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Authors: Patricia Wentworth

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Ladies’ Bane

BOOK: Ladies’ Bane
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Ladies’ Bane
Patricia Wentworth

Immediately on her arrival at Ladies’ House, Ione Muir realizes that all is not right with her newly married sister, Allegra. The town of Bleake is charming, but the medieval manor house itself-known by a sinister local legend as Ladies’ Bane-is full of gloomy depths and twisting staircases. Her brother-in-law, Geoffrey Trent, intends to purchase the expensive property, with which he is clearly infatuated, although his wife seems frightened by it. But it is soon obvious that Allegra is under the constant influence of narcotics. Miss Silver, hired by Allegra’s godmother to investigate Geoffrey’s finances, is the first to suspect foul play when his mischevious young ward, Margot, dies in a mysterious accident. Her keen intellect and uncanny understanding of human nature help Miss Silver to reveal the ominous forces that are at work in this strange household.

Patricia Wentworth

 

Ladies’ Bane

Miss Silver – #22, 1952

CHAPTER 1

Looking back, Ione Muir was to wonder what would have happened if she had chosen any other day to go up to town. With all the days of the week to choose from, she had picked a Tuesday, and that particular Tuesday. Suppose she had chosen some other day. Suppose she had gone a week earlier or a week later. Suppose she had not gone at all. Just how much difference would it have made? Would she have met Jim Severn in some other way? Would it all have been the same in the end? Or would it have been different-perhaps dreadfully different? Did certain people, certain events, certain crimes, produce as it were a vortex into which you must inevitably have been drawn? Or did it all just turn on the choice of a day or a train? She was never to be quite sure.

She took the 9.45 to town. Any other train, and she would not have run into Fenella Caldecott as she emerged from the Knightsbridge Tube.

“Ione! I haven’t seen you since-when was it-Celia’s wedding? What a lovely bride she made! Fortunately one didn’t have to look at the bridegroom-one never does at a wedding-but Celia was going to have to live with him, and honestly, I don’t know how she could! One oughtn’t to say things like that, but it’s only to you, and I’m sure I hope they are very happy indeed. Curious how some girls just seem to disappear after they are married. Cornwall, wasn’t it? Too remote! And that reminds me-what about Allegra? She’s another of the vanished ones. Why on earth do girls marry the sort of people who carry them off to the ends of the earth?” She bent a long, slim neck to glance at her wristwatch and gave a faint scream. “Darling, I’m going to be late for my fitting! And André just crosses you off if you’re even half a minute behind your time, though he doesn’t mind how many hours he keeps you waiting himself!” She waved a hand, called over her shoulder, “Meet me for lunch at the club,” and was gone.

Ione watched her go. Fenella hadn’t changed in the least, and she probably never would. Even at school she had possessed a long, slim elegance which triumphed over such garments as a gym tunic and the quite hideous St. Griselda uniform. Now, clothed by the great André, she was a most decorative creature. Not really her friend, but Allegra’s. She had not said she would meet Fenella for lunch, but she supposed that she would. What really decided her was that there hadn’t been time to ask whether she had heard from Allegra. They had been such very close friends.

She went about her shopping with rather an abstracted mind. Allegra had always been a bad correspondent. Anyone may be a bad correspondent without there being anything wrong. It is when people are busy and happy that they don’t bother to write. If there is anything wrong you hear. Or do you? Perhaps Fenella had heard-

Taking one o’clock as the starting-point, she had to wait three-quarters of an hour for Fenella at the club, and then she had to hear all about the fitting, and why Fenella had left Mirabelle whom she had always previously declared to be the only really imaginative dressmaker on this side of the Channel.

“But, darling, a complete
devil
! You won’t believe it, but she sent me to the Crayshaw wedding in an absolute duplicate of Pippa Casabianca’s going-away dress! In Paris, you know, and a whole month before! I might never have known, only Yvonne de Crassac sent me the photographs! Well, that really was the
end
! And I’m terribly lucky to get in with André, because he has a waiting-list about a mile long!”

There was a good deal more of this before Ione had a chance to mention Allegra.

“Have I heard from her lately? Darling, we don’t
correspond
! The old school tie rather fades out after a year or two, don’t you think? But I did like your charming brother-in-law-quite sinfully goodlooking, as Elizabeth Tremayne said! ï said no one ever looked at the bridegroom, but when Allegra was married we all
did
! Funny how those very handsome men don’t seem to care so much about looks in a girl, and you know, I did think that dead white was a mistake for Allegra. So
cold
, if you know what I mean!”

There was no unkindness in Fenella. Dress was her one real interest in life, and she took it seriously. When her mind turned to Allegra Muir’s wedding she could not only pass over the two-year gap and visualize every detail, but she could no more help re-dressing and re-grouping the bride and her attendants than she could stop the even flow of her breath. And the worst of it was that she was right. Nothing could have been less becoming to Allegra than all that icy white which had made her look pinched and grey, like something lost in a snowstorm. Ione was ruefully aware that she hadn’t looked any too good in it herself. And that awful lumpy girl Margot-could anything have been worse! She laughed and said,

“It’s the last time I’m going to be a bridesmaid anyhow. You have to when it’s your sister, but never again! The idea of herding a lot of girls together and putting them into something which is bound to be the last thing on earth that most of them ought to wear-well, it’s simply barbaric!”

Fenella did not laugh-she hardly ever did. She said earnestly,

“You’re too right, darling. Let me see-there was you-and Elizabeth Tremayne-and the Miller twins with all that red hair-and that frightful lumpy schoolgirl-what was her name?”

“Margot Trent. She’s a relation of Geoffrey’s, and he is her guardian. We had to have her. She looked terrible.”

Fenella shook her head sadly.

“Schoolgirls always do in white. They’re either much too fat like this Margot girl, or else they’ve got sharp red elbows and bones sticking out all over them. She still lives with them, doesn’t she? I don’t know how Allegra could! Has she fined down at all?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you’ve seen her, haven’t you?”

“Well, not very lately.”

“But you’ve seen Allegra. I’m simply counting on your giving me all her news. You must have seen Allegra!” Ione felt that her colour was rising. She said,

“Well, I was in America.”

“ America! What on earth were you doing there?”

“We have relations in New Jersey. I went to visit them, and stayed on longer than I meant to. As a matter of fact, I tumbled into a job.”

Fenella had a remembering look.

“Yes-now don’t tell me! I did hear about it-it was Sylvia Scott! She sent me an American magazine with a picture of you doing one of those monologues you used to be dragged in for at school concerts. It said you were having quite a success.”

Ione laughed.

“They seemed to like them. A friend of my cousins got me to do one or two at a big party, and then other people asked me, and in the end I had a very good professional offer, so I thought I had better take it and bring some dollars home.”

“Well, I don’t know how you do it!” Fenella’s attention wavered. She came back to Allegra. “What is her house like? Are they able to get any staff?”

“I expect so-I don’t know.”

“You haven’t been there?
Ione
!”

“I had to go and look after my old cousin who was ill.”

“Do you mean to say you haven’t seen Allegra since the wedding?”

“No, of course not. I saw her when she came back from her honeymoon.”

“You’ve never been to stay with her?”

“I couldn’t leave Cousin Eleanor.”

Fenella shook her head.

“It’s quite fatal to go and look after an old lady. They never die, and you never get away.”

Ione laughed.

“I’m going to stay with Allegra next week,” she said.

In her mind something said insistently, “If they don’t put you off again.”

CHAPTER 2

The dining-room at Fenella’s club was one of those rooms where you don’t notice very much what the weather is like outside. At lunchtime in the middle of January the light would be on anyhow, so it was not until they had lingered over their coffee and Fenella remembered that she had an appointment to try an absolutely new hair-do that either of them noticed the fog.

“And if I really can’t drop you, darling, I’d better fly, or goodness knows if I’ll get there!” Ione’s “No-quite the wrong direction” was gathered up in the rush of departure. She stood for a moment on the pavement outside the club before deciding that it was no use trying to do any more shopping, and that she had better just walk round to the nearest Tube station and go home. At the time it seemed not only a sensible thing to do, but a perfectly easy one. She knew this part of London like the back of her hand, and the station was not more than five minutes’ walk. Yet before the five minutes were up she was lost.

She had somehow missed a turning which she ought to have taken. Well, that was quite simple-she must go back and find it. She turned, walked for another five minutes, and knew that she had got right off the track. And what was worse, she had walked into a much denser patch of fog. If it had been like this in front of the club, she would never have started out. As it was, she had no idea of how far she had come, or in what direction. She found that she had no ideas about anything. No amount of darkness is so bewildering as fog, since it not only baffles, but confuses every sense. The eye still sees, but what it sees bears no relation to reality. The ear still hears, but it can no longer decide what is near and what is far. Everything is unnatural, distorted.

Well, she must keep on walking. These London fogs vary very much in density. She might at any time emerge from the worst of it, or at the very least come out upon some thoroughfare where she could ask her way. If it was as thick as this, it would be too much to hope that the buses would be running, or that there would be a taxi, but someone would be able to tell her the way to the Tube. Someone? It came over her that it was a good many minutes now since she had so much as heard a passing footstep.

She began to walk again without the least idea of where she was going. She found it extremely difficult to keep a straight line. Her left foot would slip from the kerb with a jerk, and a minute or two later her right, groping, would bruise itself against the wall in front of a house. The street-lamps really made everything worse. They showed only as dim orange cocoons which lighted nothing except the fog.

It was when she was passing one of them that she made her first contact with another human being. A step sounded-somewhere beside her, behind her, she didn’t know which-and a hand came out of the fog to snatch at her bag. It missed, because she stepped sideways into the road and ran for it, her heart thudding against her side. When she pulled up, there was no other sound but her own labouring breath. Stupid to have been so startled. It was only some petty thief who wanted her bag, and would have had it, his eyes being probably better at this kind of thing than hers, if she hadn’t swerved almost before the snatching hand shot out.

She came after this to a more frequented place. People went by, singly for the most part and at fairly long intervals. It must be about four o’clock, and of course no one who could help it would be out. After the attempt to snatch her bag she no longer thought of asking the way. You hear a footstep, and it tells you hardly anything at all. Or does it? She found herself getting interested in the footsteps. The slow, heavy one which might belong to an elderly tradesman full of solid worth or to the mother of six. Or perhaps to a prosperous burglar out to do a little quiet housebreaking in the fog. The light hurrying step of someone who would probably scream if you spoke to her. The hesitating step of someone who was probably as lost as herself, but who could be by chance another lurking thief.

She thought afterwards that she must have turned a corner without knowing it, because there were no more footsteps. The street seemed narrow, and the lamps a good deal farther apart. She pictured it as one of those quiet backwaters set with neat narrow-fronted houses all alike. She knew that the fronts were narrow, because there was a balustrade-so many dumpy stone pillars and three or four steps up to the front door. That the balustrade was there to guard an area upon which the basement windows looked out, she was to learn in rather a painful manner. Under the pressure of that odd disposition to bear either to one side or to the other a right-hand swerve brought her up against an area gate. She hit it hard with her knee, and it gave and let her through. Half stumbling, half falling, she came down quite a lot of steps and finished up on her hands and knees upon damp stone.

It was painful enough, but she was all in one piece. Her hat hung over an ear, her stockings were certainly laddered, and her gloves were slimy. She took them off, straightened her hat, and groped about for the bag which had flown out of her hand. She had just found it, when there was a sound. It came from over her head. A key had been turned in a lock and a bolt drawn back. The front door of the house was opening.

Her first thought was that someone had heard her fall down the area steps. Anyone in one of the front rooms could hardly have helped doing so. She was just thinking that it would look better if she were on her feet, when a voice said,

“I’m a dependable man-I can’t put it any stronger than that. My worrd is my bond. There’s not a man living that can say I ever let him down. A sure friend in trouble and a dependable man-that’s me.”

Three things were borne in upon Ione. The gentleman who was speaking hailed at one time or another from the far side of the Scottish border. He had fortified himself against the fog by recourse to his native beverage. And neither he nor the person whom he was addressing had the slightest idea that anyone had just made a crash landing in the area.

The steps that ran up from the street to the front door were almost over her head. If she stayed where she was she would neither be seen nor heard. There was no reason at all why she should not disclose herself, find out where she was, and ask to be set upon her way. The dependable gentleman might even prove to be a dependable guide.

There was no reason-but there was an instinct. If she had told her tongue to speak, it would not have obeyed her. But she did not tell it to speak. She stayed as still as a hare stays in its form, and for the same reason. Over her head someone was whispering. She could not tell whether it was man or woman. Then the Scot again:

“Oh, I’m on my way, I’m on my way, and I’ll take my foot from the door when I’m ready. And a nice sort of an afternoon to go out in-as black as the Earl o’ Hell’s waistcoat! If ye’d a heart in ye, ye’d not be sending me out in it.”

The whispering voice said something, and the Scot laughed.

“Oh, ye’re a prudent pairson, and I’ve nothing against prudence-in reason. And if ye think it’s reasonable to turn a man out in a fog like this, ye can just consider, if I’m run over, who’ll do your dirty work for ye then? Ye can just think about that… All right, all right, I’m going! And I haven’t said I’ll do it yet, but I’ll give it my careful consideration and let ye know. But mind, ye’ll have to think again-about the remuneration. I’ll not do it for any less than two thousand, and I’m of the opinion that I’d be a fool to do it for that. It’s my neck I’ll be risking, and I’ll not risk it for a penny less than two thousand.”

He came rolling down the steps, and the door banged to above him. She heard the key turn and the bolt go home. The rolling steps went past her and down the street to the lilt of a tune. The gentleman who was considering if he would risk his neck was whistling as he went.

“For ye’ll tak the high road,

And I’ll tak the low road,

And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye-”

The words sprang up in Ione’s mind to meet the tune, and with them the impulse to get out of this place into which she had fallen and away from the house where someone whispered, and someone haggled about the price of his neck. It was one of those impulses which take hold of you. She didn’t think about it, she didn’t even know that she was going to obey it. She just found herself running up the area steps and out into the road. It was the sheer blank wall of the fog that stopped her. The moment that she was away from the area and the steps, her sense of direction was gone. She couldn’t see the street-lamp. So far as she was concerned, it was just blotted out. All that remained in the blind world of fog was the failing strains of “ Loch Lomond.” When they were gone she would be all alone.

She began to run, but almost at once she checked herself. If she was to follow him, he mustn’t hear her. She mustn’t run. As long as he went on whistling, she thought she could follow the sound. But she mustn’t let him get far ahead. The fog muffled everything. It would be dreadfully easy to lose the sound, and once it was lost, there would be nothing to guide her.

When she thought about it afterwards she found it extremely difficult to understand why she should have had any desire to follow the rolling Scot. He had certainly had too much to drink, and she had heard him discussing the remuneration he would require for what sounded uncommonly like one of the major crimes. Against this there was nothing reasonable to advance. He seemed to know where he was going-and it might quite easily be the last place on earth in which she would wish to find herself. He sounded confident, and he whistled melodiously. It was, of course, his confidence which was the lure. He had a stick in his hand, and he went along at a cheerful pace, now tapping with it on the pavement, now rattling it with noisy gusto along the line of a stone balustrade. And all the time he whistled. When he had finished with “ Loch Lomond ” he did tricky things with “The Bluebells of Scotland,” and then rather let himself go on “The Road to the Isles.” If he hadn’t made so much noise he might have heard her. Bye and bye she became more confident and came up as close as she dared. He seemed to know where he was going, for he turned twice-once to the left, and once, after crossing the road, to the right.

After a little while she began to make a plan. He mustn’t know that she had been following him. He mustn’t connect her in any way with the house or with the street, which were now at quite a safe distance behind them. But if she could pass him in the fog, get a little way ahead, and then turn and come back, it would look like a perfectly chance encounter, and she could ask him whether he knew where they were. The more she thought about this plan, the more she liked it. Curiously enough, she had no fear of speaking to him. He might be going to engage in high-ranking crime, but she felt perfectly sure that he wouldn’t snatch her bag or hit her over the head in the street. She passed him, running lightly, whilst he was giving a spirited rendering of “Bonnie Dundee,” and was just going to slow up and turn, when she ran slap into someone else. Her outstretched hands touched a rough coat, and a moment later her face was hard against it and her mouth full of muffler. By the time she had gasped and spat it out a man’s voice was saying over the top of her head, “I say, I am awfully sorry! Are you hurt?” and “Bonnie Dundee” was breaking off. The voice was a nice one. She gave the arm which was holding her a frantic pinch, stood on tiptoe to get as near as possible to where she thought there might be an ear, and whispered,

“Say I ran into you-a little way back.”

He said, “All right.”

Her whispered “Thank you” reached him, and then a clear and charming voice, “Oh, here’s someone! Perhaps he knows where we are! Do ask him!”

The fog became permeated with an aroma of whisky. The voice that had rolled out its demand for two thousand pounds now enquired in a genial manner,

“And where would ye be wanting to be?” There seemed to be at least three r’s in the “where.” Ione had turned. She was still holding the arm which she had pinched. There was a sharp pain in her ankle. She said just a little breathlessly,

“I’m afraid I am quite lost. I don’t know if you can help us at all.”

There was the sound of a laugh.

“If ye had asked me that same thing just about ten minutes ago, I’d have told ye, but I’m beginning to think that I might have been mistaken. It’s a bad fog that would baffle me, but I’ll admit that I’m not just so sure of my surroundings as I’d like to be. I have an idea where I went wrong, but I’m far from saying I could find my way back to it. No, no-it’s ‘Keep right on to the end of the road, keep right on to the end-’ ” He passed easily into song, but pulled up before the end of the verse. “Ye take my meaning? If ye keep right on ye’ll aye get somewhere. If ye stay where ye are ye might just as well be dead and buried, and a grand saving of trouble to all concerned.”

The voice which belonged to the arm that Ione was holding said quietly,

“I can tell you where we are, for what it is worth. Not very much, I’m afraid, because I can’t see the slightest chance of getting anywhere else until the fog lifts.” Ione pinched again hard.

“Oh, why didn’t you say so before?”

There was a trace of laughter in his voice as he said,

“You didn’t give me time.” Then, in an explanatory manner in the direction of the aroma of whisky, “This lady and I collided a little way back. I think she must have been coming out of a side road.”

“And who’s to tell which is which?” demanded the Scot very reasonably. “But if ye find yourself in a position to tell us where we are, I’ll be obliged for the information.”

“We’re in Bicklesbury Road, if that means anything to you. My name is Severn. I’m an architect, and I came here to look at some houses which a client has bought and wants to have turned into flats. By the time I got here the fog was coming down fast, and I was a perfect fool not to go home. I thought I’d just take a quick look round, but when I got in it was really too dark to do anything. I pottered a bit, using a torch and hoping the fog would lift. Then my battery failed, and I came out into this. I’m afraid it’s not too good.”

It was all in the middle of the Scot endeavoring to place the exact whereabouts of Bicklesbury Road and introducing himself as Professor MacPhail that Ione became aware that whatever happened to the two men, she wasn’t going to be able to walk any farther. The ankle was becoming very insistent. She might have twisted it when she fell down all those steps. She might have given it a wrench just now when she bumped into Mr. Severn-she didn’t really know, and it didn’t really matter. All she did know was that it wouldn’t take her any farther. She said so, breaking in upon an itinerary proposed by the Professor.

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