Dottie Manderson had planned to walk the short distance to her sister’s house, but as soon as she came out of the warm theatre and onto the pavement, she realised it was raining again. Hitching up the white chiffon and satin of her flowing gown, she put up her hand to hail one of the cabs. There were a dozen of them queuing to catch people as they came out into the miserable December evening in London’s West End. Obligingly, one pulled up. With a profound sense of relief, she got in.
‘327 Mortlake Gardens, please,’ she said and sank back against the leather. It was so nice to be out of the weather even though a moment ago she had been far too hot in the theatre, but the rain was coming down in torrents, and her fashionable but tiny hat being virtually useless, her hair was already dripping. It was also good to be off her feet. She stretched one elegant foot out in front of her and regarded her neat ankle with a mixture of satisfaction and concern. Being on your feet all day may be good for the figure, but it played havoc with your ankles. If she wasn’t careful, by the time she was thirty she’d end up with fat, bulging ankles like Mrs Carmichael, and the only models the old dragon would allow her to show would be the longest, most-covering up clothes, the floor-length gowns and the lounging pyjamas.
She looked out at the rainy street. It would be rather late by the time she arrived of course, but she had warned Flora about that. And Flora never cared about that sort of thing, she wouldn’t throw anyone out before midnight at the earliest—later if they were all having too much fun.
In spite of the weather—or perhaps because of it—the normally quiet residential streets were just as busy now as they were at six o’clock in the evening. She gazed out of the window at the glistening world of night-time London, but her mind was elsewhere, remembering the show, remembering her companion. She hoped she would see Peter again. He was such a nice chap and danced beautifully. And he was the only chap she knew who didn’t smoke cigars. Dottie abhorred the smell of cigars.
But Peter had been difficult to get rid of, wanting to escort her home. She had thought of asking him to come back with her to Flora’s but in the end decided it would be better not to: she didn’t want to make more of it than it was, and Flora was always the last person you introduced a young man to—unless you wanted her to start ordering the orange blossom and white satin. Just because she was married, she seemed to think everyone else ought to be married too. All the same, Mother would be furious if she knew Dottie was wandering around London in the middle of the night unescorted. But to Dottie’s mind, travelling door-to-door by cab didn’t count as being unescorted. The nice cabby would never let anything bad happen to her, she was certain.
‘327 Mortlake Gardens, Miss,’ the cabby called as they halted outside a tall fashionable villa. ‘Mind your step now, the pavement’s more like a river just here.’
Dottie handed him his fare plus a modest tip. And he came round to help her to descend. As she did so she looked about her properly. This wasn’t it. The cabby slammed the door. And Dottie immediately realised what had happened. ‘Oh my goodness, did I say 327? I’m such a fool—I meant 237. That’s the second time I’ve done that this week. Really I shouldn’t be allowed out on my own.’
‘I can easily go back a bit Miss, you jump back in. It’s no bother…’
‘No, please don’t worry about it. The rain’s stopped and it’s not far—I keep getting the number of my sister’s house mixed up with my aunt’s. Really, I must try to remember.’
‘If you’re sure Miss?’
‘I am, thank you. Goodnight.’
Dottie stood there for a moment then set off back along the street. Although it wasn’t so very late, the street felt deserted and a little unfriendly. One of the lamps was out a few yards away, and the stretch between the one behind her and the next one along seemed to yawn blackly in front of her. She bit her lip and told herself not to be a ninny. The canopy of a large tree added to the general gloom. But feeling determined, she fixed her gaze on Flora’s house further along. The house was all lit up and even from here she could hear the sound of voices, laughter and music all spilling out on the night air.
If she hurried, she shouldn’t get too wet. She had been hopelessly optimistic when she told the cabby the rain had stopped. It hadn’t. Dottie drew her fur coat more tightly around her and held onto her hat, now not much more than a bit of limp lace and ribbon. But almost her first step took her an inch deep into a puddle and she couldn’t help but give a little yelp at how cold the water was, and the shock of it.
‘Blast it,’ she grumbled, and leaning against a nearby gate-post, she shook the worst of the water from her silver sandals. Almost new, too, she thought ruefully, and almost certainly ruined. At least her dress hadn’t seemed to suffer too badly. She hitched the skirt of it up a little higher and continued her short but eventful journey.
A sound came to her ears. A soft shushing sort of sound but almost melodic. She paused a moment. Listened. Her eyes, growing accustomed to the darkness, made out a shape on the pavement not ten yards ahead. Her heart gave an odd lurch, as if a cold hand gripped it.
‘Idiot,’ she muttered, and forced herself to keep going. She really shouldn’t read gothic novels late at night, it made her jumpy. No doubt all she would find were the pages of a newspaper all spread about by the wind, and made to look odd by the streetlamp behind her creating shadows.
The sound came again. A little louder, a little more insistent. It sounded almost like…
There was someone—a man—lying on the pavement. She felt a little shimmer of fear. Could it be a drunk? Perhaps she ought to step into the road, walk round him very carefully, keeping her distance…
The head moved very slightly. His face was a pale oval in the dim lamplight. And she saw that the lips moved too. It was him making that odd noise. So it was a drunk, after all. He was singing to himself in a soft sibilant whisper. Her ear caught the rough melody of it, and even then, just as she saw the blood on his shirt-front, one part of her mind was saying, I know that song.
She forgot her fears and ran to his side.
‘What happened? Are you all right?’ she asked, then berated herself for asking such a stupid question. Because it was all too obvious he was not all right. She knelt beside him and put out a hand to take his groping one.
He was quite young, though older than her own nineteen years of age. But no more than perhaps his early thirties. Fairish hair, slightly receding, and dark from the rain. One of those moustaches that were all the rage at the moment. Blue eyes, very blue like a child’s, wide and astonished-looking. From his smart evening dress, he was clearly well-to-do, although she didn’t recognise him. But the blood—oh the blood. So much…
‘What h—happened?’ she repeated but he seemed barely able to take in what she was saying. With infinite gentleness she lowered his head to the ground again, laid his hand across his chest, and picking up her skirts she raced the remaining distance to pound on Flora’s door, screaming for help. And without waiting for a response, she hurried back to the man’s side, kneeling in a puddle, taking his hand again. Then a thought came to her and she let go of his hand to open her evening bag. She took out a tiny cambric handkerchief, tried to hold it to his chest, but he kept clutching at her. The blood was spilling, spilling, all down his shirt, onto his coat, onto the ground.
‘Someone will come,’ she promised him, promised herself even more, ‘they’ll be here in a moment, just hold on a little longer. Wh-what’s your name?’
The door was opening and George’s head poked out. Thank God it was George. She yelled, ‘Oh George! Help! There’s been the most terrible…he needs a doctor. I c-can’t stop the b-bleeding.’
George, bless him, was perfect in any crisis. ‘Right ho, old girl,’ he said, his voice carrying on the night air, and disappeared back inside. She could almost hear him going around the house trying to find Someone Useful. No doubt there was a doctor present among his many cronies. George was not only a dear, he was a sensible man, and she could see perfectly well why Flora had married him.
The street seemed so quiet. The other houses were all mantled in darkness, not one light, not a sound. The houses along this part of the street might just as well have all been empty. The music and the laughter from Flora and George’s party seemed worlds away beyond the other streetlamp, and here, in her little oasis of shadow, nothing touched her or the man on the ground. Dottie could hear the laboured sound of his breathing, gasping, as if he was snatching at air too thin to breathe. Yet he was still singing that song in that peculiar soundless whisper.
It came to her now what it was. She had been to see the show only last week at the theatre with George and Flora and a couple of other friends. Gay Divorce. The divine Fred Astaire, and Claire Luce in her gorgeous, flowing dresses of chiffon and taffeta and lamé that Mrs Carmichael was already copying for her best clients.
Dottie looked into the man’s wide blue eyes.
‘What’s your name? Can you tell me anything? Who did this to you? What’s…’ She heard the sound of a door slamming and running feet clattering on the wet pavement. ‘Help’s coming, hold on,’ she said. He gripped her hand in a tight, painful grasp, and tried to raise his head a little. She thought he was about to speak, but he began to sing to her.
‘Please, save your strength,’ she begged him. George and a couple of others were there, Flora opened the door again and came out to stand on the steps, looking anxious, a little knot of guests crowding out behind her to see what was happening.
He continued to sing the next line of the song. Dottie felt confused. If only he would tell her who he was. He wouldn’t stop, he wouldn’t let go of her hand even as the doctor tried to pull him back onto the ground so he could see to his injuries. They were asking her questions but she couldn’t seem to take in what they were saying. The rain ran down her face, dripping off her ears, nose and chin. George’s hand was under her elbow, trying to raise her and guide her away, but the man clutched at her, his fingers digging into her arm, refusing to let her go. She could see it in his eyes, the determination to hold onto her, there was something he simply had to tell her.
His voice was less than a whisper, she bent her head to catch the sound of it even though her memory was reminding her of the words of the song. In the middle of a line, his eyes lost their focus and glazed. He was gone without finishing the line. A slight convulsion had him jerking then falling back onto the wet ground, and she sat back on her heels, her free hand covering her mouth, then George was breaking the hold, pulling her up and leading her away, his arm warm about her shoulders, pulling off his jacket to place around her. ‘Oh,’ she said, and felt foolish for saying something so pointless. George waved to Flora who hurried over, gasping at the sight of the man. The pool of blood where he lay was huge. Dottie now saw the enormity of it as if for the first time. It ran across the width of the pavement, down into the gutter and was borne away by the rainwater, a long red line, stretching for yards and yards. The doctor and the other man were still with him, two pals of George’s, she knew them so well and yet just for now their names were a mystery to her.
‘Come away, dear,’ George was saying, and he and Flora drew her into the house, past the staring guests.
‘I just—f-found him,’ she felt she had to explain. ‘I was going to go around him—I thought he was a drunk, but then…’
‘Come upstairs, Dottie dear,’ Flora was saying, ‘let’s get you out of those wet things.’
Dottie looked down at her dress in surprise. She really was wet through, and she hadn’t even noticed.
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