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Authors: Agatha writing as Mary Westmacott Christie

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BOOK: Absent in the Spring
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Leslie Sherston had turned this offer down unconditionally and in that Joan thought she had been selfish. She was refusing for her children a much better life than she could give them and one free from any taint of disgrace.

However much she loved her boys, she ought, Joan thought, and Rodney agreed with her, to think of their lives before her own.

But Leslie had been quite unyielding and Rodney had washed his hands of the whole matter. He supposed, he had said with a sigh, that Mrs Sherston knew her own business best. Certainly, Joan thought, she was an obstinate creature.

Walking restlessly up and down the rest house floor, Joan remembered Leslie Sherston as she had looked that day sitting on Asheldown Ridge.

Sitting hunched forward, her elbows on her knees, her chin supported on her hands. Sitting curiously still. Looking out across the farmland and the plough to where slopes of oaks and beeches in Little Havering wood were turning golden red.

She and Rodney sitting there – so quiet – so motionless – staring in front of them.

Quite why she did not speak to them, or join them, Joan hardly knew.

Perhaps it was the guilty consciousness of her suspicions of Myrna Randolph?

Anyhow she had not spoken to them. Instead she had gone quietly back into the shelter of the trees and had taken her way home. It was an incident that she had never liked very much to think about – and she had certainly never mentioned it to Rodney. He might think she had ideas in her head, ideas about him and Myrna Randolph.

Rodney walking up the platform at Victoria …

Oh goodness, surely she wasn't going to begin
that
all over again?

What on earth had put that extraordinary notion into her head? That Rodney (who was and always had been devoted to her) was enjoying the prospect of her absence?

As though you could tell anything by the way a man walked!

She would simply put the whole ridiculous fancy out of her mind.

She wouldn't think any more about Rodney, not if it made her imagine such curious and unpleasant things.

Up to now, she'd never been a fanciful woman.

It
must
be the sun.

Chapter Five

The afternoon and evening passed with interminable slowness.

Joan didn't like to go out in the sun again until it was quite low in the sky. So she sat in the rest house.

After about half an hour she felt it unendurable to sit still in a chair. She went into the bedroom and began to unpack her cases and repack them. Her things, so she told herself, were not properly folded. She might as well make a good job of it.

She finished the job neatly and expeditiously. It was five o'clock. She might safely go out now surely. It was so depressing in the rest house. If only she had something to read …

Or even, thought Joan desperately, a wire puzzle!

Outside she looked with distaste at the tins and the hens and the barbed wire. What a horrible place this was. Utterly horrible.

She walked, for a change, in a direction parallel with the railway line and the Turkish frontier. It gave her a feeling of agreeable novelty. But after a quarter of an hour the effect was the same. The railway line, running a quarter of a mile to her right, gave her no feeling of companionship.

Nothing but silence – silence and sunlight.

It occurred to Joan that she might recite poetry. She had always been supposed as a girl to recite and read poetry very well. Interesting to see what she could remember after all these years. There was a time when she had known quite a lot of poetry by heart.

The quality of mercy is not strained,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

What came next? Stupid. She simply couldn't remember.

Fear no more the heat of the sun

(That began comfortingly anyway! Now how did it go on?)

Nor the furious winter's rages

Thou thy worldly task has done

Home art gone and ta'en thy wages

Golden lads and girls all must

As chimney sweepers come to dust
.

No, not very cheerful on the whole. Could she remember any of the sonnets? She used to know them. The
marriage of true minds
and that one that Rodney had asked her about.

Funny the way he had said suddenly one evening:

‘
And thy eternal summer shall not fade
– that's from Shakespeare, isn't it?'

‘Yes, from the sonnets.'

And he had said:

‘
Let me not unto the marriage of true minds admit impediment
? That one?'

‘No, the one that begins,
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day
.'

And then she had quoted the whole sonnet to him, really rather beautifully, with a lot of expression and all the proper emphasis.

At the end, instead of expressing approbation, he had only repeated thoughtfully:

‘
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
… but it's October now, isn't it?'

It was such an extraordinary thing to say that she had stared at him. Then he had said:

‘Do you know the other one? The one about the marriage of true minds?'

‘Yes.' She paused a minute and then began:

‘
Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters where it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O, no, it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken,

It is the star to every wandering bark

Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken
.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle's compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom
.

If this be error, and upon me prov'd

   
I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd
.'

She finished, giving the last lines full emphasis and dramatic fervour.

‘Don't you think I recite Shakespeare rather well? I was always supposed to at school. They said I read poetry with a lot of expression.'

But Rodney had only answered absently, ‘It doesn't really need expression. Just the words will do.'

She had sighed and murmured, ‘Shakespeare
is
wonderful, isn't he?'

And Rodney had answered, ‘What's really so wonderful is that he was just a poor devil like the rest of us.'

‘Rodney, what an extraordinary thing to say.'

He had smiled at her, then, as though waking up. ‘Is it?'

Getting up, he had strolled out of the room murmuring as he went:

‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May And summer's lease hath all too short a date.'

Why on earth, she wondered, had he said, ‘But it's October now'?

What could he have been thinking about?

She remembered that October, a particularly fine and mild one.

Curious, now she came to think of it, the evening that Rodney had asked her about the sonnets had been the actual evening of the day when she had seen him sitting with Mrs Sherston on Asheldown. Perhaps Mrs Sherston had been quoting Shakespeare, but it wasn't very likely. Leslie Sherston was not, she thought, at all an intellectual woman.

It had been a wonderful October that year.

She remembered quite plainly, a few days later, Rodney asking her in a bewildered tone:

‘Ought this thing to be out this time of year?'

He was pointing to a rhododendron. One of the early flowering ones that normally bloom in March or the end of February. It had a rich blood red blossom and the buds were bursting all over it.

‘No,' she had told him. ‘Spring is the time, but sometimes they do come out in autumn if it's unusually mild and warm.'

He had touched one of the buds gently with his fingers and had murmured under his breath:

‘The darling buds of May.'

March, she told him, not May.

‘It's like blood,' he said, ‘heart's blood.'

How unlike Rodney, she thought, to be so interested in flowers.

But after that he had always liked that particular rhododendron.

She remembered how, many years later, he had worn a great bud of it in his buttonhole.

Much too heavy, of course, and it had fallen out as she knew it would.

They'd been in the churchyard, of all extraordinary places, at the time.

She'd seen him there as she came back past the church and had joined him and said, ‘Whatever are you doing here, Rodney?'

He had laughed and said, ‘Considering my latter end, and what I'll have put on my tombstone. Not granite chips, I think, they're so genteel. And certainly not a stout marble angel.'

They had looked down then at a very new marble slab which bore Leslie Sherston's name.

Following her glance Rodney had spelled out slowly:

‘Leslie Adeline Sherston, dearly beloved wife of Charles Edward Sherston, who entered into rest on 11th May, 1930. And God shall wipe away their tears.'

Then, after a moment's pause, he had said:

‘Seems damned silly to think of Leslie Sherston under a cold slab of marble like that, and only a congenital idiot like Sherston would ever have chosen that text. I don't believe Leslie ever cried in her life.'

Joan had said, feeling just a little shocked and rather as though she was playing a slightly blasphemous game:

‘What would you choose?'

‘For her? I don't know. Isn't there something in the Psalms?
In thy presence is the fullness of joy
. Something like that.'

‘I really meant for yourself.'

‘Oh, for me?' He thought for a minute or two – smiled to himself. ‘
The Lord is my shepherd. He leadeth me in green pastures
. That will do very well for me.'

‘It sounds rather a dull idea of Heaven, I've always thought.'

‘What's your idea of Heaven, Joan?'

‘Well – not all the golden gates and that stuff, of course. I like to think of it as a
state
. Where everyone is busy helping, in some wonderful way, to make this world, perhaps, more beautiful and happier. Service – that's my idea of Heaven.'

‘What a dreadful little prig you are, Joan.' He had laughed in his teasing way to rob the words of their sting. Then he had said, ‘No, a green valley – that's good enough for me – and the sheep following the shepherd home in the cool of the evening –'

He paused a minute and then said, ‘It's an absurd fancy of mine, Joan, but I play with the idea sometimes that, as I'm on my way to the office and go along the High Street, I turn to take the alley into the Bell Walk and instead of the alley I've turned into a hidden valley, with green pasture and soft wooded hills on either side. It's been there all the time, existing secretly in the heart of the town. You turn from the busy High Street into it and you feel quite bewildered and say perhaps, “Where am I?” And then they'd tell you, you know, very gently, that you were dead …'

‘Rodney!' She was really startled, dismayed. ‘You – you're ill. You can't be well.'

It had been her first inkling of the state he was in – the precursor of that nervous breakdown that was shortly to send him for some two months to the sanatorium in Cornwall where he seemed content to lie silently listening to the gulls and staring out over the pale, treeless hills to the sea.

But she hadn't realized until that day in the churchyard that he really had been overworking. It was as they turned to go home, she with an arm through his, urging him forward, that she saw the heavy rhododendron bud drop from his coat and fall on Leslie's grave.

‘Oh, look,' she said, ‘your rhododendron,' and she stooped to pick it up. But he had said quickly:

‘Let it lie. Leave it there for Leslie Sherston. After all – she was our friend.'

And Joan had said quickly, what a nice idea, and that she would bring a big bunch of those yellow chrysanthemums herself tomorrow.

She had been, she remembered, a little frightened by the queer smile he gave her.

Yes, definitely she had felt that there was something wrong with Rodney that evening. She didn't, of course, realize that he was on the edge of a complete breakdown, but she did know that he was, somehow, different …

She had plied him with anxious questions all the way home but he hadn't said much. Only repeated again and again:

‘I'm tired, Joan … I'm very tired.'

And once, incomprehensibly, ‘We can't
all
be brave …'

It was only about a week later that he had, one morning, said dreamily, ‘I shan't get up today.'

And he had lain there in bed, not speaking or looking at anyone, just lain there, smiling quietly.

And then there had been doctors and nurses and finally the arrangements for him to go for a long rest cure to Trevelyan. No letters or telegrams and no visitors. They wouldn't even let Joan come and see him. Not his own wife.

It had been a sad, perplexing, bewildering time. And the children had been very difficult too. Not helpful. Behaving as though it was all her, Joan's, fault.

‘Letting him slave and slave and slave at that office. You know perfectly well, Mother, Father's worked far too hard for years.'

‘I know, my dears. But what could I do about it?'

‘You ought to have yanked him out of it years ago. Don't you
know
he hates it? Don't you know
anything
about Father?'

‘That's quite enough, Tony. Of course I know all about your father – far more than you do.'

‘Well, sometimes I don't think so. Sometimes I don't think you know anything about
anybody
.'

‘Tony – really!'

‘Dry up, Tony –' That was Averil. ‘What's the good?'

BOOK: Absent in the Spring
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