Authors: Elizabeth Ferrars
Tags: #General Fiction
Elizabeth Ferrars was one of the most distinguished crime writers of her generation. She was described by
Ellery Queen’s Mystery
as ’The writer who may be the closest of all to Christie in style, plotting and general milieu’. Born in 1907 in Rangoon, Burma, the author grew up in Hampshire, England, before studying journalism in London. Her first crime novel,
Give a Corpse a Bad Name
, was published in 1940. During her career, she wrote more than seventy novels and became immensely popular in America, where she was published as E.X. Ferrars. In 1953, she became a founding member of the British Crime Writers’ Association and, in the early 1980s, was awarded its Silver Dagger for a lifetime’s achievement. She died in 1995.
THE LANGTAIL PRESS
This edition published 2010 by
The Langtail Press
First Published 1980
Designs on Life © 1980 by Peter Mactaggart
The Dreadful Bell © 1980 Peter Mactaggart
After Death the Deluge © 1940 Peter Mactaggart
The Truthful Witness © 1958 Peter Mactaggart
Go, Lovely Rose © 1976 Peter Mactaggart
Drawn into Error © 1957 Peter Mactaggart
Safety © 1958 Peter Mactaggart
A Very Small Thing © 1959 Peter Mactaggart
Scatter His Ashes © 1970 Peter Mactaggart
Undue Influence © 1974 Peter Mactaggart
Helen Benson had known what the stairs would be like. She knew those old Edinburgh houses. She had spent her childhood in one of them. But what she had not realised was that the furnished flat that Colin had rented for them while she was in hospital was on the top floor.
He told her that only when they were on their way through the town in a taxi from the airport. He had met her there and had helped her out of the wheelchair that the air-line had laid on for her and into the taxi and they were already past the suburbs and entering the region of tall, formidable, dark stone houses before he mentioned that she would have three flights of stairs to climb.
flights?” she said in a startled, disbelieving voice. “But, Colin, I can’t! How can I get this thing up
flights of stairs?”
She used one of her sticks to hit the plaster on her leg.
He looked apologetic and distraught, a look that always made it difficult for her to hold anything against him for long. It frequently appeared on his face when he was compelled to deal with anything practical.
“But honestly I couldn’t find anything else,” he said, “and the rent’s so low and it’s really quite pleasant when you get there. I’m sure you’re going to like it. The thing is to take the stairs slowly. You’ll manage all right.”
“I’ll have to, shan’t I?”
She looked out of the taxi window. There had been a powdering of snow in the night, which had turned to dirty slush on the pavements. A sky of tarnished grey hung low above the rooftops, promising more snow. After five years in one of the small, new African countries where the sun shone every day and flowers bloomed all the year round, it felt bitterly cold.
“I did my best,” Colin said unhappily.
“I’m sure you did.” She patted his hand. He was wearing his defensive face now, which made him look as if he were preparing to be deeply, unjustifiably hurt, but bravely to put up with it. Only the trouble was that he never did put up with it bravely when he was hurt. He could lose his temper in a flash and be far more deadly than Helen ever was to him. Or that was how she saw it herself, perhaps mistakenly. But the last thing that she wanted at the moment, when they were trying so hard to make a new beginning, was one of their scenes. She had enough to put up with without that.
The taxi turned into a street that she remembered from her childhood, though she did not think that she had ever been into any of the houses. They were tall and stark, with two centuries of grime upon them, yet with a good deal of dignity, although the street, which might once have been considered a fine one, now had a depressing air of decay. There was a seedy-looking tobacconist at one corner, opposite a greengrocer, whose goods, outside his window, spilled out of their boxes on to the pavement. The stone steps up to the doorways were worn and looked slimy with the morning’s slush. As the taxi stopped at one of the houses the first big, damp flakes of a new snow-fall drifted waveringly down.
Colin jumped quickly out of the taxi, paid the driver and turned to lift Helen’s two suitcases out of it. Then he reached up to help her down. She gritted her teeth at the pain as she moved. He handed her her two sticks to support her weight as she stood on the pavement, where he left her for a moment while he carried her luggage into the house. She realised that the effect of the pills that she had taken before she started on the journey had worn off. She would take two more as soon as she reached the flat, but first, she had those three flights of stairs to face. She felt a little dizzy when she thought of them, wondering if in fact there was any possibility that she would be able to climb them.
But what would she do if she could not? The taxi was already moving off. It was too late to call it back and say that she wanted to be taken to a hotel, one with a lift and no stairs to trouble her. And the snow was coming down faster. There was nothing for it but to try to reach the flat.
The stairs were just as she had imagined them, bleak stone worn hollow by two hundred years of footsteps. The house was of a type common in Edinburgh, with the two lower storeys a self-contained dwelling with an entrance of its own, and with these stairs mounting at the side of it to the flat above, without any doors opening on to any of the landings where the stairs turned back on themselves. Each flight was long, because all the rooms in the lower house were very high. There was a cold iron handrail.
Colin left the suitcases at the foot of the stairs, put an arm round Helen’s waist, and while she put an arm round his shoulders, took most of her weight as she hobbled from step to step. After every few of them she paused to draw a shuddering breath, trying to pretend that it was not hurting as much as it was.
“Once I get to the top I’ll never be able to come down again,” she said as they reached the first landing.
“You won’t need to,” he said. “I’ll see to everything. Just take it slowly. You’re doing fine. And really, you’ll like it when you get there.”
She knew that that was possible. When this house had been built, staircases like this were regarded as part of the street and were most of them bare and unlovely. But often the flats opening off them had rooms of the greatest magnificence, with nobly lofty ceilings, finely proportioned windows and Adam fireplaces. She tried to hope for the best, and somehow, after she did not know how long, reached the top landing.
There were evidently two flats there, for there were two doors, side by side. Colin let go of Helen to feel for the key in his pocket. As he did so, one of the doors opened a few inches, as far as the chain holding it would allow, and singularly blue eyes in an aged, wrinkled face peered out at them. Red hair in a tangle hung over the lined forehead. A thin hand held the collar of a green quilted dressing-gown close up to the withered neck.
“You won’t ring the bell, will you?” the old woman said abruptly. “If you ring it, she comes, but she doesn’t like it. Remember that.”
The door closed.
Helen looked at Colin in astonishment. “What was that?”
“Just a lonely old body, gone a little peculiar,” he said. “She’s quite harmless. In fact, she’s been very kind to me since I moved in last week.”
“But why should we ring the bell? There’s no one to answer it.”
“Why indeed?” He fitted the key into the lock and opened the door. “Now just a little further,” he said. “Then you can sit down and be comfortable and I’ll bring you a drink.”
“What about my luggage?”
“I’ll get that in a minute.”
He helped her forward into the flat.
Except for the smell of dry rot that was wafted to her as soon as she entered it, it was more or less as she had expected. There was a spacious hall, with an elegant archway halfway along it and a polished floor of thick, broad old boards with a narrow runner of red carpet up the middle of it. Several doors opened off the hall, immensely solid-looking. Colin pushed one of them open and led Helen into a big room with two tall sash windows, a high ceiling with a cornice of delicately moulded plaster and a fine marble chimney-piece.
There was no fire in the old black basket grate, but an electric fire stood on the hearth in front of it, with three bars alight, and in spite of the snow now beginning to swirl thickly against the window-panes, the room felt pleasantly warm.
“I turned the fire on before I went out to meet you, so that it’d be nice when you got here,” Colin said, “but actually the place is surprisingly easy to heat. The walls are about a yard thick and once you’ve managed to warm things up inside, they keep it in.”
Helen took off her coat and lowered herself into a chair beside the fireplace.
“That old woman next door,” she said. “Are we going to have trouble with her?”
“I told you, she’s just mildly eccentric,” he said. “Actually she’s helped me quite a bit. She told me where the best shops are locally and advised me about getting in supplies, and when she knew you were coming she brought round a chicken casserole that we’ve only got to warm up when we want it. Now I’ll go and get your things. I shan’t be a moment.”
He went out, closing the door behind him to keep the warmth in the room.
Helen leant back in her chair and looked round her, taking in the room with its curious mixture of grandeur and decay. Once, she thought, it must have been beautiful. It would have been a fine background for elegantly dressed ladies with hoops and powdered hair and patches. But in those days it would not have been filled with shabby Victorian furniture, sufficiently comfortable and not positively ugly, but without any particular character. It would not have had that faint, pervasive smell of mildew. Other smells, perhaps, even more disagreeable, for the sanitation would have been primitive, but that would have been normal and would have gone unnoticed. Exhausted by her climb up the stairs, she closed her eyes for a moment, then, opening them, suddenly noticed the bell beside the fireplace.
It was the kind of bell that consists of a circle of painted china, with a handle at the side of it, with a small china knob that would have to be pulled downwards to set wires jangling and bells ringing in the kitchen. The bell was white and its decoration was a pretty little wreath of rosebuds. It was a dainty, charming object, but it had probably not been in use for fifty years. On an impulse, Helen reached out and pulled the handle.
There was only silence. No bell rang. The wires that the handle had once set working, had no doubt been broken long ago.
Opening her handbag, she took out the bottle with her pills in it and swallowed two, then closed her eyes again. The pills took some time to work. It would be at least half an hour before they began to give her any relief from pain, but meanwhile it would be pleasant to doze. But suddenly she became aware of a draught on the back of her neck, a very chill draught, and looking round to see where it was coming from, she saw that the heavy door, which she remembered Colin had closed, was standing open.
He reappeared in the room a moment later, carrying the suitcases. He closed the door. Then, after one look at Helen, he asked quickly, “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” she said.
“Is the pain bad?”
“Just about average. I’ve just taken my pills. They’ll help soon.”
“But you look as if—I don’t know what—something had happened to you.”
She gave an uncertain laugh. “It’s just silly. I don’t know why, but I suddenly took it into my head to ring that bell there, and of course it’s broken and doesn’t work, but a moment afterwards the door opened by itself, and I felt just as if—no, it’s too silly.”
“What was it?”
“I felt just as if someone had answered the bell and come into the room.”
He hit his forehead with the back of his hand. “Oh, God, are you going to take it into your head that the place is haunted? Don’t you like it? Won’t it do till we can look for something together? We’ll do that as soon as you can walk.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I like it very much.”
“That door’s got a way of opening by itself,” he said. “I’ve noticed it before. I think the latch probably needs a drop of oil. I’ll see to it.”