Authors: Patricia Wentworth
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller
Mr. Ashton, the senior partner of Ashton & Fenwick, solicitors, looked benevolently across his broad writing-table at Miss Brand. He had no means of knowing whether her extreme restraint of manner was natural or the result of shock. He had just finished explaining to her that under the will of her uncle, Martin Brand, she had succeeded to a very considerable fortune. Since, owing to a family quarrel, she had not up to this moment so much as known that she possessed such a relative, it was not unnatural to suppose that the intelligence had come as a shock. He thought it best to make a pause in the proceedings before handing her the letter entrusted to him by his late client. An eccentric fellow Martin Brand, but not sufficiently eccentric to give the other relations any chance of upsetting the will. He had had a houseful of them on his hands. He hadn’t liked any of them very much, and he had left everything to the daughter of the young brother who had flung out of the house and out of the family circle thirty years ago.
And here she was, Marian Brand, very quiet, very self-contained. She was extremely pale. The pallor might be the result of emotion, or it might be natural. There had, at any rate, been no attempt to remedy it. The fine, even skin was untouched by rouge, the well-cut lips were innocent of lipstick. This pallor and the quietness of her manner may have made her seem older than her twenty-seven years. The manner showed breeding. It was quiet, but it was neither nervous nor uncertain. Her voice when she spoke was pleasant and cultivated. He knew that she had been working in a house-agent’s office. He considered that she would have been an asset to the firm. She looked—he hesitated for a word and arrived at responsible. Well, she was having responsibility thrust upon her.
He had reached this point, when she spoke.
“Do you mind repeating the last thing you said? I want to be sure about it—about the income.”
He leaned back in his chair smiling.
“Well, I can’t pretend to give you an exact figure—you will understand that. But by the time all deductions are made— death duties, outstanding accounts, and allowing for income tax and surtax at the present rates—I think you may count on a clear two thousand a year. It may be more—it will, I think, almost certainly be more—but at the most conservative estimate it can hardly be less. Probate will, of course, take some time, but Mr. Brand arranged that a sum of money should be available without delay. You have a banking account?”
Marian Brand said, “No.” Then she smiled and added, “Only in the Post Office Savings Bank. I have never had anything but what I earned. I haven’t saved very much, I’m afraid—my sister hasn’t been strong.”
“So Mr. Brand said.”
Five pounds a week, and a delicate sister to support, and the delicate sister’s work-shy husband. He hoped that most of the money wouldn’t just run away down that drain.
He took Martin Brand’s letter from a drawer and went out of the office, leaving her to read it alone. She opened it without being able to feel that any of this was really happening. The part of her mind which recognized facts and their relation to other facts, the part which dealt with such things as cause and effect, was in a stunned condition, as completely in abeyance as if the events in which she was taking part were the events of a dream. In a dream nothing astonished you—you no longer expect anything to follow a reasonable course. She turned mechanically to the letter which Mr. Ashton had given her.
The letter was written in a clear and legible hand. She read it with a steady deepening of the feeling that none of it really mattered, because presently she would wake up and find that it had never happened.
My dear Marian,
You will not receive this letter until I am dead and buried. Since we have been strangers in life, there is no need for you to pretend to a sorrow you cannot feel, or to be plunged into the intricacies of family relationships in the morbid atmosphere induced by a funeral. If you decide to meet your relations—and I suppose you may find youself obliged to do so—let it be in circumstances which do not encourage the emotions. I am afraid you must be prepared for these emotions to include hurt feelings, resentment, jealousy, and so forth, but not any personal grief. My relations do not love me any more than I love them. You will naturally ask yourself, since you cannot ask me, why I should have harboured a houseful of them for so many years. The answer is a very simple one. At first the arrangement was one of mutual convenience. I was a helpless widower and a natural prey to the womanly feelings of any unattached female relative. A not sufficiently distant cousin who had become my brother Alfred’s widow settled on me with her son. She is Mrs. Alfred Brand, your Aunt Florence, a large woman with small, determined aims. Her son Felix plays the piano. After a year or two the constant visits of Florence’s unmarried sister, Cassy Remington, merged into permanent residence at my expense. She also is related to you, and will doubtless make herself quite as unpleasant as if the relationship were a much nearer one.
So much for preliminaries. When I made up my mind that I would rather leave my money to a dogs’ home than to anyone in what Florence calls the family circle, I thought that before proceeding to such extremities I would have to look at you and at your sister. I knew where you were, because your father wrote to me during the last week of his life. My reaction at the time was that it was rather late in the day to expect me to be interested. I did, however, instruct my solicitors to make some enquiries, and to furnish me with a quarterly report. I saw no reason why you should not, in the words of the Catechism, learn and labour truly to get your own living, but in a case of extremity I was prepared to intervene. Not to put too fine a point upon it, I considered that I had enough dependent relations and had no wish to add to their number.
I have already indicated the reasons which led me to change my mind. Before taking any steps in the matter of my will I decided to see you. The reports I had received informed me that you were a hardworking, industrious, and well-behaved young woman. I am quite aware that you will consider yourself insulted by this description. Nevertheless you will owe a considerable fortune to these work-a-day qualities. The reports informed me that your sister, on the other hand, was not a suitable beneficiary. She was delicate, easily influenced, and married to a young man too unstable to stick to a humdrum job, and not competent to achieve anything better. I have always greatly disliked incompetence, and see no reason why it should be subsidized.
I am therefore leaving everything to you. Rather a gamble perhaps, but I think I am entitled to amuse myself by taking a risk. When you read this Mr. Ashton will already have explained to you that the Mr. Brook who came down to look at houses and wasted so much of your time without ever really coming to the point was myself in the laudable pursuit of knowledge, not about houses, but with regard to a possible heiress. Speaking as a dead man, I find you very possible indeed. I think you have good looks, good temper, good sense, and good principles. So I am not tying you up too tightly, only I do request you to use the good sense. Do not transfer capital to your sister—it will not benefit her. You will have a power of appointment over half the estate. Mr. Ashton will explain to you what this involves.
Well, I think that is all I have to say, except to wish you well and hope that on the balance what I have done will turn out to be for your happiness. It would seem like a mockery to sign myself yours affectionately, but I believe that I might in other circumstances have come to feel affectionately towards you.
P.S. If you want to live in the house, it can easily be divided. I do not recommend this, but it may prove difficult to dislodge my dear sister-in-law and her sister.
On reading this over I find that I have not mentioned Penny Halliday—probably because I was dealing with disagreeable relations and neither of these two words is applicable, since she is merely a connection of the Remingtons and has so far shown no signs of taking after them. Pray do not develop a conscience on her account. She is quite reasonably provided for.
Mr. Ashton came back into the room as she finished reading the letter. Some colour had come into her face. There was a look of distress in her eyes. To his “Is anything the matter, Miss Brand?” she responded with more animation than he would have expected.
“He’s so bitter—so unhappy!”
“Well, I don’t know that I should agree with that. He had a kind of sardonic humour. I think he got a good deal of pleasure out of exercising it.”
Her flush was already fading. It had embellished her a good deal. She did not speak. She was folding the letter and putting it away in her bag.
Mr. Ashton said, “Is there anything you would like to ask me?”
She looked up then. He thought she had remarkably fine eyes of an unusual clear grey colour without any trace of blue.
“He says in the letter that I will have a power of appointment over half the estate. Will you tell me what that means?”
Mr. Ashton smiled benevolently.
“It means that you can leave half of it to anyone or anything you like.”
“And the rest?”
“Under the will half of the estate is settled. That is to say, if you marry and have children, it will go to them. The other half you can do what you like with. If you die without children, that half which is settled will be divided between the other relations, Mrs. Alfred Brand, her son Felix, and her sister Miss Remington—half of it to Felix, and half between the two sisters. They are his second cousins, besides the connection through Florence’s marriage to Alfred Brand. In the last resort, he did not really want the money to go out of the family. You cannot dispose of that part of the estate. It goes to your children, or it goes back to the family. I knew your uncle for thirty years. He might, and did, talk in an embittered manner about his relations, but he would never have allowed family money to go out of the family. You should, of course, consider making a will in the near future.”
Marian Brand never knew what made her say what she did. Her mind was in a curious state. She spoke without conscious thought. She said, “What would happen if I didn’t make a will—if I was run over on the way home, or something like that?”
Mr. Ashton continued to smile. He said in his pleasant voice,
“A very unlikely contingency, I hope.”
She went on looking at him.
“What would happen?”
“The unsettled part would go to your sister. The settled part would be divided as I said.”
She took a long sighing breath and said,
Mr. Ashton spoke briskly,
“Now what about that banking account?”
The compartment had been full when they left Victoria. The usual clutter of people who have been up to town for a day’s shopping and come piling into third-class carriages with bulging bags and tired feet. If you were one of the early ones you got a seat and had other people more or less standing on you. If you ran it fine you jostled the people who were standing in the narrow strip between the seats, or in the corridor if it was a corridor train.
Marian Brand had been in good time. She had the inside corner seat facing the engine. There was not so much crowding as there often was. Every seat full of course, but only three people standing, and all quite hearty-looking men. They stood as near the window as they could get and exchanged occasional remarks. On Marian’s left was one of those women who take up too much room in trains. She bulged and wheezed. She had three shopping-bags which were all quite full.
Marian looked through the glass pane on her other side and saw the corridor going away to a diminishing point, and the row of windows beyond it. It was her eyes that saw the standing men, the stout woman, the flashy girl in the other corner seat, the long receding line of the corridor, but her mind did not really register any of these things. They remained external images which conscious thought rejected because it was far too busy to be concerned with them. A man passed the window, coming up from the end of the corridor. She saw him in the same way that she had seen the other things. His passing meant no more to her than if she had seen a shadow go by.
The man was Richard Cunningham. As he walked along the corridor he saw a woman looking in his direction. There was no reason why he should notice her. The train was full. Each of the corridor windows presented him with a view of people packed like fish—faces pale, flushed, pretty, plain— old, young, middle-aged—a cross section of humanity so closely squeezed together that individuality and interest were lost. There was no reason why he should see one face and remember it. But he saw Marian Brand, checked for a moment, and passed on. When he had reached the first-class compartment which was his aim and had taken the last remaining seat, her face was still there, as vividly present as if it was she who was sitting opposite to him and not the blonde woman who was a little too blonde, a little too waved, a little too lavish in the matter of pearls. Nothing could have presented a more drastic contrast to the face he had seen at the window. He could see it still quite plainly. He contemplated it with an interest which had nothing sentimental about it. He was thirty-five, and though there is no age-limit for folly, he was by many years past an inclination for casual encounters.
He had no idea why this woman’s face should catch his attention. She was not beautiful—or was she? That was one of the points which interested him. She was certainly not pretty. Her clothes were the shabby clothes that are chosen for their wearing qualities and must be worn for as long as they can be made to look decent. No indication, therefore, of the character or taste of the woman who wears them, except in so far as the choice of something dark, plain and hardwearing is an indication of character. He dismissed the clothes. She had a good brow—good bones altogether, a certain line from cheek to chin, a certain balance. He put her age at twenty-five, perhaps a year or two more, perhaps a year or two less. She hadn’t lived soft. There was no bloom on the smooth, pale skin. But there were no lines either. That would be something to do with the shape of the bones beneath, but a good deal more to a habit of mind. A woman with a face like that didn’t fuss about trifles, didn’t fuss at all. She would do what she had to do, endure what she had to endure. He thought there had been a fair amount of enduring. She had the look of it in her eyes—patience. It was a look which moved him whenever he encountered it, in a child, in an animal. Sometimes it was the pitiful patience that doesn’t hope any longer. This was the other kind, the patience which rests on strength. It endures because in the end it will conquer.
He pulled himself up with half a laugh. Word-spinning! Well, it was his trade. If your brain stopped spinning you stories, you would stop being able to write them. But he couldn’t remember being so caught by anything in the way of an external impression for…He stared back across the years, could find no bridge to the other side. The impression appeared to be unique. It came to him with a shock that the word external was wrong. The whole thing went much deeper than that. He did just know that her hair was dark and her eyes were grey, but all that had nothing to do with his vivid sense of her.
About a quarter of an hour later he got up and went out into the corridor again. It was in his mind to walk slowly past her window to the end of the carriage, wait for a few moments, and then walk back again, but before he had taken more than three or four steps the train swayed, jerked horribly, and left the rails. The whole thing happened with the most appalling suddenness. Everything broke up in a violent cataclysm. A noise like all imaginable noises stunned the ear. The sudden impact of disaster paralysed the senses. The train reared upon itself, buckled, and crashed. A terrible screaming went up. The sliding doors of several of the compartments swung open as the train tilted. Marian Brand was flung from her seat into the corridor. She fell, and was caught in a desperate clutch. And then everything fell together and they went down into blackness.
When she came to, the blackness was still there. It hadn’t been dark before the crash, but it was dark now. She shut her eyes. After a minute she opened them again. Thought was beginning. There had been an accident. How long ago? It oughtn’t to be so dark. Darkness—burial—the words came to her with the drenching flood. She steadied herself against them, drew on her courage, and got enough to move the other hand. It went out a little way and touched a man’s arm. She felt the rough stuff, the hard muscle, and movement. The blessedness of that relief was not to be measured. Movement means life—not to be quite alone in the darkness with the dead. A man’s voice said, “I’m here. Don’t be afraid.”
It was the most beautiful sound she had ever heard. It was, in plain fact, a voice naturally pleasant, but a good deal handicapped by choking dust. She said,
“Where are we?”
“Under what’s left of the train. They’ll get us out presently. Are you all right?”
She hadn’t got as far as thinking about that. She began to think about it now, clutching at his arm, experimenting to see what she could move. After a moment she said,
“I’m all right, I think. Everything moves a little, but I can’t lift up or turn—there’s something over us.”
“Yes—lucky for us. There was a ditch—we went down into it. Fortunately we got there first. A door opened and shot us out before the train came down on us. I was in the corridor just outside your compartment. I grabbed you, and we came down together. We’re in the bottom of the ditch. There’s a good deal of stuff over us, and it may take some time to get us out, but we shall be all right.”
As his voice ceased, she began to be aware of sounds which had not come to her before. They must have been there, but they had not reached her—movement, voices, the scrape of metal on metal, a heavy thudding, a sound of groaning, a sound of someone crying, and once, high-pitched and terrible, a scream. It all seemed to be a long way off, not in distance but—removed. The sensation of being withdrawn from her surroundings had not been broken by the accident but intensified. What she thought and felt seemed to come to her from the other side of a misty barrier which made everything unreal.
She drew a long breath. Whether it was heard or felt she did not know. She was still holding to the stuff of his coat. His left hand came over now and took her wrist, feeling for the pulse. Then, releasing that, he took her hand.
“You’re all right. We’ve just got to pass the time. Take your hand away if you want to—but you’re a bit cold—I thought perhaps something to hold on to—”
She said, “Yes,” and, after a long pause, “Thank you.”
It didn’t do to think what it would have been like to be there alone. She was glad when he spoke again.
“Well, we’ve got the time to put in. By the bye, they know we’re here, so you needn’t worry about that. I was calling out, and a man came and spoke to me just before you woke up. They can’t get this stuff off till the breakdown gang rolls up. Fortunately there’s lots of air. What would you like to talk about? My name is Richard Cunningham, and I write— novels, plays, verse, belles lettres.”
He heard her take another of those long breaths, but this time it was quicker.
“You wrote The Whispering Tree.”
“I read when I can—there’s so little time. My sister reads a lot. She isn’t strong—she can’t take a job. I’ve always tried to manage a library subscription for her. She runs through the books so quickly that I can’t keep up—there’s no time. But I did read The Whispering Tree. I loved it.”
“Why isn’t there time? What do you do?”
“I work in a house-agent’s office in Norwood. We live there.”
“Who is we?”
“My sister and I, and her husband—when he’s there.”
He repeated the last words.
“When he’s there. Why isn’t he there?”
“He’s an actor. He gets a part in a touring company—now and then.”
“Yes. They oughtn’t to have married. She was eighteen and he was twenty. He was in a bank, but it bored him. He thought he was going to do wonders on the stage. He has a light tenor voice, and he’s quite nice-looking. He got small parts easily at first—and then not so easily. Ina isn’t strong. There’s nothing actually the matter, but she cracks up.”
There was a odd inflection in his voice as he said,
“And you are the bread-winner?”
“There isn’t anyone else.”
There was a curious dream quality about their talk. They lay in the dark—strangers, with clasped hands. Shock and terror had broken down the barrier which convention builds. It was as if their thoughts spoke. It was as if anything could be asked and anything said with a naked truthfulness which needed no excuse. Even looking back upon it afterwards, it all seemed natural to Marian Brand. They had never met before, and they would never meet again.They were on the edge of terror. They lay in the dark and held hands. She said things that she had never said to anyone before. Sometimes there were long pauses. Once or twice there was a faintness, but it cleared. If they were silent for too long, the darkness came too close. Sometimes he asked a question. Whenever that happened she had the feeling that the answer mattered.
When she said in a surprised voice, “But it’s all very dull,” he laughed a little.
“People aren’t dull. They’re my trade. What they do and why they do it—it may be horrifying, or humiliating, or surprising, but it’s never dull. If it is, it’s because you’re dull yourself—one of those whose touch turns all to dust brigade.” Then, quite abruptly, “So you’ve got everything on your shoulders. Haven’t you any family?”
“We hadn’t. My father quarrelled with his people. I suppose you would call him a rolling stone. We went all over the world—France, Italy, Africa, the Argentine, California, New York. Sometimes there was plenty of money, and sometimes there wasn’t any at all. We came back to England when I was ten, and my mother died. Ina and I were put in a school at Norwood, and my father went off again.”
It didn’t come out all at once. There would be a whole sentence, and then three or four words, and then two or three more. The gaps between did not seem to have any relation to the sense, they just happened. The voice would stop, and go on for a bit, and stop again. It was rather like listening to someone talking in her sleep.
It was, perhaps, with some idea of wakening a sleeper that he asked abruptly,
“How old are you now?”
“Twenty-seven. Ina is a year younger.”
“I thought you would be about that when I saw you in the train.”
She said in that expressionless way,
“Did you—see me?”
“Oh, yes. You were sitting next to the door into the corridor. I saw you, but you didn’t see me—you were about a million miles away.”
The tone of her voice changed for the first time. It had been grave and level. Now it was touched by a faint shade of something which might have been surprise. She said,
“Not quite so far as that.”
“Go on—I interrupted. You and Ina went to school. Were you happy?”
“Ina was. I should have been. But it was the same thing all over again—the money part of it, you know. Sometimes it came, and sometimes it didn’t. Just before I was eighteen my father came to England and died. There wasn’t any money. I learned to type, and Miss Fisher got me a job. Ina had one too, but—I told you—she married Cyril Felton. There was a lot of worry, and she can’t stand worry—it knocks her over. We’ve just managed to carry on.”
“And why were you a million miles away? Something happened. What?”
She said, “How did you know? Yes, something did happen.”
“I don’t really believe in it, you know—not yet. I haven’t told anyone—there hasn’t been time. Perhaps if I tell you, it will make it feel real.”
“You can always try.”
Her hand moved in his, not withdrawing itself, just turning a little. When she spoke there were not quite so many of those pauses.
“It began about six months ago, only I didn’t know there was anything in it then. A Mr. Brook came into the office and asked about houses. He was oldish—rather sharp in his manner. He took a long time, going through the particulars of everything we had on our books. He asked a lot of questions—about the neighbourhood—about shops, social things—where did I shop myself—did I belong to a tennis club, a dramatic society. I thought he was asking on account of his own family. Actually, I can see now that he wanted to know how I lived, what I did. I had to tell him about Ina, to explain why I didn’t do any of the things he asked about. Of course he must have made other enquiries too—in fact I know he did. He went away without doing anything about a house, and I put him down as one of those people who just go round wasting time.”