Authors: Patricia Wentworth
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller
Rachel Treherne got out of the first-class carriage in which she had travelled to London, gave up her ticket at the barrier, and after walking a little way in the direction of the exit stopped and looked up at the station clock. It was only eleven. There was plenty of time for a cup of tea. Tea, or coffee. It was always a moot point whether refreshment-room tea was nastier than refreshment-room coffee, or less nasty.
As she entered the refreshment-room Miss Treherne decided that she would have coffee. She liked it less than tea, and would therefore not mind so much whether it was good or bad. It would at any rate be scalding hot. In spite of a warm suit and a fur coat she was cold. It had been snowing when she left home, but here in London there was no fall, only the feel of snow in the air, and an overhead gloom which looked as if it might turn to fog. Rachel Treherne shivered and began to sip the hot, sweet coffee. She did feel a little warmer by the time she had finished it. She looked at her wrist-watch and found that it was now ten minutes past eleven. Her appointment was at half past.
She crossed the station, hailed a taxi, and gave the address:
“Montague Mansions, West Leaham Street, S. W.”
As the engine started up and the taxi began to move, she leaned into the comer and shut her eyes. She couldn’t go back now. When she wrote to make the appointment she had said to herself, “I needn’t keep it. It will be quite easy to write and say that it is no longer necessary.” But she had not written. Miss Maud Silver had replied that she would be very pleased to see Miss Treherne at 11.30 on Wednesday, November 3rd, and Rachel Treherne was on her way to keep this appointment.
All the way up in the train she had thought, “I needn’t see her. I can ring her up and say that I’ve changed my mind. Then I can shop, and do a matinée, and go back home—” No, she couldn’t just go back. She had borne it too long. She couldn’t bear it any longer without some relief. Having come so far, she must see Miss Silver. She need not tell her anything, but having made the appointment, she must keep it. If Miss Silver did not impress her favorably, she could always withdraw, say she needed time to think the matter over, and then let it fade… Something in her shuddered. “No—no—there’s no relief that way. I must—I must tell someone. I can’t bear it alone any longer.”
She opened her eyes and sat up straight. Her heart felt cold in her, but her mind was made up. She had played with the idea of seeing someone, talking to someone, shifting this dreadful burden of fear. But now the make-believe was over. Her mind was firmly set. Whatever came of it, she would not go back without unburdening herself.
The taxi drew up. She paid the man and mounted half a dozen steps to the modest entrance of Montague Mansions. It seemed to be a block of flats. No porter, stone stairs going up, and one of those small lifts you work yourself. Rachel Treherne was always rather afraid of them, because twenty years ago when she was a girl her dress had caught in the iron grill of the lift shaft and she had had a narrow escape from being killed. She remembered Venice, and being nineteen, and the American who had wrenched her free, tearing the muslin of her dress with his square, powerful hands. How odd things were. She had forgotten his face, and she had never known his name, but she could still see those very strong hands which had saved her life. She had never felt really comfortable in an automatic lift since then, but of course one did not give way to such a foolish feeling.
She managed the lift very well, and found herself presently standing in front of a door with the number 15 upon it. And, just over the bell, a small brass plate with “Miss Silver. Private Enquiries.” She rang quickly, and had a momentary sensation of relief. If you have been brought up as a gentlewoman you don’t play the errand-boy’s trick of ringing a bell and running away.
A stout, old-fashioned woman opened the door. She had a big white apron over a dark print dress, and she looked like the comfortable sort of cook whom you do not expect to see in a London flat. She smiled pleasantly and said,
“Come right in out of the cold. Terrible draughty, all these stone passages, and the street door standing open. Miss Treherne? Oh yes, Miss Silver will see you at once ma’am.”
She opened the second door, and Rachel Treherne came into a room which was much less like an office than a Victorian parlor. There was a brightly flowered Brussels carpet, and plush curtains in a cheerful shade of peacock-blue. There was a black woolly hearthrug in front of an open coal fire. There were odd little Victorian chairs with bow legs, upholstered laps, and curving waists. There was a row of photographs in silver frames upon the mantelpiece, and over it a steel engraving of Millais’ Black Brunswicker. On the opposite wall The Soul’s Awakening and Bubbles. The wallpaper, covered with bunches of violets, put the clock back forty years.
In the middle of the Brussels carpet stood a writing-table of carved yellow walnut, and at this table sat a little woman in a snuff-colored dress. She had what appeared to be a great deal of mousy gray hair done up in a tight bun at the back and arranged in front in one of those expensive curled fringes associated with the late Queen Alexandra, the whole severely controlled by a net. Beneath the fringe were a set of neat, indeterminate features and a pair of grayish eyes. In complexion Miss Silver inclined to being sallow, but her skin was smooth and unlined. At the moment of Miss Treherne’s entrance she was engaged in addressing an envelope. She completed the address, blotted it, and setting the letter upon one side, looked up with an air of grave attention and slightly inclined her head.
“Miss Treherne? I hope you did not have a very cold journey. Pray be seated.”
A chair had been placed in readiness on the far side of the table. Miss Treherne sat down, and was aware of scrutiny, not prolonged but keen. Miss Silver’s small grayish eyes raked her and dropped to the knitting which she had taken from her lap and which now appeared to engage her whole attention. The garment on her needles was one of those small coatees which are showered upon expectant mothers. In color it was of a delicate shade of pink. A large white silk handkerchief protected the wool from contact with Miss Silver’s snuff-colored lap.
What the gray eyes had seen was a tall and slender woman who might be anything between thirty-five and forty years of age—good carriage, good skin, good eyes, good hair. The coloring should have been dark and rich, but there was a blight upon it—a chill. The lips held an anxious line. The eyes went here and there like those of a startled horse. The hands held one another. So much for the woman.
Miss Silver looked up from her knitting, took another glance, and could have written a complete inventory of Miss Treherne’s habiliments—a hand-knitted suit in a beige and brown mixture, heavy silk stockings, and excellently cut low-heeled shoes of dark brown leather; a very good fur coat; a single modest row of real pearls; a small brown felt hat. Everything betokened the woman of taste and means who lives a country life.
Everything also betokened a woman driven by fear. Whilst Miss Treherne made answer that the weather was very cold for November, Miss Silver was noting the nervous movement of those clasping hands. She knitted half a row before she said,
“You are very punctual. I appreciate punctuality. Will you tell me why you have come to see me?”
Rachel Treherne leaned forward.
“I don’t think I should have come, Miss Silver. I wrote to you, but I think I have only come to apologize and to say—”
“Second thoughts are not always best,” said Miss Silver primly. “You are very nervous. You wrote to me because you were alarmed and you felt that you must speak to someone about what was alarming you. This gave you some momentary relief, and you began to think you had been foolish—”
“How do you know?” cried Rachel Treherne.
Miss Maud Silver nodded.
“It is my business to know things. And it is true, is it not? May I ask who recommended me to you?”
“No one.” Miss Treherne leaned back again. “Hilary Cunningham —she—the Cunninghams are connections of an old friend of mine. I met them there, and Hilary was talking about you—oh, months ago. And then when I felt I couldn’t bear it any longer I remembered your name and looked you up in the London directory. But, Miss Silver, I don’t want anyone to know—”
Miss Silver nodded again.
“Naturally, Miss Treherne. All my work is extremely confidential. As Lord Tennyson so beautifully puts it, ‘Oh, trust me all in all or not at all.’ I very frequently quote those lines to my clients. A great poet, now sadly neglected. And really very practical, because it is no use expecting me to help you if you will not tell me how I can do so.”
“No one can help me,” said Rachel Treherne.
Miss Silver’s needles clicked briskly.
“That sounds very foolish to me,” she said. “And—” she coughed slightly—“just a little impious too. No one will help you if you will not allow yourself to be helped. Now suppose you tell me just what is worrying you, and we will see what can be done about it.”
Rachel Treherne was irresistibly reminded of her schoolroom days. Miss Barker of estimable memory had displayed just such cheerful efficiency as this when confronted by the intricacies of Nathan der Weise or the inaccuracies of a muddled problem in arithmetic. Something in her responded to the click of the needles. She looked across the table with her dark eyes wide and said, “I think someone is trying to kill me.”
Miss Silver said, “Dear me!” Her needles clicked reassuringly. She looked up for a moment and said,
“What makes you think so?”
Rachel Treherne drew in her breath.
“1 came here to say that, but I don’t think I ever really meant to say it. Because when you say a thing like that nobody believes you, and now that I’ve said it, it sounds even worse than it did when I thought about saying it. Even then I knew that you wouldn’t believe me.”
“People so often say that,” said Miss Silver placidly. “The thing that is troubling them appears to be unbelievable. But then of course they have not, fortunately, any experience of crime. I, on the other hand, have a great deal of experience. I assure you, Miss Treherne, there is very little that I cannot believe. Now I think it would be a good thing if you told me the whole story. First of all, why should anyone want to kill you? Secondly, has any attempt been made, and if so, in what circumstances? And in the third place, whom do you suspect?” She laid down her knitting as she spoke, took a bright red exercise-book out of the top right-hand drawer, laid it open before her, dipped a pen, and wrote a careful heading.
These actions had a curiously composing effect upon Miss Treherne. The calming influence of routine made itself felt. Whatever she said would go down in that little book and be on record there. The book touched the schoolroom note again. Upon just such a page had she inscribed such classic phrases as “Have you the pen of the gardener’s aunt?” By the time Miss Silver looked up she was ready with what she had to say.
“I don’t know if you will believe me or not. You see, I don’t quite know what to believe myself. You don’t know me, but if you were to ask people who do know me, I think they would tell you that I am not naturally suspicious or hysterical. I have always had a great deal to do. I haven’t had much time to think about myself at all. I have had other interests.”
“Yes?” said Miss Silver. “What interests, Miss Treherne?”
“You know the name of Rollo Treherne?”
“Ah,” said Miss Silver—“the Rollo Treherne Homes. Yes, indeed. You are associated with those Homes?”
“I am Rollo Treherne’s daughter. He made an immense fortune in America—you probably know that—and he left it to me as a trust to administer. He died seventeen years ago. It has kept me very busy.”
“The Homes were your own idea?”
Rachel Treherne hesitated.
“I think so. I had an old governess—we were all very fond of her. She made me feel how unfair it was that people like her should work for others all their lives and then have a bitterly poor old age. When I had to consider what I was to do with all this money I thought about Miss Barker, and that gave me the idea of the Treherne Homes.”
“You devoted the whole of your father’s fortune to the Homes?”
“Oh, no—I don’t want you to think that. There were certain sums I could touch, but a great deal of the capital was tied up—rather curiously tied up.” She paused, and her voice changed. “I could leave it by will, but I couldn’t give it away. It is a little difficult to explain. Legally I have entire discretion, but actually I am bound by my father’s wishes. That is why he left all the money to me—he knew that he could trust me to consider myself bound.”
Miss Silver’s eyes lifted again. She looked for a moment at Rollo Treherne’s daughter. Width of brow under the dark hair; eyes widely set; nostrils very sensitive; lips pressed together for control, but not thin—no, a good mouth, generously cut and meant to smile; chin firm. She thought she knew why this woman had been burdened with wealth. Just because it would be a burden to her, and not a toy. She said,
“Just so. You are a trustee—morally. I quite understand.”
Miss Treherne leaned an elbow on the table and rested her cheek upon her hand.
“It’s very difficult,” she said. “I had to give you the background, because without it you wouldn’t understand. About three months ago I got an anonymous letter. Of course, I’ve had them before, but it was different—”
“I hope you kept it, Miss Treherne.”
Rachel shook her head.
“Oh, no, I destroyed it at once. And it wouldn’t have helped you. It was just words cut out of a newspaper and stuck on to the commonest white writing-paper. There was no beginning and no signature. It said, ‘You have had that money long enough. It is other people’s turn now.’ ”
“Did it come by post?”
“Yes—with a London postmark. That was on August the twenty-sixth. A week later there was another, very short. It said, ‘You have lived long enough.’ And a week later again a third letter, ‘Get ready to die.’ ”
Miss Silver said, “Dear me! And you did not keep any of them. What a pity. How were the envelopes addressed?”
Rachel Treherne moved, sat back in her chair, and said,
“That is the strange part of it. The address in each case had been cut from a letter which I had already received.”
“You mean the envelope was an old one?”
“No, not the envelope. But a couple of inches with my name and address had been cut from a letter which had come to me through the post, and gummed on to a new envelope.”
“From what letters were they taken?”
“The first from a letter addressed by my sister Mabel, Mrs. Wadlow, the second from a letter from a cousin, Miss Ella Comperton and the third from another cousin, a young girl, Caroline Ponsonby. But of course it had nothing to do with them. Their letters had reached me and been read, and the envelopes thrown aside.”
Miss Silver said, “I see—” She went on knitting. When she thought the pause had lasted long enough she spoke. “I would rather hear the whole story before we examine the details. I suppose you did not come here just to tell me about these letters. There has been something further—” The pause extended itself. Miss Silver continued to knit.
In the end Rachel Treherne managed two words.
“Then will you please tell me about it.”
Miss Treherne dropped her brow upon her hand in such a fashion as to screen her eyes. When she spoke, it was in a low, even voice.
“A day or two after the last letter I had a narrow escape from falling downstairs. I had been washing my dog, and I was carrying him. I didn’t want him to shake himself until I could get him downstairs, so I was hurrying. And just as I came to the top step my own maid, Louisa Barnet, caught me by the arm. ‘Oh, Miss Rachel!’ she said, and she pulled me back. We have been together since we were children and she is very devoted to me. I could see that she was white and shaking. She held on to me and said, ‘You’d have got your death if I hadn’t stopped you. I nearly got mine coming up, but you going down and your hands taken up with Neusel—oh, you wouldn’t have had a chance!’ I said, ‘What do you mean, Louie?’ and she said, ‘Look for yourself, Miss Rachel!’ ”
“And what did you see?” inquired Miss Silver in an interested voice.
“The stairs go down in a long, straight flight from a half-way landing. They are of oak and uncarpeted. I was on the landing when Louisa stopped me. I don’t allow the stairs to be too highly polished, but when I looked I could see that the first three treads were like glass. Louisa had just come up. She said her feet went from under her as if she had been on ice. She came down on her hands and knees, and just saved herself by catching at one of the banisters. With the dog in my arms I should have been quite helpless. I mightn’t have been killed, but I should certainly have been very badly hurt. The housemaid is a local girl, steady and not too bright. She said she had done the stairs just as usual.” Rachel Treherne gave the ghost of a laugh. “I’ve never had to complain of her polishing anything too much!”
“And when did you come up those stairs yourself—or when had anyone else been up or down?”
“Not all the afternoon so far as I know, but I didn’t want to make a fuss or ask questions. The house was full. I was in my room writing letters. My sister was resting. The girls were somewhere in the garden. Everyone else was out. I finished washing Neusel at half past four, and I shouldn’t think anyone had come up or down since three o’clock.”
“Plenty of time to polish three steps,” observed Miss Silver.
Rachel Treherne made no answer, but after a moment she went on speaking.
“I shouldn’t have thought of it again if it hadn’t been for the letters. I tried very hard not to attach any importance to it, but I couldn’t get it off my mind. You see, the stairs would be done before breakfast, and if they had been like that all day, someone would have slipped on them long before half-past four. But if they were polished in the afternoon when everybody was out of the way, then it was done on purpose to make someone fall. And after those letters I couldn’t help thinking that I was the someone. I couldn’t get it off my mind.”
“What polish had been used? Could you tell?”
“Oh, yes. It was some the housekeeper got to try—a new stuff called Glasso, but I wouldn’t have it used on the floors because it made them too slippery.”
There was another pause. Miss Silver laid down her knitting and wrote in the shiny exercise-book. Then she said,
“Is that all?” and Rachel Treherne took her hand from her eyes and cried,
“Oh, no—it isn’t!”
Miss Silver gave a little cough.
“It will be much easier if you will go straight on. What happened after that?”
“Nothing for about a week. Then Louisa Barnet found the curtains on fire in my room. She beat the fire out, and there was not much damage done, but—it couldn’t have been an accident. There was no open flame in the room, or any way the curtains could have caught. I wasn’t in any real danger, I suppose, but it wasn’t a pleasant thing to happen on the top of everything else.”
Miss Silver’s needles clicked.
“A fire is always unpleasant,” she pronounced.
Miss Treherne sat back in her chair.
“The worst thing happened four days ago. It is what brought me here, but I’ve been wondering whether I could tell you about it. It’s so vile—” She said the last words in a slow, almost bewildered manner.
Miss Silver picked up her pink ball and unwound a handful of wool.
“It would really be much better if you did not keep breaking off,” she said in her most practical manner. “Pray continue.”
At another time Rachel Treherne would have been tempted to laugh. Even now a flicker of humor crossed her mood. She said,
“I know. I will tell you about it as quickly as possible. On Saturday I did some shopping in Ledlington. One of the things I brought home was a box of chocolates. I am the only one in the family who likes soft centers, so I chose a good hard mixture, but I made them take out just a few and put in some of the ones I like myself. The chocolates were the sort that have the name stamped on them so that you can tell what you are taking. I handed them round after dinner, and they were very good. I had two with soft centers, and enjoyed them. I took the box up to my room because Louisa Barnet is fond of chocolates too. She is like me, she doesn’t care for the hard centers. She was with me when I bought them, and I knew she would expect her share, so I told her to help herself. She took one, and almost immediately ran into the bathroom and spat it out. When she had rinsed her mouth she came back. She was terribly upset. She said, ‘That chocolate was as bitter as gall—there’s someone trying to harm you, Miss Rachel! You can’t get from it.’ She brought the box of chocolates over to me, and we examined them thoroughly. The ones with hard centers were all right, and we put them aside. There were about a dozen left with soft centers. Three of these had had a little hole made in the bottom and filled up again. It was quite cleverly done, but you could see it. I touched the filling of one of these chocolates with my tongue, and, it had a strong bitter taste. I burnt all the chocolates that were left.”
“A very foolish proceeding,” said Miss Silver briskly. “You should have had them analysed.”
Rachel answered with a hopeless gesture and a single word. Her hand lifted from her knee and fell again. She said,