Authors: Jane Aiken Hodge
A DEATH IN TWO PARTS
Jane Aiken Hodge
To the Reader
I wrote the first half of this book in 1950, when we were living in Essex, and was amused to find, when I happened on it a while ago, that I had set it in Lewes, where I live now. I am not sure whether I stopped half-way through because I was busy with my first daughter, or because I had painted myself into a plot corner and could not get out. At any rate, it seemed a challenge, and I have enjoyed solving the problem I set myself. The geography of Lewes was a bit erratic (I had only been there once), so for that and other reasons I have invented Leyning, which must lie somewhere Ditchling way. The house on Leyning High Street is an amalgam of mine and a friend's, but the people are entirely my own.
Patience Smith put her glass down slowly. “You mean,” she said, “that there's no money at all?”
Her companion looked around the crowded restaurant â anywhere but at her. “I'm very much afraid that's it,” Paul Protheroe said. “I can't tell you how sorry I am â anything I can do, of course â¦ I shall be only too delighted.” It did not ring altogether true, and, perhaps aware of this, he summoned their waiter and made amends by ordering her an elaborate lunch.
She was still taking in the news he had given her. “The allowance I've had has exhausted the fund?”
“I'm afraid that's it. The payments were made automatically, you see, under your father's will and it was only when we came to take stock on your twenty-first birthday that we discovered. As a matter of fact â” he hesitated â “the last allowance cheque was by way of being an advance â¦ but of course we'll forget about that. Ah, this looks good.” He watched the waiter's ministrations, gravely approving.
For the moment Patience ignored hors d'Åuvres. “You mean,” she said, “I'm not just penniless, I'm in debt.”
“Oh come; it's not really so bad as that. We're not going
to dun you. After all, I am by way of being your cousin as well as your lawyer.”
“Yes.” She was not particularly enthusiastic about it. “Wasn't it rather odd of Father?”
“Oh, no. He couldn't have had any idea this would happen. You see, his death and your mother's came so close together â the death duties were pretty steep â¦ and then how was he to know how this government was going to play about with the value of money?” It was a subject on which she had heard him many times before, and she took the next few sentences for granted, occupying herself, meanwhile, with a vision of her father, prosperous, financial and withdrawn, in his study. “And of course,” her cousin was winding up, “he hadn't allowed for the length of your minority.”
“No,” she said, “he would hardly have expected that.”
“Of course not. I am sure he and my father thought they were making the best possible decision when they tied that fund of yours up so tight, all those years ago, when you were born.”
“I'm only twenty-one,” she intervened. “Don't make me sound too ancient, please!”
“I beg your pardon.” He did not much like being interrupted. “But as I was trying to say, I myself have always felt, since I took over your fund, that it was unfortunate that they had never thought to reconsider it. If we could have had the handling of your money it would have been a very different story today.” He paused. “Well, no use crying over spilt milk, and I'd be the last to say anything against your father.”
“I should think not. He paid for your education, didn't he?
father died in that accident?” Paul Protheroe was only a few years older than she was, which had always made his superior assumptions harder to bear.
“He did indeed, and that's why I want to do everything I can to help you now.” He looked slightly taken aback, as if he had not expected the statement to come out quite so positively.
“It's good of you. Yes, thank you, I've finished.” She let the waiter take away her almost untouched hors d'Åuvres.
Paul summoned the wine waiter with a flourish and ordered burgundy. “You mustn't let it get you down, you know.”
She tackled seasonable turkey with a will. Anything rather than his sympathy. “No, of course not. I was just thinking â¦”
“No, it's no use. I was wondering if I could borrow from college to finish the year â it seems silly to be so near one's degree and not get it, but two terms would be a lot of money.”
“Yes, I suppose they would. It's hard to know what to advise. As you know, I've never cared much about all this higher education for women myself â a waste of time, if you ask me.”
“I know.” They had had this conversation many times before. “One of these days the right man will come along and I'll forget the whole box of tricks!”
“Exactly.” If he knew she was mocking him, he ignored it. “I suppose he hasn't by any chance?”
“No.” If she said it a little too firmly, he showed no sign of noticing. “That's your solution, is it?”
“Well, it would take care of you, of course. But if there's no one â¦ What were you thinking of doing?”
“Right now? I'm going up to Suffolk for Christmas. Or do you mean with my life?”
“Well, both. Is that the people you were with last summer â where the man was killed?”
He squinted through his wine at the light. “Well, you know I told you at the time I wasn't altogether happy about that affair. Of course I've no authority over you, but naturally I feel, well,
in loco parentis
, a bit. Nice wine, don't you think?” He paused to drink.
“Delicious. So you don't approve of my going to Suffolk?”
“It's none of my business of course, but, since you ask me, no, I don't. For one thing, I hate to rub it in, but if you're thinking of getting a job, it wouldn't look too good as an address. There was a deplorable amount of publicity about that affair.”
She made a face. “I see what you mean. Well, you don't need to worry because as a matter of fact I haven't the money for my fare. I was counting on getting my allowance today.” Surprising how much the admission hurt her.
“Of course. I was expecting that, and of course we'll tide you overâ¦ no, no, don't thank me. Naturally the firm feels responsible in a way and we'll take care of you. But rushing off to Suffolk â¦ well, that's something else again.”
No use raging, as she once would have, at the iron hand so soon apparent. “What would you suggest? Of course I'll have to get a job as soon as possible, but there's not much chance before Christmas; it's only ten days.” As she talked she was doing desperate sums in her head, trying to make
the pitiful remains of her allowance stretch to the fare to Suffolk. Perhaps if she pawned something â¦ her watch? Anything rather than be beholden to Paul Protheroe. And she would have to borrow from him if she stayed in London â hotels came expensive and there was no one she knew well enough to land on at such short notice. It was not the first time she had come up against the inconvenience of having no family. She had been on her own ever since she ran away from Featherstone Hall, years ago. She had got used to it, more or less, but it was certainly inconvenient now. Paul Protheroe was her nearest functioning relative and starvation would not make her go to stay with him. Or would it? she wondered, trying to find her way in a bleak new world.
He watched her cogitations for a minute, toying comfortably with his wine glass. When he saw her look of puzzlement deepen into one of distress, he spoke. “As a matter of fact I've got a suggestion to make â very tentative, and merely as a stop-gap â I thought of you when I heard about it, though I hardly like to suggestâ¦” He paused and looked at her dubiously. There had been times in the past when his suggestions had been met with a vehemence he had not relished. But Patience was tamer now.
“I'll do anything,” she said. “I'll have to. Two-thirds of an English degree's not going to get me anywhere. D'you know anyone who wants a good general maid? They're supposed to be in short supply aren't they?” She looked down at her elegant grey flannel suit. “I'm not sure these are quite the clothes for scrubbing floors, but never mind.”
He laughed â how she had always disliked that smooth laugh. “Oh, well, I don't think it need be quite so bad as that. Though as things have turned out it is perhaps a pity
you insisted on college instead of that business course I â if you remember â recommended. But we won't talk about that now,” he went on hastily as he noticed the red spot in each pale cheek, a sign, as he knew too well, that quiet Patience Smith was about to explode. “What I have to suggest,” he went on, “is a good bit better than floor-scrubbing, though hardly glamorous, I'm afraid, and might mean a little eating of humble pie.”
“Oh â glamour.” She dismissed it. “But what do you mean about humble pie?”
“D'you remember old Mrs Ffeathers?”
“I should rather think I do. But is she really still alive? I thought she was about a hundred that gruesome time when I lived at Featherstone Hall after Father died.”
“That's all to be forgotten,” he told her. “Your running away. I have no doubt there was wrong on both sides. In my line of business you get used to that. And it's really an advantage now, because the old lady doesn't much like strangers, and she remembers you as having spunk, she says.”
“The one that got away? And now she wants me back? But why?”
“Company? But she's got all those children and grandchildren â maybe great ones by now for all I know. What does she want company for? The Hall was so full of relations when I was there you couldn't see for cousins.” How she had hated it, that houseful of lively extroverted Ffeatherses, when she went there in the first loneliness after her parents' deaths. It was no wonder she had lost touch with them since. Even now the memory rankled. But that
was nothing if there was a job. “Have they all left home?” she asked.
“Oh, no, there are always plenty of people in the house, but Josephine Ffeathers is getting on now, and she needs a bit more, well, consideration, than her own family think of giving her. So for the last few years she's had a companion down there â or rather she's had a great many. I'll be honest with you, Patience, it's a difficult position. Mrs Ffeathers is apt to be a bit temperamental at times â she's over ninety, so perhaps she has a right to be â and then of course there are the family. I expect you remember what they're like.”
“Yes.” Patience managed to convey a great deal in her one syllable.
He made a vague gesture and turned it into a summons to the waiter. “Two coffees, please. Yes, I warned them it would be difficult, but they would insist on getting elderly women â oh, very nice, you know, quite unobjectionable, but I told them from the first it wouldn't work.”
“And it didn't?” Like my going to college, she thought. What fools people are not to take Cousin Paul's advice. He's always right.
“No, it didn't. They had a trained nurse first. She stayed for a while, but then she said there wasn't enough for her to do â and of course she was quite right; there's not much wrong with Josephine Ffeathers' health â tonics, you know, proper care, but not much in it for a nurse. Then they had a succession of youngish old ladies and of course they bored poor Josephine to tears â stories of life with father at Cheltenham and whist drives in India fifty years ago â you know the kind of thing. You can imagine the effect it had on Josephine. You
may like her or not, but you can't get away from it; she has lived.”