William Ambrose Merewether altered his will just before his death, leaving his millions to descendants of his cousin Jane Lorimer, who may or may not still be alive. But the legacy hinges on one nonnegotiable condition.
Across the channel, Shirley Dale struggles to make ends meet working for Mrs. Huddleston, a wealthy, self-indulgent woman who rarely leaves her house. Everything is fine, relatively speaking—until Shirley finds herself in possession of someone else’s purse. Then she’s accused of stealing sixpence and a valuable diamond brooch from her employer. Who is framing her and why? Terrified of being arrested, she flees to the rural village of Emshot, where her only surviving relative lives.
But Shirley is confronted with an unwelcome surprise when she arrives at Acacia Cottage. With her freedom at stake, she turns to the only person she can trust: Anthony Leigh, Mrs. Huddleston’s nephew. But Anthony has every reason not to trust her. As a sinister plan gathers momentum, Shirley must clear her name and unmask the culprit before she loses her liberty and possibly her life.
The author of the Miss Silver Mysteries spins a web of romance and mystery in this absorbing novel.
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Hole and Corner
By Patricia Wentworth
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1936 Patricia Wentworth
All rights reserved.
William Ambrose Merewether was altering his will. This was his most constant recreation. It was also a steady source of income to the lawyers who managed his affairs. Whenever he had an ailment which confined him to the house, it was his practice to send for Mr Van Leiten or for his son Schuyler and play the fascinating game of curtailing legacies here and doubling them there, striking out a New York hospital and substituting one in Washington, deciding to give a year's wages to all his employees, or to found a magnificently endowed retreat for superannuated members of the teaching profession, then doubling this with a stroke of the pen so as to provide two establishments, one male, one female, and finally sweeping the whole thing away in favour of hostels for sales-ladies. At one time or another he had bequeathed magnificent sums to practically every scientific, philanthropic, and educational body in the United States. High-sounding titles decorated a page of Mr Van Leiten's foolscap for a brief space, and then gave way to other titles, other names.
To-day it was Schuyler Van Leiten who was in attendance, a man of about forty with a shrewd, pleasant face and a figure already tending to heaviness. He sat in one of Mr Merewether's excellent and expensive chairs, and William Ambrose Merewether, wrapped in a dressing-gown of scarlet and blue silk, sat in another. Beneath the dressing-gown he was fully dressed. It served merely to advertise the fact that he was, officially, indisposed, as did the scarlet leather bedroom slippers which replaced his ordinary footwear. He sat forward in his chair with his very thick white hair standing up like the crest of a cockatoo and a bright dancing gleam in his pale blue eyes. His thin old face wore an expression of lively interest, and when he wished to make a point his forefinger shot out at Schuyler Van Leiten in a curious stabbing motion.
"The West Central Hospital comes out?"
William Ambrose nodded.
"They don't get a cent," he said. "No more do the whole lot of these," He whisked a paper out of his dressing-gown pocket, leaned forward, and shot it at Schuyler, "Take 'em all out — the whole darned lot of 'em! They don't get a cent, none of 'em — not a cent!"
Schuylet Van Leiten was well trained. He made a note, and waited. This was all in the day's work. "Presently," he thought, "when the old man's run through all the lot of them, he'll have to make a fresh start and work through again. When he dies, some will be lucky and some won't. It's a gamble, like roulette." He looked up, pleasantly inquiring, and saw old William Ambrose sitting very taut, a hand on either knee and the oddest flicker of a smile about his thin lips.
"What we've just knocked off totals up to a million dollars, and I'm putting that into a trust. You'll be one of the trustees, and your father'll be another, and J. J. Wilson'll be the third. Have you got that? A million in trust for the descendants, if any, of my cousin Jane Lorimer."
"One r or two?" said Schuyler. His face remained impassive, but he raised a mental eyebrow. Never before had any relative figured in the long procession of William Ambrose Merewether's legatees. Servants, employees, business associates, and institutions had passed, repassed, and jostled one another upon the pages of his will, but this was the first mention of any warmer claim.
Schuyler, an easy-going man with a wife as pleasant as himself and a cheerful, affectionate family of boys and girls growing up, had a momentary feeling of pity. If the only folks you could rake together were the hypothetical descendants of a cousin whom no one had ever heard of, it was a shade bleaker than having no folks at all.
He looked up, and found William Ambrose regarding him with amusement.
"One r — but you don't need to trouble too much about it, because if she didn't quit being Lorimer a good long time ago, there won't be any descendants."
"You don't know if she was married?"
William Ambrose shook his head and emitted a short cackling laugh.
"She wasn't the sort to stay single, but I don't know anything. It's fifty years since I saw her — fifty years since I've heard from her — fifty years since I heard of her. And what do you think was the last thing she said to me? 'I should hate to marry you,' she said, 'but when you've made that fortune you've been bragging about you can send me some of it for a Christmas present.' And she threw a rosebud at me, hard as a bullet, and hit me in the eye, and no thanks to her that I wasn't blinded. And then she ran away, laughing at me, and if I could have killed her without getting hanged for it, I'd have done it then and there. And I cleared out and came over here and made the fortune I'd set out to make — and I'd had enough of asking young women to marry me, so I've managed to keep what I made. So now Jane's going to get her Christmas present — she or her descendants. Better make it two million in case there are a lot of them. Yes, two million — and that'll mean knocking it off somewhere else. Got a list of the legacies there? Just hand 'em over and let me see where we can get the other million. ... Here we are!" He ran a pencil down the list of names, bending over it agog with interest.
The legacies began as it were to slide, to mingle, to interlace. Some disappeared altogether, others emerged like frail ghosts without weight or substance. In the end William Ambrose had collected his second million. He pushed the list back to Schuyler with a triumphant "There!" Then, hands on knees again, he said in his thin, dry voice,
"Two million dollars in trust for my cousin Jane Lorimer or her descendants —"
"One moment, Mr Merewether — do they share equally?"
William Ambrose considered this. The fingers of his right hand played a tune upon his knee, a slow tune which changed suddenly into a quick-step. He gave his cackling laugh again, stopped the dancing fingers, and said in a pleased voice,
"Equal shares — equal shares all round. No, no — wait a minute, Schuyler — cross that out. I can do better than that. Yes, yes, I can do a whole lot better than that. If Jane's alive she can have the lot — but she isn't alive."
Schuyler Van Leiten preserved his patience.
"Don't you know whether she's alive, Mr Merewether?"
"I told you I didn't, didn't I? Told you I hadn't heard of her in fifty years. You don't attend — that's what's the matter with you, Schuyler. Now you sit right up and take notice, because I don't expect to say everything twice! If Jane's alive she can have the lot, but I'm pretty well sure she's dead — I've got that kind of feeling about her." The quick gleam danced in his eyes. "Jane's gone, and if I'm wrong she can have the laugh of me."
"Well, Mr Merewether?"
"Then we come to the next generation. If there are half a dozen sons and daughters, they get equal shares all round. If there's only one, that one'll take the lot. If there's been half a dozen of 'em, the survivor gets it all. Have you got that?"
"You're not putting in the grandchildren?"
"Not if there's a son or daughter of Jane's alive — unless — but we'll come to that presently. And if there isn't a surviving child, then the grandchildren divide, whether there's two of 'em, or five, or fifty. And whether it's Jane herself, or her children, or her grandchildren, they'll all be under the same condition. If Jane breaks it, the whole goes down to the children. If one of 'em breaks it, that one loses his share to the rest. If there's no one in that generation that complies with the condition, then the grandchildren come in." He lifted up his hands and let them drop again upon his knees with a resounding smack. "I'd like to see Jane's face when she hears about the condition! Pity I can't! And a pity if she's dead, because I'd like to get a bit of my own back on Jane — after fifty years."
"What's eating the old man now?" said Schuyler to himself. But aloud he said, "Oh — there's a condition?"
"There's a very important condition," said William Ambrose Merewether.CHAPTER 2
Shirley Dale made a face at the London fog. It was a face which had had an immense vogue in her school, where it was known as a Woggy Doodle. The eyes bulged and squinted, the nose appeared to curve downwards, and the lips widened into a grin of almost unbelievable idiocy. It is said to have been inspired by the picture of the Jabberwock in Alice through the Looking-glass. The whole school had laboured and panted in imitation, but Shirley's preeminence had never been seriously questioned. The perfect Woggy Doodle was hers, and hers alone. She made it now at the fog, and felt a good deal relieved. When a fog has gone on for three days, you have to do something to show it how poisonously loathsome it is.
Having shown it, she whisked round to look in the glass and make sure that her face hadn't lost its cunning. It hadn't. The Woggy Doodle was distinctly a good Woggy Doodle — one of the best. And then, even as she caught sight of it, it broke up in a burst of laughter. You couldn't really look at a Woggy Doodle and hold it at the same time — your nose began to twitch, and then you were lost.
Shirley's features resumed their normal appearance. Her nose had a slight upward tilt really. A pleasant little nose, soft and very lightly powdered with freckles. It wrinkled when she laughed, and it went very well with her rather thick, smudgy eyebrows and her very thick, soft lashes. Between the lashes she had grey eyes — very clear and very grey, without the slightest tinge of green or blue — and the clear, rather bright grey iris was encircled by a ring as black as her lashes. Except when she was making a Woggy Doodle, these rather noticeable eyes had the straightest look in the world. They were the first thing anyone noticed about Shirley, and the last that anyone forgot. She had very dark hair which curled and matched her lashes, and a warm, wide mouth with a further sprinkling of freckles at each corner. The lips were very red, and the teeth inside them very white.
She frowned at herself in the glass and wished for the nine hundred and ninety-ninth time that she was very tall, and willowy, and exotic, with red hair and green eyes, or else the sort of pale gold hair which goes with ice-blue eyes ... and she wouldn't walk, she would just undulate ... and she would either have a very deep husky voice to go with the red hair and green eyes, or the silvery, mellifluous sort which sounds as if it would break if you tried to say ordinary, sordid words with it — words like rent, job, landlady, and lodger.
Her nose wrinkled at her in the glass, and she laughed. If she couldn't willow or look exotic, she had at least managed to get a job, and that was more than some people did. It wasn't a very exciting job — not in the least what she thought she was going to get when she came up to town. If she had been really willowy, she might have been taken on as a mannequin. She thought it would be too marvellous to trail round wearing Paris models — only perhaps you'd get bored with it after a bit, and it would be dreadfully difficult not to laugh when fat old women bought heavenly slinky clothes which they couldn't possibly get into. But if you laughed, it would be all up.
Perhaps it was really better to go and read to Mrs Huddleston, and write her letters, and run her errands. And thank heaven she didn't live in, so she had her evenings, even though they were generally as dull as ditchwater. When you live in a village, you think London is going to be very exciting, but when you live there on two pounds a week London is often very dull indeed.
Shirley paid Mrs Camber twenty-five shillings a week for bed and breakfast. Sometimes she paid her something for lunch, and sometimes she didn't have lunch at all, only a cup of tea and a bun, and that left her about fourteen shillings a week for her supper, her laundry, and her bus fares, to say nothing of clothes, shoes, and amusements. It was very difficult to know what to do about bus fares. They ran away with a most frightful lot of money, but if you walked you got hungry and your shoes wore out. Shirley had only been in town six months, but she was already a little scared about the shoe problem. Clothes could be made to last almost indefinitely, but shoes simply wouldn't.
She switched her thoughts firmly away from shoes. This was one of the days Mrs Camber had given her lunch, and it was time to think about going back to Revelston Crescent. If the fog was going to get any worse, it might take longer than usual. She put on a dark grey coat with a black collar, pulled a black beret over her curls, grabbed a pair of gloves, and took another look out of the window. Her room was on the top floor of a house which was rather taller than its neighbours. She looked down at a foreshortened pillar-box, and the pavement, and the street, and the roofs and windows of other houses, and they all swam in the fog like bits of toast in a plate of lentil soup. Disgusting. But it was going to be worse before it was better. She banged her door behind her and ran downstairs, quite regardless of the fact that Miss Maltby would probably seize the opportunity of complaining to Mrs Camber about Noise, Total Lack of Consideration, and The Manners of the Present Generation.
Miss Maltby had two rooms on the next floor. To have a bedroom and a sitting-room naturally placed you in a position to complain about someone who only had a bed-sitting-room, and attic at that.
Shirley stopped for a moment on the landing to put out the tip of her tongue at the nearer of Miss Maltby's doors. She had a front room and a back room, and on the other side of the landing there was Jasper Wrenn's room, and the shabbier of the two bathrooms.
She was in the middle of putting out her tongue, when Jasper Wrenn opened his door. As this happened nearly every time she came downstairs, it caused her neither surprise nor embarrassment. She drew in her tongue, turned round with a casual nod, and exclaimed,
"Glory, Jas! What have you been doing?"
Mr Wrenn's scowl deepened perceptibly. He was a dark and ferociously untidy young man. His right hand was imbrued to the knuckles in ink. He passed it over an already murky brow and said crossly,
"What have I been doing about what?"
Shirley put out the tip of her tongue again. It really only just showed and went back, but the intention was clear.
"Ink," she said. "Seas of it. You know — not the multitudinous sort that was encarnadined, but just common or garden black ink all over you like Struwel-Peter — 'Eyes, and nose, and face, and hair. Trousers, pinafores and toys —'"
Jasper removed the hand from his brow and gazed at her.
"I've been writing."
"I'm so frightfully clever, I guessed that." She came a little nearer. "Where have you got to in the book? Are they still having nothing to eat? I do wish you'd feed your people. I've got a feeling that they wouldn't make such an awful muck of everything if you'd let them have a proper meal sometimes."
Jasper ran his inky fingers through his hair. A slightly sheepish expression struggled through the frown.
"As a matter of fact it wasn't the book. It ought to have been, but it wasn't. I got an idea for a poem. It isn't worked out or anything, but it's an idea." His hand came down from his hair, fished in a gaping pocket, and produced a smeared and crumpled piece of paper. "I could read it to you if you've time."
Shirley said, "'M — not more than five minutes. Mustn't be late, because I was late yesterday, and she said everything you can say then. If she had to think of some more to-day, something might go pop, and then I'd be out of a job. I suppose you know you've got a button just hanging."
"It doesn't matter."
"It does. You'll lose it, and then you'll have to buy another. Wait a sec and I'll sew it on while you read me your stuff."
She ran upstairs with even less regard for Miss Maltby's nerves than she had shown when coming down, and was back in a minute with a threaded needle.
"What does it matter about the button?" said Jasper. He gloomed self-consciously at the smudged sheet in his hand, and added with impatience, "Come in and shut the door."
Shirley made a very fine Woggy Doodle at Miss Maltby's doors. Then she skipped into the room, left the door ostentatiously open, and said in a reproving voice,
"Jas, I'm surprised at you! Just think what the Maltby would say! I've got a character if you haven't. Now hurry up with the poem, because I'm not going to be late even for you."
He shrugged a pettish shoulder.
"How can I read anything with the whole house listening?"
Shirley pricked him sharply on the arm with her needle.
Excerpted from Hole and Corner by Patricia Wentworth. Copyright © 1936 Patricia Wentworth. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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