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Chapter Thirty

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« on: June 18, 2023, 11:11:28 am »

ARNOLD Random walked down to the South Lodge that afternoon. The burden upon him was now so great that he no longer noticed the untidiness of Emmeline’s garden. Even the fact that three of Scheherazade’s kittens were playing at being tigers in the jungle, and that Lucifer actually darted across his path and nearly tripped him up, made very little impression upon the unhappiness of his mood. What had happened had happened---you could never go back. But he need not turn Emmeline out. Sitting in the least uncomfortable of her chairs, he told her so, his manner very stiff, his face lined and grey.

“I came to say that I---in fact my plans have undergone an alteration.”

Emmeline gazed at him. It was impossible for her to look unkindly at anyone, and she felt a real concern.

“Yes, Arnold?”

“I hope I did not cause you any distress. My plans are changed. I felt that I should set your mind at rest. About the house.”

The tears came into her eyes.

“Dear Arnold---how kind----”

He stared past her at his brother’s portrait on the wall. How comfortable to be dead and buried, with your virtues proclaimed upon the headstone of a nicely tended grave and all your faults forgotten. Jonathan had had faults enough, but he had been loved, and Emmeline always spoke of him as if he were a saint. His thoughts pressed as heavily upon him as if they had indeed been churchyard clay. He said, “I wanted to set your mind at rest. I was afraid you might have been upset.”

“But I never thought you really meant it. I thought it was just the cats---and Edward. Susan says I must find homes for Amina’s kittens. And please don’t go on minding about Edward. It is such a pity to have quarrels in a family, instead of all being happy together.”

He got up with a jerk and reached for his hat. One of his gloves fell and he bent to pick it up again, his sight blurred by a sudden moisture. Emmeline made everything sound so easy. But it was too late---too late. He found himself saying the words aloud as he went past her and out through the porch with its shallow step. The kittens were still at their game, but he didn’t see them. He said, “It’s too late, my dear,” and went away up the avenue to the Hall.

Edward came home early. When they had finished tea, during which he listened in silence to Emmeline’s recital of his Uncle Arnold’s kindness, he announced that he and Susan would wash up, and carried out the tray.

The sink was in the kitchen. When he had set the tray down upon the draining-board he shut the door, leaned against it, and said, “If they don’t arrest me to-night, they will to-morrow. I thought you had better know.”

Susan stood in a white mist that smelled of fish and said to herself, “This is the sort of thing that can’t possibly be true---it just can’t.”

The smell of fish was because of the cats, who had cods’ heads and other horrible remnants boiled down for them. The kitchen was always full of it, but it had never been full of tragedy before. The two things made a horrid clash in her mind, like a collision in a nightmare. She did not know that all her rosy colour had drained away, but she heard herself say, “No----” in what she thought was a whisper.

The next thing she knew was that Edward had both his hands on her shoulders and was shaking her.

“Hold up, can’t you! Good God, Susan, you can’t faint here!”

She stared at him and said, “I can if I want to.”

“Then come off wanting to! Here, put your head down! I’ve got to talk to you!”

He sounded so angry, and was so entirely Edward in a temper, that the nightmare feeling receded. She said, “I’m sorry. It---it was the fish. I’m all right now. Let’s go into the back room and talk there.”

“No---we’re going to wash up. You can dry. You don’t expect me to believe you are such a ninny as to faint because there’s a smell of fish.”

Susan took a tea-cloth and leaned against the dripboard.

“It just didn’t mix---with what you said.”

He gave a sudden short laugh.

“About my being arrested? No, I suppose it didn’t. Anyhow I think we had better talk about it. I don’t want Emmeline to get any more hurt than she must.”

She said in rather a surprised voice, “Emmeline doesn’t get hurt. She gets away from things.”

“Yes, I know. But this----”

“She will be quite sure you are all right, because she will be quite sure you haven’t done anything to be arrested for.”

He handed her a hot, dripping plate.

“And you?”

She hadn’t got anything to say. If Edward was arrested, she couldn’t get away from it. It would hurt too much. All she could manage was, “I’m not like Emmeline.”

He gave her two more plates and a saucer.

“Don’t let them get cold, or they’ll dry with smears on them. Do you mind telling me why you are not like Emmeline? Do you really think I knocked two people on the head and drowned them in the splash?”

“No, of course I don’t. Why should the police---why should anyone?”

He was swishing out the teapot.

“Because someone wrote Clarice just the sort of note I might have written her. It was dropped in at the Miss Blakes’ letter-box some time before two o’clock on Friday. I walked past at two, and I could have dropped it in. It was typed, and it said, ‘All right, let’s have it out. I’ll be coming back late to-night. Meet me at the same place. Say half-past nine. I can’t make it before that.’ ”

“You didn’t write it!”

“No, but I might have done. Don’t you see, she was bothering my head off to go into a huddle and talk about Uncle James’ will. I hadn’t the slightest intention of doing it, but suppose she had worn me down to the point where I felt it would be better to see her and get it over, that is exactly the kind of letter I might have written.”

“When did you see the police?”

“They came out to old Barr’s this afternoon---the Embank man and a chap called Abbott from Scotland Yard. One of the cool, polished Police College kind---very much on the spot. He had found out that the note was typed on that old machine up at the Church Room which used to belong to Uncle James. Of course I knew that as soon as Bury showed it to me. Why, I learned to type on it---but I didn’t tell them that.”

“But anyone, absolutely anyone, could get in and use that typewriter.”

“As you say---and me amongst them. Very especially and particularly me. You see, I was there on Friday morning.”

“Oh----”

He nodded.

“Emmeline went up to do the flowers, and I went with her. Miss Sims was there. Perhaps she had just been typing the note. After she went away I looked up a point about the Old Close at Littleton. Barr and I were having an argument, and I knew there was something about it in your grandfather’s history of the county. It’s still there, at the end of the bottom shelf, just as it used to be when we went to Sunday School. By the time I’d finished with it the Vicar dropped in. He didn’t stay, but he’ll remember that he saw me there. It wouldn’t have taken me more than three minutes to type that note, and I could have done it either before he came or after he went. Emmeline was over at the church, and Miss Sims had departed. I went on dipping into your grandfather’s book, but I could just as easily have been typing that note. I went away in the end because Miss Mildred came along to collect some of the hymn books that wanted mending. And I could very easily have dropped the note in her letter-box on the way back, or after lunch on my way to Mr. Barr’s.”

Susan bit her lip.

“How was it signed---or wasn’t it?”

“Two typed initials. And here’s something that’s odd---the note has been creased right across them and partly torn. It was found crumpled up and dirty with soot under the grate in Clarice’s room. The letters might be an E or an R, but nobody is very dogmatic about it. You know, I can’t see why Clarice should have thrown the note away under the grate. It seems to me she would either have destroyed it or taken it with her.”

Susan said, “I don’t know---people do all sorts of things. She was the careless sort, and she wouldn’t know that someone was going to---murder her.”

“No---she wouldn’t know.” His tone was dark. “If she thought the note was from me---well, I simply hadn’t got a motive. You don’t kill a girl because she bothers you.” He gave a mirthless laugh. “Do you remember, when we were coming home on Thursday night after the scene outside Mrs. Stone’s, I said I should probably murder her some day. We were just coming through the gate. I hope nobody heard me.”

Susan hoped not too. It wasn’t only the words, it was the way he had said it, with a kind of savage exasperation.

She had finished drying the tea things now. She turned and hung up the damp cloth, and was glad that Edward could not see her face when he said,

“Even without that, I think they are pretty well bound to arrest me. It’s only the lack of motive that sticks in their throats---in her case, and in the other. Nobody has even begun to suggest a motive for my bumping Willy Jackson off. Everything else is just too easy---opportunities of typing the note and dropping it in---a nice story from Mrs. Stone who heard me giving Clarice the rough side of my tongue and heard her say I frightened her---and a piece from our Miss Sims, who listened in on Thursday night when Clarice rang up and said she had simply got to see me. She reports that I ‘spoke very harsh’. I know I meant to.”

Susan said without turning round, “They don’t know that you were up at the Church Room on Friday morning.”

“Oh, I gave them that one. I thought it would look better if it came from me. No, the really damning part is that the note made an appointment for half-past nine, and that I left old Barr’s at a quarter-past but I didn’t report finding the body until it was striking ten. They naturally want to know why it took me three-quarters of an hour to get as far as the splash.”

She turned round then and leaned back, gripping the edge of the draining-board.

“Why did it?”

He laughed.

“One of those things which are so simple that no one believes them. I like the woods at night---I always have. There was a moon, rather fitful between the clouds, and there was a fox---quite a young one---he was amusing to watch. But you can’t expect the police to lap up that sort of thing. Or a jury. More especially if it’s a jury of townsmen. Can’t you hear counsel for the prosecution? ‘Gentlemen, you are asked to believe that the prisoner spent this time, during which the unfortunate Clarice Dean was murdered, in the woods watching a fox!’ ”

She said, “Edward, please—I can’t bear it!”

He had his darkest look.

“You can bear a lot more than you think you can.”

He went over to the door again and stood with his back against it.

“I haven’t told them yet where I was for the four and a half years I was away, but I shall have to now. They’ll find out, so I had better make a virtue of necessity. I don’t suppose it’s going to do me any good.”

“Are you going to tell me?”

“Oh, yes. I was in prison.”

She heard herself say “Nonsense!” and was glad that her voice sounded quite firm.

“Well, it was a labour camp. I went into Russia to look for a friend who had gone there to look for his wife---after my historic row with Uncle James. It seemed quite a reasonable thing to do at the time. The girl was Russian, and they wouldn’t let her out, so Mark went in to get her.”

“He must have cared for her---very much.”

He laughed.

“Sentimental, aren’t you!”

A hot anger came up in her. She stamped her foot on the hard stone floor.

“I’m not! People do care like that---sometimes.”

“And it’s love, it’s love, it’s love that makes the world go round! As a matter of hard fact, Mark didn’t get on with his wife, but she was his wife, and he was hanged if he was going to have her dictated to by a bunch of Bolsheviks. Well, he wasn’t hanged, he was shot. After four years in a labour camp.”

“How do you know?”

“I told you. I was there. We escaped together. He was shot. It took me four months to get out of Russia. It was like some filthy nightmare, and I didn’t want to talk about it. Now I shall have to.”

“You can’t just keep everything bottled up---it does things to you.”

He put out a hand.

“Come here, Susan.”

“Why?”

“I’ll tell you. Just come.”

She came over to him. He linked his hands lightly behind her shoulders.

“You’re a nice child.”

“I’m not a child!”

“ ‘A nice woman’ sounds a bit stodgy, don’t you think? Shall we just say you are nice and leave it at that?”

Her eyes were on his face. What they saw there hurt. She said quite gravely,

“ ‘Nice’ is a bit stodgy too. It sounds like bread and butter.”

“Well, there isn’t anything wrong about bread and butter. A very clean, pleasant, wholesome, and nourishing comestible.”

Her colour rose brightly.

“And I suppose you think anyone is going to like being called wholesome and nourishing!”

“There are worse things. What are your views about kissing? Any conscientious objections?”

“Not when people are fond of each other.”

“Am I fond of you?”

For a moment her heart had beat so hard that she was afraid he would feel it. She went on looking at him because she wouldn’t let him see her look away, and said, “I think so——”

He nodded.

“Nice to have about the place. I expect quite a lot of people have told you that. Well, what about you? Are you fond of me?”

It was unutterably soft and silly, but the tears came into her eyes with a rush. She lifted her face to him and he kissed her. He had been holding her lightly, but with that first kiss everything was changed. She was caught against him roughly, her heart thudding---or was it his heart that beat so hard against her breast? And his kisses were rough too---vehement and snatched at, as if there was only this one short time for them. The extraordinary thing was that they did not frighten her. Her arms went round his neck and held him close. It was as if they stood in a storm together, but that somewhere in the centre of it there was security. Only she must not let him go. She must never let him go.

In the end it was he who put her away as suddenly as he had caught at her.

“Stupid business,” he said. “I hadn’t any right to do that. I now beg your pardon, and we forget it ever happened.”

She thought the first words shook, but it might only have been that she was shaking so terribly herself. His voice was hard and steady enough at the end. But this couldn’t be the end---not after they had been so close. She tried desperately hard to pull herself together. This was the sort of situation where you must, you simply must, pull something out of the wreck---courage---dignity---self-control. And all at once she didn’t have to try. She saw the bleak pain in his eyes and forgot all about Susan Wayne.

“Yes, we’re stupid,” she said, and her voice sounded all right. “You frightened us both. I don’t believe they are going to arrest you. You didn’t murder those people, and somebody else did. What is the good of the police if they can’t find out who it was?”

“Rhetorical question? Or am I supposed to provide an answer?”

She said, “I hope they will.”

“Pious child! Let us go on hoping---it will help to pass the time. And now we had better put these tea things away and go back to Emmeline, or she’ll think there is something up.”

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