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A Caribbean Mystery
A Caribbean Mystery 30
But Mortimer had no intention of rousing the other’s suspicions. Instead, he must go out of his way to allay them.
‘A very interesting story, Mr Dinsmead,’ he said. ‘I congratulate Miss Magdalen. An heiress and a beauty, she has a great time ahead of her.’
‘She has that,’ agreed her father warmly, ‘and she’s a rare good girl too, Mr Cleveland.’
There was every evidence of hearty warmth in his manner. ‘Well,’ said Mortimer, ‘I must be pushing along now, I suppose. I have got to thank you once more, Mr Dinsmead, for your singularly well-timed hospitality.’
Accompanied by his host, he went into the house to bid farewell to Mrs Dinsmead. She was standing by the window with her back to them, and did not hear them enter. At her husband’s jovial: ‘Here’s Mr Cleveland come to say goodbye,’ she started nervously and swung round, dropping something which she held in her hand. Mortimer picked it up for her. It was a miniature of Charlotte done in the style of some twenty-five years ago. Mortimer repeated to her the thanks he had already proffered to her husband. He noticed again her look of fear and the furtive glances that she shot at him from beneath her eyelids.
The two girls were not in evidence, but it was not part of Mortimer’s policy to seem anxious to see them; also he had his own idea, which was shortly to prove correct.
He had gone about half a mile from the house on his way down to where he had left the car the night before, when the bushes on the side of the path were thrust aside, and Magdalen came out on the track ahead of him.
‘I had to see you,’ she said.
‘I expected you,’ said Mortimer. ‘It was you who wrote SOS on the table in my room last night, wasn’t it?’
‘Why?’ asked Mortimer gently.
The girl turned aside and began pulling off leaves from a bush.
‘I don’t know,’ she said, ‘honestly, I don’t know.’
‘Tell me,’ said Mortimer.
Magdalen drew a deep breath.
‘I am a practical person,’ she said, ‘not the kind of person who imagines things or fancies them. You, I know, believe in ghosts and spirits. I don’t, and when I tell you that there is something very wrong in that house,’ she pointed up the hill, ‘I mean that there is something tangibly wrong; it’s not just an echo of the past. It has been coming on ever since we’ve been there. Every day it grows worse, Father is different, Mother is different, Charlotte is different.’
Mortimer interposed. ‘Is Johnnie different?’ he asked.
Magdalen looked at him, a dawning appreciation in her eyes. ‘No,’ she said, ‘now I come to think of it. Johnnie is not different. He is the only one who’s – who’s untouched by it all. He was untouched last night at tea.’
‘And you?’ asked Mortimer.
‘I was afraid – horribly afraid, just like a child – without knowing what it was I was afraid of. And father was – queer, there’s no other word for it, queer. He talked about miracles and then I prayed – actually prayed for a miracle, and you knocked on the door.’
She stopped abruptly, staring at him.
‘I seem mad to you, I suppose,’ she said defiantly. ‘No,’ said Mortimer, ‘on the contrary you seem extremely sane. All sane people have a premonition of danger if it is near them.’
‘You don’t understand,’ said Magdalen. ‘I was not afraid – for myself.’
‘For whom, then?’
But again Magdalen shook her head in a puzzled fashion. ‘I don’t know.’
She went on:
‘I wrote SOS on an impulse. I had an idea – absurd, no doubt, that they would not let me speak to you – the rest of them, I mean. I don’t know what it was I meant to ask you to do. I don’t know now.’
‘Never mind,’ said Mortimer. ‘I shall do it.’
‘What can you do?’
Mortimer smiled a little.
‘I can think.’
She looked at him doubtfully.
‘Yes,’ said Mortimer, ‘a lot can be done that way, more than you would ever believe. Tell me, was there any chance word or phrase that attracted your attention just before the meal last evening?’
Magdalen frowned. ‘I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘At least I heard Father say something to Mother about Charlotte being the living image of her, and he laughed in a very queer way, but – there’s nothing odd in that, is there?’
‘No,’ said Mortimer slowly, ‘except that Charlotte is not like your mother.’
He remained lost in thought for a minute or two, then looked up to find Magdalen watching him uncertainly.
‘Go home, child,’ he said, ‘and don’t worry; leave it in my hands.’
She went obediently up the path towards the cottage. Mortimer strolled on a little further, then threw himself down on the green turf. He closed his eyes, detached himself from conscious thought or effort, and let a series of pictures flit at will across his mind.
Johnnie! He always came back to Johnnie. Johnnie, completely innocent, utterly free from all the network of suspicion and intrigue, but nevertheless the pivot round which everything turned. He remembered the crash of Mrs Dinsmead’s cup on her saucer at breakfast that morning. What had caused her agitation? A chance reference on his part to the lad’s fondness for chemicals? At the moment he had not been conscious of Mr Dinsmead, but he saw him now clearly, as he sat, his teacup poised half way to his lips.
That took him back to Charlotte, as he had seen her when the door opened last night. She had sat staring at him over the rim of her teacup. And swiftly on that followed another memory. Mr Dinsmead emptying teacups one after the other, and saying ‘this tea is cold’.
He remembered the steam that went up. Surely the tea had not been so very cold after all?
Something began to stir in his brain. A memory of something read not so very long ago, within a month perhaps. Some account of a whole family poisoned by a lad’s carelessness. A packet of arsenic left in the larder had all dripped through on the bread below. He had read it in the paper. Probably Mr Dinsmead had read it too.
Things began to grow clearer . . .
Half an hour later, Mortimer Cleveland rose briskly to his feet.
It was evening once more in the cottage. The eggs were poached tonight and there was a tin of brawn. Presently Mrs Dinsmead came in from the kitchen bearing the big teapot. The family took their places round the table.
‘A contrast to last night’s weather,’ said Mrs Dinsmead, glancing towards the window.
‘Yes,’ said Mr Dinsmead, ‘it’s so still tonight that you could hear a pin drop. Now then, Mother, pour out, will you?’
Mrs Dinsmead filled the cups and handed them round the table. Then, as she put the teapot down, she gave a sudden little cry and pressed her hand to her heart. Mr Dinsmead swung round his chair, following the direction of her terrified eyes. Mortimer Cleveland was standing in the doorway.
He came forward. His manner was pleasant and apologetic.
‘I’m afraid I startled you,’ he said. ‘I had to come back for something.’
‘Back for something,’ cried Mr Dinsmead. His face was purple, his veins swelling. ‘Back for what, I should like to know?’
‘Some tea,’ said Mortimer.
With a swift gesture he took something from his pocket, and, taking up one of the teacups from the table, emptied some of its contents into a little test-tube he held in his left hand.
‘What – what are you doing?’ gasped Mr Dinsmead. His face had gone chalky-white, the purple dying out as if by magic. Mrs Dinsmead gave a thin, high, frightened cry.
‘You read the papers, I think, Mr Dinsmead? I am sure you do. Sometimes one reads accounts of a whole family being poisoned, some of them recover, some do not. In this case, one would not. The first explanation would be the tinned brawn you were eating, but supposing the doctor to be a suspicious man, not easily taken in by the tinned food theory? There is a packet of arsenic in your larder. On the shelf b
elow it is a packet of tea. There is a convenient hole in the top shelf, what more natural to suppose then that the arsenic found its way into the tea by accident? Your son Johnnie might be blamed for carelessness, nothing more.’
‘I – I don’t know what you mean,’ gasped Dinsmead.
‘I think you do,’ Mortimer took up a second teacup and filled a second test-tube. He fixed a red label to one and a blue label to the other.
‘The red-labelled one,’ he said, ‘contains tea from your daughter Char-lotte’s cup, the other from your daughter Magdalen’s. I am prepared to swear that in the first I shall find four or five times the amount of arsenic than in the latter.’
‘You are mad,’ said Dinsmead.
‘Oh! dear me, no. I am nothing of the kind. You told me today, Mr Dinsmead, that Magdalen is your daughter. Charlotte was the child you adopted, the child who was so like her mother that when I held a miniature of that mother in my hand today I mistook it for one of Charlotte herself. Your own daughter was to inherit the fortune, and since it might be impossible to keep your supposed daughter Charlotte out of sight, and someone who knew the mother might have realized the truth of the resemblance, you decided on, well – a pinch of white arsenic at the bottom of a teacup.’
Mrs Dinsmead gave a sudden high cackle, rocking herself to and fro in violent hysterics.
‘Tea,’ she squeaked, ‘that’s what he said, tea, not lemonade.’
‘Hold your tongue, can’t you?’ roared her husband wrathfully.
Mortimer saw Charlotte looking at him, wide-eyed, wondering, across the table. Then he felt a hand on his arm, and Magdalen dragged him out of earshot.
‘Those,’ she pointed at the phials – ‘Daddy. You won’t –’
Mortimer laid his hand on her shoulder. ‘My child,’ he said, ‘you don’t believe in the past. I do. I believe in the atmosphere of this house. If he had not come to it, perhaps – I say perhaps – your father might not have conceived the plan he did. I keep these two test-tubes to safeguard Charlotte now and in the future. Apart from that, I shall do nothing, in gratitude, if you will, to that hand that wrote SOS.’
‘Magnolia Blossom’ was first published in Royal Magazine, March 1926.
Vincent Easton was waiting under the clock at Victoria Station. Now and then he glanced up at it uneasily. He thought to himself: ‘How many other men have waited here for a woman who didn’t come?’
A sharp pang shot through him. Supposing that Theo didn’t come, that she had changed her mind? Women did that sort of thing. Was he sure of her – had he ever been sure of her? Did he really know anything at all about her? Hadn’t she puzzled him from the first? There had seemed to be two women – the lovely, laughing creature who was Richard Darrell’s wife, and the other – silent, mysterious, who had walked by his side in the garden of Haymer’s Close. Like a magnolia flower – that was how he thought of her – perhaps because it was under the magnolia tree that they had tasted their first rapturous, incredulous kiss. The air had been sweet with the scent of magnolia bloom, and one or two petals, velvety-soft and fragrant, had floated down, resting on that upturned face that was as creamy and as soft and as silent as they. Magnolia blossom – exotic, fragrant, mysterious.
That had been a fortnight ago – the second day he had met her. And now he was waiting for her to come to him forever. Again incredulity shot through him. She wouldn’t come. How could he ever have believed it? It would be giving up so much. The beautiful Mrs Darrell couldn’t do this sort of thing quietly. It was bound to be a nine days’ wonder, a far-reaching scandal that would never quite be forgotten. There were better, more expedient ways of doing these things – a discreet divorce, for instance.
But they had never thought of that for a moment – at least he had not. Had she, he wondered? He had never known anything of her thoughts. He had asked her to come away with him almost timorously – for after all, what was he? Nobody in particular – one of a thousand orange growers in the Transvaal. What a life to take her to – after the brilliance of London! And yet, since he wanted her so desperately, he must needs ask.
She had consented very quietly, with no hesitations or protests, as though it were the simplest thing in the world that he was asking her.
‘Tomorrow?’ he had said, amazed, almost unbelieving.
And she had promised in that soft, broken voice that was so different from the laughing brilliance of her social manner. He had compared her to a diamond when he first saw her – a thing of flashing fire, reflecting light from a hundred facets. But at that first touch, that first kiss, she had changed miraculously to the clouded softness of a pearl – a pearl like a magnolia blossom, creamy-pink.
She had promised. And now he was waiting for her to fulfil that promise.
He looked again at the clock. If she did not come soon, they would miss the train.
Sharply a wave of reaction set in. She wouldn’t come! Of course she wouldn’t come. Fool that he had been ever to expect it! What were promises? He would find a letter when he got back to his rooms – explaining, protesting, saying all the things that women do when they are excusing themselves for lack of courage.
He felt anger – anger and the bitterness of frustration.
Then he saw her coming towards him down the platform, a faint smile on her face. She walked slowly, without haste or fluster, as one who had all eternity before her. She was in black – soft black that clung, with a little black hat that framed the wonderful creamy pallor of her face.
He found himself grasping her hand, muttering stupidly: ‘So you’ve come – you have come. After all!’
How calm her voice sounded! How calm! ‘I thought you wouldn’t,’ he said, releasing her hand and breathing hard. Her eyes opened – wide, beautiful eyes. There was wonder in them, the simple wonder of a child.
He didn’t answer. Instead he turned aside and requisitioned a passing porter. They had not much time. The next few minutes were all bustle and confusion. Then they were sitting in their reserved compartment and the drab houses of southern London were drifting by them.
Theodora Darrell was sitting opposite him. At last she was his. And he knew now how incredulous, up to the very last minute, he had been. He had not dared to let himself believe. That magical, elusive quality about her had frightened him. It had seemed impossible that she should ever belong to him.
Now the suspense was over. The irrevocable step was taken. He looked across at her. She lay back in the corner, quite still. The faint smile lingered on her lips, her eyes were cast down, the long, black lashes swept the creamy curve of her cheek.
He thought: ‘What’s in her mind now? What is she thinking of? Me? Her husband? What does she think about him anyway? Did she care for him once? Or did she never care? Does she hate him, or is she indifferent to him?’ And with a pang the thought swept through him: ‘I don’t know. I never shall know. I love her, and I don’t know anything about her – what she thinks or what she feels.’
His mind circled round the thought of Theodora Darrell’s husband. He had known plenty of married women who were only too ready to talk about their husbands – of how they were misunderstood by them, of how their finer feelings were ignored. Vincent Easton reflected cynically that it was one of the best-known opening gambits.
But except casually, Theo had never spoken of Richard Darrell. Easton knew of him what everybody knew. He was a popular man, handsome, with an engaging, carefree manner. Everybody liked Darrell. His wife always seemed on excellent terms with him. But that proved nothing, Vincent reflected. Theo was well-bred – she would not air her grievances in public.
And between them, no word had passed. From that second evening of their meeting, when they had walked together in the garden, silent, their shoulders touching, and he had felt the faint tremor that shook her at his touch, there had been no explainings, no defining of the posi
tion. She had returned his kisses, a dumb, trembling creature, shorn of all that hard brilliance which, together with her cream-and-rose beauty, had made her famous. Never once had she spoken of her husband. Vincent had been thankful for that at the time. He had been glad to be spared the arguments of a woman who wished to assure herself and her lover that they were justified in yielding to their love.
Yet now the tacit conspiracy of silence worried him. He had again that panic-stricken sense of knowing nothing about this strange creature who was willingly linking her life to his. He was afraid.
In the impulse to reassure himself, he bent forward and laid a hand on the black-clad knee opposite him. He felt once again the faint tremor that shook her, and he reached up for her hand. Bending forward, he kissed the palm, a long, lingering kiss. He felt the response of her fingers on his and, looking up, met her eyes, and was content.
He leaned back in his seat. For the moment, he wanted no more. They were together. She was his. And presently he said in a light, almost bantering tone:
‘You’re very silent?’
‘Yes.’ He waited a minute, then said in a graver tone: ‘You’re sure you don’t – regret?’
Her eyes opened wide at that. ‘Oh, no!’
He did not doubt the reply. There was an assurance of sincerity behind it.
‘What are you thinking about? I want to know.’
In a low voice she answered: ‘I think I’m afraid.’
He moved over beside her then, held her to him and kissed the softness of her face and neck.
‘I love you,’ he said. ‘I love you – love you.’
Her answer was in the clinging of her body, the abandon of her lips. Then he moved back to his own corner. He picked up a magazine and so did she. Every now and then, over the top of the magazines, their eyes met. Then they smiled.