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Chapter Twenty-Five

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« on: July 16, 2023, 07:59:24 am »

SARAH had come to the end of being able to think. It was too much effort. It hurt too much, and it wasn’t worth while. It was as if everything she knew and lived by had sustained so severe a wrench that the planes had been broken up and all the channels along which thought had been wont to run were twisted and turned out of course. There was a picture in her mind of the wreckage of a house after a bomb explosion. It was something she had seen in a film, and it came back now, black and distinct---roof fallen in and walls at a crazy slant, a tangle of wires and pipes like torn muscles and broken bones, one whole floor wrenched from its place and sent driving down to batter the foundations. And over it all a film of smoke, and tongues of fire licking the ruins of what had been a home.

A horrible picture. It stayed there in her mind.

Joanna Cattermole came in trailing her black velvet, wrapped in her blue and silver scarf. Her light hair was floating wildly and there was colour in her cheeks. She shivered as she took the sofa corner by the fire, but the hand she laid on Sarah’s was burning hot and dry.

“Just now,” she said, “after you went upstairs---he came through. Such a lovely message! Mr. Brown came and sat down beside me. I am afraid he is rather a sceptic about planchette, but he was most kind, and as soon as he put his fingers on the board it began to move. It is like that sometimes, you know---a fresh person coming in. I believe one may be too intent, too anxious to get results, instead of being merely the vehicle. Now Mr. Brown has of course no personal interest, and we got such a lovely message, and written so plainly that there couldn’t be any mistake about it at all---not like some of the times when one has really just had to guess. Look---I have kept the paper to show you!”

She laid the sheet on Sarah’s knee. In a bold, legible scrawl were the words, “I only think of you---you are my guiding star.” Joanna gazed at them in an ecstasy.

“So then I said, ‘Who is it? Are you Nathaniel?’ And look---there’s the answer, ‘Nat to you’! So then I thought I would ask him about the colours---whether it mattered my not having brought anything purple with me. I asked Mr. Brown if he thought I could, and he said, ‘Why not---why not?’---really in the very kindest voice. So then I did. And look what he wrote!”

At the bottom of the sheet the same scrawl proclaimed, “Green’s forsaken, yellow’s forsworn, blue is the luckiest colour that’s worn---all poppycock about purple.”

“Such a relief,” said Miss Joanna---“and so very, very kind of him to set my mind at rest. My dear, is anything wrong? You look pale. Or is it the light?”

Sarah said, “The light---it’s a ghastly light.”

She put up a hand and rubbed her cheeks until they burned. Then she remembered that she was to look pale, and have a headache and go to bed. But not now---oh, no, not now. Because that would all be part of the plot. It was part of the plot that she should be frightened, and that Wickham should pretend to save her. She heard Morgan’s odious voice again, “Trust your John!” and Morgan’s odious laugh. She heard John Wickham say, “Oh, easily,” and she burned through and through with shame. She had come so very near to trusting him. The black picture of wreckage stood out---all black, all spoiled, all twisted.

The Reverend Peter Brown came in, large, shapeless, and untidy in the baggy old clothes which were his only wear. Wilson Cattermole followed him, hair brushed to a halo, hands newly washed and smelling of lavender soap. A black velvet smoking-jacket replaced the coat he had worn all day. Sarah watched to see Morgan follow him, but no one came.

The gong sounded, and they crossed the hall to the dining-room. But as soon as she sat down Joanna discovered the loss of her handkerchief.

“If you would be so kind, Sarah---I think just on the sofa where I was sitting----”

It was an accustomed errand. Joanna hardly ever managed to move from one room to another without leaving something behind her. Sarah, nearest the door, turned back almost before the request had been made. She was glad of the respite. She went back into the drawing-room, picked up the handkerchief from where it had fallen, and turned with it in her hand.

John Wickham stood just inside the door. His hand went out behind him and pushed it to. His eyes went from the handkerchief to her face. They smiled into hers. He said, “You’re coming----”

Sarah said nothing then. She crossed the room as if she had not seen him, her eyes wide and fixed, the colour burning in her cheeks, her lips dumb and stiff. He thought she looked as if she were walking in some remote and tragic dream. Not his dream---he had no part in it.

And then she stopped. He was between her and the door. She wouldn’t touch him. Her hand just stirred and fell again to her side. The stiff lips moved and said from a long way off, “Let me pass.”

“Sarah---what’s happened? You’re coming?”

“No.”

“But the handkerchief----”

“It is Miss Cattermole’s. I’m not coming.” The words had a slow distinctness which was not like natural speech.

There leapt into his mind the possibility that she had been drugged. He put a hand on her arm and felt her shudder and stiffen against his touch.

“Sarah---what is it? What’s happened? Look here, I’ve got to get us both out of here tonight. I’ve run it as fine as I dare. There’s a man coming down here tomorrow who’ll know me---he’s the fellow who stabbed me in the train. If he sees me, the game’s up. And there’s nothing to stay for if you’ve got the papers. Bring them down here as soon as they get going with their séance, and I’ll get you away. You’ll come?”

She said, “No,” snatched at the handle, and got the door open. There was a moment when he kept his hold of her arm. Then his hand dropped and he stood aside.

Sarah ran from him across the hall.

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