Читать онлайн "Grave Mistake" автора Marsh Ngaio - RuLit - Страница 10


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“It’s a bit off not telling where she is. But thanks, anyway, for helping out. I’ll pay it back, of course, don’t worry.”

She went to her study to fetch it and again he trailed after her. Horrid to feel that it was not a good idea for him to see where she kept her housekeeping money.

In the hall she said: “I’ve a telephone call to make. I’ll join you in the garden. And then I’m afraid we’ll have to part: I’ve got work on hand.”

“I quite understand,” he said with an attempt at dignity.

When she rejoined him he was hanging about outside the front door. She gave him the money. “It’s twenty-three pounds,” she said. “Apart from loose change, it’s all I’ve got in the house at the moment.”

“I quite understand,” he repeated grandly, and after giving her one of his furtive glances said: “Of course, if I had my own I wouldn’t have to do this. Do you know that?”

“I don’t think I understand.”

“If I had The Stamp.”

“The Stamp?”

“The one my father left me. The famous one.”

“I’d forgotten about it.”

“You wouldn’t have if you were in my boots. The Black Alexander.”

Then Verity remembered. The story had always sounded like something out of a boy’s annual. Claude’s father had inherited the stamp, which was one of an issue that had been withdrawn on the day of appearance because of an ominous fault: a black spot in the centre of the Czar Alexander’s brow. It was reputed to be the only specimen known to be extant and worth a fabulous amount. Maurice Carter had been killed in the blitz while on leave. When his stamp collection was uplifted from his bank the Black Alexander was missing. It was never recovered.

“It was a strange business, that,” Verity said.

“From what they’ve told me it was a very strange business indeed,” he said, with his laugh.

She didn’t answer. He shuffled his feet in the gravel and said he supposed he’d better take himself off.

“Goodbye, then,” said Verity..

He gave her a damp and boneless handshake and had turned away when a thought seemed to strike him.

“By the way,” he said. “If anyone asks for me I’d be grateful if you didn’t know anything. Where I am and that. I don’t suppose they will but, you know, if they do.”

“Who would they be?”

“Oh — boring people. You wouldn’t know them.” He smiled and for a moment looked fully at her. “You’re so good at not knowing where Syb is,” he said. “The exercise ought to come easy to you, Miss Preston.”

She knew her face was red. He had made her feel shabby.

“Look here. Are you in trouble?” she asked.

“Me? Trouble?”

“With the police?”

“Well, I must say! Thank you very much! What on earth could have given you that idea!” She didn’t answer. He said, “Oh well, thanks for the loan anyway,” and walked off. When he had got halfway to the gate he began, feebly, to whistle.

Verity went indoors meaning to settle down to work. She tried to concentrate for an hour, failed, started to write to Sybil, thought better of it, thought of taking a walk in the garden and was called back by the telephone.

It was Mrs. Jim, speaking from Quintern Place. She sounded unlike herself and said she was sure she begged pardon for giving the trouble but she was that worried. After a certain amount of preliminary explanation it emerged that it was about “that Mr. Claude Carter.”

Sybil had told the staff it was remotely possible that he might appear and that if he did and wanted to stay they were to allow it. And then earlier this afternoon someone had rung up asking if he was there and Mrs. Jim had replied truthfully that he wasn’t and wasn’t expected and that she didn’t know where he could be found. About half an hour later he arrived and said he wanted to stay.

“So I put him in the green bedroom, according,” said Mrs. Jim, “and I told him about the person who’d rang and he says he don’t want to take calls and I’m to say he’s not there and I don’t know nothing about him. Well, Miss Preston, I don’t like it. I won’t take the responsibility. There’s something funny going on and I won’t be mixed up. And I was wondering if you’d be kind enough to give me a word of advice.”

“Poor Mrs. Jim,” Verity said. “What a bore for you. But Mrs. Foster said you were to put him up and difficult as it may be, that’s what you’ve done.”

“I didn’t know then what I know now, Miss Preston.”

“What do you know now?”

“I didn’t like to mention it before. It’s not a nice thing to have to bring up. It’s about the person who rang earlier. It was — somehow I knew it was, before he said — it was the police.”

“O Lor’, Mrs. Jim.”

“Yes, Miss. And there’s more. Bruce Gardener come in for his beer when he finished at five and he says he’d run into a gentleman in the garden, only he never realized it was Mr. Claude. On his way back from you, it must of been, and Mr. Claude told him he was a relation of Mrs. Foster’s and they got talking and—”

“Bruce doesn’t know—? Does he know? — Mrs. Jim, Bruce didn’t tell him where Mrs. Foster can be found?”

“That’s what I was coming to. She won’t half be annoyed, will she? Yes, Miss Preston, that’s just what he did.”

“Oh damn,” said Verity after a pause. “Well, it’s not your fault, Mrs. Jim. Not Bruce’s if it comes to that. Don’t worry about it.”

“But what’ll I say if the police rings again?”

Verity thought hard but any solution that occurred to her seemed to be unendurably shabby. At last she said: “Honestly, Mrs. Jim, I don’t know. Speak the truth, I suppose I ought to say, and tell Mr. Claude about the call. Beastly though it sounds, at least it would probably get rid of him.”

There was no answer. “Are you there, Mrs. Jim?” Verity asked. “Are you still there?”

Mrs. Jim had begun to whisper, “Excuse me, I’d better hang up.” And in loud artificial tones added: “That will be all, then, for today, thank you.” And did hang up. Charmless Claude, thought Verity, was in the offing.

Verity was now deeply perturbed and at the same time couldn’t help feeling rather cross. She was engaged in making extremely tricky alterations to the last act of a play that after a promising try-out in the provinces had attracted nibbles from a London management. To be interrupted at this stage was to become distraught.

She tried hard to readjust and settle to her job but it was no good. Sybil Foster and her ailments and problems, real or synthetic, weighed in against it. Should she, for instance, let Sybil know about the latest and really most disturbing news of her awful stepson? Had Verity any right to keep Sybil in the dark? She knew that Sybil would be only too pleased to be kept there but that equally some disaster might well develop for which she, Verity, would be held responsible. She would be told she had been secretive and had bottled up key information. It wouldn’t be the first time that Sybil had shovelled responsibility all over her and then raised a martyred howl when the outcome was not to her liking.

It came to Verity that Prunella might reasonably be expected to take some kind of share in the proceedings but where, at the moment, was Prunella and would she become audible if rung up and asked to call?

Verity read the same bit of dialogue three times without reading it at all, cast away her pen, swore and went for a walk in her garden. She loved her garden. There was no doubt that Bruce had done all the right things. There was no greenfly on the roses. Hollyhocks and delphiniums flourished against the lovely brick wall round her elderly orchard. He had not attempted to foist calceolarias upon her or indeed any objectionable annuals: only night-scented stocks. She had nothing but praise for him and wished he didn’t irritate her so often.

She began to feel less badgered, picked a leaf of verbena, crushed and smelt it and turned back toward the house.

“I’ll put the whole thing aside,” she thought, “until tomorrow. I’ll sleep on it.”



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