She awakes in a dark place. A young woman with a shattered memory, she knows neither who she is nor how she came to be in this abandoned house. All she possesses is a faint sense that someone is lying dead at the foot of the stairs. Horrifyingly, she is correct. In the cellar lies a young woman, her body broken, her head split, her life undone by a revolver’s shell. The amnesiac flees and finally has a stroke of luck: She meets Maud Silver. A dowdy governess turned daring detective, Miss Silver sees immediately that something is wrong. She comforts the confused young woman, and coaxes out of her what little story she can tell. The memory of the body sets Miss Silver on a fantastic adventure—the last written by Patricia Wentworth, and one of the most thrilling of them all.
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
The Girl in the Cellar
A Miss Silver Mystery
By Patricia Wentworth
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1961 Patricia Wentworth
All rights reserved.
SHE LOOKED INTO the dead unbroken dark and had neither memory nor thought. She was not conscious of where she was, or of how she had come there. She was not conscious of anything except the darkness. She did not know if time had passed. There seemed to be no sense that it went by, but it must have done, because the moment when she knew nothing except the darkness had changed into a moment in which she knew that her feet were on stone, and that she must not move from where she stood.
A gradual knowledge invaded her, and with it a fear that was like the beginning of pain. She did not know how the knowledge came to her. She only knew that it was there. The stone under her feet was a step. It was a single step in a long stone flight. If she were to move she might fall, she did not know how far. The thought terrified her. It came to her, she did not know how, that it was not the unknown depth that was the terror behind her thought, but the thing that waited there. Her heart knocked and her knees shook. Whatever happened, she must not fall. Every instinct told her that. She felt behind her and found a step above the one upon which she stood. The darkness round her had begun to break into fiery sparks as she sank down and leaned forward with her head between her knees. Afterwards she was to think how strange it was that she should remember the right thing to do if you thought you were going to faint.
Presently the fiery sparks died out and the darkness was quite dark again. She put down her hand and felt the step on which she was sitting. It was cold and damp – and it was stone, just as she had known that it would be. Moving along it her hand touched something else. The warmer, drier feel of leather or plastic came to her. The thing moved with the movement of her hand. It was a handbag. She drew it towards her, set it in her lap, and felt for the clasp. It had an unfamiliar feeling. You ought to know how to open your own bag, but it felt strange – her fingers fumbled with it.
And then all at once the clasp moved and the bag was open. She slipped her hand inside it and felt the smooth, cool shape of the pocket-torch – felt it and let go of it again.
Of course she must have dropped her bag when she came down the steps. She had come down the steps with her bag, and she had dropped it. Why had she come down the steps? She didn't know, any more than she knew who she was, or where this place might be. There was only one thing she did know, and that was that someone was lying dead at the bottom of the steps.
She didn't know how she knew it, but she did know it, just as she knew with a sharp and terrible conviction that she must get away quickly, quickly, whilst she could. She got to her feet, when something halted the panic impulse. It was like a voice speaking in her mind. It said quite definitely, clearly, and soberly, 'You can't just run away and not see whether there is anything you can do.'
She remembered the torch, and was afraid. There was a dead girl lying at the foot of these stone steps. She knew it with the same ultimate certainty with which she knew that she was there herself, and she knew that she couldn't just go away and leave her without looking with her eyes to back up that certainty. She took the torch out of the bag and switched it on. The small wavering beam cut the darkness and showed her what she had known she would see. She had known it because she had seen it before. She had stood as she was standing now, but the beam had been brighter then. It had come from a larger torch. She looked along this narrower, feebler beam and saw the girl lie there where she had pitched forward at the foot of the steps. She had been going down them, and she had been shot from behind. She lay with her hands stretched out and a dreadful wound in her head.
The girl on the steps went down the last six. She went round the body, keeping the light away from the head. She bent down and took hold of one of those outflung wrists. It was cold, and it was beginning to be stiff. There was no pulse. She straightened up and turned with the torch in her hand.
The place was a cellar, quite bare, quite empty. The light picked up splinters of glass. There was a broken torch that lay against the right side of the dead girl's body. It came to her that it was the stronger torch which she had used on the other side of the black wall past which she could not go. She had used it, and she had dropped it, and it had rolled and come to rest beside the poor broken girl at the foot of the steps.
She turned now and went to the steps. There was nothing she could do, no help or comfort she could give. She must get away. She went up two steps, and then fear came on her. The lighted torch was in her hand. She switched it off and waited for her heart to stop knocking against her side. It took a long time to steady down. When at last it was going at a slower and more even pace, she opened her eyes again and saw very dimly the rising steps that were there in front of her and the shape of the doorway through which she must have come, a dimly lighted shape high up in a wall of darkness.
She began to walk up the steps towards the open door. She was conscious of two things only. They were on different levels of consciousness. One of them was the torch. It was in the bag again – she must have put it there. Her consciousness would not let go of it. She could feel the shape of it still in her hand, but it wasn't there any longer. The bag was there. The other thing was on a different plane. She must get away. That was the flooding necessity. It struck her like one of those big waves which hit you when you are bathing in the sea and knock you down and break over you. When she looked back she could not really remember how she got out of the house, only that it wasn't quite dark in the hall, and that the door – the front door – wasn't latched. Her full consciousness, her memory, came back to the moment when she found herself standing at the end of the road and looking at the traffic that went by.CHAPTER 2
SHE SAT IN the bus. It was full of people, but she did not really see them. They were there, but she felt herself separate from them – apart. It was as if she was in one story and they in another, as if the stories had nothing to do with one another, as if there was something like a sheet of glass between them and her, between her consciousness and theirs, and no communication was possible.
There was money in her purse. When the conductor came round she took out a two-shilling bit and paid her fare. The curious thing was that when she was getting the money out she had no idea how much to give, and then quite suddenly she did know, so that what had begun as a vague adventure slipped over into a mechanical action too accustomed to need conscious thought.
When the bus stopped at the station she got out and looked about her. There ought to be luggage. She was going on a journey, and you don't do that without luggage. It puzzled her, because just for a moment she could see her luggage – a trunk and a hat-box. She could see them quite clearly, but when she tried to see the name on them the whole thing went. She shut her eyes for a moment against the dizziness which followed. When she opened them it was all gone. She wasn't sure about anything any more.
Someone touched her on the arm. A very kind voice said, 'Are you all right?'
She turned and looked round on the little lady who was exactly like the governesses you read about in Victorian and early Edwardian books, quite out of date and tremendously reassuring. No one who looked like that could have any connection with a dark, secret, underground crime. She found herself smiling. She heard herself say, 'Oh, yes, I'm all right, thank you.'
She did not, of course, know that her smile was the most heartbreaking thing in the world, any more than she knew that there was no colour at all in her face.
Miss Silver looked at her with concern. It was not in her to go on her way and leave a fellow creature to chance. The girl looked as if she might faint at any moment. She had the unrecollected air of one who has had a terrible shock, and who has not yet come to terms with it. She put out a hand and touched the girl's arm again.
'Will you have a cup of tea with me, my dear?'
The pale lips moved. She said, 'Thank you,' with something heartfelt in her tone. The hand that had touched her was slipped inside her arm. There was one more look round for the luggage that wasn't there, and then with a most curious feeling of relief she was going through the arch with Miss Silver. They came into a cross-stream of traffic which made her feel shaken and giddy. Then in a vague unthinking way she was turning to her companion, and this vague and instinctive movement was at once met with a most practical and efficient kindness. Her cold ungloved hand was taken. She felt the presence of a sustaining kindness, and for the moment needed nothing more. She was aware of guidance. Her eyes dropped from the rush and hurry of the crowd they were passing through. And then all at once a glass-topped door was opened and shut again, the noise of the hurry and rush was left outside. It was as if she had passed into another state of being, one in which there was kindness and protection, she did not know from what. She only knew that it was warm, and that she was safe. She sat down with her back to the wall, and there was an interval. Then the little lady's voice again, 'Drink your tea, my dear, while it is hot.'
She opened her eyes. There was a cup of tea, and as soon as she saw it she knew that she was faint from long abstinence. She put out her hand to the cup, lifted it, and drank. The tea was very milky. She drained the cup and set it down, her eyes open now and seeing. They saw the crowded room and the little lady sitting opposite to her and pouring out tea. She had small, neat features and the sort of old-fashioned clothes that were not so much dowdy as characteristic. She had on a black coat and a black hat with a trail of red roses on one side and a row of little black poofs of net on the other. The little black poofs began quite big at the back of the hat and got smaller all the way until they reached the front, where they met the last red bud of the trail of roses.
Miss Silver smiled and filled her cup. When she had done this without hurry she lifted a plate of cakes and held them out. The girl looked at them, looked at Miss Silver, put out a hand, came near to touching a cake, and paused there, her eyes fixed on Miss Silver's face. She heard her voice say, 'I don't know – what money – I have—'
The little lady straightened herself. She smiled.
'You are having tea with me, my dear.'
She took the nearest bun. She knew an animal hunger. She wanted to cram it into her mouth. She took the bun and lifted it slowly to her lips. Her hand shook. The worst was when the food was at her lips. She had to take a moment then to control the dreadful animal impulse. When she had mastered it she took the food and ate it slowly, delicately. A feeling of confidence came to her. She ate the rest of the bun, and she drank about half the tea.
The little lady's hand offered the plate again. This time it was not such a struggle.
When she had eaten three buns and had two cups of the warm milky tea she felt better. It crossed her mind then to wonder when she had eaten last. She couldn't remember – she couldn't remember at all.
She stopped trying to remember. It wasn't any good. When she looked back it was like looking into a thick blinding fog. She couldn't see anything at all. She couldn't see past the moment when she stood on the cellar steps in the dark and strained her eyes. A shudder went over her, and with the shudder she moved.
Miss Silver said in a quiet, kind voice, 'What is it, my dear?'
She could hear the beginnings of panic in her own voice as she said, 'I don't know—'
'Your name – is that it?'
She gave a little frightened nod.
'I don't know – who I am—'
'Have you looked in your bag?' Miss Silver's eyes were on her, kind and steady.
'No. I took some money out for the bus—'
'Yes, I saw you do that.'
'I took it out, but – I can't remember—'
'Suppose you look and see.'
'Yes, I could do that, couldn't I?'
She put a hand on the bag to open it and then stopped, she could not have said why. Afterwards when she looked back she remembered that moment – her hand on the bag ready to open it, and something that stopped her. It was there, and then it was gone again and she didn't know why it had come. Her hand resumed its interrupted motion and the bag was opened.
She looked down into it. It was a black bag with a grey lining. It didn't feel as if it was hers. It was a new bag. There was a handkerchief in it, and a mirror. She thought that she had seen them before. And then, quickly on that, 'Oh, but I have – I must have – because I paid the fare on the bus.' The thought came and was gone again. The bag had a middle partition. She opened it and looked down at the money. On one side there were a lot of notes. On the other side there was change. She heard herself say in a dazed sort of voice, 'I've got quite a lot of money – quite a lot—'
Miss Silver said, That is all to the good, my dear.'
She lifted the pathetic grey eyes and said, 'But I didn't open this – I'm sure I didn't—'
Miss Silver's voice came to her.
'Try the other side of the bag.'
There was a little grey pocket high up on the side. She remembered opening it in the bus. She opened it now, and remembered that she had opened it before – in the bus, when the conductor came round to take the fares. She had given him a two-shilling bit, and that had left a little loose pile of silver and coppers. Her fare had been fourpence, and she had put the change back, twopence and a sixpence and a shilling, and had fastened the purse again.
She said, 'Yes, it was here,' and felt an unreasoned, unreasoning sense of relief. And then on that a clouding, because she didn't know really what she was looking for, or why she had been looking for it.
She drew a long breath and took one hand from the bag and lifted it to her face. She didn't know. There was a moment when everything ran together in her mind – when all the moments were one moment. It was rather dizzying and frightening. She leaned her head on her hand and it passed. When she looked up again the moment of confusion was gone.
She said, 'What was I doing?'
And Miss Silver said in her kind firm voice, 'There is a letter in your bag. Suppose you look at it.'
'Yes – yes, I will.'
She tilted the bag and saw the letter. She took it out, looking at the wrong side of the envelope first and then turning it over. It was addressed to Mrs James Fancourt.
Was that her name? She didn't know.
A feeling of sharp terror passed over her so quickly that she scarcely knew it for what it was. The bag sank down upon the table and left her with the letter in her hand.
Miss Silver was watching her closely, but she was aware of nothing but the letter.
Mrs James Fancourt ... the name was utterly strange to her, and because it was so strange her fingers stopped in what they were doing. You can't open someone else's letter. And then, quick on that, the memory of a dead girl in a cellar. 'It's hers, or it's mine. If it's hers, she's gone. Someone must read it. If it's mine, I must read it.' The thoughts ran through her head quickly, so very quickly. Her hand took up the letter.
It was open. She took it out of the envelope, unfolded it, and read:
It is very difficult to know how to write, but we have Jim's letter and we will do what he asks us to and take you in. It is all very worrying. Jim's letter is very short and does not really tell us anything, only that he has married you, and that you will be arriving. It all seems very strange. But of course we will do what we can. I don't at all understand why he has not come over with you.
Yours affectly. Lilian Fancourt.
She looked up, met Miss Silver's eyes, and at once looked down again. When she had read the letter a second time she held it out, her gaze wide and fixed.
'I don't know what it means.'
Miss Silver took the letter and read it through. Then she held out her hand for the envelope. It was addressed to Mrs James Fancourt, just that and nothing more. A personal letter sent by hand. By whose hand? There was no answer to the question.
Miss Silver said, 'How did this reach you?'
'I don't know—'
'Do not trouble yourself. Are there any other letters in your bag?'
'I don't think so—'
'Will you look?'
She looked, but there was nothing more – nothing but that one link with the past, with the future.
Excerpted from The Girl in the Cellar by Patricia Wentworth. Copyright © 1961 Patricia Wentworth. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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