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Authors: Patricia Wentworth

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The Alington Inheritance

BOOK: The Alington Inheritance
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Chapter I

Jenny sat forward in her chair. It was eight o’clock in the evening. She sat leaning forward, her elbow on her knee, her chin in her left hand, her brown eyes, big and mournful, now fixed on Miss Garstone’s pale face, now taking a quick glance round, as if to see the other presence that was so plainly in the room. There was a candle shaded by two propped books on the chest of drawers a little behind the bed. It was a cottage room, oddly shaped, with the thatch coming down to just above the little windows.

Miss Garstone lay in a narrow bed, her head raised by pillows, her arms neatly laid down by her sides, her face as pale as if she were already dead. She had not moved since they had brought her home that morning. She had not moved and she had not spoken. The doctor had been and gone. Miss Adamson, the village nurse, had been there all day. Now she had gone home to get one or two things she would need for the night.

“It’s not likely she’ll come round at all. And there’s nothing to be frightened of, Jenny.”

Jenny said, “No—” and then, “I’m not afraid.”

“Well, I won’t be long—not longer than I can help.” Her footsteps went away down the narrow stair where you could not walk quietly however hard you tried, because the stairs were all twisty and they had never had a carpet on them since they were first built three hundred years ago.

As the sound of Miss Adamson’s feet on the stairs died away and the other sounds of her going ceased, Jenny drew a long breath. Miss Adamson had been very kind, but she would rather be without her. As this was the last time she and Miss Garstone would be alone together, that gave her a solemn hushed feeling. She looked at the quiet white face with the grey hair parted neatly in the middle, and the clean white nightgown coming up to the chin and down to the wrists, and she wondered very much where Miss Garstone was. Was she asleep? And if she was asleep, did she dream? Jenny herself nearly always dreamed when she was asleep. She did not always remember her dreams, but she always knew that she had dreamed. Sometimes she remembered what the dreams were, sometimes they were just out of sight, sometimes there was no remembrance.

She mustn’t think about her dreams, she mustn’t think about herself. She wondered what could have happened to Miss Garstone on that lonely bit of road. Every day for as long as Jenny could remember, or nearly every day, Miss Garstone had got on her bicycle and gone off to the village. If she had not things to do for herself, there was always plenty to do for Mrs. Forbes who lived in the big house.

Jenny didn’t wonder about Mrs. Forbes, because she was one of the people to whom she was so much accustomed that she hadn’t to think about her. If you have always known someone and they are always there, you don’t think about them, you take them for granted. Mrs. Forbes was always there, and so were her little girls Joyce and Meg, and her grown-up sons Mac and Alan. There was a lot of difference between them in age. That was because of the war. Mac and Alan had been born in the first years of Mrs. Forbes’ marriage, and the two girls came after the war, so that the boys were quite grown up and the girls were only nine and ten. They were all part of Jenny’s life. She hadn’t any relations of her own. When Mr. Forbes died she felt as if she had lost an uncle. He was always nice to her in a vague, absent-minded sort of way. He had been a very absent-minded sort of person. He had always struck Jenny as being only half there. Sometimes she wondered where the other half was. But the half that was there was always vague and kind.

Miss Garstone had always been there, too. Jenny called her Garsty. She was energetic, kind and industrious, but quite unsentimental. It was very strange to see her lie all day and never stir at all. Jim Stokes who worked for Mr. Carpenter had found her at twelve o’clock when he came whistling home to his dinner. She had done her shopping and started home, but she had not got farther than half way. There were the marks where the bicycle had run off the road. What had made it run? Nobody knew. If it was a car, it hadn’t stopped to pick her up—it hadn’t stopped at all. And Miss Garstone hadn’t moved after she had fallen. She had lain there amongst the dusty trails of blackberry at the side of the road with her broken bicycle in the ditch beyond her, and no one to say what had happened.

Jenny had got as far as this when Miss Garstone moved. Her eyelids quivered and then opened. Her eyes looked out, looked all round the room, and then closed again. It was an unseeing look. Jenny’s heart beat faster. She said “Garsty—” in a hushed sort of way as if she was calling to someone who might hear her but who mustn’t be disturbed. The eyes opened again. This time they saw. She said in quite a strong voice,

“Jenny—”

Jenny said, “Yes?”

“I’ve been hurt.”

“Yes, but you’ll be all right now, Garsty.”

“I—don’t—think—so—”

Jenny stretched out her hand and took the pale hand nearest her. Miss Garstone had always been proud of her hands. They were her one beauty and she cherished it. They lay on the bed, the nails even and shining, the fingers a little curved, lying there quite empty. Jenny took the hand that was nearest to her. It felt slack and weak and empty. She said, “Oh, Garsty, Garsty!”

The eyes opened. Miss Garstone’s voice came again. She seemed to be continuing something that she had been saying in the dream in which she walked. She said,

“So it all belongs to you. You know that, don’t you?”

“Don’t worry about it now, Garsty.”

Miss Garstone shut her eyes, but she was not at peace. The hand that was under Jenny’s kept on moving. It was like something that was trying to wake up and couldn’t quite manage it. Jenny’s hand closed on it warmly.

“Don’t. Don’t try, Garsty. It’s bad for you. You mustn’t. Another time when you’re better—”

The eyes opened again. For the first time the head moved. A very slight movement. It said, “No.” She lay quiet, her eyes open, fixed on Jenny. Then she spoke in a thread of a voice.

“Did I say it?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s—so—difficult. I—must—tell—you. I oughtn’t—to—have—kept it— from you. I never meant—to go—without—telling you. It seemed—best —at the time. Your mother—” She stopped. “She was Jennifer Hill. Your father—your father didn’t know—he didn’t know about you—that you were coming—I don’t think he knew—but Jennifer never said. He was Richard Forbes—Richard Alington Forbes. Alington belonged to him. But you know that—I didn’t keep that from you—everyone knows it.” The cold hand under Jenny’s warm one twitched and turned.

Jenny said quickly,

“Doa’t worry yourself, Garsty. Oh, please don’t!”

“I must.” The two words came out quite clearly and strongly. They were weighted with a deep earnestness. After them she fell silent. It was like watching someone drift. Presently she spoke again.

“I ought not to have done it. At first I wasn’t sure. And there were you, just a tiny baby, and your mother dead and she didn’t tell me anything. If she had told me—I wouldn’t have—let her down. Oh, I wouldn’t! Do you believe me—because it’s true—”

“Of course I believe you. Oh, don’t trouble yourself.”

The pale lips said, “I must—” on a failing breath. She was silent again. After what seemed like a long time she spoke in a faint voice. “I didn’t think there was anything more—not till you were seven and Mr. and Mrs. Forbes had been here all that time. I was talking to a friend of mine, and she said, ‘There’s a way you can be quite sure, you know. If there was a marriage, it will be at Somerset House.’ Did I tell you about the letter?”

“No. Never mind about it now.”

Miss Garstone took no notice. She went on in that whispery voice which was like the trees sounding in a little wind, or something that you heard in a dream. She said,

“About the letter—it was in that little chest of drawers. It’s there still —I put it back—I didn’t want to read it. But you’re their daughter—you have the right. It was the only letter she had from him, because they were together. She was in the W.R.A.F.’s—you know that. He was killed before he could write again. His plane was lost. He went out on—what do they call them—a reconnaissance or something like that—and he didn’t come back. He didn’t come back—” There was a pause. The eyelids fell. The room was very quiet. The minutes went by.

Then very suddenly the eyes were open again.

“I only saw the one sentence—just the one—but it made me think. I couldn’t get it out of my head. You see, he called her ‘My wife—my precious wife’—there, at the end of the letter. I couldn’t help thinking if they were married, then the house was yours—it was all yours.”

It didn’t penetrate. It was just something that the pale lips were saying. Jenny couldn’t believe it. The hand which held Miss Garstone’s was steady. Her mind shut all its doors. She couldn’t believe it at all. She said,

“If they were married, she would have said.”

“I thought of that—I thought he felt that way about her. But it couldn’t be true—it couldn’t really be true—”

The thought came into Jenny’s mind, “Why couldn’t it?” Before she knew what she was going to do she heard herself saying,

“Why couldn’t it be true?”

Miss Garstone looked at her. She made an effort that moved her head a little, and she looked at Jenny.

“I knew you would ask me that some day.”

All at once there seemed to be a tingling in the air between them.

“I knew it. Now it’s come. I wasn’t brave enough—I couldn’t face it. I can’t die without telling you—I never went to Somerset House—I was afraid—”

“Why were you afraid?”

“I loved you so much.”

Jenny’s heart melted in her.

“Oh, Garsty!”

“I thought—it was all wrong—I can see now. I thought if I said—and if it was true—that they were married—I thought—”

“Don’t trouble now, Garsty.”

“I must—there’s so little time—”

“Tomorrow—”

“I haven’t got any tomorrow. I never went to Somerset House—they would have taken you away from me. I couldn’t bear it—it was because I loved you so much—” The lids came down again. There was a long silence which gradually became peaceful. Then suddenly the hand under Jenny’s twitched and pulled. The eyes opened.

“You were born—here in this room. She came back—Jennifer came back. She never spoke. They weren’t here then, you know—Mrs. Forbes and the boys. The house was empty—because of course it belonged to him, and if she was his wife and he was dead, then it belonged to Jennifer and to her baby. Only she never said—she never said anything. She would sit all day by the window. What I told her to do she did. She wasn’t ill —not in body—but she was like a person in a dream. I had this cottage and we stayed here. The Forbeses came—because he was the heir. Mrs. Forbes came down and had a talk with me. She said it was stupid to stay on here—but I said, ‘Jennifer has no people and she has no money— but I’ve got this cottage—it’s my own—no one can turn me out.’ She saw I meant it, and she didn’t say any more. Jennifer never roused at all. When her time came and you were born it was all easy. But she died that night—”

There was a long pause. When Miss Garstone spoke again there was a difference in her. She did not speak to Jenny. The eyes that she opened did not see her. They were fixed on someone else. Jenny had the feeling that if she could turn her head she would see who that someone was. She could not see, but she knew what Garsty saw. There was a presence in the room. She didn’t know whether it was the presence of death or of life. She saw Garsty smile and say something, but she did not know what she said. And then in a moment it was over and Garsty was gone.

Chapter II

Miss Adamson was away for an hour. She would not have been so long, but she met a number of people, and of course they all wanted to know about the accident and about how Miss Garstone was, and what with telling them and their saying how dreadful it was, and how shocking to think that anyone would run a woman down and not see if they had killed her, the time just slipped away. Then she had to let herself into her cottage and feed her cat and get what she wanted for the night, and it all took time. She hurried all she could, and then she made haste back along the lonely stretch of road where the accident had happened, and round the corner past the gate into Mr. Carpenter’s farm, and then on to where the light shone from the window of the room where Jenny was watching. On the other side of the road was the empty lodge of Alington House where the Forbeses lived.

Miss Adamson felt a momentary twinge of resentment. She wouldn’t have said that she got on well with Mrs. Forbes. She made it her business to get on well with everyone, but try as you will, if you’ve got a feeling you’ve got a feeling, and in her inmost heart Miss Adamson knew that she had a feeling about Mrs. Forbes. She didn’t stop to think about it, but it was there as she put away her bicycle in the shed and walked up the dark garden path to go in by the kitchen door. Put into words, it would have been something of this kind—“She’s always here when she’s not wanted, and come the time when she might be some use she’s away. Not that I suppose she’d have put her hand to anything if she’d been here.” The thought was in her mind, if words did not clothe it.

She opened the door into the kitchen. There was a lamp burning here. She went through. There was no light in the front passage or on the stairs. The house was very still—it was very still indeed. There ought to have been some sound. The thought went quickly through her head. A little shiver went over her. She called up the stairs, “Jenny, I’m back!” and there was no answer.

Miss Adamson caught at herself. If anyone else had behaved like this, she would have known what to say about them. She couldn’t believe that it was she herself, Kate Adamson, who stood at the foot of the stairs and was afraid to go on. She knew very well what she would say if it were anyone else.

In the room above her Jenny still held the cold dead hand. It had very little warmth to lose. She couldn’t bear to let it go. She was glad to be alone. She was glad that there had been no one there except herself to see that look on Garsty’s face. It was the look of someone who sees into reality. She would never forget that she had seen it. When the voice called to her from below it seemed very far away. She began to come back, but slowly. Even when the door opened behind her she did not turn.

Miss Adamson came into the room and stopped. For a moment she had nothing to say. She saw Jenny sitting forward holding Miss Garstone’s dead hand in hers. She saw Jenny’s face in profile, quite calm. She had rather the look of someone waking from a dream—waking, but not quite awake yet. Miss Adamson’s eyes went to Miss Garstone’s face. It had changed very little since she had seen it last, but she knew at once that she was dead.

There was a silent moment. No sound at all in the little room, and outside the wind that had been blowing gustily was still. As Miss Adamson stood there with the open door in her hand she heard the car. She could hear it quite plainly. It tooted twice at the entrance gate, which was just across the road, and turned in. Time was when the lodge was occupied and one of the children would run out and open the gates for the carriage to pass. But that was a long time ago. The carriage had given place to a car, the lodge stood dark and empty, and the gates were always open.

The sound of the car died away and was followed by a puff of wind. It shook the latched windows and made a rushing sound about the house.

Miss Adamson pulled herself together with a jerk and came into the room.

“Oh, Jenny my dear—” she said.

Jenny turned very slowly. There was only one thought in her mind. She said,

“It isn’t true. It—it can’t be true—not Garsty—”

Mrs. Forbes drove on to the house and beyond it. She put the car away, drew a long breath of the something accomplished something done sort, gathered up her parcels, locked the garage, and made her way to the front door. It was open, and Carter stood there peering out.

“Oh, ma’am,” she said, “—oh, ma’am, I’d have managed to keep it from them, because that was what I thought you’d want. But oh dear, what a dreadful thing!”‘

Mrs. Forbes was not paying very much attention. Carter was an emotional creature—it didn’t do to take too much notice of her. She came into the lighted hall and began to undo her coat. The lamp in the ceiling shone down upon her and showed a very handsome woman. Not young—she owned to being over fifty, but she was very well preserved. Her two boys had been born with only a year between them when she was twenty-eight, the two little girls not for fourteen years, during which time Major Forbes had been in the Army—though what use he could possibly be, she never pretended to understand. When he did return he was even more absent-minded than he had been before he went. He was Colonel Forbes now, that was all there was to it. He slipped easily enough into the life of the village, was on terms of politeness with his wife, of vague affection for his children and for Jenny. He had died unobtrusively two years before, and his eldest son Mac reigned in his stead.

Carter continued to obtrude her excitement.

“Oh, ma’am,” she said, “you could have knocked me down with a feather—you could indeed! I don’t know when I’ve had such a turn! Right at our door as you may say!”

“What are you talking about, Carter? Not the children?”

Carter was at once shocked and impressed by the calmness of her voice.

“Oh, no ma’am! Oh my goodness, no! I couldn’t have met you like this if there had been anything wrong with them.”

“Well, what is it?” Mrs. Forbes was a carefully controlled woman, but the control was wearing thin. “For goodness sake, Carter—what’s the matter with you? If you’ve got anything to say, say it! Oh, I got that stuff for Meg and Joyce—it will make up very nicely, I think. I’ll go down and see Miss Garstone about it in the morning, or she can come up here. Yes, that’ll be best.”

“Oh, ma’am, you don’t know—Miss Garstone won’t never make no more dresses! Not a shred of hope—that’s what the doctor told Mrs. Maggs when she asked him. She’ll go out tonight or in the early hours, he said. Miss Adamson—”

Mrs. Forbes turned. She had reached the foot of the stairs, but she turned and came back.

“What are you talking about?”

Carter had her handkerchief out. She sniffed and choked a sob.

“It’s Miss Garstone,” she said. “Went into the village this morning same as she has time out of mind and nobody thinking anything about it, and when Jim Stokes come home at noon he found her—”

“Found her?”

“Yes, he did, poor boy, and it was a shock to him. He didn’t try and move her, but he biked back to the village—he’s a sensible boy—and they fetched Dr. Williams and Miss Adamson and they brought her home. And Miss Adamson she stayed with Jenny.”

Mrs. Forbes stood where she had turned. It was a shock. She stood there assembling all her force to meet it. Then she said,

“The children don’t know?”

Carter hesitated to avert, if possible, the cloud of anger which she could see sweeping up.

“Oh, ma’am, it wasn’t me—it wasn’t indeed! Mrs. Hunt she looked in to give me the last news, knowing I’d be interested. And Meg she come peeping round the door in the middle, and what Meg knows Joyce will know, there’s no getting from it. And it isn’t as if you could keep it from them—”

“Oh, be quiet, Carter!” Mrs. Forbes struck in with a sense of resolute strength. “I gather that the children know. I must go down there at once. It’s a nuisance—I’ve just put the car away, but it’s not worth getting it out again. I may be bringing Jenny back with me—I’ll see. Get the bed made in the little room next the children’s. Oh, and be on the look out for the telephone, because I’ll ring up when I know what’s happening.” As she spoke she came down the hall and picked up a flashlight from the table. As she finished speaking she was already at the front door. A moment later it fell to behind her with a resounding clang that echoed through the house.

Two little girls sprang from the top of the stairs and raced down them. They each put an arm round Carter and tugged her out of the hall and into the study.

“She’s gone down there!”

“She said she was going!”

“We heard her, so you needn’t mind saying!”

“Is she bringing Jenny back?”

“She said she was going to!”

“Jenny will have to come if she says so!”

“Oh, yes, she’ll have to come!”

They hung on Carter and hopped while they spoke. When she tried to make herself heard they pulled her round and round about.

“I’ve got to get her bed ready. Meg—Joyce—leave go of me! I’ve got to get on. Oh, my goodness—what’s that?”

They froze where they stood, two little girls in white nightgowns with plaited hair, and Carter elderly and fat, all three of them possessed with the same fear. There was a dead silence. Everything in the house seemed to hold its breath.

Meg moved first. She whirled about and stamped with her bare foot on the carpet.

“You made it up! You pretended to hear something.”

“Did you? Did you, Carter?”

“No, I didn’t. You children will be the death of me. I’m sure I thought I heard your mother. And if it wasn’t her, we may be thankful, for she’d never understand the plague you children can be. You’re not like it with her, and I don’t know why you should be like it with me. Off to bed and no more nonsense!”

Mrs. Forbes stood in the dark and waited for her sight to clear. In a moment she had decided not to put on the lamp, and had begun to cross the open space before the house. It was not really dark. There was a moon behind those clouds which hurried in a wind she could not feel. She saw the racing clouds, and they meant no more to her than a rising wind that might or might not bring rain.

She entered the darkness of the drive. Her finger went out to the switch of the lamp and stopped short of it. No, she could manage. She kept her thoughts on finding her way. Time enough to think what she would find on the other side of the road when she got there.

She came out through the open gateway and crossed the road. There was a light in Miss Garstone’s bedroom. Then it was true. She did not know that she had doubted it until that moment. If it was true, how did it affect her—and hers—the boys? She saw them suddenly, vividly, Mac— and Alan. But her mind was on Mac, her thought was full of him. He must be safe—safe. She opened the door of the house and went in.

Mrs. Forbes walked up the crooked stairs with her firm step. The door of Miss Garstone’s bedroom stood open. She saw what there was to be seen—Jenny and Miss Adamson and Miss Garstone, and two of them were alive. And the third was a dead woman. Curiously enough, she didn’t know whether that was a bad thing or a good one. It meant a change, but there are always changes. How the change would work out, she didn’t know. Something rose up in her fiercely. She would see to it that the working out should be as she had planned. She spoke Jenny’s name and came forward into the room.

“Jenny—”

Jenny turned. She wasn’t crying. Mrs. Forbes would have thought it more natural if she had been. She said, “She’s gone,” and she said it quite steadily. Miss Adamson would have shared Mrs. Forbes’ thought if she had not seen what she had seen and what she would never forget —Jenny’s look when she came in and found her alone with her dead.

No one who had seen that could possibly think anything except that Jenny had been so far with Miss Garstone that it was difficult for her to realize that she was gone, difficult for her to come back.

Mrs. Forbes took command. She said all the right things, and there wasn’t the least bit of reality in what she said. Not to Jenny. Not to Miss Adamson either. She felt her dislike of Mrs. Forbes more keenly than she had ever felt it. It almost got the better of her and made her say something that she wouldn’t be able to explain away afterwards. And yet when it came to thinking it out she was surprised at herself, because really Mrs. Forbes had done nothing to make her feel as she had felt. Thinking it over afterwards, Miss Adamson was astonished at herself— she really was.

It was Jenny who made the move. She said suddenly,

“We can’t talk in here— Oh, we can’t. She doesn’t hear us, but—” She left it at that and walked out of the door. They heard her step go down the crooked stair.

“She’s upset,” said Mrs. Forbes. “I suppose it’s natural. I’ll take her back with me, and you can get on with what has to be done here.”

“And never a word to ask me whether I minded staying!” said Miss Adamson to herself.

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