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Authors: Agatha writing as Mary Westmacott Christie

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BOOK: Absent in the Spring
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‘Oh,
Mother
!'

‘I know, darling, but you don't realize how young you are, how inexperienced. I should be able to help you so much if you were living somewhere not too far away.'

Barbara had smiled and had said, ‘Well, it looks as though I shall have to paddle my own canoe without the benefit of your experience and wisdom.'

And as Rodney was going slowly out of the room, she had rushed after him and had suddenly flung her arms round his neck hugging him and saying, ‘Darling Dads. Darling, darling, darling …'

Really, thought Joan, the child is becoming quite demonstrative. But it showed, at any rate, how entirely wrong Rodney was in his ideas. Barbara was just revelling in the thought of going out East with her William – and very nice it was to see two young things in love and so full of plans for the future.

Extraordinary that an idea should have got about Baghdad that Barbara had been unhappy at home. But it was a place that seemed absolutely full of gossip and rumours, so much so that one hardly liked to mention anyone.

Major Reid, for instance.

She herself had never met Major Reid, but he had been mentioned quite often in Barbara's letters home. Major Reid had been to dinner. They were going shooting with Major Reid. Barbara was going for the summer months up to Arkandous. She and another young married woman had shared a bungalow and Major Reid had been up there at the same time. They had had a lot of tennis. Later, Barbara and he had won the mixed doubles at the club.

So it had really been quite natural for Joan to ask brightly about Major Reid – she had heard so much about him, she said, that she was really longing to see him.

It was quite ludicrous the embarrassment her question had caused. Barbara had turned quite white, and William had gone red, and after a minute or two he had grunted out in a very odd voice:

‘We don't see anything of him now.'

His manner had been so forbidding that she really hadn't liked to say anything more. But afterwards when Barbara had gone to bed Joan reopened the subject, saying smilingly, that she seemed to have put her foot in it. She'd had an idea that Major Reid was quite an intimate friend.

William got up and tapped his pipe against the fireplace.

‘Oh, I dunno,' he said vaguely. ‘We did a bit of shooting together and all that. But we haven't seen anything of him for a long time now.'

It wasn't, Joan thought, very well done. She had smiled to herself, men were so transparent. She was a little amused at William's old-fashioned reticence. He probably thought of her as a very prim, strait-laced woman – a regular mother-in-law.

‘I see,' she said. ‘Some scandal.'

‘What do you mean?' William had turned on her quite angrily.

‘My dear boy!' Joan smiled at him. ‘It's quite obvious from your manner. I suppose you found out something about him and had to drop him. Oh, I shan't ask questions. These things are very painful, I know.'

William said slowly, ‘Yes – yes, you're right. They
are
painful.'

‘One takes people so much at their own valuation,' said Joan. ‘And then, when one finds out that one has been mistaken in them, it's all so awkward and unpleasant.'

‘He's cleared out of this country, that's one good thing,' said William. ‘Gone to East Africa.'

And suddenly Joan remembered some scraps of conversation overheard one day at the Alwyah Club. Something about Nobby Reid going to Uganda.

A woman had said, ‘Poor Nobby, it's really not his fault that every little idiot in the place runs after him.'

And another, older, woman had laughed spitefully and said, ‘He takes a lot of trouble with them. Dewy innocents – that's what Nobby likes. The unsophisticated bride. And I must say he has a wonderful technique! He can be terribly attractive. The girl always thinks he's passionately in love with her. That's usually the moment when he's just thinking of passing on to the next one.'

‘Well,' said the first woman. ‘
We
shall all miss him. He's so amusing.'

The other laughed.

‘There's a husband or two who won't be sorry to see him go! As a matter of fact very few men like him.'

‘He's certainly made this place too hot to hold him.'

Then the second woman had said, ‘Hush,' and lowered her voice and Joan hadn't heard any more. She had hardly noticed the conversation at the time, but it came back to her now, and she felt curious.

If William didn't want to talk about it, perhaps Barbara might be less reticent.

But instead of that Barbara had said quite clearly and rather disagreeably:

‘I don't want to talk about him, Mother, do you mind?'

Barbara, Joan reflected, never did want to talk about anything. She had been quite incredibly reticent and touchy about her illness, and its cause. Some form of poisoning had started it all, and naturally Joan had taken it to be food poisoning of some kind. Ptomaine poisoning was very common in hot climates, so she believed. But both William and Barbara had been most unwilling to go into details – and even the doctor to whom she had
naturally applied for information as Barbara's mother, had been taciturn and uncommunicative. His principal care was to stress the point that young Mrs Wray must not be questioned or encouraged to dwell on her illness.

‘All she needs now is care and building up. Whys and wherefores are very unprofitable subjects of discussion and talking about all that will do the patient no good. That's just a hint I'm giving you, Mrs Scudamore.'

An unpleasant, dour kind of man, Joan had found him, and not at all impressed, as he easily might have been, by the devotion of a mother in rushing out from England post haste.

Oh well, Barbara had been grateful, at all events. At least Joan supposed so … She had certainly thanked her mother very prettily. William, too, had said how good of her it was.

She had said how she wished she could have stayed on, and William had said, Yes, he wished so too. And she had said now they mustn't press her – because it was really too tempting and she'd love to have a winter in Baghdad – but after all there was Barbara's father to consider, and it wouldn't be fair on him.

And Barbara, in a faint little voice had said, ‘Darling Dads,' and after a moment or two had said, ‘Look here, Mother, why don't you stay?'

‘You must think of your father, darling.'

Barbara said in that rather curious dry voice she used sometimes that she
was
thinking of him, but Joan said, no, she couldn't leave poor dear Rodney to servants.

There was a moment, a few days before her departure, when she had almost changed her mind. She might, at any rate, stay another month. But William had pointed out so eloquently the uncertainties of desert travel if she left it too late in the season that she had been quite alarmed and had decided that it was best to stick to her original plan. After that William and Barbara had been so nice to her that she almost changed her mind again – but not quite.

Though really, however late in the season she had left it, nothing could be much worse than this.

Joan looked at her watch again. Five minutes to eleven. One seemed to be able to think a great deal in quite a short space of time.

She rather wished she'd brought
The Power House
out here with her, though perhaps as it was the only thing she had to read it was wise to keep it back – something in reserve.

Two hours to put in before lunch time. She had said she would have lunch at one o'clock today. Perhaps she had better walk on a little, only it seemed rather silly just walking aimlessly with nowhere particular to walk to. And the sun was quite hot.

Oh well, how often she had wished she could have just a little time to herself, to think things out. Now, if ever, was her opportunity. What things were there that she had wanted to think out so urgently?

Joan searched her mind – but they seemed mostly to have been matters of local importance – remembering where she had put this, that or the other, deciding how to arrange the servants' summer holidays, planning the redecorating of the old schoolroom.

All these things seemed now rather remote and unimportant. November was rather far in advance to plan the servants' holidays, and besides, she had to know when Whitsuntide was and that needed next year's almanac. She could, however, decide about the schoolroom. The walls a light shade of beige and oatmeal covers with some nice bright cushions? Yes, that would do very well.

Ten minutes past eleven. Redecorating and doing up the schoolroom hadn't taken long!

Joan thought vaguely, If I'd only known, I could have brought along some interesting book on modern science and discoveries, something that would explain things like the quantum theory.

And then she wondered what had put the quantum theory into her head and thought to herself, Of course – the covers – and Mrs Sherston.

For she remembered that she had once been discussing the vexed questions of chintzes or cretonnes for drawing-room covers with Mrs Sherston, the bank manager's wife – and right in the middle of it Mrs Sherston had said in her abrupt way, ‘I do wish I was clever enough to understand the quantum theory. It's such a fascinating idea, isn't it, energy all done up in little parcels.'

Joan had stared at her, for she really couldn't see what scientific theories had to do with chintzes, and Mrs Sherston had got rather red and said, ‘Stupid of me, but you know the way things come into your head quite suddenly – and it
is
an exciting idea, isn't it?'

Joan hadn't thought the idea particularly exciting and the conversation had ended there. But she remembered quite well Mrs Sherston's own cretonne – or rather hand-printed linen covers. A design of leaves in browns and greys and reds. She had said, ‘These are very unusual, were they very expensive?' And Mrs Sherston had said yes, they were. And she had added that she had got them because she loved woods and trees and the dream of her life was to go somewhere like Burma or Malaya where things grew really
fast
! Really fast, she had added, in an anxious tone, and making a rather clumsy gesture with her hands to express impatience.

Those linens, reflected Joan now, must have cost at least eighteen and six a yard, a fantastic price for those days. One ought, by realizing what Captain Sherston gave his wife for housekeeping and furnishing, to have had at least an inkling of what was to come out later.

She herself had never really liked the man. She remembered sitting in his office at the bank, discussing the reinvestment of some shares, Sherston opposite her, behind his desk – a great big breezy man exuding
bonhomie
. A rather exaggeratedly social manner … ‘I'm a man of the world, dear lady,' he seemed to be saying, ‘don't think of me as just a money machine – I'm a tennis player, a golfer, a dancer, a bridge player. The real me is the chap you meet at a party, not the official who says “no further overdraft”.'

A great overblown windbag, thought Joan indignantly. Crooked, always crooked. Even then he must have started on his falsification of the books, or whatever the swindle was. And yet nearly everyone had liked him, had said what a good sort old Sherston was, not at all the usual type of bank manager.

Well, that was true enough. The usual type of bank manager doesn't embezzle bank funds.

Well, Leslie Sherston had, at any rate, got her handprinted linen covers out of it all. Not that anyone had ever suggested that an extravagant wife had led to Sherston's dishonesty. You only had to look at Leslie Sherston to see that money meant nothing particularly to her. Always wearing shabby green tweeds and grubbing around in her garden or tramping through the countryside. She never bothered much about the children's clothes, either. And once, much later, Joan remembered an afternoon when Leslie Sherston had given her tea, fetching a big loaf and a roll of butter and some homemade jam and kitchen cups and teapots – everything bundled anyhow on a tray and brought in. An untidy, cheerful, careless sort of woman, with a one-sided slouch when she walked and a face that seemed all on one side too, but that one-sided smile of hers was rather nice, and people liked her on the whole.

Ah, well, poor Mrs Sherston. She'd had a sad life, a very sad life.

Joan moved restlessly. Why had she let that phrase, a sad life, come into her mind? It reminded her of Blanche Haggard (though that was quite a different kind of sad life!) and thinking of Blanche brought her back again to Barbara and the circumstances surrounding Barbara's illness. Was there nothing one could think of that did not lead in some painful and undesired direction?

She looked at her watch once more. At any rate, hand-printed linens and poor Mrs Sherston had taken up nearly half an hour. What could she think about now? Something pleasant, with no disturbing sidelines.

Rodney was probably the safest subject to think about. Dear Rodney. Joan's mind dwelt pleasurably on the thought of her husband, visualizing him as she had last seen him on the platform at Victoria, saying goodbye to her just before the train pulled out.

Yes, dear Rodney. Standing there looking up at her, the sun shining full on his face and revealing so mercilessly the network of little lines at the corners of his eyes – such tired eyes. Yes, tired eyes, eyes full of a deep sadness. (Not, she thought, that Rodney
is
sad. It's just a trick of construction. Some animals have sad eyes.) Usually, too, he was wearing his glasses and then you didn't notice the sadness of his eyes. But he certainly looked a very tired man. No wonder, when he worked so hard. He practically never took a day off. (I shall change all that when I get back, thought Joan. He must have more leisure. I ought to have thought of it before.)

Yes, seen there in the bright light, he looked as old or older than his years. She had looked down on him and he up at her and they had exchanged the usual idiotic last words.

BOOK: Absent in the Spring
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