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Chapter Twenty-Four

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« on: July 16, 2023, 07:41:13 am »

HALF way down the stairs Sarah paused. From where she stood she could see the drawing-room door slanting open. That meant the room was empty. She went back a step or two until she could see the door of Miss Cattermole’s room---a dark closed door with a line of light at the foot where the passing steps of ten generations had worn the threshold down.

Joanna was obviously dressing. Sarah wondered whether she would consider black velvet or blue the correct attire for a séance in a haunted wing. She herself had nothing but what she stood up in, owing to the raging hurry in which Wilson had swept her from his house.

Though her head was not much above floor level, she could see the whole of the landing. The other two doors were open and the rooms behind them without fire or candle-light. The entrance to the passage which led to Wickham’s room and the haunted wing came into the picture as a very black shadow like the dark mouth of a cave. Nobody moved, or breathed, or stirred in the darkness.

She went slowly on down the stairs into the hall. There was no one there. The drawing-room was empty, and the dining-room too.

She moved along the hall towards the den, not with any idea of joining Mr. Cattermole and the Reverend Peter, but because she wanted to know whether they were there or not. If they were, and she heard their voices, she would know from what direction to expect them. Then if Wickham came. . . . Absurd really, because she wasn’t going to exchange a single word with him---why should she? She was only going to let him see the handkerchief in her hand. But all the same she just had the feeling that she would like to know where everyone was, and then if there were anything he wanted to say to her---- But of course there wouldn’t be. Why should there?

She was still some way from the door, when she heard the sound of voices. This surprised her a good deal, because the doors and walls at Maltings were all so heavy and thick. And then in a minute she discovered why she could hear so plainly. The door was not quite shut, and she remembered that the catch had sprung last night.

Well, there it was now, not really ajar but free of the catch---free to be pushed ajar if anyone wanted to listen to what was going on in the room.

All at once Sarah knew that this was what she was going to do. It was an Opportunity with a capital O, and if she threw it away it would never come back again. Opportunity never knocks twice at any man’s door. Where had she heard that? This was Opportunity’s door, and she wasn’t going to knock on it, she was going to give it the most attenuated ghost of a push---not enough to let a draught in or the lamplight out, but enough to allow Sarah Marlowe’s very sharp ears to catch what was being said between host and guest.

Not a very nice thing to do, but then kidnapping and stabbing and murdering are not nice things. Tinkler would be shocked. Would she? Sarah wasn’t really very sure. Her own conscience was entirely quiescent as she put the tip of her forefinger upon the panel above the latch and just moved the door. There was now a crack about a quarter of an inch wide between it and the jamb. She heard Mr. Brown say in his deep, booming voice, “She’s got them, and she’s got them with her. Where else could they be?”

And hard on that John Wickham, very cool: “You say she lunched with Templar. Suppose she gave him the papers then?”

There was a laugh Sarah knew, loud, hearty, and vulgar---Morgan Cattermole’s laugh.

“Because we shouldn’t be sitting here if she had---that’s why. The police would have been on to her before you could say knife if she’d really spilled the beans. No, she’s got the papers on her---that’s what I say. They’re not in her room in town or anywhere else in the house, and they’re not in her room down here, so if she hasn’t got ’em on her, where are they?”

Sarah felt quite dizzy with the shock. Morgan here---and closeted with Wickham who only an hour or two ago had professed entire ignorance of his existence!

“Dope in the coffee,” said the Reverend Peter Brown cheerfully. “If you’d let me do it last night, she’d have been searched by now and none the wiser. Do it tonight, and we’ll know where we are.”

Wickham’s voice again---such a quiet, pleasant voice:

“And what then? Suppose you get the papers---you don’t know how much she’s read or understood. I gather they’re fairly compromising.”

She heard Mr. Brown take a sucking pull at his pipe. He said, “Not necessarily. She wouldn’t make much of them.”

“She’d connect them with Emily Case,” said Morgan Cattermole. “That’s the snag. It isn’t the lists that matter, but what the Case woman may have said to her, and the fact that she’s bound to link them up with the murder. No, I wouldn’t dope her tonight. There’s time enough for that. What we’ve got to do is to find out what she knows---make her talk. Scare her stiff, and she’ll talk all right. That’s the plan---rattle her, get her on the run, and then in comes Wickham to say his piece---‘Let me take you away from this horrible place, my darling. Trust your John, and he will save you.’ I tell you it’s a cinch! Good as a play---what?” He broke into his uncontrolled laugh again.

All the blood in Sarah’s body seemed to have gone cold and heavy in her veins. She did not think that she could move. But she must move. She must get away.

She heard the Reverend Peter say in a meditative tone, “Yes---it might do the trick. What about it, young man---feel like taking it on? Can you do your stuff?”

John Wickham said, “Oh, easily.”

She could tell from his voice that he was smiling. Of the three he was the nearest to the door. He was so near that there was not much more than the thickness of the panel between them. The thought sickened her to the very core of her heart. Her inability to move became an inability to stay. She turned from the door and groped her way along the wall to the drawing-room. She was so sick and faint that she felt as if she must fall. She mustn’t fall.

She reached the drawing-room. She reached the sofa corner and sat down there.

A pale, prim room in the lamplight. A wood fire burning cheerfully. In the next room three men talking about a woman they had murdered and a girl they were going to betray.

The girl was Sarah Marlowe.

The handkerchief was still in her hand. She pushed it up her sleeve and out of sight.

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