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Authors: Agatha writing as Mary Westmacott Christie

Absent in the Spring (17 page)

BOOK: Absent in the Spring
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She sat inertly in a chair. Presently she would go out, but not just yet.

She wouldn't try to think about anything in particular – and she wouldn't try not to think. Both were much too tiring. She would just let herself drift.

The outer office of Alderman, Scudamore and Witney – the deed boxes labelled in white. Estate of Sir Jasper Ffoulkes, deceased. Colonel Etchingham Williams. Just like stage properties.

Peter Sherston's face looking up bright and eager from his desk. How very like his mother he was – no, not quite – he had Charles Sherston's eyes. That quick, shifty, sideways look. I wouldn't trust him too far if I were Rodney, she had thought.

Funny that she should have thought that!

After Leslie Sherston's death, Sherston had gone completely to pieces. He had drunk himself to death in record time. The children had been salvaged by relations. The third child, a little girl, had died six months after its birth.

John, the eldest boy, had gone into woods and forests. He was somewhere out in Burma now. Joan remembered Leslie and her handprinted linen covers. If John was like his mother, and had her desire to see things that grew fast, he must be very happy now. She had heard that he was doing very well.

Peter Sherston had come to Rodney and had expressed his desire to be taken into the office.

‘My mother told me she was sure you would help me, sir.'

An attractive, forthright boy, smiling, eager, always anxious to please – the more attractive, Joan had always thought, of the two.

Rodney had been glad to take the boy. It had made up to him a little, perhaps, for the fact that his own son had preferred to go overseas and had cut himself off from his family.

In time, perhaps, Rodney might have come to look upon Peter almost as a son. He was often at the house and was always charming to Joan. Easy, attractive manners – not quite so unctuous as his father's had been.

And then one day Rodney had come home looking worried and ill. In response to her questions he had replied impatiently that it was nothing, nothing at all. But about a week later he mentioned that Peter was leaving – had decided to go to an aircraft factory.

‘Oh, Rodney, and you've been so good to him. And we both liked him so much!'

‘Yes – an attractive lad.'

‘What was the trouble? Was he lazy?'

‘Oh no, he's a good head for figures and all that sort of thing.'

‘Like his father?'

‘Yes, like his father. But all these lads are attracted to the new discoveries – flying – that kind of thing.'

But Joan was not listening. Her own words had suggested to her a certain train of thought. Peter Sherston had left very suddenly.

‘Rodney – there wasn't anything
wrong,
was there?'

‘Wrong? What do you mean?'

‘I mean – well, like his father. His mouth is like Leslie's – but he's got that funny, shifty look in the eyes that his father always had. Oh, Rodney, it's true, isn't it? He
did
do something?'

Rodney said slowly, ‘There was just a little trouble.'

‘Over the accounts? He took money?'

‘I'd rather not talk about it, Joan. It was nothing important.'

‘Crooked like his father! Isn't heredity queer?'

‘Very queer. It seems to work the wrong way.'

‘You mean he might just as well have taken after Leslie? Still, she wasn't a particularly efficient person, was she?'

Rodney said in a dry voice, ‘I'm of the opinion that she was very efficient. She stuck to her job and did it well.'

‘Poor thing.'

Rodney said irritably, ‘I wish you wouldn't always pity her. It annoys me.'

‘But, Rodney, how unkind of you. She really had an awfully sad life.'

‘I never think of her that way.'

‘And then her death –'

‘I'd rather you didn't talk about that.'

He turned away.

Everybody, thought Joan, was afraid of cancer. They flinched away from the word. They called it, if possible, something else – a malignant growth – a serious operation – an incurable complaint – something internal. Even Rodney didn't like the mention of it. Because, after all, one never knew – one in every twelve, wasn't it, died of it? And it often seemed to attack the healthiest people. People who had never had anything else the matter with them.

Joan remembered the day that she heard the news from Mrs Lambert in the Market Square.

‘My dear, have you heard? Poor Mrs Sherston!'

‘What about her?'

‘Dead!' With gusto. And then the lowered voice. ‘Internal, I believe … Impossible to operate … She suffered terrible pain, I hear. But very plucky. Kept on working until only a couple of weeks before the end – when they really
had
to keep her under morphia. My nephew's wife saw her only six weeks ago. She looked terribly ill and was as thin as a rail, but she was just the same, laughing and joking. I suppose people just can't believe they can never get well. Oh well, she had a sad life, poor woman. I daresay it's a merciful release …'

Joan had hurried home to tell Rodney, and Rodney had said quietly, Yes, he knew. He was the executor of her will, he said, and so they had communicated with him at once.

Leslie Sherston had not had very much to leave. What there was was to be divided between her children. The clause that did excite Crayminster was the direction that her body should be brought to Crayminster for burial. ‘Because,' so ran the will, I was very happy there.'

So Leslie Adeline Sherston was laid to rest in the churchyard of St Mary's, Crayminster.

An odd request, some people thought, considering that it was in Crayminster that her husband had been convicted of fraudulent appropriation of bank funds. But other people said that it was quite natural. She had had a happy time there before all the trouble, and it was only natural that she should look back on it as a kind of lost Garden of Eden.

Poor Leslie – a tragic family altogether, for young Peter, after training as a test pilot, had crashed and been killed.

Rodney had been terribly cut up about it. In a queer way he seemed to blame himself for Peter's death.

‘But really, Rodney, I don't see how you make that out. It was nothing to do with you.'

‘Leslie sent him to me – she told him that I would give him a job and look after him.'

‘Well, so you did. You took him into the office.'

‘I know.'

‘And he went wrong, and you didn't prosecute him or anything – you made up the deficit yourself, didn't you?'

‘Yes, yes – it isn't that. Don't you see, that's
why
Leslie sent him to me, because she realized that he was weak, that he had Sherston's untrustworthiness. John was all right. She trusted me to look after Peter, to guard the weak spot. He was a queer mixture. He had Charles Sherston's crookedness and Leslie's courage. Armadales wrote me that he was the best pilot they'd had – absolutely fearless and a wizard – that's how they phrased it – with planes. The boy volunteered, you know, to try out a new secret device on a plane. It was known to be dangerous. That's how he was killed.'

‘Well, I call that very creditable, very creditable indeed.'

Rodney gave a short dry laugh.

‘Oh yes, Joan. But would you say that so complacently if it was your own son who had been killed like that? Would you be satisfied for Tony to have a creditable death?'

Joan stared.

‘But Peter wasn't our son. It's entirely different.'

‘I'm thinking of Leslie … of what she would have felt …'

Sitting in the rest house, Joan shifted a little in her chair.

Why had the Sherstons been so constantly in her thoughts ever since she had been here? She had other friends, friends who meant much more to her than any of the Sherstons had ever done.

She had never liked Leslie so very much, only felt sorry for her. Poor Leslie under her marble slab.

Joan shivered. I'm cold, she thought. I'm cold. Somebody is walking over my grave.

But it was Leslie Sherston's grave she was thinking about.

It's cold in here, she thought, cold and gloomy. I'll go out in the sunlight. I don't want to stay here any longer.

The churchyard – and Leslie Sherston's grave. And the scarlet, heavy rhododendron bud that fell from Rodney's coat.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May …

Chapter Nine

Joan came out into the sunlight at almost a run.

She started walking quickly, hardly glancing at the dump of tins and the hens.

That was better. Warm sunlight.

Warm – not cold any longer.

She had got away from it all …

But what did she mean by ‘got away from it all'?

The wraith of Miss Gilbey seemed suddenly to be close beside her, saying in impressive tones:

‘Discipline your thoughts, Joan. Be more precise in your terms. Make up your mind exactly what it is from which you are running away.'

But she didn't know. She hadn't the least idea.

Some fear, some menacing and pursuing dread.

Something that had been always there – waiting – and all she could do was to dodge and twist and turn …

Really, Joan Scudamore, she said to herself, you are behaving in a very peculiar manner …

But saying so didn't help matters. There must be something badly wrong with her. It couldn't exactly be agoraphobia – (had she got that name right, or not? It worried her not to be sure) because this time she was anxious to escape from those cold, confining walls – to get out from them into space and sunlight. She felt better now that she was outside.

Go out! Go out into the sunshine! Get away from these thoughts.

She'd been here long enough. In this high-ceilinged room that was like a mausoleum.

Leslie Sherston's grave, and Rodney …

Leslie … Rodney …

Get out …

The sunshine …

So cold – in this room …

Cold, and alone …

She increased her pace. Get away from that dreadful mausoleum of a rest house. So grim, so hemmed in …

The sort of place where you could easily imagine ghosts.

What a stupid idea – it was practically a brand new building, only put up two years ago.

There couldn't be ghosts in a new building, everybody knew that.

No, if there were ghosts in the rest house, then she, Joan Scudamore, must have brought them with her.

Now that was a
very
unpleasant thought …

She quickened her pace.

At any rate, she thought determinedly, there's nobody with me now. I'm quite alone. There's not even anybody I could meet.

Like – who was it – Stanley and Livingstone? Meeting in the wilds of Africa.

Dr Livingstone, I presume
.

Nothing like that here. Only one person she could meet here and that was Joan Scudamore.

What a comic idea!
‘Meet Joan Scudamore.' ‘Pleased to meet you, Mrs Scudamore
.'

Really – quite an interesting idea …

Meet yourself …

Meet yourself …

Oh, God, she was frightened …

She was horribly frightened …

Her steps quickened into a run. She ran forward, stumbling a little. Her thoughts stumbled just like her feet did.

… I'm frightened …

… Oh, God, I'm so frightened …

… If only there was someone here. Someone to be with me …

Blanche, she thought. I wish Blanche were here.

Yes, Blanche was just the person she wanted …

Nobody near and dear to her. None of her friends.

Just Blanche …

Blanche, with her easy, warm-hearted kindness. Blanche was kind. You couldn't surprise Blanche or shock her.

And anyway, Blanche thought she was nice. Blanche thought she had made a success of life. Blanche was fond of her.

Nobody else was …

That was it – that was the thought that had been with her all along – that was what the real Joan Scudamore knew – had always known …

Lizards popping out of holes …

Truth …

Little bits of truth, popping out like lizards, saying, ‘Here am I. You know me. You know me quite well. Don't pretend you don't.'

And she did know them – that was the awful part of it.

She could recognize each one of them.

Grinning at her, laughing at her.

All the little bits and pieces of truth. They'd been showing themselves to her ever since she'd arrived here. All she needed to do was to piece them together.

The whole story of her life – the real story of Joan Scudamore …

It was here waiting for her …

She had never needed to think about it before. It had been quite easy to fill her life with unimportant trivialities that left her no time for self-knowledge.

What was it Blanche had said?

‘
If you'd nothing to think about but yourself for days on end I wonder what you'd find out about yourself
.?'

And how superior, how smug, how stupid had been her answer:

‘Would one find out anything one didn't know before?'

Sometimes, Mother, I don't think you know anything about anybody …

That had been Tony.

How right Tony had been.

She hadn't known anything about her children, anything about Rodney. She had loved them but she hadn't known.

She should have known.

If you loved people you should know about them.

You didn't know because it was so much easier to believe the pleasant, easy things that you would like to be true, and not distress yourself with the things that really were true.

Like Averil – Averil and the pain that Averil had suffered.

She hadn't wanted to recognize that Averil had suffered …

Averil who had always despised her …

BOOK: Absent in the Spring
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