Vine Manor

Chapter 8

Helena knew she must be very careful how she presented herself to Maria. They must think she was dead and buried; certainly Paul had reacted as if he had seen a ghost. The last thing she wanted was for Maria to run screaming from her in terror. She thought back to her last memory before waking up in the burial vault. She had been in the study with Paul; he had offered her a glass of wine. As she drank the wine she had noticed that some of the poisonous herb, Rumex nigra, was missing from its jar. Paul must have poisoned her wine, with the result that she had fallen into a coma and been taken for dead. She was lucky that the Graylings put their dead in a vault instead of burying them in the ground.

She went into the study and got some writing paper and a pen. How could she put it in a way that would not be too much of a shock? She wrote,

Dear Maria,

This really is from me, Helena. I am not dead, I was only in a coma. I got out of the vault through a tunnel that leads to the kitchen. I am writing this because I didn't want to scare you.

Love,

Helena.

She went out of the front door and round the front of the house to the window of the sitting room. Luckily Maria was not looking out. Helena could see her through the window, sitting in her usual chair, concentrating on a piece of the embroidery that was her favourite hobby, wearing an old black dress that she had bought when her husband died. Making the note into a paper dart, she threw it through the window so that it landed by Maria's feet. Maria looked up, her eyes attracted by the movement. Putting aside her embroidery frame, she picked up the note and unfolded it. She gasped in shock, one hand pressed against her chest where she could feel her rapid heartbeat. "Helena?" Then she called louder, "Helena? Is that you?" There was a tremor in her voice.

Helena ran to the front door and soon burst into the sitting room. In a moment she was in Maria's arms. She started to cry as she had not cried since she was a child, and Maria comforted her as she had then, but this time tears of joy fell from Maria's eyes.

"Helena, my darling! You're back! I thought you were dead, and I couldn't bear it. But now, here you are! Don't cry, my angel. It must have been terrible for you, my poor child, but you're home now, you're safe now. Oh my sweet darling, look at you!"

Maria held Helena's face in her hands and gazed at her in sorrow. Helena for the first time looked down at herself. She was wearing the cream silk dress she had bought in Paris; it was covered with grey streaks of dust and the skirt was torn. Cobwebs clung to the hem and sleeves. The elegant beige shoes that went with it had been ruined by her walk through the damp and dirty tunnels. She was glad she hadn't let Mignon talk her into buying high heels. Then, in the large gilt framed mirror over the fireplace, she caught sight of her own reflection. Her dark brown hair had turned completely grey. Her bones showed sharp above the low neckline of the dress. Her skin had faded to the milky pallor of a creature that never sees the sun, living deep within the earth.

"Maria, how long have I been away? How long have I been buried in that vault?"

"Six weeks, my darling! The worst six weeks of my life, since I buried you where many years ago I buried my husband. Paul was a comfort to me then. He was everything I lived for until you came into my house, Helena, but now we live like strangers. It's been even worse without you, we hardly talk to each other. But now you are back, things will get better."

"I don't think I can stay here, Maria. I think Paul tried to kill me. He poisoned me with one of my herbs. That's why I was in a coma for so long."

"That's nonsense, Helena! Paul would never do that. He may sometimes be inconsiderate but he is not a killer! No, you're light-headed, you need something to eat. It's not surprising you can't think straight, after everything you've been through. Come, let's go to the kitchen."

Helena didn't argue as already she was starting to feel hungry again. She knew it would not be easy to convince Maria that she was telling the truth about Paul. However, she knew someone who would listen to her story.

After more food and a bath, Helena felt much better. A plan started to form in her mind. It would be impossible for her to continue living at Vine Manor while Paul was there. She would never be free from the suspicion that he had tried to kill her. What if he tried again, using some method less subtle than poison? No, she had to leave, if possible before he came back. Remembering that glimpse of her reflection, pale and drawn, she found it only too easy to understand why Paul had reacted to her sudden appearance with horror. Her spectral appearance in the dark corridor would have startled someone whose conscience was not troubled by a murderer's guilt. Paul must have been terrified to see her haunting the way to the door of the study where the fatal act had been committed. If only Maria could pretend convincingly that she hadn't seen her, Paul might well go on thinking he had seen her ghost.

Maria interrupted her thoughts. "Helena, we should phone your father at once! Poor man, he mustn't be allowed to grieve for you for a moment longer!"

"Yes, of course I must speak to him, but now I must go at once to see George Sanderson. I'll call Papa from there."

"Why do you want to see George?

"Maria, I think we have to start taking the possibility seriously that Paul might not really be Paul. George is the one person who has an idea of how to prove it one way or the other."

"Why are you and George so much against Paul? What is poor Paul going to feel when he finds out what we suspect? I must have let him down very badly to make him go away the first time. I'm not going to let him down again! No, Helena, we've got to show him we love him and trust him."

"But Maria, I'm not sure if I can trust him!"

"No, I won't allow you to say that, Helena. You will always be welcome in my home for as long as you want to stay, but while you live here, you must try to get on with Paul. I'm not going to take the risk that he might leave home again."

"Would it be such a bad thing if he did, Maria?"

"Yes, it would! Of course it would!" Maria started to cry. "I just wish he hadn't changed so much. It's because he left home and I wasn't there to look after him. I wish so much he had never gone away! Yes, I admit sometimes I wish he hadn't come back or that he would go away again. It was so calm and peaceful without him. But I know it's a very selfish thing for me to feel. Sometimes I even hope George is right and he isn't really Paul!"

"Then let me go to George! Paul will blame George for doubting him. You can make it clear it wasn't your idea that he should be tested. George can say it's necessary to prove who he is for the inheritance. And then if it turns out he isn't Paul after all, he will have to leave Vine Manor! I'll go and see George now. Only, Maria, be sure you say nothing to Paul about any of this, and don't tell him you've seen me. It will be better if he thinks I'm dead."

"I'd take you in the car, but as usual Paul has gone out in it. I've got my new glasses at last but I never have a chance to use the car!"

"George will be at his office now, I'll get the bus into town."

George was puzzled when his secretary told him that a Miss Colville was waiting to see him. Was this some relative of Helena's of whom he had never heard, brought across the Channel by the sad news of her sudden death? When the lady was shown in he saw nothing to correct this assumption. Indeed the lady had a striking resemblance to the girl he had known since her childhood. It was hard to guess her age; her face, though thin and troubled, was unlined and looked too young for the white hair that framed it.

"George? Don't tell me you don't recognise me. It's me, Helena!"

"Helena? It can't be!"

"Oh, I'm sorry, you must have thought I was dead! I was only in a coma. I just woke up this morning. I've seen Maria, she knows I've come to see you, but Paul thinks I'm dead. In fact, Paul is what I've come to see you about. Though Maria still won't admit it, I think she's starting to feel Paul may not really be her son!"

"And have you changed your mind? You no longer believe he is Paul?"

"No! I think he tried to kill me! He poisoned me, that's why I was in a coma for so long. He put some poisonous herbs into my wine."

"Have you told Maria about this? It's a serious business to accuse someone of attempted murder. You need to be very sure of your facts."

"I told Maria, but of course she didn't believe me. She just doesn't want to think there might be anything wrong with Paul. I think there's just enough doubt in her mind that she will agree to testing Paul in the way you suggested."

"There is one thing, Helena. I'm quite prepared to test Paul with questions to make sure he is who he says he is, but you do realise I'll have to do the same with you? Everyone has thought you were dead for the past six weeks! What's more, your looks have changed greatly. You could be some relative of Helena's who has heard of her death and wants to pretend to be her!"

"Why would anyone want to do that?"

"For the same reason that someone might want to take the place of Paul Grayling! As I said to Maria, Vine Manor is a valuable property and Paul Grayling will inherit it. But if Paul Grayling cannot be found, who do you think the next heir is, under the terms of Maria's will? You see, an unscrupulous woman would have a lot to gain by claiming to be Helena Colville if she could prove that the man now living at Vine Manor is not Paul Grayling!"

"Ask me as many questions as you like! You'll see I'm really Helena. I don't want anything for myself, I'm thinking of Maria's happiness. She doesn't want Paul to go on living there, but she can't ask him to leave while she believes he is her son!"

"My wife heard from Mrs Perry that he doesn't spend very much time at home?"

"That's right, he's always out in the car. No one knows where he goes or whom he sees. I did see him once, it was after I had tea with Tessa. He came out of Mrs Morgan's old cottage. He refused to tell me what he was doing there."

"Mrs Morgan's cottage, did you say? Now I remember! When I first saw him, I had a strong feeling I had seen the man before, but I couldn't remember where or when. It's just come back to me!"

Read Chapter 9