فصل 02

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Two

I Outside Oakbridge station a little group of people stood in momentary uncertainty. Behind them stood porters with suitcases. One of these called, “Jim!” The driver of one of the taxis stepped forward.

“You’m for Soldier Island, maybe?” he asked in a soft Devon voice. Four voices gave assent—and then immediately afterwards gave quick surreptitious glances at each other.

The driver said, addressing his remarks to Mr. Justice Wargrave as the senior member of the party: “There are two taxis here, sir. One of them must wait till the slow train from Exeter gets in—a matter of five minutes—there’s one gentleman coming by that. Perhaps one of you wouldn’t mind waiting? You’d be more comfortable that way.” Vera Claythorne, her own secretarial position clear in her mind, spoke at once.

“I’ll wait,” she said, “if you will go on?” She looked at the other three, her glance and voice had that slight suggestion of command in it that comes from having occupied a position of authority. She might have been directing which tennis sets the girls were to play in.

Miss Brent said stiffly, “Thank you,” bent her head and entered one of the taxis, the door of which the driver was holding open.

Mr. Justice Wargrave followed her.

Captain Lombard said:

“I’ll wait with Miss—”

“Claythorne,” said Vera.

“My name is Lombard, Philip Lombard.”

The porters were piling luggage on the taxi. Inside, Mr. Justice Wargrave said with due legal caution: “Beautiful weather we are having.”

Miss Brent said:

“Yes, indeed.”

A very distinguished old gentleman, she thought to herself. Quite unlike the usual type of man in seaside guest houses. Evidently Mrs. or Miss Oliver had good connections….

Mr. Justice Wargrave inquired:

“Do you know this part of the world well?”

“I have been to Cornwall and to Torquay, but this is my first visit to this part of Devon.” The judge said:

“I also am unacquainted with this part of the world.”

The taxi drove off.

The driver of the second taxi said:

“Like to sit inside while you’re waiting?”

Vera said decisively:

“Not at all.”

Captain Lombard smiled. He said:

“That sunny wall looks more attractive. Unless you’d rather go inside the station?” “No, indeed. It’s so delightful to get out of that stuffy train.”

He answered:

“Yes, travelling by train is rather trying in this weather.”

Vera said conventionally:

“I do hope it lasts—the weather, I mean. Our English summers are so treacherous.” With a slight lack of originality Lombard asked:

“Do you know this part of the world well?”

“No, I’ve never been here before.” She added quickly, conscientiously determined to make her position clear at once, “I haven’t even seen my employer yet.” “Your employer?”

“Yes, I’m Mrs. Owen’s secretary.”

“Oh, I see.” Just imperceptibly his manner changed. It was slightly more assured—easier in tone. He said: “Isn’t that rather unusual?” Vera laughed.

“Oh, no, I don’t think so. Her own secretary was suddenly taken ill and she wired to an agency for a substitute and they sent me.” “So that was it. And suppose you don’t like the post when you’ve got there?” Vera laughed again.

“Oh, it’s only temporary—a holiday post. I’ve got a permanent job at a girls’ school. As a matter of fact, I’m frightfully thrilled at the prospect of seeing Soldier Island. There’s been such a lot about it in the papers. Is it really very fascinating?” Lombard said:

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen it.”

“Oh, really? The Owens are frightfully keen on it, I suppose. What are they like? Do tell me.” Lombard thought: Awkward, this—am I supposed to have met them or not? He said quickly: “There’s a wasp crawling up your arm. No—keep quite still.” He made a convincing pounce. “There. It’s gone!” “Oh, thank you. There are a lot of wasps about this summer.”

“Yes, I suppose it’s the heat. Who are we waiting for, do you know?” “I haven’t the least idea.”

The loud drawn-out scream of an approaching train was heard. Lombard said: “That will be the train now.”

It was a tall soldierly old man who appeared at the exit from the platform. His grey hair was clipped close and he had a neatly trimmed white moustache.

His porter, staggering slightly under the weight of the solid leather suitcase, indicated Vera and Lombard.

Vera came forward in a competent manner. She said:

“I am Mrs. Owen’s secretary. There is a car here waiting.” She added, “This is Mr. Lombard.” The faded blue eyes, shrewd in spite of their age, sized up Lombard. For a moment a judgment showed in them—had there been any one to read it.

“Good-looking fellow. Something just a little wrong about him….”

The three of them got into the waiting taxi. They drove through the sleepy streets of little Oakbridge and continued about a mile on the main Plymouth road. Then they plunged into a maze of cross-country lanes, steep, green and narrow.

General Macarthur said:

“Don’t know this part of Devon at all. My little place is in East Devon—just on the borderline of Dorset.” Vera said:

“It really is lovely here. The hills and the red earth and everything so green and luscious-looking.” Philip Lombard said critically:

“It’s a bit shut in … I like open country myself. Where you can see what’s coming….” General Macarthur said to him:

“You’ve seen a bit of the world, I fancy?”

Lombard shrugged his shoulders disparagingly.

“I’ve knocked about here and there, sir.”

He thought to himself: “He’ll ask me now if I was old enough to be in the War. These old boys always do.” But General Macarthur did not mention the War.

II

They came up over a steep hill and down a zigzag track to Sticklehaven—a mere cluster of cottages with a fishing boat or two drawn up on the beach.

Illuminated by the setting sun, they had their first glimpse of Soldier Island jutting up out of the sea to the south.

Vera said, surprised:

“It’s a long way out.”

She had pictured it differently, close to shore, crowned with a beautiful white house. But there was no house visible, only the boldly silhouetted rock with its faint resemblance to a giant head. There was something sinister about it. She shivered faintly.

Outside a little inn, the Seven Stars, three people were sitting. There was the hunched elderly figure of the judge, the upright form of Miss Brent, and a third man—a big bluff man who came forward and introduced himself.

“Thought we might as well wait for you,” he said. “Make one trip of it. Allow me to introduce myself. Name’s Davis. Natal, South Africa’s my natal spot, ha, ha!” He laughed breezily.

Mr. Justice Wargrave looked at him with active malevolence. He seemed to be wishing that he could order the court to be cleared. Miss Emily Brent was clearly not sure if she liked Colonials.

“Any one care for a little nip before we embark?” asked Mr. Davis hospitably.

Nobody assenting to this proposition, Mr. Davis turned and held up a finger.

“Mustn’t delay, then. Our good host and hostess will be expecting us,” he said.

He might have noticed that a curious constraint came over the other members of the party. It was as though the mention of their host and hostess had a curiously paralysing effect upon the guests.

In response to Davis’s beckoning finger, a man detached himself from a nearby wall against which he was leaning and came up to them. His rolling gait proclaimed him as a man of the sea. He had a weather-beaten face and dark eyes with a slightly evasive expression. He spoke in his soft Devon voice.

“Will you be ready to be starting for the island, ladies and gentlemen? The boat’s waiting. There’s two gentlemen coming by car but Mr. Owen’s orders was not to wait for them as they might arrive at any time.” The party got up. Their guide led them along a small stone jetty. Alongside it a motorboat was lying.

Emily Brent said:

“That’s a very small boat.”

The boat’s owner said persuasively:

“She’s a fine boat that, Ma’am. You could go to Plymouth in her as easy as winking.” Mr. Justice Wargrave said sharply:

“There are a good many of us.”

“She’d take double the number, sir.”

Philip Lombard said in his pleasant easy voice:

“It’s quite all right. Glorious weather—no swell.”

Rather doubtfully, Miss Brent permitted herself to be helped into the boat. The others followed suit. There was as yet no fraternizing among the party. It was as though each member of it was puzzled by the other members.

They were just about to cast loose when their guide paused, boat-hook in hand.

Down the steep track into the village a car was coming. A car so fantastically powerful, so superlatively beautiful that it had all the nature of an apparition. At the wheel sat a young man, his hair blown back by the wind. In the blaze of the evening light he looked, not a man, but a young God, a Hero God out of some Northern Saga.

He touched the horn and a great roar of sound echoed from the rocks of the bay.

It was a fantastic moment. In it, Anthony Marston seemed to be something more than mortal. Afterwards more than one of those present remembered that moment.

III

Fred Narracott sat by the engine thinking to himself that this was a queer lot. Not at all his idea of what Mr. Owen’s guests were likely to be. He’d expected something altogether more classy. Togged up women and gentlemen in yachting costume and all very rich and important looking.

Not at all like Mr. Elmer Robson’s parties. A faint grin came to Fred Narracott’s lips as he remembered the millionaire’s guests. That had been a party if you like—and the drink they’d got through!

This Mr. Owen must be a very different sort of gentleman. Funny, it was, thought Fred, that he’d never yet set eyes on Owen—or his Missus either. Never been down here yet he hadn’t. Everything ordered and paid for by that Mr. Morris. Instructions always very clear and payment prompt, but it was odd, all the same. The papers said there was some mystery about Owen. Mr. Narracott agreed with them.

Perhaps after all, it was Miss Gabrielle Turl who had bought the island. But that theory departed from him as he surveyed his passengers. Not this lot—none of them looked likely to have anything to do with a film star.

He summed them up dispassionately.

One old maid—the sour kind—he knew them well enough. She was a tartar he could bet. Old military gentleman—real Army look about him. Nice-looking young lady—but the ordinary kind, not glamorous—no Hollywood touch about her. That bluff cheery gent—he wasn’t a real gentleman. Retired tradesman, that’s what he is, thought Fred Narracott. The other gentleman, the lean hungry-looking gentleman with the quick eyes, he was a queer one, he was. Just possible he might have something to do with the pictures.

No, there was only one satisfactory passenger in the boat. The last gentleman, the one who had arrived in the car (and what a car! A car such as had never been seen in Sticklehaven before. Must have cost hundreds and hundreds, a car like that). He was the right kind. Born to money, he was. If the party had been all like him … he’d understand it….

Queer business when you came to think of it—the whole thing was queer—very queer….

IV

The boat churned its way round the rock. Now at last the house came into view. The south side of the island was quite different. It shelved gently down to the sea. The house was there facing south—low and square and modern looking with rounded windows letting in all the light.

An exciting house—a house that lived up to expectation!

Fred Narracott shut off the engine, they nosed their way gently into a little natural inlet between rocks.

Philip Lombard said sharply:

“Must be difficult to land here in dirty weather.”

Fred Narracott said cheerfully:

“Can’t land on Soldier Island when there’s a southeasterly. Sometimes ’tis cut off for a week or more.” Vera Claythorne thought:

“The catering must be very difficult. That’s the worst of an island. All the domestic problems are so worrying.” The boat grated against the rocks. Fred Narracott jumped out and he and Lombard helped the others to alight. Narracott made the boat fast to a ring in the rock. Then he led the way up steps cut in the cliff.

General Macarthur said:

“Ha! delightful spot!”

But he felt uneasy. Damned odd sort of place.

As the party ascended the steps and came out on a terrace above, their spirits revived. In the open doorway of the house a correct butler was awaiting them, and something about his gravity reassured them. And then the house itself was really most attractive, the view from the terrace magnificent….

The butler came forward bowing slightly. He was a tall lank man, grey-haired and very respectable. He said: “Will you come this way, please.”

In the wide hall drinks stood ready. Rows of bottles. Anthony Marston’s spirits cheered up a little. He’d just been thinking this was a rum kind of show. None of his lot! What could old Badger have been thinking about to let him in for this? However, the drinks were all right. Plenty of ice, too.

What was it the butler chap was saying?

Mr. Owen—unfortunately delayed—unable to get here till tomorrow. Instructions—everything they wanted—if they would like to go to their rooms? … dinner would be at eight o’clock….

V Vera had followed Mrs. Rogers upstairs. The woman had thrown open a door at the end of a passage and Vera had walked into a delightful bedroom with a big window that opened wide upon the sea and another looking east. She uttered a quick exclamation of pleasure.

Mrs. Rogers was saying:

“I hope you’ve got everything you want, Miss?”

Vera looked round. Her luggage had been brought up and had been unpacked. At one side of the room a door stood open into a pale blue-tiled bathroom.

She said quickly:

“Yes, everything, I think.”

“You’ll ring the bell if you want anything, Miss?”

Mrs. Rogers had a flat monotonous voice. Vera looked at her curiously. What a white bloodless ghost of a woman! Very respectable-looking, with her hair dragged back from her face and her black dress. Queer light eyes that shifted the whole time from place to place.

Vera thought:

“She looks frightened of her own shadow.”

Yes, that was it—frightened!

She looked like a woman who walked in mortal fear….

A little shiver passed down Vera’s back. What on earth was the woman afraid of?

She said pleasantly:

“I’m Mrs. Owen’s new secretary. I expect you know that.”

Mrs. Rogers said:

“No, Miss, I don’t know anything. Just a list of the ladies and gentlemen and what rooms they were to have.” Vera said:

“Mrs. Owen didn’t mention me?”

Mrs. Rogers’ eyelashes flickered.

“I haven’t seen Mrs. Owen—not yet. We only came here two days ago.” Extraordinary people, these Owens, thought Vera. Aloud she said:

“What staff is there here?”

“Just me and Rogers, Miss.”

Vera frowned. Eight people in the house—ten with the host and hostess—and only one married couple to do for them.

Mrs. Rogers said:

“I’m a good cook and Rogers is handy about the house. I didn’t know, of course, that there was to be such a large party.” Vera said:

“But you can manage?”

“Oh yes, Miss, I can manage. If there’s to be large parties often perhaps Mrs. Owen could get extra help in.” Vera said, “I expect so.”

Mrs. Rogers turned to go. Her feet moved noiselessly over the ground. She drifted from the room like a shadow.

Vera went over to the window and sat down on the window seat. She was faintly disturbed. Everything—somehow—was a little queer. The absence of the Owens, the pale ghostlike Mrs. Rogers. And the guests! Yes, the guests were queer, too. An oddly assorted party.

Vera thought:

“I wish I’d seen the Owens … I wish I knew what they were like.”

She got up and walked restlessly about the room.

A perfect bedroom decorated throughout in the modern style. Off-white rugs on the gleaming parquet floor—faintly tinted walls—a long mirror surrounded by lights. A mantelpiece bare of ornaments save for an enormous block of white marble shaped like a bear, a piece of modern sculpture in which was inset a clock. Over it, in a gleaming chromium frame, was a big square of parchment—a poem.

She stood in front of the fireplace and read it. It was the old nursery rhyme that she remembered from her childhood days.

Ten little soldier boys went out to dine;

One choked his little self and then there were Nine.

Nine little soldier boys sat up very late;

One overslept himself and then there were Eight.

Eight little soldier boys travelling in Devon;

One said he’d stay there and then there were Seven.

Seven little soldier boys chopping up sticks;

One chopped himself in halves and then there were Six.

Six little soldier boys playing with a hive;

A bumble bee stung one and then there were Five.

Five little soldier boys going in for law;

One got in Chancery and then there were Four.

Four little soldier boys going out to sea;

A red herring swallowed one and then there were Three.

Three little soldier boys walking in the Zoo;

A big bear hugged one and then there were Two.

Two little soldier boys sitting in the sun;

One got frizzled up and then there was One.

One little soldier boy left all alone;

He went and hanged himself and then there were None.

Vera smiled. Of course! This was Soldier Island!

She went and sat again by the window looking out to sea.

How big the sea was! From here there was no land to be seen anywhere—just a vast expanse of blue water rippling in the evening sun.

The sea … So peaceful today—sometimes so cruel … The sea that dragged you down to its depths. Drowned …Found drowned … Drowned at sea … Drowned—drowned—drowned….

No, she wouldn’t remember … She would not think of it!

All that was over….

VI

Dr. Armstrong came to Soldier Island just as the sun was sinking into the sea. On the way across he had chatted to the boatman—a local man. He was anxious to find out a little about these people who owned Soldier Island, but the man Narracott seemed curiously ill-informed, or perhaps unwilling to talk.

So Dr. Armstrong chatted instead of the weather and of fishing.

He was tired after his long motor drive. His eyeballs ached. Driving west you were driving against the sun.

Yes, he was very tired. The sea and perfect peace—that was what he needed. He would like, really, to take a long holiday. But he couldn’t afford to do that. He could afford it financially, of course, but he couldn’t afford to drop out. You were soon forgotten nowadays. No, now that he had arrived, he must keep his nose to the grindstone.

He thought:

“All the same, this evening, I’ll imagine to myself that I’m not going back—that I’ve done with London and Harley Street and all the rest of it.” There was something magical about an island—the mere word suggested fantasy. You lost touch with the world—an island was a world of its own. A world, perhaps, from which you might never return.

He thought:

“I’m leaving my ordinary life behind me.”

And, smiling to himself, he began to make plans, fantastic plans for the future. He was still smiling when he walked up the rock-cut steps.

In a chair on the terrace an old gentleman was sitting and the sight of him was vaguely familiar to Dr. Armstrong. Where had he seen that frog-like face, that tortoise-like neck, that hunched up attitude—yes and those pale shrewd little eyes? Of course—old Wargrave. He’d given evidence once before him. Always looked half asleep, but was shrewd as could be when it came to a point of law. Had great power with a jury—it was said he could make their minds up for them any day of the week. He’d got one or two unlikely convictions out of them. A hanging judge, some people said.

Funny place to meet him … here—out of the world.

VII

Mr. Justice Wargrave thought to himself:

“Armstrong? Remember him in the witness-box. Very correct and cautious. All doctors are damned fools. Harley Street ones are the worst of the lot.” And his mind dwelt malevolently on a recent interview he had had with a suave personage in that very street.

Aloud he grunted:

“Drinks are in the hall.”

Dr. Armstrong said:

“I must go and pay my respects to my host and hostess.”

Mr. Justice Wargrave closed his eyes again, looking decidedly reptilian, and said: “You can’t do that.”

Dr. Armstrong was startled.

“Why not?”

The judge said:

“No host and hostess. Very curious state of affairs. Don’t understand this place.” Dr. Armstrong stared at him for a minute. When he thought the old gentleman had actually gone to sleep, Wargrave said suddenly: “D’you know Constance Culmington?”

“Er—no, I’m afraid I don’t.”

“It’s of no consequence,” said the judge. “Very vague woman—and practically unreadable handwriting. I was just wondering if I’d come to the wrong house.” Dr. Armstrong shook his head and went on up to the house.

Mr. Justice Wargrave reflected on the subject of Constance Culmington. Undependable like all women.

His mind went on to the two women in the house, the tight-lipped old maid and the girl. He didn’t care for the girl, cold-blooded young hussy. No, three women, if you counted the Rogers woman. Odd creature, she looked scared to death. Respectable pair and knew their job.

Rogers coming out on the terrace that minute, the judge asked him:

“Is Lady Constance Culmington expected, do you know?”

Rogers stared at him.

“No, sir, not to my knowledge.”

The judge’s eyebrows rose. But he only grunted.

He thought:

“Soldier Island, eh? There’s a fly in the ointment.”

VIII

Anthony Marston was in his bath. He luxuriated in the steaming water. His limbs had felt cramped after his long drive. Very few thoughts passed through his head. Anthony was a creature of sensation—and of action.

He thought to himself:

“Must go through with it, I suppose,” and thereafter dismissed everything from his mind.

Warm steaming water—tired limbs—presently a shave—a cocktail—dinner.

And after—?

IX

Mr. Blore was tying his tie. He wasn’t very good at this sort of thing.

Did he look all right? He supposed so.

Nobody had been exactly cordial to him … Funny the way they all eyed each other—as though they knew.… Well, it was up to him.

He didn’t mean to bungle his job.

He glanced up at the framed nursery rhyme over the mantelpiece.

Neat touch, having that there!

He thought:

Remember this island when I was a kid. Never thought I’d be doing this sort of a job in a house here. Good thing, perhaps, that one can’t foresee the future.

X General Macarthur was frowning to himself.

Damn it all, the whole thing was deuced odd! Not at all what he’d been led to expect….

For two pins he’d make an excuse and get away … Throw up the whole business….

But the motorboat had gone back to the mainland.

He’d have to stay.

That fellow Lombard now, he was a queer chap.

Not straight. He’d swear the man wasn’t straight.

XI

As the gong sounded, Philip Lombard came out of his room and walked to the head of the stairs. He moved like a panther, smoothly and noiselessly. There was something of the panther about him altogether. A beast of prey—pleasant to the eye.

He was smiling to himself.

A week—eh?

He was going to enjoy that week.

XII

In her bedroom, Emily Brent, dressed in black silk ready for dinner, was reading her Bible.

Her lips moved as she followed the words:

“The heathen are sunk down in the pit that they made: in the net which they hid is their own foot taken. The Lord is known by the judgment which he executeth: the wicked is snared in the work of his own hands. The wicked shall be turned into hell.” Her lips tight closed. She shut the Bible.

Rising, she pinned a cairngorm brooch at her neck, and went down to dinner.

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