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The rain had increased to a steady downpour when Alice climbed out of the bus. The bus-driver, his collar pulled up over his ears, ran round to the luggage compartment to get her bags.
'West-coast weather,' he said in a friendly voice designed for the hearing of the rest of the passengers. 'You'll get used to it. Staying long?'
'Felix, you fool!' Alice hissed under her breath. 'What are you doing here?' Aloud she said aloofly, 'I haven't decided yet.'
The bus was full of passengers on their way to the glacier hotel. After a journey of several hours round tortuous mountain roads they would not be amused at their driver dallying with one of his female passengers at a cottage gate.
He leaned over to push open the rickety gate. Water dripped off the long lock of black hair that hung over his forehead. He looked as if he had grown as impervious to it as a duck.
'Give my love to Camilla,' he said.
Then he leaped into the bus, started the engine with a roar, and moved off down the wet winding road.
Alice was left alone in the green gloom. Refusing to think of Felix and his unexpected disturbing presence, she turned to the cottage. With the thick rain and the masses of bush cut back from the road, but threatening, by the luxuriance of its growth, to return to its domain at any time, one had a curious under-water feeling. Beyond the treetops the mountains, lost in haze, towered. One was at the bottom of a lake and the world grew up above one. It was exciting and unreal and very, very wet.
And why hadn't Camilla, who must have seen the bus stop, come to open the door?
Alice hurried up the slippery path, half overgrown with the reaching eager fern tendrils, and, depositing her bags on the doorstep, thumped loudly on the door.
It was a small wooden cottage, discoloured with damp, old and tumbledown. A hundred yards away, beyond the trees, Alice could see the bright new yellow school shining outlandishly in this world of subdued green and grey. She remembered Camilla writing, 'We've got a brand-new school, but the house I'm expected to live in—well, you should come and see it. I've prettied it up with cretonne and things, and I light huge fires to keep out the damp, but I still go through the floor here and there, and when it really rains everything that will hold water is put out to catch the drips. They want me to go and live at the hotel, but in spite of everything I like it here. It's cheaper and I have more fun.'
Standing with the rain running down her neck, it occurred to Alice to wonder what fun Camilla could have living alone in this dreary little place. But Camilla had never been the dull kind. Had she been shipwrecked on a desert island she would have rustled up a man or two to amuse her.
Obviously, from Felix's parting remark, she was running true to form.
But where was she now that she didn't come to open the door? Alice knocked again, and waited. The rain continued to run down her neck. A bird suddenly swooped over her with a harsh squawk. It settled on the gate and gazed at her unwinkingly. It was a kea, she realized, one of the squat grey mountain birds with curved cruel parrot beaks that preyed on sheep and newly born lambs. If she were to move away it would come and peck inquisitively at her luggage. It had a malevolent gaze that seemed peculiarly in keeping with the drenched gloom.
It's putting a spell on me, Alice thought; and suddenly impatient with Camilla's dilatoriness, she rattled at the doorknob. The kea squawked again and, spreading its powerful wings, the underpart of which were iridescent with colour, flew away.
The doorknob beneath Alice's fingers refused to turn. The door was locked.
What had happened? Camilla was expecting her, she knew, because she had had that note saying, 'Thrilled you're coming. Will be here to meet you. Don't miss the bus.' And then the postscript that was so typical of Camilla, 'You must meet all my boy-friends. It's a hell of a joke, and am I getting into hot water!'
All one could suppose now was that Camilla had got into the hot water, for obviously she had forgotten to keep her promise to be there to meet Alice.
Suddenly angry with her for her thoughtlessness, Alice stepped off the doorstep and leaned over to push up one of the windows. It was too wet to plod round to the back If the window opened she would get into the house that way.
It did. With a rickety rattle the frame slid up, and at the same moment a high sharp voice from within cried, 'Go away! Go away quick!'
Alice almost fell back among the dripping ferns. She clutched the windowsill, her heart pounding. It was stupid of her to be frightened; this was Camilla's house, silly empty-headed harmless lively Camilla. There was nothing queer or ominous in that room into which she couldn't see for the gloom. Someone was playing a trick on her.
'Camilla!' she called rather shakily. 'Is that you? Are you having a joke?'
There was a movement in the gloom. Or was it her imagination that something more dark than the darkness of the corner moved?
Then abruptly, in that nerve-shattering way, the small high voice screamed, 'Go away!' And all at once a cat leapt on the sill, mewing, and the room beyond it was alive with the sudden sharp flapping of wings.
Alice did, for a moment, subside weakly into the wet ferns. She was laughing breathlessly. That thing—it was a parrot of some kind. Camilla must keep it for company, perhaps purposely to startle guests. She had always loved practical jokes. In a moment she would appear, splitting her sides with laughter.
'Camilla, you wretch!' Alice muttered.
The cat leaned down from the sill, mewing piteously. Alice scrambled up to stroke it. It sounded as if it were hungry. It was a big ginger-coloured Persian with a plumed tail like the waving toi-toi grass in the bush. It was a magnificent creature, but how had Camilla come to neglect to feed it?
Alice was conscious of her first stirring of alarm. It really did look as if Camilla were not there, after all, and this was no practical joke. She stuck her head through the open window, and then resolutely climbed over the sill. The room in which she found herself was dark with the overhanging bush and the gloomy day now drawing to a close. Alice fumbled her way to the door and felt for a light-switch. There was none. She went out into the little hall, but still her searching fingers could find none. Then her gaze went to the lamp hanging from the ceiling. Good gracious, it was old-fashioned. Camilla had said the house was antique, but she had never mentioned the lack of electricity.
As she felt in her bag for matches something smooth and quick sidled against her legs. She gave a gasp, seeing a small black shadow retreating quickly. Again there was the sharp clapping of wings and the little eerie voice said, 'Go away quick! Quick!'
'I'll do nothing of the kind,' Alice retorted, and struck a match to light the lamp.
The soft illumination showed the room: the big brick fireplace with the dead remnants of a fire, the low chairs and the large low settee covered with bright cushions, the pictures on the walls strategically placed to hide the discoloured spots in the wallpaper, the large white rug in front of the fireplace, the gilt-framed mirror that gave back a dusky lamplit reflection of the room. The illusion of luxury was a triumph on the part of Camilla. It made her seem very near. Alice, looking round curiously, gave a confident, 'Yoo hoo! Cam! I'm here!'
The cat rubbed round her legs, mewing. The black active shadow leaped on to the arm of a chair, and at last Alice saw what it was; a magpie with bright eyes and a long wicked beak. She gave a low astonished chuckle. Shades of Edgar Allan Poe. Fancy old Camilla keeping a magpie. She must have been lonely in her mountain fastness.
But where the devil was she now? Alice left the room to wander through the dusk-filled house. The rain drummed on the roof as she opened the doors of bedrooms, two side by side, one obviously Camilla's because an open drawer showed underclothing dripping out (again as clear evidence of Camilla as her fingerprints). The other one had the bed made up neatly, and there was a vase of some bright red bush flowers on the dressing-table. This would be her room, and it showed that Camilla was expecting her. She went on down the narrow hallway to what must be the kitchen. The door to this room was shut. She felt for the knob in the gloom. At the same moment that she turned it there came the sound of a door at the back softly clicking shut.
Camilla at last! Alice flung open the door eagerly.
'I say, I've got here before you!'
No one answered. The room, with its old-fashioned coal range and high mantelpiece, its cheerfully ticking clock and rain beating on the small window, was empty.
Who had come in? Or gone out?
Alice ran to the back door and opened it. A path led into the green dripping bush. There were hollows that could have been footprints rapidly filling with water, and wet mud on the doorstep. But none of it made sense, because there was no sign of anyone anywhere.
Alice sat down rather shakily on one of the kitchen chairs. She realized now that someone must have been in the house all the time while she had been knocking at the front door. Whoever it was had stayed until the last possible minute, probably hoping that she would give up and go away. When she had not done that it was the intruder who had been forced to make the hasty exit.
But who had it been? And where was Camilla?
The cat suddenly rubbed round her legs again, repeating its petition for food. Alice forced herself to get up and open a cupboard. All the time she had the feeling that she was being watched.
She found some remnants of cold lamb and a jug of milk that was distinctly sour. Sour? How could that be? Camilla surely would get fresh milk every day.
The cat, anyway, should have some of the cold lamb to keep it quiet. She herself, if it came to that, was pretty hungry. She had travelled all day on cups of tea.
But Camilla would arrive presently and they would have a meal. Probably she had gone out to get provisions. The cupboards were almost empty. There was half a loaf of stale bread in a tin and the end of a pound of butter. The bread looked at least three days old. That, and the sour milk—almost as if Camilla hadn't eaten for three days. And the hungry cat—almost as if she hadn't been in the cottage.
In the gloomy little kitchen Alice felt the prickles of apprehension going over her again. Who had gone out at the back door in a hurry and disappeared into the bush?
Was there someone watching her through the window now? She couldn't rid herself of that conviction. Almost in a panic she hurried back to the living-room, warm with lamp-light, and pulled down the blinds. Then, with her courage partially restored, she resolved to search the house thoroughly. Because Camilla wasn't far away. She was sure of that. In the bathroom there was a faint odour of carnation, and Camilla's towel and face flannel hanging on a rail. In the bedroom her clothes hung in the wardrobe. There was evidence of her everywhere, yet she was not there.
But someone had closed the back door.
In the kitchen Alice picked up a desk calendar. There was a leaf for each day, but today's date had not been turned up. It remained at yesterday's. And the number, the sixteenth of January, had a ring round it in red and an exclamation mark. What had been happening to Camilla yesterday?
Alice remembered Camilla's habit of scrawling notes everywhere to jog a lazy memory. She turned back the leaves, and sure enough on the previous day there was a note, Don't forget cat's meat; and on the fourteenth, D tonight. The twelfth and thirteenth were blank, but on the eleventh there was a hasty note, written, obviously, under excitement or stress, D is so impetuous.
That was all.
Who was D? Whoever he was, Alice was left with no doubt that he was the cause of Camilla's absence.
There was a clicking on the floor as the magpie hopped into the kitchen. It stood still and regarded Alice with its head on one side, its long sharp beak pointing sideways. Then it said in an intimate friendly voice, 'Hullo, darling. How long can you stay?'
The absurdity of it (the words breathed Camilla) broke Alice's tension, and she began to laugh. At the same moment there was a rap on the window-pane, and she was momentarily conscious of a pale shape of a face with hair plastered down with rain looking in. Before she had time for alarm the back door opened and Felix walked in.
'What are you doing in the dark, darling?' he said pleasantly. 'Where's Camilla?'
The relief from her tension was so great that Alice almost had a desire to weep on his shoulder. After what had happened in Christchurch it was the last shoulder she would have chosen, but it was so wonderful to see another human being in this oddly deserted house.
'No one,' she said, 'has less idea where Camilla is than I have.'
He threw off his wet oilskins and pushed back the dripping lock of hair off his forehead. His skin shone with rain and his eyes shone with his peculiar mocking merriment that tonight was particularly irritating.
'Is that so? Did she know you were coming?'
Alice looked at him accusingly.
'And you knew, too.'
'Naturally. Camilla is my friend. Your friends are mine, darling.'
'Don't call me darling. I thought we'd settled all that sort of thing.'
'So we had.'
The lock of hair falling over his bony brow was achingly familiar.
'Then what on earth are you doing here playing at being a bus-driver?' Alice asked angrily.
'It's a part that appeals to me. And one has to eat, you know.'
'But why here? And why a bus-driver?'
'Dar—Alice, you must get out of the habit of speaking in italics. People will guess you're an actress. I mean, were an actress. And is there anything wrong with my pursuing my trade in this part of the world? The west coast of New Zealand is a truly magnificent spot. The scenery couldn't be excelled; the snowpeaks, the valleys and lakes, that incredible glacier coming down into the heart of the bush like one of the mountains letting down its hair. As for the women—'
'Spare me the travel talk,' Alice interrupted. 'Was it your suggestion that Camilla write asking me to come over?'
'As for the women,' Felix went on imperturbably, 'they are wonderful. Your friend Camilla alone is a witch. Do you know, she has the whole male population at her feet, including the odd tourists who wander this way. How does she do it?'
'She's always done that,' said Alice impatiently. 'One day she'll get herself into trouble. And not the kind you think I mean. You haven't answered my question.'
'You mean, breach of promise, or an attack by a jealous lover, or—'
He looked at her, his black eyes deliberately penitent.
'All right, darling, it was my suggestion that Camilla have you over. Here I am eating three good meals a day and I thought you might be starving. Little Alice mustn't starve, I said.'
'So it was pity,' said Alice.
'Purely pity,' he agreed. 'Camilla understood. She's a—'
'All right, then, you were right. At the present moment I am starving. Where is Camilla likely to be?'
'I don't know. Maybe up at the Thorpe farm. Or across at the store. Or having drinks at the hotel. But you said she was expecting you today. Unless she has made a mistake in the day. She hadn't much of a memory, had she? She was always scribbling notes or tying something round her finger.'
'That's true,' said Alice. 'Then I suppose I can expect her home soon. Are you going to wait?'
'One would hardly call that a cordial invitation,' Felix murmured. 'One would give a warmer invitation to a cat.' He stooped and swung the yellow cat against his chin, and the creature settled down in his arms with a deep purr of content. 'But no one could be less thin-skinned than I. I stay if I wish, invitation or not. We'll get a meal, shall we? By that time Camilla will be home.'
He waved his hand and the cat leapt to the floor.
'No polite protests. It's not the first time I've done this. Lazy little devil, Miss Camilla Mason. If you're staying long you'll find you have to do the housework. Are you staying long?'
Alice felt too tired and too glad of his company in this uneasy rain-washed gloom to hold out against him any longer. After all, they had always been friends. It had only been when they had imagined that they were in love that they had begun to fight.
'I haven't decided. And it can be of no possible interest to you.'
'Why don't you go back to England?'
'No,' she said sharply. 'You know I won't do that.'
Excerpted from Lamb to the Slaughter by Dorothy Eden. Copyright © 1953 Dorothy Eden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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