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Authors: Patricia Wentworth

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A loud knocking came into the dream and broke it. She rose on her elbow and saw that there was daylight in the room. There was a gleam of sun on the wall by the door, and the door itself was opening to let in Ellen and the tea. Ellen was a Wayshot girl, the daughter of Mrs. Cripps who was cook at the Vicarage. She was a fat, good-natured girl with a rosy face and the thickest ankles in Surrey. She put the tray down on the table beside the bed and said with a gulp, “Oh, Miss Delia, Miss Murdle's been murdered!”

Delia came bolt upright and said,
“What!”

Ellen gulped again. She was frightened, but she was enjoying herself. It is something to be the first to bring bad news.

“Oh, yes, miss, she's been murdered—on her own doorstep, as you might say. Must have laid there best part of an hour before they found her.”

Delia's eyes were set in horror. Miss Murdle—why should anyone murder Miss Murdle? It was as mad as the dream from which she was newly come.

“Ellen—how do you know?”

“Miss Hollins with the milk, Miss Delia—the first house she calls at is Dr. Kyrle's and the cook there, she told her.”

Delia sat staring at the window when Ellen was gone. Miss Murdle—there wasn't any reason in the world why anyone should murder Miss Murdle—there couldn't be any reason—she wasn't going to let herself think that there could—

She pushed the clothes back with a sudden quick thrust and jumped out of bed. As soon as she was dressed she ran downstairs. That is to say that she began by running, but before she had reached the hall the impulse which had prompted her was slackening. Something dragged at her feet and slowed them to a walk. She came to the study and stood with her hand on the door for a moment before she pushed it open and went in. The sun was on the window. The chairs in which she and Emanuel had sat faced one another across the hearth. The chair with its back to the window was here.

She unlatched the casement and threw it wide. The morning air came in, fresh and a little frosty. She put her knee on the sill and climbed out.

Yes, someone had stood here amongst the lilacs. There were footprints, one very deep as if a man had leaned forward on that foot and kept his weight there, leaning forward and looking in. Someone had looked in at the study window.

Delia stared at the footprints with a kind of horrified intensity. It had rained all yesterday morning—real heavy, sluicing rain. The footprints had been made after that, or they would have been blurred and partly washed away. The ground must have had time to dry a little, because the edges were sharp and clear, but it was still soft enough to sink under a man's weight and leave a deep impression.

If a man had stood here and looked in, what would he have seen? Emanuel Holt and Delia Merridew? He would certainly have seen Emanuel Holt. He would have seen no more of Delia Merridew than her back.… She began to shiver so much that she had to catch at the window to steady herself. He couldn't have seen her face, because she hadn't turned round—she was sure that she hadn't turned round. She had taken the parcel and gone out of the room, and Miss Murdle had taken her knitting-bag and gone out of the house and been murdered. These two things couldn't have anything to do with each other.

Delia began to feel cold and sick. They couldn't possibly. Or could they?… With a dreadful clarity it came to her that they could. Miss Murdle hadn't been killed because she was Miss Murdle. She had been killed because someone thought she was Delia Merridew. No, that wasn't right either. All the things which Emanuel had told her rushed into Delia's head—the burglary, the man who wasn't from the water company, the fuss at the bus stop. She thought, “Miss Murdle was killed because someone believed that Mr. Holt had given her Antony's parcel.”

She straightened up and began to walk round to the front door. Her legs were shaking. It would be easier to go in that way. But as she came to the steps she met the postman coming down, and wished she had scrambled in at the study window, because of course he would talk about Miss Murdle, and she didn't feel as if she could bear it. Everyone she met all day long would talk about Miss Murdle, and she felt as if she would end by believing she had murdered her.

The postman began at once. “Shocking thing, this about Miss Murdle—isn't it, miss?”

There was a stone balustrade on either side of the steps. Delia leaned against the left-hand bottom pillar and said in rather a breathless voice, “What happened?”

This was almost too good to be true. Mr. Cobbett's bright, alert face became extremely animated. He was too humane to feel pleasure in a murderous attack, but he certainly enjoyed talking about it.

“Struck down without an eye to see, and there she might have laid all night, poor lady, if it wasn't for Mrs. Fletcher coming by to the farm. Almost trod on her, and got such a turn she isn't over it yet. And whether Miss Murdle gets over it or not, well, there's no saying.”

Delia gave a gasp. “Isn't she dead?”

Mr. Cobbett shook his head.

“Not yet she isn't, but there's no saying.”

Delia felt as if a cold and heavy weight had been lifted from her heart. Miss Murdle might have been her dearest friend.

“Oh, Mr. Cobbett—are you sure she's not dead?”

Mr. Cobbett was quite sure. He had it from Barnett, Dr. Kyrle's chauffeur-gardener, who in his capacity as a St. John's Ambulance man had assisted in conveying Miss Murdle to the cottage hospital.

“Looked like a corpse and never so much as groaned when they shifted her, but the doctor, he says very decided, ‘Oh, no, she's not dead,' he says, and that's as far as anyone knows.”

Delia went into the house. Breakfast seemed more possible since she had seen Mr. Cobbett.

Half an hour later she came downstairs wearing a warm tweed coat and carrying Antony's parcel. She went round to the garage, took out her own little car, and drove into Wayshot with the parcel on the seat beside her. If anyone was watching her or the house, well, let them watch and see what they made of it.

Soon after she had turned out of the drive she heard the chug-chug of a motor-bicycle coming up behind her. Once odd things begin to happen, everything seems odd. She felt a passionate dislike for that motor-bicycle, and a cold drop went trickling down her spine. She was wishing she had brought Parker with her, when, large, solid and noisy the Benting bus came up behind, going a great deal faster than its legal thirty miles an hour. She let it pass her, stepped on the gas, and followed it into Wayshot.

An angel bus, a bus of deliverance—only what was there to be delivered from? She looked about for the motor-bicycle, and couldn't see it any more. The bus had stopped in front of the Blue Lion, and she had stopped in front of the bank, so there was no reason at all why the motor-bicycle should not have stopped too. It might be parked in Parson's Alley, or round the corner of the lych gate, or behind the grocer's van, or it might be lurking on the far side of the bus.

She got out of the car with Antony's parcel well in evidence and disappeared into the bank. Presently she came out without it and drove back to Fourways.

VII

Antony, in the character of an aimless loafer, was drifting down a street towards the waterside. Presently a man whom he wanted to see would come along and pass him a word. That would be the first step towards getting home again. It was a pleasant morning with a soft air off the sea, and the sun coming and going between blue sky and a fleece of cloud. A girl in a blue coat and skirt and a little blue hat came out of one of the small houses on the opposite side of the street. She looked at Antony, and, most unfortunately, at that exact moment Antony thought about Delia and smiled. If it hadn't been for the smile, the girl might have let him go, but the minute he smiled she was sure of him. She ran across the street and planted herself squarely in his path.

“Why—Antony!” she said in a light, surprised voice.

Antony could have murdered her with all the pleasure in life. Her name was Mina van Eyden, and she was a very pretty girl. He had met her and her sister at a dance when he was over in April. Cornelius had introduced him. They had danced, they had sat out, and he had an idea that at some point in the proceedings he had kissed Mina. The sister wasn't so pretty, but he had liked her. They had all seen quite a lot of each other for a week. A week in April—it was a long time ago.

Really a bit of the most outrageous luck to run across her here. And what was she doing in a street like this anyway?

He made his face as blank as he could and muttered something in Dutch. Mina van Eyden tossed her head.

“What a silly man you are! Did you really think I shouldn't know you again? I've been visiting my old nurse—and this is the reward of virtue!” She was speaking in English as good as his own.

He shook his head, shuffled with his feet, and muttered a clumsy excuse.

“I do not understand—I speak only Dutch.”

A shade of uncertainty crossed her pretty face. She opened her mouth and shut it again.

Antony pushed past her and left her standing. He hoped that she would have enough sense to hold her tongue.

Mina had no sense at all. She was as silly as she was pretty. She went out to a lunch party and told all her friends she was quite sure that she had met the goodlooking Englishman who was the foster brother of Cornelis Roos.

“Antony Rossiter—that was his name. Cornelis introduced him to me at a dance in April—I forget whose dance it was, but that does not matter. He danced
divinely.
I have never danced with anyone whose step suited mine so well. It was like a lovely dream.”

Barend Roos, who was a cousin of Cornelius, looked at her gravely. He was a big, heavy man with some resemblance to his cousin. He said, “You are talking nonsense, Mina. How could this Englishman be here now?”

She laughed her high, light laugh. Perhaps some day she would marry Barend, meanwhile it amused her to torment him. She had no intention of being taken for granted.

“Perhaps he flew,” she said, and laughed again.

Her sister Letta kicked her under the table and began immediately to tell a really funny story. Letta was little, and dark, and lively. She was not pretty, but she had brains. When they were walking home, she said,

“Sometimes I think you really are half-witted, Mina, and sometimes I think you do it on purpose.”

Mina smiled sweetly.

“And which did you think it was today, darling?”

“I don't know. Did you really see Antony Rossiter?”

“I really did—Letta, I really did. He had on such shabby clothes too—just like those loafers you see about the docks. And he wouldn't speak to me, or anything.” She giggled. “Letta, it was quite terribly funny—he pretended he only knew Dutch!”

Letta beat her hands together sharply.

“You shouldn't have spoken of it—you shouldn't have told anyone! Do you want to bring him to his death?”

Mina lost a little of her bright colour.

“Of course I don't! I wouldn't have said it anywhere else—we were all friends.”

Letta said low and sharply, “And Barend is a friend of the Nazis—don't you know that? You said it in front of him.”

Mina slipped a hand inside her sister's arm.

“Oh, Letta, don't be angry! I didn't think—”

“You never do!”

“I didn't mean any harm.” Her colour began to come again. “Don't be so gloomy about it!”

“Did Barend ask you any more questions? I saw he got you away into a corner after lunch.”

“Do you suppose he wanted to talk about another man?”

“Did he ask you where you had seen Antony?”

“Yes, he did. But it doesn't mean anything, Letta.”

“It doesn't mean anything to
you,”
said Letta van Eyden.…

Antony was in Anna Brandt's kitchen when the men came to arrest him. Fortunately for him the door stood ajar to the front room, and the first thing he noticed was that everything had stopped dead. It was a busy time of day and there had been a rattle of cups and saucers, a jingle of knives and forks, and a great hubbub of talk. And then not a sound. Nobody moved, nobody whispered. For all he could have said to the contrary, nobody breathed. To a man on his sort of job anything out of the way spelt danger. He slipped noiselessly into Anna's sitting-room, and heard behind him a man speaking in the front room. The voice was the voice of authority, and the accent was German. He didn't wait to hear what it said. He got out of the window and down the yard.

There was a door which gave upon an alleyway. He was halfway to the street beyond, when he heard a shout behind him, after which he picked up his feet and ran. He had no qualms about Anna, because the faster he ran the better it would be for her. If they didn't catch him, he didn't see how they were going to be sure that he wasn't her nephew Piet. Anna could be trusted to do the best for herself and him. But if they got their hands on him, the Piet story would be bound to break down, and then there would be a firing-squad for Antony Rossiter, and at the very least a concentration camp for Anna Brandt.

The devil of it was that the minute you run you give yourself away. The only thing in his favour was that the dusk was falling. He turned a corner, slowed to a walk, and looked for somewhere to take shelter. He was in the street where he had encountered Mina van Eyden. If ever in his life he wished a girl unkissed, it was Mina. If he hadn't kissed her, she mighn't have recognized him. He hadn't the slighest doubt that she had given him away, not out of spite, or because she didn't like him or the English, but in some moment of pure prattling folly. Well, he had kissed, and she had told, and that was the end of it, and perhaps of Antony Rossiter too. There was no cover in this street, and there was no turning out of it. It wasn't very light, but it was a long way from being dark enough to hide a life-sized man in an empty street.

BOOK: Pursuit of a Parcel
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