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Authors: Patricia Wentworth

Down Under

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Down Under

A Benbow Smith Mystery

Patricia Wentworth

CHAPTER I

Elfreda Moore turned round from the telephone with a despairing gesture.

“Aunt Hortensia, she says she sent them off yesterday morning—she
swears
she did.”

“Then she's not speaking the truth,” said Miss Hortensia Carew. “Any time before one o'clock, and they would have been here by the first post.”

She spoke in her most decided manner, and she could be very decided. She was small, pretty, with fluffy white hair, eyes of the brightest china blue, and a complexion which was still admired, especially by Miss Hortensia Carew. She had managed her brother and her brother's house for twenty-two years, and now that Rose Anne was to be married, there would never be any question of the reins being taken from her hands. From this point of view the marriage had her approval. But why make such a fuss about it? Girls were married every day, weren't they? One could have been married oneself several times over if one had wanted to.

She put her gold-rimmed pince-nez straight, and frowned at Elfreda, who continued to bleat.

“She swears she sent them. She says they were posted before ten. Isn't it grim?”

The Reverend James Carew looked suddenly over the top of the
Times
and enquired in an irritated voice,

“What's the matter now? What hasn't been posted? What hasn't arrived? There isn't a minute's peace! I am reading an article about the stratosphere. Remarkably interesting—if I could get a minute's peace!”

“Oh, Uncle James—the bridesmaids' wreaths. The dresses came yesterday—from Madame Frederica's, you know—and she hadn't put in the wreaths, and we rang up at once, and she swore she'd send them by the very next post, and they haven't come.”

“Your uncle is not interested in wreaths,” said Miss Hortensia acidly.

Elfreda couldn't believe it. You might be old, and an uncle, and a person who read articles on the stratosphere, but it wasn't possible that you should take no interest in the wreaths for your own daughter's bridesmaids. She said protestingly,

“Isn't it
grim
, Uncle James?”

Mr Carew got to his feet and began to drift towards the door, paper in hand. He had the same regular features as his sister. All the Carews had regular features—it annoyed Elfreda dreadfully that she should have taken after her father's family—but James Carew's eyes were hazy instead of sharp, and his fair skin had gone tired and grey. His sister managed him because he had stopped taking much interest in his own life when Rose Anne's mother died. He had a vague fondness for Elfreda though he considered her noisy. He said quite kindly,

“The wreaths will probably come.”

“But the last post's in.”

He paused at the door.

“There will be one tomorrow.”

“But the wedding's tomorrow—Rose Anne's wedding.”

She spoke to an empty doorway. Mr Carew had disappeared.

“Aunt Hortensia—what are we to do?”

Miss Carew was engaged in ticking off names on a long, neat list. Every time she had to look up she lost her place and was obliged to go back to the beginning again. As the list had already been checked at least a dozen times, this did not really matter, but every time it happened she became a little crosser. Weddings always made her cross, and Rose Anne's wedding had already filled the house with people, upset its well ordered routine, and turned two capable, well trained maids into giggling chatterboxes. Goodness knew how long it would take to get settled down again, and she couldn't go away and shut herself up in the study with the
Times
like James. She looked up with a frown and a jerk of the head.

“Go and tell Rose Anne. It's her business, I suppose.”

Elfreda hesitated.

“Oliver's only just come. They're in the garden.”

Miss Hortensia coloured sharply.

“Good gracious—isn't he going to have her for the rest of his life? Go and tell her at once! And she must make her own arrangements. I can't do everything.”

Elfreda ran out of the room—quickly, because she didn't want to have a row right in the middle of Rose Anne's wedding and she felt one coming on. How Rose Anne had contrived to live all those years with Aunt Hortensia she simply couldn't imagine. Uncle James wasn't too bad, but Aunt Hortensia was a menace.

She opened the garden door and stepped out. It was going to be fine for the wedding all right—bright sun, cold air, a nip of frost tonight perhaps, and a lovely October day tomorrow for Oliver and Rose Anne.

She stood looking down the garden, a plump girl with a lot of fair hair. She had good grey eyes but rather light lashes. Her thick fair eyebrows rose to a peak in the middle and gave her rather a surprised look. She would have been prettier if she had weighed less. She had a soft heart and a sweet tooth. She adored Rose Anne, who was twenty-two to her nineteen. She didn't want to break in on her and Oliver. She stood there hesitating and thinking about the wedding. Mary Leigh, the other bridesmaid, was dark, and they were going to wear stiff dresses of lilac and white shot taffeta with flat wreaths of pink and mauve flowers like highly sophisticated daisies, and they were to carry sprays of Michaelmas daisies and pink chrysanthemums. The wreaths were very becoming. Frederica was a beast. If they didn't come, they might use some of the biggest Michaelmas daisies—pink and mauve ones, just single flowers nipped off and sewn on a narrow strip of net. They must be looked over for earwigs though. Grim to have an earwig in your hair at Rose Anne's wedding.

She went down the narrow path between the apple trees. She knew just where they would be, in the sheltered sunny corner where a bit of old brick wall kept the wind off and you could look across at the dahlias, and the daisies, and the orange heleniums.

But Rose Anne and Oliver Loddon were looking at each other. Rose Anne saw a fair young man with lines of humour about his mouth and a little frown between his eyes, a quick frown which came, and went, and came again. The eyes told very little as a rule. Just now they were telling Rose Anne that he loved her. They were no-coloured eyes and could be secret. She saw this. She saw Oliver who had made love to her the third time they spoke together. And tomorrow he would be her husband.

Oliver saw Rose Anne, lovely and beloved, most gentle, most gracious—a loving heart, a gentle mind, a sweet intelligence—the turn of her head sheer grace, the texture of her skin fine as the rose petal just drifted from the wall. He would have liked to set it against her cheek, rose against rose, but he refrained, because any movement, any word, must break the enchantment of the hour. He looked at her, and wondered whether he could love her more, whether the years which steadied and deepened love would rob him of this quivering delight in her beauty, her perfection—the sun on her chestnut hair and the lovely shades in it, grey-blue eyes, very dark, very deep, the same thick lashes that Elfreda had, but dark instead of light, and in place of surprised fair brows a delicate arch much darker than her hair. He saw these things, and the way she had of smiling without seeming to move her lips, and the little ripple which saved her nose from being merely straight.

Elfreda came round the last apple tree, and thought, “She's lovely. He's awfully in love with her. Lucky them!”

They both moved. Oliver frowned, and then smiled quickly, because he was in a smiling mood, and life was good and he liked Elfreda. “Rose Anne—” Elfreda thought—“she was in a dream—I've waked her—I wish I hadn't. Why couldn't Aunt Hortensia leave them alone?” She said in her pretty, fresh voice,

“I didn't want to come—Aunt Hortensia made me. I do hate her, don't you? But the wreaths haven't come, and she said I was to tell you. And Frederica swears she sent them off before ten yesterday, and of course she couldn't have, or else they've got lost on the way. And don't you think we could do something with Michaelmas daisies instead?”

“I expect we could,” said Rose Anne. Her voice was gentle and a little aloof.

Oliver laughed.

“What do you want to do with them?”

He was the first person who had taken the least interest. Elfreda's heart warmed to him.

“Well, I thought we might take some of the big ones, just the single flowers—October Dawn, and Lil Fardell, and Queen Mary—and put them on a strip of net and wind them in and out of our hair, only the snag is that Mary simply can't wear real flowers. She says they just look at her once and die. That's why we were having the wreaths from Frederica.”

“Flowers die on flirts, don't they?” said Oliver. “I shall look forward to Mary.”

Elfreda giggled.

“Oh, but she isn't. That's the comic part—she couldn't flirt to save her life—doesn't know how to. Do you like flirts?”

“In reason,” said Oliver Loddon.

“Rose Anne can't flirt,” said Elfreda in a teasing voice.

“She doesn't want you to marry me under false pretences,” said Rose Anne.

“Rose Anne doesn't need to flirt,” said Oliver. “She just looks, and we fall down flat—at least that's what happened to me.”

Rose Anne got up: She was smiling. She didn't say anything. Her lashes came down and hid her eyes. She moved away from them, going down the border, not picking among the flowers, but looking at them and touching one here and there. All at once she looked back over her shoulder and spoke,

“Did anyone ring up—for me?”

CHAPTER II

Elfreda said, “No.”

Rose Anne went on down the border as far as the tall pink dahlias. She stood looking at them for a moment, or looking past them, and then turned and came back again walking slowly, her eyes downcast and just the hint of a smile about her lips. Afterwards, when every word and look were being gathered up and put under the microscope, Elfreda was questioned and cross-questioned as to just what Rose Anne had said, and just how Rose Anne had looked.

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