Joanna Southwood said: ‘And suppose he’s a terrible tough?’
Linnet shook her head.
‘Oh, he won’t be. I can trust Jacqueline’s taste.’
‘Ah, but people don’t run true to form in love affairs.’
Linnet shook her head impatiently. Then she changed the subject.
‘I must go and see Mr Pierce about those plans.’
‘Yes, some dreadful insanitary old cottages. I’m having them pulled down and the people moved.’
‘How sanitary and public-spirited of you, darling!’
‘They’d have had to go anyway. Those cottages would have overlooked my new swimming pool.’
‘Do the people who live in them like going?’
‘Most of them are delighted. One or two are being rather stupid about it – really tiresome in fact. They don’t seem to realize how vastly improved their living conditions will be!’
‘But you’re being quite high-handed about it, I presume.’
‘My dear Joanna, it’s to their advantage really.’
‘Yes, dear. I’m sure it is. Compulsory benefit.’
Linnet frowned. Joanna laughed.
‘Come now, you are a tyrant, admit it. A beneficent tyrant if you like!’
‘I’m not the least bit of a tyrant.’
‘But you like your own way!’
‘Linnet Ridgeway, can you look me in the face and tell me of any one occasion on which you’ve failed to do exactly as you wanted?’
‘Heaps of times.’
‘Oh, yes, “heaps of times”-just like that – but no concrete example. And you simply can’t think up one, darling, however hard you try! The triumphal progress of Linnet Ridgeway in her golden car.’
Linnet said sharply: ‘You think I’m selfish?’
‘No – just irresistible. The combined effect of money and charm. Everything goes down before you. What you can’t buy with cash you buy with a smile. Result: Linnet Ridgeway, the Girl Who Has Everything.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Joanna!’
‘Well, haven’t you got everything?’
‘I suppose I have… It sounds rather disgusting, somehow!’
‘Of course it’s disgusting, darling! You’ll probably get terribly bored and blasé by and by. In the meantime, enjoy the triumphal progress in the golden car. Only I wonder, I really do wonder, what will happen when you want to go down a street which has a board saying No Thoroughfare.’
‘Don’t be idiotic, Joanna.’ As Lord Windlesham joined them, Linnet said, turning to him: ‘Joanna is saying the nastiest things to me.’
‘All spite, darling, all spite,’ said Joanna vaguely as she got up from her seat.
She made no apology for leaving them. She had caught the glint in Windlesham’s eye.
He was silent for a minute or two. Then he went straight to the point.
‘Have you come to a decision, Linnet?’
Linnet said slowly:
‘Am I being a brute? I suppose, if I’m not sure, I ought to say No-’
He interrupted her:
‘Don’t say it. You shall have time – as much time as you want. But I think, you know, we should be happy together.’
‘You see,’ Linnet’s tone was apologetic, almost childish, ‘I’m enjoying myself so much – especially with all this.’ She waved a hand. ‘I wanted to make Wode Hall into my real ideal of a country house, and I do think I’ve got it nice, don’t you?’
‘It’s beautiful. Beautifully planned. Everything perfect. You’re very clever, Linnet.’ He paused a minute and went on: ‘And you like Charltonbury, don’t you? Of course it wants modernizing and all that – but you’re so clever at that sort of thing. You enjoy it.’
‘Why, of course, Charltonbury’s divine.’
She spoke with ready enthusiasm, but inwardly she was conscious of a sudden chill. An alien note had sounded, disturbing her complete satisfaction with life. She did not analyse the feeling at the moment, but later, when Windlesham had left her, she tried to probe the recesses of her mind.
Charltonbury – yes, that was it – she had resented the mention of Charltonbury. But why? Charltonbury was modestly famous. Windlesham’s ancestors had held it since the time of Elizabeth. To be mistress of Charltonbury was a position unsurpassed in society. Windlesham was one of the most desirable partis in England.
Naturally he couldn’t take Wode seriously… It was not in any way to be compared with Charltonbury.
Ah, but Wode was hers! She had seen it, acquired it, rebuilt and re-dressed it, lavished money on it. It was her own possession, her kingdom.
But in a sense it wouldn’t count if she married Windlesham. What would they want with two country places? And of the two, naturally Wode Hall would be the one to be given up.
She, Linnet Ridgeway, wouldn’t exist any longer. She would be Countess of Windlesham, bringing a fine dowry to Charltonbury and its master. She would be queen consort, not queen any longer.
‘I’m being ridiculous,’ said Linnet to herself.
But it was curious how she did hate the idea of abandoning Wode…
And wasn’t there something else nagging at her? Jackie’s voice with that queer blurred note in it saying: ‘I shall die if I can’t marry him! I shall die. I shall die…’
So positive, so earnest. Did she, Linnet, feel like that about Windlesham? Assuredly she didn’t. Perhaps she could never feel like that about anyone. It must be – rather wonderful – to feel like that…
The sound of a car came through the open window.
Linnet shook herself impatiently. That must be Jackie and her young man. She’d go out and meet them.
She was standing in the open doorway as Jacqueline and Simon Doyle got out of the car.
‘Linnet!’ Jackie ran to her. ‘This is Simon. Simon, here’s Linnet. She’s just the most wonderful person in the world.’
Linnet saw a tall, broad-shouldered young man, with very dark blue eyes, crisply curling brown hair, a square chin, and a boyish, appealing, simple smile…
She stretched out a hand. The hand that clasped hers was firm and warm… She liked the way he looked at her, the naïve genuine admiration.
Jackie had told him she was wonderful, and he clearly thought that she was wonderful…
A warm sweet feeling of intoxication ran through her veins.
‘Isn’t this all lovely?’ she said. ‘Come in, Simon, and let me welcome my new land agent properly.’
And as she turned to lead the way she thought: ‘I’m frightfully – frightfully happy. I like Jackie’s young man… I like him enormously…’
And then a sudden pang: ‘Lucky Jackie…’
Tim Allerton leant back in his wicker chair and yawned as he looked out over the sea. He shot a quick sidelong glance at his mother.
Mrs Allerton was a good-looking, white-haired woman of fifty. By imparting an expression of pinched severity to her mouth every time she looked at her son, she sought to disguise the fact of her intense affection for him. Even total strangers were seldom deceived by this device and Tim himself saw through it perfectly.
‘Do you really like Majorca, Mother?’
‘Well-,’ Mrs Allerton considered, ‘it’s cheap.’
‘And cold,’ said Tim with a slight shiver.
He was a tall, thin young man, with dark hair and a rather narrow chest. His mouth had a very sweet expression, his eyes were sad and his chin was indecisive. He had long delicate hands.
Threatened by consumption some years ago, he had never displayed a really robust physique. He was popularly supposed ‘to write’, but it was understood among his friends that enquiries as to literary output were not encouraged.
‘What are you thinking of, Tim?’
Mrs Allerton was alert. Her bright dark-brown eyes looked suspicious.
Tim Allerton grinned at her:
‘I was thinking of Egypt.’
‘Egypt?’ Mrs Allerton sounded doubtful.
‘Real warmth, darling. Lazy golden sands. The Nile. I’d like to go up the Nile, wouldn’t you?’
‘Oh, I’d like it.’ Her tone was dry. ‘But Egypt’s expensive, my dear. Not for those who have to count the pennies.’
Tim laughed. He rose, stretched himself. Suddenly he looked alive and eager. There was an excited note in his voice.
‘The expense will be my affair. Yes, darling. A little flutter on the Stock Exchange. With thoroughly satisfactory results. I heard this morning.’
‘This morning?’ said Mrs Allerton sharply. ‘You only had one letter and that-’
She stopped and bit her lip.
Tim looked momentarily undecided whether to be amused or annoyed. Amusement gained the day.
‘And that was from Joanna,’ he finished coolly. ‘Quite right, Mother. What a queen of detectives you’d make! The famous Hercule Poirot would have to look to his laurels if you were about.’
Mrs Allerton looked rather cross.
‘I just happened to see the handwriting-’
‘And knew it wasn’t that of a stockbroker? Quite right. As a matter of fact it was yesterday I heard from them. Poor Joanna’s handwriting is rather noticeable – sprawls about all over the envelope like an inebriated spider.’
‘What does Joanna say? Any news?’
Mrs Allerton strove to make her voice sound casual and ordinary. The friendship between her son and his second cousin, Joanna Southwood, always irritated her. Not, as she put it to herself, that there was ‘anything in it’. She was quite sure there wasn’t. Tim had never manifested a sentimental interest in Joanna, nor she in him. Their mutual attraction seemed to be founded on gossip and the possession of a large number of friends and acquaintances in common. They both liked people and discussing people. Joanna had an amusing if caustic tongue.
It was not because Mrs Allerton feared that Tim might fall in love with Joanna that she found herself always becoming a little stiff in manner if Joanna were present or when letters from her arrived.
It was some other feeling hard to define – perhaps an unacknowledged jealousy in the unfeigned pleasure Tim always seemed to take in Joanna’s society. He and his mother were such perfect companions that the sight of him absorbed and interested in another woman always startled Mrs Allerton slightly. She fancied, too, that her own presence on these occasions set some barrier between the two members of the younger generation. Often she had come upon them eagerly absorbed in some conversation and, at sight of her, their talk had wavered, had seemed to include her rather too purposefully and as in duty bound. Quite definitely, Mrs Allerton did not like Joanna Southwood. She thought her insincere, affected, and essentially superficial. She found it very hard to prevent herself saying so in unmeasured tones.
In answer to her question, Tim pulled the letter out of his pocket and glanced through it. It was quite a long letter, his mother noted.
‘Nothing much,’ he said. ‘The Devenishes are getting a divorce. Old Monty’s been had up for being drunk in charge of a car. Windlesham’s gone to Canada. Seems he was pretty badly hit when Linnet Ridgeway turned him down. She’s definitely going to marry this land agent person.’
‘How extraordinary! Is he very dreadful?’
‘No, no, not at all. He’s one of the Devonshire Doyles. No money, of course – and he was actually engaged to one of Linnet’s best friends. Pretty thick, that.’
‘I don’t think it’s at all nice,’ said Mrs Allerton, flushing.
Tim flashed her a quick affectionate glance.
‘I know, darling. You don’t approve of snaffling other people’s husbands and all that sort of thing.’
‘In my day we had our standards,’ said Mrs Allerton. ‘And a very good thing too! Nowadays young people seem to think they can just go about doing anything they choose.’
‘They don’t only think it. They do it. Vide Linnet Ridgeway!’
‘Well, I think it’s horrid!’
Tim twinkled at her.
‘Cheer up, you old die-hard! Perhaps I agree with you. Anyway, I haven’t helped myself to anyone’s wife or fiancée yet.’
‘I’m sure you’d never do such a thing,’ said Mrs Allerton. She added with spirit, ‘I’ve brought you up properly.’
‘So the credit is yours, not mine.’
He smiled teasingly at her as he folded the letter and put it away again. Mrs Allerton let the thought just flash across her mind: ‘Most letters he shows to me. He only reads me snippets from Joanna’s.’
But she put the unworthy thought away from her, and decided, as ever, to behave like a gentlewoman.
‘Is Joanna enjoying life?’ she asked.
‘So so. Says she thinks of opening a delicatessen shop in Mayfair.’
‘She always talks about being hard up,’ said Mrs Allerton with a tinge of spite, ‘but she goes about everywhere and her clothes must cost her a lot. She’s always beautifully dressed.’
‘Ah, well,’ said Tim, ‘she probably doesn’t pay for them. No, mother, I don’t mean what your Edwardian mind suggests to you. I just mean quite literally that she leaves her bills unpaid.’
Mrs Allerton sighed.
‘I never know how people manage to do that.’
‘It’s a kind of special gift,’ said Tim. ‘If only you have sufficiently extravagant tastes, and absolutely no sense of money values, people will give you any amount of credit.’
‘Yes, but you come to the Bankruptcy Court in the end like poor Sir George Wode.’
‘You have a soft spot for that old horse coper – probably because he called you a rosebud in 1879 at a dance.’
‘I wasn’t born in 1879,’ Mrs Allerton retorted with spirit. ‘Sir George has charming manners, and I won’t have you calling him a horse coper.’
‘I’ve heard funny stories about him from people that know.’
‘You and Joanna don’t mind what you say about people; anything will do so long as it’s sufficiently illnatured.’
Tim raised his eyebrows.
‘My dear, you’re quite heated. I didn’t know old Wode was such a favourite of yours.’
‘You don’t realize how hard it was for him, having to sell Wode Hall. He cared terribly about that place.’
Tim suppressed the easy retort. After all, who was he to judge? Instead he said thoughtfully:
‘You know, I think you’re not far wrong there. Linnet asked him to come down and see what she’d done to the place, and he refused quite rudely.’
‘Of course. She ought to have known better than to ask him.’
‘And I believe he’s quite venomous about her – mutters things under his breath whenever he sees her. Can’t forgive her for having given him an absolutely top price for the worm-eaten family estate.’
‘And you can’t understand that?’ Mrs Allerton spoke sharply.
‘Frankly,’ said Tim calmly, ‘I can’t. Why live in the past? Why cling on to things that have been?’
‘What are you going to put in their place?’
He shrugged his shoulders.
‘Excitement, perhaps. Novelty. The joy of never knowing what may turn up from day to day. Instead of inheriting a useless tract of land, the pleasure of making money for yourself – by your own brains and skill.’
‘A successful deal on the Stock Exchange, in fact!’
‘And what about an equal loss on the Stock Exchange?’
‘That, dear, is rather tactless. And quite inappropriate today… What about this Egypt plan?’
He cut in smiling at her:
‘That’s settled. We’ve both always wanted to see Egypt.’
‘When do you suggest?’
‘Oh, next month. January’s about the best time there. We’ll enjoy the delightful society in this hotel a few weeks longer.’
‘Tim,’ said Mrs Allerton reproachfully. Then she added guiltily: ‘I’m afraid I promised Mrs Leech that you’d go with her to the police station. She doesn’t understand any Spanish.’
Tim made a grimace.
‘About her ring? The blood-red ruby of the horseleech’s daughter? Does she still persist in thinking it’s been stolen? I’ll go if you like, but it’s a waste of time. She’ll only get some wretched chambermaid into trouble. I distinctly saw it on her finger when she went into the sea that day. It came off in the water and she never noticed.’
‘She says she is quite sure she took it off and left it on her dressing table.’
‘Well, she didn’t. I saw it with my own eyes. The woman’s a fool. Any woman’s a fool who goes prancing into the sea in December, pretending the water’s quite warm just because the sun happens to be shining rather brightly at the moment. Stout women oughtn’t to be allowed to bathe anyway; they look so revolting in bathing dresses.’
Mrs Allerton murmured:
‘I really feel I ought to give up bathing.’
Tim gave a shout of laughter.
‘You? You can give most of the young things points and to spare.’
Mrs Allerton sighed and said,
‘I wish there were a few more young people for you here.’
Tim Allerton shook his head decidedly.
‘I don’t. You and I get along rather comfortably without outside distractions.’
‘You’d like it if Joanna were here.’
‘I wouldn’t.’ His tone was unexpectedly resolute. ‘You’re all wrong there. Joanna amuses me, but I don’t really like her, and to have her around much gets on my nerves. I’m thankful she isn’t here. I should be quite resigned if I were never to see Joanna again.’ He added, almost below his breath: ‘There’s only one woman in the world I’ve got a real respect and admiration for, and I think, Mrs Allerton, you know very well who that woman is.’
His mother blushed and looked quite confused.
Tim said gravely:
‘There aren’t very many really nice women in the world. You happen to be one of them.’
In an apartment overlooking Central Park in New York Mrs Robson exclaimed:
‘If that isn’t just too lovely! You really are the luckiest girl, Cornelia.’
Cornelia Robson flushed responsively. She was a big clumsy-looking girl with brown doglike eyes.
‘Oh, it will be wonderful!’ she gasped.
Old Miss Van Schuyler inclined her head in a satisfied fashion at this correct attitude on the part of poor relations.
‘I’ve always dreamed of a trip to Europe,’ sighed Cornelia, ‘but I just didn’t feel I’d ever get there.’
‘Miss Bowers will come with me as usual, of course,’ said Miss Van Schuyler, ‘but as a social companion I find her limited – very limited. There are many little things that Cornelia can do for me.’
‘I’d just love to, Cousin Marie,’ said Cornelia eagerly.
‘Well, well, then that’s settled,’ said Miss Van Schuyler. ‘Just run and find Miss Bowers, my dear. It’s time for my eggnog.’
Cornelia departed. Her mother said:
‘My dear Marie, I’m really most grateful to you! You know I think Cornelia suffers a lot from not being a social success. It makes her feel kind of mortified. If I could afford to take her to places – but you know how it’s been since Ned died.’
‘I’m very glad to take her,’ said Miss Van Schuyler. ‘Cornelia has always been a nice handy girl, willing to run errands, and not so selfish as some of these young people nowadays.’
Mrs Robson rose and kissed her rich relative’s wrinkled and slightly yellow face.
‘I’m just ever so grateful,’ she declared.
On the stairs she met a tall capable-looking woman who was carrying a glass containing a yellow foamy liquid.
‘Well, Miss Bowers, so you’re off to Europe?’
‘Why, yes, Mrs Robson.’
‘What a lovely trip!’
‘Why, yes, I should think it would be very enjoyable.’
‘But you’ve been abroad before?’
‘Oh, yes, Mrs Robson. I went over to Paris with Miss Van Schuyler last fall. But I’ve never been to Egypt before.’
Mrs Robson hesitated.
‘I do hope – there won’t be any – trouble.’
She had lowered her voice. Miss Bowers, however, replied in her usual tone:
‘Oh, no, Mrs Robson; I shall take good care of that. I keep a very sharp look-out always.’
But there was still a faint shadow on Mrs Robson’s face as she slowly continued down the stairs.
In his office downtown Mr Andrew Pennington was opening his personal mail. Suddenly his fist clenched itself and came down on his desk with a bang; his face crimsoned and two big veins stood out on his forehead. He pressed a buzzer on his desk and a smart-looking stenographer appeared with commendable promptitude.
‘Tell Mr Rockford to step in here.’
‘Yes, Mr Pennington.’
A few minutes later, Sterndale Rockford, Pennington’s partner, entered the office. The two men were not unlike – both tall, spare, with greying hair and cleanshaven clever faces.
‘What’s up, Pennington?’
Pennington looked up from the letter he was rereading. He said:
‘You heard what I said! Linnet Ridgeway’s married!’
‘How? When? Why didn’t we hear about it?’
Pennington glanced at the calendar on his desk.
‘She wasn’t married when she wrote this letter, but she’s married now. Morning of the fourth. That’s today.’
Rockford dropped into a chair.
‘Whew! No warning! Nothing? Who’s the man?’
Pennington referred again to the letter.
‘Doyle. Simon Doyle.’
‘What sort of a fellow is he? Ever heard of him?’
‘No. She doesn’t say much…’ He scanned the lines of clear, upright hand writing. ‘Got an idea there’s something hole-and-corner about this business… That doesn’t matter. The whole point is, she’s married.’
The eyes of the two men met. Rockford nodded.
‘This needs a bit of thinking out,’ he said quietly.
‘What are we going to do about it?’
‘I’m asking you.’
The two men sat silent. Then Rockford said:
‘Got any plan?’
Pennington said slowly:
‘The Normandie sails today. One of us could just make it.’
‘You’re crazy! What’s the big idea?’
Pennington began: ‘Those Britisher lawyers-’ and stopped.
‘What about ’em. Surely you’re not going over to tackle ’em? You’re mad!’
‘I’m not suggesting that you – or I – should go to England.’
‘What’s the big idea, then?’
Pennington smoothed out the letter on the table.
‘Linnet’s going to Egypt for her honeymoon. Expects to be there a month or more…’
‘Egypt – eh?’ Rockford considered. Then he looked up and met the other’s glance. ‘Egypt,’ he said; ‘that’s your idea!’
‘Yes – a chance meeting. Over on a trip. Linnet and her husband – honeymoon atmosphere. It might be done.’
Rockford said doubtfully:
‘She’s sharp, Linnet is… but-’
Pennington said softly: ‘I think there might be ways of – managing it.’
Again their eyes met. Rockford nodded.
‘All right, big boy.’
Pennington looked at the clock.
‘We’ll have to hustle – whichever of us is going.’
‘You go,’ said Rockford promptly. ‘You always made a hit with Linnet. “Uncle Andrew.” That’s the ticket!’
Pennington’s face had hardened.
He said: ‘I hope I can pull it off.’
His partner said:
‘You’ve got to pull it off. ‘The situation’s critical…’