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Chapter Twenty-Three

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« on: July 16, 2023, 07:08:23 am »

THE evening wore slowly on. The two men remained closeted in Mr. Brown’s den. Sarah hoped earnestly that they were finding the day as interminable as she was. She could not even set the clock back sixty years and pursue the fortunes of the Underwood family, because Miss Cattermole wanted to talk, and of all things in the world, what did she want to talk about but dearest Morgan?

“He was such a clever little boy. And so pretty too, with his fair hair done in ringlets and a white sailor suit for Sundays. My dear mother was so proud of her twins. I was three years older, though I don’t suppose anyone would think so now. And I was called after my father’s sister Jane, only my mother thought it such a very ugly name that she turned it into Joanna for me. And Aunt Jane must have been annoyed, because though she didn’t say anything about it at the time, when she died, which was not till thirty years later, it came out that she had left all her money to found scholarships for girls who had been baptized Jane. So it all went out of the family, and my father was terribly put about. Names are so very difficult, don’t you think? My mother was a Miss Wilson, so of course it was quite all right for her to give the name to one of the twins. It used to vex her terribly if anyone turned it into Willie, but of course they did. People will do that sort of thing. I remember being called Jo at school, and how angry it made her. But Morgan was called after my father’s great friend Samuel Morgan. They were quite like brothers, and my mother said if she was asked to have a child called Samuel she had only one answer to give and that was no, so they called him Morgan. It wasn’t any use arguing with my mother, because she never changed her mind, and if she said anything, that was the way it had to be---even my father knew that. Such a strong, determined character, but he always let my mother have her way. It felt so strange, you know, my dear, when they were gone, because I had always lived at home and had no say in anything, and if Wilson had not let me come and live with him, I really don’t know what I should have done. You see, I have always had someone to tell me what to do, and it is very difficult to get into new ways when you are as old as I am.”

Sarah felt a sudden compunction. Under the foolish, fitful, elderly ways there was this child who had never been allowed to grow up. She patted the thin elderly hand and said, “Yes, I know---I was only twelve when my father and mother died.”

“I never get any messages from them---don’t you think that is strange? But you don’t believe in the messages, do you? Morgan doesn’t believe in them either---he never did. Dear Morgan---it was such a pleasure to see him again. He has such high spirits---so full of fun. Why, when he was a little boy---you wouldn’t believe the tricks he used to play on everyone, and never the least bit afraid, not even of my father, though the rest of us were, dreadfully. I remember his balancing a very heavy dictionary on the top of the study door so that it came down on my father’s head. He was quite bald, and the edge of the book cut him right across the scalp. Oh dear---he was so angry, and the more Morgan laughed, the angrier he was. It was just his high spirits, but of course my father might have been very seriously hurt. And another time when Aunt Jane was staying with us he set a booby-trap for her with a jug of cold water---one of those very large china jugs with a big flowery pattern all over it---and besides quite soaking Aunt Jane---she was in bed for two days afterwards---the jug was broken to bits, and as it was part of a double set which belonged to the spare room, my mother was dreadfully put out, and Morgan was most severely punished. Nothing would stop him playing practical jokes---so high-spirited, and such a sense of humour.”

Things are seldom so bad that they mightn’t be worse. Sarah took comfort from the thought that she had never had to be a visitor in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Cattermole in the playful days of Morgan’s childhood. No wonder Aunt Jane had left her money to found scholarships.

“Now Wilson,” said Joanna---“Wilson was always such a studious little boy----”

As if he had heard his name, Mr. Cattermole came into the room with the Reverend Peter Brown behind him.

Presently Sarah slipped away and went upstairs. It was bitterly cold there, but she wanted to be alone, and she wanted to think. It had been snowing now for at least four hours, and there was still no sign of Henry Templar. Of course he might not have noticed the snow at once---you don’t take all that notice of the weather in London. On a gloomy afternoon with the lights on, the snow might have been coming down for an hour or two before he gave it a thought, and even then it might not occur to him at once that it would make the ice-bound roads passable again. He might be at a cinema or a concert, or he might be at his club. With the roads as they were it would take him a good two hours to do the forty miles, and if he didn’t get off till after dark it might take him a good deal longer than that. It was now getting on for seven o’clock, and the snow had started before three.

She stamped her foot on the top step, and heard Wickham say, “What’s that for?”

The voice startled her. She hated dusky landings with wall-lamps which gave only just enough light to see how dark it was. She looked about for Wickham and couldn’t find him. Then he came out of Mr. Cattermole’s room and right up to her, and dropped his hands on her shoulders.

“Are you coming?”

She said, “How can I?”

“Quite easily. Look pale at dinner and don’t eat---say you’ve got a headache and go to bed. When the others have pushed off to their séance in the haunted wing, get up and go down to the drawing-room. I’ll meet you there and take you out to the car. It’s as simple as mud.”

It was beautifully simple. It was quite impossible. Called upon to give a reason to herself for this impossibility, she found a useful set of conventions ready to her hand. She couldn’t leave her job at a moment’s notice and on what amounted to no provocation at all. She couldn’t run away and leave Joanna who had been kind to her. She couldn’t run away when she had asked Henry to come down and he might be here at any moment.

She lifted her eyes to the face she could only just see. It was very near her own. His hands were hard upon her. And all at once she wanted quite dreadfully to go with him. The house frightened her, the Grimsbys frightened her. It was the sort of house where anything might happen---things you didn’t believe in. There was a feeling of things like this asleep in the dark, ready to stir, and uncoil themselves, and pounce out of their hidden secret place. It came, and was gone again between one caught breath and the next. If it had lasted any longer, her hands would have gone up to catch at his, and the words which trembled in her mind would have come tumbling from her lips---“Take me away---take me anywhere you like! Oh, for God’s sake take me away!”

Thank goodness she had come back to her senses in time. She drew a long breath and said, “I’m afraid it can’t be done. I couldn’t just go off like that.”

“Why couldn’t you?”

“I couldn’t leave Miss Cattermole---or my job---there’s no real reason----”

He said in a harsher whisper than she would have thought possible, “If you’re counting on Henry Templar, you needn’t. He won’t come.”

“What do you mean?”

She tried to step back, but he held her.

“I said you weren’t a fool, but you’re new to this game. Did you really think he’d let you post a letter?”

Something ran through her like ice. It numbed her.

“But I saw you post it.”

“No, you didn’t. He got out of the car and came after me with a letter of his own---I expect he had it all ready just in case. And that’s what you saw me post.”

Her throat felt quite stiff, and her lips too. She had to try twice before she could get them to say, “But my letter---what happened to my letter?”

That harsh, exasperated whisper so near her, and his hands so heavy.

“Sarah, you are a fool! He took it back of course---said it was a mistake and you didn’t want it posted after all. He had his back to the car, and he just put it in his pocket and gave me his own letter instead. So it’s no good counting on Henry Templar, who isn’t within forty miles of knowing where you’ve got to.”

“Is that true?”

“Gospel.”

She said very low, “Let me go---I must think---I don’t know what to do. Please let me go.”

“In a moment. But we’ve got to get this fixed.”

“I’ve got to think.”

“All right, you can have till dinner, but I must know then. If it’s yes, keep your handkerchief in your hand when you come downstairs, and I’ll meet you like I said. Better make it yes, Sarah.”

He let go of her suddenly as a door opened below. She ran into her room in the dark and sat down on the bed. She felt as if she had run a long way. She was shaking, and the dark room shook round her. She had the most horrible feeling that the floor was tilting with her, and that presently she, and the bed, and all the other furniture would go sliding down into a black gulf and be swallowed up.

It didn’t last for long. If it had, she would not have been able to keep herself from running after Wickham and begging him to take her away, and then she would never have been able to look herself in the face again.

She got up from the bed, felt her way to the dressing-table, and lighted the candles which stood one on either side of the tall mahogany looking-glass in white china candlesticks bordered with apple green. The candlesticks were part of a set. There was a tray, four china boxes, and a ring-stand like a little tree with jutting branches, all in the same shiny white and green.

Sarah looked between the candles and saw her own face pale against the dark background of the room. She stayed there looking at herself, as if this Sarah in the glass could tell her what to do, but it wasn’t any good.

She went back to the bed and tried to think. If Henry wasn’t coming, it altered everything. She had not really known how much she had been counting on him until she learned that he had never had her letter. Always at the back of her mind there had been the comfortable feeling that Henry knew where she was. Now nobody knew. She had just been whisked off the map and spirited away. She remembered how they had run through Hedgeley and out on the far side and then turned off into lanes and taken a roundabout way back again. She had thought it odd at the time, but now it wasn’t odd any more. It was part of a plan. If the police were looking for Sarah Marlowe---and they very well might be by now---they would trace her to Hedgeley, and the porter at the George and the mechanics in the garage opposite would all be quite sure that they had driven right on through the town and out on the north-east side. It had been quite dark when they passed through the street coming back.

And right there and then Sarah felt how convenient that darkness was for people who wanted to cover their tracks. It was so convenient that she wondered if it had not been planned. Sarah Marlowe had to be got away from town before she could see a paper and communicate with the police. But she mustn’t arrive at Maltings until it was too dark for anyone to see when and where the car left the road. In other words, a forty mile drive had to be made to last for eight or nine hours. Obviously something had to go wrong with the car, and obviously something had gone wrong. Where, then, was John Wickham in all this? Very difficult to suppose that he hadn’t been in it at all. Almost impossible to believe that the exact amount of delay could have been forthcoming without his being in it up to the hilt. Then why turn round now and offer to get her away?

There was a horrifying answer to this. She had told him that she had removed the papers from the oiled-silk packet. She must have been mad. But she had told him, and he would guess that she hadn’t left them in town. She hadn’t told him that, but he would guess. Because of course her room and the whole of the house in town would be ransacked. She couldn’t possibly have found a place where she could be sure that they would be safe. No, he would guess that she had them on her, and if he could get her to go away with him---Her thought broke off.

It was a good argument, but it wasn’t a sound one. There was something wrong with it. It was extraordinarily difficult to believe that someone you had seen every day for months was a criminal. Even if you knew that he had been in prison.

She turned away from John Wickham and began to think about the Cattermoles and the Reverend Peter Brown. This was easier in one way and more difficult in another. It was easier because for some reason she was able to give them a more dispassionate consideration. They had not, so far at any rate, dripped blood upon her carpet or fainted on her hands. But all the same it was difficult to associate such an unusual thing as crime with a benevolent if fussy employer, or with a parson who was writing a book on folk-lore. If it hadn’t been for the Grimsbys she couldn’t have done it. But it was only too easy to believe that the Grimsbys were no better than they should be, and having got as far as that, it was hard to understand why a respectable parson should employ them---only of course he might be a really noble parson with an urge to give criminals a second chance. It really was very difficult indeed. Above and beyond all argument was the fact that John Wickham had been stabbed and Emily Case murdered for papers now in the possession of Sarah Marlowe, and that under Wilson Cattermole’s roof Sarah Marlowe’s room had been searched and an envelope, which was fortunately not the right one, had been taken from her drawer, probably by Wilson’s brother. On the top of that, and in all probability upon finding out that the stolen envelope contained nothing but some blank pieces of foolscap, the telephone had gone out of order, the newspapers had disappeared, and Sarah had been whisked off the map.

These were facts. She contemplated them, and let herself feel instead of think. Much easier this way. Thought flowed strongly and deep. She wanted to get away. She never wanted to see Maltings again. She wanted to put miles between her and the Grimsbys. She didn’t care how many banks John Wickham had robbed.

All at once she felt quite calm and settled in her mind. She put all her things into her suit-case and locked it, and then remembered that she was supposed to be going to bed with a headache. Perhaps better leave her pyjamas on the bed, and her dressing-gown and her slippers where they would catch an enquiring eye. It really wouldn’t take her a minute to pack when they had all gone off to the haunted wing.

When she had washed in some icy cold water, she did her hair again and paid a good deal of attention to her face. But just as she thought it was looking rather nice she remembered about the headache, so the lipstick had to come off. She must have smudges under her eyes and be pale enough to make bed seem reasonable. When she had produced the required effect she made a face at it. Without colour and bloom she thought Sarah Marlowe a very plain Jane. But she did look ill.

She took her largest handkerchief, shook it out, and went downstairs, letting it hang conspicuously against her dark brown skirt.

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