Authors: Elizabeth Ferrars
THE LANGTAIL PRESS
The Langtail Press
Rehearsals for Murder Â© 1940 Peter Mactaggart
he girl who stood in the doorway was about twenty-three years old, about five feet two inches tall, and, in a firmly compact way, appealingly shaped. A hairdresser had made her blonde. She wore a short, flowered dress that hugged a little too closely the firm, vital body. Over the dress was a flannel jacket that obviously belonged to a different ensemble. Hatless, the blond, untidy hair was held back from her face by a scarlet ribbon. A splash of scarlet marked the childish mouth. With a small nose and grey, good-natured eyes, the face was full of an eager and naÃ¯ve expressiveness. She was standing on tiptoe, her hands clutched together, smiling up with an almost desperate vividness at the man who had opened the door to her.
But in spite of that desperate lightheartedness and in spite of powder and eye shadow the fact that she had recently been crying was the first thing one would have noticed about her.
The man was tall, dark, and about thirty-three years old. He looked resigned rather than friendly. It was not her first ring at his bell, nor her second, nor indeed her third that had brought him to the door. But when his telephone had suddenly rung he had answered it. She had told him then, speaking from the porter's booth downstairs, that she knew he was in because of the light that showed under his door.
“Please,” she had said, “
, Toby, I must see you. I know it's awfully late, but if it isn't convenient for me to come in, couldn't you come out for a few minutes? Please, please, it's terribly important. There's a coffee stall on the corner across there; could you meet me there in five minutes' time?âI mean if you don't want me to come up, if you've got people there or something. I won't keep you long. But really, really, Toby, it's important. Please, Toby, if only you'llââ”
“All right, come along up, Lou. Sorry, I didn't know it was you when you rang. No, no, it's quite all right; come up.” Putting the telephone down, Toby Dyke looked at the clock. It was then twenty minutes before midnight.
Now, as he greeted with a brief smile the girl who stood there on the small square of landing, caution and reserve were in his manner. But she pretended not to notice. When she came into the flat it was as if she had been shot into it, she walked with such startling vigour of movement. In the middle of Toby's carpet she did a few little dancing steps and her head twisted this way and that as she took bright glances at the easy chairs, the littered writing table, the striped curtains, the mess of cigarette ash on the hearth before the unlit gas fire, the worn carpet. But her brightness, her little, jigging dance steps, her affectation of a birdlike pout as, with her head on one side, she took her first whimsical survey of his home surroundings were the merest transparency of a covering drawn over some fear and agonized despondence that possessed her.
“It's awfully hot up here,” she said; “you ought to open a window. Look, you've only a tiny bit open; I don't know how you can stand it. It's June, you know, Toby. Why don't you open something? You've no idea how hot it feels.”
“I'll call it June when it starts to feel like June.” He sat down on the arm of an easy chair and held out a paper packet of cigarettes to her. He had a narrow face, sallow and dramatic as a gipsy's. “You've been crying, Lou,” he said.
Lou Capell did another jigging twist on one heel. “Well, a bit,” she said, “but I've got a cold too; that's really what's wrong with my face. Horrible, getting a cold in summer, isn't it? I always hate summer colds; somehow you can't settle down to make a real, comforting sort of fuss over them like you can in winter. I like your flat, Toby. I've never been here, have I? You asked me up here to tea once, but when I came you were out. And it's ages since I've seen you.” Thickened by her cold, chaotically, the words tumbled out.
“Well, what's it all about?” said Toby.
She replied: “Oh goodness, it's nearly twelve o'clock! You must think me the most terrible nuisance. But I know so few of the kind of people whoâ¦” She wriggled her whole small, muscular body in a rush of embarrassment. “So few people are sensible about things, you know. They're curious, or they'reâwell, they misunderstand you, or they make you feel a fool somehow. That's why I came to you.”
“I see. Well, what is it all?”
She took another look round the room before she answered and seemed to have all her attention caught by a corner of the mantelpiece. Keeping her gaze fixed firmly upon it, she answered offhandedly: “I wish you'd let me sleep here, Toby.”
Toby Dyke gave a start. “I thought you said you only wanted to come up for a few minutes.”
“Oh, that isn't what I came to ask you,” she said, “but I'm terrified of hotels. I slept in a hotel last night. It was awful; I never got to sleep all night. I locked my door but I felt simply terrified. I'm always like that in hotels. I don't know why it is, but they just terrify me. I wish you'd let me sleep here tonight, Toby. I could put those two chairs together and I'd be perfectly all right. I promise I shouldn't be any bother.”
“I thought you'd a flat of your own,” said Toby.
“Yes, but Druna's there. You know Druna, don't you?”
He shook his head.
She looked surprised. “Druna Mertonâshe and I share the flat together.”
“Well, what's she been doing to you?”
“Doing to me?”
With the obvious patience that expresses impatience, he nodded.
She laughed, saying: “Why, Druna's marvellous. If you haven't met her I must fix it. You'd think her simply marvellous. I'll fix it as soon as all this is over.”
“All what?” said Toby. “And if Druna's marvellous, why can't you go back there tonight?”
The shadow of defensiveness came into her eyes. “Druna
marvellous. I mean, she's got one of those awfully calm, sure characters and immense strengthâI mean strength of will, you knowâshe isn't all muddled and silly like me. She knows exactly what she wants and she'll do anything to get it. I always admire that enormously, don't you? But sometimes, somehow, I don't feel likeâ¦”
“Bullies you, does she?”
“Good heavens, no! No, honestly, Toby, I admire Druna enormously. For one thing, I like beautiful people; I simply like being able to look at them. I'm grateful to them. But all the same, sometimesâ¦” And all at once it looked as if she were going to cry.
Frowning, Toby puffed smoke in her direction. Suddenly, raising his voice, he called out: “George!”
From the little kitchenette that opened out of the sitting room a voice made an indistinguishable reply.
Lou Capell jerked her head round. “I hadn't realized there was anyone else here.”
“Don't mind about George. He's a person,” said Toby, “of deep and catholic sympathy.” He raised his voice again: “How're you getting along with that coffee, George?”
“Now, Lou”âand Toby put some sternness into the look with which he surveyed the excited poise of her body and her tear-marked faceâ“what's the trouble? When you've told me I'll tell you whether or not you can sleep here.”
“But I can't tell you what the trouble is. I mustn't tell anyone!”
Toby sighed. Lou echoed the sigh noisily and threw herself down into a chair.
“Toby,” she said, “would you lend me fifteen pounds?”
It was just then that George, carrying a tray with three large cups and coffee in a tall, brown jug, joined them in the sitting room.
George was a short man, broadly made, with stubby, pink hands and a pink expanse of face. In its rosiness his features made only gentle corrugations. He had fair hair and mild blue eyes and wore a high-necked jersey tucked into trousers of a worn and shiny blue. Photographs of him, full face and profile, as well as a record of his fingerprints, were in the possession of Scotland Yard; but so, doubtless, are those of many other excellent people.
“This is George,” said Toby.
Setting the tray down, George bent his rubbery-looking face above the cups. “Milk, miss? Sugar?”
Lou smiled brightly up at him as if she were desperately trying to think of something bright to say. But there seemed to be a paralysis in her thoughts. Her fingers, clutching the worn, red leather bag with a broken strap that she carried, revealed her tension and embarrassment. Instead of speaking she hummed a scrap of tune. Then she appeared to realize how the humming gave her away. “Are you an American?” she managed to bring out.
“Don't start inquiring into George's origins,” said Toby; “they're everything they oughtn't to be. Same thing with his past.”
“I mean because he makes such good coffee,” she said quickly. “I don't mean I've ever had American coffee, but they're always saying we can't make it, and that generally means something, I suppose.”
Toby, taking a cup of coffee from George, murmured thoughtfully: “Fifteen pounds. Quite a lot of money to a hard-working journalist.”
Her eyes swung round to him. “It feels awful having to ask for it, but I've
to find it! And I can't tell anybody why. That makes it ten times worse. But I'll pay it back. That's why I came to you, Tobyâat least partly. I thought you'd know you could rely on me to pay it back.”
George observed: “When you lend money you didn't ought to expect it back. Then if you do get it back it's a nice surprise and if you don't nobody's any the worse. That's the only way to keep your nature from gettin' soured.”
Her eyes dropped, and she sat silent.
Toby said fretfully: “You're such a hopeless young fool about things. If I knew what the trouble wasââ”
She cried out shrilly: “Please, please, Toby, I'll pay it all back! I'll pay it back quite soon. I've had an idea about a job; I think I couldââ”
“Here!” said Toby harshly. He got out his chequebook and wrote quickly. “Not been trying some way of getting rich quick?” he asked abruptly.
She giggled. But as he glanced at her she smothered the sound with a look of stubborn primness. In her red-rimmed eyes there shone a look of almost animal gratitude. As Toby handed her the cheque tears welled up in them, and all at once her muscles relaxed so that her stocky body in its cheap, flowered dress and jacket of grey flannel had a look of complete collapse.
“Oh dear,” she moaned, “I don't want to cry. I don't
But she twisted sideways in her chair and, with her face pressed hard against its back, sobbed helplessly.
Toby and George sat sipping coffee.
Presently Toby said: “You'd better tell me about it now. Has someone managed to get some sort of a hold on you? Is it that woman Druna?”
She sat up abruptly. “Druna?” Her voice was thick from her tears and her cold. “Why d'you keep on about Druna? What've you got against her?”
“Sounds a pretty good bitch to me.”
“That's an absolutely ridiculous prejudice. You don't know anything about her. And, Toby, I'm not going to answer
questions. Oh goodness”âand she gasped for breathâ“my nose has got itself completely blocked up. I'd better put some stuff up itâd'you mind? It 'll improve it for a bit. It's past eleven, isn't it? Yes, of course it isâonly one mustn't use this stuff more than once every three hours, and I used it last about eight o'clock.”
She searched hastily in her bag and brought out a small, flat bottle.
“One oughtn't to cry when one's got a cold,” she said. “The two together give one something like death by suffocation.”
Toby waited silently while she tilted her head back and, with the tube fixed into the cork, squirted a few drops of liquid up each nostril. After that she blew her nose hard and then, as an afterthought, powdered it. Certainly when she spoke next her voice was clearer.
“Toby, you're always so awfully, awfully good to me, and I'd tell you the whole thingâin fact I'd like to; it'd be a relief to tell it to a reasonable personâonly, you see, I've
” That last word had the final and inviolable sound that it has on the lips of a child. Snatching up her cup, she swallowed down all that was left in it. “And may I sleep here tonight?”
At the spurt of laughter with which Toby answered her she smiled naÃ¯vely.
“Thanks ever so much.” But then her face clouded. “You do mean I can, don't you? Laughing like that, I meanâthat does meanâ¦”
“All right, all right,” he said, “though why you can't simply go to a hotelâ¦ Is it the cost?âbecause if soââ”
“No, no, I told you, I'm terrified of hotels. I know it's silly of me, but I simply lie awake and trembleâit's terrible.”
He grunted. “And this Druna of yours? Why is it you're afraid of her?”
“I'm not!” she said irritably. “It's just that sometimes one doesn't want to run into a particular person. Perhaps it's becauseâwell, I don't know how to put it, but sometimes she makes me feel horriblyâlost. I know what a fool I am and that almost everyone I meet is tons more intelligent than I am, and I'm terribly grateful to a person like you that you can put up with me at all. Yes, really, Toby,” she said gravely, “I am. It's awful being a fool. You've no idea how awful it is sometimes. Sometimes I think I'll try and do something about it but I know it's no good really. All I've got is an awful lot of energy. I have, you know; I've got lots more than most people. And that's rather awful too. You jump out of bed in the morning and find everyone else in the most frightful tempers and you dash round the house getting things done and being bright and gay and you only make the others worse than they are already. I don't know what on earth I'll do when I marry. Men are awful in the mornings, aren't they? Only I don't expect I'll ever marry. I think it might be a good idea for me to go in for nursing, don't you, Toby?”