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Authors: Patricia Wentworth

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Delia said, “Yes, Mr. Holt?”

A kind of quiver went over him.

“Well, Miss Delia, that is what has brought me here. Mr. Merridew said to keep it by me, but it doesn't look as if I was going to be able to, and I wondered—”

“Why don't you think you'll be able to keep it?” said Delia in a surprised voice.

Emanuel quivered again. “Well, Miss Delia, it looks as if someone was trying to steal it.”

“To steal it?”

“Yes, Miss Delia.” He paused, and added, “Mrs. Holt and I, that was the opinion we formed.”

“But why?”

He leaned nearer, dropped his voice so much that she could only just follow him, and told her about the house having been ransacked. “Everything all over the place, just thrown out on the floor, Miss Delia. You wouldn't credit it—I'm sure I hardly could myself—Mrs. Holt's clothes and mine, and the bedding torn off the beds, and the books out of the book-case, but nothing taken, though there was money in one of the drawers.”

“But if nothing was taken, Mr. Holt, then they didn't take the parcel.”

“No, Miss Delia. But it's my opinion and Mrs. Holt's that they would have if they could.”

“And why couldn't they?”

“Because the parcel was out in the shelter, Miss Delia.”

Delia said, “Oh—” Then she said, “Why should anyone want to take it? What's inside?”

Emanuel looked worried. “I've no idea.”

“Does Uncle Philip know?”

“He didn't say, Miss Delia, and they won't let me see him again, not on any account.”

Delia propped her chin on her hand. “I know—they won't let me see him either. But it's because they think he's going to get well—Dr. Kyrle said so.”

Emanuel went on looking worried. “So I thought if there was such a thing as a safe down here and you could put it away, it would relieve me of the responsibility, Miss Delia—that is, if you can't tell me where Mr. Antony is.”

Suddenly she had a lost look. She said in a forlorn voice, “I don't
know,
Mr. Holt.”

“You see, Miss Delia, if it was lost—or I might say stolen—Mr. Merridew would be bound to hold me accountable, and I'm not at all happy in my mind—thieves in the night, and a man who was pretending that he was from the water company while I was out.”

“What!”

He nodded his head with a kind of mournful triumph.

“Yes, Miss Delia—and they hadn't sent anyone, because Mrs. Holt telephoned. And when I was waiting at the bus stop coming along to catch my bus down here, a man pushed into me from behind and I very nearly lost my balance. There was quite a little crowd, and I couldn't see who it was. I nearly fell, but I held on to the suit-case, and it's my belief that if I hadn't, it's just as likely as not that I shouldn't have seen it again. So if there was a safe in the house here—”

Delia didn't think much of the incident at the bus stop, but she felt sorry for Emanuel Holt, who was a nice little man and obviously worried to death about Uncle Philip and being responsible. She looked at the suit-case which contained the parcel. She couldn't see the address with her eyes, but she saw it very plainly in her mind—Antony Rossiter Esq., By hand. The idea of taking charge of it appealed to her strongly. The “By hand” seemed to bring Antony within reach again. She didn't think it necessary to answer Emanuel's question about the safe. There was no safe at Fourways, but she had no intention of telling him so.

She gave a sudden wide, enchanting smile and said,

“I'd love to look after the parcel, Mr. Holt. I'm sure it will be quite safe here.”

Five minutes later she went out of the room with the parcel in her hand. A man who was standing among the lilac-bushes where Antony Rossiter had stood in the dark a week ago watched her go.

He had followed Emanuel Holt from his house to his point of departure on the country bus. He had then followed the bus on his motor-bicycle.

When Emanuel alighted he continued to follow him, and presently found a place where he could leave his motor-bicycle amongst some bushes, after which he could follow unobtrusively on foot.

It was a bit of luck for Emanuel that there had always been somebody else in sight—even in the drive there had been the baker's cart. But it was a bit of luck for the man that the lilac-bushes were there to make a screen, and that he had been able to locate the room into which Emanuel had been shown. His first cautious peep around an ornamental holly had yielded a lively picture of the Wayshot ladies to his horrified eyes. His next attempt had shown him Mr. Holt, facing the window but fortunately not looking in that direction.

With a deep breath of relief the man got well into the lilacs and waited.

Presently the door moved and he drew back. When he dared look again, Delia was sitting with her back to the window. He could see no more of her than the top of a head of fair hair. Of her conversation with Mr. Holt he heard nothing at all upon Emanuel's side. Fourways was a very well built house. The window frames fitted perfectly, and the glass was thick. Upon Delia's side he heard her say
“What!”
in a startled tone and that was all he could have sworn to. Sometimes he caught the murmur of one voice or the other, but listen as he would, there were no more words. But when Delia got up to go he could see a little more of her. Not her face, because she never turned round towards the window, and not very much else, because the room was getting dark. There was plenty of daylight outside, and would be for an hour or two yet, but it was a cloudy afternoon and, looking in from outside, the room seemed dark. What he did see was that she was tall, that she had fair hair hanging down on her neck, that she was wearing a green dress, and that she had something in her hand as she went out of the room. He could not tell what the something was, because her body screened it from him. He saw her put up her left hand to open the door—and why would she do that unless she had something in the other hand?

She went out, shutting the door behind her, and he turned his attention to Mr. Holt. The suit-case was now, most fortunately, in his line of vision. Emanuel must have moved it, for up to now it had been quite out of sight. It stood sideways on to the window, and the lid was up. He could see the newspaper packing, and the square hole in the middle where the parcel had been. He had seen all that he wanted to see of Emanuel Holt.

VI

As soon as Delia had left the room Jimmy Nash, who had been looking in at the study window, came out from among the lilacs and made his way to a spot convenient for the observation of the front door. He had got to find out for certain whether the parcel was going to leave the house or remain there. If he had not had that glimpse of the assembled Wayshot ladies, he would have been apt to conclude that the parcel which he had virtually seen in the possession of a fair-haired woman without a hat had arrived at its—temporary—destination. He did not intend it to remain there, but he had every reason to suppose that Mr. Holt did. But recollection of the Wayshot ladies shook his confidence. He could not imagine them all to be resident at Fourways, but at least half a dozen of them had no hats. Girls didn't wear hats nowadays, not even in weather when you'd think they'd be glad to have something on their heads. It was a cursed nuisance, but he must keep his eyes skinned and make sure that the fair-haired woman didn't slip out and leave him guessing.

He had no difficulty in finding a vantage point. An old-fashioned shrubbery encircled the gravel sweep in front of the house. He got behind a
lignum vitæ
and wondered how long he would have to wait. If they stayed till after dark, he was done, but what with the black-out and the air raids, people who didn't have to be out mostly got home by daylight, so he hoped for the best.

He had a long time to wait. The shrubbery was extraordinarily draughty. He had a constitutional dislike of spiders, and after he had brushed one off his coat sleeve imagination presented a horrid picture of every spider he had ever seen or read about lurking ready to crawl up a trouser leg, or down his neck, or to come swiftly spinning on an unseen aerial to brush against his eyes, his forehead, his lips. Green spiders that you saw running in the grass—apple green, with a body like a bag. White spiders, like a drop of milk come alive with legs to it. Yellow spiders—where had he seen a yellow spider? He didn't know. But there was a black one he'd seen a picture of and always wished he hadn't—big as the palm of your hand, and black hairs on it. He blinked rapidly. A little chilly sweat came out on his temples. Crime also has its martyrs.

He could almost find it in his heart to regret the long abandoned path of virtue. He had left it some fifteen years ago by way of one of those runs of bad luck which beset the impecunious when they plunge on the turf. He had taken money out of the till and gone shabbily to prison. Emerging, he looked about for a livelihood, starved, stole, and went to prison again. Next time he came out he found employment with a master who paid little and promised much. Sometimes the promises materialized, and sometimes they didn't. There were risks to be taken, and—once in a way—a bonus to be earned. He usually had enough to eat, and so far he had managed to keep clear of prison. Sometimes he wondered whether the game was worth the candle.

The Wayshot ladies were having tea. Mrs. Parker would grumble about the rations and tell Delia that make cakes she couldn't nor be expected to with no more than two ounces a head of butter and six of margarine. “And I never thought to come to bought cakes in this house—and there's something else we've got to thank that Hitler for!”

The bought cakes were enjoyed, though not to be compared with Mrs. Parker's own, and presently everyone had the same bright thought about getting home before the black-out. Parker was already moving round inside the house closing shutters and drawing curtains, his mind dwelling gloomily on a, to him, impenetrable clue.

Delia stood in the hall saying goodbye, and by twos and threes the ladies emerged, buttoning up their coats and being audibly thankful that it was not raining.

The man in the shrubbery watched them down the steps and across the gravel sweep. They had to pass quite close to him, which was just as well, as the dusk was falling fast. He caught scraps of conversation as they went by: “I wonder if they've really quarrelled?” … “Why should they?” … “People do.” … “I've got a cousin who never got over it.” … “Well, you can't trust men.” … “I thought Parker looked very worried tonight. I'm sure he's got something on his mind.” … “I wonder if we shall ever taste Mrs. Parker's cakes again.” … “When the maroons sounded for the last armistice I got out my Aunt Selina's old square-mark Worcester coffee-cups and we had coffee in them. I always said I would.”

There was a large woman in a large hat. There was a square woman in a battered felt. There was a white-haired woman with a scarf round her head. The long ends blew out as she went by, and she put up an ungloved hand to catch them back. Diamonds flashed from a ring. There was a young girl, quite bare-headed. Her hair blew out like the white-haired woman's scarf, but it was dark hair.

He had begun to feel sure that the parcel was in the house, when Miss Murdle came hurrying after the others. Her pale hair showed up well in the dusk. She was trying to fasten a green scarf over it as she came, but the wind kept twitching it away. She hadn't fastened her coat either. It hung open over the green dress which she had copied from Delia's. Slung on her arm was a bulging work-bag of flowered cretonne. It was large enough to hold the parcel. The pointed corner of something which could quite easily have been the box which Cornelius had sent to Antony Rossiter stuck sharply out in the middle of a crimson peony.

Miss Murdle was older than he had expected, but he had not the slightest doubt that it was she whom he had seen in the study with Emanuel Holt. He recognized the green dress, and he thought that he recognized the fair hair. He did not know why he had expected her to be young. He let her get a little away, and then worked down the drive, keeping to the shrubbery, which ran the whole way to the gate. He was careful, but it was more from habit than necessity. The ladies were talking nineteen to the dozen, and would hardly have noticed an elephant behind them.

Fourways was about half a mile from the village. After about a quarter of a mile Mrs. Canterbury turned into the drive of The Grange. Just before the first house in the village a lane ran off to the right. Miss Murdle bade everyone an effusive goodnight and hurried down it. As soon as the others were well away Jimmy followed her.

It was a typical Surrey lane, with a high mixed hedge on either side and some sort of turn or twist to every dozen yards or so. He kept losing sight of her and being afraid that she would dive into a house and get away. She had a light, scurrying walk which took her along at a surprising rate. He took to running when she was out of sight, and arrived finally at the cottage which she shared with a valetudinarian aunt. It was a very picturesque cottage and quite as uncomfortable as it looked. The garden was encircled by an eight-foot holly hedge.

He came up with Miss Murdle at the point where the hedge rose another two feet to make an archway over a small wicket-gate. He had in his hand an implement known as a cosh—in this case an old brown sock with a lump of lead in it.

Miss Murdle never knew what hit her. She fell in a sprawling heap with her head against the right-hand gate-post. Jimmy stuffed the cosh in his pocket and snatched at her bag. The minute he had it in his hands he knew that he had slipped up. The bag held nothing but great rolling masses of wool. What he had taken for the sharp corner of Antony Rossiter's parcel was no more than two knitting-needles set at an angle. He dropped the bag and took to his heels.

Delia dreamed that she and Emanuel Holt were carrying the parcel down an endless road. They were under a horrid compulsion to balance it between them, each using no more than a single finger. If they let it fall, something would happen to Antony. It was a vague and terrifying dream. She did not know where they were, or why the parcel must not fall, or what would happen to Antony if it did. There was a compelling force of fear, and a cloudy threat of terror to come.

BOOK: Pursuit of a Parcel
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