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When Lizzie and Bell meet for tea after nearly two decades apart, the topic of conversation is murder—one that Bell herself committed
When Elizabeth Vetch spots Bell for the first time in seventeen years, she chases her down in order to learn why her old friend committed a terrible murder all those years ago. Bell has been in prison ever since the mysterious events that took place at the House of Stairs, a London mansion full of over-privileged, overstuffed, and somewhat ...
When Lizzie and Bell meet for tea after nearly two decades apart, the topic of conversation is murder—one that Bell herself committed
When Elizabeth Vetch spots Bell for the first time in seventeen years, she chases her down in order to learn why her old friend committed a terrible murder all those years ago. Bell has been in prison ever since the mysterious events that took place at the House of Stairs, a London mansion full of over-privileged, overstuffed, and somewhat sinister boarders, landed her there. Now it’s up to Lizzie to put together the pieces of her friend’s—and her own—fateful past. As the story behind Bell’s crime unfolds, master of suspense Barbara Vine keeps readers guessing at the victim and the motive, letting the sword of Damocles hang over the heads of a fascinating and richly drawn cast of characters.
THE TAXI DRIVER THOUGHT he had offended me. I pushed a five-pound note through the opening in the glass panel and said to stop and let me out. As he pulled in to the side he said in a truculent way, "I've a right to my opinion."
He had been talking about forcible sterilization of the unfit, a subject resulting from some newspaper controversy, and he was all for it, voraciously and passionately for it. I might have been offended. I especially might have been offended if I had been listening.
"I didn't even hear you," I said, realizing as I said it that this would only make things worse. "I saw a woman I know, a woman I used to know on the crossing. I have to see her." Out on the pavement, I shouted back at him, "Keep the change!"
"What change?" he said, though there was some, a reasonable tip. He was one of those men who think women are mad, or tell themselves women are mad, this being the only way to explain otherwise inexplicable behavior. "You want to get yourself seen to," he shouted, and—who knows?—perhaps he was reverting to his original subject.
It wasn't malice that had made him set me down on the south side of the Green. It only seemed like it as I stood there, imprisoned by the flow, the running tide of traffic, that at the same time had the effect of a door constantly slamming in my face. All the while the lights remained green, Bell was slipping away farther and farther from me. The metal tide, the slamming door, bore a great exodus out of Wood Lane and the Uxbridge Road, from the West End by Holland Park Avenue, out of the West Cross Route, and the emerald light pulled it on, summoned it to a swifter onslaught, a more tumultuous roar. It cut off my view of the Green on which she must now be—walking which way?
Through the taxi's windscreen I had seen her on this crossing. With her characteristic gliding walk unchanged, back straight, head held high as if she carried an amphora balanced on it, Bell had passed northward from the Hammersmith side. I gasped, I know I did, I may even have let out a cry, which to my cab driver had sounded like a protest at his words. She disappeared from my sight toward Holland Park so quickly that she might have been a hallucination. But I knew she wasn't. I knew that strange though it was to find her in this unlikely place, it had been Bell I saw and I had to follow her even after all these years and after all the terrible things.
Enforced waiting when you are in a desperate hurry, that is one of life's worst small stings. It didn't seem small to me then. I jogged up and down, bouncing on my feet, praying, begging the lights to change. And then I saw her again. Buses moved, a red wall of them, and I saw her again, crossing the Green, a rapidly retreating figure, tall and erect and looking straight ahead of her. She was in black, all black, the kind of bunchy clustered clothes only the very tall and thin can wear, the waist that looks breakable contained by a wide black belt as if to keep it from snapping in two. From the first sight of her I had noticed something startlingly different. Her hair, which had been very fair, had changed color. Although I could no longer make it out across the expanse of grass and paths as the figure of Bell grew smaller, I understood with a sense of shock, with a kind of hollow pang, that her hair was gray.
The lights changed and we streamed across in front of the impatient, barely stationary, waiting cars. Or fled in my case, fled onto the Green and across it in pursuit of Bell, whom I could no longer see, who had disappeared. I knew where she had gone, into the tube station, down into the tube. A 50p ticket out of the machine and I was going down on the escalator, forced now to face alternatives and make a choice, the ancient but everlasting choice of which of two paths to take, in this case westward or eastward? Bell had been a Londoner once. Before she disappeared from all our lives into the limbo years, into no- man's-land, the cloister fort et dure, she had been a Londoner who boasted she would lose her way west of Ladbroke Grove or east of Aldgate. West of Ladbroke Grove (simply "The Grove" to her, and all of us, then) was where she had been this evening, but visiting only, I thought. Somehow I knew she was going home.
So I turned to the platform going east and the train came in at the same time, but before I got into it I saw her again. She was a long way along the platform, walking toward the opening doors, and her hair was as gray as ashes. It was done up like Cosette's had once been, done in that very precise style of hers, piled loosely on her head in the shape of a cottage loaf with a knot in the center like a bun of dough, the way it had been when first Cosette came to the House of Stairs.
There was something dreadfully disturbing about this, so upsetting indeed that I felt a real need to sit down and rest, close my eyes, and perhaps breathe deeply. But of course I dared not sit down. I had to station myself just inside the doors so that I could see Bell when she left the train and walked past my carriage to the way out. Or even briefly go out onto the platform at each station in case her exit took her the other way and I missed her. I was very afraid that I was going to lose her, but not so preoccupied that I couldn't examine the situation as I stood close up against those doors. For the first time I wondered if Bell would want to see me and I wondered what we would say to each other, at least to begin with. I couldn't imagine that Bell blamed me as, for instance, Cosette had blamed me. But would she expect me to blame her?
I was thinking along these lines when the train came into Holland Park. The doors opened and I leaned out, looking along the length of the train, but Bell didn't emerge. It was about half-past seven by this time and, although a lot of people were about, the crowds had gone. Doing what I was doing, or trying to do, would have been impossible in the rush hours. The next station would be Notting Hill Gate and I was almost certain Bell wouldn't alight there, for this was the station we had all used in those days, all of us that is except Cosette, who went everywhere by car or taxi. Bell, for all that she had loved these particular parts of west London, wouldn't have been so insensitive as to choose a return to those streets and that tube station when she came out of prison.
There it was, I had said it, silently and to myself, in my own head, but I had uttered the word. Not cloister nor limbo nor no-man's-land, but prison. It made me feel weak, dizzy almost. And this thought was succeeded by another, very nearly equally tumultuous: I hadn't expected her to be free, I had thought another year at least, I am not prepared for this. Had I expected her ever to be freed? But I had to be prepared. I had to get out of the train in case I was wrong, in case Bell was not living here but only visiting and was obliged to use this station. I stood on the platform, watching for her, but again she did not appear.
She left the train at Queensway. I got out and followed her, certain now that I must catch up with her in the crowd that stopped to wait for the lift. But when the lift came it could accommodate only so many of the waiting passengers. I saw Bell get into it, her fine ashen head held high above all but two of the others, but had to take the second lift myself. However, before I did so, before the doors of the first lift closed, Bell turned to face this way and looked straight at me. I don't know whether she saw me or not, I have been puzzling about this but still I can't say, though I think she didn't. The lift doors closed and the lift went up, bearing her away.
It was sunset when I came out into the Bayswater Road, the sky a pale red but tumbled with ranges of cloud that were rust colored and crimson and nearly black. The skies of cities are so much finer than anything you see in the country and London has the best of them, though I know Americans would make that claim for New York and I will gladly give it second place. T. H. Huxley used to look down Oxford Street at sunset and see apocalyptic visions, and that evening I too seemed to see wonderful configurations above the park and Kensington Palace Gardens, great swollen masses of cloud stained with the colors of ocher and dried blood, dividing in the wind to lay bare little limpid lakes of palest blue, closing again in vaporous surges dark as coal. But Bell I couldn't see, Bell I had lost.
I walked back and looked up Queensway. I looked along Bayswater Road in both directions. There was a tall woman in black a long way ahead, walking westward, and I think even then I knew in my heart it wasn't Bell, though her waist was small and her hair was gray. I deceived myself because what else was I to do? Go home empty-handed and empty-hearted? I should have to do that sooner or later, but not now, not yet. And the moment the woman had turned out of the Bayswater Road into St. Petersburgh Place my conviction that it was Bell, it must be Bell, returned—for how could she have escaped and hidden herself so fast?—and I pursued more eagerly, up St. Petersburgh Place, past the synagogue and St. Matthew's, along Moscow Road and into Pembridge Square, across Pembridge Villas. By then we were nearer Notting Hill Gate tube station than Queensway and I was telling myself that Bell deliberately avoided it, took this long way round to her home because it was as hard for her as it was for me, or harder, to face the old associations.
I lost her somewhere this side of the Portobello Road. I say "somewhere this side" as if I didn't know the place like the palm of my own hand, as if I could have been indifferent to any inch of it, forgotten any yard of it. It was in Ledbury Road that I lost her and found her again on the corner of the Portobello where she had met a friend and stopped to talk. And then I saw it wasn't Bell, as that part of me which would recognize her blindfolded had always known. It was an older woman than Bell, who would now be forty-five, that I had been following and the girl she was talking to on the corner was a small dumpy blonde, her shrill laughter echoing in that empty ugly glamorous street. I walked on past them and saw the red sky was no longer red but a wild stormy gray of heavy jostling clouds and black with thunder over Kensal Town.
Few people were in the streets. It had been different when first I came here nearly twenty years ago and all the youth of England was on fire, and most, it seemed to me, in Notting Hill. Now there were cars instead, cars which swallowed up the people and transported them in protective capsules. The houses here have gardens and in May they are full of blossoming trees so that the place smells of engine oil and hawthorn, honeysuckle and petrol fumes. It was French cigarettes it smelled of in Cosette's day, any old cigarettes come to that, French and English and Russian and Passing Clouds even, and marijuana in the Electric Cinema. I walked along, not the way I had come, but farther south than that, along Chepstow Villas, and I knew where I was going, there is no possibility I can claim I was tending that way by chance, that I didn't know Archangel Place lay in that direction.
But it was of Bell that I was thinking as I walked, wondering who there was that I could find to lead me to her, who would know. My certainty remained that she had been going home, was very likely home by now. It was the sight of me from the lift at Queensway station that had sent her hurrying, hiding even. She had only to slip inside the entrance of the Coburg Hotel or even into Bayswater tube station, just a few yards along Queensway, to have eluded me. And of course she didn't live in Notting Hill, but somewhere in Bayswater. There must be someone I could find who would tell me where. But that she should have wanted to elude me ...? I who never walk anywhere if I can help it had been walking fast and running in pursuit of the real and the false Bell and my legs began to ache.
The feeling is always inescapable that this may be it, this time it is no ordinary tiredness but the early warning itself, and the usual unease touched me, the usual quiver of panic. I am not old enough yet to be out of danger, I am still within the limit. But oh, what a bore it all is, how dreary and repetitive and simply boring after all these years, yet how can something be a bore and a terror at one and the same time? I have told no one, ever, but Bell and Cosette. Well, Cosette knew already, naturally she did. Does Bell remember? When she saw me in the station did she remember then and wonder if it had caught me yet or passed me by and left me safe?
I told myself, as I always do, your legs ache because you're not fit (the muscle in your chin jumps because you are tired, carelessness made you drop that glass) and I thought what a fool I was to go out in high heels, in pointed shoes that pinched my toes. It scarcely helped, nothing helps except the ache, the tic, the weakness, going away. I thought I would hail the next taxi that came round one of those narrow leafy corners, out of a crescent or a terrace, for this region of West Eleven is a tight-knit confusion, a labyrinth of alleys and mews, blown fields and flowerful closes, green pleasure and gray grief.
No taxi came and I was fooling myself when I said I would have taken it if it had. I had come to the narrow lane that leads into the mews and thence into Archangel Place, a lane that, for all its overhanging tree branches and dense jostling hedges, could never be in the country. Slates, polished by the passage of town shoes and their friction, pave it, and there is privet in the hedge and catalpa among the trees. It smells of a city, of staleness and use, and underfoot is dust rather than earth. Between the mews and the street stands the church called St. Michael the Archangel, Victorian Byzantine, unchanged, not closed and boarded up, not transformed by one of those vaguely blasphemous conversions into a block of flats, but just the same and with its doors flung wide to show the archangel in the sanctuary with his outspread wings.
I paused on the corner, bending down to rub the muscles in my calves, then looked up and stood up, stood there looking down the narrow, straight, and rather short street. From there the House of Stairs also appeared unaltered. But it was dusk now, the long London summer dusk, gloomy and cool, and changes might be hidden. Slowly and deliberately, as if out for a stroll, I walked down on the opposite side. On summer evenings when Cosette lived there, people used to sit on doorsteps and when it was hot sunbathe stretched out on the flat roofs of porches. But Archangel Place has come up in the world and I suspect that behind the varied facades—Dutch, Victorian Baroque, neo-Gothic, Bayswater Palladian—are rank upon rank of neat flats that are called "luxury conversions," with close carpeting and false ceilings and double glazing. It was soon clear to me that number fifteen was such a one, for where Cosette had had a twisted wrought-iron bellpull was a row of entry-phone buzzers with printed cards above each one.
Excerpted from The House of Stairs by Ruth Rendell. Copyright © 1988 Kingsmarkham Enterprises Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted November 29, 2012
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Posted January 10, 2012
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