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Authors: Winston Graham

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BOOK: The Sleeping Partner
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‘Except getting out of this fog.' She began to put on her shoe.

‘Dry it off properly,' I said. ‘ Darling, darling, I'll not touch you again.'

She said in a lost voice: ‘Don't suppose all the explosives are on your side.'

‘I don't – I didn't – I won't.'

She tied the tongued-leather lace, her slight fingers, which I'd seen so expert, getting in each other's way. As she fumbled she lifted her head to push away her hair; her back straightened like a bow released; you pictured it quivering with the hint of strain. You could see the line of her thigh through the pleated skirt.

I got up. ‘Let's go.'

We started off at right angles to the stream, expecting the road in fifty yards, but the rough empty moorland went on. Then we came to the stream again, barring our path.

I said: ‘ My God, if we're not careful we shall be lost.'

‘I think we are now.'

I shone my light about, but the beam only reflected drifting mist.

‘Is there a moon tonight?'

‘Yes, you remember yesterday.'

I said: ‘If we follow the stream we're surely going in the right direction.'

‘But will it lead us back to the road? We've already come downstream.'

‘If we follow it down a couple of hundred yards we might know.'

‘Or up.'

We tossed for it and downstream won. Presently we came on the remains of a railway line. It was no more than a flattened track, with one or two sleepers deeply buried in brambles.

‘We can't be far from the chapel.'

The fog had come down with the dark. I went off a few paces trying to see ahead along the old track, but suddenly she called, ‘Mike!'

‘Yes?' ‘Where are you?' I switched on my torch. ‘Here!' ‘For heaven's sake!' I went quickly back and we almost blundered into each other.

I took her again and kissed her face and hands.
She said in an urgent voice: ‘Let's go back to the car.'
‘Which way? You choose. I've persistently led you wrong.'
‘This way, then.' She led the way up the railway track, holding

my hand. Her fingers were cold but it was like holding a flame.
There was another building beside the old track, like a

railwayman's hut, but quite a size. The door was half off its hinges

but I shoved it open. This hadn't the dank unhealthy taint of the

chapel; perhaps it had been used more recently by tramps. There

was a fireplace in one wall and a broken lantern hung on a nail.

A chair without legs and a deal table, a rusty frying-pan. A pile

of sacks.
I said to her: ‘Stop or go on?'
‘Go on.'
We followed the track again. The stream was quite out of hearing

now, but of course we could always find that again.
We went on another couple of hundred yards until we came to

a broken truck on its side. Here the track branched, but neither

branch looked less overgrown than the other.
‘We're lost,' she said.
Being just then of that heart and body and mind, I could have

said, Well done.
‘What now?'
‘Go back, I suppose.'
As we came to the hut I said: ‘ We'd better stay here for a bit

until it clears.'
‘How long will that be?'
‘It
may
lift soon. You can never tell one minute from the next.'
It was too dark now to see her face clearly, but her eyes glimmered

with what seemed to be their own light.
Her hand seemed to want to get away from mine but I held it

firmly. She still hesitated on the threshold of the hut. At this point at least I would do no more.

She said in a normal voice: ‘I wish this fog would lift. It's worse than ever now.'

‘Perhaps we can get a fire going. There's the chair we can burn.'

‘I was never good at camping out. Were you?'

‘No,' I said.

She went slowly in. After a few seconds I followed her. I closed the door behind us and it nearly fell off its remaining hinge. Then I began to make love to her in there, in the warmer darkness of the hut.

Chapter Ten

I
GOT
to the works the next day about two.

They weren't expecting me at that hour and Read came in full of curiosity to know how we'd got on. When he heard Dawson had stayed behind he said:

‘I expect they couldn't resist his fatal charm. And Mrs Curtis?'

‘I brought her home. We should have been back last night but we got befogged and had to spend the night at Brecon. I suppose Thurston hasn't rung?'

‘No. By the way, those two chaps I took on last month have asked me what chance there is of them becoming inspectors. I said it would have to wait till you came home.'

‘Have they any qualifications?'

‘Not certificates. But I thought you'd perhaps best see them yourself sometime, if you don't mind.'

When he had gone I tried to take myself in hand. I'd thought, when I got into the office, yesterday would have to take second place. But it wouldn't.

I was quite wide awake to the fact that to play up a rather phoney-looking mishap in the Welsh mountains in order to seduce one's secretary isn't everybody's idea of nice behaviour. Especially when the girl had a sick husband and was herself fit up with the wine she had drunk.

Well, there it was.
Conduct for Cads,
Chapter Two, paragraph one. But the corollary appeared to be that the cad felt too excited about it to be ashamed of himself. I didn't know if that was in character too. All sorts of things had changed for me since yesterday.

All right. I said to myself, you're in love. Why make a thing about it? It's not the first time. What about Lynn?

And there I struck the rocks. Because it was the first time, this way. Yes, I'd been in love with Lynn. I remembered those early feelings, even though they were as if they had happened to another man. Perhaps it was another man because they were different from these. Or was this only the second or the third of the fifty-seven varieties of love?

No, precisely no, because the physical thing of last night, important though it was, was not the whole of it, perhaps not even the half of it. I still didn't know what I felt about Lynn. She was my wife and I was tied to her by twenty ties. But they didn't affect or even touch what had come from yesterday.

For the rest of the day I tried to pick up some of the loose ends that had been dropped. In the evening I knew I ought to drive over to Hockbridge to see if there was any letter yet from Lynn, but I funked it and instead went to the pictures and spent the night at the hotel in Letherton. The next morning Stella was not at the factory.

Perhaps it wasn't altogether surprising, and yet I had expected her to keep to the routine for the time being, for form's sake. I stuck it until twelve and then decided to go round and see her. I didn't like the thought of meeting John Curtis again, but I liked still less the idea of not knowing what she intended to do.

Just as I was thinking up an excuse for going, Thurston arrived. He smiled with his tight secret lips.

‘I left early this morning.'

‘Why have you come this far?' I said. ‘Trouble?'

‘Not exactly. Though in a way, yes. Certain criticisms of the instrument have been put forward, chiefly by Steel. Does he owe you a grudge, by any chance?'

‘What? I've no idea. He may.'

‘What happened in February exactly?'

‘Well, you know we let Steel's department down badly on two delivery dates. The firm deserved every sort of raspberry for it – and they got it. But part of the blame was Steel's for the absolutely ridiculous flow of modifications sent in to the original contracts. Of course one expects a few, but this was unreasonable. It confused my people and sent them astray. I felt pretty sore about it at the time, that the whole fault was laid on us. At our last meeting I told Steel what I thought about it. We had rather a set-to.'

Thurston plucked at his bottom lip. ‘One doesn't like to think of this in terms of personalities – and of course it may not be – but it does seem to me that he's putting forward more objections in this case than are reasonably justifiable.'

‘What does he complain about?'

‘Chiefly the lack of a terrain clearance instrument. You know the sort of thing: a radioaltimeter that feeds its information electronically to the rate-meter so you get an automatic compensation for undulations in the ground.'

I said: ‘It means extra weight and a hell of an elaboration. Just what we've tried to avoid.'

‘I know. But the Whitehall boys love something that sounds ingenious and can be expressed in words of five syllables. And of course in this particular field Steel's influence is fairly powerful.'

We talked for about twenty minutes. As he got up to go I said: ‘You want Dawson to stay down there at present?'

‘If you can spare him. It might save you or Mrs Curtis another journey.'

Mrs Curtis. Mike, Mike, Mike, she'd said my name over and over again on Sunday night, in different tones and shades of meaning. Protest, affection, passion, detachment.

‘I called in to see them on the way here,' Thurston said, making for the door. ‘It seemed a suitable thing to do.'

‘Yes,' I said, talking with him and walking with him to the dilapidated car he drove.

‘I'll ring,' he said. ‘ Steel may have been only making routine noises. If not we'll have to fight it out at a full conference.'

He got into his car. I said: ‘Who did you say you'd been to see?'

‘The Curtises. I'd only met him twice before, but one likes to pay one's respects.'

‘What, to Mr Curtis?'

‘To Dr Curtis, yes.'

‘I don't quite get you.'

Thurston looked at me. ‘Well, it's a pretty big loss, that, while he's still at the height of his powers.'

‘I don't follow you, David. What are you talking about?'

He put in the ignition key. ‘You must know who he is. Curtis of the Cavendish Laboratories. As you've worked so closely—'

I said. ‘I don't know anything about him. You mean he's a scientist?'

‘Was. One of our ablest. I suppose you won't remember the paper he read, two, no, three years ago to the Royal Society on “The Unity of Radiation and Matter”? It's still the definitive pronouncement.'

I said: ‘ Why the blazes didn't somebody
tell
me?'

Thurston shrugged. ‘I naturally thought his wife would have done.'

‘She didn't.'

‘Not when you engaged her?'

‘No.'

‘There seems no reason to have made a secret of it. Perhaps—'

‘Did she tell you?'

‘No, but when you said you were bringing an assistant to Harwell, of course we had to have her screened, so naturally we knew.'

‘Was that why you made such a fuss of her?'

He looked at me rather queerly. ‘ I don't know that I made “ a fuss” of her. Obviously one tries to offer some courtesy to the wife of a distinguished man who has been struck down as he has.'

‘Wait,'
I said, as he reached for the starter button. ‘What's the matter with him?'

Thurston stopped with his hand half-way. ‘ We're usually much too cunning nowadays to risk our lives monkeying about with these things without adequate protection. There aren't gamma-ray martyrs dotted about the country the way there used to be with X-rays. At least, not yet! But now and then someone slips up. John Curtis slipped up – or that's the general opinion.' He started the engine. ‘I was surprised to see him still out of bed.'

I held on to the door of the car like a talkative leave-taker. But I wasn't feeling talkative. I was trying to sift the operative word out of Thurston's last sentence.

‘Still?' I said. ‘D'you mean
already
out of bed?'

‘No, still. He's been ill six or seven months now. I understand he is not likely to last beyond the end of the year.'

After lunch I got in my car and drove to Raglan Cottage. I thought if I didn't go right away I shouldn't go at all.

When I got there a strange woman opened the door.

She said: ‘I'm Miss Willis. No, I'm sorry, Mrs Curtis is out. Dr Curtis is in, but I don't think he's seeing visitors.'

‘No,' I said. ‘When will Mrs Curtis—?'

‘That you, Granville?' came Curtis's voice from the sitting-room. ‘Come in, will you?'

There was no escape then. He was sitting in front of the usual fire, but the day was so warm that he had a window open. He was in a dressing-gown and looked like a ghost.

‘Sit down,' waving the end of an unlighted pipe. ‘Stella's out shopping. It was good of you to give her an extra day. I think she needs it.'

I said: ‘Are you better than when I came before?'

‘Oh, better than then.'

I thought, J. N. Curtis, of course. If I didn't mistake, he'd been on the War Research Council. Younger then. Younger than I was now.

‘Smoke?'

‘Thanks,' I said.

‘Do you want to see Stella specially? She's gone to Chelmsford.'

‘No. It's not important.'

‘As a matter of fact we've had one visitor today – David Thurston, whom you know.'

‘He told me he'd called. I didn't know you knew each other.'

‘Very little.'

He began to light his pipe. I got up and passed him the matches.

He nodded his thanks. ‘ I used to play a lot of tennis,' he said. ‘This is the weather for it. D'you play?'

‘I haven't for some years.'

‘Stella's pretty good. This time last year we used to play two or three evenings a week.'

‘Where was that?' I asked, groping for words.

‘In Cambridge. Perhaps you'd give her a game sometime. She tells me there are courts at the other end of the town.'

‘Yes,' I said. I couldn't stay here any longer.

BOOK: The Sleeping Partner
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