Authors: Patricia Wentworth
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller
Miss Silver looked across the tea-tray a good deal in the manner of the affectionate aunt who entertains a deserving nephew, but the young man who leaned forward to take the cup of tea which she had just poured out for him was not really related to her in any way. He was, in fact, Detective Inspector Frank Abbott of Scotland Yard, enjoying a Sunday afternoon off duty and very much at his ease. It would have been difficult to guess his profession. He might have been in the Army, the Navy or the Foreign Office, he might have been at the Bar. For the rest, he wore discreet and beautiful clothes of a most admirable cut, and his tall, slim figure accommodated itself with the ease of long custom to the largest of Miss Silver’s curly walnut chairs, whose spreading laps and carved encircling arms were so much more comfortable than they looked. The cool light eyes set in a pale irregular face softened noticeably as they rested upon his hostess. He admired her—his own word would have been revered. She entertained, she amused, she instructed, she provided his sense of humour with unfailing food, but even in his most irreverent moments he never ceased to feel a profound respect for her.
She smiled at him now and enquired whether he had enjoyed his leave.
“You were staying in Ledshire, were you not, for at least part of the time? The cards you sent me revived quite a number of memories. The one of the Market Place at Ledlington—”
“The view of Sir Albert’s trousers is superb, isn’t it?”
Since the statue of Sir Albert Dawnish which dominates the square is known to be one of England’s leading eyesores, Miss Silver did not encourage this frivolity. She remarked instead that the Dawnish Quick Cash Stores had become a national institution, and that Ledlington, and in fact the whole county, had benefited by Sir Albert’s generous disposal of his wealth. After which she returned to the question of his holiday.
“Did you see anything of the Marches?”
“I was invited to a cocktail party. The cousins I was staying with were going. I saw the Chief Constable, the beautiful Rietta, and the son and heir. And the infant daughter. It was being handed round with the drinks. A pleasant gurgling child. It stuck a fist in my eye and said ‘Goo!’.”
Miss Silver beamed.
“They are so delighted to have a little girl. Only children are a great mistake. Were you staying with cousins all the time?”
He reached for one of Emma’s scones, feather light and sinfully enriched with both butter and honey.
“Cousins? Yes—but not the same ones all the time. I always forget just how many children my great-grandfather had, but I believe I am as well provided with relations as any man in England, to say nothing of the Scotch and Irish branches and a few adventurous spirits who have scattered themselves over the Commonwealth and the United States. As they are all very matey and hospitable, I need never pay an hotel bill, and holidays come cheap. I did three separate lots this time and finished up with Joyce Rodney, who is really only a step-cousin but we used to be rather friends.”
He put down his cup and Miss Silver filled it again. She said, “Yes?” in a mildly interrogative tone, and he laughed.
“ ‘Yes’ it is, though I don’t know how you spotted it. But then I never do. As a matter of fact Joyce was worried, and I would rather like to talk the business over with you.” He took a sandwich and dismissed her murmured “If you think that she would not mind” with a quick “No, no, she will be only too glad. She isn’t used to anything of the sort, and it is getting her down.”
She sat back in the chair which was the feminine counterpart of his own and waited. He thought what strange stories this tranquil room had heard. The Victorian pictures on the walls—-Hope, The Black Brunswicker, The Soul’s Awakening, the old-fashioned furniture, reproduced the atmosphere of an older and less hurried day before the aeroplane brought the countries of the world so close together that they must either learn to live together in peace or rush upon some final conflagration. Carpet and curtains repeated as nearly as possible the colour and pattern of those which had originally companioned the furniture, their predominant shade a cheerful peacock-blue, modified in the carpet by wreaths of pink and yellow flowers. The workmanlike writing-table and the numerous photographs with which mantelpiece, bookcases and occasional tables were crowded testified to the profession which had provided this modest comfort. There had been a time when Miss Silver had engaged in what she always alluded to as the scholastic profession, when she had in fact been a private governess with no other expectation than that of spending her life in other people’s houses until such time as she retired on what must perforce have been very meagre savings. That the way should have opened for her to become a private enquiry agent she regarded as providential. She became known to an increasing circle, she earned a sufficient income, she had her flat, her comforts, her attached housekeeper Emma Meadows. She had a great many devoted friends. The photographs in frames of silver, of plush, of silver filagree on plush, testified to this. Many frightened people had sat where Frank Abbott was sitting now. Strange stories had been stammered out in this quiet room, and in the upshot virtue had been vindicated, crime exposed and justice done in the manner of the Victorian tract. Always conscious of these things, Frank found them very much in evidence as he said,
“Joyce has recently gone to live at Tilling Green. She lost her husband out in the Middle East—he was working for one of the big oil companies. There is a delicate child and no money. She has no near relations of her own, and she went to Tilling because Jack Rodney had an elderly cousin there who offered her a home.”
Miss Silver said, “Yes?” again.
“She wrote very kindly—Joyce said it was like a gift from heaven. She couldn’t take a job unless it was something she could do at home, because the child needed great care. Miss Wayne offered a home and a small salary in return for duties about the house. I gather she does a pretty full day’s work— hens to feed, cooking, and all the rest of it—but she doesn’t complain about anything so long as it’s all right for the child.”
Miss Silver, having finished her tea, picked up a brightly flowered knitting-bag and extracted from it four needles from which depended about an inch of what was intended to be a child’s jumper in a pleasing shade of blue. Her niece Ethel Burkett’s little Josephine would be seven in a month’s time, and the garment was part of the twin set which had been planned as a birthday gift. She could always knit and listen at the same time, her hands held low in her lap, the needles moving rhythmically and at great speed. She said now in her pleasant voice,
“And there is something wrong?”
“She has been getting anonymous letters.”
“My dear Frank!”
“It is always unpleasant, and of course no one knows better than you that it can be a symptom of something very nasty indeed.”
“What are the letters about?”
He lifted a hand and let it fall again.
“She has torn them up—the usual instinct to get rid of something horrid.”
“But I suppose she would have given you some idea of the contents?”
“One of them was about her husband. He died rather suddenly—heat-stroke, I think. The letter suggested that it wasn’t a natural death. There have been two of them. The second went on to accuse her of having come to Tilling to ‘catch another man.’ ”
Miss Silver permitted herself to say “Dear me!” and added, “Has she confided in Miss Wayne?”
“She hasn’t told anyone—except me. You know what those poison-pen letters are—very unpleasant. Miss Wayne is a prim, mousey little thing who couldn’t say boo to a goose. There was an elder sister who died some months ago. I gather it was she who invited Joyce to come to Willow Cottage. She was the elder and always took the lead in everything. As far as the village is concerned, she will go on being Miss Wayne to the end of the chapter, and the other little creature will continue to be Miss Renie.”
Miss Silver coughed.
“Is there someone who dislikes Mrs. Rodney, or who has any reason to resent her presence in Tilling?”
“I can’t imagine why anyone should dislike Joyce. She is one of those pleasant girls—nice to look at without being a beauty, intelligent without being a brain. In fact there are no extremes—nothing to rouse up the sort of enmity which the letters suggest. People are usually sorry for a young widow. She doesn’t make a parade of her mourning, but she was very fond of her husband and she is devoted to the little boy. Miss Wayne has lived there a long time and knows everyone in the neighbourhood. Joyce says they have all been very kind.”
Miss Silver’s gaze rested upon him mildly.
“You say Miss Wayne does not know about these letters?”
“Oh, no. She is a timid person—it would alarm and distress her very much.”
“Has Mrs. Rodney any suspicions?”
“And you yourself?”
His colourless eyebrows rose.
“I was there for four days. I was taken to a jumble sale at the village hall. I attended morning service on the Sunday, and was afterwards introduced to several people whom I had missed at the sale. We were invited to tea at the Manor. I have no reason to suspect the parson, the verger, or any of the estimable middle-aged and elderly ladies who assist them to run the parish. In fact I have no reason to suspect anyone— how should I have?”
She continued to look at him in a thoughtful manner.
“These things do not always depend upon reason.”
His eyes displayed a sardonic gleam.
“Woman’s intuition? I’m afraid I can’t compete. I don’t know the exact figures for the current year, but speaking generally, there are about two million more women than men in the country. Terrifying to reflect that they are all at it day in, day out, exercising this formidable gift!”
Miss Silver considered that he was not really providing her with very much in the way of information. She said in a meditative voice,
“A jumble sale—the Sunday morning congregation—the Manor—that would cover a good deal of ground in a village. What is the family at the Manor?”
He gave her an appreciative glance.
“As you say, quite a lot of ground. The Manor is an old one, and the family has been there a long time. The name used to be Deverell, but somewhere in the last century the male line died out altogether and a Repton came in through a marriage with the heiress. He refused to change his name, so they have gone on being Reptons. They were very nicely to do until the property got split up again about thirty years ago, when the direct line ended with a woman who got all the money and the place went to a male cousin who is the present incumbent. He is Colonel Roger Repton. He is pretty hard up, and he is guardian—the heiress having died—to her daughter, a girl called Valentine Grey, who has come in for the family fortune. Attractive creature fluttering on the edge of matrimony with one Gilbert Earle, a chap in the Foreign Office who will probably be the next Lord Brangston and would certainly be able to do with the money, since the present man has a string of five daughters to provide for. He called them after flowers, and I gather they neither marry nor work for a living. I have met them in my time, sitting out whilst other girls danced. To the best of my recollection they are called Violet, Daffodil, Rosemary, Daphne and Artemisia.”
The last name elicited a mild protest.
“My dear Frank!”
“Cross my heart ma’am, they call her Artie—I swear it!”
She drew on the blue ball.
“Let us return to Tilling Green.”
“By all means. There are also living at the Manor Colonel Roger’s sister, Miss Maggie Repton, the kind of sister who clings to the place where she was born and brought up because it has simply never occurred to her to go anywhere or do anything. She does keep house with a good deal of inefficiency, because young Mrs. Repton won’t do it at all.”
“There is a young Mrs. Repton?”
“There is indeed—the decorative Scilla! One of the things I haven’t discovered is whether she spells it like the flower, or in the classical manner like Scylla and Charybdis. You see, quite a lot might depend on that.”
Miss Silver saw, but she made no comment. He continued.
“Roger was considered to have made a fool of himself when he married her. She is definitely not what you would expect to find in Tilling Green, and she makes no secret of the fact that the country bores her and she yearns for town. I imagine she didn’t know how little money there was going to be— especially when Valentine got married.”
“That will make a difference?”
“Oh, yes. I understand that she contributes very handsomely to the expenses.”
Miss Silver went on knitting.
“Just why are you telling me all this?” she said.
He smiled with a spice of malice.
“Don’t I always tell you everything?”
“Not unless you have a reason for doing so.”
“Perhaps I wanted to talk it out for my own benefit. Putting things into words straightens them out, and—you are always stimulating!”
She said, “I am wondering why you have described the household at the Manor whilst leaving the jumble sale and the congregation undescribed.”
“One can’t describe everyone.”
“But you began with the Manor.”
If he hesitated, it was only for a moment.
“It was probably because one of the letters mentioned Gilbert Earle.”
“What did it say?”
“I didn’t see it—I told you that. Joyce didn’t keep either of them. But as far as my information goes it accused her of trying to attract him—throwing herself at his head, that sort of thing, only I gather in rather more unvarnished language. The anonymous letter writer doesn’t generally worry about keeping the party clean.”
“And does Mrs. Rodney know Mr. Earle well?”
“She knows him. He’s down there constantly at weekends. But as a matter of fact she met him abroad some years ago when she was first married. They have friends and acquaintances in common. He has occasionally seen her home from the Manor or after some village do. There is nothing in it or ever has been, I am sure about that.”