The Quince Tree

‘I’ve just been to see old Betsy Mullen,’ announced Vera to her aunt, Mrs Bebberly Cumble; ‘she seems in rather a bad way about her rent. She owes about fifteen weeks of it, and says she doesn’t know where any of it is to come from.’

‘Betsy Mullen always is in difficulties with her rent, and the more people help her with it the less she troubles about it, ‘said the aunt. ‘I certainly am not going to assist her any more. The fact is, she will have to go into a smaller and cheaper cottage; there are several to be had at the other end of the village for half the rent that she is paying, or supposed to be paying, now. I told her a year ago that she ought to move.’

‘But she wouldn’t get such a nice garden anywhere else,’ protested Vera, ‘and there’s such a jolly quince tree in the corner. I don’t suppose there’s another quince tree in the whole parish. And she never makes any quince jam; I think to have a quince tree and not to make quince jam shows such strength of character. Oh, she can’t possibly move away from that garden.’

‘When one is sixteen,’ said Mrs Bebberly Cumble severely, ‘one talks of things being impossible which are merely uncongenial. It is not only possible but it is desirable that Betsy Mullen should move into smaller quarters; she has scarcely enough furniture to fill that big cottage.’

‘As far as value goes,’ said Vera after a short pause, ‘there is more in Betsy’s cottage than in any other house for miles round.’

‘Nonsense,’ said the aunt; ‘she parted with whatever old chinaware she had long ago.’

‘I’m not talking about anything that belongs to Betsy herself,’ said Vera darkly; ‘but of course, you don’t know what I know, and I don’t suppose I ought to tell you.

‘You must tell me at once,’ exclaimed the aunt, her senses leaping into alertness like those of a terrier suddenly exchanging a bored drowsiness for the lively anticipation of an immediate rat hunt.

‘I’m perfectly certain that I oughtn’t to tell you anything about it,’ said Vera, ‘but, then, I often do things that I oughn’t to do.’

‘I should be the last person to suggest that you should do any thing that you ought not to do—’ began Mrs Bebberly Cumble impressively.

‘And I am always swayed by the last person who speaks to me,’ admitted Vera, ‘so I’ll do what I ought not to do and tell you.’

Mrs Bebberly Cumble thrust a very pardonable sense of exasperation into the background of her mind and demanded impatiently:

‘What is there in Betsy Mullen’s cottage that you are making such a fuss about?’

‘It’s hardly fair to say that I’ve made a fuss about it,’ said Vera; ‘this is the first I’ve mentioned the matter, but there’s been no end of trouble and mystery and newspaper speculation about it. It’s rather amusing to think of the columns of conjecture in the Press and the police and detectives hunting about everywhere at home and abroad, and all the while that innocent-looking little cottage has held the secret.’

‘You don’t mean to say it’s the Louvre picture, La Something or other, the woman with the smile, that disappeared about two years ago?’ exclaimed the aunt with rising excitement.

‘Oh, no, not that,’ said Vera, ‘but something quite as important and just as mysterious—if anything, rather more scandalous.’

‘Not the Dublin—?’

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