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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– would endure such anguish of spirit as threatened her sanity, on behalf of a stranger for whom she had no personal feeling.

      Or rather – if there was actually such a person as Miss Froy.

      Chapter four. England calling

      Because she had a square on her palm, which, according to a fortune-teller, signified safety, Iris believed that she lived in a protected area. Although she laughed at the time, she was impressed secretly, because hers was a specially sheltered life.

      At this crisis, the stars, as usual, seemed to be fighting for her. The mountains had sent out a preliminary warning. During the evening, too, she received overtures of companionship, which might have delivered her from mental isolation.

      Yet she deliberately cut every strand which linked her with safety, out of mistaken loyalty to her friends.

      She missed them directly she entered the lounge, which was silent and deserted. As she walked along the corridor, she passed empty bedrooms, with stripped beds and littered floors. Mattresses hung from every window and the small verandas were heaped with pillows.

      It was not only company which was lacking, but moral support. The crowd never troubled to change for the evening, unless comfort suggested flannel trousers. On one occasion, it had achieved the triumph of a complaint, when a lady appeared at dinner dressed in her bathing-slip.

      The plaintiffs had been the Misses Flood-Porter, who always wore expensive but sober dinner-gowns. Iris remembered the incident, when she had finished her bath. Although slightly ashamed of her deference to public opinion, she fished from a suitcase an unpacked afternoon frock of crinkled crêpe.

      The hot soak and rest had refreshed her, but she felt lonely, as she leaned over the balustrade. Her pensive pose and the graceful lines of her dress arrested the attention of the bridegroom – Todhunter, according to the register – as he strolled out of his bedroom.

      He had not the least knowledge of her identity, or that he had acted as a sort of guiding-star to her, in the gorge. He and his wife took their meals in their private sitting-room and never mingled with the crowd. He concluded, therefore, that she was an odd guest whom he had missed in the general scramble.

      Approving her with an experienced eye, he stopped.

      “Quiet, to-night,” he remarked. “Refreshing change after the din of that horrible rabble.”

      To his surprise, the girl looked coldly at him.

      “It is quiet,” she said. “But I happen to miss my friends.”

      As she walked downstairs she felt defiantly glad that she had made him realise his blunder. Championship of her friends mattered more than the absence of social sense. But, in spite of her triumph, the incident was vaguely unpleasant.

      The crowd had gloried in its unpopularity, which seemed to it a sign of superiority. It frequently remarked in complacent voices, “We’re not popular with these people,” or “They don’t really like us.” Under the influence of its mass-hypnotism, Iris wanted no other label. But now that she was alone, it was not quite so amusing to realise that the other guests, who were presumably decent and well-bred, considered her an outsider.

      Her mood was bleakly defiant when she entered the restaurant. It was a big bare room, hung with stiff deep-blue wallpaper, patterned with conventional gilt stars. The electric lights were set in clumsy wrought-iron chandeliers, which suggested a Hollywood set for a medieval castle. Scarcely any of the tables were laid, and only one waiter drooped at the door.

      In a few days, the hotel would be shut up for the winter. With the departure of the big English party, most of the holiday staff had become superfluous and had already gone back to their homes in the district.

      The remaining guests appeared to be unaffected by the air of neglect and desolation inseparable from the end of the season. The Misses Flood-Porter shared a table with the vicar and his wife. They were all in excellent spirits and gave the impression of having come into their own, as they capped each other’s jokes, culled from Punch.

      Iris pointedly chose a small table in a far corner. She smoked a cigarette while she waited to be served. The others were advanced in their meal and it was a novel sensation for one of the crowd to be in arrears.

      Mrs. Barnes, who was too generous to nurse resentment for her snub, looked at her with admiring eyes.

      “How pretty that girl looks in a frock,” she said.

      “Afternoon frock,” qualified Miss Flood-Porter. “We always make a point of wearing evening dress for dinner, when we’re on the Continent.”

      “If we didn’t dress, we should feel we were letting England down,” explained the younger sister.

      Although Iris spun out her meal to its limit, she was driven back ultimately to the lounge. She was too tired to stroll and it was early for bed. As she looked round her, she could hardly believe that, only the night before, it had been a scene of continental glitter and gaiety – although the latter quality had been imported from England. Now that it was no longer filled with friends, she was shocked to notice its tawdry theatrical finery. The gilt cane chairs were tarnished, the crimson plush upholstery shabby.

      A clutter of cigarette stubs and spent matches in the palm pots brought a lump to her throat. They were all that remained of the crowd.

      As she sat apart, the vicar – pipe in mouth – watched her with a thoughtful frown. His clear-cut face was both strong and sensitive, and an almost perfect blend of flesh and spirit. He played rough football with the youths of his parish, and, afterwards, took their souls by assault; but he had also a real understanding of the problems of his women-parishioners.

      When his wife told him of Iris’ wish for solitude, he could enter into her feeling, because, sometimes, he yearned to escape from people and even from his wife. His own inclination was to leave her to the boredom of her own company; yet he was touched by the dark lines under her eyes and her mournful lips.

      In the end, he resolved to ease his conscience at the cost of a rebuff. He knew it was coming, because, as he crossed the lounge, she looked up quickly, as though on guard.

      “Another,” she thought.

      From a distance she had admired the spirituality of his expression; but, to-night, he was numbered among her hostile critics.

      “Horrible rabble.” The words floated into her memory, as he spoke to her.

      “If you are travelling back to England alone, would you care to join our party?”

      “When are you going?” she asked.

      “Day after to-morrow, before they take off the last through train of the season.”

      “But I’m going to-morrow. Thanks so much.”

      “Then I’ll wish you a pleasant journey.”

      The vicar smiled faintly at her lightning decision as he crossed to a table and began to address luggage-labels.

      His absence was his wife’s opportunity. In her wish not to break her promise, she had gone to the other extreme and had not mentioned her baby to her new friends, save for one casual allusion to “our little boy.” But, now that the holiday was nearly over, she could not resist the temptation of showing his photograph, which had won a prize in a local baby competition.

      With a guilty glance at her husband’s back she drew out of her bag a limp leather case.

      “This is my large son,” she said, trying to hide her pride.

      The Misses Flood-Porter were exclusive animal-lovers and not particularly fond of children. But they said all the correct things with such well-bred conviction that Mrs. Barnes’ heart swelled with triumph.

      Miss Rose, however, switched off to another subject directly the vicar returned from the writing-table.

      “Do you believe in warning dreams, Mr. Barnes?” she asked. “Because, last night, I dreamed of a railway smash.”

      The question caught Iris’ attention and she strained to hear the vicar’s