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Authors: Patricia Wentworth

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The Black Cabinet

Patricia Wentworth

Chapter I

Miss Allardyce always felt that her house had what she called “a nice appearance.” It stood at the top of Maxton High Street, a little withdrawn from the busy pavement. It had bright green railings. A flagged path fully five feet long led to the green front door. Every time that Miss Allardyce came up from the High Street she thought how nice and cheerful her green railings looked, and she nearly always said to herself, “The house really has a very nice appearance—it really has—yes, very nice indeed.”

There was a brass plate on either side of the front door. The one on the side nearest the High Street bore the words:

“Miss Allardyce,

Dressmaking and Renovations.”

The one on the other side was inscribed:

“Allardyce,

Robes et Modes.”

With the former Miss Allardyce appealed to what she herself termed “business circles”; with the latter she designed to attract “The County.”

The workroom was on the second floor, and looked over what Miss Allardyce called “the garden”; it was really a dingy yard which happened to contain a battered remnant of lilac and the pollarded remains of an elm tree.

Chloe Dane, looking out of the window on an October afternoon, could see chimney-pots and out-houses, other people's back yards, and other people's washing, all rather drab and depressing. Not that Chloe was depressed; it took a good deal more than a view from a back window to depress Chloe. She turned back to the room with a laugh.

“This frightful abomination that I'm making is the own twin of old Mrs. Duffy's flannelette nightgowns. There's one hanging on her line now, all pink and bulging. I'm sure that's where Ally got the inspiration from. I say, Rose, it's pretty bad, isn't it?”

Rose Smith looked up from the black moiré which was to grace the Mayoress of Maxton. Chloe was holding out a very large pink satin garment which certainly bore some resemblance to a nightgown. It was adorned with pink ostrich-feather trimmings and incrustations of pink and green beads. Rose shrugged her shoulders.

“It wasn't Ally's fault this time. Miss Jones had it planned to the last bead—and oh, Chloe, won't she look awful in it!”

“There ought to be a law to stop red-haired women wearing pink,” said Chloe. “I say, Rose, I've got a ripping idea. Let's start a society for the prevention of criminal clothes. I'd love to. You know, I could make Miss Jones look—well, quite
decent
; but she'll never give me a chance.”

“What would you do with her?”

“Put her into black velvet, and give her hair and skin a chance. Dead plain, you know,—not a flower, not a feather, not a bead.” Chloe stabbed the pink ostrich feathers fiercely as she spoke, and then broke into sudden, bubbling laughter. “Poor Miss Jones, she'd be bored stiff, wouldn't she? She does love her bead and feather abominations. And I'd put that poor little, shrivelled Mayoress into grey. She'll look like nothing on earth in that hard back moiré; but I could turn her into a sort of French fairy godmother if she'd let me—only she won't. But, oh, Rose, wouldn't it be heavenly to have a free hand and make the right things for the right people?”

Rose Smith smiled, dimpled, blushed. She was a pretty, soft thing, all curves, and colour, and big brown eyes. She was going to be married in a month, and leave Maxton and dressmaking behind her for ever.

“It'll be much more heavenly not to have to make other people's things at all. Chloe, I wish you were going to be married too.”

Chloe tossed her head. Her black curls danced, and so did her black eyes.

“My angel Rose, I don't want to be married.”

“You'll hate it without me, Chloe. Ally's going to get in the Shingleton girl, and she's not your sort a bit. You'll simply hate it. I wish you'd get married.”

“Nobody axed me, sir, she said,”—Chloe's cheeks wore a geranium flush—“well, nobody that I'd have anyhow.”

“Bernard Austin would be awfully good to you.”

Chloe stamped.

“Rose, I won't have it! I'm not the deserving poor. Who wants a husband to be good to them?”

“I do,” said Rose with her eyes soft.

Chloe jumped up and kissed her.

“Shall have,” she murmured caressingly; and then, “I shall go adventuring.” She gathered the pink satin on to her lap again and began to sew. “I'm full of ideas. I've got a feeling in the tips of my eyelashes that Ally and I are going to be torn asunder. Our ways will lie far, far apart. It's sad, but it's just got to be.”

“What will you do?”

“Don't know. What do you think of an advertisement in
The Times
, or the
Daily Herald
, or the
Maxton Post
?—‘Chloe Dane, young, lovely, talented, wants something amusing to do. Dancing, dressmaking, driving, dining out—in fact, anything, so long as it's respectable. N.B. She is quite respectable and has been
most
strictly brought up. Apply care of Miss Allardyce, High Street, Maxton.' Just think of Ally's face!”

Rose laughed; but when she spoke, it was to say rather seriously:

“Aren't you sometimes sorry that you didn't stay on at Miss Tankerville's and teach?”

Chloe shook her head so vehemently that a curl whisked into her eye. She tucked it behind her ear, and said:

“Never—never once—never for half a second—in fact, my angel,
never.

“I can't think why.”

“Teaching's all right if you've got things to teach. I haven't. I should just have frumped and grown blue mould all over me. Look at poor old Tanks herself—there's an awful warning for you.”

“You couldn't get like Miss Tankerville if you tried,” said Rose. “And—and you wouldn't have been so cut off from all your old friends.”

“Haven't got any.”

“Your grandfather must have had some.” Chloe snipped a length of pink feather trimming.

“Well, I was only nine when he died, and he hadn't really been keeping up Danesborough for years before that. I can look back and see how neglected everything must have been. I can only remember about four servants indoors—and a place like that must have wanted at least a dozen to run it decently. Then I think my grandfather wasn't very much liked. He had the sort of row with the local hunt that thoroughly endears you to everyone within fifteen miles or so. He was queer, and crochety, and bad-tempered, and people just dropped away, I think. Anyhow, no one worried about me. There was enough money to keep me at Miss Tankerville's till I was eighteen, and that was all.”

“The place went to your uncle, didn't it?”

“Yes, Uncle Robert in Australia. He didn't come over or take any interest; he didn't even answer letters, I believe. He just let it all slide and go to rack and ruin. And two years ago, when he died, his son sold Danesborough to a man called Mitchell Dane who's simply rolling. I believe he's some sort of distant cousin. It's comic, isn't it? None of the Danes have had a penny since they ruined themselves for the Stuarts in the Civil Wars; and now there's this sort of cousin from nobody knows where with such a lot of money that he doesn't know what to do with it. I think it's
frightfully
funny.”

Rose Smith dropped her thimble, picked it up, and inquired ingenuously:

“Chloe, is he married?”

“Widower,” said Chloe—“old as the hills. I haven't seen him myself, but Monica Gresson told me. They went and stayed with some people near Danesborough for the hunting last winter, and met him. He's done Danesborough up absolutely regardless—new ball-room floor, electric light and telephones everywhere, central heating, and ten bath-rooms. Monica was much struck with the bath-rooms. He took them over the house, and she said they were full of the most thrilling contraptions.”

“Chloe, perhaps he'll ask you to stay.”

“Perhaps he won't. I shouldn't go anyhow.”

“Why not? “

“For the same reason that I won't go to stay with the Gressons.” Chloe set her red lips very firmly.

“I think you're silly,” said Rose.

“I know you do.”

“It's silly to be proud.”

Chloe stuck her chin in the air. Her black eyes sparkled.

“I won't go and stay with people when I can't afford the things that are just a matter of course to them. It's—it's undignified. At the present moment, for instance, I have got a pair of evening shoes, but not an evening dress, or a coat that I could go to a dance in, or bedroom slippers, or a proper dressing-gown. Of course, if I were the lovely, impecunious heroine of the sort of novel that the Tank adores, I should go and stay with the Gressons and discover that they were giving a ball that very night to the whole County. I should retire to my room and drape myself gracefully in a chair-cover, or an eiderdown, or a muslin window curtain. My hair, of course, would be done in a simple knot. I should then arrive in the ball-room and instantly make a conquest of every eligible young man in the room. The alternative to the eiderdown, chair-cover, window curtain scheme is that you wear the black bombazine bequeathed to you by your Great-Aunt Matilda. The result is exactly the same: the young men simply tumble over one another to propose to you, and you become the blushing bride of a wealthy and virtuous young duke, if there is such a thing—there would be, of course, in a novel.”

Rose giggled softly. Chloe always told her that she laughed like a fat baby.

“Chloe, if you could
choose
, what sort of dress would you have? I mean, suppose you were going to the County Ball.”

“Well, I wouldn't have black moiré, or pink satin, or ostrich feathers—that's a cert. I think silver tissue; there's a sort—frightfully expensive, of course—that's exactly like a dull, silver bath-towel; and I'd have it just as plain as plain; and perhaps dark fur, but I'm not sure about the fur. What would you have?”

“Gold,” said Rose. “I do look nice in gold. I should love to have a gold wedding dress, but of course I can't.”

“Edward thinks you perfectly lovely anyhow, so it doesn't really matter,” said Chloe. “My old nurse used to say a rhyme about gold and silver, but I believe I've forgotten it—no, I haven't.” She put her head on one side, and sang:

‘Silver and gold, silver and gold,

And just as much joy as your heart 'll hold.'

“You've got the last line all right, so I wouldn't worry about the wedding dress.”

“I don't,” said Rose. She got up, stretched herself, and shook out the black moiré. “There, that's done. And thank goodness, it's Saturday. How's yours?”

“Acres of ostrich feathers still. But it can wait till Monday. The minute the hooter goes, I stop. Edward coming by the two-twenty?” Rose nodded.

“Chloe, do change your mind and go to the Gressons.”

Chloe made a face.

“Monica bores me rather. She's all over me one day; and then, next time I see her, she's trying hard to remember that she's Miss Gresson of Ranbourne and I'm just Chloe Dane that she used to be at school with, and: ‘One tries to keep up with her and be just as nice as ever, only of course—well, you know how
difficult
it is—'”

Chloe made her pretty voice sound dry and thin. She broke off laughing. “No, that's Lady Gresson, not Monica. Monica's bun-faced and a bit of a snob, but she's not as bad as that. I expect I shall go out there this afternoon. There, not one stitch more till Monday.” She sprang up, gave the pink satin garment a swing round at arm's length, and launched it at Rose's head.

Rose screamed faintly. Chloe fell into a chair, laughing, and the door opened.

“Young ladies, young ladies!” said Miss Allardyce.

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