Frank Abbott stared down at the brightly patterned Brussels carpet and then let his gaze rise to the familiar pictures on the walls of Miss Silver’s parlour. From where he sat, comfortable in a Victorian armchair made in a time when solid worth counted for much, the arch innocence of ‘Bubbles’ was in plain sight, yet he could not be said to be giving the appearance of one who viewed it with any great pleasure.
The hand which held his tea cup shook slightly and he frowned and placed cup and saucer down on a small walnut table, laden with food. For once, he had not done justice to the dainty sandwiches, rich fruit cake and the honey, sent up from the March’s own hives and only produced when Hannah, Miss Silver’s devoted maid, approved of the visitor.
“I don’t quite understand. You say you knew that Peter –” Odd how he could say that name and feel nothing but cold emptiness. “That Waring had sailed for America?”
Miss Silver’s busy hands continued to knit, the pale yellow wool – such a useful shade! When one did not know if a baby would be girl or boy, it was practical to use a shade that would suit either and this was very pretty, very pretty indeed – a bright spot against her snuff-coloured dress. She coughed slightly, her eyes keen as she glanced at Frank.
“Oh, yes. I felt sure he would, once it was plain that his scheme could not prosper. Only consider, Frank; he had placed his reliance on the silence of the butler. Once I had extracted all that he knew, there really was no possible avenue but flight.” The needles clicked a little slower and she repeated her last words. “No possible avenue.”
Frank crossed his leg, exposing pale grey silk socks, impeccable and as expensive as his suit. “I still don’t see why Pearson spilled the beans to you.”
A reproving look for the slang was followed by a prim smile. “His daughter, my dear Frank, is in service at a house when I once assisted you in the apprehension of a murderer. The Crawford case; you recall?”
He pursed his lips. “Susan?” he hazarded. “One of those girls who get described as ‘well nourished’ when their corpses are found?”
The cough was minatory now. “She was inclined to be plump, yes, but a good natured girl and the apple of her father’s eye. As you remember, I saved her from a difficult situation –”
“My dear Miss Silver, you saved her life!”
She smiled at him. “It is kind of you to say so, but your assistance was invaluable, my dear Frank. If you had but found out the family connection, I feel sure Pearson would have been equally forthcoming with you.”
Frank shook his head. “No; it’s a way you have. You draw them out. You know old Lamb – I beg your pardon, don’t raise your eyebrows, please don’t – Chief Inspector Lamb, swears you’re a witch the way you’re always on the spot, always seeing through us all as if we’re glass fronted –” His voice, light and well-bred, faltered. “And you saw through me, didn’t you? No; I know you did. I will – I will be handing in my resignation of course, but I wanted to see you first. Thank you for – your silence.”
Her voice was energetic and firm. “My dear Frank, you talk a good deal of nonsense. Resign? You are an excellent police officer and Chief Inspector Lamb has high hopes for you. Let me hear no more of this.”
His grey eyes held nothing but despair. “You know I warned him we were close to arresting him. You know I did it because I – because I cared.”
“’In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.’ as Lord Tennyson says. I believe in this case, your fancy lit upon someone not worthy of it, but I feel sure –”
Abbot had never sworn, never raised his voice in front of Miss Silver, but he came as close as he ever would. “I loved him! I gave myself – I gave him all I had to give. I cannot forget him.”
She shook her head, her mouse-coloured hair neat in its net. “No. You may have given him much – but not your heart, my dear. Not that. I will not tell you not to grieve, but I will tell you to have hope for the future.”
“You think I should say nothing? You do not feel I have compromised myself?” His voice was doubtful, wavering, as unlike his normal languid drawl as could be imagined.
Miss Silver shook her head decisively. “The acquaintance began when he was not a suspect and I feel sure you would not have permitted the warmer feelings you experienced to abet his crime. Think of it no more.”
He stood, unable to remain in the room and face that kindly, grave regard. Acquaintance! To so describe those snatched hours when his body had yielded and bent beneath another, submission rewarded with pleasure beyond any he had felt...
“You do not feel – you still –” He took a steadying breath. “May I still count you as a friend?”
She smiled and cast off a row. “If I might turn, for once, to a different poet, ‘Love is not love, which alters when it alteration finds...’”Miss Silver coughed. “My very real affection for you, my dear Frank, will not change.”
Not trusting himself to speak, he bent over her hand and saluted it.
Miss Silver watched him leave, her face stern now. It troubled her conscience a little that she had not told Frank that Peter Waring was certain to be arrested as soon as he stepped off the liner, but only a little. A Bible verse came into her mind and she repeated it softly as she reached for the letter Waring had left behind, addressed to Lamb and giving chapter and verse of his liaison with Frank, a letter she had deftly pocketed, opened and read, despite the inevitable qualms a gentlewoman felt at such an action.
‘They have digged a pit and fallen into it themselves.’
If that letter had not been written, Miss Silver might have stayed her hand, but she had no mercy for those who betrayed one who loved them.
The fire blazed high for a moment as the flames consumed the letter and then died back.
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