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Chapter Thirty-Two

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Author Topic: Chapter Thirty-Two  (Read 29 times)
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« on: July 16, 2023, 12:51:43 pm »

SARAH drew the door noiselessly to behind her. The cold draught which had met her failed, but the stuffy smell which it had brought remained---a smell of dirt, and mouldering wood, and cabbage-water, and burned fat. Mrs. Grimsby might be a first-class cook, but on the strength of that smell Sarah was prepared to bet her last shoe-button that she kept her kitchen like a pigsty.

And the kitchen door was always open---John Wickham had said so. “Well, get on with it, Sarah, or he’ll catch you up. Open or shut, you’ve got to get past that door. Get on with it!”

She got on with it. There were about twelve steps, rather steep. They went straight down without a break and came into a flagged passage, very uneven under foot. The kitchen door stood wide a yard or so to the left, and a little farther on there was the end of the passage, and the door which would give her her chance.

No use stopping to think. Light came from the kitchen door---light and the sound of voices. A man---that would be Grimsby. And a woman---no, two women---Mrs. Grimsby and---who? “What does it matter who any of them are? Get on with it!”

She went down the passage quick and light. She wouldn’t let herself run. The warmth of the kitchen came out and struck her as she went past, and just for a moment she knew how cold she was, and felt a starved longing for the fire. And then she was at the door, and no room left in her mind for anything except “Don’t, don’t, don’t let it be locked!”

It wasn’t locked. The handle turned easily and the door swung in without a sound. When she had shut it behind her, her heart lifted. For the first time she began to think that the chance she had had to take was a chance that was going to come off.

She moved away from the door and discovered that she would have to move very carefully if she was to keep her feet. The place was just a glither of ice. But another step or two took her into snow. It came up over her shoes and worked down inside them, wetting and chilling her, but she could keep her feet, and it was not deep enough to be hampering.

She was in a courtyard formed by the two wings of the house and the connecting block through which the long passage ran. The kitchen premises were on her right, the haunted wing on her left. If she went forward she would get clear of the house and perhaps be able to see where the garage lay. It was not so dark out here as it had been in the passage. There must be a moon behind all that cloud, because there was light coming from it. She could see the walls of the house standing up black against the snow, which seemed to give out a faint, cold light of its own.

She went forward, but something puzzled her. The smooth, vague whiteness should have stretched on indefinitely, but it didn’t. It was cut by a black vertical shadow. Her heart began to sink and turn cold inside her, because it wasn’t a shadow, it was a wall. She came upon it and touched it with her outstretched hands. It was a rough stone wall closing the courtyard in. It ran from wing to wing almost level with the front of the house, and it rose at least two feet above her head.

But there must be a gate or a door. No one would enclose a place like this and not leave any way of getting in and out of it. She moved along the wall, feeling with her right hand. There was ice on the stone, as hard as glass. Her fingers burned on it.

Suddenly she saw the gap. There was a gate, and it stood open about a foot. She could see the opening, because the snow showed through it like a white stripe against the darkness of the wall. Wickham must have set the door open, because this was the way he had been going to bring her out. The ice and snow had been dug from about the gate-post so that the gate should open enough to let them through. She shut it behind her, because shutting it made her feel safer. She did not know that there was a bolt on this outer side or she would have shot that too. She was to know later. Now she never thought about it---just pushed the gate and went on in the snow round the end of the haunted wing.

She felt sure that the garage must be somewhere in this direction. She had a vague impression of the car driving on this way after it had set them down at the front door. It was only an impression, but she thought the old stabling of the house would have to be on this side. The windows of her room and of Joanna’s room looked the other way, and there was no sign of stabling to be seen from them. No---the stables must be somewhere here.

She turned the corner of the wing, and knew that she had been right. A faint light shone ahead---the merest glimmer from a door that was not quite shut. She could distinguish a dark huddle of buildings across another yard. Barns, cowsheds, stabling, were what she guessed at. And, about midway, that welcome glimmer of light.

She hurried as much as she could, and found the car in the old coach-house, with the door swinging loose and a stable lantern alight on a shelf in the corner amongst old tins and bottles. The snow had been cleared here too, and the door swung wide without any trouble. If Wickham had done all this he would surely have seen to it that the gate to the road was open.

She stood for a moment and wondered what he had meant to do. He had cleared the snow and left this lantern burning as if he really meant to drive out of this horrible place with her and take her away. But why? She had told him that she had the papers. She could hear his voice again, quick and eager, “Clever girl---have you got them?” And she had said “Yes.” So there wasn’t any need for him to take her away. When Mr. Brown came in on them he had only to say, “She’s there---behind the curtain.” There wasn’t any need to go on with the pretence that he loved her and wanted to get her away. There wasn’t any need for him to pretend that she was still shut up in the haunted room. Her thoughts were puzzled and confused. There was a weight on her, and she felt it heavy to bear. Only there was no time to stand here thinking----

The car was a Vauxhall limousine. She had driven it before. Once on a fine October day on a long, straight road over a Surrey heath, with the colour fading out of the heather and the bracken brightening into bronze and gold. It came back to her in a brilliant flashing picture, as if a hole had been broken in the dark and she was looking through it. How vivid memory could be. For a moment the picture was more here than the dim coach-house and this cold twilight of the snow.

As she slipped into the driving-seat she had to wrench her mind from the feeling that Joanna was behind, with her hat slipping over one ear, and Wickham here on her left. “Oh, of course, my dear---if you would like to drive, I am sure. . . . Oh, yes, Wickham, Miss Marlowe will drive for a little. But you will be very careful, won’t you?” That was when she had first begun to wonder about John Wickham---whether he had always been a chauffeur, and if not, how he came to be driving Wilson Cattermole’s car.

It was Sarah Marlowe who was driving it now. A smooth, easy start. Wickham must have warmed her up---no cold engine ever started like that with the thermometer down to goodness knew where.

Out of the coach-house and across the yard, putting on pace but not too much, because she had to feel her way. She couldn’t risk the lights.

She would have to risk them. She couldn’t possibly round the house and clear the gate like this---and after all, if anyone did see them, what could they do now? Because she was off.

The light ran out over the snow---hooded to comply with the black-out regulations, but to eyes that had been a long time in the dark astonishingly bright.

As they slid past the courtyard, a man wrenched at the gate which Sarah had pushed to, and got it open. She saw him out of the tail of her eye. He came running over the snow, cutting in by the house where she had to swing wide. It was an awkward turn for the gate. If she missed it and crashed into the hedge she was done. She had to come close in to take the turn, and at her nearest he would be very near. He jumped for the running-board. The car jarred with his weight.

Sarah’s heart jumped too, raced, and steadied again. She felt none of the things which an escaping heroine ought to feel when an arch-villain lands with a thud on the running-board of the car in which she is trying to escape. On the contrary the blood sang in her veins and her pulses drummed with triumph.

The gate loomed up---stone pillars, and a break in the hedge. The off-side bumper scraped and they were through.

Beyond lay the rough track over which they had jolted in the dark of their arrival. The snow softened its asperities now, but it was narrow---a mere cart track. She remembered bumping in and out of pot-holes---impossible to get up any speed. . . . And then at last the road turning right between its hedges---the road which led to the moor and safety.

John Wickham leaned in across the open window and said with a laugh in his voice,

“Well, that was a near thing---wasn’t it?”

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