Authors: Andrew Taylor
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Historical, #General
NTIL YOU READ
Philippa Penhow's diary with the benefit of more than four years' hindsight, you don't realize what a methodical man Serridge was. He always gave the impression of being impulsive, and somehow this impression was reinforced by the untidiness of his appearance. He was the sort of man whose hair always needs brushing. Who apparently needs mothering.
Sunday, 16 February 1930
We walked in Kensington Gardens this afternoon. I could not help watching the nurses and their charges. If I had married Vernon all those years ago, one of those little children might have been my grandchild. What an extraordinary thought! All that is impossible now, of course. I have made my bed and I must lie on it.
It seemed surprisingly mild for the time of year and Major Serridge was in high spirits. He protected me from the attentions of an overenthusiastic Labrador in the kindest way possible. I think he is particularly fond of animals, and they instinctively trust him.
We watched the children sailing their boats on the Round Pond and then walked over toward the statue of Peter Pan near the Long Water. He said the statue was charming, and that it made him wish that he could be a child again.
As we were strolling back, he told me something that rather disturbed me. He said he was a little concerned about Mr. Orburn, and how he was managing Bleeding Heart Square on my behalf. He thinks he may be overcharging me. "I don't say he's a crook, of course, that wouldn't be fair. But he's a lawyer, and he's always got his eye on his fee." (How like the dear Major: always bending over backward to be fair to everyone.)
I pointed out that Aunt and I had always used Mr. Orburn, and before him his father, for all our legal business. The Major said that perhaps that was the problem--that Mr. Orburn had become a little too used to my trusting him.
You may have read somewhere that that's how lions catch an elephant--they isolate it from the rest of its herd: they separate it from its natural protectors.
As the crow flew, the village of Rawling was hardly more than forty miles from Bleeding Heart Square. If you were an earth-bound mortal, however, the distance was longer, and seemed far longer still. The village was six or seven miles north of Bishop's Stortford in a bleak and sparsely populated area of country where lanes meandered from hamlet to hamlet.
The railway did not pass through Rawling itself so Rory was obliged to travel to the nearest station at Mavering. The journey took him the better part of the morning--the bus to Liverpool Street Station, a train to Bishop's Stortford, another train on the branch line passing through Saffron Walden, where he changed again to a small, almost empty train that took him slowly to Mavering itself.
There was too much time to think. At Liverpool Street Rory found a window seat in a third-class smoker. As the scruffy suburbs gave way to the equally scruffy countryside, he found himself thinking not so much about what lay before him as about Fenella.
He had telephoned her the previous evening. She had been in too much of a hurry to talk for long--she was on the verge of going out to another of her political meetings. This one was going to be a smaller affair than the last but the same speaker, Julian Dawlish, would be there. There was talk of founding a committee, Fenella said, and Rory had heard the note of excitement in her voice without altogether understanding it. He had come back from India to find Fenella had grown into a familiar stranger.
He was glad to leave the last of the trains. Mavering turned out to be a thin, uncertain village, little more than a scattering of agricultural cottages linking two substantial farms. Only two other passengers joined him on the small platform. Both of them looked curiously at Rory, as did the solitary porter. Rory ignored them and strode away.
Narton had drawn a sketch map on the back of an envelope that showed the way to Rawling from Mavering. Fifty yards from the station was a squat little church. Rory swung onto the footpath running along the wall of its graveyard. It was muddy underfoot but Narton had prepared him for that as well so he was wearing stout boots.
Beyond the churchyard, the path dropped down between fields. It was lined with bushes and the casual trees of the hedgerow, and in the summer must have been a green tunnel. Now there were clear views of bare fields on either side and rows of feathery elms. Though it was a gray day, it wasn't raining and the air smelled clean and unused.
After a few hundred yards, Rory slipped into the rhythm of the walk and began to enjoy himself. Even if this was a wild-goose chase, at least he was out of London. He came to a junction, where he bore right as Narton had told him to. After another quarter of a mile, the path came to an end at a five-bar gate of rotten wood with a stile on one side. Beyond it was a metalled lane.
Rory paused on the stile to light a cigarette. To the right, on the brow of a low ridge, was a red-brick house of some size set in parkland. The wall that ran along this side of the lane was in poor repair and in places had been patched with barbed wire. He jumped down and turned left into the lane, following a long, lazy bend that passed a lodge cottage on the right. When the lane straightened out, he found himself within sight of the village.
Rawling had another small, squat church. Beyond it, half hidden by a pair of Douglas firs and a majestic cedar of Lebanon, was the Vicarage. It was an ill-proportioned building constructed mainly of dirty yellow bricks, with round-headed window and door openings picked out in red. Apart from the mansion on the ridge outside the village, it was the only residence of any substance.
Rory walked up the short drive. Parked on the gravel outside the front door was a Ford 8 painted black on top and white underneath, like a penguin. According to Narton, the Vicar was a creature of habit. He usually paid calls in the first half of the morning. The second half he devoted to working in his study. Then came lunch, followed by a lengthy period of recovery.
"You can set your watch by Mr. Gladwyn," Narton had said. "Silly old bugger."
Rory rang the bell. The door was answered by a middle-aged maid who looked Rory up and down. Her face was neither welcoming nor hostile. She just wasn't very interested in him.
"Good morning," Rory said. "Is the Vicar in?"
"I'll see if he's free. Who shall I say?"
"My name's Wentwood. I've got a card here somewhere."
He took out his wallet. He almost made the mistake of giving her one from the
South Madras Times
. He suspected Mr. Gladwyn wouldn't welcome a journalist, not in this connection. Fortunately he also had cards with his parents' address in Hereford on them. He gave one of these to the maid.
She glanced at it and then at his face. "You'd better come and wait in the hall, sir." The card seemed to have reassured her as to his potential respectability. "You can wipe your feet there. Shall I say what it's in connection with?"
"A lady who was once a neighbor," Rory said. "Miss Penhow."
The maid's face remained bland and unreadable. She knocked on one of the closed doors and went into the room beyond, leaving him, hat in hand, standing in the tiled hall. He heard the mutter of voices. He stared at an engraving on the wall above the umbrella stand. It was a view of the village, showing both the church and the house on the ridge.
, read the inscription.
THE SEAT OF CHARLES ALFORDE, ESQ.
Both the church and the house looked considerably more impressive than they did in actuality. Then the maid returned, glanced once more at his boots, and said that the Vicar would see him now.
Mr. Gladwyn was a round-faced, cheerful-looking man with a high color. He greeted Rory with mechanical enthusiasm, pumping his hand up and down. "How d'you do, Mr. Wentwood, how d'you do?" He called sharply after the maid, who was leaving the room, "Tell Cook I have a fancy for Brussels sprouts, Rebecca, and we need more coal in here." He turned back to Rory, and his face once again became cordial. "Now do sit down. How can I help you?"
"It's about one of your former parishioners, sir. Miss Penhow of Morthams Farm."
"Yes, yes. Rebecca told me. May I ask what your interest is?"
"I'm here on behalf of Miss Penhow's niece Fenella Kensley." Rory adjusted the truth a little: "We're engaged to be married."
"I'm sure congratulations are in order," Mr. Gladwyn said automatically. "But--forgive me--I'm not sure how I can help you. I've not seen Miss Penhow for more than four years, and in fact she only lived in Rawling for a short time. I barely knew her. As I'm sure Miss Kensley knows, she moved abroad."
"Well that's it, you see." Rory hesitated, choosing his words with care. "Miss Kensley hasn't heard from her aunt for several years and naturally she's rather worried. Miss Penhow hasn't written since she moved down to Rawling."
"These things happen," Mr. Gladwyn pointed out. "Relations sometimes do drift apart from one another, especially if they move."
"There's also some sad news to pass on. Miss Penhow's brother died--almost certainly she won't have heard."
The Vicar had been standing with his back to the fire. But now he sat down at the desk in the window embrasure. He picked up a pipe and his tobacco pouch and swung round to face his visitor. "I know there was some concern about Miss Penhow's whereabouts. I talked to the police about it a few years ago. You see, I received a letter from Miss Penhow more than six months after she left Rawling."
"That must have been near the end of 1930. Mr. Kensley died in 1932."
Mr. Gladwyn nodded. "She felt embarrassed at writing directly to her relations--or to Mr. Serridge, her--her friend. You see there was an...an affair of the heart. It seems that she had met someone and decided on the spur of the moment to move abroad. The police examined the letter very carefully, and after that they were quite satisfied that there was nothing mysterious about Miss Penhow's departure."
Rory thought it depended on whether you wanted there to be a mystery. The police could not have had much to go on. A woman who had not lived long in the area was suddenly no longer there. There was no body. There were no anxious relatives pestering the authorities about their missing loved one. And presumably there had been no evidence of financial irregularity either.
Mr. Gladwyn lit his pipe. As he dropped the match into the ashtray on the desk he contrived to look at his wristwatch in a way that wasn't obviously rude but made its meaning quite clear.
"I wonder if I might see the letter, if you still have it?" Rory said.
The Vicar studied him through the smoke. "I suppose there's no harm in it. If it would clear the air, as it were. But it is a private letter. Though I've no objection myself to your seeing it, I have to think of others."
"Miss Kensley is now Miss Penhow's nearest relation, sir."
"I'm surprised the police have not told her that her aunt wrote to me."
"They did indeed. But I know she's still very concerned--increasingly, as time goes by without more news. I'm keen to relieve her mind, as I'm sure you understand. The point is, she has convinced herself that this letter is a forgery."
"She may well be mistaken, sir, I quite agree. But if I could see the letter and compare it with a sample of Miss Penhow's handwriting which I have, it would allow me to set her mind at rest. Of course I would treat the contents as confidential. But perhaps you'd rather I didn't see it at all."
Rory allowed the implication, that the Vicar might have something to conceal, to hang in the smoke-filled air. Mr. Gladwyn struck another match and applied himself to relighting his pipe.
"I've nothing to hide, Mr. Wentwood," he said at last. "And naturally I don't want Miss Kensley to suffer unnecessary pain. Very well, I will let you see the letter here in this room for ten minutes on condition that you discuss it only with Miss Kensley, and even then only if you see fit. I must warn you the contents may be painful to her. It's not the sort of letter I should like a daughter of mine to read."
"I shall bear that in mind, sir," Rory said. "Thank you."
The Vicar opened the lowest drawer of the desk on the left-hand side and removed a buff folder. He took out an envelope and motioned to Rory to draw up a chair to the desk. He removed a letter from the envelope and held it out to Rory. It consisted of a single sheet closely written on both sides.
Grand Central Station
New York City
December 3rd, 1930
My dear Mr. Gladwyn
I expect you are surprised to hear from me after all this time. I hope you won't mind my writing to you. This is a very difficult letter for me to write, the more so because I have a favor to ask. Perhaps I should have written to Joseph, rather than you. After all, it is he whom I have wronged. But I thought the truth would come better in person from you, a man of the cloth, than through a letter. I have hurt him enough without that. As I have cause to know, a tender heart beats beneath that rough exterior of his.
I am afraid you will have realized by now that Joseph and I are not married. We would have been if Joseph had not had a living wife who refused to divorce him. I must admit that my conscience was not easy with this, though I never doubted the sincerity of Joseph's love for me.
Out of the blue, just after we had moved into Morthams Farm, I received a letter from an old friend, a sailor I might have married many years ago had my aunt agreed. But he was poor and I was foolish. I made a mistake I have bitterly regretted ever since.
Everything happened very quickly. It did not take me long to discover that my friend's feelings hadn't changed, and nor had mine. He was free. So was I. At last I could right the wrong I had done so many years before.
Please tell Joseph that I am now married, and on the threshold of a new life with my husband. Ask him to forgive me. I know I have wronged him very deeply, but I know in the long run this will be the best thing for both of us. I remember Joseph telling me once that a clean break heals sooner. I hope this will be true in his case too. I pray he will be able to forgive me.
I send him my warmest good wishes--and to you, of course.
P. M. Penhow
"May I see the envelope?" Rory asked.
Mr. Gladwyn passed it to him without comment. It was addressed to him at the Vicarage; it had a franked American stamp and a New York postmark.
"You see? All above board."
Rory sat back in the chair and ran his fingers through his hair. "May I compare the letter with a sample of handwriting I have here?"
"By all means. Though the police have already done that. They brought in one of their experts. They seemed perfectly satisfied."
Rory unfolded the sheet of paper that he had found in his chest of drawers. He laid it side by side with the New York letter on the desk and methodically compared individual characters. There was a strong family resemblance between them, though there were small differences in their formation, and the handwriting of the letter from New York was smaller, squeezed to fit one sheet of paper. But there were also minor but equally obvious variations between Miss Penhow's hurried draft letter to Mr. Orburn and her more carefully written commentary on the parable of the Prodigal Son.
"Well?" said Mr. Gladwyn. "What do you think?"
"That they could easily have been written by the same person."
"Precisely." Mr Gladwyn stood up, perhaps hoping to encourage his visitor to do likewise. "You've met Mr. Serridge, I take it?"
"I've seen something of him in the last few years. And what I've seen inclines me to give him the benefit of the doubt in a case like this. It is true that Miss Penhow left rather suddenly. But their relationship was unorthodox from the start, I'm afraid. We have a perfectly reasonable explanation of why she left."
"Isn't it strange that she's not been in touch with Miss Kensley or any of her friends?"