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24: Through the Net

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Author Topic: 24: Through the Net  (Read 38 times)
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« on: June 04, 2023, 08:27:30 am »

A COLD and unrelenting rain poured down over lamplit Apron Street, but it thinned the crowd round Portminster Lodge very little since the tantalizing string of cars before the flaking, dewdrop-hung gate grew longer and longer as an hour passed, and there were comings and goings by taxi to be observed.

Already there had been anxious inquirers for relatives who had not returned from the conversazione. These had been courteously dismissed by the police, but had not all left entirely reassured, although the first wild rumour, which had hinted that refreshment at a Borgia house-warming was very small beer when compared with the Palinode counterpart, had soon been superseded by something nearer the truth. Still, no one had been allowed to leave and tension was running very high.

All down the street curtains were thrust back and inquisitive heads appeared in silhouette over the darkened shop fronts. The only completely unlit building was the Bowels establishment. Father and son might have died themselves for all the interest they displayed in what was, after all, a potential business opportunity among old clients. Their little house sat secret and smug as a tomb, and the arched entrance to the mews was a black yawn beside it.

But across the way Portminster Lodge itself shone like a palace. White cotton blinds had been pulled over the downstairs windows but they did not obscure the lights, and at times provided screens for shadow shows in which gigantic figures, distorted both in size and importance, stalked by on secret errands to the hysterical delight of the crowd.

Meanwhile, in the wet garden the Press had decided to swarm. They were kept out of the house and off official visitors by nervous plain-clothes men, and had reached a stage when they buzzed together, damp and irritable and full of unprofitable ideas.

Inside the house the excitement was even more intense. In Miss Evadne’s room the party continued grimly. So far, apart from an example or so of purely nervous symptoms, there had been no more casualties. Names and addresses and an occasional short statement were still being taken by Inspector Porky Bowden, Luke’s right-hand man from the station, and all refreshment and the vessels thereof had been removed by Dice and his poker-face assistants.

In the intervals Adrian Siddons recited.

When telling the story afterwards Harold Lines used to lower his voice on that statement and stare deeply into his glass.

Downstairs the drawing-room and its adjacent cloak-room had become an improvised hospital ward for Lawrence, while the police had set up their headquarters in his own room across the hall. Clarrie had taken the shades off the light bulbs in the drawing-room at the doctor’s request and the neglected apartment, which was not considered habitable by anyone in the household at the best of times, had now taken on a bald sordidness made up of dusty boards from which the carpet had been rolled back, cruel lighting, and chipped enamel toilet-ware.

Doctor Smith was pulling down his shirt-sleeves, his round shoulders looking weary and old under the shiny lining of his waistcoat, when Renee came rustling in with a pile of fresh towels. She wore a cooking pinafore over her black finery and, now that the tragedy was averted, was inclined to be exuberant with relief.

She smiled at Lawrence, who lay on the worn Empire sofa looking dreadfully like some half-plucked black bird. His skin was wet and livid and covered with goose-pimples, but he was out of misery and an aggrieved and astonished anger had begun to possess him.

‘Poor old chap!’ said Renee, hardly helping. ‘Never mind, you’re all right now, ducky. How much longer have you got to go on bothering him, Mr. Luke?’

The D.D.I. took no notice of her. He and Campion were bending over one of the small tables at the far end of the room, comparing their sheets of notes. They were both tired, but Luke had got his second wind. He was a little more quiet than usual, perhaps, but his passionate interest was still there, radiating from him like a searchlight.

‘You see? It was quite different muck.’ His murmur vibrated in Campion’s ear and he ringed an item on both lists. ‘This chap was handed something quite different from everybody else---different colour, different stink. We shan’t get the analyst’s report until tomorrow. Can’t. Have to get on as far as we can without.’

His pencil point ran on down the page and stopped at a query:

Says did not notice who gave him glass.

‘What about that?’

‘It’s feasible. He’d help if he could,’ said Campion. ‘He takes a dim view of the entire proceedings.’

‘I thought that.’ His effort to be quiet made him sound like a gigantic bumble-bee. ‘Everybody who knew the family at all well seems to have been helping. Miss Jessica, Lugg. Clytie even, for a time, the Doc here, Mr. James, Mr. Drudge the lawyer chap. Renee came in, the actors, everybody.’

Mr. Campion, who had been aware of a step behind him, turned to confront the doctor, who had come nearer to listen. He seemed even more nerve-racked than usual, and a tic affecting one corner of his mouth had become faintly noticeable.

‘I don’t want to commit myself, Luke,’ he began, ‘and no one can be sure without the analysis, but I think he had something more than a purely herbal poison, don’t you know.’

Luke was puzzled. ‘It was different stuff,’ he said. ‘Different colour . . .’

‘Oh yes. I think the vegetable tisane was toxic, whatever it was. It probably saved his life by making him vomit. But I think he had something more.’ He hesitated, his wretched eyes glancing from one man to the other. ‘Something more orthodox, if that’s the word. He was both stiff and drowsy---peculiar. The reaction came so quickly, too. It might have been chloral in an enormous dose. I don’t know. We shall find out, of course. I’ve taken specimens. Where’s his glass, by the way; he had it with him?’

‘Oh, Dice took that. He’s got all the exhibits.’ Luke brushed the question aside. He had fastened on to the new idea like a terrier. ‘Hyoscine again, Doc?’

‘Oh no, I don’t think so. It occurred to me at once and I was looking out for the symptoms, but I don’t think so. If it was I shall be astounded.’

‘Someone is trying to make it look like Jessica.’

The pronouncement uttered in a voice which retching had destroyed until it was no more than a rasp of dry sticks startled everybody. They moved over towards the couch in a body and Lawrence lay looking up at them, a living gargoyle, his damp hair on end and his face glistening, but his eyes intelligent as ever.

‘Trying to throw suspicion on my sister.’ The words were enunciated with extreme care, as if he suspected them all of being half-witted, or at best deaf. ‘The intention was to make her a scapegoat.’

‘What makes you think so?’ Luke’s interest was alive and eager and the sick man responded to it, forcing his broken voice and trying to raise himself on his pillows.

‘There was a scrap of leaf in my glass. I got it out after my first mouthful---I drank half of it at one draught; only thing to do with that sort of thing. All taste unpleasant.’ He was so earnest that no one smiled. ‘Leaf was hemlock. Classic poison. That was how I knew. I came out at once.’

‘Why did that make you sure it wasn’t Miss Jessica?’ The doctor put the question before either man could intervene. He spoke very simply, as if Lawrence’s mind was in the same shape as his body, and the patient closed his eyes in pure exasperation.

‘She wouldn’t have been so crude,’ he whispered, ‘even if she’d been so uncharitable. Even the Greeks found hemlock difficult stuff to administer satisfactorily. She’d have known that. Someone ignorant of that is trying to suggest that she poisoned Ruth and Edward. Ridiculous, and wicked.’

Doctor Smith jerked his chin up.

‘No one but his Maker killed your brother Edward,’ he said briskly. ‘Neither Sir Doberman nor anybody else will ever prove anything to contradict that.’

Campion forestalled any remark Luke might have made by turning to the doctor with every show of surprise.

‘Is that really so?’

‘Absolutely, as I told Luke here, but he wasn’t satisfied. When I was called to Edward Palinode he was already unconscious, but I applied the Babinski test, which, as you know or ought to, is the one infallible guide. It was positive. He died of a cerebral thrombosis, or, if you prefer it, a stroke. In Miss Ruth’s case I made an unhappy but not altogether unnatural mistake. I did not attend her until after she was dead, no test was possible. I was expecting her to go the same way as her brother, and I fell into a very great error.’

Campion looked a little less foolish than usual.

‘The Babinski test is the sole-of-the-foot one, isn’t it?’ he murmured.

‘Exactly. The sole is lightly stroked and if the toes turn up instead of down it is proof positive that there is a lesion on the opposite side of the brain. I could hardly go wrong.’

‘Mr. Edward’s toes turned up, did they?’ said Charlie Luke with a certain heartiness. ‘I’ll take your word for it, Doc. But it still leaves us a problem.’

The man did not appear to hear him. He took his lapel and made his points with a long finger on his chest.

‘I think Mr. Lawrence is right,’ he said. ‘It’s a thing that’s been bothering me without my being able to pin it down. Someone rather clever but not quite clever enough is doing this, Luke.’ He paused abruptly. ‘I don’t quite understand the attack on that young Dunning, though.’

‘But I thought you knew who it was? I thought the police had put out a net.’

They had forgotten Renee. Her invitation was as surprising as it was embarrassing.

‘D’you mean to tell me you don’t know yet?’ she demanded. ‘Aren’t you really going to make an arrest? There are crowds round the house, let me tell you. How long is this going on?’

The doctor coughed. ‘I understood there was a certain police activity,’ he began. ‘The general idea seemed to be some sort of sudden swoop . . . ?’

The question trailed away. Charlie Luke’s attitude had become withdrawn.

‘We are anxious to interview a man called Joseph Congreve,’ he said a little stiffly. ‘Our search for him may have started a hare or so. Will you come along now, Mr. Campion? Miss Jessica’s waiting for us in the other room. You’ve got a midder, you say, Doctor? Well, come back as soon as you can, won’t you? Look after Lawrence, Renee.’

They made their escape after a difficult minute or so, and as they crossed the passage Luke turned up the collar of an imaginary topcoat.

Voici le déluge,’ he said, ‘but not, unfortunately, après moi. I think I’ll go into the Merchant Service.’

Campion did not speak. At that moment they entered the dining-room and the first person he saw, standing on the hearthrug under the portrait of Professor Palinode, was Superintendent Yeo. He was taking no part in the proceedings but he was very much there. Solid and sleek in his good blue clothes, he stood squarely, his hands folded under the tail of his jacket, and he glanced at them both as they appeared but did not smile.

The significance of his arrival was not lost upon anybody. Here was an ultimatum from H.Q. An arrest, in fact, would oblige.

Luke went over to him at once and Campion would have followed had not a gentle hand detained him. Miss Jessica had risen from the chair where she had been waiting and now greeted him as a deliverer. She had discarded the cardboard from her hat, but still wore the motoring veil knotted carelessly behind her head in the manner of the Victorian romantic painters. Her bag was missing, too, and her gown, which as usual was muslin over wool, had achieved some interesting drapery effects. Altogether she looked, curiously enough, rather decorative and a hundred per cent feminine.

‘Something has disagreed with Lawrence,’ she said superbly. ‘Did you know?’

‘Yes,’ he said gravely, ‘it might have been very serious.’

‘I know. They told me.’ She indicated Dice and his colleagues with a wave of her hand. Her nice voice was as intelligent as ever, but it had lost its authority, and he saw with dismay that she was desperately afraid.

‘I did not make a mistake,’ she went on with the dreadful earnestness of one not absolutely sure. ‘You’ll have to help me convince them of that. I followed Boon’s recipes very carefully, except where I had to make omissions. It was a party, you see, and one does like to give one’s guests one’s best.’

Her little face was very serious, her nice eyes deeply troubled.

‘I am fond of Lawrence,’ she said, as if the admission was one of weakness. ‘He is more near to me in age than any of the others. I wouldn’t hurt him. But then I wouldn’t hurt anybody, if I knew.’

‘Look here,’ said Mr. Campion, ‘what did you actually do?’

She was only too anxious to tell him.

‘I brewed two tisanes, nettle and a tansy. Evadne purchased the yerba maté and made it herself. That was a lightish brown. It’s nearly tea, you know. The nettle drink I made was grey, and the tansy was yellow. But they tell me the stuff that Lawrence drank was a deep bottle-green.’

‘With leaves in it,’ murmured Campion involuntarily.

‘Had it?’ She picked him up at once. ‘Then it couldn’t have been anything I made. I always strain everything very carefully through old linen---clean, of course.’ She regarded him inquisitively. ‘Don’t you remember what Boon says? “The residue constitutes a valuable vegetable addition to the diet.” ’

‘Oh dear,’ said Mr. Campion, peering at her through his spectacles. ‘Yes, I suppose he does. Tell me, have you got these---er---residual vegetables downstairs?’

Her reply was lost to him, for at that moment the door was opened abruptly and Clarrie Grace, looking flushed and harassed, swept in with a tray on which was an unopened bottle of Irish whisky, a siphon and half a dozen glasses.

‘Miss Roper’s compliments,’ he announced, addressing the room as if it were an audience. ‘Everything’s sealed, so no cold feet, anybody. She’s sorry it’s Irish, but there’s been a war.’

He planted the tray on the desk end of the dining table, flashed his stage smile at them, and rushed out again very quickly to show he did not want to overhear any secrets.

The police ignored the entire incident, albeit a trifle self-consciously, and continued their muttered consultations, but Miss Jessica turned to her champion.

‘A silly woman but so kind,’ she observed.

‘Perhaps so,’ he agreed absently, and his glance strayed to the portrait over the mantel. To his amazement, for he had forgotten her gift, she behaved as if he had spoken his thought aloud. She coloured slightly.

‘Oh, you know, do you?’ she said softly. ‘The likeness is so very marked, isn’t it? Her mother danced, I believe.’

He stared at her and she hurried on, still speaking very softly but greatly enjoying the sensation she was making.

‘She was also an excellent business woman, I believe. My mother, the poetess, whom I resemble, never knew of her existence, nor of the daughter, of course, but my father was a just man and he provided very handsomely for them. I think he must have known that Renee had inherited his practical ability, whereas none of the rest of us had, for he made certain that all the house property, for which he had a sentimental regard, went to her. That is why we accept so much from her.’

While he was still digesting this information she leaned close to him to whisper something which made him believe her utterly just as surely as it took his breath away.

‘Please be very discreet. You see, she does not know we know. That way there is no embarrassment on either side.’

Her gentle voice was touched with complacency as she folded her hands on the matter, very much as the poetess must have done in the grimly practical days when Victoria was queen. Even Luke, who came striding over with a flea in his ear, did not shake her equanimity. She sat down where he told her to and answered his opening questions with complete assurance.

From the beginning, Campion, who stood just behind her facing the D.D.I., found the ordeal a good deal more nerve-racking than she did. To begin with, he had no illusions about Luke’s position. At the moment, as things had turned out, the Chief was virtually bound to arrest her in the hope rather than the certainty that he could prove her guilty. A case could just be made out against her, and that was not true of anyone else on the horizon. It was the old nightmare situation dreaded by all good policemen; in this case doubly unsatisfactory since it soon became obvious that she might easily have made any sort of silly mistake in her potion-brewing, while no man in the room believed for a moment that she was guilty of the premeditated crimes which had occurred.

Campion took hold of himself. The murderer, he thought, had now emerged. The killer-for-gain who was clever, but too contemptuous or careless of his danger to be quite thorough; the killer with power over a lot of little people, he existed. His shadowy figure was apparent, but, even now, infuriatingly unrecognizable. Campion felt his mind shuttering. It was a demoralizing predicament. He was frustrated and impotent in it.

He was on the point of turning away from the unbearable interview when Miss Jessica’s voice cut across his milling thoughts.

‘Oh, is that the glass Lawrence drank from? Do be careful of it. It’s one of Evadne’s sherries. She’s only got two left. They’re old Bristol.’

The words detached themselves from the immediate present and hung in front of him, very small and clear, as if they were printed in hard black type across a picture of the room. Immediately afterwards, with a series of jolts which were almost physical, a string of hitherto unrelated, and in some cases hardly noticed, items jerked into line. Each little knot pulled out like chain-stitch and suddenly the single end of the cord lay in his hand.

Immediately two major problems became urgent. Their difficulty startled him. Time, above all. It was later than he had thought.

Luke, who was holding the small green glass in a folded handkerchief, happened to look at him and remained staring, his bright odd-shaped eyes questioning. Campion bent over Miss Jessica, surprised to find his voice shaking.

‘I’ve seen flowers in those glasses,’ he said. ‘Doesn’t your sister use them for flowers sometimes? Everlasting flowers?’

‘Flowers?’ She was horrified. ‘Oh no. They’re the last of my father’s sherry glasses. Evadne would never use them for anything else. They’re very precious. I didn’t realize she had put them out today. They are usually kept on the mantelshelf. There was no sherry. That was why we had to make something else.’

Campion had ceased to listen to her. With a word of apology he turned on his heel and went out of the room, crossed to the drawing-room where Lawrence lay alone, and asked him a single, and, as it seemed to the sick man, utterly absurd and irrelevant question.

‘Well, yes,’ said Lawrence Palinode in reply. ‘Yes, as a matter of fact we did. Always. It was a custom left from happier days. All of us. Yes. On every occasion. Good heavens! You’re not suggesting . . .’

Campion left him. He was moving very quickly and he put his head into the dining-room looking like a bleached edition of himself in youth.

‘Come on,’ he said to Luke with brisk authority. ‘Proof first, I suppose, and then, my lad, that net of yours had better close if we haven’t left it too late.’

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