فصل 07

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فصل 07

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CHAPTER SEVEN

On the following day Mrs Sprot went up to London. Various residents of Sans Souci had offered to look after Betty, and Tuppence had the morning turn.

‘Play,’ said Betty. ‘Play hide seek.’

She was talking more easily every day and had adopted a most attractive habit of putting her head on one side with a lovely smile and murmuring ‘Peese’, which was her way of saying ‘please’. Tuppence had intended to take her for a walk, but it was raining, so the two of them went into Mrs Sprot’s bedroom. Betty led the way to the drawer of the bureau where her toys were kept.

‘Shall we hide Bonzo?’ asked Tuppence.

But Betty had changed her mind and demanded instead, ‘Wead me story.’

Tuppence pulled out a book only to be interrupted by a cry from Betty.

‘No, no. Bad…’

Tuppence stared at her in surprise and then down at the book, which was a coloured version of Little Jack Horner.

‘Was Jack a bad boy?’ she asked. ‘Because he pulled out a plum?’

‘B-a-ad!’ Betty said, and then, with a huge effort, ‘Nasty!’ She took the book from Tuppence and put it back, then took out an identical book from the other end of the shelf, saying with a huge smile, ‘K-k-klean ni’tice Jackorner!’

Tuppence realised that any dirty, well-read books had been replaced by new and cleaner ones. Mrs Sprot was always terrified of germs. Tuppence had brought up her own two children in contact with a reasonable amount of dirt. However, she took the clean copy of Jack Horner and read it to the child, followed by another - Goosey, Goosey, Gander. Then Betty hid the books and Tuppence took an amazingly long time to find each of them, to Betty’s great delight, and so the morning passed quickly.

After lunch Betty had her rest and it was then that Tuppence looked out into the garden and saw that the rain had stopped. At the bottom of the garden the bushes parted slightly. In the gap a face appeared. It was the Polish woman staring up at the windows of Sans Souci. The woman’s face had no expression, and yet there was something frightening about it.

Turning abruptly from the window, Tuppence ran downstairs, out of the front door and down the path at the side of the house to where she had seen the woman. There was no one there now. Tuppence went through the bushes and out on to the road and looked up and down the hill. She could see no one. Troubled, she turned and went back into Sans Souci. Could she have imagined the whole thing? No, the woman had been there. She felt a strange sense that something bad was going to happen.

Now that the weather had improved, Miss Minton was taking Betty out for a walk. They were going down to the town to buy a toy duck to sail in Betty’s bath. Betty was very excited and the two set off together, Betty saying happily, ‘Byaduck. Byaduck. For Bettibarf. For Bettibarf.’

Two matchsticks. left crossed on the marble table in the hall, was the code that told Tuppence that Mr Meadowes was spending the afternoon following Mrs Perenna. Tuppence went to the lounge and sat with Mr and Mrs Cayley. Mr Cayley was unhappy. He had come to Leahampton, he explained, for rest and quiet, and what quiet could there be with a child in the house? All day long she was screaming and running about, jumping up and down.

His wife murmured that Betty was really ‘a dear little girl’, but the comment only annoyed him more.

‘No doubt, no doubt,’ said Mr Cayley. ‘But her mother should keep her quiet. There are other people to consider. Invalids, people who need to rest.’

Quickly, Tuppence changed the subject. ‘I wish you would tell me your views on life in Germany. You’ve travelled there several times and it would be interesting to have your point of view…’

Mr Cayley smiled. ‘Dear lady, in my opinion…’

Tuppence, murmuring an occasional ‘Now that’s very interesting,’ listened with close attention. She was quickly convinced that Mr Cayley was an admirer of the Nazi system. He clearly thought, though he did not say it openly, how much better it would have been if England and Germany had taken sides against the rest of Europe.

Nearly two hours later they were interrupted by the return of Miss Minton, Betty, and the duck. Looking up, Tuppence caught a strange expression on Mrs Cayley’s face. It might have been simply a wife’s jealousy at her husband paying so much attention to another woman. It might have been concern that Mr Cayley was speaking too clearly about his political views. It certainly expressed dissatisfaction.

Tea came next and soon after that came the return of Mrs Sprot from London exclaiming, ‘I do hope Betty’s been good?’

Mrs Sprot then sat down, drank several cups of tea, and spoke excitedly about what she had bought in London, the crowd on the train, what a soldier recently returned from France had told the people in her train carriage, and what a girl in a shop had told her of shortages to come.

The conversation was, in fact, completely normal. It went on afterwards on the terrace outside, for the sun was now shining.

Betty rushed happily about, going into the bushes and returning with a leaf, or little stones which she placed in the lap of one of the grown-ups. She would give an explanation in her own little language, which no one could understand, of what they represented. Fortunately she required little response in her game, being satisfied with an occasional, ‘How nice, darling. Is it really?’

There had never been an evening more typical of Sans Souci. There was talk about the war - Can France fight back? What is Russia likely to do? Could Hitler invade England if he tried? Will Paris fall to the Germans?

Suddenly, Mrs Sprot glanced at her watch. ‘Goodness, it’s nearly seven. I ought to have put that child to bed ages ago. Betty, Betty!’

It was some time since Betty had returned to the terrace, though no one had really noticed. Mrs Sprot called her with growing impatience.

‘Bett-eeee! Where can the child be?’

Mrs O’Rourke said with her deep laugh, ‘Doing something naughty, I’ve no doubt about it. It’s always the way when there’s quiet.’

‘Betty! I want you.’ There was no answer and Mrs Sprot rose impatiently. ‘I suppose I must go and look for her. I wonder where she can be?’

Miss Minton suggested that she was hiding somewhere, but Betty could not be found, either inside or outside the house. They went round the garden calling and they looked in all the bedrooms. There was no Betty anywhere.

Mrs Sprot began to get annoyed. ‘It’s very naughty of her - very naughty indeed! Do you think she can have gone out on the road?’

Together she and Tuppence went out to the gate and looked up and down the hill. There was no one in sight except a delivery boy with a bicycle standing talking to a maid at the door of the house across the road. Tuppence and Mrs Sprot crossed the road and Mrs Sprot asked if either of them had seen a little girl. The maid asked, ‘A little girl in a green dress?’

Mrs Sprot replied eagerly, ‘That’s right.’

‘I saw her about half an hour ago - going down the road with a woman.’

Mrs Sprot said with amazement, ‘With a woman? What sort of a woman?’

The girl seemed slightly embarrassed. ‘Well, what I’d call a strange-looking woman. I’m sure she was foreign. She was wearing strange clothes, like a kind of shawl, and no hat. Her face was strange too. I’ve seen her about once or twice lately, and to tell the truth I thought she was a bit mad.’

Mrs Sprot almost collapsed against Tuppence. ‘Oh Betty, my little girl. She’s been stolen. She - what did the woman look like - was she dark?’

Tuppence shook her head energetically. ‘No, she was fair, very fair, with a wide face and blue eyes set very far apart.’ She saw Mrs Sprot staring at her and hurried to explain, ‘I’ve noticed her around here. Carl von Deinim was speaking to her one day. It must be the same woman.’

The servant girl agreed. ‘That’s right. Fair-haired she was.’

‘Oh,’ cried Mrs Sprot. ‘What shall I do?’

Tuppence put an arm round her. ‘Come back to the house, have a little brandy and then we’ll ring up the police. It’s all right. We’ll get her back.’

Mrs Sprot cried out weakly, ‘She’s some dreadful German woman, I expect. She’ll kill my Betty.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Tuppence. ‘It will be all right. I expect she’s just some woman who’s not quite right in her head.’ But she did not believe her own words - she did not believe for one moment that the calm blonde woman was mad.

‘Carl!’ thought Tuppence, ‘Would Carl know? Had he had anything to do with this?’ However, a few minutes later she started to doubt this assumption. Carl von Deinim, like the rest, seemed completely surprised. As soon as the facts were told, Major Bletchley took control.

‘Now then, dear lady,’ he said to Mrs Sprot. ‘Sit down here and just drink a little of this brandy. I’ll contact the police station immediately.’

Mrs Sprot murmured, ‘Wait a minute - there might be something…’ She hurried up the stairs and along the passage to her room. A minute or two later they heard her footsteps running along the upstairs hall. She rushed down the stairs and took Major Bletchley’s hand from the telephone receiver, which he was just about to lift.

‘No, no, you mustn’t - you mustn’t…’ And crying wildly, she collapsed into a chair.

They crowded round her. In a minute or two, she recovered herself. Sitting up, with Mrs Cayley’s arm round her, she held something out for them to see. ‘I found this on the floor of my room. It had been wrapped round a stone and thrown through the window. Look - look what it says.’

Tommy took it from her and unfolded it. It was a note, written in big, bold letters.

WE HAVE GOT YOUR CHILD. SHE IS SAFE. YOU WILL BE TOLD WHAT TO DO SOON. IF YOU GO TO THE POLICE, YOUR CHILD WILL BE KILLED. SAY NOTHING.

Mrs Sprot was repeating faintly, ‘Betty - Betty.’

Everyone was talking at once.

‘The dirty murdering criminals,’ exclaimed Mrs O’Rourke.

‘Brutes!’ shouted Sheila Perenna.

‘I don’t believe a word of it. It’s a silly practical joke,’ declared Mr Cayley.

‘Oh, the dear little girl!’ murmured Miss Minton.

‘I do not understand. It is shocking,’ added Carl von Deinim.

And above everyone else the loud voice of Major Bletchley. ‘We must inform the police at once. They’ll soon find out what’s going on.’

Once more he moved towards the telephone. This time a scream from Mrs Sprot stopped him.

He shouted, ‘But my dear Madam, we must. This note is only to stop you doing anything so that they can get away.’

‘They’ll kill her.’

‘Nonsense! They wouldn’t dare.’

‘I won’t allow it, I tell you. I’m her mother. It’s for me to say.’

‘I know. I know. That’s what they’re counting on - your feeling like that. It’s very natural. But you must believe me, I’m a soldier and an experienced man of the world. The police are what we need.’

‘No!’

Bletchley’s eyes went round, searching for agreement.

‘Meadowes, you agree with me?’ Slowly Tommy nodded.

‘Cayley?’ Mr Cayley nodded too.

‘Look, Mrs Sprot, both Meadowes and Cayley agree.’

Mrs Sprot said with sudden energy, ‘Men! All of you! Ask the women!’

Tommy looked at Tuppence who said, her voice low and shaken, ‘I - I agree with Mrs Sprot.’

She was thinking of her own children. ‘Deborah! Derek! If it were them, I’d feel like her. Tommy and the others are right, I’ve no doubt, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t risk it,’ she said to herself.

Mrs O’Rourke was declaring, ‘No mother alive could risk it and that’s a fact.’

Miss Minton said weakly, ‘Such awful things happen. We’d never forgive ourselves if anything happened to dear little Betty.’

‘You haven’t said anything, Mr von Deinim?’ noted Tuppence sharply.

Carl’s blue eyes were very bright. His face had no expression. He said slowly, ‘I am a foreigner. I do not know your English police. How good they are - how quick.’

Someone had come into the hall. It was Mrs Perenna, her cheeks were red. Evidently she had been hurrying up the hill. ‘What’s all this?’ she asked. Her voice was commanding, not the pleasant guesthouse owner, but a woman of force.

They told her - a confused story told by too many people, but she understood it quickly. She held the note for a minute, then she handed it back. Her words were sharp and authoritative.

‘The police? They’ll be no good. You can’t risk their making mistakes. Go after the child yourselves.’

Bletchley said, ‘Very well.’

Tommy added, ‘They can’t be far away. When did it happen?’

‘Half an hour, the maid said,’ Tuppence answered.

‘Haydock,’ said Bletchley. ‘Haydock’s the man to help us. He’s got a car. The woman’s unusual looking, you say? And a foreigner? She ought to leave a trail that we can follow. Come on, there’s no time to lose. You’ll come along, Meadowes?’

Mrs Sprot got up. ‘I’m coming, too.’

‘Now, my dear lady, leave it to us…’

‘I’m coming, too.’

‘Oh, well.’ He gave in.

Commander Haydock, who understood the situation immediately, drove the car. Tommy sat beside him, and behind were Bletchley, Mrs Sprot and Tuppence. Not only did Mrs Sprot cling to her, but Tuppence was the only one (with the exception of Carl von Deinim) who knew the mysterious kidnapper by sight.

The Commander was a good organizer and a quick worker. In minutes he had filled up the car with petrol, handed Bletchley a map of the district and a larger map of Leahampton itself and was ready to start off.

Mrs Sprot had run upstairs again before they left, presumably to get a coat. But when she got into the car and they had started down the hill, she showed Tuppence something in her handbag. It was a small pistol.

She explained quietly, ‘I got it from Major Bletchley’s room. I remember he said he had one.’

Tuppence looked a little uncertain. ‘You don’t think that…?’ Mrs Sprot said, her mouth a thin line, ‘It may be useful.’ Tuppence sat wondering about the strength of a mother’s love for a child, even in an ordinary young woman. She could see Mrs Sprot, the type of woman who would normally be frightened to death of guns, calmly shooting any person who had harmed her child.

They drove first, on the Commander’s suggestion, to the railway station. A train had left Leahampton about twenty minutes earlier and it was possible that the woman and Betty and whoever else was involved had travelled on it. At the station they separated, the Commander questioned the ticket collector, Tommy asked the ticket office staff, and Bletchley checked with the porters outside. Tuppence and Mrs Sprot went into the ladies’ bathroom just in case the woman had gone in there to change her appearance before taking the train.

None of them discovered anything.

‘The kidnappers probably had a car waiting,’ Haydock suggested, ‘and they made their escape in that.’

Tuppence remarked, ‘We must put ourselves in their places. Where would they have waited in the car? Somewhere as near as Sans Souci as possible, but where a car wouldn’t be noticed. Now let’s think… The woman and Betty walk down the hill together. At the bottom is the esplanade. The car might have been waiting there.’

It was at that moment that a small man stepped up to them and said, ‘Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing what you were asking the porter just now.’

He directed his remarks to Major Bletchley. ‘I was not listening, of course, just came down to see about a parcel and so, you see, I happened to overhear - and really it did seem the most wonderful coincidence…’

Mrs Sprot sprang forward. She took him by the arm. ‘You’ve seen her? You’ve seen my little girl?’

‘Oh really, your little girl, you say? Now…’

Mrs Sprot cried, ‘Tell me!’

Tuppence interrupted calmly, ‘Please tell us anything you have seen as quickly as you can. We will be most grateful if you would.’

‘Oh, well, really, of course, it may be nothing at all. But the description fitted so well…’

Tuppence felt the woman beside her trembling, but she herself tried to stay calm. She knew the type of man with whom they were dealing - not capable of giving a direct answer, especially if hurried. ‘Please tell us,’ she repeated.

Tuppence frowned at Major Bletchley, who was about to start shouting at him, and asked, ‘And you saw the little girl we are looking for?’

‘Yes, I really think it must be. A little girl with a foreign-looking woman, you said? It was really the woman I noticed. Because, of course, we are all on the lookout nowadays for Fifth Columnists, aren’t we? So, as I say, I noticed this woman. A nurse, I thought, or a maid, and this woman was most unusual looking and walking up the road to the hills beside the sea. She was with a little girl - and the little girl seemed tired and it was half-past seven, and well, most children go to bed then. I looked at the woman very closely and she hurried up the road, pulling the child after her. Finally she picked her up and went on up the path out on to the cliff, which I thought strange. There are no houses there at all - nothing - not until you get to Whitehaven - about five miles away.’

Commander Haydock was back in the car and had started the engine. The others jumped in.

Tuppence called out, ‘Thank you,’ and they drove off, leaving him staring after them with his mouth open.

They drove quickly through the town, avoiding accidents more by good luck than by skill. The road ended on bare hillside where there was only a footpath.

‘Better get out and walk here,’ said Bletchley.

Haydock suggested, ‘Why don’t we take the car up? The ground’s firm enough.’

Mrs Sprot cried, ‘Oh yes, please, please. We must be quick.’

The car bounced about as it went across the rough ground but they arrived without any problem on the top of the hill. Here the view was clear.

‘No sign of them as far as I can see,’ observed Haydock.

He was standing up, looking through some binoculars that he had brought with him. Suddenly he focused on two small moving figures.

‘Got ‘em!’

He fell back into the driver’s seat again and now the chase was a short one. Bounced up in the air, thrown from side to side as the car drove over the uneven ground, the occupants of the car quickly got closer to those two small figures. They could see them clearly now - a woman holding a child by the hand - still nearer, yes, a child in a green dress. Betty.

Suddenly the woman turned and saw the car advancing towards her. With a cry she picked up the child in her arms and began running towards the edge of the cliff.

The car could not follow; the ground was now too uneven and blocked with big stones. It stopped and Mrs Sprot was out first running towards them. The others followed her. When they were within twenty yards of her, the kidnapper turned. She was standing at the very edge of the cliff and with a cry, she held the child closer to herself.

Haydock exclaimed, ‘No! She’s going to throw the kid over the cliff…’

The woman’s face was filled with hate. She spoke, a long angry sentence that none of them understood. And still she held the child and looked from time to time at the sea below. It seemed clear that she was threatening to throw the child over the cliff. All of them stood there, confused and terrified, unable to move for fear of causing a catastrophe.

Haydock’s hand was in his pocket. He pulled out a pistol and shouted, ‘Put that child down - or I fire.’

The foreign woman laughed.

Haydock whispered, ‘I can’t shoot. I might hit the child.’ Tommy cried, ‘The woman’s crazy. She’ll jump over the edge with the child in another moment.’

Haydock said again, helplessly, ‘It’s too dangerous to shoot…’ But at that moment a shot rang out. The woman fell back, the child still in her arms. The men ran forward, Mrs Sprot stood still, the smoking pistol in her hands, her eyes wide open. She took a few steps forward. Tommy was kneeling by the bodies. He turned them over gently. The woman was dead - shot through the head. Unhurt, little Betty Sprot stood up and ran towards her mother who was standing completely still.

Then, at last, Mrs Sprot moved. She threw away the pistol and fell to her knees, holding the child to her. ‘She’s safe - she’s safe - oh, Betty - Betty.’ And then, in a low whisper she added, ‘Did I - did I - kill her?’

Tuppence said firmly, ‘Don’t think about it. Think about Betty. Just think about Betty.’

Mrs Sprot held the child close against her, crying uncontrollably. Tuppence went forward to join the men.

Haydock said, ‘I couldn’t have managed a shot like that! I don’t believe the woman has ever used a pistol before - it must have been pure instinct. A miracle, that’s what it is.’

Tuppence murmured, ‘It was a near thing!’ And she looked down at the sea far below and shivered.

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