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Chapter Thirty-Five

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« on: July 17, 2023, 05:31:23 am »

MR. Brown burst out laughing.

“That’s the spirit!” he said. “I like a girl with some go about her. I didn’t think you had it in you. Pity we shan’t have time to get better acquainted---it might have been amusing. But business before pleasure. And if by any chance you’re thinking that you’re one up over this, I’ll just tell you that the bottom of a well is a very nice safe place for those papers to be. They might have got into the wrong hands, you know. That is why we were just a little bit anxious about them. You don’t want your family secrets exposed to the vulgar gaze---something indelicate about it, don’t you think? So they can stay at the bottom of the well until daylight, and if we can’t get them up then, they can stay there until they rot, though I don’t mind telling you I’d rather see them burned before my own eyes in our good kitchen fire. Family secrets had better go up in smoke, don’t you think---especially when they are of a kind which your meddling Intelligence takes an interest in. You knew that, I suppose?”

They were crossing the stable yard diagonally. The lantern still burned on the coach-house shelf. Its pale golden light came a little way across the snow and lighted them.

They turned the corner of the haunted wing. Sarah said, “No---I didn’t know. She gave it to me. I didn’t know what it was.”

“Didn’t she tell you?”

She shook her head.

“No. She put it in my bag. I didn’t find it till afterwards.”

“Then why did you hide it?”

Sarah spoke the exact truth.

“Because of the police. I was afraid of losing my job.”

The beam of the torch ran ahead of them and showed the gate standing as she had left it, open to the courtyard. She could see it now, a solid wooden gate with a heavy bolt top and bottom. It seemed a strange thing that there should be bolts like that on the outside. Mr. Brown flicked the beam from one to the other.

“Wondering why they’re outside?” he enquired. “Everyone does. The last owner had his wife here---mad for a dozen years before she died. He had the bolts put on. They used to let her out for a bit of air and exercise---quite safe, you know, because nobody could get away when those bolts were shot.”

As he spoke he pushed her through the opening. There was just room for her to pass. To follow her he gave the gate a great shove with his shoulder. It creaked, moved a little wider against the snow which hampered it, and let him through. It creaked again as he banged it behind him. He had let go of Sarah now. Like the mad woman, she could not get away once the gate was shut. The two wings of the house and the block which connected them shut them in. The place was as secure as a prison yard.

Mr. Brown called out in his big voice,

“Hi, Grimsby, shoot those two bolts! You can come in by the front door---it isn’t locked.”

Sarah stood just clear of the gate. She wondered vaguely what would happen next. She thought they would kill her, and she wondered how. She wondered whether it would hurt. She thought it was a pity that she had not been killed when the car ran into the ditch.

There was a grating sound as the bolts went home. Mr. Brown turned round from the gate and took her briskly across the courtyard with his hand on her arm again.

The side door was unlocked. She remembered how she had come out, full of fear, and haste, and anger against John Wickham. All these things were gone. There was neither fear, nor haste, nor anger left. Everything had happened. She had only to die.

They went along the passage to the open kitchen door. Light and heat streamed to meet them. Mr. Brown said affably,

“You don’t know how cold you are till you come in by a fire---do you?” And then he laughed, and Sarah felt again the touch of a horror which had no name or reason.

The kitchen was bright and very hot. There was a bracket-lamp with a tin reflector above the chimney-piece, and a standing lamp with a glass globe on the dresser. A big fire roared in the range. Mrs. Grimsby was pouring boiling water out of a kettle into a brown teapot with a bright blue band. She was vast and shapeless in a flowered overall and an old beige knitted coat. Her grizzled hair straggled untidily from an ugly bunched-up bun half way up her head. She had her back to them, and she went on making tea.

Another woman had been sitting at the kitchen table. She got up as they came in. As soon as Sarah saw her she knew who had played the part of Emily Case in the haunted room. There must have been a door in that corner by the fireplace, hidden by the panelling, and she had come through it to stand there and play the ghost. The battered hat and the black coat with the grey fur collar lay across one of the kitchen chairs. She wondered who the woman was. She was not really like Emily Case, but she had been chosen to play her part by someone who knew what Emily Case looked like. She was the right height, and the clothes were right---of course there must have been photographs in the papers. She had held a handkerchief up to her face.

Mr. Brown brought Sarah into the room with a genial air of triumph. He said, “Well, here she is!” as if he were announcing an expected guest.

The woman by the table looked at them. She had light eyes in a pale face. There was a sharp malice in them, and something else---was it expectancy?

“Delightfully warm in here, isn’t it?” said Mr. Brown.

Mrs. Grimsby turned round with the teapot in her hand. She came over to the table and set it down. There was milk in a white jug with a broken lip, and an odd flowered bowl with sugar. There were two willow-pattern cups. In a detached way Sarah found herself feeling sorry for Mrs. Grimsby. She had the look of a woman who has forgotten how to smile. Her heavy face had no colour and no expression. All her movements were slow and burdened. She said without looking at anyone, “Two more cups, Annie,” and began to pour tea into the two that were already there.

Mr. Brown laughed. Not loudly as he was used to do, but with a soft chuckling sound.

“Like a cup of tea, Miss Marlowe?” he said.

All at once Sarah felt a starved longing for the hot drink. She wanted it more than she had ever wanted food or drink in all her life before. She had begun to feel her body again, and it was shaking with cold. She longed to drink the hot tea and to get away into the dark where she could lie down, and be alone, and weep the numbness from her heart. She said, “Oh, yes, please.”

But Mr. Brown was laughing again, and the woman whom Mrs. Grimsby called Annie was joining in. They both laughed, and Mr. Brown said, “I’m afraid---oh, yes, I’m very much afraid, that you won’t get one. I’m afraid Mrs. Grimsby made a mistake. Just one cup, Annie. Miss Marlowe is not joining our tea-party---she has another engagement.” He turned on Sarah suddenly with all his mock politeness gone. “You’ve been spying and playing tricks. I suppose you thought you could get away with it. Well, you can’t. Do you know what I’m going to do with you? I’m going to have you stripped and put out in the yard—and that will be the end of Miss Sarah Marlowe. No one’s going to lay a finger on you, except that I’m going to ask Annie and Mrs. Grimsby to take off that fur coat and the woollen suit you’re wearing. If you make the very slightest resistance, I shall call Grimsby in to help them. I don’t mind being quite frank---I don’t want you to resist, because I don’t want you to get marked. You see, there will probably be an inquest, and I don’t want any awkward questions about things like that. It’s got to be death from natural causes. I think a night in the yard in your underclothes ought to do the trick---don’t you? And when you’re too far gone for it to make any difference we’ll put you to bed and have a doctor out to see you. He will find you surrounded by the kindest attentions. Miss Cattermole shall weep at your bedside. She has no head and a very kind heart. I am sure that she will weep most convincingly, and only a lunatic could imagine her being mixed up with anything shady.”

Something went through Sarah like the stab of a knife. She said quickly, “Does she know?”

Mr. Brown chuckled enjoyably.

“What a question! And you’ve lived with her for---what is it---the best part of five months! Does she ever know what’s going on, even if it’s right under her nose? Come, come---I gave you credit for more sense. If she knew anything she would certainly give it away---a born babbler. No, no, she will believe every word that dear Wilson says, and that I say. But she will weep over your death-bed and tell the doctor how fond she was of you, and how dreadful it is that you should be so ill but of course young people are terribly heedless.”

A little warmth came up in Sarah. Even now, with everything gone and death only one step away, she could be glad that she had not to change her thought about Joanna.

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