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Chapter Twenty-Nine

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« on: June 18, 2023, 10:49:27 am »

MRS. Ball and Miss Silver took tea with the Miss Blakes, following a most pressing invitation from Miss Ora.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Ruth said in an apologetic voice, “but she rings up and makes it practically impossible to say no. If we hadn’t been able to go to-day, it would have been the next day, or the next, or the next, so I thought it would be better to get it over. Once she knows anyone has a visitor she can’t rest until she has had them to tea---and she really does have a very dull life, poor thing.”

Miss Silver said she would be delighted to have tea with the Miss Blakes.

“An invalid is deprived of so much.”

They found Miss Ora in her best shawl---quite a new one of a delicate shade of pink, the price of which had filled Miss Mildred with gloom. Her hair was disposed in very becoming curls, and she was wearing her mother’s rings, a diamond half-hoop and a diamond and sapphire cluster on one hand, and a pearl and turquoise on the other. She received her guests with smiling amiability.

“My sister will not be long. She is just making the tea. Mrs. Deacon goes away after lunch, you know, and my health quite prevents me doing anything. I am really helpless without a nurse. Miss Dean’s death has been a sad deprivation. Such a shocking affair! You will have heard of it of course from Mrs. Ball. Even the Vicar, who is so strict about gossip, would hardly expect her not to talk about a murder which took place, as you may say, at his own doorstep.”

Miss Silver agreed that it was all very shocking, adding that they must hope that it would prove to be an accident.

It needed no more than this to set Miss Ora off. Edward Random and his strange disappearance---“For disappear he did, and everyone thought he was dead. And no explanation---not even to his stepmother or his uncle, for I asked Emmeline Random myself, and all she did was to look vague---really sometimes one would think she wasn’t quite all there---and to say she wouldn’t dream of asking. A girl is very foolish to embark on a flirtation with a young man who has a background like that. I am sure you will agree? And his temper---simply shocking! You know, I called to him out of this window on the very first day he was back. There he was, striding down the street as if the whole place belonged to him and looking---well, arrogant is the only word I can find to describe it. And when I called out to him and said how glad he must be to be back, and when was he going to come up to see me and tell us all about where he had been and what he had been doing, what do you think he said?”

“Young men can be very impatient,” said Miss Silver.

Miss Ora fluttered the white curls with a very decided toss of the head.

“Impatient? He looked as if he would like to murder me! And he said, ‘I’m afraid you wouldn’t be interested’---just like that, and he walked on. I could believe anything of him after that!”

Ruth Ball felt her colour rising. John would certainly disapprove of this conversation, and Miss Silver was encouraging it---it was no good pretending that she wasn’t. And how was it to be checked? John always said, “Your presence should be enough, my dear,” and in his case, of course, it was. But she wasn’t nearly so good---all she could do was to be uncomfortable and feel herself getting red.

Miss Silver was not unaware of this discomfort. She regretted it. But Miss Ora must not only be allowed to talk, she must be encouraged to do so. In the ten minutes or so which went by before the arrival of the tea she heard all about Jonathan Random’s debts and Emmeline’s cats.

“Really quite a mania, and most insanitary! Kittens all over the place! As my sister told Arnold Random---she has a great deal of influence with him, you know---they are friends of very long standing---in fact they might easily have been something more, only it didn’t come to anything---- Dear me, where was I? . . . Oh, yes, she told him quite plainly---Mildred is always frank---that he had much better give her notice to quit and get the place cleaned up.”

It was at this point that Ruth Ball found herself unable to keep silence.

“Oh, Miss Blake, he couldn’t! Not his own brother’s widow!”

Miss Ora turned placid blue eyes in her direction. So long as she was comfortable, what did it matter if another woman was turned out of her home? She said in her amiable-sounding voice, “Well, I believe he has done so.”

A fierce little verse from the Psalms about people who were enclosed in their own fat came up in Ruth’s mind. David said it, and it was in the Bible, and whether John would approve of it being applied to one of his parishioners or not, that was how she felt about Miss Ora Blake. She gave her really quite an indignant glance. But Miss Ora slid away from it.

“It is really very good of you both to come out to tea with me. I have been an invalid for so long that I feel it is very brave of anyone to be out in the dark---and I am afraid it will be very dark indeed by the time you leave. Such a dull evening. And of course no street lighting---one of the drawbacks of living in a village.”

Miss Silver smiled.

“I really do not mind the dark at all. I have an excellent torch.”

Miss Ora nodded.

“We have one too, but of course I do not use it myself.”

Miss Mildred came into the room as she spoke, carrying a small and rather dirty japanned tray with a teapot and hot water-jug of heavy Victorian pattern. When she had set it down and shaken hands with Mrs. Ball and Miss Silver, her sister pursued the theme.

“Miss Silver has a very good torch, Mildred. I was telling her that we have one too.”

“I suppose everyone in Greenings has one,” said Miss Mildred in her deep voice.

Miss Silver coughed in an interrogative manner.

“You go out a good deal in the evenings?”

The remark was addressed to Miss Mildred, but it was Miss Ora who answered it.

“Oh, no---not at all. Just church, and the Vicarage work-party on Fridays. There is really no entertaining at all since the war---people have not the staff. But Mrs. Ball’s parties are so very pleasant, everyone says. I only wish I could go to them.” She beamed upon Ruth. “Mildred is most regular---in fact I don’t know when she missed. Except, of course, last Friday, when we all thought we would go early to bed. Miss Dean had a headache---at least she said she had, but we found out afterwards that it was just an excuse to run out and meet whoever it was that murdered her---and I suppose most of us can make a guess as to who that was!”

Miss Silver said, “Poor thing! And you did not hear her go out?”

“Oh, no---we had no idea. Mildred had a headache too. Of course I always go to bed early myself---Dr. Croft says it is most important. So we were going to have an early night, only of course in the end we were up till all hours. Such a terrible shock, the Doctor coming round and telling us Miss Dean was dead, when we had no idea that she was even out of the house. And you know how it is, if you are waked out of your first sleep, it is most difficult to go off again.”

Whilst this narrative proceeded Miss Mildred had been putting about three drops of milk into each of the cups and pouring out a faint straw-coloured brew, all in a grim silence. For which it was perhaps hard to judge her. Her manner was certainly not pleasant, but her sister must be trying to live with.

Reflecting on this, and looking at Miss Ora in her shell-tinted shawl, Ruth Ball could not help feeling irresistibly reminded of a pink blancmange---the sort you have at children’s parties, all shapeless and wobbly. As for Miss Mildred, she thought that she had never seen her look more dingy. She had not troubled to change out of her shabby clerical grey, and it seemed to have entered upon a new phase of deterioration. The sagging skirt was crumpled at the hem, and either there were new stains upon it and upon the cuffs, or else the overhead light showed them up more plainly. It shone down upon the greyness of her skin, and on the hands which looked as if they had not been washed for quite a long time. She poured out the tea in a manner which did very little to suggest hospitality, and broke in upon her sister’s remarks as to the courage required to go out in the dark with a sharp, “It would be a great deal better if more people stayed at home. All these girls slipping out to go walking in dark lanes with their young men---well, it isn’t surprising if they get into trouble. And if one of them gets herself murdered, it’s no more than is to be expected.”

Miss Silver gazed at her innocently.

“You mean that poor Miss Dean. Do you think that she was meeting someone?”

Miss Mildred thrust a plate of bread and butter at her and said in her harshest voice,

“I think she was meeting Edward Random. She had been running after him ever since she came here. Nobody could help noticing it.”

Miss Ora heaved a sigh.

“Of course we don’t know that he murdered her.”

Mildred Blake turned a frowning gaze.

“I didn’t say that he had, Ora. Perhaps we had better talk about something else. Will you have some bread and butter, Mrs. Ball? I hear Annie Jackson has moved in at the Vicarage. How do you find her? I thought she looked very strange at the funeral.”

Ruth Ball pressed her lips together and was thankful that Miss Silver absolved her from the necessity of answering.

“A very trying experience, poor thing. She is sadly shaken.”

Miss Mildred drank from a scalding cup to which she had added neither milk nor sugar.

“I have known her for years,” she said “---all the time she was with Lucy Wayne. I never thought it would take very much to send her off her balance. Her father was a cow-man on the Burlingham estate. He drank and beat his wife. None of the children were very strong in the head. Annie certainly couldn’t have been, or she wouldn’t have married that good-for-nothing William Jackson. Lucy left her five hundred pounds, and of course that was all he was after.”

If the tea was a meagre one---a plate of bread and butter that was really margarine, and a plate of home-made biscuits, with a slab of fruit cake which Miss Mildred made no attempt to cut; if the milk ran short and there were only half a dozen lumps of sugar in the Victorian basin which could easily have accommodated a pound---there was at least no stint about the gossip which flowed in rich profusion.

As they walked home, Ruth Ball said with vexation in her voice, “Every time I go there I make up my mind never to do it again. But what is one to do? It’s go, or start a quarrel---and you simply can’t do that in a village.”

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