Authors: Patricia Wentworth
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller
‘The fault is yours if fault there be,
The thanks are yours if thanks are owed,
Who led me firmly by the hand
Along this gay, adventurous road.’
The ledge was about six inches wide. Candida stood on it with her toes stubbed against the rock. Her left hand was clenched on a small projecting knob about level with the top of her head. With the other she was feeling carefully and methodically for something which she could catch hold of on her right. There didn’t seem to be anything, but she went on feeling. In the end she had to come back to the shallow crack which she had discarded. It would only take the tips of her fingers. By itself it really wasn’t any good, but it did just give the least little help to the hand that was clutching the knob. She stood there and wondered what she was going to do next.
There wasn’t very much that she could do. In fact, to be quite frank and plain with herself, there wasn’t anything at all. She had got as far as she could. She couldn’t possibly get any farther. If she looked up, she could see the ledge which she had been hoping to reach. That is to say, she could see the jutting rock which was the under part of the ledge, and it was like a great stone buttress thrusting out from the cliff and thrusting her away. There was no conceivable means by which she could get past that overhang — not unless she were a fly and could crawl upside down. She didn’t let herself look at the beach, because of course that was the stupidest thing you could do. But whether she looked or not, she knew very well what she would see — sharp black rocks, and the tide coming racing in. If it had been deep sea that you could jump off into, she would have let herself go and have tried for a better place to climb, but you would want to know that there was a great deal of water over those rocks before you would take a chance with them. Better think about something else. Quickly.
It was a funny thing about that ledge. Seen from below, it didn’t look as if it would be all that difficult to reach. The overhang didn’t show like this. She had been quite pleased and confident about reaching it — right up to the very last moment when there was no more foothold or fingerhold and the thing stuck out over her head like the underside of a doorstep.
Well, she couldn’t go on, and it wasn’t any use going back. She wasn’t quite sure how far she had climbed — twenty feet — thirty — forty… But all the way up from the rocks and the sea there wasn’t anything that would be better than this, and it was always harder to climb down.
If you can’t go on and you can’t go back, there is only one thing you can do, and that is stay where you are. The thing that whispers in your mind and always has something horrid to say said softly, ‘And how long can you do that?’ Candida had been brought up to have a short way with the whispering thing. She spoke back to it with spirit.
‘As long as I choose!’
The thing refused to be snubbed.
‘It will be dark in less than an hour. You can’t stand here all night.’
Candida said, ‘I can stand here as long as I’ve got to.’ She clenched her fingers on the rocky knob and called, ‘Cooee! Cooee!’
Things can’t talk to you when you are calling with all your might, but the sound went out of her against the cliff wall and flattened there. Anyone would have to have very sharp ears if they were to hear it against the noise of the tide coming in.
Stephen Eversley had very sharp ears. He was some way out, because even if you knew the coast as well as he did, you didn’t take a boat in past the Black Sisters if you could help it. He was making for the narrow bay which the smugglers used to use. A trap if you didn’t know your way, safe enough if you did. Sound carries over water, and the way the cliff curved favoured Candida’s cry. He heard it and looking shoreward he saw her dark against the rock in her schoolgirl serge. It was not yet dusk but the air had begun to thicken.
He rowed in as far as he dared. He mustn’t make it too far, but he had to get within hailing distance, and he thought he could do that. Without word from her, there was no deciding what to do next. If she had a reasonable foot and hand hold, he could land in the cove, fetch help, and get at her from the top of the cliff. But if she couldn’t be sure of holding on, he would have to work along the rock face to the ledge just over her head and get her up on to that. The rope he had in the boat would be long enough. It would mean staying there all night, because by the time they were through it would be too dark to get back along the cliff. It was going to be a tricky business anyhow.
As soon as he got near enough he called out to her.
‘Hi! You there on the cliff! What sort of hold have you got?’
The answer came back faintly and in one word.
‘Can — you — hold — on — for — say — forty — minutes?’
Even as he said it, he knew she couldn’t.
He got back two words.
‘I’ll — try.’
It wasn’t good enough. He would have to make it single-handed. He called again.
‘I’ll — get — to — you — before — that! About — a — quarter — of — an — hour! I’ll — be — seeing — you! Hold — on!’
It was much easier to hold on now that she knew help was coming. The nasty whispering voice went away and she began to make pictures in her mind. Not the horrid sort which showed you all the things you were shutting your eyes against — a dead drop down to the beach and wet black rocks with points as sharp as needles. Not that kind at all, but the romantic sort out of the old long-ago tales — Andromeda chained to a cliff in Greece with the monster coming in out of a blue sea, and Perseus flashing down with wings on his feet to turn the looming horror into stone.
The time went by.
It was only when she heard Stephen on the cliff that she was afraid again. The sound came from away to the left, and all at once she began to wonder how he was going to reach her, and whether she could go on holding on. Her feet were stiff and numb with all her weight thrown forward. She couldn’t really feel her fingers any more. Suppose they just slid away from the stone and she tilted over — outwards — and back — and down. But when he spoke from the ledge over her head and said, ‘Are you all right?’ she heard herself say, ‘Yes.’
A rope came dangling down. It had a noose at the end of it. What she had to do was to get it under her armpit. She would have to let go of the crack on her right and work the rope along until it was over her head and supporting the shoulder. Stephen lay on the ledge and looked over it and told her what to do. All the things were impossible, but he had the sort of voice that made you feel you could do impossible things, and somehow they got done.
When the rope was round her body, she had to edge to the left along the crack until there wasn’t really any foothold at all. She couldn’t have done it without the rope. It brought her just far enough out from under the overhang for him to be able to drag her up on to the ledge.
She lay on the rough stone and there was no more strength in her. She felt like a doll with the sawdust all run out — horrid limp arms and legs and a wobbling head. And then a hand on her shoulder, and a voice which said,
‘You’re all right now. Be careful how you move — the ledge isn’t very wide.’
Oddly enough, that made her feel worse than anything else. There were pins and needles in her hands and feet, and something that went round and round in her head. Before she knew what she was doing she was feeling for his hand and clutching it as if she would never let it go. That was one of the things she was ashamed about afterwards. As soon as she could get hold of her voice she said, ‘How much room is there?’ and he laughed.
‘Oh, I won’t let you fall! Just come this way a little and you can sit up with the cliff at your back. We’re perfectly safe, but I’m afraid we’ll have to stay here until it’s light. It’s too dark to get back the way I came. I didn’t like to leave.you long enough to go and fetch help — you were in a pretty bad position. And we’ll be all right here until the morning. Perhaps we had better exchange names. I’m Stephen Eversley, and I’m down here on a holiday. I was out watching birds and taking photographs, which is why I had a rope in the boat. I couldn’t have got you up without it. I suppose you are on holiday too. I’m on my own, and no one will bother about me, but your people will get the wind up, so we may have a search party along almost any time.’
It was nice to feel the cliff at her back. The ledge was three or four feet wide and it ran along quite a way, getting narrower until it disappeared. There was room to stretch out her feet. She looked out over the darkening sea and said,
‘Oh, I don’t know. They weren’t getting down til pretty late.’
‘The people I was going to stay with, Monica Carson and her mother. We’re at school together, and Mrs. Carson asked me for part of the holidays. My train got in at four, and their’s wasn’t until six, so I was to go to the place where they had booked our rooms — it’s a private hotel called Sea View — and have tea and get unpacked. But when I got there, Mrs. Carson had telephoned to say they were doing some shopping in London and they wouldn’t be down until eight o’clock, so I went for a walk.’
He gave a half laugh.
‘And nobody had ever told you about the tide coming in! You let yourself get caught between the points, and then tried to climb up the cliff. How old are you?’
‘I’m fifteen and a half. And of course I know about tides. I asked — I asked most particularly.’
‘Who did you ask?’
‘It was someone in the hotel. There were two old ladies, and they said it wouldn’t be high tide until about eleven, so of course I thought it would be perfectly safe to walk along the beach.’
‘That depends upon how much beach there is. And the tide is high at a quarter to nine!’
She turned and stared at him. Just a shape in the dusk — a shape and a voice. But she wasn’t thinking about that — it was what he had just said about the tide. If it was high at a quarter to nine… She cut in, quick and breathless,
‘Then, why did she say it wasn’t high until eleven?’
His shoulder jerked.
‘How do I know?’
‘She did say high tide at eleven.’
‘I suppose the simple answer is that she didn’t know any more than you did.’
‘Then why did she say she did?’
He shrugged again.
‘People are like that. If you ask them the way, they will practically never say they don’t know. They just waffle on, misdirecting you. I thought you said there were two of them. Why do you say “she”?’
‘Well, really only one of them spoke. The other mostly stood there and nodded. I’d been writing my name in the book. There’s a little window between the office and the hall, and they came up on either side and looked over my shoulder. One of them said, “Is your name Candida Sayle?” and I said yes, it was. I thought it was rude of them to look over my shoulder, and I didn’t want to go on talking, so I began to walk away. But they followed me, and the one who had spoken said, “That is a very unusual name.” They were quite old, but they were dressed exactly alike. Honestly, they were odd! I wanted to get away from them, so I said I was going for a walk. And that was when she said it would be nice along the beach and the tide wasn’t high until eleven.’
‘It sounds as if they were barmy.’
‘It does rather.’
He was thinking that strangers ought to know better than to mix and meddle with the tides. They must have been strangers, because anyone who lived here would know that this was a dangerous strip of coast.
If it had been later in the year, Candida would hardly have got very far on her walk without somebody warning her, but on a chilly April evening it wasn’t likely that there would be anyone down on the beaches after tea. Candida’s old ladies were definitely a menace. He said so.
‘And I hope your friend will put it across them for misleading you. It might have been serious.’
‘Do you suppose they’ll say anything? I don’t.’
‘They’ll be bound to. Mrs. — what’s her name — Carson will be arriving. If you signed your name, she’ll know you got to the hotel, and she’ll be wondering where you are. She’ll be in a state, and your old ladies will be bound to say they spoke to you. Somebody probably saw them doing it. And if they say you were going for a walk along the beach, there’s bound to be a search-party out looking for you before long. Quite a bright thought. We’re all right here, but it will be cold before morning.’
There was no search-party, because Mrs. Carson, having started the day at 6 a.m. and crowded it with a great deal of fatiguing and mostly unnecessary exertion, was overtaken by a rather alarming fainting fit at the moment when she ought to have been catching her train to Eastcliff. She was carried into the Station Hotel and a doctor sent for. Monica, a good deal frightened, rang up Sea View to say that her mother was ill, and that she would ring up again in the morning. The line was not at all clear. Candida’s name reached her vaguely. She said, ‘Oh, I hope we’ll get down in the morning, but if we can’t, she will just have to go home.’ After which she rang off.
Stephen and Candida knew nothing of all this. They sat on the ledge and talked. She told him that she lived with an aunt who had brought her up.
‘Her name is Sayle too — Barbara Sayle. She is my father’s sister. She gardens all the time. My father and mother were torpedoed in the war. Aunt Barbara is a pet.’
Stephen was perfectly right about the cold. He made her sit close up to him and put his arm round her. Sometimes they dozed, and sometimes they talked. He was going to be an architect. He hoped to pass his final exam in the summer, after which there was a place for him in an uncle’s firm. It wouldn’t be a bad job as jobs went, only working for relations wasn’t always the best thing for you. Everyone thought you were being let down easy, but sometimes it didn’t work out that way at all.
‘Richard is all right of course. As a matter of fact he’s a very fine chap, but he’s going to expect me to be about twice as good as there’s any hope of my being — just because I’m his nephew. Of course it’s a tremendous chance.’
A drowsy voice said against his shoulder, ‘I don’t see why — you shouldn’t be — quite as good — as he is — ’
He found himself talking about the houses Richard Eversley had built and the houses he hoped to build himself. Her head was warm against his shoulder. It was like talking to himself. Sometimes he knew that she was asleep. Sometimes quite suddenly she spoke. Once she said, ‘You can do anything — if you try.’ And when he came back with, ‘That’s nonsense,’ she went off into a murmur of words which sounded like, ‘If you — really — want to — ’