The Listerdale Mystery
                          by Agatha Christie   (narrated by Hugh Fraser)

 

I

Mrs. St. Vincent was adding up figures. Once or twice she sighed, and her hand stole to her aching forehead. She had always disliked arithmetic. It was unfortunate that nowadays her life should seem to be composed entirely of one particular kind of sum, the ceaseless adding together of small necessary items of expenditure making a total that never failed to surprise and alarm her.

  Surely it couldn't come to that! She went back over the figures. She had made a trifling error in the pence, but otherwise the figures were correct.

  Mrs. St. Vincent sighed again. Her headache by now was very bad indeed. She looked up as the door opened and her daughter Barbara came into the room. Barbara St. Vincent was a very pretty girl, she had her mother's delicate features, and the same proud turn of the head, but her eyes were dark instead of blue, and she had a different mouth, a sulky red mouth not without attraction.

  "Oh, Mother!" she cried. "Still juggling with those horrid old accounts? Throw them all into the fire."

  "We must know where we are," said Mrs. St. Vincent uncertainly.

  The girl shrugged her shoulders.

  "We're always in the same boat," she said dryly. "Damned hard up. Down to the last penny as usual."

  Mrs. St. Vincent sighed.

  "I wish - " she began, and then stopped.

  "I must find something to do," said Barbara in hard tones. "And find it quickly. After all, I have taken that shorthand and typing course. So have about one million other girls from all I can see! 'What experience?' 'None, but - ' 'Oh! Thank you, good morning. We'll let you know.' But they never do! I must find some other kind of a job - any job."

  "Not yet, dear," pleaded her mother. "Wait a little longer."

  Barbara went to the window and stood looking out with unseeing eyes that took no note of the dingy line of houses opposite.

  "Sometimes," she said slowly, "I'm sorry Cousin Amy took me with her to Egypt last winter. Oh! I know I had fun - about the only fun I've ever had or am likely to have in my life. I did enjoy myself - enjoyed myself thoroughly. But it was very unsettling. I mean - coming back to this."

  She swept a hand round the room. Mrs. St. Vincent followed it with her eyes and winced. The room was typical of cheap furnished lodgings. A dusty aspidistra, showily ornamental furniture, a gaudy wallpaper faded in patches. There were signs that the personality of the tenants had struggled with that of the landlady; one or two pieces of good china, much cracked and mended, so that their saleable value was nil, a piece of embroidery thrown over the back of the sofa, a water colour sketch of a young girl in the fashion of twenty years ago, near enough still to Mrs. St. Vincent not to be mistaken.

  "It wouldn't matter," continued Barbara, "if we'd never known anything else. But to think of Ansteys - "

  She broke off, not trusting herself to speak of that dearly loved home which had belonged to the St. Vincent family for centuries and which was now in the hands of strangers.

  "If only Father - hadn't speculated - and borrowed - "

  "My dear," said Mrs. St. Vincent. "Your father was never, in any sense of the word, a businessman."

  She said it with a graceful kind of finality, and Barbara came over and gave her an aimless sort of kiss as she murmured, "Poor old Mums. I won't say anything."

  Mrs. St. Vincent took up her pen again and bent over her desk. Barbara went back to the window. Presently the girl said:

  "Mother. I heard from - from Jim Masterton this morning. He wants to come and see me."

  Mrs. St. Vincent laid down her pen and looked up sharply.

  "Here?" she exclaimed.

  "Well, we can't ask him to dinner at the Ritz very well," sneered Barbara.

  Her mother looked unhappy. Again she looked round the room with innate distaste.

  "You're right," said Barbara. "It's a disgusting place. Genteel poverty! Sounds all right - a whitewashed cottage in the country, shabby chintzes of good design, bowls of roses, crown Derby tea service that you wash up yourself. That's what it's like in books. In real life, with a son starting on the bottom rung of office life, it means London. Frowsy landladies, dirty children on the stairs, haddocks for breakfasts that aren't quite - quite and so on."

  "If only - " began Mrs. St. Vincent. "But, really, I'm beginning to be afraid we can't afford even this room much longer."

  "That means a bed-sitting-room - horror! - for you and me," said Barbara. "And a cupboard under the tiles for Rupert. And when Jim comes to call, I'll receive him in that dreadful room downstairs with tabbies all round the walls knitting, and stating at us, and coughing that dreadful kind of gulping cough they have!"

  There was a pause.

  "Barbara," said Mrs. St. Vincent at last. "Do you-mean - would you - ?''

  She stopped, flushing a little.

  "You needn't be delicate, Mother," said Barbara. "Nobody is nowadays. Marry Jim, I suppose you mean? I would like a shot if he asked me. But I'm so awfully afraid he won't."

  "Oh! Barbara, dear."

  "Well, it's one thing seeing me out there with Cousin Amy, moving (as they say in novelettes) in the best society. He did take a fancy to me. Now he'll come here and see me in this! And he's a funny creature, you know, fastidious and old-fashioned. I - I rather like him for that. It remins me of Ansteys and the village - everything a hundred years behind the times, but so - so - oh! I don't know - so fragrant. Like lavender!"

  She laughed, half-ashamed of her eagerness. Mrs. St. Vincent spoke with a kind of earnest simplicity.

  "I should like you to marry Jim Masterton," she said.

  "He is - one of us. He is very well off, also, but that I don't mind about so much."

  "I do," said Barbara. "I'm sick of being hard up."

  "But, Barbara, it isn't - "

  "Only for that? No. I do really. I - oh! Mother, can't you see I do?"

  Mrs. St. Vincent looked very unhappy.

  "I wish he could see you in your proper setting, darling," she said wistfully.

  "Oh, well!" said Barbara. "Why worry? We might as well try and be cheerful about things. Sorry I've had such a grouch. Cheer up, darling."

  She bent over her mother, kissed her forehead lightly, and went out. Mrs. St. Vincent, relinquishing all attempts at finance, sat down on the uncomfortable sofa. Her thoughts ran round in circles like squirrels in a cage.

  "One may say what one likes, appearances do put a man off. Not later - not if they were really engaged. He'd know then what a sweet, dear girl she is. But it's so easy for young people to take the tone of their surroundings. Rupert, now, he's quite different from what he used to be. Not that I want my children to be stuck-up. That's not it a bit. But I should hate it if Rupert got engaged to that dreadful girl in the tobacconist's. I daresay she may be a very nice girl, really. But she's not our kind. It's all so difficult. Poor little Babs. If I could do anything - anything. But where's the money to come from? We've sold everything to give Rupert his start. We really can't even afford this."

  To distract herself Mrs. St. Vincent picked up the Morning Post and glanced down the advertisements on the front page. Most of them she knew by heart. People who wanted capital, people who had capital and were anxious to dispose of it on note of hand alone, people who wanted to buy teeth (she always wondered why), people who wanted to sell furs and gowns and who had optimistic ideas on the subject of price.

  Suddenly she stiffened to attention. Again and again she read the printed words.

  "To gentlepeople only. Small house in Westminster, exquisitely furnished, offered to those who would really care for it. Rent purely nominal. No agents."

  A very ordinary advertisement. She had read many the same or - well, nearly the same. Nominal rent, that was where the trap lay.

  Yet, since she was restless and anxious to escape from her thoughts, she put on her hat straightaway and took a convenient bus to the address given in the advertisement.

  It proved to be that of a firm of house agents. Not a new bustling firma rather decrepit, old-fashioned place. Rather timidly she produced the advertisement, which she had torn out, and asked for particulars.

  The white-haired old gentleman who was attending to her stroked his chin thoughtfully.

  "Perfectly. Yes, perfectly, madam. That house, the house mentioned in the advertisement, is No. 7 Cheviot Place. You would like an order?"

  "I should like to know the rent first?" said Mrs. St. Vincent.

  "Ah! The rent. The exact figure is not settled, but I can assure you that it is purely nominal."

  "Ideas of what is purely nominal can vary," said Mrs. St. Vincent.

  The old gentleman permitted himself to chuckle a little. "Yes, that's an old trick - an old trick. But you can take my word for it, it isn't so in this case. Two or three guineas a week, perhaps, not more."

  Mrs. St. Vincent decided to have the order. Not, of course, that there was any real likelihood of her being able to afford the place. But, after all, she might just see it. There must be some grave disadvantage attaching to it, to be offered at such a price.

  But her heart gave a little throb as she looked up at the outside of 7 Cheviot Place. A gem of a house. Queen Anne, and in perfect condition! A butler answered the door. He had grey hair and little side whiskers, and the meditative calm of an archbishop. A kindly archbishop, Mrs. St. Vincent thought.

  He accepted the order with a benevolent air.

  "Certainly, madam, I will show you over. The house is ready for occupation."

  He went before her, opening doors, announcing rooms.

  "The drawing room, the white study, a powder closet through here, madam."

  It was perfect - a dream. The furniture all of the period, each piece with signs of wear, but polished with loving care. The loose rugs were of beautiful dim old colours. In each room were bowls of fresh flowers. The back of the house looked over the Green Park. The whole place radiated an old-world charm.

  The tears came into Mrs. St. Vincent's eyes, and she fought them back with difficulty. So had Ansteys looked - Ansteys ...

  She wondered whether the butler had noticed her emotion. If so, he was too much the perfectly trained servant to show it. She liked these old servants, one felt safe with them, at ease. They were .like friends.

  "It is a beautiful house," she said softly. "Very beautiful. I am glad to have seen it."

  "Is it for yourself alone, madam?"

  "For myself and my son and daughter. But I'm afraid - "

  She broke off. She wanted it so dreadfully - so dreadfully.

  She felt instinctively that the butler understood. He did not look at her, as he said in a detached, impersonal way:

  "I happen to be aware, madam, that the owner requires above all suitable tenants. The rent is of no importance to him. He wants the house to be tenanted by someone who will really care for and appreciate it."

  "I should appreciate it," said Mrs. St. Vincent in a low voice.

  She turned to go.

  "Thank you for showing me over," she said courteously.

  "Not at all, madam."

  He stood in the doorway, very correct and upright as she walked away down the street. She thought to herself: "He knows. He's sorry for me. He's one of the old lot too. He'd like me to have it - not a labour member, or a button manufacturer! We're dying out, our sort, but we hang together."

  In the end she decided not to go back to the agents. What was the good? She could afford the rent - but there were servants to be considered. There would have to be servants in a house like that.

  The next morning a letter lay by her plate. It was from the house agents. It offered her the tenancy of 7 Cheviot Place for six months at two guineas a week, and went on: "You have, I presume, taken into consideration the fact that the servants are remaining at the landlord's expense? It is really a unique offer."

  It was. So startled was she by it, that she read the letter out. A fire of questions followed and she described her visit of yesterday.

  "Secretive little Mums!" cried Barbara. "Is it really so lovely?"

  Rupert cleared his throat and began a judicial cross-questioning.

  "There's something behind all this. It's fishy, if you ask me. Decidedly fishy."

  "So's my egg," said Barbara, wrinkling her nose. "Ugh! Why should there be something behind it? That's just like you, Rupert, always making mysteries out of nothing. It's those dreadful detective stories you're always reading."

  "The rent's a joke," said Rupert. "In the city," he added importantly, "one gets wise to all sorts of queer things. I tell you, there's something very fishy about this business."

  "Nonsense," said Barbara. "House belongs to a man with lots of money, he's fond of it, and he wants it lived in by decent people while he's away. Something of that kind. Money's probably no object to him."

  "What did you say the address was?" asked Rupert of his mother.

  "Seven Cheviot Place."

  "Whew!" He pushed back his chair. "I say, this is exciting. That's the house Lord Listerdale disappeared from."

  "Are you sure?" asked Mrs. St. Vincent doubtfully.

  "Positive. He's got a lot of other houses all over London, but this is the one he lived in. He walked out of it one evening saying he was going to his club, and nobody ever saw him again. Supposed to have done a bunk to East Africa or somewhere like that, but nobody knows why. Depend upon it, he was murdered in that house. You say there's a lot of panelling?"

  "Ye-es," said Mrs. St. Vincent faintly, "but - "

  Rupert gave her no time. He went on with immense enthusiasm.

  "Panelling! There you are. Sure to be a secret recess somewhere. Body's been stuffed in there and has been there ever since. Perhaps it was embalmed first."

  "Rupert, dear, don't talk nonsense," said his mother.

  "Don't be a double-dyed idiot," said Barbara. "You've been taking that peroxide blonde to the pictures too much."

  Rupert rose with dignity - such dignity as his lanky and awkward age allowed, and delivered a final ultimatum.

  "You take that house, Mums. I'll ferret out the mystery. You see if I don't."

  Rupert departed hurriedly, in fear of being late at the office.

  The eyes of the two women met.

  "Could we, Mother?" murmured Barbara tremulously. "Oh! If we could."

  "The servants," said Mrs. St. Vincent pathetically, "would eat, you know. I mean, of course, one would want them to - but that's the drawback. One can so easily - just do without things - when it's only oneself."

  She looked piteously at Barbara, and the girl nodded.

  "We must think it over," said the mother.

  But in reality her mind was made up. She had seen the sparkle in the girl's eyes. She thought to herself: "Jim Masterton must see her in proper surroundings. This is a chance - a wonderful chance. I must take it."

  She sat down and wrote to the agents accepting their offer.


 

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