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Chapter Forty

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« on: September 30, 2023, 12:40:35 pm »

HE NOTICED at once how pale and disturbed she looked. The blue eyes which he admired had an expression of distress. She was certainly a very pretty woman. And then his eye fell on the catalogue. She was holding it out to him with both hands.

"Oh, Mr. Everton, I'm so glad to see you! I was getting so frightened. It's so dreadful, and it seems to be getting worse every minute---but you will know what to do."

"Dear lady, what is it? I can't bear to see you like this."

"Oh, you are so kind! And it's such a relief to tell someone, because I don't know what to do." She pushed the catalogue at him and said, "Look!"

He took a moment to adjust his glasses.

"Well, well---now let me see---a list of apple trees. Are you thinking of putting any in?"

"No---no. Look! Oh---oh, don't you see, there's some writing---here---and there!" She pointed with a scarlet fingernail. "It's fading out, but it was quite clear. It came up when I held it to the fire at Miss Doncaster's. I wanted something to screen my face, and the writing came up. It's German. It says, 'Am Widder--Montag halb fünf'."

"I don't know any German," said Mr. Everton. "I don't suppose you do either. Do you?"

"Oh, yes! We all learnt it at Miss Braun's. I was quite good. It means 'At the Ram---Monday, at half past four'. And Miss Doncaster always has tea at the Ram when she goes into Marbury to shop. Isn't it dreadful!"

Mr. Everton gazed at her, kind but bewildered.

"I'm afraid I really don't quite take it in. Are you sure there isn't some mistake? There doesn't seem to be anything on this page except a very ordinary list of apple trees."

Ida felt a sudden obstinacy.

"It was there all right, but it's faded. If we hold it to the fire, perhaps it will come up again."

He said in a soothing voice, "Well, well, we can always try," and she went over and switched on a small electric fire which stood in front of the empty grate.

No one would have guessed what desperate thoughts whispered and clamoured behind that kindly, puzzled air. The millionth chance, and it was going to trip him up---that damned old magpie the Doncaster woman picking up the catalogue and going off with it! He knew when it must have happened---the day she had come into the garden and he had left her to find her own way out through the house. Just for such a small, small slip, to lose everything! She must have gone peering and prying into the study and taken it then. He ought to have destroyed it as soon as he had read the message. Yes, and have the servants wonder why he was burning paper, when everyone had it drummed into them morning noon and night that every scrap must be saved. He could have put it out for salvage. And have someone take it to light the fire with! No---all that he had done had been right and prudent. He had left it lying on his table amongst other catalogues as if it were no matter at all. And it had been the right thing to do---he would always maintain that it was right. Because all the way through, his position, the whole scheme, had depended on everything being just what everyone would expect. The moment there was the least variation from the normal, the least little thing of which anyone could say "That's odd," the plan was in danger. No---what he had done was right. It was only the millionth chance that had tripped him up.

These things were in his mind all together, speaking loud, speaking low. And amongst them, wary and poised, his inner self, the will to survive, to pluck safety out of defeat.

He watched the bar of the electric fire glow red. The inner self saw a small bright picture rise---the page held to the fire, curling in the heat, breaking into flame, falling back into harmless ash. He could do that, but it would not save him. Ida Mottram would swear to what she had seen, and the very destruction of the page would damn him.

No deeper than he was damned already. He was in two minds whether to destroy the page or not. It wasn't the page that had to be destroyed---it was Ida Mottram. If he were to shoot her now, he could put her body in the cupboard under the stairs. That would give him an hour or two to get away. The car laid up in his garage could be on the road in a quarter of an hour. If he could reach Marbury he would have a chance. But he must make Marbury before they found her.

His hand went into his pocket and felt the little pistol wadded in a handkerchief. A tiny, deadly thing, not at all like the cumbersome old weapon he had been clever enough to use for Harsch. It would make very little noise. Nobody in the country turned their heads when they heard a shot. He had gambled on that with Harsch, and it had come off.

There was hardly any interval between the click of the electric switch, the reddening of the bar, and Ida Mottram turning round to say, "I think it's hot enough now."

Until she came to die she would never again be so near to death as she was just then. He had the pistol free of the handkerchief. The hand in the pocket moved, withdrawing itself. Janice Meade came into the room.

Neither of them heard anything until she was there, just across the threshold. Ida Mottram said, "Hello!" Mr. Everton's hand came out of his pocket empty.

And now what? He must wait and see. If Mrs. Mottram held her tongue---but she wouldn't---she never did. As long as she believed that the message in the catalogue was for Miss Doncaster he had a chance, but the moment Miss Doncaster knew she would speak. He could imagine the furious zest with which she would denounce him.

He turned with his pleasant smile.

"How do you do, Miss Janice? Shall I put out the fire, Mrs. Mottram? Our little experiment can wait till afterwards. Yes, really---I think it would be better, dear lady."

But Ida Mottram was opening the catalogue.

"Oh, I haven't any secrets from Janice," she said. "Jan, the most extraordinary thing!" And there she was, pouring it all out---her visit to Miss Mary Anne---the catalogue used to screen her face---the message which had come up on the blank white spaces and faded again. "And Mr. Everton won't believe it was ever there at all. And it said in German, 'At the Ram---Monday, at half past four.' Isn't it dreadful---Miss Doncaster!"

Janice had got as far as the middle of the room. She stopped there by the folding table which Ida used for Bridge. It was folded now, and a bowl of old moulded glass full of September roses standing on it. The scent of the roses came up. She knew they were there, but she wasn't looking at them. She was looking at Ida on the hearth-rug with the catalogue in her hand, and she couldn't take her eyes away, because she had seen it before, not in Ida's hand but in Miss Doncaster's. And Miss Doncaster had said, "I never bother to write for these things myself---I borrow my neighbours. This is Mr. Everton's. I daresay he'll never miss it---you never saw such a mush as he's got on his table. So I just picked it up and brought it along."

Mr. Everton went softly across to the door and shut it. Then he went back almost as far as the glass door into the garden and stood there looking at the two girls. It was a good position. He could see them both from there, and the light was right.

Ida Mottram looked round over her shoulder.

"Oh, it's coming up beautifully!" she said.

Mr. Everton said, "Miss Meade---" and Janice turned. He saw something in her face. He said softly, "What is it, Miss Meade? Won't you tell me?"

She put up her hand to her head and said in a faint, steady voice, "It's so hot in here. Please turn the fire out. I think it would be nice in the garden."

Ida dropped the catalogue.

"Jan---aren't you feeling well?"

"Not very. I'd like---some air." She couldn't think of anything else, but it wasn't going to be any good.

Mr. Everton did not move.

And then, whilst Ida Mottram's eyes went round and surprised, something else moved beyond him in the garden. The head of Cyril Bond emerged from a lilac bush. He held a small bow and arrow, and his eyes were fixed upon imaginary Indians.

Janice felt a warmth rise up in her. It wasn't true that she was hot---she was deadly cold. She hadn't known how cold she was until that warmth touched her, and she knew that it was hope. She began to pray with all her might. The cold was the cold of thinking that she would never see Garth again. It began to go away.

Cyril Bond, glaring at the enemy he meant to scalp, was suddenly aware that he was closer than he had meant to be to Mrs. Mottram's drawing-room windows. He wasn't really supposed to be there at all, but when you are tracking an enemy you have to follow him. All the same he was too near the window, and---jeepers!---there was Mr. Everton no more than a yard inside it. Lucky he wasn't looking this way, but he might turn round. Cyril prepared for flight.

And then something stopped him. He could see Mr. Everton's back, and Miss Meade standing up in the middle of the room, and Mrs. Mottram down by the fire. Miss Meade looked funny somehow. Mr. Everton had his hand in his pocket, and then it came out with a pistol in it. Oh, boy! Just for a moment Cyril felt excited, and then something began to heave inside him and he wondered if he was going to be sick, because Mr. Everton was pointing the gun at Miss Meade, and Cyril heard him say, not loud but very distinctly, "Don't move, either of you!" He must have crawled clear of the lilacs, but he didn't remember doing it. He was running, sobbing whilst he ran. He thought he was going to be sick, but he kept on running. He barged into Major Albany and gasped through chattering teeth, "He's shooting them! Mr. Everton's shooting them---in Mrs. Mottram's drawing-room! Ow, Major!"

Garth Albany dropped him and ran.

Mr. Everton stood with his pistol levelled and considered his plan. If he shot one of them, the other girl would scream. You couldn't stop a woman screaming unless you gagged her. He couldn't risk a scream. He said quite pleasantly, "My dear lady, nobody is going to hurt you, but I want a little time to get away." Then, as Ida blinked bewildered blue eyes at him, "Miss Meade, you've got a head on your shoulders. I don't want to hurt either of you, but you must see that I can't risk your giving the alarm. If you will do what you are told you will be quite safe. I don't think Mrs. Mottram has as much self-control as you have, and I want you to gag her. There is some nice pink silk in her work-basket there which will do very well. Hurry, please!"

Hurry---She had seen Cyril's horrified face. She had seen him crawl away. Hurry---He wouldn't go on crawling---he would run. Hurry---How long to reach Garth? How long for Garth to come? She had got to make time. And Mr. Everton had the pistol. He mustn't have a chance to shoot at Garth.

The scent of the roses came up from the heavy glass bowl.

"Hurry!" There was a dangerous urgency in Mr. Everton's voice.

Her head felt stiff. She turned it a little, and saw Ida Mottram kneeling upon the hearth-rug and staring blankly at the pistol. She said in a surprised voice, "I don't understand----" and Mr. Everton said, "I'm afraid you will have to be gagged, but nobody is going to hurt you."

That wasn't true. Janice looked back at him. For a moment that had nothing to do with time it was just as if she was looking through a window into his mind. He would make her gag Ida, and then he would kill them both---her first, before she could scream, and then Ida, who couldn't scream because she would be gagged.

Something in her said "No!" and her mind went cold and clear. She said in a slow, considering voice, "I'm sorry---would you mind saying it again? What do you want me to do?"

He began to tell her all over again, but before he had said more than half a dozen words she saw Garth come round the corner of the house. He was running. She picked up the heavy glass bowl with the roses and pitched it at Mr. Everton as hard as she could. It wasn't for nothing that Garth had taught her to throw. It took him full in the face with a scatter of roses and water, and the bowl smashing home. His glasses broke, and he cried out with a horrible animal sound of pain. Ida Mottram screamed at the top of her voice, and for half a split second Janice wondered whether the glass door to the garden was locked, because if it was, Mr. Everton was going to kill them all. And then, before she had time to remember that Ida never locked it in the daytime, Garth turned the handle without any sound at all and stepped into the room.

He made a long reach over Mr. Everton's drenched shoulder, took him by the wrist, and jerked his right hand up. The pistol went off, and a little plaster came pattering down on to the table where the bowl had stood.

The next thing she knew, she was at the telephone calling up the police. Mr. Everton was on the ground with Garth sitting on him, and Ida was saying between her sobs, "Oh, you've broken my bowl! And it's cut his face---it's bleeding! Oh, poor Mr. Everton!"

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