b30de8) PART II. Shirley—1946 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 1 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 2 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 3 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 4 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 5 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 6 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 7 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 8 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 9 (#litres_trial_promo) PART III. Llewellyn—1956 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 1 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 2 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 3 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 4 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 5 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 6 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 7 (#litres_trial_promo) PART IV. As it was in the Beginning—1956 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 1 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 2 (#litres_trial_promo) Also by Agatha Christie (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) PROLOGUE (#ulink_95db416a-e114-5096-b9e9-cfeb5eb02a62) The church was cold. It was October, too early for the heating to be on. Outside, the sun gave a watery promise of warmth and good cheer, but here within the chill grey stone there was only dampness and a sure foreknowledge of winter. Laura stood between Nannie, resplendent in crackling collars and cuffs, and Mr Henson, the curate. The vicar was in bed with mild influenza. Mr Henson was young and thin, with an Adam’s apple and a high nasal voice. Mrs Franklin, looking frail and attractive, leant on her husband’s arm. He himself stood upright and grave. The birth of his second daughter had not consoled him for the loss of Charles. He had wanted a son. And it seemed now, from what the doctor had said, that there would not be a son … His eyes went from Laura to the infant in Nannie’s arms gurgling happily to itself. Two daughters … Of course Laura was a nice child, a dear child and, as babies go, the new arrival was a splendid specimen, but a man wanted a son. Charles—Charles, with his fair hair, his way of throwing back his head and laughing. Such an attractive boy, so handsome, so bright, so intelligent. Really a very unusual boy. It seemed a pity that if one of his children had to die, it hadn’t been Laura … His eyes suddenly met those of his elder daughter, eyes that seemed large and tragic in her small pale face, and Franklin flushed guiltily—what had he been thinking of? Suppose the child should guess what had been in his mind. Of course he was devoted to Laura—only—only, she wasn’t, she could never be Charles. Leaning against her husband, her eyes half closed, Angela Franklin was saying to herself: ‘My boy—my beautiful boy—my darling … I still can’t believe it. Why couldn’t it have been Laura?’ She felt no guilt in that thought as it came to her. More ruthless and more honest than her husband, closer to primeval needs, she admitted the simple fact that her second child, a daughter, had never meant, and could never mean to her what her first-born had. Compared with Charles, Laura was an anti-climax—a quiet disappointing child, well-behaved, giving no trouble, but lacking in—what was it?—personality. She thought again: ‘Charles—nothing can ever make up to me for losing Charles.’ She felt the pressure of her husband’s hand on her arm, and opened her eyes—she must pay attention to the Service. What a very irritating voice poor Mr Henson had! Angela looked with half-amused indulgence at the baby in Nannie’s arms—such big solemn words for such a tiny mite. The baby, who had been sleeping, blinked and opened her eyes. Such dazzling blue eyes—like Charles’s eyes—she made a happy gurgling noise. Angela thought: ‘Charles’s smile.’ A rush of mother love swept over her. Her baby—her own lovely baby. For the first time Charles’s death receded into the past. Angela met Laura’s dark sad gaze, and thought with momentary curiosity: ‘I wonder just what that child is thinking?’ Nannie also was conscious of Laura standing quiet and erect beside her. ‘Such a quiet little thing,’ she thought. ‘A bit too quiet for my taste—not natural for any child to be as quiet and well-behaved as she is. There has never been much notice taken of her—maybe not as much as there ought to have been—I wonder now—’ The Reverend Eustace Henson was approaching the moment that always made him nervous. He had not done many christenings. If only the vicar were here. He noticed with approval Laura’s grave eyes and serious expression. A well-behaved child. He wondered suddenly what was passing through her mind. It was as well that neither he, nor Nannie, nor Arthur and Angela Franklin knew. It wasn’t fair … Oh, it wasn’t fair … Her mother loved this baby sister as much as she loved Charles. It wasn’t fair … She hated the baby—she hated it, hated it, hated it! ‘I’d like her to die.’ Standing by the font, the solemn words of baptism were ringing in her ears—but far more clear, far more real—was the thought translated into words: ‘I’d like her to die …’ There was a gentle nudge. Nannie was handing her the baby, whispering: ‘Careful, now, take her—steady—and then you hand her to the clergyman.’ Laura whispered back: ‘I know.’ Baby was in her arms. Laura looked down at her. She thought: ‘Supposing I opened my arms and just let her fall—on to the stones. Would it kill her?’ Down on to the stones, so hard and grey—but then babies were so well wrapped up, so—so padded. Should she? Dare she? She hesitated and then the moment was gone—the baby was now in the somewhat nervous arms of the Reverend Eustace Henson, who lacked the practised ease of the vicar. He was asking the names and repeating them after Laura. Shirley, Margaret, Evelyn … The water trickled off the baby’s forehead. She did not cry, only gurgled as though an even more delightful thing than usual had happened to her. Gingerly, with inward shrinking, the curate kissed the baby’s forehead. The vicar always did that, he knew. With relief he handed the baby back to Nannie. The christening was over. PART I (#ulink_afdce7b9-1a18-5f93-8394-3017455a14a4) CHAPTER 1 (#ulink_d6590b8d-1f51-5646-a0c9-0bf98f904f44) Below the quiet exterior of the child standing beside the font, there raged an ever-growing resentment and misery. Ever since Charles had died she had hoped … Though she had grieved for Charles’s death (she had been very fond of Charles), grief had been eclipsed by a tremulous longing and expectation. Naturally, when Charles had been there, Charles with his good looks and his charm and his merry carefree ways, the love had gone to Charles. That, Laura felt, was quite right, was fair. She had always been the quiet, the dull one, the so often unwanted second child that follows too soon upon the first. Her father and mother had been kind to her, affectionate, but it was Charles they had loved. Once she had overheard her mother say to a visiting friend: ‘Laura’s a dear child, of course, but rather a dull child.’ And she had accepted the justice of that with the honesty of the hopeless. She was a dull child. She was small and pale and her hair didn’t curl, and the things she said never made people laugh—as they laughed at Charles. She was good and obedient and caused nobody trouble, but she was not and, she thought, never would be, important. Once she had said to Nannie: ‘Mummy loves Charles more than she loves me …’ Nannie had snapped immediately: ‘That’s a very silly thing to say and not at all true. Your mother loves both of her children equally—fair as fair can be she is, always. Mothers always love all their children just the same.’ ‘Cats don’t,’ said Laura, reviewing in her mind a recent arrival of kittens. ‘Cats are just animals,’ said Nannie. ‘And anyway,’ she added, slightly weakening the magnificent simplicity of her former pronouncement, ‘God loves you, remember.’ Laura accepted the dictum. God loved you—He had to. But even God, Laura thought, probably loved Charles best … Because to have made Charles must be far more satisfactory than to have made her, Laura. ‘But of course,’ Laura had consoled herself by reflecting, ‘I can love myself best. I can love myself better than Charles or Mummy or Daddy or anyone.’ It was after this that Laura became paler and quieter and more unobtrusive than ever, and was so good and obedient that it made even Nannie uneasy. She confided to the housemaid an uneasy fear that Laura might be ‘taken’ young. But it was Charles who died, not Laura. ‘Why don’t you get that child a dog?’ Mr Baldock demanded suddenly of his friend and crony, Laura’s father. Arthur Franklin looked rather astonished, since he was in the middle of an impassioned argument with his friend on the implications of the Reformation. ‘What child?’ he asked, puzzled. Mr Baldock nodded his large head towards a sedate Laura who was propelling herself on a fairy-bicycle in and out of the trees on the lawn. It was an unimpassioned performance with no hint of danger or accident about it. Laura was a careful child. ‘Why on earth should I?’ demanded Mr Franklin. ‘Dogs, in my opinion, are a nuisance, always coming in with muddy paws, and ruining the carpets.’ ‘A dog,’ said Mr Baldock, in his lecture-room style, which was capable of rousing almost anybody to violent irritation, ‘has an extraordinary power of bolstering up the human ego. To a dog, the human being who owns him is a god to be worshipped, and not only worshipped but, in our present decadent state of civilization, also loved. ‘The possession of a dog goes to most people’s heads. It makes them feel important and powerful.’ ‘Humph,’ said Mr Franklin, ‘and would you call that a good thing?’ ‘Almost certainly not,’ said Mr Baldock. ‘But I have the inveterate weakness of liking to see human beings happy. I’d like to see Laura happy.’ ‘Laura’s perfectly happy,’ said Laura’s father. ‘And anyway she’s got a kitten,’ he added. ‘Pah,’ said Mr Baldock. ‘It’s not at all the same thing. As you’d realize if you troubled to think. But that’s what is wrong with you. You never think. Look at your argument just now about economic conditions at the time of the Reformation. Do you suppose for one moment—’ And they were back at it, hammer and tongs, enjoying themselves a great deal, with Mr Baldock making the most preposterous and provocative statements. Yet a vague disquiet lingered somewhere in Arthur Franklin’s mind, and that evening, as he came into his wife’s room where she was changing for dinner, he said abruptly: ‘Laura’s quite all right, isn’t she? Well and happy and all that?’ His wife turned astonished blue eyes on him, lovely dark cornflower-blue eyes, like the eyes of her son Charles. ‘Darling!’ she said. ‘Of course! Laura’s always all right. She never even seems to have bilious attacks like most children. I never have to worry about Laura. She’s satisfactory in every way. Such a blessing.’ A moment later, as she fastened the clasp of her pearls round her neck, she asked suddenly: ‘Why? Why did you ask about Laura this evening?’ Arthur Franklin said vaguely: ‘Oh, just Baldy—something he said.’ ‘Oh, Baldy!’ Mrs Franklin’s voice held amusement. ‘You know what he’s like. He likes starting things.’ And on an occasion a few days later when Mr Baldock had been to lunch, and they came out of the dining-room, encountering Nannie in the hall, Angela Franklin stopped her deliberately and asked in a clear, slightly raised voice: ‘There’s nothing wrong with Miss Laura, is there? She’s quite well and happy?’ ‘Oh yes, madam.’ Nannie was positive and slightly affronted. ‘She’s a very good little girl, never gives any trouble. Not like Master Charles.’ ‘So Charles does give you trouble, does he?’ said Mr Baldock. Nannie turned to him deferentially. ‘He’s a regular boy, sir, always up to pranks! He’s getting on, you know. He’ll soon be going to school. Always high-spirited at this age, they are. And then his digestion is weak, he gets hold of too many sweets without my knowing.’ An indulgent smile on her lips and shaking her head, she passed on. ‘All the same, she adores him,’ said Angela Franklin as they went into the drawing-room. ‘Obviously,’ said Mr Baldock. He added reflectively: ‘I always have thought women were fools.’ ‘Nannie isn’t a fool—very far from it.’ ‘I wasn’t thinking of Nannie.’ ‘Me?’ Angela gave him a sharp, but not too sharp, glance, because after all it was Baldy, who was celebrated and eccentric and was allowed a certain licence in rudeness, which was, actually, one of his stock affectations. ‘I’m thinking of writing a book on the problem of the second child,’ said Mr Baldock. ‘Really, Baldy! You don’t advocate the only child, do you? I thought that was supposed to be unsound from every point of view.’ ‘Oh! I can see a lot of point in the family of ten. That is, if it was allowed to develop in the legitimate way. Do the household chores, older ones look after the younger ones, and so on. All cogs in the household machine. Mind you, they’d have to be really of some use—not just made to think they were. But nowadays, like fools, we split ’em up and segregate ’em off, each with their own “age group”! Call it education! Pah! Flat against nature!’ ‘You and your theories,’ said Angela indulgently. ‘But what about the second child?’ ‘The trouble about the second child,’ said Mr Baldock didactically, ‘is that it’s usually an anti-climax. The first child’s an adventure. It’s frightening and it’s painful; the woman’s sure she’s going to die, and the husband (Arthur here, for example) is equally sure you’re going to die. After it’s all over, there you are with a small morsel of animate flesh yelling its head off, which has caused two people all kinds of hell to produce! Naturally they value it accordingly! It’s new, it’s ours, it’s wonderful! And then, usually rather too soon, Number Two comes along—all the caboodle over again—not so frightening this time, much more boring. And there it is, it’s yours, but it’s not a new experience, and since it hasn’t cost you so much, it isn’t nearly so wonderful.’ Angela shrugged her shoulders. ‘Bachelors know everything,’ she murmured ironically. ‘And isn’t that equally true of Number Three and Number Four and all the rest of them?’ ‘Not quite. I’ve noticed that there’s usually a gap before Number Three. Number Three is often produced because the other two are getting independent, and it would be “nice to have a baby in the nursery again”. Curious taste; revolting little creatures, but biologically a sound instinct, I suppose. And so they go on, some nice and some nasty, and some bright and some dull, but they pair off and pal up more or less, and finally comes the afterthought which like the firstborn gets an undue share of attention.’ ‘And it’s all very unfair, is that what you’re saying?’ ‘Exactly. That’s the whole point about life, it is unfair!’ ‘And what can one do about it?’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘Then really, Baldy, I don’t see what you’re talking about.’ ‘I told Arthur the other day. I’m a soft-hearted chap. I like to see people being happy. I like to make up to people a bit for what they haven’t got and can’t have. It evens things up a bit. Besides, if you don’t—’ he paused a moment—‘it can be dangerous …’ ‘I do think Baldy talks a lot of nonsense,’ said Angela pensively to her husband when their guest had departed. ‘John Baldock is one of the foremost scholars in this country,’ said Arthur Franklin with a slight twinkle. ‘Oh, I know that.’ Angela was faintly scornful. ‘I’d be willing to sit in meek adoration if he was laying down the law on Greeks and Romans, or obscure Elizabethan poets. But what can he know about children?’ ‘Absolutely nothing, I should imagine,’ said her husband. ‘By the way, he suggested the other day that we should give Laura a dog.’ ‘A dog? But she’s got a kitten.’ ‘According to him, that’s not the same thing.’ ‘How very odd … I remember him saying once that he disliked dogs.’ ‘I believe he does.’ Angela said thoughtfully: ‘Now Charles, perhaps, ought to have a dog … He looked quite scared the other day when those puppies at the Vicarage rushed at him. I hate to see a boy afraid of dogs. If he had one of his own, it would accustom him to it. He ought to learn to ride, too. I wish he could have a pony of his own. If only we had a paddock!’ ‘A pony’s out of the question, I’m afraid,’ said Franklin. In the kitchen, the parlourmaid, Ethel, said to the cook: ‘That old Baldock, he’s noticed it too.’ ‘Noticed what?’ ‘Miss Laura. That she isn’t long for this world. Asking Nurse about it, they were. Ah, she’s got the look, sure enough, no mischief in her, not like Master Charles. You mark my words, she won’t live to grow up.’ But it was Charles who died. CHAPTER 2 (#ulink_d84610c9-b5ac-54fa-aa10-524c751c0aba) Charles died of infantile paralysis. He died at school; two other boys had the disease but recovered. To Angela Franklin, herself now in a delicate state of health, the blow was so great as to crush her completely. Charles, her beloved, her darling, her handsome merry high-spirited boy. She lay in her darkened bedroom, staring at the ceiling, unable to weep. And her husband and Laura and the servants crept about the muted house. In the end the doctor advised Arthur Franklin to take his wife abroad. ‘Complete change of air and scene. She must be roused. Somewhere with good air—mountain air. Switzerland, perhaps.’ So the Franklins went off, and Laura remained under the care of Nannie, with daily visits from Miss Weekes, an amiable but uninspiring governess. To Laura, her parents’ absence was a period of pleasure. Technically, she was the mistress of the house! Every morning she ‘saw the cook’ and ordered meals for the day. Mrs Brunton, the cook, was fat and good-natured. She curbed the wilder of Laura’s suggestions and managed it so that the actual menu was exactly as she herself had planned it. But Laura’s sense of importance was not impaired. She missed her parents the less because she was building in her own mind a fantasy for their return. It was terrible that Charles was dead. Naturally they had loved Charles best—she did not dispute the justice of that, but now—now—it was she who would enter into Charles’s kingdom. It was Laura now who was their only child, the child in whom all their hopes lay and to whom would flow all their affection. She built up scenes in her mind of the day of their return. Her mother’s open arms … ‘Laura, my darling. You’re all I have in the world now!’ Affecting scenes, emotional scenes. Scenes that in actual fact were wildly unlike anything Angela or Arthur Franklin were likely to do or say. But to Laura, they were warming and rich in drama, and by slow degrees she began to believe in them so much that they might almost already have happened. Walking down the lane to the village, she rehearsed conversations: raising her eyebrows, shaking her head, murmuring words and phrases under her breath. So absorbed was she in this rich feast of emotional imagination, that she failed to observe Mr Baldock, who was coming towards her from the direction of the village, pushing in front of him a gardening basket on wheels, in which he brought home his purchases. ‘Hallo, young Laura.’ Laura, rudely jostled out of an affecting drama where her mother had gone blind and she, Laura, had just refused an offer of marriage from a viscount (‘I shall never marry. My mother means everything to me’), started and blushed. ‘Father and mother still away, eh?’ ‘Yes, they won’t be coming back for ten days more.’ ‘I see. Like to come to tea with me tomorrow?’ ‘Oh, yes.’ Laura was elated and excited. Mr Baldock, who had a Chair at the University fourteen miles away, had a small cottage in the village where he spent the vacations and occasional weekends. He declined to behave in a social manner, and affronted Bellbury by refusing, usually impolitely, their many invitations. Arthur Franklin was his only friend—it was a friendship of many years’ standing. John Baldock was not a friendly man. He treated his pupils with such ruthlessness and irony that the best of them were goaded into distinguishing themselves, and the rest perished by the wayside. He had written several large and abstruse volumes on obscure phases of history, written in such a way that very few people could understand what he was driving at. Mild appeals from his publishers to write in a more readable fashion were turned down with a savage glee, Mr Baldock pointing out that the people who could appreciate his books were the only readers of them who were worth while! He was particularly rude to women, which enchanted many of them so much that they were always coming back for more. A man of savage prejudices, and over-riding arrogance, he had an unexpectedly kindly heart which was always betraying his principles. Laura knew that to be asked to tea with Mr Baldock was an honour, and preened herself accordingly. She turned up neatly dressed, brushed, and washed, but nevertheless with an underlying apprehension, for Mr Baldock was an alarming man. Mr Baldock’s housekeeper showed her into the library, where Mr Baldock raised his head, and stared at her. ‘Hallo,’ said Mr Baldock. ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘You asked me to tea,’ said Laura. Mr Baldock looked at her in a considering manner. Laura looked back at him. It was a grave, polite look that successfully concealed her inner uncertainty. ‘So I did,’ said Mr Baldock, rubbing his nose. ‘Hm … yes, so I did. Can’t think why. Well, you’d better sit down.’ ‘Where?’ said Laura. The question was highly pertinent. The library into which Laura had been shown was a room lined with bookshelves to the ceiling. All the shelves were wedged tight with books, but there still existed large numbers of books which could find no places in the shelves, and these were piled in great heaps on the floor and on tables, and also occupied the chairs. Mr Baldock looked vexed. ‘I suppose we’ll have to do something about it,’ he said grudgingly. He selected an arm-chair that was slightly less encumbered than the others and, with many grunts and puffs, lowered two armfuls of dusty tomes to the floor. ‘There you are,’ he said, beating his hands together to rid them of dust. As a result, he sneezed violently. ‘Doesn’t anyone ever dust in here?’ Laura asked, as she sat down sedately. ‘Not if they value their lives!’ said Mr Baldock. ‘But mind you, it’s a hard fight. Nothing a woman likes better than to come barging in flicking a great yellow duster, and armed with tins of greasy stuff smelling of turpentine or worse. Picking up all my books, and arranging them in piles, by size as likely as not, no concern for the subject matter! Then she starts an evil-looking machine, that wheezes and hums, and out she goes finally, as pleased as Punch, having left the place in such a state that you can’t put your hand on a thing you want for at least a month. Women! What the Lord God thought He was doing when He created woman, I can’t imagine. I dare say He thought Adam was looking a little too cocky and pleased with himself; Lord of the Universe, and naming the animals and all that. Thought he needed taking down a peg or two. Daresay that was true enough. But creating woman was going a bit far. Look where it landed the poor chap! Slap in the middle of Original Sin.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ said Laura apologetically. ‘What do you mean, sorry?’ ‘That you feel like that about women, because I suppose I’m a woman.’ ‘Not yet you’re not, thank goodness,’ said Mr Baldock. ‘Not for a long while yet. It’s got to come, of course, but no point in looking ahead towards unpleasant things. And by the way, I hadn’t forgotten that you were coming to tea today. Not for a moment! I just pretended that I had for a reason of my own.’ ‘What reason?’ ‘Well—’ Mr Baldock rubbed his nose again. ‘For one thing I wanted to see what you’d say.’ He nodded his head. ‘You came through that one very well. Very well indeed …’ Laura stared at him uncomprehendingly. ‘I had another reason. If you and I are going to be friends, and it rather looks as though things are tending that way, then you’ve got to accept me as I am—a rude, ungracious old curmudgeon. See? No good expecting pretty speeches. “Dear child—so pleased to see you—been looking forward to your coming.”’ Mr Baldock repeated these last phrases in a high falsetto tone of unmitigated contempt. A ripple passed over Laura’s grave face. She laughed. ‘That would be funny,’ she said. ‘It would indeed. Very funny.’ Laura’s gravity returned. She looked at him speculatively. ‘Do you think we are going to be friends?’ she inquired. ‘It’s a matter for mutual agreement. Do you care for the idea?’ Laura considered. ‘It seems—a little odd,’ she said dubiously. ‘I mean, friends are usually children who come and play games with you.’ ‘You won’t find me playing “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”, and don’t you think it!’ ‘That’s only for babies,’ said Laura reprovingly. ‘Our friendship would be definitely on an intellectual plane,’ said Mr Baldock. Laura looked pleased. ‘I don’t really know quite what that means,’ she said, ‘but I think I like the sound of it.’ ‘It means,’ said Mr Baldock, ‘that when we meet we discuss subjects which are of interest to both of us.’ ‘What kind of subjects?’ ‘Well—food, for instance. I’m fond of food. I expect you are, too. But as I’m sixty-odd, and you’re—what is it, ten? I’ve no doubt that our ideas on the matter will differ. That’s interesting. Then there will be other things—colours—flowers—animals—English history.’ ‘You mean things like Henry the Eighth’s wives?’ ‘Exactly. Mention Henry the Eighth to nine people out of ten, and they’ll come back at you with his wives. It’s an insult to a man who was called the Fairest Prince in Christendom, and who was a statesman of the first order of craftiness, to remember him only by his matrimonial efforts to get a legitimate male heir. His wretched wives are of no importance whatever historically.’ ‘Well, I think his wives were very important.’ ‘There you are!’ said Mr Baldock. ‘Discussion.’ ‘I should like to have been Jane Seymour.’ ‘Now why her?’ ‘She died,’ said Laura ecstatically. ‘So did Nan Bullen and Katherine Howard.’ ‘They were executed. Jane was only married to him for a year, and she had a baby and died, and everyone must have been terribly sorry.’ ‘Well—that’s a point of view. Come in the other room and see if we’ve got anything for tea.’ ‘It’s a wonderful tea,’ said Laura ecstatically. Her eyes roamed over currant buns, jam roll, éclairs, cucumber sandwiches, chocolate biscuits and a large indigestible-looking rich black plum cake. She gave a sudden little giggle. ‘You did expect me,’ she said. ‘Unless—do you have a tea like this every day?’ ‘God forbid,’ said Mr Baldock. They sat down companionably. Mr Baldock had six cucumber sandwiches, and Laura had four éclairs, and a selection of everything else. ‘Got a good appetite, I’m glad to see, young Laura,’ said Mr Baldock appreciatively as they finished. ‘I’m always hungry,’ said Laura, ‘and I’m hardly ever sick. Charles used to be sick.’ ‘Hm … Charles. I suppose you miss Charles a lot?’ ‘Oh yes, I do. I do, really.’ Mr Baldock’s bushy grey eyebrows rose. ‘All right. All right. Who says you don’t miss him?’ ‘Nobody. And I do—I really do.’ He nodded gravely in answer to her earnestness, and watched her. He was wondering. ‘It was terribly sad, his dying like that.’ Laura’s voice unconsciously reproduced the tones of another voice, some adult voice, which had originally uttered the phrase. ‘Yes, very sad.’ ‘Terribly sad for Mummy and Daddy. Now—I’m all they’ve got in the world.’ ‘So that’s it?’ She looked at him uncomprehendingly. She had gone into her private dream world. ‘Laura, my darling. You’re all I have—my only child—my treasure …’ ‘Bad butter,’ said Mr Baldock. It was one of his expressions of perturbation. ‘Bad butter! Bad butter!’ He shook his head vexedly. ‘Come out in the garden, Laura,’ he said. ‘We’ll have a look at the roses. Tell me what you do with yourself all day.’ ‘Well, in the morning Miss Weekes comes and we do lessons.’ ‘That old Tabby!’ ‘Don’t you like her?’ ‘She’s got Girton written all over her. Mind you never go to Girton, Laura!’ ‘What’s Girton?’ ‘It’s a woman’s college. At Cambridge. Makes my flesh creep when I think about it!’ ‘I’m going to boarding school when I’m twelve.’ ‘Sinks of iniquity, boarding schools!’ ‘Don’t you think I’ll like it?’ ‘I dare say you’ll like it all right. That’s just the danger! Hacking other girls’ ankles with a hockey stick, coming home with a crush on the music mistress, going on to Girton or Somerville as likely as not. Oh well, we’ve got a couple of years still, before the worst happens. Let’s make the most of it. What are you going to do when you grow up? I suppose you’ve got some notions about it?’ ‘I did think that I might go and nurse lepers—’ ‘Well, that’s harmless enough. Don’t bring one home and put him in your husband’s bed, though. St Elizabeth of Hungary did that. Most misguided zeal. A Saint of God, no doubt, but a very inconsiderate wife.’ ‘I shall never marry,’ said Laura in a voice of renunciation. ‘No? Oh, I think I should marry if I were you. Old maids are worse than married women in my opinion. Hard luck on some man, of course, but I dare say you’d make a better wife than many.’ ‘It wouldn’t be right. I must look after Mummy and Daddy in their old age. They’ve got nobody but me.’ ‘They’ve got a cook and a house-parlourmaid and a gardener, and a good income, and plenty of friends. They’ll be all right. Parents have to put up with their children leaving them when the time comes. Great relief sometimes.’ He stopped abruptly by a bed of roses. ‘Here are my roses. Like ’em?’ ‘They’re beautiful,’ said Laura politely. ‘On the whole,’ said Mr Baldock, ‘I prefer them to human beings. They don’t last as long for one thing.’ Then he took Laura firmly by the hand. ‘Goodbye, Laura,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to be going now. Friendship should never be strained too far. I’ve enjoyed having you to tea.’ ‘Goodbye, Mr Baldock. Thank you for having me. I’ve enjoyed myself very much.’ The polite slogan slipped from her lips in a glib fashion. Laura was a well-brought-up child. ‘That’s right,’ said Mr Baldock, patting her amicably on the shoulder. ‘Always say your piece. It’s courtesy and knowing the right passwords that makes the wheels go round. When you come to my age, you can say what you like.’ Laura smiled at him and passed through the iron gate he was holding open for her. Then she turned and hesitated. ‘Well, what is it?’ ‘Is it really settled now? About our being friends, I mean?’ Mr Baldock rubbed his nose. ‘Yes,’ he said with a sigh. ‘Yes, I think so.’ ‘I hope you don’t mind very much?’ Laura asked anxiously. ‘Not too much … I’ve got to get used to the idea, mind.’ ‘Yes, of course. I’ve got to get used to it, too. But I think—I think—it’s going to be nice. Goodbye.’ ‘Goodbye.’ Mr Baldock looked after her retreating figure, and muttered to himself fiercely: ‘Now look what you’ve let yourself in for, you old fool!’ He retraced his steps to the house, and was met by his housekeeper Mrs Rouse. ‘Has the little girl gone?’ ‘Yes, she’s gone.’ ‘Oh dear, she didn’t stay very long, did she?’ ‘Quite long enough,’ said Mr Baldock. ‘Children and one’s social inferiors never know when to say goodbye. One has to say it for them.’ ‘Well!’ said Mrs Rouse, gazing after him indignantly as he walked past her. ‘Good night,’ said Mr Baldock. ‘I’m going into my library, and I don’t want to be disturbed again.’ ‘About supper—’ ‘Anything you please.’ Mr Baldock waved an arm. ‘And take away all that sweet stuff, and finish it up, or give it to the cat.’ ‘Oh, thank you, sir. My little niece—’ ‘Your niece, or the cat, or anyone.’ He went into the library and shut the door. ‘Well!’ said Mrs Rouse again. ‘Of all the crusty old bachelors! But there, I understand his ways! It’s not everyone that would.’ Laura went home with a pleasing feeling of importance. She popped her head through the kitchen window where Ethel, the house-parlourmaid, was struggling with the intricacies of a crochet pattern. ‘Ethel,’ said Laura. ‘I’ve got a Friend.’ ‘Yes, dearie,’ said Ethel, murmuring to herself under her breath. ‘Five chain, twice into the next stitch, eight chain—’ ‘I have got a Friend.’ Laura stressed the information. Ethel was still murmuring: ‘Five double crochet, and then three times into the next—but that makes it come out wrong at the end—now where have I slipped up?’ ‘I’ve got a Friend,’ shouted Laura, maddened by the lack of comprehension displayed by her confidante. Ethel looked up, startled. ‘Well, rub it, dearie, rub it,’ she said vaguely. Laura turned away in disgust. CHAPTER 3 (#ulink_3248c43c-db7e-553c-9b44-99ecfd229a38) Angela Franklin had dreaded returning home but, when the time came, she found it not half so bad as she had feared. As they drove up to the door, she said to her husband: ‘There’s Laura waiting for us on the steps. She looks quite excited.’ And, jumping out as the car drew up, she folded her arms affectionately round her daughter and cried: ‘Laura darling. It’s lovely to see you. Have you missed us a lot?’ Laura said conscientiously: ‘Not very much. I’ve been very busy. But I’ve made you a raffia mat.’ Swiftly there swept over Angela’s mind a sudden remembrance of Charles—of the way he would tear across the grass, flinging himself upon her, hugging her. ‘Mummy, Mummy, Mummy!’ How horribly it hurt—remembering. She pushed aside memories, smiled at Laura and said: ‘A raffia mat? How nice, darling.’ Arthur Franklin tweaked his daughter’s hair. ‘I believe you’ve grown, Puss.’ They all went into the house. What it was Laura had expected, she did not know. Here were Mummy and Daddy home, and pleased to see her, making a fuss of her, asking her questions. It wasn’t they who were wrong, it was herself. She wasn’t—she wasn’t—what wasn’t she? She herself hadn’t said the things or looked or even felt as she had thought she would. It wasn’t the way she had planned it. She hadn’t—really—taken Charles’s place. There was something missing with her, Laura. But it would be different tomorrow, she told herself, or if not tomorrow, then the next day, or the day after. The heart of the house, Laura said to herself, suddenly recalling a phrase that had taken her fancy from an old-fashioned children’s book she had come across in the attic. That was what she was now, surely, the heart of the house. Unfortunate that she should feel herself, with a deep inner misgiving, to be just Laura as usual. Just Laura … ‘Baldy seems to have taken quite a fancy to Laura,’ said Angela. ‘Fancy, he asked her to tea with him while we were away.’ Arthur said he’d like very much to know what they had talked about. ‘I think,’ said Angela after a moment or two, ‘that we ought to tell Laura. I mean, if we don’t, she’ll hear something—the servants or someone. After all, she’s too old for gooseberry bushes and all that kind of thing.’ She was lying in a long basket chair under the cedar tree. She turned her head now towards her husband in his deck chair. The lines of suffering still showed in her face. The life she was carrying had not yet succeeded in blurring the sense of loss. ‘It’s going to be a boy,’ said Arthur Franklin. ‘I know it’s going to be a boy.’ Angela smiled, and shook her head. ‘No use building on it,’ she said. ‘I tell you, Angela, I know.’ He was positive—quite positive. A boy like Charles, another Charles, laughing, blue-eyed, mischievous, affectionate. Angela thought: ‘It may be another boy—but it won’t be Charles.’ ‘I expect we shall be just as pleased with a girl, however,’ said Arthur, not very convincingly. ‘Arthur, you know you want a son!’ ‘Yes,’ he sighed, ‘I’d like a son.’ A man wanted a son—needed a son. Daughters—it wasn’t the same thing. Obscurely moved by some consciousness of guilt, he said: ‘Laura’s really a dear little thing.’ Angela agreed sincerely. ‘I know. So good and quiet and helpful. We shall miss her when she goes to school.’ She added: ‘That’s partly why I hope it won’t be a girl. Laura might be a teeny bit jealous of a baby sister—not that she’d have any need to be.’ ‘Of course not.’ ‘But children are sometimes—it’s quite natural; that’s why I think we ought to tell her, prepare her.’ And so it was that Angela Franklin said to her daughter: ‘How would you like a little baby brother? ‘Or sister?’ she added rather belatedly. Laura stared at her. The words did not seem to make sense. She was puzzled. She did not understand. Angela said gently: ‘You see, darling, I’m going to have a baby … next September. It will be nice, won’t it?’ She was a little disturbed when Laura, murmuring something incoherent, backed away, her face crimsoning with an emotion that her mother did not understand. Angela Franklin felt worried. ‘I wonder,’ she said to her husband. ‘Perhaps we’ve been wrong? I’ve never actually told her anything—about—about things, I mean. Perhaps she hadn’t any idea …’ Arthur Franklin said that considering that the production of kittens that went on in the house was something astronomical, it was hardly likely that Laura was completely unacquainted with the facts of life. ‘Yes, but perhaps she thinks people are different. It may have been a shock to her.’ It had been a shock to Laura, though not in any biological sense. It was simply that the idea that her mother would have another child had never occurred to Laura. She had seen the whole pattern as simple and straightforward. Charles was dead, and she was her parents’ only child. She was, as she had phrased it to herself, ‘all they had in the world’. And now—now—there was to be another Charles. She never doubted, any more than Arthur and Angela secretly doubted, that the baby would be a boy. Desolation struck through to her. For a long time Laura sat huddled upon the edge of a cucumber frame, while she wrestled with disaster. Then she made up her mind. She got up, walked down the drive and along the road to Mr Baldock’s house. Mr Baldock, grinding his teeth and snorting with venom, was penning a really vitriolic review for a learned journal of a fellow historian’s life work. He turned a ferocious face to the door, as Mrs Rouse, giving a perfunctory knock and pushing it open, announced: ‘Here’s little Miss Laura for you.’ ‘Oh,’ said Mr Baldock, checked on the verge of a tremendous flood of invective. ‘So it’s you.’ He was disconcerted. A fine thing it would be if the child was going to trot along here at any odd moment. He hadn’t bargained for that. Drat all children! Give them an inch and they took an ell. He didn’t like children, anyway. He never had. His disconcerted gaze met Laura’s. There was no apology in Laura’s look. It was grave, deeply troubled, but quite confident in a divine right to be where she was. She made no polite remarks of an introductory nature. ‘I thought I’d come and tell you,’ she said, ‘that I’m going to have a baby brother.’ ‘Oh,’ said Mr Baldock, taken aback. ‘We-ell …’ he said, playing for time. Laura’s face was white and expressionless. ‘That’s news, isn’t it?’ He paused. ‘Are you pleased?’ ‘No,’ said Laura. ‘I don’t think I am.’ ‘Beastly things, babies,’ agreed Mr Baldock sympathetically. ‘No teeth and no hair, and yell their heads off. Their mothers like them, of course, have to—or the poor little brutes would never get looked after, or grow up. But you won’t find it so bad when it’s three or four,’ he added encouragingly. ‘Almost as good as a kitten or a puppy by then.’ ‘Charles died,’ said Laura. ‘Do you think it’s likely that my new baby brother may die too?’ He shot her a keen glance, then said firmly: ‘Shouldn’t think so for a moment,’ and added: ‘Lightning never strikes twice.’ ‘Cook says that,’ said Laura. ‘It means the same thing doesn’t happen twice?’ ‘Quite right.’ ‘Charles—’ began Laura, and stopped. Again Mr Baldock’s glance swept over her quickly. ‘No reason it should be a baby brother,’ he said. ‘Just as likely to be a baby sister.’ ‘Mummy seems to think it will be a brother.’ ‘Shouldn’t go by that if I were you. She wouldn’t be the first woman to think wrong.’ Laura’s face brightened suddenly. ‘There was Jehoshaphat,’ she said. ‘Dulcibella’s last kitten. He’s turned out to be a girl after all. Cook calls him Josephine now,’ she added. ‘There you are,’ said Mr Baldock encouragingly. ‘I’m not a betting man, but I’d put my money on its being a girl myself.’ ‘Would you?’ said Laura fervently. She smiled at him, a grateful and unexpectedly lovely smile that gave Mr Baldock quite a shock. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I’ll go now.’ She added politely: ‘I hope I haven’t interrupted your work?’ ‘It’s quite all right,’ said Mr Baldock. ‘I’m always glad to see you if it’s about something important. I know you wouldn’t barge in here just to chatter.’ ‘Of course I wouldn’t,’ said Laura earnestly. She withdrew, closing the door carefully behind her. The conversation had cheered her considerably. Mr Baldock, she knew, was a very clever man. ‘He’s much more likely to be right than Mummy,’ she thought to herself. A baby sister? Yes, she could face the thought of a sister. A sister would only be another Laura—an inferior Laura. A Laura lacking teeth and hair, and any kind of sense. As she emerged from the kindly haze of the anaesthetic, Angela’s cornflower-blue eyes asked the eager question that her lips were almost afraid to form. ‘Is it—all right—is it—?’ The nurse spoke glibly and briskly after the manner of nurses. ‘You’ve got a lovely daughter, Mrs Franklin.’ ‘A daughter—a daughter …’ The blue eyes closed again. Disappointment surged through her. She had been so sure—so sure … Only a second Laura … The old tearing pain of her loss reawakened. Charles, her handsome laughing Charles. Her boy, her son … Downstairs, Cook was saying briskly: ‘Well, Miss Laura. You’ve got a little sister, what do you think of that?’ Laura replied sedately to Cook: ‘I knew I’d have a sister. Mr Baldock said so.’ ‘An old bachelor like him, what should he know?’ ‘He’s a very clever man,’ said Laura. Angela was rather slow to regain her full strength. Arthur Franklin was worried about his wife. The baby was a month old when he spoke to Angela rather hesitatingly. ‘Does it matter so much? That it’s a girl, I mean, and not a boy?’ ‘No, of course not. Not really. Only—I’d felt so sure.’ ‘Even if it had been a boy, it wouldn’t have been Charles, you know?’ ‘No. No, of course not.’ The nurse entered the room, carrying the baby. ‘Here we are,’ she said. ‘Such a lovely girl now. Going to your Mumsie-wumsie, aren’t you?’ Angela held the baby slackly and eyed the nurse with dislike as the latter went out of the room. ‘What idiotic things these women say,’ she muttered crossly. Arthur laughed. ‘Laura darling, get me that cushion,’ said Angela. Laura brought it to her, and stood by as Angela arranged the baby more comfortably. Laura felt comfortably mature and important. The baby was only a silly little thing. It was she, Laura, on whom her mother relied. It was chilly this evening. The fire that burned in the grate was pleasant. The baby crowed and gurgled happily. Angela looked down into the dark blue eyes, and a mouth that seemed already to be able to smile. She looked down, with sudden shock, into Charles’s eyes. Charles as a baby. She had almost forgotten him at that age. Love rushed blindingly through her veins. Her baby, her darling. How could she have been so cold, so unloving to this adorable creature? How could she have been so blind? A gay beautiful child, like Charles. ‘My sweet,’ she murmured. ‘My precious, my darling.’ She bent over the child in an abandonment of love. She was oblivious of Laura standing watching her. She did not notice as Laura crept quietly out of the room. But perhaps a vague uneasiness made her say to Arthur: ‘Mary Wells can’t be here for the christening. Shall we let Laura be proxy godmother? It would please her, I think.’ CHAPTER 4 (#ulink_da591783-d08b-5595-9f2d-f811885c420e) ‘Enjoy the christening?’ asked Mr Baldock. ‘No,’ said Laura. ‘Cold in that church, I expect,’ said Mr Baldock. ‘Nice font though,’ he added. ‘Norman—black Tournai marble.’ Laura was unmoved by the information. She was busy formulating a question: ‘May I ask you something, Mr Baldock?’ ‘Of course.’ ‘Is it wrong to pray for anyone to die?’ Mr Baldock gave her a swift sideways look. ‘In my view,’ he said, ‘it would be unpardonable interference.’ ‘Interference?’ ‘Well, the Almighty is running the show, isn’t He? What do you want to stick your fingers into the machinery for? What business is it of yours?’ ‘I don’t see that it would matter to God very much. When a baby has been christened and everything, it goes to Heaven, doesn’t it?’ ‘Don’t see where else it could go,’ admitted Mr Baldock. ‘And God is fond of children. The Bible says so. So He’d be pleased to see it.’ Mr Baldock took a short turn up and down the room. He was seriously upset, and didn’t want to show it. ‘Look here, Laura,’ he said at last. ‘You’ve got—you’ve simply got to mind your own business.’ ‘But perhaps it is my business.’ ‘No, it isn’t. Nothing’s your business but yourself. Pray what you like about yourself. Ask for blue ears, or a diamond tiara, or to grow up and win a beauty competition. The worst that can happen to you is that the answer to your prayer might be “Yes”.’ Laura looked at him uncomprehendingly. ‘I mean it,’ said Mr Baldock. Laura thanked him politely, and said she must be going home now. When she had gone, Mr Baldock rubbed his chin, scratched his head, picked his nose, and absentmindedly wrote a review of a mortal enemy’s book simply dripping with milk and honey. Laura walked back home, thinking deeply. As she passed the small Roman Catholic church, she hesitated. A daily woman who came in to help in the kitchen was a Catholic, and stray scraps of her conversation came back to Laura, who had listened to them with the fascination accorded to something rare and strange, and also forbidden. For Nannie, a staunch chapel-goer, held very strong views about what she referred to as the Scarlet Woman. Who or what the Scarlet Woman was, Laura had no idea, except that she had some undefined connection with Babylon. But what came to her mind now was Molly’s chat of praying for her Intention—a candle had entered into it in some way. Laura hesitated a little longer, drew a deep breath, looked up and down the road, and slipped into the porch. The church was small and rather dark, and did not smell at all like the parish church where Laura went every Sunday. There was no sign of the Scarlet Woman, but there was a plaster figure of a lady in a blue cloak, with a tray in front of her, and wire loops in which candles were burning. Nearby was a supply of fresh candles, and a box with a slot for money. Laura hesitated for some time. Her theological ideas were confused and limited. God she knew, God who was committed to loving her by the fact that He was God. There was also the Devil, with horns and a tail, and a specialist in temptation. But the Scarlet Woman appeared to occupy an in-between status. The Lady in the Blue Cloak looked beneficent, and as though she might deal with Intentions in a favourable manner. Laura drew a deep sigh and fumbled in her pocket where reposed, as yet untouched, her weekly sixpence of pocket money. She pushed it into the slit and heard it drop with a slight pang. Gone irrevocably! Then she took a candle, lit it, and put it into the wire holder. She spoke in a low polite voice. ‘This is my Intention. Please let baby go to Heaven.’ She added: ‘As soon as you possibly can, please.’ She stood there for a moment. The candles burned, the Lady in the Blue Cloak continued to look beneficent. Laura had for a moment or two a feeling of emptiness. Then, frowning a little, she left the church and walked home. On the terrace was the baby’s pram. Laura came up to it and stood beside it, looking down on the sleeping infant. As she looked, the fair downy head stirred, the eyelids opened, the blue eyes looked up at Laura with a wide unfocused stare. ‘You’re going to Heaven soon,’ Laura told her sister. ‘It’s lovely in Heaven,’ she added coaxingly. ‘All golden and precious stones.’ ‘And harps,’ she added, after a minute. ‘And lots of angels with real feathery wings. It’s much nicer than here.’ She thought of something else. ‘You’ll see Charles,’ she said. ‘Think of that! You’ll see Charles.’ Angela Franklin came out of the drawing-room window. ‘Hallo, Laura,’ she said. ‘Are you talking to baby?’ She bent over the pram. ‘Hallo, my sweetie. Was it awake, then?’ Arthur Franklin, following his wife out on to the terrace, said: ‘Why do women have to talk such nonsense to babies? Eh, Laura? Don’t you think it’s odd?’ ‘I don’t think it’s nonsense,’ said Laura. ‘Don’t you? What do you think it is, then?’ He smiled at her teasingly. ‘I think it’s love,’ said Laura. He was a little taken aback. Laura, he thought, was an odd kid. Difficult to know what went on behind that straight, unemotional gaze. ‘I must get a piece of netting, muslin or something,’ said Angela. ‘To put over the pram when it’s out here. I’m always so afraid of a cat jumping up and lying on her face and suffocating her. We’ve got too many cats about the place.’ ‘Bah,’ said her husband. ‘That’s one of those old wives’ tales. I don’t believe a cat has ever suffocated a baby.’ ‘Oh, they have, Arthur. You read about it quite often in the paper.’ ‘That’s no guarantee of truth.’ ‘Anyway, I shall get some netting, and I must tell Nannie to look out of the window from time to time and see that she’s all right. Oh dear, I wish our own nanny hadn’t had to go to her dying sister. This new young nanny—I don’t really feel happy about her.’ ‘Why not? She seems a nice enough girl. Devoted to baby and good references and all that.’ ‘Oh yes, I know. She seems all right. But there’s something … There’s that gap of a year and a half in her references.’ ‘She went home to nurse her mother.’ ‘That’s what they always say! And it’s the sort of thing you can’t check. It might have been for some reason she doesn’t want us to know about.’ ‘Got into trouble, you mean?’ Angela threw him a warning glance, indicating Laura. ‘Do be careful, Arthur. No, I don’t mean that. I mean—’ ‘What do you mean, darling?’ ‘I don’t really know,’ said Angela slowly. ‘It’s just sometimes when I’m talking to her I feel that there’s something she’s anxious we shouldn’t find out.’ ‘Wanted by the police?’ ‘Arthur! That’s a very silly joke.’ Laura walked gently away. She was an intelligent child and she perceived quite plainly that they, her father and mother, would like to talk about Nannie unhampered by her presence. She herself was not interested in the new nanny; a pale, dark-haired, soft-spoken girl, who showed herself kindly to Laura, though plainly quite uninterested by her. Laura was thinking of the Lady with the Blue Cloak. ‘Come on, Josephine,’ said Laura crossly. Josephine, late Jehoshaphat, though not actively resisting, was displaying all the signs of passive resistance. Disturbed in a delicious sleep against the side of the greenhouse, she had been half dragged, half carried by Laura, out of the kitchen-garden and round the house to the terrace. ‘There!’ Laura plopped Josephine down. A few feet away, the baby’s pram stood on the gravel. Laura walked slowly away across the lawn. As she reached the big lime tree, she turned her head. Josephine, her tail lashing from time to time, in indignant memory, began to wash her stomach, sticking out what seemed a disproportionately long hind leg. That part of her toilet completed, she yawned and looked round her at her surroundings. Then she began half-heartedly to wash behind the ears, thought better of it, yawned again, and finally got up and walked slowly and meditatively away, and round the corner of the house. Laura followed her, picked her up determinedly, and lugged her back again. Josephine gave Laura a look and sat there lashing her tail. As soon as Laura had got back to the tree, Josephine once more got up, yawned, stretched, and walked off. Laura brought her back again, remonstrating as she did so. ‘It’s sunny here, Josephine. It’s nice!’ Nothing could be clearer than that Josephine disagreed with this statement. She was now in a very bad temper indeed, lashing her tail, and flattening back her ears. ‘Hallo, young Laura.’ Laura started and turned. Mr Baldock stood behind her. She had not heard or noticed his slow progress across the lawn. Josephine, profiting by Laura’s momentary inattention, darted to a tree and ran up it, pausing on a branch to look down on them with an air of malicious satisfaction. ‘That’s where cats have the advantage over human beings,’ said Mr Baldock. ‘When they want to get away from people they can climb a tree. The nearest we can get to that is to shut ourselves in the lavatory.’ Laura looked slightly shocked. Lavatories came into the category of things which Nannie (the late Nannie) had said ‘little ladies don’t talk about’. ‘But one has to come out,’ said Mr Baldock, ‘if for no other reason than because other people want to come in. Now that cat of yours will probably stay up that tree for a couple of hours.’ Immediately Josephine demonstrated the general unpredictability of cats by coming down with a rush, crossing towards them, and proceeding to rub herself to and fro against Mr Baldock’s trousers, purring loudly. ‘Here,’ she seemed to say, ‘is exactly what I have been waiting for.’ ‘Hallo, Baldy.’ Angela came out of the window. ‘Are you paying your respects to the latest arrival? Oh dear, these cats. Laura dear, do take Josephine away. Put her in the kitchen. I haven’t got that netting yet. Arthur laughs at me, but cats do jump up and sleep on babies’ chests and smother them. I don’t want the cats to get the habit of coming round to the terrace.’ As Laura went off carrying Josephine, Mr Baldock sent a considering gaze after her. After lunch, Arthur Franklin drew his friend into the study. ‘There’s an article here—’ he began. Mr Baldock interrupted him, without ceremony and forthrightly, as was his custom. ‘Just a minute. I’ve got something I want to say. Why don’t you send that child to school?’ ‘Laura? That is the idea—after Christmas, I believe. When she’s eleven.’ ‘Don’t wait for that. Do it now.’ ‘It would be mid-term. And, anyway, Miss Weekes is quite—’ Mr Baldock said what he thought of Miss Weekes with relish. ‘Laura doesn’t want instruction from a desiccated blue-stocking, however bulging with brains,’ he said. ‘She wants distraction, other girls, a different set of troubles if you like. Otherwise, for all you know, you may have a tragedy.’ ‘A tragedy? What sort of tragedy?’ ‘A couple of nice little boys the other day took their baby sister out of the pram and threw her in the river. The baby made too much work for Mummy, they said. They had quite genuinely made themselves believe it, I imagine.’ Arthur Franklin stared at him. ‘Jealousy, you mean?’ ‘Jealousy.’ ‘My dear Baldy, Laura’s not a jealous child. Never has been.’ ‘How do you know? Jealousy eats inward.’ ‘She’s never shown any sign of it. She’s a very sweet, gentle child, but without any very strong feelings, I should say.’ ‘You’d say!’ Mr Baldock snorted. ‘If you ask me, you and Angela don’t know the first thing about your own child.’ Arthur Franklin smiled good-temperedly. He was used to Baldy. ‘We’ll keep an eye on the baby,’ he said, ‘if that’s what’s worrying you. I’ll give Angela a hint to be careful. Tell her not to make too much fuss of the newcomer, and a bit more of Laura. That ought to meet the case.’ He added with a hint of curiosity: ‘I’ve always wondered just what it is you see in Laura. She—’ ‘There’s promise there of a very rare and unusual spirit,’ said Mr Baldock. ‘At least so I think.’ ‘Well—I’ll speak to Angela—but she’ll only laugh.’ But Angela, rather to her husband’s surprise, did not laugh. ‘There’s something in what he says, you know. Child psychologists all agree that jealousy over a new baby is natural and almost inevitable. Though frankly I haven’t seen any signs of it in Laura. She’s a placid child, and it isn’t as though she were wildly attached to me or anything like that. I must try and show her that I depend upon her.’ And so, when about a week later, she and her husband were going for a weekend visit to some old friends, Angela talked to Laura. ‘You’ll take good care of baby, won’t you, Laura, while we’re away? It’s nice to feel I’m leaving you here to keep an eye on everything. Nannie hasn’t been here very long, you see.’ Her mother’s words pleased Laura. They made her feel old and important. Her small pale face brightened. Unfortunately, the good effect was destroyed almost immediately by a conversation between Nannie and Ethel in the nursery, which she happened to overhear. ‘Lovely baby, isn’t she?’ said Ethel, poking the infant with a crudely affectionate finger. ‘There’s a little ducksie-wucksie. Seems funny Miss Laura’s always been such a plain little thing. Don’t wonder her pa and ma never took to her, as they took to Master Charles and this one. Miss Laura’s a nice little thing, but you can’t say more than that.’ That evening Laura knelt by her bed and prayed. The Lady with the Blue Cloak had taken no notice of her Intention. Laura was going to headquarters. ‘Please, God,’ she prayed, ‘let baby die and go to Heaven soon. Very soon.’ She got into bed and lay down. Her heart beat, and she felt guilty and wicked. She had done what Mr Baldock had told her not to do, and Mr Baldock was a very wise man. She had had no feeling of guilt about her candle to the Lady in the Blue Cloak—possibly because she had never really had much hope of any result. And she could see no harm in just bringing Josephine on to the terrace. She wouldn’t have put Josephine actually on to the pram. That, she knew, would have been wicked. But if Josephine, of her own accord …? Tonight, however, she had crossed the Rubicon. God was all-powerful … Shivering a little, Laura fell asleep. CHAPTER 5 (#ulink_1dee7f04-550f-522a-ba94-09c10065537f) Angela and Arthur Franklin drove away in the car. Up in the nursery, the new nanny, Gwyneth Jones, was putting the baby to bed. She was uneasy tonight. There had been certain feelings, portents, lately, and tonight— ‘I’m just imagining it,’ she said to herself. ‘Fancy! That’s all it is.’ Hadn’t the doctor told her that it was quite possible she might never have another fit? She’d had them as a child, and then never a sign of anything of the kind until that terrible day … Teething convulsions, her aunt had called those childhood seizures. But the doctor had used another name, had said plainly and without subterfuge what the malady was. And he had said, quite definitely: ‘You mustn’t take a place with a baby or children. It wouldn’t be safe.’ But she’d paid for that expensive training. It was her trade—what she knew how to do—certificates and all—well paid—and she loved looking after babies. A year had gone by, and there had been no recurrence of trouble. It was all nonsense, the doctor frightening her like that. So she’d written to the bureau—a different bureau, and she’d soon got a place, and she was happy here, and the baby was a little love. She put the baby into her cot and went downstairs for her supper. She awoke in the night with a sense of uneasiness, almost terror. She thought: ‘I’ll make myself a drop of hot milk. It will calm me down.’ She lit the spirit lamp and carried it to the table near the window. There was no final warning. She went down like a stone, lying there on the floor, jerking and twisting. The spirit lamp fell to the floor, and the flame from it ran across the carpet and reached the end of the muslin curtains. Laura woke up suddenly. She had been dreaming—a bad dream—though she couldn’t remember the details of it. Something chasing her, something—but she was safe now, in her own bed, at home. She felt for the lamp by her bedside, and turned it on, and looked at her own little clock. Twelve o’clock. Midnight. She sat up in bed, feeling a curious reluctance to turn out the light again. She listened. What a queer creaking noise … ‘Burglars perhaps,’ thought Laura, who like most children was perpetually suspecting burglars. She got out of bed and went to the door, opened it a little way, and peered cautiously out. Everything was dark and quiet. But there was a smell, a funny smoky smell. Laura sniffed experimentally. She went across the landing and opened the door that led to the servants’ quarters. Nothing. She crossed to the other side of the landing, where a door shut off a short passage leading to the nursery and the nursery bathroom. Then she shrank back, appalled. Great wreaths of smoke came curling towards her. ‘It’s on fire. The house is on fire!’ Laura screamed, rushed to the servants’ wing, and called: ‘Fire! The house is on fire!’ She could never remember clearly what came after. Cook and Ethel—Ethel running downstairs to telephone, Cook opening that door across the landing and being driven back by the smoke, Cook soothing her with: ‘It’ll be all right.’ Incoherent murmurs: ‘The engine will come—they’ll get them out through the window—don’t you worry, my dear.’ But it would not be all right. Laura knew. She was shattered by the knowledge that her prayer had been answered. God had acted—acted with promptitude and with indescribable terror. This was His way, His terrible way, of taking baby to Heaven. Cook pulled Laura down the front stairs with her. ‘Come on now, Miss Laura—don’t wait about—we must all get outside the house.’ But Nannie and baby could not get outside the house. They were up there, in the nursery, trapped! Cook plunged heavily down the stairs, pulling Laura after her. But as they passed out through the front door to join Ethel on the lawn, and Cook’s grip relaxed, Laura turned back and ran up the stairs again. Once more she opened the landing door. From somewhere through the smoke she heard a far-off fretful whimpering cry. And suddenly, something in Laura came alive—warmth, passionate endeavour, that curious incalculable emotion, love. Her mind was sober and clear. She had read or been told that to rescue people in a fire you dipped a towel in water and put it round your mouth. She ran into her room, soaked the bath towel in the jug, rolled it round her, and crossing the landing plunged into the smoke. There was flame now across the passage, and the timbers were falling. Where an adult would have estimated danger and chances, Laura went bull-headed with the unknowing courage of a child. She must get to baby, she must save baby. Otherwise baby would burn to death. She stumbled over the unconscious body of Gwyneth, not knowing what it was. Choking, gasping, she found her way to the crib; the screen round it had protected it from the worst of the smoke. Laura grabbed at the baby, clutched her close beneath the sheltering wet towel. She stumbled towards the door, her lungs gasping for air. But there was no retracing her steps. Flames barred her way. Laura had her wits still. The door to the tank-room—she felt for it, found it, pushed through it to a rickety stair that led up to the tank-room in the loft. She and Charles had got out that way once on to the roof. If she could crawl across the roof … As the fire-engines arrived, an incoherent couple of women in night attire rushed to them crying out: ‘The baby—there’s a baby and the nurse in that room up there.’ The fireman whistled and pursed his lips. That end of the house was blazing with flame. ‘Goners,’ he said to himself. ‘Never get them out alive!’ ‘Everyone else out?’ he asked. Cook, looking round, cried out: ‘Where’s Miss Laura? She came out right after me. Wherever can she be?’ It was then that a fireman called out: ‘Hi, Joe, there’s someone on the roof—the other end. Get a ladder up.’ A few moments later, they set their burden down gently on the lawn—an unrecognizable Laura, blackened, her arms scorched, half unconscious, but tight in her grip a small morsel of humanity, whose outraged howls proclaimed her angrily alive. ‘If it hadn’t been for Laura—’ Angela stopped, mastering her emotions. ‘We’ve found out all about poor Nannie,’ she went on. ‘It seems she was an epileptic. Her doctor warned her not to take a nurse’s post again, but she did. They think she dropped a spirit lamp when she had a fit. I always knew there was something wrong about her—something she didn’t want me to find out.’ ‘Poor girl,’ said Franklin, ‘she’s paid for it.’ Angela, ruthless in her mother love, swept on, dismissing the claims of Gwyneth Jones to pity. ‘And baby would have been burned to death if it hadn’t been for Laura.’ ‘Is Laura all right again?’ asked Mr Baldock. ‘Yes. Shock, of course, and her arms were burnt, but not too badly. She’ll be quite all right, the doctor says.’ ‘Good for Laura,’ said Mr Baldock. Angela said indignantly: ‘And you pretending to Arthur that Laura was so jealous of the poor mite that she might do her a mischief! Really—you bachelors!’ ‘All right, all right,’ said Mr Baldock. ‘I’m not often wrong, but I daresay it’s good for me sometimes.’ ‘Just go and take a look at those two.’ Mr Baldock did as he was told. The baby lay on a rug in front of the nursery fire, kicking vaguely and making indeterminate gurgling noises. Beside her sat Laura. Her arms were bandaged, and she had lost her eyelashes, which gave her face a comical appearance. She was dangling some coloured rings to attract the baby’s attention. She turned her head to look at Mr Baldock. ‘Hallo, young Laura,’ said Mr Baldock. ‘How are you? Quite the heroine, I hear. A gallant rescue.’ Laura gave him a brief glance, and then concentrated once more on her efforts with the rings. ‘How are the arms?’ ‘They did hurt rather a lot, but they’ve put some stuff on, and they’re better now.’ ‘You’re a funny one,’ said Mr Baldock, sitting down heavily in a chair. ‘One day you’re hoping the cat will smother your baby sister—oh yes, you did—can’t deceive me—and the next day you’re crawling about the roof lugging the child to safety at the risk of your own life.’ ‘Anyway, I did save her,’ said Laura. ‘She isn’t hurt a bit—not a bit.’ She bent over the child and spoke passionately. ‘I won’t ever let her be hurt, not ever. I shall look after her all my life.’ Mr Baldock’s eyebrows rose slowly. ‘So it’s love now. You love her, do you?’ ‘Oh yes!’ The answer came with the same fervour. ‘I love her better than anything in the world!’ She turned her face to him, and Mr Baldock was startled. It was, he thought, like the breaking open of a cocoon. The child’s face was radiant with feeling. In spite of the grotesque absence of lashes and brows, the face had a quality of emotion that made it suddenly beautiful. ‘I see,’ said Mr Baldock. ‘I see … And where shall we go from here, I wonder?’ Laura looked at him, puzzled, and slightly apprehensive. ‘Isn’t it all right?’ she asked. ‘For me to love her, I mean?’ Mr Baldock looked at her. His face was thoughtful. ‘It’s all right for you, young Laura,’ he said. ‘Oh yes, it’s all right for you …’ He relapsed into abstraction, his hand tapping his chin. As a historian he had always mainly been concerned with the past, but there were moments when the fact that he could not foresee the future irritated him profoundly. This was one of them. He looked at Laura and the crowing Shirley, and his brow contracted angrily. ‘Where will they be,’ he thought, ‘in ten years’ time—in twenty years—in twenty-five? Where shall I be?’ The answer to that last question came quickly. ‘Under the turf,’ said Mr Baldock to himself. ‘Under the turf.’ He knew that, but he did not really believe it, any more than any other positive person full of the vitality of living really believes it. What a dark and mysterious entity the future was! In twenty-odd years what would have happened? Another war, perhaps? (Most unlikely!) New diseases? People fastening mechanical wings on themselves, perhaps, and floating about the streets like sacrilegious angels! Journeys to Mars? Sustaining oneself on horrid little tablets out of bottles, instead of on steaks and succulent green peas! ‘What are you thinking about?’ Laura asked. ‘The future.’ ‘Do you mean tomorrow?’ ‘Further forward than that. I suppose you’re able to read, young Laura?’ ‘Of course,’ said Laura, shocked. ‘I’ve read nearly all the Doctor Dolittles, and the books about Winnie-the-Pooh and—’ ‘Spare me the horrid details,’ said Mr Baldock. ‘How do you read a book? Begin at the beginning and go right through?’ ‘Yes. Don’t you?’ ‘No,’ said Mr Baldock. ‘I take a look at the start, get some idea of what it’s all about, then I go on to the end and see where the fellow has got to, and what he’s been trying to prove. And then, then I go back and see how he’s got there and what’s made him land up where he did. Much more interesting.’ Laura looked interested but disapproving. ‘I don’t think that’s the way the author meant his book to be read,’ she said. ‘Of course he didn’t.’ ‘I think you should read the book the way the author meant.’ ‘Ah,’ said Mr Baldock. ‘But you’re forgetting the party of the second part, as the blasted lawyers put it. There’s the reader. The reader’s got his rights, too. The author writes his book the way he likes. Has it all his own way. Messes up the punctuation and fools around with the sense any way he pleases. And the reader reads the book the way he wants to read it, and the author can’t stop him.’ ‘You make it sound like a battle,’ said Laura. ‘I like battles,’ said Mr Baldock. ‘The truth is, we’re all slavishly obsessed by time. Chronological sequence has no significance whatever. If you consider Eternity, you can jump about in Time as you please. But no one does consider Eternity.’ Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/agata-kristi/the-burden/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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