While She Sleeps - Ethel Lina White - ebook

While She Sleeps ebook

Ethel Lina White

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Opis

Mystical incidents occur in „"While She Sleeps."” Miss Loveapple – extremely lucky woman. She was always lucky in life, so to speak, the card turned that side. However, there will always be luck on her side? Will she help when the killer will stalk her?

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Liczba stron: 293

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Contents

I. HAIL HAPPY MORN

II. A VACUUM-CLEANER

III. THE INVISIBLE PLAYER

IV. THE EMPTY HOUSE

V. GLOVES

VI. THE APPOINTMENT

VII. THE LISTENER

VIII. ALL CATS ARE GREY

IX. THE CARDS TALK

X. WHITE HEATHER

XI. CALAIS-INTERLAKEN EXPRESS

XII. THE REAL MISS LOVEAPPLE

XIII. THE PARAGON

XIV. LONG-DISTANCE MURDER

XV. MOUNTAINS

XVI. KLEINE SCHEIDEGG

XVII. THE JEWEL-CASE

XVIII. FACE VALUE

XIX. NOCTURNAL

XX. NIGHTMARE

XXI. MATCH-POINT

XXII. A CUP OF COFFEE

XXIII. 'WHEN SHE SLEEPS'

XXIV. A DOSE OF SALTS

XXV. THE UNDERWORLD

XXVI. SCREEN MAGIC

XXVII. THE VIGIL

XXVIII. THE FIRST BIT OF LUCK

I. HAIL HAPPY MORN

MISS LOVEAPPLE awoke with a smile. She had slept well; her digestion was good–her conscience clear; and she had not an enemy in the world.

There was nothing to warn her that, within the next hour, she would be selected as a victim to be murdered.

As she threw aside the sheets and sat up in bed, she looked beautiful. Just as every dog has his day, every woman has her hour. Since Miss Loveapple’s dress allowance was shaved to the limit, she triumphed when she was in undress.

Her low sleeveless nightdress revealed the whiteness of her skin which had not been exposed to the sun. Her fair hair fell over her shoulders in thick plaits. As she stretched out her arms in a yawn, she seemed to be welcoming the gift of life.

It was a blue windy day in late summer. The sun shone brightly upon her toilet table, striking through the cut-glass trinket set in rainbow gleams. She could hear the welcome rattle of china which told her that the maid was mounting the stairs with her early tea and the Times.

Birds were singing in the beech-tree which shaded her window, as though to celebrate good news. It had come, the night before, by the last post, in a letter from a London house agent. He had told her of an unexpected chance to let her town house, which would enable her to take a rare holiday abroad.

‘Switzerland,’ she said aloud. ‘Mountains. You lucky me.’

Miss Loveapple believed in her luck. She was positive that Providence had drawn up a schedule of beneficent events for her special benefit. If any sceptic doubted that she was under the direct protection of an unseen Patron, she could offer proof of her claim.

To begin with, out of millions of hopeful gamblers, she, alone, was chosen to draw a certain horse in an Irish Sweep and consequently to realise the supreme ambition of her life.

In addition to this spectacular slice of good fortune, she could produce a long list of minor examples of her luck. Royalty died after she had bought a black hat, to justify an extravagance. On the nerve-racking occasion when she had forgotten to provide cakes for her At Home day, it rained heavily, spoiling the hay harvest, but keeping every visitor away.

Little things like that.

Each year, when her vegetable marrows or her gladioli received the coveted blue ticket–First Prize–at the local flower show, she would inhale the hot mashed-grass and fruit-laden atmosphere of the tent, as though it were incense compounded for her.

‘My luck again,’ she would declare to her disappointed competitors. ‘Not your fault. Too bad–when you tried so hard.’

And then her hearty laughter would ring out, for she was genuine rather than tactful.

She was fortunate even over the circumstances in which she was orphaned. Her parents thoughtfully went on living until she was twenty-one and had finished her education and received proper dental attention. She was therefore spared the restrictions imposed upon a minor when they both died of epidemic influenza, just as the Local Authorities had passed the plans of a new by-pass road.

As these involved the sacrifice of the old family home, she received, in compensation, a sum higher than she could have hoped to get had the property come into the open market.

She was on the fringe of the leisured class and had a small private income; so she bought a well-built and comfortable residence–Pond House–which was too large and ambitious for her needs, and settled down to life in a select residential village in Kent.

Soon she was accepted as a fixture, together with her maid, her cat, her dog and everything that was hers. She was popular, for she entered into the social spirit of the community; and although she was younger than the majority of the residents, gardening and housework gave her the exercise she might have missed.

Yet, while she was friendly to all, she was intimate with none. In spite of her breezy good-nature, no one asked her personal questions, or called her by her Christian name. It was doubtful whether any one knew it, for she remained Miss Loveapple, of the Pond House.

On the sole occasion when she burst her sheath of reserve, it was a voluntary impulse. The revelation took place on a warm, wild All Hallows E’en, when a few ladies came to tea with her. Among them was a visitor from London, who brought with her a passport to popularity–a planchette.

She was a dark, skinny woman with the remnants of beauty and a suggestion of parched passion still lingering in her eyes. She wore an artistic gown of nasturtium-hued velvet and a long string of amber beads. Her personality was magnetic, so that the other women were excited to confidences as they sat in the firelight.

The windows of the drawing-room were open to the blue October twilight. Fallen beech-leaves rustled as the wind whirled them over the lawn, covering the violet-border. Witches and wonders were abroad.

‘Ask the thingummy if I will get married,’ invited a masculine-looking woman wistfully.

The planchette, although plainly anxious to please, had its record for accurate prediction to consider. It hesitated for a little time before it advised her ‘not to give up hope.’

The inquirer, whose name was Miss Pitt, laughed in proof of sporting spirit.

‘Optimistic beggar,’ she said. ‘But tactless. The standard of face value in the Spirit World seems much the same as ours.’

It was then that Miss Loveapple asked her question. ‘I don’t believe in it,’ she declared positively. ‘But–shall I get my wish?’

The London lady looked at her fine legs–generously displayed in the firelight–her admirable colouring and the firm moulding of her face. When she attempted to convey her own impression to the super-sensitive planchette, it proved instantly responsive.

‘Yes,’ it wrote firmly. Taking a chance, it added: ‘Soon.’

‘Wish I could bank on that,’ said Miss Loveapple.

‘Someone you know, or still a stranger?’ hinted the London lady.

‘My wish?’ Miss Loveapple laughed heartily. ‘It isn’t a husband...No. I want to have three houses. One town, one country and one seaside.’

As the others stared at her, she spoke breathlessly in her excitement.

‘I can’t explain it, but it’s been my great ambition ever since I can remember. Mother used to tell me about the Royal residences, so perhaps they set me going. Do you know I was furious when I heard that the family had given up Osborne House. Somehow it seemed to break the sequence, like losing a quin or quad...If ever I get hold of a lump sum, I shall have my three houses...Sounds mad, doesn’t it?’

‘Merely border-line,’ said Miss Pitt generously.

All Hallows E’en...The wind blew down the chimney and burst through the window, in gusts of moist earthy air, faintly perfumed with violets. A slip of a moon–panic-stricken–dodged wildly amid the celestial traffic of racing clouds. Spirits drifted like mist from opening graves. The living mingled with the dead...

Not long afterwards, Miss Loveapple drew her horse in the Sweep. After her windfall had been duly pared, she received the sum of four thousand odd pounds. This was promptly put back into circulation by her purchase of two more houses–one in London and a bungalow on the south coast.

While her action was locally criticised, no one was authorised to offer advice. Only her lawyer hinted at the disadvantages.

‘This property will prove a white elephant. Besides Rates, Insurance and upkeep, you have all these monthly instalments to pay on your furniture. You will be definitely crippled.’

‘No,’ said Miss Loveapple, ‘my income will be as much as it is now. I’ve figured it all out. But I shall not cut my Charity list. That might be unlucky. My only worry is whether I am anti-social, having all these empty rooms when people are overcrowded in slums.’

Apparently she came to some working agreement with her conscience, for her three houses made her completely happy. She was now free from the restrictions of environment. Whenever she was bored with the landscape, she could exchange it for the spectacle of waves rolling over the beach. If she grew tired of looking at the wallpaper in her London bedroom, she had only to return to the Pond House.

But far stronger than the satisfaction obtained by scenic change, was the inflation of her sense of ownership. Whenever she moved, she opened her own front door–trod on her own carpet–broke her own china. The knowledge filled her with a consciousness of dormant power and placed her in the small company of maiden queens, dictators and hospital matrons.

At the same time, it endowed her with definite spinster status. Although the news of her engagement would create no real surprise–since she was of eligible age–no one in the village expected her to get married.

On the day when she was chosen for future newspaper publicity–consequent to a nasty experience in order to qualify as ‘the victim’–Miss Loveapple was still on the right side of thirty. Those whose taste had not been impaired by the rationed beauty of the Screen would have considered her attractive. Fair-haired, with good features and colouring, she could have posed for a poster of a Britannia who had dieted sufficiently to compromise with modern dress.

On this special morning, after she had reminded herself of the luck of the London offer, she went over the list of her static blessings.

‘I am well and strong. I don’t owe a cent. The sun is shining. And I have my three houses.’

On the chair beside her, the blue Persian cat, David, lay asleep in his basket, clasping his Woolworth furry toy in his great paws. He was not a year old, but was so enormous that he resembled a lion-cub, while spoiling had kept him in the kitten class.

As Miss Loveapple beamed maternally at him, the maid entered the room, followed by the Aberdeen terrier, Scottie. Elsie was about the same age as her mistress, but she looked older. She was supposed to be delicate, so she did all the lady-like jobs–cleaning silver and arranging flowers–while Miss Loveapple scrubbed and polished.

‘Good-morning madam,’ she said, speaking in a low, muffled voice. ‘I hope you slept well. Here’s your young gentleman come to see you.’

Miss Loveapple assisted Scottie to scramble onto the low divan-bed before she spoke.

‘I am going to London to-morrow, Elsie.’

‘Yes, madam.’

Elsie laid down the tray carefully on the bed-table, poured out a cup of tea, placed a cigarette between her mistress’ lips and struck a match to light it. Then she took David from his basket and cuddled him so that his great sleepy head drooped on her shoulder.

‘David says,’ she remarked, speaking in a loud, coarse voice to prove that she had assumed David’s identity, ‘David says he doesn’t want his mistress to go away from the nice cool country. He says it doesn’t make sense to go up to that blinking hot London.’

‘Then you can tell David,’ said Miss Loveapple, ‘that if his mistress doesn’t snap at her chance to make some money, there might be no cool country for him and no nice Elsie either.’

Elsie still looked resentful as she nursed the cat in silence while her mistress fed Scottie with biscuits.

Presently Miss Loveapple asked her maid a direct question.

‘What have you got against London, Elsie?’

Elsie’s pale face grew red. ‘Because–Oh, madam, I always feel it’s unlucky.’

‘Unlucky?’ Miss Loveapple’s voice was sharp. ‘Why?’

‘I mean–if you’ll excuse the liberty–it was coming the way it did, with gambling and breaking the law.’

It was characteristic of that household that Elsie should refer to luck. But the fact remained that if Miss Loveapple had not acquired a London address, at that moment she would have been secure in her Zone of Safety.

II. A VACUUM-CLEANER

DURING the early hours, Miss Loveapple never forgot that she was mistress of three houses. Later on, she might become supplementary Staff and cheerfully do the heavier work for which Elsie was less adapted by nature; but she always made her toilet at leisure and breakfasted in dignity.

When she came down the shallow stairs, she wore a full-skirted house-coat, pale yellow in colour and patterned with brilliant flowers. It enhanced her natural opulence and suggested prosperity allied with bounty. As the sun–shining through the window behind her–gilded her hair to the semblance of a halo, she might have been a seasonal goddess, bearing her largesse of floral trophies, but also open to a deal with the market gardener.

As usual, she paused on the half-way landing, in order to appreciate the beauty of the property to which she was most attached. Although it had cost more to furnish her London house, she had sunk most money in the Pond House, by installing central heating and remaking the garden.

It was a pleasant Georgian building, panelled in white wood and spaciously but wastefully planned, with broad landings and superfluous steps. There were only two reception-rooms and three bedrooms, but all were large and finely proportioned. None of her houses contained an official maid’s-room to mitigate her standard of perfection. She and Elsie chose their sleeping-quarters–and changed them again–according to season and caprice.

Everything looked especially pleasant that sunny morning. The parquet-flooring of the hall advertised her own ‘elbow grease.’ A vase of second-crop pale-blue delphiniums was reflected in a mirror on the wall. Humming a tuneless melody, Miss Love-apple strolled into the dining-room, which, owing to its superior dimensions–was also the living-room.

The drawing-room looked out on to the front lawn, which was shaded with beech-trees. Here there were only a few flowers–violets under the windows and bulbs planted in the grass. The dining-room, however, ran the entire length of the house and had windows at either end.

In accordance with the general colour scheme, its furnishings were white, relieved with pale green–an extravagant choice which was criticised locally. It had vindicated her by remaining fresh and clean, although even she attributed this to her own labour, rather than luck.

As she crossed to the table, where her breakfast was keeping hot in a chafing-dish, she stared approvingly at the carpet.

‘It certainly paid me to get a vacuum,’ she reflected. ‘I ought to have one in London, too. If I budget strictly over my holiday, perhaps the rent will run to one.’

She cut a piece of bread and threw out crumbs for the birds on the front lawn before she walked to the back windows, to admire the garden. She had transformed it from a gloomy wilderness to its former old-world charm. The pond–which lent its name to the house–had degenerated to a stagnant pool, enclosed with a low railing and shadowed by willow-bushes. Advised by the local builder, and even doing some of the work herself, the hollow had been filled in and the water enclosed in sunken shallow tanks planted with lily-pads. Here, too, was her herb-garden, her famous rose-patch, her perennial-border and the vegetables which won so many prizes.

As she gazed through the window, she sniffed the appetising odour of bacon which Elsie was frying for her own breakfast. The maid was unable to share her mistress’ grilled kidneys, owing to a dislike of ‘insides’–a disability which Miss Loveapple quoted with a queer pride as proof of Elsie’s refinement.

Reminded of her appetite, she sat down at the table and made a large meal, beginning with cereal and ending with toast and honey. When she had finished, she lit a cigarette...

By a strange coincidence, her action synchronized with that of a young man who lay in bed in a darkish London flat. He drained his cracked cup and began to smoke as a prelude to business.

His appearance was typical of the average young man who recognises the value of a good appearance and has conformed to the rules. His voice had the clipped Public School accent–which can be imitated by any one with an ear for vowels and–when dressed–he wore an old school tie, such as can be acquired at its source, or bought in a shop.

His teeth were good, his hair well brushed, his smile pleasant. Certainly his face betrayed nothing of the dark intention in his heart as he stretched out his arm for the Telephone Directory, which lay on the battered bamboo table beside his bed.

It was the red-covered volume and it opened at the ‘L’ section. Flicking over the pages with fingers which had been recently manicured, he skimmed through the legion of ‘Longs.’ Occasionally he paused to note a name and then to reject it, but his selections were not so casual as they appeared. Underneath this weeding-out process was a definite purpose.

Although his motive was entirely impersonal, and remote from malevolence, the lady of his choice had to possess certain qualifications before he could be definitely interested. She had to be not only a spinster or widow, but unprotected by any male relative. She had to be of sufficient importance to invite a visit from a burglar, yet not so wealthy as to keep an inconvenient staff of servants. It was essential, too, that she lived in a select but unfashionable locality which was discreetly lit and not over-patrolled by policemen.

In his impatience, he probably passed over some ideal candidates for immortality, as he exhausted the ‘Longs’ and ‘Lords,’ on his way to the ‘Loves.’

Suddenly his attention was arrested by an uncommon name–‘Loveapple.’ The prefix was ‘Miss,’ which encouraged him to notice the address.

No. 19, Madeira Crescent was somewhere in northwest London. It suggested a picture of a solid house, left stranded by the receded tide of fashion, with an imposing flight of steps and a lot of damp fallen leaves on the pavement.

‘I’ll O.K. her,’ he decided indolently. ‘Tomorrow will do.’

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