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Chapter Thirty-Two

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Author Topic: Chapter Thirty-Two  (Read 15 times)
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« on: September 30, 2023, 07:52:13 am »

"THEY WOULD never forgive me if I did not take a visitor to call," said Miss Sophy. "I have known them all my life, and Mary Anne is such a sad invalid."

Miss Silver smiled, and spoke the simple truth.

"I shall be delighted to call on the Miss Doncasters."

"Then I will just finish the letter I was writing to my cousin Sophy Ferrars. It will not take me long, and it will give them time to finish their tea."

The afternoon was mild and fair. Miss Silver put on her hat, her gloves, and a light summer coat, and strolled in the garden, where the trees made a shady pattern across Miss Sophy's lawn. It was very agreeable---very agreeable indeed. If her mind had been at rest, she would have been enjoying her visit very much. But her mind was very far from being at rest---oh, very far indeed. She walked up and down upon the grass and considered the unsatisfactory details of the Harsch case.

From somewhere on her left a voice of peculiar shrillness spoke her name. No one who had heard that voice could possibly mistake it. She had made it her business to encounter Cyril Bond that morning. She turned now to see him astride the wall between the Rectory and Meadowcroft, one hand holding an overhanging branch, the other flourishing a stick in a manner which suggested that he regarded it as a spear.

"What is it, Cyril?"

"D'you reckon you know what 'Spricken see Dutch?' means?"

Miss Silver smiled benignly.

"You are not pronouncing it correctly. It should be, 'Sprechen sie Deutsch?' It means, 'Do you speak German?'"

Cyril flourished his spear.

"I arst Mr. Everton, and he said he didn't know any German. There's a boy at our school, his father's a refugee. He's a Jew. He knows a lot of German---he can talk it ever so fast."

Miss Silver smiled.

"You are a great climber, are you not? I hope you are quite safe upon that wall. Which was the window you climbed out of?"

Cyril drooped.

"I won't 'arf get in a row if Mr. Everton knows."

Miss Silver continued to smile.

"I shall not tell him. Which window was it?"

Cyril reduced his piercing tones to a hissing whisper.

"That one there"---he pointed with the spear---"over the libery. That's how I got down."

"Were you not afraid that Mr. Everton would hear you?"

Cyril cast her a look of scorn.

"Naow," he said, making two Cockney syllables of the word and lingering on them. "I don't do it except when he's out."

"And he was out on Tuesday night?"

"Acourse he was! Up at Mrs. Mottram's fixing something for her. She can't do nothing by herself."

"How do you know he was there?"

"'Cos I heard him say so. Called right out in the hall he did. 'I'm just going up to Mrs. Mottram's,' he says, 'to fix her wireless set.' Cook and the other lady didn't 'arf laugh when he'd gone."

"When did he come back?"

"I dunno---I went to sleep. Oh, boy! When I think I might have heard the shot!"

"How do you know Mr. Everton was not in when you got back?"

Cyril dropped his voice.

"The black-out isn't all that good in the study. I don't say it's bad, but there's always places you can see if there's a light on."

"Perhaps he'd gone up to his room."

His tone was scornful again.

"Naow! He sits up ever so late, Mr. Everton does." He looked sideways out of the corners of his eyes.

"You couldn't be sure," said Miss Silver mildly but firmly.

"Well then, I could!" He made a sudden cast with his spear into the garden of Meadowcroft and slid down after it.

As she walked with Miss Fell past the intervening two houses to Pennycott Miss Silver had not a great deal to say. Miss Sophy found her a delightful listener. Scarcely drawing breath, she managed to impart a good deal of information about the Miss Doncasters in the short time at her disposal. It went back to their schooldays, and contained some particulars which interested Miss Silver very much.

"But of course it all rather faded during the war--the last war--and for some years afterwards. And we all hoped there wouldn't be any more of it."

"And was there?" said Miss Silver in a most attentive voice.

Miss Sophy stood quite still opposite the Lilacs and said,

"Oh, yes." She leaned towards Miss Silver and fooffled. "And when it came to such an inordinate enthusiasm for a house-painter . . ."

It was some minutes before they resumed their interrupted progress towards Pennycott.

They were admitted by an elderly maid and taken upstairs into what had been the best bedroom, now converted into the drawing-room for the convenience of Miss Mary Anne, who slept in the room behind and could be easily wheeled to and fro. She was there when they came in, propped up by cushions in an invalid chair with rubber tyres.

Miss Sophy made the introductions.

"My friend Miss Silver. Miss Doncaster---Miss Mary Anne."

Miss Silver took a seat beside the wheeled chair and remarked that Bourne was a very picturesque village, and that the weather was delightful. As she did so she was observing the two sisters and their surroundings---the overcrowded room, its walls covered with dark oil paintings in the heavy gilt frames of a bygone day, the floor space contracted by a quantity of ugly, useless furniture which must have cost a great deal some hundred years ago. Curtains of maroon velvet obscured the light. An ancient drab carpet could be seen here and there between the chairs, the cabinets, and the tables which were crowded with gimcracks---a family of wooden bears from Berne; frames carved with edelweiss; a miniature Swiss chalet engrained with dust; other frames of tarnished silver holding faded photographs; little boxes in Tunbridge ware, in filigree, in china; a snowstorm in a glass paper-weight; an Indian dagger in a tarnished sheath. Family history come down to trifles.

A hideous tea-set with a great deal of gilding occupied the mantelpiece, and above it a monstrous overmantel inset with mirror-glass reared itself to the ceiling and reflected a score or so of distorted views of the room.

As a background to the Miss Doncasters nothing could have been more appropriate. She had not been five minutes in their company before she understood why kind Miss Sophy could find no warmer words for either than "Poor Lucy Ellen", and "Poor Mary Anne". There was a strong family resemblance between the sisters, but whereas Lucy Ellen was sharp and ferrety, Mary Anne was heavy and shapeless. Both had sparse grey-white hair and deep lines of discontent.

Without effort on her part Miss Silver found the conversation turning upon Mr. Harsch. It was of course the most dramatic thing which had happened in Bourne since Jedediah Pincott ran away with his cousin Ezekiel's bride twenty-four hours before the wedding and they were both killed in a railway accident, which Bourne considered to be a very proper judgment. It was Miss Mary Anne who introduced the subject of Mr. Harsch, greatly to Miss Sophy's relief as Lucy Ellen was being what she could only call persistent in cross-examining her about Miss Brown. She hastened to join in.

"I am sure we must all hope that the matter will be cleared up."

Miss Doncaster gave it as her opinion that it was suicide.

"I said so from the beginning. The jury said so at the inquest. There was never any doubt about the verdict. As I served on the jury I suppose I may be allowed to know."

Miss Silver gave a slight cough.

"Most distressing for all his friends," she observed. She inclined an attentive head towards Miss Mary Anne. "And is it true that he was engaged upon an invention of some value? How doubly distressing if he was not able to finish it."

"Oh, but he was."

"Really? How very interesting."

Miss Mary Anne's voice did not resemble her sister's. It was thick and treacly. She said with unction, "He finished it that very day---some last experiment, and a complete success. He rang up a Sir George Rendal at the War Office at half past six on Tuesday evening and arranged for him to come down next day. I heard him with my own ears."

Miss Silver looked mildly surprised.

"You heard him?"

Miss Doncaster said sharply, "We are on a party line here---you can hear everything. It is most inconvenient."

Miss Mary Anne went on as if her sister had not spoken.

"You would be surprised at what you hear---people are most incautious. I had lifted my receiver, and I could hear everything he said. I remember I turned to Frederick Bush who was setting up those shelves in the corner---he does all our odd jobs for us---and I said, 'There---Mr. Harsch has finished his invention---isn't that a good thing? Sir George Rendal will be coming down from the War Office about it to-morrow.' And he said, 'Then I expect Mr. Harsch'll be down at the church playing to-night. Last time I saw him he said he'd be down so soon as his work was done'."

"Dear me!" said Miss Silver.

Miss Doncaster cut in with determination.

"Which goes to show that he had planned to take his life. Suicide---that's what I've said all along."

"Unless there's something in this story about Mr. Madoc," said Miss Mary Anne. "You know, Sophy, they say that he and Mr. Harsch had a quarrel over your Miss Brown."

Under her best hat Miss Sophy bridled.

"People will say anything. But there is no need to repeat it, Mary Anne."

It was perhaps as well that at this moment the door should have opened to admit Mrs. Mottram attired in crimson corduroy slacks and a bright blue jumper, her fair hair encircled by a green and orange bandeau. She looked extremely pretty, and when she saw Miss Silver she uttered a scream of joy and addressed her as "Angel!"

"Because she was---she really was," she explained. "You see, I'd lost---but perhaps I'd better not say what, but it belonged to my mother-in-law, and you know what mothers-in-law are---she'd never have believed I hadn't sold it, and then there would have been the devil to pay. And this angel got it back for me and practically saved my life."

She rolled her blue eyes and sat down beside Miss Silver, who patted her hand and said in kind but repressive tones, "That will do, my dear---we will say no more about it."

Fortunately all eyes were on the slacks. Miss Doncaster's strongly resembled those of a ferret observing a young and incautious rabbit. She said in acid tones, "I notice that you have gone out of mourning."

The blue eyes opened to their fullest extent.

"Well, I only put it on because of my mother-in-law, and it's so long----"

"When I was a girl," said Miss Doncaster, "the rule for a widow used to be one year of weeds and crepe, one year of plain black, six months of grey, and black and white, and six months of grey and white, heliotrope, and purple."

Ida Mottram giggled.

"But then people used to wear crinolines and all sorts of funny things then---didn't they?"

There was a stony silence before Miss Doncaster observed in a pinched voice that it was her grandmother who had worn a crinoline.

Mrs. Mottram gazed affectionately at her ruby slacks.

"Well, when a fashion's dead it's dead," she said. "You can't dig it up, or we might all be going round in woad." She turned to Miss Silver with a marked access of warmth. "I'm sure I interrupted something frightfully important when I came in---you all had that sort of look. Do go on, or I shall think you were talking about me."

"Would that be 'frightfully important'?" said Miss Doncaster.

The blue eyes rolled.

"It would be to me."

Miss Silver said gravely, "We were talking about poor Mr. Harsch, and how sad it was that he should have met his death just when his work had been crowned with success. Miss Mary Anne was being so very interesting. She happened to be on the telephone and she actually heard him telling someone at the War Office that his work was done."

"Sir George Rendal," said Miss Mary Anne. "'Completely successful' was the expression Mr. Harsch used, referring to a final experiment."

"Oh, yes, you told us." Ida Mottram was not really interested. "Do you remember, Mr. Everton had come in to bring you some eggs---isn't he marvellous the way he gets his hens to lay?---and I came with him. You told us all about it then." Her tone made it quite clear that she didn't want to hear it again. "And I'm sure none of us thought the poor sweet was going to be snatched away like that. But what's the good of going on talking about it all the time? I asked Mr. Everton this afternoon if he didn't think it was morbid, and he said he did. I mean, it isn't going to bring him back."

"In fact we are to go through life ignoring what is unpleasant," said Miss Doncaster. "I was brought up to face things, and not to put my head in the sand. You seem to see a great deal of Mr. Everton."

"He's frightfully kind," said Ida Mottram. "He made my hen-house out of some frightful old packing-cases and odds and ends. And he's marvellous with the wireless. He knew at once mine needed a new valve, and he got me one when he was in Marbury on Monday, and came over and fixed it up for me and all. He really is the kindest man. But isn't it funny. Bunty doesn't like him at all. It makes it so awkward."

"Many children object to the idea of a step-father," said Miss Doncaster in an extremely acid voice.

Ida Mottram broke into girlish laughter.

"Is that what people are saying? What a joke! Of course when there is only one man in the place, I suppose people have to make the most of him. You can't really count the Rector, can you? But I might see if I can get up the faintest breath of scandal about him, just to take their minds off Mr. Everton. Suppose I got something in my eye after church on Sunday and asked him to take it out---it's an old dodge but quite a good one. What do you think?"

Miss Sophy smiled and said, "I think you talk a great deal of nonsense, my dear."

Ida giggled.

"Of course there's your nephew---but he's Janice's, and I never poach." She got up and beamed on everyone. "Well, I really only came with some of those late raspberries. We've got such a lot of them, and I know Miss Mary Anne likes fruit. I left them downstairs with Agnes. Angel"---she made a dart at Miss Silver---"when am I going to see you?"

"I will come in on my way home," said Miss Silver.

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