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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 1 (April 2, 1934.)

The Romantic

page 30

The Romantic

The following story, by Isabel Andrews, was awarded first prize in the New Zealand Women Writers' and Artists' Society's senior detective story competition for 1933.

“I didn't mean to kill him,” he said, gaspingly, with a pause between each word.

The tinkly little bell over the sweet shop door rang sharply, and Miss Mitford laid down her book with a sigh. Trade was bad, and a customer was a customer, but she wished that she could have read at least to the end of the chapter before going to the counter. Before the bell rang she had been deep in a tale of Elizabethan adventure, and when she went out of her sitting-room into the ordered and comfortless atmosphere of the shop it seemed for a moment that a figure from her book had come to life. Clad in a brave scarlet and gold doublet, with swinging cloak, he leant against her counter, golden head held high, and smiled at her. Her look of astonishment brought a ready laugh to his lips and his words broke the spell.

“Sorry to startle you,” he said, “but the truth is I've lost my way. I'm looking for Newbury Hall. There's a party there to-night—fancy dress—hence the garb.”

Miss Mitford gave him the required directions, and with a word of thanks he was making his way towards the door, when he paused.

“I say, you're quite a way from town aren't you?”

“Yes,” was the reply; “the town proper starts half a mile up the road.”

“Don't you feel nervous at night?”

“Not very often. At least, I haven't felt nervous until recently; but an old man was strangled in the woods behind here a few days ago and since then I haven't felt—quite—so easy.”

“I heard about that,” he admitted.

“It doesn't seem possible that anyone could just kill for the sheer lust of killing. It was a madman, of course. It's terrible to think that it may be someone I know quite well. Someone as sane as you or I—except at times.”

“What a ghastly thought,” he answered. “Please don't fill me with the horrors. I'm going to a dance, remember. Well, goodbye, and thanks for telling me where the Hall is,” and with a flourish of his scarlet cloak, he was gone.

Miss Mitford waited until the sound of his car died away in the distance and then she went back to her book, but somehow the tale was less interesting than before. The young man had effectively roused thoughts which she had been striving to banish for days past. Ever since poor Job Marshall had been found gasping and dying in the Newly Woods, she had thought of her isolated position right at the edge of the town. Job's last words had been of someone with “Hands like Claws!” She shuddered and drew nearer to the fire, while all unknown to her a pair of deep-set dark eyes were gazing at her over the sill of her carelessly curtained window. “Hands like claws!” The words beat upon her brain until she rose, abruptly, striving to quell the rapidly rising tide of panic, with movement, and as she did so the bell rang again. The thought that it might be the young Elizabethan gallant returned on some slight errand heartened her, and she went. In the place of that young presence, however, stood another man—older, far less picturesque. A man with deep set eyes and a grim lipped mouth. She went forward bravely, masking her increasing fear.

His voice was harsh, and his words seemed to justify her terror.

“Could I stay here for a few minutes? My car has broken down and I have had to walk for miles. It's quite a way to a garage, I believe, and I'm just about all in for the moment.”

Something within Miss Mitford was shrieking out, “No! No! Can't you see I'm alone. Go away! Go away!” But she answered calmly enough, “Certainly. Stay if you wish.”

“Thank you,” and the man sank into a chair beside the counter. Miss Mitford looked at him. Yes, he certainly did look tired—perhaps his story was true. After all, cars do break down on lonely country roads. Then page 31 she looked again at the grim mouth and the lines running from nose to chin, and the thought came, that here was a man capable of anything—even—with an inward shudder—murder. Abruptly another thought came. The only exit from the little flat was by way of the shop itself. It would be far better, if the man had to stay, for him to stay in the sitting room. She could easily make an excuse to stay in the shop and then, if her fears were realised, it would be an easy matter to run down the road, and if no human help was near, to hide in the bushes alongside of the road.

“Perhaps,” she said evenly, “you might like to go into the other room. There is a fire there and an easy chair.”

He opened his eyes at that, astonished, and then rose to his feet slowly.

“It's very kind of you. I must admit I am very tired.”

On the threshold of the room he paused.

“Are you all alone here?” he asked.

For a moment she hesitated, thinking that a lie might help, but it was so very obvious that she was alone that the thought was discarded, and she answered:

“Yes;” and added, “though of course there are always people coming in.”

He stood looking at her for a moment, and then …

“Customers?” he repeated. “Oh, yes. Of course there are. But not so many at night as in the daytime, eh?” and he looked at her strangely.

“Oh, indeed you would be surprised at the number I have at night. You are the second caller I have had already.”

“So,” he said, “the second?” He paused for a moment, and then, nodding, went into the room, leaving the door open.

“You can shut the door,” she said, “I have some accounts to attend to.”

He did so, and she was left alone. What a fool she had been to let him in. And what an arrant idiot to admit that there had been only one other caller that night. She looked round the familiar shelves with their rows of tidy colourful bottles and jars. Automatically she rearranged a pile of “penny things.” Her fears were no longer indefinite, muddled things. Somehow she knew that she had cause to fear. Suddenly poor Job Marshall came before her eyes. Job had died, his words before he died had been “hands like claws.” The man in the other room had not taken his gloves off, and she felt she knew why. Well, she had still a chance. She must creep out of the shop before he knew she was gone. She turned. How lucky! She had left a coat in the shop that morning. She stretched out her hand to take it from its peg when a sound behind her paralysed all movement.

A door was opening—slowly. Often, recently, she had heard that sound and had heard the stealthy footsteps that had accompanied it, but always before they had been imaginary. However, this sound was different. This was no figment of a frightened mind, but an awful, tangible fact. Somewhere behind her a door was opening slowly, and there were real footsteps this time, though just as secret as those fancied ones. She almost fainted. She could not turn or speak. Then all at once the dreadful numbness was banished and she screamed as two hands, grasping and clawlike, fastened on her throat. She struggled as a rat struggles in the grip of a terrier, but the pressure on her throat still held. The thought that old Job Marshall had died just like this, together with a spasm of pity for him flashed through her mind. Then, suddenly, there was another presence in the room. The grip on her throat relaxed. She heard a snarl, half animal, half human, and then, freed, she stood huddled against the wall, trembling hand on bruised throat, watching the two men who were fighting in the restricted space before the counter. She recognised her rescuer. It was the young Elizabethan gallant. She felt suddenly calm again—and safe. It seemed so right that he should come at that moment. He had seemed in the short time she had seen him to be the embodiment of all the heroes of all her romances, and now he had justified her, and the glamour with which she had surrounded him did not seem at all ridiculous.

The struggle on the floor was nearing an end. The strength and youth of the one was too much for his opponent, and it was easy enough to see the issue. The dark lean man was obviously weakening. It was surely a matter of seconds before he would be overpowered completely. What happened next, therefore, seemed inexplicable. The grip of the man in the bright doublet suddenly relaxed, and all at once he was lying on his back, his fair hair soiled with the dust of the shop, while a dark pool of blood was slowly forming on the floor.

“You've killed him.” A voice, hoarse and unnatural sounded in the room, and Miss Mitford realised with surprise that it was her own. Then, suddenly, the little room seemed filled with men. Men in strange garb. There was Mephistopheles, Charles the First, Henry the Eighth, and a troubador. Silently they gazed at the beautiful still figure on the floor, at Miss Mitford, and at the dark man who had painfully risen to his feet.

“I didn't mean to kill him,” he said, gaspingly, with a pause between each word. “He had a dagger hidden in those clothes. While we fought it must have slipped. Anyway, he's dead.”

Dead! Ah, the pity of it! Miss Mitford started to sob.

The man dressed as Mephistopheles spoke. Dimly she heard what he was saying.

“I am sorry we were so long in coming. I misjudged things very badly I'm afraid.”

“You knew then that he was here?” she cried.

“Yes. We waited because we wanted proof. But I am afraid we waited too long.” (Continued on page 34).

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