Authors: Patricia Wentworth
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller
The first time that James Hardwick saw Carmona Leigh was on the evening of her twentyfirst birthday. He was in a box with the Trevors at the Royalty, and he looked across the theatre and saw her. She was sitting in the second of the stiff gilt chairs which faced them from the opposite box. She wore a white dress and a little white fur coat which she had slipped off and pushed back. She leaned forward with her elbow on the padded ledge of the box and looked across at him.
She was not really seeing him at all. Her mind was much too full of her twentyfirst birthday, the string of pearls which Esther Field had given her, the play she was going to see, and what Alan had whispered as they came up the stairs. She saw nothing except her own thoughts, and she saw them suffused with a wonderful glow of happiness and hope.
James Hardwick saw what he had been waiting for all his life. Love at first sight does happen. It had happened to him. There was a kind of tingling shock, a sense of recognition, of achievement. It wasn’t anything he could get into words either then or later. It was something that had happened. He went on looking.
He saw a girl with a delicate, serious face and dark hair, quite young and rather pale, He thought about that, his face hard and serious, his lips compressed. He might have been considering some matter of life and death, bringing everything he had to bear upon it. A girl may be pale because she is tired—sad—ill. The girl he was looking at was not any of these things. Her pallor had a luminous quality. It sprang from some deep intensity of feeling. There was a quiet radiance—Her eyes were dark. Not brown, but a very deep soft grey. But the lashes were black, and it was partly those black lashes which made her look so pale. He was not conscious of any sequence of thought. It was all there in his mind, like a picture seen in a moment of time, but he was never to forget a single detail.
It did not stay. The large, comfortable woman beside her said something, and a man who had been standing behind them came and sat down on the third of the stiff gold chairs. He was tall, fair, and noticeably good-looking. The sleeve of the white fur coat brushed his arm. He pushed it away, laughing. The girl turned. There was a faint colour in her cheeks. They smiled at one another.
Colonel Trevor growled at James’ ear,
“See those people over there? The girl’s father was the best friend I ever had—George Leigh. Got himself killed in a motor smash—he and his wife. Left me one of Carmona’s guardians. Well, she’s twentyone today, and I can’t stop her making a fool of herself if she wants to.”
“I don’t know why you should call it making a fool of herself,” said Mrs. Trevor in a petulant tone. “I’m sure there are very few girls who wouldn’t jump at Alan Field.”
Colonel Trevor’s voice acquired a military rasp.
“Then they’d be fools, my dear.”
James hoped they were not going to have one of their quarrels. Alan Field—now what had he heard about Alan Field? There was an impression that he had heard something—somewhere—and not very long ago. Not a pleasant impression. He couldn’t fix it.
Mrs. Trevor was bridling.
“I’m sure I can’t see why! It’s simply that he’s too good-looking.”
“Don’t like young men who are too good-looking, my dear.”
At fiftyfive Maisie Trevor could still flutter an eyelash. She did it now.
“Jealous!” she said, and gave the rippling laugh which had proved so effective with subalterns when she was seventeen.
James, who nevertheless had an affection for her, thought for the thousandth time how silly it sounded, and wondered how the Colonel put up with it. Just as a matter of habit, because his mind was really taken up with the question of Carmona.
Colonel Trevor had snapped at his wife. She was appealing to James.
“I suppose you’ll take Tom’s side—men always do, don’t they? Back each other up, I mean. But what I say is, Carmona may think herself lucky if she gets such a good-looking young man. She’s a sweet girl and all that, and she’s got quite a nice little income. Tom has been looking after it for her, you know. But you can’t say she has got very much in the way of looks—can you? And Alan really is a charmer. Of course he hasn’t any money, so it really might do very well. They were brought up together, you know—at least after her parents were killed. Dreadful! That’s Esther Field over there in the box with them—Carmona’s aunt—a sister of poor George Leigh’s. Such a plain woman for a famous painter to have married, but of course she had money, and he wasn’t so famous then. Silly, isn’t it, how things don’t come when you want them. Now, when he’s been dead for ten years, everybody knows his name. He was Penderel Field. Ridiculous name, but quite good for advertisement. Esther is Alan’s stepmother, so in a way he and Carmona are cousins, only of course not really, if you know what I mean. Such a pity Alan had to leave the Army. I’m sure I don’t know why he did, but Esther was very much upset about it, and I expect she would like him to settle down with Carmona.”
Colonel Trevor broke in sharply.
“Let’s hope she has more sense. And the less said about why he left the Service the better. And you are not to go round coupling his name with Carmona’s—do you hear, Maisie?” He turned to James. “All very boring for you, I’m afraid.”
Mrs. Trevor produced a lace handkerchief and an injured sniff.
James made haste to say that he wasn’t bored—people interested him. It was in his mind that it would not be difficult to get the Colonel to take him round in the interval and introduce him to Carmona. A hundred to one he would be going round anyhow to wish her many happy returns of the day. Easy enough to get himself taken along.
Easy enough, but it didn’t come off. Mrs. Trevor developed one of her “attacks.” The play bored her, and she considered that Tom had been rude. She became faint, threatened a swoon, and said she must go. Since they had come in James’ car, he had perforce to drive them home. He had seen Carmona Leigh, and that was all.
He left at cockcrow next morning for the Middle East, and he was away for more than a year.
It was on the day after his return that he saw her again. He was on his way to stay with the Trevors. They would put him up, and he would walk over and see his Aunt Mildred Wotherspoon whose elderly devoted and tyrannical maid no longer allowed her to have anyone to stay in the house. The last time it had been attempted had been so unpleasant for everyone concerned that by tacit consent it was agreed that there should be no repetition, James writing that the Trevors had offered to put him up, and Miss Wotherspoon replying that that would be very nice, and that she hoped he would come over to tea.
He sat in the train and thought that it was good to be back. The odd thing about coming home was that you didn’t expect anything to have changed. You went away, and things happened to you, but you somehow didn’t expect that anything very much would have happened to the people you had left behind. Old Tom Trevor would be growing prize delphiniums, carnations, and dahlias, and Maisie would be finding it dull in the country and giving him no peace about coming up to town for an occasional week to look up old friends and go the round of the theatres. Aunt Mildred would be in the middle of one of her rows with Janet. They had been going on ever since he could remember, and both parties appeared to derive considerable satisfaction from the exercise. Everything in their little world would be just as it had been before he went away.
He began to think about Carmona. The Trevors would be able to tell him where she was and what she was doing. She touched their world, but she did not really belong to it. The years between twentyone and twentythree were years in which a good many things might change. He would not admit that they might have set an insurmountable barrier between himself and her. He would not admit that she might have married Alan Field. Or anyone else. Always when he thought of coming home it had been in his mind that he would be coming home to Carmona. He had heard of her once or twice. In a letter from Maisie Trevor—“Carmona has been here to stay. Horribly dull for her. Tom really ought—” From Mary Maxwell, who was an old friend and had stayed in the same house no more than a month ago—“She’s some sort of a cousin. Rather an unusual girl. I’m very fond of her. I hope she isn’t going to marry that wretched Alan Field. He’s a kind of stepcousin of hers, and people are always saying they are engaged, or are going to be—”
No, she hadn’t married Alan Field. In some curious way he had been quite sure that she would not. She was going to marry James Hardwick.
They were coming into a station, and as they drew in, another train drew out. There was a moment when the two trains passed each other, one just starting, the other slowing to a halt, and in that moment he saw Carmona Leigh. Across the brief space which separated the two trains they looked at one another. She had a window seat, and so had he. It seemed as if he had only to put out his hand and he would be able to touch the glass through which she looked. What he saw jerked at his heart. Her eyes were wide and she was very pale. It was not the pallor which he had seen before. She had been happy then, she was not happy now. There was no time for her to close her face against him. If she was pale now, it was from sorrow of heart. The windows slid away, her face slid away. She was gone.
He found out that the train was going to London.
In between displaying his delphiniums, which were in full bloom, old Tom Trevor told him that Carmona was marrying Alan Field in a week’s time.
Carmona Hardwick came up the zigzag path from the beach. The afternoon was hot and she took her time. She wore a sleeveless linen frock and a big shady hat. Her legs were bare and she had green sandals on her feet. The whole effect was cool and pleasing. She was thinking that Pippa would arrive in the middle of a blazing afternoon. All very well to say, “Don’t bother to be in, or meet me or anything,” because of course you had to. She hadn’t seen Pippa Maybury for three years, and there was a time when they had been very fond of each other. These school friendships didn’t last…
Pippa was always a bit of a goose…Three years was quite a long time…They had both married…A slight shade came over her face.
She reached the top of the cliff, and took the path which led along it to the house which James had inherited from his great-uncle Octavius Hardwick. Much too big for them and it would have to be sold, but meanwhile they could spread themselves, have all their friends to stay, and enjoy James’ leave.
In spite of being called Cliff Edge the house stood a little way back. There was a stone wall between it and the cliff path, and a private gate into a bare formal garden where old figureheads of ships stared out to where the horizon met the rim of the sea.
The house was hideous—very flat and bare outside and the rooms full of plush curtains and frightful Victorian furniture.
There was a driving-road on the far side and an approach featuring a good deal of stone work. The six urns which flanked the entrance had blazed with scarlet geraniums in great-uncle Octavius’ time. They were empty now, and two of them were cracked. Carmona looked at them and thought they had better sell the place as soon as they could, because it really did look very shabby and it would cost the earth to do it up. They would certainly never want to live here.
She had her foot on the bottom step of the half flight leading from the front door, when a sports car whizzed in at the gate and came to an abrupt stop beside her. Pippa, in scarlet slacks and a sleeveless jersey, sprang out and embraced her. When last seen her hair had been a fair brown. It was now platinum. She wore dark glasses with scarlet rims which she took off and snapped away in a startling red and white bag as she brushed Carmona’s cheek with her own. Her eyes at least had not changed. They were as bright, as blue, and very nearly as dazzling as the sea.
“Darling!” she said. “What a frightful house! But how nice to see you! You’re not going to live in it are you? You really couldn’t! I’m sure it’s got black beetles, and a basement, and the sort of old-fashioned range that simply eats up coal! You must tell me everything! But I’d better put the Tick away first—it belongs to George Robertson, and he’s rather mean about his things! He was quite frightfully peeved when I ran into a lamp-post and smashed the windscreen of the car he had before this one—and it was more or less dropping to pieces anyhow and well overdue for the scrap heap!”
The three years since they had last met were gone. Pippa was just the same. The current young man’s name had been Jocko then, it now appeared to be George. That was all. Whatever it was, he would be considered as a provider of cars, flowers and other unconsidered trifles, and more or less treated like dirt whilst kind, stodgy Bill Maybury looked on with a tolerant smile. Carmona had a moment’s faint wonder as to what James would do or say if she were to start borrowing cars and being continually here, there and everywhere with one infatuated young man after another. All at once she shivered and felt cold. Too silly—because the sun was really hot today.
The garage was a converted stable balancing the large Victorian conservatory on the other side of the house, denuded now of its palms, its climbing heliotrope, its plumbago, its begonias and pelargoniums. When the Tick had been put away with the narrowest escape of a grazed mudguard, Carmona led the way up a flight of steps into the tessellated hall.
Pippa’s comment was frank.
“Darling, how fierce! Too, too like the kind of hotel one’s grandmother might have stayed at!”
“Well, we really are rather like a family hotel at the moment. We’ve got the Trevors here. You remember Maisie and Tom?”
“Of course—he was your guardian. Rather a lamb.”
“And Adela Castleton—”
Pippa made a face.
“Darling—not the Lady Castleton! Because I don’t know if I can bear it! I’ve a sort of idea I met her once, and she looked at me as if I must have got there by mistake! That kind of nose, if you know what I mean!”
Carmona knew quite well. It was the kind which lent itself to disapproving of the young. She passed hurriedly to Esther Field.
Pippa burst out laughing.
“Aunt Esther! Is she here too? Still dropping stitches and calling everyone ‘My dear’? Well, I must say you are doing the relations proud!”
“She’s the only real one. The rest are just because of being guardians and things, but Esther was my mother’s sister.”
“And Alan Field’s stepmother. Carmona—where is Alan?”
“I don’t know.”
They had passed out of the hall into what Octavius Hardwick had called the morning-room, an apartment which looked north and never got the sun, its natural gloom being further intensified by a carved overmantel of some black oriental wood and curtains of indigo plush.
Carmona shut the door. It wasn’t the slightest use hoping that Pippa would drop the subject.
“You don’t know? But, darling!” Pippa’s eyes were alive with interest. “Surely Aunt Esther—”
“She hasn’t the slightest idea.”
“You mean he just broke it all off and disappeared?”
“Something like that.”
She wouldn’t turn away. It didn’t really make things any worse to speak of them. Sometimes it made them better, and—it was only Pippa.
“But Carmona! Darling, you’ve simply got to tell me all about it! When I had your wire to say it was all off I wanted to rush to you! But Bill put his foot down—you know, he does sometimes. He said I couldn’t do any good, and he was sure you’d rather not, and it wasn’t reasonable to expect him to put up about a hundred pounds for me to fly home just to hold your hand. I could see his point, you know, and when he is like that I do find it’s better to do what he says. Darling, you did understand, didn’t you?”
“You must tell me all about it now. What did you quarrel over?”
Pippa’s voice rose a third of an octave.
“Didn’t quarrel? But, darling!”
Better get on with it.
“He just didn’t turn up.”
“On your wedding day!”
“Darling, how perfectly frightful! You don’t mean to say you were there waiting at the church!”
It was hurting horribly. Much more than she had thought it would. It was hurting like hell. The grey church, cold and dark, with that odd smell which empty places have. Empty— at least thank God for that! Only Tom, and Maisie, and kind Esther there to look on whilst she waited for Alan who didn’t come. A parson and a verger too, but they didn’t count. Grey old men quite alien from what was happening to her, their own days of quick anguish and hot tears all past and gone. She looked vaguely at Pippa, but she did not see her. She saw the empty church.
“Darling, how frightful! But what on earth made him do a thing like that? If he wanted to break it off, why didn’t he do it properly? I just can’t imagine Alan—Alan getting cold feet at the last minute and not being able to come up to the scratch! Carmona, he must have written! Something must have happened to the letter—or to him!”
Carmona moved her head. It was the slightest of movements. It said, “No.”
Pippa Maybury repeated what she had said before.
“Something must have happened to him!”
This time it was Carmona’s lips that moved.
“No—he wrote afterwards. The letter came next day. He said he couldn’t go through with it—he wasn’t cut out for marriage, and he was going to join a friend on a horse-breeding ranch in South America.”
“And that was all?” Pippa stared. “Well, darling, I really do think you were well rid of him! He was a charmer and all that, and marvellous to go about with, but when it comes to husbands—” she shrugged and laughed—“well, you know, there’s something to be said for having them solid. After all, they’ve got to run the show, and pay the bills, and do all the unpleasant sort of things like income tax, and washers on taps, and spiders in the bath, and I don’t really see Alan making much of a show of it. Speaking quite frankly, you know.”
Carmona didn’t see it either. She never had. She had always known that if there was anything unpleasant to be done, she would have to do it herself. The thing that had been broken in her was the conviction that Alan needed her. It was a conviction that went right back into her childhood. He was selfish, he could be cruel, he had a fatal knowledge of his own charm and of other people’s weaknesses, but—he needed her. And then when she found out that he didn’t, that he could push her aside and put the width of the world between them, something broke. She said,
Pippa gave her a light pinch.
“Wake up, darling! You said that as if you were about a hundred miles away, and the one thing one ought never to let oneself do is to go dreaming back into the past. Fatal! And it isn’t as if you had got left on the shelf, or anything like that. Why, it was no time at all before you married James. To tell you the truth, I didn’t think you’d have had the spirit.”
“Thank you, Pippa.”
“Well, you know, you were always one of the quiet ones, and you might have taken up good works, or gone into a mouldering melancholy—like the girl in Shakespeare who sat on a monument and smiled at grief, which I always thought a particularly stupid thing to do, because young men aren’t really interested in monuments and they wouldn’t bother to climb one. And now tell me all about you and James! He isn’t nearly as good-looking as Alan of course.”
Pippa nodded vivaciously.
“Husbands don’t need to be. And I always thought Alan overdid it. After all, looks are more in the woman’s line, don’t you think? Anyhow I’m dying to see him again.”
“He’s away,” said Carmona.
“He’ll be coming any day now. He has been doing a job under U.N.O.—something to do with tracing people who have disappeared. He speaks a lot of languages, so they find him useful.”
“Doesn’t it take him away a lot? It sounds as if it might.”
“It does rather.” After a pause she said, “Sometimes I go with him. I went over to the States with him in the spring.”
“It sounds a bit detached. I hope he turns up in time for me to see him. And where is everyone else? You say you’ve got the house packed with relations. Where are they?”
“Down on the beach. I hope you won’t find it dull here. There’s nobody young.”
Pippa looked through her eyelashes.
“Too, too reposeful. Not all the time, you know, but every now and then—relations, I mean—the nice quiet elderly sort who have never had anything happen to them.”
“Do you suppose anyone is really like that?”
Pippa burst out laughing.
“Marvellous if they all had buried secrets! But, no, I’d really rather be soothed. Where are they?”
“Down on the beach—and we should just have time for a swim before tea.”