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Authors: Patricia Wentworth

Dead or Alive

BOOK: Dead or Alive
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Dead or Alive

Patricia Wentworth

I

It was the middle of October when Bill Coverdale came back. One year in South America looking for a big engineering contract for his firm, and now home again. England felt very good after Chile. London felt good. The astonishingly fine summer still held. There was a blue sky, a clear sun, and a light breeze. He was going to see Meg O'Hara. Everything was very good indeed.

He was walking, because in town you had to get your exercise when you could, and also because now that he was really going to see Meg again, he wanted to get himself in hand and be sure of just how he was going to meet her. You can't be away for a year without a change in every relationship. Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder, and sometimes it doesn't. Mostly it doesn't. Growth, change, and development go on. If two people are in constant touch with one another, they adjust themselves to these changes instinctively, and often without realizing that there are any adjustments to be made. But a year is a long time to be away.

Bill Coverdale told himself all these things. He had loved Meg for so long that he did not believe that he would ever stop loving her, but when he left England Robin O'Hara was still alive. Now that Meg was a widow, there was change between them whether she herself had changed or not. Change between them.… But just what sort of change? What was he going to be? Just the old friend of the next-door days in the country, when she was fifteen and he was twenty, and he had begun to love her? Or was there going to be a chance for him at last? He had stayed her friend because he would rather have Meg's friendship than any other woman's love. He had stayed her friend for ten years, and then she had married Robin O'Hara. That meant she was going to want a friend very badly some day. He wondered whether she had broken her heart when Robin died, or whether it had been broken before. Meg wouldn't let anyone know. She'd keep her head up whatever happened.

He walked up fifty stone steps and rang the bell of Meg's flat. He felt a kind of triumphant excitement because the year was over, and he was here, and Meg was free, and then a sudden black stab of fear lest, in the night since he had telephoned, something, anything, should have happened to set them apart again. And with that Meg opened the door.

All the things he had been thinking about went out of his head—change, fear, triumph, and Robin O'Hara—leaving just Meg, the most dearly familiar thing in all his world, the most settled, the most stable.

They came through a square yard of passage into the little sitting-room of the flat. The sun slanted in at the one window and showed how shabby everything was, but if the furniture and chintzes had been falling to bits, Bill wouldn't have noticed them, because he was looking at Meg. The trouble was that Meg was shabby too. He saw that. He had seen her pale often enough—far, far too often in the six months before he had gone away—and he had seen her tired, and had hated Robin O'Hara very fiercely, but he had never seen Meg shabby before. She had on a washed-out cotton frock. She was much thinner. There were dark shadows under her eyes. She was pale and she was tired. He loved her quite unbearably, but all he did was to hold her hand as if he had forgotten to let it go, and say,

“What have you been doing to yourself?”

It was Meg who pulled her hand away. She hadn't any intention of telling Bill what she had been doing. The last two years had been a nightmare, but when Bill was there she could wake up—not for long, not altogether, but just whilst he was there. Solid, darling old Bill. It was just as if he came crashing into the very middle of the bad dream and broke it round her. She took a long breath and said,

“Oh, Bill! Lovely to see you! And you're going to stay—you're not going out again?”

“No—I'm going to be here. My uncle's retiring, and I'm getting his place on the board.”

“Oh Bill—how nice! And you're looking splendid. Did you like it out there?”

“Hated it like poison.”

“Why?”

“I just did. England's good enough.”

Meg laughed, her own old laugh. It made him love her terribly.

“Bill—how insular! I'd love to travel.”

Bill put that away for future reference. He had an orderly mind. If Meg wanted to travel, she should. It was going to be his business to see that she got what she wanted. Always. He looked at her with a frown and said,

“You didn't answer my question. What have you been doing to yourself?”

It wasn't only his question. It is every man's question, and Meg gave him every woman's answer.

“Nothing.”

She thought, quickly and bitterly, “Why do people always say that? You don't do these things to yourself.”

Bill was frowning at her.

“You're pale.”

“It's been very hot.”

“You've got thin.”

“It's the fashion to be thin.”

Bill went on frowning.

“I don't like it.”

Meg leaned back in the corner of the sofa. Her dark blue eyes held a sudden sparkle and there was a little colour in the cheeks that had been too pale for Bill's taste. What, after all, had it got to do with Bill? She said in her sweetest voice—and Meg's voice could be very sweet—

“I know, darling, I'm looking hideous. But need you rub it in?”

Bill relaxed into a grin.

“Now you're angry.”

“Well, you
were
rubbing it in—weren't you?”

He was grave again, but not frowning now.

“Meg—won't you tell me what's the matter?”

Her colour died. The sparkle left her eyes.

“It's hot—I'm hard up—I've had to stay in town. I'm all right, Bill.”

“You don't look all right. Why are you so hard up?”

“Nothing coming in. I had a job for a bit, but it petered out in July.”

“I thought you'd come in for some money—you wrote and told me you had.”

Meg laughed a little.

“Bill, that was really funny. It was old Cousin Felicia, and she left quite a lot to be divided up amongst her female cousins, but when they came to hunt them up, how many do you suppose there were? Fifty-six. So what I got wasn't worth writing out to you about, and anyhow I haven't got it yet.” (And now he'll want to lend me money, and if I don't take it he'll be miserable, and if I do—)

The sparkle came back into Meg's eyes. You can borrow money when you've got it yourself, but if you haven't any—and no one but Meg knew just how little she had—why then you begin to lose things that money can't buy—pride, courage, and self-respect. Before Bill's tentative “Meg—” was well across his lips, she had shaken her head.

“Nothing doing, darling. But I'll lap up a job if you can find me one. I can type. I suppose your firm does have typists?”

Mr Coverdale was sharply revolted.

“But look here, Meg, what about the Professor? He can't know. Have you told him?”

“Darling Uncle Henry? Have you ever tried to talk to him about money? Robin did when we were first married. He said it was perfectly ridiculous Uncle Henry having no relations but me and a flourishing banking account, and the two things being so to speak insulated. He thought it would be an awfully good idea for Uncle Henry to give me an allowance, and when I said I couldn't ask him he said he'd do it himself. Well, he did it quite beautifully. We were having tea in the garden, and honestly, Bill, I thought he was going to pull it off. He led up to it in his most charming manner, and Uncle Henry sat there beaming and drinking his tea. He liked Robin when he noticed him, and he is fond of me—he really is. But just when Robin thought it was all over except the ‘Henry Postlethwaite' on the banker's order, Uncle Henry put his cup down three inches off the edge of the table and said, still with that pleased sort of smile and without noticing the crash, ‘Yes, yes, my dear—and I think if you don't mind I will leave you to make a note of it. These trains of thought are very elusive, but Hoppenglocker will be bound to admit the force of this.' I took hold of his arm and I said, ‘What are you doing to make a note of, darling?' He looked over the edge of his spectacles at me and said, “My reply to Hoppenglocker,—but I'm afraid you wouldn't understand it, my dear.' So then I said, ‘Did you hear what Robin was saying just now?' and he shook his head and said, ‘No—no—I'm afraid not. Some other time, Margaret,' and off he went. And Robin said he did it on purpose, but he didn't, you know—he's like that.”

Bill sat large and immovable. Meg was trying to put him off, but it wasn't any use, he wasn't going to be put off. He would much rather help Meg himself, but the Professor was the proper person to do it. He was glad she had mentioned Robin, because Robin had got to be mentioned, but he wanted to straighten out this business about the Professor first. He just waited till she had finished and then asked what he had planned to ask.

“Have you written and told him you're hard up?”

Meg nodded.

“Yes, I did. He didn't answer the letter. Bill darling, what's the good of looking like that? He doesn't answer letters—he just doesn't—and he's in the middle of another book.”

“Have you seen him?”

She shook her head.

“No. He's on his island. I told you he'd bought an island to write this book on, so that he could get right away and be quiet—no dogs, no motor horns, no nieces, no anything except a bird or two. You can't get away from birds.”

The Professor appeared to be a wash-out, for the moment at any rate. But Bill was not prepared just to leave it at that. Even the most absent-minded professor on the most secluded island can be made to realize his responsibilities. Perseverance would probably be necessary, but perseverance was one of Bill's strong suits. The snag was that perseverance takes time, and meanwhile here was Meg looking as if she was living on buns and or whatever it was that women did live on when they were hard up. Something had got to be done about that here and now. He said abruptly,

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