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Authors: Patricia Wentworth

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“Something's happened. Tell me!”

He shook his head.

“No, it hasn't. Delia, don't look like that! I—”

She let go of his hands and reached up to clasp his neck. All the things which he had meant not to say came boiling to his lips.

“Delia—I love you! I couldn't go without seeing you.”

She put up her lips. St. Anthony himself would have fallen. Antony was no saint. Delia's hands pulled him down. He kissed her. They stood pressed close together, whispering, kissing, whispering again, whilst time flowed past and left them unaware.

The clock struck four, and brought them back. Antony lifted his head, put her a little away, and looked at her transfigured face.

“I didn't mean to do this. I only meant to see you—and I'd no business to do that.”

“Where are you going?”

“I can't tell you.”

“Is it for long?”

“I can't tell you that either.”

A shadow touched her eyes.

“You mean perhaps you won't come back?”

Had he meant that? He didn't know—it was in his mind.

He said, “No, of course not,” and saw that she didn't believe him. They had been together too much, known each other too well. Lies wouldn't pass—not with either of them. He said in another voice, “It's a job, darling. Don't worry—I'll come back. Look here, I'll tell you why I've come.”

“You said—to see me.”

“Yes. You can help me.”

“How?”

She saw a familiar sparkle in his eyes.

“Can you act a bit?”

“Of course! What do you want me to do?”

He laughed, and rubbed his cheek against hers.

“Pretend we've quarrelled.”

“Why?”

“Because. Will you do it?”

“I shall hate it.”

He laughed again. “No, you won't. Women love telling lies in a good cause.”

“They don't!”

“My child, they do—it's engrained in them—they get no end of a kick out of it. You will, you know—everybody thinking we've had a row, or that you've thrown me over, or I've turned you down, and you saying to yourself, ‘Antony's mine—every single bit of him's mine, and every little bit of me is his.'”

He caught her hard in his arms, and she felt the beating of his heart. Presently he held her away again and said, “Will you do it?”

Her heart was beating too, but there was something in her which had to know. She couldn't just do what Antony wanted because he was Antony and she loved him so much that it hurt. Delia would always have to know. She said, “I must know why. I can't do things blind—I never could.”

“Not even for me?” His voice was not quite steady, teasing her.

“No.”

He shook her a little, gently. “Tiresome toad—aren't you? Well, I'll tell you why. I shan't be able to write, and I don't want any chat about it. Unfortunately I've been the world's prize correspondent. I should think I'd averaged about six fetters a week to you the last six months or so, and a steady one a week to the guardian. Well, there it is—letters can't stop suddenly without a bit of chat. Household staff, guardian, kind relations, interested circle of friends. ‘How is dear Antony? I'm sure he writes to you
every
day'—‘I hope, my dear, that you have news of Antony. I suppose I mustn't ask where he is, but I am sure as long as he is
somewhere in England
you will have frequent and delightful letters from him.'”

Delia gave a little chuckle. “Oh, Antony, they
don't!”

“They do, and you know it, and you've got to choke them off without letting them think there's anything hush-hush about it.”

“I could say I'd heard from you—”

“Delia, you shock me! Would you tell a lie?”

“Well, you wanted me to just now.”

“You shock me very much. What would Mrs. Barrock say? Besides, the simple truth will do. Always tell the simple truth if you can, because unless you're a very good liar indeed you're apt to forget what you said last time, and then the fat tips over into the fire and there's a nasty stink.”

“Well, what do you want me to say?”

“You simply say, ‘Antony and I are not friends any longer.' Put across with a little moisture in the eyes, a faint tremor of the lip, and just the suspicion of a catch in the voice, it should, I think, do the trick.”

She dissolved into laughter. “Antony, you're a devil!”

He nodded. “Mrs. Barrock always suspected it—now she'll be sure. It will please her consumedly. I shall have spread sunshine in the Barrock's heart—I shall not have lived in vain.”

“She's not as bad as that,” said Delia weakly.

“Oh, isn't she?” He pitched his voice in accurate mimicry. “‘No young man as goodlooking as Antony Rossiter is a safe companion for a girl like Delia. I wouldn't trust him a yard.' I heard her say that to the guardian with my own ears.”

“You didn't!”

“I did.”

“You eavesdropped!”

“I did. If I hadn't, I should have had to come out and talk to her. I was on the window-seat behind the curtains.”

“What did Uncle Philip say?”

He laughed a little. “Said he had every confidence in me. He was so polite that she ought to have withered up.”

“She doesn't wither easily.”

“No—practically indestructible.”

His voice slid away. They stood looking at each other, all the gay light armour gone. Delia threw her arms round his neck with a sob.

“I must go—
Delia!”

She clung to him.

“Antony—you'll come back—you'll come back!”

Philip Merridew said, “Come in!” and went on writing.

Emanuel Holt came in, waited a moment, and said in a deprecating voice, “A man to see you, sir.”

Still writing, Mr. Merridew said, “Has he an appointment?”

“Well, no, sir.”

“You know I don't see anyone without an appointment, Holt.”

Emanuel coughed. He had worn a zealous air, which now became a little dashed. He said,

“Well, sir, Mr. Peterson being engaged, I took leave to trouble you. It's about Mr. Rossiter.”

Philip Merridew lifted his pen and looked up. There was a sense of suddenly arrested interest.

“What sort of a man, Holt?”

Emanuel coughed again.

“Rough, sir. Might be a seafaring man by the look of him.”

“Show him in.”

A fat man came in with a rolling walk. He wore shabby civilian clothes which gaped on him, and a loose raincoat, with a coloured handkerchief at his bulging neck. A string bag dangled from his left hand. Between the meshes a parcel showed some kind of square box done up in brown paper.

Emanuel Holt shut the door behind him. As he did so, the sirens began to sound overhead.

The man advanced to the table, holding an old cloth cap in his right hand. His hair, rather long, fell in a lock over one eye, giving him the look of a music-hall travesty of Hitler—a Hitler swollen to the size of a balloon. He came right up to the table, dumped the cap and the string bag, and began to disentangle the parcel.

“Name of Rogers,” he said in a soft, wheezing voice. “And I take it you're Mr. Merridew?”

“Yes.”

“Of the firm of Girding, Ramsbottom, Girding and Merridew?”

“Yes.”

“The clerk said so, but I've got to be careful. Not to give it to no one but Mr. Merridew himself—that's my instructions. And do I stick to them, guvnor? I do—like glue! And that's gospel true.” A large smile creased his face. “Po'try, that is—I'm a dab at making po'try. And this bit's gospel true, which is more than you can say for most.”

He hauled the parcel clear of the bag and set it down upon the blotting-pad. Philip Merridew looked at it—a box done up untidily in layers of rough brown paper and tied with strong tarred twine. It was addressed in sprawling capitals to “Antony Rossiter, Esq. By hand.” There was no more address than that.

The fat man winked. “There's no need to name any more names as I can see. What you know yourself don't do you any harm, and a nod's as good as a wink to a blind horse. Now if you was going to ask me how I come by that, I should take leave to say, ‘A pennorth of silence is worth two pennorth of gab.'”

Mr. Merridew looked up with a frown. Before he could speak the man went on.

“Someone pitches me a tale, and I come along and pitch it to you. I know my man, but you don't know me. Natural enough you smell a rat. But it's on the level, guvnor, so far as I know.”

Philip Merridew said sharply, “What do you mean?”

The man reached over and tapped the parcel with a corrugated finger. “Like I told you—a bloke brings it along to me, and I brings it along to you. I don't ask him no questions—and why don't I? Good of my health—that's why. And if you don't ask me none, there'll be two of us—see? I take it you know this bloke who's got his name on it, Antony Rossiter, Esquire?” He mouthed the words and winked again. “Pretty, isn't it—kind of a fancy sound. I suppose he's real? Not that it matters to me either way.” He stuffed the string bag into the pocket of his rain-coat and fumbled with his cap. “Well, guvnor, what about it?”

Philip Merridew moved the parcel to one side of the desk. He seemed to accept the responsibility.

Mr. Rogers continued to fumble with his cap.

“All the way from we won't say where, to say nothing of getting back again. And the loss of my valyable time. What about it, guvnor?”

“A shilling?” said Philip Merridew.

Mr. Rogers' large Hitlerian visage expressed surprise and pain. He continued to twist his cap.

“Half-a-crown then?”

“‘Will be well rewarded'—that was the expression, guvnor, so far as I can bring it to mind. It might have been ‘handsomely rewarded' but I won't take my Bible oath to that. What about ten bob?”

Mr. Merridew brought out two half-crowns and pushed them across the table. After a short silence Mr. Rogers pocketed them.

“Here today and gone tomorrow,” he said with gloomy philosophy. “You never know your luck, do you? Well, I'll be getting along. Afternoon, guvnor.”

He slouched out of the room with his rolling walk. Mr. Merridew gave him a moment, and touched the bell. When Emanuel Holt came in he said,

“Just get me the papers in the Tweddle case, will you.”

“Is that you, Holt?”

The voice differed so much from Mr. Merridew's accustomed hearty accents that Mr. Holt was a good deal affected. He replied as cheerfully as he found possible.

“Oh, yes, sir.”

Really impossible to believe that Mr. Merridew had come to this—his air of conscious omnipotence so completely changed to a look which seemed to say in an almost pleading fashion, “I'm not so bad after all. They haven't told you I'm so bad, have they, Emanuel? I'm not
dying,
Emanuel Holt?” Very affecting, indeed. Such a strong man, such a vigorous brain, such a grasp, so much integrity and self-control. And that it should be this superman who had been struck down, and Emanuel Holt, who really mattered to no one except of course his own family, who had been spared. For a moment Rosie and Doris were, as it were, obliterated by the magnitude of the misfortune which had befallen the firm through this its indispensable head, and Emanuel was able to say with sincerity, “I only wish it had been me.”

Mr. Merridew's pale lips moved into a smile.

“Believe you really meant that,” he whispered.

“Oh, yes, sir!” Mr. Holt's small neat features quivered with the earnestness of his reply.

If the bomb which had smashed its way through the offices of Girding, Ramsbottom, Girding & Merridew had by the agency of a flying splinter laid Emanuel Holt upon this stretcherlike hospital bed and Philip Merridew had gone scot free, the firm would have looked after Rosie—oh, yes, it was that sort of firm—and Emanuel would have been saved the horrible weight of responsibility which now rested upon his shoulders. Mr. Merridew would have seen to everything. Ruined premises, dislocated business, clients' interest, the dispersal and only too certain destruction of valuable papers—none of these things would have presented any difficulty to Mr. Merridew. In the words of a striking quotation whose origin for the moment escaped Emanuel, Mr. Merridew was at all points equipped “to ride the whirlwind and command the storm.” The phrase had a scriptural flavour, and should of course be metaphorically considered—but apt, very apt. Whereas he could not possibly regard himself, nor be regarded, in the light of a storm-controller. It wasn't even as if he were the managing clerk. Mr. Peterson had always kept things very much in his own hands—a very able managing clerk and good for another ten years if it hadn't been for the bomb. The ways of Providence were certainly inscrutable—Mr. Peterson dead, and Mr. Merridew lying here looking as near to a ghost as anyone could who was still alive, whilst Emanuel Holt, who couldn't really be considered to matter at all, sat on an upright chair in a hospital ward with a dreadful sense of responsibility on his mind and all his physical health and strength intact.

These thoughts took no time at all to pass through his mind. Indeed, they could hardly be said to pass through it, constituting, as they did, his whole attitude towards the horrifying calamity which had overtaken the firm.

Mr. Merridew moistened his lips and said, “Don't waste time—they won't let you stay. What's been saved?”

Emanuel passed a hand over his hair. Once ashen fair, it was now of an indeterminate grey. Together with a complete absence of eyebrow or any other hair upon the face, it gave him rather the appearance of a good and serious ferret—a ferret of an affectionate disposition which would never conceivably bite anyone.

He hastened to be as reassuring as possible.

“The two safes are intact, sir, and some of the deed-boxes. Mr. Peterson's office was, I am afraid, completely wrecked.”

BOOK: Pursuit of a Parcel
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