The Death of Mrs. Westaway

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The Death of Mrs. Westaway Page 12

by Ruth Ware

  Hal nodded, and Mitzi stood up.

  “Don’t do anything silly, now. I don’t want you passing out again.”

  “I won’t,” Hal said faintly. She didn’t mention that the idea of ten minutes alone while Mitzi hunted for her handbag was even more alluring than the painkillers.

  As the door shut behind Mitzi, Hal let her head fall back onto the couch and tried to think—to piece together what had happened in the strange, frantic interlude between Mr. Treswick’s announcement and her passing out.

  Because it didn’t make sense. None of this made sense. She was named, in this woman’s will. Personally named, along with her address. The will was referring to her—there could be no doubt at all. Could it . . . could it possibly be true? Was she Mrs. Westaway’s long-lost granddaughter?

  A flicker of hope began to burn, almost painful with the intensity of longing.

  Be skeptical, Hal, her mother’s voice whispered in her ear, and be doubly skeptical when it’s something you want to believe.

  And that was the problem. She was telling herself this, not because it was possible, but because she wanted it to be so. It could not be true, however much she might want to persuade herself of that fact. Her mother’s birth certificate contradicted it absolutely. However Hal twisted the possibilities in her mind, there was no way she could make the connection work. Her mother might possibly be related to this family in some distant way—Westaway wasn’t that common a name. But unless Hal ignored the evidence not just of her own birth certificate, but of her mother’s too, there was no way she could be Hester Westaway’s granddaughter.

  Which meant . . . Hal tried to think back to what Mr. Treswick had said in the graveyard. Was it possible that the mistake had occurred not after the will was written, but before? Had Hester Westaway hired someone to track down her daughter, and somehow they had got their wires catastrophically crossed?

  Hal pressed her fingers into her eyes, feeling the fever flush on her cheeks, and her head throbbed as if it would burst.

  “Here we are.” The voice came from the doorway, and Hal opened her eyes to see Mitzi walking briskly across the library, a white packet in her hand. “Take two. They should help your temperature as well. Ah, Abel,” she said, as one of the bookcases swung back, and her brother-in-law appeared in the opening with something in his hand. “Just in time. Is that the thermometer?”

  “Yes.” He held it out, the bulb glinting silver in the lamplight. “Somewhat to my own astonishment, I was right. It is mercury, so for heaven’s sake don’t chew on it, Harriet. I don’t want to be responsible for poisoning my own niece.”

  My own niece. Hal felt her cheeks flush involuntarily as he slipped the glass tube beneath her tongue, cool against the heat of her mouth, but she couldn’t answer, only close her lips around it and watch as Abel turned to Mitzi.

  “Edward rang from a garage near Bodmin. He won’t be long now. He was sorry not to come to the service you know, but he was on duty at the hospital, and he never met Mother, so it seemed a little hypocritical to ask him to take a day off.”

  “Still,” Mitzi said, “he is your husband.”

  “Partner, dear Mitzi, partner. There’s a difference, at least in the eyes of human resources. Parents-in-law, you get an automatic entitlement to compassionate leave. Estranged mother of your live-in boyfriend, not so much. Edward is my partner,” he added to Hal. “He’s a doctor, and I think we’ll all feel much happier when he’s given you the once-over.”

  Hal nodded, feeling the glass thermometer chink against her teeth. Mitzi and Abel lapsed into silence, and they all sat, listening to the voices rise and fall from the next room, Abel meditatively stroking his mustache with one finger.

  “Has Harding calmed down?” he asked. Mitzi rolled her eyes and shrugged.

  “Not a great deal. I’m sorry about my husband,” she said, turning to Hal. “It wasn’t a very edifying little display, I realize, but you have to appreciate it was a terrible shock. As eldest, I think Harding had naturally assumed . . .”

  “It’s understandable,” Abel said. “Harding spent all his life trying to prove himself to Mother, and now he gets this, from beyond the grave. Poor man.”

  “Oh, Abel, stop being such a saint!” Mitzi said. “You have an equal right to be upset.”

  Abel sighed. He shifted his position on the threadbare armchair, tugging at the knees of his trousers to avoid stretching the fabric.

  “Well, I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t admit to a bit of chagrin. But the difference is, Mitzi darling, I’ve had twenty years to get used to the situation. I resigned myself years ago to Mother’s disapproval.”

  “My mother-in-law cut Abel off without a penny,” Mitzi explained to Hal, a touch of righteous disbelief in her voice.

  “It was quite a shock at the time,” Abel said rather wearily, “but there we go, it was a different era.”

  “It was 1995!” Mitzi snapped. “Your mother’s views were dated even then, Abel. Don’t excuse what she did. Personally, in your shoes, I don’t think I would have even attended the funeral. There’s such a thing as being too nice, you—”

  “Well, regardless,” Abel said, raising his voice and cutting through her, “I didn’t expect to get a penny in the will, so it’s no shock to me.”

  “Well, I applaud your levelheadedness. But aren’t you surprised for Ezra? Harding always said he was your mother’s favorite.”

  Abel shrugged.

  “As a little boy, yes. But you know, as an adult, he cut himself off from all of us, Mother included. I think it was just too . . . after my sister, our sister, after she . . .”

  He stopped, trailing off as though the words that followed were too painful to be spoken out loud. When he blinked, Hal saw there were tears on his lashes. She felt a sudden stabbing pain in her side, a physical manifestation of a consuming guilt.

  “I’m sorry—” The words were muffled by the thermometer, but they came out almost without her meaning to say them, falling into the silence Abel had left, and his head jerked up.

  “Don’t be sorry, my dear. Whosever fault it was, it certainly wasn’t yours.” He dashed at his eyes and looked away from her, towards the shadows of the empty fireplace. “But I will say this, much as I loved Maud, much as I understood why she had to do what she did, she did all of us a bad turn when she ran away, especially Ezra. Twenty years spent wondering if she was alive or dead, and whether she would make contact one day. And now this—this bombshell. What happened to her, Harriet?”

  Hal felt her heart flutter as if a hand had clenched around it, constricting her blood, and for a moment she thought about feigning another faint, but there was no way she could dodge this long-term. She had felt it nudging at the edge of the conversation in the drawing room the entire time the brothers were interrogating her, felt them skirting around the topic, trying to get her to address their half-spoken questions, and she had been saved only by their very English reluctance to bring up something so personal and emotive on first acquaintance. How did your mother die? It was a hard thing to ask—and Hal had banked on them finding it so.

  But now, in this intimate circle of light cast from the lamp, marooned on the couch, pinned there by the blanket, now there was no escape. Clearly, whatever the truth was, Abel at least didn’t know what had happened to his sister. She would have to tell her own truth—and if it didn’t chime with what Mr. Treswick had found out, then that would be that, and the game would be over.

  What she was about to do was crossing a line—not just in terms of the risk she was taking, but also in the way she was about to use her own small tragedy in the service of something mean and dishonest. But there was no way around it.

  Once, a long time ago, a teacher at school had called Hal “a little mouse,” and the description had offended her, though she hadn’t really known why. But now she knew why. Whatever she looked like on the surface, inside, deep in the core of her, she was not a mouse, but something quite different: a rat—smal
l, dark, tenacious, and dogged. And now she felt like a cornered rat, fighting to survive.

  She took the thermometer out of her mouth, holding it in her hand, and drew a breath.

  “She died,” she said quietly. “Just over three years ago, a few days before my eighteenth birthday. There was a car crash. She was killed instantly—a hit-and-run. I was at school. I got a call—”

  She stopped, unable to finish, but it was done.

  “Oh God,” Abel said. His voice was a whisper, and he put his hand up to his face. It was the first time that Hal had seen real grief since she had come here—in spite of Mrs. Westaway’s funeral—and she felt her stomach turn at the sudden realization of what she had just done. Abel’s pain was real and palpable. It wasn’t just the exploitation of her mother’s death that sickened her, for with that she was hurting no one but herself. But how casually she had just inflicted her own small tragedy on Abel.

  These are real people. She watched Abel’s face in the lamplight, with a kind of numbness. These aren’t the imaginary rich yahoos you created on the train. These are real people. This is real grief. These are lives you are playing with here.

  But she could not think like that. She had started this now, and she had no choice but to see it through. She could not go back, to Mr. Smith and his waiting enforcers, and beyond that, to the desperate daily struggle to eat, survive, keep her head above water. . . .

  “Oh, Abel, darling,” Mitzi said, and her voice was a little throaty.

  “I’m sorry,” Abel said. He dashed at his eyes again, blinking hard. “I thought—I really thought I’d come to terms with the idea of her death, I mean we hadn’t heard from her for so long, obviously we had all assumed . . . but to think that all that time, and she was alive and well . . . and we never knew. Dear God. Poor Ezra.”

  Poor Ezra? But Hal did not have time to disentangle Abel’s remark, for Mitzi was speaking.

  “Do you think, Abel,” she began, and then stopped. When she carried on, it was hesitantly, as if uncertain of what she was about to say. “Do you think that’s . . . why?”

  “Why what?”

  “Why . . . the will. Do you think your mother realized how she behaved, perhaps . . . ? That she had driven your sister away, and perhaps felt . . . I don’t know . . . guilty in some way?”

  “A kind of atonement?” Abel asked, and then he shrugged again. “Honestly? I don’t think so. God knows, I’ve never understood Mother’s motives, and in spite of living with her for nearly twenty years, I have precious little insight into her thought processes, but I don’t think guilt was an emotion she even registered, let alone understood. I would like to think it was something as positive as atonement, but the truth is . . .”

  He stopped, glanced at Hal, and then gave a kind of shaky laugh, as if trying to shrug off the conversation.

  “But listen to me, rambling on. Poor Harriet’s still clutching that thermometer like grim death. Let’s see what it says.”

  Hal held it out.

  “I’m sorry,” she said again, and she meant it now. “For all this. I’ll be going tomorrow.”

  But as Abel held the thermometer up to the light, he whistled and shook his head.

  “101.5. No question of you going anywhere, young lady.”

  “A hundred and one!” Mitzi gave a little shriek. “Good Lord. You definitely cannot go home tomorrow, Harriet, I won’t hear of it. Anyway”—she glanced at Abel, a quick little look, almost of trepidation—“anyway, you will need to stay around. There’s so much to discuss. After all—this is your house now.”


  * * *

  Your house now.

  Your house now.

  The words turned sickly in Hal’s gut as she lay in the darkness of the attic room, listening to the wind in the trees outside, the crackle of the fire in the grate, and the far-off crash of the sea, trying to come to terms with what had just happened.

  She had not had the courage to face Harding, and fortunately Abel and Mitzi had fallen in with her plea for an early bedtime. Abel had helped her up the stairs, lit the fire, and then tactfully withdrawn while she got into her nightclothes, her limbs trembling with a mix of tiredness and fever. Then, after Hal was sitting up in bed, Mitzi had appeared with a bowl of soup on a tray.

  “It’s only Heinz, I’m afraid,” she said as she placed the tray on Hal’s bedside table and straightened the contents. “Oh, bother. It’s cold already. It was boiling when I left the kitchen, I swear!”

  “It’s fine, really,” Hal said. Her voice was croaky, and her face felt hot from the fire, in spite of the damp chill of the bedclothes. “I’m not that hungry.”

  “Well, you must eat something, heaven knows you’ve got little enough to spare. Edward will be here in a few minutes, and he’s going to pop up to see you before we sit down to dinner.”

  “Thank you,” Hal said humbly. She felt her cheeks burn, not only with fever and the heat from the grate, but with the thought of what she was doing to this family, and how nice Mitzi and Abel were being over it. Back in Brighton, it had seemed so different—so completely different. Risking everything to snatch a few hundred pounds from a bunch of wealthy strangers—it had seemed somehow rather gallant, a touch of Robin Hood about the whole thing.

  But now she was here, in their family home, and the legacy was not a few hundred, nor even the few thousand she had been half daring to hope for, but something terrifyingly huge—and what she was doing seemed anything but gallant.

  There was no way she was going to get away with this. The fury in Harding’s eye spoke of lawsuits and contested wills and private detectives. But it was too late to turn tail and run away now. She was stuck here—quite literally.

  Hal felt her stomach turn and shift and, under Mitzi’s watchful eye, she took a spoonful of the soup and forced it down.

  There was a knock at the door as she lifted the second spoonful to her lips, and Mitzi stood and opened it. Outside was Abel, his honey-dark hair windswept and tousled—and a handsome, blue-eyed man wearing a rain-spattered overcoat. He had a thick blond mustache that was new, but in spite of that, Hal recognized him from Facebook even before Abel spoke.

  “Harriet, this is my partner, Edward.”

  “Edward!” Mitzi kissed him on both cheeks, before ushering him into the little room. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and he seemed to fill the little space. “Come in and meet Harriet.”

  “Harriet,” Edward said. “Delighted.” His voice was clipped, as if from an expensive education, and his overcoat looked well-cut and brand-new, but he pulled it off and draped it carelessly over one arm, before sitting on the end of Hal’s bed. “Well, it’s a strange way to be meeting a new niece-in-law, but pleased to meet you. Edward Ashby.”

  He held out a hand, and Hal took it hesitantly, feeling the cold of his skin compared to her own hot hand.

  “I won’t keep you up, because I’d imagine you’re probably longing to get to sleep, but Abel said you had a bit of an episode, is that right?”

  “I passed out,” Hal said. “But it’s nothing serious, I promise.” She tried to keep her voice from croaking. “I’d forgotten to eat, you know what it’s like.”

  “I don’t, actually,” Edward said, with a grin. “My stomach is sacred and I start planning lunch around nine thirty a.m., but I’ll take your word for it. Well, you do seem to have a bit of a temperature. Any headaches?”

  “Just a bruise where I hit my head,” Hal lied. The truth was her head was aching badly, though the paracetamol had helped a little.

  “Any nausea?”

  “No, none.” That at least was the truth.

  “And you’re eating—that’s a good sign. Well, I think you’re probably all right, but if you start to feel sick, come and tell someone, okay?”

  “Okay,” Hal said. She coughed, trying to smother it in her hand.

  “Have you taken anything for the temperature?” Edward asked.


  “You could take an ibuprofen as well, if you want—I think I’ve got some.” He stood, and patted first his suit pockets, then his overcoat, and finally came out with some pills. They were in an unbranded dispensary bottle, the only label a handwritten pharmacist’s scribble that Hal could not make out, but he twisted off the cap and shook two out onto the table.

  “Thanks,” Hal said. She was longing for them to leave, but she tried to smile.

  “Swallow them down,” Edward said, rather heartily. “You’ll feel better if you do.”

  Hal looked at the pills. They were white, and completely unmarked. Didn’t pills usually have something on them saying the dosage? It came to her, a fleeting, paranoid thought, that these could be anything, from Viagra to sleeping pills. But that was ridiculous, surely.

  “Take the pills, Harriet,” Abel said. “We don’t want your temperature spiking in the night.”

  Rather reluctantly, Hal put them in her mouth, took a sip of water, and swallowed them down. Edward smiled as she did.

  “Well done. And with that, I’ll leave you to your soup. Sorry we’re meeting under these circs, Harriet,” Edward said as he gathered up his overcoat. Hal wasn’t sure whether he meant the funeral, her head, or all of it. “But, well—sleep well.”

  “Good night, Harriet,” Abel said. He gave Hal’s shoulder a little squeeze that made her flinch, just a touch. She smiled, trying to hide her discomfort.

  “Good night, Harriet,” Edward echoed. And with that, he winked, and followed Abel out of the room.

  “Would you tell Freddie and Kitty it’s time to go to bed?” Mitzi called after them both, and Abel nodded, and said something Hal didn’t catch in reply.

  “Dear Abel,” Mitzi said, as their shapes were swallowed by the narrow, dark stairwell down to the main landing. “Such a sweet man. It’s such a shame he never had children, he throws it all into his work instead.”


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