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20: Monkey Talk

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Author Topic: 20: Monkey Talk  (Read 40 times)
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« on: June 03, 2023, 12:29:16 pm »

‘I’M not at all pleased by this intrusion, you know, not at all pleased.’ Lawrence Palinode made a petulant movement with his entire body, counteracted any effect it might have had with his sweet shy smile, and sat down at the desk end of the long table, knocking over a small pot of ink which stood there. He mopped up the mess with a special wedge of blotting paper which he appeared to keep for such emergencies, and continued, the volume of his voice flaring and dying like a faulty loudspeaker.

‘I was having a very important talk with a member of my family. Don’t exceed your office. You really mustn’t do that.’ His long red neck swung out at them like a wand with a weight on it. ‘You have a letter of mine, Inspector. Hand it back if you please.’

Charlie Luke regarded the sheet of profanity in his hand.

‘Do you mean you wrote it?’ he inquired bluntly.

The near-sighted eyes widened with interest.

‘I? In moments of aberration, I suppose? It’s an interesting theory but hardly tenable. No. Give it to me, please. I regard it as a ra-ather important document at this juncture.’

‘So do I, sir.’ Charlie Luke put the paper in his inside pocket.

Lawrence Palinode’s lantern cheeks became patched with colour.

‘That’s hardly fair,’ he protested. ‘You have all the others.’

‘How do you know?’

‘My dear man, this is not quite a fantoccini. People do talk to each other and some of them even read the newspapers.’

Luke was sulky and dogged.

‘Why did you think this letter came from the same writer if you hadn’t seen the others?’

‘Oh, but I had. At least I saw the first one and made a note of it. The doctor showed it to me when it arrived. When this one appeared in the post this morning I recognized Madame Pernelle again.’

‘Why bring her into it? I thought you were accusing Miss White five minutes ago?’

A shadow of tragedy, irreproachably genuine, passed over his bald face with the underhung jaw, but he had himself well in hand. He emitted a crow, apparently at self-discovery.

‘Ah, the Bowl of the Sister!’ he exclaimed. ‘It’s a woman, you see. Probably you don’t find that as shattering as I do.’ After a pause he shook his head. ‘You may be right. Perhaps all I know of her is that she is Madame Pernelle.’

As a statement for police purposes it was hardly satisfactory. The D.D.I.’s heavy brows came down like a thundercloud. He was utterly puzzled and newly irked by remembered frustration.

Mr. Campion felt it was time to intervene.

‘I don’t think we need coax the anima into this,’ he murmured, adding outrageously, ‘the police are too Jung for it. You don’t really know Madame Pernelle either, do you, Chief?’

‘Know her? Of course I do!’ Luke was furious. ‘She keeps a supper bar in Suffolk Street, next door to the church. Poor old duck! She’s as big as a barrel and as good as the beer. She can hardly speak English, much less write it. That’s a slander. She could take action on it. Mr. Palinode has made this accusation before and we’ve been right into it.’

Lawrence sighed and shrugged his ungainly shoulders. Campion sat down and produced cigarettes.

‘As I remember, la Pernelle is also a particularly virulent and abusive scold somewhere in Molière,’ he remarked presently.

La Tartuffe. A matter of ordinary education.’ Lawrence sounded weary. He looked at the D.D.I. with mild exasperation. ‘It’s very difficult to talk to you.’

‘ ’Strewth!’ said Luke under his breath and took up a position behind Campion’s chair.

‘What made you think your niece might have written these letters?’ Campion took off his spectacles and became conversational.

‘I would rather not answer that.’

Despite Luke’s snort of protest, Campion did not press the point. Instead he nodded towards the butler’s tray.

‘Are all those library books?’

‘Most of them, unfortunately. My resources don’t permit me to buy as many books as I should wish.’

‘How long have you had those out?’

‘Oh, I see what you mean. Since I read the first anonymous letter. Naturally one wishes to read up a subject before one ventures to attempt anything practical.’

‘Naturally.’ Campion was grave. ‘Forgive me, but have you concentrated entirely on the anonymous letters?’

‘Of course.’

‘Why?’

The last male Palinode favoured him with another of his delightful smiles.

‘Because, as far as I am concerned, that is the only mystery,’ he said blithely.

Luke controlled an explosion and eyed his colleague. Campion seemed perfectly at home.

‘I gathered that,’ he chatted on affably. ‘You washed up every glass and cup, you see. Had you concentrated on one we might have been forgiven for arriving at a different conclusion. What put it into your head that your sister had committed suicide?’

Lawrence considered the question with detachment.

‘I had not contemplated giving an opinion,’ he said at last, ‘but it saves a great deal of trouble, you being so well informed. The undertaker saw me, I suppose? Well, Ruth was extravagant and had mortgaged her little income. My sister Evadne and I broke our rule of non-interference and taxed her with it. She went to bed very upset and died the following day. She was quite incapable of controlling her expenditure.’

‘Do you mean she liked to gamble?’

He raised his eyebrows. ‘You know so much I don’t see why you’ve not seen the perfectly obvious before.’

‘Where did she get the poison?’

He lay back in his chair, striking an attitude so casual as to be unsafe.

‘That really is something for you to find out. I know nothing of any details.’

‘Why did you wash up the glasses and cups in her room?’

He hesitated. ‘I don’t know,’ he said at last. ‘Frankly I went up because the good woman who looks after us here seemed to expect it. I stood looking at Ruth and reflecting that it was unfortunate that she had inherited the strangely faulty mathematical streak which there is in our family. (She had an absurd system, you know. I worked it out afterwards and found it completely unsound.) And at that moment it occurred to me that she must have poisoned herself. I rinsed the vessels in her room, because, I suppose, I didn’t want anyone else to pick up anything dangerous by mistake.’

‘That be hanged for a tale!’ Luke’s credulity snapped with a bang. ‘Are you saying you thought your sister poisoned herself and you didn’t do anything about it, yet as soon as the doctor came in with an anonymous letter you went up like a heath-fire?’ His great hand shot out, painting in the little greedy flames in pantomime.

Lawrence ignored him. ‘It was the first document of the kind I had seen,’ he remarked to Campion. ‘The extraordinary hatred in it had a psychological effect upon me. Extraordinarily interesting! I was fascinated, in a literal sense. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that?’

He was wrinkling his nose with disgust and yet his eyes were eager.

Campion did understand him perfectly and there was a hint of apology in his next question.

‘Am I to believe that the result of your investigations so far is that your niece wrote these things?’

Lawrence turned his head away, to look grimly down the long table.

‘If you overheard my conversation with her you must know,’ he said.

‘Have you any evidence at all?’

He turned back at once, his face flushing.

‘My dear sir, my inquiries are my own affair. You can hardly expect me to give you the benefit of them, especially if they concern my own family.’

Campion was silent for some moments.

‘I wonder if I might point out that the process of elimination has its dangers?’ he ventured at last.

Lawrence lost his anger like a surprised child recovering from tears.

‘You think so, do you?’ he demanded with interest.

Campion remained serious. ‘The young are always mysterious,’ he remarked. ‘Even when one feels that one can be reasonably sure of everyone else, they alone remain an enigma.’

Luke could bear it no longer.

‘What has that got to do with it?’

Lawrence answered him, speaking briefly over Campion’s head to hush the interrupter.

‘In words of one syllable, when I had made sure in my own mind that no one else in the house could have written the letters, I turned to the one person I did not really know. I observed that she had a secret of some sort.’ His face became rigid with disgust. ‘I did not know then what it was.’

‘Who unravelled that ghastly mystery for you?’ Luke’s amusement was ferocious. ‘The Captain came out with it, I suppose?’

‘Yes. I was speaking to him on another matter and he told me. He put it very crudely. I didn’t believe him and I made him take me to the hospital where this wretched boy is lying, and there we---we found Clytie.’

He looked as though the memory was going to make him physically sick, and once more Mr. Campion took charge.

‘I don’t see why you confine your suspicions to the house.’

‘Oh, but that was obvious.’ Lawrence rose, upsetting papers and books as his heavy, loose-jointed fingers unfolded. ‘I’ve gone over and over this,’ he declared, his peculiar voice blaring on the emphasized words. ‘It’s the internal evidence one can’t get away from.’ He shambled over to the chest in the bay of the window. ‘I’ve got a copy of the original letter here somewhere.’ He jerked the drawer out much too far and spilled a bushel of assorted papers out over the parquet.

‘Forget it.’ Luke was showing signs of strain. ‘I know it by heart.’

‘Do you?’ Lawrence was weaving helplessly above the unholy muddle on the floor.

‘I could recite it this minute,’ the D.D.I. assured him with feeling. ‘The first piece, anyway. I don’t remember any internal evidence.’

‘It was that remark about the flowers.’ Lawrence took a nervous step towards him. ‘Do you remember? After a stream of calumny against the doctor for his “blindness to murder foul and dirty” it went on, “even the lilies cart-wheeled and should have told any but a fool”.’

The intensity of disgust which he infused into the quotation betrayed the shocked excitement which the letters had for him. This sin against the precious written word had in his cosmos an evil all its own.

Luke was deeply interested. ‘I remember it,’ he agreed. ‘When did the cut flowers cart-wheel?’

‘Just before the funeral, and no one was in the hall then but the household. No stranger. Even the undertakers hadn’t arrived.’

‘They were in a wreath, perhaps?’ suggested Campion, who felt that the story needed a midwife.

‘Of course they were.’ He seemed anxious to explain. ‘You see, someone bought a wreath---not a member of the family. We are not demonstrative and that sort of ostentation would hardly occur to any of us. The actor Grace, who spends much of his time with our pleasant Miss Roper, sent it, I believe. The Stage is very conventional. Someone put it upstairs, where it seemed a little in the way, and I understand it was left leaning against the wall at the head of the stairs. In the morning most of the household happened to be in the hall. We were waiting for the undertakers to begin the funeral. I was not going myself; I had some work to finish. But my sisters felt they should put in an appearance. We were all present, I believe, even the aged nymph who chars for Miss Roper, when suddenly something dislodged the obsolete panache and it slid over the edge of the top stair. It was supported by the wall and it came rolling down, over and over, scattering petals. It was a ridiculous incident, quite without significance, but I remember the charwoman’s scream. Captain Seton said something wholly inappropriate, and Miss Roper ran forward and caught it and straightened it out as best she could.’

‘What did she do with it then?’ Charlie Luke had been listening to the recital with that mixture of suspicion and anticipation usually reserved for the improper story.

‘Oh, put it on a chair, I think. Certainly, a little tousled, it rested on the coffin when they set out.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘It was quite unimportant and yet it is clearly referred to in the letter. It was that which so horrified me. These obscene communications came from amongst us. The hidden lunacy is here.’ He shuddered unaffectedly and his eyes were shocked and vulnerable. ‘It is a very terrible thing. You must be able to see that.’

Luke remained unimpressed. ‘I don’t think you’ve any proof against Miss White,’ he said. ‘That’s just the sort of rum little tale people repeat. Someone who was there told it to someone who wasn’t; that’s all that means.’

Lawrence’s expression grew slowly appalled. His face became crimson with shame and revulsion.

‘You mean they wrote them together---Clytie and that depraved young man?’

‘No, sir, I do not. Can’t you leave your niece out of it? You haven’t a shred of evidence against her. The worst you can say is that she is a person whom you feel you do not really know, whereas anybody who saw the wreath roll down the stairs could have told absolutely anybody else. The char may have an auntie who goes in for fancy correspondence. Miss Roper may have chatted in the meat queue.’

‘That I should never believe. Miss Roper is a most superior person.’

Charlie Luke drew a deep breath but decided not to defend himself or Renee. Instead he said abruptly:

‘Why were you watching Captain Seton in the street out here at two o’clock in the morning of the day before yesterday?’

If he hoped to surprise he was unlucky.

‘That was quite infuriating.’ The goose-voice was placid. ‘I heard someone creep past this door and I assumed it was Clytie. She was on my mind because I had had words with her before, that evening. I did not realize she had come into the house, and when at my sister’s suggestion I Cawnthroped I found she was. She resented my interference.’

‘By “Cawnthroped” you mean “looked”, do you?’ Campion suggested hastily as Luke’s dark face showed promise of becoming black.

‘Oh yes. Foolish of me. A family reference you could hardly have been expected to know, although it appears in Elegant Extracts in the third edition.’ He went over to a bookcase and returned with a volume. ‘Mornington Cawnthrope with a kinsman of my mother’s father. Here is the reference.’ When reading aloud, which he did with relish, his voice played staggering tricks with him, now almost too soft to hear, now blaring like a foghorn.

‘ “Archdeacon Cawnthrope, on losing his spectacles, was requested by his wife to look in a mirror and see them. ‘Ah, that I cannot do,’ quoth the Archdeacon, ‘for if I look I shall not see.’ ‘Yet if you do not look,’ replied the lady, ‘I declare you will not descry them, for they are on your nose all the time.’ ”’

He closed the book.

‘We always thought that very amusing,’ he said.

Mr. Campion cast a sly glance at Luke and was glad he had come. The policeman was looking at Lawrence earnestly and the expression in his eyes was unfathomable.

‘You say you thought you heard Miss White creep past this door very early that morning,’ he said at last.

‘Oh yes, I did.’ Lawrence put down the book with regret. ‘I followed her and I stood watching her as best I could, but it was very unsatisfactory.’ He smiled with charming self-depreciation. ‘You see, I’m practically blind in the dark.’

In the silence Campion made certain that it was possible to hear the D.D.I.’s mind at work.

‘Night-blindness,’ he said at last, not without triumph.

‘It may be that. My sight is never really good. At any rate I was very annoyed and made to look foolish when she returned at last and it was merely Captain Seton who had gone to post a letter.’

Luke sighed. ‘Did you see if he met anyone on the road by the postbox?’

Lawrence smiled again. ‘I couldn’t see anything at all,’ he said.

‘Did he tell you he’d gone to post a letter?’

‘No, I assumed it. All he told me on that occasion when I reached him in the hall was that his name was not Clytie.’

‘When did you obtain from him the legacy left him by Miss Ruth Palinode?’

The words were spoken quietly enough but their effect was remarkable. Lawrence Palinode shambled backward, treading on his own feet and all but over-balancing.

‘Who gave you that information?’ he demanded in tremendous excitement. ‘Oh, I see. You guessed it from that letter you took from the shelf. Yes, it was in there. That was why I tackled Seton this afternoon. I thought he must have told Clytie---if she was writing the dreadful things, I mean.’

He was incoherent and his hands were shaking.

‘That letter accuses me of robbing him, which is ridiculous. I gave him five pounds, a lot of money, for something “not Peru”.’

‘South American stock, was it?’ Luke was still doing his bewildered best.

Lawrence looked at him as if he thought he had gone mad.

‘I don’t think so. All I remember is that they were shares in somebody’s mine, and were, as I told you, perfectly worthless. Our solicitor told my sister so. She left them to Seton to annoy him, since he is notoriously short of money. That was her form of humour, not very enlightened. I bought them from him some weeks ago as soon as he received them. He’s not one of the family and I felt it my duty to see he was not victimized. It is all very well to joke at the right moment, but I thought that tasteless of Ruth.’

He made his explanation with spirit but not frankness. Luke remained dubious.

‘Where are they now?’

‘I have them safe.’

‘Would you sell them again for a fiver?’

‘Certainly not.’ He was uneasy and was taking refuge in a display of irritation. ‘They were part of the family inheritance and were bought by me quite openly and fairly. I should not think of returning them to Seton under pressure from these abominable letters.’

Mr. Campion, who had been sitting quietly for some moments, looked up.

‘Perhaps you have already sold them?’

‘I have not sold them.’ There was an unexpected quality of obstinacy in his denial. ‘They are still in my possession. I shall always refuse to sell them. Have you finished your interrogation, Inspector?’

Luke touched Campion’s shoulder. ‘Okay,’ he said briskly. ‘You’ll remain in the house, won’t you, Mr. Palinode? Meanwhile we’ll go up, shall we, sir?’

Lawrence pitched himself untidily into his chair before the desk and upset yet another inkpot.

‘Close the door behind you if you please,’ he said over his shoulder, as he mopped up for the second time. ‘You’re going up to plague Seton now, I suppose. May one ask what for?’

Charlie Luke winked at Campion.

‘We’re going to take a butcher’s hook at him,’ he said happily.

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