Read Hue and Cry Online

Authors: Patricia Wentworth

Hue and Cry (7 page)

“What else is there to think? If she didn't come here as a spy, what possible motive could have made her snatch that paper from my table? It's not the first time she has done that sort of thing either. Only a practised hand, and a cool one, would have risked it and brought it off without making a sound.”

Sir George had come back to his chair. He sat with an elbow on the table, looking down, his face frowningly intent.

“Yes,” he said at last; and then, “What was on the paper? Just what had you decoded? Can you remember? Go over there and sit down and write it out.”

Paul Craddock hesitated, then turned about and flung himself into the chair before his own table. For a few moments his pen moved rapidly. Then he got up and laid the scribbled paper in front of his chief.

There was a moment's silence. Sir George stared at the paper and set his jaw. Then he reached for the matches, lit a taper, and watched Mr. Craddock's oddly written half-sheet of note-paper blacken and fall into ash.

He had put out his hand to the table bell, when Paul Craddock asked sharply and nervously:

“What are you going to do, sir?”

“Send for Miss Lee—have her searched if necessary. She's probably got the paper on her.”

“No, sir, wait! That won't do.”

Sir George looked at him icily, his hand still on the bell.

“Wait? Till she gets away with it? Are you by any chance turning an honest penny over this yourself?”

Craddock ignored the insult. His sense of his own peril rendered him impervious to anything else.

“No—
sir
—think! It won't do. Say she's got the paper—say we get it from her. She goes straight to Scotland Yard and tells them what's happened. You can't have her down and search her as if she'd taken a brooch or a ring.”

“Or my sister's diamond. Yes. There's something in it.”

A curious look passed like a flash over Paul Craddock's face. He came a little nearer and dropped his voice.

“Aunt Lena's diamond. Yes, it would have been quite easy if she'd only taken that.
Why shouldn't she have taken it?”

“What do you mean, Craddock?” said Sir George very deliberately.

Paul stooped forward and laid his closed hand on the table in front of Sir George.

“What's this?”

The hand opened slowly. On the palm of it lay the Mogul's diamond in its circle of little brilliant leaves.

CHAPTER IX

Mally and Barbara were still doing sums, when the door opened and Sir George came in.

“Lessons?” he said; and then, “Do you know, I'd rather like to stay and plumb the depths of Barbara's ignorance. Don't let me disturb you. Carry on just as if I were not here.” He strolled over to the sofa as he spoke, sat down in the corner of it, and took up a book.

The lessons proceeded, Mally hoping that her consternation was not apparent, and Barbara continuing to be unnaturally seraphic. Sir George made no comment. He appeared to be reading; yet Mally was aware that his attention was focused upon her—upon her, not Barbara. He did not look at her, but she was conscious of a most disturbing attention. Never in all her life had she been so glad to hear the lunch bell ring.

Mr. Craddock was at lunch, and conversation fluttered about the loss of Mrs. Craddock's diamond ornament. The poor lady herself made feeble endeavors to change the subject, but even the most devious paths led back again to diamonds, or thefts, or mysterious losses that were never cleared up. It was a most uncomfortable meal, for Barbara, discarding the rôle of Angel Child, was inclined to be pert, whilst Mrs. Craddock hovered nervously on the verge of tears and Sir George was by turns sarcastic and silent.

When the coffee came in, Mally got up and excused herself; Barbara was supposed to rest after lunch and there were still the lesson-books to put away. A good deal to her surprise, Sir George emerged from a prolonged fit of silence to say:

“Oh, don't go without your coffee, Miss Lee.”

“I really don't want any.”

Sir George frowned.

“Nonsense! Sit down and drink it. What difference does it make whether you put Barbara to bed at half-past two or five-and-twenty to three?”

Paul Craddock had taken his coffee and was dropping candied sugar into it slowly and thoughtfully. He took three spoonfuls and stirred his cup with a curious smile that made Mally feel like a volcano. What business had he to smile like that?

Mrs. Craddock looked at her imploringly, and Mally took a cup from the tray and drank the coffee with one quick gulp.

“Now, Barbara,” she said, and they went upstairs together.

“Do you like coffee? I don't,” said Barbara, hopping on one leg round the table.

Mally made a face.

“I didn't like
that,”
she said. “It had a perfectly horrid taste. Don't hop, Barbara. Make haste.”

“Must hop,” said Barbara calmly.

“Not when I say ‘No.'”

“Must. You see, I've simply promised my left leg not to walk on it till I go to bed.” Barbara's tone was mournful and earnest.

Mally made a dive at her, picked her up, shook her, and ran laughing and panting into the bedroom, where she deposited her with a bump in the middle of the bed. After a rather riotous five minutes decorum was restored. Barbara and a golliwog were tucked up under an eiderdown, and Mally went back into the schoolroom.

She sat down on the sofa, yawned, and took up the book Sir George had been reading. She felt suddenly so sleepy that she would have liked to be Barbara under the eiderdown. She yawned again, opened the book, and found herself reading the same sentence over and over, with no idea what it meant. She stared at the page and saw the lines running one into the other. She closed her eyes so as not to see them, and slipped down into the sofa corner, with her head against the arm and a sound like rushing water in her ears.

She did not know how long she slept, or how deeply; but she woke suddenly, with a start that shook her from head to foot and a little choking cry. The start and the cry had come with her out of a dream in which she was running, running, and running down a steep and stony road. Something was running after her. There was no sound of following feet, yet something followed. She started, cried out, and was awake.

She was sitting up, facing the door into the corridor, and the door was closing. Mally did not know why this frightened her so; but the slow, slow movement of that closing door turned her cold with terror.

The door ceased to move; the handle turned a little; the latch clicked—and that was all. There was no sound of a withdrawing foot. There was no sound at all. Mally sat in a dead silence, and was cold with fear. She could not take her eyes from the door, and the drowsiness, which she had only half shaken off, flowed and ebbed, and flowed and ebbed again.

It was the thought of Barbara that roused her and brought her trembling to her feet. If there was anything wrong, she must go to Barbara. Then, as she began to move, the fear and the drowsiness were gone together, leaving her wondering at herself.

Really, at her age, to drop alseep and wake up scared to death because she had had a dream! “Idiot!” she said to herself. All the same it was time for Barbara to get up.

She went to the door that led into the bedroom, and turned the handle. The door was fast. She shook it, but it held. She was calling “Barbara—Barbara!” when a sound behind her made her swing round with a little cry. Sir George Peterson was coming into the room, with Mr. Craddock behind him.

Paul Craddock shut the door, and Sir George said in a low, grave voice:

“Barbara is not in her room.”

Mally cried out:

“What has happened?”

His eyebrows rose.

“To Barbara? Nothing. She was removed by my orders. You will not see her again.”

“Sir George!”

“Does that surprise you?”

Mally's chin went up. She stood leaning against the locked door, wondering if this was still a dream.

“It
does
—very much. Will you explain?”

“Does it need explanation?”

Mr. Craddock had not come very far into the room. He stood leaning over the back of a chair, staring maliciously at Mally, whilst Sir George stood grave and erect by the table, with a hand resting lightly upon one of Barbara's copy-books.

“Sir George—what is the matter? What do you
mean
?”

“Don't you know? My dear Miss Lee, this is a delightful but quite unconvincing display of innocence. You really have a great deal of histrionic ability. But just at the moment, I'm afraid, it's wasted. Will you kindly give me back the paper which you took off Mr. Craddock's table this morning?”

Mally put her hand behind her and gripped the handle of the door. It was a quite instinctive movement, but it had the effect of a denial.

Sir George came a step forward.

“Come, hand it over!” he said very harshly.

“I don't know what you mean.”

He seemed to control himself with an effort.

“Miss Lee, I don't want to be hard on you. It was my sister's loss that opened our eyes. It was an act of the most criminal stupidity to take so marked a jewel as the Mogul's Diamond. But we are not anxious for a scandal. Give back the pendant and the paper that you were foolish enough to take this morning, and we shall not prosecute.”

Mally listened to these unbelievable words without making the slightest sign that she had heard them. In a sense it may be said that she did not hear. The sound of them fell upon her ears, but her mind made nothing of them. She said in a quiet, puzzled voice:

“I don't understand—I don't know what you are saying.”

And just at that moment Paul Craddock laughed.

It was something in his laugh that brought Mally sharply to herself. She saw Sir George turn a look of frowning anger upon his secretary and then face her again with a grave and judicial air.

“Miss Lee, what is the use of taking up this attitude? You came into this house in a position of trust. You have abused that trust. I feel that I am in part to blame—I made too few inquiries. But Mrs. Armitage is an old friend——” He broke off, made a gesture as if waving something away, and then went on, using a harder tone: “Well, I was precipitate, and I'm paying for it. Now, I don't want a scandal, for Barbara's sake, for my own sake, and for my sister's sake—she will in any case be most terribly upset. Give back the jewel and the paper, and I won't prosecute.”

Mally was still gripping the handle of the door behind her. Her fingers seemed to have grown to it; she could not move; they were cold and stiff. Her mind had begun to take in the words of Sir George's accusation; but they were just words.

“I haven't got any paper.”

The instinct that made her take hold of the words last heard was one that did her more harm than she could guess, for it confirmed both the men in their conviction that she not only had the paper, but knew its value.

Sir George's self-control gave way. With an oath he took a great stride forward and dropped his hand upon her shoulder.

“You damned little liar! Give it up—give it up, I say!”

Mally had courage enough and to spare. Sir George's violence steadied her. She tilted her head back and said hotly:

“How dare you touch me? Let me go at once—at
once.
Are you mad? I don't know anything at all about any paper.”

Craddock said, “Sir George!” in a low, warning voice, and Sir George let go of her and fell back a pace.

“Now look here——” there was a threat in every word—“stop all this nonsense and hand it over. You can't bluff me, and you can't get away with it. I'll give you five minutes. And if you don't hand it over, I'll have you searched, and you'll go to prison as a common thief. Come, is it worth it? I don't know what put it into your head to take the paper, or who paid you to do it. But just consider whether it's worth while. If I have you searched, the Mogul Diamond will be found on you. I should think you'd get a year's imprisonment, and you'll come out ruined for life. Is it worth it?”

Mally did not speak. She set her mouth in a straight, pale line and groped amongst Sir George's words for something that she could understand. She saw him, once more controlled, return to the table and lay his watch upon Barbara's copy-book. It was a bright-blue copy-book with a white label pasted on it. Mally knew what was written on the label—“Barbara Peterson. Sums.” The words were enclosed in a thin black line with twirls at the corners.

Sir George had laid his watch just under the label. The copy-book had round corners, and the pages were edged with red. Mally took particular notice of these things.

“Three minutes,” said Sir George.

Mally went on looking at the copy-book. The blue was rather a nice, dark blue with a watered line in it like
moire.
Lady Mooring had a black
moire
dress. It didn't suit her; it was much too stiff. She wore a Honiton lace collar with it, and a diamond brooch.

A whole sentence of Sir George's sprang up suddenly in Mally's mind and blotted out the picture of Lady Mooring in black
moire: “If I have you searched, the Mogul Diamond will be found on you.”
The words seemed to hang in the air. They were like one of those sky-signs which she had seen last night when she and Roger were crossing Piccadilly Circus. They sprang out of the darkness and blazed with a horrid glaring light:
“If I have you searched, the Mogul Diamond will be found on you.”

Mally remembered the queer taste in the coffee which Sir George had pressed upon her. She remembered her sleep, her terrified awakening, and the silent closing door. She remembered that Paul Craddock had laughed.

“Your five minutes are up, Miss Lee. Are you going to be sensible?”

She did not know that she was going to speak; but she heard herself speaking, saying what she had said before:

Other books

Death Come Quickly by Susan Wittig Albert
LaRose by Louise Erdrich
Genie and Paul by Natasha Soobramanien
Her Imaginary Lover by Doris O'Connor
The Bell at Sealey Head by McKillip, Patricia
Destiny's Detour by Mari Brown