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«Out of the Past», Patricia Wentworth

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Miss Silver – #23, 1953

PROLOGUE

The first time that James Hardwick saw Carmona Leigh was on the evening of her twentyfirst birthday. He was in a box with the Trevors at the Royalty, and he looked across the theatre and saw her. She was sitting in the second of the stiff gilt chairs which faced them from the opposite box. She wore a white dress and a little white fur coat which she had slipped off and pushed back. She leaned forward with her elbow on the padded ledge of the box and looked across at him.

She was not really seeing him at all. Her mind was much too full of her twentyfirst birthday, the string of pearls which Esther Field had given her, the play she was going to see, and what Alan had whispered as they came up the stairs. She saw nothing except her own thoughts, and she saw them suffused with a wonderful glow of happiness and hope.

James Hardwick saw what he had been waiting for all his life. Love at first sight does happen. It had happened to him. There was a kind of tingling shock, a sense of recognition, of achievement. It wasn’t anything he could get into words either then or later. It was something that had happened. He went on looking.

He saw a girl with a delicate, serious face and dark hair, quite young and rather pale, He thought about that, his face hard and serious, his lips compressed. He might have been considering some matter of life and death, bringing everything he had to bear upon it. A girl may be pale because she is tired-sad-ill. The girl he was looking at was not any of these things. Her pallor had a luminous quality. It sprang from some deep intensity of feeling. There was a quiet radiance-Her eyes were dark. Not brown, but a very deep soft grey. But the lashes were black, and it was partly those black lashes which made her look so pale. He was not conscious of any sequence of thought. It was all there in his mind, like a picture seen in a moment of time, but he was never to forget a single detail.

It did not stay. The large, comfortable woman beside her said something, and a man who had been standing behind them came and sat down on the third of the stiff gold chairs. He was tall, fair, and noticeably good-looking. The sleeve of the white fur coat brushed his arm. He pushed it away, laughing. The girl turned. There was a faint colour in her cheeks. They smiled at one another.

Colonel Trevor growled at James’ ear,

“See those people over there? The girl’s father was the best friend I ever had-George Leigh. Got himself killed in a motor smash-he and his wife. Left me one of Carmona’s guardians. Well, she’s twentyone today, and I can’t stop her making a fool of herself if she wants to.”

“I don’t know why you should call it making a fool of herself,” said Mrs. Trevor in a petulant tone. “I’m sure there are very few girls who wouldn’t jump at Alan Field.”

Colonel Trevor’s voice acquired a military rasp.

“Then they’d be fools, my dear.”

James hoped they were not going to have one of their quarrels. Alan Field-now what had he heard about Alan Field? There was an impression that he had heard something-somewhere-and not very long ago. Not a pleasant impression. He couldn’t fix it.

Mrs. Trevor was bridling.

“I’m sure I can’t see why! It’s simply that he’s too good-looking.”

“Don’t like young men who are too good-looking, my dear.”

At fiftyfive Maisie Trevor could still flutter an eyelash. She did it now.

“Jealous!” she said, and gave the rippling laugh which had proved so effective with subalterns when she was seventeen.

James, who nevertheless had an affection for her, thought for the thousandth time how silly it sounded, and wondered how the Colonel put up with it. Just as a matter of habit, because his mind was really taken up with the question of Carmona.

Colonel Trevor had snapped at his wife. She was appealing to James.

“I suppose you’ll take Tom’s side-men always do, don’t they? Back each other up, I mean. But what I say is, Carmona may think herself lucky if she gets such a good-looking young man. She’s a sweet girl and all that, and she’s got quite a nice little income. Tom has been looking after it for her, you know. But you can’t say she has got very much in the way of looks-can you? And Alan really is a charmer. Of course he hasn’t any money, so it really might do very well. They were brought up together, you know-at least after her parents were killed. Dreadful! That’s Esther Field over there in the box with them-Carmona’s aunt-a sister of poor George Leigh’s. Such a plain woman for a famous painter to have married, but of course she had money, and he wasn’t so famous then. Silly, isn’t it, how things don’t come when you want them. Now, when he’s been dead for ten years, everybody knows his name. He was Penderel Field. Ridiculous name, but quite good for advertisement. Esther is Alan’s stepmother, so in a way he and Carmona are cousins, only of course not really, if you know what I mean. Such a pity Alan had to leave the Army. I’m sure I don’t know why he did, but Esther was very much upset about it, and I expect she would like him to settle down with Carmona.”

Colonel Trevor broke in sharply.

“Let’s hope she has more sense. And the less said about why he left the Service the better. And you are not to go round coupling his name with Carmona’s-do you hear, Maisie?” He turned to James. “All very boring for you, I’m afraid.”

Mrs. Trevor produced a lace handkerchief and an injured sniff.

“Really, Tom!”

James made haste to say that he wasn’t bored-people interested him. It was in his mind that it would not be difficult to get the Colonel to take him round in the interval and introduce him to Carmona. A hundred to one he would be going round anyhow to wish her many happy returns of the day. Easy enough to get himself taken along.

Easy enough, but it didn’t come off. Mrs. Trevor developed one of her “attacks.” The play bored her, and she considered that Tom had been rude. She became faint, threatened a swoon, and said she must go. Since they had come in James’ car, he had perforce to drive them home. He had seen Carmona Leigh, and that was all.


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