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Authors: Patricia Wentworth

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BOOK: Pursuit of a Parcel
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Emanuel came back to his dinner considerably dashed.

“They're not letting anyone see him, Rosie. They don't say he's worse, but they say now he's got a very good chance and that's why they're not taking any risks with him. I did everything I could. I said it was urgent business, and they said that was just the sort of thing he oughtn't to be bothered with. And I said would they take a message, and they said no, they wouldn't—he'd got to be kept perfectly quiet and not encouraged to think about business at all, and it wouldn't be any use my coming back for a week at the very least.”

His small, neat features quivered in the way they had when he was taking anything to heart. It was at these moments that he so strongly resembled a faithful and domestic ferret.

Mrs. Holt patted him comfortably on the shoulder.

“Well, ducks, I shouldn't take on. Look on the bright side. It's good news about Mr. Merridew.”

Emanuel said, “Yes.” Then he dropped his voice. “Rosie, where is it?”

“Ssh!” said Mrs. Holt. She brought her lips close to his ear. “In my hat-box along with my best hat.”

Then it came over her—the two of them alone in the house—in their own kitchen—whispering.
Silly!
She began to laugh, and all at once it wasn't silly any more. She had the feeling of cold water running down her back. She held him by the arm and whispered again, “Em—there was a man here this morning—said he was from the water company. I kept the door on the chain and I wouldn't let him in.”

They looked at each other.

“He might have been from the water company, Rosie.”

“Well, he wasn't,” said Mrs. Holt. “I locked up, and I went down to Green's and telephoned.”

“They didn't send him?”

“They didn't send anyone.”

“I don't like it, Rosie.”

“No more do I.”

“How can anyone have known? That's what I can't understand.”

“Well, you brought it home in broad daylight, ducks. And a pretty thing, I must say, if you've got to watch, and creep, and hide yourself like a thief before you can get a parcel into your own house! It seems as if that's the way it is. And there's Doris—she's a chatterbox. If anyone was to lead her on, she'd be ready enough to talk. I wouldn't say anything to Doris, whatever we do with the parcel.”

“I don't know what to do,” said Emanuel in a helpless voice.

Mrs. Holt brought her mouth so close to his ear that the movement of her lips tickled him.

“Take it along to Miss Delia,” she said.

V

The drawing-room at Fourways was full of the buzz of voices—female voices in variety, from Cynthia Kyrle's shrill treble to Mrs. Barrock's bass. The Wayshot Ladies' Work-party was in full swing. Needles and tongues moved nimbly.

Mrs. Canterbury said in a drawling voice, “I know you won't believe me, but it is true—when we started a working party in Little Puddlington in the last war they sent us down a pattern to make nightshirts for the troops.”

Cynthia came giggling into a dramatic pause.

“Darling Mrs. Canterbury—what is a nightshirt?

Mrs. Barrock eyed her disapprovingly. “Men used to wear them, and women used not to talk about them, Cynthia.”

Cynthia giggled again, and Mrs. Canterbury said plaintively, but as if no one had interrupted her,

“It took yards and yards and yards of stuff, and little gussets, and things let in on the shoulders. And you won't believe it, as I said, but it's the solemn truth that it was the original pattern which Queen Victoria gave Florence Nightingale or someone for the troops in the Crimea, and down to the last gusset it was an exact reproduction of the Prince Consort's own nightshirt.”

“Did you make any?” said Miss Murdle in a reverential tone.

She was bareheaded, a fashion very trying to a faded face. Her flaxen hair, which never seemed to turn grey, hung in limp curls as nearly as possible after the manner in which Delia Merridew wore her pretty, fair hair. She admired Delia very much indeed, and copied her as closely as she could, thus inducing the pleasant illusion that she herself was still young and pretty—in fact just what she admired in Delia. It was an illusion shared by nobody else. Her green dress was as nearly as possible a replica of the one Delia was wearing. The youthful cut showed how thin she was, and the colour, which gave Delia a dazzling fairness, only emphasized her own pallor. Her large pale eyes gazed earnestly at Mrs. Canterbury.

Lillian Canterbury shook her very pretty head. No one had ever seen it with a hair out of place. The smooth grey waves framed a delicately tinted face. Her eyes were periwinkle-blue, and her dress matched them.

“We all lay down and died when we saw the gussets.”

Cynthia giggled again. “Darling Mrs. Canterbury—what is a gusset? It sounds awfully improper.”

Miss Murdle took upon herself to explain.

Delia Merridew, on her knees cutting out, considered that Cynthia had brought it on herself. She would now have to listen to Miss Murdle for at least five minutes, and it really served her right. As she got up she heard her own name from fat old Mrs. Blake, and turned to see that lady's wide, amiable smile directed upon her.

Mrs. Blake had a face which always reminded Delia of a well-floured scone with a couple of those small black currants stuck in it for eyes—it was so round and so soft, and she put such a lot of powder on it.

“I hope, my dear, that you have good news of Antony. I mustn't ask where he is, I suppose.
Somewhere in England,
I hope.”

Delia wanted to laugh, and Delia wanted to cry. Antony mimicking what people would say, and Mrs. Blake saying it just like that. “I hope he is somewhere in England.”
Antony
—
where are you
—
where are you?
She lost Mrs. Blake and the work-party. She was back in the study with Antony. They had stood there in the night and kissed. He had mimicked what people would say—

Mrs. Blake's voice flowed on, reaching her again.

“I am sure he writes to you whenever he can, my dear.”

The moisture in the eyes and the catch in the voice recommended by Antony came upon Delia without any need to feign them. She began to say something, and never knew what it was, because Cynthia struck in, tearing herself from Miss Murdle.

“I bet he doesn't write. None of my boys do once they get away. It's a case of findings is keepings, and somebody else always seems to find them.”

Mrs. Barrock turned an awful gaze. She had eyes uncomfortably like small bullseyes set prominently between high cheekbones and a determined brow. She had also a very determined chin. She said in her deepest voice,

“I should hardly think you would be proud of your inability to keep your friends, Cynthia.”

Cynthia giggled and tossed a head with the latest curls arranged in the latest way. She wasn't really pretty, but she had very good ankles and a roving eye. The way in which she acquired young men was only less interesting to Wayshot than the rapidity with which she changed them. She was the doctor's daughter, and the kinder hearts forgave her much because she had no mother, and was undeniably fond of their adored Dr. Kyrle.

Mrs. Canterbury took one of her infrequent stitches and said in the languid tone which always carried surprisingly, “I love Antony Rossiter, and if I was twenty years younger I should certainly do my best to find him and keep him.”

Mrs. Barrock fixed her with the bullseyes.

“Charming young men are never to be trusted. Mr. Rossiter is a great deal too goodlooking to be trustworthy. I gave Mr. Merridew my opinion on the subject years ago.” Under the impression that she had lowered her voice sufficiently to be confidential, she continued, “Of course he paid no attention—men never do until it is too late.”

The needle was suspended, the periwinkle eyes were lifted sympathetically.

“That is so true. But what a good thing, or we should never be able to marry them. They go into a sort of trance and don't come round until, as you say, it is too late, and then they just have to make the best of us, poor dears.”

Mrs. Barrock blinked. “That is not what I meant at all. Delia should have some elderly relative living with her—a woman. It is extremely wrong of Mr. Merridew to leave her here by herself. Anything might happen.”

“It is certainly rather dull for her,” said Mrs. Canterbury in her most provoking voice.

Delia had edged out of the circle. She was tacking her pattern together by the window, when Cynthia perched on the arm of her chair and leaned towards her, whispering, “Look at the Murdle—she's done it again! Don't you simply hate to have her copying you like that?”

Delia coloured. She said quickly, “I wish she
wouldn't.”

Cynthia giggled. “I should think you did! This is the worst one yet. Why do you stand it? I wouldn't.”

Delia was silent. She couldn't tell Cynthia that Miss Murdle always made her feel as if she were eating cake in front of a starving person. She went on taking long stitches in her pattern and hoped that Cynthia would talk about something else. But when she did, Delia would have liked to have changed her wish. Cynthia leaned right down and said in her ear, “
Have
you quarrelled with Antony?”

Delia changed colour again. “Why should I?”

Cynthia giggled. “Lots of reasons. I should think he'd be rather fun to quarrel with. What was it all about—another girl?”

“Of course not!

Cynthia slid down from the arm and sat beside her.

“Well, you mayn't think so, but there always
is
another girl. So if you really want him, I shouldn't keep it up too long. They go and weep on the other girl's shoulder if you do. I'd grab on to him if I were you. It's awfully disinterested of me to give you this good advice, because I wouldn't half mind Antony myself, but no one can say I don't play fair, only if you ever really do have a complete blow-up with him, you might just let me know.”

Delia laughed. She didn't have to try; the laugh just came bubbling up because Cynthia was so silly. She said, “I'll be sure to let you know.”

And just then the door opened and Parker came in, looking as he always did, the picture of a respectable middle-aged manservant with something on his mind. When he first came to Mr. Merridew, Delia and Antony used to wonder what it was. He was half of a married couple, but that didn't seem to be enough to account for it, because Mrs. Parker was a comfortable, fat woman and an angel cook. It took them nearly a year to find out that it was cross-word puzzles that were weighing upon him.

He couldn't let them alone, and he never managed to get them out.

He came across the room now, bent down a little, and said in his superior, worried voice, “Mr. Holt would like to see you, Miss Delia, if you can spare the time. I have put him in the study.…”

Delia came into the study, long and slim in her dress of leaf-green wool. Emanuel Holt thought how pretty she was. What he would call a real lady too, with the same friendly way with her whether she was speaking to him or to the grandest of Mr. Merridew's friends. Mr. Merridew had some very grand friends, which was of course good for the firm. The family was well connected. Miss Delia's mother had been the Hon. Cordelia Luton, but she didn't give herself any airs on that account. He had known her since she was a little girl, and it was a thing he had always admired in her. She shook hands with him as if he was one of Mr. Merridew's friends now, and said he must have some tea. “And I expect you'd hate to come and have it with the work-party—I expect Parker told you they were all here this afternoon—so I've told him to bring it along here for you, and I needn't go back for ten minutes or so.”

She was taller than he was. He had to tilt his face up a little to talk to her.

“Do sit down, Mr. Holt.”

The fire had been lighted and the room was cosy. Emanuel sat down in one of Mr. Merridew's comfortable chairs. He altered the angle of it so that he could talk to Delia without losing sight of the suit-case he had brought with him. It was one of the expanding kind, and it contained a great deal of crumpled up newspaper and a parcel which was addressed to Antony Rossiter, Esq.

“What did you want to see me about, Mr. Holt?”

Emanuel reached for the suit-case and opened it. In the middle of its newspaper nest sat the square brown parcel. After allowing Delia a moment to take it in he shut the lid and snapped the catches down.

Delia looked at him with a puzzled smile.

“What is it, Mr. Holt?”

“A parcel, Miss Delia—for Mr. Antony—I should say Mr. Rossiter.”

“I like Mr. Antony so much better. It sounds much more friendly, don't you think so? What's inside the parcel, Mr. Holt?”

“I haven't the very slightest idea, Miss Delia.”

The puzzled look deepened.

“Do you know who it's from?”

“No, I don't, Miss Delia.”

“It says ‘By hand,'” said Delia in a doubtful voice.

“That's what I've come about, Miss Delia. Can you tell me where Mr. Antony is?”

She stared at him. “Oh, no—I can't.”

Emanuel leaned forward. “Does that mean that you don't know, Miss Delia, or that you can't say?”

“I don't know,” said Delia, her eyes very dark in a face that was suddenly pale.

Emanuel sat and looked at her. “I'd like to tell you about it if I may, Miss Delia. A seafaring kind of man brought this parcel into the office no more than a quarter of an hour before it was wrecked by the bomb—the man hadn't been gone more than five minutes. You know what happened—Mr. Peterson killed and two of the other clerks, and as likely as not I'd have been killed too, only I was in with Mr. Merridew. And after I'd got him out I tried to save what I could, and one of the things I picked up off his table was this parcel for Mr. Antony. When I mentioned it to Mr. Merridew in the hospital he said to keep it by me and give it to Mr. Antony by hand.”

BOOK: Pursuit of a Parcel
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