Authors: Patricia Wentworth
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller
Laura Fane came up to London in the third week in January. A little earlier or a little later, and things might have happened differently for her, and for Tanis Lyle, and for Carey Desborough, and for some other people too. It had to be that time because of her twenty-first birthday and having to see Mr. Metcalfe, who was the family lawyer and her trustee. She stayed with one of her Ferrers relations, old Miss Sophy Ferrers, who was an invalid and never went out. Miss Ferrers gave this as her reason for refusing to leave London for some less raided part of the country, intimating with gentle firmness that since she no longer felt able to leave her house for the pleasure of visiting her friends, she would certainly not do so to please Hitler. She had had a broken window or two when the house at the corner received a direct hit, and she had taken the precaution of tying up a heavy cut-glass chandelier in a muslin bag, but farther than this she declined to go. She welcomed Laura with great kindness, and insisted that she should make the most of her holiday.
“The Douglas Maxwells have asked you for tonight. Robin and Alistair are on leave. I hope you have brought a pretty frock, my dear. Robin is calling for you at a quarter to eight.”
The Maxwells were connections—Helen and Douglas, a nice friendly couple in the middle thirties, Douglas at the War Office, Ian and Alistair both in the Air Force and unmarried. Laura had met them once or twice. She felt warm and pleased. It was a delightful beginning to her visit.
She put on a black dress, and hoped it would pass muster. Black suited her white skin, dark hair, and the grey-green eyes which were her real beauty. They were changeable and sensitive as water, taking colour from what she wore. They took the light as water takes it, and they took the shadows too. Long dark lashes set them off. They were long enough and black enough to make a shadow of their own. For the rest she had fine, even skin, smooth and rather pale, and a charming mouth, wide and generous, with enough natural colour to have stood alone without the help of lipstick. The severely plain black frock showed a slim, rounded figure. It make her look taller than she really was, and it made her look very young—too young.
She frowned at herself in the glass. The dark hair fell curling on her neck. It might be the fashion, but it made her look about sixteen. There was a jade pendant which Oliver Fane had brought from China for his wife Lilian, a peach with two leaves, and a little winged creature crawling on it. Laura pulled it out of her handkerchief-case and slipped the black silk cord over her head. Her mother had never worn it, because Oliver died that leave. The bright green fruit hung down nearly to her waist. The cord made her neck look very white. She threw her Chinese shawl across her shoulders, and felt the momentary thrill it always gave her. Oliver had brought that too, and it was such a lovely thing—black ground and deep black fringe, every inch of the ground worked over in a pattern of fantastic loveliness and all the colours of a fairy tale.
She went downstairs and showed herself to Cousin Sophy, who put her Dresden china head on one side, opened her blue eyes very wide, and said in a plaintive voice,
“Oh, my dear—all in black!”
Laura dangled the peach.
“Not all, Cousin Sophy.”
Miss Ferrers shook her head.
“Very pretty—very pretty indeed, and quite valuable too. And the shawl—such lovely embroidery. You look very nice, my dear. It’s just that black seems so—so inappropriate for a young girl.”
Laura took one of the little frail hands and kissed it.
“I know, darling—it ought to be white satin and pearls, like the picture of my mother in her coming-out dress, and I ought to have golden hair and blue eyes like hers.”
Miss Ferrers smiled.
“She was a lovely creature, my dear, and she turned all the young men’s heads. Your father fell in love with her at first sight. He was engaged to his cousin Agnes Fane, and it would have been such a convenient marriage because of the property, but once he had seen Lilian it was no good, he couldn’t do it. People blamed him of course, and I’m afraid Agnes never really got over it. But what is the good of blaming people? It wouldn’t have been a happy thing for either of them if he had married Agnes, because she was very much in love with him and she had a very jealous disposition. So what would have been the good? He didn’t love her—he loved your mother. And they died so young—” Her voice went off into a sigh.
“I’m not like her at all.” Laura sounded very regretful. She would have loved to have been like Lilian.
Miss Sophy looked at her very kindly indeed.
“Just a look now and then. Sometimes it is quite strong. But of course you haven’t her colouring.”
Laura bent and kissed her. And then the doorbell rang, and Robin Maxwell was there to fetch her.
The old, sad story slipped away into the past. Robin was a cheerful young man determined to make the most of every moment of his leave. He never stopped talking all the way to the Luxe.
Helen and Douglas Maxwell were waiting for them in the lounge, both tall and fair, and treating Laura as if she were a real relation instead of a very distant family connection.
The rest of the party began to arrive—Alistair Maxwell with a vivacious little thing called Petra North who laughed, and chattered, and laughed again when the three tall brothers teased her. Laura thought she was like a kitten, with her little round face, and round eyes, and dark fluffy hair.
They all stood there waiting for Tanis Lyle and Carey Desborough. Laura liked his name. She remembered that she had liked it when she had seen it under a smudged snapshot two, or was it three, months ago. All the papers had had the ridiculous picture, which really only showed a pair of shoulders seen from behind, the back of a head, one ear, and the slanting line of what looked like quite a good jaw. The snapshot was there because he had got the Distinguished Flying Cross and he simply wouldn’t be photographed. The Maxwells were talking about him now. He had had a bad smash and wasn’t flying again yet.
Laura thought how much alike the three brothers were. Douglas was the tallest, and Robin the fairest. His hair was really almost white, but they all had the same rather square faces, tanned ruddy skins, and bright blue eyes.
“Tanis is always late,” said Petra North. She looked at Alistair, but he was watching the door.
Robin said, “She couldn’t be in time if she tried,” and quick as lightning out came the kitten’s claws, and Petra struck back with,
“She doesn’t try.” She laughed, and the dimples came out too. “I wouldn’t either if I was tall enough to make an entrance like she does. It’s no good when you’re five foot nothing. It simply doesn’t come off, and that would be worse than anything.” She whisked round on Laura. “Do you know Tanis? Oh, but of course you do—she’s your cousin.”
“She’s my cousin, but I don’t know her. We’ve never met.”
“Oh, yes—there’s a family feud—your father didn’t marry her aunt, or something like that. She told me. Too medieval! I didn’t know people really did that sort of thing—but of course it must have been a long time ago.” Her tone relegated Oliver and Lilian to a vague, indefinite past.
Laura felt a little embarrassed. She said the first thing that came into her head.
“She’s very beautiful, isn’t she?”
Petra made a little cross face. Laura had the feeling that for twopence she would have put out her tongue. The claws showed again.
“She makes people think so—” A pause, and then the one word—“men.” Her expression changed suddenly. “Oh, well—here she comes. Perfect entrance, isn’t it?”
It was. The floor of the lounge might have been cleared for it. There was an open lane between them and the big door, and up this lane there came the two people for whom they had been waiting.
Laura saw them as you see people in a picture. They arrested and held her attention. If at that moment she had known all that was going to happen between the three of them, she could not have felt a more breathless interest. She saw Tanis Lyle and a tall, dark man, and then she only saw Tanis Lyle, because Tanis was like that—she filled the room.
She wasn’t beautiful—that was Laura’s first astonished thought. She put across an effect of beauty, but it was an effect without bone and substance behind it. In that first clear moment of untroubled judgment Laura thought, “She isn’t any better looking than I am, really.” And it was true. Six or seven years older; perhaps an inch taller—or was that just the way her dress was cut; the same dark hair, but oh so beautifully done; the same very white skin; the same grey-green eyes, but greener, definitely greener than Laura’s were—quite a different shape too, long and slitted, between dark lashes. She walked with the perfection of movement, but that was because there was an absolute perfection of balance. Laura thought, “What a perfectly lovely figure.” The dark green dress set it off—skin-tight to midway between hip and knee, and then flaring full. The stuff was velvet, the colour a deep, rich emerald. Just where the fullness flared the line was broken by two queer extravagant pockets crusted with a barbaric embroidery of pearl and emerald. Pearl string at her neck, fine, lustrous, perfectly matched. Pearls at her ears, and emerald in an ultra-modern setting on the bare right hand which she was putting out to Helen Douglas.
The clear moment had gone. It never returned. As Tanis came up to her and said in her rather deep voice, “You must be Laura. I’m so glad to meet you,” all the details, all the things which you can make into an inventory, were submerged. Because it wasn’t what Tanis looked like that counted, it was what she was. She brought something with her—a vitality, an attraction. Waves of warmth, pleasure, interest, flowed from her, changing the atmosphere. It was like champagne. Everyone felt the stimulus. All impressions were heightened, all feelings intensified.
Laura looked into the green eyes and saw them alive with interest. She felt absurdly charmed, absurdly reluctant.
And then Carey Desborough was being introduced, and she looked up at a lean, tanned face, and thought, “Why does he look like that?” The odd part of it was that the very next moment she didn’t know at all what she had seen to make her have that thought. It was something that hurt, but she didn’t know what it was. It gave her a lost, shaken feeling. And then the whole thing passed, and they were going in to dinner.
Laura had never enjoyed herself so much in her life. There was that sparkle in the atmosphere, and everyone was so kind. They all knew each other so well, and they might so easily have crowded her out, but she didn’t feel like a stranger at all.
When dinner was over they danced in the famous Gold Room. Laura danced first with Douglas Maxwell, and then with Carey Desborough. She said,
“I’m not really tall enough.”
He smiled down at her and said in a pleasant, cheerful voice,
“Oh, we’ll get along.”
“Is Tanis taller than I am?”
She tilted her head and saw the smile go out. He said, with an effect of being casual,
“Oh, I don’t know—I shouldn’t think so.”
She danced with Robin after that. About halfway through they stood out for a moment and watched. Against the gold background the rhythmic movement had the effect of a kaleidoscope slowed down to the pace of a slow-moving melody. Laura watched with fascinated eyes. She had lived very quietly. She had never seen anything like this before. She was as thrilled as a child at its first Christmas tree. Light, colour, music, kindness made an enchanting pattern. She saw Helen Douglas go by, tall and very fair, in a dress of midnight blue. She was with Carey Desborough. Their heights matched perfectly. She saw Petra and Alistair. Petra was laughing, but Alistair looked across the room to where Tanis stood with his brother Douglas.
“Don’t you want to dance?”
Laura gave a long, happy sigh.
“I want to dance, and I want to watch, and I want to talk to everyone. There ought to be at least six of me to enjoy it all properly.”
“You are a comic kid!”
“I’m twenty-one. I’m grown up. I’m of age. I can squander my enormous fortune.”
“I didn’t know you’d got one.”
“Four hundred a year,” said Laura. “Three hundred of it comes from letting the Priory to Cousin Agnes Fane, so it doesn’t really count, because you can’t squander a house. But it gives me a lovely feeling to think that I can snatch the other three thousand pounds away from Mr. Metcalfe and just play ducks and drakes with it.”
“You’d much better stick to it. What sort of ducks and drakes do you want to make?”
Laura laughed happily.
“Oh, I don’t. It’s just a perfectly lovely thought.”
Robin’s Scottish brow displayed a frown.
“It must have been badly invested for you to be getting only three and a half per cent on it.”
But Laura was tired of the subject of her money. She had no idea of wasting any more time upon it. She pulled Robin out into the dance again. They went by quite close to Alistair and Petra. Laura said,
“I like her so much. Who is she? Have you known her a long time? Is she engaged to Alistair?”
Robin’s frown seemed to have come to stay. He answered only the last of her questions.
“Not officially. As a matter of fact he’s gone a bit off the deep end about Tanis. She takes people that way. Not me, you know—I’m a cautious bird. When I see a net all laid out with nice little pellets of poisoned grain, I beat it for the great wide spaces.”
“Oh—Robin, how horrid of you! She isn’t like that!”
“You just wait. She specializes in other girls’ boy friends.”
“It sounds revolting.”
“Not a bit of it—it’s all done with kindness. I’ve watched her at it for years. She’s kind to the girl, and she’s kind to the chap, and she goes on being kind to him till the girl gets crowded out, and then after a bit she gets bored and he gets crowded out too. She doesn’t want any of them for keeps, you know. She just wants half a dozen of them trailing round, licking her boots and paying her taxis, and ready to cut each other’s throats. She enjoys that part of it a lot.”
His tone was so savage that it rasped Laura’s nerves. She looked up at him, half frightened, and saw the fair-skinned boyish face set in lines that added ten years to his age.
“I didn’t think Alistair would be such a fool,” he said. And then, with a jerk that sent them both out of step, “What do we want to talk about the woman for? She’ll get herself murdered some day. She makes me see red!”
She danced next with Alistair. Interesting from the point of view of wanting to be right in the middle of these people and their emotions, but from the personal point of view perhaps a little arid, because Alistair did nothing but talk about Tanis—how wonderful she was—“She’s just been making the most marvellous film”—how beautiful, how extraordinarily kind and unselfish.
“I don’t honestly believe she ever thinks about herself at all. Take me for instance. I’m just a very distant cousin, and I’ve never known her particularly well before. She’s just been giving up her time to making my leave the most marvellous success. Why, she’d have let me fetch her tonight, only unfortunately Helen had already told Petra I was bringing her, so Tanis had to get Carey to come with her instead. I happen to know he bores her a bit. He’s one of the best, you know, but that doesn’t always cut any ice with women. Anyhow that’s another instance of her kindness—she’s been most awfully good to him. He crashed, you know, and he’s been rather a long time getting right. Tanis—” It was all Tanis.
Laura was fascinated and interested, but it did just occur to her to wonder how long the interest would last if this was Alistair’s usual form, and whether he talked like this to Petra. He told her all about how much Cousin Agnes adored Tanis— “She and Lucy brought her up, you know. They both adore her—but who wouldn’t? And then she went on the stage…” Laura gathered that Cousin Agnes had been rather narrowminded about this, and that the stage career hadn’t been quite the glowing success which was Tanis’s due, entirely owing to the main jealousies and cabals which her extraordinary beauty and talent had provoked. It appeared that Tanis had glided into the pleasanter role of the gifted amateur with professional experience. Then she had been seen by Isidore Levinstein and given, first a test, and then a marvellous part in a marvellous film. She had been working herself to death on it, but now it was finished and she was resting. That was why it was so marvellous of her to give up her time to someone like him. But that was just like her—she never thought about herself. She was so different from other people that they simply didn’t understand her. They were absolutely incapable of understanding such marvellous unselfishness…
Laura began to feel as if she were listening to a gramophone record.
It was after her third dance with Carey Desborough that he took her to sit out in one of the small alcoves off the dancing-floor. She saw him looking at her with an expression which she could not interpret—searching, quizzical—she didn’t know. She thought there was a trace of bitter humour, and she wondered why.
“You’re a cousin of Tanis’s, aren’t you?”
The label set off a very faint spark in Laura’s mind. Her chin lifted a shade as she said,
“Yes—I’m Laura Fane.”
He said, “You’re not like her,” in a musing voice, and a whole shower of sparks went up.
“Why should I be?”
He smiled disarmingly. It made the most extraordinary difference to his face. Oddly enough, it was when he smiled that she saw how sad his eyes were—dark, disenchanted eyes. He said,
“I didn’t mean that. Don’t be angry. What I meant was that you’re rather like her to look at—but you’re quite a different sort of person.”
“I don’t think I’m like her to look at.”
“Not really—just the colouring. But that’s accounted for if you’re cousins. It’s unusual, you know. Does it run right through the family?”
“I don’t know—I’ve never seen any of them. That’s why I was so excited about meeting Tanis. I’ve never met any of my Fane relations except the Maxwells, and they don’t really count because they take off miles further up on the family tree, before the feud.”
“Am I allowed to ask about the feud? I’ve never met one at close quarters before. ”
“Oh, it isn’t a secret. You can’t have that sort of family split without everyone knowing, and it was a long time ago— before I was born.”
“A very long time ago!”
Laura looked at him suspiciously. He was perfectly grave. She said in a hurry,
“My father ran away with my mother instead of making the marriage the family had planned for him.”
“And they cut him off with a shilling.”
Laura showed two dimples.
“They couldn’t do that. The Priory belonged to him. And anyhow there weren’t any shillings except the ones he would have had if he had married Cousin Agnes. She had lots from her mother, who was quite a big heiress. She’s been renting the place ever since. You see, my father was in the Navy, and he couldn’t afford to live there anyhow, and nor could I, so it’s just as well that Cousin Agnes wants to. I believe she simply adores the place. It is funny to think I’ve never seen it.”
“Why don’t you go down there?”
“She’s never asked me.”
Her voice sounded faintly forlorn, like a child left out of a party. He wondered how old she was. He said,
“Where do you live then? What do you do? Your father and mother—”
She shook her head mournfully.
“They died when I was five. I don’t really remember them—only like a story that you’ve heard, and you wish you could remember it.”
He thought, “She’s awfully young.” He felt what you feel towards a child—kindness—the response to an unconscious appeal. He said quietly,
“Well, someone looked after you.”
“Oh, yes—my mother’s sister—very kind, and just a little bit strict. She sits on committees—women’s welfare, and education, and all that sort of thing—and since the war evacuees.”
“And what do you do?”
“I’m secretary to a convalescent home for soldiers, and I drive the billeting officer round—she’s a woman—and of course A.R.P.—and odd jobs for Aunt Theresa—”
Carey Desborough laughed.
“And what do you do in your spare time?”
“I don’t think I have any.” She laughed suddenly too. “Oh, that’s what you meant?” The dimples appeared again. “Well, there are always odd jobs—we’ve only got one maid. And sometimes I go to the pictures, and I have been known to dance, but not on a floor like this.”
“The simple life!” His eyes smiled at her.
“I’m a country cousin,” said Laura. Her voice was small and meek, but the grey-green eyes had a sparkle as they met his. Then the black lashes dropped. It was quite effective, but she hadn’t meant to do it. She just couldn’t look at him any longer. Something behind the smile hurt her at her heart. It was a soft heart and easily hurt.
To her horrified surprise she felt herself blushing. The colour burned in her cheeks.
Carey laughed. He said in a friendly, teasing tone,
“I haven’t seen a girl blush for years. How do you do it?”
Somehow that seemed to make it all right again. The sparkle returned. She said,
“I don’t—it does itself. Isn’t it horrid?”
“Oh, but it is. It does it for nothing at all, and I never know when it’s going to let me down. I used to get horribly teased about it at school.”
They went on talking whilst the next dance came and went. She found she was telling him all sorts of things about Aunt Theresa, and the convalescent home, and their one and only bomb, and it was all quite easy and natural, and as if she had known him ever since she could remember.
“And how did you tear yourself away?”
Laura answered him quite seriously.
“Well, I hadn’t had a holiday since the war started—but it’s not a real holiday. I’m twenty-one, so I had to come up and see Mr. Metcalfe who is my lawyer and trustee. The holiday is just tacked on.”
“Then you ought to make the most of it. How long have you got?”
“I think about a week. It depends on Mr. Metcalfe.”
“When do you see him?”
“Tomorrow, at twelve.”
“Then suppose you lunch with me afterwards and we do a show?”
Laura blushed again, this time with pleasure.
“Oh, I should love to!”