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OLDTOWN was damp, picturesque and historic—a collection of gracious buildings set in a tree-lined valley. Its heart was the Square where the dim houses slanted crazily, as though they were built with a pack of ancient cards. They gave the impression of swaying in the November wind which shook the stripped branches of the Spanish chestnuts.
Standing in the big-bellied bow-window of the County Club, the Chief Constable, Colonel Pride, smoked as he chatted to his guest—a retired Indian judge whom he had known in the East. The Colonel's face was scalded scarlet by tropical sun, which had also bleached his flaxen brows and lashes. In contrast with his white hair, his blue eyes looked youthfully keen as he watched a girl cross the cobbles on perilous heels.
She was tall, slender and fair, with a finished appearance, as though much time and thought had been spent to achieve an effect. When she drew nearer, it was possible to see the exquisite moulding of her face and the porcelain delicacy of her colouring. Her expression was bored, to demonstrate the nonchalance exacted by a reputation for beauty and poise.
The Indian judge noticed his old friend's absorption with cynical amusement, blent with surprise. As Colonel Pride had been immune to woman during his younger days, his present interest in youth appeared somewhat ominous.
"Pretty girl," he probed.
"I suppose so," agreed the Colonel in a grudging voice. "I believe she is by way of being our local beauty."
"Who is she?"
"Simone Mornington-Key. Mother's a widow. They live in Old Court."
He nodded across the Square to a red brick Queen Anne mansion, its front door opening flush with the pavement.
In contradiction with his indifference, the Colonel continued to stare at the girl with so concentrated a gaze, that his friend felt a hint would not be misplaced.
"She's too modern for our generation," he said.
As he spoke, the girl looked up at the Club window. Recognising the Colonel, she inclined her head in the precision-bow of a monarch who had practised it during a long reign. Since the attraction was obviously not mutual, the Judge asked a direct question.
"Interested in her, Pride?"
"Like hell I am," declared the Colonel. "That girl is an object of interest not only to myself but to every policeman in the town. For all we know to the contrary, she is a murderess."
The words jolted the Judge out of his composure.
"A murderess?" he echoed. "That beautiful calm face...But I should know exactly how little that means. Mere facade...Why is she at large?"
"At present, she is only under general suspicion," explained the Chief Constable. He lowered his voice before he continued. "A family in this town is being systematically wiped out. They are all legatees in the will of Josiah Key—a tea-merchant who made his pile in China. He came back to his native town and lived at Canton House, where he died. His fortune is divided between his sister and his nieces and nephews. The mischief is it's one of those reversionary wills. As the legatees die, their shares go to enrich the jack-pot. Winner takes all, including the capital."
"By 'winner,' you mean the ultimate survivor?" asked the Judge.
"I do. And the death-rate in that family is getting more than a coincidence."
The Judge screwed together his wrinkled lids.
"In view of this sudden fall," he remarked, "the last-man-in is likely to finish up himself at eight o'clock in the morning. The inference is that he will reveal his identity with his last murder. Reasoning by the book, he must be guilty. But you will have to prove his guilt. He might stage a final crime which is too crafty to be traced to him. Pride, you are not sitting too easy."
"Neither is he," said the Colonel. "Everyone will believe that he wiped out the others when—in reality—he may be damned by a chain of unlucky circumstances. He could be innocent."
"In such a case, I can imagine compensation. With a fortune to spend, he has not got to remain in Oldtown and wilt under local odium."
"Ah, it's plain to see you are neither a gardener nor a small-town man. If you were, you'd know that your hometown is the biggest place in the world, while it's damnably difficult to grow new roots."
The Judge looked across the Square at the hoary houses which appeared to be on the point of toppling down. He shivered as a gust of wind blew through the cracks of the diamond-paned windows. Too tactful to question the local attraction, he began to chat about the Chief Constable's problem.
"I suppose you suspect the family?" he asked.
"That is definitely the police-angle," replied the Colonel. "The deaths are limited to the legatees of old Key's will and they alone have the motive."
"Any dubious character among them?"
"No, they are all nice people...And they are being killed off one by one."
The Judge hid his astonishment at the anger in his old friend's voice. As though he felt his emotion was out of place, the Colonel began to explain.
"This business reminds me of something which happened when I was a youngster. We had a big tank, filled with minnows, in the conservatory, and we used to go to the canal to net fresh stock. Late one evening I came home in triumph with a unique specimen and dumped him into the tank...In the morning, every fish was dead, floating belly-up on the top of the water. In my ignorance, I had put a killer into the tank—a cray-fish."
The Colonel gave a short laugh as he added, "My rind is as tough as most, but even now, I can't think of that business without a qualm. It was a sort of nursery version of the massacre of Cawnpore. Imagine that devil hunting down his helpless victims all through the night and not letting-up until he had slaughtered the lot...Get me?"
"Not exactly," confessed the Judge. "I'm afraid I can't get enthusiastic about fish."
"But you see the analogy? There's a killer loose in this town, remorselessly hunting down a bunch of helpless people. For instance, take Simone."
He pointed to the fair girl who was returning from her short walk to the pillar-box, and added, "That girl may be the killer. On the other hand, she may be the next victim."
"Certainly it's up to you," said the Judge. "By the way, what about popular opinion?"
"The subject is too delicate to be discussed openly among decent people. But I am told that the mystery has been solved by the ignorant and superstitious element. They say that the murders are committed by the 'Mad Nun.'"
THE miasma of fear and superstition which created "the mad nun" had been dormant in the atmosphere for months, so that only a murder was needed to release it. It was a poisonous suggestion generated by the combination of a muffled landscape and a body of recluses, known locally as "The Black Nuns."
Oldtown was not especially healthy as it lay low and was ringed too closely by trees which pressed in upon it like the threat of an invading army. In places, the forest appeared actually to have broken-in, for isolated houses were almost hidden by the surrounding foliage. The civic lungs—not designed for deep-breathing—were provided by the bungalows of a new suburb at its eastern end, where its spine of High Street merged into the main road.
There was a secondary road which by-passed the town, following the curve of a sulky brown river and shadowed by the perpetual twilight of fir-woods. This river-road was unlighted and was usually damp underfoot, while its surface was slippery from fallen leaves and fir-needles. Consequently it was neglected in favour of the shorter main road and was popular only with lovers, until they were driven away by the procession of the Black Sisters.
Every evening, as darkness was beginning to fall, a body of dark veiled forms filed singly out of the gates of a large mansion—the Cloisters—at the west end of the town. They wore heavy black habits and high cowls which covered their faces completely—exaggerating their height to unhuman stature, so that they resembled the creations of a nightmare.
They crossed the main road and descended to the river road—to reappear at the other end of the town. After a short service in the little Roman Catholic chapel, they retraced their steps back to the Cloisters.
The usual number of wild stories was circulated about the recluses. They were credited with the faculty of seeing only at night-time—of living in darkness—of torturing their mental patients. No one had ever seen their faces or heard their voices. None could guess at outlines hidden under shapeless robes...
The Chief Constable—Colonel Pride—had been told some of the truth about the mysterious sisterhood. To begin with, he knew that they were not nuns and belonged to no religious order. Their leader was an anonymous lady and was vouched for by the late Josiah Key, tea-merchant, who had known her in China.
There was no doubt of their wealth, for they not only bought the Cloisters—which had been empty for years because of its uneconomic size—but they reconstructed it to meet their requirements. In these transactions, they were represented by a Miss Gomme, who looked after all their business affairs and acted as a buffer between them and the outside world. She was grey, gaunt and reticent, as though she had been born during a long winter night of frost, and she proved herself a worthy guardian of secrets.
The Chief Constable released some of his information when Inspector Wallace, of the local Police, asked him about the new-comers.
"Have they a racket or are they just cranks?" he queried.
"Neither, I believe," replied Colonel Pride. "They are a body, recluses who believe in the curative properties of darkness. Their official title is 'Sisters of the Healing Darkness.' They run a home for the treatment of severe nervous and borderline cases. They claim never to have had a failure."
"Proves they can afford to pick and choose."
"Yes," agreed the Colonel, "they probably reject a doubtful case. Of course the home is licensed in the usual way. Even if their methods appear unconventional, they get their results."
The Inspector still looked sceptical.
"I don't get it," he complained. "Must they wear those horrible hoods?"
"I have no official knowledge," the Colonel told him. "What do they suggest to you?"
The policeman furrowed his brow before he replied.
"My guess is they wish to keep their identity secret and to scare away Peeping Toms from their privacy. They want to suggest some horror hidden under the veil."
"Your guess is as good as mine," the Colonel remarked.
Before the hideous creation of the Mad Nun began to pick her way through the shadows, the female population of Oldtown had been prepared for her reception by their seasonal scare. This was a story of a man, disguised as a woman, who lurked in lonely roads to molest unprotected girls. The tale had sound entertainment-value at tea-parties, when the day drew in and tea-cups were passed around, although it was not so popular with a guest who had to walk home alone to an isolated house.
The day when the Mad Nun first appeared, to darken the history of Oldtown, was in October. It was a month before Colonel Pride and the Indian judge stood in the window of the County Club and watched Simone Mornington-Key cross the Square. The horror was put into circulation by a post office clerk, named "Eva." She was a pretty, delicate girl—pale, overgrown and very fair—with heavy-lidded grey eyes. Like most of her companions, she cherished a passion for the new post-mistress—Cassie Thomas.
Upon the morning of the first murder, rays of molten-gold sunshine were striking through the mist as Cassie walked to her work at the new Branch Post Office. Long bedewed cobwebs sparkled as they floated in the air and the trees flamed with autumnal tints. It was not only a day for cheer, but, in addition, Cassie was always happy, so long as she had no cause for grief.
She had got off to a false start—a premature birth which killed her mother. Her childhood had been shadowed by poverty and dependence until she entered the Civil Service as a clerk at the Post Office. It was then that life began for Cassie Thomas. Her first experience of economic freedom brought with it a wonderful gush of personal prestige. Her work was congenial and she considered herself more fortunate than the leisured population of Oldtown, doomed by tradition to slave at games and sports, in all weathers.
Her future was assured by a civil pension. Her modest ambition was gratified by her promotion to the Branch Post Office...Therefore, she magnified the Lord by singing at her work...
The girls in the outer office liked to hear the low musical croon from Miss Thomas' private room. She was popular with them, especially as her predecessor—a petty tyrant—had not been easy to follow. There was competition to bring flowers for her desk and to carry in her afternoon cup of tea.
That afternoon, Cassie was guilty of the unusual crime of watching the clock. The time seemed to pass slowly because she was looking forward to seeing Mrs. Miniver again, on that popular lady's second visit to the local cinema. When daylight began to fade, she crossed to the window and gazed out at the tree-choked valley.
It was a lonely outlook as the Post Office was built at the extreme east end of the town, to meet the needs of the new bungalow-suburb. Not far away was the tobacconist's shop—a venture of Cassie's cousin—Cherry Ap-Thomas...That "Ap" marked the difference between the relatives. It informed the public that Cherry—who was ten years younger than Cassie—knew her onions and intended to finish with more impressive backing than an official pension...
The only other building was the tiny Roman Catholic chapel—sunken in a damp dock-grown hollow and shaded by sweeping cedars, but Cassie liked the loneliness. It accentuated the beauty of her surroundings and also appealed to a vague Celtic melancholy which underlay her happiness. As she looked out at the dying blaze of foliage, she compared it with a Royal Academy landscape, which was her highest praise. In her turn, she made a pleasant picture in her olive-green suit and scarlet scarf. Her shining black hair waved naturally and she had the same clear complexion as her cousin, Cherry—only Cherry had organised hers with the rest of her assets.
Miss Thomas fumbled in the pockets of her cardigan and drew out an empty cigarette-carton.
"Blow," she said. "I mustn't forget to drop in at Cherry's and get fags for the pictures."
She was looking forward, not only to meeting Mrs. Miniver, but also the cashier from the Midland Bank. He was a widower and lived at her boarding-house. So once again, she looked at her watch and sighed, while for the first time in her Post Office experience work became a burden.
The copper and gold on the hillside had faded to grey and were beginning to deepen to black, when her favourite clerk—Eva—came into her room. The girl was in an excited and confident mood, for she had beaten the other claimants to Miss Thomas' favour. Her bunch of chrysanthemums stood on the post-mistress' desk and she had brought in the cup of tea with a double ration of biscuits. Therefore she felt justified in her boast to the other clerks.
"I'm going to the pictures with Miss Thomas this evening."
When they had responded with the "raspberry," Eva made a bold attempt to convince them by walking into the private room.
"Is it time to go, Eva?" asked Miss Thomas—hoping that her watch was slow.
"No, Miss Thomas," replied the girl. "The Bats haven't gone by yet."
Although they had Greenwich Time at the Post Office, the clerks always checked it with the Black Sisters' visit to the chapel.
"Bats, Eva?" queried Cassie reprovingly.
"Well, they say they're all mad," said the girl. "Please, Miss Thomas, may I open the window and watch out for them?"
In order to pass the time, Cassie stood beside the girl and stared out also towards the darkness of the river road. Her sight was keen but the very intensity of her gaze blurred the bushes to the semblance of a confused huddle of forms...
And then, suddenly—in defiance of the laws of Nature—the trees began to walk. One by one, they crossed the main road, under the light of the last municipal lamp-post at the east end of the town. Slowly, heavily, inexorably, they seemed to roll past, like images endowed with the mechanism of motion. Without pause or stumble, as though they actually possessed inner vision, they descended the steep slippery path to the chapel.
"Coo," gloated Eva. "They look like the Inquisition going to burn people. They say they torture their poor lunies. When the wind is right, you can hear them yowl."
"Nonsense, Eva," said Miss Thomas. "You only expose your ignorance. They couldn't take mental patients without being open to inspection by the medical officer.
"Everything might look all right when he visited them," hinted Eva darkly. "But what price after he'd gone? They tickle their soles."
"Stop talking such nonsense, Eva. They're all good women in their way, even if it is not our way."
"But suppose one of them has gone mad and gets loose—"
As Eva's voice rose, Miss Thomas shut the door, so that the girls in the outer office were cheated of further sensation. She had not been quick enough, however, for a red-haired girl who sat nearest passed on a new version of the current rumour.
"That man who jumps out at girls is really a mad nun."
Conscious that Miss Thomas expected her to go, Eva licked her lips nervously.
"Can I go to the pictures with you, to-night, Miss Thomas?" she asked.
Cassie was never allowed to walk home alone, since she was the victim of her own popularity and too kind-hearted to snub the girls. But although she liked her work and was fond of Eva, she was determined not to take the Post Office with her to the cinema.
"No, Eva," she said firmly, "I am going with a friend. Run and tell the girls to put on their hats."
She used the formal order of dismissal, although no one wore a hat. But Eva still waited.
"Please, Miss Thomas," she pleaded, "won't you let me walk back with you for company? The new road's so dark and they say there's a man dressed up like a woman—"
"That old tale again," interrupted Cassie derisively. "You'd think there were too many women in the town already, without inventing another one...Good-night, Eva."
When Eva returned to the outer office, the other girls were prepared to bait her.
"Coming with us—or waiting for Miss Thomas?" asked the red-head.
"Of course, I am waiting to go with her," said Eva.
The words were scarcely spoken before she regretted her boast. It involved her in the deceit of hiding in the Post Office until she had given her companions sufficient start to out-distance her. With a miserable sense of being deserted, she watched them burst out of the office, laughing and chattering—each eager to resume her private life.
A little later, Cassie came into the outer office and saw Eva standing at the open door. She wore a bright blue tweed coat and a catching silk handkerchief tied over her hair. Excitement and guilt had made her face flame, so that she looked actually beautiful. In Miss Thomas' opinion, she was too attractive to walk home alone, so that she practically drove her through the door.
"Run and catch up with the others," she said sharply, not knowing that the rest of the staff had left five minutes before. "Good night, dear. Run."
"Good night, Miss Thomas. I hope you'll enjoy the pictures," called back Eva as, obediently, she began to run.
It was the first time she had gone home alone, so—although she was used to the darkness—she had no idea of the loneliness of the locality. When she had gone a few yards, she looked back wistfully at the glowing window of the Post Office as though she were leaving a haven. Farther out, swarmed the small lights of Cherry Ap-Thomas' shop, but no ray filtered through the windows of the Roman Catholic chapel.
"It's like the blasted heath in 'Macbeth'," Eva told herself, although she could not have chosen a more inapt comparison.
Between the Post Office and the new suburb, yawned the empty darkness of a road in the making. Even when she reached the bungalows, they were widely-spaced and stood in gardens, while some were still untenanted. It was such an ideal lurking-place that Eva began to think of horrors. Now that it was too late, she repented having thrown away her chance of safety. Her heart was heavy with a fear of approaching doom and she began to sob with fright.
"I'll be murdered. I know I'll be murdered. It's all my own fault. I swanked...I daren't go on. I'll go back to my darling precious Miss Thomas. I don't care if she hates me for ever and ever."
She stopped and looked back at the dimmed beacon of the Post Office. Suddenly she saw a black shape move across the glowing screen of the windows. Whatever stood there was too far away for recognition, but at the sight of it, her heart leaped with terror.
She realised that it blocked her way back to sanctuary. If she went forward, she would meet it. If she fled, it would overtake her. She had no hope of escape. It was Doom.
With a shriek of despair she began to run wildly through the blackness of no-man's land, towards the new suburb. Straining her ears, she thought she heard sounds behind her—a pitiless beat of footsteps in pursuit.
She forced her pace and ran faster...Faster...
LESS than ten minutes afterwards, the body of the victim was discovered by the owner of one of the new bungalows. He acted promptly—using the Post Office telephone to ring up the Police—so the hunt was out without loss of time. As nearest the scene of the crime, the first place to be visited was the tobacconist's. It was merely a two-roomed lock-up erection of red brick, but its modesty was contradicted by an illuminated sign, advertising "AP-THOMAS & APPLEBY" in flaming red letters.
Not long before the police-constable entered, shouts of laughter floated through the open door, to mark the conclusion of a successful business deal on either side of the counter. The commercial traveller from whom Appleby bought his stock was paying his periodical visit which was always a social occasion. Business completed, it was up to the parties concerned to prove themselves good mixers by swapping dirty stories over drinks.
Although they were not alike, the same description would cover both Cherry's partner—Appleby—and the traveller—"Our Mr. Macturk." They were keen-eyed, tight-lipped and smartly dressed; their hair was growing thin in the same place and shone with setting-cream.
In spite of the bawdy atmosphere, Cherry Ap-Thomas—late Science mistress in a girls' college—more than held her own. Having contributed a biological limerick, she watched the effect of her smut with the scornful detachment of a spiteful woman who sets her chimney on fire to spoil her neighbour's wash.
Had Cherry been backed with social prestige, she might have been the local beauty, instead of Simone. Her colouring was more vivid and her figure better developed. Moreover her face was expressive of strong character, due partly from her slight frown of concentration—a legacy of her teaching years. She wore a tight black suit which enhanced the brilliance of her ginger hair and her hazel eyes. Her lips rarely betrayed her emotions since she chewed gum habitually, as a preventive to over-smoking.
The commercial traveller—who had heard the limerick before—gave a convincing imitation of a hearty laugh before he cut off the power.
"I've been hearing about old Key's will, to-day," he said, speaking to Cherry with assumed familiarity, to hide his respect. "I had no idea you were so well worth knowing. I'm going to cultivate you."
"Nothing doing there, Macturk," Appleby told him. "You'd find her all stone and precious little cherry."
Cherry chewed her gum to hide the bitter twist of her lips.
"Here's my story," she said. "I and my two cousins, Julian and Cassie, were all left orphans when we were very young. We committed the crime of being poor relations without any relations to sponge on. Good old Josiah Key was only related to us through his wife, but he stumped up for our education...After I'd met my partner in a newspaper, among the small 'ads'"—Cherry smiled at Appleby—"old Miss Key—Josiah's sister—had the blasted cheek to write me a letter of protest. She said I'd wasted her brother's money and gone to Bedford College on false pretences...Now, boys, does that explain the stone?"
"But is it true you have a share in his will?" persisted the traveller.
"Yes, with eight other legatees," replied Cherry. "The sister, Miss Key, has half; the other half is divided between the old boy's own relatives and his wife's family. That's the Thomas clan—Julian, Cassie and myself."
"How many Keys?"
"What's this?" Cherry's voice rasped. "Are you taking a census? For the record, there are four Keys. There are the twins—Gertrude and Gabriel. They live at Clock Cottage and Gertrude is very manly...Then there's Simone Mornington-Key and her step-brother, Dr. Shackleton Key. He's one of those handsome brutes, all shoulders and chin. Married with an infant son."
"That makes eight legatees," remarked the traveller.
"But we're nine. There's a Mrs. Aurelius, wife of a scientist. She used to live in Josiah's pocket. He was a tea-merchant in China and she appears to have been the sugar in his tea...Also for your information, we only draw interest on the capital, which averages three per cent. in trustee stock. So we are all waiting hopefully for some mysterious epidemic which can wipe out a family in one go. We—"
She broke off as a police-constable—heated from running—burst into the shop.
"Has any stranger been round?" he panted. "There's been a murder near here."
Cherry's natural colour faded under her rouge, but, after the fashion of Charlotte—who "went on cutting bread-and-butter"—she continued to chew her gum as she listened to the constable's news. She left the men to express their horror and to comment on the shocking nature of the crime. When at last she spoke, it was to ask a question.
"Have you any idea who did it?"
"We shall know soon," prophesied the man. "He can't have got far." He turned to Appleby and asked, "How long have you been here?"
"The best part of an hour," replied Appleby. "We've been checking up on stock with our traveller—Mr. Macturk."
"Hear a scream or any unusual sound?"
"Afraid we were making too much noise. We're all very good friends."
"Naturally." Like Cherry, Appleby knew his onions and never missed a chance to advertise. "I shouldn't think five minutes passes here without a customer. Miss Ap-Thomas attended to the counter. You didn't serve any stranger, did you, Miss Ap-Thomas?"
"No," replied Cherry, "they were all regulars. I'll write down their names and addresses, so that the Sergeant"—she promoted him, according to convention—"can check up on them."
Her steady hand was proof of good nerves as she scribbled rapidly but legibly on a slip.
"Cool customer," reflected the constable as he crossed to the inner door.
"Where does this lead to?" he asked.
"The living-room," explained Appleby. "It has a cooking-stove and wash-place and we also store stock there. No one sleeps on the premises. But if anyone was hiding there, we'd have seen him go through the shop."
"I'll have a look round," said the policeman.
After he had satisfied himself that no criminal was concealed on the premises, the constable gave Appleby a piece of advice.
"Anyone could get in through the window of the inner room. You want screws put in. This is a lonely place for a lady. Better be sure than sorry."
The commercial traveller waited until the policeman's footsteps were fading in the distance, before he winked at Cherry.
"If anyone could get in through that window, anyone could get out," he hinted. "But I don't believe in telling the police everything."
"Such as?" asked Cherry.
"Such as the chronic time you took washing your hands."
The contempt in Cherry's voice withered any further attempt at humour as she walked to the telephone.
"This is hot news," she said. "My cousin Julian might like to be first to circulate it. Makes him appear in the know."
"Keen on him?" asked her partner jealously.
"I should be, if he were not my first cousin. Actually I never knew him until I asked him to draw up our deed of partnership. He disappointed me when he charged me the same as a stranger but he was worth it. He thought up every dirty trick one partner can play another and then he guarded against it."
She dialled her cousin's number and spoke rapidly to the typist who took the call.
"Cherry Ap-Thomas here, Miss Davis. Tell Mr. Thomas I wish to speak to him urgently."
Covering the receiver with her hand, she turned round and spoke to the men with a bitter note in her voice.
"This reminds me of the poem we all learned in school. 'How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix.'"
Like Cherry, Julian Thomas, solicitor, concealed his feelings when he heard the news of the crime. He was careful to make only brief comments which could convey no information to his typist. She was working late to finish copying a contract and he knew that a hint of the tragedy would play havoc with her spelling.
In appearance, he resembled neither of his cousins. He was pale, thin and dark and spoke in a languid voice which conveyed a misleading impression of his character. In reality, he was both clever and ambitious, with an inflexible will concealed under his quiet manner.
He had taken some hard knocks when he dared to put up his plate in a town where practices descended from father to son. In a comparatively short time, however, he was respected as a professional rival, as well as being accepted socially. Recently he had become fairly friendly with the Keys since he did the legal work in connection with Josiah Key's will.
At the moment, he responded to the thrill which accompanies exclusive knowledge. Murder was almost unknown in Oldtown, except for an occasional fatal domestic fight which practically amounted to super-violent family-affairs. He was uncertain whether to broadcast it immediately or to keep it for someone whose interest he wished to hold.
"I'm going out, Miss Davis," he told his typist. "You needn't wait for me to come back. Put the contracts on my desk for me to sign and I'll post them myself."
His office was in the oldest part of the town—a twisting cobbled lane, too narrow for traffic. Its ancient tottering buildings were rat-riddled and the oaken doors white with age; but in spite of the prevailing odour of dry-rot, each displayed its professional brass plate—together with the date of its erection—to testify to the civic pride in Lawyers Lane.
When Julian reached the Square, the small crowd coming out of the cinema told him that the afternoon performance of "Mrs. Miniver" was just over. A gleam came into his eyes as he recognised Simone Mornington-Key, for he was conscious of her beauty. She was accompanied by her mother and her step-brother's wife, commonly known as "Mrs. Shackleton."
Mrs. Mornington-Key was the generous donor who had supplemented the "Key" title with her maiden name of "Mornington." She was a large, blonde lady—full-moon to Simone's crescent. As she adored her daughter, it was significant that Simone did not resent the fact that she concentrated her attention on her daughter-in-law by marriage.
Mrs. Shackleton was a testimony to the spirit of snobbery in a small traditional town. She had neither brains, beauty nor wealth, yet homage was paid to her because of her remote connection with an exalted family. In appearance, she had a flat, round rosy face and light-blue eyes. She wore a grey squirrel coat and—to give her her due—she looked clean.
Julian glanced at her critically before he gazed with admiration at Simone's delicately tinted face and the sweep of her darkened lashes.
"I haven't seen you for centuries, Julius," she said. "Come back with us for a drink."
Although he was pleased by the invitation, he noticed that she had not troubled to memorise his Christian name.
"Yes, do come," urged Mrs. Mornington-Key. "We're due for a bracer. We feel all emotional. We've been seeing 'Mrs. Miniver' again. Isn't Greer Garson enchanting?"
"She reminded me of Rosalie," said Simone, paying homage to her sister-in-law. "Not face exactly—but something. An impression, you know. I always catch those."
"How clever of you, Simone darling," cried her mother. "Now you point it out, I can see the hidden likeness. And don't you think Julian is rather like Walter Pidgeon?"
Impatient with such futility, Julian decided they could stand a shock of reality.
"There is not the slightest resemblance in either case," he said. "Sorry, Mrs. Shackleton, but I should never ask you for Greer Garson's autograph...Perhaps I'm not in the mood to be fanciful. I've just heard some heavy news."
After he had given it to them in one short sentence, he felt conscience-stricken by his brutality, as though he had dropped a high-explosive bomb to disperse a swarm of butterflies. All three women were horrified while even Mrs. Shackleton lost some of her colour. Again and yet again they appealed to Julian to agree that it was shocking, until by sheer repetition his voice began to sound insincere.
Presently Mrs. Mornington-Key worked back to her daughter-in-law.
"Rosalie looks ghastly. You must come in at once and have a spot of brandy, darling."
"No," declared Rosalie, "I must run in and see if Baby is safe."
"He'll be all right with Nanny," said Mrs. Mornington-Key. "I won't let you go back to the flat, Rosalie, until we know Shack is home."
Although Dr. Shackleton's practice was local, he shared a Harley Street address with four other doctors, and went up to London twice a week. They all walked to the corner of the Square where they could see the row of Victorian houses which had been converted into flats. Dr. Shackleton-Key lived in a large family-apartment, while Cherry Thomas rented a flat—let in the same building.
At the sight of the unlighted windows of the lounge, Mrs. Shack began to work up a minor sensation.
"Shack told me he'd be home early. I've never known him late before. With a murderer about too...Oh, I should simply hate being murdered. Such appalling publicity. They print everything—age and even your undies."
"Definitely melodramatic," agreed Simone vaguely.
Although Mrs. Mornington-Key renewed her invitation to Julian, he refused on the grounds that he was going to call on the twins.
"I want to talk business," he said.
"Oh yes, the will," agreed Simone briskly. "Good-bye, Julius."
He walked away, smiling at the surprise in her beautiful eyes. At last, he had secured her attention, for she seemed startled that anyone could forget her name.
Clock Cottage was situated originally in a country lane. Although this had been absorbed by the town, there still remained stretches of stone wall, topped with hawthorn hedges, and a debased watercress-stream on one side of the road. The house had been built from three antique cottages welded into a charming residence—low, creeper-bound and washed a faint honey-yellow. The clock was present in the elaborate design of a time-piece, executed in carpet-bedding and taking up most of the right-hand patch of lawn.
On the other side of the flagged path were the flower-beds, the roses and the Kelway border which was still brilliant with dahlias and chrysanthemums. The grass was covered with the leaves of a copper-beech which had fallen since the morning and were revealed in the light which streamed through the open window. The curtains were undrawn, so as he walked up to the front door, Julian could see the leaping flames of a wood fire.
Suddenly a face appeared at the casement—a face with delicate features and large shadowed eyes, alluring in the shade of a black felt hat. For a startled moment, Julian thought it was Simone who smiled at him, until a bass voice betrayed the identity of her cousin, Gabriel Key.
"Trying on my sister's hat. She vows I look like Dietrich. Walk in, my dear fellow."
Julian strolled informally into the cottage with a pleasant thrill of achievement, for his new friendship with the Key twins was an instance of time's reward. In the sour days of his poor relationship, he had resented Gertrude bitterly, because of her loud "committee" voice and her overbearing manner. Both her appearance and her personality were alarming to a timid or sensitive person, for she was big and strongly-built with aggressive eyes. An instinctive leader, she presided at most social functions from a Dr. Barnardo tea to an American bridge tournament.
Her twin, Gabriel, was fair, pale, and looked delicate—a universal "younger brother," to be coddled by women and despised by men. Julian, however, did not make the common mistake of playing him too low. He had once run against him in the mile handicap, at some Bank Holiday sports, and he realised that his opponent was strongly-built, in spite of his slight figure and also endowed with staying-power. On that occasion, he forced the pace mercilessly but he kept the lead and won the race.
Pulling off the becoming hat, Gabriel went to meet Julian.
"Gertrude and I always say we should have changed sexes," he remarked. "As a man, I'm a calamity—a sort of cross between Greta Garbo and Donald Duck. I'm dreading the day when someone will hand me a white camellia."
"What are you kicking about?" asked his sister. "You're still a handsome man, even if you haven't hair on your chest, like Shack. I'm the one who's had a raw deal."
Her eyes were wistful as she kicked a log into position, sending a shower of sparks up the wide chimney. She stood in front of the fire, wearing a navy-blue masculine suit and smoking a cigarette with more energy than appreciation. Her hair was closely-cropped and her face red from exposure to all weathers.
"When we were kids," she told Julian, "our nannie used to dress us up in each other's clothes. Then she'd take us down to the drawing-room and say 'a young lady and gentleman have called to see you.' The visitors would gush over me and call me a little John Bull. I loved it then. Shows I didn't know much...Smoke?"
Julian accepted a cigarette as he looked around him with appreciative eyes. He liked the long low room, the comfort of its shabby chairs, the smell of leather mingled with the perfume from a bowl of violets. Every wall was lined with books and there was not a trivial selection among them. Julian wondered why Gabriel had not chosen a career of authorship, instead of working in an estate office, until Gabriel explained the library.
"All mine. Never read a line myself. Gertrude swots up the reviews and tells me what to buy. They're an investment. When I sell, they should be worth some money."
Julian looked at him with a strained smile.
"Remember the mile you won?" he asked inconsequently. "You forced the pace too soon. It was murder—not a race." Then his face grew grave. "Talking of murder," he said.
The twins' reaction to his news was less vocal than his first audience, but he noticed that Gertrude's hands shook when she fitted a fresh cigarette into her holder.
"Bad show," commented Gabriel.
"I'm afraid it was a shock to Simone," said Julian. "I met the family on my way here."
"And how is the lovely?" asked Gabriel. "Fragile and vague?"
"Not so vague," disagreed Gertrude. "She plays a game of bridge like a man. And not delicate either. She finishes fresher than I do after a round of golf in a wind." She added hastily, "What's the weather out? Gabriel and I have been mugging indoors since tea."
"Still fine," replied Julian, glancing at a couple of damp copper-beech leaves on the carpet.
He looked away quickly but Gertrude had also noticed them.
"Of course, I've been pottering in the garden," she said casually. "Gabriel didn't go to the office. Trying to nip a cold."
It seemed to Julian a pathetically clumsy effort to take the rap for her idolised twin, in case of suspicion. As she wore house-slippers while Gabriel's brogues were still caked with undried mud, he felt relieved when Gabriel debunked her pretence.
"That shows you the sort of pal she is, Thomas, 'To the gallows' foot—and after.' The poor girl is too näive to realise that she has given me away. She's let you know what she thinks me capable of doing in my spare time."
Julian tactfully led the laughter which he broke off, to become the grave family lawyer.
"I'd like to talk to you about certain details of Mr. Josiah Key's investments."
The twins listened keenly while he discussed finance in further proof that no member of the Key family was vague where money was concerned. Julian had neither to explain or repeat a point and they checked his figures mentally before they accepted them.
"Well, that's all," he said, rising and looking regretfully around the pleasant room. "I ought to see Mrs. Aurelius and your aunt. Perhaps I'll ring them up. There's work waiting for me in my office."
"Have you heard Mount Ida has another new companion?" asked Gabriel.
Knowing that Gabriel referred to the head of the family, Julian pulled down his mouth.
"I hardly know your aunt," he said. "She strikes me as rather plastic. In your own interests, I advise you to be on your guard against outside influence. Good-bye."
The news continued to travel on its way from the east to the west end of Oldtown. Not long afterwards, Julian rang up Mrs. Aurelius and gratefully accepted her offer to pass on his message to Miss Key.
Earlier in the evening, Miss Key had watched the departure of the black sisters' procession to the chapel, with a blend of repulsion and fascination. When she was a child, she had been scared of nuns and she had never overcome her irrational dread. From the safety of her library window, she felt the thrill of a terrifying spectacle as—one by one—the hideously grotesque shapes crossed the lighted main road and plunged down into the shadows of the river by-pass. It was also part of her evening ritual to count them, in the hope of attracting luck, should their number be odd.
Canton House—a solid grey-stone residence of late Victorian architecture—had been left to her by her brother Josiah. To ensure the privacy decreed by the period, trees had been planted thickly around the house. The gloomy outlook made Miss Key think of churchyard lights, the footstep on the stair, the whisper through the keyhole—all the old nursery tales of horror and fear. Veiled by the autumn mists, the ever-green shrubs in the garden took on the semblance of crouching forms. All contact with the outside world appeared to be cut, for it was only through the gap of the front gate that she could glimpse the road.
In appearance she looked more than a match for man or ghost. Her niece Gertrude was supposed to resemble her and it was not a hopeful prospect for a young woman. Tall and massive, she wore an iron-grey suit—cut on masculine lines, but with a skirt instead of trousers. Her powerful shoulders and muscular back suggested almost ruthless strength.
As she turned her head at the sound of a girl's voice, the illusion of strength vanished. Her face was a mere handful of small indefinite features, over which peered timid eyes.
"Seeing ghosts?" asked her companion, Fay Williams.
She crossed the room and stood beside her employer, when they presented a ridiculous contrast. Fay was short and thin, with a pale vivid face, a well-shaped head and short dark hair, skilfully cut to appear wind-swept. She wore a smoke-grey kilted skirt and a hand-knitted pullover to match.
As she too gazed out at the twilit garden, Miss Key felt her sinking courage gush up again. For the small girl was not only her companion—she was also her protector.
"I've been watching the black sisters," she said. "They took me back to my childhood. You have no idea of the ghastly tales my nurse told me. All about people being dead before they were dead."
"How did they manage that?" asked Fay curiously.
"Oh, finding death-tokens on them. I mustn't tell you of those, but there was a beetle that used to tick and a shroud which wound itself around the candle-wick."
Miss Key expected an indignant comment, but Fay only laughed heartlessly.
"What fun you had," she said enviously. "Now I was brought up on educational toys and Christopher Robin...Shall we light up?"
When the electric lights glowed and the heavy curtains of tangerine silk damask were drawn, Miss Key looked around her with the pride of ownership. Like an ugly person with a heart of gold, Canton House redeemed its discouraging exterior by interior virtues. It was solid, well-constructed and designed for comfort, as well as domestic convenience. The library was spacious and warmed with central-heating in addition to a coal fire. It was furnished as a lounge, with russet-brown leather divans and deep chairs.
Above the mantelpiece, in a massive gilt frame, hung an oil-painting of the late Josiah Key. Possibly the fact that he was connected with China made Fay imagine him with a pig-tail and tight satin trousers, sitting on a chest of tea. He had a fat benevolent face, a lemon-hued skin and little black eyes which seemed to twinkle as though he were enjoying a private joke. As Fay was looking up at him, Miss Key spoke in a satisfied voice.
"I counted seven nuns this evening, Felicia. That means I'll be lucky with Miss Milligan."
Fay would not admit superstition so she changed the subject.
"I love to be called 'Felicia'," she said. "People are always so funny over 'Fay,' asking me for three wishes and expecting me to laugh. It doesn't amuse me at all. Actually I'm a very serious person."
"I understand," confided Miss Key. "I always wish I'd been called 'Grace,' after Grace Darling. It's my ambition to save life."
She squared her shoulders and flung back her head, every inch a heroine. At that moment, she could have braved raging seas—or even nuns. Because, at that moment, the room glowed from lamps and fire; the witched garden was shut out by thick curtains; and, on the rug, was a small girl with a determined mouth.
Unfortunately she saw the smile which Fay failed to suppress. It made her writhe with secret shame. She tried to remind herself that she was a heavy taxpayer and a person of civic importance, in vain. In spite of her imposing front, she was the meekest soul, always expecting insult. She never went to a theatre or cinema because she dreaded angry looks from the patrons whom she overlapped; and she allowed tradespeople to overcharge her, rather than risk a scene.
Already Fay's common sense had a tonic effect on her flabby mental fibres and she wanted to gain her new companion's respect. When the girl remained silent, she tried to force her to an admission.
"Cook told me the gardener called me 'a fat, greedy old coward.' Really fantastic."
"Really insolent," said Fay severely. "You must discharge him."
"It made me laugh. Would—would you call me greedy?"
"Not greedy," replied Fay tactfully. "Perhaps you give the impression of someone who's gone short of food."
"How clever of you. I was half-starved at my finishing-school, although the fees were atrocious. They called it banting...Would you call me a coward?"
Fay hesitated because the question forced a situation. She and Miss Key were a case of two souls in the wrong bodies. Nature had given Miss Key the frame of an Amazon, allied with the heart of a mouse, while her small companion was animated with the spirit of a dictator.
Fay loved power and welcomed a conflict of wills. In her present situation, she soon realised that she could influence her employer and she resolved to exert pressure whenever she believed the results might justify it. Moreover she was sorry far anyone who had health, money and freedom from worries, yet whose days and nights were poisoned by fear. Inflamed with an urge for reformation, she decided to try and cure her employer of her cowardice.
"Why do you keep looking up at my brother?" asked Miss Key.
"I'm always waiting for him to smile," replied the girl. "He will, one day. He won't be able to keep it in much longer...By the way, you asked me something. Frankly you're a puzzle to me. I can understand a rabbit being frightened by a snake, because they are different orders. But it beats me why one human being should be frightened of another human being."
She spoke with youthful authority, ignorant of the fact that the human species has its rabbits and snakes.
"Wouldn't you be afraid if a man attacked you?" asked Miss Key.
"I'd put up such a fight, I'd be too angry to feel afraid. And that's why you are such a mystery to me. If you were ferocious, people would be scared of you. But you are always charming. You remind me of some force that doesn't know its own strength. Like an elephant that meekly lets itself be led by a pigmy."
Fay stopped, dismayed by Miss Key's scarlet face. She realised that she had overstepped the mark with her tactless allusions to proportions. Looking at the clock, she spoke hurriedly.
"Mrs. Aurelius is late. Why does she come in every evening?"
"To keep me company," replied Miss Key.
"But you don't want company now I am here."
Miss Key's small, dark eyes began to twinkle, revealing a resemblance to her brother.
"Perhaps it's habit," she said. "She used to come over every evening and sit with my brother. She was younger then and very attractive. I don't suppose he objected to her visits...Oh, oh...Dear heart, what's that?"
She covered her mouth with one hand to suppress a scream, as she pointed, with the other, towards the conservatory which was built on to the library. Through the greened glass, a white face seemed to hover in space. Fay's heart hammered with excitement as she watched the spectral effect with challenging eyes. Then the door burst open and Mrs. Aurelius rushed into the library.
She was tall and very thin, with brilliant blue-green eyes and a vivid applied carmine flush. Her long black hair waved over her shoulders, after the fashion of Juliet. In spite of hollow cheeks and a suggestion of physical and mental wreckage, there were times when she possessed an odd compelling beauty; at other times, she looked as though she had just tumbled out of bed after a hangover. She wore a glamorous gown of peacock-blue and gold tissue which suggested footlights.
Taking no notice of Fay, she seized Miss Key's hands.
"I've run all the way," she said in a low throbbing voice. "I've brought you news. You have inherited money."
Miss Key's eyes sparkled as she turned to Fay.
"Seven nuns," she gloated. "I told you I was going to be lucky." Then she turned to Lilith Aurelius. "You said 'inherited.' Who is dead?"
"Someone you hardly know. It's Miss Cassie Thomas. The one in the Post Office."
"Dear, dear, poor soul." Miss Key clicked conventional concern. "Was it sudden?"
"Very sudden. She was murdered."
Lilith secured her effect, for Miss Key turned white and dropped heavily into a chair. With a dramatic gesture, Mrs. Aurelius pointed to the portrait of Josiah Key.
"The first of the legatees has dropped out," she said.
As Lilith spoke, Fay had a vision of a game of musical chairs. Dim forms ran around in a frantic circle—scrambling, pushing, fighting—while a lemon-skinned spectator smiled in appreciation of the human comedy. Chair after chair was withdrawn inexorably by an unseen hand, and one by one, the players were forced to drop out.
At the finish, two players would be left—but only one chair.
A gasp from Mrs. Aurelius made Fay turn round, to see Miss Key slumped back in her chair, in a faint...
The good news had been brought from Ghent to Aix.
JUST before she was murdered, Cassie Thomas looked up suddenly and saw a curious shadow flap across the bare distempered wall of the Post Office. It reminded her vaguely of a gigantic wing...
That was all she knew about the murder. A few minutes later, the bungalow-owner found an official "body" lying upon the floor—all that remained of a useful, attractive young woman who could tell you about forms and insurance stamps and the postage to Madagascar. Her head was battered but the smile with which she anticipated Mrs. Miniver was fixed upon her lips.
In that moment, she became the central figure in a drama which excited more local interest than any super-thriller of the screen. Extra sensation was provided by the Post Office clerk—Eva—who reached her home that evening in a state bordering on collapse. When she sobbed out that she had been chased by the terrible man who was disguised as a woman, her father winked at his wife.
"That chap has no luck," he said. "He must be a cripple."
"Seems he can scare people anyway," retorted Eva's mother. "Why did you walk home alone, ducks? It's not right with that unlighted road. I shall write to Miss Thomas and ask her to do something about it."
It was natural for any relative of Eva's to give the post-mistress higher rating than the municipal authorities. A little later, when the news of the murder swept into their home, the parents had to call in the doctor to attend their daughter. Eva was distracted by the tragedy and worked herself up into a fever of grief. Before the sedative took effect she cried out incessantly that she was being chased by the Mad Nun.
The daily maid heard her screams and, like a public-minded citizen, she broadcast her special knowledge on her homeward way. While the story of the mad nun spread through Oldtown, the police did not spare itself in its efforts to produce a more credible criminal. Its appeals to the public, in its search for eye-witnesses were persistent and its interest in the time tables of certain anti-social citizens was stressed to a point of flattery; but all it got was an absence of information and too many perfectly good alibis.
Although the interval between the crime and its discovery was so short, it was long enough to give any active criminal a chance to escape in such a densely-wooded and lonely district. Neglecting no chance, the police interviewed everyone in the neighbourhood, paying a second visit to Cherry Thomas and her partner and also calling upon the Roman Catholic priest.
Father Rooney was respected in Oldtown as a good man and liked as a good mixer. Shrewd, kindly and humorous, he was broad-minded without being lax.
"There may be a hundred different ways to heaven," he would remind his parishioners, "but whatever route you travel by, you'll be asked to produce your ticket at the barrier."
When Inspector Wallace asked for some private information about the Cloisters nuns, his eyes twinkled under his bushy brows.
"Nuns?" he queried. "I've yet to learn they belong to any religious order. All I know is that they call themselves 'Mother and Sisters of the Healing Darkness.' I don't even share special knowledge with their Maker, for they don't confess. Perhaps they do no evil."
"How many of them attended service on the evening of the crime?" asked the Inspector.
"Six. I always go to the door to welcome them in and I also bless them when they leave. Six came in and six went out."
"Did anyone leave the chapel during the time of the murder?"
"No. The interior is almost dark, but I have excellent sight and ultra-keen hearing. If one were to leave, I should hear the opening of the door which is unusually heavy."
"Is the chapel reserved for this service?"
"No, it is always open to those who wish to pray. But no outsider comes as it is not an ordinary service. Chiefly silent prayer and meditation."
"Thanks, Father." The Inspector rose to go. "They seem a rum lot."
"They may be specially practical people. There is a rumour that they make their patients eat grass like the beasts of the fields. Have you considered that grass is beginning to be accepted as salad, also that the actions of crawling and cropping afford excellent physical exercise?" The priest smiled as he added, "I've sometimes wondered if they attend my chapel for the sake of a compulsory walk. Otherwise they would be cooped up at the Cloisters. But it is no crime to preserve health and they give most generously to charity."
Cassie Thomas' murder was hot news until the inquest, after which the edge of the public's interest was blunted. The victim had done her part by providing a body, but the mystery missed fire for lack of co-operation from the police. In spite of its efforts, the force was unable to provide a solution to the classic poser of "Oodunnit?"
The witnesses at the inquest were few—with nothing to give away—while Eva's story was unconvincing. She blamed herself for running away instead of going to the rescue of the post-mistress, but she insisted that she had been chased away by a nun...At this point, Julian Thomas was interested by the fact that Miss Gomme—acting for the Black Sisters—was represented by her solicitor. It indicated that the rumour of the "mad nun" had reached the Cloisters and that the community was taking steps to kill it before it could develop into slander.
"You say a nun chased you all the way home?" remarked the lawyer casually. "Are you good runner? Have you won prizes at school sports?"
"No," confessed Eva.
"Do you get out of breath? I imagine you suffer from anaemia?"
"Yes," agreed Eva.
"Then how do you explain why you were not caught?"
Very soon Eva had been lured to admit that she might have imagined the footsteps. After that, it was but a step to her agreement that her eyes, as well as her ears, could be controlled by her nerves and that she might have imagined the figure of the nun. At this stage of her evidence, she broke down in a fit of sobbing and was led out of the court, as a discredited witness.
The medical testimony stated that deceased had been rendered unconscious by the first blow. There was no sign of a struggle and the dead woman's face was composed and even happy. A number of blows had been struck which would indicate that the murderer was either nervous or inexperienced. Money had been taken from the cash-drawer but most of it was left—another pointer to fear of interruption.
In summing-up, the Coroner remarked that the crime appeared to be the work of that foe to society—the migrant petty-criminal—who attacks small shopkeepers in lonely places and then moves on again. The jury agreed with him and brought in the verdict—"murder by person or persons unknown."
The same evening, Julian called at Canton House. As he was shown into the library, Fay looked at him with interest. He was the type which appealed to her—quiet and free from self-assertion, yet sure of his ability to control a situation. She noticed the flash of his dark eyes behind his glasses when Miss Key introduced her and hoped that the attraction was mutual.
"This is my new companion, Miss Williams," said Miss Key. "I am wondering how I ever managed without her...Sit down, Mr. Thomas. Is this a business-call?"
"Partly," replied Julian. "I am making arrangements for the family to be present at my cousin's funeral."
"How does it concern me?" asked Miss Key. "I am not a member of your family."
"Admittedly. I spoke too loosely. I should have said your brother's legatees. There is a strong local interest in his will and as my cousin's death will benefit the rest of us, to a certain degree, I think it would create a better impression if everyone came...May I count on you?"
"You may not." Miss Key shuddered. "Funerals always remind me of death."
"Pity," murmured Julian. "It will be an important public function. In your position, your absence is bound to create comment."
"Then I will be present. I will attend by proxy. Here I am."
Placing her hand on her companion's shoulder, Miss Key smiled down at the girl.
"Will you represent me at the funeral, Fay?" she asked.
"I'd love to," said Fay eagerly. "Death doesn't affect me. I take a detached view of it."
Julian made no attempt to persuade Miss Key to alter her mind. Without a sign of disappointment he spoke to Fay in a business-like voice.
"As 'Miss Key,' you will be in the first car with my cousin, Cherry Ap-Thomas, and myself. Simone Mornington-Key will be in the second, together with Gertrude and Gabriel Key. Dr. Shackleton-Key, his wife and mother-in-law will be in the third...Have you any mourning? There will be a large crowd and we shall be expected to put on a good show."
"Yes," Fay assured him. "The coat's shabby, but anyway it's definitely black."
"I remember the beautiful Persian lamb coat Miss Key wore at her brother's funeral," remarked Julian reflectively. "But there is too much difference between your heights for you to borrow that...Now, what about flowers? Everyone will bring some and place them on the coffin before it is lowered. Merely a gesture of respect, as the sexton will remove them later and place them upon the grave for the public to read the inscriptions. You, Miss Williams—as 'Miss Key'—will place yours first. In fact, you will have to take precedence of the others throughout the ceremony. Everyone will be looking at you. Will you be nervous?"
"Not in the least," Fay assured him. "Of course, I can't promise flowers until Miss Key sanctions them."
"I do," said Miss Key. "What were your cousin's favourite flowers?"
"Yellow roses. Out of question in October."
"They can be forced."
Miss Key rose to her feet. Accepting his dismissal, Julian also got up from his chair.
"One more thing," said Miss Key. "Will you arrange for everyone to come back to Canton House, after the funeral, for tea. We can then discuss the alterations in the will."
"I will let you know then what increase you may expect on your next cheque," promised Julian. "Probably all of you have already worked it out for yourselves."
"In that case, it will be interesting to see if your figures agree with ours."
"They must agree. As a struggling lawyer, I'm always praying to meet Kipling's credulous widow and orphan 'who pray for ten per cent.' Good evening, Miss Key. Good evening, Miss Williams."
Julian looked around him but Fay had already slipped out of the library. She waited for him in the hall—her eyes brilliant and her face flushed with excitement. It was her moment of triumph and she felt that she only lacked a few inches to impress Julian of her omnipotence.
"Do you want Miss Key to come to the funeral?" she asked.
"I do," he replied. "For your private information, I and my cousins were educated by her brother's charity. She could hardly bow to Cassie in her life-time. So I am determined she shall pay her public respect now she is dead. It won't do poor old Cassie any good and it won't do her good, either. But it will do me a lot of good."
"Pay off a few old scores."
"They shall be paid off." Fay felt positive that she had grown in the last minute. "I can make Miss Key go to the funeral."
With a memory of his own warning to the Key twins when he gave them his imitation of a family lawyer, Julian looked down at her with legal caution. In his turn, he asked her "How?"
"By mental domination," explained Fay proudly. "I have an exceptionally strong will. I can always control my charges."
"I get it. Now in return for your kind offer, I am going to give you some advice. Don't boast to the Key family about possessing undue influence over their only and favourite rich aunt."
Fay stepped back as though she were dodging an actual blow.
"What do you mean by that crack?" she asked.
"I'll give you the situation in head-lines. 'Charming Companion Captivates Weak-willed Wealthy Woman.'"
Julian also retreated a pace before his face could be slapped. Then Fay broke the silence with a brittle little laugh.
"You're sorry for yourself," she said scornfully, "because someone was decent enough to pay for your education. I'd have given one eye for your chance. When I knew I should have to earn my living as untrained labour, I determined to magnify my job. I vowed I would influence everyone I came in contact with—and leave them better than I found them."
"Rather a steep order."
"But I've done it. My first engagement was to break a small boy of horrible habits. Then I took on a girl who was man-mad. After her, a woman who stole from shops. I conquered them all and left them cured. Now I've got Miss Key."
"What's her special trouble?"
"Cowardice." The word slipped from Fay's lips before she realised her indiscretion. "No, of course, I don't mean that. But I want to teach her not to be so afraid."
Without comment, Julian picked up his hat and crossed the hall. As he was opening the front door, Fay hurried after him.
"Shall I make her come?" she asked.
"Thanks." He smiled faintly. "But I have already attended to the job. You will find that she will come...Good evening."
Fay stared after him—wide-eyed and open-mouthed—before she ran back to the library. As she entered the room, Miss Key called out to her.
"Come upstairs with me, Fay. I want to show you my black Persian coat. I've decided that I will attend Miss Thomas' funeral."
Miss Cassie Thomas's funeral was her last public occasion and marked the end of her notoriety. It was depressing weather, with a penetrating rain slanting down from a discoloured sky, when Julian and Cherry Thomas drove up to Canton House. Wearing her Persian lamb coat, Miss Key was an imposing figure as she stood at the open door. Beside her, in ludicrous contrast, was Fay who was attending the funeral in the capacity of Miss Key's companion. She wore a new black coat—the gift of her employer—and carried a large bunch of violets.
As the car stopped, the parlourmaid appeared from the background—holding an enormous cross of yellow roses. She waited until Julian had helped her mistress into the seat beside Cherry, and then, with a solemn expression, she placed the flowers on Miss Key's lap.
Her first glance told Fay that Cherry had put a fast one over the other mourners. She wore her black suit, but she had draped herself—Continental-fashion—in a long voluminous veil. The effect was so glamorous, in conjunction with ginger hair and artistic make-up, that Fay felt loyally grateful for the prestige of Miss Key's roses.
As the ladies bowed distantly, without a word of greeting, Julian made no attempt to draw them together. He sat in the back seat, beside Fay and stared out impassively at the dripping laurels and sodden yellow gravel of the drive. Fay felt depressed by the gloom and the pity of a last journey as she watched the rain drifting in sheets over the dense masses of the fir-woods; but, since they travelled by the main road, they soon reached Oldtown, where they joined up with the funeral procession.
The streets were crowded, while both cemetery and chapel were thronged, chiefly with women and children. Some wore complimentary mourning and carried flowers, but all seemed to regard the ceremony as a spectacle. When the coffin was removed from the hearse, they sobbed with mass-hysteria and made a rush to get the best view. As they struggled and pushed, Fay felt sure that they would have fought in just the same way to witness the murder—had it been committed in public.
In spite of her disgust, she found herself responding to the stimulus of popular interest. Everyone who got out of the cars was identified by the crowd and comments were made in audible voices. She was gratified to discover that she was credited with distinction because she rode in the first car and she gave her name to the local reporter, by request.
Miss Key's roses were loudly admired, but Cherry Ap-Thomas got the largest share of notice. It was then that Fay realised the exact significance of the spectacular veil. It was a publicity-stunt, by which Cherry was definitely typed to the crowd as chief mourner.
Miss Key hung heavily on Julian's arm when she entered the chapel. Fay accompanied them, since she was responsible for her employer's reactions. Kneeling beside her, she strained every nerve to break up any mental bridge between the burial service and death. She whispered the compliments she had overheard about the yellow roses—and invented others—to distract Miss Key's attention from the coffin, when it made its double journey down the aisle. At the end of the ceremony, she had only a clouded idea of a dark crowded church which smelt heavily of flowers and wet clothing.
It was a relief to be outside in the open air and to relax from her burden of responsibility, although Miss Key retained her hand. Beyond the circle of intimate mourners, the crowd was standing on graves and climbing tombstones, to get a ringside view of the burial. In her turn, she too felt a spectator of domestic drama, as she began to study the family.
She decided that Gabriel Key looked like a theatrical archangel, played convincingly by a fine actor. Dr. Shackleton-Key might be considered handsome by some women but he was too loosely-built and too shaggy for her taste. Her gaze rested approvingly on Julian's pale intellectual face before she stared at Simone Key.
Although Miss Key had told her about her favourite niece's beauty and qualities, she had to admit that Simone was even more attractive than she had expected her to be. There was something in the serenity of her expression which raised her above the rabble and elevated her into the class of immortals. As she watched her, Fay felt a pang of envy.
"That girl's got everything," she thought. "I've got nothing." Then her leaping spirit refused to accept defeat. "Nothing? No, I am the lucky one. I'm outside—so I can look on and enjoy the play in an impersonal way."
At that moment, as though to prove her boast, Simone glanced across at Fay. As she noticed that Miss Key was holding her companion's arm, the goddess crashed from the clouds, to earth. Crossing over to her aunt, she pressed against her possessively—her grey squirrel coat rubbing against Miss Key's Persian lamb, as though the unlucky animals whom they had covered in life were making friends.
"She's jealous of me," thought Fay exultantly as she drew her arm free. "Well, she can carry on for me now. Let her kid Miss Key that this is really a christening."
As she gazed beyond the spectators, at the fine downpour veiling the background of yew and cypress, the scene appeared unreal as a morbid slice of theatre. But as the coffin was being lowered into the ground, there was evidence of genuine human sorrow. Sobbing bitterly, Eva—the Post Office clerk—broke from her mother's clutch and pushed her way through the crowd. There followed a moment of painful suspense, when she appeared to be on the point of throwing herself into the grave.
Fay noticed that it was Dr. Shackleton who foresaw her movement and who soothed her, even while he retained her with his arm.
"Too much hair and too much chin," she decided. "But he is really nice."
She told herself that these elegant mourners were all nice people—well-bred, fortunate and sheltered. Even the Thomases had won immunity from economic strain and were now beyond the storm-zone. They could afford to regard this funeral with her own detachment, since, to them, death must be so far away...
For a month had yet to pass before the Chief Constable stood in the window of the County Club and pointed out Simone to the Indian judge.
"Fay!" Miss Key's whisper buzzed in the girl's ear. "I want you to pour out tea when we get back."
Fay had never appreciated the rarely-used drawing-room at Canton House so much as when she sat before a Queen Anne silver teapot and filled cups for the company. The carpet and walls were pale grey—the hangings and covers faded rose brocade—and there was a general air of comfort and opulence which was doubly acceptable after churchyard yews. Amid the continuous sound of conversation, she listened-in to the nearest group of Keys. Dr. Shackleton, his wife, Simone, her mother, and Miss Key hung together in a cluster and lowered their voices to gossip about the Clock Cottage twins.
"Let's hope Gertrude will use her bit of extra income to get a maid," said Mrs. Rosalie. "She overdoes it—out all day and running the house as well."
"Light domestic duties hurt no woman," pronounced Dr. Shackleton. "Not even our fragile Simone."
"Oh, I am definitely strong since I had my typhus," declared Simone.
"Simone," screamed her mother. "Typhus is a horrible dirt-disease. You had typhoid."
"Does it matter? They sound alike to me."
Miss Key, who loved a family gossip, returned to the subject of the twins.
"My guess is Gertrude will go on slaving and Gabriel will have a new car. The woman who goes to Clock Cottage occasionally tells my cook that the living is frightfully extravagant as my lord likes it. And she says there's always a breakfast tray left out on the landing table."
"It is definitely degrading for any man to let a woman bring him breakfast in bed," said Dr. Shackleton. "It's the other way round with us, isn't it, Rosalie? But there is a touch of pelican about Gertrude."
"Pelican," murmured Simone. "Oh, you mean the revolting bird that feeds on the blood of its young."
Again there was a shout of laughter of which Simone appeared unconscious.
"Is it a pose to attract attention?" wondered Fay. "Or doesn't she really care what she says or what others think of her. She may really be too far away...That's the end of the first cups."
She was beginning to relax when Dr. Shackleton smiled down at her.
"You're doing all the work," he said. "Can't I help?"
The offer was merely formal, but as he began to chat to her, Fay understood why he was successful as a woman's doctor. In spite of the thick waving hair which grew too low on his forehead, she fell under the spell of his charming manner. His voice was so persuasive that she felt an instinctive urge to co-operate by putting out her tongue.
He soon left her—obeying his professional urge to circulate at any gathering—and she was free to study the others. Although there had been a definite cleavage between the Thomases and the Keys, Cherry was beginning to collect a circle around her. Even Simony listened when Gabriel commented on her mourning veil.
"You make a devastating widow."
"I can't afford to lose any chance to advertise," she said coolly. "People were asking who I was. It's only one step from me to my shop. I hope some of them will find their way to it, out of curiosity."
"Isn't that playing it rather low? She was your cousin, wasn't she?"
Cherry laughed shortly.
"Easy to see you've never put every bean into a gamble," she told him. "You should try it some time."
"Do you refer to your shop—'Appleby and Ap-Thomas.'...How long does it take to acquire an 'Ap'?"
"About the same time as a 'Mornington.'"
Cherry and Simone looked at each other steadily, while Gabriel—who was apparently attracted by Cherry—continued to spar with her.
"Would you—by any chance—consider yourself ruthless?" he asked.
"I hope so. I'm out to make some money after two years of teaching in school. Naturally I chose a business where I could meet men."
"How are you doing?"
"You don't know the half. We've got a gold mine. No competition. My partner is the best buyer in the district and I supply the personality punch. It has been suggested to me"—she raised her voice and glanced at Miss Key—"that a science degree is not really necessary for hitting a cash-register. But you have to be educated yourself to understand the sense of superiority it gives you over ignorant people."
Gabriel appeared not to listen as he fingered her veil.
"I'd like to try the effect of all that cloud," he said. "I make an enchanting woman."
"Don't be a fool, Gabriel." Gertrude's voice was sharp. "You have never dressed up as a woman, so you don't know."
As Gertrude spoke, she glared around her with unnecessary defiance. Instinctively Fay was reminded of the local bogeyman who masqueraded as a woman.
She felt slightly chilled by the recollection as Gabriel turned to Simone.
"What a funny hat. Extreme left, isn't it? Let me show you how it should be worn."
When he perched it on his head, his face appeared ultra-masculine so that everyone screamed with laughter.
"Don't be too crushed, darling," Simone told him. "The milliner told me that nobody but myself could wear that hat and get away with it."
"Let me try," urged Dr. Shackleton. "I've more hair."
The hat was passed from head to head, amid shrieks of ribald amusement. Even Miss Key clapped it over her brow and received an ovation. When it came to Rosalie's turn, everyone admitted that it was really becoming to her flat Dutch-doll face.
"I'll sell it to you, half-price, Rosalie," offered Simone. "It was four pounds, fifteen and nine. I owe you three, thirteen and six for the cardigan-suit. But I paid three and nine for tea at the Golf House, last week. Then you lost fifteen and fourpence to me at bridge and I paid three bob for a taxi home. So if you pay me nine and elevenpence halfpenny, we shall be quits."
"Vague?" queried Fay, whose brain was reeling from her attempt to check the figures. Even as she wondered, Simone drifted towards the tea-tray and took a lump of sugar from the basin.
"I'm enchanted to meet you," she said. "Aunt Ida has told me a lot about Fay." Her mind appeared to leap as she added, "I've seen fairies."
"Were they like Conan Doyle's fairies?" asked Fay with polite interest.
"Definitely not. Actually I don't see them with my eyes. Something happens—a flash, a quiver, anything. It's only afterwards that I say, 'That was a fairy.'"
"I think I could see that kind, too," said Fay.
Again Simone's eyes lost their vagueness as she stared at Fay.
"Do come and see me," she said. "You sound like a real person. But do you mind? Gabriel wants me."
Enslaved by Simone's smile, Fay watched the cousins as they whispered together like a couple of school children. Then Simone wandered casually from the room, to be followed soon afterwards by Gabriel.
The next minute, everyone was galvanised by the arrival of Dr. and Mrs. Aurelius. Lilith had staged her usually unconventional entry. Wearing a childish short-sleeved black frock—an "Alice" comb in her hair—she stood in the rain, like a pathetic Orphan of the Storm, while she scratched on the glass of the French window. Dr. Shackleton hurried to open it, when she bounded into the room, dragging her husband after her and holding his hand as though they were a pair of juveniles.
It was such an undignified situation for a man of his years and standing that Fay felt both sorry and indignant on his account. He had a fine head and good features, but to her mind, he was rather like a grand ruin. Dark glasses shielded his eyes, but his brows were black and strongly-marked, hinting at extinct fires, beaten down by a too-exacting wife.
Gertrude, who had tramped across to the tray, gave Fay a friendly grin. She was wearing a skirt which did not suit her as well as slacks and which made her look like Miss Key's younger sister; but she lost her aggressive expression as she gossiped with Fay.
"Not counting cups, I hope?" she asked.
"Don't mention figures to me," groaned Fay. "Your family seems wizard at them."
"Yes, trust the Keys to wake up if you jingle two coppers. It makes me boil to think that the Thomases and Lilith are sharing with us. They are taking money which should go to Gabriel...Have you seen the famous Dr. Aurelius before?"
"No. Is he terribly clever?"
"You'd say so. Pages about him in the books of reference. But he's never done anything. It's really tragic...The low-down is that Lilith is a man-eater and she's left nothing of him but the rind. What riles all of us is the way she imagines every woman is after him. You can hardly tell her that he would be left hanging on a peg in the bargain-basement...Do listen to her. She's a scream."
Standing in the middle of the room, Lilith was explaining her late arrival to the company in general. What was extraordinary was the fact that the company in general was actually listening to her. Even Cherry had broken off her success-story, either for lack of audience or because she acknowledged a greater egotist than herself.
"I knew poor Miss Cassie Thomas wouldn't miss me," said Lilith. "My husband would. He is writing a treatise which will shake the scientific world and I am privileged to collect some of his data. No orchids for Lilith—but a privilege indeed to work with a really fine mind."
"Lilith," expostulated her husband.
Fay felt a rush of compassion for him. Pouring out a cup of tea, she carried it across to his seat. When he took it, without a glance at her or a word of thanks, she regretted her impulse.
"Used to be waited on by a slave-woman," she whispered to Gertrude.
"I can say nothing," confessed Gertrude bluntly. "I'm supposed to spoil Gabriel...What's Simone up to? She looks quite intelligent."
Fay watched Simone whose face was animated as she spoke to Miss Key.
"Aunt Ida, I've done an awful thing. I met a woman floating about in the hall with a collecting-book. She's terribly attractive and pathetic—"
"Not now, Simone," said Miss Key.
Her protest was too late, for the woman stood in the doorway. Tall and stately in a long black coat, she looked rather like Mrs. Mornington-Key's younger sister who had taken the wrong turning. There was a dash of adventuress about her heavy make-up and her strong perfume, but her face was almost beautiful under the shade of her veiled hat. She came forward, walking with mincing steps and holding out her hand.
"I'm so sorry to intrude—" she said.
Her high-pitched voice suddenly slipped and broke to the accompaniment of a gale of laughter.
"Gabriel, you utter fool," yelled Gertrude while Miss Key wiped tears from her eyes.
"How dare you wear my coat and hat?" she demanded. "You've been rooting among my things."
"No, I left your secrets to Simone," said Gabriel. "Of course, you were bound to spot me because I had to borrow your clothes. Actually I know I could lift a sub from you, if I really tried."
"No, Gabriel, I'm not a fool."
"Will you bet? Twenty-to-one in quids. You've got to give me decent odds because I could be arrested for masquerading as a woman."
"You've done quite well as it is," remarked Dr. Aurelius. "You have given us a convincing proof that you cannot pass as a woman."
Fay noticed that a mummy seemed to be coming to life for he moved briskly to make room on the divan for Simone to sit beside him. He talked to her with marked animation before he looked at his watch and rose.
"I hope I shall not break up your enjoyable party," he said to Miss Key.
Fay wondered whether the words were a reproach as she listened to the noise. Everyone, except herself, seemed to be having a good time. She had a sudden vision of poor Cassie Thomas, out in the rain and pressing her face against the window—shut out from her own party...
Then she became aware of Lilith, speaking to Simone in a strained voice.
"You are favoured. My husband never talks to girls. He is really unpredictable. Did you discuss the pictures? He could do even that."
"Our subject was glands," replied Simone. "Definitely fascinating. I've always wanted to know what makes me what I am. The Doctor says it's all done with glands."
"I could have told you about them in simple words."
"I can always understand a man better than a woman." Simone turned and caught Julian's arm. "Julius, when are you going to tell us about our money?"
"Yes, do your stuff, there's a good fellow," urged Gabriel.
Julian caught Miss Key's eye.
"I suggest the library," he said. "Please understand this is a meeting of legatees only."
"Surely my wife can come," protested Dr. Shackleton. "She'll know all about it, directly we get home."
"Sorry, I do it my way or not at all. This has been such a high-spirited occasion that a business meeting can easily degenerate into farce. Some of my figures are rather involved and I must insist on your undivided attention."
His will prevailed, drawing the legatees into the library, while Fay rang up a garage for a car to take Mrs. Mornington-Key and Rosalie back to Oldtown. Before they drove away, both gave her pressing invitations to visit them.
"The Keys are lovely people," she thought. "I suppose Julian has Simone in his hair. That girl gets everything."
Soon afterwards, the business meeting came to an end; but even in that short time, Julian had made his impression. Fay noticed that the men thanked him fraternally for his services while the women flattered him with questions about their pencilled figures. During the confusion of leaving, he broke away from them and crossed over to Fay.
"We managed to get her there, between us," he said in a low voice. "Thank you. Poor old Cassie would have liked that."
His smile made Fay feel excited and irrationally happy. When she returned to the drawing-room, Mrs. Aurelius had already settled down to her usual evening session, so the companion was officially off duty. She read letters and knitted for some time, but gradually she rebelled against the warmth and comfort of the room. When she looked through the window, she saw a young moon riding high in the sky. A wind had risen which was sweeping the clouds before it. It whistled to her, drawing her to come out.
Too restless to sit still, she watched the clock—never knowing when it ticked away a moment fraught with horror...
Presently she got up from her corner of the divan and told Miss Key that she was going out to post her letters.
"Aren't you afraid of passing the Cloisters?" asked Miss Key.
"Why?" asked Fay. "I pass it by day. It's not any different in the dark."
"She's a fearless child, like Lucy Gray," murmured Lilith.
Remembering Lucy Gray's fate, Fay considered the remark ill-chosen. She giggled at the memory of it when she was walking down the drive between the laurels which led to the front gate. Higher up, the lane was narrow and stony, with ferny banks which harboured black slugs during the summer months; but at tins end, its surface had been improved and widened, so that a car could be driven up to Canton House. After a few yards, it emerged on to the main road, near the oasis of the lamp-post and the pillar-box.
Dropping down to the right, was the river by-pass. It swept round in a loop—a pack of firs on its left and the river on its other side. Slightly higher than the union of roads, the river was spanned by a narrow wooden bridge, built for foot-traffic only—and leading to Isis House, the home of Dr. and Mrs. Aurelius. It was a low pretentious building of white stucco—damp and discoloured—with a classical pillared portico. Nearly level with the bridge, a rough path forked off from the river-road and led up to the Cloisters.
Nothing could be seen of this house from the outside. It stood in several acres of rough ground and the property was enclosed by a ten-foot wall. Through the grille of its entrance-gate, it was possible to see a flagged path—crossing a grass enclosure and leading up to the door of the inner courtyard, where Miss Gomme refused admittance to any unauthorised person. All around the house—pressing in upon it so closely that the forest appeared to have broken in, was a grove of trees.
After Fay had posted her letters, the excitment of the day still ran high, so that she disliked the idea of returning to the house. Crossing the by-pass, she mounted some broken wooden steps and walked to the middle of the bridge. The moonlight silvered the banks and shone on the foam which washed over the boulders, higher up the stream; but the water below her ran swiftly in a dark slide. She kept her eyes upon it, to get the illusion of gliding forward with the current, until the inevitable jerk when she became stationary again...Out and on—there and back—her thoughts drifted with the river and she lost count of time...
Suddenly she noticed a stir amid the darkness of the by-pass road as though parts of the landscape were in motion. For a moment, she thought her eyes were playing a trick, before she realised that the procession of the Black Sisters was returning from the chapel.
In spite of her common sense, she felt a quiver of fear as she remembered a story she had read in a Victorian magazine in her grandfather's library. It was about a ghostly pair—a knight and a nun—who haunted a Priory garden as a warning of sudden death to anyone who met them...Suddenly she shrank from the prospect of meeting the Black Sisters on that side of the road. The bridge led only to the dead end of Isis House, where she could find no shelter in case of pursuit. The daily woman had gone home, Lilith was at Canton House and the Doctor would not leave his work for the most frantic knocking.
She began to run back over the shaky boards, hoping to cross the river by-pass and reach the main road, in time to avoid the procession. But even as she jumped down the steps, she discovered that she was already cut off. The leader of the blade figures was now level with the bridge and she was forced to stand and watch the line of dark shapes file past her.
"They're only human-beings," she told herself, although she knew that it was the abnormal element which stiffened her limbs and sanded her throat...
They could see in the darkness. At that moment, they were giving her actual proof of their power as they advanced, without a swerve or stumble, with no surface to guide them, when they turned off towards the Cloisters. Suddenly her heart began to race.
"Oh, dear life, what's that?" she thought. "It's coming here."
To her horror, the last shape had failed to swing out to the right, after the procession. Instead it halted and then blundered to the left—its arms outstretched in a groping movement.
"She's seen me," thought Fay.
Her first instinct was to rush to the opposite bank of the river and try to hide in the rough undergrowth, but her panic was only momentary. As her humanity responded to the test, she forced herself to approach the Sister.
"You've lost your way," she said shakily. "Let me guide you."
She took the figure's elbow, when she felt the strength of its instinctive recoil, as though resisting the pollution of her touch. Conquering her own repugnance, she dragged it up the path. She was only just in time for the tail of the procession was already passing through the gate.
The figure murmured three words in so low a voice that she could only distinguish the word "God."...With the virtuous sense of having earned a blessing, Fay ran back to Canton House. When she was in the lane, the delayed meaning of the Black Sister's murmur took shape in her brain.
"She said 'God damn you.'...She cursed me."
Miss Gomme walked back to the Cloisters behind the last of the Sisters, rather like a sheep dog rounding up her flock. It was nearly time for the evening meal which each inmate ate in private or in public—according to her mood. As they entered the hall, they broke from single file and spread put over the waxed boards, like a drift of black butterflies.
A grand staircase wound up to the first gallery upon which most of the bedrooms opened. At one end of this landing, a tree pushed its branch through a window which was never closed. From the half-way landing a few shallow steps led to a patient's room.
The Sister whom Fay had guided, followed the others up the stairs but she turned off, at the bend, and entered No. 21, where the lady from London was lying in bed.
When she first came to the Cloisters, Mrs. Blank had no claim, to the title of "lady" or to any other title. She was not even an individual, but rather like two separate parts—a distraught mind, straining to be free from the clog of a poisoned body...But now her brain was tranquil and her nerves still. She was dimly conscious of a sense of well-being and of being enwrapped in happiness and peace. On the following day, she would be sent to a nursing home, to complete her physical cure.
No patient was allowed to stay at the Cloisters during convalescence. Probably Father Rooney had guessed shrewdly when he hinted that the community's magic was partly applied common sense and that the Sisters did not want curious eyes to pry out their secrets. Each patient remained in a semi-comatose condition up to the minute when she was borne away in an ambulance—in the certainty that she would meet her lost body waiting to be linked up with a healthy mind.
Before she went to sleep, that evening, the lady from London tried to remember the stages of her regeneration—to find that it had faded from her mind. All that remained were confused memories of healing darkness and also of green light filtering through trees which grew inside the house. The Sister who tended her typified service and was impersonal as a friendly shadow. She wore a black mask so that she had no face to arouse emotion—whether of approval or dislike.
The lady from London was closing her eyes when she realised a departure from normal routine. She was still only groping towards reassurance, so that any change from habit could shatter her new-growing confidence. There was a stir in the darkness, followed by fumbling uncertain movements which told her of the entry of a stranger.
Instantly her nerves began to quiver and she turned on the bedside-light—to see a tall black figure stooping over her.
"Who are you?" asked the lady from London.
"Hush." The whisper was fierce. "Drink this."
The lady from London cried out in terror. But strong fingers gripped her jaws and forced the draught down her throat. The pressure of a hand over her lips continued while the drug took effect, so that she did not believe what she saw...
For it seemed to her that after the Sister had removed her fingers, she climbed up on to the window ledge and disappeared through the open casement, like a monstrous bat...
The next morning, the lady from London left the Home. Soon afterwards she acquired a name when her complete recovery was reported by her grateful husband. The memory of her last night had faded from her memory, so that she had no knowledge of her cry of horror when the Black Sister had held a glass to her lips.
"There's blood on your hands. Blood."
ON the following morning, Fay awoke with the feeling that another door had been opened. After the limited society of Canton House—with only Lilith's visits to break the monotony—she had met the provocative Key family, with its contradiction of character and its charm. The sun was shining for the first time since the day when Cassie Thomas had been killed. She looked around at the willow-plate wall-paper and caught—through the open window—the gleam of a copper-beech against a soft blue sky.
"Good murder weather," she told herself as Parsons brought in the "little breakfast" which was Miss Key's idea of early morning tea. The woman slammed down the tray with her usual air of grudged service. Most of the servants had been with Miss Key for many years and they resented each new companion on principle. Parsons did not speak until she reached the door.
"Mistress wants to see you," she said.
Startled by the summons, Fay jumped out of bed and zipped on her blue robe while she was running down the passage to Miss Key's bedroom. It was a huge apartment and, in spite of her single status, the mistress of the house had furnished it as a double room, with some idea of balancing its proportions. It was hung with Chinese paper—the late owner's signature in every room—but its beauty did not harmonise with the colour-scheme.
Wearing a wrapper of shell-pink brushed-wool, Miss Key was sitting up in the vast bed. She was hard at work—a tea-cup in one hand and a piece of bread and butter in the other. When she saw Fay, she gave a distressed cry.
"Oh dear, I didn't mean you to let your tea get cold. Go back and finish it."
"I was afraid you were ill," panted Fay. "Didn't you want me?"
"It's only this." Miss Key groped amid the billows of mauve satin quilt and fished up a hand-bag. "It's Gertrude's. She rang up last night, to ask if she had left it here, but we couldn't find it. Parsons brought it up just now. It was tucked between the cushions of the divan...Gertrude is playing away to-day in a golf watch. I noticed a railway ticket, at party rates, when I looked inside the bag to make sure it was hers. She'll be leaving early—and it may be inconvenient losing her special ticket."
Miss Key stopped talking, to look appealingly at her companion. Fay had already seen the request sticking through the explanation and she knew that Miss Key was too timid to ask for service which might not be her right.
"Shall I dress quickly and run over to the Cottage with it?" she offered.
"Oh, my dear, I don't like to impose on you. Be sure to eat something first."
Fay gulped tea and munched biscuits while she pulled on her clothes. Hatless—since her wind-swept hair was her chief vanity—she drew her rust tweed coat over her leaf-brown skirt and pullover and galloped back to the big bedroom.
Miss Key had begun to eat her biscuits but she stopped to hand the bag to Fay and to give her instructions on finding a short-cut to Clock Cottage.
"If you don't see Gertrude about, don't ring or knock. She won't expect a visitor so early and you might catch her before she is ready to be seen. She might feel awkward. Besides she'll be busy, doing the housework and getting breakfast, so as to leave everything just so before she goes. She's a very conscientious girl."
"What must I do?" asked Fay.
"Slip inside and leave the bag on the hall-table. She can't miss seeing it there. The front door is always open when she's about."
"Perhaps I shall see Mr. Gabriel," suggested Fay.
"I won't raise your hopes. My lord will be slugging in bed. Good-bye, my dear, and take care of yourself."
Fay walked down the drive of Canton House, with a sense of adventure, imparted by the early hour. The world seemed unnaturally quiet and empty, with unfamiliar lights and shadows which made even the sophisticated end of the lane appear different. When she reached the fork of the by-pass road, she could see the mist rising from the river, while the white front of Isis House was transfigured to the semblance of a Grecian temple.
At first, the road was cut through the fir-woods, where thin shafts of sunlight slanted through the trunks. As Fay walked over a carpet of needles, she saw her breath issuing in a cloud of vapour on the chill air—sharp with the odour of resin. Brambles and bracken were heavily hung with dew—birds chirped faintly—and a squirrel ran across her path. Had a knight in armour appeared at the end of a vista, she would have accepted him as a credible figure, so strong was her sense of phantasy.
She was sorry when she left the shadows of the trees and came out into the open. On either side of the main road were semi-detached villas and larger houses, each standing in its garden. Presently she reached the mouth of an unsavoury lane, where docks and nettles grew rankly round ruined pig-sties and mouldering brickwork. A sluggish stream crawled along in a ditch which was choked with refuse and empty tins.
Soon her surroundings began to improve, when whitewashed cottages, gay with flower plots, replaced the derelict area. In contrast with these humble dwellings, Clock Cottage appeared almost a mansion, so that Fay identified it before she read its name. A rustic retreat—tucked away a stones-throw from the town—it appealed to her as a secret of imagination and charm. Once again she had a sense of enchantment which she feared to break as she pushed open the green gate slowly, lest it should creak. An hospitable homestead too, for as she walked up the path she noticed that the hands of the floral clock were set at four o'clock, as though in permanent invitation to afternoon tea.
No one was visible at the casement windows, when she tiptoed up to the front door. It yielded to her pressure so she pushed it open and slipped inside. The hall appeared so dark after the sunlight that she had crept several yards over the polished parquet before she noticed the back of a white figure in the farthest corner.
He was prostrate—as though in worship of Allah—but he sprang to his feet at the faint scuffle of her footsteps. It was Gabriel, wearing a house-painter's coat and holding a polishing cloth. His fair hair was plastered in damp jags over his forehead—his face was deeply flushed—and his eyes were ringed as though for lack of sleep.
They stared at each other until the sound of a whistle made Gabriel dart towards the kitchen.
"Don't go," he said in a low breathless voice as he hurried through the door.
It would have taken a depth-charge to move Fay—so overpowering was her curiosity. She did not shift from the spot of parquet on which she stood until Gabriel returned, balancing a breakfast tray. He ran up the miniature staircase and she heard the opening of a bedroom door and the sound of his voice.
When he came back to the hall, he took her arm and drew her towards the kitchen.
"She can't hear us here," he said. "Why the surprise party?"
He stared intently at Fay's face while she explained about the bag.
"Lady," he said, "you've breadth between your eyes. That tells me I can trust you. Listen. You must promise never to tell anyone you saw me doing chores or taking up my sister's breakfast. If this got about, poor Gertrude would make a hole in the water. She takes these foolish things so seriously."
"She shouldn't let you do it," protested Fay. "It's terrible of her. She wears the halo while your name is mud."
"Actually, she doesn't know. I'm the 'Brownie' in this home. Gertrude imagines the woman cleans through and that she can keep the dust under by making faces at it. The truth is I am fastidious and my standard is high. I was so revolted by the dirt and disorder that I started to take sly pokes at the house. I took on more and more, until now I get up early and make a job of it."
"And your sister's breakfast?" asked Fay bitterly. "Doesn't she know about that either?"
"Be fair to her. I had to hide her pants to keep her in bed. I couldn't do my 'Brownie' stunt without a clear field. That reminds me. Will you go, please? I ought to vanish with the first sunbeam. Good-bye, my dear. I know I can trust you."
No dramatic situation was wasted upon Fay as she looked around her. The kitchen was small and old-fashioned—true cottage type—with uneven boards and small windows, blocked with geranium pots. Although baking-day belonged to the past, it still seemed to smell of cinnamon and yeast. Its pleasant warmth and the sense of intimacy made their pact appear a secret of utmost importance. A lump arose in her throat and she spoke with a quiver in her voice.
"I promise you. If I hear you slandered, I will not say one word in your defence. But I think you're wonderful."
"Not I." Gabriel laughed. "Gertrude's the wonder. She lies in bed while the Brownie carries on. I'm only the sucker...Go out the back way. It opens on to the lane, lower down."
As Fay was pushing a way through old apple-trees and gooseberry-bushes, she heard the distant ringing of the telephone bell. Suddenly—for no reason, unless she was feeling the aftermath of her emotional experience—she began to shiver.
Although the sun was higher than when she started out on her walk, Fay felt cold on her return journey to Canton House. She had been given an unpleasant peep behind the scenes when the roof had been taken off an enchanted cottage, to expose an uncomfortable situation. A strong able-bodied woman was allowing her delicate brother to wait upon her, while she posed as a martyr to sister-love.
"I suppose it is true that twins love each other most," she reflected. "But love can turn to hate. Why did he laugh? He's got me guessing."
There was no mist on the river when she reached the by-pass road and Isis House had lost its claim to classic beauty. In compensation, Fay had acquired a keen appetite. Leaving her coat in the hall, she went into the dining-room and began to lift the covers of the dishes. She looked up guiltily, like a child surprised in the jam closet, when Miss Key came into the room.
"Did you see Gertrude?" she asked.
"No," replied Fay self-consciously.
"Then you didn't hear about the murder?"
"Rosalie Key. Dr. Shackleton's wife. Last night."
"How ghastly." Suddenly reminded of her responsibility, Fay dashed to the sideboard. "Where's the brandy?"
"I'm not going to faint," Miss Key told her calmly. "I've had something to eat. I heard about Miss Thomas on an empty stomach, before dinner. To my mind, the stomach is more important than Simone's glands...Shall we have breakfast? Are there kidneys?"
"Who told you of the murder?" persisted Fay.
"Oh dear, I hoped you had forgotten it. Suppose we don't talk about it until we've finished eating."
Fay took her place at the table with a queer sense of sitting opposite to a stranger. Although pale, Miss Key was composed and she seemed almost to enjoy her importance as a private Ministry of Information. Before the marmalade stage of the meal was reached, Fay was in possession of some of the facts.
Rosalie had gone back to Old Court with her mother-in-law and she had stayed there until Simone's arrival. Soon afterwards, she returned to her flat. It was not late, so no one accompanied her, since she had only to cross the Square.
Her body had been found early that morning, lying in the darkest corner of a deep ancient archway which led from the Square into Lawyers' Lane. The details of the crime were unpleasant, but Miss Key left them to Fay's imagination by explaining that it was "a knife murder."
"Why didn't the doctor ring up when his wife didn't come home?" asked Fay.
"Because there was a 'phone message waiting for him at his flat. A confinement living in the country and friends of his. He didn't get back till morning."
"But why didn't Nannie make inquirements about her mistress?"
"Nannie took it for granted that she was staying the night with her mother-in-law. She often did when the doctor stayed up in London for the night. Marie—I mean, Mrs. Mornington-Key—made such a fuss of Rosalie. She was terribly upset when she rang up to tell me the dreadful news but she wasn't prostrate...Now, if you've finished breakfast, I must ring up Gertrude. She will want to know whether she should play in the match to-day. Of course, I shall tell her not to let down her side."
"She'll like that," said Fay bitterly.
"Yes, it's always duty first with her. It's hard on a girl to be penny-plain while her brother is tuppenny-coloured. But never any jealousy. She adores him. If the story of their life together could be written, I've no doubt Oldtown would be surprised."
"I'm sure it would."
Miss Key walked into the hall but returned immediately to speak to her companion.
"I can't go into town, this morning," she explained. "People might ask leading questions—I mean, the kind you answer only because you don't know it is a question. I've commissions for you—bank, stores, patterns of window net—I'll write it all down...And do you mind wearing a hat? It shows more feeling."
Although she missed the wind stirring her hair, Fay set out for her walk in high spirits, born of a sense of liberty. It was not until she was walking through the shadowed fir-wood that a memory darkened her mind.
She remembered that Miss Key had never speculated on the identity of Rosalie's murderer or on the motive for the crime...
She shook off the unpleasant impression of underground interests, as she swung past the residential suburb. When she reached High Street, which was the spine of the town, she made a bee-line to the archway which led to Lawyers' Lane.
The signs of the crime had been removed but a group of morbid spectators had collected to view the scene of the tragedy. No one recognised her in spite of yesterday's funeral, so she ventured to speak to the woman beside her.
"They say a murderer always returns to the scene of his crime. I wonder if he is here now."
"Ah, you've said it," agreed the matron darkly. "After this, no one will be safe, public or private. The next person will crack your head on the chance of finding twopence in your bag. He'll knock at your door and say he's the gas or the water and then he'll stop your works and clean out the place."
Fay yearned to discuss the subject with so sympathetic a spirit, but she was driven on her way by the length of Miss Key's shopping list. As she visited the various shops, she grew vexed to find that no one connected her with the Key family. At the bank, however, when she was stuffing treasury notes into her bag, the cashier lowered his voice.
"Do you mind if I advise you not to go home by the river road? That's rather too much money to carry on a lonely road."
Thrilled by being considered a hypothetical victim, Fay assured him that she always played for safety. She was smiling broadly when she came out of the bank where she collided with Julian Thomas.
"How is Miss Key?" he asked with his family-solicitor gravity.
"Fine," replied Fay cheerfully. "I mean, of course—"
"Of course," agreed Julian. "By the way, why not walk over with me to Cheery's shop, this afternoon? We'll rush her for tea. I'll be waiting outside the Orange-Tree Café at three, on the chance you can be spared."
Fay hurried back to Canton House in a state of excitement which drove the murder from her mind. When she entered the hall, Miss Key was speaking into the telephone. She rang off and came to welcome the girl.
"That was poor Marie," she explained. "She says they've had a terrible morning, with police and press and what-not in the house. Now she wants me to come over. But I'm afraid she might ask me to see Rosalie. And a dead body always reminds me of death."
"If I were you," suggested Fay, "I'd go up to my room and settle down with a hot-water bottle and tea. And a couple of aspirins. Then if she rings up, Parsons can say you are asleep."
Miss Key welcomed an arrangement which left her companion free for the afternoon. An hour-and-a-half later, Fay was walking again along the Oldtown road, on her way to the Orange-Tree. Although her common sense warned her that Julian probably wanted to learn additional details of the tragedy, when she saw him waiting outside the café, she felt glad that she was not wearing her hat—in spite of its compassionate value.
"Suppose we go by the short-cut?" he suggested.
Avoiding the entrance to Lawyers' Lane, he led her down a side street, into a network of passages and courts, all thickly strewn with fallen leaves, from which arose a curious musty odour. It was not until they emerged on a new road, without any pavements, that she realised that he had chosen a long roundabout route, to spare her the ordeal of passing underneath the archway.
They ploughed their way over rutted ground, past inhabited bungalows and bungalows still in the course of erection, until they reached the lonely stretch on which the Branch Post Office and the catch-trade tobacconist's shop had been built.
Cherry stood in the doorway of Ap-Thomas and Appleby—the sun gilding her ginger hair. She greeted Fay without surprise and invited her into the inner room, when it was obvious that she was prepared for visitors. Her partner was exiled, cakes were provided and a kettle stood on a ring. The hostess wasted no time in preliminary remarks and made no pretence of hospitality, but went straight to the point.
"Tell us the inside dope about the murder."
When Fay gave her the facts, she frowned impatiently.
"Everyone knows that. Hasn't the family any special slant? They must have inside knowledge. What's their guess?"
"It's a mystery to us," Fay assured her.
"I wonder...They can't suspect the husband. He's too cold-blooded to have an affair that might get him struck off the Register...I had to call him in once and he just made it a social call. Wouldn't ask any awkward questions and left me to blurt out my ignominious symptoms. But he sent in a real doctor's bill...What's biting you, Julian?"
"Nothing," replied Julian, scratching his chin. "Of course, I hope this will prove another motiveless crime. But I can't help wishing the victim's name were not 'Key.'"
"Why?" asked Cherry.
"Because if Shackleton had been liquidated, instead of his wife, we should all of us benefit by his death. For the second time in a fortnight. Just think it over."
Cherry betrayed her sudden urge to smoke by opening a packet of gum.
"You mean it might be the prelude to wholesale murder?" she asked. "We should all of us be suspected?"
"Something more than that," Julian reminded her quietly. "We should suspect each other. In the circumstances, I doubt if I should be drinking your tea, Cherry."
"No doubt about it. You wouldn't be asked."
Fay thought it was time to intervene.
"Do you mind my telling you the kettle is boiling?" she asked Cherry.
Cherry's only response was to switch off the current before she went into the shop at the summons of the bell. They heard her serve a facetious customer before she returned.
"Sorry," she said. "But I can't afford to lose the smallest sale."
"How are you doing?" asked Julian.
"We're raking it in, but all in penny numbers. We want more capital to expand. There's no competition and we meet a need...We've got to make it pay. I won't let myself think of failure."
"Do you like it?" asked Fay.
"Hate it. But I wanted to escape from schools. Four years of women's society stirred up the devil in me. I never forget I was driven into the teaching profession by Josiah Key, like a sheep to the shambles. I couldn't escape my fate."
Cherry's slight frown of concentration deepened into a horseshoe of worry. At that moment, Fay was struck by the latent power in her face. It occurred to her that she had seen Cherry only in antagonistic company, when she was at her worst. She might possess loyalty and deep affection in addition to courage and determination. On the other hand, she might be a ruthless egotist.
"I should think you were splendid in air raids," she said impulsively.
"Everyone was." Cherry's voice was indifferent. "Even Simone drove an ambulance. I bet she lit a cigarette with every bomb, just to show she wasn't interested. She rather gives herself away with that gesture."
Still neglecting the kettle, she strolled into the shop and stood at the open door.
"Surprise," she called. "Believe it or believe it not, Simone and her mummy are just coming up from the river road."
As Julian hurried out to meet the visitors, Fay tried to quell her rising jealousy. It seemed obvious that Julian had arranged a tea-party for Simone and had used her—because of her connection with Canton House—to make it appear a family affair. Yet when Simone entered the shop, she contrived to make Fay believe that she was the person she wished most to meet. Under the spell of beauty and charm the younger girl's resentment died down as she watched her rival with fascinated eyes.
"I've been taking Mummie for a walk," said Simone. "It's so morbid in the house with loose policemen swarming everywhere and Colonel Pride gone all 'shikaree.'"
"The wretched child took me along part of the river bank," complained Mrs. Mornington-Key, dropping heavily into a chair.
Her large handsome face was flushed to a deep crimson—full-blown rose to Simone's pink bud—and she beamed when Cherry mentioned tea.
"We'd love it," said Simone. "But now I'm here I must get some fags...May I have five hundred of those?"
"It will set you back nearly three quid," warned Cherry, without moving to the counter.
"Actually, two-seventeen-and-nine," said Simone, opening her bag. As she was waiting for her change she explained, "I have to keep Mummie in cigs. She's a terrible scrounger."
"Darling, you have more money than I have," her mother reminded her.
"But you shouldn't sponge on your fatherless child."
"What's the matter with her?" wondered Fay as Simone rubbed her cheek against her mother's face. "Does she know too little—or too much?"
Cherry interrupted Fay's speculation by sending Julian on circuit with cups of tea. She rushed through her duties of hostess with swift efficiency, before she led back to the murder.
"I wonder how soon the archway will become a 'haunt,'" she remarked. "In fifty years' time people won't believe the story. It will be a sort of legend that a woman had her throat cut there and that her ghost walks."
A blank expression blurred Simone's eyes before she screwed them up as though she were peering through space to find a lost star.
"Rosalie is there," she said, "I saw her when we went through."
"Yes, darling, you would," said her mother sharply. Then she turned to Julian and asked for advice.
"When you were telling us about your cousin's murder, do you remember how poor Rosalie said she'd hate to be murdered because of the newspaper publicity. Confidentially, she concealed her real age. She looked so young...What ought I to do about it?"
"Cover up," said Simone. "We owe that to her. At least, I do." Nestling against her mother's shoulder, she added, "Now Rosalie's gone you'll be able to spare time for your own daughter."
"Simone!" cried Mrs. Mornington-Key, "that's a terrible thing to say. One would think you were glad poor Rosalie's dead."
"I'm not. I'm not. Can't you see I'm trying to be cool and disconnected?"
"But must you be nonchalant over poor Rosalie?"
"Yes, I must. You see, I wouldn't tell Colonel Pride because I dislike his type. Definitely sporting. He's a terrible man. He shoots albatrosses."
"Tell him what?"
"Tell him Rosalie was wearing my hat. Don't you remember I promised to sell it to her? She made me give it to her directly I got home."
Mrs. Mornington-Key's face seemed to collapse as though her cheeks had been filled out with paraffin-wax which had suddenly melted. In that moment the handsome matron shrank to an old woman.
"You mean someone tried to murder you?" she whispered.
"It could be so. It's a very distinctive hat. Everyone saw me wearing it at the funeral...Besides, if I'd been—removed—all the other legatees would be getting an extra share-out."
As she spoke, Simone lit a cigarette...
Fay did not dare look at Cherry or Julian, but when Julian broke the silence his face was as composed as his voice.
"I think we ought to tell that to the police. They may attach some importance to it, or they may not. I'm not a criminal lawyer, but I'll come with you, just to watch your interests and see no one tried to fluster you. You need not be afraid of seeing the colonel. He'll be out potting albatrosses."
Everyone laughed too loudly at the joke...
When the two girls were left together, Fay noticed that Cherry's frown had deepened to a scowl.
"She paid for the fags," she said. "I was expecting her to say 'charge them.' That's in her favour...But she might be putting a fast one over us. That story could be a clever attempt to establish an alibi. You don't suspect a victim."
"Oh, don't be silly," urged Fay. "But what a sell for the murderer, if he thought he was killing Simone. I'd like to have seen his face when he heard he'd got the wrong one."
"Perhaps you did," hinted Cherry. "Don't forget your Miss Key is very much a legatee."
A FORTNIGHT later Fay stood at her bedroom window and watched the dawn. It was All-Hallow E'en and a day of wild weather, with weird shifting lights and shadows. The sun and clouds appeared to be in conflict, when even a ray of light intermittently pierced the banked-up clouds, only to be wiped out immediately. Leaves and straws were whirled aloft in aerial currents, birds swooped and the wind whistled; yet there was no exhilarating sense of freedom. It was rather as if an invisible army of ghouls were blasting churchyard vaults to free restless spirits awaiting their annual release.
Although she was not imaginative, Fay felt a faint foreboding. It was Miss Key's birthday and the tempestuous morning did not seem a good omen for the year. For that matter, she herself had been thinking rather too much of signs and warnings during the past fortnight.
Rosalie Key had been cremated without any of the public excitement which had marked the burial of Cassie Thomas. The funeral had been private and all arrangements kept secret. The inquest, too, was discreet, since it hinted at no twisted family interests. The police appeared to see no other significance in the incident of Simone's hat than further support of their theory of an anonymous lunatic.
It was pointed out in court that the extraordinary excitement and hysteria at the funeral had probably incited some weak-witted person to stage a fresh crime. The jury brought in a verdict of "Murder by person or persons unknown," and Julian alone of the interested parties, recognised the official caution.
"If anything fresh breaks they are sure to pounce," he thought uneasily. "They are just waiting their time."
In spite of the stereotyped procedure, an element of horror had been introduced into the proceedings by a witness whose status forbade any attempt at suppression. Miss Maud—a retired schoolmistress who lived in one of the old houses in the Square—had given certain information to the police. She was a well-known figure in municipal affairs and was respected for her keen intellect and the horse-sense she brought to bear on local problems.
Miss Maud declared, that on the night of the murder, she had gone out to post a letter. As she was wearing thin house shoes, she kept to the pavement, rather than cross the cobbles. She was too accurate to talk of walking around a square. When she came near the archway, she noticed a tall black figure which appeared to be lurking. Although she was not nervous, she thought it more prudent to change her course and cut diagonally across the stones, rather than risk any chance of attack. No attempt had been made to molest her and she forgot the incident until she heard about the murder.
In answer to a question, she stated that she was not wearing her glasses, do was unable to give any description of the figure. She got the impression of unusual height and of a veiled face.
In his remarks to the Jury, the Coroner referred to the story told by Eva—the Post Office clerk—about seeing a nun on the scene of the first crime. It seemed a logical sequence that a moral defective had seized on the suggestion to disguise himself with black drapery.
As a result of Miss Maud's evidence, the Mad Nun began to stalk through Oldtown again. Tales were told of a black figure which bounded down Lawyers' Lane in flying leaps. Recently a link had been forged between it and the Cloisters by the sudden death of a Mrs. Wheeler.
As a strict Nonconformist, the woman had a fierce hatred of Roman Catholics and had accepted the popular fallacy that the Black Sisters were nuns. She feared them more than she hated them for she always declared that if she met one of them, it would be a sign of doom. It was natural for her to refer to death, since she suffered from advanced heart disease and had practically camped out beside her grave for years—incidentally outliving most of her contemporaries.
On the fatal day, she walked over to see her daughter, who lived in a cottage on the by-pass road by the river. Friends had dropped in to tea and the time had passed quickly, so that she was on her homeward way again before she realised that she had stayed too late. She began to hurry, but as she neared the fork of the roads and was counting herself safe, she met the procession of the Black Sisters who were going to the chapel.
She ran all the way back to her cottage and when she reached it she was on the point of collapse. She managed to stagger inside, gasp "I've met the Black Nuns. I'm doomed," before she dropped down, dead.
The story reached Canton House through the kitchen entrance, but Parsons had carried it into the drawing-room. Miss Key was very impressed by it as it justified her own prejudice, so she resisted all Fay's efforts to debunk the tale.
"It shows I was right," she declared. "It is bad luck to meet nuns."
"But they are not nuns," corrected Fay.
"No, they're worse. They shouldn't be allowed to go about unless they wear some customary uniform."
"Anyway crowds of people have met them and are still alive. I am and so are you."
"All the same, this proves it means bad luck."
Fay knew when she was outclassed and ceased to argue. As a matter of fact, she had been vaguely disturbed by the story, because it seemed to merge into her own latent dread of a family destroyed by treachery. Like the shifting scenes of a nightmare, one horror melted into another—as a murderer shaded into a black figure whose face was always hidden...
The postman's ring recalled her to the fact that it was Miss Key's birthday. After wrapping her own present in tissue paper, she ran into the big double-bedroom. Miss Key was sitting up in bed while the mauve eiderdown was almost covered with letters and parcels.
"They all seem quite pleased that I am growing older," she said with her "Josiah" twinkle. "It's a habit they like to encourage...Oh, my dear, thank you. I'm really touched."
"I made it myself," explained Fay as she peeled the shell-pink wrapper from Miss Key's shoulders and replaced it with a mauve. "Now you match." She picked up a round parcel with a printed address from among the pile and asked, "Who's this from? It looks like sweets."
"Open it and see," said Miss Key.
She cried out with pleasure when Fay unpacked a box of chocolates which looked expensive.
"Have one," she invited, handing the sweets to Fay as a preliminary to tasting one herself.
Suddenly the wind shrieked down the chimney as though an imprisoned spirit were wailing for release.
"What a wild day," commented Miss Key. "It's All-Hallow E'en. We must roast chestnuts to-night and find out whether we are going to get married. The spirits will be abroad and the witches will be riding on their broomsticks. Depend on it, the Black Nuns will be having high jinks at the Cloisters...Give me the chocolates if you are not going to have any."
"One minute. Let me find out who they are from."
With a feeling of playing for time, Fay picked up a half-sheet of paper on which was printed "From G."
"Would that be Gertrude or Gabriel?" she asked. "Suppose I ring up and find out which."
Although Miss Key screamed to her to leave the box behind her, she pretended not to hear as she clutched the chocolates and ran down to the hall. When the call was put through to Clock Cottage, she was not surprised to hear Gabriel's voice.
"Is it the 'Brownie'?" she asked. "Did you or your sister send Miss Key a box of chocolates for her birthday?"
"Not I," replied Gabriel. "I remembered Mount Ida's birthday otherwise. Any signs of a landslip? She must be getting on. I'll ask Gertrude."
He returned with the news that Gertrude had forgotten the date.
"Thanks for the tip," he said. "We'll both of us be round later on, for the birthday tea. It's an institution."
After she had rung off, Fay stood, biting her lip with indecision. While her instinct warned her against the anonymous gift, she realised that she had to guard against poisoning Miss Key's mind with constant suspicion.
"It's bad enough for her now," she thought. "Afraid of her own shadow. Yet I must put her on her guard. I don't know what to do for the best."
As she watched the trees tossing outside the window, she made her decision. Going, into the library, she printed "POISON. DON'T TOUCH." in large letters on a sheet of paper and inserted it under the criss-crossed ribbons on the chocolate-box lid.
When she returned to the bedroom, she showed it to Miss Key.
"Just a precaution," she explained. "They are not from Gertrude or Gabriel. I've always been taught to be wary of anonymous sweets."
"In this case, who will eat my chocolates?" asked Miss Key coldly.
"You will, I hope. We will get Dr. Aurelius to test them. You are not a greedy child who cannot wait."
"Have it your own way. It's nothing to me. But you are making an absurd fuss."
To mark her displeasure, Miss Key did not invite Fay to accompany her to town, and the girl began to wonder whether she had been too zealous. The wind seemed to get under her skin, plucking at her nerves and making her too restless to stay in the house. The sky was ominously dark when she went out into the lane where the fallen leaves had been swept up into drifts. Wandering towards the union of the roads, she stood to watch the river which was swollen by recent rain to a swift soupy flood. Presently she mounted the bridge, to watch the foam swirling over the boulders farther up stream.
Suddenly she started at the sight of someone—or something—which was coming out of the shadows at the other end of the bridge. The face was green—the lips were purple—the eyelids a livid blue. Both figure and head were swathed in white, so that it resembled a corpse that had been in the water for rather a long time.
Fay blinked her eyes and pinched her fingers.
"I'm not seeing it," she told herself. "It's too early for Them. The dead aren't let loose until midnight."
Then as the sun pierced the clouds, with the sweep of a searchlight, Fay identified the horror as Lilith Aurelius. She wore a wrapper drawn in tight folds around her, while her bound-up head combined with a macabre make-up to create a "Grand Guignol" effect.
"What do I look like?" she asked.
"Terrible," replied Fay, gazing with fascinated horror at the mauve lips. "You look as if you'd been dug up. What's the idea?"
"I want to wake up my husband." Lilith laughed bitterly. "He sits through meals, never speaking and miles away. He never sees me. He doesn't know when I'm wearing a new dress. I've spent hours before my glass, planning new beauty-effects. All wasted on him...But surely even he must notice that a dead woman is sitting opposite him at lunch."
"If he doesn't, you might call him unobservant," said Fay. "But won't he be angry with you?"
"I hope he will. I want to throw a scene—a big one—a hurricane. I'm burning to let myself go...But I mustn't be seen like this. Tell Ida I'm coming to her birthday party."
Fay was glad to part on a prosaic note for the wild dark day combined with the too-realistic reproduction of the face of a drowned woman—making her feel nervous and depressed. But while Lilith's message recalled her to reality, it also threw her into a panic. She was reminded that, while she had been wasting time, Miss Key had probably returned home and might have sampled the chocolates.
She had used the phrase most likely to wound Miss Key's pride in her reference to "a greedy child." She had proof of its poison, for her employer was stiff with resentment when she reached the house. The taunt had done its work however, for the unopened box—complete with label—was placed among the other presents on a round table in the library.
"Tea will be served in the library as it is an informal party," Miss Key informed the girl coldly. "Only my family."
"Perhaps I had better stay away?" suggested Fay.
"As you wish. We will try and survive without your precautions."
Fay could never resist the chance of drama and she spoke with forced passion.
"That is not fair. My only crime is that I want to protect you. Directly they are tested, you shall have your chocolates—"
"I don't need your permission, thank you. I am not a greedy child."
When lunch was over, Miss Key went up to her room to rest, leaving Fay at liberty, but restless as a leaf whirling in the air. As she stared through the window at the tormented laurels, she told herself that the birthday party would be dragged out, from a sense of family duty. Already the gilded pagodas on the Chinese wallpaper seemed to be enclosing her and driving her to escape into the storm.
When she reached the union of the roads, she looked at her watch.
"Better not go far," she thought. "I'll potter."
After an aimless prowl over the bridge to Isis House and back, she walked up the rough path to the Cloisters gate, where she stared through the bars at the flagged path bridging the dark-green grass. The encircling trees and the outer courtyard door hid the building, churning up her curiosity.
"If I followed the wall all the way round, could I get a glimpse of the house?" she wondered. "Perhaps a tree has been blown down and left a gap."
At first the wall and the carpet of fallen chestnut-leaves reminded her of the setting for a Victorian romance, when the heroine stole out of the park, on a Sunday afternoon, to kiss eternal farewell to a forbidden love. Soon, however, the path grew too overgrown for even a remote connection with conventional barriers of class and caste. Fay tore her stocking and scratched her legs as she followed the circuit of the wall.
Her excitement was blent with an unfounded sense of guilt. Although she was not trespassing, she knew that she was an intruder. A dim sense of foreboding warned her that if she blundered into danger she could blame no one but herself. The Cloisters wall only encircled a few acres, yet she felt that she had wandered beyond the radius of safety and was far away from the civilised world of pillar boxes and lamp posts.
As she looked around at the savage desolation of tangled thorn-trees and twisted gorse-bushes, she caught an unfamiliar glimpse of the river through a gap in the trees. The sky was covered with racing black clouds which threatened a deluge. Already she felt the first drops, whenever a gust slapped her face, like a great wet hand. Even as she told herself that it was time to turn back, her further advance was checked by an elm which had been blown down by the gale. Its fall had been partially checked by the wall against which it rested, while its broken branches protruded over the top, forming a rough bridge.
Her heart beat faster with excitement as she realised that she could crawl up the slanting trunk and look down into forbidden territory. Yet even as she began to stumble over the torn roots,' she felt suddenly reluctant to venture.
"To-morrow," she resolved.
She assured herself that her retreat was due to prudence. It was top overcast to see far and she had no time to waste. Yet as she hurried over the broken track, she had a sense of desperate urgency, as though she were pursued by something evil...
It was All-Hallow-E'en and it was not good to be alone in empty spaces, after dark...
There seemed to be an organised conspiracy among the undergrowth to drag her back and keep her there. Twigs and branches tore at her clothing with furious crooked fingers. The darkness was deepening visibly, like an inky powder sifting down through the air, clogging the dying daylight. Above—and all around her—was the tumult of the wind, shrieking through the trees. It swept through dried boughs—snapping them off with cracks and thuds—as though the dead were knocking louder and ever louder upon their coffin lids.
Fay seemed to run into a different world when she reached the lane and saw the lighted windows of Canton House. As she stole through the hall she heard the sound of voices in the library and knew that some of the guests had arrived. Fortunately she met no one on her way upstairs to her room. She realised her luck directly she looked in the glass and saw the reflection of genuinely wind-swept hair.
She tugged the comb through the tangles and dragged on her best frock with furious haste, while her cheeks burned from the wind. As she was rushing down the stairs, the front door burst open and Mrs. Aurelius—heralded by a drift of leaves—was blown inside. She had been racing the storm and wore a yellow transparent shower-proof over a scarlet georgette gown. Raindrops glittered on the golden mesh of a Venetian cap and on the crinkled bush of her dark hair. No longer a lady from the morgue, she flaunted brilliant colours and vivid rouge to mark her transformation to life triumphant.
"I've come through hell and high water," she declared vehemently.
Fay hurried to shut the door, to discourage the entrance of another swirl of leaves.
"How did the big scene go?" she asked.
"It flopped," confessed Lilith. "He never batted an eyelid, but talked brilliantly through lunch as though I was a distinguished guest. At the end, he said 'You make a beautiful corpse—but is it wise to put ideas into my head?' He's a devil and I adore him...Come, let's charge the bunfight and get the cursed thing over."
As they entered the library, Fay noticed that Lilith blew a kiss to Josiah Key's portrait. "Why doesn't he smile and have done with it," murmured the girl.
"He's only waiting his time," whispered Lilith, before she raised her voice. "Ida, darling, happy birthday to you."
With the exception of Dr. Shackleton, there was a full muster of relatives. Tea had not yet been served and everyone was gathered around the gift-table where the display was worthy of a rich maiden-aunt.
It was Gertrude who first noticed the box of chocolates, although she was not the first to see it. Everyone glanced fit it and then passed on to another present.
"'Poison, don't touch,'" she read. "Is this a joke, Aunt Ida?"
"Miss Williams can explain better than I," said Miss Key stiffly.
Fay's cheeks burned hotter as she tried to defend her action.
"When I was a child, I was forbidden to take sweets from a stranger," she said. "Naturally I took precautions with an anonymous present. But perhaps someone here can solve the mystery?"
She looked around on the chance of surprising some indication of guilt, but each face remained calm and devoid of expression. Then Lilith opened the box and pounced upon the slip of paper.
"But it's not anonymous," she cried. "It says 'From G.' Ida, darling, who is 'G.' Is George an old flame?"
"Don't be silly," snapped Miss Key. "I know no one outside the family who likes me well enough to send me an expensive present, or who dislikes me enough to wish to poison me."
An uncomfortable silence was broken by Gertrude who charged to the attack in her most aggressive "Committee" manner.
"'Outside the family,'" she repeated. "That's not too happily phrased, Aunt Ida. But of course, we know you mean nothing."
"I'm not so sure about nothing," grumbled Gabriel. "This anonymous benefactor is rather too free with his gees. It looks as if he was passing the buck to Gertrude or myself."
Miss Key clapped her hands for silence.
"That's enough," she said sharply. "It's not funny. We'll have tea."
Ignoring her hostess, Lilith flourished the box of chocolates around the circle.
"Won't anyone have one?" she asked. "Not even as a gesture of confidence. Or innocence."
No one responded to her invitation. Turning away from the table, Simone lit a cigarette.
"I loathe chocolates," she said.
"I adore them, but I daren't touch them," explained her mother. "I'm a martyr to my overweight and my overdraft."
"No one?" persisted Lilith. "Must I give you all a lead?"
"Miss Williams," interrupted Miss Key, "will you kindly ask Parsons to bring in tea." She added casually, "Better take the box when you go. It seems rather in the way."
Fay was glad to take possession of the parcel. Until its contents had been proved innocuous, she suspected them of being lethal. Acting on impulse, she whispered a request to Lilith.
"Could your brilliant husband analyse the chocolates?"
"He shall do so his first free minute," promised Lilith.
"Bless you. I'll leave them on the hall stand, if you don't mind taking them when you go. And please ask him to find something—or my name will be mud."
When Fay returned to the library, Miss Key had begun to pour out tea—a sign that her companion was unworthy to act as her deputy. A blight seemed to have set in, from the top downwards, for the party was unusually dull. Simone and Gabriel had obviously come under protest and they showed their resentment by silence. Like spoilt children, they refused to taste the birthday cake and they began to smoke before the others had finished their tea.
Lilith, too, paid no homage to the social code, but posed and looked intense. It was left to Mrs. Mornington-Key and Gertrude to carry on a conversation which grew more leaden from the very force of their efforts to lighten it. Apparently nervous of upsetting their hostess further, they said the right thing so consciously that each remark might have been first written down and submitted to the censor. As Fay listened, she thought regretfully of the gaiety of the funeral tea.
"Dr. Shack's not here," she reflected. "But if he was, he would be playing for safety too. No, we are missing the Thomases. They are not afraid to be natural."
She hid her smile when Miss Key asked a question in a tone of conventional sympathy.
"And how is your poor step-son, Marie?"
"Marvellous," replied Mrs. Mornington-Key. "He was wrapped up in poor Rosalie, yet he carries on as usual. Never mentions her and is always bright. You wouldn't think he had a care in the world."
"Super-plus pluck," agreed Gertrude. She added hopefully, "I thought I heard the front door bell."
"Another present?" asked Gabriel.
Everyone looked up expectantly when Parsons entered, carrying a large sheaf of Malmaison carnations. They were the choicest flowers that Miss Key had received and she grabbed them as eagerly as a child.
"From Cherry Ap-Thomas," she said, reading the card. "Who brought them, Parsons?"
"Miss Thomas, madam."
"Oh dear, how awkward. She must have heard us talking. Miss Williams, tap the window to stop her."
When Fay peered through the streaming glass, she saw Cherry walking very slowly over the sodden gravel drive. She turned around sharply at the sound of Fay's tap, as though she expected to be recalled, and she was standing outside when the front door was opened. When Fay repeated Miss Key's invitation, she laughed.
"Have I crashed a family party? Terrible of me. Thanks, I'll come."
Although Fay resented such opportunist tactics, she had to admit that Cherry acted upon the anaemic party like a blood infusion. Wind and rain had deepened her natural colour, so that, by comparison, Lilith appeared hectic and Simone artificial. As though to match her beauty and vigour, she displayed total disregard of conversational taboos.
"Did you hear the 'Doom' story?" she asked. "I got the lowdown from the panel doctor who attended the woman. He's one of my regulars. He told me she was the victim of her 'nun' complex. When he sounded her that morning, she was in such bad shape that he told her to go home by bus. In spite of that, she walked out to see her daughter and on top of that, she ran all the way home. Sheer suicide."
"But she died," hinted Miss Key darkly. "Personally, I was very impressed by the story."
"There are two ways of looking at it," agreed Cherry. Feeling that she had registered a "no hit," she changed the subject. "I've not wished you many happy returns yet, Miss Key."
"How did you know it was my birthday?" asked Miss Key.
"Dr. Shackleton mentioned it when we met in the entrance hall, this morning. I have a flat in Tudor Mansions. He's a pathetic sight with that ghastly grin nailed to his face—and all so frightfully jolly and bright. If he keeps on bottling it up, he'll end with an overdose of veronal."
"Just what I say," declared Mrs. Mornington-Key. Giving up her former pretence that all was well in the Key family, she relaxed to gossip. "I've tried to make him break down. I've repeated Rosalie's remarks and shown him snaps of her. I've done everything, haven't I, Simone?"
"Yes, Mummie," agreed Simone. "You've plugged the Vox Humana stop."
"He's drinking too," went on Cherry. "Not at the bar, of course. That makes it worse. He nips."
"Is he coming here, this evening?" asked Gertrude.
"He knows the date," Miss Key told her.
"Well, suppose we all of us work on him and make him break down."
Gertrude was obviously actuated by good intentions, for she spoke with gruff sincerity while her eyes gleamed with zeal.
"It's getting quite a jolly party," thought Fay as the others began to laugh. Yet even as the needle registered "Humour" on the emotional dial, Lilith swung it back to drama. She sprang up—her blue-green eyes blazing in darkened sockets.
"You can't understand, you unmarried women," she cried scornfully. "You don't realise that that man has lost half of himself. The knife that killed his wife is plunged in his own heart. It was murder—intentional murder."
"Come, Lilith, you mustn't make charges like that," protested Miss Key. "Who would want to murder poor Shack?"
"You mean—who has murdered him?" Lilith's voice reminded Fay of the throb of a far away gong. "A month—a week—a day even, if he is lucky—will see the end of him. I know. I am a wife. If my husband were dead, half of me would die with him—and what was left would soon shrivel up. It was a safe and damnably clever murder."
"You seem to forget I've been married," said Mrs. Mornington-Key sharply. "But I am sure I don't understand what you mean. It's nonsense to me."
"I understand," said Gertrude huskily. "If you cut Siamese twins in halves, they die...If anything happened to Gabriel, I should feel there was no sense in going on."
Gabriel broke an awkward emotional pause with a laugh.
"Objection," he said. "That's giving dangerous information to the enemy. I object to be rubbed out as a necessary preliminary to a real crime."
"Objection sustained," called Cherry. "Everyone of us seem to have forgotten the date: It is All-Hallow E'en. We ought to celebrate it with the proper rites."
She snapped at the chance to take control as she looked around the circle.
"The dead will be with us to-night," she said. "If anyone wants advance information about insurance, you must go to the churchyard at midnight and you'll see next year's crop of corpses walking in."
"I've always wanted to meet myself," said Gabriel. "Shall we go out and lurk?"
"No. We'll sit in the firelight and tell ghost stories. I will begin...Miss Williams will you please switch off the lights?"
The suggestion seemed to please everyone except Fay—who had been ready to propose herself as tale-teller. She felt cheated out of a triumph by someone who was both strong and unscrupulous.
"Before I begin," announced Cherry, "we will listen-in to the storm, to get our atmosphere."
No one spoke for half a minute, while the wind howled in the chimney, beating down the flames of the fire. It dashed sheets of rain against the window panes. Outside was a roaring darkness where trees tossed and swayed in the force of the gale.
"It sounds as if—someone—were trying to get in," suggested Lilith.
Although Fay guessed that Cherry had paused in order to collect her ideas, she admitted that the warming-up process was adroit. The audience was in an expansive mood—ready to be thrilled and entertained, when Cherry broke the silence.
"I'll tell you about the Tonypandy woman who called her husband back from the grave."
Conscious of the chances the story lent to dramatic treatment, Fay listened critically. Where she would have acted the dialogue with Celtic fervour, Cherry appeared to be taking a class. She spoke clearly and never paused for a word, like a mistress who knows her subject. What annoyed Fay most was the evidence that the audience did not know what it was missing. Gertrude's lips were parted while Simone clutched her mother, whenever the wind stunted or the lights burned the conventional colour.
Cherry worked up to her climax, her voice rising above the shrieking of the wind. In the uproar, no one heard the ringing of the front door bell or the sound of Parson's footsteps crossing the hall.
"Suddenly," declaimed Cherry, "there was a terrific crash on the door. The woman called out 'Who's there?' There was no reply...Then the door opened slowly—slowly—and a dead man came into the room. He—"
Cherry stopped at the sound of a heavy thud against the library door—followed by a woman's scream.
"Who's there?" she called.
"The dead man," suggested Lilith in a deep tragic voice.
"Too early, old man," said Gabriel. "Come back at twelve."
"No," screamed Lilith. "Come in. Come in."
As though in response to her invitation, the door burst open and someone stood in the entrance. By the light of the fire, they saw sightless eyes and a white face stretched in an agonised grin, before the figure pitched forward and fell—face downward—on the floor.
A dead man had come into the room.
THREE hours later, Fay was playing patience in the drawing-room. She stacked the cards mechanically as she strained her ears to listen to voices from the library. Although it was still early, it seemed long past midnight, owing to the fact that no dinner had been served to break up the evening lag. The cook had merely provided coffee and sandwiches, to supplement the drinks which were offered as an antidote to shock.
For some time there had been a continual coming and going—of life and of death. The police—representing life at high pressure—had come and the dead—in the person of Dr. Shackleton Key—had been taken away. The guests had been duly questioned and had departed thankfully. There remained only Colonel Pride and Inspector Wallace, to mop up the final details.
Again Fay listened to Parsons' voice telling a story which had become familiar to her.
"I answered the door to the doctor and he came in and said, 'Good evening. Parsons, how are you? What a dirty night.' He hung his wet mack on the hall-stand peg and then he noticed the box of chocolates. 'Poison,' he said and then he laughed. 'Is Miss Key warning someone off her chocolates?' he said. I explained I knew nothing about it and that I wouldn't dream of helping myself to private sweets, nor would any of the maids. He laughed and said, 'I know that, but they look good. I think she could spare me one out of such a big box.' He popped a couple in his mouth and then started to walk towards the library. I stood watching him when suddenly he began to stagger as if he was drunk. I ran up to help him but he was fighting the air like mad. Then he fell against the library door and it burst open and he dropped flat on his face—dead."
Fay heard the quiver in Miss Key's voice as she spoke.
"Thank God it was quick."
"Too long for him," the Colonel reminded her grimly. "You may go, Parsons."
"Did the doctor say what it was?" asked Miss Key when the parlour maid had left the library.
"Cyanide," replied the Colonel. "But, of course, he'll make a post-mortem."
"Cut him up? Oh dear me...Colonel, you must have a drink. Don't be afraid, it's not woman's whisky. I am still drinking Josiah. He'll last my lifetime."
Although the Colonel knew that Miss Key was referring to her brother's excellent cellar, he shook his head regretfully.
"Sorry, but this isn't a social call...I want to hear from you the whole story of the box of chocolates."
Fay overheard no more, as at that point, the library door was closed. She went on mechanically laying red upon black, until Miss Key came into the room.
"The Colonel wants you," she told Fay. "Don't be afraid. Just tell the truth."
Fay considered the advice unnecessary, since Dr. Shackleton's death could not touch her interests. When she entered the library and saw the two big policemen towering above her, she felt like "Alice" meeting the Gryphon and Mock Turtle. Inspector Wallace was dark and powerfully built, with heavy-lidded eyes, while the Colonel looked especially red and formidable. His voice was stern when he spoke to her.
"Sit down, Miss Williams. Why did you warn Miss Key not to taste her chocolates?"
"Just a hunch," explained Fay.
"Yet it was a natural present for a birthday. Had you any inside knowledge or suspicion about the box?"
"No. But I was trained to be cautious. My nurse made up a false name and address for me to give to strangers and to the conductor, if I was in a bus accident. She said the police would send for me to give evidence and I'd lose my day's work."
As the Colonel's lips began to twitch, she explained hastily, "Of course, I wasn't working then. But since I've earned my living, I have proved her right. I used my wits about the box. The paper said from 'G.' It struck me that Gertrude or Gabriel would have signed their full name as they have the same initial. So I checked up on them. When it seemed to be an anonymous present, I grew suspicious."
"How did you spend the evening of Miss Thomas' funeral?" asked the Inspector, speaking for the first time.
"In the house," replied Fay.
"All the time?"
"Yes. No, I was forgetting. I was out for about an hour."
"Mostly on the bridge, looking at the river?"
"You left Miss Key and Mrs. Aurelius in the drawing-room. Were they there when you returned?"
The questions made Fay realise that the police were checking up on other statements and that they were covering the evening when Rosalie was murdered.
"I don't know," she admitted. "I went straight up to my room and did odd jobs. There was no dinner that night, only cold supper, in case people stayed on from the funeral tea."
"Thank you, that will be all," said the Colonel, rising from his chair.
Miss Key was pacing the hall while she waited for the Colonel to come out of the library.
"We've finished," he told her. "I suppose you realise that you are lucky to be alive and that you owe your life to this young lady?"
He smiled down at Fay, but his voice was edged as he added, "If you had been taught to co-operate with the police and if you had brought the box direct to us, a life might have been saved...Good night."
When the policemen had gone there was an awkward pause. Fay felt too limp to pump up any emotion, while Miss Key appeared to be overcome with confusion.
"Time to go to bed," she said. "I think we had both, better take aspirins, what wife the storm and All-Hallow E'en and all. We don't want to imagine we hear poor Shack trying to find his way in."
In spite of the aspirin, Fay had a disturbed night. The power of suggestion—plus the banshee wailing of the wind—combined to keep her half-awake and semi-conscious of her surroundings. Whenever she dozed it seemed to her that someone was trying to get into her room. She heard him everywhere—tapping on the window, knocking on the wall, turning the door handle. Once, during a short nap, she woke, shivering at the memory of a dead man crashing into the library.
It was not until dawn streaked the eastern sky and the wind was dying out in whimpers, that she fell into a heavy sleep. When she woke she was dismayed to see the "little breakfast" tray placed on her bed-table. The tea was stone-cold, so she dressed quickly and hurried down to the morning room.
Miss Key was in her customary place and appeared to be making an excellent meal. Her face showed no signs of a sleepless night, although Fay's face was pale and heavy-eyed.
"I was awake for hours," apologised Fay.
"So was I," said Miss Key. "I got everything straightened out. I'll tell you about it when we've finished."
After the second cups of coffee had been drunk, Miss Key peeled an apple before she satisfied Fay's curiosity.
"I disappointed you, last night," she said with her "Josiah" twinkle. "You're such a girl for spouting fine speeches. But you saved my life. It is difficult to say 'Thank you' for that. So I've arranged to let my lawyer thank you. I'm altering my will."
As she listened, Fay grew first scarlet and then white. While she had indulged in dreams of inheriting money, her wish had sprung from acute financial shortage in her family. Knowing that she could depend on no one but herself, she was already apprehensive of old age. Her heart began to thump unevenly as Miss Key went on speaking:
"I faced facts. Very unpleasant facts. Someone tried to poison me—and I asked myself 'Who?' I have no friends, so I have no enemies. My tradespeople wouldn't wish to kill off a good customer. But I have relatives who are my natural heirs."
As Fay said nothing, Miss Key counted the names on her fingers.
"Simone, Gabriel, Gertrude. Poor Shack has cleared himself only too completely. It must be one of the three. So I am going to let them know I've left my money to you...Hush. I'm not going to make a speech, but I like you. It's a fifty-fifty arrangement. It's an old age pension for you and a life insurance policy for me. I can trust you not to feed me with poisoned chocolates."
Fay's thoughts whirled as she looked around the familiar room—at the preserved ginger in the blue Chinese vase—the striped lemon-and-white dahlias on the table—the red tabby on the hearthrug. Concentration on trifles helped her to recover her self-possession so that she managed to speak in a choked voice.
"You couldn't thank me and I can't thank you...But it doesn't make sense. Not one of the Keys could be a murderer. They are so charming and so ultra-civilised."
"I know it's confusing. But it must be one of the three." Suddenly Fay remembered her visit to Cherry's shop and Julian's reluctance to link together the legatees in Josiah Key's will. Although additional motive increased the field by three more likely suspects, she felt it was wiser not to damage further Miss Key's sense of security. For the moment. Ida was disturbed by a minor worry.
"Who's going to tell them they're out of my will?" she asked. "They must know or they'll be thinking up something else. It would be very unfeeling coming from either you or me...I know. Lilith. She will enjoy playing herald. She's very dull, poor girl."
"I thought she was always pitying spinsters and rubbing in the glory of being married."
"That's all talk. It's my belief she is trying to hide the fact she's nothing but an unpaid housekeeper to that stringy husband...But never mind about her now. I'm going to town early to see my lawyer about my will. You can run over to Isis House and meet me at eleven-fifteen at the Orange-Tree Café."
Fay welcomed the suggestion, since the fact of telling someone about her incredible good fortune would make the idea more real to herself. She walked dutifully with Miss Key as far as the union of the roads and then turned off towards the bridge. It was a calm and beautiful morning, with a pale sun shining in a blue sky, but everywhere there was evidence of the storm. Many trees were completely stripped and drifts of twigs and leaves floated on the current of the swollen river.
On the farther side of the bridge, the steps led down directly on to a mossy gravelled path and thence to the portico of Isis House. Apart from this facility, visitors were not encouraged to enter. The front door was without bell or knocker and appeared to be hermetically sealed by damp and disuse. At one end of the portico, there was a second door—its upper-half of frosted glass; but when Fay turned the handle, she found that it was locked. She was on the point of knocking upon the panels, when she noticed a typed card nailed upon a pillar.
"Entrance at back of house," she read.
With a sense of intruding, she returned to the gravel path and followed it around the angle of the wall to the back door, which was originally painted green and was weather-dyed with blue patches. On her way she passed a kitchen window and was seen by the daily woman who came to meet her.
"The missus is in her room," she said. "That way up."
She pointed to an outside iron circular stair which spiralled to the first floor.
"The missus lives upstairs and the boss lives downstairs," she explained.
"Ida's right," thought Fay as she climbed the steps. "They must be semi-detached."
She stopped on the tiny landing and knocked on a door which was painted purple.
"Come in," shouted Lilith.
The room was long and low, with large windows looking out over the river. Its neutral tints were evidently intended to be a background for Lilith's brilliance. The fabric was grey-green, like a glacier-fed torrent and the furniture was made of silver-birch.
Lilith was not yet dressed for the day and she still wore a dark-red robe. She looked unfamiliar without her make-up, for her face was pale and she had no eyebrows. She reminded Fay vaguely of a school-girl doing her home-work, as she sat with her bony elbows on the table, while she pushed her fingers through her heavy hair.
"Golly," cried Fay, "That's a scientific journal. Can you understand it?"
"Perfectly," replied Lilith. "I have to keep up, to be at all intelligible to my husband. No one here speaks his language, except myself, and I only lisp...Like my view?"
Fay looked out at the brown water which seemed to be rushing almost level with the windows.
"Too near the river," she objected.
"It enchants me. When it is in flood, I think of Mother Ganges, bearing the corpses of faithful wives, all crowned with marigolds and floating on to meet their loves."
"You'd be snapped up by the crocs, before you got far," Fay reminded her.
"Not I. Only the empty casket...By the way, did you have difficulty in finding your way in? The ground floor of the house is sacred to my husband's work. He has to be secured against outside interruption." Lilith glanced at the page she had been reading and asked pointedly, "Have you a message from Ida?"
"I've got some news."
As she listened, Lilith's face grew vivid.
"What a triumph for you," she said. "Tell Ida I feel honoured to be chosen. I always revel in a dramatic situation. This calls for finesse. I must plan my approach. Tell me more."
"I can't wait," explained Fay. "I have to meet Miss Key in the Square."
Lilith accompanied her down the spiral stair and around to the front of the house. When they reached the portico, Dr. Aurelius was coming through the half-glass door at its end. When he saw Fay, he made an involuntary backward movement which betrayed his instinct to bolt, before he bowed courteously.
"You are an early visitor," he remarked. "All is well at Canton House, I trust?"
"As well as you could expect," replied Fay. "Of course, yesterday was a terrible shock for Miss Key."
Dr. Aurelius looked so blank that Lilith was forced to explain the situation.
"My husband was engaged in an important experiment, last night. Naturally, I could not disturb him. So he knows nothing of what happened."
"What happened?" asked Dr. Aurelius sharply.
Fay seized her chance to give a dramatic account of the tragedy. Her eloquence was wasted, for Shackleton Key's fate seemed to affect the doctor less than the death of a guinea-pig.
"We were all so unconscious of the danger," she said, making a final effort to get her story across. "There was the box—like a time-bomb—ready to explode at any moment. It was death. Miss Key and I might have tasted the chocolates when we unpacked the present. Gertrude was only waiting for someone to give her a lead. And Mrs. Aurelius was actually going to take one before I snatched the box from her...Oh, what's the matter? Are you ill?"
Dr. Aurelius wiped his ghastly face.
"Why shouldn't I be upset?" he asked. "You have just told me—quite casually—that my wife might have been poisoned."
Without wishing the girl "good-bye," he went back into his laboratory, locking the door behind him.
Fay looked at Lilith's transfigured face.
"He so rarely lifts the veil," she said triumphantly. "Do you wonder now that I would choose the river, if he was taken from me?"
Fay had to run most of the way into town, leaping the puddles on the road, to avoid being late at the meeting place. The air was unseasonably mild, as well as being moist, so that she was hot and breathless when she reached the café. Miss Key was sitting at a table and she beamed at the girl over a plate of buns.
"I've been working for you," she announced. "You are not my heir yet. You've got to be put into legal language—but you are on the way. I've collected some facts about the murder too. Currant or sultana?"
Fay forgot to eat as Miss Key told her the story between bites. She had met Colonel Pride, who told her that the police had been working on the box of chocolates since the preceding evening. Two facts were already established; first, that the chocolates with soft fillings were loaded with cyanide—the second, that the parcel had been posted at the big Post Office in the Square, during the rush before closing time.
Out of all who pushed their way to the counter, to catch the last post, only one girl noticed a lame woman who placed a round parcel—ready-stamped—upon the counter. This witness had glanced at her casually, so could only remember that she wore widow's weeds and that her face was veiled. It was impossible to tell her height as she stooped over a stick. After this admission, the girl had a convenient back-flash of memory. She declared that when she left the Post Office, she was behind the widow, but when she reached the door, in that short space of time, the crippled woman had disappeared.
"It never struck me as odd," confessed the girl. "I was thinking of other things."
"The Colonel was giving nothing away," Miss Key told Fay. "He left me with the impression that the girl's story might have been inspired by the rumours about a nun. But I don't know what he really thinks."
Fay was silent on her homeward way and she rarely spoke during lunch when conversation was not encouraged by Miss Key. Her mind was too jammed with the events of the past twenty-four hours, for free movement. She had the feeling of trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle after the pieces had been wrongly interlocked. It was an actual relief when she remembered her resolution to spy into the Cloisters grounds.
During the meal, there had been a drop in the temperature, so that the sunny morning was followed by a misty afternoon. The fog was not dense enough to stop Fay's adventure as—wearing thick stockings and brogues—she ploughed a way through the undergrowth which pressed against the base of the Cloisters wall. Directly she reached the fallen tree, she started to scramble over the torn roots, and then to climb up the sloping trunk. The angle soon grew steepish so that she had to crawl over the bark until she reached the top of the wall where she met with a check.
She discovered that the clutter of broken boughs were wedged into a thick screen, through which it was impossible to see and difficult to penetrate. Determined not to be beaten, she forced her way through the barrier—taking punishment from spiked twigs and at the risk of falling through them if they were unable to support her weight. In the end, she managed to get a restricted view of what appeared to be a neglected orchard. Beyond it was a wall in which was set an open door. The mist veiled every outline but she got an impression of clipped greenery and white statuary.
"It looks like a monastery garden," she thought, although she had never visited one of these anti-social retreats. "I wish I could get a close-up."
Growing bolder, she wormed her way farther out over the wreckage of the tree-top until she reached a larger branch which overhung the Cloisters grounds. It was nearly stripped of shrivelled leaves, so that she could look through the network of twigs and trace the outline of an ornamental urn against a wall of yews, in the formal garden.
In her excitement she did not notice that the bough was dipping under her weight, until she took a sudden plunge downwards. She felt the branch wrenched from her grasp as it sprang back like a catapult, leaving her lying on the ground.
She did not fall more than a few feet and was unhurt by her tumble. When she scrambled to her feet, she was laughing; but her smile vanished as she stared up at the wall. Although the bough still appeared to be hanging low, it was too high for her to reach it or even to brush it with her fingertips. After repeated failures, she realised that she was only wasting her strength, so she stopped jumping, to look around her.
"I must get out before anyone comes," she told herself desperately. "Perhaps I can find a way out if I follow the wall rounds. But since I am here, I'll take one peep at that garden."
She began to plough through a tangle of nettles, thistles, docks and herb-willow, interwoven with a ground net of brambles, which tripped her up, so that she fell for the second time. As she pulled free of the briars, she felt a metal coil tightening around her ankle when she struggled to release her foot. When it began to bite into her flesh, the pain made her realise that it was useless to tug, so she stooped down and tried to unfasten the snare...
She stopped, startled by the sudden ringing of a bell. It was shrill and sounded quite close, but as she listened, she could hear a fainter note as though the alarm was spreading out into the distance. On and out it shrilled, passing on the warning until it reached the inner darkness.
Fay's knees shook at the thought of a procession of grim black shapes advancing towards her with inexorable purpose. A wave of elemental terror swept over her, draining her strength and sapping her will-power. She felt her heart leap when the last peal died away and the sound of distant footsteps became audible.
They seemed to be advancing towards her, crashing through the undergrowth as though the matted briars were meadow grass. Suddenly she remembered the Black Sister she had guided back to the Cloisters gates—and the malignancy of her muttered "God damn you." For the first time, she wondered whether she had thwarted some evil purpose that evening.
"Pray it's not her," she thought frantically.
As she strained her eyes a figure became faintly visible through the misted air. From the distance, it appeared too gigantic to be human, but when it came nearer, she saw that it was an unusually tall man, of massive build. He wore leggings, breeches and a black leather storm-jacket and he vaguely suggested a member of the Gestapo to Fay. She looked at his great face, and saw that it was ruthless in its stupidity as though his head were a metal-lined pan, empty of brain content.
"My foot's caught in a wire," she said shakily. "Do—do you snare rabbits?"
Without replying, he opened a clasp knife and tramped towards her. She tried to scream, but only a squeak issued from her lips. Then she remembered her resolution to fight, but before she could move, the man stooped and gripped her ankle—untwisting the wire with his knife. Directly her foot was free, she started to run—only to be dragged back.
Although she knew that it was hopeless to plead or to struggle, she could not submit in silence.
"I wasn't trespassing," she told him. "I fell off a tree which has been blown against the wall. Please show me the way out."
Ignoring her explanation, the man dragged her across the strip of rough vegetation and through the orchard, callously banging her against the overcrowded trees. As they passed the iron gate in the wall, he stretched out his free hand and slammed it, so that she had only a glimpse of the enclosed garden. She got an impression of a yew-alley, a spread of shaven turf and, in one corner, a huddle of white slabs. She shuddered as they no longer suggested garden-statuary, but reminded her of grave stones.
The man continued to haul her through bracken and briars, with brutal disregard of her scratched legs and torn skirt. At first, she thought she was taking punishment for trespassing, but after a glance at his dull face, she came to the conclusion that he was merely avoiding the private grounds—forbidden to strangers. He had been given a job and he did it—or rather, a button had been pressed and the machine functioned to the limit of its mechanism.
As they came nearer to the house, she began to see disconnected scraps of it through the mist—here a chimney, there a window—as though a ghost house were beginning slowly to materialise. No light gleamed and her fear sharpened as she remembered the title of "Sisters of the Healing Darkness."
"Healing," she questioned. Surely only evil feared the light.
"Where are we going?" she asked as the man stopped before a door inset in a high wall. Without reply, he unlatched it and dragged her across a small paved yard to a second door, leading into a dimly-lit passage. He marched his captive to the end of it, pushed her inside a room and tramped away. His job was done—for he had made delivery of the trespasser.
At first, Fay was dazzled by the light, although it was dimmed by a green shade. Looking around her, she saw a modern office, with metal furniture, a roll-top desk, a typewriter, a telephone and files. A small electric fire took the chill off the temperature. The only personal note was the photograph of a girl upon the mantel-piece.
The face which had youth and beauty was faintly familiar to Fay, but—because she missed the colouring—she did not recognise it directly as Cherry Thomas. After her unpleasant experience, it was a shock to see it here, allied with a hostile community. Looking away, she met Miss Gomme's eyes.
She had only seen the business representative of the Black Sisters occasionally when she had met her in the bank or the stores. At the time, Miss Gomme appeared to her merely as a superior housekeeper. But now that she stood before her desk, she realised a powerful personality. The face was chilled, rather than cold, and Fay felt that the frost penetrated to her bones. The lips were pinched—the cheeks bony—the grey hair strained from the roots.
"What is your name?" she asked in a flat voice.
As Fay hesitated, she remembered the fictitious name which her nurse had made her memorise, to baffle the curiosity of strangers. It gave her not only a thrill to use it for the first time, but also a sense of protection.
"Florrie Watson," she said glibly. "My address is 'Forty-six, Upper Worcester Street, West eleven.'"
"Yes, I'm from London."
Miss Gomme scribbled upon her writing pad.
"You've been found trespassing upon private property," she said severely. "What is your explanation?"
Fay tried to embellish her story but her guilty conscience insisted upon a return to the truth. It sounded so unconvincing that it was a relief when Miss Gomme interrupted her.
"That's enough. I wanted to know how you got inside. I know why you came. Curiosity."
As Fay remained silent, Miss Gomme went on speaking.
"The Mother of Healing Darkness has a moral right to privacy. She has also bought the right. That belt of rough inside the wall has been wired, so that we know directly an unauthorised person breaks into the grounds...You are lucky that is so. There wag someone else—before we took the precaution—who was not so lucky as you."
She rose from her chair.
"You are going to see that person," she said.
"No, please not," entreated Fay. "I promise I'll never crash in again. But I don't want to see any horrors."
"You will." Miss Gomme's voice was relentless. "Come with me."
Fay felt helpless as a hypnotised hen when Miss Gomme gripped her arm with cold fingers. She was marched out into the flagged passage and towards another door. As she entered a room, she shut her eyes and she did not move until she heard a laugh.
"She's not woke up," said a childish voice.
Startled by the words, Fay stared around her in astonishment. She saw cream-painted walls, blue window curtains and a cheerful fire. Two persons were seated at a table which was covered with scraps of materials and dolls' clothes. One was a woman with a kind stolid face; the other was a girl who looked about twelve years old. She was rosy and her dark eyes were bright with health. Her short hair was cut in a fringe across her forehead and she wore a flowered overall.
"Here's a visitor for you, Doris," said Miss Gomme. "Tell her your name."
"'Doris Singer,'" replied the child. "How old are you?"
"Twenty," replied Fay.
"Your story." Doris held up an accusing finger. "You're too little. You can't do decimals."
"Yes, I can."
"No, you can't. You're too little. I can't."
"Don't worry, Doris," said Miss Gomme. "A lot of things may happen some day. Say 'good-bye' to your visitor."
Gripping Fay's arm, she dragged her back to the office before she spoke.
"Now you know."
"I don't," said Fay. "I expected to see someone horrible—not a child."
"Child?" repeated Miss Gomme. "She is twenty-four."
Fay stared at her incredulously as she listened to the flat voice.
"She was thirteen when she wormed her way into the Cloisters grounds. She was cunning as well as curious for she got right inside—into the darkness. She saw something she was not meant to see—and the sight stopped her clock. She never grew an hour older...It was not our liability but the Mother of Healing Darkness keeps her here out of charity, to save her being sent to an asylum."
Suddenly Fay felt she could endure the strain no longer.
"Will you show me the way out?" she begged.
"This time, I will," said Miss Gomme. "But remember, next time you find your way in, you will have to find your own way out."
She guided the girl along the passage to a door which opened upon the outer courtyard. When Fay saw the familiar path leading down to the tall gates, she broke into a run, but Miss Gomme acted as a brake and dragged her back. Because she was so near to liberty, every yard they covered was a test of endurance. She was strung up to a pitch when she confused the Black Sisters with the Inquisition and wondered whether she were being subjected to the torture of frustrated hope—when upon the threshold—she would be dragged back into the darkness.
When they reached the entrance, Miss Gomme inserted the key in the lock. She turned it and then spoke to the girl in a mocking voice.
"Good afternoon, Felicia Williams. Don't waste your time trying to find your London address. It is quicker to go back to Canton House."
FAY had never been more appreciative of Canton House than when she burst into the library, where Miss Key was waiting to begin tea. She dropped on her knees before the fire and warmed her hands as she looked around her.
"I love this room," she said.
Although Miss Key had grown to recognise praise of her possessions as a routine overture to gaining favour, she detected the ring of sincerity in Fay's voice.
"I like it," she agreed. "You'd think I could never fancy using this library again, after poor Shack. But everything was so odd, last night, with no lights and the wind screaming like a megaphone. Really, it seemed a different place. I can't believe now it ever happened."
"And it's all over now," Fay reminded her. "It can never happen again."
She looked around her, noticing the flattened pile of the brown carpet and the inviting hollows in the soft leather seats, in a deliberate effort to crowd out the impressions of the last hour. Their memory, however, continued to nag so persistently that she was forced to review the episode.
"There's nothing to it," she concluded. "I've been a sap. She hadn't an atom of proof. She wanted to scare me off, so she pulled my leg...All the same, all the money in the world wouldn't tempt me to meet a Black Sister without her veil."
Acting on impulse she climbed on the curb and looked at her reflection in the mirror over the fireplace.
"How horrible to be checked," she thought. "Imagine seeing the same face, day after day, for every year of my life. Always pale and pointed, with big eyes and thick hair. And no hollows. It would be like being in prison—and my body would be the prison."
"Admiring yourself?" asked Miss Key dryly.
"No," replied Fay. "I was just thinking how awful it would be to never look old."
"Thats very uncommon of you. Most of us dread looking old."
"But your face should have some lines to show character. If you haven't got any, it proves you haven't lived."
"Nonsense. You can get lines from stomach ache. Tea?"
As Fay took the cup, she saw the curiosity in Miss Key's eyes. For a moment, she was tempted to relate her adventure until she remembered that her job was to ward off fear, as well as danger, from her benefactress. To drive away uneasy thoughts, she began a story of the amusing shifts her family had contrived, after poverty had fallen upon it. Miss Key—whose trouble had been how to make room for a surplus of possessions—listened with a fat smile.
"Saucers for soap-dishes," she chuckled. "What a good way to use up 'odds.' It's a mystery to me why it's always the cups that get smashed while the saucers are spared. I suppose Lilith would see a connection between husband and wife...Fay, would you call this house safe?"
The question startled Fay as she realised that Miss Key was not a child to be pacified with a story.
"Why not?" she argued. "It's well-built and all the locks and window catches are secure."
"But no shutters."
"Those are definitely out. Has anyone been talking to you?"
"Only in a newspaper. I've been reading an interview with a top man at Scotland Yard. He said very few houses were burglar-proof. He complained we just lock up at night and leave the job to the police."
Miss Key glared suspiciously at the tangerine curtains which concealed the windows.
"I believe that was an honest opinion," she said. "I feel sure he had no relatives in ironmongery and that he wasn't trying to boost the trade...No, Fay, this house is not safe. Anyone could cut a hole in the window glass and then he could put his hand inside and unfasten the catch...And there's such a lot of glass in the conservatory."
Although Miss Key's fears had broken out in another form, Fay was glad of a problem to tackle.
"No one could break in while we were about," she said. "There are five of us and the house is never left empty by day. If you like, we'll take the silver upstairs with us at night and lock our bedroom doors."
"No good." Miss Key shook her head. "They could put a ladder against the wall and climb in through the bedroom windows."
"Burglar-proof screws would stop them."
"And stop my breathing too. I'm a big woman and I require a lot of air. Besides, it's useless to lock your door. Burglars can do all sorts of clever tricks with keys and bits of string."
Fay frowned and hit her forehead but finally, she crowed with triumph.
"I've got it. To-morrow we'll have your bedroom windows removed and replaced with wire netting."
Miss Key considered the matter before she agreed.
"I'll ring up the builder when I've finished tea," she said. "We'll hear what Mr. Berry thinks of the idea. He's a practical man. He must make it a priority job. When it's done, I can feel really safe at night."
Fay ran out of the library, to hide her amusement, as it seemed ridiculous for anyone to feel nervous in Canton House. Bright light glowed on the dark-blue carpet, the mahogany hall-stand which had displayed the poisoned chocolates, the carved bear from Interlaken always holding out hopefully a salver for the visiting cards he never received. Acting on impulse, she went to the front door and ascertained that the catch was down, so that no one could enter from outside. Afterwards she visited all the rooms on the ground floor—excepting the kitchens—and noticed that the windows were closed already to keep out the night air.
"Nobody could get in here," she told herself, as she went out of the drawing-room.
The next second, she started back at the sight of a woman standing in the middle of the hall.
It was Lilith Aurelius. Her appearance was so inexplicable that it almost suggested Black Magic to Fay. She had been facing the far end of the hall, so she knew that their unexpected visitor had not come through the kitchen entrance. The inference was that a flesh-and-blood person had either walked through a closed door or had materialised in an empty space.
"Did anyone let you in?" she asked.
"No," Lilith told her. "There was no need."
"Then how did you get in?"
"By my secret way." Lilith's smile suggested ancient mysteries. "When Josiah was here, I came and went by the underground. This is my second home and no new companion—however privileged—can keep me out." Then she raised her voice. "Ida," she called, "Where are you? I'm here to report."
"Library," screamed Miss Key.
Eager not to miss the account of Lilith's visit, Fay skipped after Mrs. Aurelius into the library. Miss Key received her envoy with an uncertain smile—half-guilty, half-defiant.
"Was it very distressing?" she asked nervously.
Lilith dropped bonelessly on the rug before the fire and began to stroke the red tabby as though she was trying to hypnotise him.
"It was pure drama," she replied. "Human nature in the raw. I went to Clock Cottage first."
"What did you say exactly?"
"I explained that I had come on delicate and confidential business. I said that you did not suspect either of them, but you were forced to believe that someone in the family was trying to poison you. Since no one would confess, the innocent must suffer with the guilty. And then I broke it to them that you reasoned that the best way to safeguard yourself was to remove the source of temptation. So you were going to leave your money to an outsider—Miss Williams."
"Very well put," approved Miss Key. "How—how did they take it?"
"They were furious. Gabriel only smiled—what a smile—but Gertrude swore and shouted. She said it was the dirtiest deal and that Miss Williams was a dam cuckoo and someone ought to wring her neck. Of course it was a natural reaction from Gertrude. She resented me because I was included in Josiah's will. She told me money should remain in the family."
"It should," agreed Miss Key, shifting like a captive balloon in a breeze. "I did my best to make my brother alter his will. But my case is different from his. No one tried to murder him, at least, not to my knowledge. But after this, it would never surprise me if the police didn't want him up again."
As Lilith shuddered, Fay looked up at the oil painting of the late tea merchant. By a trick of the artist, the portrait appeared always to be watching the person who gazed at it. It seemed to Fay that the twinkling eyes was jeering at her discomfiture and her ears began to burn as she listened to Lilith.
"Gertrude cooled down directly and apologised to me. Give them their due, the Keys are civilised. When I went on to Old Court, Marie and Simone put on a marvellous show. They were so very nonchalant. I was meant to get the impression they were merely amused."
"Amused at what?" asked Miss Key defensively.
"Marie hinted that they thought you were too much a woman-of-the-world to fall for a cheap little adventuress."
Fay could control herself no longer.
"I won't stand for it," she cried indignantly. "I haven't got their money yet and I don't suppose I ever will. Miss Key will see the light and leave it in the family...There are other jobs besides this."
"You wouldn't leave me, Fay?" Miss Key's voice was reproachful. "You are the only person I can trust. Oh, I know it's easy for you. You can walk into some nice safe situation to-morrow. But what about me, with dead men practically walking into my house—and not knowing what's coming next?"
"Not knowing," repeated Lilith in her deepest register. "We don't know what to expect—or when or where. Or who?...We only know why."
"Yes, we know why," whispered Miss Key. With dramatic disregard of the time-element, she pointed to Fay and added, "But for her, at this moment, I should be rotting in my grave."
"I reminded Gabriel of that," said Lilith, "but he only sneered. He hinted that if she knew beforehand that the chocolates were poisoned, it would be an effective gesture to win confidence."
"Thank you for telling me that," said Fay quietly. "I suppose I was the tall woman who posted the box. I suppose too that I left the chocolates lying about for people to help themselves. It was just my girlish fun."
Meeting Miss Key's pleading eyes, she smiled at her.
"Don't worry," she said. "After that crack, I am going to stay. I am determined that they shan't run me out."
As she spoke she felt the exultation of gratified ambition. After her humiliation, this was her moment of power.
"I control the situation," she reminded herself. "They want to drive me away. But I am doing the decent thing by staying. If I left her, poor Ida would be killed by fear. Or she might be killed some other way. I'm here to, stop it—and I will. I am on top."
She had the first dividend of her reward in Miss Key's beaming face, as she assumed the authority of mistress of the house.
"Stop making a fool of that cat, Lilith," she said sharply. "He's not a flighty animal, but you've made him look quite tipsy."
"He knows I am a witch," declared Lilith, hanging the unresisting cat over her shoulder. "Contact with him soothes me. Life is tragic. You are my only friend—yet I must give up these visits."
"Nonsense. What's the matter now?"
"My husband is in danger. I betrayed him last night in my fatal unguarded moment. I told everyone I could not survive his death...I confessed to him when I got home." Catching Fay's eye, she corrected herself. "No, this morning. He told me I was like the Chinese who burned down his house to get roast pork."
"I never eat pork," said Miss Key virtuously. "What did he mean?"
"He thought I was involved. But really it is so clear and logical. Someone wants to kill me, because of Josiah's will. If he did it directly, the motive might point in his direction. Or her direction. But no one would want to kill my husband, on the face of it. That makes it a fool-proof method of murder."
Lilith unwound the cat from her neck.
"In future, I must stagger my hours," she said. "No one must know when the treasure is unguarded. Even now, he may be in danger. I must fly home on my broomstick."
"She doesn't know one end of a broomstick from the other," remarked Miss Key when Lilith had rushed from the room. "She's a madcap but she's not mercenary. That's why Josiah put her in his will...Fay, go and bolt the front door after her."
The hall was deserted when Fay entered it. Although she knew that there must be a logical solution of the mystery, she looked around her nervously, lest at any moment, she might turn her head and find herself with company. It was a relief when Parsons came through the door which led to the kitchen passage.
"Parsons," she said impulsively, "I know you didn't let Mrs. Aurelius in. But how does she get in and out?"
"By the side door," replied the woman.
As she opened the cloakroom door and pointed to the end of its short passage, Fay saw a second and outer door. She remembered then that Victorian houses had been built for large families. Since the front stair carpets had to be protected from too much traffic, the children habitually used the side door and the back stairs.
"Isn't the side door kept locked?" she asked.
"Yes, miss. It's got a mortice lock. But Mrs. Aurelius has a key. She's not the only one."
Fay stared at the woman in dismay as she fancied she heard the echo of Miss Key's question, "Would you call this house safe?"
"This is terrible," she cried. "We're practically living in the street. How did it start?"
As though softened by Fay's distress, Parsons forgot her former prejudice and began to gossip.
"In Mr. Josiah's time, Mrs. Aurelius was over most evenings to play chess with him. She was a very beautiful girl but she led a dull life. I think she pestered him to give her a private key, just to kid herself it was an affair. But he was all there and he knew she was sure to hint about it and he didn't want scandal. So he had three keys made and he gave the other two in the family, so it should be regular. He called it 'Right of entry.'"
"I suppose he gave them to Clock Cottage and Old Court?"
"Yes, miss, but they were never used to my knowledge. I'm telling you this in confidence. You know what people are like in a small town and a private key never sounds too good. I'm trusting you not to tell the mistress. If she knows, she won't want telling. And if she doesn't know, she mightn't like it."
"I won't tell her," promised Fay. "But we must put an end to it, Parsons. Miss Key is going to have some structural alterations done and I'll suggest a bolt for the side door."
When Fay returned to the library, Miss Key was pacing the floor.
"I got through to Mr. Berry," she said. "I caught him just as he was leaving his office. The workmen will start to-morrow morning. Now that is settled, I am worrying about having to meet my disinherited heirs."
"So am I," agreed Fay. "I keep reminding myself that I'm not really harming them as they all have private means. Gabriel seems the only one who works. What does he do?"
"Oh, he changes," said Miss Key defensively. "He's too clever to settle. At present, he's going to an Estate Office and he's writing a book. All about plumbing he says, but that's only his sarcasm."
Suddenly Fay realised that she too was pacing the floor.
"We'll wear out the carpet between us," she said. "We look like the lions at feeding time. But there's something about the Key family that gets one. I wish I was for them and not against them."
"You are only against one of them," Miss Key reminded her. "That's the one who's trying to murder me."
Fay stopped pacing the floor and went upstairs where she found Parsons turning down Miss Key's bed.
"I want to go out," she said. "But you know what happened last night. Miss Key must not be left. Can you think up something to keep you with her?"
"The linen," replied Parsons. "You are right, miss, she must not be left."
Wearing her outdoor coat, Fay returned to the library.
"If you don't mind," she said to Miss Key, "I am going out. I won't be long. But if I don't meet the Keys and try to explain things, I shan't sleep to-night."
Eager to get the ordeal over, Fay ran part of the way to town. When she reached the wood, she instinctively broke into a sprint although the main road was lit by the District Borough Council. It was a mild dark evening, with an occasional semi-submerged star swimming through the clouds. She passed the black mouth of the lane leading to Clock Cottage and prudently kept to the surburban road. Soon it merged into High Street where some of the shops were still open.
The illumination from their windows helped to supplement the municipal lighting, but the Square seemed to have slipped back through the years into its own century. The lath-and-plaster buildings looked dim and unsubstantial, as though they would collapse if anyone brushed past them, or spoke too loudly, while their faces were wan in the weak glow of the lamp light.
The gloom of the archway leading to Lawyers' Lane was an invitation to murder, but Fay hurried past it without a memory or a shudder. Her heart had begun to thump at the knowledge that every step was bringing her nearer to the dreaded meeting. Bread Street, which led to Clock Cottage, was pitchy and astir with the scuffle of dead leaves in the gutters. In the distance owls hooted faintly and the Town Hall clock struck six times.
When she reached the house, she stood at the gate and looked at the attractive picture of home life, visible through the open windows. The twins were in the large sitting-room which they chiefly used; Gertrude—business-like in a navy suit and horn-rimmed spectacles—was doing secretarial work at the bureau, while Gabriel—wearing black slacks and a white fleecy sweater, polished small bits of silver.
They looked up at the sound of footsteps on the path and saw Fay standing outside on the lawn. After the least pause, Gabriel spoke to her pleasantly.
"Talk of angels. We were discussing you—"
"Then I can guess what you said," broke in Fay. "I know exactly how you feel."
"Forgive me, but you do not. That is specialised knowledge. You must be a Key to know how a Key feels. And even then, it is chiefly guesswork...Won't you come in?"
Fay glanced at Gertrude, who hesitated before she spoke.
"Yes, do. My brother will have to stop fiddling with that wretched silver. He only does it to annoy me. I hate to see a man doing woman's work."
The glance which passed between Gabriel and Fay was a momentary link between them.
"Some men do it better than we can," said Fay.
"Surely not better than you." Gertrude's tone was bitter. "I have the highest opinion of your talents, Miss Williams. In fact, I believe you capable of anything."
As though accepting a challenge, Fay walked through the open front door and into the sitting-room.
"Do sit down," urged Gabriel. "Cigarette?"
"No, thanks, I prefer to stand." Fay turned to Gertrude. "I am glad you said that, just now. I want to explain. I know you must hate me—"
"On the contrary." Gabriel shook his head with the sorrowful smile of an archangel brooding over the failure of an experimental Creation. "The truth is that we are sorry for you. We were just wondering who had jockeyed you into such a dangerous position. You couldn't have jumped into it for you are nobody's fool. There must have been preliminary moves which you did not notice at the time. Can you think back, or remember anything—no matter how trifling?"
Instead of answering him, Fay asked a question.
"Why am I in danger?"
"My dear Fay"—Gabriel used her Christian name naturally as though they had passed beyond convention—"we have to face facts. There has been one attempt to murder my aunt. There will be others—and they can't all fail. When this happens, you will be the obvious suspect."
"Because you have the strongest motive. You live in Canton House, so you have opportunity as well. You really are on the spot. Why don't you chuck in your hand? Life is more than money. If my sister were in your place, I swear to you I would not rest until I had rescued her."
Fay glanced at Gertrude who sat posed at her desk, motionless as a waxwork—without the flutter of an eyelash or a quiver of the pen held between her fingers. She noticed too the betraying twitch of Gabriel's facial muscles. The twins were strung up to a pitch of intense suspense while they waited for her to speak. They were holding her up—trying to break down her resistance by threats veiled with persuasion. In an attempt to shatter their composure she sprung a question.
"Have you still your private key to the side door of Canton House?"
A waxwork came to life as a glance was flashed from brother to sister. Obeying Gabriel's nod, Gertrude opened a drawer in the bureau and fished out a handful of loose keys.
"Here it is," she said, reading the attached label. "It's never been used. I suppose my aunt wants it back?"
"Yes, I'll take it with me. Thank you."
"I only accepted it on principle," explained Gertrude. "It was intolerable for an outsider like Mrs. Aurelius to have a privilege not possessed by the family."
"I understand," said Fay. "We are having a bolt put to the door. That will keep her out."
Gabriel rapped his thin fingers impatiently against the table.
"Women are unpredictable," he complained. "You are concerned about a key while your life is in danger. I am warning you in your own interest."
Suddenly anger drove away Fay's distress as she looked around the room. It was as expensively furnished as Miss Key's library, although its good taste was an antidote to opulence. She compared it with the poverty of her own home, whose shortcomings she had exploited a little time before. Her voice was unsteady as she pointed to Gabriel's radio-set which rather resembled a small organ.
"Can you get every station?" she asked.
"All, including Heaven and Hell." Gabriel's voice was impatient. "Why?"
"Nothing much. Perhaps because I have a young brother who's potty on wireless. He made himself a set out of other people's cast-off parts, but it doesn't work too well. When there's hot news, he walks up and down the road, listening-in to the neighbours...It beats me why rich people like you want more money."
"We only want to keep what is ours," said Gertrude grimly.
"That's why I came. To say I understand and that I'm sorry. I expect you to hate and despise me. But you know nothing of the under-currents. I promised Miss Key—"
Conscious that she was slipping into a "fine speech"—according to Miss Key—Fay broke off.
"It's hopeless," she said, turning towards the door.
Neither Gertrude nor Gabriel made any comment. There was something ominous in their immobility and their silence which made Fay feel suddenly afraid. She had refused to dwell upon the episode in the Cloisters ground, but now her nerves were taking their delayed revenge. Again she heard a bell ringing on into the distance—again she saw the flash of a knife—again she saw a woman imprisoned in the body of a child...
Gabriel had accepted his aunt's danger as a commonplace and had prophesied calmly that there would be further attempts on her life, as though he accepted the monstrous idea of murder. Her throat grew dry and her knees weakened.
"Two to one," she thought. "No chance. What a fool to come."
"I'll see you to the gate," said Gabriel.
"Don't" she cried. "I must run. Miss Key is waiting for me."
She rushed from the house and down the garden path. When she burst into the lane without hearing the sound of pursuing footsteps, she began to feel slightly ashamed of her panic. Dark forms seemed to lurk in every doorway as she hurried up Bread Street and reached the Square. It seemed a centre of life and gaiety as light was streaming through the open door of the County Club. A party had just broken up and the young people who were coming down the steps appeared to have reached an advanced stage of good fellowship. Some of them were obviously lit and all were noisy and friendly as they began to dance around a lamp-post, to the accompaniment of hunting cries.
"Early to be tight," remarked a passer-by.
"Celebration," explained an indulgent policeman. "Engagement party. Miss Simone Key to Sir Eustace Palfrey."
As Fay overheard the news, she felt both foolish and envious.
"Is my face red?" she asked herself. "I've been suspecting her of plotting murder with her cousins, and all the time she's been busy with her own affairs. She'll be 'My lady.' That girl gets everything. But it will be news for Miss Key, Something to take her mind off locks and bolts."
She soon left High Street behind her and reached the suburb which was cheerful with lighted windows and gusts of wireless. Most of the residents had tuned-in to the same programme, so that she kept picking up fragments of "Faust." She marched along to the strains of "The Soldiers' Chorus" until she came to the comparative darkness of the road through the fir-wood, when the music became inaudible. Several cars went by so that she could not feel lonely, while the lighting—if feeble—was adequate. After she passed one of the widely-spaced lamps, its beam dimmed progressively, but directly she reached the densest shadow the darkness gradually lightened as she advanced towards the next electric standard.
Suddenly she began to think of the woman who died after meeting the Black Sisters.
"It must have been a terrible shock when she first caught sight of them," she reflected. "I expect she tried to kid herself that she was just seeing things. Liver-spots or something like that...Truthfully, I'd just as soon not meet them myself."
She stared in front of her towards a faint glow thrown by a lamp around the curve of the road.
"One could imagine anything, with all these tree-trunks criss-crossing," she told herself. "If I didn't know that the black nuns always go along the river road, I could fancy they were coming round the corner."
A dark block, as of some compact body, appeared to be stationary around the bend. While she looked at it, it seemed first to pile itself up and then to lengthen and uncoil, until it stretched out in a moving black line.
"No," she murmured. "It's impossible."
As the procession advanced slowly towards her, she was reminded of a squad of churchyard ghouls, going about its loathsome business. Closer it drew to her, while the leader grew taller—towering up to unnatural height. Shutting her eyes instinctively, Fay stood behind a tree and waited. She knew when the procession reached her by a faint stir in the darkness...It seemed to pass by for ever...
A few minutes later, Fay entered Canton House to the tune of "The Soldiers' Chorus."
"You sound very victorious," remarked Miss Key as the girl whistled herself into the library.
"I've got it over," said Fay. "I've some news. An engagement in your family."
As she listened, the tip of Miss Key's nose began to quiver in sign of emotion.
"How awkward," she complained. "I feel involved. This engagement is warming up the old broth. Simone has always played with the idea of marrying Sir Eustace, but he has to marry money. I've refused to buy her a husband because it's something you can't return to the shop. I'm afraid Marie must have sold him the idea that there's money coming to her from me. Lilith's news, this morning, coming on top of the engagement, must have been a nasty jolt."
"What will they do about it?" wondered Fay.
"From what you tell me of the gin party, I should say they are going through with it. Well, so am I. I didn't have time to tell you before you went out but Mr. Berry rejected your wire netting. He said it was like a meat safe and I wasn't a beef steak to be protected from blow-flies."
Fay considered the simile too apt to be pleasant as Miss Key went on with her explanation.
"He's going to put a few nice light bars, so that the window can be opened and shut but no one can get in or out. I felt a bit silly over the precaution but he assured me that he knew just how I felt and what I wanted. To hear the man, you'd think we had been brought up in the same cradle. Hadn't you better change? It's close on dinnertime."
Fay started to obey but she stopped at the door.
"The Black Sisters have changed their beat," she said casually. "I met them, just now, on our road."
Miss Key gave a faint wail.
"They've never done that before," she complained. "I wonder what made them change. I always distrust things which happen for the first time. You'll find there's always something behind it."
THAT night, when the rest of the household had gone to bed Fay crept down to the kitchen. After she had collected a number of kettles and saucepans, she built them up into an ingenious pyramid in front of the side door. Unfortunately the precaution proved its value only as a stimulant, for she awoke at the least sound and lay listening for the distant clang of metal. When at last she went to sleep, Parsons aroused her, not with tea but a news bulletin.
"The kettles are missing. And Mrs. Aurelius is at the front door. She wants you urgent."
Only stopping to drag on her dressing-gown, Fay ran down to the hall where the morning mist was drifting, like wreaths of smoke, through the open door. Standing outside was Lilith—wearing slacks, a yellow pullover and feathered mules. Her face was ghastly in the grey light and her hair fell over one eye.
She gripped Fay's arm and pulled her down the steps.
"The light's still burning in the laboratory," she panted. "I daren't go in to see what's happened. I am afraid."
"Afraid of what?" asked Fay.
"I don't know. Perhaps they've got him. You must come."
As Lilith dragged her down the drive, Fay experienced the embarrassment of a dream where one appears in public, wearing night attire. Her ungirdled robe was very short as it had shrunk in the wash and it blew open to reveal creased flowered pyjamas. She could feel the grit of gravel through the thin soles of her bedroom slippers and the uncomfortable slide of mud underfoot when they turned into the lane.
"Stop," she gasped, when they reached the main road. "I'm all undone. I must go back for a coat."
"No," insisted Lilith. "Every moment may count. Come on."
Still feeling in a dream, Fay tried vainly to fasten the buttons of her pyjama jacket while Lilith steered her relentlessly down to the fork of the roads. Every surface was shrouded with mist which muffled the walls of the valley. In the dim light, sky and earth appeared wan and spectral, like a strange water-blown world reflected inside a soap bubble.
When they crossed the bridge, Fay felt the vibration as the rotten planks gave way beneath the rush of their footsteps. Then she stopped and pointed to a dark shape which was floating on the brown current below.
"Is it a body?" she asked.
"No, a log." Lilith's voice was impatient. "Do hurry."
The semi-submerged object looked so gruesome that Fay continued to resist Lilith. She grasped the beaded rail of the bridge and stood staring at the river, until an eddy revealed the branch of a tree, sticking up through the foam with a horrible suggestion of a clutching hand. Even as her fear faded, she wondered whether her terror was a premonition.
"You can see his lights from here," said Lilith. "Why are they still on? Something is very wrong."
"Perhaps he's fallen asleep over his work," remarked Fay.
Lilith's silence disdained the remark as she led the way around the house, through the kitchen and into the hall. Fay looked at the broad staircase and the tiny dining-room and vestibule, while she decided that dividing walls had been removed and most of the ground area thrown into the doctor's laboratory. It was nearly dark inside so that she noticed a crack of light shining under a closed door before Lilith pointed to it.
"In there," she whispered.
In spite of her common sense Fay began to feel affected by the gloom and the silence.
"Have you called him?" she asked.
"I dare not. He may not answer."
"But this gets us nowhere."
Rapping loudly on the panel of the door, Fay forced her voice to the shrill pipe of a penny whistle.
"Doctor. Doctor Aurelius."
There was no response; but while the terror deepened in Lilith's eyes, the silence lent Fay fresh courage. Turning the handle of the unlocked door, she walked inside.
Her first action was an instinctive duck—in case she was attacked—followed by a rapid peep behind the door. When she realised the place was deserted, she looked around her curiously. Pendant globes under opaline shades threw a strong light down upon the complicated and glittering apparatus of the laboratory. The floor was tiled and bare, except for the oasis where the doctor did his literary work. Here was a large Chinese rug in soft shades of blue and yellow, a padded chair, a Sheraton bureau and a telephone. The luxury seemed to be solely an aid to composition, since a typewriter on a small table and a hard stool were provided for Lilith to do her secretarial work.
"No one here," announced Fay.
"Have you looked on the floor?" asked Lilith from the hall.
With a slight shiver, Fay gazed downwards, nerving herself for the discovery of a body sprawling behind a chair. She noticed the door with the frosted-glass top which led to the verandah, reserved for the doctor's use. There was another door in the corner but she felt a strong disinclination to open it. As she stared at it, Lilith entered and stood beside her.
"He sleeps there, sometimes," she said. "Go inside."
Fay knew that it was useless to argue. Without giving herself time to weaken, she crossed the laboratory in a rush and pushed the door open—half-expecting to see a figure dangling from a hook.
The room was scarcely larger than a recess and was primitive as a monk's cell—without floor-covering, window-curtain or toilet appliance. A green linen spread covered a narrow bed which looked as if no one had ever slept in it.
"Not here," called out Fay. "That finishes me...Oh, he's left a note on his desk."
Lilith snatched the memorandum slip and read out the typed message.
"'Brain jammed. Going away for rest and change. Will not write. Date of return uncertain.'"
As Lilith read it, her pallour deepened to a greenish tinge.
"It's not from him," she declared in a tragic voice.
"Can't he type?" asked Fay.
"Of course...No, it's the note. He has never left one before."
"So he's done this before?" asked Fay in a strained voice.
"Whenever he feels it is necessary for his work. But he just goes and comes back. This note is a false step. It tells me that someone has lured him away. Someone who knows I cannot live without, him."
Fay felt almost too indignant to speak.
"Thanks for the excitement," she said. "The sooner I get back the better. I don't want the milkman to see me dressed in mist, like an 'Autumn Dawn.'"
After the chill cavern of Isis House, Fay enjoyed her sprint home. Apart from the welcome exercise, there was the thrill of racing distant traffic when she reached the danger point of the forked roads. She managed to dash into the mouth of the lane just before the arrival of the milk cart and she was breathless when she rushed up the drive.
The door was open and Miss Key—fully dressed—waited for her in the hall. Overcome by the welcome, Fay suddenly realised that she had become genuinely fond of her employer. Instantly her sense of drama took control as she spoke with passionate self-reproach.
"Why did I leave you? Your little finger matters—"
"More than the Aurelius couple lumped together," finished Miss Key. "Kidneys and bacon for breakfast. Don't be long."
They lingered over the meal when Fay was pleased to discover that her adventure had entertainment-value for Miss Key.
"I always guessed he sneaks off now and again," she declared. "Can you blame the poor man? She's like a hot potato in his mouth—he can't turn her out or swallow her. But I've never known her confess it before. That's something new."
"She's odd," remarked Fay. "One moment you like her and the next, you loathe her. One day she's beautiful and the next, she's a freak."
"You should have seen her when she was a girl. Colonel Pride—our chief constable—was in love with her. He'd have married me but for her. No man has ever looked twice at me, but even now they'd be willing to make the sacrifice for the sake of Josiah's cellar. If I haven't drunk him by the time you inherit, for your own sake, sell him."
When the meal was finished, Miss Key began to show signs of nervousness.
"Oh dear, we are bound to meet Marie and Simone in town. The sooner it's over, the better. Ring up the garage for the car, Fay. It will be quicker."
Fay always regretted the fact that Miss Key paid for hire-service instead of owning her own car, like the other members of the family. In compensation, a drive was a real treat to her. The houses on the familiar road seemed to flash past and when the town was reached, their business was quickly done. After the car had conveyed Miss Key and Fay to the last shop, it rolled into the Square and parked before the Orange-Tree Café.
"I shall insist on paying for the coffee," whispered Miss Key. "It will put me on a better footing, in case they're difficult."
From the outside it was impossible to see who was in the café because of thick bottle-glass windows; but directly they entered, the pale gleam of Simone's hair located the corner where the Mornington-Keys were drinking coffee.
For a moment, Fay thought Miss Key would turn and run. Looking like a guilty schoolgirl trying to swagger, she led the way to the table where Mrs. Mornington-Key greeted her with a brilliant smile.
"Room for two more," she said, crushing her slim daughter into a corner. "The coffee is on me. We are still celebrating. Your favourite buns, Ida. Good morning, Miss Williams."
She bowed to Fay with the exact degree of cordiality as she had shown the last time they met. It encouraged Fay to speak to Simone, who was watching the flicker of a sunbeam upon the wall.
"Congratulations. I suppose it's true you are engaged."
Simone started and stared blankly at Fay before she smiled as though suddenly aware of her.
"Yes," she said. "It's true. I'm enchanted. And all due to you."
Ignoring her mother's expression, Simone began to destroy the elaborate fiction that nothing had upset the financial balance of the family.
"You see, I wouldn't marry Eustace before because I thought he might be influenced by my prospects. But now I am a pauper and I can get married. We are going to live in a cottage by the sea and the tide will wash over the garden twice a day."
"What's to stop it from washing through the house as well?" asked Fay.
"Will it? I suppose I must do a 'Canute.'"
"Really, Simone," complained her mother, "you talk like a perfect fool. No one would think you have an excellent brain."
Mrs. Mornington-Key's sharp voice was evidence that the news of her daughter's disinheritance had been a blow. Her handsome face looked slightly pinched while some of her padding appeared to have slipped. Fay noticed that she talked too much and laughed too loudly in an effort to assure others that all was well. Simone drifted back to her dream of happiness flowing in with a perpetual tide while Fay studied her delicate features and beautiful eyes.
"She could never murder anyone," she decided. "But someone sent those chocolates. And she's got the strongest motive now for wanting money."
Struck by the resemblance between Mrs. Mornington-Key and her daughter, she asked a cautious question.
"Was your mother as slim as you when she was a girl?"
"Yes," replied Simone, "I may be as big as she is, later on. Amusing."
Although she appeared half-asleep, Simone had pierced Fay's camouflage and answered her veiled speculation. Struck by this proof of penetration, Fay remained silent until Mrs. Mornington-Key prodded her daughter out of her trance.
"Darling, you're due to meet Eustace at the Club."
Grateful to be released, Fay skipped again into the car.
"We have time for a drive before lunch," decided Miss Key. "Perhaps by that time, the workmen will have finished. I dislike hearing them about the house. It's the sound of their boots and the knocking in unexpected places. Makes me think of undertakers."
Fay enjoyed the drive after they reached the east end of the town and had passed the Branch Post Office and the tobacconist shop—"Ap-Thomas and Appleby." When the bridge over the river was crossed, the road ran through a tree-lined gorge, but soon it emerged and began to climb, until they could see telegraph poles standing out sharply against the sky-line. Leaving the muffling glory of late autumnal foliage behind them, they rolled over hog-backed downs, where the air was keen and bare fields stretched away into the distance.
"One can breathe here," declared Fay. "In Oldtown, we are using each other's breath."
"I don't agree with you," said Miss Key. "I hope to live and die in Oldtown. At least, I don't want to die there. I don't want to die anywhere. Life's too beautiful—and I'm working up such a good appetite."
The thought of lunch reminded Fay that soon they must descend into the valley. She was silent on the homeward drive until they were near the tobacconist shop.
"Would you put me down here?" she asked. "I'd like to walk home to get some exercise."
When the car had borne Miss Key out of sight, Fay entered the little shop. It was unheated and the door was wide open, but Cherry's only concession to the season was a dark-violet pullover under the coat of her black suit. True to her boast of constant custom, there were three patrons at the counter—a matron from the bungalows, who had thrown a coat over her cooking-overall, a young man on a walking tour, and a small boy with a slip of paper.
Responsive to an audience, Cherry nodded to Fay before she gave her a demonstration in the art of salesmanship. She had a different manner for each customer and all were served swiftly. When the shop was empty, she spoke to Fay.
"Congrats. Some scoop. My gosh, just work out how many fags I have to sell to make a quid. But I'd rather you got it than Simone. The joke is she can't be 'Lady Palfrey' now. She bought Sir Eustace, C.O.D., and the family won't let her collect without paying down real money."
With the egotism of youth, Fay led back to her own affairs.
"Who told you about Miss Key's will?" she asked.
"Julian. Simone told him."
"Did he tell you why?"
"Yes, he told me the whole."
"Then it beats me why you should envy me. It's only a precautionary measure. When things settle down and she feels safe again, she will alter back to Simone and Gabriel. All the Keys leave their money in the family. In any case, I should have to wait for years. She may live to be a very old woman."
"Depends on her brand of chocolate." Cherry grinned. "I'll break my rule and join you in a smoke."
Conscious of a friendly atmosphere, Fay sprung a question.
"Do you know Miss Gomme?"
Cherry frowned before she replied.
"It's against my code to give away a dossier," she said, "but I will tell you, in confidence. When I was Science Mistress in a girls' college, we roomed in the same house. Not Oldtown, of course. At the time, she was confidential clerk to a firm of stockbrokers. She tried to get me interested in some mad scheme for making money. Soon afterwards, she left the town. It was hinted that she was sacked for some fancy work over the books. I was told the firm had to take action, but they regretted her loss so bitterly that one of the Big Boys said, when he was lit, that he'd like to shoot the auditor who smoked her out. She was by way of being rather a financial wizard."
"What was her get-rich-quickly scheme?"
"Loosely, it was to run a bucket-shop, with me for decoy. She had a bit of a crush on me. I turned it down. I may be mercenary, but I will never prey upon men. I've no use for parasites."
She glanced at her watch and added, "I must check stock now."
As she turned towards the inner door, Fay asked her another question.
"Do they know her record at the Cloisters?"
"Who's to tell them?" Cherry shrugged her shoulders. "I wouldn't. That woman could be dynamite. Besides they roll in the coin at the Cloisters. If a little sticks to her fingers, then it's up to the auditors—and good luck to her...Bye-bye."
By walking quickly, Fay reached Canton House in time for lunch. Miss Key greeted her with the news that all the bars and bolts had been screwed into place. She added casually, "Your lawyer has just rung up. He asks you to call at his office at four."
"Do you mean Julian?" asked Fay eagerly. "I wonder what he wants?" she added virtuously. "He must write. I cannot desert my post."
"But you always go out while I'm resting," Miss Key reminded her. "Is there anything specially dangerous about tea-time? If it will ease your mind, I'll tell Parsons not to admit any member of my family."
Fay could hardly wait for dusk to fall, when—punctual to the minute—she rapped upon the ancient door of Julian's office. The clerk—Miss Davis—opened it and without inquiring her business, showed her into the inner room where Julian sat at his desk. His dark glowing eyes and intellectual face reminded Fay of an old engraving, as he smiled at her.
"D'you like my office?" he asked.
As Fay looked around her she thought she had slipped back to some dim age of squalor and poverty. Although technically clean, the mouse-nibbled boards seemed to store the dust of antiquity. A fire smouldered in a rusted iron grate and a dim light struggled through grimed window-panes, about the size of a pocket-handkerchief.
"Out of Dickens, isn't it?" she asked.
"Dickens understated it. Not a single modern convenience and swarming with germs. I'm horribly proud of it. Lawyers' Lane is the show-piece of Oldtown. I had to camp on the doorstep when I heard there was a chance of a vacancy. As the coffin moved out—I moved in."
Fay scarcely listened as she looked at him and decided that he fitted into his background as though he were a tenant from the early nineteenth century.
"Why did you want to see me?" she asked.
"Because I'm worried about you," he replied. "Simone told me the conditions of her aunt's new will. She wanted my opinion on whether it could be upset. Do you realise exactly how you are placed?"
"Yes, Gabriel pointed out to me that I'd be the first suspect if anything happened to Miss Key."
"He did?" Julian's voice was sharp. "I had not got as far as that. I'm concerned with your immediate safety. You could have no motive for killing Miss Key until her will is valid. It's this lag that is so dangerous to you."
Julian joined his finger-tips as he explained the situation.
"I understand the new will is being drafted by Miss Key's solicitors—Delafield and Fish. It's unethical to criticise members of my profession but they move at the pace of ice-bergs. Heaven alone knows when she will be invited to sign."
Fay nodded, although she was still ignorant of his drift. After a morning spent in the keen air of the Downs, she was feeling sleepy from the warmth of the room. The place seemed unreal and shadowy—rather as though she were seeing a scene from the past reflected in an old smoky mirror. The fire glowed brighter in the deepening darkness in which Julian's face showed dimly-white as a death-mask.
"This is the point," he said. "If anything should happen to you, Miss Key is unlikely to make another will. She'll just let it ride. You are her stiffening and she'd revert to type—without you...Fay, you may be in real danger."
She shook her head helplessly.
"It's no good. I can't make myself believe there is a murderer in the Key family."
"It's a monstrous idea," he agreed. "But remember the chocolates."
Fay's sluggish mind became suddenly alert.
"Other people besides the Keys were involved in that," she reminded him. "Mrs. Aurelius, your cousin—"
"And myself. I'm glad you brought it up. Suspect everyone—especially those you like." His smile met hers. "The position is this: The Key family has a definite interest in your death but the legatees of Josiah Key's will have a stronger motive to liquidate you."
"Why?" she protested.
"Because you've interfered once already when you saved Miss Key from eating the poisoned chocolates. She's the most important legatee. You are now definitely established as her guardian. It's an ugly position. Remember it's a maxim with housebreakers to poison the dog before beginning operations on the house owner."
Hearing movements outside, Fay held out her hand impulsively.
"Promise me you won't murder me," she said, as the door was opened.
"I've come to light up," announced Miss Davis.
"Electricity is forbidden because of the danger of fused wires," explained Julian as the gas bubbled up from the pipe in a dirty yellow flame. "Are the letters ready for me to sign, Miss Davis?"
Fay took the hint and went out of the office. Julian accompanied her to the entrance, where they stood looking down the lane—dimly-lit as in Victoria's day.
"You've been warning me a lot," said Fay. "What exactly do you want me to do?"
"Save yourself," he replied earnestly. "Cut clear of Miss Key. Refuse her legacy. Leave Oldtown."
She shook her head with a fleeting smile.
"No. Miss Key counts on me. I won't let her down."
At first, Fay was too excited by meeting Julian to think clearly, but as she hurried up the lane, she began to realise her position. She had assumed the guardianship of a woman who was surrounded by unknown enemies.
"I've left her too long," she thought uneasily.
When she reached the Square, her feet scuffled through the shrivelled chestnut leaves with which it was littered. She crossed to the centre where George the Third stood upon his pedestal. His face looked pallid as a fish in the fading light, but there was a splash of colour in a scarlet bus which was parked near.
This link between Oldtown and the nearest town ran twice daily. It was rarely patronised by the local people as—in order to reserve it for genuine travellers—there were no cheap fares. Fay was about to pass it, as usual, when—acting on impulse—she jumped inside. She was more surprised even than the conductor when he explained that he had to charge her the fare to Hereford. He gave her the option of getting out again but she shook her head. Although she felt qualified as a lunatic, she was possessed by a sense of urgency—as though a warning whisper told her to get back to Canton House quickly.
The bus rolled slowly out of the town and past the built-up area of the residential suburb. It was a nightmare journey when even the houses looked strange and distorted as though they had suffered some architectural change. She raged whenever they stopped to pick up a passenger or were halted by the traffic lights.
"When do we go quicker?" she asked the conductor.
"When we've passed the houses," he replied.
As they entered the dark tunnel of the fir-woods, she was filled with foreboding.
"Something's happened to her," she told herself.
Pressing the bell, she jumped out of the bus before it could stop. Ahead of her was the union of the roads and the mouth of the lane. As she rushed tip the slope, she expected to find Canton House in darkness in token of disaster, but when she reached the drive, light was streaming from the drawing-room windows as well as from the library.
Doubly reassured, she remembered that Julian had not offered her any tea and that she was hungry. In her hurry not to miss the Canton House meal, she rang the bell and also knocked loudly, in case Parsons should be near. She heard the maid's footsteps crossing the hall and coming towards the door—while in the same moment, the lights in the drawing-room went out.
Something rushed past her in the darkness. The laurels snapped and rustled as though before the violent passage of some heavy body. Even as Fay told herself that she must have imagined the incident, Parsons opened the door.
"You're late for tea, miss," she said severely.
"Where's Miss Key?" gasped Fay.
"In the drawing-room, seeing a nun."
Pushing Parsons aside, Fay dashed across the hall. The drawing-room was in darkness, but as she entered it, she had the illusion of disturbed air, as though someone had just rushed through. As she switched on the lights, she realised the cause of her fancy in an open window, blowing in the draught from the door.
She was still blinking from the glare when she saw Miss Key lying back in a chair. Her face was darkly suffused—her eyes glazed in an agonised stare. Around her throat, cutting into the flesh, was a string wound around a pencil—to make a tourniquet.
Directly Fay unloosened it, to her great relief, Miss Key began to gasp and choke, as she tried to recover her breath.
"Take it easy," urged Fay. "It's all right now. I'm here." Then she raised her voice in a shout. "Parsons. Brandy."
After a few sips, Miss Fay managed to smile at Fay.
"Just in time," she panted.
"Yes," said Fay. "Thank God I came by bus."
"It was you banging on the door stopped them finishing the job," said Parsons. The woman looked pale and shaken as she asked a question. "Shall I ring the doctor, madam?"
Miss Key shook her head.
"No doctor," she croaked.
"Do you want me to ring the Station?"
"But madam, you're not going to let that murdering nun get away?"
Fay was first to grasp the reason for Miss Key's forbearance.
"Don't worry," she said. "I understand. It shall be kept in the family."
Not long afterwards Miss Key—wearing her best wrapper and propped by lilac satin cushions—lay comfortably in bed. In spite of a sore throat, she had contrived to swallow some liquid nourishment and was feeling so much stronger that Fay dared to take control.
"Does cook guess anything, Parsons?" she asked.
"No, miss," replied the maid. "I gave it out mistress had the headache."
"Good. I think we ought to have a man's advice. Someone who can give expert advice and treat it in confidence. I was thinking of a lawyer."
"Delafield and Fish," twinkled Miss Key.
"Wouldn't they be too conventional and insist on the law? I was thinking—"
"Ring up Julian Thomas."...
Driving his second-hand Buick, Julian arrived at Canton House soon after he received Fay's message. Parsons escorted him, by stealth, to the big bedroom, where he won Miss Key's approval by his tact and sympathy.
"I don't want to tire you," he said gently. "Suppose Miss Parsons tells us what happened. Are you sure it won't distress you to listen? If it does, she and I will go out of the room."
To Fay's relief, Miss Key motioned to the maid to begin her tale.
"It was close on dark," said Parsons, "when I answered a ring at the front door. A tall nun stood on the step. Knowing the mistress is not partial to nuns, I told her madam was engaged. She never said a word but pointed to her lips, to tell me she was under a vow of silence, I suppose. Then she started to rattle her collecting-box. I told her I'd got the idea all right, but madam was still engaged and the young lady was out. She went on rattling until the mistress heard her and called me into the library. I told her who it was and then I said there was something familiar about the nun's eyes. Then the mistress began to laugh and said show him in, I'll tell the young scamp off. I didn't understand, except that it was some joke, so I showed the nun into the drawing-room and the mistress went in afterwards. Then Miss Williams knocked like mad and ran into the drawing-room. When she called for brandy, I—"
"Thank you, Miss Parsons," interrupted Julian. "You would make an ideal witness." He turned to Miss Key. "I assume he attacked you immediately, so you know little or nothing about it. Did you feel something tighten around your neck before the room grew dark?"
Miss Key nodded.
"And then she came," she whispered.
Julian's face grew graver. He was wondering what effect the fact of Fay's opportune arrival might have upon a prejudiced listener.
"It was Gabriel," said Fay confidently. "Don't you remember he bet Miss Key that he would bounce her out of a subscription? Do you think it was him, Miss Key?"
As Miss Key said nothing, Julian rose.
"We might discuss it with him and hear his reaction," he said. "I'll come back and report to you."
"Take Fay," suggested Miss Key. "Women notice the twiddley-bits. Parsons will stay with me."...
In Fay's opinion, the Buick carried the couple too quickly to Clock Cottage. It seemed to her that they had scarcely attained speed before they turned off up the short cut of the lane. When they stopped before the green gate, the low honey-washed house presented its usual gracious front. Bars of light fell upon the lawn and the autumnal flowers in the border.
As they walked up the path, Fay remembered her last visit and was grateful for Julian's company. She could see Gertrude sitting at the writing-table, eating an apple, while Gabriel stood before the fire. He had evidently just taken a shower, for his fair hair was brushed back into a damp wave and he wore a robe of white towelling. At the moment, he appeared actually beautiful and she could understand Gertrude's adoring eyes.
In spite of the hospitable open door, neither of the twins looked cordial when they recognised their visitors.
"Come in," shouted Gertrude.
As they entered, Gabriel spoke with veiled hostility.
"Doing a crossword. Thomas, give me a word of five letters, meaning 'unwelcome.'"
"'Raven,'" said Julian. "You've guessed right, Key, we bring bad news. There's been another attempt on your aunt's life, but—"
"Let me finish," broke in Gabriel. "But it was foiled by Miss Williams, who has an uncanny instinct of timing her entrances."
As Fay grew scarlet, Julian spoke quickly.
"These are the facts. Someone disguised as a nun called on Miss Key to get a subscription for charity. He started to strangle her with a string, but—as you appear to know—he was prevented from finishing the job."
In the silence which followed, Gabriel stuck a pipe in the corner of his mouth, destroying any resemblance to an archangel.
"I haven't an impure mind that sees double meanings," he said. "Wordsworth could see a double-entendre in a primrose, but personally I've never seen a sermon in a stone. Will you tell me exactly what you mean in basic English?"
Smarting from Gabriel's taunt. Fay broke in before Julian could speak.
"Miss Key sent us here to find out if you could explain anything."
"I get it now." Gabriel laughed. "Everyone heard me make that bet at the funeral feast. That should let me out. I may be the sort of knave who eggs on curates to spot the lady but I'm not such an almighty fool as to masquerade as a woman, after the local stink."
"Exactly my own view, Key," said Julian. "Sherlock Holmes would give you a clean bill. But to satisfy Miss Key—who wishes the affair kept entirely in the family—would you like to mention your alibi?"
"I will when the others trot theirs out."
"Naturally. Well, we've done what Miss Key asked us to do. Ready, Miss Williams?"
"One minute," said Gertrude, speaking for the first time. Her eyes glared through her glasses and she jabbed the table with her forefinger as though she were making a point at a committee meeting.
"You're going to hear more about this from me," she threatened. "You've thrown mud at Gabriel and it's bound to stick. But I'll make you a present of one fact. Parsons presumably opened the door to the nun and she accepted her as being of female sex. First impressions count most, so that's good enough evidence for me and most people. There are at least four women with a motive for wishing my aunt dead. They are Simone, Lilith, Cherry Thomas and myself. Think it over...You know your way out...Did you say a word of five letters, Gabriel?"
WHEN Fay went into Miss Key's bedroom to wish her "Good-night," she noticed the bars for the first time.
"What a few," she objected. "I expected something impressive, like a bank grille."
"I'm not a valuable," Miss Key reminded her.
"You are far more valuable to me—"
"Too late for fine speeches. Mr. Berry explained that those thin bars are very strong and that if a man got his head through, his shoulders couldn't follow. His head wouldn't be much good without the rest of him. The only person I need fear is love, if it's true he laughs at locksmiths. And he's not likely to visit me."
Assured of Miss Key's safety, Fay slept soundly. She awoke to a fine morning and a clear blue sky. The tree outside her window was not entirely stripped of foliage and the sun gilded its shrivelled leaves. While she was waiting for Parsons to bring the tea, Fay began to think of the past, in order to appraise the present.
"I was sore at Cassie Thomas' funeral because I was a nobody. I was actually glad when Miss Key hung on to my arm like a ton. But I kidded myself I liked being a spectator. I even boasted to Julian that I could influence people. What a sap."
Sitting up in bed, she looked at her reflection in the mirror of her toilet-table.
"And now," she said to the girl in the glass, "I'm right in the middle of everything. The Key family is conscious of me. Julian acts almost as if he was in love with me. And what does it all add up to? Just this. People want to murder me. If they can't, they may murder Miss Key. I'll be chief suspect and end on the gallows-tree—just to cure me of being ambitious...'Cromwell, I charge you, throw away ambition, by that sin fell the angels—'"
She broke off in the beginning of Wolsey's speech—learned at school—because the word "angel" reminded her of Gabriel in a white robe.
"The Devil is a fallen angel," she reflected. "I hope I'll never see Gabriel looking like a devil. But this gets me nowhere. I am ringed with enemies and I must settle my policy."
Her brain was refreshed by her long sleep, so that she soon picked out what appeared essential points.
"First, stay where I am. I owe that to Miss Key. Follow her like her shadow and only leave her when I am sure she is safe. Second, watch out for myself. Never go out alone at night or in lonely places in the day-time. When I'm with any of the Key family, be especially on guard."
The rattle of china sounded outside the door and Parsons entered. As she laid down the tray, Fay asked a question.
"What did that nun look like? What sort of features?"
"I couldn't see much of her," explained Parsons. "She had white bands over her eyebrows and around her chin and cheeks. Her face looked like a knight in armour when his lid is lifted—only a bit of it showing. But it sort of came to me I'd seen her eyes before."
"What colour were they?"
"I think they were darkish but they might have been light with big blacks. They do widen out when you come out of the dark into the light."
Parsons' failure to recognise the nun raised no disturbing suspicion of identity and breakfast was a pleasant meal. Suddenly the peace of the morning-room was shattered as violently as by a flash of lightning forking a clear sky. A prolonged pealing of the front-door bell was followed by a succession of thunderous knocks.
"Police," cried Fay.
"No, Lilith," said Miss Key, just before Mrs. Aurelius entered.
She wore the black slacks and yellow pullover of yesterday with a purple scarf hanging loosely around her neck. Fay thought that her cheeks appeared more hollow, although she was rouged to the eyes.
"What happened last night?" she asked imperiously. "I rang and knocked, but Parsons appeared to be deaf."
Fay grinned at the thought of Mr. Berry's bolt on the side-door.
"I thought you could always get into Canton House," she remarked.
Lilith ignored her as she glanced at the table.
"Is it breakfast-time?" she asked. "I've lost all count of time. My watch has stopped—and all the clocks in the world have run down. Am I interrupting your breakfast?"
"Have you had any?" asked Miss Key.
"I forget. I can't remember when I ate last."
"How I envy you. Slimming without tears. It would be grand to cut out lunch and think I'd eaten it. You'd better have breakfast with us."
Fay hurried to carry omelette and coffee to Lilith, who ate and drank with famished indifference.
"I believe I could feed her with sawdust and sand and she'd never know it," thought the girl. "This is a funny business. Here we are, having breakfast together, and yet we are all in a murder-party and no one knows who's 'It.'"
Presently Lilith remembered her grievance.
"What happened here last night?" she asked.
"Miss Williams sent me to bed with a touch of cold," Miss Key told her. "I suppose your husband hasn't come back yet?"
Lilith laid down her fork and pushed away her plate, in defeat.
"He won't come," she said tonelessly. "I spent all yesterday waiting for him. I walked up and down the laboratory, up and down the verandah, up and down the bridge. I can't stand it. I must go to the police."
"No, my dear, don't." Miss Key's voice was matter of fact. "They'll only laugh at you. Not actually, of course. No, they'll look at you with Paris-of-plaster faces, but you'll feel the grin underneath."
"But if I lost a dog, I should be allowed to advertise. You had bills printed when you couldn't find your cat. And now you tell me I must not try and trace my husband. Why? Why?"
"Because of that note he left, saying he'd be back. They'll argue he went away because he wanted to. Men do, you know. I'm sure they won't consider it an official disappearance."
"And how long must I wait for them to decide? The time is so short. I've begun to die already."
"Have some toast," urged Miss Key hastily, pushing forward the rack. "Why don't you pay an informal visit to Colonel Pride and mention it casually to him? In the old days, you used to be so friendly."
"In the old days." Lilith twisted her lip. "But when he came back from India, his manner was quite changed. He tries to avoid speaking to me or looking at me. Just because I married another man."
She lit a cigarette and forgetful of her hostess, began to pace the floor. Presently she spoke in a low voice.
"I know who is behind this conspiracy. He has been tricked away. Someone sent him a fake message, saying I was in hospital and 'Come at once.'"
"Who?" asked Miss Key stiffly.
"Gertrude. She has a double motive to get rid of me. If I wither away, like ivy cut at its roots, she is so much nearer to a fortune. She wants it for Gabriel, just as I want mine for my husband. Besides, if I were dead, my husband would be free."
"Nonsense. Gertrude never troubled about men."
"No, because she's always been in love with him, ever since we were schoolgirls and went to his science lectures. Gabriel wrote her stuff for her because she hadn't the brain of a rabbit, but she used to sit and gloat over him. She has never forgiven me for taking him from her."
Fay looked at the glitter of Lilith's eyes and the nervous twitch of her lips. It was strange to reflect that Mrs. Aurelius has taken the hope of marriage from the niece as well as the aunt.
"She's been a femme fatale all right," she decided. "I'm glad I didn't meet her when she was potent."
To her relief, Lilith suddenly knotted her scarf as a sign that she was going. As her presence imparted some of the uncomfortable quality which was the "Ancient Mariner's" speciality at meal times, Fay grimaced with annoyance when Lilith stopped again at the door.
"I'd forgotten what I came for," she said. "My brain has begun to die. I came to warn you. Someone was in my husband's laboratory last night."
"Did you see or hear anyone there?" asked Miss Key.
"No. But when I went in there this morning I got the impression that things were arranged differently."
"Was anything taken?"
"How should I know? I have no idea of what drugs or chemicals he keeps in store. I never interfered."
"Perhaps it was the doctor himself come back to fetch something," suggested Fay.
Lilith's smile was scornful as she shook her head.
"Do you imagine I should not have known he was near me? I should have recognised him in every drop of blood and every inch of skin. Besides he always keeps a bag ready packed. That is gone."
As Miss Key exchanged a glance with Fay, Lilith became conscious of her admission.
"I've come to warn you. That's all," she said. "I imagine whoever came wanted to get poison."
When Lilith had gone, Fay spoke uneasily.
"She really looks half-starved. Do you think she has forgotten to eat?"
"She forgets all right," remarked Miss Key callously. "She'll tell the next person she meets that she can't remember eating breakfast. If she's left me any omelette, I should like it."
As Miss Key finished her meal, she spoke to Fay between mouthfuls.
"It would take a century to kill her in penny-numbers. She has unusual vitality and physical strength. When we played golf together, she packed too much beef behind her drive. Now, you should see Simone swing."
Fay frowned away a mental picture of Simone—cool and perfectly poised—knowing exactly how to use her strength in wielding a lethal weapon.
"Don't look so worried," urged Miss Key.
"But I can't forget that stolen poison. I don't see why she should make that up. Please promise me not to have any meals with your family, for the present."
"I never do. Only afternoon tea."
"But that's fatal. The worst of all. I once read a 'Famous Trial.' It was all about a solicitor who poisoned a brother solicitor at afternoon tea, just out of professional jealousy."
"How incredible. Solicitors. Nice people."
"Your family are nice people too."
"Very nice," agreed Miss Key as she patted her throat tenderly. "I wonder which of them tried to strangle me."
As the telephone bell rang, she whispered mysteriously to Fay.
"Directly Fay picked up the receiver, she recognised the insincere voice of Mrs. Mornington-Key.
"That you, Ida darling?...Oh, good morning, Miss Williams. I wish to speak to Miss Key."
"She's in bed," explained Fay.
"Then will you take a message, please? I want her to lunch at Old Court, to-day. We are expecting the Earl and Countess of Malchester and Simone wants them to meet her aunt."
"Her 'wealthy' aunt," thought Fay derisively.
"I'm sorry," she said aloud, "but she can't come to lunch with you. She's in bed with a heavy cold."
"Can't she manage tea? Tell her we've not had a real chat since Simone's engagement."
"I'm sorry," said Fay for the second time. "She's not well enough to risk it."
The telephone gave the impression of being too baffled for further transmission. When Mrs. Mornington-Key spoke again, her voice was iced.
"Have you called in the doctor?"
"No," replied Fay. "I know what to do."
"It's your responsibility. Give her my fondest love."
Fay grinned broadly when she returned to the morning-room.
"Mrs. Mornington-Key," she announced. "A most determined attempt to poison you. Two invitations to come and be killed. Lunch and tea."
"This means I can't go out," groaned Miss Key. "It's such a lovely day. You must go to town alone."
"I'll keep you company. We can order over the 'phone."
"No. You can't see what you buy and you lose the personal touch. Besides the daily walk keeps me in good health. That's why I don't buy a car."
Although in no need of compulsory exercise, Fay liked the prospect of being free. Her walk proved a disappointment however, as she never saw Julian, in spite of several visits to Lawyers' Lane. When she was on her way home, she met Gabriel at the end of the road, leading up to the Railway Station. Wearing a belted camel-coat and swinging a suit case, he seemed to be in high spirits.
"Glad I met you, to report," he said. "Tell the police I'm going up to town for two nights. They'll find me in any of the exclusive lock-ups. I don't propose to pay for a bed at an hotel."
"I hope you'll enjoy your binge," said Fay.
"Thanks. Gertrude is one of the best but between ourselves, she overdoes it a bit. I sometimes yearn to be kicked in the teeth. Before I go, what is Mount Ida's verdict on my guilt?"
"She accepted Julian Thomas' opinion," replied Fay self-consciously.
"Stout fellow. Well, my child, all the best and happy landing. Whoopee."
Shouting like a schoolboy released from the class-room, he raced up the hill to the station.
Although the sun shone in a pale-golden radiance and the late foliage still painted the landscape with amber and russet, Fay walked back in a sour mood. When she reached the lane, she was surprised to see Gertrude standing there. Her hands were stuck in the pockets of her slacks and she whistled tunelessly as she stared up at the windows of Canton House.
She wheeled around when she heard Fay's footsteps over the loose stones.
"I've been waiting for you," she said. "I want a private talk."
"Come inside," invited Fay.
"No. I'm not going inside that house until Aunt Ida apologises to Gabriel."
"She didn't mean it. Actually she's fond of Gabriel."
"Strangely enough, so am I." Gertrude's expression hardened to obstinacy. "And I'm still not coming in. Definitely not. I don't care tuppence about myself. If you threw a handful of mud at me, I'd chuck a double handful back at you. But Gabriel's above all that. He's too proud to defend himself, so he's fair game for the rabble."
Fay said nothing as she stared uncomfortably at the bare spikes of the hawthorn hedge. After a marked pause, Gertrude spoke, forcing her words.
"Is it true Dr. Aurelius is missing?"
"Who told you he is?" asked Fay cautiously.
"Lilith. She came over to Clock Cottage, this morning, and threw a scene. She was so incoherent and abusive I couldn't make out what she was driving at. Suddenly she asked me what I knew about her husband's disappearance."
"Well, since she told you that herself, I can tell you what I know," said Fay. She added with the touch of drama which provided Miss Key with her comedy, "It's your due. No one should be accused without a chance to defend themselves."
Gertrude listened to Fay's account with the wide-eyed absorption of a child. Her parted lips made her face appear younger and softened its hard expression. The competent chairwoman and the experienced sportswoman—jeering at the failures of rabbits—had gone, leaving a simple emotional girl. At the end of the story, she spoke in a low shaken voice.
"I hate Lilith Aurelius. I hate her for what she has done to him. He used to be so splendid. We both attended his lectures, so I know how she hounded him down. She used to throw scenes in class. It came to such a pass that the authorities told him that they sympathised with him, but that a scandal must be avoided. They gave him a choice of marrying her or resigning."
"Sort of 'Lady or the tiger?'" remarked Fay, trying to hide her shock at this revelation of human passion. She remembered the funeral tea and the convincing manner in which Gertrude had ridiculed Lilith's claim that other women wanted her husband.
"Of course, he married her," went on Gertrude. "But he's repented it ever since. It was a scandal the way she left him, night after night, while she played chess with my uncle Josiah. He was most unattractive, so her motive was obvious. She didn't get what she wanted but she got her share, with the rest of us. A dam cuckoo."
"Another of us?" asked Fay.
Gertrude impulsively held out her hand.
"I'll apologise for that," she said. "I believe you're a decent kid. Look here, I must talk or go crackers. I'm worried stiff about Dr. Aurelius. They are nothing to each other now...Do you think she's got rid of him?"
"Do you mean—murdered him?" asked Fay in a horrified whisper.
"She's capable of it. That woman is capable of anything. If she plans to pull in Uncle Josiah's fortune, she will want to be free. Doesn't she strike you as a creature in a cage? She's beating her head against the bars until she's nearly insane."
"I know she's not normal," admitted Fay. "I thought she had a passion for her husband and that he had cooled off."
"That's what you are meant to believe." Gertrude laughed bleakly. "But when I think all around things, I'm terrified. I can't mess around doing nothing. I want to get into the Cloisters grounds. We played there when we were kids and used to visit uncle. At the time, there was no one living in the house. Lilith came too. In one corner of the grounds, there's a disused well. It has a cover, so that a body thrown down it could be hidden until there was nothing left to hide...I want to look down that well—just to make sure. Will you come with me?"
"No," said Fay firmly. "I advise you not to try. I managed to get inside and I got pinched. The whole place is wired to ring bells."
Gertrude looked at Fay with new interest as she smacked her shoulder.
"You got in?" she asked. "Good for you. You can give a repeat performance."
"I can't. The tree I climbed will be gone now."
"But I know another way in. The one we used when we were kids."
Curiosity rather than comradeship made Fay weaken. Suddenly she realised the possibilities of the adventure. She could not rid her mind of the suspicion that there was a connection between the recent crimes and the dread Black Sisters, in which case, knowledge of a way into the grounds might prove valuable.
"I'll come," she agreed. "But not now. It's too near lunch-time."
"Righto," said Gertrude. "Two-thirty, sharp. I'll wait for you here."
The sun was shining when Fay made her promise. It clouded over during lunch and by the time she was free to creep out of the house, a fine spit of rain was falling. It beaded Gertrude's cropped hair and burred her tan tweed coat as she stood in the lane. Apparently she had repented her softer mood, for she shouted to the girl in her familiar aggressive manner.
"But are we going?" asked Fay, who was beginning to repent her promise. "It's raining."
"It's a damn sight wetter in the well. Come, get a move on."
Directly they started, Fay realised that she had let herself in for a strenuous excursion. As they came out into the road and turned off towards the Cloisters, she had to break into a run every few yards, in order to keep pace with her companion. Instead of following the path up to the gates, Gertrude cut diagonally through the rough, to reach the encircling wall. She wore thick-soled shoes and trousers which protected her from the damp undergrowth, so she had no hesitation in dragging Fay through soggy thistles and dead bracken. Presently Fay was tripped by a ground briar and sprawled upon the ground, too shaken to stir.
Gertrude laughed loudly at her misfortune.
"Practising swimming strokes?" she asked.
"I'm no good," said Fay as she rose painfully to her knees. "You can get on quicker without me. I'm going back."
"You can't rat on me, after your promise," declared Gertrude, Jerking her to her feet.
"But I don't think I should leave Miss Key."
"You've left her, haven't you? Come on."
Gertrude put her arm through the girl's and dragged her on. She seemed to have the strength of a man and they made quicker progress, at the cost of increased discomfort for Fay. As they crashed through the bushes, they inevitably pulled one against the other, like competitors in a three-legged race, when one is out of step. At each stumble, Fay bumped against her companion, when she was conscious of knocking against some hard object in Gertrude's coat pocket.
"What is she carrying?" she wondered nervously.
She looked back at the spread of darkening landscape and again she was struck by its savage quality. Although it was so near to the main road, this part of the valley appeared to be a forgotten pocket in No-Man's-Land. No animal moved amid the heather—not another soul was in sight. Coiling away to the left was the unfamiliar loop of the river—dark between walls of trees. She could see no clear outlines anywhere as the drizzle had thickened to a curtain of fine rain.
Again she knocked against the hard object...
It reminded her of her morning's resolutions...She had been betrayed into trusting Gertrude, merely because her lips had acquired the soft blurred corners of a boy and her eyes the softness of a woman in love. Now she had changed back into a ruthless leader, compelling her obedience. When they had talked together in the lane, their trespass appeared an adventure—but now she had grown afraid.
"I'll run away," she decided. "Directly I get a chance. I couldn't go near that well with her."
Presently they reached the part of the track which was blocked by the fallen tree. Its trunk was lopped and its branches sawed-off, amid a spill of wet sawdust. Fay pointed to it in the hope that Gertrude would release her grip and investigate.
"That's where I climbed in."
"No chance now," declared Gertrude. "That gap's too wide."
She pulled Fay farther along the track which was so choked with undergrowth that even she remarked upon it.
"We could do with a tractor to clear a way. Well, we're here. It's by that tree."
She stopped and pointed to a spruce whose trunk suggested curvature of the spine. Opposite to it, the wall was covered so thickly with ivy that it bulged out over it, like a canopy. Dropping Fay's arm, Gertrude began to burrow under it—parting and pulling aside the long trails until she was nearly covered with greenery.
"It's here," she said in an excited voice. "Those miracle-nuns may see in the dark but they haven't spotted it. Fancy—buried for years. Last time I saw it, I was a kid."
As Gertrude pulled away another huge armful of ivy, Fay saw some panels of a wooden door, dark and slimy with damp.
"Hopeless to try and open it," said Gertrude. "It's been blocked too long. But I've come prepared."
Digging her hand into her coat pocket, she drew out a short heavy mallet.
As she flourished it, Fay thought that she was about to be attacked with "a blunt instrument." The next second, she felt ashamed of her cowardice as Gertrude began to batter the door.
"I'll make a hole just big enough for me to crawl through," she said. "The ivy will cover it afterwards and they'll never know there's been a break-in. Follow me close. Things may begin to happen directly we get through."
Even as she hammered on the rotten wood, splintering the panels, Fay was beginning to back cautiously away. Fortunately the noise of demolition deadened the rustling of undergrowth as she crept around the corner of the wall. Directly she could see Gertrude no longer, she began to run—rushing recklessly over gorse and heather until she was out of breath.
Warned by flashes of darkness before her eyes and the pain in her chest, she stopped when she reached the union of the roads. Feeling foolish and ashamed, she walked sedately back to Canton House. Lights glowed from its windows and welcomed her back to civilisation. It was not until she was eating hot-buttered toast by the fireside that she thought of Gertrude, ploughing through the wilderness of the Cloisters grounds, to find the well...
That night, in spite of bolts and bars, Fay lay awake, listening to the steady drill of the rain, boring through the laurels. The next morning it was still pouring and the clouds hung low over a saturated landscape. In view of the weather, Miss Key ordered the car to take herself and her companion to the town. Fay missed both the air and exercise as she stood at shop doors, staring out at streaming pavements while Miss Key placed her orders. As usual they had coffee at eleven, but they saw no member of the Key family and no one they knew at the café, as though Oldtown were sheltering under its umbrella.
When they returned home, Fay soon began to fret against the confinement. The steady downpour gradually affected her to a degree when she became expectant of disaster. At first, she had a guilty dread that Gertrude would ring her up and reproach her for running away; but when no call came through from Clock Cottage, she grew uneasy at the silence. As she wondered whether an apology was first due from herself, she screwed up her courage to approach the telephone—only to shrink back from meeting the blast of Gertrude's wrath.
"Better leave the first shot to her—you skunk," she told herself scornfully.
As the day wore slowly away, she had the feeling that Canton House had been placed in quarantine. Even the telephone seemed to be under a vow of silence for the Exchange persistently ignored their line. Miss Key made the weather an excuse for extra cups of tea and when she began to suffer from indigestion, she gave her companion a difficult time.
The evening seemed endless, especially as Lilith stayed at Isis House. As a rule, she was indifferent to rain so that they were puzzled by her absence. Her nightly visits had become a habit and both Miss Key and Fay were affected by the sudden rupture. Fay was grateful when Miss Key proposed early bed-time for the household, although she went to sleep with a sense of bad news upon its way. Whenever she stirred, she heard the drive of rain against the windows and the splash of the overflow from the gutters.
Towards dawn, a wind sprang up, chasing away the waterlogged clouds, so that she awoke to a white windy sky with occasional bursts of sunlight. It was the kind of weather which excited her to a hope of pleasant things to come. When the telephone-bell rang, during breakfast, she answered the call gaily, although she expected the delayed force of Gertrude's anger.
True to her forecast, Clock Cottage was calling—but she was surprised to hear Gabriel's voice.
"I've lost a sister," he said. "Do you know where she is?"
"No," replied Fay. "Isn't she at the cottage?"
"Not unless she is hiding. I got back very late, last night, and I commended her tact for not welcoming me in. But her bed's not been slept in. When did you last see her?"
"The day before yesterday. We went for a walk."
"Thanks. I expect there's a perfectly good explanation. Keep this to yourself. We all have our private lives."
Although Gabriel's voice remained light, Fay rang off with a feeling that he was worried.
She forgot the incident when Miss Key told her that she must go to town alone, to select cakes for tea.
"I'm too heavy for skipping the gutter," she explained.
Fay appreciated Miss Key's objection when she got outside the gate. Everywhere there were signs of the deluge—in roads flooded by leaf-choked gutters, in littered fir-woods, in puddles which were swollen to pools. The walk presented actual difficulties with so many stretches of stranded water to jump and obstacles to be rounded. When at last she reached Oldtown, the Key family appeared to be still in retreat, while Julian had withdrawn to an earlier century within the confines of Lawyers' Lane.
She was-in a bleak mood when she ploughed her way back to Canton House. When she reached the union of the roads, she stood to watch the swollen river which had risen to within a few feet of the bridge. Drawn by the fascination of floodwater, she turned downwards and mounted the steps of the bridge. Time slipped away as she stared at the muddy current racing below.
Suddenly the sun bored an opening through the clouds and threw a shaft of light across the opposite bank.
"I've seen it before," she thought. "It wasn't when Lilith dragged me over before I was dressed. No, that morning, everything was queer and misty."
The next second, she remembered All-Hallow E'en, when strange visitants had walked abroad. She had seen a drowned woman with a green-and-mauve face—and a dead man had walked into a family party.
"Lilith painted her face to make her husband look at her," she thought. "Now she wonders why he walked out on her."
Presently she grew giddy from watching the perpetual sweep down-stream, so she turned to look at the broken water higher up the river. Here the boulders which usually nearly blocked the channel, were partly submerged and located only by patches of foam. A small tree flogged the water with impotent branches as it was swirled around in a whirlpool, while a second object had been caught by the torrent and jammed into a rough basin formed by stones.
"Another 'body'" thought Fay.
As she watched it heaving in the current, she began to feel vaguely uncomfortable. Although she fought the suggestion, she could not rid her mind of the suspicion that one of the branches wore a sleeve. It was impossible to trust her eyes for she was cheated by the continual movement of the water and the foam which broke over it...Suddenly it rose high before it was dragged under again...
Fay's knees began to shake and she turned instinctively to run.
"I must get help," she told herself.
When she reached the end of the bridge, she turned back again.
"I must make sure before I ring up the police," she thought. "I don't want to make a fool of myself. I'll get Lilith."
She rushed across the bridge and rounded Isis House until she reached the outside stair. Running up the spiral, she knocked loudly upon the purple door. She heard the rush of footsteps and then saw Lilith's ravaged face.
"Have you news for me?" she asked. "News of him?"
"No," panted Fay. "But come at once. I think there's a body in the river."
"A body?" Lilith's face was so ghastly that the rouge stood out in hard dark patches. "Whose?"
"I can't tell what it is. It may be a log."
Pushing the girl aside, Lilith sprang down the steps with dangerous haste.
"We can reach the pool from the bank," she shouted.
It was a perilous descent for the bank sloped sheer down to the torrent and, in places, its surface had been washed away by rain, leaving muddy slides. Clutching at small bushes and even at tufts of grass, Fay managed to crab a diagonal course towards the point where the boulders formed a natural dam, half-way across the river.
"Can you swim?" asked Lilith.
"Yes," replied Fay confidently.
"I can't. You must go."
It was characteristic of Fay that when she claimed to be able to swim, she saw no difference between practising her strokes in a bath and fighting a river in flood. After kicking off her shoes she began to leap from boulder to boulder. It was a risky crossing, since they were more widely spaced, owing to the flood which covered the smaller stones. After a slip, when she nearly fell into the torrent, she went down on her knees and crawled—frogging across the intervening stretches of water.
As she drew nearer to it, she was unable to see the mystery-object because of a rock which projected over the pool where it was caught. At the risk of over-balancing, she stood up and contrived to peer around the obstacle.
"It's a body," she called in a choked voice. "It's a woman. I can see a brown tweed sleeve and a purple scarf floating on the water."
"I'll come," called Lilith. "Don't touch it."
"No, stay where you are," shouted Fay. "You'll be drowned. We will ring up the police."
Too excited to follow her own advice, she drew herself over the barrier of the moss-grown rock and dropped down to the rim of the basin. When she knelt down, she managed to see into the pool where a body was being whirled round in the current.
At last she contrived to see its face...In that moment, she realised that Lilith's paint was merely a Pepper Ghost travesty of the hideous reality...
She knew how a drowned woman looked.
She staggered to keep her footing as Lilith leaped down beside her. Nearly crowding the girl off the rock, she leaned out over the pool.
"You can't reach it," called the girl. "You'll fall in."
Wrenching her arm free, Lilith swung out over the water and managed to grip an end of the purple scarf. It was already loosened by the strength of the current and it came away in her fingers, but only to be sucked from her grasp.
Lilith stared after it as it was whirled down on the surface of the racing river—under the bridge and out of sight.
"I'll ring up the police," she said. "We can do nothing."
Her teeth had begun to chatter as she leaped across the boulders and her face was ghastly. Fay, too, was pale as they climbed up the steep mud-slide of the bank. When Isis House was reached, they parted without a word.
On her way back to Canton House, Fay felt almost too shaky to walk straight.
"That scarf was evidence," she thought. "Simone and Lilith both have purple scarves...Which of them? Which?"
She felt sick when she reached Canton House, but she managed to tell Miss Key the news.
"There's a drowned body in the river. It is Gertrude."
GERTRUDE'S death made a stir of painful excitement in Oldtown. She was a public figure and sat on so many Boards that the number of vacant chairs she left behind her rivalled Queen Elizabeth's beds. Further, she was a loss to the town as, in spite of a domineering nature, her loud voice and hearty laugh could usually control a difficult situation.
The day after the inquest, when Colonel Pride met Inspector Wallace at the Police Station, they discussed the verdict. In view of the medical evidence, this was inevitable—"Murder by person or persons unknown."
"Sounds familiar," remarked the Colonel with a forced laugh. Flicking through his notes, he added, "Nothing new here. Deceased was murdered about two days previous to discovery of body. Dead when thrown in river. Same method—a stunning blow, followed by strangulation with a ligature twisted around the neck. Marks of pressure still visible but ligature released by action of water. Head too gashed by stones to locate lethal blow...Hum."
"It seems likely that the criminal reckoned that the body would be swept down the river, during the night," suggested the Inspector. "The fact that it got caught up where it did, tells us something. We know whereabouts the crime was committed."
"It might have been a deliberate effort to localise the crime. There are three houses thereabouts to share suspicion. Canton, Isis and Cloisters...But I am inclined to agree with you, Wallace, as to the place. There is no road by that stretch of river, for a car, and the body would have to be carried to the bank. Too difficult and risky."
"What is your opinion of the evidence, sir?" asked the Inspector. "Do you think Miss Williams was telling the truth?"
The Colonel considered the question before he replied.
"She was telling the truth but she was not telling all the truth. She came clean over her discovery of the body. Her account of that tallied exactly with Mrs. Aurelius'. But she kept back what happened during the walk she took with deceased." He picked up his notes. "Let's see...She said she didn't want to go, in the first place, and that she ran home because she had left Miss Key for too long."
"Sounds fishy to me."
"No, not unlikely in the circumstances," said the Colonel. "Gertrude Key had an overbearing disposition and Miss Williams is a paid companion with a job to hold down. It's natural the girl would not like to hint she was coerced by a member of the family."
The Inspector chuckled at a sudden memory.
"The tradespeople say Miss Key won't take a step without Miss Williams. The shop assistants call her 'Miss Key's Nanny.'" His face grew grave again as he added, "She held out on us over the box of poisoned chocolates. And she had the sauce to tell us she had been taught to obstruct the police."
"You can count her out, Wallace. She didn't do it. She's too short and she hasn't the strength."
The Colonel's mouth was grim but the regret in his eyes reminded the Inspector that the case must be painful to his chief. The Colonel knew these people socially—had played bridge and golf with them—danced and drank with them...
"Well, Wallace?" asked the Colonel.
"Very nasty case, sir," said the Inspector. "This last murder is a direct pointer."
"It would certainly seem to be a family affair, except for the first murder. I no longer regard that as in the smash-and-grab class, but as part of the rest. If you accept Miss Cassie Thomas as one in a series of victims, then the murderer must be one who benefits under Josiah Key's will. You must also include those who would benefit indirectly—Mrs. Mornington-Key and Dr. Aurelius. You can back your fancy. It's not such a big field now and others may drop out before we get our man."
"If there's no survivor, the fortune is divided between Charities," remarked the Inspector. "I've checked up on them. All above suspicion."
"Good...I think we may conclude this is a one-man crime. It would be straining the law of coincidence to believe that there are two abnormal persons in our small civilised community. There is a gap of two years between old Key's death and the first crime. We might argue the criminal needed every minute of that time to work himself up to the extreme course of murder. The idea would be abhorrent at first, but it would become less frightful through familiarity. We might also deduce an average mentality with an overpowering motive or lust for wealth. Once he took the difficult first step, he was no longer normal. Crime follows crime with almost bungling haste."
"It's the bungling that suggests a woman to me," said the Inspector. "Once, she got the wrong person from being too quick. Recognised the hat, like a woman, and struck without making sure. Again when she was surprised as she was strangling Miss Key, a man would have finished the job with a blow on the right spot, before he escaped. She made a neat job of doctoring those chocolates. Suggests a woman's delicate fingers."
"Better keep to our original theory of someone in disguise," said the Colonel. "Heavy drapery and tiny eye-slits would hamper free action. Granted such a disguise, the crime could be committed by either a man or a woman. The men in the case are of medium height and the women are tall."
"You know them better than I do," said the Inspector tactfully.
"I do, worse luck...Well, it all seems to support our theory that the criminal has operated under cover of the Black Sisters' procession. There is no doubt that the leader is the only one that can actually see in the darkness. The others follow her by holding a guiding string."
"One of my men put out his hand and touched it when they were filing past," agreed the Inspector.
"So we come to this. There is nothing to prevent the murderer—disguised as one of themselves, from tailing on to the procession when he wanted to move from one part of the town to another without being noticed. He could leave the procession whenever he reached his point and tack on again when he had done his job. Probably there is a foundation of truth in the rumours of a black figure leaping down lonely alleys...Of course, you've kept a tab on the procession?"
"Yes, sir. Nothing doing. 'Cat's Eyes' must be ill or hurt her foot. The black nuns go to chapel now by the main road—and although it is lighted, they don't seem nearly as sure-footed."
The Colonel rubbed his eyeballs painfully and then rose heavily to his feet.
"I am going to show my hand," he said. "I've asked the people in the case to come to my office to-morrow morning. It will do the innocent no harm to know they are under police observation and it may help to weaken the criminal's nerve."
At Miss Key's wish, Fay accompanied her to the meeting which was held in Colonel Pride's private office in the Police Station. It was part of the old building which had been preserved when the modern addition had been erected and it was dark with dingy glass casements and wood-carving. As Fay glanced through the window and over the Square, the dim houses opposite gave the impression of slanting crazily, as though they had been built with a pack of ancient cards and were on the point of collapse. It was a grey November day, with a bite in the wind which flogged the stripped branches of the Spanish chestnuts.
On this occasion, Fay was grateful to be merely a spectator. As she looked around her, she realised that the others were suspicious and on guard. Mrs. Mornington-Key made a spirited effort to introduce a social note into the meeting, but it was sternly beaten down by Colonel Pride who functioned exclusively as the Chief Constable.
Fay noticed that—with one exception—the women wore smart country tweeds—mixtures with a predominate colour. Mrs. Mornington-Key was in delphinium-blue, Mrs. Aurelius in green, Simone in off-yellow, Miss Key in mauve. In contrast with them, Cherry wore a tight black suit, a smart town hat, sheer stockings and high-heeled court shoes.
The difference seemed to mark actual cleavage in which Cherry was typed as "Outsider." She sat apart from the others—her hazel eyes hostile and her lips compressed. Gabriel, too, remained aloof—cut off from his fellows by the barrier of his grief. He looked wretchedly ill as he sat huddled in a chair and shaded his eyes with thin fingers.
Fay was disappointed to notice that Julian appeared unconscious that she was there. His gaze was watchful—his expression keen as he concentrated on the statement made by Colonel Pride. The Chief Constable looked stiffly official as he cleared his throat and began to speak.
"This is not a pleasant occasion. All of you must be aware of the reason why I am concerned with your personal safety. It has become obvious that there is a social enemy among you. For that reason, I want to remind you that you are all my friends—with one exception. I pledge myself to do my utmost to protect my friends and to hunt down the exception mercilessly. In the long run, he—or she—can have no chance against a highly-geared organisation. Is that clear?"
As he paused, Fay was conscious of a wave of uneasiness—of shifting eyes in composed faces—as though the company suffered from social awkwardness. Then Miss Key covered her lips with her hand and whispered to Mrs. Mornington-Key who asked the question.
"Are we to understand, Colonel, that we are going to have police protection?"
"Certainly," replied the Colonel. "Unfortunately I cannot provide each of you with a permanent guard. Oldtown is too small and our resources are limited. But I shall divide up the services of a skeleton-staff among all of you."
His blue eyes flashed from face to face in an effort to remark any reaction.
"I ask each one of you," he went on, "to co-operate with me by running no risk. If possible, don't go out after dark and avoid lonely places. But remember this. Some of you, during some of the time will have police protection...To be effective, it should not be obvious. I tell you this to reassure my friends and to warn that person who is my enemy—and yours. He—or she—should remember that, when he least suspects it, he may be trailed. That's all."
"Not quite," said Cherry. Although under control, her voice was pitched half a tone too high. "I assume we have the privilege of turning down your offer. In my case, I refuse to allow any police-spy to tag after me. You may just as well tell me—in so many words—that you suspect me."
"I assure you, I do not suspect you," the Colonel told her.
"Not even when you talked about your 'friends'? You know quite well that you are friendly with the Keys and possibly, with Mrs. Aurelius. But my cousin and I are outside the pale."
The Colonel's face grew redder but before he could protest, Julian intervened.
"I think my cousin is confused by the personal element," he said. "When I have explained the issue to her, I am sure she will be grateful for any protection you can offer us—as I am myself...Come, Cherry."
To Fay's disappointment, he took his cousin's arm and then turned to the Colonel.
"Good morning, sir—and thank you," he said.
Fay thought the old room had grown darker and more ruinous after Julian had gone. Seated dutifully beside Miss Key, she watched the bare bough of a tree tapping on the leaded casement. It reminded her of another branch she had seen threshing broken water—a branch which wore a tweed sleeve. At that moment, she felt sick of antiquity and longed to be transported to a shack in some mushroom city—spawned overnight.
After a prolonged pause, when each person waited for a lead, there was a general movement towards the stairs. It was an awkward withdrawal, since Colonel Pride remained obstinately the Chief Constable and ignored any friendly farewell. When they reached the pavement, the Key family stood in a group, blocking the way.
"Well," gasped Miss Key, "I never felt so confused in my life. I began to wonder whether I'd been murdering people in my sleep."
"Oh, my dear, I thought the Colonel was sweet," said Mrs. Mornington-Key. "He wasn't being personal. He didn't mean any of us...Where's Gabriel? I must ask him to lunch. The cottage is bound to look like a dog's breakfast, without Gertrude to tidy up."
"He's over there," murmured Simone, pointing in the direction of Lawyers' Lane. "He's got well away."
They stood and watched Gabriel as he crossed the Square. He wore a black armlet on the sleeve of his light camel coat and he moved listlessly as though walking involved an extra effort.
"I wrote and I 'phoned about poor Gertrude," said Miss Key. "He said he didn't want to see anyone. I was afraid to look at him just now. He seemed so broken."
"His face always pities him." Mrs. Mornington-Key's voice was sharp. "He can look like cholera after a green apple."
"When he gets over the shock, it will be a relief," said Simone calmly. "He couldn't marry as long as Gertrude lived. Now, watch him move."
She laughed as Gabriel suddenly spurted to cover the few yards which divided him and the Thomases. He took Cherry's arm and the three—linked together—passed under the archway.
"All of you must have coffee with me," invited Mrs. Mornington-Key. "Lilith looks pinched as a witch. It will warm her up."
"I'm too hot," protested Lilith. "I'm burning in a fever."
Turning away from the group, she unbottoned the neck of her coat, to reveal a purple scarf which had been hidden by her collar.
Fay stared at it with an unpleasant reminder of a ligature around a drowned woman's throat.
"It wasn't hers," she told herself. "Did it belong to Simone?"
As she looked at the girl's calm and beautiful face, she rejected the monstrous idea. She followed Miss Key into the café and squeezed into an empty chair at the crowded table. When they had seated themselves, Mrs. Mornington-Key looked critically at her daughter.
"I don't like a bare throat with tweed," she objected. "It takes off from the tailor-built effect. Where's the scarf I gave you?"
"The purple thing?" asked Simone casually. "It's gone."
"How careless of you. Where did you lose it?"
"Left it in the car when Eustace and I went into the Club for a quick one. But it wasn't quick. When we came back, the scarf wasn't there. Someone had pinched it."
"Well, don't expect me to buy you another."
As she listened to Simone's explanation, Fay's mind seethed with doubts. In her mental confusion she was only barely conscious of the dark panelled café, the orange china and the odour of roasting coffee. Presently she drifted back to reality and became aware that Mrs. Mornington-Key was presenting her daughter's engagement with all the superlatives at her command, while Simone listened—starry-eyed and remote. Occasionally a smile flickered over her lips and sometimes she stroked Miss Key's fur sleeve, as though in a caress.
Had Fay been a genuine fortune-hunter, she would have discovered some excuse for prodding Miss Key back to Canton House, but although Miss Key was obviously falling under her favourite's spell, she made no counter-move.
"It's one of two things," she thought. "Simone may have made up that story to explain why her scarf is missing. On the other hand, she may be telling the truth and Lilith stole it from the car."
Presently the waitress brought the bill which—according to custom—she presented to Miss Key who paid it, without a protest from her hostess. As the party drifted out into the Square, Mrs. Mornington-Key waved to Colonel Pride who stood in the bow-window of the County Club. No longer the Chief Constable, but a genial prospective host, he beamed as he watched for the arrival of a luncheon guest.
"There's a little cherub already sitting up aloft, to watch over us," said Miss Key.
When mother and daughter had said "good-bye" and gone into Old Court, Miss Key spoke to Fay in a guilty voice.
"Would you mind going home and tell Parsons to have lunch put back about half-an-hour? I think I ought to see my lawyers about my will. It hangs on—with all the opposition."
She walked towards Lawyers' Lane and Fay turned into High Street. Not long afterwards, the Colonel's guest arrived. He was a retired Indian judge—yellow and wizened—whom the Colonel had known in the East. As they chatted together before going into the restaurant, the Colonel's keen blue eyes suddenly lit with interest. Following the direction of his gaze, the judge saw a girl, crossing the cobbles of the Square on perilous heels. She was tall, slender and blonde—with delicate porcelain colouring to proclaim the triumph of inspired make-up.
"Pretty girl," remarked the judge, flicking out a feeler. "Who is she?"
"Simone Mornington-Key," replied the Colonel...
"Interested in her?"
"Like hell I am. My dear fellow, that girl is an object of interest, not only to myself but to every policeman in the town. For all we know to the contrary, she is a murderess."
When Miss Key returned to Canton House, she was heated from emotion more than with haste.
"I don't know what to do for the best," she said distractedly. "If I tell you now, it may spoil our lunch. Yet I can't enjoy lunch with this hanging over me."
Fay smiled faintly as she spoke with the cynicism of experience.
"If I tell you instead, perhaps it won't destroy your gastric juices. You're leaving your money to Simone instead of me."
"How—how did you guess?"
"Because I don't believe in fairies."
Although Fay knew that she had been lodging in the realms of fiction, she felt the chill of waking up after a splendid dream.
"It's like this," explained Miss Key. "Mr. Fish has been hammering at me ever since I told him to alter my will. He says that Key money has always remained in the family and that I cannot break a tradition."
"He's quite right," said Fay. "There's one good thing about it. Your family can't go on thinking me an adventuress."
"Oh, my dear, you won't tell them?" wailed Miss Key. "That would leave me where I was. Remember there have been two attempts on my life."
"It's probably because you're a legatee in your brother's will and has nothing to do with family," said Fay lightly. "Besides you need not worry. You have police protection."
"'Courage in another's trouble. Kindness in your own,'" Miss Key misquoted bitterly. "You know I can't expect too much from the police. The Colonel warned us about that...Oh, I clean forgot to tell you that I've provided for your future. I've left you an annuity, tax-free."
Although it sounded an anti-climax after the prospect of a fortune, Fay was shrewd enough to realise that her financial prospects were more solid than before.
"Thank you," she said. "It means everything to me...After you have been so generous, the least I can do, is to keep the secret. I will remain your official heiress. But promise me to tell them the truth directly you feel safe."
"I promise," agreed Miss Key. "And now our minds are at rest."
To prove her composure, she made an excellent lunch. Afterwards she went upstairs to rest while Fay sat in the library and watched the laurels straining forward before the sweep of the wind. Her mind was restless as the air-currents as she reviewed the morning meeting.
Whenever she thought of the Chief Constable, she felt guilty over the evidence she had withheld at the inquest on Gertrude Key. Her reticence had not been a wilful attempt to deceive the police, in spite of her early training. Rather, she was afraid of making a statement which might ensnare an innocent person. She knew that she was controlled by a powerful imagination and that it was fatally easy for her to see a shadow and guess at the substance which cast it.
She had not mentioned the purple scarf because Mrs. Aurelius had been first to testify. Fay argued that Lilith would have related the incident, if she considered it was important. If she had suppressed it purposely, a delayed statement might create a certain amount of doubt and prejudice—since a clue had been destroyed. After constant thought about the motive of Lilith's action, Fay had made herself believe that the scarf was accidentally loosened in an effort to drag the body closer.
Her conscience was uneasy also because of the other evidence she had suppressed. When she was questioned about the walk she took with Gertrude, she said nothing about the door concealed under the ivy or that Gertrude had been in the act of destroying it when the girl had seen her last. She was afraid that the police would probe for the reason why Gertrude broke into the Cloisters ground and that she might be led on to mention the well. Since she dared not take the risk of involving Lilith, whenever it was possible, she confined her answers to the coroner's questions to "Yes" and "No."
As she curled herself round in a big chair and tucked her feet under her, her body was at rest while her mind worked with febrile activity. It seemed to her that Gertrude's murder was like a crime-serial of which she had missed the last instalment. When she lay awake at night she asked herself questions as she tried to pierce the mystery of Gertrude's last hour. Had she gone into the Cloisters grounds? If she had, did she find the well? Was the body of Dr. Aurelius lying at the bottom? Had she rushed to Isis House and charged Lilith with the crime?
She dared not guess at a sequel. Appalled by her own imagination, she tried to find the flaws in her theory.
"If Lilith murdered Gertrude at Isis House," she thought, "she would have rolled the body down the steep bank and the river would have swept it away. But it was found higher up, on the other side of the bridge...Of course, they might have met opposite the pool and had a scene. Lilith is always looking out for the Doctor. At least, that's her story. She may be putting on an act to throw sand in our eyes. If she was on the bridge and saw us walking by the Cloisters wall, a guilty conscience might make her go and meet Gertrude, to find out if anything had been discovered...But this gets me nowhere, so why worry?"
It was warm and quiet inside the library. The ginger cat purred on the hearthrug—the clock ticked softly. Peering down from his frame, old Josiah appealed to her as "jolly good company"—a man who could still enjoy a joke even if he told no more funny stories. She wanted to relax in comfort, but a fresh problem was goading her brain.
"If the Doctor's body is in the well, Lilith murdered him inside the Cloisters grounds? How did they get inside?"
She hoped to be floored by the poser but unfortunately her memory prompted her remorselessly. She remembered that Lilith had boasted that the Cloisters functioned partly through her husband's co-operation. He supplied technical knowledge, as well as drugs which were difficult to obtain and dangerous in operation, without expert advice.
"Don't breathe a word," said Lilith. "It's all hush-hush. He is doomed to be cheated of recognition. Of course, he doesn't go there openly. A man of science cannot be connected even indirectly with any form of quackery. He has his own key into the grounds."
Fay knew which door it opened—a heavy wooden one in the encircling wall. When she had passed it, she wondered whether it could be unlocked, as it did not suggest a hermetically sealed entrance.
"Lilith has a talent for getting extra keys," she thought. "Suppose she sent him the decoy message and was waiting inside, ready to hit him, when he came through the door. She could drag his body to the well, if she took her time about it. Miss Key says she is terribly strong...My girl, you've cooked up a real stinker? Proud of yourself?"
The fire threw out a red glow as it stirred and settled and a coal fell upon the hearth. Although it was smoking, Fay felt too slack to get up and remove it. Outside the windows the world was getting grey. The bare branches swayed and bent forward—trying to reach something they would never touch—while leaves flew like flocks of birds.
"I'd be mad to go," she told herself. "But I've got to find out if there's anything in the well. If I keep on thinking in circles, I shall go mad."
She knew that Miss Key was a comfortable mound under her eiderdown—a hot-water bottle at her back and a tea-tray beside her...She thought of her with passionate envy, a few minutes later, as she stole out of the house and into the whirling inferno of the wind.
When she rounded the first corner of the Cloisters wall, the river looked doubly dark because of the hideous secret it had been keeping. Trying to forget a shape which rose and fell in the wash of the water, she crashed through the dead bracken, only eager to get through her ordeal.
Suddenly she became aware of movements on the other side of the wall. Someone in the Cloisters grounds seemed to be keeping pace with her, rustling through undergrowth and stopping whenever she paused as though to pick up the sound of her footsteps. Then she became aware of a whisper, gabbled over and over again.
"Who are you? Who are you?"
"It's one of the Black Sisters," she thought. "They must take exercise. She's not talking to me."
Shrinking from the idea that a black shape was aware of her and stalking her movements on the other side of the wall, she crept silently around the barrier of the fallen tree and sat down upon its trunk.
"That will shake—it—off," she told herself.
It was growing too dim for her to linger long, and after a few minutes she picked up the trail again. When she strained her ears, she thought she heard the voice in the distance wailing like a dying echo.
Although she was beginning to weaken in her resolution to find the well, Fay would not turn back. She had come to get peace of mind and she would not weaken, even though the memory of her other trespass kept returning, to warn her of heavier penalties if she broke the law for the second time. Apparently she had shaken off her unknown tracker for she no longer heard either voice or movement. When she reached the tree with the distorted trunk, she stood and stared at the wall. The ivy showed no signs of tampering in proof that Gertrude had covered up her traces.
"I can tell whether she went inside by the size of the hole," reasoned Fay as she pulled aside the bulging canopy. The jagged aperture in the door was considerably enlarged since she had last seen it and represented the result of strenuous work.
"She didn't do it for the fun of it," reflected Fay. "She must have gone inside. Did she find the well and—what she was looking for? There's only one way to find out. It shouldn't take long."
As she began to part the briars and dead creepers which veiled the door on the other side—obstructing her view into the forbidden territory—she heard the voice again. It was so close to her that it seemed to be speaking into her ear.
Unseen hands began to burrow through the choked greenery and Fay saw a face peering at her through a screen of twigs. It was a young face—grimed and tear-stained—but she recoiled from it in terror. She recognised it in spite of the change. It was connected with the horror of the abnormal element—a woman blasted by fear to perennial youth.
As Doris Singer began to mutter in an almost inaudible voice—as though she was afraid she might be overheard—a bell began to ring. At the thought of it shrilling on and on—to summon the guardian of the grounds—a rush of terror swept over Fay. Terrified of discovery—fearful of pursuit—she ran madly back over the rough ground. Although she heard no footsteps following her, she did not pause until she reached the sanctuary of Canton House.
As she stood in the hall, to recover her breath, the words she had last heard revolved again in her mind.
"I found a body in the well. A body in the well."
DURING her first month at Canton House, Fay believed that she knew Miss Key's character. She was kind, timid and generous, with a long list of charities, headed by the name "Ida Key." Further and not so good, she was negative, self-indulgent and without an original idea.
As time passed, however, Fay became conscious of a quality which baffled her—a likeness to Brother Josiah. She began to realise that Miss Key had a secret source of amusement and that her companion sometimes furnished material for a private joke. Although her remarks were stereotyped, she surprised the girl occasionally by flashes of shrewdness.
The morning after Fay had gone in search of a body, she began to feel the reaction of her fright. It was a depressing day with scarcely any light and a sour sealed sky. The windows appeared to be pasted over with grey muslin, screening any view of the garden.
"What's happening at the Cloisters?" wondered Fay. "Have they pulled up the body? If it is the Doctor, they must have told Lilith."
Looking up suddenly, she surprised the twinkle in Miss Key's little dark eyes.
"A penny?" offered Miss Key.
"I wouldn't sell them to you," said Fay. "Not nice thoughts."
"Then why not give them away?"
Ignoring the hint, Fay asked a question.
"Did Gertrude and Lilith play in the Cloisters grounds when they were children?"
"No," replied Miss Key. "Poor Gertrude always used the phrase 'When we were children,' if she talked about the past. They used to explore and I can give you an accurate date for that. One of my disconcerting habits. Let me think."
Miss Key counted on her fat fingers as she went on.
"Josiah lived here for ten years and he's been dead for two. That makes twelve years. The Cloisters was empty during the first six years. Poor Gertrude had just turned thirty when she died, so she could not have been younger than eighteen, which is hardly a child...It happened at Christmas. You know what Christmas is with a family. We went from house to house, eating each other's turkey in turns. I like turkey, but there were times when I'd have been thankful if the turkey ate me, just to make a change."
"But what happened?" asked Fay—too impatient to laugh dutifully at Miss Key's joke.
"Don't be so hasty, my dear. One thing hangs on another. The young people rebelled against these family parties. One Christmas Day, when we were all at Canton, they made me come for a walk with them. They admitted they were going to break into the wilderness, for that was what the Cloisters grounds were then. They were cooped up and ready for any excitement but I was nervous about trespassing. I only went because I thought I would be a drag on them if they went too far."
"How did you get in?"
"We forced a small wooden door, up in the top corner, near the well."
"Oh. Then you know about the well?"
"And so do you, my dear." Miss Key pounded the air with her forefinger. "You've been leading up to the well, haven't you? I know you've been up to tricks. You can't fool me. I'm not police. No good telling me your name is 'Emma Hamilton' and that you live in Trafalgar Square."
Fay sighed with relief.
"Shall I tell you everything?" she asked.
"Yes, including the bits you kept back at the inquest."
Miss Key listened with close attention to Fay's confession and at the end of them, she smiled with approval.
"It was clever of you to keep it to yourself," she approved. "You see, you cannot prove your suspicions. We know that Gertrude and Lilith were fighting over that bone of a man, but that's all we know. You can't be sure that Gertrude found his body in the well because she couldn't know that herself. It must have been guesswork. It would be latish when she got into the grounds and it would be too dark to recognise anything at the bottom of that deep well."
"But there is—something—there," protested Fay. "The girl told me."
"What the soldier said isn't evidence. The point is this. You haven't looked down the well, so you don't know whether there's a body there, or whose it is. Thank goodness, it is not our responsibility. It's up to Miss Gomme to inform the police."
Leaving her fireside chair, Miss Key tried to penetrate the wall of vapour built up before the windows.
"It seems impossible for Lilith to kill her husband after all her soppy talk," she said. "But she's a mystery and I believe she'd do anything, for a new sensation...Suppose we walk over to Isis House? We could mention the Doctor's name casually and watch her reaction."
The atmosphere outside Canton House reminded Fay of a vast cold brewery. When she and Miss Key reached the end of the lane the fog grew thicker as it became whiter. They had to listen for the sound of traffic, in order to cross the road in safety, while the river was wiped out.
"One step at a time," urged Fay, clinging to Miss Key's arm. "The bank is so steep and slippery, it would be easy to fall into the river."
"We'd deserve it," chuckled Miss Key. "Coming out when it's thick as mustard, just to snoop."
She loomed over Fay—a solid tweed shape—protecting her like an umbrella. In her turn, Fay felt the responsibility of a pilot as she steered a blind course towards the broken steps. When they were crossing the bridge, it seemed to vibrate perilously from the force of the current sweeping close below the boards. Then suddenly, piercing the thick air, they heard a wailing voice and an occasional piano chord.
As she recognised the song as "Less than the dust," Miss Key gave a fat smile.
"Lilith can't manage the full accompaniment either," she said. "I used to make a mess of it. Thank goodness for the radio. When I was a girl and invited out, they always said bring your music, as if I was a performing poodle."
As they advanced towards the Limbo which had swallowed up the opposite bank, a spectral house began to materialise and glimmer whitely before them. Reaching the pillared verandah, they followed the streaming path around to the back door.
"That's the nearest way up," said Fay, pointing to the spiral.
"You won't get me to go up an outside stair," declared Miss Key. "When I was a girl, a practical joker got me to stand on a grating in a pier—and the wind blew under it and I blew up too. Ring and knock, Fay."
The woman who opened the door paid Miss Key the honour of a ceremonious entry. Instead of being led through the kitchen, the visitors reached the hall by way of a narrow passage. As they climbed up the gracious sweep of staircase, Miss Key whispered to Fay.
"House-slaughter. There used to be a decent hall and two good living-rooms. All gone, to make a laboratory for the Doctor...I can't say I admire Lilith's voice. Like a foghorn that's had six cheap singing lessons."
Lilith heard their footsteps and rose from the piano as they opened the door. Her lips were quivering and she brushed her hand across her eye-lashes.
"Forgive my emotion," she said. "I've just been making an appointment with death."
"Well, you look rather like death yourself," commented Miss Key bluntly. "I've never seen you wear black before. Are you in mourning for poor Gertrude?"
As she gazed at Lilith, Fay noticed the sharpened outline of cheekbone and jaw, accentuating the hollows in her white face. Her eyes held the hopeless stare of a dark spirit. Her theatrical hostess-gown fell in voluminous folds and her sleeves were wide as wings. With a prick of unpleasant excitement, Fay realised that the robe could be converted into a nun's habit by pulling up the cowl-like drapery of the neck to form a hood.
She was grateful when Miss Key relieved the tension.
"I never liked the Indian Love Lyrics. So un-English. That woman was a doormat. Fancy putting spit-and-polish on a sword for a man to chop off her head. Simply pandering to him. If the affair was finished, why didn't she stick her head inside a gas oven in a civilised way?"
Lilith's smile was inscrutable.
"To save her soul," she said. "Suicide is double death. I would never kill myself, whatever the temptation. I know I should go groping into an underworld of shadows, doomed to search for my husband for ever and ever."
Unseen, Miss Key winked at Fay.
"Talking of husbands," she remarked, "has the Doctor come home?"
Lilith shook her head.
"Please don't talk of it," she said. "I'm neglecting my charming guests. Shameful of me, after you gave me omelette, to heal a broken heart. The truth is I am still living in the Love Lyrics—feeling the sweet yet terrible surgery of the sword. All my sorrows cut out by the hand I worship...Terribly un-English of me, Ida...Won't you smoke? Cigarette, Miss Williams?"
Fay refused the offer from a vague idea that it was customary to decline entertainment in a house whose owner was suspect. Miss Key also shook her head as she strolled across to the window.
"Well, Lilith, another mystery." Her voice was too casual. "What do you make of poor Gertrude's death?"
"I? It is no affair of mine."
"Isn't it? The last time you were at Canton, you accused her of stealing your husband. That reminds me. What steps are you taking to find the Doctor?"
Fay saw the fear leap into Lilith's eyes. She turned blindly to the piano and took up a song, flicking over the pages with shaking fingers.
"I'm doing nothing," she said harshly. "Why should I expose myself to ridicule? As you pointed out, he left a note behind him. You see, I'm taking your advice."
"Well, you can't have it both ways," reasoned Miss Key. "If that is to be your attitude now, you must stop making accusations against poor Gertrude."
"I make none. I have no quarrel with the dead. Soon I may be dead myself. Then I shall meet her on equal terms."
"Stop talking such rubbish. You are alive and kicking. I consider it is your moral duty to tell the police about your husband. If it will spare your feelings, I will gladly approach Colonel Pride, in confidence."
Lilith's face was contorted with passion as she pointed towards the door.
"How dare you?" she cried vehemently. "I forbid you to meddle with my private life...You'd better go."
"If you feel like that, my dear, of course we'll go," said Miss Key placidly. "But I still say your husband's disappearance is a matter for the police. Remember, since he's gone, my niece has been murdered. How do you know he's not been murdered too?...Come, Fay."...
Fay shivered when they came out into the chill air which imprisoned the rushing voice of an invisible river. Silently they crossed the beaded bridge and climbed up the slope to the main road. At this level, the fog had darkened and thinned to its grey muslin consistency, while visibility was improved. When they reached the gate of Canton House, Miss Key spoke.
"What did you make of it, Fay? She was wearing mourning and she was keening for him."
"I don't think she knows yet," said the girl. "If he was dead, she would have been prostrate—whatever she really felt. Besides the woman let us in too casually. She never asked if her mistress would see us. It seems more likely to me that the girl at the Cloisters hasn't told Miss Gomme about the body in the well."
"All the same, something stuck out."
Fay stared at Miss Key with horrified eyes.
"I know what you mean," she whispered. "She doesn't want a search made for the Doctor."
Fay enjoyed her walk into town that morning, because they seemed to pass through a curtain which parted to reveal a curious unfamiliar world of shadowy buildings and skeleton trees. When they reached the Square, they turned directly into the Orange-Tree Café, to fortify themselves with coffee. Mrs. Mornington-Key was already seated there with her daughter beside her. She greeted Miss Key with such stressed affection that Fay suspected leakage where Simone's financial prospects were concerned.
"Have a cheesecake, Ida darling," she urged. "They're still hot."
Miss Key accepted with the beam of a good yet greedy child.
"I need nourishment," she said. "I've just come from Isis House."
Although her voice was charged with meaning, Mrs. Mornington-Key appeared unimpressed. Miss Key made a second attempt.
"Well, what's the latest news?"
"Is there any?" asked Mrs. Mornington-Key.
"Not that I know of. That's why I asked."
"Perhaps we shall hear some now. Gabriel's actually coming in."
Saluting his relatives without any smile of welcome, Gabriel entered the café and seated himself at the nearest table.
"I knew this was the filling-station of the family," he remarked.
His voice was light although his face was ravaged. While he still presented a creditable imitation of an Archangel, one had the feeling that the fine actor who played the part was no longer in the first flight.
Mrs. Mornington-Key began to ask questions about his health, his diet and his domestic arrangements, but he refused to give her personal details.
"You must inspect Clock Cottage, Aunt Marie-Marie," he said. "You'll be surprised. Gertrude's mantle has fallen upon me. She set me a standard and I must keep it...But I came to chat about the Hunt Ball. I know exactly how modern Simone is. Will she be there?"
"Gabriel." Mrs. Mornington-Key nearly choked. "What a terrible thing to ask. Of course, Simone won't go."
"Have you paid for your tickets?"
"Unfortunately yes. I sent a cheque by return."
"So did Gertrude." Gabriel looked across at Fay. "The Hunt was my sister's favourite dance," he told her. "She adored the hunting-cries and the gallops. When we had 'John Peel,' you could hear her yelling in the next county. So I burned her ticket. Two guineas went up in the blaze of two seconds. Sort of gesture."
"Then you'll understand this too. I cut my loss and sold my ticket to Thomas."
Mrs. Mornington-Key considered the ethics.
"They are definitely not transferable," she said. "But there's always a man-famine at the Hunt Ball, so probably the Committee won't protest."
"Good. Then Simone can sell her ticket to Cherry Thomas."
In the shocked silence that followed, Mrs. Mornington-Key grew scarlet with indignation while Miss Key clicked her dismay. Only Simone appeared untouched by emotion.
"You must be mad, Gabriel," spluttered Mrs. Mornington-Key. "The rule of the Hunt Ball is 'no outsiders.'"
Gabriel said nothing as he gazed at Simone who was twisting her engagement ring dreamily. Becoming conscious of his stare she wrenched her thoughts away from some remote region beyond the storm-belt.
"She can have it," she said. "It would be amusing to taint the Hunt Ball, to get even with the Exclusives."
"What have they done to you?" asked her mother angrily.
"Nothing. That's my point. Have you noticed there's no one we know in the café this morning? They know they would meet us here. And everyone seemed to be on the other side of the street. They're all nervous about mixing with killers...Gabriel darling, I'll walk over to Cherry's joint this afternoon, and I'll bring my ticket with me. I want to avoid the Club."
Mrs. Mornington-Key glared at her daughter before she attacked Gabriel.
"Have you fallen for the Thomas girl?"
"Hardly," Gabriel told her. "I'm attracted vaguely because she's warm and glowing. Those qualities appeal to a man who's still living in the chill of the grave."
Suddenly Miss Key gave a groan.
"Don't talk of graves," she pleaded. "It will be such a relief when we know who it is. One's life seems shot to bits. Whenever I see a fine handsome policeman looking at me now, I can't flatter myself he is admiring me. I know he's thinking 'I have to watch out that the fat goose doesn't get her neck wrung.'"
"Don't, don't," shuddered Fay, who was enthralled by the macabre possibilities of the situation.
"My dear, we must joke about it or it will get us down. Fancy a member of a family having to suspect another member. It's indecent. Now I want all of you to listen. Have you ever heard this old poser?"
The others listened dutifully to her confused explanation.
"A man had to take a fox, a cock and a bag of corn from one bank of a river to the opposite bank. He could only take one at a time in his boat. If he left the fox and cock together the fox would kill the cock and the cock would eat the grain. The solution was very ingenious. He made the cock a sort of commuter while he rowed the others across."
"Clear as crystal," murmured Gabriel.
"Don't be clever. I'm serious. Can you see what I mean? The danger is when two are left together. I implore you not to be less than three at Miss Thomas' shop, this afternoon—and on the way there and back."
Miss Key's voice shook and the tears started into her eyes. Gabriel grimaced at Simone before he spoke to his aunt in a soothing voice.
"Sweet of you to be so concerned, Aunt Ida. When Cherry comes home for her lunch, I'll ask her to walk back with us afterwards. How shall we get back again, Simone?"
"Eustace shall pick us up in his car," said Simone. "Are you satisfied, Aunt Ida?"
"I hold you both to your word," declared Miss Key. "Three of you. Promise."
Towards three o'clock in the darkening afternoon, Gabriel called at his aunt's house—Old Court—to find Simone waiting for him. Wearing a white lambswool coat and no hat, she strolled out with him into the murky shadow-spun Square.
"I've been lurking," he explained. "Cherry Ripe was so late I thought she was cutting out lunch. She ought to be coming any minute now. Let's cruise round and pick her up casually."
"What do we say?" asked Simone, stifling a yawn.
"Leave it to me. I rather want to give her the ticket."
"Then you won't need me. Suppose I leave you to it?"
"No, we promised Mount Ida to keep the party three...Aha, I spy Cherry Ripe."
As Simone drifted in hesitation, Cherry walked at a rapid pace from the corner by the block of flats. Her ginger hair looked vivid in the gloom and her lips were geranium-red. With a faint smile, Gabriel glanced at his beautiful cousin, whose fair curls were pale as moonlight and her make-up porcelain peach-and-cream. He thought he knew what would happen when the rival beauties met. Cherry would wash out Simone as a marigold bleaches a primrose.
The girls stopped in casual greeting when his prediction was falsified. To his surprise, it was Simone who survived the clash of combat—making Cherry appear crude and florid in comparison with her own delicate artifice.
"We want exercise," explained Simone. "May we walk with you to your enchanting little shop? One must have an object for a walk."
"The lowdown is, we want to get the better of you in a dirty deal," remarked Gabriel. "We've got something to sell."
"Not a hope," Cherry told him. "I'm here to sell—not to buy."
Suddenly Simone laughed as she impulsively linked arms with the others and steered them in the direction of the archway.
"It will give Oldtown a headache to see us gone all friendly," she said. "They'll wonder which of us is going to rub out which."
"Old Pride is goggling up in the Club window," chuckled Gabriel. "Shall I kiss you for an extra effect, Cherry Ripe?"
Cherry's eyes had lost their rebellious expression as though she enjoyed the novelty of being included in youthful nonsense.
"We'll dance down the Lane," she suggested, prancing forward over the cobbles.
Their speed was increasing to a dangerous pace around the steep bends of the incline, when they heard the sound of shouting. A pale boy with sleeked and shiny hair, ran out of an office which gave the impression of losing the penultimate round in the battle against dry-rot. Its brass plate—reddened to copper by the fog—bore the names of "Delafield & Fish."
"Excuse me, Mr. Key," panted the boy, "but the boss would like to ask you something about a security. He won't detain you a minute."
Gabriel stopped immediately and released his arm.
"It's probably to do with Gertrude's will," he explained to Simone. "Wait for me. I won't be long."
After he had disappeared through the oaken door—white with age—Simone turned to Cherry.
"We definitely won't wait. That lawyer man doesn't know what a minute is. He thinks in years and centuries. I'm grateful we have Julius on Uncle Josiah's will."
As though Gabriel was their mutual link, Cherry relapsed into her usual veiled hostility.
"I don't want to rush you," she said, "but I must hurry back to my business. I'm late."
"I can stagger back with you," offered Simone.
As though accepting a challenge, Cherry forced the pace mercilessly over the broken ground of the bungalow-suburb—but Simone appeared tireless. While she seemed to make no special effort, she was the fresher when they left the last hole in the new road behind them.
The fog lay thicker on the stretch of waste ground so that it was difficult to see either the lights of the Post Office or Cherry's illuminated sign. As they drew near to the shop, a burly man loomed through the curtain of mist. He passed the girls without speaking and they could hear the tramp of his footsteps after he had disappeared.
"Police," explained Cherry. "I call him 'Ferdinand.' I believe I get more co-called protection than anyone else."
"Because you're in the loneliest spot, I expect," remarked Simone.
"Either that—or I'm the chief suspect. But I've got even with Pride by corrupting his tame policemen. I lure them in here for a smoke, against regulations."
Again the constable strolled past the shop where Cherry had turned on the electric heater. He glanced wistfully inside and then walked away, blowing on his fingers.
"Nice cold job," said Cherry viciously. "Serves him right for being a spy. Perhaps you could use him as your escort back?"
"No, thanks." Simone opened her cigarette-case. "I've got to meet Eustace. Won't you smoke?"
"I don't as a rule, but I will."
The flame of the lighter spurted up, shining into Cherry's hazel eyes. The brown which flecked them seemed to have merged into the green of the iris, for they gleamed like emeralds. The girls smoked in silence which was broken by Simone.
"I wonder what's keeping Gabriel. The lure of money, I suppose. I can't wait here for ever. I came to commit a deed of darkness."
Cherry's voice was so sharp that Simone raised her brows as she opened her bag.
"This," she said, flipping a ticket down upon the counter. "A ticket to the Hunt Ball. There's always a scramble to get them. They are not transferable. Like to buy it? The price is printed on it."
Cherry frowned as she picked it up.
"Isn't the Hunt Ball specially sticky?"
"Then why ask me? I'm an outsider."
"Gabriel's idea. Want it?"
"I don't know. I must think about it. Two guineas is a lot of money when you have to make it. How do I know anyone will dance with me."
"Does anyone know the future? The men will be short. You can chance your luck with the other wallflowers."
"No competition from you?"
"No, worse luck. Family mourning."
Cherry walked to the open door of the shop and stood looking out into the greyness.
"I can't see Gabriel," she said, flashing her torch in a half-circle.
"Your partner's invisible too," remarked Simone. "Is he always sleeping?"
"He's away on business."
"Then you're alone?"
"Yes. We are alone."
In her turn, Simone stared out into the twilight.
"Your copper seems to have changed his beat," she remarked.
"I sent him away," Cherry told her. "Didn't you see me signal to him with my torch? That was to tell him I shall have company walking home."
"Suppose Gabriel doesn't show up?"
"Did I say it was Gabriel?"
"Suppose it was. Aren't you taking rather a chance?"
"Do you mean"—Cherry's eyes glowed greenly—"he might be Colonel Pride's 'exception'?"
"He could be."
Cherry opened her compact and began to apply lip-stick with a shaking hand.
"Nonsense," she said. "Kill his own sister? He'd be a monster. Besides, if it comes to that, I can't depend on you and you can't depend on me. Gabriel can't depend on us. The whole thing's phoney."
"But things keep happening." Simone's voice was level. "Sometimes I wake in the night and I say to myself, 'Soon I might inherit a fortune.' It's incredible. Yet it could happen."
"I know that feeling," Cherry told her.
She stood beside Simone as the girls stared out at the deepening dusk. The Post Office lights were dimmed as though they were drowning in the dark waters of a dock.
"It's very lonely here," said Simone.
"No." Again Cherry's voice sharpened. "It's near the Post Office. They would hear a scream."
"Sure of that. You heard nothing when your cousin was murdered. Doesn't it close before you?"
"It does. But customers are coming in here all the time."
Simone flicked the ash off her cigarette.
"I don't wish to be tactless," she drawled, "but I could point out that no one has been in since we came."
"That's because it's such filthy weather."
"Yes," agreed Simone. "You can see it getting dark."
As the girls stood and stared out into the dusk, Miss Key was shutting out the dying day. She swished the tangerine damask curtains across the windows, with a click of rings, while Fay turned on the lights.
"We have everything to make us cosy, including the cat," she said, beaming at the tea table. "A good fire and a teapot is a famous team for beating the blues. Just fancy anyone wanting to walk over to that lonely shop in this weather."
"Fog is romantic when you're young," remarked Fay pensively.
Her eyes were wistful as she pictured herself and Julian wandering, hand-in-hand, through a watery darkness—even while Miss Key sighed with gratitude for the safety of four walls.
"I'm glad I made them promise to be three," she said. "Sometimes I get nervous about Simone. She's so high-and-mighty, you'd think she was immortal, or that Providence had arranged a special guardian-angel for her."
Fay also found herself thinking continuously about Simone in the hours between tea and dinner. Gertrude's death had been a delayed shock to her sense of security as it seemed a distinct menace to the Key family. She saw them as victims of doom and even Simone—serene on her mountain-peak—could not be counted immune.
She started at the sound of the front door bell and began to pleat her handkerchief with nervous fingers as she waited, expectant of more bad news. Her surprise and pleasure were sharper when Parsons admitted Julian.
After he had greeted Miss Key and Fay, he looked around him with genuine appreciation.
"This room makes you understand the phrase, 'Coming home,'" he said.
Encouraged by Miss Key's beam, he went on speaking diffidently and feeling his way.
"I don't want to say anything hurtful or—or officious, but may I offer you my sympathy? It is impossible to realise that Miss Gertrude is dead. She was always so vital."
"Yes, she was a noisy girl," agreed Miss Key. "But good-hearted under her swagger."
"I'm sure of it...I wonder if you know her brother has offered to sell me his ticket for the Hunt Ball. He told me also that he could get me his cousin's ticket if I cared to take a lady."
"The tickets are not transferable," snapped Miss Key.
"One has been transferred," said Julian quietly. "If I choose to use it, I am capable of seeing the thing through. My only trouble is I haven't a partner. As Miss Williams is not a relative, I wonder if I could take her to the Ball?"
As Fay listened, the pale spectacled lawyer suddenly grew a mane of curls and ostrich-features, while his trousers shrank to the satin knee-breeches of a Prince Charming. But her joy flared up only to die.
"I'd love it," she said. "But Simone is going to sell her ticket to Gabriel. He wants it for Cherry."
"Cherry?" Julian furrowed his brow. "Not too wise of Key. She threw quite a scene in the Chief Constable's office. If she feels herself ignored at the Ball, she might lose control again. Painful for everyone, especially for herself...Is it too late to switch the deal?"
"I'm afraid so," said Miss Key. "The young people were walking over to your cousin's shop, this afternoon."
As Julian gnawed his lip, Fay asked an indiscreet question.
"Is Cherry as hard as she seems? She gives the impression of stopping at nothing."
"I know her hardly better than you do," Julian told her. "We were strangers until she came to Oldtown. I met her once when we were children at a party given by Josiah Key's wife. Cherry was a horrible kid then. She cheated to win prizes and she robbed the smaller kids and stuffed her loot inside her panties. All the other children simply loathed her. But, looking back, somehow she seems pathetic. Rather like an untrained famished little mongrel, let loose at a feast."
"Poor child," said Miss Key. "I can sympathise with her. I was half-starved at boarding-school."
Julian listened so attentively to Miss Key's account on the meals and menus which represented the skimped nourishment of her adolescent years, that as a reward for his sympathy, he was invited to stay for dinner. It was a pleasant meal, but Fay got the impression that he was waiting his opportunity to lead back to the Hunt Ball. When they had returned to the library and had drunk coffee, he spoke nonchalantly to Miss Key.
"Do you mind if I ring up Clock Cottage and find out about the ticket?"
He did not stay long in the hall, and when he returned he was frowning.
"Key could tell me nothing," he said. "He was prevented from walking over with the others. Some business cropped up in connection with his sister's will—a missing security."
"Then Simone went alone," cried Miss Key. "Oh dear. Oh dear me."
As they exchanged glances, they all felt secret discomfort. In turn, both Julian and Fay tried to refer to the subject, only to make a false start and break off again. In the end, it was Miss Key who found the courage to be direct.
"Ring up Old Court, Fay, and find out when Simone came home."
In view of Fay's emotional nature, it was not surprising that she returned from the hall with tragic eyes.
"Simone's not come back," she said.
"Is her mother worried about her?" asked Miss Key.
"No," admitted Fay reluctantly. "She said she supposed she was having dinner somewhere with Sir Eustace."
"All the same, I'd like to check up thoroughly while we're about it," said Julian. "I'll get on to Cherry."
He remained in the hall for so long that Fay felt anxious. She wanted to join him but she did not like to leave Miss Key. When at last he came back to the library, his compressed lips revealed more than his casual voice.
"I'm out of luck. No reply from Cherry's flat. No reply from her shop. I dug up her partner's number but he knows nothing. He said he left her to carry on at the shop and to close it. I suppose that is what she had done."
"But where is she?" asked Fay.
"We could find out. You see, one girl might lead us to another; and Miss Key will be glad to be sure that her niece is safe. I'll run over to Cherry's shop. If she has locked up and left everything in order we must presume she has gone out on pleasure."
"I'm coming too," announced Fay firmly. "Parsons will keep Miss Key company."
"I'd much rather you did not," protested Julian. "Miss Key, please ask her to stay with you."
Before Miss Key could stop her, Fay had rushed from the room and had seated herself in the car which was parked on the drive.
"I've got to come," she told Julian when he discovered his passenger.
It was plain that Julian did not welcome her company, as—without comment—he started the engine and turned into the lane. He remained silent while the car throbbed past the residential outskirts of Oldtown and began to climb the spine of High Street. The Square was crossed and they were rattling down the steep and narrow corkscrew windings of Lawyers' Lane before he spoke.
"I warn you I don't know what we may find."
"I know," said Fay huskily. "But all the time, I keep seeing two faces. I ask myself—which?...Did you fall for Simone?"
"Who didn't?" Julian tried to laugh. "But I always knew there was nothing to it—for me. She was too impersonal."
"Yet she is engaged to a very ordinary man."
"That ordinary man has a title."
In the silence that followed, Fay strained her eyes in an effort to find out if they had reached the building estate, but she could only see a dark confusion through the misted glass. Presently the jolting of the car gave a clue to locality, telling her that they were going over the broken ground by the new bungalows. Every second was bringing them nearer to a little tobacconist shop.
"You said you were sorry for Cherry when she was a child." Fay was horrified by her choked unfamiliar voice. "I am not. Why did she beat up younger children and steal from them? I didn't and I was a poor child and had to go short. It shows that even then, she was a gangster."
"Don't judge her yet," said Julian, as he peered through the glass with contracted eyes.
"Can you see lights?" he asked.
"Yes." Fay spoke breathlessly. "I can just make out something like a swarm of bees. It's the shop sign."
"Then Cherry must be still there. She'll jeer at us. Back me up when I tell the tale."
He jerked the car to a standstill and before Fay could follow him, he hurried into the shop.
"Still open," he called, turning the handle.
When Fay joined him he was looking around an orderly scene. A large selection of familiar brands of tobacco and cartons of cigarettes were stacked on the counter and shelves. The scales gleamed in the electric-light and the heater warmed the atmosphere. A shilling and some coppers had been placed on the lid of a cigar box, in proof that a customer had helped himself in the absence of the shopkeeper.
"Perhaps she ran over to the Post Office for change," suggested Julian.
"No, it's closed," said Fay. "I wonder if she is in the inner room?...'Cherry.'"
As there was no answer to her call, Julian turned the door handle and walked inside. The light flashed on and then he came out—his face white and his eyes stern. Gripping Fay's arm, he ran her back to the car.
"Where are we going?" she asked in a terrified voice.
"To the Police Station."
A cold darkness seemed to be sweeping over the world. Fay heard her voice—tiny and scarcely audible—as though it had travelled a very long way. "Is it Simone?"
"No," said Julian. "It's Cherry. She is dead."
A WAVE of excitement swept Oldtown when the news of the murder became known. The youth and beauty of the victim inflamed the sympathies of the crowd, while Cherry's circle of customers burned with personal indignation. In exploiting her personality for business purposes, she had gained so wide a popularity that public opinion was heavily weighted in her favour. It expressed itself chiefly in censure of the police for making no arrest.
"They've been asking us enough questions," declared a bungalow-matron. "If it was you or me, they'd be digging in the garden to find the hatchet. But they're afraid to look beyond their noses when there is a Key in the case."
The censure was unjust as the police had been working on Simone, regardless of me doctor's warning that she was suffering from severe shock. When she reached home, the preceding evening, she gave her mother her usual nonchalant explanation of her absence. Bored by the embargo on gaiety, she and Sir Eustace had motored to a town, eighteen miles distant. They had dined at an hotel and gone to the cinema. The picture was a stinker. And that was that.
For the first time on record, her composure was shattered when she was told about Cherry's murder. Instead of lighting a cigarette, she collapsed sobbing in her mother's arms, like an ordinary spoilt child.
The doctor warned Colonel Pride and Inspector Wallace that she was too weak to be disturbed, when they called at Old Court, the same night.
"She has no pulse and her temperature is sub-normal," he explained.
The police were callously unimpressed, although she looked a wraith of a girl when they were admitted to her bedroom. Her pale hair sprayed out in a fan over her pillow and her face was drained of colour. She looked so unsubstantial that she gave the impression that, at any moment, she might dissolve altogether in a wisp of vapour. In a weak voice, she expressed her eagerness to co-operate with the police.
"People saw us in Newminster," she said. "We went to the 'Crown' for dinner."
"I'm not interested in your movements after the murder," said the Colonel. "I want to know what happened before. What time did you leave the tobacconist shop?"
"About six, I think. Eustace might know. He took the car as far as he could. Then he honked for me and I went to meet him. We walked back together to the car."
"The shop was lit up at the time," said the Inspector. "Did Sir Eustace see Miss Thomas?"
"I don't know. He didn't mention her."
"Yet it would be natural for her to come to the door and look after you."
A wary expression flickered into Simone's strained eyes.
"She probably did," she said faintly. "But our backs were turned to her. We were going towards the car."
The doctor came to the bedside, felt her pulse and nodded towards the door. Accepting dismissal, the Colonel and the Inspector left the room. Mrs. Mornington-Key followed them out to the landing.
"You won't bring Sir Eustace into this?" she protested.
"We shall certainly check up with him," said the Inspector. "It is of utmost importance to find out whether Miss Thomas was dead before your daughter left the shop."
The Colonel's face was grim when they left Mrs. Mornington-Key to think over the implication. Without allowing the lady time to warn her future son-in-law, he rang up Sir Eustace. Unfortunately, the young man was unable to clear Simone by that important last glimpse of Cherry alive. He could only tell them that the shop windows were lighted but the fog was too thick for a close view. In any case, his interest was to meet Simone and clear his car which he had nearly ditched in an excavation.
The next morning, when the Colonel and the Inspector were discussing the case, Wallace mentioned Simone's collapse.
"She's always been so cool and collected before. You might argue that it was the natural reaction to committing murder. But it doesn't pan out. It stands to reason that, if she did the last one, she did the others too—so she would be callous by now."
"I'm inclined to think it was the shock of realising that she might have been the victim herself," said the Colonel. "That really came home to her."
"Possibly. To my mind, the most significant feature of this crime is its duplication of the first, except that there was no attempt to make it appear a robbery. The same locality, same time, same conditions, with a string of nuns going to chapel."
"You mean—you suspect the murderer was among the Black Sisters?"
"I feel sure he joined up with them at some stage. As usual, I had their procession checked up at both ends but it is impossible to trail them all the way. They always avoid the main streets of the town and go by the darkest and loneliest alleys."
"It's an ugly business," said the Colonel. "Four out of five people must be getting very cold feet, waiting for their turn. I have real sympathy with Miss Key."
That morning, Miss Key hardly spoke during breakfast. Her face was expressionless as an egg while she gulped and crunched and only her small dark eyes were restless, in token of an active brain. Fay wondered whether she was suffering from a hangover, as they had celebrated Simone's safety wife Josiah's champagne, after an emotional meeting.
The girl was pale too but her headache was due to worry. Now that the champagne no longer bubbled and giggled inside her head, she began to realise that Simone might be on the spot. It was a relief when Miss Key nodded several times before she spoke.
"I know what you're thinking," she guessed. "Simone might be suspected. Absurd...This can't go on. I shall have to put a stop to it. Ring up Colonel Pride and make an appointment for me this morning, at his office at the Police Station. And don't ask me any questions. I shan't hear them."
Warned in advance, Fay was forced to restrain her curiosity until eleven o'clock when both she and Miss Key were seated in the dark carved wooden room, overlooking the Square. On the opposite side of an antique table, sat the Colonel and the Inspector, looking like a pair of prejudiced examiners. Fay was nervous and although muzzled by Miss Key's instructions, she kept making small explosive sounds, suggestive of an insufficiently-soaped geyser. In contrast with her companion, Miss Key was unusually composed and self-confident.
"This is your office, Colonel," she conceded, "but I am going to do the talking. The position is this. Only five of us are left, so the 'Joker' must live at Canton House, Isis House, Old Court or Lawyers' Lane. I want to bait a trap for him—and I propose to be the kid. I'm sure the tiger would be interested in me as I have money to leave, apart from my brother's will."
"What is your plan?" asked the Colonel patiently.
"I'm going to ring up the other four and tell each, in strict confidence, that I'm arranging an ambush for the murderer. I shall explain that I'm going to send away my maids and companion for one night, when I shall be left alone in Canton. I'm going to leave the side door unbolted to make it easy for him. The murderer will see the others leaving by the front gate, so he will know that I am left behind. But, really, I shall not be alone, as the police will be concealed in the house, ready to arrest the murderer. Is that clear?"
"Perhaps you'd better explain a little," remarked the Inspector as the Colonel appeared to be making notes on his pad.
"No, it's not altogether foolish," said Miss Key defensively. "Three of the people I ring up may say 'silly old fool,' but the fourth will jump at the chance of a night-time. Of course he wouldn't walk into the trap after he had been warned. My hunch is that he will ring you up and tell you the show is to be postponed until the next night. That will leave me without any protection. I have a—a distinctive voice and anyone who's not tone-deaf could imitate it over the 'phone...The person who rings you up will be 'IT.'"
The silence was broken by Fay's protest.
"No, you mustn't do it. It's suicide. It's—"
"I think it would be rather too great a strain on your nerves," interrupted the Colonel. "Canton is a large house with a garden full of cover. My men could not be everywhere at once and there may be a fatal lag between attack and arrest...No, I cannot sanction the risk."
Miss Key looked sheepish as she went on to explain.
"But I shan't be there. All the money in the world would not make me stay alone in an empty house. I'm not ashamed to confess it after all the murders."
"Then what do you propose?"
"I'm going to fox him. I shall creep out by the back way and go up the lane to the Junction. I'll pick up the fast train there and meet Miss Williams at our hotel at Hereford."
"Very sensible. But if the victim is not there, won't your show be rather like 'Hamlet' without the Ghost?"
"Not quite. He will have a weapon concealed on him and that will give him away."
Miss Key got up from her uncomfortable chair.
"This is not a laughing-matter," she said stiffly. "I am forced to take action because nobody else does anything at all. I suppose I can depend on your co-operation, Colonel?"
"You may be sure I shall do what is necessary," said the Chief Constable.
When his visitors had gone, he tore off the slip of paper on which he had been doodling.
"It saved time not to argue with her," he said. "She's an obstinate woman. She hasn't the brain to realise that our criminal is too cunning to be caught by salt on his tail...I'll leave you to deal with this, Wallace. It's all yours."
Unconscious of her failure to impress the police, Miss Key went home in excellent spirits.
"You know I never tell lies," she said to Fay. "But now that I have to lie, I find it such good mental exercise. Trying to make people believe what isn't true is as good as writing a book."
Fay reflected that—as an author—she would only have a small public, since her inventions failed to convince either Parsons or the cook. They listened to her elaborate reasons for going away, with wooden respect and then assured their mistress that it was their duty to stay at Canton House rather than leave it empty.
"It's all settled," Miss Key told them. "I cannot change my plans."
"There's Ginger," said Parsons, playing her trump.
"Cook will take him to the farm with her. He loves that. Why shouldn't poor Ginger have a holiday?"
When Miss Key returned to the library, after spending a considerable time standing at the telephone, she was both tired and depressed.
"It does bring it home," she said. "One of them. I do hope it's not family. Pray it's Lilith or that nice young Mr. Thomas."
"What did he say?" asked Fay coldly.
"He was cautious and advised me to consult my lawyer first before I took any action. But Marie was almost rude. She said she was too distracted about Simone to be interested. Gabriel seemed to be unconcerned, too. But Lilith asked me a lot of questions."
Miss Key lit a cigarette and after a few puffs she recovered sufficiently to gloat.
"I blew the smoke in their eyes all right. They think I am going to stay here alone. Now we must wait for word from Colonel Pride."
To her disappointment, no message came from the Chief Constable. It was growing late and he was about to leave the office, when a constable told him that Miss Key was on the line. With a resigned expression, he listened to the familiar weak muffled voice.
"Oh, Colonel, are you alone? Good. Can you hear me? I don't want to shout. Something has turned up. I'm sorry but it's inconvenient for me to go away to-morrow. Will you postpone—you know what—to the next day?"
"If you wish it," he replied formally.
The message was so typical of Miss Key that he felt annoyed until he reacted to its significance.
"Trace that call," he said sharply to the constable.
Not long afterwards, he rang up Miss Key.
"Have you been at Canton House all day?" he asked.
"I've not stirred out," she replied in the choked voice which suggested neglected adenoids. "Oh, Colonel, does that mean you've been rung up by someone who says she's me? Who was it?"
"Sorry to disappoint you." Miss Key writhed at the amusement which she suspected was concealed by his superior manner. "The fact is, Miss Key, detection is not so simple as you seem to think it is. As I expected, the call was made from a public telephone booth."
The next morning, Fay felt too excited either to concentrate or to settle. Although the household was going away only for the night, the atmosphere was charged with holiday spirit. Time crawled because, in the absence of routine, there was little to be done. Lunch was a fork-meal for which nothing was cooked. When it was finished, Miss Key checked their time-table with Fay, to ensure no hitch.
"You and the maids will have to leave here at three because it must be light enough for you to be seen from a distance. They'll probably be watching from Isis House, or that side of the river. You can catch the three-twenty-nine. It's a slow train and will take you an hour to reach Hereford. I shall not be leaving until some time later as I can pick up the North Express at the Junction. I expect I shall be there nearly as soon as you."
"I'll be waiting for you in the hotel lounge," beamed Fay. "Shall I order tea?"
"No, better wait for me. What are you going to wear?"
"The coat you gave me for the funeral. Black is smartest for town."
"Aha, I guessed as much," chuckled Miss Key. "You forget you have to be recognised, from a distance, when you leave the houses. You must wear your old copper tweed because everyone knows it."
"Then I mustn't wear a hat," grinned Fay. "I never do."
"But you are going on a railway journey. You won't be genuine without a hat."
"You think of everything," remarked Fay bitterly.
Miss Key's face clouded with regret.
"I've done more thinking lately than is good for me," she said. "Now, I don't want to be recognised so I must not wear my usual squirrel. Get out my Persian lamb—there's a good girl—when you go up to pack. And do you mind travelling third with Parsons? She lives in Hereford. You shall travel back first with me."
They watched the clock as they sat before a red caked fire and smoked cigarettes. The room was so warm and still that it cost Fay an effort to wrench herself from her chair and go upstairs. When she returned she was swinging her suit-case and wearing her copper tweed coat.
"The others are waiting in the hall, ready to go," she told Miss Key.
The mistress of the house wished her staff a pleasant holiday as she stood at the front door and watched them go down the drive. Ginger wailed a protest from his basket while Fay was inclined to mutiny.
"Let me stay with you," she pleaded. "Really, you shouldn't be left."
"I shall hardly be alone for five minutes," scoffed Miss Key. "You don't want to spoil everything, do you? I'm ashamed of you. Run after Parsons at once. Very soon, we'll be having tea together at Hereford."
Miss Key was laughing when she pushed the girl down the steps; but after she had slammed the front door behind her and turned back into the hall, the house seemed to have changed. She was unaccustomed to solitude and she missed the sub-audible vibrations of voices and movements. There was no stir in the air—no current of sympathy to lighten its loneliness; the human element was fast draining from the atmosphere, leaving her stranded with insensate possessions and furniture.
At that moment, she no longer loved Canton House. It was too big for security—too silent for company. It seemed to belong again to its former owner, Josiah Key, tea-merchant, late of China, as he twinkled from his massive frame—restored to his rightful position of master of the house.
To keep up her sinking spirits, Miss Key went back to the library and broke up the caked coals to a cheerful blaze.
"I must leave the home-fires burning," she thought. "If they don't see smoke rising from the chimneys, they'll guess I've run away. It's getting dark very early...Oh, what's that?"
She suppressed a scream as the telephone bell rang loudly.
"Who is it?" she wondered—while the sustained shrill note tore at her nerves. "I mustn't answer it. The house is supposed to be empty...No, that's wrong. I'm supposed to be here. I must let them hear me speak."
Her heart thumped as she walked heavily into the hall and glanced fearfully at the telephone as though it were a Screaming Skull.
"Oh, stop," she cried foolishly before she found the courage to pounce down on the receiver. The welcome silence that followed was broken by Gabriel's voice.
"Hullo, Aunt Ida. I saw Williams & Co. at the station. Who's keeping you company at Canton?"
"No one," replied Miss Key. "I explained everything to you, this morning."
"But I never thought you were serious."
"Am I such a joke? Oh, Gabriel, I was shocked to hear about your poor Miss Thomas."
"Not mine—but so was I. Terrible show. Still—if it had to be one of the two, I'm glad it wasn't Simone."
"Blood's thicker than water," commented Miss Key.
"Simone has her faults but I never heard her say a spiteful thing about anyone." Gabriel's sigh travelled down the wire. "It's very disturbing and all that. When it's over, I shall work my passage round the world, to harden up a bit."
"Um," murmured Miss Key absently. She glanced across the hall at the grandfather clock but she could not distinguish the figures, while her own wrist-watch had twisted up under her sleeve.
"I must ring off," she said. "I hear Ginger mewing."
"If you do, the cat's a ventriloquist," Gabriel told her. "I saw his basket board the Ringford bus, complete with Cook...But I really rang up to say that if you feel lonely, I'll come over and keep you company."
"Thank you, but you forget I explained to you—in confidence—that I have police protection."
"Can you depend on them? Perhaps they were stringing you along, just to keep you quiet."
"Colonel Pride would not dare to insult me like that," protested Miss Key.
"Well, I know it is hopeless to try and influence you. If you weaken, my offer stands firm. Good-bye."
Miss Key pursed her lips and shook her head doubtfully as she went back to the library.
"I don't like it," she reflected. "Why did he go to the station? Was it to find out if I was really staying at Canton? After all, I was never quite certain that he was not the nun who attacked me. I thought her eyes were familiar—no, it was Parsons thought that. But it's terrible to suspect a nephew. Detecting is degrading and unfeminine. Women should only suspect their husbands."
Although it was too early to start out for the Junction, she decided to dress in readiness. When she reached her bedroom, it appeared vast and deserted as a mausoleum. Outside the windows the sky was grey and prematurely dark from the sweep of clouds.
Her suit-case was already packed by Fay and she had only to collect her hat, hand-bag and a handkerchief. As she stood before the triple-mirrors to powder her face, her lips were tremulous at the thought of the upper lane. It was stony and gloomy from blind hedges and steep banks. Owing to its bad surface and its loneliness it was unpopular and only people like Gertrude occasionally used it as a short cut.
And Gertrude had been murdered—which was not a testimonial to lonely lanes.
"I could start before it grows darker," thought Miss Key. "Of course I could wait more comfortably at home, by the fire, than in that cold waiting-room. But the police may wish to move in as soon as possible. I mustn't cramp their style. Yes, I'll go at once."
She nodded to her triple reflection and three dim heads agreed with her decision although their eyes accused her of cowardice. Spilling powder recklessly over the glass top of the toilet-table, she grabbed her possessions and ran downstairs to the hall. She was crossing it when her heart fluttered at the sound of footsteps crunching the gravel of the drive. A blurred section of face peered through one of the narrow windows set on either side of the front door. Fingers rapped urgently on the glass like bony sticks upon a drum.
Miss Key remembered to push her tell-tale case, together with her hat and gloves behind a large winged chair before she drew back the catch of the lock and admitted Mrs. Aurelius.
"'Rouge et noir,'" she remarked drily, looking at Lilith's scarlet frock which matched her lavish lip-stick. "Last time I saw you, you were all in black like a widow. But not a merry widow. I seem to remember that you turned me out of your house. Ought I to return the compliment?"
Lilith ignored the thrust as she spoke breathlessly.
"I saw the others go but I missed you. I came here, hoping to find an empty house. Surely you're not going through with it?"
"Everyone seems concerned about me," remarked Miss Key. "I'm surprised at my popularity."
"It's madness. Are you really going to leave a door unlocked?"
"Yes. The side entrance."
"It has a bolt now."
"You do know a lot about my house. For your information, the bolt will not be shot to-night."
Lilith looked wildly around her as she clutched her throat.
"Ida," she said in a voice throbbing with emotion, "you and I are friends. I've little to spare for outsiders because my husband has taken all of me—but you are the only person I am aware of. You are real while all the others are shadows. Promise me, for the sake of our friendship, to lock yourself in your room to-night."
In other circumstances, Miss Key would have been affected by the outburst, but she was keyed-up to a state of suspicion when every faculty was strained to detect a trap.
"Acting," she decided before she spoke importantly.
"It's too late now to alter my plans. I have it all organised. It is essential to catch the murderer in the pink, if not actually red-handed. The police have my instructions and know exactly when to interfere. They have promised me I shall not be hurt. I have arranged to wait here in the hall until I hear the side-door being opened. Actually, it has a squeak like new boots. Then I shall walk across the hall and go into the library. There will be enough light for the murderer to recognise me but not enough to put him off. He will follow me—but the police will be in the library, waiting for him. For the first time in my life, I shall be a femme fatale and draw a man on to his doom."
With heaving breast and parted lips, Lilith listened as though enthralled by a graphic story.
"I can see it too vividly," she said. "I know how you will feel. Listening to footsteps behind you, coming nearer. Waiting, waiting—"
She staggered towards a chair and collapsed into it.
"Water," she moaned. "I'm faint."
The subterfuge was so stale that Miss Key felt it was an outrage on her credulity. Her first impulse was to refuse to be fooled—her second thought to keep on the safe side. She remembered Lilith's corpse-like pallor on the occasion when she had seen her with an unrouged face and she dared not ignore the possibility of genuine illness.
"All right," she said ungraciously, even while she resolved not to waste Josiah's brandy.
"You asked for water and water is what you'll get," she muttered as she filled a glass from the kitchen tap.
Her economy was justified, for when she returned to the hall, it was empty.
"What did she come for?" she wondered. "I suppose it was to spy and suck my brain. I'll give her time to get well away and then I'll start."
She put on her hat, counted her roll of Treasury notes and then turned to the hall-stand—to find that her black Persian lamb coat was not hanging from its peg.
"I could swear I saw it there," she told herself. "What an upset. That careless little monkey must have forgotten to bring it down. That's the thanks one gets for giving a girl a treat. It must be still in my wardrobe."
She panted upstairs to her big bedroom which appeared to have grown vaster and dimmer—each long window framing a panel of darkening landscape. Unlocking the cedar-lined compartment of the chest where she stored her furs, she raked through the hangers in a frantic search against time. Becoming desperate from failure, she dragged out the coats in armfuls and threw them upon her bed.
Soon her face puckered with distress.
"I know I saw it hanging on the hall-stand," she told herself. "Lilith has stolen it. Kleptomania. That's why she sent me away to get water."
Although three heads nodded agreement from her triple-mirrors, she was too honest to accept her own argument. She could not forget that Lilith refused to wear the skin of any animal and that she shrank with abhorrence from the Persian lamb coat.
Miss Key mustered her common sense and gave up trying to solve the mystery.
"I shall find it in the most unlikely place," she prophesied. "I suppose I'm not wearing it, by any chance?"
Although she remembered finding missing glasses upon her nose, her former success was not repeated. Instinctively switching on her toilet-table lights—to see whether her hat was straight—she snatched up her shopping-coat of worn grey squirrel and hurried from her room.
Subdued by the coloured glass of the big staircase window, the hall appeared almost dark. She passed through it in a panic rush, picked up her case and opened the front door. Just as she was going out of the house, she remembered to turn back again, to switch on the lights in the library and hall.
The lights glowed brighter as dusk deepened to darkness. As a rule, the ground-floor illumination was hidden by the trees which surrounded the house, but that evening, the long windows of Miss Key's bedroom shone like golden beacons. From the brilliance, a passer-by might have concluded that there was company at Canton House, instead of desertion. Even the smoke that curled thickly up from stoked fires, flickered intermittently with a red glow which made a bored young police-constable hopeful of reporting a chimney on fire.
About seven-thirty, that evening, When Colonel Pride mentioned Canton House to Inspector Wallace, his face wore the half-mischievous, half-malicious grin of one who had passed the buck.
"Have you carried out the instructions of your new Chief, Wallace?" he asked.
"Meaning Miss Key?" queried Wallace stiffly. "For your information, her staff left Oldtown by train and bus respectively. I conclude the lady has also left the town as per schedule. The house is now officially empty, so I instructed the man on the beat to keep an eye on it and report if anyone enters it. There's a public call box nearby."
"Good. You have it covered—but better put an extra man on the beat, in case of contingencies...Good evening, Wallace."
The Colonel walked briskly to the door, on his way to dinner and a game of poker. Before he could leave, however, a policeman stopped him with a message which wiped out his grin.
"Lady to see you in your office, sir."
"Miss Key," muttered the Colonel, catching the Inspector's eye. "Your consignment, Wallace."
"Miss Gomme," corrected the constable. "She says her business is urgent."
"I'll see her."
When Colonel Pride entered his office, Miss Gomme was pacing the floor. Directly he glanced at her, he was conscious of a change. She was, as usual, ash-grey and bleak, but her eyes were pitted as though a deep frost had suffered a partial and difficult thaw.
"She's been crying," he thought incredulously.
Ignoring the chair he placed for her, Miss Gomme spoke harshly.
"I've come to confess a fraud. I control the finances of the Cloisters. From time to time, I've borrowed various sums for private speculation."
"How much are you in the red?" asked the Colonel.
"I've repaid every penny, including interest on the loans."
The Colonel coughed uneasily as he diagnosed the statement as hysteria.
"You place me in a difficult position," he pointed out. "What action do you expect me to take? You tell me the affairs of the Cloisters are in order. I have only your word for the temporary deficits—and ladies have the privilege of changing their minds. It is unethical conduct, but I think it would be wiser for us both to forget it...Good evening."
He opened the door but his hopes of a punctual dinner crashed when she slammed it almost in his face.
"I've more to confess," she said. "I've concealed a death. The death of the Mother of the Healing Darkness."
The Colonel's expression grew instantly alert.
"Did she die about the time the Sisters stopped using the river road?" he asked.
"Yes. She could see in the dark and she led the others."
"Sit down," rapped the Colonel.
Miss Gomme obeyed the command as he seated himself opposite to her—his fountain pen in his hand and his eyes stern.
"Details, please," he said. "First, what did she die of?"
"It was a natural death," replied Miss Gomme. "Heart failure. But time was vital to me as I had a deficit in my books. If I announced her death, the auditors would have been called in at once and I should have been open to prosecution. So I kept it a secret until I had put through my last speculation. It was the only time I dared to plunge, but mercifully it was successful and I am clear."
"You intended to announce the death ultimately?"
"How did you propose to account for the delay?"
"My idea was to say that she had told us she was going away for some time. It had happened before. She was often absent. Then I was going to explain—later—that we discovered her body at the bottom of a disused well in the grounds."
"Was that where you actually put it after her death?"
The Colonel wrote on his pad before he looked up suddenly.
"Why are you telling me this?" he asked.
The muscles in Miss Gomme's grey face twitched like a rat-trap as she forced herself to speak.
"Because a terrible thing has happened. When the Mother died, I had to find a substitute to keep her death a secret from the community. I conspired with the Sister next in priority to the Mother and who will take control later. When I confessed my fraud to her she was compassionate because she understood my temptation. I had to provide for old age as I was thrown on the labour market too late in life to save enough."
"Quite. Quite." The Colonel rapped upon his pad. "You were going to tell me about a substitute?"
"We chose most carefully," declared Miss Gomme. "Someone whose reputation was above reproach. Someone who was clever, with a knowledge of drugs and who was able to give us expert advice in the Mother's absence. How could we tell that this person had been joining our evening processions to commit crimes under the protection of our robe?"
"When did you find this out? How?"
Miss Gomme closed her eyes as though conserving her strength to finish her confession.
"Another tragedy has happened," she said. "We had a free patient—a child of twelve, named Doris Singer. She was frightened by a bull and was becoming an idiot. The Mother took her in out of charity. She was very kind to the child and Doris adored her."
"And you could not fool the child with your impostor?" probed the Colonel.
"No, from the first, she showed hatred of the substitute. Apparently she lurked and spied—for she was cunning as a monkey—until she had a chance to tear off the disguising veil. I am afraid that after she had seen the substitute's face, she was not allowed to live. We missed her and hunted everywhere for her...I have just found her body in the well."
"Yes and then thrown down on top of the Mother's body."
"How did you find out?"
"I let myself down with a rope. I dared not ask for help. It was my crime and I had to atone."
The Colonel looked at her with grudging admiration for her nerve. He told himself that this strange woman must be made of metal rather than flesh-and-blood...And then—in a backwash of memory—he was a boy again, standing before a glass tank filled with slaughtered fish.
In her ignorance, Miss Gomme had let loose a killer among the helpless inmates of the Cloisters.
SMARTING with resentment at being expelled from Canton House, in front of an audience, Fay was silent on the way to town. When the car-park was reached, the Ringford bus was on the point of starting and in the excitement of pushing the cook and housemaid inside, she shed her dignity. Her spirits were high by the time she and Parsons reached the Railway Station and were walking over the ridged asphalt of the platform.
"Shall I book while you get the seats," suggested Parsons. "You are nippier than me. There'll be a crowd as it is always market day somewhere on this line."
Parsons' forecast proved correct, for when the train steamed in, every carriage appeared to be full. Fay was beginning to violate the Queensberry Rules in an unequal fight with a heavier passenger, when someone caught her arm.
"A deliberate foul," said Julian. "When do you begin to bite? Come to the end of the train. Parsons is keeping your seat."
"How lovely of you to see me off," said Fay. "Are you?"
"Am I seeing you off? Naturally. I'm glad to get you safety out of Oldtown if it is only for a night."
"If you worry about me, you must like me a lot."
"Even more than that and you know it." Julian's hand tightened over the girl's arm. "Fay, we've taken a horrible journey together—but I promise you all the rest are going to be good ones. Well—here we are."
Fay scrambled inside the crowded carriage and then stood blocking the door, to the justified annoyance of the other passengers.
"What hotel are you stopping at?" asked Julian as the train began to move.
"Unicorn," she shouted.
"I'll ring you up this evening."
Fay continued to wave until Julian's figure was lost behind a curve of the line. Then she flopped down on her seat and beamed at Parsons.
"Isn't this fun?" she said.
"So long as it's not funny," agreed Parsons.
"What do you mean? Why are you so glum?"
"Because I'm not easy about the mistress. I know her better than you think you do after all these years. You can set a clock by her and know exactly what she's going to do and then, one day, she'll do something different. She's done it before."
"You mean she's unpredictable?" Fay aired the popular word. "What did she do?"
"She went out in the middle of the night, alone, and crossed the river to Isis House."
Fay stared incredulously at Parsons' serious face.
"Are you joking?" she asked.
"No, it's the truth. We all had flu at Canton except the mistress. Cook had a collapse and the mistress wouldn't wait for the doctor to come from Oldtown as he might be too late. So she fetched Dr. Aurelius. He was honest with her and said he was only a doctor of science, but he gave cook something which did the trick."
"He must have felt insulted," grinned Fay. "But it's difficult to believe."
"All the same, she did it and she can do it again. This sending us away is queer business. She may be cooking up a kettle of fish. I only hope there'll be nothing funny."
Lost in her own dream, Fay's thoughts drifted away from Miss Key to Julian. The train chugged slowly along, past waterlogged meadows and harvested orchards, piled with rotting windfalls. Presently she saw the cathedral rising above a huddle of roofs and the train rolled over a sleepy river and into the station.
As she jumped down to the platform, Parsons became suddenly vital—no longer a prim maid but a native returning home.
"I'll be seeing you," she said. "Hope you find the mistress waiting at the hotel."
"It's quite near." Fay spoke persuasively. "Wouldn't it ease your mind to come with me and see if she's there?"
Parsons became aware that she had started something she could not finish when she uttered her gloomy prophecies.
"If she's not, she'll come by the next train," she said, turning away.
"Well, let me have your address."
Parsons reeled out a number and a street before she walked briskly out of the station yard. In order to save time, Fay climbed into the hotel bus and a few minutes later, she burst eagerly through the revolving door at the "Unicorn."
But Miss Key was not waiting for her in the lounge.
She felt a sharp pang of disappointment as she crossed to the desk. The blonde receptionist combined majesty with motherliness and was of the type traditionally known as "Ma." She looked down with a tolerant smile as the girl explained the situation.
"I have your reservation," she said. "Two connecting singles and bath. Your friend's train should be in in about fifteen minutes. Will you have your case taken up or wait for her here?"
"Wait." Fay smiled back at "Ma. Where are the best pictures showing?"
The receptionist gave her an entertainment list which she was too excited to read. Confident that soon she would see Miss Key's important figure blocking the entrance, she lit a cigarette and looked around the lounge. The hotel was an ancient hostel which had compromised with the present century only in matters of convenience and comfort. The spell of the past seemed to linger there, imparting the unreality of a dream. Fay caught sight of her dwarfed reflection in an enormous gilt-framed mirror—but the girl under the yellowed marble pillars seemed dim and very far away.
Presently she realised that it was past the time when she might reasonably expect Miss Key. Worried by her nonappearance, she began to review the time-table.
"She must have lost the North Express," she thought. "I suppose she cut it fine without me to push her off. She shouldn't have sent me away."
As she pulled down her mouth in misery, the waiter interpreted her grimace as a signal for service.
"Shall I bring tea here, madam?" he asked.
When he brought the tray, Fay confided her trouble to him.
"You can't expect your friend for a good hour-and-a-half, if she waits for the next fast train that stops at Oldtown Junction," the man told her. "Her best plan would be to take the local back to Oldtown and come on from there. There's a slow train that's due in about thirty-five minutes."
The second interval of waiting proved a test of endurance, because Fay's mind had become poisoned by doubt. Instead of refreshing her, the tea stimulated her brain to unpleasant imagination. When she realised that, in spite of the heat of the lounge, she was beginning to shiver, she knew that it was time to control her nerves.
"I'll soon be biting the carpet," she told herself. "I'll lose myself. I'll close my eyes and think of eternity."
The experiment was not successful because her friend the waiter came to inquire whether she felt faint. To convince him of her physical fitness, she asked him for a match. After he had lit her cigarette, she stared fixedly at the curling smoke in a second attempt to forget her surroundings. Only too soon, however, she heard voices and movements around her and she looked up to see a dribble of passengers entering the lounge.
As Miss Key was not among them, she jumped up and rushed out into the street. The bus was still waiting in the street but it had discharged its last passengers. Gripped by panic, Fay ran to the desk where she had to wait while a line of travellers signed the register and received their keys. During the first lull, she spoke breathlessly to the receptionist.
"My friend hasn't come. I'm afraid there's something wrong. I must get in touch with someone. Is ninety-six Grafton Lane far from here?"
"Quite close," said Ma. "But it seems to have grown a bit. When I went down it, this morning, there were only nine houses."
"Are you sure?"
The receptionist shrugged as she gave an order to a tall youth.
"Look it up, Roy."
Roy flicked the pages of the local directory expertly before he shook his head.
"No such number."
Fay felt herself rising in the air as she saluted the force of her own dynamite. Parsons had borrowed her own technique in order to secure an uninterrupted holiday. Then she started as she realised that "Ma" was trying to attract her attention.
"You're Miss Williams, aren't you? Call for you from Oldtown. Will you take it in there?"
Feeling that help was on the way, Fay shut herself inside the telephone booth and listened to Julian's voice travelling across the sodden fields and miles of gleaming metals.
"Hullo, darling. Everything in order?"
"No." Fay's voice quivered. "Miss Key's not come."
"I'm not surprised. She can hardly be in two places at once."
'"But where is she?"
"Oldtown, of course."
Again Fay rocked as though from the force of an explosion.
"I've been away on business," explained Julian. "To save time, I came through on a fast train and dropped off at the Junction. I had to go down the lane so I passed Canton. Miss Key was standing at the front door, looking out. It was too dark to see her face but I recognised her broad shoulders against the light. They're like a man's."
Although choked by indignation, Fay managed to control her voice.
"I don't get it," she said bitterly. "What's the idea of packing us off and feeding us with lies?"
Julian hesitated before he spoke.
"Perhaps Miss Key has been cooking up some conspiracy with the police and wanted to clear the field. That story she burbled to me over the 'phone was just pabulum. Smoke in your eyes. Unless it's all her girlish fun, she's bound to have a better plan than that."
"But she didn't tell me."
"Darling, you are so impetuous. She might be afraid you would spoil the show."
Fay's ears tingled as she remembered that Miss Key had used almost the same words when she swept her off the doorstep. Then she heard Julian say, "Yes, Miss Davis," before he spoke to her in an apologetic voice.
"Sorry, darling, but Miss Davis has a message for me. Please hold on."
As she waited in the booth, staring at the blurred region outside the steamy glass and listening to the faint crackling of the wire, Fay was overcome by a nightmare sense of oppression. She burned with fury, but the fire was damped down in humiliation. She had been found unworthy of confidence and swept away like rubbish. Even Parsons had given her the insult of a false address...And then, suddenly, her personal grievance was wiped out by one fact.
Miss Key was alone in Canton House.
Without another thought of Julian, Fay rang off and dashed to the desk.
"I've had bad news," she told Ma. "When's the next train back to Oldtown?"
The tall woman gave her a pitying smile as she remembered the fictitious address.
"The bus is starting to meet it now," she said. "You'll catch it if you run."
She accompanied the girl out into the street and told the driver to wait until Fay was seated inside.
"Got enough money to see you home?" she whispered.
As Fay nodded and smiled her thanks, the receptionist made a stately re-entrance into the hotel.
"Some guy has handed that poor kid a packet of dirt," she confided to Roy.
The bus began to move, rolling slowly past blank walls and down "One Way Only" streets, while Fay fretted in a fever of impatience. She worried first lest she should lose her train and then lest she had boarded the wrong one, in spite of the porter's assurance. It was not until Hereford had fallen a little way behind that she remembered Julian.
Her journey was slow for the train stopped at every station. She seemed to be travelling through endless slides of fields—bleached in the light from the carriage windows and broken only by the oasis of an occasional streaming platform, flickering in the windy lamp light. When Oldtown was reached, she rushed to get a taxi, only to find herself too late. Feeling abnormal as though she were in a dream she began to run in a desperate dogged trot, while her feet seemed leaden and her head floated light as a bubble.
Nothing was real that evening, and she ran through an Oldtown she had never seen before. The spine of High Street appeared to be drawn out to double its length like overstretched elastic. When she reached the heart of Oldtown—the Square—it was beating at furious pressure. Crowds of patrons were going into the cinema, while other citizens were standing in clumps on the pavements, blocking her way. Furious at every obstruction, she wanted to scream at them as she forced her way through, with total disregard of convention.
Presently lights flashed before her eyes and her lungs felt water-logged as her heart protested against the strain. Instead of stopping to regain her breath, she made a final sprint which carried her from under the cool dark roof of the fir-wood and past the fork of the roads. When she reached the lane, she stood—completely winded and sobbing for air.
Gradually her distress lessened and the mist cleared from her eyes, so that she saw the light shining from Miss Key's bedroom windows. It acted like a tonic—suggesting normal routine—either Parsons turning down the bed or Miss Key standing before the mirror, trying to coax a curl with a moistened forefinger. Suddenly she was gripped by doubt as she began to wonder whether she had made a serious mistake. In running away from Hereford. Miss Key paid her a generous salary for carrying out her wishes but she also expected two qualities not mentioned in a "gentleman's agreement"—loyalty and obedience. Although she was normally placid and good-tempered, she could be unforgiving in the case of abuse of her kindness.
The issues at stake were tremendous—life or death. Miss Key was seeing her family systematically wiped out, while she herself was threatened by a similar fate. If she and the police had plotted together to snare the murderer, she would never pardon Fay for wrecking her plans through mutiny.
"I'll be sacked," thought the girl, turning away from the house. She knew that both the vicar and Miss Key's doctor had charitable wives who would shelter her for the night. Although she could not hide the fact that she had returned to Oldtown, she was sure Miss Key would not regard her as a criminal if she ruined no important scheme.
Before she had gone more than a few paces, however, a force stronger than prudence compelled her to return to the gate.
"Suppose Miss Key should be in danger," she thought. "Then she'd be sorry she sent me away...I can hide in my room and listen. If anything happens, I can warn her and share any danger...I must go in."
It was a hard choice for she shrank instinctively from entering Canton House. She took off her shoes to avoid crunching the gravel, but in her mental distress, she did not feel the grit through her stocking soles as she walked up the drive. She reached the front door and nerved herself to turn the handle.
To her dismay, she discovered that Canton House was open to anyone who wished to enter.
"She told them over the 'phone that the side-door would be left unlocked," she reasoned. "This proves she had another plan."
Her heart was racing when she slipped inside and stood on the lobby mat. The hall was lighted and also the library—the door of which was ajar. She thought she heard someone moving about inside the room and she prayed that she would not be discovered as she reached the stairs. As she crept up them she blessed the Victorian builder for his standard of solid worth. There was no creaking board to betray her, yet each fresh tread she mounted increased her sense of peril. While she remained on the ground floor, there were doors through which she could escape into the open, but by going upstairs, she felt that she was blowing up a bridge behind her.
The palms of her hands were clammy when she reached the square of the landing. Again she felt momentary gratitude—this time for the thick pile of the carpets at Canton House. As she paused to listen, she noticed the light shining through the transom over Miss Key's bedroom door. In ordinary circumstances it would be proof that the mistress of the house was inside, since she never wasted current; but someone was also in the library.
"I must hide," thought Fay.
Holding her breath, she tiptoed across the landing and crept into her bedroom. It was like entering a stranger's apartment for she dared not switch on the light and she felt baffled by the darkness. The air was warm and stuffy, for the radiator was turned on and the windows closed. Groping her way towards it, she managed to locate her easy chair without blundering into furniture or betraying her presence by noise. It was not until she sank down into it that she realised how utterly tired-out she was from her run. Every muscle and every fibre ached furiously while the soles of her feet throbbed as though they had been beaten.
She did not know how long she waited in the darkness—tense and listening. A nerve beat in her temple whenever the furniture creaked or snapped, as though someone were moving in the room. She had never before realised the isolation of Canton House which old Josiah had safeguarded with his unnecessary trees. There were no passers-by except the postman, and he did not enter their gate.
After a time, waves of thick black air seemed to roll over her, overpowering her with sleep. She fought against it, but gradually her stiff muscles relaxed and her lids fell...
She nodded herself awake with a violent start at the sound of a hum—low and vibrant as though an infuriated bumblebee were imprisoned inside a bottle. It was the muffled bell of Miss Key's private telephone, which was used only by the mistress of the house. It had been installed to save her going downstairs while she was taking her afternoon nap and also to increase her sense of personal importance.
As the ringing went on, Fay began to feel terrified lest it should be overheard by someone who must not be aroused. Moving a step at a time—stopping to listen—starting at every sound, she crossed the landing to Miss Key's room. In a rush of nervous courage she turned the door-handle and then stood, blinking at the light.
The room was empty and her first impulse was to bolt the door behind her. There were too many other doors, however, to inspire real confidence. She glanced towards the bathroom—the wardrobe—the built-in clothes closet—before she looked at the bed which was covered with a mound of coats.
Anyone might be hiding there—or even underneath the furs. Fearful of locking herself in with sinister company, she crossed the room and picked up the telephone. The singing in her ears deadened the sound of the operator's voice but she grasped the fact that the Exchange was putting through a long-distance call. Then her heart leaped at the sound of a weak muffled voice.
"Who is there?"
"Fay," replied the girl. "Miss Key—where are you?"
"You may well ask. I'm at Crewe Railway Hotel. I got carried on to Crewe, like the old music-hall song."
"I had to rush to catch the train at the Junction and I got into the wrong half. The Hereford coaches were at the end. We didn't stop till Crewe. I rang up Hereford but the hotel told me you had gone back to Oldtown...Tell me, how did it go off?"
Fay was conscious of a creeping cold which seemed rising to her brain as she replied.
"I don't know anything. I've not been here long."
"Who else is with you at Canton?"
"No one. I'm alone."
"Oh, my gracious," gasped Miss Key. "Go away at once. Don't make a sound. Go quietly. Do you hear me? At once."
Fay heard the click which told her that Crewe had slipped back through miles of darkness, leaving her stranded at Canton House. An emotional glutton—her taste for drama was sated as she pressed her hand over her heart in a vain attempt to quiet its frantic knocking. Miss Key had warned her not to linger but she was too paralysed with fear to stir.
"I must take a chance," she told herself. "No one heard me come in—so no one will hear me when I go. The house is empty. I only imagined I heard someone in the library. It is empty."
With desperate haste, she knotted the strings of her brogues together and slung them around her neck, to leave her hands free. Then she crept out on to the landing while she fortified herself with brave words.
"Only down the stairs. Across the hall. Then I'll be safe."
After the brightness of Miss Key's bedroom, the landing appeared unusually dark. Subconsciously she knew that something was wrong as she groped towards the balustrade and looked down into the well of the staircase. She seemed to be gazing down into the darkness of a cockpit, for only a faint gleam glimmered below. Even while she tried to assure herself that the current had failed, her sense rejected the consolation. It seemed to her that the fact of one light being left burning was proof that the rest had been purposely switched off.
There was someone in the house with her—someone who knew that she was there—someone who had darkened the scene as a prelude to the business of the night.
Miss Key's strategy had justified itself by its success. She had lured a tiger into the trap of an empty house with the bribe of herself as a tethered kid. While apparently no one had believed in such a transparent ruse, an anonymous person had rung up the Police Station and called off the defence, on the faint chance of finding Miss Key alone.
It was someone that Fay knew—and yet it was no one that she knew, since a familiar face must suffer a horrible change. There was Simone—but she was ill in bed. There was Dr. Aurelius—but Gertrude had declared that he too was murdered. Julian? She would not think of him. Lilith, Gabriel and Marie Mornington-Key remained.
Suddenly she remembered a bad dream—one of many during the past weeks. She thought she saw Mrs. Mornington-Key—crowned with the red cap of the French Revolution and with her blonde hair falling loose—yelling like a fury while she whirled a pike on which was impaled a bloody head...While she shuddered at its memory, her misery was increased. She had not even the faint consolation of wiping out Simone, since the two women's interests were identical and Simone's illness could be used to establish an alibi...
Down below, something stirred in the darkness...It was the sound of any house beginning to wake up and talk; yet suddenly with her first flicker of hope, she thought of the police. If she could rely on them, she need not fear. They might be already concealed somewhere on the premises and probably one of them had turned off the lights.
Her relief was only momentary. Although she wanted reassurance so desperately that she snatched at any fancy, she knew that police intervention was highly problematical. When she thought of the interview in the Chief Constable's office, she remembered the sceptical expression in Inspector Wallace's eyes. Both he and Colonel Pride had been altogether too polite and too ready to agree with Miss Key's suggestion. They had not paid her the compliment of argument. Their conduct now seemed natural to Fay as she realised that they were afflicted with their own headache—an unsolved multiple murder. It was inconceivable that they would listen to advice from a woman who was credited—wrongly—with the brains of a turnip.
A remorseless back-wash of memory reminded Fay of the ambiguous wording of Colonel Pride's promise. "You may be assured I shall do what is necessary."
It might have comforted her to know of the extra constable on the beat who was there in fulfilment of Colonel Pride's pledge. He had been told to "keep an eye on Canton," in the same way that empty residences came under police observation during the summer holidays. Police Constable Simpson was a conscientious young man, so that at intervals he walked past Canton House and looked through the bars of the garden gate. There was a lamp-post where the lane opened out into the road, since old Josiah Key was of sufficient civic importance to merit municipal lighting. Its flickering beam quivering over the wet evergreens on the lawn made it appear crowded with crouching forms, moving stealthily forward—one pace at a time—towards the house.
There was one tree in particular, that P.C. Simpson could have sworn had changed its position since he had looked at it last.
Yawning from boredom, he turned away from the solitude to face the comparative cheer of the telephone booth on the main road, under the electric standard. It was just at that moment that the front door opened a crack and the tree slipped inside Canton House.
Still grasping the rail of the staircase, Fay stood—with every sense sharpened—listening and staring down into the darkness. Her lips quivered with self pity as she remembered that Miss Key had arranged for the murderer to be lured into an empty house. If she had stayed at Hereford, she would have received Miss Key's telephone message and at that moment would be safely at the hotel.
"What a fool," she thought. "I came back, just asking for it...There's that noise again. Someone's there."
As she strained her eyes to see, a vast dim form came slowly out of the shadow of the library and moved across the hall. Fay stared at it with a sense of having strayed out of a world of sanity into a madman's dream. There was no mistaking the outline of the figure—the broad shoulders—or the Persian lamb coat which she had hung on a peg of the hall-stand just before she left for Hereford. The hair too was covered with a familiar dark silk handkerchief which Miss Key wore in the garden.
Fay's brain reeled as she thought of the weak muffled voice which had spoken to her over the telephone. She told herself that this was not Miss Key but some impostor—whom Julian had also seen—masquerading as the mistress of the house. Unless the voice were disguised and did not come from Crewe—or unless she was going mad. The strain was growing too heavy for her to bear.
Even as a wave of faintness swept over her, the woman turned and walked slowly in the direction of the library, so that Fay had a front view of her. She felt as though she was watching a transformation scene as the massive bulk melted to a thin figure, draped in a black gown which she had seen before. The Persian lamb coat was opened and slung over her shoulders like a cloak, to simulate breadth, when viewed from behind.
It was Lilith Aurelius—her face dead and bleached as a moon while her eyes glittered with strange blue-green fire.
In that moment of shattering surprise, the kill was made. It was so swift that Fay was conscious only of a rush of blackness as though some of the darkness had become animate and instinct with evil purpose. Even as it tore itself from the surrounding shadows, Fay became aware of a voice inside her head—sharp and insistent as the rattle of a machine-gun.
"It's your chance to escape. Go now."
The moment of cowardice passed, leaving her purged of all feeling but courage. Regardless of her own danger, she screamed a warning to Lilith.
"Look. Look behind you."
As she rushed down the stairs—shrieking—she knew that she was too late. The hideous shape of blackness had reared itself up behind Lilith and struck at her with savage force. She dropped instantly and fell forward on her face, motionless. Although she lay so still, the murderer struck at her again before he crouched over her and with swift raking movements—horribly suggestive of a churchyard ghoul rifling a grave—turned her over to see her face.
Fay shuddered at his cry which was like the howl of a lost soul.
Fighting for air, he tore off his hood, revealing the face of Dr. Aurelius. It was ghastly and streaming with sweat while his eyes squinted out of focus. Although he blundered in her direction, Fay was sure that he could not see her plainly, for the shock of recognition appeared to have brought on a stroke which affected his speech.
"Do something," he said, speaking with difficulty. "It's my wife. She mustn't die...Why? Why? I can't understand...She told me to come. Opened the door. I killed the old woman—but my wife is dead...No good now. It's finished."
As his fingers moved to his lips, Fay felt that she had lived through the minute before. Again she played Patience—laying red on black—while she listened to Parsons' voice relating the tragedy of Dr. Shackleton-Key.
"He popped a couple in his mouth and then started to walk towards the library...He was fighting the air like mad...He dropped flat on his face—dead."
She saw the drama being played out before her eyes when Dr. Aurelius staggered forward—as though propelled by muscular reaction—after his eyes were blind and glazed.
Once again a dead man crashed into the library.
Later, when Lilith's body was awaiting removal to the mortuary, Julian and Fay stood beside the table on which she was stretched. Overcome by the pity of her death, Fay was glad of the pressure of Julian's arm around her as she looked down at the ivory cheek. Lilith's head was heavily bandaged and a wave of hair fell across her face which death had smoothed out to a semblance of youth.
"She knew," she said huskily. "She knew that only her death could stop the murders. Once he had started to kill, he would go on killing until no one stood between her and a fortune. He could only inherit through her."
Warned by the quiver in her voice, Julian was purposely stolid.
"Why didn't she inform the police?" he asked.
"Betray her man? Julian, what a terrible thing to say."
"All the same, I think it was rather ruthless to do the poor devil out of a fortune and then make him do the dirty work. She could have committed suicide."
The tears in Fay's eyes brimmed over at the memory of the melancholy strains of a song, drifting through the fog.
"She believed suicide was death for ever," she explained. "She wanted to wake up and find him again. I understand."
Julian made another attempt to dry up Fay's emotion.
"I wonder when she first suspected him," he said.
As he had hoped, Fay could not resist the chance to reveal a secret.
"I can tell you," she said eagerly. "It was when we fished Gertrude out of the river. She had been strangled with a purple scarf. It belonged to Lilith and she knew only one person could have taken it."
"So you suppressed a clue?"
"I don't care. I'm glad I didn't give her away...But I do wonder why the Doctor wanted a fortune so terribly."
"Doubtless he planned to found an Institute for Research and become a big noise in the scientific world. He suffered from thwarted ambition and egomania, and he couldn't forgive the world for allowing him to be a failure." Julian lowered his voice. "Here's the Big Boy."
His eyes fierce and his face expressionless, Colonel Pride crossed to the table and looked down at Lilith. Remembering the hint of an early romance, Fay spoke softly.
"She looks beautiful. Like Juliet in her tomb."
"Yes, she looks very well," agreed the Colonel in his official voice. "Pity. If Gomme had come to us a little earlier, we might have saved her."
"For her to see him hanged?" cried Fay.
"Perhaps you are right. She tried to save him when she called us off. We had a man watching the house but he fell down on the job. He—"
The Colonel broke off as P.C. Simpson entered the library. His eyes shone with self-satisfaction as he walked smartly, forward to make his report.
"Chimney's on fire, sir."
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Administered by Matthias Kaether and Roy Glashan
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