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Authors: Patricia Wentworth

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Antony had his tale ready. His name was Piet Maartens, and he had been working on a bulb farm—“but of course they're broke like everyone else, and I haven't had a smell of work since you know when.”

The man was gloomy enough about the chances of a job. “But of course if you've got friends in the town, they may be able to do something for you.”

Antony said he had an aunt there, a very good sort of a woman. “Keeps an eating-house, and she used to have very decent beer, but I suppose that's gone where everything else goes nowadays.”

The man had a good deal to say about that. He expressed himself with freedom, and hoped that the Dutch beer would choke the Germans who had stolen it.

They went on very comfortably like this, and Antony was pleased to find that his Dutch was passing muster. He did not say more than he could help, and once he had got the man going on the beer shortage there was really no occasion for him to talk.

They came into the town with the subject still not exhausted. Antony said thank you for his lift and dropped off.

Twenty minutes later, when he came into the eating-house kept by Vrouw Brandt, there were a few people there having coffee, or what passed for coffee nowadays. Vrouw Brandt was at the back of the room—a large comely woman with red hair shining in waves all over her head, and a complexion which still bore the light of early morning. She had grown stout, and she would never see forty-five again, but she was a fine figure of a woman and she knew it.

Antony walked in in his shabby country clothes with the dirt of the ditch on his hands, slipped an arm round her waist, and bent to kiss her cheek.

“Well, Tante, here's your Piet back like a bad penny.” He had come upon her unawares. She stood sideways to the room polishing china with a white linen cloth. He felt her stiffen, and wondered for a moment whether he was going to get his ears boxed—it wouldn't have been for the first time. Her hand lifted with the cloth in it, but it fell again. She pulled free and stamped an angry foot.

“Good for nothing that you are, to come creeping in like a thief and scare me out of my life!”

He sat down on the edge of the serving-table and smiled the smile with which he had coaxed her for gingerbread when he was eight and she the tyrant of his mother's kitchen. She had melted to it then, and had continued to do so ever since.

“Pleasant surprise never kills, dear Aunt.”

“Pleasant?” She tossed her head. “And what's pleasant about you turning up, I'd like to know! Out of a job too, by the look of you.”

Antony nodded. “I've walked my legs off, and I'm hungry.”

And this was true enough. Even the substitute coffee smelt like a beautiful dream.

Anna Brandt took up a cup and set it upon its saucer. Her glance travelled over him with disfavour from the unshaved chin, past the dirty hands, to the muddy boots. There was a large patch on one of them—a piece of corroborative detail which he could have done without. If it hadn't already rubbed a blister, it was going to the next time he had to walk a mile. She said in angry voice,

“No one eats food in my house with hands like that! And half the mud of the road on your feet! Get in and wash! You know the way.”

He was scrubbing his hands at the sink when she came through to him.

“Are you mad, Mijnheer?”

He looked up, grinning.

“Piet,
Tante Anna, and don't forget it.”

She made an impatient gesture.

“There's no one here. The girl has gone to the market, and I can tell you she doesn't hurry herself to get back. Why have you come? You are quite mad. When you did it before—well, it would pass as a joke. We hadn't these German pigs in the country then, and the worst that could happen would be a bit of gossip among the neighbours, and some of them thinking it's easy enough to say Aunt, but it doesn't make every young scallywag who says it your proper lawful nephew. But now, Mijnheer, it's not just a bit of gossip we're risking—and God knows the neighbours will always find something to talk about unless one's as ugly as sin. No, it's our lives. And you mayn't value yours, but I've got a use for mine.”

Antony went on washing his hands.

“If you go on calling me Mijnheer, Anna dear, I'm afraid it isn't going to be much use to you. Piet Maartens is my name, and I'm the son of your sister Marthe, the one you used to tell us about who was weak in the head and ran away with a no-account fellow from Friesland.”

Anna threw up her hands.

“If it stopped at being weak in the head! Mad—that's what you are, coming along here like this! What do you want?”

“I want to see Cornelius.”

“Dragging him into it too, are you? Well, they say shooting's an easy death. But mind, you and him'll get that. They'll put me in one of their filthy concentration camps, I shouldn't wonder—and by all accounts it's better to have a bullet in you and be done with it.”

Antony took no notice. He was drying his hands.

“Can you get word to him?”

She tossed her head.

“I can, but that's not to say I will.”

“Dear Anna!”

“Don't you ‘dear Anna' me! How long do you aim at staying?”

“I don't know till I've seen Cornelius. Look here, if he comes along at the rush hour he can slip out to the back, and who's going to be any the wiser?”

She stood there frowning.

“I don't know. The girl would be here. It's more than four hands can do as it is—I can't send her out. There's my own parlour—if you were there and he came in the back way, you could let him in by the window.”

“Is that the best way?” said Antony, and she jumped down his throat. He might still have been eight years old.

“There isn't any best way, I tell you! There isn't any good way at all. We'll all end up in our graves more likely than not. He'll scratch on the window, and you can let him in. But mind you latch the window after him and see there aren't any creaks. And see that you keep your voices down, and be as quick over the whole business as you can. There's no sense in asking for trouble.”

He laughed. “What an efficient woman you are, Anna! Lead me to the coffee substitute.…”

As soon as he heard the sound that he was waiting for, Antony turned out the light. It was the least possible tapping upon the curtained window of Anna Brandt's parlour. The light died, the darkness swallowed up the red carpet, the brightly polished tiles, the round table with its red plush cover trimmed with crochet edging. They vanished together with the family Bible, the Delft jars, and the photographs of the late Josef Brandt and of Antony's parents.

Antony crossed to the window and opened it, holding back the curtain. He said, “Come in, Con,” and Cornelius came in over the sill. The latch clicked to, the curtain dropped, and the light came on again. There was Anna's room, with every bit of furniture shinning with polish, and there was Cornelius, looking as impassive as if he had come in by the front door and he and Antony had been meeting every day. He walked to the chair which had been Josef's and sat down.

“Well?” he said. “Anna said you wanted to see me. What is it all about? I notice she hasn't provided any refreshment.”

Antony laughed. “She's a thrifty soul. I fancy she would say you had come here to see me, not to drink at her expense.

Cornelius nodded. “Yes—Anna is like that. But she can be trusted, and that's more than you can say about everyone.”

Antony wondered whether it was more than could be said for Cornelius himself. He began to talk about the business that had brought him over—this and that information in the reports Cornelius had furnished—how he got them, where had he got them, and did anyone know that he had got them, and so forth.

Cornelius took out a cigar and lit it. He let Antony talk and said nothing. When Antony had finished, he let go a mouthful of smoke and enquired, “Am I to understand that I am not giving satisfaction?”

“I don't know why you should say that. If your stuff's correct it's valuable—you must know that. What I'm here for is to check it over with you. There is a little vagueness about your sources of information, and they'd like it cleared up.”

Cornelius produced a slow smile.

“I saw the big little man in Berlin the other day, and allowing for the difference in phraseology, that is what he said too. I seem to be an object of suspicion to both sides.”

Antony cocked an eyebrow. “If they really suspect you in Berlin, Con, why aren't you dead?”

“I may have been able to disarm his suspicions.” He paused, and added, “Why does Garrett suspect me?”

“I didn't say he suspected you. I said he wanted this stuff checked up. It's too important to take any chances over. Come along, Con, tell me how you got it!”

Cornelius said placidly, “I think I'd better tell him myself. The fact is I'm clearing out, and the sooner I clear the better for me. I suppose you didn't get a parcel from me before you left?”

“No, I didn't. What kind of a parcel?”

Cornelius still watched his cigar.

“Oh, a very important parcel indeed—a parcel which is practically my life, in a nice strong box done up in brown paper and addressed to ‘Antony Rossiter, Esq. By Hand.'”

Antony leaned forward. “Con—what are you talking about?”

“My parcel,” said Cornelius. “I would like you to go back to England again as quickly as you can, because as long as you stay over here on this stupid inquisitive business which Colonel Garrett has sent you to pry into you are risking my life in a very dangerous way. You see, the little man knows what is inside the parcel, and he would guess that I should not be so stupid as to keep it in any place where he can get his hands on it. He does not kill me or put me in a concentration camp, because I have told him that if he does so, my parcel will begin to make things very unpleasant for him, and though he has a very unbelieving nature, I was able to convince him that this would be the case.”

Antony looked at him quizzically. “I suppose you know what you're talking about, Con. I don't.”

“It is not necessary,” said Cornelius in his grandest manner. He was once more the lordly elder brother giving his orders to the little boy who had adored him. “You will get back to England as quickly as you can. Some arrangement has been made, I suppose, for getting you back. Mr. Merridew will have the parcel, and it is marked to be given to you by hand, but I am very uneasy as long as you are over here. As I said before, I am being followed wherever I go. I think I got rid of him tonight. But it is no great matter—they will think I have an assignation with Anna—she is quite a handsome creature still. I hope I got rid of him the night I handed my parcel over in a waterside tavern. I took every precaution, but one can never be quite sure. If he has found out that it has gone to England—and I am afraid I cannot regard that as impossible—then he will stick at nothing to get it back.”

“What's inside?” Antony's tone displayed a lively curiosity.

Cornelius drew at his cigar and let out the smoke.

“High explosive,” he said without any expression at all in his voice—“the sort that can blow a reputation to bits, and blow a man out of his job and land him in one of his own concentration camps. As long as that's loose in the world, he can't touch me without touching it off. You get home—and make sure you're not followed when you fetch my parcel away.”

“Good lord, Con—what do you want me to fetch it away for? Much better leave it in the guardian's safe.”

Cornelius shook his head. “At this time—when bombs fall every night in London? I don't think so. If you could be quite sure that you were not followed, I should say take it out of London and find a safe place for it.”

“I could put it in a country branch of my bank.”

Cornelius shook his head again. “No building is safe from a bomb. I do not agree to any bank—it is these big important buildings that are hit everywhere. You must hide it, and you must be very careful. He has his agents still. You must not trust anyone at all, and if—” He dropped his voice to the lowest murmur. “Listen, Antony—”

IV

Doris Holt came in some time after her parents had finished their tea. She had a cashier's job in a big drapery shop within half a mile of Adelaide Terrace. Like most other shops in the neighbourhood, they closed early enough to have allowed Doris to be in an hour ago.

Mrs. Holt looked up and said nothing, but Emanuel frowned and said in a mild, troubled voice, “You're late, Dor.”

Doris tossed her head. She was very small, and light, and slim. Her ash-blonde hair fell curling on her neck in a page's bob. A ridiculous little black felt hat clung precariously to one side of her head. She slipped out of her coat and stood up in the neat black frock which she wore in the shop. She had Emanuel's small features as well as his fair colouring, but in her nineteenth year these things bloomed together in the fragile, evanescent prettiness which is to be seen in so many London girls. When she spoke, her voice was the voice of the London shop-girl, pretty and a little affected.

“Oh, I just met someone, Dad.”

Mrs. Holt had a slow smile for her.

“And he saw you home. Better just hang your coat in the hall, ducks, and come along to your tea. There's no saying when the sirens will go, and I like to get washed up first, especially when it's fish.”

Doris ate an excellent tea, and chattered all the time. The name of Mr. Miller kept bobbing up in her conversation, as a cork bobs up in a light rippling sea.

“Mr. Miller says we'll all be living underground by Christmas, any of us that's left. He says these shelters we've got aren't reelly any use at all. I told him about Dad and Mr. Smithers making one out at the back between the two houses, and he said it wouldn't be the least bit of good—not when the bombs reelly started coming. Mr. Miller says we don't know what it's going to be like yet. He says they haven't hardly begun, and he says if he was us he'd go to the big public shelter round the corner and not trust to a home-made thing like ours. And when I told him as often as not we just stayed here in the kitchen, well, he was reelly shocked.” She giggled a little and rolled her pale blue eyes. A very bright pale blue they were, like the blue of some rather fragile flower. “And what do you think he said, Mum?—he's very goodlooking, you know—well, he just sort of fixed me with his eyes—it's a pity he's got to wear glasses—and he said real earnest, ‘Miss Doris'—I'm sure nobody could be more respectful than he is, reelly he's quite a gentleman—‘Miss Doris,' he said, ‘do let me ask you as a personal favour not to lose a moment after the sirens go. What would be my feelings,' he said, ‘if anything was to happen?' So I said, ‘I'm sure I don't know, Mr. Miller,' and he said, ‘There's only one Doris Holt. Take care of her.' Made me feel all gooey—it did reelly. So then he walked home with me.”

BOOK: Pursuit of a Parcel
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