Колесо крутится. Леди исчезает / The Wheel Spins. The Lady Vanishe. Этель Лина Уайт. Читать онлайн. Newlib. NEWLIB.NET

Автор: Этель Лина Уайт
Издательство: КАРО
Серия: Detective story
Жанр произведения: Классические детективы
Год издания: 0
isbn: 978-5-9925-1492-6
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down to the village for a chat with my friends.”

      “How can he talk to them when he doesn’t know their language?” demanded Miss Rose bluntly, when the vicar had gone from the garden.

      “Oh, he makes them understand,” explained his wife proudly. “Sympathy, you know, and common humanity. He’d rub noses with a savage.”

      “I’m afraid we drove him away by talking scandal,” said Miss Flood-Porter.

      “It was my fault,” declared Mrs. Barnes. “I know people think I’m curious. But, really, I have to force myself to show an interest in my neighbour’s affairs. It’s my protest against our terrible national shyness.”

      “But we’re proud of that,” broke in Miss Rose. “England does not need to advertise.”

      “Of course not… But we only pass this way once. I have to remind myself that the stranger sitting beside me may be in some trouble and that I might be able to help.”

      The sisters looked at her with approval. She was a slender woman in the mid-forties, with a pale oval face, dark hair, and a sweet expression. Her large brown eyes were both kind and frank – her manner sincere.

      It was impossible to connect her with anything but rigid honesty. They knew that she floundered into awkward explanations, rather than run the risk of giving a false impression.

      In her turn, she liked the sisters. They were of solid worth and sound respectability. One felt that they would serve on juries with distinction, and do their duty to their God and their neighbour – while permitting no direction as to its nature.

      They were also leisured people, with a charming house and garden, well-trained maids and frozen assets in the bank. Mrs. Barnes knew this, so, being human, it gave her a feeling of superiority to reflect that the one man in their party was her husband.

      She could appreciate the sense of ownership, because, up to her fortieth birthday, she had gone on her yearly holiday in the company of a huddle of other spinsters. Since she had left school, she had earned her living by teaching, until the miracle happened which gave her – not only a husband – but a son.

      Both she and her husband were so wrapped up in the child that the vicar sometimes feared that their devotion was tempting Fate. The night before they set out on their holiday he proposed a pact.

      “Yes,” he agreed, looking down at the sleeping boy in his cot. “He is beautiful. But… It is my privilege to read the Commandments to others. Sometimes, I wonder—”

      “I know what you mean,” interrupted his wife. “Idolatry.”

      He nodded.

      “I am as guilty as you,” he admitted. “So I mean to discipline myself. In our position, we have special opportunities to influence others. We must not grow lop-sided, but develop every part of our nature. If this holiday is to do us real good, it must be a complete mental change… My dear, suppose we agree not to talk exclusively of Gabriel, while we are away?”

      Mrs. Barnes agreed. But her promise did not prevent her from thinking of him continually. Although they had left him in the care of a competent grandmother, she was foolishly apprehensive about his health.

      While she was counting the remaining hours before her return to her son, and Miss Flood-Porter smiled in anticipation of seeing her garden, Miss Rose was pursuing her original train of thought. She always ploughed a straight furrow, right to its end.

      “I can’t understand how any one can tell a lie,” she declared. “Unless, perhaps, some poor devil who’s afraid of being sacked. But – people like us. We know a wealthy woman who boasts of making false declarations at the Customs. Sheer dishonesty.”

      As she spoke, Iris appeared at the gate of the hotel garden. She did her best to skirt the group at the table, but she could not avoid hearing what was said.

      “Perhaps I should not judge others,” remarked Mrs. Barnes in the clear carrying voice of a form-mistress. “I’ve never felt the slightest temptation to tell a lie.”

      “Liar,” thought Iris automatically.

      She was in a state of utter fatigue, which bordered on collapse. It was only by the exercise of every atom of willpower that she forced herself to reach the hotel. The ordeal had strained her nerves almost to breaking-point. Although she longed for the quiet of her room, she knew she could not mount the stairs without a short rest. Every muscle felt wrenched as she dropped down on an iron chair and closed her eyes.

      “If any one speaks to me, I’ll scream,” she thought.

      The Misses Flood-Porter exchanged glances and turned down the corners of their mouths. Even gentle Mrs. Barnes’ soft brown eyes held no welcome, for she had been a special victim of the crowd’s bad manners and selfishness.

      They behaved as though they had bought the hotel and the other guests were interlopers, exacting preferential treatment – and getting it – by bribery. This infringement of fair-dealing annoyed the other tourists, as they adhered to the terms of their payment to a travelling agency, which included service.

      The crowd monopolised the billiard-table and secured the best chairs. They were always served first at meals; courses gave out, and bath-water ran luke-warm.

      Even the vicar found that his charity was strained. He did his best to make allowance for the animal spirits of youth, although he was aware that several among the party could not be termed juvenile.

      Unfortunately, Iris’ so-called friends included two persons who were no testimonial for the English nation; and since it was difficult to distinguish one girl in a bathing-brief from another, Mrs. Barnes was of the opinion that they were all doing the same thing – getting drunk and making love.

      Her standard of decency was offended by the sun-bathing – her nights disturbed by noise. Therefore she was specially grateful for the prospect of two peaceful days, spent amid glorious scenery and in congenial company.

      But, apparently, there was not a complete clearance of the crowd; there was a hangover, in this girl – and there might be others. Mrs. Barnes had vaguely remarked Iris, because she was pretty, and had been pursued by a bathing-gentleman with a matronly figure.

      As the man was married, his selection was not to her credit. But she seemed to be so exhausted that Mrs. Barnes’ kindly heart soon reproached her for lack of sympathy.

      “Are you left all alone?” she called, in her brightest tones.

      Iris shuddered at the unexpected overture. At that moment the last thing in the world she wanted was mature interest, which, in her experience, masked curiosity.

      “Yes,” she replied.

      “Oh, dear, what a shame. Aren’t you lonely?”


      “But you’re rather young to be travelling without friends. Couldn’t any of your people come with you?”

      “I have none.”

      “No family at all?”

      “No, and no relatives. Aren’t I lucky?”

      Iris was not near enough to hear the horrified gasp of the Misses Flood-Porter; but Mrs. Barnes’ silence told her that her snub had not miscarried. To avoid a further inquisition, she made a supreme effort to rise, for she was stiffening in every joint, and managed to drag herself into the hotel and upstairs to her room.

      Mrs. Barnes tried to carry off the incident with a laugh.

      “I’m afraid I’ve blundered again,” she said. “She plainly resented me. But it seemed hardly human for us to sit like dummies, and show no interest in her.”

      “Is she interested in you?” demanded Miss Rose. “Or in us? That sort of girl is utterly selfish. She wouldn’t raise a finger, or go an inch out of her way, to help any one.”

      There was only one answer to the question, which Mrs. Barnes was too kind to make. So she remained silent, since she could not tell a lie.

      Neither she – nor