“No one can take a mother’s place.”
But Sarah Trent is determined to try. She has just been engaged as governess to seventeen-year-old Lucilla Hildred, whose mother and stepfather were killed in a car accident. Lucilla’s father died in the war, and his younger brother, Maurice, has been missing since 1918.
Uncle Maurice’s disappearance isn’t the only mystery at the Red House. One night Sarah is awakened by a frightening noise. Something flings itself against her window and she hears the sounds of claws against glass. Then Holme Fallow, the estate where Lucilla was born—and where no one has lived since the war—is burgled. The only clue as to the culprit is a set of muddy footprints.
Next someone tampers with the brakes on Lucilla’s bicycle, and she stumbles over a baluster rail. It’s soon clear to Sarah that someone is trying to kill the orphaned teenager, sole heir to Holme Fallow. Is it visiting American John Brown? Lucilla herself, playing a dangerous game? Or has someone else been patiently waiting for the perfect moment to strike? No matter the perpetrator, a ghost from the past could change everything.
Patricia Wentworth, beloved creator of Miss Silver, crafts a puzzling mystery replete with twists, turns, and multiple suspects.
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Touch and Go
By Patricia Wentworth
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1934 Patricia Wentworth
All rights reserved.
"A motherless girl —" said Miss Hildred.
"There is always so much to be considered." She pushed her pince-nez crooked and added, "No one can take a mother's place."
Sarah Trent agreed.
The hands of the clock on the mantelpiece pointed to the hour. Seven. They had been at it for a solid thirty-five minutes, and she hadn't the faintest idea whether she was going to get the job or not. She didn't quite see herself being a mother to a girl of seventeen, yet the greater part of the thirty-five minutes had been taken up with a dissertation upon Lucilla Hildred's motherless state.
When Miss Marina Hildred had said a thing once, she invariably said it all over again with embroideries, additions and appendices. Her original statement that she had been unexpectedly called to the guardianship of a young great-niece whose mother and stepfather had been killed in a motor accident was by now so overlaid with anecdote, family history, and explanations which made everything a great deal more difficult, that Sarah had practically stopped trying to follow her. She looked away from the clock and met Miss Marina's eyes. They were large, prominent eyes of a light greyish green with short, colourless lashes. They gazed expectantly at Sarah through the pince-nez which were always crooked.
Sarah was obviously expected to say something. Would she get the job if she said that she would be a mother to Lucilla? Jobs were most damnably difficult to get. Ought she to have made herself look dowdy? A matron's hat? With an inward shudder she said,
"Your niece —"
Miss Marina interrupted.
"Ah — there I must correct you. Lucilla is not really my niece — my great niece I should say."
"Your great niece —"
Miss Marina put up a plump, wrinkled hand with a good many rings on it.
"Ah no — forgive me. I am afraid that I have misled you. Lucilla calls me Aunt. Her poor father — he was killed in the war. So sad — such a fine young fellow. There is not a photograph of him here or I would show it to you. A terrible sacrifice. Let us hope there will never be another war. ... Where was I? ... Oh yes — poor dear Jack. He and Henry always called me Aunt — his elder brother, my nephew Henry Hildred from whom Lucilla inherited the property — or at least, as I was explaining, not really my nephew. Their grandfather's first cousin is what I really am — Henry and Jack's grandfather — but of course a good deal younger, because there was five years between my father, Admiral Hildred, and his elder brother, and he was getting on for forty when he married. So I suppose I am first cousin twice removed to Henry and Jack, and first cousin three times removed to Lucilla, but I've always been Aunt Marina to all of them. And of course when Lucy and her husband — I never really knew him well, but he was a most charming man — when they were both killed in that dreadful accident — and you may say what you like, but I can never believe that we were intended to travel at sixty miles an hour. Poor Lucy — this craze for speed! There they were, both killed, and my cousin Mr. Geoffrey Hildred and I left guardians."
Miss Marina paused for breath. She again appeared to expect Sarah to say something.
Sarah said, "Yes —"
What did you say to slabs of genealogy? She hoped her "Yes" didn't sound half-witted. They wouldn't want a half- witted companion or governess, or whatever it was they did want for Lucilla Hildred.
Sarah's voice was one of her strong points. It was full and rather deep. When she said "Yes —" Miss Marina was favourably impressed. Miss Trent listened well. Miss Trent did not talk too much. She did not gush like that Miss Smilax whom Barbara Lawrence recommended, or lay down the law like the Miss Gregory whose testimonials were so unexceptionable and to whom she had taken such a dislike. Miss Trent was a gentlewoman. Miss Trent had a good manner. She began to feel that Miss Trent would do. She must do her duty by Lucilla, but if she had to interview many more people like that Miss Gregory, she felt sure that she would be obliged to send for Dr. Drayton. She felt sure that Mercer would think it necessary. Only an hour ago Mercer had said in quite a worried way, "You're not looking at all your usual, ma'am. I only 'ope as how we shan't have to send for Dr. Drayton."
A tremor of nervousness passed over her. Mercer hadn't been her maid for fifteen years without knowing just how she ought to look. It wasn't good for her to have so much responsibility and to be answered back as that Miss Gregory had answered her. Miss Trent made no attempt to answer back. A gentlewoman can express sympathy without gushing. She did not consider that Miss Smilax was a gentlewoman. She would not have liked Lucilla to acquire that gushing tone. By no means. She pushed her pince-nez until they slanted from her left eyebrow to her right cheekbone and said,
"You were with Lady Constance Manifold for two years?"
Sarah said "Yes" again, but this time she smiled and added, "You read her letter — didn't you?"
There were three letters lying in Miss Marina's black cashmere lap. She always wore black, but since she was in mourning for Lucy Raimond, once for a few months the wife of that Jack Hildred who had been killed in the war and was not really her nephew but a first cousin twice removed, Mercer had taken off the black silk which had originally trimmed the cashmere and substituted two wide strips of military braid. In Miss Marina's code, which was also Mercer's, braid was mourning and silk was not. Lisse frilling was mourning, and Miss Marina's short neck rose from a white lisse frill. Her face above it was as pale and plump as a well floured scone. The colour of her hair was known only to Mercer, who presented her to the world in a faded auburn wig untinged with grey. In the lobes of her small, close-set ears were a pair of black enamel studs, each set with a small twinkling diamond. The brooch which matched them fastened the lisse below her second chin. Lucy, though never a favourite, was being duly mourned.
The three letters were rather precariously placed, Miss Marina being too stout to have much lap. There was a gray sheet on which Mrs. David Emerson spoke of Miss Trent's kind and sympathetic attention to an invalid child. There was Mrs. Moffat's rather curt and restrained recommendation on dark blue paper with a black initial in one corner. And there was Lady Constance's thick white sheet. Miss Marina took it up and turned it over. In a large sprawling hand Lady Constance spoke very highly of Miss Trent.
"You were with her two years?"
Sarah said "Yes" again.
"She doesn't say in what capacity," said Miss Marina, turning the sheet.
Sarah smiled. She had a very pretty smile.
"Well," she said, "I don't know what I was exactly. I didn't go there as a governess — I'm not certificated, you know — and I didn't go there as a nurse, because I never trained as a nurse. Eleanor had been ill, and she wasn't supposed to do lessons, but I read with her, and when she was better I played tennis and golf with her, and taught her to swim and to drive a car. I stayed till she was nineteen."
"That was Lady Constance's daughter?" said Miss Marina.
"Yes — Eleanor Manifold. All my jobs have been rather like that."
"Oh —" said Miss Marina. She pursed up her mouth until little wrinkles ran from it in all directions. It sounded very suitable. It really did sound very suitable, only —
"I shouldn't want Lucilla taught to drive a car," she said in an agitated voice.
"That would be just as you like, of course."
"Geoffrey doesn't agree with me — my cousin, Mr. Geoffrey Hildred who is Lucilla's other guardian — but after such a terrible accident I could not possibly consent to Lucilla learning to drive. I told my cousin so only yesterday. I hope you agree with me, Miss Trent. I hope I could rely on you to tell Mr. Hildred that it wouldn't do at all. I hope I could rely on you to do that?" The plump, white hands shook a little, and Lady Constance's notepaper crackled.
Sarah said, "I expect it would be better to wait."
Her deep voice had a soothing sound, and Miss Marina gave a sigh of relief. Miss Trent was an amenable young woman. Miss Trent wouldn't make difficulties. Geoffrey was a very clever man, but he didn't understand her feelings, and he couldn't be expected to understand a young girl like Lucilla. She hoped that he would approve of Miss Trent. It was he who had insisted that Lucilla's companion should be young — "Cheer her up — take her about — make her play games — shake her out of herself. You don't want some old cat of a governess, Marina. You want a nice, jolly girl, old enough to have sense in her head, but not too old to make Lucilla play."
She looked at Sarah Trent and wondered how old she was. Twenty-four — twenty-five — twenty-six? It was very difficult to tell young women's ages nowadays. Jolly didn't seem quite to fit Miss Trent. She wondered if Geoffrey would think her pretty. She herself had never got used to this short hair. She thought Miss Trent's hair was short. She was wearing an odd-shaped cap which showed dark waves on one side and came right down over her ear on the other. Eyes, and brows, and lashes were all of the same dark brown. Miss Trent was as sunburned as it was the fashion to be. Miss Marina looked complacently down at her own pale hands. Miss Trent's hands were very brown indeed. She had a fine bloom and good white teeth, but she was certainly too sunburned. The colour of her skin was one shade of brown, the oddly shaped cap and the neat tweed suit were another, and the hair and eyes a third.
"A decided brunette," was Miss Marina's verdict. "The Hildreds have always been so fair. It's not unpleasing in its way. I wonder whether Geoffrey —"
She coughed a slight embarrassed cough and said,
"Geoffrey — my cousin Mr. Geoffrey Hildred — is most anxious about Lucilla. She was at school — I think I told you she was at school — but he insisted on her being taken away. After such a shock he said she would need great care."
Sarah's tongue ran away with her.
"I should have thought school would have been the best place for her," she said bluntly. Good Lord! A wretched girl has a shock, and you drag her away from her normal school life where she wouldn't have time to think about it and put her down in a lonely country house with an old lady who does nothing but rub it in! Well, men were fools enough for anything!
The old lady apparently had a gleam or two of common sense.
"I thought it would have been better if she had gone back — after the funeral, you know — and Dr. Drayton agreed with me at first, but afterwards he thought Geoffrey was right."
Miss Marina went on talking about Geoffrey Hildred. He was a solicitor with a London practice, and it was very good of him to spare so much time to Lucilla's affairs, but he was so conscientious, and so anxious that Lucilla should have young companionship.
"Of course if Ricky could be here all the time it would be nice. He's twenty-four — just a nice difference in their ages. But he's in his father's office, and of course that keeps him very busy. Geoffrey is really my first cousin, you know, and not removed at all, though so much younger — but then of course his mother was my grandfather's second wife, a Miss Mallow of Deeping, a very old family but no money, and she died quite young poor thing, so there were no more children, and perhaps it was just as well. Geoffrey's boy, Ricky, is said to be like her, but I'm not very good at seeing likenesses myself. He's fair, and the Hildreds have always been fair — fair or auburn." She put up her hand and patted the faded wig a little self-consciously. "Lucilla is very fair," she said; and then, "I was hoping Geoffrey would have been here by now. I can't think what can have kept them. I know he will be anxious to meet you. They ought to have been here half an hour ago. What train were you catching, Miss Trent?"
"I'm driving," said Sarah. "A friend lent me a car."
"All alone — in the dark — all the way back to town?"
Sarah gave Miss Marina's dismay a very surface attention. Was she going to get the job, or wasn't she? As far as the old lady was concerned she was, but it seemed pretty plain that it was Cousin Geoffrey who ran the show. Her spirits, which had risen considerably, sank a little. Would Cousin Geoffrey think her young enough — or too young? Would a touch of lipstick have improved her chances? It might have finished her with the old lady. It was a bitter bad business making a good impression. She smiled at Miss Marina, who was recounting anecdotes of Ricky's infancy.
And then the door opened and Geoffrey Hildred came into the room.CHAPTER 2
Sarah came away walking on air. She was engaged, and she was going to get twenty pounds a year more than she had had with the Manifolds, and that meant that if Bertrand really got a new car, she could make him hand her over The Bomb. How little could she decently ask him to take? Fifteen? No, that was too much. Smith only offered him fifteen last year. "Ten — and he can take me out to a show on the proceeds." The ten would have to come out of her precious nest-egg, but the extra twenty would make it possible to run The Bomb and still put away what she had always put away. No improvidence for Sarah Trent. She had had a look at being down and out and she wasn't taking any risks. Respectability, and a nest-egg — these were her twin aims. To be able to pursue them and yet indulge herself with The Bomb was a miracle of good luck. Her colour glowed and her eyes sparkled so becomingly that Watson shut the door upon her with regret, and reported in the servants' hall that the governess was a looker and no mistake.
Sarah started The Bomb with a joyous hand. A feeling of ownership glowed in her. Bertrand could say what he liked, but The Bomb always went better for her than for anyone else. Anyhow she'd never actually exploded or laid down and died, like she had with Bertrand's last girl but one.
"Joy!" said Sarah to herself; and then, "Damn!" because The Bomb, after starting like an angel or a Rolls and thus enabling Watson to close the door, suddenly coughed, spat, and faded into a discouraging silence just where the drive turned into the straight.
Sarah pressed the starter again. It sounded wonky, but you never could tell with The Bomb — she hated getting cold. "And I oughtn't to have sworn at her. She hates that worse than poison."
"Angel!" said Sarah in her deepest, softest voice. "Angel Bomb, don't let me down."
She pressed the starter again, and The Bomb got going with bewildering suddenness. There was a horrid noise and a horrid lurch, after which she proceeded in a series of bounds.
"Joy!" said Sarah and accelerated.
The long drive ran down hill. The Bomb gathered speed. There was a bank on either side and overarching trees. It was pitch dark, but Sarah's heart was as bright as the headlights. Another twenty pounds a year and a car of her own! Pride of ownership inflated her.
"I hope the brat's not half-witted. I'd like to have seen her before we clicked. Anyhow beggars can't be choosers, and I'm in luck, luck, luck!"
The lodge gates came in sight, with the road beyond them and the dark hedge on its farther side. And then with appalling suddenness someone screamed and fell. It was all just in one flash of time — the sound of a cracking branch, and the fall, and the scream. Something cut the beam of the off-side headlight and went down through it into the dark. The something was registered in Sarah's mind as a head with a nimbus of fair hair. She pulled the wheel over violently and jammed on her brakes. The Bomb ran into the left-hand bank and stopped. It all took no time at all to happen. Crash, scream, stop, and the head with the fair floating hair — they were all there together without any time going by.
Time began again when Sarah got the door open and jumped out. Her legs didn't shake. If they had belonged to her, they would probably have been shaking like anything, so perhaps it was just as well that they didn't belong to her. Her hands didn't belong to her either, but one of them had got hold of her pocket-torch and was turning the narrow pencil of light to and fro. The light moved quite steadily. The hand was quite steady. From a very, very long way off Sarah was looking for the head. It was like the worst sort of awful nightmare. When a nightmare was as bad as that, you generally woke up. Meanwhile she had got to find the head.
Excerpted from Touch and Go by Patricia Wentworth. Copyright © 1934 Patricia Wentworth. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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