THE HARLEQUIN TEA SET AND OTHER STORIES (1997)
While the Light Lasts
The House of Dreams
The Lonely God
Within a Wall
The Mystery of the Spanish Chest
The Harlequin Tea Set
Clare Halliwell walked down the short path that led from her cottage door to the gate. On her arm was a basket, and in the basket was a bottle of soup, some home-made jelly, and a few grapes. There were not many poor people in the small village of Daymer's End, but such as there were were assiduously looked after, and Clare was one of the most efficient of the parish workers.
Clare Halliwell was thirty-two. She had an upright carriage, a healthy color, and nice brown eyes. She was not beautiful, but she looked fresh and pleasant and very English. Everybody liked her and said she was a good sort. Since her mother's death, two years ago, she had lived alone in the cottage with her dog, Rover. She kept poultry and was fond of animals and of a healthy outdoor life.
As she unlatched the gate, a two-seater car swept past, and the driver, a girl in a red hat, waved a greeting. Clare responded, but for a moment her lips tightened. She felt that pang at her heart which always came when she saw Vivien Lee, Gerald's wife!
Medenham Grange, which lay just a mile outside the village, had belonged to the Lees for many generations. Sir Gerald Lee, the present owner of the Grange, was a man old for his years and considered by many stiff in manner. His pomposity really covered a good deal of shyness. He and Clare had played together as children. Later they had been friends, and a closer and dearer tie had been confidently expected by many - including, it may be said, Clare herself. There was no hurry, of course - but someday - She left it so in her own mind. Someday.
And then, just a year ago, the village had been startled by the news of Sir Gerald's marriage to a Miss Harper - a girl nobody had ever heard of!
The new Lady Lee had not been popular in the village. She took not the faintest interest in parochial matters, was bored by hunting, and loathed the country and outdoor sports. Many of the wiseacres shook their heads and wondered how it would end. It was easy to see where Sir Gerald's infatuation had come in. Vivien was a beauty. From head to foot she was a complete contrast to Clare Halliwell - small, elfin, dainty, with golden-red hair that curled enchantingly over her pretty ears, and big violet eyes that could shoot a sideways glance of provocation to the manner born.
Gerald Lee, in his simple man's way, had been anxious that his wife and Clare should be great friends. Clare was often asked to dine at the Grange, and Vivien made a pretty pretence of affectionate intimacy whenever they met. Hence that gay salutation of hers this morning.
Clare walked on and did her errand. The vicar was also visiting the old woman in question, and he and Clare walked a few yards together afterwards before their ways parted. They stood still for a minute discussing parish affairs.
"Jones has broken out again, I'm afraid," said the vicar. "And I had such hopes after he had volunteered, of his own accord, to take the pledge."
"Disgusting," said Clare crisply.
"It seems so to us," said Mr. Wilmot, "but we must remember that it is very hard to put ourselves in his place and realize his temptation. The desire for drink is unaccountable to us, but we all have our own temptations, and thus we can understand."
"I suppose we have," said Clare uncertainly.
The vicar glanced at her.
"Some of us have the good fortune to be very little tempted," he said gently. "But even to those people their hour comes. Watch and pray, remember, that ye enter not into temptation."
Then bidding her good-bye, he walked briskly away. Clare went on thoughtfully, and presently she almost bumped into Sir Gerald Lee.
"Hullo, Clare. I was hoping to run across you. You look jolly fit. What a color you've got."
The color had not been there a minute before. Lee went on:
"As I say, I was hoping to run across you. Vivien's got to go off to Bournemouth for the weekend. Her mother's not well. Can you dine with us Tuesday instead of tonight?"
"Oh, yes! Tuesday will suit me just as well."
"That's all right, then. Splendid. I must hurry along."
Clare went home to find her one faithful domestic standing on the doorstep looking out for her.
"There you are, miss. Such a to-do. They've brought Rover home. He went off on his own this morning, and a car ran clean over him."
Clare hurried to the dog's side. She adored animals, and Rover was her especial darling. She felt his legs one by one, and then ran her hands over his body. He groaned once or twice and licked her hand.
"If there's any serious injury, it's internal," she said at last. "No bones seem to be broken."
"Shall we get the vet to see him, Miss?"
Clare shook her head. She had little faith in the local vet.
"We'll wait until tomorrow. He doesn't seem to be in great pain, and his gums are a good color, so there can't be much internal bleeding. Tomorrow, if I don't like the look of him, I'll take him over to Skippington in the car and let Reeves have a look at him. He's far and away the best man."
On the following day, Rover seemed weaker, and Clare duly carried out her project. The small town of Skippington was about forty miles away, a long run, but Reeves, the vet there, was celebrated for many miles around.
He diagnosed certain internal injuries but held out good hopes of recovery, and Clare went away quite content to leave Rover in his charge.
There was only one hotel of any pretensions in Skippington, the County Arms. It was mainly frequented by commercial travelers, for there was no good hunting country near Skippington, and it was off the track of the main roads for motorists.
Lunch was not served till one o'clock, and as it wanted a few minutes of that hour, Clare amused herself by glancing over the entries in the open visitors' book.
Suddenly she gave a stifled exclamation. Surely she knew that handwriting, with its loops and whirls and flourishes? She had always considered it unmistakable. Even now she could have sworn - but of course it was clearly impossible. Vivien Lee was at Bournemouth. The entry itself showed it to be impossible:
Mr. and Mrs. Cyril Brown, London.
But in spite of herself her eyes strayed back again and again to that curly writing, and on an impulse she could not quite define she asked abruptly of the woman in the office:
"Mrs. Cyril Brown? I wonder if that is the same one I know?"
"A small lady? Reddish hair? Very pretty. She came in a red two-seater car, madam. A Peugeot, I believe."
Then it was! A coincidence would be too remarkable. As if in a dream, she heard the woman go on:
"They were here just over a month ago for a weekend, and liked it so much that they have come again. Newly married, I should fancy."
Clare heard herself saying: "Thank you. I don't think that could be my friend."
Her voice sounded different, as though it belonged to someone else. Presently she was sitting in the dining room, quietly eating cold roast beef, her mind a maze of conflicting thought and emotions.
She had no doubts whatever. She had summed Vivien up pretty correctly on their first meeting. Vivien was that kind. She wondered vaguely who the man was. Someone Vivien had known before her marriage? Very likely - it didn't matter - nothing mattered but Gerald.
What was she - Clare - to do about Gerald? He ought to know - surely he ought to know. It was clearly her duty to tell him. She had discovered Vivien's secret by accident, but she must lose no time in acquainting Gerald with the facts. She was Gerald's friend, not Vivien's.
But somehow or other she felt uncomfortable. Her conscience was not satisfied. On the face of it, her reasoning was good, but duty and inclination jumped suspiciously together. She admitted to herself that she disliked Vivien. Besides, if Gerald Lee were to divorce his wife - and Clare had no doubts at all that that was exactly what he would do, he was a man with an almost fanatical view of his own honor - then - well, the way would lie open for Gerald to come to her. Put like that, she shrank back fastidiously. Her own proposed action seemed naked and ugly.