Authors: Patricia Wentworth
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller
A concentration camp in Germany — Christmas Day, 1944.
William Smith was dreaming his dream. Like his fellow prisoners, he had spent more than five hours of Christmas morning standing at attention on the square in his ragged underclothes exposed to a bitter north-east wind. Some of the men who had stood there with him would never stand again. They had dropped and died. William had stuck it out. He was strong and tough, and he was not racked as other men were racked by what might be happening to their families. Since he did not know who he was, he did not so much as know whether he had a family. When the Commandant had said, addressing them all, ‘If you have wives and children, forget them — you will never see them again,’ he was stirred to a just and impersonal anger, but not to any private feeling, because life as far as he was concerned had begun two years ago when he came out of hospital with an identity disc which said he was William Smith. There was a long number as well as the William Smith, but he was never able to feel that it belonged to him. They put him in a camp as William Smith, and after he had escaped and been caught the S.S. took him over and put him in a concentration camp. Since then he had been moved twice, and each camp was worse than the last. In this camp he was the only Englishman. He knew some French, and he had learned some German. An old Czech who had a knife which he had stolen at the risk of his life used to lend it to him sometimes. They carved animals. The Czech was better at the carving, but William had a lot of bright ideas. After a bit he got very good at the carving too.
Day followed day, and night followed night. There was always hunger and filth and cold, and cruelty, and a dense fog of human suffering. It was better for William than it was for the others, because he hadn’t anyone to worry about except himself, and he hadn’t got that sort of temperament, so he didn’t really worry at all. And sometimes at night he had his dream.
He was having it now. His body was crushed in among other bodies on a bare and filthy floor, but William wasn’t there. He was having his dream, and in his dream he was walking up three steps to an oak door. It always began that way. The steps were old, and hollowed in the middle from all the feet which had passed over them for many generations. They started in the street and they went up to the door, which was the front door of a house. It was a house in a street. He knew that, but he didn’t know how he knew it, because he never saw any more than that — three steps going up, and an oak door studded with nails.
The next thing that happened was that he opened the door and went into the house. When he was awake he could remember the three steps up and the door, but after that it was all shadowy, like things are in dreams. What he remembered was that in the dream he had come home. There was a hall, rather dark, and a staircase going up on the right, and he went up the stairs. But it was all vague and dark and shimmering, like a reflection in water when the wind ruffles it. All that he could be sure about was that it was a happy dream.
When he was asleep it was quite different. The dream was as clear and plain as anything that had ever happened to him in all his life. It was much more real than anything that happened in the camp. The hall was dark because it was panelled. The wood wasn’t really dark in itself, but it made the hall dark. The stair that went up on the right was made of the same wood. The newel posts were carved with the symbols of the four Evangelists — a lion and an ox at the foot of the stair, and an eagle and a man at the head. The man and the ox were on the inner side of the stair. They were only heads, but the lion had a mane flowing down over the newel at the bottom, and the eagle was a whole eagle with folded wings and great horny talons on the left-hand side at the top. At intervals there were portraits let into the panelling, some on the inner side of the stairway, and some in the hall below. In a half light there was an effect of people waiting in the shadows. When he was a little boy it had frightened him.
In his dream he went on up the stairs. So far it was always the same. It was after he got to the top that it began to be different. Since his recollection ceased with the dream, he had no means of knowing what the difference was. He only knew each dream whilst he was dreaming it. When he was awake all that remained was the three steps up out of the street, the door, the shadowy hall with the stair going up, and the sense of coming home.
On this Christmas night, with his body lying crowded in between other bodies filthier than his own, he himself sprang up the three steps and came into the hall. He came out of the dark street into warmth and light. The curtains were drawn over a window on either side of the door and all the lights were on. A powdered wig emerged from the gloom of one portrait, the sweep of a faded rose-coloured dress and a child’s white muslin frock from another. The lion and the ox at the stair foot were crowned with holly, and over the stair head there hung a great pale bunch of mistletoe. An extraordinary rush of happiness came over him. It was so strong that it fairly swept him up the stairs. No time to look at old dead and gone relations in the shadows, no eyes for anything except the one who was waiting for him on the top step — between the eagle and the man — under the mistletoe.
Brett Eversley was reading a letter which he had already read quite a number of times. He liked it so little that one would hardly have supposed he would desire to read, and read it again, yet that is what he was doing. The letter had come by the first post. He had opened it with a smile and been immediately thrown into rather a desperate state of mind. Since then he had gone over every word, every phrase, in an attempt to find a different meaning from the one he could not bring himself to accept. Women said one thing and meant another — it was proverbial. They liked to be courted, flattered, pursued. They liked to make a man show his paces — put him through the hoop.
He was a good-looking man, and he had always had money to spend. Women had run after him, and he had let them run. At forty he had kept his freedom, his figure, and a decidedly good opinion of Brett Eversley. At the moment his handsome face was flushed, his dark eyes brooding, his brows drawn together in a frown. When he looked like that you could see that in the next ten years the regular features might coarsen, the lower part of the face become too heavy, and the colour fixed. On the other hand, grey hair would probably suit him very well and impart an eighteenth-century air. He really was not at all unlike some portrait of a full-flavoured Georgian squire.
As he sat at the desk in his private office at Eversleys, he had the letter spread out before him. However many times he read it, he found himself unable to accept its evidence. It just wasn’t possible that Katharine was turning him down. He read what she had written:
I‘m afraid it’s no use, and the best thing I can do is just to tell you so and say “Let’s go on being friends.” I said I would think it over, and I have. It isn’t any use, really. You’re a cousin and a friend, and that’s what we are to each other. I can’t change into being anything else. It’s just one of those things. Don’t worry about the money — I’m getting a job.
Not very easy to get anything out of it except a plain downright ‘No.’ He went on trying. It was a mood. Women had moods. They were changeable. She had withdrawn before, and then been kind again. Kind… His own word might have warned him, but he was resolute to find what he wanted. She was kind, she was fond of him — what more did she want? She couldn’t just go on refusing one man after another. She had known him all her life. As far as he could tell there wasn’t anyone she liked better. It would be a most suitable marriage. It wasn’t as if she was a girl of twenty. She must be a good eight years older than that. She had had her fling, and he had had his. You had to settle down some time, and if he could bring his mind to it, so could she. He really did find it impossible to believe that her refusal could be final.
He read the letter again.
Katharine Eversley got off the bus at the corner and walked along Ellery Street until she came to Tattlecombe’s Toy Bazaar, which was about halfway down on the right. It had on one side of it a small draper’s, and on the other a rather depressed-looking cleaner’s establishment with an ironically fly-blown legend in the window, ‘We can make your old things new.’
The Bazaar had two windows, one on either side of the entrance. On the left there were paintboxes, chalks, a hoop, and miscellaneous toys, but the right-hand window was entirely given up to William Smith’s wooden animals, the fame of which was beginning to spread to places quite far removed from Ellery Street and its North London suburb. There were Wurzel Dogs, Marks I, II, III and IV — the gay, the jaunty, the pathetic, the rollicking, all with movable heads and tails. They were black, brown, grey, white, and spotted.They were retrievers, bulldogs, hounds, terriers, poodles, and dachshunds. They were of a heart-smiting oddity. Amongst them paraded the Boomalong Bird, with striding feet and swivel eye, gawky, indomitable, booming along — white, grey, brown, black, parrot-green, flamingo-red, orange, and blue, with black and yellow claws and long erratic beaks. Katharine stood looking in at them, as nearly every stranger did stand there and look in. The people who frequented Ellery Street had got used to the creatures, but strangers always stopped to look at them, and very often went in to buy.
Katharine stood there and thought about being tough. Some people were born tough, some people achieved toughness, and others had it thrust upon them. It was being thrust on her at this moment, and she didn’t know what to do with it. She had a sick kind of feeling that she might just let go and be the world’s completest flop. And yet all she had to do was to walk into the shop and say she had been told that they were looking for an assistant, and did they think she would do. Anyone who had been through the war as an A.T. ought to be able to manage that. And of course it would have been the easiest thing in the world if only it didn’t really matter whether she got the job or not. It mattered so much that her feet were cold and her heart was knocking against her side.
She looked at one of the rollicking Wurzel Dogs, and he looked back at her with his jovial rolling eye. ‘Get along on with it and don’t be a fool!’ was undoubtedly what he would have said if William could have endowed him with actual speech.
Katharine bit her lip very hard indeed and walked into the shop, where she encountered Miss Cole. William Smith, coming through from the workshop, saw them standing together. Miss Cole, pale, plump, efficient, spectacled, in her tight black dress, her ginger-coloured cardigan, and the tufts of cotton wool which she wore in her ears to keep out the cold. He saw her as he saw her every day and continually. And then he saw Katharine, and heard her say, ‘Good-morning. I hear you are needing someone to help in the shop.’ He heard the words, but just for the moment they didn’t make any sense, because her voice went through him like music. Thought stopped and feeling took its place. It didn’t really matter what she had said. All that mattered was that she should speak again. He heard Miss Cole say, ‘Well, I don’t know, I’m sure,’ and with that, thought took over again, and the sense of what Katharine had said came to him like a delayed echo — ‘I hear you are needing someone to help in the shop.’
He came marching in and added himself to the conference. Introduced by Miss Cole with a ‘This is Mr. Smith,’ he said, ‘Good-morning,’ and stood looking at Katharine. Her voice had done things to him. Everything about her was doing things. She was music, poetry, and the enchantment which lies just over the edge of thought. She was applying for the post of assistant at Tattlecombe’s Toy Bazaar. He was far too much disturbed himself to be aware that she was dreadfully pale, but it did not escape Miss Cole, who immediately gave her three bad marks. ‘Delicate. I’m sure we don’t want people here who are going to faint. That colour on her cheeks wasn’t ever her own. I was sure of it as soon as ever she came in. And lipstick too! Whatever would Mr. Tattlecombe say?’
As Mr. Tattlecombe was laid up in hospital after being knocked down by a car and was not allowed to see anyone except his sister, there was really no answer to this, and much as Miss Cole might deplore the fact, William Smith was in charge. At this very moment he was offering the young woman a chair and saying,
‘Were you asking Miss Cole whether we wanted an assistant?’
Katharine was very glad of the chair. Suppose he was going to say that they didn’t want anyone, or that she wouldn’t do. If it depended on Miss Cole, that was what would be said. That upholstered bust had tightened against her, and the dark beady eyes behind those formidable lenses were the last word in disapproval. She didn’t sort any of this out, but it was there. She said,
‘Yes. Do you think I would do?’
Miss Cole was quite sure that she would not, but she restrained herself. She looked Katharine up and down, from the small plain hat to the neat plain shoes, took in the fact that her tweed suit was by no means new, and summed up the result as ‘Come down in the world.’ Lots of people about like that nowadays — born with silver spoons in their mouths and had everything their own way, and then some kind of a slide or some kind of a crash, and out they have to go and get a job — sorry for themselves because they’ve got to do what other girls have always known they’d have to do. Miss Cole had gone out at fourteen and worked to get her experience, but these ladies — she gave the word a bitter emphasis — they expected to walk in and get jobs without any experience at all. She said sharply,
‘What experience have you had?’
Katharine was frank.
‘None for this sort of thing, I’m afraid, but I could learn. I was in the A.T.S. during the war.’
‘I wasn’t demobilised for quite a long time, and then — I took a holiday. Now I want a job — rather badly.’
‘Money run out,’ thought Miss Cole. ‘That’s the way with her sort — lipstick and rouge, and not a penny put away.’
William let her talk to Miss Cole, because all he really wanted was to look at her. She was tall and graceful. She moved like clouds, like water, like anything lovely and effortless and free. She had brown hair under a little brown hat. She had brown eyes. Bright water, dark water — that was what they made you think about. They changed, and changed again, but they were always beautiful. He watched the colour flow back under the skin until you couldn’t see the pink stain which had been there. It just deepened the natural colour, that was all. He liked the soft colour of her lipstick — not splashed on, but following the lines of her most lovely mouth. He liked the rather shabby tweed suit and the little green scarf at her throat. She gave him the feeling of completeness, of everything being just right. He heard Miss Cole say, ‘I really don’t know, I’m sure,’ and said in his most direct and simple manner,
‘What is your name?’
Her colour went again quite suddenly, and then came back in a flood.
He turned to Miss Cole.
‘It seems to me that Miss Eversley is just what we are wanting.’
‘Really, Mr. Smith—’
He had a sudden and attractive smile. Miss Cole was not impervious to its charm.
‘you will be dreadfully overworked with Mr. Tattlecombe away. What on earth should we do if you knocked up?’
‘I have no intention of knocking up.’
William said, ‘Mr. Tattlecombe would never forgive me. You’ve really got to have some help. So if Miss Eversley — ’
It was no good, he meant to have her, Miss Cole could see that. And he was in charge — she couldn’t do anything about it. The soft, silly fools men were the minute a pretty face came along — and no notice taken of those that would make a good home and have everything comfortable! No good crying over spilt milk — that’s the way they were, and you just had to put up with them. She suppressed a sniff and said abruptly,
‘What about references?’
Looking back on it afterwards, William always found it so much easier to recall Katharine than to remember anything else. He had only to open the least little chink in his mind and she came in and filled it. She gave two references. Miss Cole talked to her, and she to Miss Cole, while he stood by. ‘As you have no experience, you will not expect a high salary. Would thirty-five shillings a week—’ He remembered that because of the way Katharine’s colour rose as she said, ‘Oh, yes.’ And just at the end Miss Cole enraged him by saying in her firmest voice, ‘No rouge, and no lipstick, Miss Eversley — no make-up of any kind. Mr. Tattlecombe is very strict indeed about that.’
Katharine didn’t blush this time. She smiled.
‘Oh, of course — I don’t mind a bit. It’s just a fashion, isn’t it?’
Then she went away. They were to take up her references, and if they were satisfactory, she was to start work on Monday morning.
William walked on air.