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The Benevent Treasure
A Miss Silver Mystery
By Patricia Wentworth
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1954 Patricia Wentworth Turnbull
All rights reserved.
More than five years later
Candida was reading a letter. It was ten days since Barbara Sayle's funeral, and there had been a great many letters to read and to answer. Everyone had been very kind. She had written the same things over and over again until they almost wrote themselves. What it all added up to was that Barbara was gone. She had been ill for three years, and Candida had nursed her. Now that it was all over, there was practically no money, and she would have to look for a job. The bother was that she wasn't trained. She had left school and come home to look after Barbara.
And now Barbara was gone.
All the letters which she had been answering had been concerned with this one thing, but the letter which she had just opened was different. It wasn't about Barbara at all, it was about herself. She sat by the window reading it, with the wintry light slanting in across the expensive paper and the old-fashioned pointed writing. There was an embossed address in the top right-hand corner:
The letter began, "My dear Candida," and it was signed, "Olivia Benevent." She read:
"My dear Candida
I am writing to condole with you on your recent bereavement. The unhappy quarrel consequent on your grandmother's marriage having interrupted normal intercourse between her and the rest of the family, my sister Cara and I were never afforded an opportunity of making the acquaintance of our nephew Richard and his wife, or of our niece Barbara. Now that they are dead, there would not seem to be any reason why this regrettable quarrel should be carried on into a third generation. As the daughter of our nephew Richard you are our only surviving relative. Your grandmother, Candida Benevent, was our sister. Her marriage to John Sayle removed her from the family circle. We invite you to return to it. My sister Cara and I will be glad if you will pay us a visit. The Benevents come of an old and noble family, and we feel that their last descendant should know something of its history and traditions.
Hoping that you will see your way to accepting an invitation which, I can assure you, is very cordially extended, I sign myself for the first but, I hope, not for the last time,
Your great-aunt Olivia Benevent."
Candida looked at the letter with some rather mixed feelings. She knew that her grandmother's name had been Candida Benevent, and she knew that there had been a family quarrel, but that was about as far as it went. What the quarrel was about, why it had never been made up, and whether there were any Benevent relations, she really had had no idea. Perhaps Barbara didn't know either. Perhaps she knew and didn't bother her head about it. She was the sort of person who mightn't. An old quarrel might just not have seemed worth bothering about. And Candida Benevent had died when her children were quite young—there had been no living link with the family she had left behind her.
When she showed the letter to Everard Mortimer, who was Barbara Sayle's solicitor, she discovered that he knew no more about the quarrel than she did herself, but he strongly advised her to accept Miss Benevent's invitation. He was a pleasant young man in his early thirties with a modern attitude towards the family quarrels of two generations ago.
"Cutting people out of wills and washing your hands of them was rather in the Victorian tradition. People are a bit more tolerant nowadays. I think you certainly ought to accept the olive branch and go and stay with the old ladies. You seem to be their only relation, and that might be important. Your aunt's annuity stopped when she died. She had the cottage on a lease, and by the time everything is cleared up you won't have more than about twenty-five pounds a year."
A bright carnation colour came up under Candida's fair skin. It made her eyes look very dark and very blue, and her lashes very black. Everard Mortimer found himself noticing the contrast with her chestnut hair. He found it pleasing. It occurred to him that if she were really going to be something of an heiress—and that was what Miss Olivia Benevent's letter sounded like—she would not lack for suitors. Even with no more than twenty-five pounds a year there might be quite a queue. He had a fleeting glimpse of himself at the head of it. He allowed his manner to become a little warmer.
Barbara Sayle had never spoken of her mother's family. The old great-aunts might have nothing to leave. On the other hand they might have quite a lot. All over the place there were old ladies with property to leave and no very clear idea of how they were going to leave it. He could think of half a dozen amongst his own clients. The making and unmaking of wills was a recreation to them. It gave them a sense of importance, a sense of power. They liked to feel that they would have a hand in the affairs of the younger generations. There was old Miss Crabtree. Her niece didn't dare to get married and leave her for fear of being cut out of her will, and if she would have been willing to risk it, her fiancé wouldn't. There was Mrs. Barker, whose elderly daughter had never been allowed to have either a job or a penny of her own—had to go to her mother for bus fares and didn't know how to write a cheque. And there was Miss Robinson, who made a new will regularly every three months, and put in first one and then another of a large circle of relatives as principal legatee. It was like a game of musical chairs. One day the tune would stop and someone would scoop the lot. Well, the Misses Benevent must be pretty old. It wouldn't do Candida Sayle any harm to make up the family quarrel and pay them a little attention. With that new warmth in voice and manner, he advised her to do so.CHAPTER 2
Candida arrived at Retley
on a February afternoon. She hadn't expected anyone to meet her, and no one did. She found a taxi, tipped the porter who carried her suit-cases, and was rattled away over the stones of the station approach. There was a yellow gloom and a drizzle of rain. The lamps were not yet lighted, and she could not feel that she was seeing Retley at its best.
They passed through a street with some good shops, and a number of narrow ones with tall old houses. After that, the usual jumble of bungalows and council houses, until quite suddenly there were open fields and hedges on either side. They passed an inn with a swinging sign, and a little farther on a petrol station, and then just fields and hedges, hedges and fields. She had begun to wonder how much farther it was going to be, when they turned sharply to the left and the ground began to rise.
Presently she made out a wall with iron gates that stood open. The drive was like a dark tunnel, and when they emerged it was not into the light but into a deep and gloomy dusk. The house stood up before them like a black cliff, and the hill stood up behind the house. She stepped back across the gravel sweep and stared at it. There it was—and that was why the house was called Underhill. The hillside must have been cut away to get a level site on which to build, and the house looked as if it was jammed right up against it. What an extraordinary idea, and how dreadfully dark all the back rooms must be.
She returned, skirting the taxi, to the worn stone steps which went up under the shadow of a porch. For the first time it occurred to her that the house must be very old. These steps had been hollowed out by the passing feet of many generations. It seemed odd to find that there was an electric bell.
The taxi driver said, "I've rung, miss," and as he spoke the door swung in. An elderly woman in a black dress stood there. There was a light in the hall behind her—a dark place fitfully illumined. The woman had white hair. It stood out against the glow like a nimbus. She said in a deep voice and with a foreign accent,
"You will come in. He will carry the cases. I have a half-crown for him. The ladies, they wait you in the drawing-room. I will show you. There—across the hall—the first door. Go in. I see to everything."
Candida crossed the hall. It was hung with tapestry which gave out a mouldy smell. For the most part the subject was lost in gloom and grime, but from a rather horrid glimpse of a sword and a severed head she conjectured that this was perhaps just as well. She came to the door to which she had been directed and opened it.
There was a black lacquer screen, and beyond it a blaze of light. She came round the screen into the room. There were three crystal chandeliers. The candles for which they were made had been replaced by electricity, and the effect was brilliant beyond belief. The sheen dazzled upon the white and gold panelled walls and was reflected back from a ceiling powdered with golden stars. There was a white carpet, white velvet curtains fringed with gold, and chair and sofa covers of thickly ribbed ivory corduroy. The rest of the furniture consisted of gilded cabinets and marble tables with carved and gilded legs placed in stiff symmetry along the walls.
As Candida stood blinking on the threshold, the Misses Benevent rose from two small golden chairs placed on either side of the hearth.
Against all that white and gold they looked very small and black—two little dark women in black taffeta dresses with spreading skirts and tightly fitting bodices. The dresses were exactly alike, and so were the collars of old lace, each fastened by a diamond star. Candida saw the dresses first, but they were not the only things which were alike. There was the strongest possible resemblance of figure, face, and feature. Both were little and thin, both had small features, neatly arched eyebrows, and black eyes, and, most remarkably, neither of them appeared to have a grey hair. They were her grandmother's sisters but the small erectly carried heads were covered with shining black hair quite elaborately dressed. Grey would have been kinder to the little pinched faces and the sallow skins.
They did not move to meet her, but stood there against the background of a portentous marble mantelpiece. Walking up to them was rather like being presented at Court. She had to repress the feeling that a curtsey would be appropriate. Her hand was briefly taken, her cheek was briefly touched. Twice. Each Miss Benevent said, "How do you do?" and the ceremony was over.
There was a little silence whilst they looked at her. From over the mantelpiece a mirror in a gilt frame reflected the scene—Candida in her grey coat, her bright hair showing under a matching beret and a flush on her cheek because the room was hot and strange and she changed colour easily, and the little black ladies looking at her like a pair of puppets waiting to be jerked into life by an unseen string. They stared at her, and the string jerked. The one on her right said,
"I am Olivia Benevent. This is my sister Cara. You are Candida Sayle. You do not resemble the Benevents at all. It is a pity."
The voice was clear, formal, and precise. There was nothing to soften the words. Miss Cara echoed them on a note of regret.
"It is a great pity."
Seen close at hand the likeness to her sister was that of a copy which has been too often repeated and is blurred at the edges.
Candida wanted to say "Why?" but she thought she had better not. She was unable to feel sorry that she was not thin and black and dry, but she had been nicely brought up. She smiled and said,
"Barbara said I was like my father."
The Misses Benevent shook their heads regretfully. They spoke in unison.
"He must have taken after the Sayles. A very great pity."
Miss Olivia stepped back and pressed a bell.
"You will like to go to your room. Anna will take you up. Tea will be served as soon as you are ready."
Anna was the woman who had admitted her. She appeared now at the door, talking and laughing.
"He is an impudent one, that driver. Do you know what he said to me? 'Foreign, aren't you?'—just like that. Impudence! 'British subject,' I said to him. 'And nothing for you to look saucy about either. I've lived longer in England than you, my young man, and that I will tell anyone! Fifty years I have lived here, and that is a great deal more than you have done!' And he whistled and said, 'Strike me pink!'"
Miss Olivia tapped with her foot on the white hearth-rug.
"That is enough, Anna. Take Miss Candida to her room. You talk too much."
Anna shrugged her shoulders.
"If one does not talk one might as well be dumb."
"And we will have tea immediately. Joseph can bring it."
Candida followed Anna into the hall. The stair went up on the left-hand side to a landing from which a passage ran off on either side. They took the one on the left, Anna talking all the time.
"Of all houses this is the most inconvenient. All the time you must look where you are going. See, here there are three steps up, and presently there will be two steps down again. They must have wanted to break someone's neck when they built like this. Now we go round the corner and up four more steps. Here on the right is a bathroom. This is your room opposite." She threw open a door and switched on the light.
The room which sprang into view was oddly shaped. It ran away into an alcove on one side of the hearth, and the whole of the recess was lined with books. Perhaps it was this which made the place seem dark, or perhaps it would have been dark anyhow with its low ceiling crossed by a beam, curtains and bedspread of a deep shade of maroon, and a carpet whose pattern had become indistinguishable. The walls were covered with what she afterwards found was a Morris paper. At first sight it merely presented an appearance of general gloom, but by the light of day and a more particular inspection it disclosed a pattern of spring flowers massed against a background of olive green. She was glad to see that a small electric fire had been imposed on the narrow Victorian grate. Anna showed her the switch.
"You will turn it on when you want. Thank God, we have a good supply. For ten years I lived with paraffin lamps. Now, no thank you—I have better things to do with my time! You will turn on the fire, and so you will not find it cold. It was put in specially for you. Three years since anyone slept here, but with this good little fire you will not be cold."
Candida looked past the fire at the alcove.
"What a lot of books! Whose room used it to be?"
There was the sort of silence which you can't help noticing. Something made Candida ask her question again.
"You said it hadn't been used for three years. Whose room was it before that?"
Anna stood looking at her with her hair very white above the olive skin and dark eyes. She made an effort, looked away, and said,
"It was Mr. Alan Thompson's room. He has been gone three years."
"Who was he?"
"He was the ladies' secretary. They were very fond of him. He was ungrateful—he disappointed them very much. It will be better you do not speak of him—it is better no one speaks."
But Candida went on speaking. She didn't know why. It just seemed as if she had to.
"What did he do?"
"He ran away. He took things—jewels—money. He took them, and he ran away. Their hearts were broken. They were ill. They went away and they travelled. The house was shut up. They do not speak of him ever—we should not have spoken of him. But you are of the family—perhaps it is better you should know. And they are happy again now. Mr. Derek makes them happy—he is young, he is gay. They do not think about that Alan any more. He is gone, and for us too. I speak too much—they have always said so. See, here is the bell. If you want anything, you ring it and Nella will come. She is my great-niece, just as you are to Miss Olivia and Miss Cara. But she has been born in England—she does not even speak Italian any more. She speaks like a London girl, and sometimes she is saucy. She is one of the newfashioned ones—service is not good enough for her. She only comes because I say so, and because I have money saved and she does not wish me to leave it to my brother's grand-daughter in Italy. Also the wages are very good. There is a young man whom she wishes to marry, and he encourages her to come. 'Think what everything costs,' he says, 'and think how you can save—good money coming in every week and not a penny going out! We will buy the suite for the lounge.' And Nella, she tosses the head and she says if the money is hers, it will be for her to say what way it is spent. But she comes. It is true that she grumbles every day, but she will stay till she has saved the money for the suite, and perhaps a little longer because of my brother's granddaughter in Italy." She broke off laughing. "It is true what Miss Olivia says, I talk too much. If you want anything, you ring for Nella, and if she does not do everything you say, you speak to me and I scold her. Now I go and tell Joseph to bring the tea."
Excerpted from The Benevent Treasure by Patricia Wentworth. Copyright © 1954 Patricia Wentworth Turnbull. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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