Read The Chinese Shawl Online

Authors: Patricia Wentworth

Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller

The Chinese Shawl (9 page)

chapter 16

Tanis went away, and with suspicious promptness Carey walked in.

“Go and get a coat and I’ll show you the ruins.”

He saw her hesitate. She said,

“I don’t know—”

“I do. Go and get that coat. We’ve got to talk, and it’s quite a good excuse.”

She ran upstairs feeling a little as if she were playing hide-and-seek. But it was no good, she had got to talk to Carey. Quite as passionately as Mrs. Slade she longed to be back in London where nobody noticed where you went or whom you met.

In the passage outside her bedroom she almost ran into Miss Adams, who was emerging from her own room opposite. Stopping to apologize, she found herself unwillingly engaged in conversation. Since Cousin Lucy quite obviously disliked her, it was impossible to guess why she should wish to converse. It was equally impossible to escape.

In the cold tone which was in such marked contrast to her usual way of speaking, Miss Adams began with what might have been either a question or a statement.

“Tanis has been taking you round the house.”

Laura assented, and Lucy Adams went on.

“It’s a fine house, and interesting to those who value its associations, but of course it is not a cheap house to run, especially nowadays.”

Laura supposed not.

“Very expensive—very expensive indeed. And maids are so difficult to get in the country nowadays. This is my room. I think you haven’t seen any of these rooms. I will show them to you. ” There was a suggestion of effort in voice and manner, as if she had set herself an uncongenial task and meant to carry it through.

Laura beheld a room which she found distressingly pink. Victorian furniture, grave and heavy, appeared at variance with rose-coloured Axminster on the floor and rose-coloured damask at the windows. There was a pink bedspread which was a little out of key, and rose-flowered china which reminded her of the set in Cousin Sophy’s guest-room. There was some kind of flowered paper on the walls, but almost every inch of it was covered by innumerable sketches, photographs, and engravings of famous pictures. Millais’ Huguenot hung above the mantelpiece in a frame of yellow maple. From it Laura’s bewildered eye wandered over every sort of picture in every imaginable sort of frame. The furniture vied with the walls in supporting photographs of every relation and friend Lucy Adams had ever had. Above all there were pictures of Tanis as a baby, Tanis as a child, Tanis in her teens, Tanis as a debutante, Tanis up to date.

Laura got no farther than the threshold. The room repelled her. She murmured something, and Miss Adams knocked on the next door and then opened it. The tall, thin woman in grey whom she had seen for a moment the night before looked up from her fine sewing. She had a long nose and pale bitten-in lips without colour. There was no colour about her anywhere. The eyes she turned on Laura were sharp and pale.

“This is your Cousin Agnes’s maid, Perry. She has been with us—for forty years, is it?”

“Forty-one, Miss Lucy.”

Laura came forward to shake hands, but somehow Perry’s hand was not there to shake. That appraising stare and some slight inclination of the head were her limit of response. Laura thought of Carey waiting below. She had a sense of time prolonging itself indefinitely in this unwilling company.

But Miss Adams turned to the door on the right.

“Agnes has gone down, so I can show you her room.”

Laura felt a reluctance beyond her power to conceal. She hesitated, began to say something, and was caught in the tide of Miss Lucy’s offence.

“Really, Laura! Perhaps you will allow me to know what Agnes would wish. But since you are so scrupulous, I will tell you that she asked me to show you these rooms.”

Laura coloured faintly, murmured something which never really got into words, and followed a stiffly erect Miss Adams into a room as unlike her own as it was possible to conceive— fine old furniture; rich, quiet colours; no fuss, no frills, no photographs; walls covered with a heavy cream paper; marble mantelpiece supporting a modern atmospheric clock; and, hanging above it to the right and left of the chimney-breast, Armory’s portraits of Lilian Ferrers and Oliver Fane.

Laura had grown up with the copies, but here in the space and austere dignity of Agnes Fane’s room the originals rather took her breath away. She felt soothed and charmed by their beauty, and then deeply and painfully moved. What had kept the portraits there? Was it courage, pride, stoic endurance, or the perverted instinct which sets pain above pleasure and presses it home to the self-tortured heart? For twenty-two years Oliver and Lilian had hung where Agnes Fane must see them morning by morning and night by night, they in their youth and strength the world before them—this world or another—lovely and pleasant in their lives and divided for so short a time by death. And Agnes barren and a cripple, deserted and betrayed—how had she looked at them through all the mornings and evenings of those twenty-two years?

Lucy Adams’s voice struck in coldly.

“They are valuable portraits, but I do not care for oil paintings in a bedroom. They are Agnes’s property of course. They do not go with the house, but if you sell the house, they will remain here. It would be very much to your advantage to accept Agnes’s very generous offer. I hope you will do so.”

Laura was embarrassed, and under the embarrassment angry. Cousin Lucy had no business to try and corner her like this. It wasn’t fair. She said in a hesitating voice,

“I don’t know—I don’t think—please, Cousin Lucy, need we talk about it?”

There was sharp offence again—very unpleasant and trying. As soon as she could Laura escaped.

She found Carey very impatient indeed. “You’ve been hours!”

“Cousin Lucy caught me.”

He took her to the octagon room and down the steps into the ruined church, where the place was rough with fallen masonry, but up the middle of what had been the nave there was a clear grassy path. As they walked on it together Laura thought, “It’s what I dreamt last night—Carey and I walking up the aisle to be married.” She said quickly,

“I dreamt about us last night. We were being married— here. Only I was in my black lace dress and my Chinese shawl.”

“I’d love you to be married in that.”

She laughed.

“I’m afraid it wouldn’t do.”

“Laura, when will you marry me?”

She looked up, and down again. Something in his voice had shaken her heart. She said,

“You don’t know me.”

“I love you.”

“But you don’t know me, Carey.”

She was looking up at him again, letting him see what was in her eyes and reading love, amusement, tenderness in his.

“Don’t I, my sweet? I think I do. Shall I tell you what I knew after half an hour at the Luxe? I knew that you were kind, honest, and just—dreadfully honest, scrupulously just. I knew that you were very, very sweet, and I wondered if you were going to be sweet to me. I knew that you couldn’t tell a lie to save your life, or act one that would deceive a month-old baby. You didn’t talk very much, but you thought quite a lot. The things you were thinking showed in your face and in your eyes. It’s the nicest way of talking I know. When are you going to marry me?”

She said very soberly, “1 don’t know.” And then, “Tanis came to my room last night. She said she would tell Cousin Agnes that she wasn’t engaged to you and never had been, if I would promise not to sell the house.”

Carey whistled.

“Not to sell it?”

Laura nodded.

“She doesn’t want it. She doesn’t want to live here. She’d rather have the twelve thousand pounds. She said so.”

“Just what did she say?”

Laura told him. When she had finished, he said,

“Well, it’s not really very surprising. I can see her point of view all right. This place is all very well as a background with Miss Fane to run it. It’s no bother to Tanis—she can come down whenever she likes, bring a party whenever she chooses. But she doesn’t want to make it her life work. She wants to go to Hollywood.”

Laura looked unhappy.

“I don’t know what to do. I can’t bear making a bargain with her behind Cousin Agnes’s back.”

“No—I see. But nobody’s going to make Tanis live here if she doesn’t want to. She’d sell the place as soon as Miss Fane was gone.”

Laura said, “I don’t know what to do. I wish I had never come here.”

chapter 17

When Laura had left her, Lucy Adams remained in her cousin’s bedroom. She was looking up at the portraits, when the door from the dressing-room was pushed open and Perry stalked in. She came up close and said in an angry whisper,

“Well, what did I tell you, Miss Lucy? She’s not a Fane for nothing, nor a Ferrers neither—not in her looks nor in her ways! ‘She’ll be glad enough to sell the house’ was what you said to me. And what did I say to you, Miss Lucy? ‘Fanes isn’t as easy as that,’ that’s what I said and you can’t get away from it. And I haven’t lived with them going on forty-one years without knowing. ‘Don’t you count no chickens, Miss Lucy,’ I said, ‘or maybe you won’t hatch none.’ And now there isn’t any maybe about it. She won’t sell, and you’d best be making up your mind to it.”

“She didn’t say that she wouldn’t sell,” said Lucy Adams in a vacillating tone.

Perry’s long nose twitched in a sniff.

“She didn’t say that pigs wouldn’t fly neither. There’s things that don’t need saying. She didn’t say she wouldn’t sell. ‘Need we talk about it, Cousin Lucy?’—that’s what she said, as I couldn’t help hearing, seeing you’d left the door on the jar—and I don’t know what more you want than that. Them that’s willing to sell is willing to talk.”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“You can put won’t for don’t, Miss Lucy. There’s none so deaf as those that won’t hear. We’d best make up our minds to it, and be ready to turn out when Miss Laura gives the word.” She stalked out of the room without waiting for an answer.

About ten minutes later Miss Adams, who had returned to her own bedroom, heard a very perfunctory knock which was immediately followed by the entrance of Perry, in a state of repressed triumph.

“If I could trouble you, Miss Lucy—”

Lucy Adams was startled and annoyed. She had been caught with her front off, and Perry had eyes like gimlets. From now on every time Perry looked at her she would be seeing, not the decorous auburn waves, but the sadly widened parting which they concealed.

“What is it, Perry?”

“Well may you ask! Seeing’s believing, and when you’ve seen with your own eyes what I’ve seen, perhaps you’ll believe me. When Miss Agnes told me she was asking Miss Laura to come down here, I said to her then, ‘Miss Agnes,’ I said, ‘who brought the trouble into this house—Miss Lilian Ferrers. And if you ask Miss Lilian’s daughter here, it’s my belief you’ll be asking trouble again.’ ”

Miss Adams fixed her front with a couple of hasty pins, and said in a fluttered voice which she tried to make repressive,

“What is it? Really, Perry, you startled me very much.”

Perry stood aside from the door.

“You come with me, Miss Lucy, and you’ll see for yourself. Nobody’s ever called me a tell-tale yet, but seeing’s believing. If you’ll just step into the octagon room—”

They came into it together, Perry a step behind. Like the room downstairs it was empty of furniture, with a bare floor and the lift on the inner side, but instead of the oak door and the lancet windows of the ground floor there was one large recessed window with a deep window-seat cushioned in red damask to match the curtains.

“Look for yourself, Miss Lucy!”

Lucy Adams came up to the window and looked out. What she saw had been familiar to her all her life. The whole length of the ruined church lay before her, but about a third of the way up the nave Carey Desborough was standing with Laura Fane. They stood by a broken pillar with the grass under their feet and the grey sky overhead. They were not speaking. They were not standing very near together. They were looking at one another. And if they had been strained heart to heart, lips meeting in some ardent kiss, their love could not have been more plainly shown. It was there as a presence, as a fact. It flowed from them and surrounded them. It was in the look that each had for the other. It was tenderness, confidence, passionate gladness, a wellspring of hope. There was no need of word, or touch, or kiss.

Perry said with that note of austere triumph,

“You can see for yourself, Miss Lucy. Miss Lilian all over again—that’s what she is—”

A faint familiar sound checked the words upon her lips. She turned, stepped back a pace. Lucy Adams turned too, with the hurried movement of a child caught doing some forbidden thing.

The sound was the sound of the lift gate opening. Agnes Fane’s chair came out. She drove it straight to the window, passing between her cousin and her maid without a look at either of them. Sitting there, controlled and upright with a crimson leather cushion at her back, she could see what they had seen. Carey and Laura had not moved. The tranced moment held them.

Agnes Fane looked for as long as you might draw a breath. Lucy Adams held hers. Her face twitched and she put up her hand to it. But Agnes Fane showed nothing at all. She looked, and then she put her chair into reverse and, turning, went through the open door, across the passage, and into her own room.

chapter 18

In the late afternoon as the dusk began to fall, Laura escaped to the garden and walked there. She had a longing to be in the cold air and to be alone, and she had a fancy to walk just once, just by herself, in this place which had belonged to so many Fanes and now was hers. She could not feel—she wondered if she would ever feel—that the house belonged to her. It was full of alien thoughts, alien lives—thoughts which rejected her, and lives in which she had no part. But a garden was different. It slept its January sleep, but its thoughts and dreams were its own. They belonged to something older than Agnes Fane—older than any of the Fanes who had walked here, touched its surface with their whims, and passed away. She thought there might be something for her in the garden if she looked for it.

She found grass that was green in a sheltered spot about a sundial scarred with lichen. She could not read what was written on the dial. The words had lapsed into the dumb stone again. She found snowdrops in a drift under a leafless tree. It was cold. She went bare-headed with a coat over her green dress. She found a holly clipped to the shape of a peacock. She found great trees, and thought what they must look like in their summer green.

She was on a path which twisted through the heart of a shrubbery set with rhododendron, holly, and all manner of trees and bushes that would be sheeted with bloom in the spring—syringa, lilac, thorn, laburnum, currant, forsythia— when at a turn of the path she came suddenly upon the sound of voices. There was a man’s racking sob, and then Petra speaking in a tone muted to utter tenderness.

“Oh, my darling—do you love her so much?”

For the moment Laura was too startled to move. She could not see where Petra was. She could only guess that she and Alistair must be somewhere in the shrubbery, and it was certain that they thought they were alone. She came back from her shocked moment and turned to go. Alistair’s voice followed her, suddenly loud.

“Sometimes I think I hate her!”

She put her fingers to her ears and ran breathlessly back along the path until it cleared the trees.

It was when she had gone up to dress for dinner that Petra knocked at the door and came in.

“Was it you?” she said without any preliminaries. “In the shrubbery—just before tea?”

She had been gay and vivacious downstairs. Now she looked pale and determined.

Laura said, “Yes.”

Petra’s face relaxed.

“I thought it was, but I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t think anyone else would have run away. How much did you hear?”

Laura answered quite simply.

“I heard you ask him if he loved her so much, and I heard him say sometimes he hated her. Then I put my fingers in my ears and ran. I’m terribly sorry, Petra—I didn’t mean to listen.”

Petra smiled. It was just a flash, there and gone again.

“I don’t mind you. It’s better when someone knows.”

Laura hesitated. Then she said,

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Petra nodded.

“Yes—it helps—if it’s the right person.”

Laura opened her lips to speak, and then shut them again.

Petra laughed at her.

“Go on—say it!”

Laura said it.

“Alistair said he—hated her sometimes. But he is always saying how marvellous she is.”

The red sprang vividly into Petra’s cheeks—red flames, and her eyes very bright above them.

“Don’t you see, he’s got to think her marvellous, or he’s sunk. He minds about me—about hurting me—about our engagement, and the way he’s behaving. He can’t just do it and not care. He minds dreadfully. So he’s got to think how wonderful and marvellous and beautiful she is, or else there’s nothing left. And sometimes he can’t hold on to it, and then I’ve got to be there—I’ve got to. It isn’t because I can’t take it, or because I’m trying to keep him—it’s for him. She does something to men—they go crazy—something gets wrenched, twisted.” She was very pale again, her voice low and rapid, her eyes on Laura’s face. “Laura, sometimes I’m frightened of what he might do—” The last word failed as if her breath had failed. Then with a sudden flashing change she flung her arms round Laura’s neck and gave her a light, laughing kiss. “You’re nice!” she said, and ran out of the room.

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