The First Time He Died - Ethel Lina White - ebook

The First Time He Died ebook

Ethel Lina White

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The main character, Sir Benjamin Watson, created a private zoo in the countryside on the territory of his country house. ’Ganges’ is an exotic jungle filled with snakes, elephants, tigers and lions. One summer day, Ann Sherborne arrives at Ganges for meeting friends from the university. There are strange events: a series of accidents involving the zoo animals. Who is involved in this?

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Liczba stron: 304

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Contents

I. ALL MEN ARE MORTAL

II. THE MIRACLE

III. BEGINNER'S LUCK

IV. THE FIRST FENCE

V. CORPSE-CANDLES

VI. THE VISITOR

VII. CAVE-WOMAN

VIII. THE SWORD OF DAMOCLES

IX. ENTER CHESTER BEAVERBROOK

X. FUNERAL HONOURS

XI. A SOUVENIR

XII. OH, THE MISTLETOE-BOUGH

XIII. CHARGE—CHESTER—CHARGE

XIV. THE END OF THE SEARCH

XV. THE RAILWAY-CARRIAGE

XVI. THE PHOTOGRAPH

XVII. THE LOCAL PAPER

XVIII. SALVAGE OPERATIONS

XIX. A SUSPICIOUS CASE

XX. SUSPENSE

XXI. ACT OF GOD

XXII. No Address

XXIII. UNDER THE CLOCK

XXIV. IN SEARCH OF REALISM

XXV. THE SECOND WIFE

XXVI. DARK STRANDS

XXVII. THE LADY IN THE CASE

XXVIII. INTO THE BLUE

XXIX. A BACHELOR FLAT

XXX. THE HIDING-PLACE

XXXI. NAILS

XXXII. THE SECOND TIME

I. ALL MEN ARE MORTAL

NEARLY every one in the small town of Starminster was sorry to hear of Charlie Baxter’s death. He was popular with women, while men invariably called him a “decent little chap”–a curious inaccuracy, since he was well over medium height.

A gentle unassuming nature, he stole out of life as unobtrusively as he left a party–when he nodded farewell to his host and slipped away, without any one knowing that he had gone. At the time flu was epidemic. One day, some one mentioned casually that he was ill. The next bit of news was a thunderclap in the billiard-room at the Grapes.

“Poor Baxter’s passed out.”

There was a chorus of “Poor chap,” for Charlie’s slate was clean. He paid his bills, subscribed modestly to local charities, and listened to golf stories. Did the usual things, while his game was always a trifle below the standard of his opponent; the drinks were inevitably on him, but he was a cheerful loser.

No one was really surprised, therefore, to hear that Death had found him a bit below his form, and had taken advantage of the fact.

“When did he die?” asked some one.

“Late last night,” replied the herald.

“Flu, I suppose?”

“Yes. Sudden collapse. Heart was weak, I’m told.”

“No, it wasn’t,” announced Acorn, the Insurance agent.

He chalked his cue and looked around him, with no real hope, for some one whom he could beat at snooker. He was the first person to miss Charlie Baxter.

“Damn mistake if they had that old fool Dubarry to attend him,” he said savagely. “Another doctor might have pulled him through.”

“Mrs. Baxter swears by him,” remarked a masculine gossip.

“She would.”

The company grunted assent. It was an established fact that Dr. Dubarry had the brains of a stewed mushroom, and allowed nothing to interfere with his personal pleasure; but it had to be admitted in his favour that he had almost entirely ceased to practise, and only took on a case after personal persuasion.

When the matrons of the town heard of Charlie Baxter’s death they added a rider to the verdict of medical inefficiency. They hinted that Vera Baxter might have been too casual in her treatment of the patient. Heads were shaken and tongues wagged.

“He always waited on her. It would be a change for her to wait on him. A pity they did not have a trained nurse.”

“But Dr. Dubarry said she was wonderful,” observed a more charitable tongue.

“He would. She’s a pretty woman.”

Unlike her husband, Vera Baxter was not very popular in the town. She was a cheery, capable little person, with an anti-litter mind; but she could not play hockey, and they could never be certain that she had gone to the right school.

In appearance, she was a slim, pretty blonde–smart and decorative–who looked too young to be married, until it was noticed that her shrewd blue eyes had grown up before the rest of her.

What the town chiefly resented was the third occupant of Jasmine Cottage–Puggie Williams. He had been a fixture there for several months and was a man of mystery. He wore old well-cut clothes with distinction and his voice betrayed breeding; but he had the red-veined mashed face of a hard drinker, and when he remembered to forget his origin, his manners were appalling.

It was evident, however, that he had begun life in a different social sphere from that of his friends, and had probably met them, when he was sliding down the ladder and they were climbing up, so had clung round their necks, as ballast.

He appeared to be on excellent terms with Charlie and a real friendship seemed to exist between the three. Vera ordered him about as much as she dominated her gentle husband, for she was the type who expected men to be doormats. All the same, the town could not accept Puggie, in connection with Vera, because of his sex.

The news of the tragedy swept through Starminster like a prairie fire. It was a day of wretched weather. There had been a heavy snowfall in the night, so that, in the morning, every roof was white-capped and the church steeple looked like a sugar-loaf.

Now, however, it had begun to melt. Slush covered the pavements and lay in the gutter, while the country roads were churned by traffic to the consistency of brown fudge. The hills were iced silhouettes against the grey sky, and the streets appeared dark and miserable. People’s faces–pinched with cold–seemed actually dirty, so that any one with an artificial complexion was a public benefactor. It was chill and gloomy, and no time to think of death.

Yet it was constantly in the thoughts of many a woman. Charlie’s last public appearance had been at a Primrose Dance, when there had been a man-famine. Too retiring to invite the attractive girls and women, he had danced exclusively with wallflowers.

He was an excellent dancer–light as a feather–with a springy step and tireless rhythm. Stout matrons, whose husbands were dancing with buds, seemed to swing years off their age as they swayed in Charlie’s arms. Spinsters, who were too mature for public competition, and schoolgirls, who were too callow, found in him not only a partner, but sympathy and deference.

One of these was a Miss Belson, an unmarried woman of some social standing, who had been forced to attend the function because of its political nature. Sitting glued to a hard cane-chair, it did not console her to remember that twenty years previously she had been so much in demand that she was forced to subdivide her programme.

She, too, was an excellent dancer, and Charlie confided to her that she was his best partner. He talked to her about herself, while his soft brown eyes paid her those compliments which his tongue was too circumspect to utter. With customary modesty, he let her usurp their conversation; his sole personal item was the confession that his beard was not artistic swank, but a safeguard for a delicate throat.

“I don’t mind admitting I look better with it than without,” he added, with a little laugh. “You know. Chin.”

“I hate Strong Men, like Mussolini and Cromwell,” declared Miss Belson.

For Charlie had watered the patch of dried romance in her heart, so that she began to wonder whether his married life was happy, and to notice that Vera danced almost exclusively with Puggie Williams.

She was at the library when she heard of his death. It was a terrible shock for her, when the man who had reminded her that she was a woman as well as a ratepayer flicked out of her life, in one casual sentence from the librarian.

“Isn’t it sad about poor Mr. Baxter?”

She asked for details with correct composure, but, instead of choosing her usual recommended book, she carried away with her a thriller. She felt she wanted something to take her thoughts off the tragedy.

On her way home she was gripped with an uncontrollable urge to go to Jasmine Cottage and look at the building which held the shell of the man she had met too late. In soaked shoes, she shuffled along over slushy pavements and past snow-powdered laurels, until she reached the little cream-washed house.

It was built on the extreme outskirts of the town, for only two lamp-posts divided it from the utter darkness of the York Road. No light was visible, although the blue-green curtains at the small casement windows were partially undrawn, so that she could see the flicker of a fire in the lounge. As she paused, a car passed, and its lamps bathed the room in a momentary glow.

She saw two people–Vera Baxter and Puggie Williams–who were sitting close together, as though they were talking in whispers. There was something so furtive in their attitude that it compelled her attention. She caught the flash of teeth and eyes, and wondered incredulously whether they were laughing.

Although she could not be positive about what she had seen, she walked home, throbbing with anger. Instinct insisted that Vera Baxter was not mourning for her husband.

Miss Belson lived with her widowed sister, Lady Fry, who was stout and bronchial. Once she was inside the well-warmed house, she could shut out the cold and misery of the streets; but she could not forget the incident. It remained–a burr on her mind–throughout an excellent dinner, when she ate mechanically, and agreed with her sister that poor Charles Baxter looked like a man who needed “mothering.”

That night she read in bed with a hope to induce sleep; but the thriller did not provide the usual escape from life. Instead, its chief function was to sidetrack her thoughts into a new and terrible direction.

Murder.

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