Out of a job, a home, and luck, Mary Coleridge tells a seemingly innocuous lie in order to take a break from the pressures of London. Posing as her friend, Marie-Elizabeth Mason, Mary travels to the countryside to visit Miss Mason’s wealthy aunt. The estate is grand, Mrs. de Liane eager and endearing, the food abundant and delectable. It is so nice, in fact, that Mary settles into her new life as Marie-Elizabeth, and even entertains the possibility of a new beau. But something is not right within the great house.
As Mary’s stay extends, the sweet Mrs. de Liane begins to sour. The scheming matriarch has a devilish plan in store for her niece. And when Mary fails to cooperate, Mrs. de Liane decides to hold her captive. With no one to turn to and no way out, will Mary ever escape the house, and the oppressive evil that rules it?
The queen of classic crime, Margery Allingham, delivers a dazzling manor house mystery writing as Maxwell March.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:May 20, 1904
Date of Death:June 30, 1966
Place of Birth:London
Place of Death:Colchester, Essex, England
Education:Endsleigh House School, Colchester; the Perse School, Cambridge; and the Regent Street Polytechnic, London
Read an Excerpt
The Long Shadow
IT BEGAN with the girl.
As she sat looking down at the white breakfast table in that cold boardinghouse dining room, the gloom only broken by the warmth of her hair and the deep cream of her skin, she did not know that the hour was approaching when the thing that was to happen would swoop down upon her and those others, to envelop and crush her beneath its heavy shadow.
She did not know then, even, of the three impressions which were to remain vivid and terrifying in her memory until the day she died: the sight of the clean line of a man's throat and jaw, brown against white linen; the feel of an old-fashioned ring, paralyzingly tight, on the third finger of her left hand; and, curiously, the smell of wet leaves rotting cleanly in the long grass.
At the moment she was thinking rather shyly of a little love affair, so frail and tender a plant that she did not dream of the long tenuous roots it was to put out, which were to creep out blindly to bind her still more helplessly beneath the shadow.
Nor did she dream then of that other love which was to come.
"You're early, Miss Coleridge."
There was a hint of reproof rather than reproach in Miss Campbell- Smith's voice as she paused for a moment before the small table in the darkest corner of the oppressive room to look down at the girl who sat waiting for her breakfast.
"I'm surprised. You were out rather late last night, weren't you?"
Miss Campbell-Smith had not kept a good middle-class boardinghouse for twenty-three years without learning the gentle art of criticism by inference, and now her little round red face, which should have been so kindly and was nothing of the sort, was like a spiteful pink parrot's, the beak opened to bite.
Mary Coleridge stirred and looked down her small delicately modelled nose with that peculiar mixture of embarrassment and disapproval which secretly infuriated the boardinghouse keeper, making her feel somehow a little vulgar in her own house.
"I don't think I was very late. I went to the Marble Arch Pavilion to see a film."
"With Mr Muir?" Miss Campbell-Smith's tone was insinuating.
Mary raised her round grey eyes with the perfect brows, which no plucking had made smooth and narrow.
"Certainly with Mr Muir."
Miss Campbell-Smith choked down her exasperation, bit off the sentence which was on the tip of her tongue, and, turning her back upon the girl, strode off down the gloomy room amid the cheerless little tables. Her woollen cardigan poked at the back, and her flat heels and stout black stockings made her into a figure which would have been negligible or pathetic had it not been for a certain dominance in her movement and the magnificent stiffness of her carriage.
In the doorway to the kitchen she paused and beckoned the untidy, weary individual who combined the duties of waiter, hall porter and boots to the select boarding establishment of Merton House.
"Stephen," said Miss Campbell-Smith loudly, "Miss Coleridge is evidently hungry, since she is down before the first bell. You may serve her."
Mary Coleridge did not hear the thrust. She was lost in her own thoughts, her eyes fixed upon the scene which she could just glimpse through the window on the opposite side of the room. It was an autumn picture. The leaves on the few trees in the Crescent were yellow, and every now and again a great flock of them swirled high into the air as the wind caught them, to flutter down to the grey pavements, moist in the mild damp morning.
Mary was a pretty girl. Even old Stephen observed it with a flicker of satisfaction defeated even before it was born, as he floundered towards her, slopping milk and coffee over the enamelled tray in his unsteady hands. She was tall and slender, with the limberness of youth. Her skin was fine and cream coloured, and her face oval and calmly beautiful under hair as warm and bright as the autumn leaves in the Crescent.
Although scarcely more than twenty-two, she possessed already that indefinable poise and grace of manner which is so impressive if it is natural and so impossible if it is not, and which can best be described as an innocent dignity. It was this quality in Mary which Miss Campbell- Smith never forgave.
Yet old Stephen did not find her stand-offish. In his opinion Miss Coleridge was a lady and a nice young lady too. She smiled when he apologized for the horrible mess of milk and coffee upon the tray, and he brightened considerably.
"See a good picture last night, miss?" he ventured.
"Oh, lovely, Stephen," she said. "Absolutely lovely."
She spoke so vehemently that she surprised herself, and the colour came into her face. The old man smiled.
"It makes a difference 'oo you're with, don't it?" he said so naïvely that the words carried no offence.
Mary Coleridge hesitated, and her round eyes were young and very bright.
"I — perhaps it does," she admitted, and looked down at her plate so hurriedly that Stephen had no need to glance towards the door.
"Mornin', Mr Muir," he said over his shoulder as he pulled out the chair opposite to the girl. "Nice to see you down early. I'll bring your breakfast along in a jiffy."
He shuffled off, and Peter Muir sat down. He was a squarely built, sturdy young man with yellow hair and bright-blue eyes. Older than the girl in front of him by six or seven years, he yet possessed an incorrigible boyishness, ingenuous and attractive. Most of the ladies at Merton House had looked upon him with interest during the seven months of his stay, but, although always irreproachably polite, he had shown no inclination to become better acquainted with any of them save Mary, and when she had shyly assented to a request that he might share her table he had seemed pleased and slightly relieved.
They were both lonely young people, and Mary had looked forward to her mealtime conversations. She talked about herself and thought little of it that Peter Muir, so entertaining upon general subjects, never referred to his private affairs.
It was understood at Merton House that he worked very hard in the City all day and spent the evenings studying in his room. Certainly he hardly ever went out, but much headway in friendship may be made across a white tablecloth, and Mary had come to regard Peter as her one human companion in the long dreary business of making a living in a London which had not been introduced.
The evening before he had asked her to come and see a film with him, and she had been surprised to find how excited she was about the little adventure. They had come home together in a taxi, and in the darkened hall, while old Stephen found their keys from his cubbyhole office, he had held her hand for a moment and whispered something. It had all been very innocent and childish and quite absurdly delightful.
At the moment they were alone in the dismal dining room. None of the other boarders was down, and Stephen was in the kitchen. The girl glanced shyly across the table and stiffened. Peter Muir was looking at her steadily. There was no smile upon his lips. His face was pale and his eyes troubled. He seemed uncharacteristically ill at ease. She smiled at him.
"Did you dream about the French Revolution?" she said lightly, referring to the film they had seen. "I did."
"No," he said so quietly that she looked away from him, her heart contracting. It was coming, then.
He leant across the table, and instinctively she prepared herself to listen to that most exhilarating experience of all, the first proposal.
"Do you remember in the hall last night I told you I had something to tell you?" he began abruptly.
She nodded, her cheeks burning.
"Well, here it is." He spoke with unconscious brutality because of his unhappiness. "I'm leaving here today."
She stared at him, waiting for laughter to come into his eyes as he reassured her, but they remained grave and somehow pained.
"Leaving?" she echoed, fighting against the chill which crept over her, making her breathless. "For good?"
Stephen arrived with Peter's breakfast, and the young man sat looking at her while the waiter set his food before him and lumbered off again.
"I don't know," he said at last. "I shall be gone for three months anyway. It's — it's my holiday."
"Three months holiday?" said Mary, her surprise momentarily chasing all other considerations out of her mind.
Peter Muir did not meet her eyes.
"Yes. I take three months holiday every year," he said gravely.
Mary was struggling with herself. To her horror she found she was panic-stricken and perilously near tears. She had been so sure that he was in love with her and had been so very near love herself, and now this idiotically dramatic farewell completely demoralized her, and she felt her composure slipping away. The man began to talk hurriedly, his voice unusually husky.
"I meant our jaunt last night to be a sort of farewell party, but when the time came to tell you I couldn't bring myself to spoil it all."
Mary clutched at the shreds of her pride.
"Why should you think I should be so upset?" she said stiffly.
He looked at her, and his mouth twisted helplessly, while his eyes, eloquent and piteous, met her own.
"I'm leaving right away," he said. "I don't suppose I shall come back ... here. I just wanted to thank you tremendously. You've made this life bearable for me, you see, and I can't possibly explain to you how very grateful I am. Good-bye."
A strong brown hand was suddenly thrust out across the table to seize her own. For a moment she felt its pressure, fierce, urgent and despairing, and then without a word he got up and went out of the room, leaving his breakfast cold and untasted.
Mary sat very still for a moment. She felt numb and unsteady. There was a great weight in her chest, and a chill crept up and down her spine.
Outside the window the autumn leaves whirled like a flock of sparrows in the wind, but their warm colour seemed to have deteriorated, and the room within felt damp and musty.
Mary could not taste her coffee, and she swallowed it with difficulty. She was not in love with Peter, not disappointed and heartbroken because he was running away, she explained to herself reasonably, but she was frightened because she was alone. The dreadful vista of a lifetime of silent, lonely meals spread out in front of her like the pathway to eternity, and she felt her eyes filling with helpless tears.
Across the room Miss Campbell-Smith caught sight of her and came edging forward, her bright eyes fixed upon Peter's empty chair and untasted breakfast. Mary gulped. She felt she could not stand barbed insinuations at the moment, and, rising to her feet, she threaded her way quickly among the tables towards the hall doorway.
But Miss Campbell-Smith was not to be cheated. She reached the girl's side just as they came to the foot of the stairs.
"Mr Muir hasn't eaten his breakfast," she began in her soft voice with the little croak in it. "Is the poor boy ill, Miss Coleridge?"
Mary glanced about her wildly for deliverance, and it came in unexpected form. At the top of the stairs a most unlikely apparition had appeared, and now it came slowly down towards them, completely and complacently conscious of the sensation it was creating.
Mary saw a big, red-faced sandy-haired girl wrapped in a black lace negligee which would have been considered a little overexotic in a Hollywood boudoir. It was obviously outrageously expensive and was predestined to look out of place almost anywhere, let alone the slightly dingy front hall of Merton House.
Miss Campbell-Smith gasped audibly, and the newcomer smiled, revealing unexpected good humour.
"Good morning," she said. "Where's the breakfast room?"
She had a deep, pleasant voice and a broad Australian accent.
"Miss Mason —" Miss Campbell-Smith's tone was tinged with hysteria — "you can't breakfast like that — here!"
"Oh? Who says not?"
The stranger's broad cream forehead, on which golden freckles were scattered like Stardust, ruckled into angry folds, and Mary became aware of a personality both forceful and forthright and beside which Miss Campbell-Smith's spiteful little temperament took on a mosquitolike quality.
"I paid good money for this, and I'll say it suits me."
The stranger turned round on the stairs, mannequin fashion. The negligee was even more sensational at the back, and Miss Campbell- Smith twittered helplessly.
Mary looked at the splendid barbaric figure, so distressingly vulgarized by the sophisticated insinuations of the creation, and took a step forward.
"It does," she said impulsively. "You look magnificent. But you'll feel awfully uncomfortable if you go in to breakfast like that. You see, this isn't the right sort of place. It — it'll be like going into a railway station."
The other girl seemed to notice her for the first time, and she peered through the gloom of the hallway at her face. Finally she laughed.
"I get you," she said. "I've come to the wrong party. All right, kid. What you say goes. Send my food up to my room, will you, Granny?"
Miss Campbell-Smith started back at the appellation as though stung, and an even deeper crimson stained her cheeks. The vision in the lace negligee was retreating slowly up the stairs, however, and she thought it prudent not to remonstrate, at least at the moment. Still bristling, she strode back to the dining room while Mary followed Miss Mason upstairs.
On the grey landing the other girl paused and looked back.
"What a dump!" she said expressively. "You certainly said it, kid. A railway station just about hits it off — the sort of station where the trains don't go any place. I thought there was something queer about it when I booked in last night, but I was too darned tired to be particular. Well well, I'll be seeing you."
She turned into her room with a little friendly wave of the hand, and Mary caught a last glimpse of the disturbing negligee as its black lace folds floated out behind her.
Mary went to her own room and put on her hat. As she turned to go out again she saw herself in the mirror and was startled by the pathetic little figure with the pale face and burnt-out eyes who confronted her.
She looked at herself for a long time, and gradually the conclusion which was to poison her faith in herself took shape in her mind. She saw the truth, she told herself bitterly, and might as well face up to it. Peter had been amusing himself with her and had suddenly suspected that she was growing fond of him. In his alarm he had taken the rather drastic step of running away.
She reproached herself for being so frank with him. Most men were conceited, but he might have seen that she only needed a friend, someone to talk to sometimes. Her eyes began to smart ominously, and she rubbed them angrily as she hurried down the stairs.
She was not late for her work, but she walked quickly because she did not want to think, and arrived at the green door in the wall of Mrs Leonard Armstrength's Improved Kindergarten at twenty minutes to nine.
She had passed through the bright new garden schoolroom, which always smelt of paint and wet sand, and was in the little cloakroom hanging up her hat when Jenny, the Armstrengths' parlourmaid, came to tell her that "the master" would like to see her in his study "up at the house."
As Mary walked down the narrow stone path through the garden to the back of the old-fashioned Hampstead house she was mildly curious. Leonard Armstrength, whose books on his advanced theory of child welfare were largely responsible for the success of his wife's school, did not often condescend to speak to the three ladylike but underpaid girls who were supposed to put his somewhat impractical notions into effect, and she knew him only as a thin, arty looking person with thick eyebrows and a grey, stringy neck and chin who walked about among the mothers at the termly displays, talking of reflexes in a fluty voice.
She was astonished, therefore, to find him seated at his desk, his grey face suffused with dull crimson and his long fingers twitching with suppressed fury.
"Miss Coleridge," he began before she was well into the room, "Miss Coleridge, will you kindly explain to me why you intend to ruin my wife's entire life work? Have you no control at all?"
He was so angry that his entire body vibrated and his voice was cracked and uncontrolled.
Mary stared at him.
"I don't understand," she said. "What have I done?"
Leonard Armstrength fought with himself to find speech, and the girl, with the odd irrelevance which comes to one in time of stress, found herself wondering if the single lock of white hair in the front of his coarse black curls could conceivably be artificially bleached.
The man swallowed.
"Mrs Peeler visited me last night," he said, "Mrs Stukely Peeler, the mother of little Rodney. Standing in this very room she told me that yesterday afternoon you actually struck the boy."
"I slapped him, yes," said Mary briefly. "In the circumstances it seemed the only thing to do. That child will be murdered when he goes to a preparatory school unless he is taught now that he can't do exactly as he likes."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Devil and Her Son"
Copyright © 2017 Ipso Books.
Excerpted by permission of Ipso Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
[I THE LONG SHADOW,
[II NOTHING TO LOSE,
[III BARON'S TYE,
[IV THE DREADFUL THING,
[V "... AND TO HOLD ...",
[VI THE MOUSETRAP,
[VII THE WIFE,
[VIII THE INGENUITIES OF MRS DE LIANE,
[IX THE AMATEUR,
[X THE CITY OF SHADOWS,
[XI THE CONFIDANTS,
[XII THE OPEN DOOR,
[XIII THE CITY OF STRANGERS,
[XV THE COMPANION,
[XVI MONEY TALKS,
[XVII You WON'T FORGET ME,
[XX INTERESTS INVOLVED,
[XXI RED TAPE,
[XXII THE MOVING FINGER,
[XXIII THE LITTLE SOUND,
[XXIV THE FIRE,
[XXV "I'LL FOLLOW YOU ...",
[XXVI THE SHOWDOWN,
[XXVII THE END OF THE DAY,