The Edge By Agatha Christie
‘The Edge’ was first published in Pearson’s Magazine,
Clare Halliwell walked down the short path that led from her cottage door to the gate. On her arm was a basket, and in the basket was a bottle of soup, some homemade jelly and a few grapes. There were not many poor people in the small village of Daymer’s End, but such as there were were assiduously looked after, and Clare was one of the most efficient of the parish workers.
Clare Halliwell was thirty-two. She had an upright carriage, a healthy colour and nice brown eyes. She was not beautiful, but she looked fresh and pleasant and very English. Everybody liked her, and said she was a good sort. Since her mother’s death, two years ago, she had lived alone in the cottage with her dog, Rover. She kept poultry and was fond of animals and of a healthy outdoor life.
As she unlatched the gate, a two-seater car swept past, and the driver, a girl in a red hat, waved a greeting. Clare responded, but for a moment her lips tightened. She felt that pang at her heart which always came when she saw Vivien Lee. Gerald’s wife!
Medenham Grange, which lay just a mile outside the village, had belonged to the Lees for many generations. Sir Gerald Lee, the present owner of the Grange, was a man old for his years and considered by many stiff in manner. His pomposity really covered a good deal of shyness. He and Clare had played together as children. Later they had been friends, and a closer and dearer tie had been confidently expected by many – including, it may be said, Clare herself. There was no hurry, of course – but some day . . . She left it so in her own mind. Some day.
And then, just a year ago, the village had been startled by the news of Sir Gerald’s marriage to a Miss Harper – a girl nobody had ever heard of!
The new Lady Lee had not been popular in the village. She took not the faintest interest in parochial matters, was bored by hunting, and loathed the country and outdoor sports. Many of the wiseacres shook their heads and wondered how it would end. It was easy to see where Sir Gerald’s infatuation had come in. Vivien was a beauty. From head to foot she was a complete contrast to Clare Halliwell, small, elfin, dainty, with golden-red hair that curled enchantingly over her pretty ears, and big violet eyes that could shoot a sideways glance of provocation to the manner born.
Gerald Lee, in his simple man’s way, had been anxious that his wife and Clare should be great friends. Clare was often asked to dine at the Grange, and Vivien made a pretty pretence of affectionate intimacy whenever they met. Hence that gay salutation of hers this morning.
Clare walked on and did her errand. The Vicar was also visiting the old woman in question and he and Clare walked a few yards together afterwards before their ways parted. They stood still for a minute discussing parish affairs.
‘Jones has broken out again, I’m afraid,’ said the Vicar. ‘And I had such hopes after he had volunteered, of his own accord, to take the pledge.’
‘Disgusting,’ said Clare crisply.
‘It seems so to us,’ said Mr Wilmot, ‘but we must remember that it is very hard to put ourselves in his place and realize his temptation. The desire for drink is unaccountable to us, but we all have our own temptations, and thus we can understand.’
‘I suppose we have,’ said Clare uncertainly.
The Vicar glanced at her.
‘Some of us have the good fortune to be very little tempted,’ he said gently. ‘But even to those people their hour comes. Watch and pray, remember, that ye enter not into temptation.’
Then bidding her goodbye, he walked briskly away. Clare went on thoughtfully, and presently she almost bumped into Sir Gerald Lee.
‘Hullo, Clare. I was hoping to run across you. You look jolly fit. What a colour you’ve got.’
The colour had not been there a minute before. Lee went on: ‘As I say, I was hoping to run across you. Vivien’s got to go off to Bournemouth for the weekend. Her mother’s not well. Can you dine with us Tuesday instead of tonight?’
‘Oh, yes! Tuesday will suit me just as well.’
‘That’s all right, then. Splendid. I must hurry along.’
Clare went home to find her one faithful domestic standing on the doorstep looking out for her.
‘There you are, Miss. Such a to-do. They’ve brought Rover home. He went off on his own this morning, and a car ran clean over him.’
Clare hurried to the dog’s side. She adored animals, and Rover was her especial darling. She felt his legs one by one, and then ran her hands over his body. He groaned once or twice and licked her hand.
‘If there’s any serious injury, it’s internal,’ she said at last. ‘No bones seem to be broken.’
‘Shall we get the vet to see him, Miss?’
Clare shook her head. She had little faith in the local vet. ‘We’ll wait until tomorrow. He doesn’t seem to be in great pain, and his gums are a good colour, so there can’t be much internal bleeding. Tomorrow, if I don’t like the look of him, I’ll take him over to Skippington in the car and let Reeves have a look at him. He’s far and away the best man.’
On the following day, Rover seemed weaker, and Clare duly carried out her project. The small town of Skippington was about forty miles away, a long run, but Reeves, the vet there, was celebrated for many miles round.
He diagnosed certain internal injuries, but held out good hopes of recovery, and Clare went away quite content to leave Rover in his charge.
There was only one hotel of any pretensions in Skippington, the County Arms. It was mainly frequented by commercial travellers, for there was no good hunting country near Skippington, and it was off the track of the main roads for motorists.
Lunch was not served till one o’clock, and as it wanted a few minutes of that hour, Clare amused herself by glancing over the entries in the open visitors’ book.
Suddenly she gave a stifled exclamation. Surely she knew that handwriting, with its loops and whirls and flourishes? She had always considered it unmistakable. Even now she could have sworn – but of course it was clearly impossible. Vivien Lee was at Bournemouth. The entry itself showed it to be impossible: Mr and Mrs Cyril Brown. London.
But in spite of herself her eyes strayed back again and again to that curly writing, and on an impulse she could not quite define she asked abruptly of the woman in the office:
‘Mrs Cyril Brown? I wonder if that is the same one I know?’
‘A small lady? Reddish hair? Very pretty. She came in a red two-seater car, madam. A Peugeot, I believe.’
Then it was! A coincidence would be too remarkable. As if in a dream, she heard the woman go on:
‘They were here just over a month ago for a weekend, and liked it so much that they have come again. Newly married, I should fancy.’
Clare heard herself saying: ‘Thank you. I don’t think that could be my friend.’
Her voice sounded different, as though it belonged to someone else. Presently she was sitting in the dining-room, quietly eating cold roast beef, her mind a maze of conflicting thought and emotions.
She had no doubts whatever. She had summed Vivien up pretty correctly on their first meeting. Vivien was that kind. She wondered vaguely who the man was. Someone Vivien had known before her marriage? Very likely – it didn’t matter – nothing mattered, but Gerald.
What was she – Clare – to do about Gerald? He ought to know – surely he ought to know. It was clearly her duty to tell him. She had discovered Vivien’s secret by accident, but she must lose no time in acquainting Gerald with the facts. She was Gerald’s friend, not Vivien’s.
But somehow or other she felt uncomfortable. Her conscience was not satisfied. On the face of it, her reasoning was good, but duty and inclination jumped suspiciously together. She admitted to herself that she disliked Vivien. Besides, if Gerald Lee were to divorce his wife – and Clare had no doubts at all that that was exactly what he would do, he was a man with an almost fanatical view of his own honour – then – well, the way would lie open for Gerald to come to her. Put like that, she shrank back fastidiously. Her own proposed action seemed naked and ugly.
The personal element entered in too much. She could not be sure of her own motives. Clare was essentially a high-minded, conscientious woman. She strove now very earnestly to see where her duty lay. She wished, as she had always wished, to do right. What was right in this case? What was wrong?
By a pure accident she had come into possession of facts that affected vitally the man she loved and the woman whom she disliked and – yes, one might as well be frank – of whom she was bitterly jealous. She could ruin that woman. Was she justified in doing so?
Clare had always held herself aloof from the back-biting and scandal which is an inevitable part of village life. She hated to feel that she now resembled one of those human ghouls she had always professed to despise.
Suddenly the Vicar’s words that morning flashed across her mind: ‘Even to those people their hour comes.’
Was this her hour? Was this her temptation? Had it come insidiously disguised as a duty? She was Clare Halliwell, a Christian, in love and charity with all men – and women. If she were to tell Gerald, she must be quite sure that only impersonal motives guided her. For the present she would say nothing.
She paid her bill for luncheon and drove away, feeling an indescribable lightening of spirit. Indeed, she felt happier than she had done for a long time. She felt glad that she had had the strength to resist temptation, to do nothing mean or unworthy. Just for a second it flashed across her mind that it might be a sense of power that had so lightened her spirits, but she dismissed the idea as fantastic.
By Tuesday night she was strengthened in her resolve. The revelation could not come through her. She must keep silence. Her own secret love for Gerald made speech impossible. Rather a high-minded view to take? Perhaps; but it was the only one possible for her.
She arrived at the Grange in her own little car. Sir Gerald’s chauffeur was at the front door to drive it round to the garage after she had alighted, as the night was a wet one. He had just driven off when Clare remembered some books which she had borrowed and had brought with her to return. She called out, but the man did not hear her. The butler ran out after the car.
So, for a minute or two, Clare was alone in the hall, close to the door of the drawing-room which the butler had just unlatched prior to announcing her. Those inside the room, however, knew nothing of her arrival, and so it was that Vivien’s voice, high pitched – not quite the voice of a lady – rang out clearly and distinctly.
‘Oh, we’re only waiting for Clare Halliwell. You must know her – lives in the village – supposed to be one of the local belles, but frightfully unattractive really. She tried her best to catch Gerald, but he wasn’t having any.
‘Oh, yes, darling’ – this in answer to a murmured protest from her husband. ‘She did – you mayn’t be aware of the fact – but she did her very utmost. Poor old Clare! A good sort, but such a dump!’
Clare’s face went dead white, her hands, hanging against her sides, clenched themselves in anger such as she had never known before. At that moment she could have murdered Vivien Lee. It was only by a supreme physical effort that she regained control of herself. That, and the half-formed thought that she held it in her power to punish Vivien for those cruel words.
The butler had returned with the books. He opened the door, announced her, and in another moment she was greeting a roomful of people in her usual pleasant manner.
Vivien, exquisitely dressed in some dark wine colour that showed off her white fragility, was particularly affectionate and gushing. They didn’t see half enough of Clare. She, Vivien, was going to learn golf, and Clare must come out with her on the links.
Gerald was very attentive and kind. Though he had no suspicion that she had overheard his wife’s words, he had some vague idea of making up for them. He was very fond of Clare, and he wished Vivien wouldn’t say the things she did. He and Clare had been friends, nothing more – and if there was an uneasy suspicion at the back of his mind that he was shirking the truth in that last statement, he put it away from him.
After dinner the talk fell on dogs, and Clare recounted Rover’s accident. She purposely waited for a lull in the conversation to say:
‘. . . so, on Saturday, I took him to Skippington.’
She heard the sudden rattle of Vivien Lee’s coffee-cup on the saucer, but she did not look at her – yet.
‘To see that man, Reeves?’
‘Yes. He’ll be all right, I think. I had lunch at the County Arms afterwards. Rather a decent little pub.’ She turned now to Vivien. ‘Have you ever stayed there?’
If she had had any doubts, they were swept aside. Vivien’s answer came quick – in stammering haste.
‘I? Oh! N-no, no.’
Fear was in her eyes. They were wide and dark with it, as they met Clare’s. Clare’s eyes told nothing. They were calm, scrutinizing. No one could have dreamt of the keen pleasure that they veiled. At that moment Clare almost forgave Vivien for the words she had overheard earlier in the evening. She tasted in that moment a fullness of power that almost made her head reel. She held Vivien Lee in the hollow of her hand.
The following day, she received a note from the other woman. Would Clare come up and have tea with her quietly that afternoon? Clare refused.
Then Vivien called on her. Twice she came at hours when Clare was almost certain to be at home. On the first occasion, Clare really was out; on the second, she slipped out by the back way when she saw Vivien coming up the path.
‘She’s not sure yet whether I know or not,’ she said to herself. ‘She wants to find out without committing herself. But she shan’t – not until I’m ready.’
Clare hardly knew herself what she was waiting for. She had decided to keep silence – that was the only straight and honourable course. She felt an additional glow of virtue when she remembered the extreme provocation she had received. After overhearing the way Vivien talked of her behind her back, a weaker character, she felt, might have abandoned her good resolutions.
She went twice to church on Sunday. First to early Communion, from which she came out strengthened and uplifted. No personal feelings should weigh with her – nothing mean or petty. She went again to morning service. Mr Wilmot preached on the famous prayer of the Pharisee. He sketched the life of that man, a good man, pillar of the church. And he pictured the slow, creeping blight of spiritual pride that distorted and soiled all that he was.
Clare did not listen very attentively. Vivien was in the big square pew of the Lee family, and Clare knew by instinct that the other intended to get hold of her afterwards.
So it fell out. Vivien attached herself to Clare, walked home with her, and asked if she might come in. Clare, of course, assented. They sat in Clare’s little sitting-room, bright with flowers and old-fashioned chintzes. Vivien’s talk was desultory and jerky.
‘I was at Bournemouth, you know, last weekend,’ she remarked presently.
‘Gerald told me so,’ said Clare.
They looked at each other. Vivien appeared almost plain today. Her face had a sharp, foxy look that robbed it of much of its charm.
‘When you were at Skippington -‘ began Vivien.
‘When I was at Skippington?’ echoed Clare politely. ‘You were speaking about some little hotel there.’
‘The County Arms. Yes. You didn’t know it, you said?’
‘I – I have been there once.’
She had only to keep still and wait. Vivien was quite unfitted to bear a strain of any kind. Already she was breaking down under it. Suddenly she leant forward and spoke vehemently.
‘You don’t like me. You never have. You’ve always hated me. You’re enjoying yourself now, playing with me like a cat with a mouse. You’re cruel – cruel. That’s why I’m afraid of you, because deep down you’re cruel.’
‘Really, Vivien!’ said Clare sharply. ‘You know, don’t you? Yes, I can see that you know. You knew that night – when you spoke about Skippington. You’ve found out somehow. Well, I want to know what you are going to do about it? What are you going to do?’
Clare did not reply for a minute, and Vivien sprang to her feet. ‘What are you going to do? I must know. You’re not going to deny that you know all about it?’
‘I do not propose to deny anything,’ said Clare coldly. ‘You saw me there that day?’
‘No. I saw your handwriting in the book – Mr and Mrs Cyril Brown.’ Vivien flushed darkly.
‘Since then,’ continued Clare quietly, ‘I have made inquiries. I find that you were not at Bournemouth that weekend. Your mother never sent for you. Exactly the same thing happened about six weeks previously.’
Vivien sank down again on the sofa. She burst into furious crying, the crying of a frightened child.
‘What are you going to do?’ she gasped. ‘Are you going to tell Gerald?’
‘I don’t know yet,’ said Clare.
She felt calm, omnipotent.
Vivien sat up, pushing the red curls back from her forehead.
‘Would you like to hear all about it?’
‘It would be as well, I think.’
Vivien poured out the whole story. There was no reticence in her. Cyril ‘Brown’ was Cyril Haviland, a young engineer to whom she had previously been engaged. His health failed, and he lost his job, whereupon he made no bones about jilting the penniless Vivien and marrying a rich widow many years older than himself. Soon afterwards Vivien married Gerald Lee.
She had met Cyril again by chance. That was the first of many meetings. Cyril, backed by his wife’s money, was prospering in his career, and becoming a well-known figure. It was a sordid story, a story of backstairs meeting, of ceaseless lying and intrigue.
‘I love him so,’ Vivien repeated again and again, with a sudden moan, and each time the words made Clare feel physically sick.
At last the stammering recital came to an end. Vivien muttered a shamefaced: ‘Well?’
‘What am I going to do?’ asked Clare. ‘I can’t tell you. I must have time to think.’
‘You won’t give me away to Gerald?’
‘It may be my duty to do so.’
‘No, no.’ Vivien’s voice rose to a hysterical shriek. ‘He’ll divorce me. He won’t listen to a word. He’ll find out from that hotel, and Cyril will be dragged into it. And then his wife will divorce him. Everything will go – his career, his health – he’ll be penniless again. He’d never forgive me – never.’
‘If you’ll excuse my saying so,’ said Clare, ‘I don’t think much of this Cyril of yours.’
Vivien paid no attention. ‘I tell you he’ll hate me – hate me. I can’t bear it. Don’t tell Gerald. I’ll do anything you like, but don’t tell Gerald.’
‘I must have time to decide,’ said Clare gravely. ‘I can’t promise anything offhand. In the meantime, you and Cyril mustn’t meet again.’
‘No, no, we won’t. I swear it.’
‘When I know what’s the right thing to do,’ said Clare, ‘I’ll let you know.’
She got up. Vivien went out of the house in a furtive, slinking way, glancing back over her shoulder.
Clare wrinkled her nose in disgust. A beastly affair. Would Vivien keep her promise not to see Cyril? Probably not. She was weak – rotten all through.
That afternoon Clare went for a long walk. There was a path which led along the downs. On the left the green hills sloped gently down to the sea far below, while the path wound steadily upward. This walk was known locally as the Edge. Though safe enough if you kept to the path, it was dangerous to wander from it. Those insidious gentle slopes were dangerous. Clare had lost a dog there once. The animal had gone racing over the smooth grass, gaining momentum, had been unable to stop and had gone over the edge of the cliff to be dashed to pieces on the sharp rocks below.
The afternoon was clear and beautiful. From far below there came the ripple of the sea, a soothing murmur. Clare sat down on the short green turf and stared out over the blue water. She must face this thing clearly. What did she mean to do?
She thought of Vivien with a kind of disgust. How the girl had crumpled up, how abjectly she had surrendered! Clare felt a rising contempt. She had no pluck – no grit.
Nevertheless, much as she disliked Vivien, Clare decided that she would continue to spare her for the present. When she got home she wrote a note to her, saying that although she could make no definite promise for the future, she had decided to keep silence for the present.
Life went on much the same in Daymer’s End. It was noticed locally that Lady Lee was looking far from well. On the other hand, Clare Halliwell bloomed. Her eyes were brighter, she carried her head higher, and there was a new confidence and assurance in her manner. She and Lady Lee often met, and it was noticed on these occasions that the younger woman watched the older with a flattering attention to her slightest word.
Sometimes Miss Halliwell would make remarks that seemed a little ambiguous – not entirely relevant to the matter in hand. She would suddenly say that she had changed her mind about many things lately – that it was curious how a little thing might alter one’s point of view entirely. One was apt to give way too much to pity – and that was really quite wrong.
When she said things of that kind she usually looked at Lady Lee in a peculiar way, and the latter would suddenly grow quite white, and look almost terrified.
But as the year drew on, these little subtleties became less apparent. Clare continued to make the same remarks, but Lady Lee seemed less affected by them. She began to recover her looks and spirits. Her old gay manner returned.
One morning, when she was taking her dog for a walk, Clare met Gerald in a lane. The latter’s spaniel fraternized with Rover, while his master talked to Clare.
‘Heard our news?’ he said buoyantly. ‘I expect Vivien’s told you.’
‘What sort of news? Vivien hasn’t mentioned anything in particular.’
‘We’re going abroad – for a year – perhaps longer. Vivien’s fed up with this place. She never has cared for it, you know.’ He sighed, for a moment or two he looked downcast. Gerald Lee was very proud of his home. ‘Anyway, I’ve promised her a change. I’ve taken a villa near Algiers. A wonderful place, by all accounts.’ He laughed a little self-consciously. ‘Quite a second honeymoon, eh?’
For a minute or two Clare could not speak. Something seemed to be rising up in her throat and suffocating her. She could see the white walls of the villa, the orange trees, smell the soft perfumed breath of the South. A second honeymoon!
They were going to escape. Vivien no longer believed in her threats. She was going away, care-free, gay, happy.
Clare heard her own voice, a little hoarse in timbre, saying the appropriate things. How lovely! She envied them!
Mercifully at that moment Rover and the spaniel decided to disagree. In the scuffle that ensued further conversation was out of the question.
That afternoon Clare sat down and wrote a note to Vivien. She asked her to meet her on the Edge the following day, as she had something very important to say to her.
The next morning dawned bright and cloudless. Clare walked up the steep path of the Edge with a lightened heart. What a perfect day! She was glad that she had decided to say what had to be said out in the open, under the blue sky, instead of in her stuffy little sitting-room. She was sorry for Vivien, very sorry indeed, but the thing had got to be done.
She saw a yellow dot, like some yellow flower higher up by the side of the path. As she came nearer it resolved itself into the figure of Vivien, dressed in a yellow knitted frock, sitting on the short turf, her hands clasped round her knees.
‘Good morning,’ said Clare. ‘Isn’t it a perfect morning?’
‘Is it?’ said Vivien. ‘I haven’t noticed. What was it you wanted to say to me?’ Clare dropped down on the grass beside her.
‘I’m quite out of breath,’ she said apologetically. ‘It’s a steep pull up here.’
‘Damn you!’ cried Vivien shrilly. ‘Why can’t you say it, you smooth-faced devil, instead of torturing me?’
Clare looked shocked, and Vivien hastily recanted.
‘I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry, Clare. I am indeed. Only – my nerves are all to pieces, and your sitting here and talking about the weather – well, it got me all rattled.’
‘You’ll have a nervous breakdown if you’re not careful,’ said Clare coldly.
Vivien gave a short laugh.
‘Go over the edge? No – I’m not that kind. I’ll never be a loony. Now tell me – what’s all this about?’
Clare was silent for a moment, then she spoke, looking not at Vivien, but steadily out over the sea.
‘I thought it only fair to warn you that I can no longer keep silence about – about what happened last year.’
‘You mean – you’ll go to Gerald with the whole story?’
‘Unless you’ll tell him yourself. That would be infinitely the better way.’
Vivien laughed sharply.
‘You know well enough I haven’t got the pluck to do that.’
Clare did not contradict the assertion. She had had proof before of Vivien’s utterly craven temper.
‘It would be infinitely better,’ she repeated.
Again Vivien gave that short, ugly laugh. ‘It’s your precious conscience, I suppose, that drives you to do this?’ she sneered.
‘I dare say it seems very strange to you,’ said Clare quietly. ‘But it honestly is that.’
Vivien’s white, set face stared into hers. ‘My God!’ she said. ‘I really believe you mean it, too. You actually think that’s the reason.’
‘It is the reason.’
‘No, it isn’t. If so, you’d have done it before – long ago. Why didn’t you? No, don’t answer. I’ll tell you. You got more pleasure out of holding it over me – that’s why. You liked to keep me on tenterhooks, and make me wince and squirm. You’d say things – diabolical things – just to torment me and keep me perpetually on the jump. And so they did for a bit – till I got used to them.’
‘You got to feel secure,’ said Clare.
‘You saw that, didn’t you? But even then, you held back, enjoying your sense of power. But now we’re going away, escaping from you, perhaps even going to be happy – you couldn’t stick that at any price. So your convenient conscience wakes up!’
She stopped, panting. Clare said, still very quietly:
‘I can’t prevent your saying all these fantastical things; but I can assure you they’re not true.’
Vivien turned suddenly and caught her by the hand.
‘Clare – for God’s sake! I’ve been straight – I’ve done what you said. I’ve not seen Cyril again – I swear it.’
‘That’s nothing to do with it.’
‘Clare – haven’t you any pity – any kindness? I’ll go down on my knees to you.’
‘Tell Gerald yourself. If you tell him, he may forgive you.’
Vivien laughed scornfully.
‘You know Gerald better than that. He’ll be rabid – vindictive. He’ll make me suffer – he’ll make Cyril suffer. That’s what I can’t bear. Listen, Clare – he’s doing so well. He’s invented something – machinery, I don’t understand about it, but it may be a wonderful success. He’s working it out now – his wife supplies the money for it, of course. But she’s suspicious – jealous. If she finds out, and she will find out if Gerald starts proceedings for divorce – she’ll chuck Cyril – his work, everything. Cyril will be ruined.’
‘I’m not thinking of Cyril,’ said Clare. ‘I’m thinking of Gerald. Why don’t you think a little of him, too?’
‘Gerald! I don’t care that -‘ she snapped her fingers ‘for Gerald. I never have. We might as well have the truth now we’re at it. But I do care for Cyril. I’m a rotter, through and through, I admit it. I dare say he’s a rotter, too. But my feeling for him – that isn’t rotten. I’d die for him, do you hear? I’d die for him!’
‘That is easily said,’ said Clare derisively. ‘You think I’m not in earnest? Listen, if you go on with this beastly business, I’ll kill myself. Sooner than have Cyril brought into it and ruined, I’d do that.’
Clare remained unimpressed.
‘You don’t believe me?’ said Vivien, panting. ‘Suicide needs a lot of courage.’
Vivien flinched back as though she had been struck.
‘You’ve got me there. Yes, I’ve no pluck. If there were an easy way -‘
‘There’s an easy way in front of you,’ said Clare. ‘You’ve only got to run straight down that green slope. It would be all over in a couple of minutes. Remember that child last year.’
‘Yes,’ said Vivien thoughtfully. ‘That would be easy – quite easy – if one really wanted to -‘
Vivien turned to her.
‘Let’s have this out once more. Can’t you see that by keeping silence as long as you have, you’ve – you’ve no right to go back on it now? I’ll not see Cyril again. I’ll be a good wife to Gerald – I swear I will. Or I’ll go away and never see him again? Whichever you like. Clare -‘
Clare got up.
‘I advise you,’ she said, ‘to tell your husband yourself . . . otherwise – I shall.’
‘I see,’ said Vivien softly. ‘Well, I can’t let Cyril suffer . . .’
She got up, stood still as though considering for a minute or two, then ran lightly down to the path, but instead of stopping, crossed it and went down the slope. Once she half turned her head and waved a hand gaily to Clare, then she ran on gaily, lightly, as a child might run, out of sight . . .
Clare stood petrified. Suddenly she heard cries, shouts, a clamour of voices. Then – silence.
She picked her way stiffly down to the path. About a hundred yards away a party of people coming up it had stopped. They were staring and pointing. Clare ran down and joined them.
‘Yes, Miss, someone’s fallen over the cliff. Two men have gone down – to see.’
She waited. Was it an hour, or eternity, or only a few minutes?
A man came toiling up the ascent. It was the Vicar in his shirt sleeves. His coat had been taken off to cover what lay below.
‘Horrible,’ he said, his face was very white. ‘Mercifully death must have been instantaneous.’
He saw Clare, and came over to her.
‘This must have been a terrible shock to you. You were taking a walk together, I understand?’
Clare heard herself answering mechanically.
Yes. They had just parted. No, Lady Lee’s manner had been quite normal. One of the group interposed the information that the lady was laughing and waving her hand. A terribly dangerous place – there ought to be a railing along the path.
The Vicar’s voice rose again. ‘An accident – yes, clearly an accident.’
And then suddenly Clare laughed – a hoarse, raucous laugh that echoed along the cliff.
‘That’s a damned lie,’ she said. ‘I killed her.’
She felt someone patting her shoulder, a voice spoke soothingly. ‘There, there. It’s all right. You’ll be all right presently.’
But Clare was not all right presently. She was never all right again. She persisted in the delusion – certainly a delusion, since at least eight persons had witnessed the scene – that she had killed Vivien Lee.
She was very miserable till Nurse Lauriston came to take charge. Nurse Lauriston was very successful with mental cases.
‘Humour them, poor things,’ she would say comfortably.
So she told Clare that she was a wardress from Pentonville Prison. Clare’s sentence, she said, had been commuted to penal servitude for life. A room was fitted up as a cell.
‘And now, I think, we shall be quite happy and comfortable,’ said Nurse Lauriston to the doctor. ‘Round-bladed knives if you like, doctor, but I don’t think there’s the least fear of suicide. She’s not the type. Too self-centred. Funny how those are often the ones who go over the edge most easily.’