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Authors: Patricia Wentworth

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“Yes—poor Peterson. But my room, Holt—what about my room?”

Emanuel leaned forward. There was a deprecating sound in his voice. “I don't know how much you remember, sir, after such a shock, but you had just sent for the papers in the Tweddle case. I was standing on the other side of your table, and was actually about to hand them to you when the explosion occurred.”

“I had forgotten about the papers—they're no matter. But I'm told you saved my life—if it is saved—by pulling me down.”

Emanuel looked apologetic. “I'm afraid it was a liberty, sir, and not as successful as I could have wished, but a friend of my daughter's, a young man in a reserved occupation who has gone in quite a lot for A.R.P. he laid great stress, if I may say so, on the necessity of throwing oneself down as soon as that rather peculiar whistling sound occurs, so I took the liberty, and I hope—”

“No harm in hoping,” said Philip Merridew with ironic faintness. Then, rather more strongly, “But the papers, man—the papers on my desk—”

“The papers in the Tweddle case, sir?”

“No, Holt—
not
the papers in the Tweddle case. The papers in the Tweddle case may go to blazes. The papers on my table, man—the papers on my table!”

Emanuel concentrated earnestly.

“Well, the table itself was a good deal damaged, sir. You were, if I may say so, unconscious, and portions of the ceiling continued to fall. As soon as I had dragged you to the doorway—my daughter's friend has always assured us that a doorway was likely to afford some protection in the case of a house being wrecked—I returned to the table and hastily gathered up everything I could see or reach. I must explain that the table was more or less submerged by rubble, and had also been so to speak telescoped by the force of the explosion. The contents of the drawers will, I trust, be mainly intact.”

Philip Merridew's eyes rested insistently on his clerk's face. “What did you save, man—what did you save?”

“The Tweddle papers—”

“Blast the Tweddle papers! What else?”

“Well, sir, you must bear in mind that owing to the presence of such large quantities of dust and rubble, my powers of selection were very much handicapped. Bits of the ceiling were coming down all the time, and wardens who had come to our assistance were shouting to me to come away. When I reached the street I found that I had unnecessarily burdened myself with your blotting-pad, inkstand, and calendar. There was also the framed photograph of Miss Delia—”

“Nothing else?” said Philip Merridew.

“There was a package done up in brown paper addressed to Antony Rossiter, Esq.”

“Ah!” said Mr. Merridew. He seemed to relax, and closed his eyes. Presently he opened them again. He was smiling a little. “Rather a noble fellow, aren't you, Holt?”

Emanuel looked shocked.

“Oh, no, sir.”

“I'm glad you saved Delia's photograph,” said Philip Merridew, still with that faint smile.

III

Emanuel Holt came home with a serious face. He was not as worried as he had been, on account of having seen Mr. Merridew and having received instructions from him which did in a way lift some part of the responsibility from his shoulders. And then Mr. Merridew had been so very kind—“Rather a noble fellow, aren't you, Holt?” Well now, just think of Mr. Merridew saying that! It made you feel quite hot about the collar. But it would be something to tell Rosie. Rosie would be pleased.

The Holts lived in a street of small yellow brick houses which, for some reason long forgotten, had been called Adelaide Terrace. It was not an old enough street to have been named after Queen Adelaide of dim but pious memory. Perhaps the builder's wife had been called Adelaide. Nobody knew, and certainly nobody cared. The houses were semi-detached and all exactly alike. Two steps up to the door and you were in the hall, with the stairs going up in front of you. There were three floors, and two rooms on each—sitting-room and kitchen on the ground floor, bedroom, bathroom and lavatory up the stairs, and two attics above. The front rooms looked to the street, and the back rooms to a very small yard.

Emanuel hung up his hat and coat in the hall and went through to the kitchen, where Mrs. Holt was frying herrings for tea. Twenty years they had been married, but he had never stopped having just that queer pleasurable feeling of anticipation as he walked down the passage and put out his hand to open the door. Perhaps it was because he was secretly a very romantic person. Perhaps it was because Rosie was so comfortable to come home to. Rain or shine, wet or dry, up or down, there she always was when he came home, and if things hadn't gone just right—well, Rosie was comfortable. There was no other word for it.

He opened the door, and there she was, firm and comely, with an apron over her dark red dress, and her cheeks as red as the stuff. Twenty years ago Rosie Adams had been a village beauty—cheeks like apple-blossom, hair and eyes as black as sloes, and a waist as slim as you please. The hair and the eyes were as black as ever, but the apple-blow pink was now apple red, and the waist no longer slim.

She turned round with the frying-pan in her hand.

“You're early, ducks.” And then, as he came over and kissed her, “Cold, too, aren't you? More like January than October. We won't wait for Doris—I can keep hers hot. You just sit right down and have your tea.”

Emanuel held his hands to the range.

“I didn't feel it till I came in here.” He pulled a chair to the warmth and sat down.

Mrs. Holt began to make the tea. With the kettle in her hand, she said, “Did you see him?”

“Yes, I saw him.”

“Well, that's something. Did they say how he was at all?”

“I'm afraid he's very bad,” said Emanuel slowly.

Mrs. Holt set the teapot and a dish of herrings on the table and sat down. “Pull your chair up, ducks. You'll feel better when you've got some tea inside you. If he was all that bad, they wouldn't have let you see him.”

Emanuel pulled in his chair.

“I don't know, Rosie—they might. You see, they might think it didn't matter. And they told me I mustn't stay. I think really they only let me in because he was going on so, and they thought perhaps it would quieten him down. They as good as told me that—said I was to tell him everything was all right and not to worry, and then come away quick. But I said to them, ‘If you'd worked for Mr. Merridew for twenty years like I have, you'd know better than to think he'd be put off that way. He'll be satisfied with the truth and not one word short of it, and if he isn't satisfied he won't rest.' And I didn't like to ask then what they thought of him, but I got hold of the nurse when I was coming out, and from what she said I'm afraid he's very bad, but she did allow that there was always a chance.”

“And so there is,” said Mrs. Holt briskly—“and Mr. Merridew's the last one not to take it. And did you get all the business off your mind?”

“Well, I did and I didn't. It's a great responsibility, you know, and all come at once. Mr. Girding taken with a stroke last month—and of course you may say he's been nothing but a figurehead for years, but as long as he was on view, well there he was, and I shouldn't have felt quite so responsible. But there—he's out of it. And now Peterson and Mr. Merridew as well.”

Mrs. Holt poured out his tea, put in a lump of sugar, and pushed it over to him.

“Well, you've seen Mr. Merridew, ducks.”

“Yes.”

He began to tell her about seeing Mr. Merridew. He always told Rosie everything, and she always listened in the same comfortable way, not saying very much, but if there was anything unpleasant, she'd somehow take the edge off it, and if there was anything pleasant, it seemed to get pleasanter as he told it.

The telling took quite a time, because he had to attend to the herrings. Herring-bones require a good deal of attention. When he came to telling her how Mr. Merridew had said, “You're rather a noble fellow,” she got up and gave him a hug, and he very nearly choked. “And so you are, ducks!”

“Oh, no—” he choked again—“I'm not. I didn't do anything at all—it was just his kindness.”

“Take a good drink of tea, ducks, and a bit of bread—that'll settle the bone.”

He drank, and mopped his eyes.

“Well, there's one thing I'm glad about. Those papers in the Tweddle case—you know the state they're in—well, he didn't care about them a bit. ‘Blast the Tweddle papers!'—that's what he said, and a great relief it was to me to hear him. No, the thing he was in a taking about was that parcel for Mr. Rossiter. It's something special, it seems, and it's to be given him by hand—and the trouble is nobody seems to know quite where he is.”

Mrs. Holt poised a piece of herring midway to her mouth. “Not Mr. Merridew?”

Emanuel looked worried. “Well, it seems not.”

“Not Miss Delia? Oh, come, ducks—you'll find Miss Delia will know where he is.”

Her voice had kept its easy country drawl. It was one of the things which made her so pleasant to be with. There was none of the Londoner's hurry or quick clipped speech about Rosie. She popped the piece of herring in her mouth and enjoyed it. Not one to hurry over her food any more than over her speech.

Emanuel shook his head.

“I did take the liberty of putting it to Mr. Merridew that Miss Delia might know, and he said no, she didn't.”

Mrs. Holt laughed. It was a very nice laugh, deep and soft. “A girl don't always tell her uncle what she knows. I didn't when you came courting me, and Emily didn't neither, and I don't suppose girls are any different to what they used to be.” A faint cloud went over her face. “Do you suppose Doris tells us everything?”

Emanuel's mouth fell open a little.

“Doesn't she, Rosie?”

“No, Em, she doesn't. The girl's not born that does. So I say, see Miss Delia for yourself and put it to her, can she get word to Mr. Antony Rossiter that you've got something to his advantage waiting to be handed over to him, and what about it?”

Emanuel thoughtfully removed a bone from his mouth.

“I don't know that it's to his advantage, Rosie.” And then, “Well, you know, I've an idea they've quarrelled.”

Mrs. Holt leaned forward with her elbows on the table and her hands clasped under her chin.

“Oh, Em—and you telling me what a nice pair they were, and how loving they looked!”

“That was after he came back from Dunkirk, when he was getting well after his wound.”

“August,” said Mrs. Holt. “I remember as well as well your coming home and telling me they'd been into the office together, and those were your very words—‘Such a nice pair.'”

Emanuel stirred his tea. With only one lump of sugar to the cup, you had to make sure that it was all dissolved. He had offered to have saccharine instead when the rationing came in, but Rosie wouldn't hear of it. “As long as there's sugar to be had, you'll get it in your tea, and I don't want any arguments about it.” But it was only one lump instead of two, and he really did like two. So he stirred hard.

“August is two months ago,” he said, “and I've an idea they've quarrelled. In fact, between you and me, Mr. Merridew as good as said so. So what am I going to do now? If it was Mr. Merridew, he might be able to find out from the War Office, but I don't know how to set about it. You see, it's a bit awkward asking where people are these days—there might be quite a wrong construction placed on it. And meanwhile there's the parcel, and there's no getting from it it's a responsibility.”

“Why not put it in the bank?”

“Well, our branch—you know they've been bombed, and when I put it to Mr. Merridew he said, ‘No—better keep it yourself.' And I said, ‘But how am I to get hold of Mr. Rossiter?' And that's just where he turned faint and the nurse came in and bundled me off.”

“Well, I should ask Miss Delia,” said Rosie Holt.

Antony Rossiter lay in a ditch and waited for the dawn. From one point of view the darkness would be a protection, but from another it would not. To approach the town before anyone was astir was all right as long as no one really
was
astir. If on the other hand you were encountered, you would naturally become an object of suspicion. Better to wait till the cocks were crowing and the countryside awake and drift in with the normal early-morning tide of traffic. He had been in the ditch since midnight, and though it was dry, or what passes for dry in a ditch, he was not anxious to remain in it any longer than he could help. He had disposed of his parachute by cutting it up and poking the bits into the sides of the ditch. As soon as there was a blink in the east he could get up and stretch his legs.

The blink was a long time coming. When at last he crawled out, he could see the country as flat as a plate. There was low cloud, and a shallow layer of fog spread out all over the fields. He began to walk through it. Sometimes it was no more than up to his knees, and sometimes it was well up over his head. Then he had to walk blind and trust to luck for his direction. The air was raw and cold, and he was stiff from his ditch.

He walked briskly, slapping his arms across his chest. With the practical side of his mind he was thinking about his job and hoping that his Dutch was good enough to see him through, but every now and then this practical side was broken in upon by thoughts of Delia. He wondered when he would see her again, and when they could be married, and where they would live and what they would do when the war was over.

Presently he could hear that he was coming to a road—the sound of wheels, the sound of a man calling to his horse. Mostly horse traffic round here, he supposed, now that petrol was so short—all commandeered for the occupation, or sent to Germany.

He made for the road and trudged along it. More than one cart passed him before he signalled for a lift. He picked a large comfortable man, and was told to jump up. The cart was full of green vegetables.

BOOK: Pursuit of a Parcel
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