Authors: Patricia Wentworth
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller
“The tale is mine, the punctuation yours.
Oh, happy envied fate that this affords.
Firmly to dam with strong and silent stops
The flowing torrent of a woman’s words!”
THE gallery was well lighted. Paulina Paine had a vague feeling that it was too well lighted. A good many of the pictures might have looked better if it had not been possible to see them quite so clearly. Everything about Miss Paine declared that she was a sensible person. She was fifty-seven, and she wore the kind of clothes which she considered appropriate to her age and her position in life. Her sturdy form was comfortably and sensibly attired in a thick tweed coat, grey with a black and white fleck in it. She wore sensible laced-up shoes and a dark grey felt hat with a plain black ribbon. She could not, in fact, have looked a less likely person to be visiting one of those small winter shows which display the kind of picture more calculated to shock than to sell. Unless, of course, the artist suddenly becomes famous, in which case art critics embark upon lively praise, dispraise, and argument, and millionaires begin to compete. Miss Paine was not here because she admired this type of work. Far from it. She did not. But if someone paints your portrait and it is put in an exhibition, you do feel obliged to go and see what it looks like there. As a matter of fact she thought it looked very well—much better than it had done in David Moray’s studio, which was the rather flattering name he had bestowed upon her top attic, a bare untidy room in which he cooked horrid-smelling messes and slept on an iron bedstead several sizes too small for him. She stood in front of the portrait and was gratified on two points. It wasn’t labelled with her name. It wasn’t even called Portrait of a Lady, or, more realistically, of a landlady. It was just called The Listener, and she could see what David meant by the name—there was that kind of look about the eyes, and the turn of the head. It vexed her a little, because she thought she had got rid of looking as if she were trying to hear all the things that she would never hear again. The second thing that pleased her was that the picture was marked “Sold”. She couldn’t imagine why anyone should want to buy it. Even when she was quite young she had had no pretensions to anything beyond pleasant, sensible looks. At fifty-seven—well, she hoped that she still looked pleasant, but she couldn’t think why anybody should want to hang her on a wall. There had been quite a flattering notice in an Art Journal, but she still couldn’t understand why the portrait should have sold.
Her own picture was not, of course, the only reason why she had come. It wasn’t even the chief reason. Her cousin Hilda Gaunt’s son had two pictures in the gallery, and her sense of family duty required that she should come and see them and write and tell Hilda that she had done so. If it was possible to find anything to admire in them she would say it, but she was not prepared to tell lies, which in her opinion very seldom deceived anyone and were apt to lead to complications. Wilfrid’s first picture puzzled her. She thought she might perhaps describe it as enigmatic. There was a broken tombstone looming up out of a kind of blue fog, there were some bones that looked as if they might be human, there was an aspidistra in a bright pink pot. The aspidistra was really quite well painted. It was in fact immediately recognizable as an aspidistra. She had known plants of which it was the spit and image, she had known pots of china in just that shade of pink. She thought perhaps she might say that she found them lifelike, but it was difficult to suppose that this would satisfy Hilda’s maternal pride.
She moved on to Wilfrid’s second picture, and it was Worse. There was, unfortunately, nothing enigmatic about it, it was plain Nasty. She had taken a seat in front of it because her feet were killing her, and until she had taken her weight off them and drawn several deep breaths of relief she didn’t realize just how nasty the picture was. She simply couldn’t imagine what she could possibly say about it to Hilda. The word daring presented itself. Anyhow, now that she was sitting down she wasn’t going to get up again—not until her feet had had a rest. But go on looking at that revolting picture she could not. What she could do and did do was to avert her gaze and look down the room. There was a seat away to the left and quite a long way off. A man sat there. He had a catalogue in his hand, and he appeared to be studying it. She had a vague impression that he had been there for some time.
Just as she looked round, another man came in through a door at the far end. He too carried a catalogue. Paulina Paine watched him idly as he consulted a page and stood looking at what suggested the explosion of an atom bomb. She had excellent sight, and she couldn’t imagine that it could possibly be intended for anything else.
Presently he transferred his attention to a greenish female who appeared to have had several of her bones broken, after which he stepped backwards in the direction of the seat and sat down. So there they were—two ordinary men on a shiny seat with a civil distance between them. Paulina found herself wondering whether their reactions to the dislocated lady would be strong enough to induce them to exchange views on the subject. If anyone had come to sit on the same bench as herself, she would have found it difficult to refrain from speech. She sat and watched the men. They were to all intents and purposes as much alone as if she had not been there. It would not have been possible for her or for anyone else to hear what they might say. In point of fact even if she had been sitting on the same seat she could have heard nothing. The last sound which had reached her, or would ever reach her in this world, was the crash of the bomb which had brought her office down over her head in 1941. She had been buried in the ruins for twenty-four hours, and when they got her out she was stone-deaf, and had so remained. With characteristic energy and fortitude she had learned lip-reading, developed a talent for cooking, and taken a post as housekeeper at a school in the country. Just before the war ended her uncle, Ambrose Paine, died. He was a very cross, determined old man whose motto through life had been “When I say a thing, I mean it.” In the course of a long and rather dreary life he had said a number of disagreeable things, and at least one courageous one. He said he would see the war out in London, and he had almost brought it off, dying only a week before the Armistice in the big old-fashioned house where he had been born. He left it, with what remained of his capital, to his niece Paulina, and she came back to town and let off all the rooms except two on the ground floor, which she kept for herself. Ambrose Paine would have been outraged and scandalized, but Paulina hadn’t really liked school life or communal cooking, and she loved London. It was odd at first to walk down familiar streets where the traffic had roared and see it go by as silently as if it were no more than a picture on the screen at a cinema. But she got used to it, and she got very good at her lip-reading. Practising it continually, it had become second nature. Interesting too. She had read some curious things from lips whose words were pitched for the ear of a friend, a lover, or an enemy. She could sit in a restaurant and know what people were saying at some table isolated by a barrage of talk and music-She looked along the gallery and read what the man who had just come in was saying.
SALLY FOSTER had two rooms at the top of the first flight of stairs in the house that Ambrose Paine had left to his niece. One of the rooms looked to the front over the small square and the rather decayed-looking garden in the middle of it where the laurels and lilacs which had survived the war continued their struggle for existence. No bombs had fallen amongst them, but most of the windows in the Square had been shattered when a land-mine fell in the neighbouring thoroughfare. The houses were all about a hundred years old, and had been designed with basements and attics for a numerous staff. Nothing could be shabbier, more inconvenient, and less adapted to modern conditions. Ambrose Paine had always refused to move with the times, but Paulina had contrived a couple of extra bathrooms. Sally cooked on the latest baby gas stove, shared a sink with Paulina, and thought herself lucky. She had a job as a secretary to Marigold Marchbanks, whose publishers confidently asserted that her sales ran into millions. In private life Marigold was Mrs. Edward Potts, with a vague husband somewhere in the past and a couple of daughters, one of whom had just made her a grandmother. When she felt like it Marigold dictated to Sally from ten to half-past twelve. Added to which there was typing, checking of proofs, and fan mail. Sally answered the fan mail, and Marigold appended a flowing signature. It wasn’t a bad job at all, and with what her parents had left her Sally lived comfortably enough. On occasion she drove the car and they got out into the country.
Whilst Paulina Paine was trying to make up her mind what to say to her cousin Hilda Gaunt, Mrs. Gaunt’s son Wilfrid was lounging in Sally’s most comfortable chair and hindering her. She had already told him so in no uncertain terms. There never was anything uncertain about Sally, from the bright chestnut of her hair, the bloom of her complexion, and the sparkle of her eyes, to the forthright manner in which she dealt with a time-wasting young man.
“Look here, Wilfrid, I can’t do with you— not when I’m answering fan mail.”
“Darling, you’ve said that before.”
The typewriter clicked.
“And I shall go on saying it until you go.”
Wilfrid extended himself into what was practically a straight line. He was long and slim, and he had sleek dark hair.
“You wouldn’t be so harsh.”
Sally laughed. Even when she was preparing to be harsh it was an uncommonly pleasant sound—one of those laughs that go with a kind heart and an even temper. She turned her brown eyes on him and said,
“I can be fierce!”
Wilfrid produced a slightly supercilious smile.
“Not with me, darling.”
“And why not?”
“You wouldn’t have the heart.”
She frowned, typed an exclamation mark in a perfectly uncalled for place, and said,
“You’re wrecking this letter—and it’s rather a special one to a professor who has taken a cross-section of twenty-five of Marigold’s books and counted up how many times she has split an infinitive, so it simply won’t do for me to provoke him by making mistakes in my typing. Please do go away.”
He slid down another inch in the capacious chair, closed his eyes, and said,
“I don’t feel strong enough. Besides I’m just working up to a proposal of marriage.”
Sally planted an asterisk in the middle of a sentence and took her hands off the typewriter.
“You proposed to me yesterday.”
“And the day before, and the day before that. I’m just wearing you down, darling.”
“And how many times do I have to say no?”
“I have no idea. You’ll get tired of it some day.”
“Look here, Wilfrid—”
He waggled a hand at her.
“Let us change the subject. I don’t feel strong enough to wrangle. Besides I’ve got a grievance. Against Paulina. Or does one say with? A grievance with—a grievance against —anyhow it’s still with or against your Aunt Paulina.”
Sally’s colour rose becomingly.
“Wilfrid, she is not my aunt! She is your mother’s cousin, and that is all there is about it!”
He moved his head in a slight negative gesture.
“I am not talking about cousins, I am talking about aunts. If a helpless girl finds shelter with an elderly female, the elderly female automatically becomes an aunt and is so addressed. It is what is known as a courtesy title. You would not be discourteous to Paulina? Anyhow this is no time for idle badinage. As I started out by saying, I have a Grievance, and I wish to enlist your support in getting it removed. Are you any good at sabotage?”
The hand flapped again.
“Don’t hurry me. It weakens the system, depletes the energies, and makes me come all over a doodah. As you may have guessed, the grievance concerns the attic. Why should Paulina have allowed David Moray to intrude himself into her top floor? It has an excellent north light. If she was prepared to let it as a studio, why in the name of the tables of kindred and affinity should she let a stranger have it rather than her own cousin’s son?”
“What on earth are the tables of kindred and affinity?”
Wilfrid opened his hazel eyes sufficiently to allow a reproachful glance to travel in her direction.
“Ah—you weren’t brought up in the bosom of the Church like I was!”
“No. What are they?”
“A compendious list of all the people you mustn’t marry and no one in their senses would want to. In the Book of Common Prayer.” He closed his eyes again and intoned, “ ‘A Man may not marry his Grandmother—’ But we digress. At least you do. I return to the point, which is Pressure to be brought on Paulina. By you.”
Sally’s eyes widened in the way which had in the past caused a good many young men to be emotionally disturbed.
“My good Wilfrid, what has it got to do with me?”
“You will be the agent for bringing pressure to bear. Paulina is fond of you—she eats out of your hand. If you were to burst into tears and say that life without me in the attic would be valueless, or words to that effect, she might be nerved to the point of giving David Moray the push.”
Sally said briefly, “It wouldn’t be.”
He drew himself up about an inch.
“What do you mean, it wouldn’t be? What wouldn’t?”
“Life. It wouldn’t be valueless. In fact quite the contrary. Why on earth should you try and turn David out?”
He looked at her maliciously.
“Being a little stupid, aren’t you, darling. I’m coveting my neighbour’s studio. What I have is only a room, and a foul one at that. The stair smells of cabbage-water, and Mrs. Hunable smells of drink. If I am laid low, nobody holds my stricken hand or smoothes my stricken brow. I would, in fact, be a good deal better off with Paulina. Added to which there are the sacred claims of relationship. An inspiring thought that we shall be under the same roof! Who was it who said, ‘If propinquity be the food of love, play on’?”
Sally was betrayed into a faint engaging giggle.
“I suppose you mean Shakespeare—only I should think he would be a good deal surprised, because he didn’t say propinquity, he said music.”
“He said such a lot of things,” said Wilfrid in an exhausted voice. Then, sitting up another inch or two and brightening a little, “Consider what it would be to wake in the morning and think, ‘Wilfrid is only two floors up,’ and to sink into slumber at night with the same beautiful thought! Only, of course, there might be times when I should be burning the midnight oil elsewhere.”
“I can well believe it.”
“Oh, I always get home in the end—sometimes a little the worse for wear, but no matter. And as already stated, Paulina would be there to soothe the anguished brow next day. Or you, my sweet!”
The word was pronounced in a peculiarly firm and resonant manner.
Wilfrid sighed deeply.
“Not a womanly nature.”
Sally said “No” again, and then spoilt the effect by a little gurgle of laughter. “Wilfrid, will you get out! I’ve got to concentrate on the professor, and then get on with a kind ‘No, I couldn’t possibly’ letter to a woman who says she has written a novel, and she’s afraid her writing is dreadfully bad and she can’t afford to have it typed, but will Marigold read it? And that’s only a beginning, because there are three people who want autographs, and one who wants advice, and two I’m saving up to the last who just say how grateful they are because Marigold has given them a lot of pleasure. So will you please get up and go away, because I’m not getting on, and I’ve got to if I don’t want to sit up half the night, which I don’t.”
“Why don’t you?” said Wilfrid in his laziest voice. “If you don’t sit up at night, when do you sit up? All my best ideas come to me then. No distractions, no interruptions. The mind just floating—not quite detached, but almost imperceptibly linked with the abstract. There is a rhythm, a sense of the imponderable, a kind of floating haze.”
“It sounds like drugs or drink,” said Sally frankly.
“There might be some flavour of alcohol. But not drugs, darling—they are lowering to the Moral Tone so conspicuous in my Work.”
“I hadn’t noticed it.”
“Dim-witted of you. However one can’t have everything, and your looks are pleasing. I did ask you to marry me? These things slip the memory. What is much more important at the moment is the matter of the outing or ousting of David Moray. You wouldn’t like to wake up in the morning and read in the paper that I have been driven to the violent elimination of Mrs. Hunable. My nature is one of peace, but I have an exceptionally sensitive psyche—if that is what they call the thing that takes charge and nerves you to murder the people who have been annoying you. I don’t think it is, but no matter. What emerges is the horrid fact that I am being driven to desperation, and that if I can’t oust David and have Paulina’s attic, almost anything may happen at almost any moment. You will notice that I have now decided upon oust rather than out. It is more forcible and has a richer flavour.”
Sally was about to raise her voice in a final “Wilfrid, will you go!” when there came a rapping on the door. She said “Come in!” instead, and Mr. David Moray walked into the room. He was a large, uncompromising young man of Scottish appearance, with blunt features and fair hair burnt to the colour of dry grass. His eyes were between blue and grey, and his eyebrows and lashes very fair and thick. He viewed Wilfrid with disfavour and addressed himself to Sally.
“Are you busy?”
Wilfrid said, “Yes,” and Sally said, “No.”
David Moray frowned.
“Because if you’re not, there was something I rather wanted to ask you about.”
Wilfrid pulled himself up a little farther in his chair.
“Not another word. You wish to give up your attic, and you want somebody to break it to Paulina. Don’t worry—it doesn’t really need breaking at all. You want to give it up, I am ready and willing to take it. The whole thing is as good as done. Except for the mere physical transaction you have already moved out and I have moved in. Blood is thicker than water and a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse. Paulina will be delighted. Sally walks on air.”
David looked at him bleakly.
“If you know what you are talking about, nobody else does.”
Wilfrid’s tone became tinged with malice.
“Sally and I do. The proverbial two hearts that beat as one. A stroke of the wand and we change over. I to Paulina’s attic, and you to my Mrs. Hunable, now mine no more. I have bestowed her upon you freely. I will go and pack.”
Under a particularly menacing look from Sally, he rose, kissed his hand to her, turned a charming smile on David, and drifted out of the door, which he left open behind him.
David didn’t wait for his footsteps to die away. He gave the door a push with his shoulder, and derived some satisfaction from the fact that Wilfrid must have heard the resulting slam.
Sally raised her eyebrows.
“It is my room,” she said.
“And my studio isn’t mine—is that it? Is there anything in what he was talking about, or was it just blethers?”
Sally Foster had a very charming dimple. It showed now as the corner of her mouth lifted.
“It was just blethers. He doesn’t like his place, and he would like to come here. I should never get any work done if he did.”
“Why do you let him bother you?”
“Oh, well, there isn’t very much I can do about it—he just gets into a chair and sticks.”
“You could tell him to go.”
“David, darling, if you think that makes any difference you just don’t know our Wilfrid.”
There was an angry jerk in his voice as he said,
“Don’t call me darling!”
“But it doesn’t mean anything.”
He gave her a look of concentrated dislike and said,
Sally said, “Oh—” on which he continued in the same forbidding strain.
“I suppose you call him darling—too!” The last word was ejected with considerable force.
Sally said, “Sometimes.”
“And what have you left to say to the man you love, if all this frittering stuff has left you any feelings worth the name? Tell me that! And I will tell you that when I call a woman darling it will be because I’m thinking of her for my wife, and because she’s everything in the world to me and a bit over!”
Sally said, “Oh—” again. Afterwards she thought of quite a lot of things she might have said, but at the time nothing came out but that “Oh—” Because something hurt her at her heart and there was a pricking behind her eyes. It didn’t get quite as far as anything you could call a tear, but it did impart a softness and a brightness which were quite extraordinarily becoming.
Mr. Moray may have felt himself slipping. He may have felt that he had been harsh, he may have decided that he had gone far enough. He stopped looking at her as if he might be about to proceed to violence, allowed his features to relax, and dismissed the subject.
“That will be enough about that. If I’m not interrupting you—”
The fan mail might not have existed. That was the bother about David, when he was there, Sally found it quite dreadfully difficult to remember things like being a secretary or having work to do. Afterwards she would kick herself and work overtime to make up, but for the moment she couldn’t have cared less about the professor and his split infinitives, or the other people who were waiting for autographs and advice. She said quickly,