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Chapter Thirty-Nine

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« on: September 30, 2023, 12:13:07 pm »

MRS. MOTTRAM rang the bell of Pennycott. At the Rectory she would have opened the door and yodelled, but the Miss Doncasters were sticklers for what they called the forms of civilized society, and what was the good of putting their backs up? It was so easy, and you did it so often without meaning to, that you couldn't even get a kick out of it. Besides, poor old things, what a life! Year after year, with nothing happening to you---just withering up and going sour. Her heart, which was as soft as butter, really pitied them, and however rude and disapproving they were, she always turned up again, with an egg, or a cabbage-leaf full of raspberries, or one of the bright unsuitable magazines showered upon her by her friends in the Air Force. She had one tucked under her arm now with a colour-print on the cover depicting a damsel in a wisp of scarlet bathing-dress about to take a header into a bright blue sea.

Admitted by the elderly maid, she pranced gaily upstairs, pleasantly conscious of being young and very much alive. She found Miss Mary Anne alone in the drab room with its litter of rubbish and its dead, stale air. It was rather a relief only to have one of them to deal with. She shook hands, felt the slack, cold fingers slip away, and saw the pale glance slide disapprovingly over her yellow jumper and her rather bright blue slacks to the scarlet bathing-girl.

"Lucy Ellen is out," said Miss Mary Anne in a grumbling voice. "I'm sure I don't know what she goes out for---morning, noon and night, until you'd think she'd be worn out. And at the end of it I don't know what she's done. Shopping is what she says, but what is there to shop in Bourne? Picture postcards at Mrs. Bush's, I suppose. And off to Marbury every week. And what does she do there---that's what I'd like to know. It's my belief that she just walks about looking in at the shop windows, and then she has tea at the Ram and comes home again." The thick complaining voice was like treacle gone sour.

Ida Mottram thought it all sounded too grim for words. She sat down on the hearth in front of the languishing fire and began to poke at it with a bit of stick.

"No wonder you're cold," she said. "I'll have this up in no time. I may be a fool about some things, but I'm the world's smash hit with fires. You just wait and see!"

"Lucy Ellen doesn't like anyone to touch the fire but herself."

"Well, she can't do it when she's out, can she? Look, it's coming along like anything!" She pulled one log forward, tilted another, blew upon a brightening ember, and with a rush the flame came up.

Sitting there with the firelight on her face, she began to tell Miss Mary Anne all about Bunty's encounter with a bumble bee.

"And she brought it in sitting on her hand and wanted me to stroke it."

"How very foolish! I suppose she got stung?"

Ida giggled.

"Oh, no, she didn't---it loved her! But I made her put it back on one of the roses. She was so disappointed. She wanted to take it to bed with her. Don't you think it was rather sweet?"

Miss Mary Anne sniffed. She was not in the least interested in bumble bees or in Bunty Mottram. She wanted passionately to find out whether Garth Albany and Janice Meade were engaged, and to find it out before Lucy Ellen did. Silently and resentfully, this was the game she was always playing against her sister. Tied to her sofa she might be, and Lucy Ellen free to go about and gather up the news---free to go into Marbury and have tea at the Ram---but all the same, once in a way it was she who scored. If she could get in first about Garth and Janice, Lucy Ellen would be properly taken down. Ida Mottram might know something----

She began to ask questions which circled the subject, drawing in gradually, getting nearer and nearer. It was an art in which she excelled, and Ida was no match for her. Having, in fact, nothing to conceal, she was as open as the day. Oh, yes, she thought they liked each other---why shouldn't they? It would be very nice. Didn't Miss Mary Anne think it would be very nice? And Miss Sophy would be so pleased---didn't she think so?

"If his intentions are serious," said Miss Mary Anne in her gloomiest tone.

Ida giggled.

"People don't have intentions now---it's not done. They just go off and get married."

She began to look round for something to screen her face from the fire. It was fairly blazing now, and her skin scorched so easily. She could feel her left cheek burning. She reached out to the small table by Miss Mary Anne's couch and took a paper at random from a pile which cluttered the lower tier. Turning it over, she saw that it was a garden catalogue with a cover displaying apples, pears, plums, gooseberries, raspberries, and blackcurrants, all at least twice as large as life and much more brightly coloured. She was about to say, "Oh, are you getting any fruit trees?" when Miss Mary Anne remarked that young men in the Army were notorious for the way in which they flirted, and that she believed Garth Albany's mother had been very rapid when she was a girl.

The moment passed. Ida with the catalogue spread out to shield her face, listened to the scandalous account of how the late Mrs. Albany had actually kissed Garth's father under the mistletoe at a Christmas party at the Rectory---"And they were not even engaged then, so it shows you what she was like."

Sitting back on her heels, Ida turned the pages of the catalogue. She was listening as you listen to something which you have heard before, and which doesn't matter at all. She nicked the pages over---red currants as big as sixpences---beans a foot long---a page with a nick in the edge and a list of apple trees---apple trees . . .

She stopped hearing Miss Mary Anne's voice. There was something very odd about the page with the nick in it. Faint brown writing coming up where the paper was hot---getting more distinct as she looked at it. At the top and at the bottom of the list of apple trees---words, very odd words. Now she could read them. At the top of the list two words, "Am Widder". And at the bottom of the list three more words, "Montag halb fünf."

She stared at the writing, and quite unaccountably her heart began to thump. She didn't know why. She hadn't really begun to think what the words might mean, but they frightened her, coming up like that out of the blank spaces on the page of Miss Doncaster's catalogue.

They frightened her because they came up so suddenly out of nothing, and because they were German words. A secret message written in German---that was enough to frighten anyone. All at once the crowded room with its dead air was like something you dreamed about and waked up shaking. Almost without thinking what she did she doubled the catalogue over and pushed it up under her jumper. She had her back to the couch. The littered table screened her. Her hands were quick and deft---much quicker than her thoughts, which were confused and lagging.

Miss Mary Anne said in her treacly voice, "So it all goes to show you can't trust anyone."

Ida Mottram got up. Her legs had a funny disjointed feeling. She kissed her hand to Miss Mary Anne and said she must really go.

"Because Bunty is having tea with Mary Giles and Mrs. Giles will be bringing her back. She sees her through the hedge on their side of the Cut and in at our garden door. There's a gap in the hedge that Bunty can get through. So convenient."

Miss Mary Anne looked very huffy indeed. She expected you to stay for hours and hours and hours, poor old thing. Ida shut the door on her with relief and fairly ran down the stairs and out of the house.

Outside in the road she stood still and wondered what she ought to do. It was all very frightening and very horrid, and she didn't know what to do. She must tell someone who would know. Miss Silver would know. She must tell Miss Silver.

She ran all the way to the Rectory, to be told by Mabel that Miss Silver had gone to Marbury and she didn't know when she would be back, and Miss Sophy and Mr Garth were gone up to Prior's End to have tea with Miss Madoc, but they would be coming back soon, and Miss Janice would be coming back with them.

When Mabel was telling Janice and Garth about it she said Mrs. Mottram seemed as if she was upset about something---"Not at all in her usual, Mr. Garth---looked for all the world as if she was going to cry. I hope she hasn't had bad news or anything like that, poor thing."

It was then that Janice said, "Oh, I'd better go round and see."

Ida Mottram went away very much discouraged. She went back to her own house, which was next door to Pennycott and rang up Mr. Everton. She didn't feel like standing on anyone else's doorstep and being told they were out. So she rang up, and there, almost at once, was Mr. Everton's kind, cheerful voice saying, "Dear lady, what can I do for you?"

"You're sure I'm not interrupting?"

She was feeling better already. Men were such a comfort---they always knew what to do. Mr. Everton would know. He was being most polite in his kind, old-fashioned way. "If all interruptions were as pleasant as this one---" He would be coming round at once. This was in answer to her "I'm so terribly worried about something."

She hung up the receiver. Then she pulled the catalogue out from under her jumper and unfolded it. The faint brown lettering was just legible and no more. She began to think about what it might mean. Two years in a Swiss finishing school had left her with a fair knowledge of French and German. She slanted the shiny page and stared at the words on it, "Am Widder". Widder---the word puzzled her for a moment. And then, like a picture on the screen, there popped into her mind Polly Pain wriggling, and twisting from one foot to another as she recited a list of animals under Fraülein Lessner's sardonic eye:--"Der Schaf, the sheep. Die Kuh, the cow. Der Widder, the ram."

Yes, that was it. Widder was a ram. "Am Widder---at the Ram." "Montag halb fünf--Monday at half past four." Why did Miss Doncaster have a catalogue with a secret message in it which said, "At the Ram, at half past four"?

Mr. Everton came into the room just as she remembered that Miss Doncaster's old cook and her husband kept the Ram at Marbury, and that Miss Doncaster always had tea there when she went in to shop.

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