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Chapter Thirty-Four

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Author Topic: Chapter Thirty-Four  (Read 33 times)
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« on: July 17, 2023, 04:59:45 am »

IT might have been a short time afterwards, or a longer time---Sarah didn’t know. Mr. Brown came up with the torch in his hand. He had it switched on and hanging down so that it made bright shifting circles on the snow. But when he came up to her he turned it on her face and said, “Where are those papers?”

When she did not answer, he put a hand under her elbow and jerked her to her feet.

“The game’s up. Hand them over!”

He kept the light on her face, and saw her stare back at him without blinking. Something odd was there. Something odd about her all along---he had seen a man who had been shell-shocked look that way---as if she was walking in her sleep. He swore to himself. Easy enough to wake her up if it weren’t that she mustn’t be marked; and women were the devil that way---they bruised before you laid a finger on them.

He swung the light out of her eyes and back again, but she never blinked.

“Look here, Miss Marlowe, you’re not doing yourself any good. You’re in possession of stolen property---that’s what you are. And what’s it got to do with you anyway? Come---I’ll make a bargain with you. We don’t want to do you any harm---why should we? We only want our property, and we mean to have it. What’s the good of fighting against the inevitable? It’s exasperating for us, and it’s going to be extremely unpleasant for you. Because, you see, we know you’ve got the papers, and we know you’re bound to have them on you. Grimsby’s just having a look in the car, but I’m prepared to bet he won’t find anything there. You’ve got them on you, and if you don’t hand them over, I’m going to hand you over to Grimsby to search, and I don’t really think you’ll like it. No, the game really is up, and the quicker you let us have those papers, the pleasanter it will be for all of us---except perhaps Grimsby.”

Sarah stood with the light in her eyes and heard the words go by. They were just words. She heard him laugh, and then all at once he took her by the arm and brought her round to the other side of the car again. The beam of the torch went dancing over the edge of the ditch. It struck one of John Wickham’s hands. It slid up the arm and dazzled against his hair. He was bare-headed. She couldn’t see his face. Mr. Brown said in her ear,

“There he is---and he’s dead. Did you give him the papers?”

“No---no---I didn’t.”

He brought the light sharply back on to her face.

“If you’re lying you’ll pay for it! You can’t get away with it, you know. If you gave them to him, he’ll have them on him, and we’ll find them when we find him in the morning.”

Grimsby had come up. He said in his coarse voice, “Shall I go over him, boss? Paper’s easy to spot---I needn’t move him.”

“No!” The word came like the crack of a whip. “No one’s to touch him! Let him lie there and freeze! It’s a sitter that way. He piled up the car, and we didn’t know a thing about it till the morning---that’s the tale. The way the door’s hanging open he could have been shot out of the driver’s seat. It’ll look all right, even if anyone comes along and finds him before we do.” He turned back to Sarah. “Now, Miss Marlowe, you see how it is. If you did give him the papers, we’ll get them anyhow. If you didn’t, you’ll hand them over now, or we search you.”

His voice reached only the surface of Sarah’s mind. Words floated there: “John is dead. And I shall be dead too before anyone comes. They are talking in front of me as if I was dead already. They wouldn’t do that if they meant to let me go.” She felt no distress at the idea of her own death. It was all like a dream. The things which surrounded her, the people, even her own body, were remote and insubstantial. She looked with wide, blank eyes at the light.

“Wake up!” Mr. Brown’s voice boomed in her ear. “You’ve got those papers, and we know you’ve got them. Hand them over”!

Under the surface her mind stirred. She remembered the sham pocket. She had rolled it up in the handkerchief from her neck and pushed it into the front of her jumper. It had slipped down under her breast. She could feel it there now as she took her breath.

For the first time since the car had crashed she began to think. The sensation of being detached from her surroundings persisted, but she herself, Sarah Marlowe, began to think again. The line which her thoughts took was an extremely simple one. John Wickham was dead. He hadn’t wanted them to have the packet. She herself would soon be dead. It would be a good thing if she could save the papers before she died. Someone might find them afterwards. You never know. And John would be pleased.

Wilson Cattermole spoke for the first time. He said in his nervous, fussy way.

“Now don’t you think we should go in? I really do feel---” (afterwards she thought that was the strangest thing of all, to hear him talking like that---a nervous, irritable ant---a fussy, respectable valetudinarian ant)---“bitterly cold---most unsuitable---get in by the fire----”

She caught up the last word and considered it. If she could burn her packet, they would think it was the real one. But papers don’t burn as easily as all that.

Mr. Brown said, “All right, all right,” and swung her about. The beam left her face to light their way. They went in between the pillars and up the rough track towards the garage. There was a hedgerow on the left. The ice-coated twigs and branches creaked and rattled. The hedge ran down to a deep ditch. She heard Grimsby caution Mr. Cattermole to keep away over to the right.

“There’s a deep ditch on the left under the hedge.”

A deep ditch---She kept that in mind. She put her hand down the front of her jumper and eased the packet out. Mr. Brown was on her left, she had her right arm free. She could see the hedge, all white and furred with snow. If she could throw the packet in amongst all that clutter of thorn and bramble, would it help? Not if they were to find it, because there was nothing there except the pages she had torn from the “Penguin”, wrapped up in lining-paper. And they would guess at once that she had the real papers on her. There would be no other reason for making up a sham packet and letting them see her throw it away. And it would be no good doing it unless it took them in. If they believed it was the real packet and they couldn’t find it---that was what was in her mind. If it fell where they couldn’t find it until the morning. . . .

Her thoughts ran hither and thither like creatures in a cage, searching desperately for a way out. This wasn’t a good way---perhaps it wasn’t a way at all. Perhaps the packet would catch amongst the thorns and be found and opened at once. Perhaps----

There wasn’t any way out. But she would throw the packet into the hedge. It was too light---it wouldn’t even reach it. She held it under her coat and thought, “I’ll count twenty, and then I’ll throw it.”

It was the best that she could do. Between the brambles and the ditch, they might not find it till the morning. They might not even look too hard if they were sure that it was there. It was only a chance, but it was all that she could think of.

It wasn’t a chance at all, but she would take it. She began to count in her mind, one---two---three---four---five---six---seven---eight---nine---ten----

Mr. Brown, still holding her by the left arm, stopped and called over his shoulder, “Mind the old well as you come round into the yard, Cattermole.”

The word dropped in on Sarah’s counting and stopped it dead. A well---that would be much better than the hedge.

Wilson Cattermole said in his nervous, fussy voice, “But you’ve got the torch. I really don’t like this at all. It’s dangerous---positively dangerous.”

Mr. Brown laughed jovially.

“Oh, there’s a parapet. You’d have to try quite hard to fall in. I was just being careful---I’m a careful man, you know.”

“I don’t call it careful to leave Wickham lying there in the ditch. You would not let us touch him. Suppose he is not really dead.”

Sarah felt a momentary cold horror. He spoke in the trivial, fretful manner to which she was accustomed. A familiar thing bent to murderous uses----

The horror passed. Mr. Brown said cheerfully, “I’d have a nervous breakdown if I worried like you. Take it easy, man. If he isn’t dead, he’s alive, and then one of two things happens---he’s well enough to walk, or he isn’t. If he isn’t, he’ll freeze where he lies and be dead before morning. If he is, what happens?”

“That,” said Wilson Cattermole, “is what I invite you to consider.”

“All right, we’re considering it, aren’t we? Say he comes round and by a miracle he can get up and walk---the car’s ditched, and it’ll take more than him to get her out. What does he do? Comes back to the house of course. We haven’t got anything against him, have we? He tried to stop the girl, by her own account. Why shouldn’t he come back? And suppose he doesn’t---is he going to walk seven miles to Hedgeley---or if he does, is he going to get there?”

“He might,” said Wilson Cattermole.

“All right,” said the Reverend Peter, “you go back. Sit up all night with the corpse if you want to---I’m not stopping you. The doctor can pick you up when we get him out in the morning.” He turned to Sarah and said in a genial voice, “The doctor will be for you. You won’t be able to say you didn’t get every attention.” He laughed. “As a matter of fact you won’t be able to say anything very much by the time he gets here.”

They had been standing at the corner where the track ran into the yard whilst this talk went on. Now Mr. Brown swung the torch up and sent the beam to the right. It shone on the low parapet of the well. There were two uprights, and a cross-piece from which the buckets hung. The open, empty mouth was black.

It was no more than a dozen feet away. Sarah pulled the packet out from under her coat and threw it with all her might along the line of the beam. It struck the coping. The light dazzled on the coral and green and brown of the handkerchief which wrapped it. It hung for a moment on the edge and was gone. The black mouth had swallowed it.

Mr. Brown said sharply, “What’s that?”

Sarah said, “Your papers. You wanted to know where they were. They’re in the well.”
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