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Meade Underwood woke with a start. Something had waked her – some sound – but she did not know what it was. It had startled her back from a dream in which she walked with Giles Armitage – Giles who was dead. But in her dream he wasn't dead, but warm and alive, and they walked together and were glad.
She listened for the sound that had waked her with bitter resentment in her heart. Only once before had he been so near to her in a dream. Sometimes he called her in a voice which wrung her heart, sometimes he whispered and she could not catch the words, but in this one dream there had been no words at all, only a deep and satisfied content.
And she had waked. They had found each other, and she had waked and lost him all over again. She sat up and listened. It was the third time she had waked like this in the night with that sense of a sound heard in sleep. There was no sound now. Her waking memory had no knowledge of what the sound had been. Wind? The night was still. A passing car – the hoot of an owl – a bat brushing against the window – someone moving here, or in the flat overhead.... She rejected these things one by one. A car would not have startled her. It wasn't an owl – not that sort of sound, not a cry at all – somehow she did know that. And not a bat. Who had ever heard of a bat blundering up against a window? The floors in this old house were much too solid and thick to let any sound come through from above, and in the flat around her no one stirred.
She had turned instinctively to the window. There was a moon, but its light was thickly veiled. A luminous mist hung there like a curtain, hiding the night sky and the trees which should have been massed against it – two old elms, relics perhaps of a time when the garden boundary was a hedgerow and the place where the house now stood an open field. She went over and looked out. The old-fashioned sash window, too heavy to move without a pulley, was open as far as it would go. That is to say, the top half had been pulled right down behind the lower pane. Meade had therefore two thicknesses of glass to look through, and the mist beyond that again.
She put her hand to the pulley and raised both panes. Now the bottom half of the window was clear. But the mist was still there, white with the light of the unseen moon but quite impenetrable. She could see nothing at all. Leaning out over the sill, she could hear nothing either. The still misty night, the moon veiled, the house asleep, only Meade Underwood awake, brought her back from her happy dream to a world where Giles Armitage lay drowned beneath the sea.
She kneeled down by the window and stayed there, her elbows on the sill, her thoughts bitter and sad. There hadn't been any sound at all. She had waked and lost her dream of Giles because she was a coward, because her nerves still played her false, startling her out of sleep with an echo of the crash which had roused them all three months ago in mid Atlantic. She ought to be over it by now, she ought to be well. She wanted to be at work, too busy to hear what she had heard that night or see what she had seen. Her ribs had mended and the broken arm was sound again. Hearts take longer to mend than bones. She would not have minded dying with Giles, but he had died alone, and she had waked in a hospital ward to hear that his life was gone and hers was left to her.
She kneeled there, bringing up her courage to meet an agony of depression, fighting it back inch by inch – 'I shall be able to work soon, and then it will be better. They'll let me join something. I'm doing half a day at those parcels now – that's better than nothing. Everyone's so kind, even Aunt Mabel – I wish I liked her better. But she's been so kind. Only it'll be much easier when I can get right away and not have people being sorry for me.'
The mist came chill against her face, her breast, her bare arms. It pressed against her eyes like a bandage. Mary Hamilton's lament came wailing through her mind: 'They'll tie a bandage roon ma een and no let me see to dee.' Horrible! That was what it had been like on the night when the ship went down – when Giles went down. A shudder went over her from head to foot. She wrenched away from the thought and sprang up. How many thousands of times had she said, 'I won't look back – I won't remember.' If you keep the door shut upon the past, it can't get at you. It's gone, it's dead, it's over. No one can make you live it again except yourself – that traitor self which creeps out to unbar the bolts and let the enemy past creep in upon you again. She would have no traitors in her citadel. She must look to her bars and wait until the enemy tired and fell away.
She got into bed and lay down. The stillness of the night came nearer. Strange to think of this big house and all the people in it, and no sound, not so much as a breath, to show that it was inhabited.
Perhaps it wasn't. When we are asleep, where are we? Not in the place where our bodies lie without sight or sense. Where had she been herself before she waked? She had walked with Giles–
The barred door was opening again. She thrust it to. 'Don't think about yourself. You mustn't! Do you hear – you mustn't! Think about all the other people in the house – not about yourself or Giles – Giles—'
The house – the people—
Vandeleur House – four stories and a basement set in what had once been a field bordered by a lane when Putney was a village in the days before London swallowed it up. A big square house, shorn now of most of its grounds and turned into flats. Vandeleur had lived and painted there – old Joseph Vandeleur who had been called the English Winterhalter. He had certainly rivalled that celebrated court painter in the number of times he had painted Prince Albert, Queen Victoria, and all the little princes and princesses. He had painted Mr Gladstone and Lord John Russell, he had painted Dizzy and Pam, he had painted the Duke of Wellington and the Archbishop of Canterbury. He had painted all the lovely ladies of the day and made them even lovelier, and all the plain ones and made them interesting. A tactful man, a charming host, a liberal friend, he had painted his way to fame, fortune, and a well-dowered wife.
Vandeleur House had been graced by the presence of Royalty. A thousand candles had lighted its chandeliers. Five thousand roses had decorated it for a ball. Now, where the large, well-garnished rooms had been, there were flats, two to each floor – eight flats, and a basement given over to central heating, luggage-rooms, and a caretaker. The large kitchen no longer sent out generous steaming meals, course upon unnecessary course. Instead each flat had its kitchenette, an exiguous slip of a room into which had been crowded a sink, an electric cooking-stove, and some cleverly planned cupboards. The fine staircase had given place to a lift and a narrow concrete stair, cold and uncarpeted, winding its way from floor to floor about the lift-shaft.
All this was familiar and present to Meade Underwood's mind. She began to go over the flats and the people in them. It was better than counting sheep, because there was more to fix your attention. There was so little about sheep to hold the thought or to keep it from slipping back to that closed and bolted door. But you could be interested in people. She began to go over the people in her mind, counting them up.
Begin at the bottom. Old Bell in the basement – James Bell – old Jimmy Bell, porter and caretaker. With a warm, fuggy layer tucked in between the furnace and one of the luggage-rooms. A cheerful old man, Jimmy Bell. Face like a withered apple, and a bright blue eye. 'Morning, miss – morning, Mrs Underwood. Oh, yes, it'll clear. Why, it stands to reason rain can't keep on falling.' Perhaps it couldn't – perhaps the sun would shine again some day.
Flat No. 1 – old Mrs Meredith, who went out all bundled up with shawls in a bath-chair. How dreadful to be nothing more than a bundle of shawls. Better to be unhappy, better to be anything that was alive than to have forgotten what it was like to live. Better to break your heart for a dead lover than to have lost the memory of love. She pulled away from that. Mrs Meredith's companion, Miss Crane, an easy, tattling person – large round glasses and a plump pale face. Mrs Meredith's sour-faced maid who never spoke to anyone. There they were, the three of them, asleep now. She wondered if Packer's trap of a mouth loosened at all or fell open in sleep.
In the other ground-floor flat, Mrs and Miss Lemming. She felt sorry for Agnes Lemming, the drudge of a selfish mother. She wouldn't be so plain if she took any trouble over herself. But it was Mrs Lemming who had the new clothes, the permanent waves, the facial treatments, and who still carried herself with the air of a beauty and got away with it – lovely white hair, and those fine eyes, and a really marvellous complexion. Poor Agnes, she had a nice smile, but so little use for it – all the work of the flat to do, and endless errands to run besides. 'I wish they'd call her up. It would give her a chance to be a human being instead of a slave. I suppose she must be thirty-five.'
Number 3 – the Underwood flat. Just now it contained herself, Aunt Mabel, and, in the slip of a maid's bedroom, Ivy Lord. Uncle Godfrey was away in the north. She loved Uncle Godfrey – quiet, gentle, shy – Wing-Commander Underwood, with a D.F.C. Now how in this world did he come to marry Aunt Mabel? They simply didn't belong. Perhaps it was because he was shy and she saved him the trouble of talking. Anyhow there they were, nearly sixteen years married and very fond of each other. An odd sort of world.
Over the way, in No. 4, Miss Garside – elderly, dignified, aloof. 'Thinks herself somebody,' to quote Aunt Mabel. 'And who is she anyway? 'Well, Miss Garside was Miss Garside. She came of an intellectual family. She had what Mrs Underwood stigmatised as 'highbrow' tastes. Her figure and her ideas were equally unbending. The eyes which looked past her neighbours quite possibly saw the stars. Meade thought she might be anywhere, in any time. Not here. I wonder where she is now.
Easier to speculate about Mr and Mrs Willard in No. 5. She could picture him sleeping neatly, without a wrinkle in sheet or pillow. He would, of course, have taken his glasses off, but otherwise he would be just the same as when he was awake – dapper even in pyjamas, his hair unruffled, his gasmask handy. Of all the people in the house, she could feel least sure that he would have escaped into a dream. Does a Civil Servant ever escape? Does he ever want to?
Mrs Willard in the other twin bed with the bedside table between her and Mr Willard. In the daytime both beds had spreads of rose-coloured art silk embroidered in a rather frightful pattern of blue and purple flowers which had never bloomed outside the designer's imagination. Now at night they would be tidily folded up and put away. Mr Willard would see to that.
It was not in Mrs Willard to be neat. She had hair which had stopped being brown without getting on with the business of going grey. It had more ends than you would have thought possible, and they all stuck out in different directions. She had rather a London accent, and she wore the most distressing clothes, but she was nice. She called you 'Dearie', and somehow you didn't mind. Where did she go to in her dreams? Meade thought it would be a nursery with lots of jolly children – something very small in a cot, twins in rompers, grubby little schoolboys bouncing in, a girl with a long fair plait.... But Mrs Willard hadn't any children – she had never had any. Poor Mrs Willard.
Opposite in Flat 6, Mr Drake. Or perhaps not. He was often out quite late – later than this. You could hear his step on the gravel before the house. She wondered if he was out now, or only away in a dream. And what would Mr Drake's dream be like? An odd-looking person – black eyebrows like Mephistopheles, and very thick iron-grey hair. What he did and where he went when he wasn't in his flat, nobody seemed to know. Always very polite if you met him in the lift, but no one got farther than that. Mrs Willard opined that he had a secret sorrow.
Up to the top of the house now. No. 7 was shut up. The Spooners were away. Mr Spooner, torn from his warehouse (wool), his stout form most unbecomingly clothed in khaki, but still cheerful, still facetious, still talking about the 'little woman'. Mrs Spooner, in the A.T.S., youngish, prettyish, anxious, trying to be bright. Trying very hard. She came up sometimes. Perhaps her dreams were giving her back the world which had been snatched away – a little pleasant world with little gossiping bridge parties; a new frock, a new hat; going with Charlie to the pictures and coming home to a cosy little supper – a trivial world, but all she had, not to be found anywhere now except in a dream.
The eighth flat, and the last. Miss Carola Roland – stage girl with a stage name. Meade wondered what she had started with. Not Carola, and not Roland — there wasn't any doubt about that. Whatever the pretty, pert child had been called, and whatever colour her hair had been then, at somewhere in her twenties she was still pert, still pretty, and the perfect peroxide blonde.
Meade was getting sleepy. Carola Roland – she's frightfully pretty – wonder why she lives here – dull for her – she won't stay – wonder why she came – wonder what she dreams about – diamonds and champagne – bubbles rising in a full golden glass – bubbles rising in the sea – the rocking of a ship.... She was back in her own dream again.
In the room next door Mrs Underwood slept heavily, her hair in wavers, her face well creamed, her shoulders propped upon three large pillows, her window open, as Meade's had been, at the top. The moonlit mist was close against the double panes. It hung like a curtain across the gap above them. Something moved in the mist, moved across the panes, across the gap. There was a faint creaking sound, as if a hand had leaned upon the frame of those double panes. There was another sound, much fainter, audible only to the finest waking sense. But no one waked, no one heard anything at all. Something as light as a leaf slipped to the floor inside the window and lay there. The shadow passed on, passed Meade's window, open at the bottom now. No handhold there. Nothing but smooth, cold glass above and empty space below.
Moving without haste and without delay, the shadow went by. It passed across the window and was gone. There had been no sound at all.
Meade was in her dream, but Giles wasn't there any longer. It was dark. She wandered in the dark, seeking him desperately and in vain.CHAPTER 2
In a moment of relaxation Miss Silver rested her hands upon the Air Force sock which she was in process of knitting and contemplated her surroundings. A feeling of true thankfulness possessed her. So many poor people had been bombed out of their homes and had lost everything, but her modest flat in Montague Mansions remained unscathed – not even a window broken.
'Quite providential,' was her comment as she looked about her and noted the blue plush curtains, their colour a little dimmed after three years of wear but they had cleaned remarkably well; the brightly patterned Brussels carpet; the wallpaper with its floral design, a trifle faded but not noticeably so unless one of the pictures was removed. She saw all these things and admired them. Her eye wandered from the engraving of Landseer's Monarch of the Glen in a contemporary frame of yellow maple to similarly framed reproductions of Bubbles, The Soul's Awakening, and The Black Brunswicker. Her heart was really quite full of thankfulness. A comfortable and tasteful room in a comfortable and tasteful flat. During the years when she had worked as a governess for the meagre salary which was all that a governness could then command she had never had any grounds for hoping that such comfort would be hers. If she had remained a governess, there would have been no plush curtains, no Brussels carpet, no steel engravings, no easy chairs upholstered in blue and green tapestry with curving walnut legs, Victorian waists, and wide well-padded laps. By a strange turn of events she had ceased to be a governess, and had become a private investigator, and so successful had the investigations proved that they had made possible the plush, the tapestry, the walnut, and the Brussels pile. Deeply and sincerely religious, Miss Silver thanked what she was accustomed to call Providence for her preservation throughout two years of war. with eye shadow.
Excerpted from Miss Silver Deals With Death by Patricia Wentworth. Copyright © 1944 Patricia Wentworth. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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