Towards Zero Agatha Christie An elderly widow is murdered at a clifftop seaside house…What is the connection between a failed suicide attempt, a wrongful accusation of theft against a schoolgirl, and the romantic life of a famous tennis player?To the casual observer, apparently nothing. But when a houseparty gathers at Gull’s Point, the seaside home of an elderly widow, earlier events come to a dramatic head.It’s all part of a carefully paid plan – for murder… Copyright (#ulink_3f0cefc0-9d8f-5d91-901b-708da24c5c28) Published by 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, The Crime Club 1944 Towards Zero™ is a trade mark of Agatha Christie Limited and Agatha Christie® and the Agatha Christie Signature are registered trade marks of Agatha Christie Limited in the UK and elsewhere. Copyright © 1944 Agatha Christie Limited. All rights reserved. www.agathachristie.com (http://www.agathachristie.com) Cover by designedbydavid.co.uk (http://designedbydavid.co.uk) © HarperCollins/Agatha Christie Ltd 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: 9780008196318 Ebook Edition © February 2017 ISBN: 9780007422890 Version: 2017-04-17 Dedication (#ulink_d8dfb280-d8af-5348-a243-e673784cafaf) To Robert Graves Dear Robert, Since you are kind enough to say you like my stories, I venture to dedicate this book to you. All I ask is that you should sternly restrain your critical faculties (doubtless sharpened by your recent excesses in that line!) when reading it. This is a story for your pleasure and not a candidate for Mr Graves’ literary pillory! Your friend, Contents Cover (#u2a3822f0-7b4d-562d-b8f7-17d1b6615d3c) Title Page (#ud7b7883a-64f5-5085-a4a2-28dc5af250d1) Copyright (#uda5037e6-e2da-57c3-ae9a-7f38aaea9524) Dedication (#uba19a7e8-5512-5449-82f8-85c57490bfc6) Map (#ud636cd1f-d8e6-5884-bba3-0d3fe63b2bb4) Prologue: November 19th (#u6fb95dcb-4753-5fc1-8448-393fd6b286d7) ‘Open the Door and Here are the People’ (#ubf3f5787-501c-5039-b883-132881d1d6e6) Snow White and Red Rose (#litres_trial_promo) A Fine Italian Hand … (#litres_trial_promo) Zero Hour (#litres_trial_promo) Also by Agatha Christie (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) Map (#ulink_17f1fa88-d171-5410-b67e-d2e3467f3dbf) Prologue (#ulink_9d5165f8-0535-59cc-ad75-095b999a5d57) November 19th The group round the fireplace was nearly all composed of lawyers or those who had an interest in the law. There was Martindale the solicitor, Rufus Lord, KC, young Daniels who had made a name for himself in the Carstairs case, a sprinkling of other barristers, Mr Justice Cleaver, Lewis of Lewis and Trench and old Mr Treves. Mr Treves was close on eighty, a very ripe and experienced eighty. He was a member of a famous firm of solicitors, and the most famous member of that firm. He had settled innumerable delicate cases out of court, he was said to know more of backstairs history than any man in England and he was a specialist on criminology. Unthinking people said Mr Treves ought to write his memoirs. Mr Treves knew better. He knew that he knew too much. Though he had long retired from active practice, there was no man in England whose opinion was so respected by the members of his own fraternity. Whenever his thin precise little voice was raised there was always a respectful silence. The conversation now was on the subject of a much talked of case which had finished that day at the Old Bailey. It was a murder case and the prisoner had been acquitted. The present company was busy trying the case over again and making technical criticisms. The prosecution had made a mistake in relying on one of its witnesses—old Depleach ought to have realized what an opening he was giving to the defence. Young Arthur had made the most of that servant girl’s evidence. Bentmore, in his summing up, had very rightly put the matter in its correct perspective, but the mischief was done by then—the jury had believed the girl. Juries were funny—you never knew what they’d swallow and what they wouldn’t. But let them once get a thing into their heads and no one was ever going to get it out again. They believed that the girl was speaking the truth about the crowbar and that was that. The medical evidence had been a bit above their heads. All those long terms and scientific jargon—damned bad witnesses, these scientific johnnies—always hemmed and hawed and couldn’t say yes or no to a plain question—always ‘in certain circumstances that might take place’—and so on! They talked themselves out, little by little, and as the remarks became more spasmodic and disjointed, a general feeling grew of something lacking. One head after another turned in the direction of Mr Treves. For Mr Treves had as yet contributed nothing to the discussion. Gradually it became apparent that the company was waiting for a final word from its most respected colleague. Mr Treves, leaning back in his chair, was absent-mindedly polishing his glasses. Something in the silence made him look up sharply. ‘Eh?’ he said. ‘What was that? You asked me something?’ Young Lewis spoke. ‘We were talking, sir, about the Lamorne case.’ He paused expectantly. ‘Yes, yes,’ said Mr Treves. ‘I was thinking of that.’ There was a respectful hush. ‘But I’m afraid,’ said Mr Treves, still polishing, ‘that I was being fanciful. Yes, fanciful. Result of getting on in years, I suppose. At my age one can claim the privilege of being fanciful, if one likes.’ ‘Yes, indeed, sir,’ said young Lewis, but he looked puzzled. ‘I was thinking,’ said Mr Treves, ‘not so much of the various points of law raised—though they were interesting—very interesting—if the verdict had gone the other way there would have been good grounds for appeal, I rather think—but I won’t go into that now. I was thinking, as I say, not of the points of law but of the—well, of the people in the case.’ Everybody looked rather astonished. They had considered the people in the case only as regarding their credibility or otherwise as witnesses. No one had even hazarded a speculation as to whether the prisoner had been guilty or as innocent as the court had pronounced him to be. ‘Human beings, you know,’ said Mr Treves thoughtfully. ‘Human beings. All kinds and sorts and sizes and shapes of ’em. Some with brains and a good many more without. They’d come from all over the place, Lancashire, Scotland—that restaurant proprietor from Italy and that school teacher woman from somewhere out Middle West. All caught up and enmeshed in the thing and finally all brought together in a court of law in London on a grey November day. Each one contributing his little part. The whole thing culminating in a trial for murder.’ He paused and gently beat a delicate tattoo on his knee. ‘I like a good detective story,’ he said. ‘But, you know, they begin in the wrong place! They begin with the murder. But the murder is the end. The story begins long before that—years before sometimes—with all the causes and events that bring certain people to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day. Take that little maid servant’s evidence—if the kitchenmaid hadn’t pinched her young man she wouldn’t have thrown up her situation in a huff and gone to the Lamornes and been the principal witness for the defence. That Guiseppe Antonelli—coming over to exchange with his brother for a month. The brother is as blind as a bat. He wouldn’t have seen what Guiseppe’s sharp eyes saw. If the constable hadn’t been sweet on the cook at No 48, he wouldn’t have been late on his beat …’ He nodded his head gently: ‘All converging towards a given spot … And then, when the time comes—over the top! Zero Hour. Yes, all of them converging towards zero …’ He repeated: ‘Towards zero …’ Then gave a quick little shudder. ‘You’re cold, sir, come nearer the fire.’ ‘No, no,’ said Mr Treves. ‘Just someone walking over my grave, as they say. Well, well, I must be making my way homewards.’ He gave an affable little nod and went slowly and precisely out of the room. There was a moment of dubious silence and then Rufus Lord, KC, remarked that poor old Treves was getting on. Sir William Cleaver said: ‘An acute brain—a very acute brain—but Anno Domini tells in the end.’ ‘Got a groggy heart, too,’ said Lord. ‘May drop down any minute, I believe.’ ‘He takes pretty good care of himself,’ said young Lewis. At that moment Mr Treves was carefully stepping into his smooth-running Daimler. It deposited him at a house in a quiet square. A solicitous butler valet helped him off with his coat. Mr Treves walked into his library where a coal fire was burning. His bedroom lay beyond, for out of consideration for his heart he never went upstairs. He sat down in front of the fire and drew his letters towards him. His mind was still dwelling on the fancy he had outlined at the Club. ‘Even now,’ thought Mr Treves to himself, ‘some drama—some murder to be—is in course of preparation. If I were writing one of these amusing stories of blood and crime, I should begin now with an elderly gentleman sitting in front of the fire opening his letters—going, unbeknownst to himself—towards zero …’ He slit open an envelope and gazed down absently at the sheet he abstracted from it. Suddenly his expression changed. He came back from romance to reality. ‘Dear me,’ said Mr Treves. ‘How extremely annoying! Really, how very vexing. After all these years! This will alter all my plans.’ ‘Open the Door and Here are the People’ (#ulink_dd96c282-4b07-52c0-9d31-c1e1f0ddf18a) January 11th The man in the hospital bed shifted his body slightly and stifled a groan. The nurse in charge of the ward got up from her table and came down to him. She shifted his pillows and moved him into a more comfortable position. Angus MacWhirter only gave a grunt by way of thanks. He was in a state of seething rebellion and bitterness. By this time it ought to have been over. He ought to have been out of it all! Curse that damned ridiculous tree growing out of the cliff! Curse those officious sweethearts who braved the cold of a winter’s night to keep a tryst on the cliff edge. But for them (and the tree!) it would have been over—a plunge into the deep icy water, a brief struggle perhaps, and then oblivion—the end of a misused, useless, unprofitable life. And now where was he? Lying ridiculously in a hospital bed with a broken shoulder and with the prospect of being hauled up in a police court for the crime of trying to take his own life. Curse it, it was his own life, wasn’t it? And if he had succeeded in the job, they would have buried him piously as of unsound mind! Unsound mind, indeed! He’d never been saner! And to commit suicide was the most logical and sensible thing that could be done by a man in his position. Completely down and out, with his health permanently affected, with a wife who had left him for another man. Without a job, without affection, without money, health or hope, surely to end it all was the only possible solution? And now here he was in this ridiculous plight. He would shortly be admonished by a sanctimonious magistrate for doing the common-sense thing with a commodity which belonged to him and to him only—his life. He snorted with anger. A wave of fever passed over him. The nurse was beside him again. She was young, red-haired, with a kindly, rather vacant face. ‘Are you in much pain?’ ‘No, I’m not.’ ‘I’ll give you something to make you sleep.’ ‘You’ll do nothing of the sort.’ ‘But—’ ‘Do you think I can’t bear a bit of pain and sleeplessness?’ She smiled in a gentle, slightly superior way. ‘Doctor said you could have something.’ ‘I don’t care what doctor said.’ She straightened the covers and set a glass of lemonade a little nearer to him. He said, slightly ashamed of himself: ‘Sorry if I was rude.’ ‘Oh, that’s all right.’ It annoyed him that she was so completely undisturbed by his bad temper. Nothing like that could penetrate her nurse’s armour of indulgent indifference. He was a patient—not a man. He said: ‘Damned interference—all this damned interference …’ She said reprovingly: ‘Now, now, that isn’t very nice.’ ‘Nice?’ he demanded. ‘Nice? My God.’ She said calmly: ‘You’ll feel better in the morning.’ He swallowed. ‘You nurses. You nurses! You’re inhuman, that’s what you are!’ ‘We know what’s best for you, you see.’ ‘That’s what’s so infuriating! About you. About a hospital. About the world. Continual interference! Knowing what’s best for other people. I tried to kill myself. You know that, don’t you?’ She nodded. ‘Nobody’s business but mine whether I threw myself off a bloody cliff or not. I’d finished with life. I was down and out!’ She made a little clicking noise with her tongue. It indicated abstract sympathy. He was a patient. She was soothing him by letting him blow off steam. ‘Why shouldn’t I kill myself if I want to?’ he demanded. She replied to that quite seriously. ‘Because it’s wrong.’ ‘Why is it wrong?’ She looked at him doubtfully. She was not disturbed in her own belief, but she was much too inarticulate to explain her reaction. ‘Well—I mean—it’s wicked to kill yourself. You’ve got to go on living whether you like it or not.’ ‘Why have you?’ ‘Well, there are other people to consider, aren’t there?’ ‘Not in my case. There’s not a soul in the world who’d be the worse for my passing on.’ ‘Haven’t you got any relations? No mother or sisters or anything?’ ‘No. I had a wife once but she left me—quite right too! She saw I was no good.’ ‘But you’ve got friends, surely?’ ‘No, I haven’t. I’m not a friendly sort of man. Look here, nurse, I’ll tell you something. I was a happy sort of chap once. Had a good job and a good-looking wife. There was a car accident. My boss was driving the car and I was in it. He wanted me to say he was driving under thirty at the time of the accident. He wasn’t. He was driving nearer fifty. Nobody was killed, nothing like that, he just wanted to be in the right for the insurance people. Well, I wouldn’t say what he wanted. It was a lie. I don’t tell lies.’ The nurse said: ‘Well, I think you were quite right. Quite right.’ ‘You do, do you? That pigheadedness of mine cost me my job. My boss was sore. He saw to it that I didn’t get another. My wife got fed up seeing me mooch about unable to get anything to do. She went off with a man who had been my friend. He was doing well and going up in the world. I drifted along, going steadily down. I took to drinking a bit. That didn’t help me to hold down jobs. Finally I came down to hauling—strained my inside—the doctor told me I’d never be strong again. Well, there wasn’t much to live for then. Easiest way, and the cleanest way, was to go right out. My life was no good to myself or anyone else.’ The little nurse murmured: ‘You don’t know that.’ He laughed. He was better-tempered already. Her naïve obstinacy amused him. ‘My dear girl, what use am I to anybody?’ She said confusedly: ‘You don’t know. You may be—someday—’ ‘Someday? There won’t be any someday. Next time I shall make sure.’ She shook her head decidedly. ‘Oh, no,’ she said. ‘You won’t kill yourself now.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘They never do.’ He stared at her. ‘They never do.’ He was one of a class of would-be suicides. Opening his mouth to protest energetically, his innate honesty suddenly stopped him. Would he do it again? Did he really mean to do it? He knew suddenly that he didn’t. For no reason. Perhaps the right reason was the one she had given out of her specialized knowledge. Suicides didn’t do it again. All the more he felt determined to force an admission from her on the ethical side. ‘At any rate I’ve got a right to do what I like with my own life.’ ‘No—no, you haven’t.’ ‘But why not, my dear girl, why?’ She flushed. She said, her fingers playing with the little gold cross that hung round her neck: ‘You don’t understand. God may need you.’ He stared—taken aback. He did not want to upset her childlike faith. He said mockingly: ‘I suppose that one day I may stop a runaway horse and save a golden-haired child from death—eh? Is that it?’ She shook her head. She said with vehemence and trying to express what was so vivid in her mind and so halting on her tongue: ‘It may be just by being somewhere—not doing anything—just by being at a certain place at a certain time—oh, I can’t say what I mean, but you might just—just walk along a street some day and just by doing that accomplish something terribly important—perhaps even without knowing what it was.’ The red-haired little nurse came from the west coast of Scotland and some of her family had ‘the sight’. Perhaps, dimly, she saw a picture of a man walking up a road on a night in September and thereby saving a human being from a terrible death … February 14th There was only one person in the room and the only sound to be heard was the scratching of that person’s pen as it traced line after line across the paper. There was no one to read the words that were being traced. If there had been, they would hardly have believed their eyes. For what was being written was a clear, carefully detailed project for murder. There are times when a body is conscious of a mind controlling it—when it bows obedient to that alien something that controls its actions. There are other times when a mind is conscious of owning and controlling a body and accomplishing its purpose by using that body. The figure sitting writing was in the last-named state. It was a mind, a cool, controlled intelligence. This mind had only one thought and one purpose—the destruction of another human being. To the end that this purpose might be accomplished, the scheme was being worked out meticulously on paper. Every eventuality, every possibility was being taken into account. The thing had got to be absolutely fool-proof. The scheme, like all good schemes, was not absolutely cut and dried. There were certain alternative actions at certain points. Moreover, since the mind was intelligent, it realized that there must be intelligent provision left for the unforeseen. But the main lines were clear and had been closely tested. The time, the place, the method, the victim! … The figure raised its head. With its hand, it picked up the sheets of paper and read them carefully through. Yes, the thing was crystal-clear. Across the serious face a smile came. It was a smile that was not quite sane. The figure drew a deep breath. As man was made in the image of his Maker, so there was now a terrible travesty of a creator’s joy. Yes, everything planned—everyone’s reaction foretold and allowed for, the good and evil in everybody played upon and brought into harmony with one evil design. There was one thing lacking still … With a smile the writer traced a date—a date in September. Then, with a laugh, the paper was torn in pieces and the pieces carried across the room and put into the heart of the glowing fire. There was no carelessness. Every single piece was consumed and destroyed. The plan was now only existent in the brain of its creator. March 8th Superintendent Battle was sitting at the breakfast table. His jaw was set in a truculent fashion and he was reading, slowly and carefully, a letter that his wife had just tearfully handed to him. There was no expression visible on his face, for his face never did register any expression. It had the aspect of a face carved out of wood. It was solid and durable and, in some way, impressive. Superintendent Battle had never suggested brilliance; he was, definitely, not a brilliant man, but he had some other quality, difficult to define, that was nevertheless forceful. ‘I can’t believe it,’ said Mrs Battle, sobbing. ‘Sylvia!’ Sylvia was the youngest of Superintendent and Mrs Battle’s five children. She was sixteen and at school near Maidstone. The letter was from Miss Amphrey, headmistress of the school in question. It was a clear, kindly and extremely tactful letter. It set out, in black and white, that various small thefts had been puzzling the school authorities for some time, that the matter had at last been cleared up, that Sylvia Battle had confessed, and that Miss Amphrey would like to see Mr and Mrs Battle at the earliest opportunity ‘to discuss the position’. Superintendent Battle folded up the letter, put it in his pocket, and said: ‘You leave this to me, Mary.’ He got up, walked round the table, patted her on the cheek and said, ‘Don’t worry, dear, it will be all right.’ He went from the room, leaving comfort and reassurance behind him. That afternoon, in Miss Amphrey’s modern and individualistic drawing-room, Superintendent Battle sat very squarely on his chair, his large wooden hands on his knees, confronting Miss Amphrey and managing to look, far more than usual, every inch a policeman. Miss Amphrey was a very successful headmistress. She had personality—a great deal of personality, she was enlightened and up to date, and she combined discipline with modern ideas of self-determination. Her room was representative of the spirit of Meadway. Everything was of a cool oatmeal colour—there were big jars of daffodils and bowls of tulips and hyacinths. One or two good copies of the antique Greek, two pieces of advanced modern sculpture, two Italian primitives on the walls. In the midst of all this, Miss Amphrey herself, dressed in a deep shade of blue, with an eager face suggestive of a conscientious greyhound, and clear blue eyes looking serious through thick lenses. ‘The important thing,’ she was saying in her clear well-modulated voice, ‘is that this should be taken the right way. It is the girl herself we have to think of, Mr Battle. Sylvia herself! It is most important—most important, that her life should not be crippled in any way. She must not be made to assume a burden of guilt—blame must be very very sparingly meted out, if at all. We must arrive at the reason behind these quite trivial pilferings. A sense of inferiority, perhaps? She is not good at games, you know—an obscure wish to shine in a different sphere—the desire to assert her ego? We must be very very careful. That is why I wanted to see you alone first—to impress upon you to be very very careful with Sylvia. I repeat again, it’s very important to get at what is behind this.’ ‘That, Miss Amphrey,’ said Superintendent Battle, ‘is why I have come down.’ His voice was quiet, his face unemotional, his eyes surveyed the school mistress appraisingly. ‘I have been very gentle with her,’ said Miss Amphrey. Battle said laconically: ‘Good of you, Ma’am.’ ‘You see, I really love and understand these young things.’ Battle did not reply directly. He said: ‘I’d like to see my girl now, if you don’t mind, Miss Amphrey.’ With renewed emphasis Miss Amphrey admonished him to be careful—to go slow—not to antagonize a child just budding into womanhood. Superintendent Battle showed no signs of impatience. He just looked blank. She took him at last to her study. They passed one or two girls in the passages. They stood politely to attention but their eyes were full of curiosity. Having ushered Battle into a small room, not quite so redolent of personality as the one downstairs, Miss Amphrey withdrew and said she would send Sylvia to him. Just as she was leaving the room, Battle stopped her. ‘One minute, Ma’am, how did you come to pitch upon Sylvia as the one responsible for these—er—leakages?’ ‘My methods, Mr Battle, were psychological.’ Miss Amphrey spoke with dignity. ‘Psychological? H’m. What about the evidence, Miss Amphrey?’ ‘Yes, yes, I quite understand, Mr Battle—you would feel that way. Your—er—profession steps in. But psychology is beginning to be recognized in criminology. I can assure you that there is no mistake—Sylvia freely admits the whole thing.’ ‘Yes, yes—I know that. I was just asking how you came to pitch upon her to begin with.’ ‘Well, Mr Battle, this business of things being taken out of the girls’ lockers was on the increase. I called the school together and told them the facts. At the same time, I studied their faces unobtrusively. Sylvia’s expression struck me at once. It was guilty—confused. I knew at that moment who was responsible. I wanted, not to confront her with her guilt, but to get her to admit it herself. I set a little test for her—a word association.’ Battle nodded to show he understood. ‘And finally the child admitted it all.’ Her father said: ‘I see.’ Miss Amphrey hesitated a minute, then went out. Battle was standing looking out of the window when the door opened again. He turned round slowly and looked at his daughter. Sylvia stood just inside the door, which she had closed behind her. She was tall, dark, angular. Her face was sullen and bore marks of tears. She said timidly rather than defiantly: ‘Well, here I am.’ Battle looked at her thoughtfully for a minute or two. He sighed. ‘I should never have sent you to this place,’ he said. ‘That woman’s a fool.’ Sylvia lost sight of her own problems in sheer amazement. ‘Miss Amphrey? Oh, but she’s wonderful. We all think so.’ ‘H’m,’ said Battle. ‘Can’t be quite a fool, then, if she sells the idea of herself as well as that. All the same, Meadway wasn’t the place for you—although I don’t know—this might have happened anywhere.’ Sylvia twisted her hands together. She looked down. She said: ‘I’m—I’m sorry, Father. I really am.’ ‘So you should be,’ said Battle shortly. ‘Come here.’ She came slowly and unwillingly across the room to him. He took her chin in his great square hand and looked closely into her face. ‘Been through a good deal, haven’t you?’ he said gently. Tears started into her eyes. Battle said slowly: ‘You see, Sylvia, I’ve known all along with you, that there was something. Most people have got a weakness of some kind or another. Usually it’s plain enough. You can see when a child’s greedy, or bad-tempered, or got a streak of the bully in him. You were a good child, very quiet—very sweet-tempered—no trouble in any way—and sometimes I’ve worried. Because if there’s a flaw you don’t see, sometimes it wrecks the whole show when the article is tried out.’ ‘Like me!’ said Sylvia. ‘Yes, like you. You’ve cracked under strain—and in a damned queer way too. It’s a way, oddly enough, I’ve never come across before.’ The girl said suddenly and scornfully: ‘I should think you’d come across thieves often enough!’ ‘Oh yes—I know all about them. And that’s why, my dear—not because I’m your father (fathers don’t know much about their children) but because I’m a policeman I know well enough you’re not a thief. You never took a thing in this place. Thieves are of two kinds, the kind that yields to sudden and overwhelming temptation—(and that happens damned seldom—it’s amazing what temptation the ordinary normal honest human being can withstand) and there’s the kind that just takes what doesn’t belong to them almost as a matter of course. You don’t belong to either type. You’re not a thief. You’re a very unusual type of liar.’ Sylvia began, ‘But—’ He swept on. ‘You’ve admitted it all? Oh yes, I know that. There was a saint once—went out with bread for the poor. Husband didn’t like it. Met her and asked what there was in her basket. She lost her nerve and said it was roses—he tore open her basket and roses it was—a miracle! Now if you’d been Saint Elizabeth and were out with a basket of roses, and your husband had come along and asked what you’d got, you’d have lost your nerve and said “Bread”.’ He paused and then said gently: ‘That’s how it happened, isn’t it?’ There was a longer pause and then the girl suddenly bent her head. Battle said: ‘Tell me, child. What happened exactly?’ ‘She had us all up. Made a speech. And I saw her eyes on me and I knew she thought it was me! I felt myself getting red—and I saw some of the girls looking at me. It was awful. And then the others began looking at me and whispering in corners. I could see they all thought so. And then the Amp had me up here with some of the others one evening and we played a sort of word game—she said words and we gave answers—’ Battle gave a disgusted grunt. ‘And I could see what it meant—and—and I sort of got paralysed. I tried not to give the wrong word—I tried to think of things quite outside—like squirrels or flowers—and the Amp was there watching me with eyes like gimlets—you know, sort of boring inside one. And after that—oh, it got worse and worse, and one day the Amp talked to me quite kindly and so—so understandingly—and—and I broke down and said I had done it—and oh! Daddy, the relief!’ Battle was stroking his chin. ‘I see.’ ‘You do understand?’ ‘No, Sylvia, I don’t understand, because I’m not made that way. If anyone tried to make me say I’d done something I hadn’t I’d feel more like giving them a sock on the jaw. But I see how it came about in your case—and that gimlet-eyed Amp of yours has had as pretty an example of unusual psychology shoved under her nose as any half-baked exponent of misunderstood theories could ask for. The thing to do now is clear up this mess. Where’s Miss Amphrey?’ Miss Amphrey was hovering tactfully near at hand. Her sympathetic smile froze on her face as Superintendent Battle said bluntly: ‘In justice to my daughter, I must ask that you call in your local police over this.’ ‘But, Mr Battle, Sylvia herself—’ ‘Sylvia has never touched a thing that didn’t belong to her in this place.’ ‘I quite understand that, as a father—’ ‘I’m not talking as a father, but as a policeman. Get the police to give you a hand over this. They’ll be discreet. You’ll find the things hidden away somewhere and the right set of fingerprints on them, I expect. Petty pilferers don’t think of wearing gloves. I’m taking my daughter away with me now. If the police find evidence—real evidence—to connect her with the thefts, I’m prepared for her to appear in court and take what’s coming to her, but I’m not afraid.’ As he drove out of the gate with Sylvia beside him some five minutes later, he asked: ‘Who’s the girl with fair hair, rather fuzzy, very pink cheeks and a spot on her chin, blue eyes far apart? I passed her in the passage.’ ‘That sounds like Olive Parsons.’ ‘Ah, well, I shouldn’t be surprised if she were the one.’ ‘Did she look frightened?’ ‘No, looked smug! Calm smug look I’ve seen in the police court hundreds of times! I’d bet good money she’s the thief—but you won’t find her confessing—not much!’ Sylvia said with a sigh: ‘It’s like coming out of a bad dream. Oh Daddy, I am sorry! Oh, I am sorry! How could I be such a fool, such an utter fool? I do feel awful about it.’ ‘Ah, well,’ said Superintendent Battle, patting her on the arm with a hand he disengaged from the wheel, and uttering one of his pet forms of trite consolation. ‘Don’t you worry. These things are sent to try us. Yes, these things are sent to try us. At least, I suppose so. I don’t see what else they can be sent for …’ April 19th The sun was pouring down on Nevile Strange’s house at Hindhead. It was an April day such as usually occurs at least once in a month, hotter than most of the June days to follow. Nevile Strange was coming down the stairs. He was dressed in white flannels and held four tennis racquets under his arm. If a man could have been selected from amongst other Englishmen as an example of a lucky man with nothing to wish for, a Selection Committee might have chosen Nevile Strange. He was a man well known to the British public, a first-class tennis player and all-round sportsman. Though he had never reached the finals at Wimbledon, he had lasted several of the opening rounds and in the mixed doubles had twice reached the semi-finals. He was, perhaps, too much of an all-round athlete to be a Champion tennis player. He was scratch at golf, a fine swimmer and had done some good climbs in the Alps. He was thirty-three, had magnificent health, good looks, plenty of money, an extremely beautiful wife whom he had recently married and, to all appearances, no cares or worries. Nevertheless as Nevile Strange went downstairs this fine morning a shadow went with him. A shadow perceptible, perhaps, to no eyes but his. But he was aware of it, the thought of it furrowed his brow and made his expression troubled and indecisive. He crossed the hall, squared his shoulders as though definitely throwing off some burden, passed through the living-room and out on to a glass-enclosed verandah where his wife, Kay, was curled up amongst cushions drinking orange juice. Kay Strange was twenty-three and unusually beautiful. She had a slender but subtly voluptuous figure, dark red hair, such a perfect skin that she used only the slightest make-up to enhance it, and those dark eyes and brows which so seldom go with red hair and which are so devastating when they do. Her husband said lightly: ‘Hullo, Gorgeous, what’s for breakfast?’ Kay replied: ‘Horribly bloody-looking kidneys for you—and mushrooms—and rolls of bacon.’ ‘Sounds all right,’ said Nevile. He helped himself to the aforementioned viands and poured out a cup of coffee. There was a companionable silence for some minutes. ‘Oo,’ said Kay, voluptuously wriggling bare toes with scarlet manicured nails. ‘Isn’t the sun lovely? England’s not so bad after all.’ They had just come back from the South of France. Nevile, after a bare glance at the newspaper headlines, had turned to the Sports page and merely said ‘Um …’ Then, proceeding to toast and marmalade, he put the paper aside and opened his letters. There were a good many of these, but most of them he tore across and chucked away. Circulars, advertisements, printed matter. Kay said: ‘I don’t like my colour scheme in the living-room. Can I have it done over, Nevile?’ ‘Anything you like, beautiful.’ ‘Peacock blue,’ said Kay dreamily, ‘and ivory satin cushions.’ ‘You’ll have to throw in an ape,’ said Nevile. ‘You can be the ape,’ said Kay. Nevile opened another letter. ‘Oh, by the way,’ said Kay. ‘Shirty has asked us to go to Norway on the yacht at the end of June. Rather sickening we can’t.’ She looked cautiously sideways at Nevile and added wistfully: ‘I would love it so.’ Something, some cloud, some uncertainty, seemed hovering on Nevile’s face. Kay said rebelliously: ‘Have we got to go to dreary old Camilla’s?’ Nevile frowned. ‘Of course we have. Look here, Kay, we’ve had this out before. Sir Matthew was my guardian. He and Camilla looked after me. Gull’s Point is my home, as far as any place is home to me.’ ‘Oh all right, all right,’ said Kay. ‘If we must, we must. After all, we get all that money when she dies, so I suppose we have to suck up a bit.’ Nevile said angrily: ‘It’s not a question of sucking up! She’s no control over the money. Sir Matthew left it in trust for her during her lifetime and to come to me and my wife afterwards. It’s a question of affection. Why can’t you understand that?’ Kay said, after a moment’s pause: ‘I do understand really. I’m just putting on an act because—well because I know I’m only allowed there on sufferance as it were. They hate me! Yes, they do! Lady Tressilian looks down that long nose of hers at me and Mary Aldin looks over my shoulder when she talks to me. It’s all very well for you. You don’t see what goes on.’ ‘They always seem to be very polite to you. You know quite well I wouldn’t stand for it if they weren’t.’ Kay gave him a curious look from under her dark lashes. ‘They’re polite enough. But they know how to get under my skin all right. I’m the interloper, that’s what they feel.’ ‘Well,’ said Nevile, ‘after all, I suppose—that’s natural enough, isn’t it?’ His voice had changed slightly. He got up and stood looking out at the view with his back to Kay. ‘Oh yes, I dare say, it’s natural. They were devoted to Audrey, weren’t they?’ Her voice shook a little. ‘Dear, well-bred, cool, colourless Audrey! Camilla’s not forgiven me for taking her place.’ Nevile did not turn. His voice was lifeless, dull. He said: ‘After all, Camilla’s old—past seventy. Her generation doesn’t really like divorce, you know. On the whole I think she’s accepted the position very well considering how fond she was of—of Audrey.’ His voice changed just a little as he spoke the name. ‘They think you treated her badly.’ ‘So I did,’ said Nevile under his breath, but his wife heard. ‘Oh Nevile—don’t be so stupid. Just because she chose to make such a frightful fuss.’ ‘She didn’t make a fuss. Audrey never made fusses.’ ‘Well, you know what I mean. Because she went away and was ill, and went about everywhere looking broken-hearted. That’s what I call a fuss! Audrey’s not what I call a good loser. From my point of view if a wife can’t hold her husband she ought to give him up gracefully! You two had nothing in common. She never played a game and was as anaemic and washed up as—as a dishrag. No life or go in her! If she really cared about you, she ought to have thought about your happiness first and been glad you were going to be happy with someone more suited to you.’ Nevile turned. A faintly sardonic smile played around his lips. ‘What a little sportsman! How to play the game in love and matrimony!’ Kay laughed and reddened. ‘Well, perhaps I was going a bit too far. But at any rate once the thing had happened, there it was. You’ve got to accept these things!’ Nevile said quietly: ‘Audrey accepted it. She divorced me so that you and I could marry.’ ‘Yes, I know—’ Kay hesitated. Nevile said: ‘You’ve never understood Audrey.’ ‘No, I haven’t. In a way, Audrey gives me the creeps. I don’t know what it is about her. You never know what she’s thinking … She’s—she’s a little frightening.’ ‘Oh, nonsense, Kay.’ ‘Well, she frightens me. Perhaps it’s because she’s got brains.’ ‘My lovely nitwit!’ Kay laughed. ‘You always call me that!’ ‘Because it’s what you are!’ They smiled at each other. Nevile came over to her and, bending down, kissed the back of her neck. ‘Lovely, lovely Kay,’ he murmured. ‘Very good Kay,’ said Kay. ‘Giving up a lovely yachting trip to go and be snubbed by her husband’s prim Victorian relations.’ Nevile went back and sat down by the table. ‘You know,’ he said. ‘I don’t see why we shouldn’t go on that trip with Shirty if you really want to so much.’ Kay sat up in astonishment. ‘And what about Saltcreek and Gull’s Point?’ Nevile said in a rather unnatural voice: ‘I don’t see why we shouldn’t go there early in September.’ ‘Oh, but Nevile, surely—’ She stopped. ‘We can’t go in July and August because of the tournaments,’ said Nevile. ‘But we’d finish up at St Loo the last week in August, and it would fit in very well if we went on to Saltcreek from there.’ ‘Oh, it would fit in all right—beautifully. But I thought—well, she always goes there for September, doesn’t she?’ ‘Audrey, you mean?’ ‘Yes. I suppose they could put her off, but—’ ‘Why should they put her off?’ Kay stared at him dubiously. ‘You mean, we’d be there at the same time? What an extraordinary idea.’ Nevile said irritably: ‘I don’t think it’s at all an extraordinary idea. Lots of people do it nowadays. Why shouldn’t we all be friends together? It makes things so much simpler. Why, you said so yourself only the other day.’ ‘I did?’ ‘Yes, don’t you remember? We were talking about the Howes, and you said it was the sensible civilized way to look at things, and that Leonard’s new wife and his Ex were the best of friends.’ ‘Oh, I wouldn’t mind. I do think it’s sensible. But—well, I don’t think Audrey would feel like that about it.’ ‘Nonsense.’ ‘It isn’t nonsense. You know, Nevile, Audrey really was terribly fond of you … I don’t think she’d stand it for a moment.’ ‘You’re quite wrong, Kay. Audrey thinks it would be quite a good thing.’ ‘Audrey—what do you mean, Audrey thinks? How do you know what Audrey thinks?’ Nevile looked slightly embarrassed. He cleared his throat a little self-consciously. ‘As a matter of fact, I happened to run into her yesterday when I was up in London.’ ‘You never told me.’ Nevile said irritably: ‘I’m telling you now. It was absolute chance. I was walking across the park and there she was coming towards me. You wouldn’t want me to run away from her, would you?’ ‘No, of course not,’ said Kay, staring. ‘Go on.’ ‘I—we—well, we stopped, of course, and then I turned round and walked with her. I—I felt it was the least I could do.’ ‘Go on,’ said Kay. ‘And then we sat down on a couple of chairs and talked. She was very nice—very nice indeed.’ ‘Delightful for you,’ said Kay. ‘And we got talking, you know, about one thing and another. She was quite natural and normal and—and all that.’ ‘Remarkable!’ said Kay. ‘And she asked how you were—’ ‘Very kind of her!’ ‘And we talked about you for a bit. Really, Kay, she couldn’t have been nicer.’ ‘Darling Audrey!’ ‘And then it sort of came to me—you know—how nice it would be if—if you two could be friends—if we could all get together. And it occurred to me that perhaps we might manage it at Gull’s Point this summer. Sort of place it could happen quite naturally.’ ‘You thought of that?’ ‘I—well—yes, of course. It was all my idea.’ ‘You’ve never said anything to me about having any such idea.’ ‘Well, I only happened to think of it just then.’ ‘I see. Anyway, you suggested it and Audrey thought it was a marvellous brainwave?’ For the first time, something in Kay’s manner seemed to penetrate to Nevile’s consciousness. He said: ‘Is anything the matter, Gorgeous?’ ‘Oh no, nothing! Nothing at all! It didn’t occur to you or Audrey whether I should think it a marvellous idea?’ Nevile stared at her. ‘But, Kay, why on earth should you mind?’ Kay bit her lip. Nevile went on: ‘You said yourself—only the other day—’ ‘Oh, don’t go into all that again! I was talking about other people—not us.’ ‘But that’s partly what made me think of it.’ ‘More fool me. Not that I believe that.’ Nevile was looking at her with dismay. ‘But, Kay, why should you mind? I mean, there’s nothing for you to mind about!’ ‘Isn’t there?’ ‘Well, I mean—any jealousy or that—would be on the other side.’ He paused, his voice changed. ‘You see, Kay, you and I treated Audrey damned badly. No, I don’t mean that. It was nothing to do with you. I treated her very badly. It’s no good just saying that I couldn’t help myself. I feel that if this could come off I’d feel better about the whole thing. It would make me a lot happier.’ Kay said slowly: ‘So you haven’t been happy?’ ‘Darling idiot, what do you mean? Of course I’ve been happy, radiantly happy. But—’ Kay cut in. ‘But—that’s it! There’s always been a “but” in this house. Some damned creeping shadow about the place. Audrey’s shadow.’ Nevile stared at her. ‘You mean to say you’re jealous of Audrey?’ he asked. ‘I’m not jealous of her. I’m afraid of her … Nevile, you don’t know what Audrey’s like.’ ‘Not know what she’s like when I’ve been married to her for over eight years?’ ‘You don’t know,’ Kay repeated, ‘what Audrey is like.’ April 30th ‘Preposterous!’ said Lady Tressilian. She drew herself up on her pillow and glared fiercely round the room. ‘Absolutely preposterous! Nevile must be mad.’ ‘It does seem rather odd,’ said Mary Aldin. Lady Tressilian had a striking-looking profile with a slender bridged nose down which, when so inclined, she could look with telling effect. Though now over seventy and in frail health, her native vigour of mind was in no way impaired. She had, it is true, long periods of retreat from life and its emotions when she would lie with half-closed eyes, but from these semi-comas she would emerge with all her faculties sharpened to the uttermost, and with an incisive tongue. Propped up by pillows in a large bed set across one corner of her room, she held her court like some French Queen. Mary Aldin, a distant cousin, lived with her and looked after her. The two women got on together excellently. Mary was thirty-six, but had one of those smooth ageless faces that change little with passing years. She might have been thirty or forty-five. She had a good figure, an air of breeding, and dark hair to which one lock of white across the front gave a touch of individuality. It was at one time a fashion, but Mary’s white lock of hair was natural and she had had it since her girlhood. She looked down now reflectively at Nevile Strange’s letter which Lady Tressilian had handed to her. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It does seem rather odd.’ ‘You can’t tell me,’ said Lady Tressilian, ‘that this is Nevile’s own idea! Somebody’s put it into his head. Probably that new wife of his.’ ‘Kay. You think it was Kay’s idea?’ ‘It would be quite like her. New and vulgar! If husbands and wives have to advertise their difficulties in public and have recourse to divorce, then they might at least part decently. The new wife and the old wife making friends is quite disgusting in my mind. Nobody has any standards nowadays!’ ‘I suppose it is just the modern way,’ said Mary. ‘It won’t happen in my house,’ said Lady Tressilian. ‘I consider I’ve done all that could be asked of me having that scarlet-toed creature here at all.’ ‘She is Nevile’s wife.’ ‘Exactly. Therefore I felt that Matthew would have wished it. He was devoted to the boy and always wanted him to look on this as his home. Since to refuse to receive his wife would have made an open breach, I gave way and asked her here. I do not like her—she’s quite the wrong wife for Nevile—no background, no roots!’ ‘She’s quite well born,’ said Mary placatingly. ‘Bad stock!’ said Lady Tressilian. ‘Her father, as I’ve told you, had to resign from all his clubs after that card business. Luckily he died shortly after. And her mother was notorious on the Riviera. What a bringing up for the girl. Nothing but hotel life—and that mother! Then she meets Nevile on the tennis courts, makes a dead set at him and never rests until she gets him to leave his wife—of whom he was extremely fond—and go off with her! I blame her entirely for the whole thing!’ Mary smiled faintly. Lady Tressilian had the old-fashioned characteristic of always blaming the woman and being indulgent towards the man in the case. ‘I suppose, strictly speaking, Nevile was equally to blame,’ she suggested. ‘Nevile was very much to blame,’ agreed Lady Tressilian. ‘He had a charming wife who had always been devoted—perhaps too devoted—to him. Nevertheless, if it hadn’t been for that girl’s persistence, I am convinced he would have come to his senses. But she was determined to marry him! Yes, my sympathies are entirely with Audrey. I am very fond of Audrey.’ Mary sighed. ‘It has all been very difficult,’ she said. ‘Yes, indeed. One is at a loss to know how to act in such difficult circumstances. Matthew was fond of Audrey, and so am I, and one cannot deny that she was a very good wife to Nevile though perhaps it is a pity that she could not have shared his amusements more. She was never an athletic girl. The whole business was very distressing. When I was a girl, these things simply did not happen. Men had their affairs, naturally, but they were not allowed to break up married life.’ ‘Well, they happen now,’ said Mary bluntly. ‘Exactly. You have so much common sense, dear. It is of no use recalling bygone days. These things happen, and girls like Kay Mortimer steal other women’s husbands and nobody thinks the worse of them!’ ‘Except people like you, Camilla!’ ‘I don’t count. That Kay creature doesn’t worry whether I approve of her or not. She’s too busy having a good time. Nevile can bring her here when he comes and I’m even willing to receive her friends—though I do not much care for that very theatrical-looking young man who is always hanging round her—what is his name?’ ‘Ted Latimer?’ ‘That is it. A friend of her Riviera days—and I should very much like to know how he manages to live as he does.’ ‘By his wits,’ suggested Mary. ‘One might pardon that. I rather fancy he lives by his looks. Not a pleasant friend for Nevile’s wife! I disliked the way he came down last summer and stayed at the Easterhead Bay Hotel while they were here.’ Mary looked out of the open window. Lady Tressilian’s house was situated on a steep cliff overlooking the river Tern. On the other side of the river was the newly created summer resort of Easterhead Bay, consisting of a big sandy bathing beach, a cluster of modern bungalows and a large hotel on the headland looking out to sea. Saltcreek itself was a straggling picturesque fishing village set on the side of a hill. It was old-fashioned, conservative and deeply contemptuous of Easterhead Bay and its summer visitors. The Easterhead Bay Hotel was nearly exactly opposite Lady Tressilian’s house, and Mary looked across the narrow strip of water at it now where it stood in its blatant newness. ‘I am glad,’ said Lady Tressilian, closing her eyes, ‘that Matthew never saw that vulgar building. The coastline was quite unspoilt in his time.’ Sir Matthew and Lady Tressilian had come to Gull’s Point thirty years ago. It was nine years since Sir Matthew, an enthusiastic sailing man, had capsized his dinghy and been drowned almost in front of his wife’s eyes. Everybody had expected her to sell Gull’s Point and leave Saltcreek, but Lady Tressilian had not done so. She had lived on in the house, and her only visible reaction had been to dispose of all the boats and do away with the boathouse. There were no boats available for guests at Gull’s Point. They had to walk along to the ferry and hire a boat from one of the rival boatmen there. Mary said, hesitating a little: ‘Shall I write, then, to Nevile and tell him that what he proposes does not fit in with our plans?’ ‘I certainly shall not dream of interfering with Audrey’s visit. She has always come to us in September and I shall not ask her to change her plans.’ Mary said, looking down at the letter: ‘You did see that Nevile says Audrey—er—approves of the idea—that she is quite willing to meet Kay?’ ‘I simply don’t believe it,’ said Lady Tressilian. ‘Nevile, like all men, believes what he wants to believe!’ Mary persisted: ‘He says he has actually spoken to her about it.’ ‘What a very odd thing to do! No—perhaps, after all, it isn’t!’ Mary looked at her inquiringly. ‘Like Henry the Eighth,’ said Lady Tressilian. Mary looked puzzled. Lady Tressilian elaborated her last remark. ‘Conscience, you know! Henry was always trying to get Catherine to agree that the divorce was the right thing. Nevile knows that he has behaved badly—he wants to feel comfortable about it all. So he has been trying to bully Audrey into saying everything is all right and that she’ll come and meet Kay and that she doesn’t mind at all.’ ‘I wonder,’ said Mary slowly. Lady Tressilian looked at her sharply. ‘What’s in your mind, my dear?’ ‘I was wondering—’ She stopped, then went on: ‘It—it seems so unlike Nevile—this letter! You don’t think that, for some reason, Audrey wants this—this meeting?’ ‘Why should she?’ said Lady Tressilian sharply. ‘After Nevile left her she went to her aunt, Mrs Royde, at the Rectory, and had a complete breakdown. She was absolutely like a ghost of her former self. Obviously it hit her terribly hard. She’s one of those quiet self-contained people who feel things intensely.’ Mary moved uneasily. ‘Yes, she is intense. A queer girl in many ways …’ ‘She suffered a lot … Then the divorce went through and Nevile married the girl, and little by little Audrey began to get over it. Now she’s almost back to her old self. You can’t tell me she wants to rake up old memories again?’ Mary said with gentle obstinacy: ‘Nevile says she does.’ The old lady looked at her curiously. ‘You’re extraordinarily obstinate about this, Mary. Why? Do you want to have them here together?’ Mary Aldin flushed. ‘No, of course not.’ Lady Tressilian said sharply: ‘It’s not you who have been suggesting all this to Nevile?’ ‘How can you be so absurd?’ ‘Well, I don’t believe for a minute it’s really his idea. It’s not like Nevile.’ She paused a minute, then her face cleared. ‘It’s the 1st of May tomorrow, isn’t it? Well, on the 3rd Audrey is coming to stay with the Darlingtons at Esbank. It’s only twenty miles away. Write and ask her to come over and lunch here.’ May 5th ‘Mrs Strange, m’lady.’ Audrey Strange came into the big bedroom, crossed the room to the big bed, stooped down and kissed the old lady and sat down in the chair placed ready for her. ‘Nice to see you, my dear,’ said Lady Tressilian. ‘And nice to see you,’ said Audrey. There was a quality of intangibility about Audrey Strange. She was of medium height with very small hands and feet. Her hair was ash-blonde and there was very little colour in her face. Her eyes were set wide apart and were a clear pale grey. Her features were small and regular, a straight little nose set in a small oval pale face. With such colouring, with a face that was pretty but not beautiful, she had nevertheless a quality about her that could not be denied nor ignored and that drew your eyes to her again and again. She was a little like a ghost, but you felt at the same time that a ghost might be possessed of more reality than a live human being … She had a singularly lovely voice; soft and clear like a small silver bell. For some minutes she and the old lady talked of mutual friends and current events. Then Lady Tressilian said: ‘Besides the pleasure of seeing you, my dear, I asked you to come because I’ve had rather a curious letter from Nevile.’ Audrey looked up. Her eyes were wide, tranquil and calm. She said: ‘Oh yes?’ ‘He suggests—a preposterous suggestion, I call it!—that he and—and Kay should come here in September. He says he wants you and Kay to be friends and that you yourself think it a good idea?’ She waited. Presently Audrey said in her gentle placid voice: ‘Is it—so preposterous?’ ‘My dear—do you really want this to happen?’ Audrey was silent again for a minute or two, then she said gently: ‘I think, you know, it might be rather a good thing.’ ‘You really want to meet this—you want to meet Kay?’ ‘I do think, Camilla, that it might—simplify things.’ ‘Simplify things!’ Lady Tressilian repeated the words helplessly. Audrey spoke very softly. ‘Dear Camilla. You have been so good. If Nevile wants this—’ ‘A fig for what Nevile wants!’ said Lady Tressilian robustly. ‘Do you want it, that’s the question?’ A little colour came in Audrey’s cheeks. It was the soft delicate glow of a sea shell. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I do want it.’ ‘Well,’ said Lady Tressilian. ‘Well—’ She stopped. ‘But, of course,’ said Audrey. ‘It is entirely your choice. It is your house and—’ Lady Tressilian shut her eyes. ‘I’m an old woman,’ she said. ‘Nothing makes sense any more.’ ‘But of course—I’ll come some other time. Any time will suit me.’ ‘You’ll come in September as you always do,’ snapped Lady Tressilian. ‘And Nevile and Kay shall come too. I may be old but I can adapt myself, I suppose, as well as anyone else, to the changing phases of modern life. Not another word, that’s settled.’ She closed her eyes again. After a minute or two she said, peering through half-shut lids at the young woman sitting beside her: ‘Well, got what you want?’ Audrey started. ‘Oh, yes, yes. Thank you.’ ‘My dear,’ said Lady Tressilian, and her voice was deep and concerned, ‘are you sure this isn’t going to hurt you? You were very fond of Nevile, you know. This may reopen old wounds.’ Audrey was looking down at her small gloved hands. One of them, Lady Tressilian noticed, was clenched on the side of the bed. Audrey lifted her head. Her eyes were calm and untroubled. She said: ‘All that is quite over now. Quite over.’ Lady Tressilian leaned more heavily back on her pillows. ‘Well—you should know. I’m tired—you must leave me now, dear. Mary is waiting for you downstairs. Tell them to send Barrett to me.’ Barrett was Lady Tressilian’s elderly and devoted maid. She came in to find her mistress lying back with closed eyes. ‘The sooner I’m out of this world the better, Barrett,’ said Lady Tressilian. ‘I don’t understand anything or anyone in it.’ ‘Ah! don’t say that, my lady, you’re tired.’ ‘Yes, I’m tired. Take that eiderdown off my feet and give me a dose of my tonic.’ ‘It’s Mrs Strange coming that’s upset you. A nice lady, but she could do with a tonic, I’d say. Not healthy. Always looks as though she’s seeing things other people don’t see. But she’s got a lot of character. She makes herself felt, as you might say.’ ‘That’s very true, Barrett,’ said Lady Tressilian. ‘Yes, that’s very true.’ ‘And she’s not the kind you forget easily, either. I’ve often wondered if Mr Nevile thinks about her sometimes. The new Mrs Strange is very handsome—very handsome indeed—but Miss Audrey is the kind you remember when she isn’t there.’ Lady Tressilian said with a sudden chuckle: ‘Nevile’s a fool to want to bring those two women together. He’s the one who’ll be sorry for it!’ May 29th Thomas Royde, pipe in mouth, was surveying the progress of his packing with which the deft-fingered Malayan No 1 boy was busy. Occasionally his glance shifted to the view over the plantations. For some six months he would not see that view which had been so familiar for the past seven years. It would be queer to be in England again. Allen Drake, his partner, looked in. ‘Hullo, Thomas, how goes it?’ ‘All set now.’ ‘Come and have a drink, you lucky devil. I’m consumed with envy.’ Thomas Royde moved slowly out of the bedroom and joined his friend. He did not speak, for Thomas Royde was a man singularly economical of words. His friends had learned to gauge his reactions correctly from the quality of his silences. A rather thickset figure, with a straight solemn face and observant thoughtful eyes, he walked a little sideways, crablike. This, the result of being jammed in a door during an earthquake, had contributed towards his nickname of the Hermit Crab. It had left his right arm and shoulder partially helpless which, added to an artificial stiffness of gait, often led people to think he was feeling shy and awkward when in reality he seldom felt anything of the kind. Allen Drake mixed the drinks. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘Good hunting!’ Royde said something that sounded like ‘Ah hum.’ Drake looked at him curiously. ‘Phlegmatic as ever,’ he remarked. ‘Don’t know how you manage it. How long is it since you went home?’ ‘Seven years—nearer eight.’ ‘It’s a long time. Wonder you haven’t gone completely native.’ ‘Perhaps I have.’ ‘You always did belong to Our Dumb Friends rather than to the human race! Planned out your leave?’ ‘Well—yes—partly.’ The bronze impassive face took a sudden and a deeper brick-red tinge. Allen Drake said with lively astonishment: ‘I believe there’s a girl! Damn it all, you are blushing!’ Thomas Royde said rather huskily: ‘Don’t be a fool!’ And he drew very hard on his ancient pipe. He broke all previous records by continuing the conversation himself. ‘Dare say,’ he said, ‘I shall find things a bit changed.’ Allen Drake said curiously: ‘I’ve always wondered why you chucked going home last time. Right at the last minute, too.’ Royde shrugged his shoulders. ‘Thought that shooting trip might be interesting. Bad news from home about then.’ ‘Of course. I forgot. Your brother was killed—in that motoring accident.’ Thomas Royde nodded. Drake reflected that, all the same, it seemed a curious reason for putting off a journey home. There was a mother—he believed a sister also. Surely at such a time—then he remembered something. Thomas had cancelled his passage before the news of his brother’s death arrived. Allen looked at his friend curiously. Dark horse, old Thomas! After a lapse of three years he could ask: ‘You and your brother great pals?’ ‘Adrian and I? Not particularly. Each of us always went his own way. He was a barrister.’ ‘Yes,’ thought Drake, ‘a very different life. Chambers in London, parties—a living earned by the shrewd use of the tongue.’ He reflected that Adrian Royde must have been a very different chap from old Silent Thomas. ‘Your mother’s alive, isn’t she?’ ‘The mater? Yes.’ ‘And you’ve got a sister, too.’ Thomas shook his head. ‘Oh, I thought you had. In that snapshot—’ Royde mumbled, ‘Not a sister. Sort of distant cousin or something. Brought up with us because she was an orphan.’ Once more a slow tide of colour suffused the bronzed skin. Drake thought, ‘Hello—o—?’ He said: ‘Is she married?’ ‘She was. Married that fellow Nevile Strange.’ ‘Fellow who plays tennis and racquets and all that?’ ‘Yes. She divorced him.’ ‘And you’re going home to try your luck with her,’ thought Drake. Mercifully he changed the subject of the conversation. ‘Going to get any fishing or shooting?’ ‘Shall go home first. Then I thought of doing a bit of sailing down at Saltcreek.’ ‘I know it. Attractive little place. Rather a decent old-fashioned hotel there.’ ‘Yes. The Balmoral Court. May stay there, or may put up with friends who’ve got a house there.’ ‘Sounds all right to me.’ ‘Ah hum. Nice peaceful place, Saltcreek. Nobody to hustle you.’ ‘I know,’ said Drake. ‘The kind of place where nothing ever happens.’ May 29th ‘It is really most annoying,’ said old Mr Treves. ‘For twenty-five years now I have been to the Marine Hotel at Leahead—and now, would you believe it, the whole place is being pulled down. Widening the front or some nonsense of that kind. Why they can’t let these seaside places alone—Leahead always had a peculiar charm of its own—Regency—pure Regency.’ Rufus Lord said consolingly: ‘Still, there are other places to stay there, I suppose?’ ‘I really don’t feel I can go to Leahead at all. At the Marine, Mrs Mackay understood my requirements perfectly. I had the same rooms every year—and there was hardly ever a change in the service. And the cooking was excellent—quite excellent.’ ‘What about trying Saltcreek? There’s rather a nice old-fashioned hotel there. The Balmoral Court. Tell you who keeps it. Couple of the name of Rogers. She used to be cook to old Lord Mounthead—he had the best dinners in London. She married the butler and they run this hotel now. It sounds to me just your kind of place. Quiet—none of these jazz bands—and first-class cooking and service.’ ‘It’s an idea—it’s certainly an idea. Is there a sheltered terrace?’ ‘Yes—a covered-in verandah and a terrace beyond. You can get sun or shade as you prefer. I can give you some introductions in the neighbourhood, too, if you like. There’s old Lady Tressilian—she lives almost next door. A charming house and she herself is a delightful woman in spite of being very much of an invalid.’ ‘The judge’s widow, do you mean?’ ‘That’s it.’ ‘I used to know Matthew Tressilian, and I think I’ve met her. A charming woman—though, of course, that’s a long time ago. Saltcreek is near St Loo, isn’t it? I’ve several friends in that part of the world. Do you know, I really think Saltcreek is a very good idea. I shall write and get particulars. The middle of August is when I wish to go there—the middle of August to the middle of September. There is a garage for the car, I suppose? And my chauffeur?’ ‘Oh yes. It’s thoroughly up-to-date.’ ‘Because, as you know, I have to be careful about walking uphill. I should prefer rooms on the ground floor, though I suppose there is a lift.’ ‘Oh yes, all that sort of thing.’ ‘It sounds,’ said Mr Treves, ‘as though it would solve my problem perfectly. And I should enjoy renewing my acquaintance with Lady Tressilian.’ July 28th Kay Strange, dressed in shorts and a canary-coloured woolly, was leaning forward watching the tennis players. It was the semi-final of the St Loo tournament, men’s singles, and Nevile was playing young Merrick, who was regarded as the coming star in the tennis firmament. His brilliance was undeniable—some of his serves quite unreturnable—but he occasionally struck a wild patch when the older man’s experience and court crafts won the day. The score was three all in the final set. Slipping on to a seat next to Kay, Ted Latimer observed in a lazy ironic voice: ‘Devoted wife watches her husband slash his way to victory!’ Kay started. ‘How you startled me. I didn’t know you were there.’ ‘I am always there. You should know that by this time.’ Ted Latimer was twenty-five and extremely good-looking. He was dark and beautifully sunburnt and a wonderful dancer. His dark eyes could be very eloquent, and he managed his voice with the assurance of an actor. Kay had known him since she was fifteen. They had oiled and sunned themselves at Juan les Pins, had danced together and played tennis together. They had been not only friends but allies. Young Merrick was serving from the left-hand court. Nevile’s return was unplayable, a superb shot to the extreme corner. ‘Nevile’s backhand is good,’ said Ted. ‘It’s better than his forehand. Merrick’s weak on the backhand and Nevile knows it. He’s going to pound at it all he knows how.’ The game ended. ‘Four three—Strange leads.’ He took the next game on his service. Young Merrick was hitting out wildly. ‘Five three.’ ‘Good for Nevile,’ said Latimer. And then the boy pulled himself together. His play became cautious. He varied the pace of his shots. ‘He’s got a head on him,’ said Ted. ‘And his footwork is first-class. It’s going to be a fight.’ Slowly the boy pulled up to five all. They went to seven all, and Merrick finally won the match at nine seven. Nevile came up to the net, grinning and shaking his head ruefully, to shake hands. ‘Youth tells,’ said Ted Latimer. ‘Nineteen against thirtythree. But I can tell you the reason, Kay, why Nevile has never been actual championship class. He’s too good a loser.’ ‘Nonsense.’ ‘It isn’t. Nevile, blast him, is always the complete good sportsman. I’ve never seen him lose his temper over losing a match.’ ‘Of course not,’ said Kay. ‘People don’t.’ ‘Oh yes, they do! We’ve all seen them. Tennis stars who give way to nerves—and who damn’ well snatch every advantage. But old Nevile—he’s always ready to take the count and grin. Let the best man win and all that. God, how I hate the public school spirit! Thank the Lord I never went to one.’ Kay turned her head. ‘Being rather spiteful, aren’t you?’ ‘Positively feline!’ ‘I wish you wouldn’t make it so clear you don’t like Nevile.’ ‘Why should I like him? He pinched my girl.’ His eyes lingered on her. ‘I wasn’t your girl. Circumstances forbade.’ ‘Quite so. Not even the proverbial tuppence a year between us.’ ‘Shut up. I fell in love with Nevile and married him—’ ‘And he’s a jolly good fellow—and so say all of us!’ ‘Are you trying to annoy me?’ She turned her head as she asked the question. He smiled—and presently she returned his smile. ‘How’s the summer going, Kay?’ ‘So, so. Lovely yachting trip. I’m rather tired of all this tennis business.’ ‘How long have you got of it? Another month?’ ‘Yes. Then in September we go to Gull’s Point for a fortnight.’ ‘I shall be at the Easterhead Bay Hotel,’ said Ted. ‘I’ve booked my room.’ ‘It’s going to be a lovely party!’ said Kay. ‘Nevile and I, and Nevile’s Ex, and some Malayan planter who’s home on leave.’ ‘That does sound hilarious!’ ‘And the dowdy cousin, of course. Slaving away round that unpleasant old woman—and she won’t get anything for it, either, since the money comes to me and Nevile.’ ‘Perhaps,’ said Ted, ‘she doesn’t know that?’ ‘That would be rather funny,’ said Kay. But she spoke absently. She stared down at the racquet she was twiddling in her hands. She caught her breath suddenly. ‘Oh Ted!’ ‘What’s the matter, sugar?’ ‘I don’t know. It’s just sometimes I get—I get cold feet! I get scared and feel queer.’ ‘That doesn’t sound like you, Kay.’ ‘It doesn’t, does it? Anyway,’ she smiled rather uncertainly, ‘you’ll be at the Easterhead Bay Hotel.’ ‘All according to plan.’ When Kay met Nevile outside the changing rooms, he said: ‘I see the boy friend’s arrived.’ ‘Ted?’ ‘Yes, the faithful dog—or faithful lizard might be more apt.’ ‘You don’t like him, do you?’ ‘Oh, I don’t mind him. If it amuses you to pull him around on a string—’ He shrugged his shoulders. Kay said: ‘I believe you’re jealous.’ ‘Of Latimer?’ His surprise was genuine. Kay said: ‘Ted’s supposed to be very attractive.’ ‘I’m sure he is. He has that lithe South American charm.’ ‘You are jealous.’ Nevile gave her arm a friendly squeeze. ‘No, I’m not, Gorgeous. You can have your tame adorers—a whole court of them if you like. I’m the man in possession, and possession is nine points of the law.’ ‘You’re very sure of yourself,’ said Kay with a slight pout. ‘Of course. You and I are Fate. Fate let us meet. Fate brought us together. Do you remember when we met at Cannes and I was going on to Estoril and suddenly, when I got there, the first person I met was lovely Kay! I knew then that it was Fate—and that I couldn’t escape.’ ‘It wasn’t exactly Fate,’ Kay said. ‘It was me!’ ‘What do you mean by “it was me”?’ ‘Because it was! You see, I heard you say at Cannes you were going to Estoril, so I set to work on Mums and got her all worked up—and that’s why the first person you saw when you got there was Kay.’ Nevile looked at her with a rather curious expression. He said slowly: ‘You never told me that before.’ ‘No, because it wouldn’t have been good for you. It might have made you conceited! But I always have been good at planning. Things don’t happen unless you make them! You call me a nitwit sometimes—but in my own way I’m quite clever. I make things happen. Sometimes I have to plan a long way beforehand.’ ‘The brainwork must be intense.’ ‘It’s all very well to laugh.’ Nevile said with a sudden curious bitterness: ‘Am I just beginning to understand the woman I’ve married? For Fate—read Kay!’ Kay said: ‘You’re not cross, are you, Nevile?’ He said rather absently: ‘No—no, of course not. I was just—thinking …’ August 10th Lord Cornelly, that rich and eccentric peer, was sitting at the monumental desk which was his especial pride and pleasure. It had been designed for him at immense expense and the whole furnishing of the room was subordinated to it. The effect was terrific and only slightly marred by the unavoidable addition of Lord Cornelly himself, an insignificant and rotund little man completely dwarfed by the desk’s magnificence. Into this scene of City splendour there entered a blonde secretary, also in harmony with the luxury furnishings. Gliding silently across the floor, she laid a slip of paper before the great man. Lord Cornelly peered down at it. ‘MacWhirter? MacWhirter? Who’s he? Never heard of him. Has he got an appointment?’ The blonde secretary indicated that such was the case. ‘MacWhirter, eh? Oh! MacWhirter! That fellow! Of course! Send him in. Send him in at once.’ Lord Cornelly chuckled gleefully. He was in high good-humour. Throwing himself back in his chair, he stared up into the dour unsmiling face of the man he had summoned to an interview. ‘You’re MacWhirter, eh? Angus MacWhirter?’ ‘That’s my name.’ MacWhirter spoke stiffly, standing erect and unsmiling. ‘You were with Herbert Clay? That’s right, isn’t it?’ ‘Yes.’ Lord Cornelly began to chuckle again. ‘I know all about you. Clay got his driving-licence endorsed, all because you wouldn’t back him up and swear he was going at twenty miles an hour! Livid about it he was!’ The chuckle increased. ‘Told us all about it in the Savoy Grill. “That damned pigheaded Scot!” That’s what he said! Went on and on. D’you know what I was thinking?’ ‘I’ve not the least idea.’ MacWhirter’s tone was repressive. Lord Cornelly took no notice. He was enjoying his remembrance of his own reactions. ‘I thought to myself: “That’s the kind of chap I could do with! Man who can’t be bribed to tell lies.” You won’t have to tell lies for me. I don’t do my business that way. I go about the world looking for honest men—and there are damned few of them!’ The little peer cackled with shrill laughter, his shrewd monkey-like face wrinkled with mirth. MacWhirter stood solidly, not amused. Lord Cornelly stopped laughing. His face became shrewd, alert. ‘If you want a job, MacWhirter, I’ve got one for you.’ ‘I could do with a job,’ said MacWhirter. ‘It’s an important job. It’s a job that can only be given to a man with good qualifications—you’ve got those all right—I’ve been into that—and to a man who can be trusted—absolutely.’ Lord Cornelly waited. MacWhirter did not speak. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. 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