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The Miss Silver Mysteries
Grey Mask, The Case Is Closed, and Lonesome Road
By Patricia Wentworth
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1939 Patricia Wentworth
All rights reserved.
Mr Packer dangled the heavy bunch of keys for a moment before laying them on the table.
'Four years is a long time to be away,' he said.
His voice was so drily polite that Charles Moray could not fail to be aware that in the eyes of his solicitor four years' absence, and a consequent neglect of all the business arising out of his father's death and his own succession, was a dereliction. An only son who succeeded to a large estate had no business to walk the uttermost parts of the earth. He should step into his place as a citizen, stand for Parliament in the constituency represented by three generations of his family, and — settle down.
Charles picked up the bunch of keys, looked at them with an odd fleeting frown, and put them in his pocket.
'You won't be going to the house tonight, I suppose,' said Mr Packer.
'No. I'm staying at The Luxe. I just thought I'd look in and get the keys.'
'I asked because I believe — in fact I know — that the caretaker, Lattery, is out. He is always out on Thursday evening. I am aware of the fact, because it is his practice to call at this office for his wages; he comes very punctually at five o'clock. And I thought that if you had any intention of calling at the house, his absence might surprise you.'
'No, I shan't go round there tonight,' said Charles. He glanced at his watch. 'Haven't time — Millar's dining with me. I expect you remember him.'
Mr Packer remembered Mr Millar; not, apparently, with enthusiasm.
Charles got up.
'Well, I'll be round in the morning. I can sign anything you want me to then. I hope I haven't kept you. I'd no idea it was so late.'
He walked back to The Luxe in the dusk of the October evening — dampish, coldish — a gloomy, depressing sort of climate to welcome a man who has had four years of tropical sunshine.
Charles sniffed the cold wet air and found it good. It was surprisingly good to be at home again. The rage and pain which had driven him out of England four years ago were gone, burnt to the ash of forgetfulness by the very fierceness of their own flame. He could think of Margaret Langton now without either pain or anger. She was married of course; a girl doesn't turn a man down like that on the very eve of their wedding unless there's another man. No, Margaret must be married. Very likely they would meet. He told himself that it would be quite an interesting meeting for them both.
At The Luxe a telegram from Archie Millar —'Awfully sorry. My Aunt Elizabeth has wired for me. She does it once a month or so. Hard luck she hit on tonight. Cheerio. Archie.'
Charles ate his dinner alone. During the soup he regretted Archie Millar, but with the fish the regret passed. He did not want Archie or Archie's company; he did not want to go to a theatre or do a show; he wanted vehemently and insistently to go to the house which was now his own house, and to go to it whilst it stood empty of everything except its memories. He didn't want to hear Lattery's account of his stewardship, or to listen to Mrs Lattery deploring the way that the damp got into things. 'No matter what you do, sir, or how much you air — and I'm sure I'm such a one for airing as never was.' Her high-pitched, querulous voice rang sharply in his ears. No, he didn't want to talk to Mrs Lattery. But he wanted to see the house.
His impatience grew as he walked westward facing a soft wind that was full of rain. The house drew him. And why not? His great-grandfather had built it; his grandfather and his father had been born there; he himself had been born there — four generations of them — four generations of memories. And the house stood empty, waiting for him to come to it.
A hundred years ago Thorney Lane was a real lane, whose hedgerows were thick with thorn that blossomed white as milk in May and set its dark red haws for birds to peck at in October. It was a paved walk now, running from one busy thoroughfare to another, with wooden posts set across it at either end to show that it was for the use of foot passengers only. When Mr Archibald Moray built his big house the thoroughfares were country roads.
Half-way up Thorney Lane a narrow alley separated the houses which looked on to Thornhill Square from the houses of the more modern George Street. The old lane had wandered pleasantly between high banks where the alley ran straight between high brick walls. No. 1 Thornhill Square was the corner house.
Charles Moray, walking up Thorney Lane turned to the right and proceeded for about a dozen yards along the alley-way. He stopped in front of the door in the brick wall and took out the bunch of keys which Mr Packer had given him. This key, at least, he thought he could find in the dark. How many times had he and Margaret walked the narrow alley in the twilight, in the dusk, in the dark?
He wondered if the Pelhams were still at 12 George Street, and if Freddy Pelham had learned any new stories in the last four years — Freddy and his interminable pointless tales about nothing! Even when he had been at the height of his love for Margaret it had been hard work to put up with Margaret's stepfather. Well, he wouldn't have to laugh at Freddy's stories now.
He ran his fingers over the keys until they touched the one he wanted; it had a nick in it half-way down the shaft. He let the other keys fall away from it and put out his left hand to feel for the keyhole. His fingers touched the cold, wet wood and slid down on to colder iron. Under the pressure of his hand the door moved. He pushed, and it swung. There was no need for him to use his key on a door that had stood not only unlocked but unlatched. Lattery had grown slack indeed if he made a practice of going out by the back way and leaving the door ajar.
It was very dark in the garden. The high brick wall cut off the last glimmer of the lamp which was supposed to light Thorney Lane and the alley that ran into it.
Charles walked down the flagged path with as much assurance as if he had had daylight to show him what only his mind was showing him now. Here the thorn tree, a seedling eighty years ago, dropped from some survivor of the old hedge. Next, lavender bushes, sweet in the dark as he brushed them by. The garden was of a good size, and had been larger before his grandfather built out a ballroom upon what had once been a formal terrace.
Charles passed the long dark windows with slender fluted columns between them. It was inevitable that he should think of the June night which had seen every window brilliant, open to the soft summer dusk. The dancers had only to step out from between the pillars and descend two marble steps to find themselves amongst flowers.
He frowned and walked on; then threw up his head and stopped. What was that June evening to him now, that he should shirk the remembrance of it? If the past had any ghosts, it was better to look them in the face and bid them begone for ever. The June night rose vividly. The last hours of his engagement to Margaret rose; he saw himself and her; her father, proud and pleased; Margaret in white and silver, radiant and for once beautiful. He could have sworn that the radiance and the beauty flowed from some lamp of joy within; and, with their wedding day only a week ahead, he had not doubted what flame burned high in that lamp of joy. Yet next day she had sent him back his ring.
Charles stared at the dark windows. What a fool he had been! His incredulity was the measure of his folly. He could not believe Margaret's own words in her own writing — not till the telephone had failed him; not till he had forced an entrance into the Pelhams' house, only to hear that Margaret had left town; not till he read in every newspaper the cold announcement that 'the marriage arranged between Mr Charles Moray and Miss Margaret Langton will not take place'.
Did he accept the facts? It is not a pleasant thing to be jilted. Charles Moray flung out of England in as bitter a rage as the galling humiliation warranted. He had never had to think of money in his life: if he wanted to travel he could travel. His father made no demur. India first, and Tibet; then China — the hidden, difficult, dangerous China which only a few Europeans know. Then in Peking he fell in with Justin Parr, and Parr persuaded him into an enthusiasm for the unexplored tracts of South America.
He was still hesitating, when his father died suddenly; and there being nothing to come home for, he set off with Parr on a voyage of adventure with a secret unacknowledged lure, the hope of forgetting Margaret.
Charles looked steadily at these ghosts of his and saw them vanish into the dark, thin air. He was immensely pleased with himself for having faced them, and it was with a glow of self-approbation that he came to the end of the flagged path and groped for the handle of the garden door.
The glow changed to one of anger. This door was open too. He began to have serious thoughts of celebrating his return by sacking Lattery. He stepped into a passage. It ran a few feet and ended in a swing door which gave upon the hall. There was a light here; not one of the hanging lamps which could flood the whole place, but a small, discreet shaded affair set away in a corner.
There is something very melancholy about a big empty house. Charles looked at the light and wondered if this house was really empty. It ought to have felt empty. But it didn't. And he ought, perhaps, to have felt melancholy. Instead, he was experiencing a certain elated feeling which was partly expectancy, and partly the instinct that scents adventure. He went up the stairs and turned into the right-hand corridor. This floor was in darkness. A faint glow came up from the well of the stairs and made the gloom visible. He had his hand on the switch which controlled the light, when he paused and after a moment let his hand fall again.
At the end of the corridor two doors faced each other. The right-hand door was invisible in the darkness, but across the threshold of the left-hand door lay a faint pencilling of light.
Charles looked at this pencilling, and told himself that Mrs Lattery was in the room. All the same he walked softly, and when he reached the door he stood still, listening. And as he stood, he heard one man speak and another answer him.
Moving quite noiselessly, he stepped backwards until he could touch the opposite door; then, putting his hand behind him, he turned the handle, passed into the dark room, and closed the door again.
The room into which he had come was the one which had been his mother's bedroom. The room opposite was her sitting-room, and between the two, across the end of the corridor, there ran a windowless cupboard — a delightful place for a child to play in. He could remember his mother's dresses hanging there, silken, lavender scented, whispering when you touched them. She died when he was ten; and then there were no more dresses hanging there.
Charles opened the door very softly. The seven feet of black emptiness gave out a cold, musty smell — Mrs Lattery had not done very much of her boasted airing here. He went forward into the blackness until his fingers touched the panelling on the far side of it. Long ago there had been a door here too; but it had been shut up to make more space for Mrs Moray's dresses. The keyhole had been filled and the handle removed.
Charles had regretted the keyhole. It had figured in his games, and he could still remember the thrill with which he had discovered a peep-hole which replaced it handsomely. Four feet from the floor on the extreme edge of the panelling a knot-hole had been filled with glue and sawdust stained to match the wood of the door. With infinite patience the little boy of nine had loosened the filling until it could be withdrawn at will like a cork. It was the memory of this peep-hole which brought him into the cupboard now. An unlatched gate, and an open door, and men's voices — these things seemed to require an explanation.
He knelt down, felt for the knot-hole, and gently, cautiously, pulled out the plug that filled it.CHAPTER 2
Charles Moray looked through the hole in the panelling and saw what surprised him very much. The room beyond was half in shadow and half in light. There was a lamp with a tilted shade on the rosewood table which held his mother's photograph albums. It stood perched on the fattest album with its green silk shade tipped back so as to throw all the light towards the door.
Charles drew back instinctively lest he should be seen; but the ray fell away to the left of his panelling and was focused on the door across whose threshold he had seen the pencilled line of light.
There were two men sitting at the table. One of them had his back to Charles, who could see no more than a black overcoat and a felt hat. The other man was in the shadow facing him. Charles, peering and intrigued, beheld a white shirt front framed, as it were, in a sort of loose black cloak. Above the shirt front a blur, formless and featureless. Certainly the man had a head; but, as certainly, he seemed to have no face. However deep the shadow, you ought to be able to see the line where the hair meets the forehead, and the outline of the jaw.
Charles drew a longish breath. The man didn't seem to have any hair or any jaw; he was just a shirt front and a cloak and a greyish blur that had no form or feature. It was rather beastly.
Then as he felt the short hairs on his neck begin to prickle, the man with his back to him said,
'Suppose there's a certificate?'
The shoulders under the black cloak were shrugged; a deep, soft voice gave an answer;
'If there's a certificate, so much the worse for the girl.'
'What do you mean?' The first man hurried over the question.
'Why, she must go of course. I should think a street accident would be the safest way.' The words were spoken with a gentle, indifferent inflexion. The man in the shadow lifted a paper, looked down at it with that blur of a face, and inquired, 'You are sure there was no will?'
'Oh, quite sure. The lawyer took care of that.'
'There might have been a second one — millionaires have a curious passion for making wills.'
'Twenty-seven was quite sure. Here's his report. Will you look at it?'
A paper passed. The lamp was turned a little, the shade adjusted. Charles saw the light touch part of a hand, and saw that the hand wore a grey rubber glove. His heart gave a jump.
'By gum! That's what he's got on his face too! Beastly! All over his face and head — grey rubber — a grey rubber mask!'
The lamp was his mother's reading-lamp. The room, unused since her death, remained for Charles Moray a place of warmth and shaded light, a place where he mustn't make a noise, a fire-lit evening place where he sat cross-legged on the floor beside a sofa and a soft, tired voice told him stories. What were these unbelievable people doing in this place? It made him feel rather sick to see the light slant from the reading-lamp across that grey, smooth hand on to the pages of Twenty-seven's report; it made him very angry too. Of all the infernal cheek —
The pages turned with an even flick; Grey Mask was a quick reader. He dropped the report in a heap and said, in that deep purring voice,
'Is Twenty-seven here?'
The other man nodded.
'Are you ready for him?'
Charles jerked back from his peep-hole. Someone had moved so near him that the recoil was instinctive. Coming cautiously forward again, he became aware that there was a third man in the room, away on his left, keeping guard over the door. When he stood close to the door he was out of sight; but when he opened it he came sufficiently forward to be visible as a blue serge suit and the sort of khaki muffler which everybody's aunts turned out by the gross during the war. The muffler came up so high that the fellow was really only a suit of clothes and a scarf.
Through the open door there came a man who looked like a commercial traveller. He wore a large overcoat and a bowler hat. Charles never got a glimpse of his face. He walked up to the table with an air of assurance and looked about him for a chair.
There was no chair within reach, and under Grey Mask's silent, unmoving stare some of the assurance seemed to evaporate. The stare was a very curious one, for the holes in the smooth grey face were not eye-shaped but square — small square holes like dark dice on a grey ground. They gave Charles himself an indescribable feeling of being watched.
Excerpted from The Miss Silver Mysteries by Patricia Wentworth. Copyright © 1939 Patricia Wentworth. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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