A Caribbean Mystery

A Caribbean Mystery

A Caribbean Mystery 51

  Haydock was talking to a woman. She moved away from him and came towards Evans and the inspector recognized her. It was Mrs Merrowdene. On an impulse he put himself deliberately in her path.

  Mrs Merrowdene was rather a fine-looking woman. She had a broad serene brow, very beautiful brown eyes, and a placid expression. She had the look of an Italian madonna which she heightened by parting her hair in the middle and looping it over her ears. She had a deep rather sleepy voice.

  She smiled up at Evans, a contented welcoming smile.

  ‘I thought it was you, Mrs Anthony – I mean Mrs Merrowdene,’ he said glibly.

  He made the slip deliberately, watching her without seeming to do so. He saw her eyes widen, heard the quick intake of her breath. But her eyes did not falter. She gazed at him steadily and proudly.

  ‘I was looking for my husband,’ she said quietly. ‘Have you seen him anywhere about?’

  ‘He was over in that direction when I last saw him.’

  They went side by side in the direction indicated, chatting quietly and pleasantly. The inspector felt his admiration mounting. What a woman! What self-command. What wonderful poise. A remarkable woman – and a very dangerous one. He felt sure – a very dangerous one.

  He still felt very uneasy, though he was satisfied with his initial step. He had let her know that he recognized her. That would put her on her guard. She would not dare attempt anything rash. There was the question of Merrowdene. If he could be warned . . .

  They found the little man absently contemplating a china doll which had fallen to his share in the penny dip. His wife suggested going home and he agreed eagerly. Mrs Merrowdene turned to the inspector:

  ‘Won’t you come back with us and have a quiet cup of tea, Mr Evans?’

  Was there a faint note of challenge in her voice? He thought there was.

  ‘Thank you, Mrs Merrowdene. I should like to very much.’

  They walked there, talking together of pleasant ordinary things. The sun shone, a breeze blew gently, everything around them was pleasant and ordinary.

  Their maid was out at the fête, Mrs Merrowdene explained, when they arrived at the charming old-world cottage. She went into her room to remove her hat, returning to set out tea and boil the kettle on a little silver lamp. From a shelf near the fireplace she took three small bowls and saucers.

  ‘We have some very special Chinese tea,’ she explained. ‘And we always drink it in the Chinese manner – out of bowls, not cups.’

  She broke off, peered into a bowl and exchanged it for another with an exclamation of annoyance.

  ‘George – it’s too bad of you. You’ve been taking these bowls again.’

  ‘I’m sorry, dear,’ said the professor apologetically. ‘They’re such a convenient size. The ones I ordered haven’t come.’

  ‘One of these days you’ll poison us all,’ said his wife with a half-laugh. ‘Mary finds them in the laboratory and brings them back here, and never troubles to wash them out unless they’ve anything very noticeable in them. Why, you were using one of them for potassium cyanide the other day. Really, George, it’s frightfully dangerous.’

  Merrowdene looked a little irritated.

  ‘Mary’s no business to remove things from the laboratory. She’s not to touch anything there.’

  ‘But we often leave our teacups there after tea. How is she to know? Be reasonable, dear.’

  The professor went into his laboratory, murmuring to himself, and with a smile Mrs Merrowdene poured boiling water on the tea and blew out the flame of the little silver lamp.

  Evans was puzzled. Yet a glimmering of light penetrated to him. For some reason or other, Mrs Merrowdene was showing her hand. Was this to be the ‘accident’? Was she speaking of all this so as deliberately to prepare her alibi beforehand? So that when, one day, the ‘accident’ happened, he would be forced to give evidence in her favour. Stupid of her, if so, because before that –

  Suddenly he drew in his breath. She had poured the tea into the three bowls. One she set before him, one before herself, the other she placed on a little table by the fire near the chair her husband usually sat in, and it was as she placed this last one on the table that a little strange smile curved round her lips. It was the smile that did it.

  He knew!

  A remarkable woman – a dangerous woman. No waiting – no preparation. This afternoon – this very afternoon – with him here as witness. The boldness of it took his breath away.

  It was clever – it was damnably clever. He would be able to prove nothing. She counted on his not suspecting – simply because it was ‘so soon’. A woman of lightning rapidity of thought and action.

  He drew a deep breath and leaned forward. ‘Mrs Merrowdene, I’m a man of queer whims. Will you be very kind and indulge me in one of them?’

  She looked inquiring but unsuspicious.

  He rose, took the bowl from in front of her and crossed to the little table where he substituted it for the other. This other he brought back and placed in front of her.

  ‘I want to see you drink this.’

  Her eyes met his. They were steady, unfathomable. The colour slowly drained from her face.

  She stretched out her hand, raised the cup. He held his breath. Supposing all along he had made a mistake.

  She raised it to her lips – at the last moment, with a shudder, she leant forward and quickly poured it into a pot containing a fern. Then she sat back and gazed at him defiantly.

  He drew a long sigh of relief, and sat down again. ‘Well?’ she said.

  Her voice had altered. It was slightly mocking – defiant.

  He answered her soberly and quietly: ‘You are a very clever woman, Mrs Merrowdene. I think you understand me. There must be no – repetition. You know what I mean?’

  ‘I know what you mean.’

  Her voice was even, devoid of expression. He nodded his head, satisfied. She was a clever woman, and she didn’t want to be hanged.

  ‘To your long life and to that of your husband,’ he said significantly, and raised his tea to his lips.

  Then his face changed. It contorted horribly . . . he tried to rise – to cry out . . . His body stiffened – his face went purple. He fell back sprawling over his chair – his limbs convulsed.

  Mrs Merrowdene leaned forward, watching him. A little smile crossed her lips. She spoke to him – very softly and gently.

  ‘You made a mistake, Mr Evans. You thought I wanted to kill George . . . How stupid of you – how very stupid.’

  She sat there a minute longer looking at the dead man, the third man who had threatened to cross her path and separate her from the man she loved.

  Her smile broadened. She looked more than ever like a madonna. Then she raised her voice and called:

  ‘George, George! . . . Oh, do come here! I’m afraid there’s been the most dreadful accident . . . Poor Mr Evans . . .’

  Chapter 32

  Next to a Dog

  ‘Next to a Dog’ was first published in Grand Magazine, September 1929.

  The ladylike woman behind the Registry Office table cleared her throat and peered across at the girl who sat opposite.

  ‘Then you refuse to consider the post? It only came in this morning. A very nice part of Italy, I believe, a widower with a little boy of three and an elderly lady, his mother or aunt.’

  Joyce Lambert shook her head. ‘I can’t go out of England,’ she said in a tired voice; ‘there are reasons. If only you could find me a daily post?’

  Her voice shook slightly – ever so slightly, for she had it well under control. Her dark blue eyes looked appealingly at the woman opposite her.

  ‘It’s very difficult, Mrs Lambert. The only kind of daily governess required is one who has full qualifications. You have none. I have hundreds on my books – literally hundreds.’ She paused. ‘You have someone at home you can’t leave?’

  Joyce nodded.

  ‘A child?’

  ‘No, not a child.’ And a
faint smile flickered across her face. ‘Well, it is very unfortunate. I will do my best, of course, but –’

  The interview was clearly at an end. Joyce rose. She was biting her lip to keep the tears from springing to her eyes as she emerged from the frowsy office into the street.

  ‘You mustn’t,’ she admonished herself sternly. ‘Don’t be a snivelling little idiot. You’re panicking – that’s what you’re doing – panicking. No good ever came of giving way to panic. It’s quite early in the day still and lots of things may happen. Aunt Mary ought to be good for a fortnight anyway. Come on, girl, step out, and don’t keep your well-to-do relations waiting.’

  She walked down Edgware Road, across the park, and then down to Victoria Street, where she turned into the Army and Navy Stores. She went to the lounge and sat down glancing at her watch. It was just half past one. Five minutes sped by and then an elderly lady with her arms full of parcels bore down upon her.

  ‘Ah! There you are, Joyce. I’m a few minutes late, I’m afraid. The service is not as good as it used to be in the luncheon room. You’ve had lunch, of course?’

  Joyce hesitated a minute or two, then she said quietly: ‘Yes, thank you.’

  ‘I always have mine at half past twelve,’ said Aunt Mary, settling herself comfortably with her parcels. ‘Less rush and a clearer atmosphere. The curried eggs here are excellent.’

  ‘Are they?’ said Joyce faintly. She felt that she could hardly bear to think of curried eggs – the hot steam rising from them – the delicious smell! She wrenched her thoughts resolutely aside.

  ‘You look peaky, child,’ said Aunt Mary, who was herself of a comfortable figure. ‘Don’t go in for this modern fad of eating no meat. All fal-de-lal. A good slice off the joint never did anyone any harm.’

  Joyce stopped herself from saying, ‘It wouldn’t do me any harm now.’ If only Aunt Mary would stop talking about food. To raise your hopes by asking you to meet her at half past one and then to talk of curried eggs and slices of roast meat – oh! cruel – cruel.

  ‘Well, my dear,’ said Aunt Mary. ‘I got your letter – and it was very nice of you to take me at my word. I said I’d be pleased to see you anytime and so I should have been – but as it happens, I’ve just had an extremely good offer to let the house. Quite too good to be missed, and bringing their own plate and linen. Five months. They come in on Thursday and I go to Harrogate. My rheumatism’s been troubling me lately.’

  ‘I see,’ said Joyce. ‘I’m so sorry.’

  ‘So it’ll have to be for another time. Always pleased to see you, my dear.’

  ‘Thank you, Aunt Mary.’

  ‘You know, you do look peaky,’ said Aunt Mary, considering her attentively. ‘You’re thin, too; no flesh on your bones, and what’s happened to your pretty colour? You always had a nice healthy colour. Mind you take plenty of exercise.’

  ‘I’m taking plenty of exercise today,’ said Joyce grimly. She rose. ‘Well Aunt Mary, I must be getting along.’

  Back again – through St James’s Park this time, and so on through Berkeley Square and across Oxford Street and up Edgware Road, past Praed Street to the point where the Edgware Road begins to think of becoming something else. Then aside, through a series of dirty little streets till one particular dingy house was reached.

  Joyce inserted her latchkey and entered a small frowsy hall. She ran up the stairs till she reached the top landing. A door faced her and from the bottom of this door a snuffling noise proceeded succeeded in a second by a series of joyful whines and yelps.

  ‘Yes, Terry darling – it’s Missus come home.’

  As the door opened, a white body precipitated itself upon the girl – an aged wire-haired terrier very shaggy as to coat and suspiciously bleary as to eyes. Joyce gathered him up in her arms and sat down on the floor.

  ‘Terry darling! Darling, darling Terry. Love your Missus, Terry; love your Missus a lot!’

  And Terry obeyed, his eager tongue worked busily, he licked her face, her ears, her neck and all the time his stump of a tail wagged furiously.

  ‘Terry darling, what are we going to do? What’s going to become of us? Oh! Terry darling, I’m so tired.’

  ‘Now then, miss,’ said a tart voice behind her. ‘If you’ll give over hugging and kissing that dog, here’s a cup of nice hot tea for you.’

  ‘Oh! Mrs Barnes, how good of you.’

  Joyce scrambled to her feet. Mrs Barnes was a big, formidable-looking woman. Beneath the exterior of a dragon she concealed an unexpectedly warm heart.

  ‘A cup of hot tea never did anyone any harm,’ enunciated Mrs Barnes, voicing the universal sentiment of her class.

  Joyce sipped gratefully. Her landlady eyed her covertly.

  ‘Any luck, miss – ma’am, I should say?’

  Joyce shook her head, her face clouded over. ‘Ah!’ said Mrs Barnes with a sigh. ‘Well, it doesn’t seem to be what you might call a lucky day.’

  Joyce looked up sharply.

  ‘Oh, Mrs Barnes – you don’t mean –’

  Mrs Barnes was nodding gloomily. ‘Yes – it’s Barnes. Out of work again. What we’re going to do, I’m sure I don’t know.’

  ‘Oh, Mrs Barnes – I must – I mean you’ll want –’

  ‘Now don’t you fret, my dear. I’m not denying but that I’d be glad if you’d found something – but if you haven’t – you haven’t. Have you finished that tea? I’ll take the cup.’

  ‘Not quite.’

  ‘Ah!’ said Mrs Barnes accusingly. ‘You’re going to give what’s left to that dratted dog – I know you.’

  ‘Oh, please, Mrs Barnes. Just a little drop. You don’t mind really, do you?’

  ‘It wouldn’t be any use if I did. You’re crazy about that cantankerous brute. Yes, that’s what I say – and that’s what he is. As near as nothing bit me this morning, he did.’

  ‘Oh, no, Mrs Barnes! Terry wouldn’t do such a thing.’

  ‘Growled at me – showed his teeth. I was just trying to see if there was anything could be done to those shoes of yours.’

  ‘He doesn’t like anyone touching my things. He thinks he ought to guard them.’

  ‘Well, what does he want to think for? It isn’t a dog’s business to think. He’d be well enough in his proper place, tied up in the yard to keep off burglars. All this cuddling! He ought to be put away, miss – that’s what I say.’

  ‘No, no, no. Never. Never!’

  ‘Please yourself,’ said Mrs Barnes. She took the cup from the table, retrieved the saucer from the floor where Terry had just finished his share, and stalked from the room.

  ‘Terry,’ said Joyce. ‘Come here and talk to me. What are we going to do, my sweet?’

  She settled herself in the rickety armchair, with Terry on her knees. She threw off her hat and leaned back. She put one of Terry’s paws on each side of her neck and kissed him lovingly on his nose and between his eyes. Then she began talking to him in a soft low voice, twisting his ears gently between her fingers.

  ‘What are we going to do about Mrs Barnes, Terry? We owe her four weeks – and she’s such a lamb, Terry – such a lamb. She’d never turn us out. But we can’t take advantage of her being a lamb, Terry. We can’t do that. Why does Barnes want to be out of work? I hate Barnes. He’s always getting drunk. And if you’re always getting drunk, you are usually out of work. But I don’t get drunk, Terry, and yet I’m out of work.

  ‘I can’t leave you, darling. I can’t leave you. There’s not even anyone I could leave you with – nobody who’d be good to you. You’re getting old, Terry – twelve years old – and nobody wants an old dog who’s rather blind and a little deaf and a little – yes, just a little – bad-tempered. You’re sweet to me, darling, but you’re not sweet to everyone, are you? You growl. It’s because you know the world’s turning against you. We’ve just got each other, haven’t we, darling?’

  Terry licked her cheek delicately.

  ‘Talk to me, darling.’

Terry gave a long lingering groan – almost a sigh, then he nuzzled his nose in behind Joyce’s ear.

  ‘You trust me, don’t you, angel? You know I’d never leave you. But what are we going to do? We’re right down to it now, Terry.’

  She settled back further in the chair, her eyes half closed.

  ‘Do you remember, Terry, all the happy times we used to have? You and I and Michael and Daddy. Oh, Michael – Michael! It was his first leave, and he wanted to give me a present before he went back to France. And I told him not to be extravagant. And then we were down in the country – and it was all a surprise. He told me to look out of the window, and there you were, dancing up the path on a long lead. The funny little man who brought you, a little man who smelt of dogs. How he talked. “The goods, that’s what he is. Look at him, ma’am, ain’t he a picture? I said to myself, as soon as the lady and gentleman see him they’ll say: ‘That dog’s the goods!’”

  ‘He kept on saying that – and we called you that for quite a long time – the Goods! Oh, Terry, you were such a darling of a puppy, with your little head on one side, wagging your absurd tail! And Michael went away to France and I had you – the darlingest dog in the world. You read all Michael’s letters with me, didn’t you? You’d sniff them, and I’d say – “From Master,” and you’d understand. We were so happy – so happy. You and Michael and I. And now Michael’s dead, and you’re old, and I – I’m so tired of being brave.’

  Terry licked her.

  ‘You were there when the telegram came. If it hadn’t been for you, Terry – if I hadn’t had you to hold on to . . .’

  She stayed silent for some minutes.

  ‘And we’ve been together ever since – been through all the ups and downs together – there have been a lot of downs, haven’t there? And now we’ve come right up against it. There are only Michael’s aunts, and they think I’m all right. They don’t know he gambled that money away. We must never tell anyone that. I don’t care – why shouldn’t he? Everyone has to have some fault. He loved us both, Terry, and that’s all that matters. His own relations were always inclined to be down on him and to say nasty things. We’re not going to give them the chance. But I wish I had some relations of my own. It’s very awkward having no relations at all.