His first wife died suddenly—and his wealthy new bride may be about to meet a similar fate . . . Former schoolteacher Miss Maud Silver is on her way back to London when, with a violent shudder of the train, a young woman is thrust into her compartment. She’s beautiful, well dressed, newly married, and wealthy—a lethal combination. In a state of shock, Lisle Jerningham explains that she fled her home in a hurry after overhearing a sinister conversation. Her new husband’s first wife died in an apparent accident, and the resultant infusion of cash saved his family home. Now, he’s broke again—and attempting to engineer a second convenient mishap. Miss Silver is unsure whether the drama is real or a figment of Lisle’s imagination—but if this frightened young lady is a target for murder, the killer will have to deal with the governess-turned-sleuth first. Starring a mature sleuth who “has her place in detective fiction as surely as Lord Peter Wimsey or Hercule Poirot”, In the Balance is a classic British mystery ( Manchester Evening News ).
About the Author
Patricia Wentworth (1878–1961) was one of the masters of classic English mystery writing. Born in India as Dora Amy Elles, she began writing after the death of her first husband, publishing her first novel in 1910. In the 1920s, she introduced the character who would make her famous: Miss Maud Silver, the former governess whose stout figure, fondness for Tennyson, and passion for knitting served to disguise a keen intellect. Along with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Miss Silver is the definitive embodiment of the English style of cozy mysteries.
Read an Excerpt
In the Balance
A Miss Silver Mystery
By Patricia Wentworth
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1942 Patricia Wentworth
All rights reserved.
Miss Maud Silver looked along the crowded platform and felt thankful that she herself was in a through carriage. She was very comfortably settled in her corner, with her back to the engine to avoid smuts and the magazine presented by her niece laid face downwards on the seat beside her. She gazed with amiable interest at the family parties which came and went, hurrying into sight and then hurrying on again. Miss Silver's mind, incurably Victorian, found an apt quotation: "Ships that pass in the night—" Only of course it wasn't the night, but ten o'clock of a sunny July morning. Not that that really mattered, because poetry was not intended to be taken in too literal a sense.
"Ships that pass in the night and, passing, speak one another.
Only a voice and a call, then darkness again and the silence."
Symbolical of course. She hoped she had the words quite right.
Dear me—what a crowd! Everyone going away on their holidays. She herself had greatly enjoyed her fortnight at Whitestones with Ethel and the children. After the very trying affair of the poisoned caterpillars it had been pleasant to relax in the bosom of an affectionate family. They had sat out on the beach all day, and she had knitted three pairs of socks and a coatee for the baby, a nice plump, friendly child. The holiday had done her good, and the circumstance that there are no caterpillars by the sea had certainly added to her enjoyment.
She watched a stout woman push herself and three children through the crowd with the efficiency of a tank. There was a little boy with something in a basket. He wrestled with the catch, lifted the corner of the lid, and in a flash a black kitten clawed its way out and was gone. Miss Silver said "Dear me!", approved the slap administered by a competent maternal hand, and lost the group as it surged on in pursuit of the kitten.
Nearly everyone seemed to be leaving this train. Miss Silver herself was returning to London. She reflected that it would be an agreeable end to an agreeable holiday if she were to have the carriage to herself for the rest of the way—agreeable but improbable. A tall, thin man with a dreaming face went by. He stood a head and shoulders above the crowd and walked as if he were alone on a windy moor. Two young girls went by, chattering nineteen to the dozen. They wore grey flannel trousers and brilliant pull-overs with no sleeves. Their mouths were plastered with lipstick, their hair shone in bright sophisticated waves. A nurse went by, very stiff and starched, with a child in a sky-blue bathing dress. The little creature danced along, clutching a new tin bucket all ready for the beach, its head a tangle of yellow curls, its arms and legs as brown as oak-apples.
No one seemed to be coming in. They all went by.
Miss Silver looked at the watch which she wore pinned with a gold bar brooch to the left-hand side of her brown silk blouse and confirmed an impression that the train was due to start. She wore besides the blouse a coat and skirt of drab shantung, black Oxford shoes, and a brown straw hat with a small bunch of mignonette and purple pansies on the left side. A pair of openwork drab cotton gloves lay in her lap beside a rather shabby black bag. Under the brim of the shady hat there was a good deal of mouse-coloured hair, a set of neat middle-aged features, and a smooth sallow skin. The brown blouse was fastened at the throat with a large cameo brooch bearing a Greek warrior's head in high relief. A string of bog-oak beads ingeniously carved went twice round Miss Silver's neck and then fell to her waist, jingling a little as they touched the double eyeglass which she wore suspended by a fine black cord.
A whistle blew, the train gave a premonitory jerk. Someone shouted. Miss Silver looked up and saw the door beside her wrenched open. The train gave a second jerk. A tall girl in grey came stumbling up the step into the carriage. A third and heavier jerk threw her against Miss Silver, who was at her best in an emergency. The girl was steadied. The door, which had swung loose, was caught and slammed. Lisle Jerningham found herself being pressed into a corner seat by someone who looked like a retired governess, while a voice strongly reminiscent of the schoolroom informed her that it was extremely dangerous to endeavour to enter a moving train—"and quite against the company's regulations". The voice came from a long way off, from the other side of that gulf which lay between her and every living soul. On that other side there had once been a schoolroom and a voice like that. "Don't bang the door when you come into a room, Lisle. Sit up, my dear—don't slump in your chair like that. Oh, my dear Lisle, do please attend when I speak." All these things—long ago and far away—on the safe other side of the gulf—
"Not at all safe," said Miss Silver in earnest admonition.
Lisle stared at her. She said, "No." And then, "It doesn't matter, does it?" She saw Miss Silver quite plainly and distinctly, a little old-fashioned governessy woman sitting up prim and straight in the opposite corner, with frumpy clothes and the sort of hat that nobody had worn for years. With the least possible movement she could have touched her, and yet Miss Silver, like her voice, seemed a long way off. She said in a flat, exhausted voice, "It doesn't matter," and leaned back into her corner.
Miss Silver made no reply. Instead she observed the girl attentively. A tall girl, very slight and graceful, with the ash-blonde hair and milky skin which belong more to the Scandinavian than to the English type. An English girl as fair as this would have blue eyes, but the eyes which were now fixed on the moving landscape were of a pure deep grey fringed with lashes which were many tones darker than that very light hair. The eyebrows were golden, narrow and oddly arched, like frail gold wings spread for a flight. This gold gave the face its only colour. Miss Silver thought she had never seen a living person look so pale. The very white skin made the effect more startling.
The girl was wearing a grey flannel coat and skirt, beautifully cut. Everything she had on was perfectly simple, but the simplicity was of the kind which cannot be achieved without money. The small grey felt hat with its blue cord looped in a careless twist, the grey handbag with the initial L, the fineness of the silk stockings, the quality of the grey shoes—all these things Miss Silver observed. Her eye passed to the ungloved hands, noted a platinum wedding ring, and dropped to her own drab lap. Her practised mind summed up its impressions in three words—shock—money—married.
She took up the magazine which Ethel had so kindly provided and began to turn the pages. When she had turned three in rapid succession she went no farther. Her gaze, at first fixed and intent, became abstracted.
After a little she closed the magazine and leaned forward.
"Do you care to read? Would this interest you?"
The grey eyes came slowly to her face. She thought there was a resolute attempt to focus then. They had not really been seeing the flat green fields with their chess-board pattern of hedgerows—all the same size, all slipping by faster and faster as the train gained speed. She was not really seeing Miss Silver now, but she was making an effort.
Miss Silver abandoned the magazine as a gambit, and said directly,
"Something is the matter, is it not? Can I be of any assistance?"
The voice, kind and authoritative, reached Lisle Jerningham—the voice, not the words. She heard the words of course, as she heard the clanking of the train, but one meant no more than the other. The voice reached her. Some of the blankness went out of her eyes. She looked at Miss Silver and said,
"You are very kind."
"You have had a shock."
This was a statement, not a question.
Lisle said, "Yes;" and then, "How did you know?"
"You came away in a hurry."
"Yes." She repeated her question rather piteously. "How did you know?"
"This is a London train. You would not be going to London without any gloves if you had not come away in a hurry. And they are not in your bag. That flat envelope shape would not close upon a pair of gloves without bulging."
Again it was the kind, decisive voice which reached Lisle and steadied her. There was something about it which made her feel safe. She said like a distressed echo,
"I came away in a hurry."
"Why?" said Miss Silver.
"They said he was trying to kill me," said Lisle Jerningham.
Miss Silver betrayed neither surprise nor incredulity. It was not the first time she had received a similar confidence. It was in fact her professional business to deal with such confidences.
"Dear me," she said—"and who is supposed to be trying to kill you?"
Lisle Jerningham said, "My husband—"CHAPTER 2
Miss Silver looked at her steadily. An unbalanced mind not infrequently displayed itself in such an accusation. She had encountered persecution mania, but she had also encountered murder, and that not merely attempted. In more than one case it was only her own intervention which had prevented the attempt from being successful. She looked steadily at Lisle Jerningham and judged her sane—a normal creature shocked into a temporary abnormality. Shock sometime acts as an anæsthetic. Control is in abeyance, the tongue is loosened, reserve is gone.
These thoughts took no more than a moment. She repeated her former mild "Dear me!" and enquired,
"What makes you think your husband is trying to kill you?"
Not a muscle of Lisle's face had moved. She had spoken in a flat, emotionless tone. It did not vary now.
"They said so."
"Yes? And who were 'they'?"
"I don't know—I was behind the hedge—" Her voice trailed away. Her eyes remained open, but instead of seeing Miss Silver they saw the hedge, a long, dark wall of yew set here and there with berries like little blood-red bells with the green seed for a clapper. She was not in the railway carriage any more. She was standing pressed close up against the hedge with the sun shining hot on her back and the queer stuffy smell of the yew in her nostrils. She was looking at one of those crimson berries with the bloom on it, and all at once voices came to her from the other side of the hedge:
"Of course you know what they say—" A slow, drawling voice.
"My dear, you might as well tell me." A voice that hurried and was amused.
And then the first voice again.
Lisle found herself speaking to the frumpy little woman in the opposite corner. If she spoke, it would stop those other voices.
"I didn't know they were speaking about Dale—not at first. I oughtn't to have listened, but I couldn't help it."
Miss Silver had opened her bag and put away the magazine. She was now placidly knitting the second of a pair of grey stockings for Ethel's eldest boy. The bright steel needles clicked as she said,
"Very natural. Dale is your husband?"
It was a relief to speak. The sound of her own voice drowned the voices which had spoken about Dale. When she was silent they went on speaking all the time in her head, round and round and round like a gramophone record. They were beginning again now, and she could smell the yew with the sun on it.
"It was a very lucky accident for him." A low, drawling laugh.
And then the other voice, hurrying to be cruel:
"Some people have all the luck. Dale Jerningham's one of the lucky ones."
That was when she had known that they were talking about Dale. She said faintly and piteously,
"I didn't know—I really didn't know—not till she said that."
Miss Silver turned her stocking.
"Not till she said what, my dear?"
Lisle went on speaking. She did not think about Miss Silver at all. It was easier to talk than to listen to the voices which went round and round in her head.
"She said that Dale was lucky because his first wife had an accident. They married when he was very young—only twenty, you know, and she was older than he was—a good deal older—and she had a lot of money. They talked about that. They said Dale would have had to sell Tanfield if he hadn't married her. I don't know if that is true—I don't know if any of it is true. Her name was Lydia. They said he didn't love her, but she was very fond of him. She made a will which left him everything, and a month later she had an accident when they were climbing in Switzerland. They said it was a very lucky accident for Dale. They said the money saved Tanfield. I don't know if that is true."
Miss Silver observed her gravely. No expression in the face. No expression in the voice. No colour. No life. There was more here than the death—by accident—of an unknown first wife a good many years ago. She said,
"I am a great admirer of the late Lord Tennyson. It is a pity that he is not more read nowadays, but I believe that he will come into his own again. When he wrote, 'A lie that is half the truth is ever the worst of lies,' he wrote something that we would all do well to remember when we have been listening to injurious gossip."
The words went past Lisle, but the calm, authoritative voice soothed her. She said with a faint note of pleading,
"Do you think it wasn't true?"
"I don't know, my dear."
"She fell," said Lisle—"and she was killed—Lydia—I didn't know her —it's a long time ago. They said it was a lucky accident—"
Miss Silver's needles paused.
"I think they said something more than that. What did they say?"
Lisle put a hand to her cheek in a strange frightened gesture. She wanted to go on talking, but she did not want to talk about the thing that had really frightened her. When she approached it even in thought everything in her went cold and numb. There was no pain yet, but there would be pain when this numb terror relaxed—there would be anguish. Talking kept it away. She went on talking.
"They said her money saved him from having to sell Tanfield, but I don't know if that is true. The money nearly all went in the depression—Dale told me that himself. And they said it was my money he wanted now."
"I see. You have money of your own?"
The dark grey eyes dwelt on her without expression. The white lips said,
"I see. And you have made a will—leaving your money to your husband?"
"When did you do this?"
"A fortnight ago. We have only been married six months."
Miss Silver knitted. Lisle Jerningham fell silent, and heard a drawling voice which said:
"The money's tied up, but I believe he comes into it if anything happens to her."
And the other voice, quick with malice:
"Is she going to have an accident too?"
Pain stirred the numbness at Lisle's heart. Fear stabbed her. Better to say it herself than to listen to the voices. She said on a shuddering breath,
"'Is she going to have an accident too?' That's what they said—an accident—because if he had the money to do what he liked with he could keep Tanfield. And I don't like it very much, you know, because it's so big. I'd rather live at the Manor—it's more like a home. So I said why not sell Tanfield? There's a man who wants to buy it. But Dale said his people had been there always, and we quarrelled. But he wouldn't—just because of that! Oh, it was an accident!"
"What sort of accident?" said Miss Silver.
"We were bathing. I'm not a very good swimmer—I couldn't get in. He and Rafe and Alicia were laughing and splashing each other—they didn't hear me call. I was nearly drowned. It was an accident. But that's what they said—"
The voices drowned her own voice with a sudden surge of sound which filled her ears:
"Is she going to have an accident too?"
And then the other:
"My dear, she's just had one—fished up out of the sea like a drowned cat. Dale doing the broken-hearted widower for the second time. Practice make perfect, but this time it was a bit premature. She came round, and he hasn't got the money—yet."
"Who was tactless enough to save her?"
There was a drawled "Not Dale."
Lisle's hand dropped into her lap. It was no good, she had to listen.
Miss Silver's voice came to her, saying quietly,
"But you were not drowned. Who saved you?"
"Not Dale," said Lisle Jerningham.
Excerpted from In the Balance by Patricia Wentworth. Copyright © 1942 Patricia Wentworth. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Good read altho who dunnit was obvious. Girl is dumb as a rock. A bit disappointing compared to others by same author.
I bad,y wanted the so-called heroine to be murdered - there could be no point in such a pathetic human being surviving.
Of course with cary grant was happy ending