Authors: Patricia Wentworth
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“Half past ten,” said Mrs Greenâ“and time you took 'er Benger's up. Half past ten to a tick she 'as it, so you'd better look sharp.”
Flossie Palmer stifled a yawn.
“And what about my beauty sleep? How am I to keep my complexion if I got to sit up till half past ten?” She finished on a giggle, and then added, “Pertickler, is she?”
Mrs Green turned round from the gas stove with the saucepan of Benger in her hand.
“Everything to the tick,” she said. “If you're late, you get the sack, so I keeps me clock a bit on the fast side to be safe. 'Ere, give me that cup! And now up you go! And you knock on 'er door, but you don't go in, not for nothing. You waits on the mat till Nurse opens the door and takes the tray, and then you come along down. Same way with the tea in the morningâhalf past eight, and you knocks, but you don't go in. And mind you clear the corner with your trayâthe stair's that awkward.”
Flossie Palmer took the tray and went out of the kitchen. The stair which led from the basement was steep and narrow. She wouldn't have taken the job if she had known that there was a basement. “Carrying trays up these stairs all day and half the night, I
think!” Well, she'd obliged Ivy, and Ivy'd obliged her, but she needn't stay more than her month. That'd give her time to look round. Aunt's tongue had got to be beyond a joke so, basement or no basement, she'd have to stay her month. She giggled a little as she pushed open the door at the top of the stair. It was Ivy's month really, come to think of it. “And you just remember your name's Ivy Hodge this journey, Flossie my girl,” she said as she went up the stair from the hall to the first landing.
The drawing-room took up the whole of this floor. To reach Miss Rowland's room she had to go up one flight more. Funny kind of start to have a mistress you didn't see. It must be awful to be an invalid and lie in bed all day. Seemed she did come down to the drawing-room on her good days, so perhaps she'd see her to-morrow.
She knocked on the bedroom door and waited with her tray. It was the nurse who opened itâstarched cap, starched apron, starched cuffs, starched belt. “Coo! I wouldn't like to have her looking after
” She proffered the tray, and it was taken.
“You're the new maid?”
“Yes, Nurse,” said Flossie Palmer.
“You're nearly a minute late, Ivy. Don't let it happen again. Miss Rowland expects punctuality.”
The door was shut. Flossie tossed her head as she went down to the next landingâ“Thinks she's a duchess, I suppose!” She stopped to recapture the nurse's chilly tone: “âMiss Rowland expects punctuality'! And if I was half a minute late, it was as much as it could have been!” She tossed her head again. Her hair was fair and fluffy under the neat cap. Nurses who gave themselves the airs of duchesses were worse than the back-breakingest basement stair that ever was. She paused on the top step of the next flight and looked back over her shoulder. And then next moment she didn't know why she had done it. Come to think of it, there was something funny about that.
She stood there, little and trim, in her black dress with its white turn-down collar and thin pleated apron, her fair hair bound with a black velvet ribbon to which was attached a little white frill like a coronet. Her blue eyes searched the landing. There were two doors, both leading into the L-shaped drawing-room. The one nearest the stairs was shut, but the other stood a handsbreadth ajar. She tiptoed up to this door, pushed it half way open, and looked in. The light from the landing showed an old-fashioned carpet with bunches of flowers on a ground of faded drab.
Flossie put up her hand to the switch and hesitated. She hadn't seen the drawing-room yet. “S'pose I'll see plenty of it before I'm through.” And as the words came into her mind, her fingers moved on the switch and with a little click the light went on in two bracket-lamps on the other side of the room. They were one on either side of the mantelpiece, just where the gas-brackets of an earlier day had been. They preserved the illusion of that day. The whole room preserved it.
Flossie stepped inside and looked about her. There was the big couch where, she supposed, Miss Rowland would lie when she came down. It was upholstered in dark green tapestry, and so were the chairs. The curtains were of dark maroon velvet with deep fringed pelmets. In the middle of the white marble mantelpiece was a gilt clock supported by massive golden cherubs. It startled Flossie with a silvery chime of three strokes. “Quarter to eleven. Coo! I must hurry!” And then, “The blinking thing must be fast.” Just one look round into the L. She came a few steps further. There was a piano round the cornerâthe upright sort, with flutings of faded green silk, and tarnished brass candle-holders. It stood flat against the wall just beyond the second door and was reflected in the very large gilt-framed mirror which hung on the opposite wall. She wondered how you cleaned all that gilt stuff. She'd never had it to do. There was a bit of work in this room; she could see that.
She looked down the L to the window at the end of it. Another pair of those velvet curtains. Handsome stuff, but a bit too heavy for her taste. Someone had drawn them crookedâ“That there nurse, I shouldn't wonder.” Funny how it worried you to see things crooked like that.
She went down to the end of the L and pulled at the soft, rich folds. There was a noise that frightened her. She had never heard a curtain make a noise like that before. Suppose someone came. “Well, I'm not doing nothing wrong, am I?” She turned round with that little toss of her head and stood, her eyes widening to a horrified stare. The noise hadn't come from the curtain at all. It had come from the wall of the L. She was looking at the wall. She was looking at the place where the six-foot mirror had hung in its broad gilt frame. It had reflected the piano, but it didn't reflect it any more. It didn't reflect anything, because the glass was gone. Instead there was a blackness, a dark hole full of shadows.
Flossie's mouth opened in a stiff O. She screamed in her mind, but it made no sound in the room. There was a sound there, but it was another sort of sound altogether. It came from the black hole with its wide gilt frame. There was a shuffling and a sighing, and a deep and dreadful groan. And then something moved and, moving, came into view.
It was a man's head. It seemed to rise out of the darkness at the bottom of the frame. At first she only saw the head. It had dusty hair and glazed, straining eyes. There was blood running down over the forehead. It rose a little, waveringly, and she saw the shoulders and arms. The man was crawling with a slow, painful motion. One of the hands rose like a dirty claw. It came groping over the edge of the gilded frame. Flossie stared at it in a terror beyond anything she could have imagined. It was worse than the worst nightmare she had ever had. She wanted to scream, and she couldn't scream. She wanted to fly, and she couldn't move.
And then all at once another hand came out over the frame, high up, and someone was looking at her. A long, pale faceâwith eyesâIt was the eyes which shocked her alive again. They were pale tooâpale, cruel eyesâand at the sight of them Flossie screamed and ran. She didn't remember opening the door in the L, but she must have got it open, because the next thing she knew she was, tumbling through the doorway and down the stairs into the hall three steps at a time and four at the last, and then helter-skelter through the baize door and down the basement stair. They'd come after her those eyes would.
don't let them!”
The kitchen door stood open and the kitchen was dark. Mrs Green had gone to bed in one of the two dingy basement bedrooms. The other waited for Flossie Palmer.
And it might wait
Her coat hung on a peg in the passage. She snatched it and, without waiting to put it on, stooped to the heavy bolt which fastened the area door. It came creaking back, and the key creaked too as she turned it. Mrs Green's voice came to her on the thresholdâMrs Green's voice, andâwas someone opening the door at the top of the stairs? She didn't wait to see, but slammed the door and ran up the area steps and down the foggy street. Thick fog, so that no one could see her. Thick, blinding fog, so that she couldn't see where she was going. Thick, deadening fogâ
She ran on wildly, clutching her coat, not daring to stop and put it on, or to listen for the footsteps that might be following her.
Miles Clayton had not felt the hand in his pocket. It had come and gone, and he had felt nothing at all. His own hand, following it after some lapse of time which he could not measure, found only emptiness, a most disconcerting emptiness. There should have been a bulging pocket-book, but it wasn't there. His hand came away, and then went back again. There are things you simply can't believe. This was one of them. The pocket-book was there, because he had put it there. It bulged with the Treasury notes into which he had, only an hour or two ago, changed his French money at Dover. It contained, besides, his passport, his letter of credit, and his luggage check. It was impossible that it should be gone.
His fingers explored the neatly fitting lining of his right-hand inside pocket. There was nothing in it except the lining. He withdrew his hand, rummaged his other pockets, and, having drawn a blank, made such remarks as seemed suitable to the occasion. There were twenty pounds in the pocket-book, but the letter of credit was the worst of it. The passport didn't matter so much. He wouldn't be going back yet awhile. Personally he considered the whole thing a wild goose chase, but if old Macintyre didn't mind footing the bill, that didn't matter to him.