Dorinda Brown takes a job working for the wealthy Porlock family on a whim, and quickly finds it to be the hardest position she has ever had. The father, Gregory, is a charming tyrant—just the sort of man her aunt always warned her about. His wife is an overfed fool, entirely blind to the defects of her despicable son, and unsympathetic to the pain he causes his governesses. All that Dorinda can stand, for she needs the job. But when murder comes to the Porlock house, it brings along much more unpleasantness. There is a question of blackmail, first of all, and a shocking realization about Dorinda’s past. All told, it adds up to a frightful mystery—the sort that only Miss Maud Silver, the governess-turned-detective, can solve.
About the Author
Patricia Wentworth (1878–1961) was one of the masters of classic English mystery writing. Born in India as Dora Amy Elles, she began writing after the death of her first husband, publishing her first novel in 1910. In the 1920s, she introduced the character who would make her famous: Miss Maud Silver, the former governess whose stout figure, fondness for Tennyson, and passion for knitting served to disguise a keen intellect. Along with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Miss Silver is the definitive embodiment of the English style of cozy mysteries.
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A Miss Silver Mystery
By Patricia Wentworth
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1947 Patricia Wentworth
All rights reserved.
When Dorinda Brown came into the Heather Club at four o'clock on January eighth she hadn't the slightest idea that she had just made the first step upon a road which was going to take her into some curious places. If anyone had told her so, she would have laughed. She laughed easily, to be sure, with a backward tilt of the head, eyes crinkling at the corners, and a generous display of excellent white teeth. Anyone less good-tempered than Dorinda might have been annoyed with Justin Leigh's remark that when she was really amused he could count them. Dorinda had only laughed again and said, 'Well, they're all there."
The Heather Club wasn't really a club. Penny plain it was a boarding-house, and twopence coloured it was a private hotel. Miss Donaldson who presided over it felt that she was combining patriotism and refinement by calling it a club and displaying a large bowl of Scottish heather in the little dark hall. It was, perhaps, better not to drag in the word private, since privacy was one of the things which the Club was quite unable to offer. It was a big house in a locality which had come down in the world, and its big rooms had been cut up so small that they resembled slices from a once ample joint, each slice just wide enough to take a narrow bed and leave room for the occupant to get in and out. Some of the slices shared a window, others had a narrow slit which let in no air when it was hot and poured an icy draught down the back of your neck when it was cold. Dorinda had a slice with a slit.
As she passed through the hall she encountered Miss Donaldson, tall, bony, and austere of feature. The austerity was all in the shop window. It daunted newcomers, but took nobody in for long. Behind that formidable manner, that tight hair, those rugged eyebrows, there lived a simple, genial creature who asked no more of life than to be able to pay her way.
"Oh, Miss Donaldson," said Dorinda—"I've got it!"
"The job you were inquiring after?"
Twenty years in London had done nothing to deprive Euphemia Donaldson of her Scottish tongue.
"I've got it!"
"It wouldn't be in Scotland?"
Dorinda shook her head.
There was a wistful gleam in Miss Donaldson's eye.
"I was thinking if you'd relatives there, it would be nice—"
Dorinda shook her head again.
"But I haven't."
Miss Donaldson looked disappointed.
"That's strange too, and you so young. Now take me—it's more than twenty years since I came south, and I've five-and-thirty relations in Scotland—counting third and fourth cousins." The r's were like a drum-roll.
"I wasn't counting cousins."
"Ah, your mother was English, you were telling me—that would account for it. Now that Mr. Leigh that was calling for you once or twice, he'd be on your mother's side?"
"A long way off," said Dorinda. "You know—the sort that's a cousin if you want them to be, and not a relation at all if you don't."
Miss Donaldson commented on this with the old Scottish word "Imphm," which can mean almost anything. In this case it implied that she knew what Dorinda meant and disapproved of it, adding with a fresh roll of drums,
"Relations can be awful disagreeable, but blood's thicker than water and they'll stand by you at a pinch."
Dorinda felt that honour was now satisfied. She smiled her wide, attractive smile and moved on.
"I was just going to telephone."
Miss Donaldson said, "Imphm," and withdrew into the dismal hole which she called her office.
Dorinda bounded into the telephone-box and shut the door. This was the one place in the house where you could talk without being overheard. In the slicelike cubicles you could hear every sound made by every other person within the four walls of what had once been a very fine room. In the hall, in the passages, in the dining-room, in the lounge, there were always people coming and going and listening—especially listening. Some of the old ladies had no other interest in life. They put together all the things they heard and exchanged them as they sat in a solid bank round the fire in the evenings. Even if you had a bath, they could hear the water run in, and gurgle out again, so they knew at once if anyone was taking more than her fair share. Tongues had become very sharp over Judith Crane who had actually had two baths a day, but fortunately she had left at the end of a week.
The telephone-box really was soundproof. It always amused Dorinda to see people talking behind the glass, opening and shutting their mouths like fishes in an aquarium, but when you were shut up inside it yourself it felt rather nice, as if you were in a private world of your own. And not alone there, because you had only to magic with the dial and you could have anyone you liked to share it with you—well, anyone in reason.
Dorinda flicked the dial, put her pennies in, and waited. If anyone had been passing they might have thought she made a pleasant picture. There are so many sad faces, so many tired, lined, cross, difficult, irritable faces that it is pleasant to see a cheerful one. Dorinda nearly always looked cheerful. Even on her solitary visit to a dentist, when she had secretly been a good deal daunted by the unknown and rather terrifying apparatus which appeared to be lying in wait for her, she had contrived to smile. She went through life smiling, sometimes resolutely, but for the most part in a pleasantly spontaneous manner, and when she smiled her eyes smiled too.
They were quite ordinary eyes, with quite ordinary lashes. They had a way of shining and looking golden when she was pleased or feeling fond of anyone. Her hair was golden brown and very thick. Justin Leigh once said that it was walnut-coloured. He explained kindly, and a little condescendingly, that he didn't mean the colour of the nut but of the polished wood. Dorinda, who was ten years old at the time, went and stood for a long time in front of the walnut bureau in the drawing-room trying to make up her mind whether Justin meant that he liked her hair. She held her plait against the wood and gazed at it. The hair certainly had the same colours in it as the wood, and when it was well brushed it shone in very much the same way. After that she made a point of brushing it a great deal. But she didn't like the plait, because all the other girls at school had short hair. So in a good-tempered but perfectly determined manner she took her Aunt Mary's cutting-out scissors and removed it. She had smiled equably through the painful family scene which followed, secure in the fact that they couldn't put it back. She had a bright rosy colour, two dimples, and a wide, generous mouth which was really quite red enough to do without lipstick. For the rest, she was five-foot-five in her stocking feet, and she had the kind of figure which has agreeable curves without being fat.
The telephone buzzed and Justin Leigh said, "Hullo!" in the cultured and rather blasé manner in which it was his habit to address telephones.
"It's me," said Dorinda, throwing grammar to the winds.
"No, me. Listen—I've got a job."
"Oh? What is it?"
He sounded bored. But it was impossible for Dorinda to believe that anyone could really be bored when she herself was feeling all lit-up and excited. She began to pour everything out in a rush.
"It was an advertisement. One of the other girls showed it to me in the lunch-hour—I mean her lunch-hour, not mine. She's in an office—"
"Don't you have lunch?"
"Well, I do as a rule, but I hadn't time today because she showed me the advertisement and I rushed straight round to the address, which was Claridge's—and when I got there, there were about six other girls waiting there too, and no one very pleased about it, if you know what I mean. So I thought, 'Well, if this has been going on all day, I haven't got an earthly.'"
"And had it?"
"Well, I think it had, because I was the last to go up, and Mrs. Oakley said it was making her feel quite giddy. There was a red-haired girl coming out as I went in, and she stamped her foot at me in the corridor and said in one of those piercing whispers you can hear all over the place, 'Pure poison—I wouldn't take it for a thousand a year.' Then she grinned and said, 'Well, I suppose I should, but I should end by cutting her throat and my own, and anybody else's who was handy.'"
Justin sounded quite interested—for him.
"What does one say to a total stranger who bursts into confidences about throat-cutting in a corridor at Claridge's? These exciting things don't happen to me. You intrigue me. What did you say?"
"I said, 'Why?'"
"How perfectly to the point!"
"And she said, 'Go and see for yourself. I shouldn't touch it unless you're absolutely on your uppers.' And I said, 'Well, I am'.
"And are you?"
In a tone of undiminished cheerfulness Dorinda said, "Just about."
"Is that the reason why there wasn't time for lunch?"
He heard her laugh.
"Oh, well, it doesn't matter now, because I've got the job. I went in, and Mrs. Oakley was lying on a sofa with most of the blinds down, all except one which made a spotlight where you had to go and sit and be looked at. It gave me the sort of feeling of being on the stage without any of the proper clothes, or make-up, or anything."
"I couldn't see much to start with, but she sounded fretty. When I got used to the light, she had a lot of fair hair which she was being rather firm with—not letting it go grey, you know. Fortyish, I thought. And she hadn't ever got out of being a spoilt child—that sort. And the most heavenly pale pink negligée, the kind people have in films, and a little gold bottle of smelling-salts."
"Who is she?"
"Mrs. Oakley. Her husband's name is Martin, and he's a financier. They've got pots of money and a little boy of five. His name is Martin too, but they call him Marty, which is pretty frightful for a boy, don't you think?"
"I do. Go on."
Dorinda went on.
"Well, first she moaned at me and said all these girls were making her giddy. And I said didn't any of them do? And she said no—their voices were wrong. She had to have a voice that didn't jar her nerves, and the last girl was a volcano. I said what about my voice, because I thought if it jarred her like the others, it wasn't any good my sitting in a spotlight wasting time. She had a good sniff at the smelling-salts and said she thought I had a soothing personality. After that we never looked back, and she's giving me three pounds a week!"
Justin showed a disappointing lack of enthusiasm.
"What is this job—what are you supposed to do?"
"She calls it being her secretary. I think I do all the things she's too fragile to do herself—writing notes, doing the flowers, answering the telephone when it's someone who insists on speaking to her. She took quite a long time telling me about that. There are times when it jars her too much even to hear the voice of an intimate friend, and she has to be fresh for Martin in the evenings. And then I keep an eye on Marty when his nursery governess gets an afternoon off, and—oh, well, that sort of thing."
"And where does all this go on—at Claridge's?"
"Oh, no. She's got what she calls a country cottage in Surrey. As there's her, and him, and Marty, and the nursery governess, and me, and a staff of servants, and they mean to have house parties every week end, I expect it's something pretty vast. Anyhow it's called the Mill House, and we go down there tomorrow."
After a pause Justin said with notable restraint,
"It sounds damp—water in the cellars, and mildew on your shoes in the morning."
Dorinda shook her head.
"It's not that kind of mill—she said so. It's on the top of a hill. There used to be a windmill, but it fell down and somebody built this house. I'll write and tell you all about it. Did you hear me say I was going down tomorrow?"
"Yes. You'd better dine with me tonight."
"I don't know that I can."
"Why don't you know?"
"Well, I was dining with Tip, but I told him I wouldn't unless he let Buzzer come too, and I don't really know—"
Justin said in his most superior voice,
"Cut it out! I'll call for you at half past seven."CHAPTER 2
Martin Oakley came out of Gregory Porlock's office and shut the door. He stood with his hand on the knob for about half a minute as if he were half inclined to turn it again and go back. A tall man of a loose, rangy build, with a sallow skin, receding hair, and dark, rather veiled eyes. As he presently made up his mind and went on down the stairs without waiting for the lift he was frowning. If Dorinda Brown had been there she would have been struck by his resemblance to the cross dark little boy whom she had encountered briefly as she came away from Mrs. Oakley's suite. But Dorinda wasn't there—she was telephoning ecstatically to Justin Leigh from the Heather Club. There was, therefore, no one to remark on the likeness.
Inside the room which Martin Oakley had just left, Gregory Porlock, with everything handsome about him, was holding a telephone receiver to his ear and waiting for Mr. Tote to say "Hullo!" at the other end of the line. Everything in the office was suavely and comfortably the best of its kind. Mr. Porlock called himself a General Agent, and nobody who entered this room could doubt that he made his agency pay. From the carpet on the floor to the three or four paintings on the walls, everything declared that solid balance at the bank which needs no vulgar advertisement but makes itself felt along the avenues of taste. The richness was a subdued richness. Gregory Porlock's clothes were part of it. Admirable in themselves, they not only did not have to atone for nature's defects, but actually gained from nature's bounty. He was an exceedingly personable man, rather florid of complexion, in marked and becoming contrast to the colour of his dark eyes and a head of very thick iron-grey hair. He might be in his middle forties, and he might be, and probably was, a couple of stone heavier than he had been ten years before, but it was not unbecoming and he carried it with an air.
The line crackled and Mr. Tote said, "'Ullo!"
It is not to be supposed that Mr. Tote was in the habit of dropping his h's. If he had ever done so, it was a long time ago, but like a great many other people he still said "'Ullo!" when confronted by a telephone.
Gregory Porlock smiled as affably as if Mr. Tote could see him.
"Hullo, Tote—how are you? Gregory Porlock speaking." The telephone crackled. "And Mrs. Tote? I want you both to come down for the week end.... My dear fellow, I simply won't take no for an answer."
The telephone crackled again. With the receiver at his ear, Gregory Porlock was aware of Mr. Tote excusing himself.
"I don't see that we really can—the wife's none too well—"
"My dear fellow, I'm sorry to hear that. But you know, sometimes a change—and though the Grange is an old house, we've got central heating everywhere and I can promise to keep her warm. There will be a pleasant party too. Do you know the Martin Oakleys?"
"I've met Oakley."
Gregory Porlock laughed.
"But not his wife? Then we're in the same boat. They won't be in the house-party because they've just moved into a house of their own quite near me. Horrible great barrack of a place. But don't tell Oakley I said so—he thinks it's bracing. I'll get them to come over and dine. They're my nearest neighbours, so I must contrive to meet Mrs. Oakley. I'm told she's pretty. Well now, you'll come—won't you?"
Mr. Tote was heard to swallow.
"I don't know that we can—"
"My dear Tote! Oh, by the way, you have that memorandum I sent you? The address? And the date? Well, I have one or two more that might interest you. I thought we might talk the whole thing over in a friendly spirit if you came down. I really think it would be a good plan—don't you? ... Oh, splendid! I shall look forward to it so much. Goodbye."
He hung up, and almost immediately dialled another number. This time it was a woman's voice that answered.
"Moira Lane speaking." A pretty voice, a good deal farther up the social scale than Mr. Tote's.
Gregory Porlock announcing himself, compliments were exchanged. Miss Lane was invited to join the week-end party, and accepted with alacrity.
"I'd love to! Who else have you got?"
"The Totes. You won't know them, and you won't want to. I want to talk over a bit of business with him."
"Isn't he one of our Newest Rich?"
"That's it. Her jewellery has to be seen to be believed."
Moira laughed. It was a pretty sound.
"What is she like?"
Excerpted from Wicked Uncle by Patricia Wentworth. Copyright © 1947 Patricia Wentworth. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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