Home > The Death of Mrs. Westaway(16)

The Death of Mrs. Westaway(16)
Author: Ruth Ware

“It’s about four miles to Trepassen,” Mr. Treswick said conversationally as they wound slowly down the lane to the main road, the wipers frantically swishing back and forth. At the crossroads they stopped while he peered through the gloom up and down the road, trying vainly to see if there was a car coming, and eventually, with a feeling of taking both their lives in his hands, he stamped on the accelerator and the car jolted across the junction and picked up speed.

“I hope Mrs. Warren will have tea waiting for us. Are you staying the night?”

“I—” Hal felt a jolt of guilt. She had not been able to write—there had been no time—and she had no idea what she would do if the invitation to stay was rescinded. “I would love to, yes, but I’m afraid I wasn’t able to tell Mrs. Warren I was coming. Your letter only arrived two days ago—I didn’t think a reply would get here in time. . . .”

“Oh, I am sorry, I should have put in a telephone number,” Mr. Treswick said apologetically. “But no matter, Mrs. Warren will be able to open up a room, I’m sure. I should warn you”—he glanced doubtfully at Hal’s wet coat and soaking clothes beneath—“there is no central heating at Trepassen I’m afraid, Mrs. Westaway never got around to having it installed. But there are plenty of fires and hot-water bottles and so on. You should be . . .”—he hesitated—“well, fairly comfortable.”

“Thank you,” Hal said meekly, though something in his tone made her doubt the truth of his words.

“I must say”—Mr. Treswick changed gears as they crested a hill—“I was a little surprised to find out that Maud had had a child.”

Maud. So that was the missing daughter’s name. M. Westaway—like her mother. Was that where the mistake had originated? Hal felt a silent wash of thankfulness that she had not brought her full birth certificate, followed by a flicker of something else, a kind of alarm. What did Mr. Treswick mean, he was surprised Maud had had a child? Was there something she needed to know? Could she ask, or would her ignorance give her away?

“I . . . what do you mean?” she asked at last.

Mr. Treswick gave a laugh. “Oh, she was very decided as a young woman. Always swore she would never get married, never have children. I remember telling her once, she must have been about twelve at the time, ‘You may feel differently when you’re grown up, my dear,’ and she laughed, and said I was an old fool—she was rather forthright, your mother. She told me children were nothing but padlocks on the patriarchal shackles of marriage. That was the phrase she used—I remember it rather well. I recall thinking at the time that it was rather an unusual turn of phrase, particularly for a child of that age. So I was a little taken aback to learn that she had in fact had a child—and fairly young too, as I understand it?”

“She—she was eighteen,” Hal said faintly. “When she had me.”

Eighteen. When Hal was a child it had seemed a perfectly reasonable age—grown-up, in fact. Now that she was twenty-one herself, she could not imagine what her mother had been through, the struggle it must have been to have a child so young, and care for it alone.

But the words were barely out of her mouth when she realized her mistake, and felt a rush of cold fury prickle down the back of her neck at what she had just let slip. Damn. Damn. What a stupid, amateurish mistake.

It was the first rule of cold reading—be as vague as possible, try not to offer specific information, unless you can retract or twist the meaning if you’ve got it badly wrong. Always I’m getting a man’s name . . . a name with an f in it . . . ? rather than I’m hearing from your cousin Fred. If you must guess at a specific, make it one that’s statistically probable—I’m seeing a blue car . . . ? Never a green one.

Hal had just committed two grave errors in less than five words. She had given a specific, unnecessary piece of information, and it was one that was statistically unlikely to be right. How many women had children at eighteen? Two percent? Less? She had no idea.

But even setting that aside, she didn’t know enough about the facts of this woman’s life to make guesses like that. What if Maud would have been in her fifties now, so that elementary maths would tell Mr. Treswick the relationship was impossible? What if she had still been at home at the age of eighteen? Hal had been lulled by the false reassurance of Mr. Treswick’s “fairly young, as I understand it”—a piece of information that had seemed to chime so neatly with Hal’s own life. But there was fairly young, and fairly young. A twenty-five-year-old mother was “fairly young,” these days. She had just slipped up—and badly.

Hal looked nervously across to see if Mr. Treswick had begun frowning, adding up figures in his head. But he didn’t seem to have noticed her mistake. In fact, he barely seemed to have heard her remark at all. His mind was traveling down other paths.

“The patriarchal shackles of marriage,” he said with a chuckle. “That phrase will always remind me of your mother. Though of course”—he threw a brief glance at her, his eyes bright as a robin’s—“she never did marry, I understand?”

“N-no,” Hal said. In spite of the chill in her bones, her face felt hot, scorched by the blast from the fan heater. How stupid she had been. From now on she would not offer information—just corroborate what others had already told her.

Though perhaps . . . They turned a corner, the tires shushing in the wet, and Hal pressed her cheek to the cold window and tried to think. Perhaps she hadn’t been such a fool to admit her mother’s age. It was very possible—probable, even—that she would be caught out at some point. Perhaps it was better to volunteer honest information now, so that if she were caught, she could represent the whole thing as a misunderstanding, luckily picked up, rather than a cold-blooded deception. If she started lying now, there would be no way out later on. Not without prosecution for fraud.

Maud Westaway. If only she had known about the name, she could have googled on the train, found out something about this woman who was supposed to be her mother. What did she look like? How old was she? And what had happened to her?

It was too late now. She could hardly get out her phone and start researching in front of Mr. Treswick. But the idea of having some basic facts to arm herself with, before she faced her “uncles,” was enticing. She could not afford to slip up again. Could she creep away when they got to the house? Perhaps if she asked to change into dry clothes . . . ?

She kept silent for the rest of the journey, as did Mr. Treswick, though he shot the odd glance at Hal as the little car ate up the long country miles. It was only as the car began to slow down that Hal sat up, and he raised his voice above the noise of the wipers.

“Here we are.” He indicated left, the flashing light turning the raindrops golden. “Trepassen House. Ah, the gates are open. Very good. I must say, I didn’t relish the idea of struggling with the latch in this weather.”

They turned carefully through the giant wrought-iron gates and began to wend their way up a long, graveled drive.

Far up ahead was a long, low building, and with a jolt, as they came round the corner, Hal realized that she recognized it. An image flashed into her head—tall windows, a sweep of grass falling away—and there it was, appearing before her eyes, like a conjuring trick.

Hal felt her mouth drop open, and for a moment it seemed inexplicable—and then, with a little rush of chagrin, she realized. Of course. It was the postcard she had found online. We had a very good tea at Trepassen House. It had been taken from just slightly farther along the lawn, and the jolt of recognition she had experienced was nothing but the perspectives slotting into place. But even as she recognized the image, she was noticing the changes—the ivy and Virginia creeper that had been decorous little trails in that original postcard, but now ran riot over the front of the house, seeming to strangle the bay windows and the columns that supported the porch. The paintwork was no longer the pristine white of the postcard, but cracked and flaking, and the lawns were overgrown, weeds growing between the flags of the terrace.

Hal felt her hopes begin to ebb away a little, along with the righteous certainty she had felt on the train. Where were the ponies, the signs of the foreign holidays, the expensive suits? If there was money here, it had not been spent for a long, long time.

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