Read Traitor's Purse Online

Authors: Margery Allingham

Traitor's Purse (4 page)

BOOK: Traitor's Purse
12.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

‘Amanda!’ he said.

‘Yes?’ She swung round on the top of the stairs and stood looking down at him, a picture of arrested movement, her light brown eyes questioning and every line of her heart-shaped face alive and young.

He laughed and came hurrying up the stairs after her.

‘I only wanted to hear you answer to your name.’

The smile faded from her face and he thought she looked a trifle embarrassed.

‘I’m not really rattled,’ she murmured unexpectedly and as if he had reproached her. ‘It’s only that it’s all so horribly
important
and imminent. You’ve come back all carefree. Did something good happen?’

‘No, I’m rather afraid it didn’t. This is light-headedness,’ he said, and followed her through the second baize door into a small world of past elegance.

Amanda crossed the upper hall, where stripped pine panelling, Chinese carpet, and sage-green drapery made a Georgian setting without either the stuffiness or the full-blooded ostentation of that great period of nouveaux-riches, and opened a door under an archway.

‘Yes, they’ve put your things out, thank God,’ she said, peering across another expanse of carpet. ‘Lee has got the servant problem taped, hasn’t he? It’s the combination of love
and
money, you know. They not only adore him but he pays them the earth. You get dressed and so will I. I’ll give you ten minutes. We can’t wash much: that’s all there is to it. Then I’ll come back. I must see you before we go down. Bless you.’

She was gone before he could stop her, whisking into a room on the other side of the hall while her vivid friendly personality still warmed and comforted him like the glow of a coal fire.

Albert Campion went into the room that presumably was his own and looked at the dinner-jacket laid out neatly on his bed. The tailor’s tab inside the breast pocket assured him that it was his and that he had bought it in the preceding spring. Now that he had been on his feet for some little time his weakness had become more apparent and, with the departure of Amanda, his earlier lost feeling returned. He began to dress carefully, moving slowly and with a certain amount of difficulty. After a minute or so he gave up trying to fathom any further deeper mysteries than those concerning the whereabouts of his underclothes and washing tackle. He had to hurry. Amanda was coming back in ten minutes and that was time enough to get all the serious questions settled. He clung to the thought of Amanda. As his wife she was the one satisfactory, friendly truth in a world of villainous fantasy.

Meanwhile the obvious thing to do was to get himself safely changed.

He accepted his reflection in the shaving mirror discovered in the adjoining bathroom without seeing it, as do most men every morning of their lives. His self-searching mood had disappeared and his sole anxiety was to get his chin smooth. The cool comfort of well-fitting clothes soothed him and he had tied his tie and was getting into his jacket when a knock sounded on the door. He sprang to open it with an eagerness which wrenched his stiff body unmercifully, and stepped back in blank disappointment an instant later. It was not Amanda, but a dinner-jacketed stranger who smiled at him familiarly and wandered into the room.

‘My dear chap, I’m so glad you’ve got back,’ he said, revealing a voice several times deeper than the average, and so flexible that its charm was instantaneous. ‘Trouble all cleared up?’

Campion nodded without speaking. Even if some flicker of memory had not struggled to help him, he would have known the newcomer was his host as soon as he set eyes on him. The tall, big-boned figure, with its suggestion of elegant negligence, was impressive and went with the house. He recognized the type, or rather the species of original spirit, immediately.

Lee Aubrey was a personality; that is to say he exuded a force and a spiritual flavour as actual as if it had been warmth, or a small electric current. His big head was extravagantly moulded, the features fine but large and overdrawn, and his smiling eyes were kindly rather than friendly. The most striking thing about him was that he could not, apparently much to his regret, provide any stretch of common ground on which to walk with normal men. There was no suggestion of equality in his bearing but rather an exaggerated humility, as if he were in the habit of going down on mental all-fours to conduct any simple conversation. Now, as he stood lounging awkwardly against the mantelpiece, he was laughing a little, indulgently ashamed of himself for his clumsy efforts to relax.

‘I was rather glad to put food off for half an hour,’ he said. ‘Fyshe from the War House has been down. Extraordinarily inferior mind. A decent chap. Quite sound, of course, but thunderingly dull. It took Butcher all day to tell him what he wanted to know, while any intelligent undergraduate could have mastered the thing in a couple of hours. It’s absurd, isn’t it?’

He laughed again, half apologetically, for making the criticism.

‘Absurd,’ said Campion.

It was coming back to him, or some of it was. This was the Principal’s House in the Bridge Institute of General Research, that remarkable and ancient institution which, from being a provincial curiosity, part charity and part museum, for a hundred and fifty years, had blossomed forth in the early part of the century into one of the most valuable centres in the country. The recollection came as Amanda’s name had come; not as a raising of the curtain of darkness which hung between the front and the back of his mind, but as a sudden rent in it which flashed a whole scene from the brightness within, only to close again a moment later as the folds resettled. It was all very confusing and alarming.

Lee Aubrey was looking at him intently.

‘You’re most frightfully tired,’ he said gently. ‘Or is something wrong?’

‘No, no, I’m all right.’ Campion was surprised at his own vehemence, but it seemed desperately important to keep his secret.

‘Oh that – that’s fine.’ The other man was as hurt as a child. ‘Won’t you come down? By the way, did you get your letters? There were two or three for you this morning. John should have brought them up here. He’s probably left them in my study. I’ll get them for you myself. Shall we go?’

He was lounging towards the door, self-conscious and uncomfortably gauche like an adolescent.

‘No, I can’t for a moment. I’m waiting for Amanda. We’ve got to talk to each other.’

Even in his confused state the words appeared a little bald
to
Mr Campion. Aubrey swung round and his eyes were suddenly sharp and frighteningly intelligent.

‘Oh, I see,’ he said and immediately he became deeply if consciously kind again. ‘I see, I’ll go down and hold the fort until you come.’

He went out gently, and, it seemed to Mr Campion, without compassion.

Left alone, the man in the bedroom returned to his earlier problems. He thrust the firefighting kit into the bottom of a wardrobe and was about to close the door on it when a sound behind made him turn. It was Amanda. She was there just as he had expected her, in a long smooth white dress which seemed right and familiar and made her look about sixteen. She was wonderfully easy to look at. That discovery struck him as new and surprising and he felt irritated with himself that it should be so.

‘Oh, that’s grand,’ she said, nodding at him approvingly. ‘I was so afraid you might potter a bit, as you usually do. What are you up to? Admiring yourself?’

He glanced behind him and saw the point of her remark. The door of the armoire had swung open, revealing a dressing mirror within.

‘No,’ he said and paused abruptly. He had just caught sight of himself and her standing beside him. He was older than he had thought. He saw a horrified man of thirty-five or so, tall and remarkably thin, with a lean wooden face on which there were far more lines than he had expected. She, on the other hand, might have been still at school.

‘You look much more intelligent than usual,’ she remarked. ‘Don’t you think so?’

‘God help me, do I?’ he said involuntarily. ‘I am rather shocked, as a matter of fact.’

He saw the amusement die out of her face.

‘That’s not fair,’ she said unhelpfully.

‘What isn’t?’ he said, turning to her and catching her hands.

To his surprise her embarrassment increased and she released herself slowly and stood before him, a steady
determined
young person, serious and annihilatingly frank.

‘Albert,’ she said, ‘I know this isn’t the time, and that all this business going on is far more serious at the moment, but I’ve got this on my mind and I want to clear it up. You know you were going to marry me next month?’

The information, coupled with the ominous form in which it was offered, appalled him. His disappointment and loneliness was so acute that it produced a physical chill and he stood looking at her without realizing that his face was a complete blank.

‘Was I?’ he said flatly.

She did not speak and he had the dreadful impression that he had struck her, or had behaved in some other disgraceful way quite out of character with himself or her.

She drew back from him and for a moment he felt panic-stricken that she was going to walk out and leave him.

‘Don’t,’ he said wildly. ‘I didn’t mean that, Amanda. I’m completely at sea. I don’t know where I am or who I am or what I’m doing.’

‘Oh I know.’ She was herself again, impulsive and warm and friendly. ‘I know and I’ll see you through this. You can rely on me absolutely all the time. That is true. You do know that?’

She thrust her arm through his and he felt the urgent, nervous strength of her young body against his side.

‘I’ll do anything, Albert. This is desperate, the most important, the most serious business you’ve ever come up against, and I’m with you. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t. It’s disgusting of me to talk about the marriage when you’re nearly off your head with worry about the other thing, but you know how hopeless I am about hiding anything and I couldn’t bear to behave like a hussy even for ten minutes. You see, we’ve never had a love affair, have we? I’ve just been going to marry you ever since I was seventeen. We’ve known each other so long, and quite frankly it was me who ever suggested getting married at all. You’d almost forgotten about it in the strain of this other business, hadn’t you? My good ape, don’t be polite about it. It’s silly when
we’re
so used to one another. Well now, I want to call all that off. I don’t have to explain any more than that, do I?’

Albert Campion let the honest young pronouncement sink into his shuttering mind.

‘How old are you?’ he asked.

‘Twenty-five.’

‘As old as that? And you’ve been going to marry me for eight years.’

‘Well, yes. Don’t be silly, you know I have, more or less. We don’t go talking like this as a rule but it’s got to be mentioned some time. It wasn’t really fixed by either of us and it was simply that I’ve never considered marrying anybody else. The question has never sort of come up, has it? But now, well, I thought I’d like to lay off, and like a complete mug I’ve come rushing in to tell you at this ungodly moment when you’re exhausted and nearly off your head with worry about something which really is terrific. I’m sorry and ashamed, but anyway it’s done. I’ve made it clear and that’s all right.’

‘You’ve been going to marry me for
eight years
.’ He did not repeat the words aloud but they glowed at him from among the shadows and he strove helplessly to reconcile the information with the man he had so recently discovered himself to be. If he was a half-wit now, he seemed to have been a lunatic for some considerable time.

‘And now you’re not.’ Again he did not utter the phrase, but its finality petrified him. As he came to the surface he had a momentary flash of insight.

‘Now you want a free hand?’

She glanced up at him and her brown eyes were level and truthful.

‘Yes,’ she agreed steadily. ‘I want a free hand. Come on, we must go down. Lee’s waiting.’

‘Oh, just a moment.’ The appeal escaped him in desperation. ‘There are one or two things I’ve got to know. You see, when I got myself …’ He paused with the words ‘knocked out’ drying on his lips as he saw the pitfall and realized how she had forestalled him. He could hardly tell
her
now. To reveal his helplessness at this juncture would be both to plead weakness and to appeal to her pity, and to appeal to pity is very loathsome in love. He was appalled to discover how much love there was to be reckoned with. They seemed somehow to have achieved the mutual confidence of marriage without it, and now at a stroke it was destroyed; now, when probably for the first time he was realizing how much he had come to depend upon it.

‘When you got yourself what?’ she enquired.

‘Nothing. It’ll do later.’

She put her hand in his. ‘You’re a dear,’ she said with that sudden candour which he had rejoiced at in her. ‘I knew you’d be like this. You’ve always been rather magnificent, Albert, and you still are. Isn’t it a mercy that you’ve never … I mean that you’re a bit sensible, and … er … well, not exactly cold, but …’

‘Fish-like’ he said bitterly and let her lead him, lonely and wretched, downstairs towards that sinister ‘other thing’ which was still lying like an ominous bundle behind the dark curtains of his mind.

IV

THE DRAWING-ROOM
of the Principal’s house at the Institute of Bridge was typical both of its owner and of the foundation; that is to say, it was a genuine period piece which had been considerably improved by modern austerity and modern money. Its fluted columns and Wedgwood plaques had been stripped and cleaned and each piece of furniture that it contained had been chosen with care and a splendid disregard of cost either one way or the other, so that an old fruit-wood chair picked up for half a crown rubbed shoulders with Mozart’s own spinet, acquired at considerable sacrifice.

When Campion followed Amanda in he walked into one
of
the few recognizable atmospheres of that nightmare evening. Intelligent academic formality, than which there is nothing more indestructible, closed over his head like a sea of glue.

BOOK: Traitor's Purse
12.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Borrowed Horses by Griffiths, Sian
Gastien Pt 1 by Caddy Rowland
James Herriot by All Things Wise, Wonderful
Execution Dock by Anne Perry
Jasmine and Fire by Salma Abdelnour