S.O.S. By Agatha Christie
‘S.O.S.’ was first published in Grand Magazine, February
‘Ah!’ said Mr Dinsmead appreciatively.
He stepped back and surveyed the round table with approval. The firelight gleamed on the coarse white tablecloth, the knives and forks, and the other table appointments.
‘Is – is everything ready?’ asked Mrs Dinsmead hesitatingly. She was a little faded woman, with a colourless face, meagre hair scraped back from her forehead, and a perpetually nervous manner.
‘Everything’s ready,’ said her husband with a kind of ferocious geniality.
He was a big man, with stooping shoulders, and a broad red face. He had little pig’s eyes that twinkled under his bushy brows, and a big jowl devoid of hair.
‘Lemonade?’ suggested Mrs Dinsmead, almost in a whisper.
Her husband shook his head.
‘Tea. Much better in every way. Look at the weather, streaming and blowing. A nice cup of hot tea is what’s needed for supper on an evening like this.’
He winked facetiously, then fell to surveying the table again.
‘A good dish of eggs, cold corned beef, and bread and cheese. That’s my order for supper. So come along and get it ready, Mother. Charlotte’s in the kitchen waiting to give you a hand.’
Mrs Dinsmead rose, carefully winding up the ball of her knitting. ‘She’s grown a very good-looking girl,’ she murmured. ‘Sweetly pretty, I say.’
‘Ah!’ said Mr Dinsmead. ‘The mortal image of her Ma! So go along with you, and don’t let’s waste any more time.’
He strolled about the room humming to himself for a minute or two. Once he approached the window and looked out.
‘Wild weather,’ he murmured to himself. ‘Not much likelihood of our having visitors tonight.’
Then he too left the room.
About ten minutes later Mrs Dinsmead entered bearing a dish of fried eggs. Her two daughters followed, bringing in the rest of the provisions. Mr Dinsmead and his son Johnnie brought up the rear. The former seated himself at the head of the table.
‘And for what we are to receive, etcetera,’ he remarked humorously. ‘And blessings on the man who first thought of tinned foods. What would we do, I should like to know, miles from anywhere, if we hadn’t a tin now and then to fall back upon when the butcher forgets his weekly call?’
He proceeded to carve corned beef dexterously.
‘I wonder who ever thought of building a house like this, miles from anywhere,’ said his daughter Magdalen pettishly. ‘We never see a soul.’
‘No,’ said her father. ‘Never a soul.’
‘I can’t think what made you take it, Father,’ said Charlotte. ‘Can’t you, my girl? Well, I had my reasons – I had my reasons.’
His eyes sought his wife’s furtively, but she frowned.
‘And haunted too,’ said Charlotte. ‘I wouldn’t sleep alone here for anything.’
‘Pack of nonsense,’ said her father. ‘Never seen anything, have you? Come now.’
‘Not seen anything perhaps, but -‘
Charlotte did not reply, but she shivered a little. A great surge of rain came driving against the window-pane, and Mrs Dinsmead dropped a spoon with a tinkle on the tray.
‘Not nervous are you, Mother?’ said Mr Dinsmead. ‘It’s a wild night, that’s all. Don’t you worry, we’re safe here by our fireside, and not a soul from outside likely to disturb us. Why, it would be a miracle if anyone did. And miracles don’t happen. No,’ he added as though to himself, with a kind of peculiar satisfaction. ‘Miracles don’t happen.’
As the words left his lips there came a sudden knocking at the door. Mr Dinsmead stayed as though petrified.
‘Whatever’s that?’ he muttered. His jaw fell.
Mrs Dinsmead gave a little whimpering cry and pulled her shawl up round her. The colour came into Magdalen’s face and she leant forward and spoke to her father.
‘The miracle has happened,’ she said. ‘You’d better go and let whoever it is in.’
Twenty minutes earlier Mortimer Cleveland had stood in the driving rain and mist surveying his car. It was really cursed bad luck. Two punctures within ten minutes of each other, and here he was, stranded miles from anywhere, in the midst of these bare Wiltshire downs with night coming on, and no prospect of shelter. Serve him right for trying to take a shortcut. If only he had stuck to the main road! Now he was lost on what seemed a mere cart-track, and no idea if there were even a village anywhere near.
He looked round him perplexedly, and his eye was caught by a gleam of light on the hillside above him. A second later the mist obscured it once more, but, waiting patiently, he presently got a second glimpse of it. After a moment’s cogitation, he left the car and struck up the side of the hill.
Soon he was out of the mist, and he recognized the light as shining from the lighted window of a small cottage. Here, at any rate, was shelter. Mortimer Cleveland quickened his pace, bending his head to meet the furious onslaught of wind and rain which seemed to be trying its best to drive him back.
Cleveland was in his own way something of a celebrity though doubtless the majority of folks would have displayed complete ignorance of his name and achievements. He was an authority on mental science and had written two excellent text books on the subconscious. He was also a member of the Psychical Research Society and a student of the occult in so far as it affected his own conclusions and line of research.
He was by nature peculiarly susceptible to atmosphere, and by deliberate training he had increased his own natural gift. When he had at last reached the cottage and rapped at the door, he was conscious of an excitement, a quickening of interest, as though all his faculties had suddenly been sharpened.
The murmur of voices within had been plainly audible to him. Upon his knock there came a sudden silence, then the sound of a chair being pushed back along the floor. In another minute the door was flung open by a boy of about fifteen. Cleveland looked straight over his shoulder upon the scene within.
It reminded him of an interior by some Dutch Master. A round table spread for a meal, a family party sitting round it, one or two flickering candles and the firelight’s glow over all. The father, a big man, sat one side of the table, a little grey woman with a frightened face sat opposite him. Facing the door, looking straight at Cleveland, was a girl. Her startled eyes looked straight into his, her hand with a cup in it was arrested half-way to her lips.
She was, Cleveland saw at once, a beautiful girl of an extremely uncommon type. Her hair, red gold, stood out round her face like a mist, her eyes, very far apart, were a pure grey. She had the mouth and chin of an early Italian Madonna.
There was a moment’s dead silence. Then Cleveland stepped into the room and explained his predicament. He brought his trite story to a close, and there was another pause harder to understand. At last, as though with an effort, the father rose.
‘Come in, sir – Mr Cleveland, did you say?’
‘That is my name,’ said Mortimer, smiling.
‘Ah! yes. Come in, Mr Cleveland. Not weather for a dog outside, is it? Come in by the fire. Shut the door, can’t you, Johnnie? Don’t stand there half the night.’
Cleveland came forward and sat on a wooden stool by the fire. The boy Johnnie shut the door.
‘Dinsmead, that’s my name,’ said the other man. He was all geniality now. ‘This is the Missus, and these are my two daughters, Charlotte and Magdalen.’
For the first time, Cleveland saw the face of the girl who had been sitting with her back to him, and saw that, in a totally different way, she was quite as beautiful as her sister. Very dark, with a face of marble pallor, a delicate aquiline nose, and a grave mouth. It was a kind of frozen beauty, austere and almost forbidding. She acknowledged her father’s introduction by bending her head, and she looked at him with an intent gaze that was searching in character. It was as though she were summing him up, weighing him in the balance of her young judgement.
‘A drop of something to drink, eh, Mr Cleveland?’
‘Thank you,’ said Mortimer. ‘A cup of tea will meet the case admirably.’ Mr Dinsmead hesitated a minute, then he picked up the five cups, one after another, from the table and emptied them into a slop bowl.
‘This tea’s cold,’ he said brusquely. ‘Make us some more will you, Mother?’
Mrs Dinsmead got up quickly and hurried off with the teapot. Mortimer had an idea that she was glad to get out of the room.
The fresh tea soon came, and the unexpected guest was plied with viands.
Mr Dinsmead talked and talked. He was expansive, genial, loquacious. He told the stranger all about himself. He’d lately retired from the building trade – yes, made quite a good thing of it. He and the Missus thought they’d like a bit of country air – never lived in the country before. Wrong time of year to choose, of course, October and November, but they didn’t want to wait. ‘Life’s uncertain, you know, sir.’ So they had taken this cottage. Eight miles from anywhere, and nineteen miles from anything you could call a town. No, they didn’t complain. The girls found it a bit dull, but he and mother enjoyed the quiet.
So he talked on, leaving Mortimer almost hypnotized by the easy flow. Nothing here, surely, but rather commonplace domesticity. And yet, at that first glimpse of the interior, he had diagnosed something else, some tension, some strain, emanating from one of those five people – he didn’t know which. Mere foolishness, his nerves were all awry! They were all startled by his sudden appearance – that was all.
He broached the question of a night’s lodging, and was met with a ready response.
‘You’ll have to stop with us, Mr Cleveland. Nothing else for miles around. We can give you a bedroom, and though my pyjamas may be a bit roomy, why, they’re better than nothing, and your own clothes will be dry by morning.’
‘It’s very good of you.’
‘Not at all,’ said the other genially. ‘As I said just now, one couldn’t turn away a dog on a night like this. Magdalen, Charlotte, go up and see to the room.’
The two girls left the room. Presently Mortimer heard them moving about overhead.
‘I can quite understand that two attractive young ladies like your daughters might find it dull here,’ said Cleveland.
‘Good lookers, aren’t they?’ said Mr Dinsmead with fatherly pride. ‘Not much like their mother or myself. We’re a homely pair, but much attached to each other. I’ll tell you that, Mr Cleveland. Eh, Maggie, isn’t that so?’
Mrs Dinsmead smiled primly. She had started knitting again. The needles clicked busily. She was a fast knitter.
Presently the room was announced ready, and Mortimer, expressing thanks once more, declared his intention of turning in.
‘Did you put a hot-water bottle in the bed?’ demanded Mrs Dinsmead, suddenly mindful of her house pride.
‘Yes, Mother, two.’
‘That’s right,’ said Dinsmead. ‘Go up with him, girls, and see that there’s nothing else he wants.’
Magdalen went over to the window and saw that the fastenings were secure. Charlotte cast a final eye over the washstand appointments. Then they both lingered by the door.
‘Good night, Mr Cleveland. You are sure there is everything?’
‘Yes, thank you, Miss Magdalen. I am ashamed to have given you both so much trouble. Good night.’
They went out, shutting the door behind them. Mortimer Cleveland was alone. He undressed slowly and thoughtfully. When he had donned Mr Dinsmead’s pink pyjamas he gathered up his own wet clothes and put them outside the door as his host had bade him. From downstairs he could hear the rumble of Dinsmead’s voice.
What a talker the man was! Altogether an odd personality – but indeed there was something odd about the whole family, or was it his imagination?
He went slowly back into his room and shut the door. He stood by the bed lost in thought. And then he started –
The mahogany table by the bed was smothered in dust. Written in the dust were three letters, clearly visible, SOS.
Mortimer stared as if he could hardly believe his eyes. It was confirmation of all his vague surmises and forebodings. He was right, then. Something was wrong in this house.
SOS. A call for help. But whose finger had written it in the dust? Magdalen’s or Charlotte’s? They had both stood there, he remembered, for a moment or two, before going out of the room. Whose hand had secretly dropped to the table and traced out those three letters?
The faces of the two girls came up before him. Magdalen’s, dark and aloof, and Charlotte’s, as he had seen it first, wide-eyed, startled, with an unfathomable something in her glance . . .
He went again to the door and opened it. The boom of Mr Dinsmead’s voice was no longer to be heard. The house was silent.
He thought to himself. ‘I can do nothing tonight. Tomorrow – well. We shall see.’
Cleveland woke early. He went down through the living-room, and out into the garden. The morning was fresh and beautiful after the rain. Someone else was up early, too. At the bottom of the garden, Charlotte was leaning on the fence staring out over the Downs. His pulse quickened a little as he went down to join her. All along he had been secretly convinced that it was Charlotte who had written the message. As he came up to her, she turned and wished him ‘Good morning’. Her eyes were direct and childlike, with no hint of a secret understanding in them.
‘A very good morning,’ said Mortimer, smiling. ‘The weather this morning is a contrast to last night.’
‘It is indeed.’
Mortimer broke off a twig from a tree near by. With it he began idly to draw on the smooth, sandy patch at his feet. He traced an S, then an O, then an S, watching the girl narrowly as he did so. But again he could detect no gleam of comprehension.
‘Do you know what these letters represent?’ he said abruptly. Charlotte frowned a little. ‘Aren’t they what boats – liners, send out when they are in distress?’ she asked.
Mortimer nodded. ‘Someone wrote that on the table by my bed last night,’ he said quietly. ‘I thought perhaps you might have done so.’
She looked at him in wide-eyed astonishment. ‘I? Oh, no.’
He was wrong then. A sharp pang of disappointment shot through him. He had
been so sure – so sure. It was not often that his intuitions led him astray.
‘You are quite certain?’ he persisted. ‘Oh, yes.’
They turned and went slowly together toward the house. Charlotte seemed preoccupied about something. She replied at random to the few observations he made. Suddenly she burst out in a low, hurried voice:
‘It – it’s odd your asking about those letters, SOS. I didn’t write them, of course, but – I so easily might have done.’
He stopped and looked at her, and she went on quickly: ‘It sounds silly, I know, but I have been so frightened, so dreadfully frightened, and when you came in last night, it seemed like an – an answer to something.’
‘What are you frightened of?’ he asked quickly. ‘I don’t know.’
‘You don’t know.’
‘I think – it’s the house. Ever since we came here it has been growing and growing. Everyone seems different somehow. Father, Mother, and Magdalen, they all seem different.’
Mortimer did not speak at once, and before he could do so, Charlotte went on again.
‘You know this house is supposed to be haunted?’
‘What?’ All his interest was quickened. ‘Yes, a man murdered his wife in it, oh, some years ago now. We only found out about it after we got here. Father says ghosts are all nonsense, but I – don’t know.’
Mortimer was thinking rapidly. ‘Tell me,’ he said in a businesslike tone, ‘was this murder committed in the room I had last night?’
‘I don’t know anything about that,’ said Charlotte. ‘I wonder now,’ said Mortimer half to himself, ‘yes, that may be it.’ Charlotte looked at him uncomprehendingly. ‘Miss Dinmead,’ said Mortimer, gently, ‘have you ever had any reason to believe that you are mediumistic?’
She stared at him. ‘I think you know that you did write SOS last night,’ he said quietly. ‘Oh! quite unconsciously, of course. A crime stains the atmosphere, so to speak. A sensitive mind such as yours might be acted upon in such a manner. You have been reproducing the sensations and impressions of the victim. Many years ago she may have written SOS on that table, and you unconsciously reproduced her act last night.’
Charlotte’s face brightened. ‘I see,’ she said. ‘You think that is the explanation?’
A voice called her from the house, and she went in leaving Mortimer to pace up and down the garden path. Was he satisfied with his own explanation? Did it cover the facts as he knew them? Did it account for the tension he had felt on entering the house last night?
Perhaps, and yet he still had the odd feeling that his sudden appearance had produced something very like consternation, he thought to himself:
‘I must not be carried away by the psychic explanation, it might account for Charlotte – but not for the others. My coming has upset them horribly, all except Johnnie. What ever it is that’s the matter, Johnnie is out of it.’
He was quite sure of that, strange that he should be so positive, but there it was.
At that minute, Johnnie himself came out of the cottage and approached the guest.
‘Breakfast’s ready,’ he said awkwardly. ‘Will you come in?’ Mortimer noticed that the lad’s fingers were much stained. Johnnie felt his glance and laughed ruefully.
‘I’m always messing about with chemicals, you know,’ he said. ‘It makes Dad awfully wild sometimes. He wants me to go into building, but I want to do chemistry and research work.’
Mr Dinsmead appeared at the window ahead of them, broad, jovial, smiling, and at sight of him all Mortimer’s distrust and antagonism reawakened. Mrs Dinsmead was already seated at the table. She wished him ‘Good morning’ in her colourless voice, and he had again the impression that for some reason or other, she was afraid of him.
Magdalen came in last. She gave him a brief nod and took her seat opposite him.
‘Did you sleep well?’ she asked abruptly. ‘Was your bed comfortable?’ She looked at him very earnestly, and when he replied courteously in the affirmative he noticed something very like a flicker of disappointment pass over her face. What had she expected him to say, he wondered?
He turned to his host. ‘This lad of yours is interested in chemistry, it seems?’ he said pleasantly.
There was a crash. Mrs Dinsmead had dropped her tea cup.
‘Now then, Maggie, now then,’ said her husband.
It seemed to Mortimer that there was admonition, warning, in his voice. He turned to his guest and spoke fluently of the advantages of the building trade, and of not letting young boys get above themselves.
After breakfast, he went out in the garden by himself, and smoked. The time was clearly at hand when he must leave the cottage. A night’s shelter was one thing, to prolong it was difficult without an excuse, and what possible excuse could he offer? And yet he was singularly loath to depart.
Turning the thing over and over in his mind, he took a path that led round the other side of the house. His shoes were soled with crepe rubber, and made little or no noise. He was passing the kitchen window, when he heard Dinsmead’s words from within, and the words attracted his attention immediately.
‘It’s a fair lump of money, it is.’
Mrs Dinsmead’s voice answered. It was too faint in tone for Mortimer to hear the words, but Dinsmead replied:
‘Nigh on £60,000, the lawyer said.’
Mortimer had no intention of eavesdropping, but he retraced his steps very thoughtfully. The mention of money seemed to crystallize the situation. Somewhere or other there was a question of £60,000 – it made the thing clearer – and uglier.
Magdalen came out of the house, but her father’s voice called her almost immediately, and she went in again. Presently Dinsmead himself joined his guest.
‘Rare good morning,’ he said genially. ‘I hope your car will be none the worse.’
‘Wants to find out when I’m going,’ thought Mortimer to himself. Aloud he thanked Mr Dinsmead once more for his timely hospitality. ‘Not at all, not at all,’ said the other.
Magdalen and Charlotte came together out of the house, and strolled arm in arm to a rustic seat some little distance away. The dark head and the golden one made a pleasant contrast together, and on an impulse Mortimer said:
‘Your daughters are very unalike, Mr Dinsmead.’
The other who was just lighting his pipe gave a sharp jerk of the wrist, and dropped the match.
‘Do you think so?’ he asked. ‘Yes, well, I suppose they are.’ Mortimer had a flash of intuition. ‘But of course they are not both your daughters,’ he said smoothly. He saw Dinsmead look at him, hesitate for a moment, and then make up his mind.
‘That’s very clever of you, sir,’ he said. ‘No, one of them is a foundling, we took her in as a baby and we have brought her up as our own. She herself has not the least idea of the truth, but she’ll have to know soon.’ He sighed.
‘A question of inheritance?’ suggested Mortimer quietly.
The other flashed a suspicious look at him.
Then he seemed to decide that frankness was best; his manner became almost aggressively frank and open.
‘It’s odd that you should say that, sir.’
‘A case of telepathy, eh?’ said Mortimer, and smiled. ‘It is like this, sir. We took her in to oblige the mother – for a consideration, as at the time I was just starting in the building trade. A few months ago I noticed an advertisement in the papers, and it seemed to me that the child in question must be our Magdalen. I went to see the lawyers, and there has been a lot of talk one way and another. They were suspicious – naturally, as you might say, but everything is cleared up now. I am taking the girl herself to London next week, she doesn’t know anything about it so far. Her father, it seems, was one of these rich Jewish gentlemen. He only learnt of the child’s existence a few months before his death. He set agents on to try and trace her, and left all his money to her when she should be found.’
Mortimer listened with close attention. He had no reason to doubt Mr Dinsmead’s story. It explained Magdalen’s dark beauty; explained too, perhaps, her aloof manner. Nevertheless, though the story itself might be true, something lay behind it undivulged.
But Mortimer had no intention of rousing the other’s suspicions. Instead, he must go out of his way to allay them.
‘A very interesting story, Mr Dinsmead,’ he said. ‘I congratulate Miss Magdalen. An heiress and a beauty, she has a great time ahead of her.’
‘She has that,’ agreed her father warmly, ‘and she’s a rare good girl too, Mr Cleveland.’
There was every evidence of hearty warmth in his manner. ‘Well,’ said Mortimer, ‘I must be pushing along now, I suppose. I have got to thank you once more, Mr Dinsmead, for your singularly well-timed hospitality.’
Accompanied by his host, he went into the house to bid farewell to Mrs Dinsmead. She was standing by the window with her back to them, and did not hear them enter. At her husband’s jovial: ‘Here’s Mr Cleveland come to say goodbye,’ she started nervously and swung round, dropping something which she held in her hand. Mortimer picked it up for her. It was a miniature of Charlotte done in the style of some twenty-five years ago. Mortimer repeated to her the thanks he had already proffered to her husband. He noticed again her look of fear and the furtive glances that she shot at him from beneath her eyelids.
The two girls were not in evidence, but it was not part of Mortimer’s policy to seem anxious to see them; also he had his own idea, which was shortly to prove correct.
He had gone about half a mile from the house on his way down to where he had left the car the night before, when the bushes on the side of the path were thrust aside, and Magdalen came out on the track ahead of him.
‘I had to see you,’ she said.
‘I expected you,’ said Mortimer. ‘It was you who wrote SOS on the table in my room last night, wasn’t it?’
‘Why?’ asked Mortimer gently.
The girl turned aside and began pulling off leaves from a bush.
‘I don’t know,’ she said, ‘honestly, I don’t know.’
‘Tell me,’ said Mortimer.
Magdalen drew a deep breath.
‘I am a practical person,’ she said, ‘not the kind of person who imagines things or fancies them. You, I know, believe in ghosts and spirits. I don’t, and when I tell you that there is something very wrong in that house,’ she pointed up the hill, ‘I mean that there is something tangibly wrong; it’s not just an echo of the past. It has been coming on ever since we’ve been there. Every day it grows worse, Father is different, Mother is different, Charlotte is different.’
Mortimer interposed. ‘Is Johnnie different?’ he asked.
Magdalen looked at him, a dawning appreciation in her eyes. ‘No,’ she said, ‘now I come to think of it. Johnnie is not different. He is the only one who’s – who’s untouched by it all. He was untouched last night at tea.’
‘And you?’ asked Mortimer.
‘I was afraid – horribly afraid, just like a child – without knowing what it was I was afraid of. And father was – queer, there’s no other word for it, queer. He talked about miracles and then I prayed – actually prayed for a miracle, and you knocked on the door.’
She stopped abruptly, staring at him.
‘I seem mad to you, I suppose,’ she said defiantly. ‘No,’ said Mortimer, ‘on the contrary you seem extremely sane. All sane people have a premonition of danger if it is near them.’
‘You don’t understand,’ said Magdalen. ‘I was not afraid – for myself.’
‘For whom, then?’
But again Magdalen shook her head in a puzzled fashion. ‘I don’t know.’
She went on:
‘I wrote SOS on an impulse. I had an idea – absurd, no doubt, that they would not let me speak to you – the rest of them, I mean. I don’t know what it was I meant to ask you to do. I don’t know now.’
‘Never mind,’ said Mortimer. ‘I shall do it.’
‘What can you do?’
Mortimer smiled a little.
‘I can think.’
She looked at him doubtfully.
‘Yes,’ said Mortimer, ‘a lot can be done that way, more than you would ever believe. Tell me, was there any chance word or phrase that attracted your attention just before the meal last evening?’
Magdalen frowned. ‘I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘At least I heard Father say something to Mother about Charlotte being the living image of her, and he laughed in a very queer way, but – there’s nothing odd in that, is there?’
‘No,’ said Mortimer slowly, ‘except that Charlotte is not like your mother.’
He remained lost in thought for a minute or two, then looked up to find Magdalen watching him uncertainly.
‘Go home, child,’ he said, ‘and don’t worry; leave it in my hands.’
She went obediently up the path towards the cottage. Mortimer strolled on a little further, then threw himself down on the green turf. He closed his eyes, detached himself from conscious thought or effort, and let a series of pictures flit at will across his mind.
Johnnie! He always came back to Johnnie. Johnnie, completely innocent, utterly free from all the network of suspicion and intrigue, but nevertheless the pivot round which everything turned. He remembered the crash of Mrs Dinsmead’s cup on her saucer at breakfast that morning. What had caused her agitation? A chance reference on his part to the lad’s fondness for chemicals? At the moment he had not been conscious of Mr Dinsmead, but he saw him now clearly, as he sat, his teacup poised half way to his lips.
That took him back to Charlotte, as he had seen her when the door opened last night. She had sat staring at him over the rim of her teacup. And swiftly on that followed another memory. Mr Dinsmead emptying teacups one after the other, and saying ‘this tea is cold’.
He remembered the steam that went up. Surely the tea had not been so very cold after all?
Something began to stir in his brain. A memory of something read not so very long ago, within a month perhaps. Some account of a whole family poisoned by a lad’s carelessness. A packet of arsenic left in the larder had all dripped through on the bread below. He had read it in the paper. Probably Mr Dinsmead had read it too.
Things began to grow clearer . . .
Half an hour later, Mortimer Cleveland rose briskly to his feet.
It was evening once more in the cottage. The eggs were poached tonight and there was a tin of brawn. Presently Mrs Dinsmead came in from the kitchen bearing the big teapot. The family took their places round the table.
‘A contrast to last night’s weather,’ said Mrs Dinsmead, glancing towards the window.
‘Yes,’ said Mr Dinsmead, ‘it’s so still tonight that you could hear a pin drop. Now then, Mother, pour out, will you?’
Mrs Dinsmead filled the cups and handed them round the table. Then, as she put the teapot down, she gave a sudden little cry and pressed her hand to her heart. Mr Dinsmead swung round his chair, following the direction of her terrified eyes. Mortimer Cleveland was standing in the doorway.
He came forward. His manner was pleasant and apologetic.
‘I’m afraid I startled you,’ he said. ‘I had to come back for something.’
‘Back for something,’ cried Mr Dinsmead. His face was purple, his veins swelling. ‘Back for what, I should like to know?’
‘Some tea,’ said Mortimer.
With a swift gesture he took something from his pocket, and, taking up one of the teacups from the table, emptied some of its contents into a little test-tube he held in his left hand.
‘What – what are you doing?’ gasped Mr Dinsmead. His face had gone chalky-white, the purple dying out as if by magic. Mrs Dinsmead gave a thin, high, frightened cry.
‘You read the papers, I think, Mr Dinsmead? I am sure you do. Sometimes one reads accounts of a whole family being poisoned, some of them recover, some do not. In this case, one would not. The first explanation would be the tinned brawn you were eating, but supposing the doctor to be a suspicious man, not easily taken in by the tinned food theory? There is a packet of arsenic in your larder. On the shelf below it is a packet of tea. There is a convenient hole in the top shelf, what more natural to suppose then that the arsenic found its way into the tea by accident? Your son Johnnie might be blamed for carelessness, nothing more.’
‘I – I don’t know what you mean,’ gasped Dinsmead.
‘I think you do,’ Mortimer took up a second teacup and filled a second testtube. He fixed a red label to one and a blue label to the other.
‘The red-labelled one,’ he said, ‘contains tea from your daughter Charlotte’s cup, the other from your daughter Magdalen’s. I am prepared to swear that in the first I shall find four or five times the amount of arsenic than in the latter.’
‘You are mad,’ said Dinsmead.
‘Oh! dear me, no. I am nothing of the kind. You told me today, Mr Dinsmead, that Magdalen is your daughter. Charlotte was the child you adopted, the child who was so like her mother that when I held a miniature of that mother in my hand today I mistook it for one of Charlotte herself. Your own daughter was to inherit the fortune, and since it might be impossible to keep your supposed daughter Charlotte out of sight, and someone who knew the mother might have realized the truth of the resemblance, you decided on, well – a pinch of white arsenic at the bottom of a teacup.’
Mrs Dinsmead gave a sudden high cackle, rocking herself to and fro in violent hysterics.
‘Tea,’ she squeaked, ‘that’s what he said, tea, not lemonade.’
‘Hold your tongue, can’t you?’ roared her husband wrathfully.
Mortimer saw Charlotte looking at him, wide-eyed, wondering, across the table. Then he felt a hand on his arm, and Magdalen dragged him out of earshot.
‘Those,’ she pointed at the phials – ‘Daddy. You won’t -‘
Mortimer laid his hand on her shoulder. ‘My child,’ he said, ‘you don’t believe in the past. I do. I believe in the atmosphere of this house. If he had not come to it, perhaps – I say perhaps – your father might not have conceived the plan he did. I keep these two test-tubes to safeguard Charlotte now and in the future. Apart from that, I shall do nothing, in gratitude, if you will, to that hand that wrote SOS.’