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Authors: Patricia Wentworth

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The Case Is Closed

BOOK: The Case Is Closed
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CHAPTER ONE

Hilary Carew sat in the wrong train and thought bitterly about Henry. It was Henry’s fault that she was in the wrong train — indisputably, incontrovertibly, and absolutely Henry’s fault, because if she hadn’t seen him stalking along the platform with that air, so peculiarly Henryish, of having bought it and being firmly determined to see that it behaved itself, she wouldn’t have lost her nerve and bolted into the nearest carriage. The nearest carriage happened to be a third-class compartment in the train on her right. It was now perfectly obvious that she ought to have got into the train on the other side. Instead of being in the local train for Winsley Grove, stopping every five minutes and eventually arriving at 20 Myrtle Terrace in time to have tea and rock cakes with Aunt Emmeline, she was in a corridor train which was going faster every minute and didn’t seem to have any intention of stopping for hours.

Hilary stared out of the window and saw Henry’s face there. It was a horrible wet, foggy afternoon. Henry glared back at her out of the fog. No, glared wasn’t the right word, because you don’t glare unless you’ve lost your temper, and Henry didn’t lose his temper, he only looked at you as if you were a crawling black beetle or a frightfully naughty small child. It was more effective losing your temper of course, only you couldn’t do it unless you were made that way. Hilary’s own temper was the sort that kicks up its heels and bolts joyously into the heart of the fray. She sizzled with rage when she remembered the Row — the great Breaking-off-of-the-Engagement Row — and Henry’s atrocious calm. He had looked at her exactly as he had looked at the station just now. Superior, that was what Henry was — damned superior. If he had asked her not to go hiking with Basil, she might have given way, but to tell her she wasn’t to go, and on the top of that to inform her that Basil was this, that, and the other, all of which was none of Henry’s business, had naturally made her boil right over.

The really enraging part was that Henry had proved to be right — after the Row, and when she had begun to hike with Basil and hadn’t got very far. Only by that time she had told Henry exactly what she thought about him and his proprietary airs, and had finished up by throwing his engagement ring at him — very hard.

If he had lost his temper even then, they might have made it up, flashed into understanding, melted again into tenderness. But he had been calm — calm when she was breaking their engagement! A ribald rhyme bobbed up in Hilary’s mind. She had a private imp who was always ready with irreverent doggerel at what ought to have been solemn moments. He had got her into dreadful trouble when she was six years old with a verse about Aunt Arabella, now deceased:

‘Aunt Arabella has a very long nose.

Nobody knows

Why it grows

So long and so sharp and as red as a rose.’

She hadn’t ever been very fond of Aunt Arabella, and after the rhyme Aunt Arabella had never been very fond of her.

The imp now produced the following gem:

‘If only Henry could get in a rage,

We shouldn’t have had to disengage.’

This was most sadly true.

The disengagement was now a whole month old.

It is very difficult to go on being angry for a whole month. Hilary could get angry with the greatest of ease, but she couldn’t stay angry, not for very long. About half-way through the month she had begun to feel that it was about time Henry wrote and apologised. In the third week she had taken to watching for the post. For the last few days the cold and dreadful prospect of a future devoid of rows with Henry had begun to weigh upon her a good deal. It was therefore very heartening to be able to feel angry again.

And then imagination played her one of its really low tricks. Henry’s eyes looking back at her out of the fog, looking back at her out of her own mind, ceased to look scornfully, ceased to look haughtily into hers. They changed, they smiled, they looked at her with love — ‘And they won’t again ever — not ever any more. Oh, Henry!’ It was just as if someone had suddenly jabbed a knife into her. It hurt just like that. One moment there she was, quite comfortably angry with Henry, and the next all stabbed and defenceless, with the anger running away and a horrid cold sinking feeling inside her. The back of her eyes stung sharply —‘If you think you’re going to cry in a public railway carriage — ’

She blinked hard and turned back from the window. Better not look out any more. The mist played tricks — made you feel as if you were alone, made you think about things that you simply were not going to think about, and all the time instead of being such a mutt, what you’d got to do was to find out where the blighted train was going and when it was likely to stop.

There had been two other people in the carriage when she got in. They were occupying the inside corner seats, and they had made no more impression on her than if they had been two suit-cases. Now, as she turned round, she saw that one of them, a man, had pushed back the sliding door and was going out into the corridor. He passed along it and out of sight, and almost immediately the woman who had been sitting opposite him moved in her seat and leaned a little forward, looking hard at Hilary. She was an elderly woman, and Hilary thought she looked very ill. She had on a black felt hat and a grey coat with a black fur collar —the neat inconspicuous clothes of a respectable woman who has stopped bothering about her appearance, but is tidy from habit and training. Under the dark brim her hair, face, and eyes were of a uniform greyish tint.

Hilary said, ‘I’ve got into the wrong train. It sounds awfully stupid, but if you could tell me where we’re going — I don’t even know that.’

A curious little catch came up in the woman’s throat. She put up her hand to the collar of her coat and pulled at it.

‘Ledlington,’ she said. ‘First stop Ledlington.’ And then, with the catch breaking her voice, ‘Oh, miss, I knew you at once. Thank God he didn’t! And he’ll be back any minute —he’d never have gone —not if he’d recognised you. Oh, miss!’

Hilary felt something between pity and repulsion. She had never seen the woman before. Or had she? She didn’t know. She began to think she had, but she didn’t know where. No, it was nonsense — she didn’t know her, and the poor creature must be mad. She began to wish that the man would come back, because if the woman was really mad she was between her and the corridor —

‘I’m afraid,’ she began in a little polite voice, and at once the woman interrupted her, leaning right forward.

‘Oh, miss, you don’t know me — I saw that the way you looked at me. But I knew you directly you got in, and I’ve been hoping and praying I’d get the chance to speak to you.’

Her black gloved hands were gripping one another, the kid stretched across the knuckles, the finger ends sticking out because they were too long. The fingers inside them twisted, plucked, and strained. Hilary watched them with a sort of horror. It was like watching something with pain.

She said, ‘Please — ’

The woman’s voice went on, urgent, toneless, with the catch, not quite a cough, breaking it.

‘I saw you in the court when the trial was on. You come in with Mrs. Grey, and I asked who you was, and they told me you was her cousin Miss Carew, and then I minded I’d heard speak of you —Miss Hilary Carew.’

The fear went out of Hilary and a cold anger stiffened her. As if it wasn’t enough to live through a nightmare like Geoffrey Grey’s trial, this woman, one of the horrible morbid crowd who had flocked to watch his torture and Marion’s agony — this damned woman, because she had recognised her, thought she had an opportunity to pry, and poke, and ask questions. How dare she?

She didn’t know how white she had turned, or how her eyes blazed, but the woman unlocked those twisting hands and held them up as if to ward a blow.

‘Oh, miss — don’t! Oh, for God’s sake don’t look at me like that!’

Hilary got up. She would have to find another carriage. If the woman wasn’t mad, she was hysterical. She didn’t much like the idea of passing her, but anything was better than having a scene.

As she put her hand on the sliding door, the woman caught at the skirt of her coat and held it.

‘Oh, miss, it was Mrs. Grey I wanted to ask about. I thought you’d know.’

Hilary looked down at her. The light colourless eyes stared back straining. The hand on her coat shook so that she could feel it. She wanted most dreadfully to get away. But this was something more than curiosity. Though she was only twenty-two, she knew what people looked like when they were in trouble — Geoffrey Grey’s trial had taught her that. This woman was in trouble. She let her hand drop from the door and said,

‘What do you want to know about Mrs. Grey?’

At once the woman released her and sat back. She made a great effort and contrived a calmer, more conventional tone.

‘It was just to know how she is — how she’s keeping. It’s not curiosity, miss. She’d remember me, and I’ve thought about her — oh, my God, many’s the time I’ve waked in the night and thought about her!’

The moment of self-control was over. With a shuddering sob, she leaned forward again.

‘Oh, miss — if you only knew!’

Hilary sat down. If the poor thing wanted news of Marion, she must have it. She looked frightfully ill. There was no doubt that the distress was real. She said in her kindest voice,

‘I’m sorry I was angry. I thought you were just one of the people who came to look on, but if you knew Marion, that’s different. She — she’s awfully brave.’

‘It’s haunted me the way she looked — it has, indeed, miss. The last day I didn’t know how to bear it — I didn’t indeed. And I tried to see her. Miss, if I never spoke another word, it’s true as I tried to see her. I give him the slip and I got out and round to where she was staying, and they wouldn’t let me in —said she wasn’t seeing anyone — said she was resting — ’ She broke off suddenly with her mouth half open and stayed like that, not seeming to breathe for a dragging moment. Then, in a whisper, hardly moving her lips, ‘If she’d ha’ seen me — ’ She fixed her light wild eyes on Hilary and said, her tone quickened with horror, ‘She didn’t see me. Resting — that’s what they told me. And then he come, and I never got another chance — he saw to that.’

Hilary made nothing of this, but it left her with the feeling that she ought to be able to make something of it. She spoke again in the same kind voice as before.

‘Will you tell me your name? Mrs. Grey will like to know that you were asking after her.’

The woman put one of the black-gloved hands to her head.

‘I forgot you didn’t know me. I’ve let myself run on. I shouldn’t have done it, but when I see you it come over me. I always liked Mrs. Grey, and I’ve wanted to know all the year how she was, and about the baby. It’s all right, isn’t it?’

Hilary shook her head. Poor Marion — and the baby that never breathed at all.

‘No,’ she said — ‘she lost the baby. It came too soon and she lost it.’

The black hands took hold of one another again.

‘I didn’t know. There wasn’t no one I could ask.’

‘You haven’t told me your name.’

‘No,’ she said, and drew a quick gasping breath.

‘Oh, he’ll be coming back in a minute! Oh, miss — Mr. Geoffrey — if you could tell me if there’s any news — ’

‘He’s well,’ said Hilary. “He writes when he’s allowed to. She’s gone to see him today. I shall hear when I get back.’

As she spoke, she had stopped seeing the woman or remembering her. Her eyes dazzled and her heart was so full of trouble that there was no room for anything else. Geoff in prison for life — Marion struggling through one of those terrible visits which took every ounce of strength and courage out of her… She couldn’t bear it. Geoff, who had been so terribly full of life, and Marion, who loved him and had to go on living in a world which believed he was a murderer and had shut him up out of harm’s way… What was the good of saying, ‘I can’t bear it,’ when it was going on, and must go on, and you had to bear it, whether you wanted to or not?

A man came down the corridor and pushed at the sliding door. Hilary got up, and he stood aside to let her pass. She went as far down the corridor as she could and stood there looking out at the trees and fields and hedges going by in the mist.

CHAPTER TWO

You look dreadfully tired,’ said Hilary.

‘Do I?’ said Marion Grey indifferently.

‘You do — and cold. And the soup’s good — it truly is. It was all jelly till I hotted it, but if you don’t drink it quickly it won’t stay hot, and lukewarm things are frightful.’ Hilary’s voice was softly urgent.

Marion shivered, took a mouthful or two of the soup, and then put down the spoon. It was as if she had roused from her thoughts for a moment and then sunk back into them again. She was still in her outdoor things — the brown tweed coat which she had had in her trousseau, and the brown wool beret which Aunt Emmeline had crocheted for her. The coat was getting very shabby now, but anything that Marion wore took the lines of her long graceful body. She was much, much too thin, but if she walked about in her bones she would still be graceful. With her dark hair damp from the fog, the beret pushed back, the grey eyes fixed in a daze of grief and fatigue, she had still the distinction which heightens beauty and survives it.

‘Finish it, darling,’ said Hilary.

Marion took a little more of the soup. It warmed her. She finished it and leaned back. Hilary was a kind child — kind to have a fire waiting for her — and hot soup — and scrambled eggs. She ate the eggs because you have to eat, and because Hilary was kind and would be unhappy if she didn’t.

‘And the water’s hot, darling, so you can have a really boiling bath and go straight to bed if you want to.’

‘Presently,’ said Marion. She lay back in the chintz-covered arm-chair and looked at the small, steady glow of the fire.

Hilary was clearing the plates, coming and going between the living-room and the little kitchen of the flat. The bright chintz curtains were drawn across the windows. There was a row of china birds on the shelf above the glowing fire — blue, green, yellow, and brown, and the rose-coloured one with the darting beak which Geoff had christened Sophy. They all had names. Geoff always had to find a name for a thing as soon as he bought it. His last car was Samuel, and the birds were Octavius, Leonora, Ermengarde, Sophy, and Erasmus.

Hilary came back with a tray.

‘Will you have tea now, or later when you’re in bed?’

Marion roused herself.

‘Later. And you’re doing all the work.’

Hilary heaved a deep sigh of relief. This meant Marion was coming round. You couldn’t really reach her in that deep mood of grief and pain. You could only walk round on tiptoe, and try and get her warmed and fed, and love her with all your heart. But if she was coming out of it she would begin to talk, and that would do her good. Relief brought the colour back into Hilary’s cheeks and the sparkle into her eyes. She had one of those faces which change continually. A moment ago she had looked a little pale thing with insignificant features and the eyes of a forlorn child who is trying very hard to be good and brave. Now she flashed into colour and charm. She said,

‘I love doing it — you know I do.’

Marion smiled at her.

‘What have you been doing with yourself? Did you go and see Aunt Emmeline?’

‘No, I didn’t. I started, but I never got there. Darling, I am a fool. I got into the wrong train, and it was an express, and I couldn’t get out until it got to Ledlington, so of course it took me hours to get back again, and I didn’t dare risk going down to Winsley Grove for fear of not being home before you were.’

‘Nice child,’ said Marion speaking out her thought. And then, ‘Aunt Emmeline will be in a fuss.’

‘I rang her up.’

Hilary came and sat down on the hearth-rug with her hands locked round her knees. Her short brown hair stood up all over her head in little curls. She was lightly and childishly built. The hands locked about her knees were small, hard, and capable. Her mouth was very red, with a curving upper lip and rather a full lower one. Her skin was brown, her nose a good deal like a baby’s, and her eyes very bright but of no particular colour. When she was excited, pleased, or angry a vivid carnation came up under the clear brown skin. She had a pretty voice and a pretty turn of the head. A nice child, with a warm heart and a hot temper. She would have cut off her head for Marion Grey, and she loved Geoffrey like the brother she had never had. She set herself to thaw Marion out and make her talk.

‘I had an adventure in my wrong train. First of all I thought I’d got shut in with a perfectly mad lunatic, and then she turned out to be a friend of yours, darling.’

Marion actually smiled, and Hilary felt a throb of triumph. She was coming out of it, she was. She proceeded to make her adventure as thrilling as possible.

‘Well, you know, I just rushed into the train because of seeing Henry — ’

‘Oh — ’ said Marion.

Hilary nodded with vigour.

‘Looking about eleven feet high and too purposeful for words. I should think he’d just been seeing his mother and she’d been telling him what an escape he’d had, and how she’d been quite sure from the very beginning that I wasn’t at all suitable and would never have made him the sort of wife she had been to his father.’

Marion shook her head reprovingly. Hilary made a face and hurried on.

‘When I think that I might have had Mrs. Cunningham for a mother-in-law it gives me a creep all down my spine. What an escape! I expect my guardian angel arranged the Row on purpose to save me.’

Marion shook her head again.

‘Henry won’t expect you to see very much of her.’

Hilary flushed scarlet and stuck her chin in the air.

‘Henry won’t?“ she said. ’How do you mean, Henry won’t? We’re absolutely, finally, and completely disengaged, and I don’t care what he expects or doesn’t expect. And you’re not letting me get on with my story, which is most adventurous and exciting. And the only reason I said anything at all about Henry was because I’ve got a nice open nature and I had to explain why I bolted into a completely wrong train and didn’t notice where I was until we were well on the way, and then I found it was a corridor train, so I knew I’d done something silly. And when I asked the woman in the corridor corner where we were going, first she said Ledlington, and then she clasped her hands and said she’d recognised me the minute I got into the train.’

‘Who was she?“

‘Darling, I don’t know. But you ought to be able to place her, because it was you she really wanted to ask about. And at first I thought it was just curiosity, because she let on that she’d seen me with you in court — it must have been the afternoon Aunt Emmeline crocked up, because that was the only time I was there — and of course I just boiled, and got up to go and find another carriage, because ghouls make me perfectly sick. And then I saw she wasn’t a ghoul.’

‘How?’ Marion’s voice was strained.

‘She caught my coat, and I could feel her shaking. She looked most frightfully unhappy and sort of desperate — not gloating like a ghoul. And she said she only wanted to know how you were, because she’d always liked you, and — and things like that.’

It came over Hilary rather late in the day that it would really have been better to stick to Henry as a topic. She had bolted for the second time with a rather similar result. The story of her adventure wasn’t really calculated to bring Marion out of her mood, but she would have to go through with it now, because Marion was asking insistently,

‘Who was she?

‘I don’t know, darling — I told you I didn’t. I really do think she was a bit batty, because she talked in the oddest way. There was a man with her. He went along the corridor just about the time I came to — after seeing Henry, you know. And she said awfully queer things about him, like thanking God he’d gone, because she’d been hoping and praying she’d get a chance of speaking to me. She was most frightfully worked up, you know, twisting her hands about and clutching at her collar as if she couldn’t breathe.’

‘What was he like?’ said Marion slowly. She was leaning her head upon her hand, and the long fingers hid her eyes.

‘Well —rather like Aunt Emmeline’s Mrs. Tidmarsh —you know, the one who comes in and obliges when Eliza has a holiday. Not really, but a sort of family likeness — that all-overish look and awfully respectable — and the way she called me miss all the time. I’ve known Mrs. Tidmarsh do it twice in a sentence, and I’m not at all sure this poor thing didn’t too.’

‘Middle-aged?’

‘Born that way. You know how it is with Mrs. Tidmarsh — you simply couldn’t think of her being a baby, or young. Like her clothes — they never get any older, and you can’t imagine their ever being new.’

‘I don’t suppose it matters,’ said Marion Grey. And then, ‘What did she want to know?’

‘About you — how you were — whether you were all right — and — and about Geoff — ’ She hesitated. ‘Marion, she did say one awfully queer thing. I don’t know whether I ought — ’

‘Yes — tell me.’

Hilary looked at her doubtfully. That was the worst of getting into a wrong train, you never knew where it was going to take you.

‘Well, I expect she’s balmy really. She said she’d tried to see you whilst the Case was going on. She said she gave him the slip and went round to where you were staying, but of course they didn’t let her in. But she said something like “If they had” under her breath — I didn’t quite catch it, because she was all choky and shaky, but that’s what it sounded like. No, it was, “I didn’t see her,” and then, “If I had,” or something like that. She was so worked up that I can’t be sure.’

Hilary’s voice became uncertain and faded away. Something had happened to the atmosphere. It had become strange, and the strangeness came from Marion, who had not moved and who did not speak. She sat there with her hand over her eyes, and the strangeness flowed from her and filled the room.

Hilary bore it as long as she could. Then she unlocked her hands and scrambled up on to her knees, and at the same moment Marion got up and went over to the window. There was an oak chest which made a window-seat, the deeply panelled front towards the room, the top littered with green and blue cushions. Marion swept them to the floor, opened the lid, and came back with a photograph-album in her hand. She did not speak, but sat down and began to turn the leaves.

Presently she found what she was looking for, and held the page for Hilary to see. It was a snapshot taken in a garden. A rose arch, a bed of lilies with sharply recurved petals, a tea-table; people having tea. Marion smiling out of the picture — an elderly man with a heavy moustache.

Hilary had never seen James Everton, but every line of his face was most sickeningly familiar. All the newspapers in England had been full of him and his photograph a year ago when Geoffrey Grey was being tried for his murder.

Geoffrey wasn’t in the picture. That was because he was taking it, and Marion’s smile was for him. But there was a third person, a woman leaning over the tea-table setting down a plate of scones. Like Marion, she faced the camera. She had a plate in her right hand, and she looked as if someone had just spoken to her or called her name.

Hilary gave a little gasp and said,

‘Oh, yes — that’s her!’

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