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Chapter Thirty-One

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Author Topic: Chapter Thirty-One  (Read 32 times)
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« on: July 16, 2023, 12:06:15 pm »

THERE was a light in the room, a candle set on the mantelshelf. They looked at each other. Sarah said, “And now what?”

“Down the back stairs and out into the yard---if we can make it.”

“Why shouldn’t we make it?”

“We have to pass the kitchen door. It’s always open.”

She shook her head impatiently.

“Some other way then.”

“Do you fancy the front stairs? I don’t.”

“Isn’t there a way down through there---where we’ve just come from? There must be.”

Wickham laughed.

“There is. The door at the bottom is locked and Grimsby keeps the key. It’s the back stairs or nothing. Don’t worry---I’ll get you out.”

The words came and went between them quick and low. And hard on that the sound they had heard in this same room the night before---a heavy step in the passage. At the first sound of it Sarah ran past him to the window. The idea of being shut in the cupboard filled her with horror. To be bundled in there with all those stuffy dresses, caught there perhaps, and dragged out if Wickham gave her away---no, and no, and no!

She ran to the window and got behind the curtains. They were old and heavy---serge lined with something smooth and cold to the touch. They were the colour of badly cooked spinach. She stood behind them and thanked heaven the window was shut. Even so, the cold from the glass beat against her back. She could feel it right through her fur coat, and the smell of the serge, a really horrible smell of dust and dye, came up in her throat and nose and made her want to sneeze. If she did, it wouldn’t need Wickham to give her away. She pinched her nose hard.

And then she stopped wanting to sneeze. Mr. Brown was in the room, and at the sound of his voice she forgot everything except that she must hear what he was going to say.

He came in, and he shut the door, and he said in the voice that would sound hearty however he kept it down or whatever abominable thing he was saying,

“Where the devil have you been?”

Wickham said, “I didn’t know you’d be wanting me.”

The Reverend Peter went on.

“Well, I’m wanting you now. The girl’s in there, locked up in the haunted room, and if she isn’t screaming her head off, it’ll be because she’s passed out. So there’s your chance. I’ll show you the way and clear off, then you cut in and play the rescuing hero. If you don’t get her arms round your neck, I’m a Dutchman. The whole thing went with a bang, and there won’t be much stuffing left in her. Promise to get her away and she’ll eat out of your hand. Come along with you!”

Anger rushed through Sarah with so much heat that she quite stopped feeling the draught at her back. And the fiercest glow came from the shaming fact that she had done exactly what that revolting parson had expected her to do---and worse. She had not only thrown her arms round John Wickham’s neck, but she had clung to him and kissed him. It was one of those incredible things which make you feel you are in some horrible dream, and that presently you will wake up and find that it has never happened.

She heard Wickham laugh, and she heard them go out of the room together and shut the door. There was no time to be angry---she had got to do something. He would be back in a minute. What was she going to do? If she could get down the back stairs to the car, would she be able to get it out and away? It was a very slender chance, but it was the only one, and she must take it now---at once. But when she opened the door a cautious inch the door into the haunted wing was standing wide and she could hear their voices---Wickham’s and Mr. Brown’s. However dimly the landing on her right was lit, they could not fail to see her cross the passage if they were looking this way. She would be a black shadow against the glow from the landing.

She stood there listening. Mr. Brown would not stay. He was bound to leave Wickham and come back by himself, because the very essence of the plot was that Wickham should appear to be acting on his own. You can’t make any plausible show of rescuing a distressed damsel if the villains of the piece are all queued up outside putting their eyes on sticks to see how you get on. No---Mr. Brown would have to come back and keep well out of sight, and Wickham would have to give him time to do it. So there was Sarah Marlowe’s slender chance. She would have just so much time as John Wickham’s prudence should dictate to get down the stairs and out to the garage. The back door might be locked or the garage door, and the keys in Wickham’s pocket for all she knew. She did not even know where the garage was, but take it or leave it, there was her chance.

She stood there with her ear to the crack of the door and listened to the reverberations of the Reverend Peter’s voice. She heard him say, “No hurry, my boy---no hurry. Let her cool her heels---she’ll be all the better pleased to see you.” His laugh came booming down the passage. “But don’t forget it, it’s the packet you’re out for, not kisses. We’ve got to get those papers.”

Sarah drew back. Could one play the same trick twice? She had fobbed Morgan Cattermole off with a spoof packet---well, why shouldn’t the same trick serve again? There was no harm in trying.

She turned and threw a hurried glance about the room. There was no sign of any writing materials. You don’t, after all, supply your chauffeur with a davenport. The one solitary object which suggested paper was one of the Penguin books thrown down on the chair by the side of the bed. It sprawled face downwards, and the light of the candle above it picked out the black and white and green of the paper cover. If there wasn’t anything better, that would have to do.

Almost before this thought had taken shape she was tearing out a handful of the pages and racking her brains for something to put them in.

It was as she turned that she saw the chest of drawers and remembered that the drawers would probably be lined with paper. She had the top left-hand drawer out in a flash and had snatched the lining from under John Wickham’s handkerchiefs and collars. Then back to the door again, and the distant murmur of John Wickham’s voice answering Mr. Brown. They were still there then, and she had time----

She folded the pages to the size of the sheets which she had taken from Emily Case’s packet. She doubled the lining-paper and wrapped them in it. Pinched flat along the edges and tied up in a handkerchief, it would look not so much unlike the packet they wanted. She had a coloured silk handkerchief about her neck, a gay affair of bronze, and green, and coral-red. It was large enough to take the packet and, knotted firmly, it really had a quite authentic look.

She pushed the whole contraption down inside her jumper, where it gave her a bulging Victorian bust and was most uncomfortable. However, since this was the immemorial way of concealing a secret document, she felt the discomfort to be well worth while.

Up to this moment she had been so busy thinking, planning, and acting that she had not had time to feel. Now, when the acting and planning were for the moment over and she had perforce to stand by the door and listen for the pause which would tell her that Mr. Brown had torn himself from his audience and would be coming back, the tide of feeling flowed in again.

There would be a pause, and then his footsteps coming this way and passing on. As soon as he had reached the landing she must slip across to the stair----

They were still talking---no, not they, just Mr. Brown. Wickham wouldn’t want to talk. He would want to get rid of the Reverend Peter and come back. But just why had he not given her away? He had only to say, “Oh, but she isn’t in the haunted room---she’s here behind the curtain.” Why hadn’t he done that? The painful tide of feeling rose. She thought she knew that answer. If he had given her away then and there he could never hope to take her in again. But now, in a minute or two, he would come back and pretend again---pretend to be her friend, pretend to be her lover, cheat her into giving him the papers.

She could hear his voice now. Perhaps that was what they were talking about---settling between them just how she was to be tricked. It hurt so much that she turned physically giddy and found herself clinging to the jamb, her forehead bent against it, her hands bruising themselves in an agonized grip.

And right on that the footsteps she was waiting for. They came without warning, because she had missed the pause which should have warned her. They were on the threshold of the door between the two wings, no more than a yard from where she stood against the jamb of Wickham’s door. And the door was ajar---three inches---four---with Sarah Marlowe so close to the gap that anyone who passed might see her hands, her cheek, the dark line of her fur coat, between him and the candle-light beyond.

There was no time to think. Her right hand loosed the jamb and went out to bring the door to. Now there was no gap. But had she been quick enough? If she had not, if he had seen the door move, she would only have made discovery certain instead of leaving it to chance. Her heart beat hard against her side. She lifted her head to meet whatever might come. And heard the steps go past.

She made herself count ten before she slid the door open again and looked out. To the left the black and empty passage of the haunted wing. To the right Mr. Brown in silhouette against the landing light. She watched him turn the corner and pass out of sight.

Then she ran down the passage towards the light and opened the door at the head of the back stairs.

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