'You smuggled it back from Paris, did you? It must be an – ah – interesting book.'
Raymond West looked sharply at his Aunt Jane. Surely she didn't...? 'Well, not exactly,' he began.
She continued knitting, placidly. 'That girl reminds me of somebody,' she said, a piercingly dreamy look coming over her china-blue eyes. 'Somebody from a very long time ago.'
'Oh?' said Raymond.
'Yes,' she said. 'A girl named Maud. We were at school together. Yes. Now, that's interesting...'
Jane and Maud were in the top form at Mrs Harker's Academy for Young Ladies. Jane, the elder by a few months, held the title of Head Girl, but in practice all the seniors occupied positions of responsibility and were more or less equally respected by the members of the lower school. Mrs Harker's was a select establishment, seldom having more than twenty boarders at any one time, and was housed in a pleasant building set in spacious, though ill-maintained, grounds.
Mrs Harker was progressive, and believed in a good all-round education for her girls. They would study mathematics, history, literature and geography, and they would go for long walks in the country. Beyond the ordinary accomplishments of a young lady, she aimed to instil in them a capacity for logical thinking and a keen sense of right and wrong. Most of her girls would never have any need of an education, but there were, alas, some few who would be obliged to earn their own living, and Mrs Harker was determined that they would not go unprepared. A married woman herself, she was not going to be responsible for turning her pupils out into the wilderness of marriage without the capabilities she knew they would need; she attempted to instil in her girls a strong sense of initiative and self-discipline.
When Jane flounced into the garden after supervising the first form's prep, Maud could tell from the two circles of indignant scarlet on her cheeks that the 'babies' were too well-endowed with the first, and sadly lacking in the second. 'Was there trouble?' she asked, sliding a cushion along the bench to Jane.
'Trouble! I should think there was!' She plumped herself down on the cushion. 'The impudence of those girls! Kitty is the worst, and she eggs the others on until they're as bad as she is.'
Jane shook her head. 'Paper – ink – water – string. Three clean pinafores. Two desks.'
'Tomorrow is my turn to supervise.'
'Tomorrow,' Jane said, 'they had better behave. Or, if they do not, I'm sure you will make them.'
Maud coughed. She had, she knew, more natural authority than Jane. She did not believe that Jane resented it; she was placid and affectionate. Maud had taken her to be a little stupid at first, misled by the china-blue eyes and the golden ringlets. The misconception had not lasted long; Jane proved to be as clever as she was pretty, and Maud – who had not such a pleasant nature – had been obliged to overcome a little jealousy. 'We ought to go in,' she said. 'I have yet to practise, and you are behind with your prep.'
And even after preparation and practice there was still plenty of the long golden evening left, and Jane and Maud would wander arm in arm along the towpath, or sit in the shade of the orchard, and read suitable books for young ladies. Jane and Maud were the best of friends, and woe betide the girl who tried to separate them. They stayed with each other during the holidays, and if the Silver household was more crowded than Jane had expected, or if Maud found the Marples rather grand, they were too fond of each other to mention it. Jane went to Ireland, and brought back a present for Maud: a brooch of black bog-oak carved into the shape of a rose, with an Irish pearl at its heart. Maud, who had always been clever with her fingers, crocheted wonderful, delicate pieces of lace for Jane.
Everything changed at once. First, Jane mentioned that her mother thought she ought to go to Italy for finishing. Maud, trying not to betray any hint that her world was falling in ruins around her, had spent the next twenty-seven hours in almost total silence. And then, half an hour after tea, little Ada had come running up, hysterical with fear, babbling about 'the woodshed'. Jane went straight there to see what the matter was, while Maud soothed Ada, stroked her hair, lent her a handkerchief, made her tell her what it was all about.
'Something nasty,' was all Ada would say. 'Something horrible. In the woodshed.'
And with that Maud had to be content until Jane returned, looking sickened, with Mrs Harker. 'Maud,' the latter said, 'I'm afraid that something rather unpleasant has happened. Could you take Ada in to Miss Peabody, and see that she is put to bed, with something to help her sleep? You needn't explain why; just tell her that it's my request.'
Maud nodded. 'Very well.'
'And please see that Ada doesn't talk to any of the other girls,' Mrs Harker added. 'I don't want them frightened. Ask Miss Peabody to keep an eye on Ada, too. Then go to my study. Jane, you come with me.'
'Yes, Mrs Harker.'
Maud passed Jane as she entered Mrs Harker's study. She flashed her a quick, mystified smile, but Jane shook her head. She still looked pale. The headmistress was sitting at her desk, writing.
'Ah, Maud,' she said. 'I've just sent Jane to give Timpkins a note to take to the police.'
'The police?' Maud asked, forgetting herself for a moment.
'I'm afraid so. It seems that we have a case of – well, I sincerely hope that it is an accident, but I fear – murder on our hands.'
'Dear me!' said Maud, and wished that she could have been a man, and used stronger language.
'When Jane and I went to the woodshed we found the body of a young man. He appeared to have been killed with a blow to the head. An axe was lying next to the body.'
A young man, Maud noticed. Not a young gentleman. She said, neutrally, 'Indeed, Mrs Harker?'
'I did not recognise him from his clothing, but I was unable to see his face without moving him. It is not inconceivable that I might have known the man, had I seen him face-on. Jane reached a similar conclusion.'
Maud asked, 'Why should a young man whom you do not recognise be around the school, Mrs Harker?'
'That, Maud, is a very good question.' Mrs Harker sighed, and rang the bell. 'Collins,' she said, when the maid appeared, 'please bring tea for myself and Miss Silver, and for Miss Marple, when she returns.' She turned back to Maud. 'I need hardly impress upon you the necessity of this remaining strictly confidential. I have declared the yard out of bounds, and have placed Ada in isolation for the moment. I am sure that I can rely upon Jane's and your devotion to the school.'
'Of course,' Maud said.
That night, Jane crawled into Maud's bed, and shivered. 'It was horrible,' she said, soft as she could, to avoid waking Felicia. 'His head, Maud...'
Maud stroked her hair. 'I know. I know. You didn't know him?'
Jane hesitated. 'No...' she said.
She caught the note of uncertainty. 'Are you not sure?'
'I have an idea who he might be – might have been.'
Maud waited, silently. She had learnt long ago that the trick with Jane was patience.
'I'm afraid that I've been a failure as Head Girl,' Jane whispered.
'I didn't want to believe it. I didn't want to sneak.'
Maud had to suppress a gasp. 'Caroline Rivers?'
She could feel Jane nodding. 'You noticed, too, then. I don't have an unpleasant, suspicious mind.'
Maud giggled. 'Oh, you do, but mine is just as bad. I'm afraid that if anyone was consorting with unsuitable young men it would be Caroline Rivers. She is easily the silliest girl in the school. She's only fourteen. It's disgraceful.'
'And now that an unsuitable young man has materialised, we assume that he came in search of Caroline Rivers.' Jane shook her head, unsatisfied. 'No. It seems a little too obvious. And even if that were so, why should anyone kill him?'
'Mrs Harker might, in an effort to show what happens to young men who make improper advances on her girls.'
Jane shuddered. 'You didn't see him.'
'No. I'm sorry. Where did he come from, anyway? Is he from one of the farms?'
'I don't think so,' Jane said, decisively. 'The clothes were all wrong. He wasn't a country boy.'
'Well,' Jane said, 'I don't suppose we shall ever know.
Felicia started to snore.
'Ah, girls,' Mrs Harker said. 'Thank you for being so prompt. I have already informed the mistresses of the latest developments, and the rest of the school will be told later today. However, I felt I owed it to you to inform you two separately.'
Jane nodded. 'Yes, Mrs Harker.'
'The police arrived early this morning. Miss Peabody has been arrested.'
'Miss Peabody? But how could she – why would she? And how did you find out?' Maud was shocked.
Jane drew a breath. 'Of course... She was washing her hands – you said, Maud, remember?'
Mrs Harker coughed meaningfully. 'It transpires that the young man who was killed was Miss Peabody's nephew, the son of her sister. Now, when I engaged Miss Peabody as Matron I was aware that, in her youth, she had unhappily been acquainted with a man – a married man – and that a child had been born as a result.'
'Oh.' Jane blushed.
'The child later died. For reasons which need not concern you, although I was fully aware of Miss Peabody's past, and had resolved to overlook it and give her a second chance, she herself believed me to be ignorant. Miss Peabody's nephew – his name, incidentally, was Alfred Roan – became aware of this fact, and, being short of money, attempted to obtain some from his aunt by means of extortion. Afraid of losing her post, she killed him. She would have attempted to hide the body, had it not been so quickly discovered by little Ada.' Mrs Harker shook her head sadly. 'I feel deeply at fault here. Had I not concealed from Miss Peabody what I knew of her, this sad incident might never have happened.'
'But that wasn't fair!' Maud protested. 'We didn't know any of that! How could we be expected to find out who killed the unfortunate gentleman?'
Mrs Harker looked over the top of her spectacles at her. 'You forget, Maud, that this is not some kind of puzzle. Are you suggesting that I should have disclosed to you, my pupils, my motivations for engaging and dismissing your teachers?'
'You may leave,' Mrs Harker said severely. 'In any case,' she added, with something approaching a twinkle in her eye, 'I only found half of this out this morning, when Miss Peabody confessed. It is, however, immaterial. One should never make a judgement based on motive alone. It is so frequently misleading; one can never see inside a fellow-creature's mind. No, cold hard facts are the thing.'
Maud Silver resolved to find out more cold hard facts for herself, next time.
Shortly afterwards Jane's parents removed her from Mrs Harker's. It could hardly be a nice establishment, if young men were murdered in the back yard, and little girls were free to run around and find bleeding corpses, and then to be left in the care of murderesses. Jane wept; Maud was stoic. They could hardly remain together for the rest of their lives, she said, while her mind was numb.
And then Jane went to Italy, and her letters were full of Florence and Ruth and Carrie Louise, and Maud cried herself to sleep for weeks. She read and reread her illicit copy of Locksley Hall until she knew it by heart. Sharp-eyed little Kitty Climpson saw more than Maud guessed, and, trying to help in the only way she knew, suddenly became a model of virtue and kept her pinafore clean for three days in a row. Then she relapsed, and made herself ill eating unripe apples from the orchard.
Maud, holding Kitty's hair out of her face as she bent over a basin, reflected that life, however unpleasant, went on. She quoted one last stanza to herself and resolved not to believe it any more.
O that you and I were lying, hidden from the world's disgrace,
Rolled in one another's arms, and silent in a last embrace!
Silly, sentimental stuff, Maud Silver thought. She ought not to let it interfere with her capacity for reason.
Miss Silver was knitting. She barely glanced at the needles, from which depended a frill of pink ribbing - the beginning of a matinée coat for the first daughter of a former pupil. Instead, she looked at the girl before her.
Althea shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. There was something about Miss Silver that always made her feel that she was twelve again, and had been summoned before the headmistress to stand there until she owned up to today's misdemeanour. But today Miss Silver's eyes were friendly. 'Sit down,' she said.
Althea sat. She could not quite face Miss Silver's scrutiny; she fixed her gaze on the brooch that fastened her collar. It was a rose carved from black bog-oak, with a pearl at the centre.
'Well?' said Miss Silver.
'Well,' Althea began, 'Well, the thing is... I don't want to marry Edmund.'
Miss Silver nodded kindly. 'You don't want to marry Edmund. Or anyone?'
'Or any man,' Althea echoed.
Miss Silver coughed. 'I see.'
The colour drained from Althea's face, leaving two isolated spots of make-up, as she realised that Miss Silver understood perfectly. 'You won't tell?' she begged.
'I shall regard this conversation as confidential,' Miss Silver assured her.