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Authors: Patricia Wentworth

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BOOK: Pursuit of a Parcel
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“Who is Mr. Miller?” said Emanuel Holt in a vexed voice.

Doris giggled. “Reelly, Dad—how you said that! Anyone would think—”

“Well, we haven't heard of him before, ducks—have we?” said Mrs. Holt.

Doris giggled again. “Well, you couldn't have, because I hadn't heard of him myself, and the best girl ever can't tell her Mum and Dad what she doesn't know, can she?”

“You didn't let him pick you up, Doris!”

Mum! As if I would! And if you want to know, it was Florrie Hicks came up to me just as we were coming out, and she said, ‘There's a friend of mine wants to meet you.' And there he was—ever so polite, and quite the gentleman.”

Mrs. Holt looked at her with a comfortable smile. “And what's Tom Hale going to say to so much Mr. Miller, ducks?”

Doris coloured right up to the roots of her very fair hair. She was brilliantly pretty for a moment and her eyes shone.

“What's it got to do with Tom Hale whom I go with? I don't care if I never see him again! I'm sick and tired of the very sound of his name!”

Mrs. Holt continued to smile. “All right, ducks. Now what about another cup of tea?”

The raiders were a little later than usual. Mrs. Holt had finished her washing up with ten minutes to spare before the sirens went wailing overhead. The family then adjourned to the shelter which they shared with the Smithers next door. It was a close fit, but Mr. Smithers, an elderly widower “living retired” as he himself put it, had an ingenious mind and a turn for carpentry. From first to last the shelter had been his peculiar care. Emanuel had merely paid his share of the bill and lent an inefficient hand with the digging. It was Mr. Smithers who had insisted on the extra inches of depth and a corresponding increase in the defensive layer of earth piled overhead. He had also with his own hands constructed bunks, so that each person was enabled to lie down. This had necessitated some careful dovetailing.

Mr. Smithers, like all artists, was not fully satisfied with the result. He had provided five persons with the means of assuming a recumbent position, but it had not been possible to allow each of them a space of more than five-foot-six by eighteen inches in which to recline. He used to lie in his bunk and meditate upon the possibility of improving upon this arrangement.

As soon as it was quiet enough to sleep, he slept. When roused by more bombs, he would plunge again in thought. His elderly sister, after plugging her ears with pink cotton wool and tying up her head first in a woollen scarf and then in a waterproof hood, slumbered peacefully irrespective of what might be happening outside. This made them ideal shelter-companions. The only thing was, as Mrs. Holt said, that it was really quite easy to forget that they were there.

The shelter boasted a small electric bulb. It was Emanuel's habit to pass the earlier part of the enevning in improving his mind. Having perused with interest some statistics as to the limited number of words contained in the ordinary person's vocabulary, he was now busily engaged in adding to his own. Opening a dictionary at random, he pursued the unfamiliar word with zest and interest, whilst Rosie knitted and Doris flicked over the pages of a magazine.

“Now, Rosie, here's one you won't know, for I didn't myself. Astonishing where they come across the words. Grave, Rosie—a transitive verb, but not, as you might imagine, the one which means to carve, puncture, or engrave, from the Old English
cognate with groove, but another which has nothing to do with
at all. It comes from the Old French
a shore, and it means to clean the ship's bottom by burning off accretions while aground or in a graving dock.”

“Fancy that!” said Mrs. Holt.

Doris giggled. “A lot of use a word like that's going to be to you, Dad!”

A deafening crash seemed to rock the shelter. When the noise had died away, Emanuel continued.

“Very clever at describing things, they have to be, the people who write these dictionaries. Now how would you describe green, Rosie, if you were put to it?”

Mrs. Holt looked up from the Air Force sock which she was knitting for her sister Emily's second boy.

“Green,” said Emanuel with the air of one who has put a poser and knows the answer.

“Well, it's just green, ducks.”

“Ah, but if you were writing a dictionary you'd have to describe it, Rosie.”

“Well, I don't see what you're going to say except that it's green. And as to writing, I'm no great hand with a letter, let alone a dictionary, so I shouldn't trouble my head.”

“Well, this is what they say—and I must say I should never have thought of it myself—that's why a dictionary is so improving. Here we are, ‘Green—adjective and noun. Of the colour between blue and yellow in the spectrum; coloured like grass, sea water, emerald, olive, etc.' There! What do you think of that? Clever, I call it.”

“If you know what a spectrum is.” Rosie's tone disclaimed any desire for such knowledge.

As Emanuel was about to turn to “Greffier—a registrar or notary,” there were half a dozen crashes in rapid succession, the first terrifyingly near, the last definitely and reassuringly farther away. Mrs. Holt laid down her knitting, and a comparative silence fell.

“Em—did I turn off the gas at the meter?”

“I don't know, Rosie.”

“You didn't see me? Doris—did I turn off the gas?”

“I don't know, Mum.”

“Well, I'll just go and see.”

Emanuel dropped the dictionary and slid out of his bunk.

“You stay where you are, Rosie! It won't take me a minute—I'll go quicker than you.”

The searchlights were all up as he emerged from the shelter. The back door was no more than a dozen feet away. He ran across and slipped in, putting up a hand to switch on the light.

Nothing happened. He let the switch go up, and pulled it down again. Still no light. It went through his head in quite a matter-of-fact way that the power station must have been hit. He got out the little torch which always went with him to the shelter and discovered that the gas was off. Well, it wouldn't have been like Rosie to leave it on.

He was just going to open the back door again—had in fact stretched out his hand to do so—when, faint but unmistakable, he heard a footstep overhead.

All at once he was afraid. His heart had not quickened when the bombs came crashing down. It struck now against his side with a thudding which made it difficult to breathe. It was a cold night—the lean-to scullery was cold, with its three outside walls and no room over it—but there was sweat on his temples and palms. He stood where he was and listened as well as he could for the drumming in his ears.

The step was not directly overhead. It was very faint. There was nothing over the scullery. Bathroom and lavatory came next, over the kitchen. He thought the sound came more from the front of the house, from his and Rosie's bedroom. But that meant a thief—

He began to feel very angry indeed. Mean—that was the only word for it. It was a word which heartened him a good deal. You are angry with mean people, and you despise them. They don't frighten you.

He still had the torch in his left hand. But he wouldn't turn it on—not yet. He didn't need a torch to find his way across his own kitchen, but he kept a finger ready on the catch.

The door into the kitchen was open. He skirted the table and opened the door into the passage, all without making a sound. Standing there, he listened, and heard what he had heard before, a footstep going to and fro upstairs, moving, and stopping, and going on again. Words and a picture came into Emanuel's mind—“Looking for something”—and the picture of a man's hand holding a torch and flicking the beam of it here and there and everywhere. In his mind he could see the bright circle of light slide from Rosie's crimson eiderdown to the pillows of the double bed, and from there to the washstand china—poppies and cornflowers on a cream ground—Rosie liked a bit or colour. It would pick up Rosie's Bible on the table, her side of the bed, and her bedroom candlestick—you couldn't put all your trust in electric light these days. And then what else was there for it to go flicking over and prying at? The old bow-front chest of drawers which Rosie had brought from the farm when she married—the built-in cupboard where she hung her clothes—two old chairs which had come with the chest—a looking-glass, and that was all. And you wouldn't have to look long to know that it was all either. The lull held. He heard a drawer slide out and presently slide home again.

His anger had gone cold on him whilst he stood there listening. He began to wish that he had clattered through the kitchen shouting. Of course he could do it still—but not so easy to clatter and shout in cold blood. And then, while he was wondering if he could screw himself up to it, the lull outside was violently broken by what sounded like three cracking claps of thunder right overhead. The ground jarred under his feet, and the house shook and rattled about him. Something in him—some force, some vehemence—was released. He flung the door he was holding back against the wall and ran towards the stairs calling out at the top of his voice, “Who's there? Come down!”

Like the apprentice who raised the devil, Emanuel's command produced more than he had bargained for. A bright dancing light whirled out of the upper darkness, and an extremely solid body came charging down the stairs. The impact took Emanuel off his feet. His hand was wrenched from the newel. He lost his torch and fell flat on the hall linoleum. The front door opened and banged. Amidst the roar of the London barrage, now in full swing again, he picked himself up, tripped over his torch, and having recovered it, felt his way back into the scullery. Groping, his hand touched somebody's face.

Mrs. Holt's scream beat the barrage. It travelled rapidly up a couple of octaves and held on to the top note.

“Rosie, it's me!”

It was not so much Emanuel's voice, which could hardly have reached her, as his clutch at her arm that stopped the scream. It shut off as suddenly as a policeman's whistle.

“That you, Em?”

“Yes, Rosie.”

“Then come along back to the shelter! Whatever have you been doing?”

“There was a thief in the house. He ran downstairs and knocked me over.” They were shouting at each other through the noise of the guns. “The front door wasn't locked. He got away by it,” said Emanuel at the top of his voice, and was left saying it in a sudden silence as the guns ceased.

Rosie recovered her ordinary voice.

“Did you lock it after him?”

“I don't think so. He knocked me down and trod on me.”

She pushed past him in the dark. He heard her go through to the front door and lock it. Then she was back again.

“Doris must have left it open. If I've told her once I've told her twenty times. Do you suppose he's taken anything?”

“I don't know.”

“There's two and elevenpence in the left-hand top drawer under my stockings, and my brooch with the seed pearls and Granny's hair in the handkerchief-case. Oh, Em—I hope he hasn't taken it!”

As they let themselves out of the scullery door, Emanuel said, “He was looking for something.”

“How do you know?”

“That's what it sounded like. What could he have been looking for?”

Mrs. Holt stopped and looked up at the sky. There was silence there—no searchlights, only stars. She turned and said quickly, “Where's Mr. Antony's parcel?”

“In the shelter,” said Emanuel.

he have been after? Do you suppose it was Mr. Antony's parcel, Em?”

Mrs. Holt was on her knees, putting things back into her bottom drawer. The raiders had gone, the black-out curtains were down, and the room was full of the morning sun. The cupboard door gaped. Rosie's best dress, her afternoon dress, two summer dresses, two overalls, and a winter coat, were tumbled on the floor. A bandbox full of summer hats lay on its edge where it had rolled beside the bed. Everything had been taken out of all the drawers and tossed upon the floor. Rosie's cheeks were redder than ever as she picked up her insulted underclothes and folded them neatly away. Emanuel was re-hanging the dresses. He stopped with a brightly patterned artificial silk half on his arm and half on the hanger, and said in a dubious tone,

“How could anyone know I'd got it, Rosie?”

Mrs. Holt put a pair of warm knickers in at the back of the drawer and slammed it shut.

“Seems as if it was something particular,” she said. “Leastways that's what it looks like to me. And if he wasn't after Mr. Antony's parcel, what was he after—can you tell me that? There's nothing taken that I can see—everything thrown out on the floor all over the house, but nothing gone. My two and elevenpence left in the drawer, plain enough for him to see when he'd thrown the stockings out, and my brooch left where it was—if he'd been an ordinary thief he'd have taken the money—you can't get away from it. A thief that don't take money when it's under his nose isn't any ordinary thief. And what was he after, raking and ransacking the way he did? Nothing of ours, because nothing's took. And the only thing that wasn't ours was out in the shelter as luck would have it, and that's Mr. Antony's parcel.”

Emanuel disappeared into the cupboard and emerged again empty-handed.

“I don't like having charge of it, and that's the fact. But I don't see how anyone can know I've got it.”

Mrs. Holt got up. “Seems as if they did,” she said. “Do you know what I'd do, Em? I'd take and get rid of it out of the house before I was a day older if it was me.”

“Mr. Merridew told me to keep it.”

“Well, he didn't know thieves were after it,” said Mrs. Holt with strong good sense. “And if he did he'd got no right to say any such thing, and if you take my advice you'll go along to the hospital and tell him so.”

BOOK: Pursuit of a Parcel
2.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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