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Authors: Josephine Bell

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When he had gone Miriam shut the door and stood for a minute inside it, listening, A faint sound from above came to her. She looked up quickly, and saw in the shadows of the first landing the white face of the younger of the two maids.

“What are you doing there, Marie?” she called, sharply, and was infuriated by the girl's quick gasp of terror. “Why didn't you come down at once when you saw me arrive?”

Marie moved reluctantly to the head of the stairs. Miriam saw another shadow behind her, Francine. Had she been there all the time, as well?

“Do as Madame orders,” Francine said, clearly.

“Oui, madame,” the girl answered, but she moved forward with obvious reluctance.

Francine waited until Marie reached the hall, then turned quietly and walked away.

Miriam watched her go, furious at her polite neglect. She told the girl brusquely to take her suitcases upstairs, then turned and went into every room in turn, finding each one empty, silent, accusing.

Having visited all of them she went back to her own sitting-room, and flung herself into a chair. The uncertainty and dread she had experienced since Henry's disappearance had returned to her in full force. Francine's behaviour, little Marie's hesitation and awkwardness, the police at the gate, all menaced her. Every desperate struggle she made only seemed to enlarge her danger. She was near breaking point, and she knew it. If only Susan would come and talk to her. Where was she, anyway? Surely the police …

Presently the door opened, and Susan came in. Miriam sprang to her feet.

“Hullo!” she said, unsteadily. “You startled me.”

“Why?” asked Susan. “Did you think I had been arrested? Was that what you intended?”

Miriam's mouth went dry.

“I—I don't understand,” she managed to say.

“Oh, yes you do. Inspector Renaud told me what you reported to him. Every detail of every lie, it sounded like.”

“How dare you?”

“Don't be utterly silly. Of course I dare. You invent a string of lies about me, the police don't allow me to leave the house, and you have the nerve to grumble if I accuse you of it. Really!”

Miriam sank back into her chair and put her hands up to her eyes.

“I didn't mean to hurt you,” she said, faintly. “I have never meant to hurt anyone. I have only tried to save myself—from Henry.”

“Hush!” said Susan, as Inspector Renaud came into the room.

Miriam took her hands from her face, and lay back in the chair, staring up at him. Susan moved towards the door, and at a nod from the inspector went through it, closing it softly behind her.

“So you have returned, madame?” said Renaud, looking sternly at her.

“Yes, I have returned.”

“I am curious about three things, madame. Why you went away, so secretly, and so immediately after your husband vanished? Why you informed us,
after
you had left, that he had disappeared, and you were afraid he was dead? And why you hinted, very openly, that Miss Brockley might be responsible?”

Miriam sat looking at him for some time, quite obviously arranging her explanations before giving voice to them. Inspector Renaud was patient. He knew from his inquiries that he had to deal with an hysterical woman. Her present calm was deceptive, he guessed. He was anxious not to break it before he had heard what she wanted to tell him.

“I was wrong about Susan,” Miriam said, at last. “I was distracted. I lost my head. You must understand that my husband was always difficult. He used to go away by himself, not telling me where he went. Naturally I concluded …”

She looked at the inspector, who nodded gravely. He would come to the same conclusion, he decided.

“So I was anxious when he asked this attractive girl, his cousin, to come here. It was his invitation, not mine. I did not know how well he knew her, or how often he had seen her. I was meeting her for the first time, but he …”

She looked at the inspector again, and again he nodded his agreement with her unspoken suggestion. But this time he spoke.

“If, as you suggest, there was a liaison between Monsieur Davenport and Mademoiselle Brockley, I do not understand why she should want to murder him.”

“Because he had failed to murder me,” said Miriam, quite simply.

As Inspector Renaud made no answer to this, she went on, “You have heard of the various traps that were laid for me?”

“I have heard of the—incidents—but I have not yet found a satisfactory explanation.”

“You don't believe that Henry was trying to kill me?”

Renaud looked severe.

“It is I who make the inquiries, madame,” he reminded her. “And I am investigating the fate of Monsieur Davenport. You, madame, are very much alive.”

He smiled at her, and feeling warmed and encouraged, Miriam smiled back, and lowering her voice, said confidingly, “I hope I may have misjudged poor Henry. As I said at first, I no longer think Susan was responsible. After all, whatever may have been between her and Henry in the past, she seems to have transferred her affection now to another Englishman.”

“Ah,” said the inspector. “Monsieur Armitage, you mean?”

“Then she has told you about him?”

“Not exactly. Monsieur Armitage was very definite, though.”

That shook her.

“But he has gone! He told me he was going!”

“He has come back.”

“Come back? … Then he could not leave things as they were! … He had to know … He came back to …”

Renaud could see her mind beginning to work out a new set of possibilities, a new combination of suspicion and accusation, involving this time, not Susan, but Giles, her own former lover. The obvious, frantic rushing hither and thither of her thoughts affected the inspector strangely and most disagreeably. His own ideas about Giles were shaken by her shameless, false devising. Where he had expected to see his theory passionately rejected by a guilty woman, he saw it blossoming in an imagination so unhealthily fertile that he was shocked, hard-bitten policeman that he was. He was shocked, too, to find how moved he had been, a little earlier, by the sweetness of her smile when he had told her she was very much alive. Such beauty had to be alive. Unthinkable that it could be lost. But how terrible to find it enclosing a mind so feverishly corrupt. How unusual, how confusing. How unlike his own countrywomen, thank God. But all the more reason to be careful, and unyielding, and cold. He took himself firmly in hand.

“We will not, at this moment, discuss Monsieur Armitage, either,” he said. “You will tell me why you went to Paris, and what you did there.”

She responded at once to the change in his manner. Now she was quiet and reasonable; a sensible wife, concerned for her husband's health.

“I went to see his doctor,” she explained. She continued with a long explanation of Henry's illness, most of which Inspector Renaud already knew. He did not interrupt her. This apparent frankness on her part might be very useful. At last it showed him just how much she knew about her husband's condition.

“For weeks I have seen him getting worse,” she said, with just the right note of tender solicitude. “Last year his hands, or rather his fingers, were swollen for a few weeks in the winter. Now this summer they have been getting worse all the time, and not only the fingers but the wrists and ankles as well. There were times when he could not wear shoes, but only carpet slippers, and other times when he could not pull on his fisherman's rubber boots. That made him absolutely furious. Quite apart from his back. He will not wear a support for the slipped disc, you know. But the worst thing was the heart symptoms.”

“The heart?”

“He had fainting attacks. It was really over this that I went to Paris when he disappeared. He had never allowed me to discuss his case with his specialist. Our local doctor never attended him. He used to call him in to see me, occasionally. But really, I am never ill.”

She said this gaily, with another of her breath-taking smiles. Inspector Renaud took an even firmer grip on his feelings.

“What did this specialist tell you?” he asked, and added, “I should like to have the name and address, please.”

She gave them and went on, “He told me that Henry's heart was absolutely sound, that he had not seen any sign of a worsening of the disease at the last examination.”

“When was that?”

“Three weeks ago. We went to Paris together three weeks ago and Henry had his consultation the next morning.”

“Only one consultation?”

“Yes. Then we stayed on to see one or two plays and do a little shopping. We came back …”

“I know that part of the story. It is where everything begins, isn't it?”

“Yes.”

She looked at him very gravely, her long dark eyes sad, but resigned now, it seemed, to Henry's fate.

“I still do not understand your own visit to Paris this week, madame.”

“Don't you see? I had only heard from Henry about his illness. Never, until now, from the doctor, himself. I wanted to know particularly about his heart, on account of these fainting attacks, this recurring dizziness. Can't you understand? I thought he might have fallen from a height, or into the river.”

“And you went all the way to Paris to discover if this was likely to happen?”

“Yes. To know if he had been warned about his heart.”

Precisely, thought the inspector. If he had been warned that his heart was affected, and his body should turn up at last on some beach nearby, where the conflicting currents had thrown it, natural causes would explain the death, added to Henry's foolhardiness in boats.

“So you discovered, contrary to your expectations, that Monsieur Davenport's heart was sound?”

“Yes.”

“This specialist could offer no explanation of the symptoms you had noticed recently?”

“Only one. That Henry had been taking too much of his new drug.”

“Ah,” sighed the inspector.

It was a sign of admiration, quite as much as an acknowledgement of defeat. This was counter-attack on the grand scale, and made with such superb confidence that he almost began to wonder if Henry were lying, instead of his wife.

“And what did you say to that?” he asked, eager for her next move.

The big soft eyes filled with tears.

“That it was only too possible. He had been warned against it, against taking too much for too long. He was always taking things, answering advertisements, trying the old-fashioned concoctions Francine brewed for him … everything. He believed that the more you took, the better the effect. He would not try to understand these modern drugs which are so different.”

She paused, but as Renaud said nothing, she went on, boldly, “I tried to check him. I sometimes hid the tablets in a drawer in my room. Then he had to wait until a fresh lot was sent. It meant a few days' respite. At the last I found the prescription and hid that, too. You will find it with some tablets in my room.”

“We have already found them, madame.”

Her eyes widened, but she only said, “Then you know that you can believe me.”

Inspector Renaud got slowly to his feet. In his twenty years as a police officer he had questioned many suspects, but never before had an apparent lie looked so much like the truth. Her explanation was so simple, so very convincing. But he remembered that it was not her first. There had been that confused accusation, levelled at the English girl.

“It depends,” he said. “If you had told me this story at once, perhaps. But why did you leave your hotel in Paris and remain hidden for twenty-four hours? Where did you go for this period of time? What were you doing? And why did you accuse Mademoiselle of doing away with your husband, if you had already made up your mind that he had recklessly overdosed himself with his medicine?”

She looked utterly confused. She stared at him as if he had accused her of ideas and actions she had never even thought of. Then, as before with Susan, she covered her face with her hands, and broke into loud sobs.

“I—I was mad to say that!” she cried, at last. “I was so confused. Dreadful things had happened …Giles … Susan …” She controlled herself with a great effort. “We shall know all when you have found his body,” she said, striving for dignity.

“We shall, indeed,” said Renaud.

Miriam collapsed again, crying bitterly.

“You are upset,” said the inspector, unnecessarily. “We will talk again another time.”

All his sympathy had melted, washed away by these excessive, childish tears. She was not any longer beautiful, fascinating, mysterious. She was repellent.

“I will send Mademoiselle to you,” he said, and strode out of the room.

Miriam stayed where she was, sunk in her chair, sobbing quietly into her handkerchief. She was not crying for Henry, or for her sins. She was lamenting her own failure, her own crass ineptitude.

Chapter Fourteen

It was now a week since Henry had left his home, and five days since his admission to the General Hospital at Southampton. Contrary to all the doctors' expectations, he was improving steadily. The oedema that had affected his lungs as well as his extremities had not turned to pneumonia as they had all feared. The swelling of his hands and feet was going down; his face was returning to its normal outline. The salt content and mechanism of his body, thrown out of gear by the overdose of the drug he had taken, was returning to normal. In fact, as the house physician explained to him, he had had a very lucky escape, and it had been a very near thing. It was up to him to have more sense and do what he was told about his medicines in future.

For the hospital staff were not aware of the complicated background to his case. As soon as the French police got in touch, through Interpol, with the C.I.D. in Southampton, Dr. Williams was warned to keep his mouth shut at the hospital. He had been discreet enough, for he had not believed Henry's statement that he had been deliberately poisoned. He agreed with the hospital consultants that the man was an eccentric who had overdosed himself.

BOOK: The House Above the River
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