Magnolia Blossom by Agatha Christie



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Magnolia Blossom by Agatha Christie

‘Magnolia Blossom’ was first published in Royal
Magazine, March 1926.

Vincent Easton was waiting under the clock at Victoria Station. Now and then he glanced up at it uneasily. He thought to himself: ‘How many other men have waited here for a woman who didn’t come?’

A sharp pang shot through him. Supposing that Theo didn’t come, that she had changed her mind? Women did that sort of thing. Was he sure of her – had he ever been sure of her? Did he really know anything at all about her? Hadn’t she puzzled him from the first? There had seemed to be two women – the lovely, laughing creature who was Richard Darrell’s wife, and the other – silent, mysterious, who had walked by his side in the garden of Haymer’s Close. Like a magnolia flower – that was how he thought of her – perhaps because it was under the magnolia tree that they had tasted their first rapturous, incredulous kiss. The air had been sweet with the scent of magnolia bloom, and one or two petals, velvety-soft and fragrant, had floated down, resting on that upturned face that was as creamy and as soft and as silent as they. Magnolia blossom – exotic, fragrant, mysterious.

That had been a fortnight ago – the second day he had met her. And now he was waiting for her to come to him forever. Again incredulity shot through him. She wouldn’t come. How could he ever have believed it? It would be giving up so much. The beautiful Mrs Darrell couldn’t do this sort of thing quietly. It was bound to be a nine days’ wonder, a far-reaching scandal that would never quite be forgotten. There were better, more expedient ways of doing these things – a discreet divorce, for instance.

But they had never thought of that for a moment – at least he had not. Had she, he wondered? He had never known anything of her thoughts. He had asked her to come away with him almost timorously – for after all, what was he? Nobody in particular – one of a thousand orange growers in the Transvaal. What a life to take her to – after the brilliance of London! And yet, since he wanted her so desperately, he must needs ask.

She had consented very quietly, with no hesitations or protests, as though it were the simplest thing in the world that he was asking her.

‘Tomorrow?’ he had said, amazed, almost unbelieving.

And she had promised in that soft, broken voice that was so different from the laughing brilliance of her social manner. He had compared her to a diamond when he first saw her – a thing of flashing fire, reflecting light from a hundred facets. But at that first touch, that first kiss, she had changed miraculously to the clouded softness of a pearl – a pearl like a magnolia blossom, creamy-pink.

She had promised. And now he was waiting for her to fulfil that promise.

He looked again at the clock. If she did not come soon, they would miss the train.

Sharply a wave of reaction set in. She wouldn’t come! Of course she wouldn’t come. Fool that he had been ever to expect it! What were promises? He would find a letter when he got back to his rooms – explaining, protesting, saying all the things that women do when they are excusing themselves for lack of courage.

He felt anger – anger and the bitterness of frustration.

Then he saw her coming towards him down the platform, a faint smile on her face. She walked slowly, without haste or fluster, as one who had all eternity before her. She was in black – soft black that clung, with a little black hat that framed the wonderful creamy pallor of her face.

He found himself grasping her hand, muttering stupidly: ‘So you’ve come – you have come. After all!’

‘Of course.’

How calm her voice sounded! How calm! ‘I thought you wouldn’t,’ he said, releasing her hand and breathing hard. Her eyes opened – wide, beautiful eyes. There was wonder in them, the simple wonder of a child.

‘Why?’

He didn’t answer. Instead he turned aside and requisitioned a passing porter. They had not much time. The next few minutes were all bustle and confusion. Then they were sitting in their reserved compartment and the drab houses of southern London were drifting by them.

Theodora Darrell was sitting opposite him. At last she was his. And he knew now how incredulous, up to the very last minute, he had been. He had not dared to let himself believe. That magical, elusive quality about her had frightened him. It had seemed impossible that she should ever belong to him.

Now the suspense was over. The irrevocable step was taken. He looked across at her. She lay back in the corner, quite still. The faint smile lingered on her lips, her eyes were cast down, the long, black lashes swept the creamy curve of her cheek.

He thought: ‘What’s in her mind now? What is she thinking of? Me? Her husband? What does she think about him anyway? Did she care for him once? Or did she never care? Does she hate him, or is she indifferent to him?’ And with a pang the thought swept through him: ‘I don’t know. I never shall know. I love her, and I don’t know anything about her – what she thinks or what she feels.’

His mind circled round the thought of Theodora Darrell’s husband. He had known plenty of married women who were only too ready to talk about their husbands – of how they were misunderstood by them, of how their finer feelings were ignored. Vincent Easton reflected cynically that it was one of the best- known opening gambits.

But except casually, Theo had never spoken of Richard Darrell. Easton knew of him what everybody knew. He was a popular man, handsome, with an engaging, carefree manner. Everybody liked Darrell. His wife always seemed on excellent terms with him. But that proved nothing, Vincent reflected. Theo was well-bred – she would not air her grievances in public.

And between them, no word had passed. From that second evening of their meeting, when they had walked together in the garden, silent, their shoulders touching, and he had felt the faint tremor that shook her at his touch, there had been no explainings, no defining of the position. She had returned his kisses, a dumb, trembling creature, shorn of all that hard brilliance which, together with her cream-and-rose beauty, had made her famous. Never once had she spoken of her husband. Vincent had been thankful for that at the time. He had been glad to be spared the arguments of a woman who wished to assure herself and her lover that they were justified in yielding to their love.

Yet now the tacit conspiracy of silence worried him. He had again that panic- stricken sense of knowing nothing about this strange creature who was willingly linking her life to his. He was afraid.

In the impulse to reassure himself, he bent forward and laid a hand on the black-clad knee opposite him. He felt once again the faint tremor that shook her, and he reached up for her hand. Bending forward, he kissed the palm, a long, lingering kiss. He felt the response of her fingers on his and, looking up, met her eyes, and was content.

He leaned back in his seat. For the moment, he wanted no more. They were together. She was his. And presently he said in a light, almost bantering tone:

‘You’re very silent?’

‘Am I?’

‘Yes.’ He waited a minute, then said in a graver tone: ‘You’re sure you don’t –

regret?’

Her eyes opened wide at that. ‘Oh, no!’

He did not doubt the reply. There was an assurance of sincerity behind it.

‘What are you thinking about? I want to know.’

In a low voice she answered: ‘I think I’m afraid.’

‘Afraid?’

‘Of happiness.’

He moved over beside her then, held her to him and kissed the softness of her face and neck.

‘I love you,’ he said. ‘I love you – love you.’

Her answer was in the clinging of her body, the abandon of her lips. Then he moved back to his own corner. He picked up a magazine and so did she. Every now and then, over the top of the magazines, their eyes met. Then they smiled.

They arrived at Dover just after five. They were to spend the night there, and cross to the Continent on the following day. Theo entered their sitting room in the hotel with Vincent close behind her. He had a couple of evening papers in his hand which he threw down on the table. Two of the hotel servants brought in the luggage and withdrew.

Theo turned from the window where she had been standing looking out. In another minute they were in each other’s arms.

There was a discreet tap on the door and they drew apart again. ‘Damn it all,’ said Vincent, ‘it doesn’t seem as though we were ever going to be alone.’

Theo smiled. ‘It doesn’t look like it,’ she said softly. Sitting down on the sofa, she picked up one of the papers.

The knock proved to be a waiter bearing tea. He laid it on the table, drawing the latter up to the sofa on which Theo was sitting, cast a deft glance round, inquired if there were anything further, and withdrew.

Vincent, who had gone into the adjoining room, came back into the sitting room.

‘Now for tea,’ he said cheerily, but stopped suddenly in the middle of the room. ‘Anything wrong?’ he asked.

Theo was sitting bolt upright on the sofa. She was staring in front of her with dazed eyes, and her face had gone deathly white.

Vincent took a quick step towards her. ‘What is it, sweetheart?’

For answer she held out the paper to him, her finger pointing to the headline.

Vincent took the paper from her. ‘FAILURE OF HOBSON, JEKYLL AND LUCAS,’ he read. The name of the big city firm conveyed nothing to him at the moment, though he had an irritating conviction in the back of his mind that it ought to do so. He looked inquiringly at Theo.

‘Richard is Hobson, Jekyll and Lucas,’ she explained. ‘Your husband?’

‘Yes.’

Vincent returned to the paper and read the bald information it conveyed carefully. Phrases such as ‘sudden crash’, ‘serious revelations to follow’, ‘other houses affected’ struck him disagreeably.

Roused by a movement, he looked up. Theo was adjusting her little black hat in front of the mirror. She turned at the movement he made. Her eyes looked steadily into his.

‘Vincent – I must go to Richard.’

He sprang up.

‘Theo – don’t be absurd.’

She repeated mechanically: ‘I must go to Richard.’

‘But, my dear -‘

She made a gesture towards the paper on the floor.

‘That means ruin – bankruptcy. I can’t choose this day of all others to leave him.’

‘You had left him before you heard of this. Be reasonable!’

She shook her head mournfully.

‘You don’t understand. I must go to Richard.’

And from that he could not move her. Strange that a creature so soft, so pliant, could be so unyielding. After the first, she did not argue. She let him say what he had to say unhindered. He held her in his arms, seeking to break her will by enslaving her senses, but though her soft mouth returned his kisses, he felt in her something aloof and invincible that withstood all his pleadings.

He let her go at last, sick and weary of the vain endeavour. From pleading he had turned to bitterness, reproaching her with never having loved him. That, too, she took in silence, without protest, her face, dumb and pitiful, giving the lie to his words. Rage mastered him in the end; he hurled at her every cruel word he could think of, seeking only to bruise and batter her to her knees.

At last the words gave out; there was nothing more to say. He sat, his head in his hands, staring down at the red pile carpet. By the door, Theodora stood, a black shadow with a white face.

It was all over.

She said quietly: ‘Goodbye, Vincent.’

He did not answer.

The door opened – and shut again.

The Darrells lived in a house in Chelsea – an intriguing, old-world house, standing in a little garden of its own. Up the front of the house grew a magnolia tree, smutty, dirty, begrimed, but still a magnolia.

Theo looked up at it, as she stood on the doorstep some three hours later. A sudden smile twisted her mouth in pain.

She went straight to the study at the back of the house. A man was pacing up and down in the room – a young man, with a handsome face and a haggard expression.

He gave an ejaculation of relief as she came in.

‘Thank God you’ve turned up, Theo. They said you’d taken your luggage with you and gone off out of town somewhere.’

‘I heard the news and came back.’

Richard Darrell put an arm about her and drew her to the couch. They sat down upon it side by side. Theo drew herself free of the encircling arm in what seemed a perfectly natural manner.

‘How bad is it, Richard?’ she asked quietly.

‘Just as bad as it can be – and that’s saying a lot.’

‘Tell me!’

He began to walk up and down again as he talked. Theo sat and watched him. He was not to know that every now and then the room went dim, and his voice faded from her hearing, while another room in a hotel at Dover came clearly before her eyes.

Nevertheless she managed to listen intelligently enough. He came back and sat down on the couch by her.

‘Fortunately,’ he ended, ‘they can’t touch your marriage settlement. The house is yours also.’

Theo nodded thoughtfully.

‘We shall have that at any rate,’ she said. ‘Then things will not be too bad? It means a fresh start, that is all.’

‘Oh! Quite so. Yes.’

But his voice did not ring true, and Theo thought suddenly: ‘There’s something else. He hasn’t told me everything.’

‘There’s nothing more, Richard?’ she said gently. ‘Nothing worse?’ He hesitated for just half a second, then: ‘Worse? What should there be?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Theo.

‘It’ll be all right,’ said Richard, speaking more as though to reassure himself than Theo. ‘Of course, it’ll be all right.’

He flung an arm about her suddenly.

‘I’m glad you’re here,’ he said. ‘It’ll be all right now that you’re here. Whatever else happens, I’ve got you, haven’t I?’

She said gently: ‘Yes, you’ve got me.’ And this time she left his arm round her.

He kissed her and held her close to him, as though in some strange way he derived comfort from her nearness.

‘I’ve got you, Theo,’ he said again presently, and she answered as before: ‘Yes, Richard.’

He slipped from the couch to the floor at her feet. ‘I’m tired out,’ he said fretfully. ‘My God, it’s been a day. Awful! I don’t know what I should do if you weren’t here. After all, one’s wife is one’s wife, isn’t she?’

She did not speak, only bowed her head in assent.

He laid his head on her lap. The sigh he gave was like that of a tired child.

Theo thought again: ‘There’s something he hasn’t told me. What is it?’

Mechanically her hand dropped to his smooth, dark head, and she stroked it gently, as a mother might comfort a child.

Richard murmured vaguely: ‘It’ll be all right now you’re here. You won’t let me down.’

His breathing grew slow and even. He slept. Her hand still smoothed his head.

But her eyes looked steadily into the darkness in front of her, seeing nothing. ‘Don’t you think, Richard,’ said Theodora, ‘that you’d better tell me everything?’

It was three days later. They were in the drawing room before dinner.

Richard started, and flushed.

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ he parried.

‘Don’t you?’

He shot a quick glance at her.

‘Of course there are – well – details.’

‘I ought to know everything, don’t you think, if I am to help?’

He looked at her strangely. ‘What makes you think I want you to help?’

She was a little astonished.

‘My dear Richard, I’m your wife.’

He smiled suddenly, the old, attractive, carefree smile.

‘So you are, Theo. And a very good-looking wife, too. I never could stand ugly women.’

He began walking up and down the room, as was his custom when something was worrying him.

‘I won’t deny you’re right in a way,’ he said presently. ‘There is something.’

He broke off.

‘Yes?’

‘It’s so damned hard to explain things of this kind to women. They get hold of the wrong end of the stick – fancy a thing is – well, what it isn’t.’

Theo said nothing.

‘You see,’ went on Richard, ‘the law’s one thing, and right and wrong are quite another. I may do a thing that’s perfectly right and honest, but the law wouldn’t take the same view of it. Nine times out of ten, everything pans out all right, and the tenth time you – well, hit a snag.’

Theo began to understand. She thought to herself: ‘Why am I not surprised? Did I always know, deep down, that he wasn’t straight?’

Richard went on talking. He explained himself at unnecessary lengths. Theo was content for him to cloak the actual details of the affair in this mantle of verbosity. The matter concerned a large tract of South African property. Exactly what Richard had done, she was not concerned to know. Morally, he assured her, everything was fair and above board; legally – well, there it was; no getting away from the fact, he had rendered himself liable to criminal prosecution.

He kept shooting quick glances at his wife as he talked. He was nervous and uncomfortable. And still he excused himself and tried to explain away that which a child might have seen in its naked truth. Then finally in a burst of justification, he broke down. Perhaps Theo’s eyes, momentarily scornful, had something to do with it. He sank down in a chair by the fireplace, his head in his hands.

‘There it is, Theo,’ he said brokenly, ‘What are you going to do about it?’

She came over to him with scarcely a moment’s pause and, kneeling down by the chair, put her face against his.

‘What can be done, Richard? What can we do?’

He caught her to him. ‘You mean it? You’ll stick to me?’

‘Of course. My dear, of course.’

He said, moved to sincerity in spite of himself: ‘I’m a thief, Theo. That’s what it means, shorn of fine language – just a thief.’

‘Then I’m a thief’s wife, Richard. We’ll sink or swim together.’ They were silent for a little while. Presently Richard recovered something of his jaunty manner.

‘You know, Theo, I’ve got a plan, but we’ll talk of that later. It’s just on dinnertime. We must go and change. Put on that creamy thingummybob of yours, you know – the Caillot model.’

Theo raised her eyebrows quizzically.

‘For an evening at home?’

‘Yes, yes, I know. But I like it. Put it on, there’s a good girl. It cheers me up to see you looking your best.’

Theo came down to dinner in the Caillot. It was a creation in creamy brocade, with a faint pattern of gold running through it and an under-note of pale pink to give warmth to the cream. It was cut daringly low in the back, and nothing could have been better designed to show off the dazzling whiteness of Theo’s neck and shoulders. She was truly now a magnolia flower.

Richard’s eye rested upon her in warm approval. ‘Good girl. You know, you look simply stunning in that dress.’

They went in to dinner. Throughout the evening Richard was nervous and unlike himself, joking and laughing about nothing at all, as if in a vain attempt to shake off his cares. Several times Theo tried to lead him back to the subject they had been discussing before, but he edged away from it.

Then suddenly, as she rose to go to bed, he came to the point. ‘No, don’t go yet. I’ve got something to say. You know, about this miserable business.’

She sat down again.

He began talking rapidly. With a bit of luck, the whole thing could be hushed up. He had covered his tracks fairly well. So long as certain papers didn’t get into the receiver’s hands –

He stopped significantly.

‘Papers?’ asked Theo perplexedly. ‘You mean you will destroy them?’ Richard made a grimace. ‘I’d destroy them fast enough if I could get hold of them. That’s the devil of it all!’

‘Who has them, then?’

‘A man we both know – Vincent Easton.’

A very faint exclamation escaped Theo. She forced it back, but Richard had noticed it.

‘I’ve suspected he knew something of the business all along. That’s why I’ve asked him here a good bit. You may remember that I asked you to be nice to him?’

‘I remember,’ said Theo.

‘Somehow I never seem to have got on really friendly terms with him. Don’t know why. But he likes you. I should say he likes you a good deal.’

Theo said in a very clear voice: ‘He does.’

‘Ah!’ said Richard appreciatively. ‘That’s good. Now you see what I’m driving at. I’m convinced that if you went to Vincent Easton and asked him to give you those papers, he wouldn’t refuse. Pretty woman, you know – all that sort of thing.’

‘I can’t do that,’ said Theo quickly.

‘Nonsense.’

‘It’s out of the question.’

The red came slowly out in blotches on Richard’s face. She saw that he was angry.

‘My dear girl, I don’t think you quite realize the position. If this comes out, I’m liable to go to prison. It’s ruin – disgrace.’

‘Vincent Easton will not use those papers against you. I am sure of that.’

‘That’s not quite the point. He mayn’t realize that they incriminate me. It’s only taken in conjunction with – with my affairs – with the figures they’re bound to find. Oh! I can’t go into details. He’ll ruin me without knowing what he’s doing unless somebody puts the position before him.’

‘You can do that yourself, surely. Write to him.’

‘A fat lot of good that would be! No, Theo, we’ve only got one hope. You’re the trump card. You’re my wife. You must help me. Go to Easton tonight -‘

A cry broke from Theo.

‘Not tonight. Tomorrow perhaps.’

‘My God, Theo, can’t you realize things? Tomorrow may be too late. If you could go now – at once – to Easton’s rooms.’ He saw her flinch, and tried to reassure her. ‘I know, my dear girl, I know. It’s a beastly thing to do. But it’s life or death. Theo, you won’t fail me? You said you’d do anything to help me -‘

Theo heard herself speaking in a hard, dry voice. ‘Not this thing. There are reasons.’

‘It’s life or death, Theo. I mean it. See here.’

He snapped open a drawer of the desk and took out a revolver. If there was something theatrical about that action, it escaped her notice.

‘It’s that or shooting myself. I can’t face the racket. If you won’t do as I ask you, I’ll be a dead man before morning. I swear to you solemnly that that’s the truth.’

Theo gave a low cry. ‘No, Richard, not that!’

‘Then help me.’

He flung the revolver down on the table and knelt by her side. ‘Theo my darling – if you love me – if you’ve ever loved me – do this for me. You’re my wife, Theo, I’ve no one else to turn to.’

On and on his voice went, murmuring, pleading. And at last Theo heard her own voice saying: ‘Very well – yes.’

Richard took her to the door and put her into a taxi.

‘Theo!’

Vincent Easton sprang up in incredulous delight. She stood in the doorway. Her wrap of white ermine was hanging from her shoulders. Never, Easton thought, had she looked so beautiful.

‘You’ve come after all.’

She put out a hand to stop him as he came towards her. ‘No, Vincent, this isn’t what you think.’

She spoke in a low, hurried voice. ‘I’m here from my husband. He thinks there are some papers which may – do him harm. I have come to ask you to give them to me.’

Vincent stood very still, looking at her. Then he gave a short laugh.

‘So that’s it, is it? I thought Hobson, Jekyll and Lucas sounded familiar the other day, but I couldn’t place them at the minute. Didn’t know your husband was connected with the firm. Things have been going wrong there for some time. I was commissioned to look into the matter. I suspected some underling. Never thought of the man at the top.’

Theo said nothing. Vincent looked at her curiously. ‘It makes no difference to you, this?’ he asked. ‘That – well, to put it plainly, that your husband’s a swindler?’

She shook her head.

‘It beats me,’ said Vincent. Then he added quietly: ‘Will you wait a minute or two? I will get the papers.’

Theo sat down in a chair. He went into the other room. Presently he returned and delivered a small package into her hand.

‘Thank you,’ said Theo. ‘Have you a match?’

Taking the matchbox he proffered, she knelt down by the fireplace. When the papers were reduced to a pile of ashes, she stood up.

‘Thank you,’ she said again. ‘Not at all,’ he answered formally. ‘Let me get you a taxi.’

He put her into it, saw her drive away. A strange, formal little interview. After the first, they had not even dared look at each other. Well, that was that, the end. He would go away, abroad, try and forget.

Theo leaned her head out of the window and spoke to the taxi driver. She could not go back at once to the house in Chelsea. She must have a breathing space. Seeing Vincent again had shaken her horribly. If only – if only. But she pulled herself up. Love for her husband she had none – but she owed him loyalty. He was down, she must stick by him. Whatever else he might have done, he loved her; his offence had been committed against society, not against her.

The taxi meandered on through the wide streets of Hampstead. They came out on the heath, and a breath of cool, invigorating air fanned Theo’s cheeks. She had herself in hand again now. The taxi sped back towards Chelsea.

Richard came out to meet her in the hall. ‘Well,’ he demanded, ‘you’ve been a long time.’

‘Have I?’

‘Yes – a very long time. Is it – all right?’

He followed her, a cunning look in his eyes. His hands were shaking. ‘It’s – it’s all right, eh?’ he said again. ‘I burnt them myself.’

‘Oh!’

She went on into the study, sinking into a big armchair. Her face was dead white and her whole body drooped with fatigue. She thought to herself: ‘If only I could go to sleep now and never, never wake up again!’

Richard was watching her. His glance, shy, furtive, kept coming and going. She noticed nothing. She was beyond noticing.

‘It went off quite all right, eh?’

‘I’ve told you so.’

‘You’re sure they were the right papers? Did you look?’

‘No.’

‘But then -‘

‘I’m sure, I tell you. Don’t bother me, Richard. I can’t bear any more tonight.’

Richard shifted nervously.

‘No, no. I see.’

He fidgeted about the room. Presently he came over to her, laid a hand on her shoulder. She shook it off.

‘Don’t touch me.’ She tried to laugh. ‘I’m sorry, Richard. My nerves are on edge. I feel I can’t bear to be touched.’

‘I know. I understand.’

Again he wandered up and down.

‘Theo,’ he burst out suddenly. ‘I’m damned sorry.’

‘What?’ She looked up, vaguely startled. ‘I oughtn’t to have let you go there at this time of night. I never dreamed that you’d be subjected to any – unpleasantness.’

‘Unpleasantness?’ She laughed. The word seemed to amuse her. ‘You don’t know! Oh, Richard, you don’t know!’

‘I don’t know what?’

She said very gravely, looking straight in front of her: ‘What this night has cost me.’

‘My God! Theo! I never meant – You – you did that, for me? The swine! Theo – Theo – I couldn’t have known. I couldn’t have guessed. My God!’

He was kneeling by her now stammering, his arms round her, and she turned and looked at him with faint surprise, as though his words had at last really penetrated to her attention.

‘I – I never meant -‘

‘You never meant what, Richard?’

Her voice startled him.

‘Tell me. What was it that you never meant?’

‘Theo, don’t let us speak of it. I don’t want to know. I want never to think of it.’

She was staring at him, wide awake now, with every faculty alert. Her words came clear and distinct:

‘You never meant – What do you think happened?’

‘It didn’t happen, Theo. Let’s say it didn’t happen.’

And still she stared, till the truth began to come to her.

‘You think that -‘

‘I don’t want -‘

She interrupted him: ‘You think that Vincent Easton asked a price for those letters? You think that I – paid him?’

Richard said weakly and unconvincingly: ‘I – I never dreamed he was that kind of man.’

‘Didn’t you?’ She looked at him searchingly. His eyes fell before hers. ‘Why did you ask me to put on this dress this evening? Why did you send me there alone at this time of night? You guessed he – cared for me. You wanted to save your skin – save it at any cost – even at the cost of my honour.’ She got up.

‘I see now. You meant that from the beginning – or at least you saw it as a possibility, and it didn’t deter you.’

‘Theo -‘

‘You can’t deny it. Richard, I thought I knew all there was to know about you years ago. I’ve known almost from the first that you weren’t straight as regards the world. But I thought you were straight with me.’

‘Theo -‘

‘Can you deny what I’ve just been saying?’

He was silent, in spite of himself. ‘Listen, Richard. There is something I must tell you. Three days ago when this blow fell on you, the servants told you I was away – gone to the country. That was only partly true. I had gone away with Vincent Easton -‘

Richard made an inarticulate sound. She held out a hand to stop him. ‘Wait. We were at Dover. I saw a paper – I realized what had happened. Then, as you know, I came back.’

She paused.

Richard caught her by the wrist. His eyes burnt into hers. ‘You came back – in time?’

Theo gave a short, bitter laugh. ‘Yes, I came back, as you say, “in time”,

Richard.’

Her husband relinquished his hold on her arm. He stood by the mantelpiece, his head thrown back. He looked handsome and rather noble.

‘In that case,’ he said, ‘I can forgive.’

‘I cannot.’

The two words came crisply. They had the semblance and the effect of a bomb in the quiet room. Richard started forward, staring, his jaw dropped with an almost ludicrous effect.

‘You – er – what did you say, Theo?’

‘I said I cannot forgive! In leaving you for another man. I sinned – not technically, perhaps, but in intention, which is the same thing. But if I sinned, I sinned through love. You, too, have not been faithful to me since our marriage. Oh, yes, I know. That I forgave, because I really believed in your love for me. But the thing you have done tonight is different. It is an ugly thing, Richard – a thing no woman should forgive. You sold me, your own wife, to purchase safety!’

She picked up her wrap and turned towards the door. ‘Theo,’ he stammered out, ‘where are you going?’

She looked back over her shoulder at him.

‘We all have to pay in this life, Richard. For my sin I must pay in loneliness. For yours – well, you gambled with the thing you love, and you have lost it!’

‘You are going?’

She drew a long breath.

‘To freedom. There is nothing to bind me here.’

He heard the door shut. Ages passed, or was it a few minutes? Something fluttered down outside the window – the last of the magnolia petals, soft, fragrant.

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