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Title: While She Sleeps Author: Ethel Lina White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402031h.html Language: English Date first posted: May 2014 Most recent update: May 2017 This eBook was produced by Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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MISS LOVEAPPLE awoke with a smile. She had slept well; her digestion was good—her conscience clear; and she had not an enemy in the world.
There was nothing to warn her that, within the next hour, she would be selected as a victim to be murdered.
As she threw aside the sheets and sat up in bed, she looked beautiful. Just as every dog has his day, every woman has her hour. Since Miss Loveapple's dress allowance was shaved to the limit, she triumphed when she was in undress.
Her low sleeveless nightdress revealed the whiteness of her skin which had not been exposed to the sun. Her fair hair fell over her shoulders in thick plaits. As she stretched out her arms in a yawn, she seemed to be welcoming the gift of life.
It was a blue windy day in late summer. The sun shone brightly upon her toilet table, striking through the cut-glass trinket set in rainbow gleams. She could hear the welcome rattle of china which told her that the maid was mounting the stairs with her early tea and the Times.
Birds were singing in the beech-tree which shaded her window, as though to celebrate good news. It had come, the night before, by the last post, in a letter from a London house agent. He had told her of an unexpected chance to let her town house, which would enable her to take a rare holiday abroad.
'Switzerland,' she said aloud. 'Mountains. You lucky me.'
Miss Loveapple believed in her luck. She was positive that Providence had drawn up a schedule of beneficent events for her special benefit. If any sceptic doubted that she was under the direct protection of an unseen Patron, she could offer proof of her claim.
To begin with, out of millions of hopeful gamblers, she, alone, was chosen to draw a certain horse in an Irish Sweep and consequently to realise the supreme ambition of her life.
In addition to this spectacular slice of good fortune, she could produce a long list of minor examples of her luck. Royalty died after she had bought a black hat, to justify an extravagance. On the nerve-racking occasion when she had forgotten to provide cakes for her At Home day, it rained heavily, spoiling the hay harvest, but keeping every visitor away.
Little things like that.
Each year, when her vegetable marrows or her gladioli received the coveted blue ticket—First Prize—at the local flower show, she would inhale the hot mashed-grass and fruit-laden atmosphere of the tent, as though it were incense compounded for her.
'My luck again,' she would declare to her disappointed competitors. 'Not your fault. Too bad—when you tried so hard.'
And then her hearty laughter would ring out, for she was genuine rather than tactful.
She was fortunate even over the circumstances in which she was orphaned. Her parents thoughtfully went on living until she was twenty-one and had finished her education and received proper dental attention. She was therefore spared the restrictions imposed upon a minor when they both died of epidemic influenza, just as the Local Authorities had passed the plans of a new by-pass road.
As these involved the sacrifice of the old family home, she received, in compensation, a sum higher than she could have hoped to get had the property come into the open market.
She was on the fringe of the leisured class and had a small private income; so she bought a well-built and comfortable residence—Pond House—which was too large and ambitious for her needs, and settled down to life in a select residential village in Kent.
Soon she was accepted as a fixture, together with her maid, her cat, her dog and everything that was hers. She was popular, for she entered into the social spirit of the community; and although she was younger than the majority of the residents, gardening and housework gave her the exercise she might have missed.
Yet, while she was friendly to all, she was intimate with none. In spite of her breezy good-nature, no one asked her personal questions, or called her by her Christian name. It was doubtful whether any one knew it, for she remained Miss Loveapple, of the Pond House.
On the sole occasion when she burst her sheath of reserve, it was a voluntary impulse. The revelation took place on a warm, wild All Hallows E'en, when a few ladies came to tea with her. Among them was a visitor from London, who brought with her a passport to popularity—a planchette.
She was a dark, skinny woman with the remnants of beauty and a suggestion of parched passion still lingering in her eyes. She wore an artistic gown of nasturtium-hued velvet and a long string of amber beads. Her personality was magnetic, so that the other women were excited to confidences as they sat in the firelight.
The windows of the drawing-room were open to the blue October twilight. Fallen beech-leaves rustled as the wind whirled them over the lawn, covering the violet-border. Witches and wonders were abroad.
'Ask the thingummy if I will get married,' invited a masculine-looking woman wistfully.
The planchette, although plainly anxious to please, had its record for accurate prediction to consider. It hesitated for a little time before it advised her 'not to give up hope.'
The inquirer, whose name was Miss Pitt, laughed in proof of sporting spirit.
'Optimistic beggar,' she said. 'But tactless. The standard of face value in the Spirit World seems much the same as ours.'
It was then that Miss Loveapple asked her question. 'I don't believe in it,' she declared positively. 'But—shall I get my wish?'
The London lady looked at her fine legs—generously displayed in the firelight—her admirable colouring and the firm moulding of her face. When she attempted to convey her own impression to the super-sensitive planchette, it proved instantly responsive.
'Yes,' it wrote firmly. Taking a chance, it added: 'Soon.'
'Wish I could bank on that,' said Miss Loveapple.
'Someone you know, or still a stranger?' hinted the London lady.
'My wish?' Miss Loveapple laughed heartily. 'It isn't a husband...No. I want to have three houses. One town, one country and one seaside.'
As the others stared at her, she spoke breathlessly in her excitement.
'I can't explain it, but it's been my great ambition ever since I can remember. Mother used to tell me about the Royal residences, so perhaps they set me going. Do you know I was furious when I heard that the family had given up Osborne House. Somehow it seemed to break the sequence, like losing a quin or quad...If ever I get hold of a lump sum, I shall have my three houses...Sounds mad, doesn't it?'
'Merely border-line,' said Miss Pitt generously.
All Hallows E'en...The wind blew down the chimney and burst through the window, in gusts of moist earthy air, faintly perfumed with violets. A slip of a moon—panic-stricken—dodged wildly amid the celestial traffic of racing clouds. Spirits drifted like mist from opening graves. The living mingled with the dead...
Not long afterwards, Miss Loveapple drew her horse in the Sweep. After her windfall had been duly pared, she received the sum of four thousand odd pounds. This was promptly put back into circulation by her purchase of two more houses—one in London and a bungalow on the south coast.
While her action was locally criticised, no one was authorised to offer advice. Only her lawyer hinted at the disadvantages.
'This property will prove a white elephant. Besides Rates, Insurance and upkeep, you have all these monthly instalments to pay on your furniture. You will be definitely crippled.'
'No,' said Miss Loveapple, 'my income will be as much as it is now. I've figured it all out. But I shall not cut my Charity list. That might be unlucky. My only worry is whether I am anti-social, having all these empty rooms when people are overcrowded in slums.'
Apparently she came to some working agreement with her conscience, for her three houses made her completely happy. She was now free from the restrictions of environment. Whenever she was bored with the landscape, she could exchange it for the spectacle of waves rolling over the beach. If she grew tired of looking at the wallpaper in her London bedroom, she had only to return to the Pond House.
But far stronger than the satisfaction obtained by scenic change, was the inflation of her sense of ownership. Whenever she moved, she opened her own front door—trod on her own carpet—broke her own china. The knowledge filled her with a consciousness of dormant power and placed her in the small company of maiden queens, dictators and hospital matrons.
At the same time, it endowed her with definite spinster status. Although the news of her engagement would create no real surprise—since she was of eligible age—no one in the village expected her to get married.
On the day when she was chosen for future newspaper publicity—consequent to a nasty experience in order to qualify as 'the victim'—Miss Loveapple was still on the right side of thirty. Those whose taste had not been impaired by the rationed beauty of the Screen would have considered her attractive. Fair-haired, with good features and colouring, she could have posed for a poster of a Britannia who had dieted sufficiently to compromise with modern dress.
On this special morning, after she had reminded herself of the luck of the London offer, she went over the list of her static blessings.
'I am well and strong. I don't owe a cent. The sun is shining. And I have my three houses.'
On the chair beside her, the blue Persian cat, David, lay asleep in his basket, clasping his Woolworth furry toy in his great paws. He was not a year old, but was so enormous that he resembled a lion-cub, while spoiling had kept him in the kitten class.
As Miss Loveapple beamed maternally at him, the maid entered the room, followed by the Aberdeen terrier, Scottie. Elsie was about the same age as her mistress, but she looked older. She was supposed to be delicate, so she did all the lady-like jobs—cleaning silver and arranging flowers—while Miss Loveapple scrubbed and polished.
'Good-morning madam,' she said, speaking in a low, muffled voice. 'I hope you slept well. Here's your young gentleman come to see you.'
Miss Loveapple assisted Scottie to scramble onto the low divan-bed before she spoke.
'I am going to London to-morrow, Elsie.'
Elsie laid down the tray carefully on the bed-table, poured out a cup of tea, placed a cigarette between her mistress' lips and struck a match to light it. Then she took David from his basket and cuddled him so that his great sleepy head drooped on her shoulder.
'David says,' she remarked, speaking in a loud, coarse voice to prove that she had assumed David's identity, 'David says he doesn't want his mistress to go away from the nice cool country. He says it doesn't make sense to go up to that blinking hot London.'
'Then you can tell David,' said Miss Loveapple, 'that if his mistress doesn't snap at her chance to make some money, there might be no cool country for him and no nice Elsie either.'
Elsie still looked resentful as she nursed the cat in silence while her mistress fed Scottie with biscuits.
Presently Miss Loveapple asked her maid a direct question.
'What have you got against London, Elsie?'
Elsie's pale face grew red. 'Because—Oh, madam, I always feel it's unlucky.'
'Unlucky?' Miss Loveapple's voice was sharp. 'Why?'
'I mean—if you'll excuse the liberty—it was coming the way it did, with gambling and breaking the law.'
It was characteristic of that household that Elsie should refer to luck. But the fact remained that if Miss Loveapple had not acquired a London address, at that moment she would have been secure in her Zone of Safety.
DURING the early hours, Miss Loveapple never forgot that she was mistress of three houses. Later on, she might become supplementary Staff and cheerfully do the heavier work for which Elsie was less adapted by nature; but she always made her toilet at leisure and breakfasted in dignity.
When she came down the shallow stairs, she wore a full-skirted house-coat, pale yellow in colour and patterned with brilliant flowers. It enhanced her natural opulence and suggested prosperity allied with bounty. As the sun—shining through the window behind her—gilded her hair to the semblance of a halo, she might have been a seasonal goddess, bearing her largesse of floral trophies, but also open to a deal with the market gardener.
As usual, she paused on the half-way landing, in order to appreciate the beauty of the property to which she was most attached. Although it had cost more to furnish her London house, she had sunk most money in the Pond House, by installing central heating and remaking the garden.
It was a pleasant Georgian building, panelled in white wood and spaciously but wastefully planned, with broad landings and superfluous steps. There were only two reception-rooms and three bedrooms, but all were large and finely proportioned. None of her houses contained an official maid's-room to mitigate her standard of perfection. She and Elsie chose their sleeping-quarters—and changed them again—according to season and caprice.
Everything looked especially pleasant that sunny morning. The parquet-flooring of the hall advertised her own 'elbow grease.' A vase of second-crop pale-blue delphiniums was reflected in a mirror on the wall. Humming a tuneless melody, Miss Love-apple strolled into the dining-room, which, owing to its superior dimensions—was also the living-room.
The drawing-room looked out on to the front lawn, which was shaded with beech-trees. Here there were only a few flowers—violets under the windows and bulbs planted in the grass. The dining-room, however, ran the entire length of the house and had windows at either end.
In accordance with the general colour scheme, its furnishings were white, relieved with pale green—an extravagant choice which was criticised locally. It had vindicated her by remaining fresh and clean, although even she attributed this to her own labour, rather than luck.
As she crossed to the table, where her breakfast was keeping hot in a chafing-dish, she stared approvingly at the carpet.
'It certainly paid me to get a vacuum,' she reflected. 'I ought to have one in London, too. If I budget strictly over my holiday, perhaps the rent will run to one.'
She cut a piece of bread and threw out crumbs for the birds on the front lawn before she walked to the back windows, to admire the garden. She had transformed it from a gloomy wilderness to its former old-world charm. The pond—which lent its name to the house—had degenerated to a stagnant pool, enclosed with a low railing and shadowed by willow-bushes. Advised by the local builder, and even doing some of the work herself, the hollow had been filled in and the water enclosed in sunken shallow tanks planted with lily-pads. Here, too, was her herb-garden, her famous rose-patch, her perennial-border and the vegetables which won so many prizes.
As she gazed through the window, she sniffed the appetising odour of bacon which Elsie was frying for her own breakfast. The maid was unable to share her mistress' grilled kidneys, owing to a dislike of 'insides'—a disability which Miss Loveapple quoted with a queer pride as proof of Elsie's refinement.
Reminded of her appetite, she sat down at the table and made a large meal, beginning with cereal and ending with toast and honey. When she had finished, she lit a cigarette...
By a strange coincidence, her action synchronized with that of a young man who lay in bed in a darkish London flat. He drained his cracked cup and began to smoke as a prelude to business.
His appearance was typical of the average young man who recognises the value of a good appearance and has conformed to the rules. His voice had the clipped Public School accent—which can be imitated by any one with an ear for vowels and—when dressed—he wore an old school tie, such as can be acquired at its source, or bought in a shop.
His teeth were good, his hair well brushed, his smile pleasant. Certainly his face betrayed nothing of the dark intention in his heart as he stretched out his arm for the Telephone Directory, which lay on the battered bamboo table beside his bed.
It was the red-covered volume and it opened at the 'L' section. Flicking over the pages with fingers which had been recently manicured, he skimmed through the legion of 'Longs.' Occasionally he paused to note a name and then to reject it, but his selections were not so casual as they appeared. Underneath this weeding-out process was a definite purpose.
Although his motive was entirely impersonal, and remote from malevolence, the lady of his choice had to possess certain qualifications before he could be definitely interested. She had to be not only a spinster or widow, but unprotected by any male relative. She had to be of sufficient importance to invite a visit from a burglar, yet not so wealthy as to keep an inconvenient staff of servants. It was essential, too, that she lived in a select but unfashionable locality which was discreetly lit and not over-patrolled by policemen.
In his impatience, he probably passed over some ideal candidates for immortality, as he exhausted the 'Longs' and 'Lords,' on his way to the 'Loves.'
Suddenly his attention was arrested by an uncommon name—'Loveapple.' The prefix was 'Miss,' which encouraged him to notice the address.
No. 19, Madeira Crescent was somewhere in northwest London. It suggested a picture of a solid house, left stranded by the receded tide of fashion, with an imposing flight of steps and a lot of damp fallen leaves on the pavement.
'I'll O.K. her,' he decided indolently. 'Tomorrow will do.'
At that moment, Miss Loveapple felt vaguely depressed and worried. Although she had no knowledge that she had been invited as guest-of-honour to a murder-party, she began to dislike the idea of letting her London house.
The basic idea underlying the acquisition of her three houses was the sense of personal ownership. They must be vacant, swept and garnished, ready for her occupation, whenever she wanted change of scene.
Already she had lowered her standard by letting her bungalow regularly for the summer months. In one way she was rather proud of the fact that it was always in keen demand. It was the result of a definite policy—the installation of a refrigerator and the lavish use of white enamel-paint.
But while it was true that she did not care for the south coast during the holiday season, she always felt guilty about the transaction. She had exploited something which was intensely personal—her seaside house. It was almost as though she had profited in a White Paint Traffic.
Apart from her sense of shame, she vaguely felt that those convenient people who so cheerfully overpaid her for temporary accommodation were bound to leave some shred of their personality behind them. The atmosphere of the bungalow was no longer pure undiluted 'Loveapple,' but a compound of 'Brown, Smith and Robinson.'
She frowned in indecision as she re-read the house agent's letter. He advised her that a client wished to rent a furnished family house in a London suburb for about a month. He added that if she were inclined to consider an offer, he believed that this Major Brand would be a desirable tenant.
The clock ticked away momentous minutes while her future hung in the balance. At that moment she was safe. Miss Loveapple, of the Pond House, Highfield, lived in a different world from that of a gentleman in a darkish flat in the Charing Cross Road. So long as she remained where she was, they were divided by the immensity of Space.
The threat was exclusive to Miss Love-apple of No. 19, Madeira Crescent, London, N.W.
Yet there was a time limit to the danger period, even in her case. If the gentleman called at her London address, according to his schedule, on the following day and found it shuttered and unoccupied he was not likely to waste time over a return journey, which might attract attention. One woman was as good as another for his purpose—and the Telephone Directory was full of other names...
Still a million worlds away from him and secure in the sanctuary of her green-and-white dining-room, Miss Loveapple felt the first stir of her instinct to organise. She believed that she had administrative talent, owing to the fact that she always made a quick decision and stuck to it, regardless of consequence.
In this case, it seemed indicated that she should travel to Switzerland direct from London, in order to save a double railway fare. But while this trip was essential—since she would not accept any tenant she had not first seen and approved—it was necessary to cut her visit as short as possible. There was always extra expense involved in running two separate establishments, although it would not pay her to move her family to town for so limited a period.
Taking up her purse-calendar, she began to calculate dates. That day was the eleventh of August. If she travelled up to London on the twelfth, three days should be sufficient to finish her business. Therefore she would be ready to start on her holiday on the fifteenth, which would allow her a full fortnight abroad.
Although she had not committed herself to a resolution, her mind began to function with fatal ease. First she must telephone to the house agent in London and ask him to arrange a meeting with the Major upon the following morning. When she had received the advance payment—for which she always stipulated—she had to wait until she had passed his cheque through the local branch of the London bank where she had a credit account. Afterwards everything would be in order for her to buy her tickets from Cook.
By this time, details had arranged themselves so tidily in her mind that, unconsciously, they assumed the rigidity of a plan. She waited until nine-fifteen before she put through a call to the house agent's office, when she was annoyed to find that only the staff was present.
After she had expressed her wishes clearly and somewhat in the style of a dictator's ultimatum, she strolled into the garden, to find Elsie.
Although it was still early, the dew had dried even in the shade and the hot air was drawing out the perfume of mignonette and heliotrope from the perennial border. Overblown roses shed their petals in a drift of crimson, yellow and pink over the beds. Patches of clear water amid the lily leaves in the tank reflected the sky in gleams of burning blue.
The maid was not visible, but Miss Love-apple could hear shouts of coarse laughter mingled with the excited barking of a dog. Guided by the sounds, she went through a clipped-yew archway to the drying ground, where Elsie was rolling on the grass with Scottie and David.
At her mistress's approach she rose to her hands and knees and peered up through the hair which covered her eyes, like a lion's mane; the next second she was on her feet, with every permed lock in order and not a wrinkle in her artificial silk stockings.
'David's doing the Lambeth Walk,' she said primly.
'Oi,' responded Miss Loveapple mechanically. 'Elsie, I am waiting for a trunk call. If it is favourable, we shall have to be busy. I must pack for Switzerland to-day—and you must make a copy of the London house inventory.'
Although it was a coveted job, for Elsie was proud of her neat handwriting, the girl looked glum.
'Won't you take us with you?' she asked.
'No, Elsie,' replied Miss Loveapple. 'You'd have to go into quarantine.'
'Yes, madam. Will you be away for long?'
'About three weeks. But I will ask Miss Pitt to call and see if Scottie and David are keeping fit. Captain Brown will advise you about the flowers and if there are any vegetables to spare the rector will be glad to distribute them. You see, you will have no worry. And I know I can trust you to carry on.'
'Thank you, madam.'
Elsie understood the position perfectly. Notwithstanding the fact that her mistress professed perfect trust in her, a village C.I.D. with trained sporting instincts would be on her trail.
Glancing at the maid's gloomy face, Miss Loveapple tickled David on his Prinny-like stomach.
'David says sulking gets you nowhere,' she remarked.
'I don't want to go nowhere,' burst out Elsie. 'But I don't like your going away without me to look after you. All the terrible things happen abroad...You may be murdered.'
'And I may be murdered in England, if that's what you plan for me.'
'Not if I'm there to open the door to strangers and send them away.'
'But why should any one want to murder me? I don't go about in sables and diamonds. And nobody's got a grudge against me.'
'There are criminal lunatics. They aren't particular.'
'But you have to encourage them first. They are usually invited home by the wretched women they murder.'
'Not in lonely places.'
'I'm not going into the woods by myself. The problem will be to find a spot in Grindelwald that's not crawling with tourists...Don't be silly, Elsie. Snap out of it.'
Miss Loveapple spoke in her briskest tone to hide the fact that she was touched by Elsie's devotion. As she looked at the pale face and flat figure, she felt a sudden pang at the thought of separation.
'If I didn't keep up three houses,' she reflected, 'I could afford a good holiday for all three of us.'
Even while she was weakening, she heard the ringing of the telephone bell inside the house. London had come through, to tell her that Major Brand would meet her about noon on the following day at her London address.
It was such convincing testimony to her powers of organisation that she closed her heart against sentiment. She decided to leave Pond House and travel up to No. 19, Madeira Crescent, London, N.W.
WHETHER she worked in the house or garden, Miss Loveapple's official wear was shorts. These were ready-made and possessed the discretion of the Boy Scout pattern, rather than the frankness of a bathing belle model. All the same, she paid tribute to local susceptibilities by buttoning a grey flannel skirt over them before she went into the village.
She had grown too used to its old-world charm to see it through the eyes of enthusiastic tourists who arrived in their cars and motor coaches. The raised pavements—darkly arcaded with trees—the numerous flights of steps, the Tudor houses on the green, the stocks and the ancient church were accepted by her merely as environment.
That afternoon, everything looked much as usual as she clumped over the little cobbled square to reach the shade of the lime avenue. It was unusually hot and most people were at home, sleeping in darkened rooms or sitting in the privacy of quiet walled gardens.
Yet, in spite of the dusty golden haze which powdered the air—as though the heat had become visible—there must have been active forces quivering behind the thick blue atmosphere. That intangible quantity—Miss Loveapple's Luck—had been threatened by a blind dive into a telephone directory.
It was on its guard against a malignant intelligence which had taken it unawares. Therefore, although Miss Loveapple met only three persons that afternoon, and in each case the conversation was of a casual nature, every contact was a move in a game played by invisible players and had its repercussion on the future.
She was accompanied by Scottie, who was delighted to take her for a walk. He showed off by covering every stretch of distance three times to her once, but he always returned to assure himself of her safety. In spite of this proof of fidelity, whenever he met another dog he ignored her completely and pretended he was out alone on his legitimate business.
Reluctantly Miss Loveapple left the shade of the leafy tunnel. She crossed the shrunken river by the hump-backed bridge and reached the green which was ringed with white chains swung between posts. It was here she met the masculine spinster of the All Hallows E'en party.
Unaffected by the heat, Miss Agatha Pitt was exercising her dogs. A felt hat was jammed down over her eyes and she wore a tailored suit of green knitwear which reproached Miss Loveapple's home-made jumper and skirt. As she raised her hand in greeting, Miss Loveapple could not keep back her news, in spite of a previous resolution to affect nonchalance.
'My luck again,' she cried triumphantly. 'I'm going to Switzerland.'
Agatha Pitt showed no sign of shock.
'I'm going to Beer,' she said. 'South Devon.'
'Isn't it? I could do with some now. But I'd swap it for—wherever it is you're going.'
Agatha Pitt wrinkled her nose in doubt.
'It used to be very nice, even in the summer,' she said. 'My aunts went there regularly. But they run so many popular trips now. You'll meet people.'
'I don't mind about them, as long as the mountains are the same shape. I'm going to meet them. But I haven't been there since I was a child. Can you give me any tips?'
Miss Pitt brightened at the opening.
'To begin with, you must travel light,' she advised. 'One suitcase only and a small bag for the night in the train. Have you a passport?'
'Yes, I got one when I went to Brussels, four years ago. What about clothes?'
'Your oldest.' True to type, Miss Pitt was faithful to a tradition which still lingers in select country circles. 'If you have any old rag you want to wear out, or something that's not suitable for home, now's your chance.'
'Suits me,' declared Miss Loveapple. 'The Pond House is wearing my new dress. Have you noticed the white satin curtains?'
'I have. Positively bridal.'
Agatha Pitt's sun-flushed face grew redder as she fought her natural disinclination to offer advice. To her, there was a crazy element in a scheme when the house wore a wedding garment instead of the mistress.
'I wish you'd meet someone nice in Switzerland,' she said, 'and come back engaged.'
'Why? You haven't.'
'Leave me out of it. I've missed it—but it doesn't amuse me particularly to see the other foxes running about without tails. Have you never thought of getting married?'
'Sometimes. It means a hopeful young man will expect me to live in his house and spend my money on a new car, every Olympia, and public schools for the boys. No, thanks.'
'But is it worth it?' persisted Agatha Pitt. 'Keeping up three houses, I mean. What do you get out of it?'
'A lot,' confessed Miss Loveapple. 'It's difficult to explain, but it makes me feel up in the sky. Different from other people. Tomorrow when I'm in the train I can say to myself, "I may be shabby, but I'm the only person here with three houses.'"
'Are you travelling up early, as usual?' hinted Miss Pitt.
'Yes, by the workman's train.' Miss Loveapple laughed with perfect good temper. 'Don't try to be subtle. Leave that to George Arliss. I admit there won't be much competition—but if I were travelling in a Pullman with rich people, I wouldn't mind betting I would still be the only person with three houses.'
Miss Pitt changed the subject, since she felt too prejudiced to argue politely.
'Would you like me to keep an eye on your animals while you are away?' she asked.
'I was hoping you would offer. You are an angel...But please be tactful, because Elsie is so sensitive. Do you know her taste is so delicate she can't eat "insides"—not even sweetbreads?'
'I'll make a note of it for the next time she comes to dinner. "No sweetbreads for Miss Loveapple's maid."...By the way, you will miss the Garden Fête.'
'I know. I'm on my way to the Rectory, to break it to Mrs Bosanquet...Good-bye.'
'Good-bye. Don't forget to travel light and wear your oldest clothes.'
'I shall wear my shorts.'
Agatha Pitt concealed her shudder, for in her code 'cut' ran neck-to-neck with Cleanliness, to come in second to Godliness.
'If I don't see you again, "Good luck,"' she said.
'I shall get that,' declared Miss Loveapple confidently.
Although she had been the herald of personal good fortune, her triumph had proved faintly bittersweet. As she followed Scottie across the green, some residue of doubt kept rising to cloud her satisfaction. She was reminded that the village afforded opportunities for friendship of which she was not able to avail herself. Owing to her constant migrations, she had lost touch with the natives.
For example, there was Agatha Pitt. Apart from an inability to appreciate Elsie properly, she had excellent qualities. She had just proved herself not only free from envy, but cheerfully ready for personal service.
A small scarlet sports car shot by, packed with golf-sticks, dogs, two large young men and a girl who was driving. They all bowed to her with the formality due to a superior adult, instead of greeting her with shouts or waves.
'I can't be much older than that girl,' reflected Miss Loveapple, 'but I'm always paired with Agatha Pitt and her gang...Odd.'
Then the burnt grass of the misnamed green made her think of snow-mountains and her usual happiness returned.
'Rectory, Scottie,' she said.
The small dog immediately led her towards the long flight of stone steps which led up to the church.
Any one who lived in Highfield was qualified to take a postman's job, since much of the village was built on elevated ground and was reached only by climbing stairs. As Miss Loveapple mounted the hollowed treads, on either side of her were picturesque cottages, overgrown with creepers and nasturtiums.
Half-way up, she paused on a broad paved landing and, turning to the right, passed through tall wrought-iron gates. The shady grass square inside, with its clipped yews, was somewhat like a monastery garden; but the illusion was shattered, as she drew near the front door of the Rectory, by a clamour of shrill feminine voices.
The rector's wife was holding a Mother's Meeting in the dining-room. Before her marriage, she had been matron of a Cottage hospital, so she was in her element as she laid down the law on the subject of hygiene. She ruled the Parish with kindly efficiency, but she had never grown accustomed to the absence of her cap. That afternoon, in spite of the heat and the fact that she was in her own house, she wore a hat with strings tied under her chin to mark an official occasion.
She liked Miss Loveapple, for she saw in her the ideal probationer, after she had been subdued by drudgery and snubs; but all the same, she challenged her unauthorised entrance.
'Since when have you become a mother? Produce the infant—or you'll get no tea.'
'You know perfectly well I have two fur sons,' said Miss Loveapple. 'Besides, I've not come to cadge.'
At that moment, the cook appeared to announce the tea interval, so the rector's wife was free to listen to Miss Loveapple's explanation about her absence from the Garden Fête.
She made no secret of the fact that she was very annoyed by the news.
'It is most discouraging,' she said, 'after all my efforts to make the Fête a success. Lady Pontypool has promised to open it, and naturally I want to pay her the compliment of a full muster of parishioners.'
'Lady Pontypool,' echoed Miss Loveapple in surprise. 'Why—she's big.'
'No. About eight stone.'
'I mean—rich, important.'
'She's not important to me. I nursed her when she had pleurisy. My hospital loaned me...Surely you can put off your visit to Switzerland?'
'No, I've made my arrangements to go up to London tomorrow.'
The rector's wife saw that her mind was made up, so turned back to her mothers. 'I'll keep an eye on Elsie,' she muttered automatically.
Hot and thirsty, Miss Loveapple hurried homewards to her tea. On her way she was fortunate enough to meet Captain Brown—her rival at many flower shows. He was a mild little man, who had endured a martyrdom of malarial exile with sufficient fortitude to win the V.C. on Active Service.
His eyes gleamed when he promised to look after her garden in her absence.
'I warn you, I shall take plenty of loot,' he said. 'One has to be drastic. Before I go away, I cut off every flower and every bud in my garden. Put it to sleep, you know. If I didn't, everything would bloom and seed—and the garden would be finished.'
Although he was advocating only a temporary measure of precaution, Miss Loveapple objected to the wholesale destruction of her beloved plants.
'I think you follow the book too closely,' she said. 'You told me to dig three spades deep for my sweet-peas and to coat the seeds with red lead to keep the mice from nibbling them...Well, I didn't. And my sweet-peas beat yours at the show.'
Captain Brown, who was the best horticulturist in the district, writhed at the thrust.
'You do everything wrong,' he complained. 'Yet your flowers come up. You must have green fingers.'
'Yes, I'm lucky.'
'You certainly were over your house. Can't imagine why any one should want to stay in London in August.'
'It was because I wanted to go to Switzerland. Things always turn out for me...But I must hurry home. I've got to pack. I've only got one more night here.'
Only one more night in which she could sleep in safety...At that moment, it seemed as though Miss Loveapple's luck had lost the game.
EARLY next morning, Miss Loveapple climbed the wooden stairs leading to the elevated railway station. She lugged a heavy suitcase, packed to capacity, while Elsie carried the small bag which contained oddments for the night.
During the walk, the maid had scarcely spoken, while her face expressed the desperate resignation of a sea-sick sailor. It was not until Miss Loveapple had taken her place in a third-class carriage that she came to life.
'Please, madam, will you promise me not to open the door to any one?'
'Pull yourself together,' advised Miss Loveapple. 'I've got to open the door to Major Brand.'
'Do you know what he looks like?'
'No, we've not exchanged photographs.'
'Then how will you know it's him?'
'By his cheque. That's good enough evidence for me.'
The guard dropped the green flag and the train began to draw out of the station. Running by the side of it, Elsie continued to shout:
'Watch out for gloves. Notice if he keeps them on. Criminals always wear gloves, so as to leave no fingerprints.'
'All right...Good-bye, Elsie. Be sure you come to meet me.'
'Gloves. Don't forget gloves.'
'Be sure you bring Scottie to the station. Scottie.'
Elsie got the last word as they screamed against each other. Then Miss Loveapple sank back in her seat, to find that every one in the carriage was staring at her.
For a moment, she almost believed that they paid homage to her three houses, before she realised the real reason for their interest.
'I suppose I look Continental,' she thought complacently.
She had availed herself of the licence implied in Miss Pitt's advice about old clothes, to wear a white elephant which had been hanging in her wardrobe for years. It was a dressmaker's suit of black satin, bought for a wedding and too smart for general wear. Although the cycle of fashion had nearly caught it up, it was definitely dated, while the tight skirt was frankly 'seated.'
The direct result of some unimportant feminine chatter on the green was publicity for Miss Loveapple. She was too striking a figure to be overlooked, even when she got out of the train at Charing Cross Station. Marching along, a bag in either hand, an old camel-hair coat slung over her shoulder and her fair hair uncovered, people turned to look at her again.
Too simple to be an exhibitionist, she was naively pleased with the notice she attracted.
'It pays to travel in smart clothes,' she thought. 'And I'm saving my good tweeds.'
It was hot and airless in the Underground and the carriage was jammed with workers on their way to office and shop; but in spite of the congestion she was offered a seat immediately as a tribute to her appearance. Eyes stared at her, reflecting mixed emotions—criticism, derision, admiration, envy.
When she came out of the tube station into the crowded street, she thought regretfully of the lily tank in the Pond House garden. Although it was still early, the temperature was already high. The stale air stank of dust and petrol, the pavements were grimed and a pneumatic drill was tearing up a section of the road.
She had not far to walk before she turned down a side road which led to Madeira Crescent. Situated in a quiet backwater, it was a semi-circle of Victorian houses—well built, with pillared porticoes and long flights of front steps, guarded by plaster lions. A few had been converted into flats and there were two residential hotels; but although their regional glory had departed, the standard was not unduly relaxed.
In front was a private garden, reserved for residents. At present it was a wilderness of shaggy grass and smutted evergreen shrubs, although in the spring lilacs and laburnums lent it temporary beauty.
As Miss Loveapple approached No. 19, she stood and looked up at its buff stucco front. The blinds were down, so that she could not admire her expensive curtains, but she felt her usual surge of proud ownership.
'Mine. My London house.'
She unlocked the door and then hesitated as she peered into the darkness of the interior. After the glare of the street, her eyes were too dazzled to focus properly, or to recognise the outlines of any familiar object. It looked alive with a confusion of shifting shadows and tenebrous as a jungle.
It was the first time she had gone into the house alone. Usually the entry was a scene of noise and excitement. Elsie—forgetful of her official voice—shouted to Scottie, who was always quivering with eagerness to be 'first foot,' while David leaped about inside his basket like a landed fish.
She told herself that she was missing the others as she lingered, feeling a strange reluctance to enter. Although she was not normally imaginative, the house did not feel empty. She had an uneasy sense that it held an uninvited tenant who paid no rent.
Someone—or something—was waiting for her in the darkness.
Shaking off the impression, she forced herself to step into the hall and shut the door. Nothing leaped upon her out of the gloom as she jerked up the spring blind, letting in a shaft of sunlight.
It revealed a prune piled carpet which was her special pride. She stopped and rubbed it with her finger, making a slightly darker patch.
'It's holding the dust,' she reflected. 'I'll have to face it and get a vacuum...And now I'll make a cup of tea.'
Running down the stairs to the semi-basement kitchen, she unbolted the back door, which was sheltered by a deep porch from the area. Slung on the handle outside was a basket, holding a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk.
Although she was so busy yesterday, she had not forgotten to write instructions to the local Dairy. Pleased with her command of the details which were essential to efficient organisation, she filled a kettle with water and placed it on the gas stove.
But although she was thirsty, she felt none of the excitement and joyous thrill which was present during the preparations for the first picnic meal. While it was impossible to trace the source of her discomfort, she was vaguely disturbed and ill at ease as she waited for the kettle to sing.
She found herself thinking of the house as it had looked when it was empty, with faded wallpapers, cobwebbed windows and rusted iron grates. At the time, she had been reminded of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and wondered vaguely whether its walls had witnessed scenes of parental cruelty or the terror of children frightened by nurserymaids; but the decorators and electrician had banished every Victorian bogey.
Suddenly she realised why she was feeling nervous. It was the thought of all those darkened rooms upstairs.
'I'd better open up,' she thought, 'and then I can enjoy my tea.'
Turning down the gas-jet to a blink, she went upstairs. The house was tall and narrow, with large rooms and numerous cupboards On the ground floor were the dining-room and the morning-room, and on the first, the drawing-room, the best bedroom and the bathroom. Two other bedrooms, together with a linen cupboard and a box room, occupied the next floor, while the top part of the house was given up to Scottie and David.
Miss Loveapple went from room to room, twitching aside curtains with a clash of rings and throwing open windows, with her usual brisk efficiency. Her procedure was more thorough than her habitual routine, for she opened every cupboard and wardrobe and looked behind every door. She even stooped so low as to grovel under the beds.
By the time she had finished the job, her customary good spirits had returned. There was no trace of that gaunt Victorian relict in this prosperous mansion, with its new and expensive furniture. She was especially proud of her carpets and of the fact that only the kitchen and attic flights of stairs were covered with linoleum.
Completely reassured, she ran downstairs and made her tea. As she was drinking it, the front door bell rang. It was too early to expect Major Brand, but she dared not risk missing him, so she went upstairs and opened the door.
A man wearing a clerical round collar and soft felt hat stood outside. His bluish chin showed that he subdued a stiff beard with difficulty, while his mobile lips were slightly suggestive of an actor.
She summed him up with her native penetration which deserted her so completely in a crisis.
'Black gloves. Collecting-book. Something tells me you were never in holy orders, my friend.'
His smile was attractive, however, and when he spoke his voice had no professional whine.
'Another glorious day. We are lucky to be able to see the sky. Out of gratitude, won't you give me a contribution for the blind?'
'"We,"' Miss Loveapple reminded him. 'You can see as well as I can. What form is your own gratitude going to take?'
Meeting her shrewd blue eyes, he summed her up and decided on his line of action.
'Fifty per cent of what I collect,' he replied frankly.
'Ah, I can always spot a professional collector. Honestly, I wish I could give you something, although I am a subscriber already. But my charity list is full strength and I can't afford to increase it.'
The collector looked at the thick gold chain around her neck. Attached to it was an elephant with his trunk upraised.
'If you can't afford any more,' he said, 'why not make some extra money? Surely you've heard of the Twins?'
'Quins? Of course.'
'No, Browning's Twins. You remember his poem of the poverty-stricken monastery, which held two inmates—Date and Dabitur. "Give" and "It shall be given," you know.'
He began to quote:
'While Date was in good case,
Dabitur flourished too;
For Dabitur's lenten face
No wonder if Date rue.
Would you retrieve the one?
Try and make plump the other—'
He stopped his recitation and opened his book.
'Have I made myself clear?' he asked. 'Give me a small gift and count it as an investment. You'll get it back with interest.'
Miss Loveapple knew that he was playing upon her superstitious weakness, yet she could not resist his bait. She told herself that it was a lucky omen.
'I shall get more than I expect for the house,' she thought, as she opened her bag.
After the resourceful collector had gone, not only the house, but the neighbourhood seemed strangely silent. It had never struck her before how completely the Crescent was withdrawn from the main thoroughfare, as well as in itself. The solid walls of each house permitted no intrusion of the affairs of its neighbour. There were no voices or footsteps audible on either side of her. Only a distant hum floated in through the windows.
A board at each entrance warned the public against trespass and objectionable traffic. 'NO FUNERALS' indicated the Crescent as an awkward place wherein to die, were the injunction taken literally.
'Any one could be murdered here and no one would hear a sound,' thought Miss Loveapple, with justifiable pride at this proof of a select and secluded property.
AS the church clock was striking twelve, the front door bell rang again.
'Thank goodness they teach them punctuality in the army,' reflected Miss Loveapple. 'My money's not entirely wasted.'
It was typical of her mentality to forget that any one paid rates and income-tax besides herself.
She ran up the kitchen stairs, in her eagerness to admit Major Brand; but when she opened the door, the man who stood outside was not of military appearance. Younger than she had expected—tall, spare and well groomed—he looked an average type of educated Englishman, except for the penetration of his hazel eyes and the disillusionment of his expression.
This vanished when he smiled, revealing excellent teeth.
'Is Miss Loveapple at home?' he said.
'I am Miss Loveapple,' she told him.
He stared at her in surprise.
'But you can't be the owner of this house? Not a girl like you.'
The sheer novelty of the description made Miss Loveapple gasp. But although it pleased her to discover that, outside her circle, she was not predated, the familiarity offended her self-esteem.
'I certainly am the owner,' she said stiffly. 'Are you Major Brand?'
'No, his brother-in-law. He's gone off fishing in Wales. But he wants a place to park his family, so I offered to O.K. one and fix things up.'
Offended by the casual tone, Miss Loveapple looked at him, making no secret of the fact that he was under inspection. She noticed that his suit was well-cut, though shabby, and that his expensive boots were beginning to crack.
She also noticed that he wore washable doeskin gloves.
Elsie's warning floated into her mind as she shook her head in doubt.
'I'm not sure that I can arrange anything with a second party,' she said. 'My house is newly decorated and furnished. So I'm naturally particular about whom I let it to. I'm sorry, but I must have a personal interview.'
'To form my own impression.'
A smile flitted across the stranger's face.
'Do you claim to do that?' he asked. 'Suppose I am a prospective client, instead of my brother-in-law. Just by looking at me, can you decide whether I chuck lighted cigarettes on the carpets or scribble on the wallpaper?'
'I'm not concerned about that part of it,' she told him. 'All damage will have to be made good and every missing article replaced. I've brought a copy of the inventory for Major Brand to check.'
'You are business-like. You see, I can sum up people, too. May I tell you something else about yourself? You have a suspicious nature. You keep me outside on the doorstep.'
Forgetful of her resolution not to admit him, Miss Loveapple flushed.
'Please come in,' she said hastily.
She reproached herself for her lapse from courtesy, as she led the way to the morning-room. This gloved visitor, at least, was above suspicion, because he was Major Brand's representative. The fact that he knew all about the agent's proposition stamped his visit as an authentic mission.
She had made a bad start which was impolitic, if she wished to benefit by the lesson of Browning's 'Twins.' She must make amends before she led him gently to the discussion of terms.
Apart from the financial consideration, she was glad of a rare opportunity to exhibit the splendour of her London house. There was no white paint here, but sombre mahogany and rich dark colours, suggestive of stained glass, to harmonise with massive furniture. To her delight, the effect was not wasted on the young man who praised her taste with unforced enthusiasm.
'I'll hand it to you,' he said. 'All this is vastly different from the ordinary furnished house. That's my favourite colour.' He touched a fuchsia damask curtain. 'And I adore your carpets. It must be the Persian in me.'
'Do you really like it?' beamed Miss Loveapple.
At that moment, she actually resembled an overgrown schoolgirl whose work had been praised by her form mistress.
'I do. Unreservedly.'
'I'm so glad. Do sit down. I wish I had something to offer you, but there's nothing in the house. I'm only just in.'
'Don't you live here?'
'Sometimes. I've just come from the country.'
It cost Miss Loveapple a real effort to restrain herself from giving particulars of the Pond House.
'Mean to boast,' she thought. 'Especially as he doesn't look too lucky...I wonder if it is too soon to mention the terms.'
As she sat in silence, her deep blue eyes dreamy, the man studied her, noticing the excellent bone-structure of her face, and the amber gleams in her hair. He remarked, too, the stubbed toes of her shoes and the old-fashioned cut of her suit.
Then he looked around him, at the luxury of the room, with its thick carpets and deep, softly-padded chairs. It was very warm and the windows were darkened by closely-drawn fuchsia net curtains, which screened a view of the opposite 'backs.' In the dim light and linked by their mutual silence they seemed to be stranded in an oasis miles distant from the roar of London traffic.
'It is very quiet here,' he said.
'It is,' she agreed briskly. 'It's a very great advantage.'
'That's according to taste...Are you alone?'
'Aren't you nervous?'
She burst out laughing.
'What of? I keep nothing of value here. No plate, no jewellery, no money. Burglars always get to know...Shall we talk business?'
'That's what I am here for...What's your name?'
'I've told you. Miss Loveapple.'
'I mean—your Christian name.'
As Miss Loveapple remained pointedly silent, he went on talking.
'Is it "Flora"? It ought to be. By the way, my name is "Buckingham." I'm Mrs Brand's brother. Just connect me with a palace, if you forget.'
'Then, Mr Buckingham, what about the terms?'
'I'm leaving those to the agent. In my brother-in-law's interest, I must tell him to screw them down as low as possible. But if I were discussing them directly with you, it would be the other way around.'
Miss Loveapple bit her lip with disappointment. She began to wonder whether she had bungled the interview. Instead of snubbing the young man, she should have encouraged him.
'Do you know the date Major Brand wants to come in?' she asked.
'Yes. He wants to move his family in on September the fourteenth. That's the date of his return to India, but he won't go until the evening.'
'But I must see him before I go to Switzerland. I'm going to Grindelwald for a fortnight.'
'Then you've time to work it in all right.'
She shook her head miserably. All her schemes were constructed after the fashion of an Oriental craftsman who carves a nest of boxes, each enclosed within the other. The postponement of the date was upsetting her original plan to meet the Major and, consequently receive his cheque. This was essential to her own holiday; but, as matters now stood, she was not sure whether he would consider payment so long in advance.
'It's customary,' she said diffidently, 'to pay rent in advance. Do you—could you arrange that with your brother-in-law?'
'Leave it to me.' His voice was confident. 'Now we've settled the business end, might I smoke?'
Opening his case, he offered it to her. When she refused, he took a cigarette and lit it, without removing his gloves.
In spite of the slight flutter of her heart, she refused to feel nervous.
'Have you hurt your hand?' she asked.
'In a way. My fingers look rather repulsive at present. I've been doing some experimental work. Inventing some sweet little gadget for slaying my fellow men.'
Miss Loveapple accepted his explanation with outward calm. If, for a moment, she thought wistfully of Elsie, she assured herself that it was not for moral support, or protection, but rather that she might ring for the maid to show Mr Buckingham the front door.
At that moment, she was conscious of two desires at conflict. One was disturbing, because it was treachery to her own standard of independence. She admitted to herself that she was definitely conscious of this young man and responsive to his personality. She wanted to remain with him in this dim warmth and let their mutual attraction develop into intimacy.
The other desire was partly subconscious, but it swayed her will with the force of a deep-sea current.
She must get rid of this young man at once.
'When may I expect the cheque?' she asked in a level voice.
'I can't tell you that off-hand,' replied Buckingham. 'I shall have to wait until I get an address from Brand, before I can write to him about it. Of course, it must be made out to the agent.'
Miss Loveapple grew red.
'Are you trying to imply that I shall not pay him his commission?' she asked.
'Of course not. But, as you've been reminding me, this is business.'
Miss Loveapple rose with difficulty from the clinging depths of her chair.
'In that case,' she said, 'it seems a waste of time for me to remain in London. I shall travel to Switzerland on the thirty-first of August and return to London on the thirteenth of September, so as to meet Major Brand on the fourteenth. The cheque can be sent to my country house.'
'Have you two houses?' he asked.
This time, she could not resist the opening. Since he had insisted on treating her as a girl—and one who was attractive—it was time for him to learn that she was an important woman of property.
'Three,' she corrected. 'I have a bungalow by the sea.'
'That all? Haven't you a villa in the South of France and a sky-scraper in New York?'
She elevated her chin.
'If that is intended as a joke, I am not amused.'
Her voice was iced with such disapproving dignity that it might have been the echo of Queen Victoria's historic remark, winging through the years.
He followed her to the front door.
'Where is your country house?' he asked.
'You're almost too confiding. Don't you trust me?'
'It is not a matter of trust. It is merely that I cannot see the connection between personal details and a business interview...Good-morning.'
As she closed the front door after him, she was chilled by a sudden thought.
The gentleman who had just gone had left behind him no fingerprints.
MISS LOVEAPPLE returned to the morning-room as she felt the need of a cigarette; but instead of finding the usual solace in tobacco, she grew angry as she went over the interview in her mind.
It was characteristic that her annoyance was directed chiefly against herself. Underneath her surface importance, was a vast area of fundamental humility which made her ready to assume the blame for any mishap.
'Everything's mucked up,' she thought despairingly. 'It's all my fault. Gold-digging and boasting. I hate myself.'
However, by the time the cigarette was reduced to a stub, she found herself reacting to the usual swing.
'Honestly, why shouldn't I talk about my houses? When people have triplets, they don't hush it up and talk about "Our child," as if they were one...My three houses mean achievement. I wanted to do something against the odds—and I did it. I did it all by myself. And I've done no one any harm. It's the other way round.'
She remembered her purchase of her London home and the gratitude of the lean grey man who could not afford to live there any longer. To save rates, it had remained empty for years, which accounted for its neglected condition. Large family residences of that type were a drug on the market, particularly as the land was not available for a rebuilding proposition.
The building-contractor too, who had sold her the seaside bungalow, had wanted to turn his money over and so needed to make a quick sale. She had helped to put money into circulation, so was an actual benefactor to the nation.
The fact remained, however, that her plans were upset—and she hated altering any of her arrangements. Yet, in the uncertain state of affairs, it seemed hardly worthwhile to open the London house. Although it went dead against the grain, it would be wiser to own herself beaten and return at once to Highfield.
As she hesitated, the trifles of yesterday assumed their places in the pattern. If she stayed on in London, Captain Brown would have extra time in which to slaughter her beloved garden. Tied down to a limit of two weeks, he could not do so much damage.
There was another inducement. When she had promised to help at the refreshment stall, at the Garden Fête, she had expected the usual dull affair. Now the presence of Lady Pontypool—a photographed and paragraphed beauty—would attract strangers and turn it into a function. As matters stood, Miss Loveapple was committed to send contributions to the stall for which she would receive no entertainment value.
The snow mountains which were her secret passion still beckoned to her with polar magnetic fingers, but she reminded herself that they were eternal.
'They've waited so long for me,' she reflected, 'that they can wait a little longer.'
She shut the window of the morning-room, shook up a cushion which was hollowed by the impress of Buckingham's head and picked up the ash-tray which contained the ashes of his cigarette and hers.
As she ran down the basement stairs to the kitchen, she was conscious that her spirits had risen at the prospect of returning to the Pond House. Feeling hungry, she cut off a generous crust from the loaf and ate it, butterless, while she drank the milk. Then she went upstairs and began to shut windows and draw curtains.
Once again, a bell rang. This time it was the telephone exchange, trying to get her number. As she lifted the receiver, she recognised the leisurely voice of Mr Lemon, the house-agent.
'I'm afraid I have some disappointing news,' he said. 'Major Brand has been called away to Wales on business.'
'I know all about that,' Miss Loveapple told him. 'The fish have caught him, for a change. His brother-in-law has just been here and spilled the beans.'
'I didn't know he had one.' Mr Lemon lost his drawl. 'I hope you didn't settle anything with him?'
'No. I did not. But I want to get the Major's cheque just as soon as you possibly can.'
'I will, but it will take some time. I shall have to wait until I receive his address...Meantime, something has turned up which might interest you. Mrs Brand has taken a fancy to the house, as it is quiet and there is a garden for the children...So, if you would like to sell, I have no doubt I can get a good offer from Major Brand before he returns to India.'
There was a marked pause before Miss Loveapple replied.
'I have no intention of selling the house.'
'Not at present,' remarked the agent. 'But turn it over in your mind, as there are points about it. In any case, I should like to discuss it with you, as I think it might prove to your ultimate advantage.'
'Well, there's no harm in talking it over,' agreed Miss Loveapple. 'But I must come at once, for I am not stopping in London.'
The agent was naturally aghast at this threat to his golf.
'You've forgotten it is Saturday afternoon and all offices are closed,' he said. 'I'm rushing now, to catch a train. Can you come in Monday?'
Miss Loveapple frowned, hesitated and finally gave in.
'Well, since I'm here, I suppose I can stay the weekend. A personal interview saves so many letters. I'll call not later than ten-thirty. Good-bye.'
After she had rung off, she repented her decision. She would have to make up a bed for only a couple of nights, besides using towels and napery. But while this objection had a definite basis of economy, there was a submerged reason for her reluctance to stay.
She vaguely realised that she was beginning to take a dislike to the house.
Although it had been papered and furnished so lavishly, she could not forget the desolation which was hidden. It was as though the natural order had been reversed and she had seen a skeleton before it was covered by flesh.
Looking back, she came to the conclusion that while she was especially proud of No. 19, Madeira Crescent, she had never felt really at home in it, even when she had the cheerful company of Elsie and the pets.
'This is ridiculous,' she told herself. 'Snap out of it.'
Her suitcase was still in the hall, so she carried it up to the large first-floor bedroom. It was a fine but sombre apartment, with a colour scheme suggestive of autumnal leaves—brown, bronze and umber. The suite was walnut—the curtains burnt orange. Outside the windows were wrought-iron verandas.
In spite of the luxurious fittings and the concealed lighting, Miss Loveapple knew that she was not looking forward to the night. She had never been nervous before, either in the Pond House or the bungalow, when Elsie had been away on her holiday. On these occasions she had been surrounded by lonely country and empty beach, yet she had felt no pang of loneliness. Here, in London, sandwiched between two other buildings occupied by people, she felt apprehensive and uneasy.
Suddenly she smiled at her recognition of a familiar factor.
'Why, it's my Luck again,' she told herself. 'My present loss is future gain. I've found out I don't care for this house, just at the very time I have a chance to sell it. If I hadn't gone cowardly, I might have chucked the chance away...No, I'll sit tight over the weekend and tell the crafty Lemon I've changed my mind. I believe he knows me better than I know myself...There's the bell again.'
Glad of a chance to speak to someone, she ran downstairs to the hall and opened the front door.
For the third time that day, a man waited outside. A general description would cover both Buckingham and himself, inasmuch as they might have gone to the same public school, but they were not alike. His face was a narrow oval, his eyes softer, his smile more resolutely stressed.
'Got something to sell,' decided Miss Loveapple. 'Poor devil.'
'A beautiful day,' he remarked hopefully.
Miss Loveapple laughed in the friendly manner which marked her intercourse with those whom she did not wish to impress.
'I'm not going to agree,' she said. 'The last time I did, it cost me ten shillings.'
As she spoke, she noticed that the last button of his waistcoat was unfastened and that he wore grey suède gloves which matched his new suit. In his turn, he was studying her.
'Ten bob is no good to me,' he said. 'I'm a salesman but I can see that I cannot interest you. In our line, we learn to read faces like books.'
'I didn't know I was so obvious.' In her loneliness, Miss Loveapple wished to prolong an interview which committed her to nothing. 'Besides, you should not assume that you've no chance. That is defeatist policy. You should appear confident...What do you sell?'
Miss Loveapple grew suddenly alert.
'But I am thinking of getting one,' she said.
'Is that on the level?' The young man spoke eagerly. 'If it is, I am trying to put over a new line that's the best value in the market. I can let you have the literature now, if you are interested, I can give you a demonstration.'
He opened his small attaché-case and drew out a pamphlet.
'I am afraid the only one left is soiled,' he said. 'That fine thumb-print on the cover was made by a prospective customer. It is not mine. You see, I always wear gloves.'
'It doesn't matter,' said Miss Loveapple. 'I'll read it up and let you know if I decide anything.'
'Thanks a million. Here's my card.'
She read the name printed upon it.
'"Henry Watkins." Your name does not suit you too well.'
'On the contrary, my friends used to assure me that I was an ideal "Hugo."'
'You mean—that's not your real name?'
'No. Merely assumed for business purposes. I haven't much left, but at least, I can keep my own name.'
'Come down in the world?' asked Miss Loveapple with blunt sympathy.
'No, going up. People used to sell me things—and I was always mug enough to buy. And I was always taken in. Now it's the other way round. I get a real kick out of pitting my brain against the customer—the gentleman who is always right.'
His smile was bitter as he continued to talk, while he kept his soft brown eyes fixed upon her face.
'Usually he is resistant by nature, so I have to compel him to accept my suggestion that he wants to buy. Of course, he is not always taking any. It's a definite clash of personality—and I love it.'
'Are you rather giving away the show?' asked Miss Loveapple.
The young man joined in her laughter.
'No,' he said. 'I've got you taped. You'd see through my usual salesman's patter. You are strong-willed and sensible and you would do nothing against your judgment. I only ask you to judge the vacuum on its merits. When can I give you a demonstration?'
'Not just at present. I'm leaving London on Monday, for a few weeks.'
'But couldn't I show your servants how it works?'
Miss Loveapple opened her lips to explain and then refrained, from instinctive caution.
'Pumping me,' she decided. 'Wants to know if the house will be empty.'
'I couldn't accept any one else's opinion,' she told him.
'Then—might I call this evening?' he persisted.
She thought rapidly. As the house would be shut again until the thirteenth of September, it was sheer waste of opportunity to give any of her carpets a free cleaning. But if the young man were to call on the morning of the fourteenth, before the Brand family came into residence, she would reap the advantage of a free demonstration. In any case, she would have to write to the agency she patronised, asking them to send a reliable woman to clean the house in readiness.
'I'm engaged this evening,' she said. 'But I shall be returning from Switzerland on September the thirteenth and shall stay here for the night. If you care to come quite early on the following morning, you can try out the vacuum. But it must be at your risk, for I cannot give you a definite promise to buy the machine.'
'That is always understood,' explained Mr Watkins. 'I'll make a note of the date.'
As he was scrawling in his book, he made a suggestion.
'I wonder if I might see the carpet you would like me to work on. I want to see the size. You see, if I started and could not finish the effect would be patchy.'
Miss Loveapple's transparent face showed her discomfiture.
'It is rather big,' she admitted. 'You had better come in and see it.'
The young man entered the house and she shut the front door.
AFTER the glare of the August sun, it seemed almost dark inside the hall, where only one narrow side window admitted a shaft of dusty light. Yet Miss Loveapple felt no nervous qualms about being shut up in the house with a gloved stranger. As she turned to him, her mind was occupied only with business considerations.
'If it's possible,' she said, 'I should like you to clean the drawing-room carpet.'
'Where is it?' asked Mr Watkins, turning towards the dining-room. 'This room?'
'No. Upstairs. First floor.'
He dropped behind, to let her ascend the stairs first, but she refused to take the lead.
'Go on ahead,' she said. 'It is the first door. I hate any one treading on my heels.'
The same instinctive caution warned her against being drawn into making any admission when he began to display a professional interest in the arrangement of the house.
'I imagine it is on the same plan as the other houses in the Crescent,' he remarked casually. 'Two to three rooms on each floor and about three flights of stairs which would need carpet. Certainly it would pay you to buy a vacuum cleaner...I suppose the servants sleep on the top-floor?'
'There are no carpets in the attics or in the basement,' explained Miss Loveapple, keeping him within the limits of his own department, without telling a lie.
When the drawing-room was reached, he turned to her with a smile.
'You understand,' he said softly. 'This room has atmosphere. Not a jarring note. Restoration, not renovation. I, too, have a feeling for old houses.'
'The carpet,' she reminded him.
'Superb. I've visited some wealthy homes, both professionally and—before. But I've not seen a more beautiful carpet.'
In spite of his praise, however, it was obvious that something else had captured his interest. He crossed to examine closer a small oil-painting of a dark brownish landscape which was hung high on the wall.
'An original?' he asked. 'It looks like an Old Master.'
This time, Miss Loveapple answered frankly.
'I should like to think it was. I picked it up in an antique shop. But I've a lucky eye.'
'Have you had it valued? Is it safe here?'
'Of course. I'm insured...Well, what's the verdict? Is the carpet too big?'
The young man shrugged as he shook his head.
'I'll do it, but only because I am certain I shall make a sale, when you see how well it comes up...Please, may I have the name?'
He made a note in his book and then spoke diffidently.
'You mentioned something about going to Switzerland. I wonder if I might suggest your leaving the top windows open and asking the policeman to keep an eye on the premises when you are away. You see, when you shutter up a house, you advertise the fact that the place is empty. It's an invitation for burglars to call.'
His advice was unwelcome to Miss Loveapple, for two reasons. To begin with, it was an oblique reflection on the judgment of an unmarried woman and a statement of her need of masculine advice. It also raised a point about which she and Elsie had heated discussions.
Her elevated chin hinted that he had taken a liberty.
'Thank you,' she said coolly, 'but I am capable of making my own arrangements. I —Oh!'
She stepped away from the window with a cry.
It's that man come back again,' she said.
As she spoke, the front door bell rang loudly.
'I don't want to see him,' she confided impulsively.
'Then let him ring,' advised 'Watkins.'
'No, he saw me. I'd better go. Will you wait for me here? I won't be long.'
Suddenly it seemed Providential that Buckingham had called while Watkins was in the house. On the historic principle of setting a thief to catch a thief, one gloved stranger should be protection from another.
Not daring to leave Major Brand's brother-in-law on the doorstep indefinitely, lest he had some encouraging news for her, she ran downstairs and opened the door.
In contrast with the other deferential stranger, who had to efface his personality to meet the demands of salesmanship, Buckingham appeared confident and positive.
'Sorry to crash in again,' he said, 'but I think I left my cigarette-case here. May I look?'
Taking her permission for granted, he walked into the morning-room and slipped his fingers under the soft cushioned seat of a chair.
'Found it,' he said, holding it up for her inspection. 'All these luxury chairs are traps.' Then he looked up sharply at the sound of a dull thud.
'What's that?' he asked.
'I didn't hear anything,' she replied.
'It was like someone closing the front door.'
'Oh, how annoying. It must be the man who wants to sell me a vacuum cleaner. He promised he would wait...Idiot.'
Miss Loveapple spoke crossly because she felt vaguely disturbed, as though some muddled thoughts had been stirred into circulation.
Buckingham followed her into the hall, where she picked up one of Watkins's business-cards, from the hall table.
'Sorry. September the fourteenth,' was pencilled upon it.
'What's going to happen on September the fourteenth?' asked Buckingham whose eyes were sharp as well as penetrative.
As she did not reply, he asked another question.
'Will this house be shut up when you are in Switzerland?'
'Why? Are you going to give me advice about how to diddle burglars?'
'No. It doesn't matter either way. Any one who wanted to break in could do it with one hand tied behind him, with all these balconies.'
'A most encouraging thought. Are you an Insurance agent?'
'No, for the time being, I am not classified...Fact is, I was a problem-child—and my problem is not yet solved.'
'Well, anyway you've found your case,' remarked Miss Loveapple, opening the front door.
Before he reached the threshold, Buckingham turned back into the hall.
'Won't you show me over the house?' he asked. 'I promised to report on it to my sister, but I haven't seen it yet.'
She shook her head, obeying an urge to exercise caution, since she was no longer chaperoned by the other gloved stranger.
'It's not necessary,' she told him. 'Your sister likes it well enough to think of buying it. The agent rang me up about it. That's something you don't know apparently. Now, if you don't mind, I have things to do. Have you left anything else behind you? I warn you, I shall not open the door again to any one.'
'It doesn't matter. We shall probably meet again.'
'Pleasant holiday—but I don't think we shall meet.'
Feeling pleased with herself, Miss Loveapple shut the door. She was in excellent spirits again because her business acumen scented a profitable transaction. While she had bought No. 19, Madeira Crescent, cheap, her improvements justified her raising her price to show a substantial profit.
Another cause for satisfaction was the way in which she had handled Buckingham.
'Tried to play me for a sucker,' she thought. 'He certainly knows something about the Brands's business, but that's about all. Well, I suppose I must unload.'
When she reached the large bedroom, where her locked suitcase stood upon the floor, she changed her mind. It was packed in readiness for Switzerland, with every article tightly wedged into the minimum of space and interlocked with its fellow, after the fashion of a jigsaw puzzle. As the bulk of it consisted of spare underwear and extra shoes which she would not need at High-field, she decided not to disturb it, but leave it intact for her holiday.
Everything she needed for her two nights in London was in her attaché-case, including a house pyjama-suit. She had bundled it inside at the last moment, to save creasing her satin skirt during the night in the train, were she lucky enough to lie down on the seat.
'I must make up the bed, anyway,' she muttered.
She mounted the next flight of stairs up to the linen-closet, and began to get down sheets and towels from the shelves. As a rule she yielded to the temptation to gloat over her store—to count the various piles in order to check them with her inventory—to redistribute the bags of lavender; but, this afternoon, she was only conscious of a wish to finish as soon as possible.
She could not account for her unusual sensations. While she was afraid of nothing, she felt apprehensive and jumpy as though every faculty were keyed up to keep her on the alert. She found herself straining to listen and starting at the slightest sound—the creak of a board or the rustle of a window curtain.
Presently she grew aware that her nerves were rasped, while her skin pricked and tingled as though at the intrusion of an antagonistic element.
'Those silly people who are afraid of cats pretend to know if there's one in the room,' she thought. 'Perhaps there is something in it, after all. But what the dickens can there be in the house to affect me like this?'
Clutching her armful of linen, she bolted down the stairs to her bedroom, where she made up the bed at record speed. She was impelled by the same sense of urgency—the vital need to be quick—to get away. When a distant tapping—as though someone was hammering nails down in the basement—made her jump—she summoned up her common sense and refused to go down to investigate.
Feeling the need of a change of scene, she decided to go out and do her shopping. She was making a list of what she would require during the week-end, when she remembered suddenly the collector for the blind. In spite of the need for personal economy, her instincts were generous and her response to his appeal had been characteristic.
'Gosh, I gave him the note,' she reminded herself, as, zipping open her bag, she began to count her loose change.
It amount to four shillings and ninepence halfpenny.
'I must cash a cheque,' she muttered.
The next second, she recollected the fact that it was Saturday. The bank would be closed and also the house-agent's office. Once again her plans seemed doomed to dislocation as she reviewed the position. If she spent all her money on food, she would be penniless over the week-end and she disliked the idea of having no money, lest an emergency should arise. In any case, she could not cater according to her usual standard, for she liked her three good meals a day.
'Better go home while the going's good,' she decided.
A single railway ticket to Highfield cost four shillings and twopence and the Tube fare was sixpence—so she had a margin of three halfpence, if she played for safety.
'Those dam' Twins,' she muttered wrathfully.
But although she was irritated by the waste of time and money and the general futility of her journey, she experienced a lightening of spirit similar to the relief which followed her earlier decision. She was eager to be on her way—to sit in the railway carriage and watch the shorn fields stream by, until she was able to pick up the first landmark which told her that she was near her journey's end.
Too impatient to take the sheets off the bed, she left them in readiness for September the thirteenth, when she would pass the night in London. As she picked up her suitcase, however, she stopped and then replaced it on the floor.
An unpleasant thought had just slid into her mind. She told herself that she had no proof that the vacuum cleaner salesman had left the house. She had only heard the bang of the door, whereas he could have opened and shut it himself before slipping back up the stairs.
It was an old trick which she had seen performed in films, while he himself had the soft thick gaze of a cinema-villain of the sugar-coated variety.
'He knew I should be alone, to-night,' she thought. 'Well, if he thinks he's going to be a Romeo, he's jolly well mistaken...If he's still here, I'll soon run him out.'
It never occurred to her that there was any element of risk in her man-hunt, although she was always furious with the heroines of the screen, when they rushed into danger while usurping a G man's job. She hurried through the house, opening every door behind which a man might have concealed himself, but she was not so thorough as in her previous search.
There was a train to catch, for the service was not frequent to Highfield. Conscious of being pressed for time, she raced down to the kitchen, to find that the tapping sound came from a dripping tap. Wrenching it round, she rinsed the milk bottle and placed it outside the back door, while she solved the problem of how to dispose of the bread.
If she threw it into the area for the birds, the sun would soon bake it to the consistency of grit; on the other hand, she could not leave it to attract mice. In the end, she made a parcel of it, to take it away.
Tucking it under her arm, she rushed upstairs to the first floor, where she had left her suitcase. She snatched it up and then stopped to listen.
She could have sworn that she heard stealthy footsteps moving somewhere overhead.
'I never searched the attics,' she thought.
In spite of the episode of the dripping tap, she was mounting to the top storey, when she glanced at her watch...The next second she turned and raced down to the hall—leaping the last steps—in panic lest she should lose her train. Slamming the front door behind her, she ran all the way along the Crescent until she reached the Tube station.
It was not until she stood on the escalator, that a sub-conscious impression floated into her mind—so dim as to appear a figment of imagination. While she was thudding down over the thickly carpeted stairs, it had seemed to her that the sounds were dully duplicated from above.
At the time, she was obsessed by the need to make her connection, so had neither stopped nor turned her head; and even now she was completely vague as to what had really occurred.
'I was fussing about nothing,' she told herself. 'Besides, even if I've left Romeo shut up in the house, he can let himself out...Who cares?'
In spite of the heat and the crowded carriages, she enjoyed every yard of the journey back, from the moment she got into the Tube up to the time the local train steamed into Highfield Station. It was an adventure to swing along the lane, raising a cloud of dust, and to steal across the beech-shaded lawn of the Pond House.
She rang the bell, so as to give Elsie a surprise. When the maid appeared, she tried to compose her face.
'Is Miss Loveapple at home?' she asked.
Before she finished speaking, she was in shrieks of laughter, while Elsie joined in her hysterical mirth. In the midst of the excitement, Scottie rushed up barking. He was followed by David—running low over the ground, like an animated muff—and the welcome was complete.
'What have you got there, madam?' asked Elsie presently, as she took Miss Love-apple's parcel from her.
'Bread,' she replied. 'I didn't leave it behind. That's a good mark for me.'
'Yes, madam. Where's your attaché-case?'
Miss Loveapple smote her forehead.
'I've left it behind,' she declared. 'Bringing the bread made me forget it. I knew I had both my hands full...Really, Elsie, I've never known such a mess. Instead of having a personal interview with Mr Lemon, I shall have to ring him up, which is not so good. And it's all because I handed out ten shillings to a collector for the blind, who had a marvellous line...I cannot think what's happened to my luck to-day. It's dead out.'
On that occasion, by the irony of fate, Miss Loveapple was unable to realize her supreme good fortune. The collector who had halved her contribution, received five shillings which was poor payment for his unconscious intervention.
For that night, a gloved gentleman visited No. 19, Madeira Crescent, N.W.—and found it empty.
THE following day was one of the happiest that Miss Loveapple could remember. Her steady glow of gratitude began when she awoke to the peace of the country, instead of the gloomy splendour of her London bedroom. Elsie always 'slept in' on Sunday morning and her example was followed by David who was curled round his basket and holding his nose tightly with both huge paws.
As a rule, Miss Loveapple also lay in bed until the arrival of the early tea; but this morning, she felt too energetic to wait. Slipping on a washed-out kimono, she went downstairs and opened the front door, letting in the sunlight.
The Sunday papers were lying on the step. She took a Times and Observer alternately, for the sake of maintaining an even mental keel—although she never knew which of the two she was reading. Elsie, however, was faithful to the News of The World which was her literary fodder for the entire week.
Miss Loveapple used to joke about her love of sensation, but she knew that the maid's life would be shorn of some of its interest were the supply of victims to dry up. That morning, for the first time, she shuddered at the realization that actual horrors were enacted to provide entertainment for the Elsies of the world.
'People who were alive last Sunday, are dead to-day. Murdered some of them. Ghastly. When life is so beautiful.'
After she had made the tea, she poured out a cup for herself and then carried the tray up to the maid's room. Elsie—with her hair arranged under a setting-net and wearing pale green pyjamas of artificial satin—looked like the mistress of the house, for she was in a more favoured position and could spend her wages on her back.
She started awake in great distress.
'Oh, madam,' she cried reproachfully, 'you shouldn't ought to wait on me. Why didn't you tap on the wall when you woke up?'
'Don't splutter, Elsie. There's a marvellous bag of murders for you this morning. Your News of The World won't owe you much. But aren't you smart—all in green?'
Elsie's pale face flushed at the praise.
'I thought you would like me to match the room,' she confessed.
'You silly sap.'
Miss Loveapple's comment was characteristic and calculated to put the maid at her ease, since it was a language she understood. As she went downstairs, however, she wanted to boast to the world of this new proof of Elsie's loyalty. She drank her tea and then wandered into the back garden, walking bare-footed on the grass while her long fair hair streamed in the breeze.
It was much cooler, with a constant flicker of green leaves against a white clouded sky. Looking rather like Shelley's lady of 'The Sensitive Plant,' she strolled around her domain. Although she was always inarticulate when her sense of beauty was stirred, she was acutely conscious of the purity of the light, the colours of the flowers and the unfamiliar shadows of the sunrise.
Presently she shattered the illusion of poesy to do physical jerks. She felt recharged with energy which could only be realized by violent exercise. Each bound and stamp might have been symbolic of the triumph of resurrection over annihilation—even although she recked nothing of an evil thought which had faded with the other shadows of the night—the dim image of a broken body, shapeless as one of Elsie's dummies, huddled on the floor in the gloom of a London house.
But although she had escaped the immediate danger, she was only reprised. Even then, in a darkish London flat, a pleasant-faced young man stretched out his arm for the telephone. Speedily he dialled a number and then spoke cautiously into the receiver.
'That you? Listen. Something slipped up last night...No, no, it's in the bag for September the thirteenth.'
One of the concessions to human susceptibility is the comforting knowledge that a condemned prisoner eats a hearty last breakfast. Certainly Miss Loveapple enjoyed her meal that morning, for it was the usual Sunday menu—bacon and sausages. Afterwards, while she waited for the church bells to ring, she strolled on to the lawn where Elsie shelled peas.
She looked unfamiliar and not nearly so attractive in her best frock and hat, and she tugged at her gloves. She craved a cigarette, but would not smoke until after Divine Service, according to one of her rules.
'Have you got your collection?' asked Elsie. 'You don't want to be caught short, with nothing but a note, like yesterday, do you, madam?'
The reminder was a hint to be told something about the London visit without reference to business. Although Miss Loveapple talked freely to her, she confided her money-matters to no one, besides her lawyer and bank-manager. As a consequence, Elsie had the greatest respect for her mistress as an exponent of high finance and placed her on a level with any magnate with a string of secretaries and a row of press-bells.
'Yesterday,' repeated Miss Loveapple. 'I didn't tell you what happened. Three young men called at the house. And they all wore gloves.'
'It just shows,' murmured Elsie darkly.
'It does. All three of them couldn't have been criminals.'
'You never know...Oh, madam, look at the angel.'
Miss Loveapple gazed down at David who lay spread-eagled on his back, kicking vigorously while he savaged a pea-pod he had stolen. Suddenly she began to laugh at a momentary reminder of a soap advertisement—somebody's baby, sprawling on a towel after its bath.
'Elsie, aren't we funny?' she said. 'Here were are, two grown women, holding our breath over a cat, when we ought to have babies of our own.'
'He's not a cat,' objected Elsie passionately. 'He's David.'
'I know. I know. But wouldn't you like a baby, Elsie?'
'I'd like one of yours to look after. I only want the things that belong to you.'
'That would include a husband. If that's how you feel about it, no, thank you, Elsie. There's the bell. Good-bye.'
Miss Loveapple's super-appreciation of her blessings lasted during service in the chilly stone church at the top of the mount. When it was over, she crossed the churchyard and waited beside the parapet which encircled the summit. She was gazing out, over the trees and house-tops to the distant line of hills, when the Rector's wife came down the path, flagged with tombstones.
'I'm staying over for the Garden Fête,' called out Miss Loveapple.
'Good girl,' approved the Rector's wife. Will you undertake entire charge of the refreshments? I want you to organise and make the others work.'
Miss Loveapple beamed at the tribute to her administrative ability.
'On one condition,' she promised. 'Elsie must help at the produce stall.'
'Won't she be more useful waiting at the teas?'
'Yes—but that wouldn't be any change for her. Oh, I know you all think she's lazy and too big for her boots, but she gives me something that money can't buy. She's devoted to me. I know she would follow me "to the gallows'-foot—and after."'
Miss Loveapple laughed to prove that she was not emotional, as she added, 'I'll throw in my mint jelly and my prune cheese, as a bargaining basis.'
When the Rector's wife glumly nodded assent she clattered triumphantly down the two long flights of steps. At the bottom, Miss Agatha Pitt, with a pack of dogs, waited for her.
'What's London like?' she asked.
'Grim,' replied Miss Loveapple. 'That's why I came back.'
'Then it's not because of the new attraction. I thought you had heard. Mrs Ram has promised to tell fortunes at the Fête. You can't have forgotten her.'
'Mrs Ram.' As she listened, Miss Love-apple's thoughts went back to a wild All Hallows E'en—the shuffle of dried leaves—firelight leaping in amber beads and twin flames reflected in magnetic black eyes.
'Is she going to bring her jigger with her?' she asked eagerly.
'Her planchette? No, not at a church affair. Too suggestive of witchcraft. She's got to confine herself to palmistry and cards. Of course, it will be called "Character reading." But every one will flock to her, after the way she foretold you.'
'I was a fluke. She flopped with the rest of you.'
'But we were only playing the fool. Asking idiotic questions just to egg her on.'
'I know you were. Well, I must have another dip into the future with her, because soon, I expect to be in the news again.'
'I hope it is a young man, this time.'
Miss Loveapple grimaced as she shook her head; but on her way home to the Pond House she was reproached by the memory of two inconsequent sentences—'A girl like you' and 'We shall meet again.' At the time she had been indignant at Buckingham's audacity; but in retrospect, they flattered her vanity by marking a division between herself and the mature spinsters of the parish.
Throughout the day she continued to congratulate herself on escaping a solitary Sunday in London. She over-ate and over-smoked and slaughtered garden bugs without deference to the humane methods of 'The Sensitive Plant' lady. Consequently she awoke, on Monday, to vain regret and lost opportunity.
Mr Lemon shared her opinion when she rang up the estate office. He was a fluent speaker and believed that business could not be legitimate without the maximum number of words during its transaction.
'I am sorry you could not stay over the week-end,' he said. 'There are aspects about this offer which I should like to enlarge on. As it is, I can only give you the bones. I told you there is a prospect of selling No. 19, Madeira Crescent to Major Brand. Since then, I think I can do better than that for you. I have met both the Brands and been favourably impressed. Excellent people, very sound and all that. But, definitely, the Major wears the trousers.'
'Well, he was born with them,' interposed Miss Loveapple inaccurately.
'Quite. What I am driving at is this. His wife is a little under his thumb and I imagine he does not think much of her taste. She's fluffy, you know, while he's solid. He likes good things. Sound stuff. I don't think he would trust her to furnish the house, always supposing he should buy it. Now, it has occurred to me—'
'He might like to buy my furniture,' finished Miss Loveapple.
'Exactly. I suppose you don't know how much you paid for it? Have you a rough idea? Did you keep your receipts?'
'I know the price of every article and the aggregate value.'
'Really? Surprising. Then if you will send me all the details, I will decide the price we will try to push him up to. And this is where you come in. It is difficult not to put it crudely, so I hope you won't be offended when I say I am sure you will get a better price if you have a personal interview with him.'
'Because, as a man of the world, I have to sum people up. I don't mean to infer that the Major is not a model husband and father, but I fancy he is susceptible. And I am sure you will make a specially good impression. You see, he complained bitterly to me of the standard of the modern chorus girl. He compares them unfavourably with George Edwardes's Gibson Girls...Do you understand?'
Miss Loveapple flushed with pleasure.
'Yes,' she said. 'I am his type. When do I meet him?'
'I will arrange the meeting for September the fourteenth, at my office, ten-thirty sharp. He is catching the boat-train in the afternoon. They won't be back in London before then. They are going on to Scotland and Ireland, after Wales. I got a letter from him by first post, this morning...So you see how important it is for you to keep the date?'
'You can count me in,' promised Miss Loveapple. 'I can just fit it in with my holiday.'
When she explained her arrangements, Mr Lemon was horrified.
'It's risky to cut it so fine when you're coming bad from the Continent,' he said. 'The Channel may be too rough for you to cross. Can't you alter the date of your visit to Switzerland?'
'Impossible. I've just booked myself for a local Fête. I can't leave them in the lurch. Don't worry, I will be there...But even if I was held up, I can trust you to do my talking for me.'
'Thank you, Miss Loveapple. But remember, I am counting on the personal touch.'
Miss Loveapple was in high spirits when she rang off. Contrary to her custom not to refer to a transaction until it was a certainty, she confided in Elsie her hope of selling No. 19, Madeira Crescent, together with its contents.
'The place is lousy with other people's thoughts,' she said. 'I wish I had not to spend even one night there. But now my luck is in again, after Saturday. So is yours, Elsie. I've got some news for you.'
When she told the maid that she was to be elevated to the rank of saleswoman at the Fête, instead of running round with the other maids, the girl made several ineffectual efforts to speak.
'You know me,' she blurted out. 'I keep myself to myself. I have my proper pride...But when I let myself go for any one, I go the whole blooming hog.'
Miss Loveapple understood. Elsie was trying to tell her that she would not only walk with her to the gallows-foot, but even substitute her own neck for the drop.
The prospect of sacrifice was not so remote as it seemed. During the Sunday, an idea was shaping in Elsie's brain. Like most gloomy people, she worshipped humour. The episode of her mistress' snap homecoming had appealed to her as exquisite comedy and had thrilled her imagination.
In her turn she began to wonder whether she could take Miss Loveapple by surprise. She could leave the pets in Miss Pitt's charge on the night of September the thirteenth and keep Miss Loveapple company in London during the night.
She pictured her own excitement as she crept into the darkness of the empty house and waited for her mistress to insert her latch key in the lock. Directly she heard it, she would switch on the light, fling open the door and say, 'Miss Loveapple is not at home'—if she could keep herself from laughing before she made the announcement.
She could see no flaw in her plan. The clerks at the estate office knew her by sight and would raise no objection to letting her have a key, especially as they knew that Miss Loveapple was expected back from the Continent that evening.
Events were shaping well for the young man in a darkish London flat. In the twilight, all the cats are grey—and one woman was as good as another for his special purpose.
It was merely a question of which was first to enter No. 19, Madeira Crescent, London, on the night of September the thirteenth.
DURING the next few days, Miss Loveapple was wrung by a fever of unrest. She wanted to go away to Switzerland without delay. At night she dreamed of snow-mountains with iced peaks, towering to incredible heights. During the day she kept seeing continually the triple range of the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau.
When her desire was at its height, she became possessed of the means to satisfy it. Mr Lemon sent her Major Brand's cheque for the advance rent of No. 19, Madeira Crescent. The figure was higher than she dared expect, since even she had to acknowledge that the house was in an unfashionable neighbourhood.
Her thoughts flew at once to Buckingham.
'Wonder if he had anything to do with it. That was an excuse he made to come back. He wanted to see me again.'
Then her face lit up at a sudden thought. She realized that now there was nothing to hinder her from starting off to Grindelwald. She could enjoy every minute of her fortnight, without any worry at the end, lest she should lose her connection and miss her interview with Major Brand. What was more, she could cut out the night at London altogether. If she altered her timetable for the return journey, she could come back directly to the Pond House and take the workman's train up from Highfield, on the morning of the fourteenth of September.
'I do want to be welcomed in,' she thought. 'To know someone is expecting me. Waiting for me.'
At that moment, Miss Loveapple's Luck had nearly won the game. Miss Loveapple was on the point of yielding to her impulse when she remembered that she had blocked the way by a fatal premature move.
She was pledged to remain for the Fête, because of Elsie. She knew that if she were to break her promise to the Rector's wife, she could not expect preferential treatment for her maid. Unable to disappoint the girl, she resolved to keep to her original plan and travel to Switzerland the day after the Fête.
She completed all her arrangements for the journey. Railway tickets were bought, reservations made and her room booked at a quiet but good-class Pension-hotel. Less than a week divided her from her holiday when she had a complete change of feeling.
She found herself dreading the prospect of parting with Elsie and her beloved animals. A ridiculous lump arose in her throat whenever Scottie did his famous marathon around the lawn or David displayed his starfish sprawl.
The weather, too, had changed and was perfect, with a stiff breeze to whip up the clouds and keep them rolling over a deep blue sky.
Her house had never appeared more desirable or her garden so beautiful. The autumn flowers arrived early, while the summer blooms yet lingered, so that chrysanthemums, Michaelmas daisies and dahlias met the gladioli, marigolds, and poppies they were scheduled to replace.
'It's a crime to leave it,' she declared, gazing at her Kelway border, where patches of colour—purple, pink, blue, orange, scarlet and yellow blended in a vivid rainbow blur.
'But you will be picking great bunches of edelweisses,' Elsie reminded her.
Neglecting her News of The World, the maid spent her spare time studying the fashions in the advertisement columns of Miss Love-apple's papers, to find inspiration for a new dress.
'I want to look like a lady, and not like a film-star,' she confided to her mistress.
Miss Loveapple went on doggedly with the preparation of preserves and pickles for the Produce Stall; but three days before the Fête, she knocked off work and caught the bus which passed through Highfield on its way to more important places.
After a three-mile ride, she got out before the inn of a large village which only just missed the status of a small town. There were shops in its street, which sold fish and meat—objectionable trade, according to the Highfield standard. There was also a bank, a small cinema and the professional premises of a doctor, a dentist and a lawyer.
Miss Loveapple hated the errand to which she was committed. She gritted her teeth with determination as she lowered her head to enter the doorway of an ancient lath-and-plaster building. The interior of the office was dark as a cavern and had the traditional smell of mouldy paper, but the lawyer himself was a florid cheerful soul.
'I want to make my Will,' Miss Loveapple told him.
'A proper precaution,' he said, beaming at her. 'It has surprised me that you've not done so before. You are so business-like.'
'Well, make it short and simple. I must sign it before I go to Grindelwald.'
The lawyer knew all about her visit, since he lived at Highfield and competed with her for floral honours.
'You'll cut up very nicely,' he remarked.
'Oh, do you really think so?' Miss Loveapple beamed at the compliment to her estate. 'Now I want everything to be realized and one-half of the proceeds to go to my maid—Elsie Wordsworth—and the other half to charities. Here is the list. Elsie will take my cat and dog, but I want a trust for them.'
'Doubtful of the maid?'
'Of course not. But she's not strong, and so devoted to me that I am afraid that she might crash herself if anything happened to me. Here's a list of people I can trust to see that my pets are cared for until they die. As you see, Miss Pitt comes first.'
The lawyer jotted down her instructions. He was too accustomed to making last Wills and Testaments to find anything incongruous in the fact of death in connection with so vital a client. As he shook hands with her, on parting, he made a joke.
'Don't tell the maid about the Will or you might get rat-poison in your tea.'
It was a relief to Miss Loveapple when the business was settled finally. She paid another visit to the lawyer's office—when the Will was signed and witnessed, the evening before the Garden Fête. This time, the lawyer congratulated her on her radiant appearance.
'I prophesy it will be a very long time before any one benefits through you,' he said.
When the next day dawned, Miss Loveapple was glad she had stayed for the Fête. It was always an important local event, but this year, the excitement was increased by Lady Pontypool's patronage.
When Miss Loveapple and Elsie reached the grounds of Highfield Park—where the Fête was held—they presented a marked contrast. Elsie had displayed her usual good taste over her new frock and looked like any girl of the leisured classes. On the other hand, Miss Loveapple had made no attempt to compete with her maid, but wore a short-sleeved white linen dress which buttoned down the front and displayed her fine sunburnt arms.
As they entered the Marquee, Miss Pitt drew Miss Loveapple aside.
'Mrs Ram is supposed to be a mystery palmist,' she whispered. 'She calls herself "Zora". Don't recognise her, or she'll be disappointed.'
As Miss Loveapple promised, a burst of clapping heralded the entrance of Lady Pontypool. She was a beautiful woman—apart from the fact that she was aided by every device of fashion and artifice. Her gown was an inspiration to her sex, while her speech was a perfect example of its kind. In a few words, she managed to convince her audience that she had never attended before such a charming function nor been welcomed by such a delightful people.
What was more to the point, she set an example to the public by making a round of the stalls. Just as she reached the Produce Stall, the rector's wife, who accompanied her, was called away by the head of the tea-committee. In the absence of the usual introductions, therefore, Lady Pontypool glanced at the stall-holders and selected Elsie as saleswoman, to Miss Loveapple's secret annoyance.
She was disappointed because she had looked forward to being presented to this glamorous leader of Society; but she concealed her feelings as she drew the other helper aside. She noticed that Elsie was recommending a pot of heather-honey with the maximum of respect, before her attention was engaged by another customer. She was the more surprised, a little later, to find that Lady Pontypool was still at the stall and carrying on an animated conversation with her maid.
'I hope Elsie isn't putting on dog,' she thought.
The next second she was ashamed of her unworthy suspicion, for the girl flushed with pleasure as she caught her eye.
'This is my mistress,' she said proudly to Lady Pontypool.
Lady Pontypool greeted her with pleasure which she contrived to make sound sincere.
'Your maid has been establishing a link between us,' she said. 'I hear that her sister is parlour maid to my cousin. I know her well.' (She did not add 'by sight'.) 'She has been telling me, too, about the pleasure you arranged for her. So understanding of you...And now I must buy something from you. Something that you made yourself.'
Miss Loveapple was not too dazzled by Lady Pontypool's personality to charge a profiteering price for her damson-cheese. While she was selling it, she managed to slip in the information that she was crossing to the Continent, the following day.
'So am I,' cried Lady Pontypool. 'Quite a coincidence. Where are you going?'
'Ah, lovely place. I envy you. I'm motoring. Dalmatia. May return by way of Switzerland. So we may meet again.'
'Wouldn't it be strange if we met in Paris? I've got to buy a hat. I don't wear them as a rule, but yours makes me feel there must be something in the idea.'
'Then I must tell you the name of my milliner. You must keep it a secret.'
Elsie produced a pencil and paper and Miss Loveapple was entrusted with a confidence denied to Lady Pontypool's own circle. Then her ladyship finished her round of stalls, had tea with the rector's wife—who scolded her for smoking too much—and drove away.
After she had left, the glamour faded from the Fête. Miss Loveapple felt none of her usual keenness to scoop in the maximum sum. As she gazed around at the familiar features of any small country entertainment, she became both critical and bored. So few young people—such a shortage of men. It needed someone with the audacity of a Buckingham to ginger up interest. There would be definite merit in trying to sell him a jar of pickles he did not want.
Suddenly she remembered the palmist.
'It's all rubbish—but I'll have my fortune told,' she decided.
On her way to Zora's tent she was stopped by Miss Pitt.
'Lady Pontypool brought us some Egyptian jewellery,' she said. 'Buy a scarab from a mummy's tomb, to bring you luck. You know you are superstitious.'
'I'm not,' declared Miss Loveapple as she chose a blue-green beetle.
When she reached the palmist's lair she was received by a local lady who acted as receptionist and intelligence officer. She took Miss Loveapple's shilling and disappeared through curtains into the inner compartment. After a rush of whispers, Miss Loveapple was admitted into a hot smoky cave of mystery, which was dimly lit by a purple lantern. An oriental pastille failed to disguise the odour of Mrs Ram's brand of cigarette, but the palmist herself was completely transformed.
She wore a huddle of black draperies and her head and face were covered by a wine-red veil, under which gleamed a metallic-gold mask, slitted for eyes and lips. It looked so unhuman that Miss Loveapple felt a shock of relief when the graven image began to speak in an artificial voice.
'Cards or hand?'
The idol spread out part of the pack upon a small table and began to count with golden-gloved fingers.
'You will have a letter containing an invitation,' she said. 'I think it is to a wedding. Yes, here is a ring, in combination with hearts. Within a month, you may expect a present from an elderly man. Very soon you will get a surprise. I also see a journey. You are going to cross the water.'
'Yes,' remarked Miss Loveapple, 'I am going to Grindelwald. It is not exclusive news. Every one knows it.'
'I see it in the cards. On this journey you will meet new friends. There are men in your fortune. One is thinking of you now.'
'Must be the one I gave short change to.'
Bored with the conventional items, Miss Loveapple began to try and interpret the cards herself.
'Isn't that the death card?' she asked.
'Not necessarily,' replied the idol. 'Only in combination with other cards.'
'But there's the ace of spades reversed, with ten and nine of spades. That's bad, isn't it?'
'You certainly should be careful.'
'Is he my enemy?'
'No, you are surrounded by friends. This man is definitely hostile to another man.'
Suddenly the idol forgot her metallic voice and lapsed into contralto.
It is all most confusing,' she complained. 'No one wishes you ill—yet there is a threat to your safety. It is my duty to warn you that there is danger.'
'Good thing I've made my will. Is the dangerous man someone I know?'
'No, he is a stranger.'
'Then why pick on me? It doesn't make sense.' Aware that she was beginning to take her fortune seriously, Miss Loveapple began to laugh. 'He must be an engine-driver. I'm going to be in a railway smash.'
'No,' said the idol, 'the danger is at the house...May I look at your hand for a moment?'
As the disguised Mrs Ram held her outstretched palm, Miss Loveapple thought that her fingers trembled slightly.
'Oh, what a lucky hand,' declared the palmist. 'You have everything: a husband, happiness, children, prosperity, a long life. Only—there is the same indication of danger.'
'Thanks.' Miss Loveapple glanced at her watch and exclaimed, 'Golly, Elsie's had no tea. I must fly back to relieve her.'
To her surprise, Mrs Ram accompanied her to the entrance.
'Please be very, very careful,' she urged, speaking in her natural voice. 'It's not a joke. Remember I told you your fortune before—and it came true.'
She had barely returned to her tent when Miss Pitt poked her head through the flap at the back.
'Are you free to tell me my fortune?' she asked.
'Not now,' replied Mrs Ram in an agitated voice. 'Please go away. I must have a whiff, to soothe my nerves before my next client. I'll explain later.'
The Fête dragged on to its end, in boredom for Miss Loveapple and golden hours for Elsie. Presently the rector made his speech of general thanks, in which he announced the total of the receipts. Every one clapped and the village band played 'God Save the King.'
When the last coloured light was out and the park nearly deserted, Miss Loveapple stopped packing up and spoke to Elsie.
'I've just remembered I left my attaché-case in London. I'll see if I can borrow one from Mrs Bosanquet.'
Since it was her boast never to borrow, the rector's wife was the only person she could approach. She knew that the ex-hospital matron could always be relied on to cope with an emergency.
On this occasion she did not fail Miss Loveapple.
'No, my dear,' she said, 'I can't spare one of mine. Always in use. But there's something here that might meet the case. Lady Pontypool's maid packed that Egyptian rubbish in an old jewel-case. She left it behind her as junk...Here it is.'
Fishing behind some stacked trestles, she held up an expensive but somewhat worn case.
Miss Loveapple accepted it with enthusiasm.
'It's beautiful leather. Much nicer than a new cheap case. I'd like to borrow it for my holiday.'
'It's yours. But keep the coronet out of sight.'
Miss Loveapple's acquisition of the jewel-case marked a critical stage in the game of two great opposing Forces. The Fête—in its regulation of Miss Loveapple's time-table—placed the blind malignant Fate in a position of almost certain victory; but, on the point of being beaten, the Luck pushed forward Lady Pontypool upon the board.
There was still a faint chance.
One person, however, nursed no illusions of safety. As Miss Loveapple and Elsie, laden with piled-up property, staggered home to the Pond House, Miss Pitt entered the palmist's tent. Mrs Ram had removed her gilt mask and was smoking as she counted up her takings, not yet given in.
'What was the matter with you when I came in before?' asked Miss Pitt.
Her question was the signal for Mrs Ram to dramatise herself.
'Oh, my dear,' she said. 'I'd just had a most terrible shock. I was reading the cards for someone—I cannot tell you who—and I saw a violent death. It was in her hand, too—a break in the life-line...She is going to be murdered.'
MISS LOVEAPPLE felt her first thrill of anticipation when she reached Victoria Station the following afternoon. Until then the parting had hung heavily over her, from the moment she awoke in the greyness before the dawn. Too restless to lie in bed, she got up and went down to an unfamiliar garden.
Everything looked flat and colourless as in a photograph. Pallid toadstools cropped up in clusters amid the grass. Long spectral strands of bedewed cobweb floated in the air. There was a chill in the atmosphere which reduced her to deeper depression as she stood and shivered in her cotton kimono.
'It might be before the beginning of Wells' History,' she thought, with a rare flight of imagination. 'Lightless and so terribly lonely. I feel unborn.'
Later, when the sunrise had performed its magic of transformation and breakfast had restored her to normality, the beauty of her flower-borders filled her with vain regrets.
'What gets me down is knowing that I've actually paid to leave it all,' she confided to Scottie. 'The sooner I go and get it over the better.'
Fortunately when she caught the earlier train there were no harrowing scenes of farewell. Elsie summoned up her fortitude to wish her 'Good-bye,' with stoical indifference, while the pets mistook her emotion for weakness and tried to lead her to the meat-safe. But all the way up to London, she watched each landmark with the fond eyes of one going into exile.
'In fifteen days' time I shall be seeing it all again,' she reminded herself for comfort.
Although it was cooler in London than on her last visit, no rain had fallen to wash the streets. The buildings looked grimed and the cheap tea-shop where she had a light lunch was overcrowded and understaffed.
After trying to kill time at the National Gallery, she decided to wait at Victoria Station. Almost instantly, her mood changed in response to her surroundings. The hurrying passengers, the new novels on the bookstalls, the tea-trolleys, the trucks of piled luggage—all affected her like the first notes of a prelude. Stimulated by the noise and bustle, she began to look forward to her holiday with sharp-edged enjoyment.
She was going to have the supreme tonic of change; different faces, different food, different language, different scenery. She would actually see again those snow-mountains which had haunted her dreams. Although it was so long ago, she still retained a clouded memory—a panoramic view of a white frieze of peaks seen from the top of the Schynige Platte.
Once again she was able to appreciate her special luck; but even while she respected it as a benevolent Force, she was practical and believed in helping it to function.
'I wonder if I can buy some white heather for the journey,' she thought.
To her delight, she found several sprigs in a florist's shop inside the station. After asking its price, her frugal mind urged her to delay the purchase, in case she could buy cheaper from a street hawker. She was on her way to the nearest exit when she began to feel thirsty.
With so much spare time on hand, she decided to have tea, instead of waiting for it to be served on the train. Entering the nearest refreshment-room, she found that it was filled chiefly with passengers for the Continental Express. Seated at a tiled table, while she smoked a cigarette, her attention was attracted to a group who were some distance away.
She could hear every word they uttered, however, since they talked of their private affairs at the top of their voices and treated the rest of the company as non-existent. Judged by their appearance, they seemed to be prosperous and of some social importance. As was natural, Miss Loveapple took most notice of the two who were dressed for travel and—from their remarks—going on the Continent.
The elder woman had been a beauty and still possessed a fragile but sterilised attraction; her face had a plaintive expression and her large dark eyes hinted at suffering. Her daughter was plainer, with black hair—worn in Edwardian fashion—a high colour and white protruding teeth.
Presently a chauffeur in smart livery entered the refreshment room and crossed over to their table. He was carrying their light cases and had come for instructions about the heavier luggage. After a high-pitched reference to a new car—a Rolls-Royce—Miss Loveapple tried to tune out of their sound-wave by listening to the conversation of the people at her own table; but her attention was captured again against her will.
'Mean to say you haven't got sleepers?' remonstrated a masculine voice.
'They're not worth the expense,' explained the fragile elderly lady. 'Besides, you have to travel first and we are going second-class. But it doesn't matter. I shall be privileged. I always am.'
'Yes, mother has only to look pathetic and someone always comes across,' declared the daughter.
Miss Loveapple congratulated herself on the corner seat she had booked in the Calais-Interlaken Express. She did not like the people and hurried over her tea, so as to return to the station.
The scene had grown more animated in her absence, for the Continental Express had now come in. It was too early to board her, but Miss Loveapple passed through the barrier in order to find her carriage. As she strode down the platform, she compelled attention, just as the superior passengers in the tearoom had practically taken their surroundings by vocal assault.
Since she believed her experience in London justified Miss Pitt's unfortunate advice, she was wearing the incongruous black satin suit. A hatless summer had deepened her colour to tropical warmth—her golden hair was uncovered—her deep blue eyes beamed with radiance. With head erect and swinging a heavy suitcase, she marched along, as though she trampled down opposition which divided her from a triumphant goal.
Soon her seat was located in a Pullman coach. It met with her full approval, as it was beside a window and had the further convenience of a table. Hoisting her coat and case up on the rack, she jumped from the carriage and began to pace the platform. In her turn she watched the other passengers—wondering which among the number were going to Switzerland and picking out distinctive people from the crowd.
She had just been reassured by seeing the superior tea-room ladies in a remote section of the train and completely out of conversational range, when a couple caught her attention.
The man was thin and dark, with a slight indication of a moustache and dark waxed hair. He was characteristic of a variety of types, so that she could imagine him as a titled foreigner, a hair-dresser or the conductor of an orchestra. His companion, on the other hand, was unique.
Her face was beautiful, when considered in separate parts. Fine, dark, slanting eyes and glossy hair were perfect as the faultless geranium-red lips and oval chin of magnolia whiteness. Unfortunately these flawless halves were united—or, rather, disjointed—by a nose which was too long and slightly crooked.
'It's like looking at a face in a cracked mirror,' decided Miss Loveapple. 'Paris labels. I bet they're a pair of crooks.'
She did not know that one of the oldest dramas was being enacted—that of the watcher being watched. While she covertly studied the couple, she, too, was under observation.
Distinct from the general notice of the crowd, someone was taking a direct personal interest in her movements.
It was a well-dressed young man, of public school type, with excellent teeth and a pleasant smile. Slipping behind pillars, passengers and trucks piled with luggage, he took cover continually as he followed her with his eyes. In her case, his tactics were successful, but presently he attracted the attention of the woman with the crooked nose.
'Look,' she whispered in great excitement to her companion. 'Do you see what I see?'
'Gorblimey, it's him,' gasped the man. 'Didn't know he was out. Now things will ginger up a bit...Is he trailing any one?'
'Seems to be the tall blonde dame.'
'Then you can bet he's on to something hot. Now what do you think about that?'
'This: if it's his game, it'll be better for our health to keep out of it.'
'Sure. But if the blonde is on the Paris train, there's no harm in sticking round.'
He spoke wistfully, for the couple were humble criminals—always holding back while others took the risk and made the kill—but reasonably content with pickings. Like a pair of jackals, they crawled forward only in the shadow of the tiger.
Then the woman glanced at her wristwatch.
'Time to get back to our carriage,' she said.
Miss Loveapple was already in her seat. She was impatient to start—to speed up the drawn-out farewells. While the engine panted and the air was full of good wishes and advice, she was being kept back—on the threshold.
Directly the guard waved the green flag, her holiday would begin...Suddenly her face puckered with dismay as she remembered the white heather she had failed to buy.
'Too late now,' she told herself. 'Don't be a fool. It's nothing but superstition.'
All the same, at the back of her mind, she knew that the sprig would make all the difference to her happiness. If she started it, she could not travel in real confidence.
She glanced at the clock and then sprang from the train. Clutching Lady Pontypool's jewel-case, which held her tickets, money and passport, besides some toilet articles, she rushed down the platform, through the barrier and back to the florist's shop. Too breathless to speak, she snatched a spray of white heather, threw down half a crown and dashed away, without waiting for her change.
Her sprint back to the train was a spectacular performance, but not without danger, to the astonished spectators. After she had charged the official at the barrier, she heard the rip of her skirt and felt a new freedom in motion. Running still faster, she sped down the bay, just as the train was beginning to pull out.
Her own carriage was too far away for her to attempt to reach it, but she managed to grasp the door handle of the last coach. It swung open as someone gripped her and hauled her inside.
'What luck,' she panted.
AT first, Miss Loveapple was too confused and breathless to be conscious of her surroundings. As she felt herself drawn down to a vacant seat, she included every one in the carriage in her gratitude.
'Thanks so very much. It's frightfully good of you. I was afraid I was going to be left behind.'
'I thought so too,' agreed a voice which she had heard before. 'I saw you jump off the train and run. That's why I kept the door open on the chance of a snatch-and-grab.'
Miss Loveapple stared incredulously at the young man who had saved the situation.
'You!' she gasped.
'Of course,' replied Buckingham. 'I told you we should meet again. I am going to Switzerland.'
She looked at him with mixed feelings—grateful for his help and flattered by his persistency, even while it annoyed her. Because she was country bred, she liked him better in plus-fours and pullover than in town clothes. Glancing curiously at his ungloved hands, she noticed that they were now free from chemical stains or scars.
'Grindelwald too?' she asked ironically.
'How did you guess?'
'The same hotel?'
'Even that would not surprise me...Good. I believe the sun is going to break through.'
In the preservation of her dignity, Miss Loveapple was doing her utmost to control her lips; but her natural good-nature won and she joined in his laughter.
'Did Brand come across with his cheque?' he asked, lowering his voice.
'He did. Am I to thank you for it?'
'I did apply some high-frequency. Dilatory beggar. Always forgets to put his watch forward when Summer Time comes in, so he never really catches up...Well, here we are. How are you liking it?'
Reminded of her personal plight, Miss Loveapple groaned.
'I'm a mess.'
It was the blank impersonal stare of a girl in the opposite corner which made her suddenly conscious of a torn skirt and disordered hair. She was a type which Miss Loveapple resented and secretly envied—a pocket edition of perfection. Her small features were flawless, her eyes large, her lashes thick and dusty. Brunette in colouring, the clever artifice of her complexion suggested healthy natural pallor, to contrast with ripe-cherry lips. She was immaculately dressed in a travel outfit of leaf-brown tweed which reduced the black satin suit to salvage from some rag-bag.
Miss Loveapple summed her up.
'A fairy. "Small Lady." They make the fashion for her.'
She was furious with herself for feeling jealous, especially as she was honestly incapable of admiring meagre proportions. Convicted in her own imagination of overweight and vulgarity, she rose from her seat.
'I must get back to my own carriage,' she said.
'You can't,' gloated Buckingham. 'This is a long train, all made up of bits and pieces.'
Her face puckered as, for the first time, she noticed that there was no corridor to the coach.
'I've left my coat and suitcase on my seat,' she said.
'You can collect them at Dover. It's all right.'
'No, it's not all right. I've lost my corner seat.'
Suddenly the 'small lady' spoke in a low, husky voice.
Will you change places with me?'
The offer was so unexpected that Miss Loveapple felt like a rich maiden aunt.
'No, thank you,' she said quickly.
'I'm sorry. I thought you wanted a corner seat. What lovely white heather.'
Miss Loveapple laughed in a shamefaced manner as she placed her sprig inside her case for safety.
'That's what I went back for,' she confessed. 'I hope it's worth it.'
'Oh, do you believe in luck?'
'I do in my own. I am always lucky.'
'Then I'm glad you're coming on the Swiss train as a mascot. I'm always terrified of accidents.'
'Don't worry. You will be safe with me.'
Miss Loveapple felt in her rightful element again as she made her prophecy. After suffering the humiliation of an inferiority complex, besides the loss of her corner seat, she was restored to her superior plane of special favours. In the circumstances, she was pleased to allow others to benefit from the overflow.
'Can you guarantee a smooth crossing?' went on the girl.
'Of course. I'm crossing too.'
'That settles it.' Buckingham turned to the girl. 'We'll stick by her.'
It was the first time he had included her in the conversation, but she appeared to be waiting for an overture. Her nod and quick smile was the seal of an alliance and reminded Miss Loveapple of the snap of a dog after sugar.
'I ought to keep out of the Luck Syndicate,' she said. 'I am a stranger, while you know each other already. But when one is travelling alone, it makes all the difference to meet—nice people.'
In spite of the compliment, Miss Loveapple felt under no illusion. The girl was of the stressed feminine type which seeks to appropriate any unattached man. While her face had the smooth contours of a schoolgirl, her composure testified to mature and competent character.
Within the next minute she proved her quality.
'May I mend your skirt?' she asked. 'I've a sewing outfit in my case. You can't do it yourself. But it looks too grim.'
Miss Loveapple glanced up at the rack and noticed that the girl's luggage matched her colour scheme, in further evidence of her attention to details. When the offer was accepted and the girl stooped over the black satin seam, Miss Loveapple had to admit the perfection of her manicure, the artistry of her wave and the sweep of her long lashes.
'I'll just draw the edges together for the journey,' she explained. 'When you are back, you can take it to an invisible-mending place.'
Miss Loveapple made a vaguely grand gesture which restored her self-esteem.
'Directly I get back, I shall throw it out,' she said.
Although they were a lively party on their way to the coast, she was conscious of secret disappointment. The holiday had not begun according to plan. She had looked forward to travelling free from conversational obligations—at liberty to lie back in her corner and watch the fields and houses fly by.
Directly Dover was reached, she jumped from the carriage and sprinted up the platform. She reached her old compartment, in time to see a porter dump her suitcase and coat on a truck. Disregarding Buckingham's offers of help, she joyfully gripped her belongings and boarded the Channel steamer—a free agent.
The white heather gave proof of its virtue, for the twilit sea was too calm to upset the poorest sailor. Miss Loveapple enjoyed the short crossing, although she had to exercise strategy to avoid her fellow-passengers. When she boarded the Calais-Interlaken Express, her luck accompanied her, for she found only a quiet French couple in possession of her carriage.
Before she had settled her property on the rack, she heard the girl's husky voice.
'Do you mind if I take the last corner? If I don't, you may have a fat man with a snore.'
Miss Loveapple admitted the risk and accepted the compromise, although she considered secretly that the white heather was not straining itself on her behalf. She accompanied the girl to the restaurant-car and thoroughly appreciated her dinner, while the train roared through the green twilight of France. Everything looked strange and exciting on this side of the Channel, as afterwards she stood in the corridor and watched the lights of small stations flash by.
After a time, she returned to her own carriage, to find the others already settled in their corners. They dimmed the lights in the hope of getting some rest, even if they could not sleep. Miss Loveapple had begun to like the sensation of rocking through the darkness, when she became aware of voices in the corridor.
Some passengers were searching for fresh quarters. They all listened anxiously—dreading the worst—when the blow fell.
'Only four here,' said a high-pitched voice.
Opening her eyes, Miss Loveapple recognised the superior ladies from Victoria Tearoom. The elder looked in the last stage of exhaustion as she sank on a seat and smiled with dim sweetness.
'I know we cannot be welcome,' she apologised. 'I'm so very sorry. But we've walked miles, trying to find a more comfortable carriage.'
Then she spoke briskly to the official who was carrying their cases.
'Put them up there, porter.'
'But, mother,' interrupted the girl, 'you know you ought to have a corner seat, with your heart.'
'My darling, it will be a corner in a cemetery if I have to walk another yard. Do you mind getting out the brandy?'
Miss Loveapple appreciated the comedy with grim amusement, as she recalled the delicate lady's boast to her friends. Even as she grinned, however, the dark girl gave another proof of an unselfish nature.
'Do have my seat,' she urged.
'How perfectly sweet of you,' said the invalid. 'People are so selfish to-day. It helps to account for the anti-social state of society.'
In spite of their gratitude, Miss Loveapple received the impression that the newcomers considered the girl had spoken out of her turn. Her suspicion was sharpened when the daughter looked hopefully at her own place.
'That lady's seat would be better for my mother, because it faces the window,' she explained to the girl. 'Perhaps she wouldn't mind changing to your corridor-corner?'
'Sorry,' said Miss Loveapple calmly, 'but I'm afraid she would.'
From that moment, she was made to feel not only in disgrace but an interloper. In the same manner that they invaded Victoria Station, so the ladies converted the carriage immediately into their own parochial territory. They settled the question of lighting and ventilation with deference only to the girl's preference, after she had given proof of an accommodating taste.
'I can never sleep in a train,' explained the delicate lady, who had forgotten the threat of faintness. 'That's why I travel second. The time goes so much quicker when one is talking.'
The dark girl agreed eagerly. She seemed to have assured herself of the stranger's social importance in the same manner as she had summed up Miss Loveapple and found her wanting, where a seam was concerned. Apparently she was in her element as she began to discuss the leaders of London Society.
As she listened, Miss Loveapple felt that a bomb had exploded in the carriage, liberating a shower of clippings from the Social Register. Her head began to whirl with a succession of titles. She told herself that such exalted people must have begun life at the Top—that the bishops had never been curates or the generals started their careers as subalterns.
Presently a mutual acquaintance was discovered, which was the signal for an interchange of names. The mother and daughter introduced themselves as Mrs Furse and Miss Olivia Furse, while the girl gave them her card.
'"Miss Auchterloney,"' she said with a laugh. 'Give it up and call me "Viva", like every one else.'
From that moment she became 'Viva' to her new acquaintances, while Miss Loveapple reflected bitterly:
'It's as easy as that. But if there's a smash—when St Peter asks me for my claim to entry, he'll call me "Miss Loveapple."'
Because she was very tired, she began to feel sorry for herself. She reminded herself that it was years since any one had called her by her Christian name. In a short time she would have forgotten it herself...Meanwhile, she longed for sleep, but the voices seemed wound up for a non-stop session. She lacked the philosophy of the French couple who had shrugged themselves back to slumber. At the same time as she longed for silence, she was indignant at being treated as a cypher.
Presently she managed to summon her common sense to her aid as she reminded herself that this infliction was only a transitory experience. In a few hours' time, all these people would have passed out of her life.
'I'm on my way to Switzerland,' she told herself.
Once Miss Olivia Furse remembered her existence and made a slight gesture of friendship as she offered her a crumpled magazine.
'Would you like to read this?'
Miss Loveapple rejected the favour which had come too late.
'No, thank you,' she said. 'I can't read.'
As the night wore on and her eyelids grew heavy, it seemed as though a great leaden pendulum inside her head were beating in time to the voices. The swaying of the carriage, the shrieks of passing engines, the smuts which drifted over her—all were parts of an endless nightmare. Then suddenly she was roused to painful attention, as Viva asked a question:
'Where are you going in Switzerland? Moving on?'
'No,' replied Mrs Furse. 'I have to rest. We are going to Grindelwald.'
'So am I. Where are you staying?'
Mrs Furse gave the name of Miss Love-apple's hotel and advised Viva to try to get a room, because of its high reputation.
Miss Loveapple felt almost stunned from shock, as though her trust in an old friend had been betrayed.
'What's happened to my luck?' she asked incredulously.
As the time passed, although she was not conscious of sleeping, she knew she must have had periods of unconsciousness, for whenever her head jerked forward, she realised a change of subject...Mr Chamberlain and the Crisis. Walt Disney and Snow-White. Bread and butter as a means for slimming. On and on...
In her discomfort, her thoughts kept straying back to the peace and beauty of the Pond House—the cool of her empty bed. She pictured Elsie asleep, with David in his basket beside her and Scottie snoring on his cushion—and she longed to be back again.
Her envy was wasted, since Elsie's night was more restless than her own. The girl's mind was tortured by anxiety as to her mistress's safety. It seemed to her that she was in constant danger from transport; first, during the railway journey, and afterwards from funicular, mountain-rail, lake-steamer and motor coach. Even if she did not travel, there was always a chance of a slice of snow-mountain hurling itself down to bury her.
She passed the hours in ceaseless intercession.
'Please, if there's got to be an accident, let me stop the bus...'
Towards dawn, the machinery began to show signs of running down, when Mrs Furse explained that she thought she could sleep if her daughter dimmed the lights. It was when the carriage was plunged into semi-darkness that Olivia Furse made her memorable remark.
'Isn't the first night thrilling? There's such a sense of destiny in a railway journey. Your holiday—and even your life—may be influenced by the people you meet as strangers.'
In that moment, Miss Loveapple made a passionate mental resolution.
'No. You've spoilt my journey completely. But you shall not spoil my holiday. Directly we get to Grindelwald, I'm free of you all—and I'll stay free. If I can avoid it, I'll never speak to any of you again. And I'll travel home by way of Paris.'
Ten hours later, she stood on the wooden veranda of her hotel, gazing up at the great barrier of mountains. She recognised her old friends, the Eiger and the Wetterhorn, before she began to pick out the Upper and Lower Glaciers and the slash of the Gorge. Her eyeballs felt like jelly, but her face was enraptured.
In spite of the ordeal of the night, her mind had stored its memories; coffee and rolls, while the train rolled through sunlit meadows—the turquoise-blue surfaces of Lake Thun—lunch under the chestnuts at Interlaken-Ost—the final journey up the tree-lined pass, beside the boiling Lutschine.
But, at the moment, her chief need was tea. Her head throbbed and her throat felt parched as she walked down the shallow stairs, to find a discouraging situation. Apparently every one in the hotel had anticipated her idea. The lounge was crowded with visitors, who had commandeered every table, while a myopic staff hurried past her with laden trays.
Just as she despaired of finding any one to take her order, a hand clasped her elbow.
'Come along,' said Buckingham. 'Your tea's waiting. We ordered for you.'
He led her out on to the veranda, towards a table laid for five, where Mrs Furse sat with her daughter Olivia and Viva. They had begun their meal, but they waved to her and pointed to her vacant chair.
Instantly Miss Loveapple forgot her isolation policy and her resentment, as, beaming with pleasure at her welcome, she hurried to join the party.
MISS LOVEAPPLE had a shock when she realised the comparatively high standard of dress at the hotel. In order to keep her suitcase light—so that she could carry it herself—she had packed only a few of her oldest clothes. After she had cursed Miss Pitt fervently for her misleading advice, she went out on her veranda to consider the position.
As she gazed up at the mountains, they gradually drew her resentment from her, leaving her refreshed and comforted. Standing under the shadow of their peaks, it seemed both stupid and petty to allow her holiday to be spoilt by such a trifle as the opinion of other people.
'I'll wear my shorts,' she decided, 'and they can lump them.'
But when she went down to dinner in her evening outfit—a white Ottoman silk coatee worn over the black satin skirt of her suit—she could not rid her mind of the feeling that her first holiday rapture was flawed. She noticed that Viva—in a Victorian dress of flounced net—was sitting with the Furses and shared with them a keen sense of social values. Their interest was focused on those better-dressed visitors who had the upper seats at the banquet, and they evidently considered that they had discharged any obligation to their travelling companion during tea.
Miss Loveapple assured herself that she was lucky to escape their company. She still felt herself rocking with the motion of the train, and she wanted a good sleep. Hurrying over her meal, to avoid the threat of Buckingham—whose appetite made him stay the courses—she pulled on a coat and went for a stroll through the village. At first she was delighted with the novelty of the holiday scene—visitors drinking coffee or beer on every flower-wreathed veranda and shops with their wood carvings and lace; but as she had left the lights behind her and began to follow the hilly road towards the Upper Glacier, she grew gradually aware of anti-climax.
This holiday was decreed by Fate to influence her destiny, and the first disconnected threads of the pattern were beginning to straggle across the loom...Therefore, although the night held all she craved—the stars, the solitude, the mountains—instead of drowning her personality in immensity, she found herself yielding to some very human impulses.
The Furses and Viva despised her for a shabby nonentity. She wanted to introduce them to the real Miss Loveapple of prize-marrow fame and the owner of three houses.
After a good night's rest, she awoke in excellent health and spirits, but determined to assert herself if the opportunity arose. Wearing her shorts with complete lack of self-consciousness, she came into the restaurant.
Viva was again sharing a table with the Furses and seemed absorbed in their conversation. Beyond bows and a charming smile—thrown in by Mrs Furse as a bonus—none of the women took any further notice of her, except the daughter, Olivia, who stared fixedly at her legs.
Miss Loveapple sat down at the only vacant table, which was next to theirs, and began her breakfast of coffee and rolls. Her mind had journeyed back to Highfield, and she was envying Elsie her bacon, when Buckingham entered the restaurant. Blind to Viva's gestures of invitation, he seated himself opposite to her.
'Mind if I share your table?' he asked. 'I don't talk. Too early.'
'Suits me,' she said, conscious of a feminine thrill of conquest.
Owing to the chaotic state of her mind during the journey, her impression of him was confused. Refreshed by her sleep, she studied his face with interest. She noticed then that the hardness of his expression was due to the lines of strain so often present on the faces of post-War manhood.
As they remained silent, they found themselves listening to the conversation at the next table. Mrs Furse first told Viva of their Surrey estate which they had sold recently, and then went on to describe their London flat, which had every modern luxury and improvement, including a view of synthetic country landscape.
In the first pause, Olivia Furse, who seemed more sociable than her companions, tried to draw Miss Loveapple into the conversation.
'Do you live in the country?' she asked.
It was the opportunity for which she had been waiting; but before she could reply, Mrs Furse resumed her description of the flat.
'It's a four-figure rent, but it is really an economy, as we need less staff.'
Miss Loveapple decided not to enter the competition.
'Yes, I am living in the country,' she replied.
To her secret gratification, Buckingham acted as her publicity agent.
'Actually, Miss Loveapple has three houses,' he explained. 'One in London, one in the country, and one on the coast.'
As they all looked at the despised passenger in surprise, Olivia snatched at an explanation.
'Oh—are they guest houses?'
Miss Loveapple was outraged by the suggestion.
'No,' she replied, 'they are private houses and my personal property. I live in them, by turns. I like a change.'
Mrs Furse broke the strained silence which followed with a gentle reproach:
'How enchanting...All the same, I don't think I could own three houses at once. I should consider it a crime when so many poor families have to crowd into one room.'
'Have you always got a slum family in your spare-room?' asked Miss Loveapple sharply.
'That question is in the same class as, "Have you left off beating your wife?"' remarked Buckingham appreciatively. 'Now, Mrs Furse, you'll either convict yourself of being anti-social or you will have to admit that your marvellous flat has not got a spare-room.'
Suddenly Miss Loveapple was smitten by disgust of the episode. She was ashamed of having yielded to self-advertisement and also, more vaguely, of trying to live in three houses at once. Rising abruptly, she went out into the garden to smoke.
She was shielding her match from the wind when Buckingham joined her.
'Are you furious with me for giving you away?' he asked.
'No,' she admitted honestly. 'You only repeated what I told you myself. It's my lookout if I'm fool enough to splutter my private affairs to strangers. Besides, how do you know I have three houses?'
'I don't. Have you?'
'Yes. Have you a sister?'
'Why not? They're common.'
'Not common enough. I haven't one. What's Mrs Brand like?'
'Men don't notice their sisters. She managed to get married. I don't know if that was due to attraction or luck.'
Miss Loveapple broke into her characteristic hearty laughter.
'You're specially vague about your family,' she said. 'I had to tell you your brother-in-law wants to buy my London house. I expect the sale will be put through while I am here. But I intend to get back and settle about the furniture myself.'
'Because I am a business woman.'
'Business woman?' Buckingham's voice was bitter. 'You mean you've never made a penny in your life. A man earned the money you inherited and another man advised you how to invest it. Then just because you read the Stock Market Report to see if Rubber is up, you claim to be a keen business woman. Any child who sits in a cash-desk has better claim to the title.'
Miss Loveapple flushed scarlet.
'Are you trying to be rude?' she asked.
'No,' he replied. 'I did better than that. I was rude. I forgot I was talking to you. I apologise...The truth is, all my life I've been a Have-not. My people were the poor relations of our family. It's made me raw where money is concerned.'
Miss Loveapple's rush of sympathy was her warning to harden her heart in instinctive self-defence. She often reminded herself that some of her luck consisted in the knowledge of her happiness. Since she remained single from choice, she was suspicious of any disguised threat to her spinster status.
The attraction she felt for Buckingham was so foreign to her nature that she diagnosed it as flabby moral tissue which must be cut away ruthlessly. To complicate the situation with pity would be catastrophic.
'You're wrong about one thing,' she told him. 'I made some of my money. I won it in a Sweep.'
'How many tickets?' he asked.
'Your last ten bob?'
Not even sporting.'
'Well!' she gasped. 'The mountains take the conceit out of me. But you've rolled me out flat.'
Although she was careful never to mention her three houses again to any one in the hotel, the incident had definite consequences. The worldly-wise Mrs Furse and Viva considered her worthy of acquaintance. They invited her to join them in various excursions which would have been too expensive for her, unless the cost were shared with a party.
When she was alone and could analyse her feelings, she had to acknowledge her secret disappointment. This was not the ideal holiday she had planned with such rapture. Mrs Furse had the qualities of a social leader and impressed herself upon the other guests at the hotel. Her invitations were regarded as honours, so that Miss Loveapple found it difficult to resist being drawn into her select circle, which also included Buckingham.
They went to the Blue Lake of Kandersteg, the Gorge of the Aare and the Great Rhone Glacier. But although she was excited and thrilled, she was often jarred and dissatisfied. There were too many people to distract her—too many faces and too many voices. What she really wanted was to be alone—to lie high up on mountain-turf and watch the clouds drift across the changing faces of the ranges.
It was not long before she became an outstanding figure at the hotel. Although she had no wish to attract attention, her personality was too forceful and genuine to be suppressed. When she expressed an opinion, it was an honest statement, made without deference to the feelings of her listeners.
Her shorts were partly responsible for the tribute paid to her character, because she wore them with such complete nonchalance. They were a challenge to Viva, who appeared daily in a fresh sports outfit of exclusive fashion.
The morning she came down to breakfast wearing navy blue trousers, Miss Loveapple could not control her indignation.
'I never saw a more disgusting spectacle,' she declared to Olivia Furse. I'd rather go naked than wear trousers.'
To vindicate her outraged modesty, she went up to her room and cut two inches off her Boy Scout shorts.
THE Pond House seemed empty and lifeless without Miss Loveapple. When she was at home, she swept through it like an invigorating gale. She shouted, she scolded, she raised a dust; but she also ventilated, cleansed and cheered. Because Miss Loveapple, of three addresses, considered herself lucky, she was happy—and as others benefited by the overflow of her high spirits, indirectly they shared her luck.
David and Scottie reacted to the stagnant atmosphere. They became moody and difficult about their food, just to show they resented Elsie's regency. To make matters worse for her, they developed a harrowing habit of lying upon Miss Loveapple's bed and mourning like funeral mutes. They put on this show for her benefit, for directly they were no longer under observation, they sneaked away, to make whoopee in the garden.
Elsie missed Miss Loveapple from morning to night, not to mention those hours when she awoke to remember that her mistress was not sleeping under the same roof. She found herself listening continually for the sound of her firm footsteps and her ringing laugh. In her daily bulletin to her, however, she was careful to suppress the personal note.
These letters followed a formula. She gave the weather, the news, the meals, the work and Miss Pitt's report on the health of the pets. David and Scottie supplied the surprise item, while her own contribution was a warning.
It must be admitted that Miss Loveapple had not played the game by Elsie. Had she been free entirely, she might have got some good out of the holiday. A late heat-wave made her long to put on her swimming-suit and sunbathe in the privacy of the back garden. So long as the work was done, there was no reason why she should not relax and rest, except that she had to be ready for the visits of the local Vigilance Society.
Feeling sure that any lapse from her high standard would be reported to Miss Loveapple, she changed daily from her lilac cotton morning dress to her afternoon uniform of grey alpaca. None of her visitors ever found her off guard or lacking in respect, although—true to local tradition—they were careful not to arrive at a set time.
Miss Pitt committed a breach of decorum by entering the house directly she had rung the bell. She further annoyed Elsie by addressing her conversation exclusively to the pets.
'What did you have for dinner to-day, Scottie?' she would ask.
When Elsie had supplied the information, she always insisted on feeling David, to find out whether he was overeating. This was a direct slur on Elsie, who was the diet disciplinarian and not Miss Loveapple; yet she managed to remain silent.
There was a reason for her diplomacy. Miss Pitt's co-operation would be essential, in case she went up to London on the thirteenth of September, to surprise her mistress at the London house.
It was more difficult to control her indignation when the garden was looted by Captain Brown. Although it gave her extra work, she filled every vase in the house, in order to decrease the supply for his knife.
'What do you want with all these flowers with your mistress away?' he asked, when she had forestalled him by cutting the early chrysanthemums he had earmarked for his wife's dinner-party.
'They're for David,' she explained. 'He likes to scoop them out of the water.'
'Well, why not give him withered ones to scoop?'
'No, he likes the flowers to be big and coloured.'
'Human nature,' grinned the captain—a remark which offended Elsie's sense of propriety.
Although she stood in more awe of the rector's wife, she always stood and watched while cabbages were cut and beans pulled, in order to make mysterious entries in a note-book.
'Madam will want to know how much she's helped the Parish and the Cottage Hospital,' she explained.
'Rubbish,' scoffed Mrs Bosanquet. 'You can count apples, but you can't weigh beans without scales.'
'I check up before and after,' hinted Elsie darkly. 'I know everything that's in the garden. I'd miss a blade of grass if—if the gardener stole it.'
'Thank you, Elsie. It's nice to know you don't suspect us. Your mistress is lucky to have a paragon.'
When the rector's wife had gone, Elsie looked up the word in the dictionary. She would have been less gratified by the compliment had she known that—while she was called 'The Paragon' by Miss Love-apple's friends—they would not have had her as a gift. They considered her hopelessly spoilt and only fit for specialised service, where the mistress did the heavy work.
At the same time, after they had trained cooks and housemaids to leave them for higher wages, they sometimes were envious of Elsie's loyalty. Miss Loveapple alone among the local ladies knew nothing about the rates for small advertisements or Registry Office fees.
Lately, Elsie's devotion manifested itself in an extraordinary manner. Every day she made a practice of crossing the road before an oncoming car. Although she cut it perilously fine, she was nimble enough in leaping to safety; but she was the cause of much inspired profanity and many shocks to nervous motorists.
No one knew that this experiment was the corollary to her nightly petition: 'If there's got to be an accident, let me be the one to stop the bus.'
On the principle of 'Safety First,' she continued to send a daily warning to Grindelwald. Miss Loveapple read the postscript to her latest letter out to Buckingham as they stood together on the veranda looking up at the lights of the Eiger Glacier Station.
'Just listen to this. Elsie says, "Please, madam, be careful when you cross the road and watch out for those nasty avalanches."'
Miss Loveapple broke off in her laughter to add, 'She's always warning me of something new. I mustn't get bitten by a mosquito. I must boil the water before washing. I must wear spiked shoes to go mountain-climbing.'
'Better not mention the Lion of Lucerne to her,' advised Buckingham.
He stifled his yawns while Miss Loveapple recited fresh proofs of Elsie's devotion.
'I really believe she would give her life to save mine. She doesn't like me to be alone in the house, without her to protect me. The joke of it is that she can terrify a tramp who's twice her weight.'
'You ought to have a man about the place,' said Buckingham.
'To do the heavy work.'
'I do that. I dig in the garden and chop wood. Good for my figure.'
'Well, what about yourself? You run risks. You were entertaining a strange young man in your bedroom when I met you in London.'
'Drawing-room,' corrected Miss Loveapple. 'The poor fellow was a pathetic pansy. And don't forget you were a strange young man at the time.'
Her words were an unconscious recognition of the growth of their friendship. Buckingham's voice lost its casual note as he asked a question.
'What will you do when the devoted Elsie gets married?'
'She isn't going to marry,' replied Miss Loveapple. 'And neither am I. So we're a partnership for life.'
Her lips were set in so stern a line that he looked at her in surprise.
'Are you serious?' he asked.
'I was never more serious about anything,' Miss Loveapple told him. 'Why should I marry? I have everything I want. My life is perfectly happy. I wouldn't risk a change...Why are you looking at me?'
As he did not reply, she unconsciously threw back her head and expanded her shoulders as though in challenge to his gaze.
'You've guessed it,' he said with a laugh. 'I was admiring your figure. It's a fine one—and you know it. But it only makes the contrast more deplorable. Any woman who deliberately rejects marriage must be mentally malformed. I should say your mind is as much of a freak as a three-legged calf.'
Miss Loveapple smiled scornfully, to show him how little she cared for his criticism.
'You've a delicate touch,' she remarked.
Yet his words implanted a sting which she could not draw from her mind. Had Elsie known, she might have added another danger to her list, which included every Alpine contingency.
But it made no mention of Clarence Club.
THE thirteenth of September was an important date to Clarence Club. Before night fell, he proposed to murder his enemy—Henry Watkins. It was a long-distance crime, for, at first, his victim would have no idea that he was removed from the land of the living. He would continue to carry on in the usual way—unaware of his fate—until the blow which was struck on September the thirteenth, found its appointed mark.
In other words, Club proposed to commit a murder for which Watkins would be hanged.
Miss Loveapple had met Club already. On that occasion, she had consented to a demonstration of his hypothetical vacuum-cleaner on her drawing-room carpet. At the time, he had impressed her favourably, but not sufficiently for a clear recollection of him.
She vaguely remembered a pleasant young man with an oval face, soft brown eyes and a small heart-shaped mouth. His appearance was gentlemanly and his accent managed to suggest a Public School education, since his animal mimicry was as instinctively perfect as that of a moth, invisible against the bark of a tree.
In his turn, he had scarcely been conscious of her. His chief interest had been to establish her circumstances and surroundings. If he had met her in the street, twenty minutes later, he would have passed her without recognition. To him, she was merely one of his stage-properties—sawdust and a squeak; a Judy to be knocked over by Punch.
Both Watkins and Club had drifted into a life of crime. Watkins had a small antique shop, but his principles were crooked; after he discovered that a fake brought him more profit than a genuine article, he specialised in fraud.
Club—who considered himself a brilliant misfit—had been 'unlucky' in a variety of jobs, although his employer had always been unluckier. He was a piano-tuner when first he met Watkins. As his musical performance was sufficiently monotonous to drive away any audience, he was able to learn the geography of the houses he visited, as well as acquire knowledge of any valuable portable objects.
He and Watkins formed a useful partnership in a modest way. Watkins disposed of the swag which he collected, either on the spot or during a later nocturnal visit to his patrons' premises. It was true that they were not always successful, for both were convicted at intervals and served short stretches for petty theft.
Unfortunately, it was the knowledge that he was documented at the Yard which drove Club to persevere in his profession. It inflamed his vanity and made him realise the possibilities of his name—Club. In his ambition to be known as 'The Ace,' he planned an ambitious jewel-robbery for which he requisitioned Watkins' services as his accomplice.
It was an unlucky venture for which they had neither the organisation nor the experience. Unable to dispose of the jewels and conscious of incriminating evidence, Watkins cracked under the strain. Rather than wait for his inevitable arrest, he became confidential with the Police, in the hope of a reduced sentence.
Club was blinded by his vanity and had no doubts of the complete success of the robbery. He was furious at the exposure and made the mistake of resisting the Police—which is a pleasant way of putting it, considering what the policeman looked like afterwards. Fortunately for him, the man recovered, to save him from the drop, but, this time, his sentence was for years instead of months.
As he considered himself a type of ultra-refinement, he resented the hard labour even more than the loss of his liberty. Every pang of humiliation he endured was attributed to his partner's treachery. As years passed, he lost all sense of proportion and restrain, until through continual brooding, his hatred grew to a fixed purpose.
He resolved to murder Henry Watkins.
The time ceased to drag as he plotted the perfect crime. On one point, he was definite—it had to be foolproof, for he did not intend to swing for Watkins. But although he evolved some ingenious ideas, he was discouraged by an obvious conclusion.
He, himself, would be the first suspect, since he had shouted threats to Watkins, from the Dock, when he was sentenced.
This display of decent natural feeling might be construed as motive if Watkins' violent death coincided with his own release from prison.
Presently he got his inspiration. He would frame Watkins for a murder committed by himself and let the Law act as his deputy.
He had the highest opinion of the brain-power of the Police, since he had proved them to be always a jump ahead of himself. He had heard that they were familiar with every criminal's methods, so that if he planted clues which were characteristic of Watkins, they would identify his signature.
The scene of the crime must not be plastered with evidence lest they should become suspicious. He had to trust entirely to their perspicacity. They would discover a minute nick in the canvas of a dark oil-painting in Miss Loveapple's drawing-room, as though someone had been about to remove the picture before he decided it was valueless.
This was one pointer to an antique-dealer who faked Old Masters.
The second indication could only be discovered by a thorough examination of the papers in the bureau of the deceased. Mixed with a miscellaneous pile, there would be a vacuum-cleaner catalogue, decorated on its cover with the impress of a dirty thumb.
The Police would find it corresponded with a print in their own collection.
The next logical stage in their investigations should be an interest in Watkins' movements at the time of the murder. He would provide them with a truthful alibi when he stated that he had been in the company of his lady-friend, Amy.
At this point he was due to feel the first tickle of the rope around his neck...Amy, who was still spell-bound by her former lover—Club—would not only repudiate his alibi, but produce an ornament lifted from the dead woman's body, in proof that she had been bribed to lie. For this, Club had earmarked the golden elephant and chain which Miss Loveapple had worn during their interview. As the trunk had been upraised, to attract good luck, he counted on a superstitious nature to hang it always around her neck.
The master touch would be its identification by means of a torn filament of Miss Loveapple's hair twisted around a link of the chain. He had secured this from a comb on the toilet table, when he had hidden in her bedroom.
As Miss Loveapple had vaguely suspected, he had only pretended to shut the front door after him while she was talking to Buckingham in the morning-room. Afterwards, when she was alone in the house with him, he suddenly realized that he had an opportunity to commit the crime without waiting for night-fall. But while he was creeping down the stairs, something had apparently startled her, for she had suddenly rushed out of the house.
He was grateful that he was prevented from yielding to his impulse when he remembered that Watkins might have produced an unpuncturable alibi for the afternoon. It made him alive to the danger of a premature performance, so that he returned to his flat and rang up Amy, telling her to nobble Watkins for that night.
He paid his call at No. 19 Madeira Crescent, only to find it empty. Miss Loveapple had gone away to the country.
As he thought over his revenge, he could see no possibility of being connected with a motiveless crime. If questioned, he resolved to admit that he had no alibi. Lately, the Police seemed inclined to suspect a perfect alibi, in much the same carping spirit as they were discrediting the value of fingerprints, after they had put the whole of the criminal class to the expense of procuring gloves.
His egotism blinded him to the truth that his personal safety was an illusion. Once he committed murder, he became vulnerable to attack from the blundering force of Chance. He was at the mercy of any trifle which controls the suspension of Destiny. An accident—slight as the first rip in the envelope of a balloon—could send him to the gallows.
The wind might shift as he crouched in the shadow and blow a betraying paper to his hiding-place. Lovers hidden in the darkness of the tradesmen's alley might testify that they had seen him near the scene of the crime. Amy might fail him through force of circumstance.
Whatever his ultimate fate, however, the fact remained that any lady who entered No. 19 Madeira Crescent, without an escort, on the thirteenth of September, was due to get a very unpleasant reception.
AS the thirteenth of September drew nearer, Miss Loveapple grew dimly conscious of a sense of frustration and loss. She began to dream again of mountains by night, when she saw vast white ranges soaring to breathless heights. During her sleep, she climbed peaks of incredible altitude with so joyous a feeling of liberty and achievement, that she always awoke to keen disappointment.
This nightly ecstasy of release was symptomatic of a chaotic mind. Although she could write a clear business letter, she was inarticulate when any deep emotion was stirred. While tears stood in her eyes at the realization of another's sorrow, she would ask the mourner to accept 'my condolence in your bereavement.'
To her, mountains were a rapture—a passion—almost a religion. But she never spoke of them and avoided the subject. She would not even think consciously of them, lest the fetters of unuttered words should weigh down her spirit.
The less spectacular mountains of the Bernese Oberland haunted her by day, yet she could not draw close to them. She looked at them but doubted whether she actually saw them, because of the distraction of other people's interests. All around her was the stir of petty social activity—chattering voices—shallow laughter.
As the days passed, she consoled herself with a promise. She vowed that she would escape from company and go up alone to the Kleine Scheidegg.
Part of her unrest had a baser source than starved artistic yearning. For the first time in her life, she was conscious of another woman. There was no doubt of Viva's supremacy at the hotel. She did not rely on her attraction alone to gain her popularity but was invariably kind and sympathetic to the other guests. Yet while she was as ready to listen to servant-troubles as to offer advice about a peeled nose, she contrived to remain impersonal and remote.
This contrast piqued Miss Loveapple, especially as she noticed that Viva was the perfect opportunist and managed to avoid the complication of contact with visitors minus acquaintance value. Gradually she felt the stirring of a spirit of emulation. Although her nature was too big to admit actual jealousy, she was used to being first and she did not relish a back seat.
'There was no competition in Highfield,' she reflected. 'Only women older than myself. But before I'm through, I'll show her exactly where she gets off.'
She was surprised to discover that her subconscious distrust of Viva was shared by Olivia Furse. Together they strolled over to the Bear Hotel, to watch the dancing, when they witnessed a charming episode. Viva, who was swaying in the arms of a beautiful Teutonic youth, suddenly became aware of a neglected girl.
Within a few minutes, she arranged for the transfer of her reluctant partner to the wallflower, before she was snapped up herself by another hovering man.
'That's kind,' admitted Miss Loveapple honestly.
'Kind as hell,' said Olivia bitterly. 'I was the victim the other night. No one noticed I wasn't dancing until the searchlight was turned on me. Then every one said, "How kind." I was happy before. I enjoy being a spectator.'
The vehemence of Olivia's voice made Miss Loveapple realize the humiliation of her position. As the unattractive daughter of a mother who was a social success, the girl had acquired her aggressive manner to hide an inferiority complex. She felt a bond of sympathy with her as Olivia went on talking.
'Viva's got me guessing. There's something queer somewhere. Mother thinks she is tops. But why is she so interested in all our friends and in every one that is anybody? I believe she's got an axe to grind. You can tell by her eyes she doesn't really care twopence about you. Perhaps she's been sent out by some firm to advertise their clothes.'
'But she never mentions where she buys anything,' Miss Loveapple reminded Olivia. 'Besides she hangs on to me—and I'm not in Society.'
'That's only because you have Buckingham. There are so few loose men here.'
The remark rankled in Miss Loveapple's mind. For several years, she had been accustomed to give orders and not even to take advice. Such preferential treatment was bound to foster a streak of autocrat. While she was trying to ignore Viva's existence, a chance came to assert herself.
She joined with Mrs and Olivia Furse, Viva and Buckingham in an afternoon excursion. They motored down the valley of Interlaken and partly encircled the green water of Lake Brientz to the Giessbach Falls. While they were having tea in front of the hotel, and watching the river descend in seven mighty leaps from the mountain, Buckingham waved his hand over the table.
'This is on me,' he said.
Later on, after their return to the hotel, Miss Loveapple inquired the price of her share of the car.
'Nothing,' said Viva gaily. 'Richard threw the party.'
'He only meant the tea,' explained Miss Loveapple.
'But we all thanked him—and he liked it. Better leave it. You can't make a man feel a fool.'
'I'll risk it.'
Miss Loveapple was in her element as she interviewed the hall-porter. She knew that Buckingham was out of a job and guessed that his finances would be strained by an unexpected demand. As the bill for the car-hire was still owing, she paid it herself before she pounced down on the other women.
'I'm sticking you for your shares of the car,' she told them. 'It's difficult for a man to collect.'
Mrs Furse discharged her double debt with her customary charm. Viva followed her example, but she did so with a veiled reluctance which was balm to Miss Loveapple's self-esteem. She felt a watered-down throb of savagery, faintly akin to the elementary urge of a jungle beast to protect its mate, when she went in search of Buckingham.
She found him in the garden where he was smoking glumly. He did not speak to her but stared when she laid down a bundle of notes on the wicker table.
'Thanks for the tea,' she said.
The undisguised relief in his face prompted her to dare a tactless question.
'Perfectly sober,' he replied.
'Financially embarrassed then, since you can't understand short words?'
'Solvent now, but only thanks to you,' he admitted. 'Before you fluttered in at my window, I was wondering how I should make out on the journey home. I am leaving before the rest of you.'
The news gave her a pang of regret as she seated herself beside him on the bench.
'Why did you take a holiday you can't afford?' she asked bluntly.
'You,' he told her.
'I'm serious. I fell for you at once. I'm not noble and I liked you better because you had money. Useful stuff. I'm a chemist with a brilliant future, only no one will stake me.'
Miss Loveapple's eyes darkened from blue to violet as she listened. Her spurt of primitive jungle loyalty had been but a momentary spark blown from an almost extinct fire. It was replaced by a more civilised form of the same instinct—a woman's ambition to control the plastic future of a man.
She crushed down the dangerous urge and spoke lightly.
'You'll get your chance. Every one does. You must marry some rich woman who is free from my mental freak-formation.'
He looked up quickly.
'Were you serious about not wanting to marry?' he asked.
'I was,' she replied. 'I am. And I always shall be.'
'Then you've no right to look like you do. It's cheating.'
Miss Loveapple merely wished that Viva could hear him, in proof that she had cooled down to her usual practical self.
'I'm sorry you are going,' she said, 'because I wanted you to help me.'
When she confided her wish of a solitary expedition up the Kleine Scheidegg, he nodded.
'It will have to be to-morrow,' he said. 'Mrs Furse and daughter are visiting a relative in Berne. I'll sell Viva the idea of Lauterbrunnen. I'll see her safely on the way as far as Zweilütschinen and then tell her that tale about business at Interlaken.'
'I can't thank you,' faltered Miss Loveapple. 'This means a lot to me. I—I can't explain.'
As she looked out at the vast spread of valley, speckled with tiny lights on distant slopes, she felt that they were open to the night and very close to it. It was flowing up to their feet in waves of darkness—and sweeping around them—but she felt no fear. She knew that she could walk without a tremor down the hill, to cross the grey-white foaming Lütschine and wander in the witched wood of glimmering tree-trunks and gurgling water.
And yet, on a sunny summer morning she had shrunk from entering the darkened hall of No. 19 Madeira Crescent, lest someone should be waiting there for her.
As she shuddered at the memory, Buckingham broke the silence.
'You told me you thought of breaking your journey in London, on your way back, didn't you?' he asked.
'Yes,' she replied.
'Well, what about me meeting your train and seeing you in? It's grim going back to an empty house.'
'I wish you would.'
With these four words, she knocked a hole in Clarence Club's perfect murder scheme.
NO one in the hotel had reason to suspect Miss Loveapple of a secret passion for mountains. She rarely appeared to notice them except on picture postcards, when she confined herself to discussing their price. When strangers appealed to her for information, she snapped out their names curtly, as though they were a troupe of performing dogs.
'Eiger, Fiescherhorn, Wetterhorn—'
One almost expected to see them rear themselves up on their mighty haunches, obedient to the voice of command.
Therefore it was impossible to guess that each succeeding day of her holiday was a rung of the ladder which led her up to the crowning miracle of her trip by mountain railway, up to the Jungfraujoch. She was waiting for that great moment when—from the Kleine Scheidegg—there would burst upon her the triple glory of the Eiger, the Mönsch and the Jungfrau.
On the morning after she had helped Buckingham, he kept his promise and played the lion to her mouse. When the Furse family had departed for Berne, Viva—in dark-blue trousers and pullover, with an apple-green scarf—left the hotel accompanied by Buckingham. A little later, Miss Loveapple started—outwardly a fair sunburnt girl in shorts, without a hat and carrying a packed lunch—but inwardly a humble and passionate pilgrim bound for Mecca.
It was a brilliant morning of breeze and sunshine—of rolling white clouds and deep blue sky. Responsive to the weather, she felt alive in every bone and fibre—surcharged with energy, yet sensitive to the least impression. She wanted to absorb every detail, to hoard it in her memory and possess it, even the sun-warmed wood of her hard seat in the third-class carriage and the optical illusion of slanting buildings as the train rolled down the slope.
It crossed the noisy little river and began to chug up the gradient, past meadows and dark fir-trees, up to the wilder region of boulders, dried water courses and grey-green cembra pines. As it rounded the last bend and she caught sight of the three snow giants, Miss Loveapple drew a deep breath. Still holding it, she staggered out of the carriage and stood staring upwards, as though stunned by the vision.
In that moment, she felt dizzy and confused, yet strangely exalted. The blood was pounding in her head like a rush of waters. Something strong and vital was beating within her, in a struggle to escape. Part of her seemed to be soaring through space, even while her clumsy nailed shoes, clamped to the ground, were like an anchor dragging her back to earth.
She started at the sound of a pedantic voice.
'How insignificant one feels. What an impressive and magnificent spectacle.'
'Very nice,' agreed Miss Loveapple.
The monocled lady who had spoken glanced at her flushed face.
'Does the altitude affect your blood-pressure?' she asked.
'No,' replied Miss Loveapple triumphantly. 'I'm going higher.'
On her way to the Jungfraujoch train, she became normal again. She realized that she was merely bound on an exciting adventure and that she was free from the exactions of company. She had barely settled herself in her carriage, however, when they came to a halt. After running along the ridge, they plunged into a short tunnel and emerged close to the vast glaciers of the range.
During the stop at Eiger Glacier Station, she did not explore the ice grotto, but remained in the sunshine, on a balcony of the little hotel. As she lingered, there was a roar as of thunder and she saw a huge block of ice break away from an overhanging glacier of the Jungfrau, to fall far below down to the abyss of the Trümmleten Valley. The smash was so appalling that she was almost glad to return to the safety of the railway carriage.
It took more than a quarter of an hour to run through the five-mile tunnel. After a while she grew bored with staring out at hard limestone walls and began to study her fellow-passengers. She was trying to group them in their various nationalities when her attention was caught by a couple whose faces seemed familiar.
The man was dark, undersized and had a crafty expression. He was accompanied by a lady who was expensively and unsuitably dressed in black, trimmed with monkey-fur. As Miss Loveapple remarked the long and slightly crooked nose which flawed an otherwise beautiful face, she remembered where she had seen them before.
'Victoria Station,' she thought. 'They look rather like crooks. The confidence kind. What are they doing up here? No good them asking us to find the lady. We all know which of the three is the Jungfrau.'
Amused by her feeble joke, she sprang out at Eigerwand Station and pressed forward to get a good view from one of the high windows, of Grindelwald in the valley below. It was a clear day, so that she could see beyond the mountains of Central Switzerland to the Chains of the Jura, while the Black Forest was visible on the horizon.
As she peered through the telescope, she did not know that she herself was under observation.
'See that blonde before?' asked the small dark man.
'At Vic,' replied his wife. 'The Ace was trailing her.'
Clarence Club would have been proud had he heard his title. It was homage to mark their approval of the policeman's injuries—a printed description of which had brought sadistic joy to the small-fry of the profession.
Naow,' said the man contemptuously. 'Not her. Look at her pants. They're something chronic. She's only a blasted girl scout.'
'That's right,' agreed his wife.
They took no further interest in Miss Loveapple, who travelled up to Eismeer Station in another carriage; and by the time the Jungfraujoch Station was reached, she had forgotten about them. She felt that she must be in a dream as she followed the trickle of passengers through a tunnel in the rock to the ground floor of the Berghaus. The waiting-room with its heated floor, the booking-offices and the restaurant—panelled in cembra pine—were so preposterously unexpected, that she could only gasp in wonder.
She took the lift with the other tourists, but she did not follow them to the dining-room which was on the first floor. Instead she walked down the gallery, connecting the building with the plateau, while she jeered at her own enforced economy.
'Three houses—and can't rise to the price of a meal. It stinks.'
When she got outside into the rare air, the view was almost overpowering. All that she had seen only in parts from the lower stations was now visible as a whole. Around her was the dazzle of sun upon snow as she gazed from the green meadows and valley on the Grindelwald side across to the chopped sea of glaciers and mountain peaks.
'I'll have lunch here,' she decided.
As she was unstrapping her knapsack, suddenly she began to feel strangely unreal, as though her body were dissolving while her brain swam in space. There was a roar in her ears but no avalanche fell.
'I don't seem to be here,' she thought.
In the silence that followed, she remembered the pedantic lady's remark about blood-pressure. Like most strong people, she was terrified by the threat of illness.
'It's the altitude,' she told herself. 'It's affecting me. I must go down at once to the Kleine Scheidegg...Slowly. I mustn't rush. Dangerous...'
The journey down from the Joch was anticlimax, when she grew very tired of sitting still. The marvels of a masterpiece of modern engineering took second place to the railway station at Kleine Scheidegg. Seated on the terrace, with coffee before her, she gazed rapturously at the pure cone of the Silberhorn.
'Gosh,' she thought. 'I am lucky.'
The disturbing sensation of being part of a dissolving film had departed. She no longer dipped and wavered, like a candle-flame in a breeze, but felt comfortably solid as the good earth. With a keen appetite she ate the entire contents of her lunch package—sandwiches, hard-boiled egg, cheese, chocolate and fruit. Then she lit a cigarette and surrendered herself to perfect happiness.
'That view from the top was rather like the way they try to explain Einstein's time-theory,' she reflected. 'I saw the whole at once..."now I see all of it—only I'm dying"...That's Browning...I should hate to die.'
At that moment dying seemed very far away—about as far as September the thirteenth. When she was on holiday, her thoughts rarely strayed to the date of her departure because of her fortunate capacity to live in each minute.
As she sat and smoked, she studied every detail of the busy scene, with vivid interest. The union of trains coming and going from Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen and the Joch made her compare the Pass with Clapham Junction. There was a constant ebb and flow of tourists and she heard every language which she was able to recognise.
When a fresh train came down from the Jungfraujoch, she recognised two of the passengers as the doubtful couple she had first seen at Victoria Station. They took no notice of her as they flopped down at the next table. Both looked slightly green and the man ordered brandy with emphasis.
Miss Loveapple glanced away from them and continued to gaze at the animated scene—the hotels, the bazaars, the post office and the great coloured umbrellas, under whose shade English people were drinking tea. There was a constant cluster around the great Zeiss telescopes as visitors tried to pick up climbers on the snow-slopes.
Childishly she closed her eyes tightly—to wipe everything and everybody from the Pass, leaving it bare and empty—before she opened her lids and stared fixedly on the white summits.
'I am alone with the mountains,' she exulted.
As the thought flashed across her mind, she heard a voice.
'Miss Loveapple. What are you doing up here?'
She turned her head and saw Viva standing in the doorway of the station restaurant.
MISS LOVEAPPLE'S first disappointment was followed by anger with Buckingham. He had failed to keep his promise. It cost her an effort to disguise her resentment when she spoke to Viva.
'I thought you went to Lauterbrunnen.'
'I did,' explained Viva. 'But I felt at a loose end after Richard went. Of course, I did the Trummelbach Falls. They left me breathless. But one wants to share a marvellous experience. It seems selfish to be alone. So I came up the other side, by the Wengenalp Railway, on the chance of meeting someone I knew. I'm glad I met you.'
'I'm afraid I must be selfish,' said Miss Loveapple stonily. 'I came up to see the mountains by myself.'
Immediately Viva's face assumed a holy expression as she gazed at the triple range. Miss Loveapple knew what she was going to say and she was not impressed.
'They make me feel small,' said Viva.
'So can I,' Miss Loveapple reminded her. 'They haven't got to strain themselves.'
'But surely they must make you feel small too?' persisted Viva, ignoring the flippancy.
Miss Loveapple was dimly aware of a voice which spoke within her.
'No. They make me feel big. They remind me I am part of Eternity. I love them. I worship them. Under the shadow of their protection, I feel safe.'
When she answered Viva's question, protective instinct made her conceal her real feeling.
'It hasn't struck me that way. But they make a nice view. I must buy some postcards.'
'I'll come with you...But first, I must look and look. Mountains always make me feel as though I were in church. More so, because there are no prayers and things to distract one...Have you a cigarette?'
Miss Loveapple told herself bitterly that Viva's share-out policy was being put into operation as she opened her case.
'Matches,' suggested Viva.
'I haven't any.'
Miss Loveapple was shocked by her own lie. Her nature was so essentially generous that the fact that she was capable of grudging a trifle proved that her latent antipathy to Viva had flared up into actual dislike.
Although it was impossible for her to point to actual discourtesy, the cumulative effect of infinitesimal slights was an impression that, in Viva's private opinion, she had not status. And now her perfect day was spoiled. Although she intended to escape, her liberty would cost her precious hours of solitude.
She jumped up from the table.
'I must get going,' she told Viva. 'I'm going to walk down to Grindelwald.'
'You'd better not. Walking downhill all the way puts a strain on the same muscles. You'll feel your legs for days.'
'I know. I expect to take them back with me. Sort of souvenir.'
Viva's disdainful expression showed that she was not amused. This time it was Miss Loveapple who felt small, although her moment of triumph was near.
A train which had just come down from the Joch was disgorging its load of tourists. At the sight of a beautiful woman with a faultless profile, Miss Loveapple's face lit up with excitement. She remembered to snatch up her case, as it held her money and her passport which was essential for the extension of her regional ticket; but she left her satchel behind her on the table and ran forward.
'Lady Pontypool,' she cried, 'do you remember me? Highfield Fête.'
With the gracious charm which—together with a memory for faces—had made her a social queen, Lady Pontypool recognised her immediately.
'Of course, I remember you. How is my dear Sister Monica? Tell me about her. And about yourself.'
'Mrs Bosanquet is more like herself than usual,' said Miss Loveapple. 'She's bossing my wretched maid while I'm away.'
Lady Pontypool laughed.
'She still treats me as her patient—and a very naughty one,' she said. 'I adored the heather honey you sold me at your Fête. Are you going to buy that hat in Paris?'
As they chatted, Miss Loveapple expanded in the genial sunshine of Lady Pontypool's friendliness.
'You said we might meet,' she reminded her. 'It's marvellous that we have. I've been up to the Joch, but it felt too fabulous. Have you been staying there?'
'For one night. I ran away from every one, including my maid. I'm not supposed to go so high. Don't tell Sister Monica. My car is waiting for me at Lauterbrunnen.'
While they chatted Miss Loveapple's enjoyment was checked by a memory which made her feel violently self-conscious. All this time she had been holding Lady Pontypool's jewel-case. Although it was a discard, she remembered that Mrs Bosanquet had warned her not to expose the coronet, while in reality it was loaned only for her journey.
With a sense of guilt, she thrust it behind her back while she tried to cover it with her woollen cardigan. Her stealthy movements attracted the attention of the couple who sat at the table next to hers.
'Girl scout is hiding something,' remarked the man, whose name was Amor.
'Maybe the Ace was on to something after all,' agreed Mrs Amor.
They watched Miss Loveapple accompany Lady Pontypool to the Lauterbrunnen train and noticed the deferential manner in which she insisted on carrying her case and camera. When she returned to her table they both stared at her furtively, although Viva displayed only a languid interest.
'Someone from your village?' she asked.
The instinct to get even with Viva was too strong for Miss Loveapple to resist. She raised her voice.
'Didn't you recognise her? That was Lady Pontypool.'
The crooks heard. Within two seconds, they had marked Miss Loveapple as their prey. Amor instantly lit a cigarette and dropped the lighted match upon the ground. As he stooped to pick it up, he craned forward to get a close-up of the coronet on Miss Loveapple's case.
It confirmed his suspicions. This woman was carrying Lady Pontypool's famous jewels. Straining his ears, he managed to overhear scraps of conversation from the next table.
'Lady Pontypool?' repeated Viva in an agitated voice.
It was the first time that Miss Loveapple had seen her betray emotion. She seemed partly tremulous with excitement and partly staggered by the information.
'Of course,' she said. 'I should have known her. She's exactly like her photographs. But I—I never knew she was a friend of yours.'
Although elated by her triumph, Miss Loveapple was too honest to claim the honour.
'She's not a friend,' she explained. 'I just know her...It's beginning to cloud over. I must start. See you later.'
At the same time, Amor snapped his fingers to the waiter and paid for the brandy. As Miss Loveapple swung down the first steep gradient of the path, he and his wife boarded the Grindelwald train. Although their second-class carriage was empty, they sat close together and spoke in whispers.
'That was her maid,' said Mrs Amor. 'I heard she was big and blonde. Explains what she wore at Vic. I said to myself, "That was never made for you." I said, "That's been a good suit in its day, but that was a long time ago and corpses shouldn't be dug up." Of course, it was one of her perks.'
'Shut up,' growled Amor. 'The Ace was on to her. We've got to figure this out.'
They had read in the papers that Lady Pontypool was motoring on the Continent and had worn her jewels at opera and ball, at the various capitals. As they were only humble crooks, they had taken little interest in the fact, for they knew that swell members of the profession were certain to cover her movements.
But now it seemed as though a woman's freak had thrown the chance of a lifetime into their lap. On a former occasion, Lady Pontypool's jewels had been stolen during a train journey on the Continent. It was possible that she had decided to travel back alone by way of Switzerland and send her maid on with the jewels, to Paris. Although they had not noticed the actual interchange, they must have met by appointment at such an isolated little junction. Moreover the stealthy way in which the maid had tried to hide the jewel-case was of utmost significance.
It was not a brilliant diagnosis, for they were doomed never to rise in their profession, but Amor had a line of his own which was connected with lonely women and handbags.
'You go back to the hotel and get packed ready to leave,' he told his wife. 'I'll drop off at Alpiglen and wait for her behind the rocks and trees lower down. I'll trip her up and snatch up the case and run. Take her by surprise, I will.'
'You'll have to put her to sleep first,' objected his wife. 'She's worth two of you.'
'But I haven't got my tools with me.'
'You ought to be a plumber...Here's my scarf. Find a nice shaped stone and wrap it inside. You'll get a good swing with the ends.'
Amor looked rather doubtful, for he was accustomed to operate on elderly ladies who wore their hair dressed high and trimmed hats.
'Suppose she's got one of these thin skulls and I slug too hard,' he said. 'She's got no hat.'
'Then that will be too bad for her,' remarked his wife.
While they prepared to surprise her, Miss Loveapple began to bounce down the steep path of the descent. It was rough going, but her spirits were high. Exhilarated by the scenery and the solitude, her voice rang out in jubilant song.
She believed that she was leaping lightly as a chamois, when she heard a rattle of stones on the path behind her.
'Stop,' called Viva. 'I'm coming too.'
MISS LOVEAPPLE'S expression was grim as she dug her heel into the slippery path and waited for Viva. Her action was symbolic, since she had reached the limit of her patience and meant to make a stand against further encroachment. She reminded herself that she had a right to enjoy her holiday in her own way, so that at the risk of being rude, she intended to clarify the fact.
While she was searching for words which would explain the position with the minimum of offence, Viva began to speak.
'Do you mind me coming too? I want a private talk...I have a confession to make.'
Miss Loveapple's eyes lit up with interest.
'What is it?' she asked curiously.
'I'll tell you when we are walking. I want exercise myself.'
'It's a stiff walk down.'
'I'll take the train at Alpiglen.'
Miss Loveapple reflected that she would be free from company ultimately, as Viva began to lead the way—springing lightly across the débris of stones and smashed fir-trees, where a landslip had diverted the track. When the path was comparatively smooth again, she broke the silence.
'Don't look so thrilled. It's not murder or anything dashing. It's just awkward. The fact is I've given you all a false impression. You think me a Society girl. But I'm not to blame. I told you my name that first night in the train. I thought every woman knew "Viva".'
Miss Loveapple began to see a glimmer of light.
'Are you a business?' she asked.
'Of course, I am. I control the leading Toilet Salon in the West End. I am famous. My clients include Royalty, besides the leaders of Society and the stage. I was simply staggered when none of you recognised my name.'
Her voice vibrated with such indignation that Miss Loveapple tried to console her.
'I'm sorry,' she said. 'I'm out of all these things myself.'
Viva ignored her apology.
'I thought it might create awkwardness if I explained then,' she went on, 'so I left things as they were. It was a refreshing novelty to be out of the limelight. Of course, when we said "Good-bye" I intended to give you my business cards and offer you reduced terms, or free treatment in return for the introduction of new clients.'
Miss Loveapple began to feel that she had paid a stiff price to gratify her curiosity.
'But we've not said "Good-bye" yet,' she remarked bluntly. 'Why did you run after me now?'
'Because of Lady Pontypool,' exclaimed Viva breathlessly. 'I simply couldn't wait to put a proposition to you. You see, I had no idea that she was a friend of yours.'
'Oh, yes she is. You were laughing together and I heard her ask you to give her love to her sister, Monica. Please don't prevaricate. This is of vital importance to me.'
'I want you to persuade Lady Pontypool to patronise my Salon. I'll pay you a percentage on every treatment and purchase. We'll settle the terms later, but I promise you they shall be generous.'
Her voice was so eager that Miss Loveapple felt guilty of having raised her hopes unintentionally.
'No,' she said curtly. 'I can't do it. I have told you already she is not a friend.'
It was obvious that Viva did not believe her, for she continued to press the point.
'It would be a mutual benefit. Lady Pontypool is quite beautiful, but she lacks specialised glamour. I could do a lot with her face. The Duchess of Mulberry's face is one of ours. We also made the face which got Lina Leominster her best contract...I'm always on the qui vive for ideas straight from Nature. In fact, I never see a face without breaking it up inside my mind and then putting it together properly.'
As she listened, Miss Loveapple understood what had puzzled her formerly. Viva's words explained that impersonal gaze which considered a human being as a facial problem. They were also a key to her unselfish consideration for others, which had seemed so strangely divorced from genuine kindliness.
'Of course,' thought Miss Loveapple, 'it must be second nature for her to give service to the customer.'
She chuckled involuntarily, but her amusement was checked when Viva switched from faces in general to her own personal appearance.
'I could transform you,' she promised. 'You've got something there. But you are too straight. I should make you slant slightly—brows, lips, eyes. And your hair is too springy. It looks like live hair. It needs plastic-varnish treatment, to make it suggest metal.'
'Not me, thanks,' cried Miss Loveapple hastily. 'It may sound conceited, but confidentially, I rather like my face. Anyway, it's clean. I could sweep a chimney without looking dirty.'
'Yes,' conceded Viva generously, 'your colouring is marvellous. But it's Nature—and Nature can't compete with Art. She hasn't the organisation or the resources. We have such an infinite variety of shades to blend.'
'Such as—?' prompted Miss Loveapple.
The question was guileful, since she was not interested in cosmetics. She only wanted to encourage Viva to lecture on her special subject, so that she could devote her attention to the piled-up mountain scenery.
'I shall get rid of her at Alpiglen,' she reminded herself.
By this time the little train had reached Alpiglen and lost a passenger. Amor slipped from his carriage unobtrusively and began to slither down the path which rounded the base of the Eiger. In spite of town boots, his progress was swift, for he had the sure step and balance of one who combined dancing with a dash of cat-burglary.
Whenever he heard voices, he was careful to hide behind a tree or a boulder. He had learned, by bitter experience, the importance of not being confused with that sinister-looking character, which—according to witnesses—was always observed in the neighbourhood of a crime.
Besides this precaution, he had to collect a suitable instrument for his attack on Lady Pontypool's maid. This part of the programme annoyed him because he had a dislike of makeshift tools. Presently, however, he found a stone which was of requisite weight and shape. After padding it carefully with his socks, he knotted it inside his wife's scarf and began to practise his stroke.
When he had stunned a few fir-trees, he felt he had mastered the technique sufficiently to choose the spot. After descending the mountain slope for some distance, he selected a position in the dense shadow of crowded firs, where he could hide between great boulders which overhung the path. Its gradient was especially steep, so that if it rained, as it threatened, the track would be a mud-slide.
'She'll drop with such a wallop that she'll think she slipped down on her tail and bumped her head,' he thought.
It was even possible that in her dazed condition, she might stagger down towards the valley without realising her loss. Later, when she returned to search for her case, she might either be too confused to find the exact spot where she had fallen, or she might conclude that, in the interval, it had been found by some dishonest person.
Crouching on the mossy ground, while he leaned against the supporting rocks, Amor chewed gum, since he was afraid to smoke. He was appreciative of the cleverness of Lady Pontypool's ruse because it had failed to delude his superior brain. To his mind, it seemed subtle to dress the maid as a hiker and make her walk down to Grindelwald—in support of her character—with practically thousands of pounds hidden in her old canvas knapsack, while the big shots were trailing the mistress's car.
The worst feature of the business was a long and uncomfortable wait. In spite of cramp, he dared not relax, lest he should doze and miss the sound of footsteps. To get his start, he had to catch a train which allowed him too much time, for Miss Loveapple was still only just within sight of the little station.
'Here's Alpiglen,' she announced joyfully.
She was high above a sea of tree-tops, yet she would drop lower and lower and still see the green roof lying at her feet. The wide stretch of valley filled her with a sense of expansion and liberty. She felt invigorated by the keen air—excited by the wind which whistled as it drove the rain-clouds before it. Anticipating the joy of freedom, she spoke to Viva with genuine warmth.
'We part here. You won't have to wait long for a train. It's nice of you to tell me about yourself. I appreciate it.'
'Then you'll come in with me on Lady Pontypool?' asked Viva eagerly.
'No. That really is final. Good-bye. I shall think of you on my walk. You are rather marvellous—to look like a little girl when you are a famous business-woman.'
'You don't know the half of it. Wait till I tell you how I started. I had no money or influence. But a business man put up the capital because he had faith in me. The offer had no strings to it and I paid him back within three years.'
To Miss Loveapple's dismay, Viva walked past the station without a pause and proceeded to follow the downward path. She began to realise that her effort to soften her refusal with a compliment had been fatal policy, since it had launched Viva on the recital of a success-story.
'You'd better not try to walk down to Grindelwald,' she urged. 'It's steeper farther down.'
'It won't affect me,' boasted Viva. 'I'm never out of condition. League of Health and Beauty, skating and swimming—and so on. I let my secretaries do all my sitting.'
'But it's going to rain.'
'Good. I shall be able to give my skin a shock.'
Miss Loveapple resigned herself to endure a stretch of elongated monologue as Viva enumerated the successive stages of her triumphant progress. The wind spattered their faces with the first drops of the storm and then the rain began to fall in a fine steady shower. Protected by the trees, at first they only realised it as a soft pattering sound overhead, but as it grew heavier, the firs ceased to act as umbrellas. The path became soft and turned presently to mud which poulticed the soles of their shoes.
'You'd better go back to Alpiglen,' said Miss Loveapple hopefully. 'You'll be soaked.'
'What about you?' asked Viva.
'I like rain.'
'So do I. We can't catch cold while we are walking.'
'But your trousers will never look the same again.'
'They're only holiday kit. My maid packed and I didn't know what she put in. I rely on her taste implicitly. She looks after all my clothes for me.'
As Miss Loveapple listened, she decided to suppress mention of her Elsie, who was not even capable of polishing a floor. She tried to forget her companion and accept the challenge of the storm, as she threw back her head and expanded her lungs. Driven by the wind, the rain dashed against her face, deluged her hair and dripped down her neck.
She loved it all—the friction of soaked clothing against her skin, the invigorating air, the earthy and resinous odours, released by the downpour. The rain drew out something else not so pleasant—enormous black slugs which crawled across the path. Viva screamed at the sight of them, but Miss Loveapple only laughed.
'They are better looking than certain people they remind me of,' she remarked. 'The dark slimy sort. There was a perfect specimen up at the Scheidegg. I almost expected him to leave a damp trail behind him when he walked.'
By this time they had nearly reached the spot where Amor was ambushed. He was in a miserable plight, for he dared not move and was only partially protected by the boulders behind which he crouched. In spite of drenched clothing and aching muscles, he had to remain poised and vigilant, so as not to miss the first sounds of his victim's approach.
After one or two false alarms, when he ducked behind the rocks to escape observation, he heard Miss Loveapple's footsteps, slipping and squelching down the streaming path. She was well in advance of Viva who had ceased to chatter, since her words were blown behind her. Peering at her, Amor was surprised to notice how thoroughly she sustained her character of hiker, for she was smiling and showed no signs of distress.
'She must be a blasted Swiss miss,' he decided.
The next second his face turned livid with rage and disappointment as a second figure—slim and trousered—appeared around the bend. He had not foreseen the complication of a companion, while he waited for a solitary female. Cursing the pair of them, he dodged between the boulders and wormed himself under cover of the drenched vegetation beside the track.
Miss Loveapple gave a start and then clutched at the support of a pine, as she wiped the rain from her eyes.
'I'm seeing things,' she shouted to Viva. 'I could have sworn I saw the top of a man's head with black shiny hair, just there. But it's only a bit of rock.'
By now the path had become so steep that it was little better than a rushing torrent and they had to swing from one fir-trunk to another, in order to keep their footing. When they reached the wet spongy meadows and the first chalet, although they still had some distance to walk, they felt practically home again.
'Don't tell any one what I told you,' Viva warned Miss Loveapple. 'I think Mrs Furse might introduce some useful people, if she is approached the right way.'
'I won't mention it,' promised Miss Loveapple. 'I'm still amazed. I looked on you as very very feminine and only wanting to be married.'
'Go on thinking like that. I am—and I do.'
'You mean you'd give up your career for a man?'
'Then you'd support a husband?'
'That's the last thing I would do. What I want is to incorporate a husband with my business. Make him pull his weight and give him a joint-interest, or he'd lose his self-respect and then I could not respect him. He must have a strong independent character. You see, I'm luckier than you. A man needn't marry me for my money.'
Suddenly the conversation began to assume significance to Miss Loveapple.
'What profession?' she asked.
'A chemist,' replied Viva. 'He could go in for research work. An important medical discovery was made through experiments with dyes. Don't you think it would be ideal, especially with so many clever young men only waiting for a real opportunity and start?'
'I expect you'll get your wish.'
'I usually do.'
Viva's voice was so quietly confident that, for the first time, Miss Loveapple recognised her possession of a strong and vital character.
She was silent on their way down to the river which was swollen with glacier-water and thickly overhung with a pall of condensed vapour. When she considered the subject honestly, she admitted that alliance with Viva would be a satisfactory solution to Buckingham's difficulties—especially as she did not wish to marry him herself.
In her opinion, people should marry when quite young, or not at all, except for reasons of companionship or expediency. She herself had known the rapture and sting of unappeased love, in her early youth. The unresponsive young man's name was 'David' and she kept his memory fresh through the medium of more than one loved pet.
Since she had acquired economic independence, she had been completely happy. Her nature was practical rather than sentimental and she had a tidy mind. She was never ill—never bored—never lonely. In the circumstances, therefore, to grudge Buckingham to Viva would be to display a mean and selfish disposition.
When they parted in the hotel, she spoke to Viva.
'Good luck,' she said.
Stepping gingerly over the polished wooden stairs, she reached her room and gave her sodden clothing to the chambermaid. Refreshed by a hot bath, she felt restored and at peace with the world, as she stood at her window, smoking and drinking tea. By contrast with her comforts, she could appreciate more fully the grandeur of the storm as it swept across the valley in sheets of torrential rain.
Presently through the streaming pane, she saw the back of a man when he passed the hotel. She noticed that his ankles were bare as he limped along in sodden patent-leather boots. His drenched clothing stuck to his spare form, so that he looked dilapidated as last year's scarecrow, while he left behind him an oozing trail.
His dejection touched Miss Loveapple's warm heart. Raising her cup, she drank a toast to the unconscious Amor.
'Not your day out,' she said aloud. 'We're in the same boat, little man. Better luck next time.'
BUCKINGHAM looked guilty when he met Miss Loveapple in the lounge that evening.
'I forgot that there were two ways up,' he said defensively.
'Not your fault,' conceded Miss Loveapple. 'It didn't pan out as I hoped. That's all.'
'But you think I let you down?'
'Does it matter? Whichever way it turned out, it would be over now. It's far more important for you to keep your promise.'
'You can depend on me to be at Victoria Station, on September the thirteenth, to meet the seven-fifteen from the Continent. Whatever turns up, I shall be there.'
It was a definite relief to Miss Loveapple to know that he had memorised the date of her return. Although her common sense made her resolve to subdue any superstition which might clash with business, she had been aware of a subconscious reluctance to think of the end of her holiday. She recognised this as a heritage of her experiences in London, for it faded completely after Buckingham's offer to accompany her back to the empty house.
'I haven't told you the sale of the house to your brother-in-law has gone through,' she said. 'At noon, September the fourteenth, I cease to own nineteen Madeira. The prepaid rent has been deducted from my cheque, of course.'
'What will you do with the cash?' asked Buckingham.
'Buy another town house, of course. It may not be London again. Harrogate or Bath, perhaps.'
'Well, I give you up. You should be simple—but your mind is far too complex for me.'
He turned to Viva with obvious reluctance when she joined them.
'Richard,' she appealed, 'do find out what's wrong with my camera.'
Miss Loveapple left them together, but she felt the old Eve rising in rebellion. Her sense of ownership had been assaulted. She resented the cool way in which Viva had ignored her own feelings—if any—in the matter and also the feline stab when she suggested that Buckingham's interest in herself was mercenary.
'I've only to lift my little finger to take him away from her,' she thought. 'I'd like her to know that.'
Mrs Furse and Olivia were having coffee at the far end of the lounge and they beckoned to her to join them. When she reached them, Olivia, whose face was sunburnt to the colour of a crimson apple, cautioned her with habitual bluntness.
'Don't let her take him away from you. He's yours. I've seen him look at you...if any one looked at me like that, I'd pass out, "James Lee."'
'She can have him,' said Miss Loveapple crossly. 'I don't intend to marry. I know when I'm well off. I look younger and I have better health than most of my school-fellows who are married and have families.'
'Don't I know it?' groaned Mrs Furse. 'You may not believe it, but I used to be an athlete. I actually played at Wimbledon, if I didn't survive the first round. Having Olivia has made me the wreck I am.'
Miss Loveapple failed to feel sympathetic, for she had proved the fragile-looking lady to be possessed of tireless energy. However, she valued her opinion as a woman of the world, so she listened attentively as Mrs Furse went on speaking.
'Really, my dear, you would be mental to marry now. You've left it too late.'
'I'm only twenty-eight,' said Miss Loveapple indignantly.
'I wasn't alluding to age. I mean you haven't a flexible mind. Your ideas are as set as jelly should be when it's properly boiled. You like your comfort and you like your own way. It would break you up to have a man rooting among your things and interfering with your garden. He'd want an onion-bed where you want to plant carnations.'
'No. Onions for me, every time.'
'Then he'll want carnations...If you take my advice, you'll know when you are well off. You already have the things which women marry to get—an income and a house.'
Miss Loveapple had already noticed the existence of a censorship on the subject of her other two houses. Apparently only the Pond House was recognised as legitimate property.
She smiled derisively when, after her championship of celibacy, Mrs Furse became aware suddenly of treachery to her sex.
'All the same,' she concluded weakly, 'every woman should get married.'
Now you're just being conventional,' jeered Miss Loveapple.
She felt pleasantly languid and disinclined to stir from her chair as she watched the scene with the detachment of a spectator. In contrast with the ornate luxury of the lakeside hotels, the room was bare and simple. Plain white net curtains barely veiled the windows and revealed the background of firs on the mountain slopes. The electric light pendants were shaped like flower-cups. As the orchestra had begun to play, the inevitable couples danced on the bare space in the middle of the waxed floor.
Reinforced by Mrs Furse's advice, she reminded herself that in a week's time she would be back again at the Pond House, restored to home-ties and local tradition—reclaimed by familiar routine.
'The Pond House is real,' she thought. 'It's my whole life and I mustn't risk losing it...But soon, all this will seem a dream. And these people won't matter any more.'
Among the dancers was Viva, whose energy rebuked her own lethargy. Although she was not as tired as she expected to be, the muscles in the back of her legs were beginning to localise themselves. Not caring to remain in the background, she hoisted herself from her low basket-chair and went up to her room.
When she was undressed, she came out to her veranda, to smoke a last cigarette. All the front rooms on the first floor opened on a common veranda; but even in the daytime, the visitors were scrupulous about remaining in their own sections and did not promenade, lest they surprise the privacy of others. At night, most of the English kept their French windows wide open, although Continental guests and nervous people were careful to close their jalousies.
As she gazed at the mountains, Miss Loveapple reviewed Viva's plans for Buckingham's future.
'Fine,' she thought. 'Give him a microscope and let him make stinks, and he'll be happy. He'll probably discover something which will bring her in a fortune and that will appeal to his pride. It's all fine.'
She did not know that during the entire time she remained on the veranda, she was under observation. On the other side of the road and nearly opposite the hotel was a Pension which she rarely noticed. Sitting in the window of a darkened bedroom was a woman in a lilac wrapper trimmed with dejected fronds which bore as little resemblance to feathers as harbour scum to sea foam. She held field-glasses to her eyes while she entertained her husband with a ribald commentary on the different stages of Miss Loveapple's toilet.
'She's got sauce, not drawing her curtains to undress,' she remarked. 'And now she's out on the veranda in her nightie. Well, we've got her room number. It's the third from left.'
A minute later she finished her report on a note of triumph.
'Her light's out and she's left her window open.'
'Check up on the rest,' advised Amor, who shivered in bed, although he wore his dressing-gown.
Although he had not heard her hopes for his future success, the little man—whose plight had moved Miss Loveapple to pity—was already preparing to try again. If his wife's observations confirmed his hopes, his second attempt on her person and property was scheduled for the following night.
The people at the hotel kept early hours, so soon after twelve Mrs Amor was able to return to her bed.
'It's in the bag,' she gloated. 'There's one room which never lit up. So late in the season as this, it's sure to be empty.'
'I'll rent it to-morrow,' said Amor.
'And leave me here without h. or c.'
'Well, who had to lay in that chronic rain to-day?'
'Cheer up...Law, I've had some laughs tonight. There was one regular old maid, but she left her window open. What I call hopeful.'
Mrs Amor might not have been so amused had she known that the lady in question—who was a dean's sister—would play a more important part in Miss Loveapple's drama than mere comic relief.
The following day's the visitors at the hotel were interested to hear of a romance. Two of the visitors who had come out to Switzerland to climb—both college students and belonging to the Oxford Group—admitted to their engagement, since they were too much in love to keep their happiness a secret.
Viva appeared to be especially thrilled by the news. Watching her excitement, Miss Loveapple wondered whether she anticipated her own marriage.
'Look at the future bridegroom,' she cried, smiling at the youth who was beaming acknowledgment of the congratulations. 'He's radiant.'
Buckingham grunted scornfully.
'Any chap's a chump to propose on a holiday,' he said. 'He's bound to confuse the girl with her background. I know a fellow who got engaged on a cruise. The marriage was off within a year. He admitted to me afterwards that he proposed to a fjord and part of a girl—but he had to marry the girl only, and he wasn't stuck on the other bit of her.'
'Are you warning us not to hope until you come knocking at our doors?' asked Viva.
'I wasn't being personal. Besides, I have met Miss Loveapple in her London House.'
Miss Loveapple purposely avoided Buckingham for the rest of the day. The whole party climbed up to the Bregg in the afternoon, and from that starting-point went on a stiff walk. There was no dancing in the evening, for every one was tired. The presence of a new guest was unnoticed, as the retiring little man in question dined in the restaurant and did not appear in any of the public rooms.
Miss Loveapple lost no time in getting to bed. She hurried over her undressing and neglected to pay her nightly homage to the mountains from the veranda. Soon after her head was on the pillow she was sound asleep.
Suddenly she opened her eyes with a start. 'There's someone in the room,' she thought.
AS she raised herself on one elbow and stared into the semi-darkness, Miss Loveapple realised that her breathing was quickened, while her forearms tingled, as though before a thunder-storm. But although she felt uneasy and suspicious, she was perplexed rather than afraid. She could not understand why she had received this impression of an intruder. Whatever its cause—a rustle, a gasp, a stir in the air—it was too impalpable to be other than a trick of imagination.
Switching on the light, she looked around her room. It was very untidy, for in her haste to get to bed she had strewn her clothes impartially over the furniture and floor—producing the effect of a clothes-line hit by a gale. Apart from the disorder, however, she could detect nothing unusual.
'Nothing here,' she thought. 'Whatever made me jump up like that? I wonder if the altitude is beginning to affect me again. I am about three thousand feet up.'
The open French window framed a panel of night sky and mountain. For a moment she thought of closing the jalousies, only to reject the idea. All the visitors whose rooms opened on to the veranda were above suspicion, while her own door leading to the corridor was locked.
'Shall I get up and search the room?' she wondered.
There were only two places where any one could hide—inside the cupboard-wardrobe and under the bed. A vision of herself stooping down to search for a man was so suggestive of old-fashioned music hall humour that she began to laugh at the mere idea. While she was trying to make the effort of leaving her comfortable mattress, her lids drooped and she began to yawn.
'If I don't lie down again while I'm still heavy, my brain will get started and then I'll lie awake for hours,' she warned herself.
Switching off the light, she shut her eyes and relaxed her muscles. Before she drifted into unconsciousness, however, she had to drive away two will-o'-the-wisp fancies. The first was a feeling that, although she had not reassembled her shed garments, but left each lying where it fell, she could not remember pulling out any drawers or opening her suitcase, contrary to the evidence. The second was an unpleasant reminder of an empty room which also opened out to the veranda. Its corridor door was kept locked; but one of the hotel staff might have stolen the key and gone on a thieving prowl.
The intrusion of these ideas robbed her of real rest. Since she had been in Grindelwald, stiff exercise and mountain air had combined to make her sleep heavily. Now, however, like an iceberg—only seven-eighths of her senses were wholly submerged; the remaining one-eighth—vigilant and on guard—resisted oblivion.
After a confused and uneasy dream of being followed by an unseen tracker, suddenly she awoke to the reality of fingers plucking at her pillow. Someone leaned over her in the darkness. Even as she realised the fact she was shocked into instantaneous reaction. Screaming automatically, she hit the dark form with all the muscular force she had acquired from polishing floors.
The effort taxed her strength and hurt her hand. Panting with pain and anger, she switched on her light. She was too late to catch a glimpse of the man, but as she rushed out on to the veranda she collided with Buckingham.
His hair was rough and he wore a dark dressing-gown. Before he could speak, she slapped his face vigorously.
'That will teach you to come into my room,' she said.
He caught her hand as she was about to give a repeat performance.
'I'm hanged if I came into your room,' he shouted indignantly. 'I heard you yell and thought you were murdered. No such luck.'
'Oh—sorry. I—I was only half-awake when I biffed you. But, really, there was a man in my room.'
'Did you see him?'
'Not actually. It was dark.'
By the time that other guests had joined them on the veranda, Miss Loveapple was beginning to feel she had made a fool of herself. They completed her confusion by crowding inside her untidy room and searching it, to demonstrate that she was the victim of a nightmare. She was almost convinced herself before they drifted back to their own rooms.
Not all the guests were present on the veranda. Among the absentees were Mrs Furse, who sent her scout, Olivia, to report while she guarded her toilet secrets. The dean's sister also remained in her bed and suffered the commotion in grim silence. She held an important position in the scholastic world, and had come to Switzerland to recuperate after a strenuous session.
As the girls passed her open window on their way back to their rooms, she overheard Viva's remark to Olivia.
'You can't blame a man making a fool of himself if he's been led to expect a welcome.'
The lady mentally filed the comment for future reference.
Soon the veranda was empty and silent again. There had been a time, however, when a sharp-eyed person—who chanced to glance in the right direction—might have seen a figure steal from the hotel garden and across the road to the darkened Pension.
The watcher was Mrs Amor, returning to her ground-floor bedroom, by way of her window.
The following morning, in the clean glitter of sunlight and the fresh mountain air, she met her husband at a little patisserie on the main street. Seated at a painted table on the pavement, they watched the shrunken stream of tourists, while they sipped raspberry-sirop, to sustain their impersonation of harmless trippers. The woman still wore black georgette, trimmed with monkey-fur, and high-heeled toeless sandals, to reveal scarlet nails, while both were heavy-eyed and resentful over their failure.
'I was planted in that dam' garden, waiting for you to drop the doings, for donkeys' years,' complained Mrs Amor. 'What got unstuck?'
'She woke up and landed me a kidney-punch,' growled Amor.
'Cor, why didn't you try again?'
'With her waiting for me with the poker next time? Not half.'
'To-night. She's got the ice all right. Case was under her pillow...She won't suspect me. I'm laying low. I had my coffee brought up to my room this morning.'
Mrs Amor scratched her nose reflectively.
'She'll shut her window to-night, unless she's loopy,' she prophesied.
'Safe to,' agreed her husband. 'Only I'm not coming in through the window. Her room's next to mine with connecting doors. Both locked, of course, and the keys removed. I'm going to get some wire this morning, and if I can't pick them locks I'll chuck everything and go into the Church.'
His eyes glinted viciously as he added, 'I'll bring my tools with me and make a job of it to-night.'
Mrs Amor stared at him in surprise, for they were cowardly and timid marauders who took no risks, but preferred to pick the bones after someone else's kill.
'It might be manslaughter,' she warned him.
'And it might not. I've been over the course. She's a heavy sleeper at first. Last night I left it too late.'
'No, but she breathes deep. I shall know. I'll cosh her before I get on with the job...She's coming with a bloke.'
Both turned their heads and professed an interest in the patisserie window, as Miss Loveapple and Buckingham passed them. Neither noticed the couple, for she gazed steadfastly at the mountains, while he was lighting his pipe.
As he looked after her, Amor glared spitefully at her strong back and her straight tanned legs. She wore no hat and her hair glittered in the sunlight. In his imagination, he aimed a blow at that fair head...He saw it streaked with bloodstains and he drew a deep breath of satisfaction.
Miss Loveapple bore no trace of her disturbed night as she swung easily up the steep incline. Her blue eyes were deep and happy, reflecting the refreshment of her spirit. She had breakfasted early to escape unwelcome publicity.
'I feel such a fool about last night,' she confided to Buckingham. 'The hotel seems to think I was dreaming.'
'One-half of the hotel,' he corrected her. 'The other half thinks I gate-crashed.'
'What's your own idea—if any?'
She frowned thoughtfully as her gaze explored the distance.
'I think it was a mix-up,' she replied. 'One of the Wharton boys told me, this morning, that there's a man in the room next to mine. He described him as a little wart. It's probable that he wandered out on the veranda, to look at the moon or mountains, and mistook my open door for his own. If he did, I've given him a real bump of locality. I hit out like mad.'
Buckingham did not join in her laughter. He listened intently as she went on speaking.
'The queer part is that I woke up, before that, and thought someone was in the room. You know that feeling, when the air seems to be still moving?'
He nodded while his lips grew stern.
'Promise me to pull down your shutter tonight,' he said.
'That meat-safe affair?' asked Miss Loveapple. 'I can't sleep without air.'
'Then change your room.'
'No, it's all right. I am going to put a chair in front of the window and fix up a contraption with my cow-bells. If any one tries to get in, the noise will wake me up.'
Not a bad idea. All the same, I wish I were not going to-night.'
'It will seem funny without you,' remarked Miss Loveapple.
She felt guilty at her own feelings of relief, because she welcomed the prospect of returning to her isolationist policy and her freedom from emotional entanglement. Although she had promised not to reveal Viva's identity prematurely, she could not resist introducing the subject. At the moment, she was feeling grateful to Viva because of the expert manner in which she had whisked away the principal exhibits when the other guests had invaded her disgracefully untidy bedroom the night before.
'Is it true you don't like business-women?' she asked.
'I don't know one,' Buckingham replied.
'You will...You will. How would you like to marry one who was young and attractive and who had worked up a marvellous business by her own brains and energy?'
'I'd cherish her. I'd keep her books. There should be no secrets between us. Is it you?'
'Then why ask me?'
'Because you never know your luck.'
They walked for some distance in silence which was broken by Buckingham.
'What's your name?' he asked abruptly.
The question gave Miss Loveapple a little shock of surprise. She had grown so used to thinking of herself in terms of a title, that when she told him she almost questioned her identity.
An outraged expression flitted across his face.
'No,' he protested. 'No. I shall call you "Flora."'
THE Dean did not see his sister that day until they met for lunch. He noticed at once the familiar signs of insomnia in her drawn expression and sunken eyes.
'Haven't you slept well?' he asked.
'No,' she replied. 'There was rather too much excitement in the night.'
Although she felt tired and irritable, she tried to give her brother an unbiased account of the disturbance.
'You must not conclude that I am casting any reflection on the girl's character,' she told him. 'She seems quite nice. Unfortunately she appears to attract unwelcome attention. Those bare legs might have something to do with it—not that there is any harm in wearing shorts.'
A smile flitted over the Dean's austere face.
'I felt self-conscious about my legs when I first wore gaiters,' he said. 'Now I forget I'm not wearing trousers. She's probably so used to shorts that she never gives them a second thought...All the same, I don't like the prospect of broken nights for you.'
'Neither do I,' agreed his sister. 'Don't worry. I intend to move in the matter.'
The lady's interview with the hotel proprietor took place after lunch. While they were talking, Miss Loveapple clattered down the shallow stairs into the lounge.
The proprietor advanced to meet her.
'I am distressed to hear that you were disturbed last night,' he told her. 'Such a thing has never happened before in my hotel. I cannot understand it at all.'
'Neither can I,' agreed Miss Loveapple in an astringent voice. 'Such a thing has never happened to me before in any hotel.'
The Dean's sister considered it time to intervene.
'It must have been very unpleasant,' she said. 'The important thing is to avoid a repetition of the annoyance. My brother wonders whether you would feel more comfortable in his room. It's at the back and has no veranda. If you care for the idea, he will change with you.'
For a moment Miss Loveapple was inclined to turn down the proposal. The change involved the loss of her view of the mountains. As she hesitated, however, she realised the benefit of being able to sleep without listening for a possible intruder.
'Thank you,' she said. 'I'll be glad to accept your brother's offer. Frankly, he'll get the best of the bargain, for my room has an enchanting view. But it is more important to sleep soundly.'
'That is my opinion also,' agreed the Dean's sister dryly.
As both the Dean and Miss Loveapple possessed the minimum of luggage, the change was soon made. Amor knew nothing about it, as he took refuge in the pension during the day, lest Miss Loveapple should recognise him and suspect that he had followed her. He had completed his professional purchases and lay on his bed, smoking until the coast was clear for him to slip across to the hotel and operate on the bedroom locks.
In her capacity of intelligence officer, his wife sat at the window, with her field-glasses focused upon the hotel. Suddenly she gave a thin scream.
'I'm sure she's changed her room,' she declared. 'I've not seen her once. And now there's a sky pilot standing at her bedroom window. Smoking a pipe, too.'
'So what?' asked Amor, after an interlude of appropriate profanity.
'You're through at the hotel,' said his wife promptly. 'Nothing doing there. She'll bolt her door, and you can't risk being pinched outside in the corridor...But she'll have them on her. You don't leave ice lying about on your dressing-table for the chambermaid to wipe away with the powder.'
'In a bag around her neck,' agreed Amor. 'Or special pockets in her pants. We'll have to trail her when she's alone.'
Such a prospect seemed very remote to Miss Loveapple. It was a broken day for her because of Buckingham's departure for England. She did not like to go out on a solitary ramble—were such a course possible—since his time was so short. When she returned to the hotel for lunch, there had been a letter which made her feel still more unsettled. It was from Elsie, and as she read it it brought her own return very near.
Captain Brown has stopped his murdering [wrote the maid]. He says now he wants the garden to be full of flowers for you. I've warned him I want to fill every vase in the house, to welcome you, and if you find anything wrong, you will know what to do.
Miss Loveapple grinned at the implication of herself calling upon Captain Brown with a horsewhip. Then her eyes grew wistful when she read the postscript.
'The hot-water bottles are in your bed. And there are two more outside. You can guess their names. They send their love.'
'It's time I went home,' decided Miss Loveapple. 'This has not been a lucky holiday, but I'm not beaten. I'll come again, before the other people.'
While her thoughts were winging back to England, Elsie was re-reading her last letter to a bored audience of Scottie and David. There was a note of finality about it which seemed to bring her mistress nearer home.
This will be my last letter [wrote Miss Loveapple]. 'And don't write to me after today. My address will be uncertain, for I may go on to Paris. But expect me for tea at the Pond House on the fourteenth of September. I do wish I was coming there direct. Remember to have Scottie and David there to meet me. I want a real welcome home. I know I can depend on you.
As Elsie smiled, she heard the opening of the front door and the sound of firm footsteps. For a moment she thought that Miss Loveapple was in the house. But while she waited for the laughter—which was music to her melancholy mind—Miss Agatha Pitt's voice announced her arrival.
'She's set on us all being here,' she thought. 'If I go up to London she'll rumble me. I'll say nothing to Miss Pitt, after all.'
Things were not shaping well for the delayed murder of Mr Henry Watkins. One lady had decided to cancel her visit to Number Nineteen Madeira Crescent, while the other had arranged to bring her own gentleman-friend, to provide any personal attentions...
Buckingham was leaving Switzerland by the night express from Interlaken, so that tea was his last meal at Grindelwald. When it was over, he asked Miss Loveapple to accompany him on a quick farewell visit to the Gorge. They rushed all the way until they had rounded the last bend, where they leaned over the rail and watched the torrent boiling over the rocks.
'I've been collecting addresses,' said Buckingham, as he opened his wallet. 'In spite of my latent savagery, people have asked me to call. I'm going to pay my visits now.'
He flicked a handful of visiting-cards into the river.
'So sorry you are not at home,' he remarked.
'Are the Furses down there?' asked Miss Loveapple, pointing to a whirlpool of foam.
'Both,' he replied. 'I've only kept one card. Viva's. I mean to look her up.'
'Do you like her?'
'Of course. She has qualities which appeal to most men. I've never seen her rattled or bad-tempered...Talking of tempers, I'm coming to Highfield. May I?'
Miss Loveapple spoke warmly. She wanted Buckingham to see her in her own special surroundings where she would be reinforced against any assault of sentiment. The Pond House represented her kingdom which she did not intend to share with a consort.
'You'll be able to meet Scottie and David,' she added.
'My blue Persian cat. What are you laughing at?'
'My name is "David,"' he explained.
'I was christened "Richard." But my mother was a copy-cat. It wasn't too amusing for her to be a poor relation, for she wanted rather a lot, like her precious son. But it didn't cost anything to copy Royalty, so I was renamed after the Prince of Wales.'
Miss Loveapple was disproportionately dismayed by the news, because a gipsy had once traced a 'D' in her palm and told her that it was the initial of the man she would marry.
'You'll miss your train,' she said shortly.
They ran all the way through the cool, moist wood veined by wandering water, but after they had crossed the bridge of the Lutschine they slackened their pace to walk up the hill.
'I've finished at the hotel,' said Buckingham. 'My bags are being brought to the station. The mayor and corporation are waiting there to give me an official sendoff...I shan't say "Good-bye" to you, because I shall soon be meeting your train at Victoria. That reminds me. I have an idea.'
'What?' asked Miss Loveapple.
'This: We won't have supper on the way to the house. Let's buy stuff and eat it at nineteen Madeira. We might do a spot of cooking. Sausage-and-mashed.'
'No,' interrupted Miss Loveapple. 'Kippers.'
'So long as we keep it refined, anything. I'll make coffee.'
'You dare touch my stove—'
'Then I'll wash up.'
'And mess up my sink?'
'That's the idea. I want to see you in action—Flora.'
Suddenly Miss Loveapple realised how easily the glorious scramble of their picnic meal might be a foretaste of married life. The prospect appealed to her because she was one of the pillow-fight honeymoon sisterhood, to whom a love-affair was both a joyous and boisterous affair.
She loved a scrap where she could give as good as she got. Imagination pictured a wild chase up and down stairs, and through the house, in which she would be both huntress and quarry. She remembered how the earlier 'David'—after capture—had swung her off her feet and kissed her.
This was the first step—leading to the inevitable second—when Buckingham would menace her onion-bed.
Instantly she took fright and dashed for refuge in the blind corner of her mind. Although she was naturally truthful, she was stampeded into telling a lie.
If it were true that Miss Loveapple was protected by a beneficent force—which was involved in a match to save her from a malignant fate—it would appear that her luck had won. She was guarded from attack on her person by her removal to an impregnable bedroom; she was guarded from attack on her life by a powerful personal guard.
Driven on by fatal impulse, she proved herself her own enemy.
'I'd love it,' she said, her eyes pleading against the tyranny of her will. 'But I've altered my plans. I'm washing out the night in London, so as to have an extra day here. I shall be at Victoria on September the fourteenth.'
By this time they had reached the station, where an impressive muster from the hotel was waiting to say 'Good-bye' to Buckingham. It was not until his train was pulling out that he spoke to Miss Loveapple.
'Au revoir,' he shouted, 'till September the fourteenth.'
MISS LOVEAPPLE left Grindelwald on September the eleventh—a day earlier than she had intended. Mrs Furse was the indirect cause of her change of plan. After Buckingham left, there were no unattached men in the hotel, with the exception of the Dean. When she established the fact of an invalid wife at home in the Deanery, Mrs Furse decided to go elsewhere.
'We may try the Dalmatian coast,' she explained. 'I've had my rest, so I mustn't be selfish. Olivia wants some social life again. In any case, we shall go to a fashionable place.'
'I hope she will meet some nice man,' remarked Miss Loveapple to Viva afterwards. 'She's the neglected sort of girl that makes the best wife.'
Miss Loveapple was always benevolent on the subject of marriage for any one except herself, but Viva did not share her enthusiasm.
'Not a hope,' she said. 'She's definitely without glamour. I should begin her face by extracting her front teeth.'
'But they're perfect,' gasped Miss Loveapple. 'Even if they protrude a bit, they give character to her face.'
'But they suggest something to eat with.'
'What else are teeth for?'
'To smile with. The flash of white provides the contrast with the lip-stick. They are also necessary to underpin the structure of the face.'
By this time Miss Loveapple had discovered that Viva had no sense of humour. When she remembered Buckingham's complimentary estimate of her qualities, she wondered whether this were another attraction, in his opinion.
After the Furses left Grindelwald, Viva favoured Miss Loveapple with her exclusive company. Her objective was Lady Pontypool's future patronage, which she regarded as invaluable publicity.
'If you secure the queen bee, the swarm will follow,' she explained to Miss Loveapple.
'The swarm are all working bees,' objected Miss Loveapple. 'There's no time to do up faces in the honey-racket. Besides, I've told you already I have no pull with Lady Pontypool.'
'You are too modest. Never mind. Just think it over.'
Instead of following her advice, Miss Loveapple became infected with some of the prevailing diplomacy as she tried to persuade Viva to join the Furses.
'You are too young and attractive to be wasted in this wilderness,' she said.
Unfortunately Viva proved adamant to suggestion.
'My doctor ordered three weeks' perfect quiet and rest for my nerves,' she explained. 'So I shall stay three weeks and not one day less...Whenever I'm trying out a new facial treatment, I always follow the formula faithfully, even if it's against my own judgment.'
'Did you say "nerves?"' asked Miss Loveapple, staring sceptically at the complete composure of Viva's face which reminded her vaguely of an ornamented shell.
'Yes. Result of overwork. One of my girls left to set up for herself. I actually used to lie awake and wonder whether she would take away any of my clients. That will tell you the state of my nerves.'
'Why don't you combine another interest with your work?'
'I'm going to. I intend to get married.'
Viva's policy was such a subtle compound of ruthlessness and tact that Miss Loveapple was no match for it. Too kind-hearted to be brutally blunt, she gave up her attempts to go on solitary rambles.
'Next time,' she whispered to the mountains.
Had she eluded her escort, however, she would have had other company. The Amors were on her trail, waiting for an opportunity to try those shock-tactics for which they were temperamentally unsuited. Whenever a solitary feminine figure emerged from the hotel, they followed her, like malignant shadows, up to the inevitable minute when she was joined by another woman.
Such persistent guardianship seemed to them another proof that the maid wore a more expensive outfit than was apparent from the evidence of her surface value. On the night before her departure from Grindelwald, they had further confirmation of their theory.
Miss Loveapple left the hotel after dinner, to buy greengages for her train journey. She walked to her favourite fruit stall at one end of the village which was very poorly lit. The street was crowded by a noisy company of students who sang and shouted on their return from a camping holiday.
Miss Loveapple concluded that one of them must have been very careless with his stick, for as she watched them, suddenly she felt her ankle hooked.
Instead of grasping the counter of the fruit stall, she fell flat on her face. The instinct which would cause most people to try to save themselves was overpowered by a stronger motive—to hold on to her jewel-case. It contained her tickets, her money and her precious passport.
In the darkness and confusion, she did not notice the polite little man with a felt hat pulled over his eyes, who helped her to her feet. Nor did she remark the fact that the woman beside him held a case which could have been substituted for her own, had it fallen to the pavement.
Even her sturdy optimism was not proof against this latest misfortune. She cut her knee and bruised her arms when she fell. Her last pair of stockings was laddered, while the seam of her black satin skirt—which formed half her evening outfit—had been split open again.
She felt so bewildered by the accident as she limped back to the hotel, that she slumped down in the first chair in the veranda and spoke impulsively.
'Do you believe in luck?'
She put the question to the nearest person before she recognised the intellectual features of the Dean.
'Oh, I'm sorry,' she said. 'I suppose I shouldn't ask you that.'
'Why not?' The Dean smiled. 'Luck is always an interesting subject for discussion. All the same, I do not believe in it. My personal belief is that everything is ordained by God.'
'But big events are influenced by trifles,' persisted Miss Loveapple.
'I do not agree. It is our own character which determines Destiny. You may consider you have proof that some important event hinged upon an insignificant incident. In reality, it was your own reaction to this trifle which developed the situation.'
As the Dean spoke, Miss Loveapple remembered the unworthy desire to assert her own importance on the Kleine Scheidegg which led to her recognition of Lady Pontypool, and consequently to Viva's monopoly of her company.
'I believe you are right,' she said slowly. 'There was that night when the man came into my bedroom. I crashed completely. If I had a better-balanced character, I should not have lost my veranda and my view of the mountains.'
'That misfortune can be remedied,' the Dean reminded her. 'To-night, if you like.'
'Oh, no, I didn't mean that. I always speak without thinking. It was frightfully kind of you to suggest it. Besides, it's not worth making any change now.'
As the Dean smoked in silence, she returned to her argument.
'All the same, I believe in luck, because I've been exceptionally lucky. Things have always turned out well for me. All except this holiday. I looked forward to it—but it has been a disappointment. Everything has gone wrong from beginning to end.'
'You forget this,' said the Dean. 'You have not yet reached the end. You are judging prematurely. For all you know now, every accident may have been a piece of good fortune in disguise. And when I say "fortune," I do not mean "luck."'
'I hope you're right.' Miss Loveapple's voice was doubtful. 'I am going home tomorrow.'
'Then I will wish you "God-speed."'
Fortified by a blessing and cheered by sunlight, Miss Loveapple left Grindelwald in the best of spirits. She could endure to gaze at the snow-streaked crest of the Eiger without a pang because she looked forward to a reunion in happier circumstances. From the moment she entered the little wooden train she felt she was on her way back to her beloved Pond House.
She allowed herself plenty of time to wander in Interlaken. Strolling down the Höheweg, she glanced occasionally from the glittering white peak of the Jungfrau to the brilliant flowers in every hotel garden. This lapse of homage was due to the revival of her horticulturist spirit. When she reached the smart modern shops, she lingered before watches and lace until she was satiatied with window display.
Presently she crossed the bridge where the blue-green water still boiled and raced after its recent passage over a weir, and walked beside the river back to Interlaken-Ost. Seated at a table under the yellowed chestnuts before the Hotel du Lac, she ordered a cup of coffee, to pass the time. When she opened her cigarette-case, a polite little man suddenly sprang forward with a lighted match.
'Allow me,' he said.
As she looked up to thank him, she noticed his companion and recognised her by her costume of filmy black, trimmed with monkey-fur. The people at the next table were the incongruous couple she had noticed before—once at Victoria Station and later on the Jungfraujoch train.
The Amors were keyed-up for desperate action and had arranged a plan of campaign to cover several contingencies. Their last hope of scooping in a fortune depended on their daring and skill to take advantage of the journey back to England. Moistening her painted lips nervously, Mrs Amor smiled at Miss Loveapple.
'Pardon,' she said. 'Haven't we met before? I mean, on the mountain?'
'Which mountain?' asked Miss Loveapple vaguely.
'The one with the funny name. It's funny how you keep meeting the same people out here until you feel you know them. If they're English, I mean, same as you and us. But you could sit by them at the Corner House for years and never speak.'
As Miss Loveapple remained unresponsive, Amor began to apologise.
'You must excuse her, lady. She's homesick. She wants to get back to her baby.'
Mrs Amor recognised the remark as a false step, in view of the fact that personal maids should be without encumbrances. A recollection of Lady Pontypool's charities—which included animal welfare—inspired her own effort.
'That's his sauce,' she complained. 'My baby is a little cat. My, she knows every word I say. I'd sooner starve than let her go hungry. It beats me how people can be cruel to dumb animals.'
'They are not people,' declared Miss Loveapple. 'They are degenerates.'
'That's right,' agreed Mrs Amor.
At one time the Amors had put on a music hall show in which she claimed to have eyes which could penetrate any receptacle and proclaim its contents. The act did not last long because, in spite of her magnetic gaze, her brain was too clumsy to interpret her husband's code of signals.
Now as she gazed at Miss Loveapple's case, she did not need super-vision to know that the jewels were inside. The maid had discarded her shorts—with their secret pockets—and wore the tight black satin suit which was so obviously a perquisite.
Although she claimed to possess the superior acumen, it was her husband's instinct which bridged the gulf between their victim and themselves. As she tried to improve their acquaintance with a remark about the weather, Amor spoke in a dejected voice.
'Dry up, Mimi. Can't you see the lady doesn't want to be disturbed.'
The humility of the remark touched Miss Loveapple's generous heart. Moreover, apart from the need of that solitude which was vital to communion with the mountains, her nature was generous. Since she had returned to the sophistication of Interlaken, she had begun to feel lonely. She reminded herself that this pathetic little couple were fellow-travellers—both to England and Eternity—and that it was merely human to force an interest in their holiday.
After she asked them their impressions of Switzerland, Amor spoke eagerly.
'Might I take the liberty of asking you to have cawfee with me and the missus? Plenty of time before the train.'
She thanked him and explained that she had already given an order. While she was speaking, the waiter brought a steaming cup to the table. The Amors exchanged glances as she waited for it to cool, and then Mrs Amor opened a film weekly paper.
'Have you seen this picture?' she asked.
Miss Loveapple began to study the photographs of a crook drama.
'I like good crime,' she remarked. 'But it's got to be convincing. I don't believe, of course, but I like to be carried away.'
'Did you see The Thin Man?' asked Mrs Amor. 'It was chronic the way they carried on. Not like real married life.'
Miss Loveapple suppressed a guilty smile at the thought of Buckingham and herself in similar rôles.
'I agree with you,' she said. 'Most films are unreal stuff. Abductions and doped drinks. Absurd.'
She held the paper to her eyes, so that it screened her view of the table. As though awaiting a cue, Amor's hand flashed out and dropped a white pellet in her cup of coffee.
'Such things don't happen in real life,' continued Miss Loveapple. 'Not even abroad.'
The couple exchanged a glance. They knew that the train would be almost empty at first, so that if they could arrange to share a carriage with Miss Loveapple, the jewels were as good as theirs. Very soon she would be sleeping like a log.
The whistle of an engine in the distance made Amor glance at his watch.
'That's the Paris train,' he said. 'Don't forget to drink your cawfee, miss.'
The warning made Miss Loveapple flurry. She stretched for the sugar-basin in such haste that she swept over her cup with the cuff of her travelling-coat, while the coffee flooded the table and dripped down on the gravel.
'Bee bad luck,' muttered Amor savagely.
MISS LOVEAPPLE was astonished by her compatriots' indignant sympathy. They appeared as concerned as though the accident were their own affair. She declined the little man's urgent offer to rush back to the hotel for fresh coffee, but, because of it, she was unable to feel annoyed when they entered her compartment. The train was sparsely filled at the Ost Station, but even at this stage she could not expect to get a carriage to herself.
With the generic selfishness of travellers, they arranged their wraps and luggage over the seats, to create the impression of a full muster when they stopped at Interlaken. Their strategy proved a success, for no one had joined them when they steamed out of the station.
Amor pulled his hat down over his eyes and drew his blind.
'I'm going to play shut-eye,' he explained.
'Me too,' said his wife. 'We shan't be able to lay down, if we fill up, later on.'
Miss Loveapple did not follow their example, for she wished to enjoy the scenery while the daylight lasted. She congratulated herself on the possession of sleeping-partners, when she contrasted their silence with the distracting conversation on the outward journey. Her face was unruffled as the glassy blue water of Lake Thun below as she gazed out at the vivid green landscape.
The carriage was very warm but she did not like to lower the window, because she felt certain that her unobtrusive companions did not share her enthusiasm for fresh air. As she looked at their stunted forms and narrow chests she felt sorry for them.
'Like cellar plants,' she thought.
It was impossible to avoid contrast with her own vigorous growth and development or not to feel grateful to the air and sunshine on which she had thriven. There was no personal vanity in her heart as she acknowledged herself a perfect specimen—in horticultural terms.
'A bit pot-bound, perhaps,' she admitted.
Clutching her jewel-case, she opened the door cautiously and slipped into the corridor to smoke. Instantly the lids of two pairs of dark eyes split apart as the sleepers awoke. They noticed how she held the case wedged against her side by the pressure of her underarm while she was lighting her cigarette.
As though she sensed their interest, at that moment she was thinking of their sympathy and kindness.
'I'll be decent to them,' she resolved. 'It's their holiday too, poor little weeds.'
When she returned to the carriage, they were apparently dozing, so she decided to take advantage of the present lull to be comfortable. Winding a scarf around her hair, she leaned back in a corner and watched the slow slide of fields, starred with the pallid mauve crocuses of autumn.
Gradually the green glide stretched out into a continuous line as the pastures blurred together. Soothed by the warmth and motion, she began to grow drowsy. She felt as though she were slipping into a hot tropical sea as the grass continued to heave past her drooping lids. The steady chug of the engine kept time with the hypnotic breathing inside the carriage...
Suddenly her head fell forward with a jerk and she awoke with a violent start. Her heart was leaping from a momentary delusion. In that fractional pause between oblivion and consciousness, she could have sworn she saw a dark distorted face—like a disembodied shape of evil—hovering near her own.
But no one was there except her travelling companions, who slumbered in their corners. Shivering from the vividness of her fancy, she tried to follow their example. It was wasted effort, for whenever she reached the edge of the pleasant drowsy boundary-line and was on the point of fading out, an alarm-bell seemed to ring inside her brain, jangling her back to reality.
Somehow she received the impression of an intrusion—as though there were enemies in the carriage. They advanced towards her, only to shoot away whenever she stirred. Once she shrank back and clutched her case tighter as though fingers were touching it; but when she looked around her she could detect no cause of alarm.
Once again she stood by the open window of the corridor and let the cool air flow against her face.
She was not deceived in her recognition of an invasion, for an evil thought is a real thing. The hideous idea came to birth in the murky depths of the woman's eyes and darted thence, like a deadly viper, into the man's brain.
In spite of the fiasco of their professional act, there was actual telepathy between the Amors. They often understood each other without the aid of words. It was plain to them that Lady Pontypool's maid guarded her treasure almost as though her fingers had grown into the leather of the case. Worse, she slept like a cat, while there would be no further opportunity to drug her.
As they could not risk exposure or another fumbled job, she must be silenced effectively. The time for qualms was now past. On the first likely opportunity when the train stopped on the way to Paris they would jump off with their lot. When the guard made his round later he would not remark a motionless lady covered with a rug, because most of the passengers would be also asleep.
Amor leaned forward and whispered to his wife.
'That's right,' she nodded. 'When she sleeps.'
They looked up guiltily when Miss Loveapple returned to the carriage and began to clear their belongings off the seat, as though they were encroaching on her space. To remove their inferiority complex, she smiled at them with genuine warmth.
'Is this the first time you've been abroad?' she asked.
'First time we've been in the country,' replied Mrs Amor. 'I've been in Berlin, Buda, Paree and all the big towns. I'm in the Profession, you know. I help an illusionist. Hand him his properties, you know, and take the attention of the public off his tricks. I wear a saucy costume—trunks and a topper.'
'Keep it clean,' urged her husband. 'Tell the lady you wear shoes...Might I ask if you have a job, miss?'
'Don't be a fool,' broke in Mrs Amor. 'Can't you see the lady is private?'
Not wishing to erect a barrier between her travelling-companions and herself, Miss Loveapple compromised with a technically true answer.
'Of course I have a job,' she replied as she thought of her strenuous work in both house and garden.'
'A superior job, miss?'
'Yes, you could call it that. I'm my own mistress.' To change the subject, she added, 'Perhaps we shall meet in Paris? I'm stopping there for one night.'
'What hotel, miss?' asked Amor.
He shook his head when she mentioned the name.
'Too classy for us. I hope we shan't meet, miss. If we do it will mean we've struck unlucky in a deal. But they say, "Try, try again."'
His wife broke into a thin scream of laughter which she silenced abruptly. Glancing at her, Miss Loveapple felt a momentary chill, for the high note synchronised with a spasm of mirth which flickered across the woman's face. The overhead light exaggerated the length of the crooked nose and revived a nightmare recollection of a distorted mask pressed almost against her own.
The impression passed as Amor spoke.
'We're coming into Bern. Coo, there won't be half a mob. A regular jam-session—and I don't mean music.'
Miss Loveapple looked out at the spread of roofs and the illuminations of a city as the train slackened speed. When it ran into the station she gave a cry of annoyance at the sight of the crowded platform.
'Half the population seems coming up to Paris,' she said. 'If we stand at the door and windows, we may bluff them that the carriage is full.'
At first it seemed as though their strategy were favoured by fortune. Miss Loveapple was always a striking figure, and she formed an impressive barrier as she guarded the entrance to their compartment. The string of passengers filed along the corridor and made no attempt to enter until, when all danger seemed past, a French family stormed the carriage.
There were six of them—representing three generations—and all were restless and excited. The adults talked and laughed shrilly while the children devoured food and romped about the limited space. They spilt crumbs and banana skins on the floor, wiped their fingers on Miss Loveapple's skirt and trod on her toes until she felt nearly distracted.
To her, they were merely noisy intruders, for her eyes were blinded to half a dozen guardian angels. As she endured the uproar, she wondered whether a tip to the guard might secure more comfortable quarters. It seemed hardly worth while to make a change before Pontarlier—where they had to go through the Customs—so she struggled out into the corridor, only to be joined by the Amors.
'There's an empty first in the next coach,' whispered the little man. 'Shall we park there?'
Catching his signal, his wife shook her head.
'Catch me. They'll make us pay.'
'Aw, be a sport. We're British, aren't we? We shouldn't stand for being treated worse than dead sardines.'
Mrs Amor still refused to venture, while Miss Loveapple's expression grew thoughtful. She prided herself on mental courage and common sense which assured her that it was ridiculous to be overcrowded while there were empty carriages on the train.
'I'm going to chance it,' she said. 'Won't you come?'
'Mustn't leave the missus,' declared the little man.
He helped her to collect her belongings, but he did not accompany her to the next coach. From that time onward, he did not want to be seen in Miss Loveapple's company. Her society was tainted with a dangerous element to the last person with whom she came in contact.
They returned to their crowded carriage and were affable to the French family, while Miss Loveapple congratulated herself on the undisturbed comfort of her first-class carriage. She decided to try and strike a bargain with the guard or ticket-collector, so that she might be allowed to remain there for the rest of the journey. The only official who noticed her, displayed an encouraging apathy regarding her trespass; he merely shrugged his shoulders and passed the door without making any protest.
Presently lights began to flash through the darkness and the train stopped at Pontarlier. Carrying her luggage, Miss Loveapple joined in the stampede to the Douane. She resolved to return boldly to the first-class carriage—hers by right of possession—and settle down for the night directly she had got through the tiresome formality of the Customs.
She arrived at an opportune moment, for the officials were piling up the evidence against an individual who had informed them he had nothing to declare. Although she had to wait for attention, her own suitcase was unopened and decorated with a chalk scrawl.
Everything seemed to promise a successful run up to Paris. She bought rolls and chocolate at the buffet and returned cheerfully to the train. It seemed to have grown longer during her absence, but she attributed this impression to her fancy. Locating her section by the French children's yellow berets at a carriage window, she climbed up the steep steps and reached the corridor.
She was immediately conscious of change. The first thing she noticed was her travel-coat, which she had left behind her in the first-class carriage, to stake out her claim. It was now crumpled up to a rough ball and bundled on the rack.
Stretching out her arm, she was about to pull it down, when she realised a more ominous circumstance. There was no longer any connecting passage leading to the next coach.
As she stared at the blank wooden partition which barred her way, the Frenchman explained.
'That portion has been shunted off and we've joined up with some full coaches. We shall be very crowded. No matter. It will be warmer to sleep.'
Miss Loveapple tried to accept his philosophy during a night of intense discomfort. The carriage swayed and the engine shrieked as the train plunged through the darkness. There were irritating stops at various stations, where they picked up more passengers. Although Amor prowled the length of the train, he could find no empty compartment where a lady could be stunned in privacy.
Presently, in spite of the close air and the pressure of bodies, Miss Loveapple fell asleep. She awoke to the light of dawn—grey and dirty as a rain-splashed pane. All around her was noise and movement as people prepared to leave the train. Paris lay at the end of the rails—only a short distance away.
It was September the twelfth.
Across the Channel, in London, Clarence Club greeted the date with savage satisfaction.
'To-morrow.' He sucked in his breath. 'I'll ring up Amy—to-morrow.'
IT has been stated that the success of Clarence Club's plan to incriminate Henry Watkins depended on the collaboration of his lady-friend—Amy. Although this introduction of the human element robbed it of claim to be a fool-proof proposition, he had no fear for his personal safety. Amy was not only ensnared by his glamour of and proven loyalty, but she was counting the days also to their reunion.
The fact that she had not changed her name to 'Aimée' was some indication of her quality. Born in the country, of respectable parents, she was a barmaid in the village inn when a commercial gentleman had suggested certain experiments with the cash-register. As she was lax and lazy, besides being very susceptible to masculine influence, she kept up the game until the shortage was discovered.
To give her her due, she was not grasping. She got nothing out of the affair herself, except an amorous adventure and the loss of her liberty for three months.
After she came out of prison, she drifted into a career to which she was temperamentally attracted; but although she was caught up in a vicious circle, she kept out of the reach of the law and merely acted as social hostess to her protectors. In this capacity, there was not much difference between her and the average housekeeper. Her habits were slovenly, but she was sober, honest and loyal to whichever member of the criminal class was paying her rent.
As Club was almost a professional Romeo, he felt sure of his power over Amy. She responded with her usual pliant amiability, when he told her that she must cease to visit him in prison, while he resigned his claim on her in favour of Henry Watkins. Although—to put it mildly—Henry was a very plain man, she made the best of a bad bargain and regarded it chiefly as a basis for future partnership with Club.
In order to preserve the illusion of a complete break between Amy and himself, Club would not meet her after his release from prison, but ostentatiously entertained other charmers. His private conversations with her were held over the telephone, when he gave her the instructions which were to control Watkins' alibi.
Radiant at the prospect of a speedy reunion, she thrilled at the sound of his whisper, when he called her up on the morning of the thirteenth of September.
'Do your stuff to-night,' he said. 'You've got to keep Watkins with you. Remember, the vital hours are from seven to nine, but hold him all night, in case the doctor won't swear to the time.'
'Seven to nine,' repeated Amy. She added, 'He'll want to go to the dogs.'
'Then dope his drink. You know.'
Amy knew. She was an expert mixer of drinks, and had often slipped a dose into the glass of an inconvenient visitor.
'All right,' she agreed. 'When will I see you again?'
'Not till it's safe. Keep away from me until I send for you. I'll post you that bit of jewellery to-night.'
Will there be—blood on it?'
'No—only a hair. Don't monkey with that.'
Amy's expression was thoughtful after she had rung off. She had no imagination, but she retained her common sense, as well as her health. It had taken a long time for a certain fact to soak in, but that morning she realised that she was about to become an accessory to murder.
'I don't like it,' she said to her Peke.
But since her lord and master had spoken—and it was her fate to be passive—she went to the kitchenette where she kept her tins and bottles, in order to check the essential ingredients.
It was late afternoon when Henry Watkins returned to the murky comfort of the untidy flat.
'Had a good day, duck?' she asked, as she unlaced his shoes.
'Did a demonstration in a house in Eaton Square. Rotten window-catches and two good Constables.'
'Good?' Her tone was sceptical. 'Policemen?'
'No, nothing nasty. Just pictures. Old Masters. Maybe I'll be seeing them again.'
While he rested his feet, Amy took stock of him, together with the situation. His hair was thin, his legs bandy, his eyes sharp; but he had certain domestic virtues. He would get up in the morning and make her an early cup of tea. He was kind to the Peke. His money was regular, instead of the shortage or surfeit which she had experienced with Club.
Life with Watkins included the privilege of marriage, combined with the advantage of the run-out. On the other hand, Club gave her romance, while his mesmeric whisper still rang in her ears.
Stifling a sigh, she perched herself on Watkins' knee and rubbed her cheek against his, with manufactured charm.
'My, you're pimply,' she said. 'Your face is like seedcake. Let me mix you a dose of salts, or I'll have to give up kissing you.'
Even while he protested, she had slipped away to the dark kitchenette. He heard the clink of a spoon against glass, followed by the hiss of a soda-water syphon, before she returned with a frothing glass.
'Only a quick one,' she explained. 'Drink it up, duck. You won't taste the salts.'
There was a glint in her eyes when he swallowed the last drop—a gleam which was half-fearful, half-triumphant. Whatever the outcome of her action, it was now too late to undo it.
As the time crawled on without any results from her dose, she began to grow anxious. Watkins showed no signs of drowsiness, but, on the contrary, became strung-up and irritable. The heat of the flat and the blare of hot music from the wireless seemed to worry him subconsciously, as much as the flies which were collecting for a last rally.
He kept wanting to go out to tea, and it was only with difficulty that she succeeded in side-tracking him from his intention. Presently the Peke created a welcome diversion by being sick, when Watkins proved, as usual, kind and helpful; but when he got up from stooping over the floor, she noticed that his forehead was beaded.
'You're sweating,' she said. 'Is anything the matter, duck?'
'Belly-pains,' he replied. 'Just a touch of wind...Here, I can't stick around. Fetch my shoes. We'll have another drink and go to the dogs.'
In a panic, she looked at her watch. The time was five minutes past seven—and Club had told her that the vital hours were from seven to nine. Moistening her lips nervously, she hurried into the kitchenette and switched on the light.
The next second she screamed like a steam-siren.
'It's not my fault,' she yelled. 'It's that girl again. She's moved the tins. I mixed it in the dark. It's an accident.'
His face green from a sudden internal twinge, Watkins staggered across to the kitchenette.
'What have you given me?' he gulped.
For answer, she held out a tin which bore the picture of a dying rodent on its label.
'It was the wrong tin,' she sobbed. 'Lay down, duck. Don't you worry. We'll put you right again.'
As the terrified man collapsed into a chair, he heard her shrieking to the landlady from the landing:
'Help! Fetch the doctor. Watkins has taken rat-poison.'
Soon the room was invaded by a rush of excited lodgers. The air was vibrant with voices—shouting into the telephone, giving orders and calling out advice against the blare of the wireless, which no one remembered to switch off. Mustard and water was mixed, only to be spilt on the carpet by the struggles of the panic-stricken Watkins.
When the confusion was at its height, the doctor arrived, complete with stomach pump. From that point onwards, the temperature of the audience scaled a fever-peak of baffled curiosity. Banished from the flat, the lodgers crowded on the landing, trying to reconstruct the painful and intimate drama which was being enacted on the other side of the door...
Towards half-past eight, the doctor expressed himself satisfied and left the house. Directly he had gone, Amy turned to the landlady and pressed a pound note into her hand.
'I've got to slip out,' she whispered. 'Sit by him and don't leave him for one minute until the proper nurse comes. He might collapse, so be ready with the brandy.'
Satisfied with her arrangements for the patient's safety, Amy put on her hat, powdered her nose and descended in the lift to the street level. Directly she was outside the block of flats, she hailed a taxi.
'Scotland Yard,' she said to the driver.
When she arrived at the building and stated that her business was both private and important, she had not to wait long before receiving official attention. This preferential treatment was due to the fact of her known friendship with certain gentlemen who were of interest to the police.
As she sat in the office, there was nothing of the traditional gangster's moll in her appearance. She did not chew gum, smoke a cigarette, or pull up a tight skirt, to cross her legs. Although her hair was ginger, she was minus the snap which is supposed to be characteristic of a Rufus. Her red lips were soft and sloppy—her eyes a milky-blue. She wore a well-cut black suit, a white organdie blouse and clean white gloves.
As he looked at her, the inspector was vaguely reminded of a rabbit he had kept in boyhood.
'Well, Amy,' he asked, 'who's your boyfriend? Club?'
'Was,' she replied indifferently. 'It's Henry Watkins.'
'So I've heard. How's the vacuum-cleaner trade?'
'Too bad. Better warn Henry it's time he makes a sale. He mustn't neglect business while he's getting familiar with the lay of people's houses.'
'You've nothing on him.'
'Not yet...Well, what have you come about?'
Amy began to smooth a wrinkle in her glove, to prove her nonchalance.
'I've come to alibi Henry Watkins,' she said defiantly. 'I could do it myself, only I couldn't trust the police to believe the truth, along of me being his friend. But at seven o'clock this evening he was took sick in the flat. A doctor's been working on him with a stomach-pump and he's turned inside-out.'
'Poison?' asked the inspector.
'I told him it was rat-poison. And I showed him an empty tin, just to fool him. But all I really gave him was a dose. Something harmless, to grip him a bit and make him vomit.'
'To cover the times, of course. Now I've got witnesses to prove he didn't do the murder.'
The inspector's face grew suddenly keen.
'What murder?' he asked sharply.
'The one Club is going to frame Henry for,' replied Amy vaguely. 'He's doing it himself. Some woman. She's coming back to an empty house and he's waiting there for her. But I've got my witnesses to prove—'
'What is the address of the house?'
Flustered by the Inspector's tone, she stared at him, while her eyes blurred with stupid distress.
'Law, I forgot all about her,' she faltered. 'All the time I kept thinking about how to alibi Henry—'
'What's the address?'
'I don't know. Oh, give me a minute. You've drove it from my head.'
As he looked at the soft quivering face, the Inspector managed to control his impatience. He knew that any attempt to jog Amy's memory would only add to her mental confusion. Lighting a cigarette, he placed it between her lips and then patted her paternally on the shoulder.
'Take your time,' he said. 'You'll remember it.'
He kept his eyes fixed on the clock as it ticked away those precious minutes in which the life of a woman might be saved. His fingers drummed on the table and then closed over the telephone, in readiness. He missed the actual moment when Amy's face was lit by a gleam of intelligence.
'Nineteen Madeira Crescent, North-West,' she declared triumphantly. 'I knew it would come back—'
'What time is the woman expected?' interrupted the Inspector.
'Well, her train got in at Victoria soon after seven. Club said she'd come by Tube and be there eight at the latest. I've covered the times and I've witnesses—'
The Inspector did not hear her. As he began to speak into the telephone, he glanced again at the clock.
The time was ten minutes past nine.
'THESE are the sewers of Paris,' reflected Miss Loveapple. 'I'm seeing life.'
She did not refer to the Public Utility Works of 'The Seventh Heaven,' but to the localised corruption which was on view to tourists for so many francs per head. In the company of some pleasant strangers, she was being escorted through the underworld of Paris.
This trip was different from the excursions organised by reputable agencies, to view the night life of the city. It was a specialised entertainment, calculated to create horror and repulsion, in order to fascinate through force of contrast. Here, well-fed prosperous bunnies could look through protective panes of glass and view the writhing of hungry serpents.
Although Miss Loveapple did her utmost to coerce her emotions, she could not succeed in forcing a thrill. She would not admit to defeat, but she was thoroughly tired out. The fact was that she had been too gluttonous in her attempt to swallow the French capital in a one-day mouthful. The soles of her feet ached, her head throbbed, her stomach was surprised—but she was chiefly conscious of disappointment and disgust.
When she arrived at Paris, at six in the morning, instead of driving to her hotel and getting some sleep, she had hung about the railway station, while waiting for the shops to open. As the waiting-rooms were being cleaned, there was not even a bench upon which she could rest. She had to pace the platforms and watch the arrival of early trains, with the unusual spectacle of workers perched on outside seats.
At the time, she was excited by her surroundings and exultant in her sense of liberty. It was happiness to be alone again, for she had shaken off the Amors. Before her stretched a whole day, and she determined not to waste a minute of it, but to absorb the Gallic atmosphere in educative spirit.
She had breakfast at a café, where she sat on the pavement and watched a sleepy dribble of Parisian life, instead of the advertised gay whirl. There was a spiteful wind which blew dust in her eyes as well as draping her ankles with dirty papers, but she would not go inside. This was an essential feature of French life—to eat in the open and tilt her hat over one eye as she smoked a cigarette.
Before long, she attracted some attention which she did not reciprocate. Literally shoving her pallid little admirer away, she went to Cook's office and booked as many escorted excursions as she could cram into her limited time.
The rest of the day was spent in an orgy of sight-seeing. She craned her neck to stare at the outside of famous buildings—meekly followed the flock through picture galleries and museums—bought picture postcards with selective economy and wrote down the names of all the celebrated persons mentioned by the guide. Thanks to her clear brain, she was able to escape the average tourist's jumble of impressions, but when she got back to her hotel, she felt that she had triumphantly sustained a severe mental and physical strain.
She was pleasant to the Amors when she met them after dinner, in the dingy restaurant of the hotel.
'Law, you do look tired,' said Mrs Amor.
'But you should see the others,' Miss Loveapple told her. 'Ask me what I've not seen.'
'Did you go with a party?'
'Yes. I'd rather wander alone but so many Frenchmen want to teach me English.'
The couple exchanged glances. 'Would you think it a liberty if we asked you to come to the Folies Bergères with us tonight?' asked the little man humbly. 'That's a show you mustn't miss, if you can stand some sauce.'
Miss Loveapple hesitated.
'I'd like to be able to say afterwards I had gone,' she confessed, 'but I've got to see the night life of Paris. Cook is doing a tour. I can't telescope the two.'
'Yes, you can,' Amor told her. 'We'll show you the real thing later.'
Miss Loveapple did not enjoy the performance at the Folies. The atmosphere was very heated and the show annoyed her. She grew so bored by the posturing of a profile nude that she longed for the artiste to drop her scarf, just to break the monotony.
'I always get tired of looking at the same view,' she complained.
When they were outside the theatre again, she determined to call it a day. She shook her head when Amor pointed to a scarlet motor-coach which bore the alluring notice 'Route de l'Enfers.'
'I'm going back to bed,' she explained.
'You won't sleep,' he said. 'The noise is chronic. The traffic will be stopped when we get back.'
She considered his argument, for although overtired, she was too excited to feel sleepy. As she was not leaving Paris until the afternoon, she could stay in bed all the next morning, instead of buying a hat. Her ambition to patronise Lady Pontypool's milliner had faded from too many frank reflections of her black satin suit in Parisian shop windows.
While she hesitated, the conductor of the Infernal Tour joined them. Like the degenerate-looking driver, he wore a smart white linen coat and cap, with bands of black patent leather. He captivated Miss Loveapple by the engaging wickedness of his smile. Speaking English as perfectly as he swore in the argot of the gutter, he suggested a gallant little dare-devil who had graduated in a superior social circle.
'Would you like to be a good sport?' he asked her. 'We can't start this tour without a minimum number, or we'll run it at a loss. There are some charming people so desperately keen to visit the damned. Of course, I can see you are not attracted by vice.'
'No,' she agreed, 'I hardly suggest consumption and white camellias, do I?'
He looked at her with genuine admiration.
'You make me think of English roses and Worthington ale,' he said. 'Please be British and do any old thing once.'
By this time, the other prospective clients had joined the group. They made an attractive Anglo-American foursome—a young English married couple and a pretty American girl with her lover. The women wore evening-dress under short fur coats and the men were in dinner-suits.
Miss Loveapple liked them at sight. They were such a refreshing change after the uncongenial Amors that she did not like to disappoint them. While she was chatting to them and exchanging impressions, some other tourists entered the coach, so that she need not have stayed; but by then, she was beginning to enjoy the adventure.
At first she felt the stirring of romance as they drove through a darkness pricked with the crocus-gold of gas-lamps. Her thoughts turned confusedly to the Orient—to lilies and lanterns and strange sweet music. She remembered Buckingham and wished he were beside her as she noticed that the American girl and her lover were holding hands.
As the tour continued, however, her mood was clouded by the chill of disillusionment, so that she could not join in her companions' light-hearted enjoyment. The presentment of evil seemed stunted and stale in its externals. She grew jaded by the heat, the standing and the poisonous air of the various dens they visited. They spent a long time in a specially fetid booth where they were entertained by some curious singing and dancing—a good part, or rather, a bad part of which was lost upon them.
They supped at a Chinese restaurant on chop-suey, sharks' fins, boodle, chicken with pineapple and tea flavoured with chrysanthemum buds. While they were eating, the conductor came to their table, to make an announcement.
'We are next going to present our crowning thrill. We will show you an opium-den. In the raw...but first, I must give you a warning. The ladies must not lose sight of the gentlemen, or let themselves be decoyed away by any one for a single second.'
'Why?' asked the American girl.
The merest flicker of a wink passed between the conductor and one of the young men.
'Shall I?' asked the conductor. 'Or will it scare them too much.'
'No, give them the works,' decided the youth. 'They ought to be on guard. Tell them.'
'All right,' grinned the conductor. 'Some years ago, a young Englishman and his sister did this tour—but not with us. They saw the shows, fed and all the rest. Just like you. In fact, it might have been to-night. Then, when they were in the opium-den, the chap was called to the door to see a bloke who had some fresh thrill to suggest. He turned back, to find the room empty. His sister had gone.'
'Where?' asked Miss Loveapple.
'The Devil alone knows. The boy went off his rocker. He rushed from room to room. He found nobody. Then he called in the police. They raided the place. But they never found her...In time, the police were hypnotised to believe that the English girl was a legend. For she was never seen again.'
'What became of her?'
'Better not think.'
Miss Loveapple burst out laughing.
'Then you're for it, conductor,' she said. 'I'm going to hook on to you and not let you out of my sight for a minute. My eyes will be fixed on the white coat. You see, I've got to be back in England to-morrow, because I have some important business.'
The Amors exchanged crafty glances. They guessed the nature of that mission which was to restore the jewels to Lady Pontypool.
Every one started to the opium-den in a mood of riotous scepticism; but when they peeped around the corner into a low and tenebrous room, they were not prepared for the horror which awaited them. A few flickering lights dimly revealed filthy couches on which was dumped bundles of rubbish, as though awaiting the dust-cart. One with mottled pale-blue skin drawn tightly over a bony face, looked like a corpse long overdue for burial; the features of another were shapeless and yellowed, like a wax doll which had been left in the sun.
The air was laden with compound odours which united in one overpowering reek; the steam-laundry of stewing humanity; food—dead food: sanitation—lack of sanitation: mice, gas, bhang, betel-nut and the sickly-sweet stench of opium.
The only sound was a continuous broken hiss, like the last bubbles of air from leaking lungs.
The silence was broken by the American girl.
'Let's go.' Her voice held a hysterical note. 'I hate this place.'
As they all followed her outside, the young men began to laugh.
'Betty is scared,' said the Englishman. 'We'd better come clean...Listen, you folks. Everything you've seen to-night is fake, from beginning to end. It's all got up specially for tourists. That yarn about the lost girl is twin to the Spanish Prisoner tale. All fake.'
He clapped the conductor on the shoulder.
'Tell them what you told me,' he urged. 'Tell them they've been had.'
THE conductor took no notice of the appeal beyond a cynical grin. Beckoning his patrons to surround him, he made a little speech.
'Ladies and gentlemen, the tour is now finished. I hope you will profit by its moral and that I have not failed you as your courier to the Underworld. I hope also that we shall not meet again—in Hell. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you, very much.'
As his audience began to straggle towards the motor-coach, he called them back.
'One minute, ladies and gentlemen. Although I am no longer in your employment, I am still at your service. Perhaps you would like to visit a warehouse and see some genuine Chinese embroideries? Under the hat, they are smuggled goods, so you will not be stung.'
Miss Loveapple was longing to return to her hotel, but the rest of the tourists swallowed the bait. The girls were both radiant at the chance of a bargain and tried to make her share their enthusiasm.
'We shall get marvellous kimonos and house-coats for the half of nothing,' they told her.
'There's duty,' snapped Miss Loveapple.
'No,' interrupted the conductor, 'the Chink will put down on your bill only half of what you pay. He'll mark it damaged goods.'
'Then he can't be a genuine Chinese,' said Miss Loveapple. 'They're an honest race.'
He stared at her before he turned to the rest of the party.
'I am afraid,' he said, 'that I shall have to ask you to walk, as the streets are too narrow for the char-à-banc. But it is not far. After me, ladies and gentlemen.'
Snapping his fingers behind him, as a signal for them to follow, he led them through a tangle of mean streets and a network of small courts. The party walked after him blindly, except Miss Loveapple who memorised the turnings with instinctive caution.
'There's going to be no lost girl story told about me,' she decided.
Just behind her, the Anglo-American foursome was discussing the opium-den.
'Anyhow, the bloke himself told us it was all fake,' said the Englishman. 'And that was my own opinion. You could only see two faces distinctly. The blue and the yellow. They could easily be made up to look like that, in the dim light. Remember, we were only invited to peep. We were not allowed to go in and investigate.'
'Who'd want to?' asked the American girl. 'One whiff of that poison would shrivel a skunk. Of course, it was a fake. All the other figures looked like corpses, because they were not alive. They were dummies.'
'I agree the whole show could be faked quite easily,' argued her lover. 'At the same time, it would be cheaper and simpler to give us a glimpse of the genuine thing. I am sure it was that. The conductor was lying because he didn't want the women scared.'
Miss Loveapple listened vaguely to the argument which was interrupted by their arrival at the warehouse. After going through a door in an otherwise blank wall, they scaled a ladder-like stair, to reach a vast upper room. It was low ceilinged and of irregular shape, but it was impossible to visualise it clearly or to see more than a few yards in any direction, owing to the profusion of screens, curtains and tall cabinets which blocked the view.
The dim lighting came from grape-blue paper lanterns, decorated with green devices, which imparted an illusion of moonlight. There was no ventilation and the air was heavy with the scent of aromatic odours, perfumes and woods. Everywhere was a wealth of beautiful merchandise; red lacquer furniture, rolls of choice carpets and snowy matting, silken hangings and embroideries, porcelain tea-cups, bulbs in whose shrivelled hearts lay the promise of rare lilies.
Owing to the congestion, the party was immediately split up into couples and lonesome prowlers in search of a bargain, so that Miss Loveapple failed to notice that they were not a complete muster. After a rapid whisper to his wife, Amor had stayed behind to talk to the degenerate-looking driver of the motor-coach.
Bored and footsore, Miss Loveapple prayed for the moment of release, when she could return to her hotel. That wish was continually frustrated by the enthusiasm and hesitation of the others. They were like butterflies who could not settle on any flower, because there were too many blooms. A corpulent Chinese who owned the warehouse waited for them to make a choice with Oriental calm, while his assistants seemed to enter into the spirit of the game.
They gave the impression of being one man only, unless they chanced to appear together, as they drifted behind screens, always to emerge with fresh goods, as though they were incarnations of the spirit of temptation.
Wherever she looked, Miss Loveapple saw a reproduction of the dragon, either in silk, or tinsel or paint. As she gazed, she was haunted by a memory. The sense of familiarity became so strong that she began to wonder whether she had actually been a porcelain princess in some former life.
She burst out laughing when she realised the explanation. The place really reminded her of the stage of some Hippodrome or Coliseum, where a so-called Oriental conjurer would flit behind a screen for one second and then reappear in the form of a dancing girl, whirling around a bowl of fire.
It was magic—but magic worked through the agency of a screen.
Miss Loveapple searched for the conductor and fixed her eyes on his white coat.
'If I lose sight of him for a moment,' she told herself, 'he'll turn into a rabbit.'
As the time crawled slowly away, she began to near the limit of her endurance. While she had refused to let herself be affected by the organised thrill of the opium-den, the cumulative impression of the tour weighed heavily on her mind. Flashes from mean court and alley returned to crowd her memory; the stiff lace of a paralysed beggar, like a slab of dead fish—the blotched features and bloated body of a brandy-soaked woman—a tipsy girl in her teens, of the educated classes, dancing in a café.
These horrors were real and disconnected from any fraudulent agency which catered for the entertainment of tourists. Because fatigue had reduced her to a supersensitive condition, she was filled with sudden loathing of her surroundings. She felt that she had left all cleanliness and decency behind her and passed the confines of Law and Civilization to the blackness of chaos, brooded over by the lunatic brain of a drugged devil.
She shook off her mood when the pretty American spoke to her.
'Wish we could get back to the hotel. I want a shower. A bug's biting me.'
The words made Miss Loveapple realise that she, too, had picked up a flea.
'Same here,' she said, rubbing her leg. 'Can't you speed up your friends?'
But the young English couple were pricing lumps of amber and refused to be rushed. In her impatience Miss Loveapple began to assert her independence.
'I'm not going to be kept hanging about here, to suit other people's whims. I shall go back to my hotel. If I can't pick up a taxi, I shall walk.'
'Can you find your way?' asked the American girl.
'Oh, yes, I've a good bump of locality.'
'I do admire your British calm. You rarely hear of an Englishwoman losing her head.'
Secretly conscious of her racial superiority over the rest of the world, Miss Loveapple responded with the usual deceptive nonchalance.
'Oh, we manage to muddle through somehow.'
While she was talking, she kept her eyes fixed automatically on the conductor's white coat. He yawned as he glanced at his watch before speaking to her.
'Nothing here to tempt you, madam?'
'No,' she replied. 'I don't believe in something for nothing. There's bound to be a catch. This Chinese has to make the commissions he must pay away.'
'You mean I get a rake-off. Well, I don't work overtime for my health.'
At that moment Mrs Amor, who had dogged Miss Loveapple persistently, attracted her attention to a panel of stiff blue silk, embroidered with lotus-flowers.
'Wouldn't this make a lovely centre for a bridal bedspread?'
Miss Loveapple held it against the light and shook her head.
'It's rotten,' she said. 'Can't you see the pin-holes?'
'Perhaps it's an antique...Oh, where's our conductor?'
Miss Loveapple realised that she had forgotten her resolution not to lose sight of her guide. She darted around the screen and picked up the white coat as it disappeared behind a curtain.
'Where is he gone?' she asked.
'He's by the door,' replied Mrs Amor. 'Look, he's beckoning us to follow. You can't blame the poor bloke. He has to do this every night, bath night and all.'
As she spoke, the conductor snapped his fingers behind him in the familiar signal, before he went out of the warehouse.
'Where are the others?' asked Miss Loveapple.
'I expect they've gone on. He's waiting for us.'
At that moment, Miss Loveapple heard a girl's laughter.
'No, they're still here,' she said. 'I must tell them we are going. Wait here for me.'
She hurried in the direction of the voices, slipping behind screens and hanging until she reached an alcove where a girl and a man were bargaining with a Chinese salesman.
'Hurry up,' she called. 'We're going—Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you belonged to my party.'
As she looked at the surprised faces of the strangers, she had her first prick of discomfort. It seemed hopeless to continue her search for the Anglo-American foursome in such a confusing place, especially as the chances were that they had gone on ahead. It was true that she had talked about returning alone to her hotel; but since she had memorised the turnings of the network of streets, her mind had grown weary and she was no longer confident.
'I must follow the conductor,' she decided.
There was no trace of him when she left the warehouse and stared down the length of a dark malodorous passage. It was dimly-lit, at its farthest end by a naked gas jet, from which flared a long bluish flame. The boards were rotten, the skirting nibbled by mice and the scaling plaster walls covered with scribbles.
She gave a shudder of repulsion.
'What a filthy hole,' she thought. 'Why doesn't the wretched man wait for me?'
As Mrs Amor had also disappeared, she began to run in an effort to catch her up. When she reached the bend and saw only a second passage which twisted out of sight, she felt another pang of definite uneasiness. In spite of her common sense, she had the sensation of being lured away from the safety of her base. At that moment, she was stranded, for she had lost both the conductor and the other tourists.
As she paused, through the rusty grating of a small window set high in the wall, she caught a glimpse of a gibbous moon. Her superstition made her fear and distrust it vaguely, whenever it was on the wane. It seemed a warning—a sign to her of coming disaster.
She tried to justify the American girl's compliment and keep her head as she weighed the possibility of some ambushed disaster. Even if she accepted the official explanation of faked thrills and a 'lost girl' fable, she had to face the fact that an unprotected woman who explored the Underworld of any large city, ran a grave risk. She had often read of crimes committed for the sake of only a few pounds.
'I'll go back to the warehouse,' she decided. 'There must be other decent people there who'll have to get back to their hotels.'
She was turning to retrace her steps, when she heard a faint sound in the distance. Someone was calling her by name.
In the circumstances, the summons was nearly as welcome as an Archangel's trumpet. Shouting to announce her coming, she dashed down the passage and rounded the bend. She was just in time to see Mrs Amor's head pop up from the well of a dilapidated stairhead.
'Come on,' she cried. 'We're all waiting for you. You're holding us up.'
As she clattered—like an overgrown schoolgirl—down the rotten treads, Miss Loveapple could see the conductor's white coat glimmering through the gloom below. His back was turned towards her, but when she reached the bottom, he swung round, with both arms upraised, as though he were driving off at golf.
Something damp and heavy—suggestive of a pot-pudding tied in a cloth—struck her head and she sat down heavily, her back propped against the wall.
Before she lost consciousness, she had a moment of overpowering repulsion and shock. Instead of the engaging grin of the little conductor, she saw Amor's dark face, stretched and contorted by concentrated effort.
In that second of revelation, she felt as though a drain had suddenly burst before her, to liberate a sewer-rat...
Amor snatched up the jewel-case and thrust it into his wife's hands.
'Quick,' he commanded. 'Jump a taxi. I'll join you at the Gare du Nord.'
She had barely unbarred the door when he called her back.
'Hell, she's not half a lump. Help me lay her outside—curse her.'
While they were dragging and bumping Miss Loveapple over the cobbles, she was being missed in the warehouse. As the conductor finished checking his invoices with the spurious Chinese proprietor, he remembered her thrust about the native honesty of the celestial race.
'Wish he was a Chink, instead of this twister,' he thought.
When he returned to his patrons, he looked around for her.
'Where is the English rose?' he asked.
'Gone back to her hotel,' replied the pretty American.
'Without saying "good-bye" to me. But she'll come to no harm...That lady almost makes me wish for family life...Too late now. Too many women. I'm damned eternally.'
With a change of tone, he added, 'I'm not responsible for you any longer. But if you come with me now, I will take you to the cab-rank.'
A little later, he entered his own respectable little flat, hugged his tiny wife and rubbed the baby's gums.
'Tooth through yet?' he asked. 'By gosh, I'd a champion lot of chumps to-night. Only one didn't fall. She was jannock. Colour like a rose and big without a lump of fat...Nay, don't clout me. I didn't pinch her.'
With an apron tied over his smart suit, the happy little man sat down to supper with his loving wife...
More or less unconscious, Miss Loveapple lay on the filthy flags of a small courtyard. At intervals she awoke to glimpses of a nightmare environment. A jagged line of bottles stuck out on a high wall. A protracted bottle-party and a cat-fight—both conducted in an unfamiliar argot. A creeping cold, an unclean smell—the throb of her broken head.
The first pallid gleam of dawn was lighting the sky, when she opened her eyes to welcome a rescue party in the shape of a sweeper in a blouse and a policeman. They were talking together in low, excited voices.
As the official greeted her return to consciousness with a torrent of questions, she proved her common sense in a crisis. Her own French was that of the ordinary well-educated girl, but lacked the idiom of the native. Moreover the situation was confused while her head was unequal to a strain.
As she sat up, everything began to whirl around her; but before she fainted she managed to utter, clearly and firmly, two magic words.
ON the thirteenth of September, Elsie awoke early and nipped the old leaf off the calendar. Although she had been looking forward to this date when Miss Loveapple was due to return to England, her happiness was diluted with indecision. Throughout a broken night, whenever she thought of her mistress who was in the Calais train she kept reviewing her problem.
To go—or not to go to London.
Her own choice was to stay at home and get the house ready, at her leisure; but whenever she resolved to take the easier course, her conscience accused her of cowardice. She shrank from the idea of Miss Loveapple returning to a dark and empty house, with no one to answer the bell and send strange men away.
Goaded by her recollection of the gloomy crescent at nightfall, she spent the morning in a frantic rush of work, to which her strength was unequal. Although she knew that she had achieved only what Miss Loveapple called 'A lick and a promise,' she was shaking from exhaustion, when she tore off her overall and hurried across the Green.
The Pitts lived in a large Georgian house, on the outskirts of the village. The eldest daughter, Agatha, was mowing the front lawn, when she heard the squeak of the gate and looked up to see Elsie. Contrary to her usual high standard of neatness, the girl looked both dirty and untidy, as though she were taking advantage of the absence of authority.
'Would you like to invite two young gentlemen to stay with you to-night?' asked Elsie gaily.
Unfortunately her effort to strike a light note annoyed Miss Pitt.
'Are you proposing to do me a favour?' she asked stiffly. 'If so, I am in no need of one, thank you.'
'Oh, no, miss,' Elsie assured her quickly. 'Only Madam comes home to-night and I think I ought to be at the London house to see her in and do for her, if you would kindly look after our boys.'
Agatha Pitt did not stop to consider the merits of the case. All she knew was that the proposed guests would cause trouble with her own inhospitable dogs, while she did not care sufficiently for Elsie to sacrifice her own peace.
'Does Miss Loveapple expect you?' she asked.
'No, but I think it would be a nice surprise.'
'Well, Elsie, you'll have to surprise her at the Pond House. I can't make myself responsible for Scottie and David. I have an engagement.'
Without another glance at the girl, Agatha Pitt began to make the grass fly again in a furious green hail, in proof that the palaver was ended.
As a matter of fact, Elsie was actually relieved by the decision which relieved her from worry. She walked slowly back to the Pond House, for she had time in hand, now that the matter had passed beyond her control. There was no one besides Miss Pitt to whom she could entrust the pets and she could not dream of leaving them alone, during the night.
Unfortunately, her mind had not the fixity of the Pole Star. Before an hour had passed, she was reduced again to a state of mental flux. The reminder that she must be ready to catch the three-fifty-five train, in case of need, drove her on to sweep and polish at high pressure. When she broke off in order to change, she poked out her tongue at the telephone.
'Ring your blinking bell off,' she told it. 'I'm not coming down wet, to answer you...'
While Elsie was splashing in her bath, Miss Loveapple was having her second interview with the Paris representative of Thomas Cook. This took place in her bedroom, as the hotel had no public rooms. In any case, she had to remain in bed, by order of the doctor. He had strapped up her forehead and prescribed rest for the shock of her injury, while he made a tactful reference to the fact that she had sat down with considerable force.
'No, you must not get up. You will be sitting in the train to-morrow. It is better for you to lie on your side, all the time, to relieve all pressure.'
It was mental torture to Miss Loveapple to submit to passive treatment. Her rebellion was inflamed after the visit of Cook's agent, because he brought with him her lost passport and railway tickets.
'The case was found in an alley, where they had thrown it,' he told her. 'They'd cleaned it out, but they left these. Probably they were nervous of using the tickets, in case their serial numbers should be known. Lucky they left your passport. That might cause trouble if it got into undesirable hands. But they appear to be only small pikers.'
'You should have seen them,' agreed Miss Loveapple. 'But now that I have my passport, there's nothing to stop me making a dash to get back to London, to-night. I have an important deal to put through tomorrow morning.'
She hammered the point, but Cook's agent finally dissuaded her with the argument that she would not be in a fit state to transact business. After he had made all the arrangements for her return on the fourteenth, she asked him to put through two telephone calls to England.
The first was to her bank to guarantee her financial status and arrange the cover for her loan; the second, to Mr Lemon, the house-agent, to ask him to deputise for her in the interview with Major Brand.
'Get in your message, before he starts talking,' she advised.
She grinned as she lay and listened while the telephone barked and spluttered until Cook's agent ruthlessly rang off.
'Just telling me of his first visit to Paris,' he said. 'I think that covers everything. Au revoir.'
As he was going out of the room, Miss Loveapple called him back.
'I wonder if you would put through another call,' she asked. 'It's to my home. I'll take it myself.'
She had made the decision after losing a stiff fight with her economical instinct. At first, she was relieved when the operator reported that there was no reply from the Pond House.
'My maid must be out,' she said. 'Please wait. I think I should let her know. Will you get me another number?'
Successful in his second attempt, the agent handed her the receiver and hurried from the bedroom, before she could think of another request.
Miss Loveapple glanced around the conventional dingy hotel apartment, as she heard Mrs Bosanquet's gruff voice at the other end of the line. At that moment, she realized the modern miracle which had linked her up with an English Rectory, which could only be reached by mounting two long flights of steps.
'Miss Loveapple speaking from Paris,' she said importantly. 'I've just rung up Elsie, but got no reply. Would you tell her that I'm cutting out London and returning direct to the Pond House, to-morrow afternoon, usual train. The fourteenth. Got that? Sorry to bother you...Oh, you might tell her I'm stopping in Paris to—to buy a hat.'
Mrs Bosanquet repeated her message in curt business style. 'It's my Mother's Meeting,' she added reproachfully.
'How should I know that, since you refuse to acknowledge Scottie and David?'
Mrs Bosanquet was chuckling as she, in her turn, rang up the Pond House, from a confused feeling that there must be more virtue in a local call. When she got no answer, she swore briefly, but fervently. Then she glanced at her watch and decided that there was time for a personal delivery of the message before her Meeting.
Since she was strictly conscientious—and her hat was on already, she set out immediately for the Pond House and reached it, just as Elsie finished her toilet. She was wearing the pale banana-yellow frock she had bought for the Fête and she stood before the glass, approving her reflection, when she heard the prolonged peal of the front door-bell.
Although her instinct was to answer it, she shrank back guiltily from the window and stood, listening. Mrs Bosanquet rang again and knocked loudly. She knew that the house could not be empty, because she could hear Scottie barking in the hall. As she turned away, however, she looked up at the windows and was puzzled to notice that all were fastened, in spite of the fine afternoon.
Peeping between the folds of the curtains, Elsie watched her until she was out of sight. Her heart was pounding and her throat dry, when she crept down the stairs and assured herself that she had left sufficient food and drink for the animals.
'Suppose the house catches fire,' she thought miserably.
Even while she acted, she could not be sure in which direction lay her duty. Actually, she was deserting her post, although it was to serve her mistress. It was an additional complication that she had to catch the train which left at five minutes to four, in order to collect the key of No. 19 Madeira Crescent, before the house-agent's office closed.
The early start left her with time to kill in London, which could be spent more profitably at the Pond House.
'I'll get everything ready for her meal,' she planned. 'I can leave it in the kitchen and go up and wait in the hall in the dark. When I hear her key, I'll surprise her...And if she's snooty with me. I'll go back to Scottie and David by the mid-night train. I won't mind then. She'll have had her welcome and I shall know she's safe in.'
Slightly reassured by the thought that she was leaving open one way of retreat, she kissed the pets passionately before she stole from the house, by the back entrance.
She had nearly reached the station, when Agatha Pitt—who was returning from the golf-course stopped her car to shout to Mrs Bosanquet.
'You look in a hurry. Mother's Meeting? I'll run you to the foot of the church steps.'
The Rector's wife gladly accepted the offer of a lift. On the way towards the Rectory, she told Miss Pitt about Miss Loveapple's message and her own failure to inform Elsie. Agatha listened with interest then, in her turn, related the story of the girl's morning visit to her house.
'Depend on it,' she remarked, 'she's cut loose and gone up to London on the sly. She'll get it in the neck when Miss Loveapple hears about it. Good thing, too. That's a situation I never like—a mistress dominated by her maid. She'll probably leave her all her money.'
To her surprise, Mrs Bosanquet did not share her satisfaction. Her grim face was thoughtful as she spoke to Miss Pitt.
'When Elsie finds out that Miss Loveapple is not coming tonight, she may try to save her face by coming back on the midnight train. She's a respectable girl, and she may be annoyed by rough characters. You must go after her at once and stop her.'
Miss Pitt grimaced as she glanced at her wrist.
'Too late,' she said. 'It's five to four already.'
'I make it twelve to four,' Mrs Bosanquet told her.
'You're slow. But I'll see if I can overtake her. It's the Will of Allah. It all depends on whose watch is right.'
As the Rector's wife stood and watched the car out of sight, her face was grave. Although she was a strict disciplinarian, she believed in Elsie's devotion to Miss Loveapple which absolved her from Miss Pitt's suspicion of a stolen jaunt.
'She's lost her head,' she reflected. 'Let's hope she'll lose nothing else.'
She was thinking of a congenial situation, for, in her opinion, Elsie was not every one's choice. As she toiled up the long flights of steps, which Miss Loveapple had skipped over so lightly in her telephone call, her fingers sought the stiff bow of her hat-strings, as though for reassurance.
The mothers came. The mothers went. Mrs Bosanquet lectured them and gave them tea—forgetting about Elsie. Miss Pitt returned from her mission and played clock-golf with her father, before dinner. As the light faded from the sky, the cat and dog inside the Pond House licked their plates clean, as a preliminary to retiring to their beds...
It grew dark earlier up in London and particularly inside No. 19 Madeira Crescent, since all the blinds and curtains were drawn. The air was hot and stagnant—the atmosphere tense from the strain of protracted vigil. Because of the lack of traffic each sound assumed a disproportionate significance. Footsteps seemed to move about in the basement, as though a spectral cook had returned to the scene of her earthly activities. There was a faint clink which might have been caused by china—a creak of boards in the distance—a tapping which simulated the drip of water.
As he crouched in the darkness—waiting—Clarence Club worked himself to a fever of suppressed excitement. His passion for revenge was about to be consummated. When he struck his blow it would not be a woman who crumpled up on the ground, but his enemy—Henry Watkins. Afterwards, he could read about the tragedy in the papers and admire the course of English justice, as administered by the Law.
So far, everything had gone without a hitch. He could swear no one had observed him when he swarmed up a water-pipe to the balcony of a back window, on the first floor. The tradesmen's alley was deserted—he had seen no glimmer of light—heard no whisper.
He had only to listen for the scrape of a key in the front door lock and then to steal towards the bottom of the stairs, where a glow of light from the street fell through the transom, on to the wall.
The shadow thrown upon this illuminated patch would be the signal for him to strike, so that his victim would be taken by surprise and slump to the ground, without a struggle or scream.
It seemed to him that he waited for an unduly long time, but he dared not strike a match to look at his watch. Although the Crescent was so silent and withdrawn from the traffic of the main street, he had to remember the presence of people in the houses on either side. Someone outside in the garden might notice the faint thread of light through a chink of a curtain.
He told himself that the train was late—or his victim had stopped at some place, to get a meal. Sooner or later, she was bound to enter the house. His part was to listen and wait...
It was not until his patience was nearly exhausted, that he heard a sound from the hall below him. It was the closing of the front door. She had taken him unawares, for he had missed her footsteps on the pavement, as well as the thud of her suitcase when she dumped it down, in order to free both her hands.
A thin line of foam frothed round his lips as he realized that the moment of his revenge had come. Through the mist which clouded his eyes, he saw a distorted shadow of a head thrown upon the wall. His heart leaped wildly as he gripped the iron poker tighter before he swung it high, taking aim at the dim shape below him in the hall.
As he heard the crash of its fall and felt its force jarring the muscles of his arm, a throb of triumph surged over him.
With that blow, he had just killed a man—a man who would continue to walk and talk, as though he were still alive.
MISS LOVEAPPLE returned to England on the fourteenth of September.
As she sat in the train on her way from Paris to Calais, her gloom contrasted sharply with the radiant mood in which she had started her holiday. Her confident bearing had gone, and—like a gallant, gilded frigate, battered by a gale—she bore the marks of her recent ordeal in her deteriorated appearance.
The day was close, but she wore her camel-hair coat to conceal the dilapidation of the black satin suit. It could not hide the ladders in her stockings, but she had sunk to a level where she ceased to worry over personal trifles. Her pale face and heavy eyes betrayed a thumping head, while a strip of plaster covered a superficial cut on her forehead.
Far worse than her physical plight was her bewilderment of spirit. She had suffered disappointment—an unnerving episode—financial loss. But what hurt most was the knowledge that, for the first time in her life, her luck had utterly deserted her.
She could not understand its failure. As she looked at the dun fields and advertisement boards flashing past the window, she tried to localise the source of her bad fortune.
'It began in London,' she decided, 'when I left my attaché-case behind me and had to borrow Lady Pontypool's jewel-case.'
But the solution did not satisfy her, since it failed to account for a holiday which was substandard in every particular. A bad start had been followed by a nightmare train journey and the complication of personal entanglements.
She told herself that since she had been so careless as to expose the coronet on the jewel-case, the crooks were bound to try and snatch it. It was an unpleasant episode, but—granted that it was inevitable—it would have been far better if it happened that day up at the Kleine Scheidegg. She would have been spared the sordid horror of the Paris adventure and it would not have involved a change of her plans.
Cook would have arranged for her return from Grindelwald, so that she could have arrived in London, on the evening of the thirteenth of September, in time to keep her appointment with Major Brand. By now, however, Mr Lemon would have concluded the sale of her furniture and she had wasted a golden opportunity to prove the triumph of the personal element.
'I did my best,' she thought. 'I left nothing to chance. I even risked losing my train, to buy white heather.'
Her eyes narrowed as she traced back the convolutions of her fortune. The mischief was due to the fact that, during her last days in Switzerland, she had been protected unconsciously by a bodyguard of women. By postponing the attack to her Paris visit, these good people had upset her time-table at the final minute, and thus ruined her carefully-planned schedule.
If she had met them for the first time in Grindelwald, at the hotel, they would have remained strangers. That night in the Calais-Interlaken express had been the beginning of a general intimacy for which Viva had been responsible. Had Viva been absent—and unable to display her unselfish disposition—the Furses would have passed her carriage, when they made their tour of the train, in search of a corner seat.
Viva's presence there was accounted for by the fact that she had attached herself to Miss Loveapple, whom, she professed to regard as a lucky mascot. Yet, in the ordinary course of events, they should not have met, since Miss Loveapple's seat was booked in the Pullman coach, while Viva was in the end carriage. Their encounter was the result of her own last-minute rush to catch the train.
Miss Loveapple unwound the last loops of the coil. 'Can you beat that?' she asked herself. 'My bad luck started with the white heather.'
To her surprise, she began to laugh. Then she noticed that the train was getting near the coast. The bushes straining in the wind and the sway of the telegraph wires indicated a rough crossing. As she watched the gulls swooping overhead and the drift of blown sand, her thoughts flew ahead to No. 19 Madeira Crescent, N.W.
It was strange to think that it was hers no longer. She did not regret it but she was perplexed by minor worries. While she resolved to write to Mrs Brand—requesting the return of her attaché-case—she wondered whether she could ask for David's and Scottie's toys to be included in the parcel. They were chiefly rubber articles—the worse for teeth—and were left in the pets' playrooms at the top of the London house.
'Perhaps not,' she decided reluctantly, as she thought of Buckingham's criticism. 'They might fancy I was peculiar.'
While she frowned over her problem, the sinister element had already been routed from the atmosphere of No. 19 Madeira Crescent by the invasion of youth. The Brand family had taken possession of their new house. A tribe of children yelled like savages in their excitement as they galloped up and down stairs, exploring their domain from basement to attic.
When they reached the top storey and discovered the large rooms—fitted with rubber flooring, dangling rope-ladders and other devices for the exercise of two confined animals—they took instant possession of their kingdom. The eldest boy shouted the news to his mother, who was in the hall. He had heard his parents discuss Miss Loveapple—but not by name—so his gratitude was expressed in a libel.
'Mum, the blessed spinster lady has left us her children's toys.'
Unconscious of the wreck of her reputation, Miss Loveapple boarded the Channel steamer. Her mood was still bleak, although the salty air revived her as she leaned over the side of the boat and watched the bubbles of foam below. The sky was clouded, but, at intervals, gleams of light burst through and picked out green patches amid the rolling sea.
Swaying with every lurch of the vessel, she suddenly recalled the young man who had made an appointment to demonstrate his vacuum-cleaner early that morning. By then, the poor fellow had suffered a disappointment. It was an unpleasant reminder that she had let him down, because, in spite of his nonchalance, she was sure that he was one of life's failures. Although in the altered circumstances she could not have bought a vacuum cleaner, she could have paid him for his services.
'I wish I could send him something to compensate for the loss of his time,' she thought. 'But I don't know what I did with his card.'
She need not have worried, for the address she had lost was merely a fiction invented by Mr Henry Watkins, for business purposes. Besides, at the present time, Mr Clarence Club had changed his living-quarters. Instead of tenanting the darkish flat, he was lodged again at the expense of the Government.
He had enough to occupy his mind to the exclusion of Miss Loveapple's carpets. It was difficult to think of a really satisfactory motive to explain why he was hiding inside certain locked premises and why he had attacked the staircase banister so savagely with a kitchen poker.
Once again he had been lucky to avoid the mess of a dead policeman. The constable—whose shadow on the wall had so wilfully deceived him—was prepared for attack and had ducked in time to avoid it. But what bothered poor Clarence was the terrible dent in the solid mahogany of the stair rail, because the police appeared to regard it as evidence of murderous intention...
Miss Loveapple knew nothing of this, but in her turn she forgot Club as she watched the white cliffs of Dover grow clearer. She actually felt a stir of patriotic fervour when her foot touched English soil again. When she was among the first to pass through the customs unchallenged, her spirits rose at this proof of preferential treatment.
Her start gave her time to get a cup of tea and a ham-sandwich from a trolley. As she had eaten only the usual Continental breakfast, the refreshment revived her. By the time her train steamed out of Dover station, her head had ceased to ache and she was soothed to a state of dreamy contentment as she looked out at the flying landscape.
She noticed that the country had felt the first nip of frost, for there were golden boughs pendant amid the dark foliage of the trees. The orchards were heaped with piles of small red apples. In further evidence of autumn, the hedges were festooned with old-man's-beard which reminded her of Harvest Festival at Highfield and the unholy competition to decorate the pulpit.
Suddenly her spirits soared as she realised that she was going back to all she held dear—her well-ordered life, the comfort of her home, the beauty of her garden, the trifling stir but tremendous importance of village life. Those whom she loved would be waiting to welcome her. She was glad that she was returning directly to the Pond House instead of breaking her journey at London. In spite of her financial disappointment, money was not the first factor...
While her mistress thought of her, Elsie was in a state of happy excitement. But even as she prepared for Miss Loveapple's reception, she felt cold whenever she thought of her own lucky escape. To-day she could not understand what flare of sudden madness had compelled her to disobey orders and start out to travel up to the London house.
It was only by the merest chance that she did not get into the train which was waiting when she reached the Station. As she heard the peremptory hoot of a car on the road behind her, she turned her head and saw Miss Pitt making frantic signals to her. For a moment she was tempted to rush on to the platform, but her training prevailed and she returned sullenly to the car.
After Miss Pitt had explained Miss Love-apple's change of plan a lump arose in her throat, so that she could not thank her for her intervention.
'I wouldn't have half copped it when she found out,' she said.
'And you'd have deserved it,' commented Miss Pitt. 'What made you do such a silly thing?'
Elsie shook her head bashfully.
'It was something come over me. I couldn't abide her staying alone at that blinking London house.'
When Miss Pitt had driven away, she regretted her uneducated expressions, especially as David was not present to accept their responsibility. She did not know that Miss Pitt had never liked her better than when she stood and gaped, while her face changed from red to white, in proof of the intensity of her emotions.
That afternoon, in the safety of the Pond House, she arranged an artistic bowl of nasturtiums for Miss Loveapple's toilet table, while she tried to drum an idea into the heads of David and Scottie by constant repetition.
'Mistress is coming home to-day.'
Miss Loveapple was very happy to be coming home. Every minute the train was bringing her so much nearer to her front door. There was only one cloud on the future, and that was the prospect of her interview with Buckingham. She was certain that he would keep his word and subject her to another distressing discussion.
While she was in Switzerland, he had been a disturbing influence, dislocating her set ideas and trying to scoop her out of her happy routine. Even now, while she was slipping back into her rut, she had a sense of friction as though she were not fitting into the proper grooves.
'So futile of him to come,' she thought. 'He knows I shall refuse him.'
At that moment the sun burst through the clouds, drenching the sombre landscape with golden light. As she stared at the transformed fields, the rigid mould of her mind suddenly cracked apart, to admit a new and startling idea.
'Other people get married. I am not unique...Why shouldn't I?'
The change of view involved such a violent mental wrench that it affected her almost as a physical shock. Her face grew scarlet and her eyes glared in the fierceness of her opposition to the threat of recantation. She had grown so used to being Miss Loveapple. She knew Miss Loveapple intimately and she liked her very much.
But now some powerful submerged instinct was urging her to exchange Miss Loveapple for a stranger. Mrs Buckingham was the unknown element and her mystery held a challenge to the future.
Miss Loveapple accepted this new test of her character. As she had made a good job of all she undertook, she was certain that her marriage would be a success. As an inducement, it would involve plans and readjustments. She would have to build on a new wing to the Pond House and help to establish Buckingham in a congenial career.
But on one point she was definite: Her future husband must change his Christian name. There was only one 'David'—a blue Persian cat. To avoid confusion, she would endow him with her favourite name of 'Hubert' in return for his gift of 'Flora.'
As the idea of marriage continued to expand, she was carried away on a tidal wave of excitement, so that she never noticed when fields and hedges were replaced by masonry. She gave a start of surprise as the train steamed under the domed room of Victoria Station. Again she strode along the platform, her face radiant with happiness. She left the yard and crossed the road to Victoria Street, while she rehearsed the announcement of her engagement to the rector's wife.
'You won't save a tea on me much longer. I'm going to qualify for your blessed Mothers' Meeting.'
Suddenly, just as she was entering a tea-shop, she was rent by a pang of home-hunger. She felt that she could not endure another minute spent away from her precious Pond House. There was an earlier train back to Highfield, but it involved a rush to make the connections, so that she had ruled it out of her programme.
Glancing at her watch, she discovered that there still remained a narrow margin of time in which to catch the train. Unfortunately, however, she could not decide on the quickest form of transport. She had heard that traffic blocks were avoided on the Underground; but if she returned to the station and descended to the District Railway she would have to walk up the hill from the Embankment.
The minutes were passing while she stood in irresolution. After letting empty taxis pass her, they all whirled by with their flags down. She was beginning to think that she had wasted too much time and had better discard the idea in favour of a leisurely tea, when a Charing Cross bus swung around the corner.
She regarded it as a hopeless proposition, for it appeared to be full already, while a group of people waited at its stopping-place, farther down the street. At that moment, however, a policeman held up his hand and it stopped level with Miss Loveapple.
As a passenger took advantage of the stop to jump out, she leaped up the steps and sank into his vacant seat.
It seemed an omen for the future—a formal restoration to her rightful plane of good fortune. Thrilled and elated, she beamed around her as she impulsively took every one into her confidence.
'There! That's the first bit of luck I've had this trip.'
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