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Chapter Two

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« on: September 07, 2023, 08:24:09 am »

MISS Silver laid down her knitting, balancing it carefully on the arm of her chair, after which she got up and, crossing over to the writing-table, seated herself there, all without hurry. When she had opened a drawer and taken out an exercise-book with a bright green cover she addressed herself to Roger Pilgrim.

“Perhaps you will come over here---it will be more convenient. I should like to take some notes.”

By the time he had settled himself in an upright chair which faced her across the table she was waiting for him, the exercise-book laid open before her and a neatly pointed pencil in her hand. Her manner, though perfectly kind, was brisk and businesslike as she said,

“If these two incidents were deliberate attempts upon your life, you are certainly in need of advice and protection. But I would like to know a little more. You spoke of a leaky pipe. I suppose that you had it examined. Was there any sign of its having been tampered with?”

He had an embarrassed look.

“Well, as a matter of fact it wasn’t a pipe---it was a tap.”

Her look reproved him.

“Accuracy is of the very first importance, Major Pilgrim.”

He pulled off his glasses and began to polish them with a dark blue handkerchief. Without them his eyes had a defenceless look. They avoided hers.

“Yes---that’s just it. We thought it must be a pipe, but there wasn’t anything wrong with the pipes. As a matter of fact there wasn’t any water laid on upstairs until my father put it in, so the plumbing is fairly modern. On the attic floor they turned a dressing-room into a bathroom and cut a bit off to make a housemaid’s cupboard with a sink. When the ceiling came down, the tap over this sink was found running. Someone had left the plug in, so of course it had overflowed. The trouble is, I don’t think that would account for my ceiling coming down. The cupboard is not directly over it, for one thing, and I don’t think there’d have been enough water, for another. I’ve thought about it a lot. There’s a loose board in the room right over mine. The room hasn’t been used for years. Suppose someone bunged up the sink and left the tap running to make it look as if the water came from there, and then helped out by sloshing a few buckets of water under that board---it would have brought the ceiling down all right. What do you think about that?”

Miss Silver nodded slowly.

“What is the distance from the sink to the edge of your ceiling?”

“Something like eight or nine feet.”

“Was there water under the boards all that way?”

“Well, that’s just it---there was. Some, you know, but not an awful lot. The passage ceiling underneath didn’t come down. And mind you, the ceiling that did---the one in my room---would sop up quite a lot of water---all those heavy mouldings, and the nymphs and things.”

“Quite so.” She coughed. “Of what does the staff at Pilgrim’s Rest consist?”

“Well, there’s only Robbins and his wife that sleep in. They’ve been there ever since I can remember. There’s a village girl of about fifteen who comes in by the day. She might have left the tap running. But she goes away at six, and Mrs. Robbins says she drew water from it at ten o’clock herself when she and Robbins went up to bed. And she says she’s never left a tap running in her life, and would she be likely to begin now?”

Miss Silver made a note---“Robbins to bed at ten o’clock.” Then she asked,

“What time did the ceiling come down?”

“About one o’clock. It made no end of a row---woke me up.”

Miss Silver repeated a remark she had already made.

“You had a most providential escape. You believe that your life was attempted. I can see that you are quite sincere in this belief. May I ask who it is that you suspect?”

He replaced his glasses and looked her straight in the face.

“I haven’t the slightest idea.”

“Have you any enemies?”

“Not that I know about.”

“What motive do you suggest?”

He looked away again.

“Well, there’s that business about selling the house. My father starts to sell it, and a quiet old mare he’d ridden for years bolts with him and breaks his neck. I start to sell it, and a ceiling that’s been there for a hundred and sixty years or so comes down across my bed, and a room where I’m sorting papers is burned out whilst I’m too dead asleep to do anything about it.”

Miss Silver looked at him gravely. “You were indeed fortunate to escape. You have not told me how you did so.”

“Well, as a matter of fact it was my trouser-leg catching that brought me around. I had come in from outside, and my old waterproof was hanging over the back of a chair. I put it over my head and got to the door. You couldn’t see across the room for smoke---all the wooden pigeon-holing had caught. And when I got to the door I couldn’t get it open. You know, I’ve an idea that it was locked. The key was there quite handy on the outside, so that I could leave the papers and lock up when I got through.”

“Dear me! What did you do?”

“I broke the window and got out that way. I got William and his grandson from the stables, and we put the fire out. Most of the papers were burned---which was a pity, but it might have been worse. The room is in the oldest part of the house, and the walls behind the pigeon-holing are stone, so the fire wouldn’t spread.”

“A most fortunate circumstance. Major Pilgrim---you say that to the best of your belief the door was locked. I presume that you verified this.”

“Well, as a matter of fact by the time the fire was out it wasn’t. But there it is---I couldn’t open it when it wanted opening, and in the end I don’t know who did open it, because by that time practically everyone in the house was rallying around. Anyone might have unlocked it, but no one seems to remember whether they did or not.”

“In fact anyone in the house may have locked it, anyone may have unlocked it, or it may never have been locked at all?”

Roger Pilgrim looked at his feet.

“That’s about the size of it,” he said. “But why wouldn’t it open---can you tell me that?”

Miss Silver changed the subject.

“Now, Major Pilgrim, will you give me the names of everyone who was in the house on these two occasions---the name and just a short description.”

He had picked up a half sheet of writing-paper from the table. His hands folded and refolded it, the fingers as tense as if they were about some matter of life and death. He kept his eyes on the twisting paper, but Miss Silver doubted whether he saw it. He said in a dragging voice, “Well---I don’t know, you know----”

Miss Silver coughed. Her pencil tapped the table.

“You are not married?”

“Oh, no.”

“Engaged?”

“Well---as a matter of fact---no, I’m not engaged.”

He received a bright smile.

“I see---I am premature. But you have an attachment. Was the lady in the house at the time of either of these incidents?”

“Oh, no.”

“In the neighbourhood?”

“Oh, no.”

“Then let us return to those who were in the house. Will you give me the names?”

“Well, there are my aunts---my father’s sisters, but a good bit older. My grandfather was married twice---they belonged to the first family. There were four of them, all girls. These two didn’t marry. They have always lived at Pilgrim’s Rest.”

“Their names?”

“Aunt Collie---short for Columba. And Aunt Netta---short for Janetta.”

Miss Silver wrote in the exercise-book, “Miss Columba Pilgrim---Miss Janetta Pilgrim.”

“And now a little about them.”

“Well, Aunt Collie’s large, and Aunt Netta’s small. Aunt Collie’s mad on gardening. I don’t know what we’d do without her, because of course there’s no labour to be had. She and old Pell just keep things going. Aunt Netta doesn’t do anything except embroidery. She’s making new needlework covers for all the chairs---she’s been at it for thirty years or so. Shocking waste of time, but she’s by way of being an invalid, so I suppose it’s a good thing for her to have something like that.”

Miss Silver wrote in the exercise-book. When she had finished she looked up and said, “Pray go on.”

“Well, there’s my cousin, Jerome Pilgrim. He got pretty badly smashed up at Dunkirk. He has to have a nurse. We’re lucky to have been able to keep her. She’s very good with him, and she keeps an eye on Aunt Netta too.”

“Her name?”

“Oh, Day---Miss Lona Day.”

Miss Silver wrote down, “Jerome Pilgrim---Lona Day,” and enquired, “What age is your cousin?”

“Jerome? Oh, about thirty-eight---thirty-nine. He’s Captain Pilgrim, if you want to put that down. He was a barrister before the war---rather mildly, if you know what I mean. And he wrote thrillers---not at all bad. But he hasn’t done anything since Dunkirk---too smashed up, poor chap.”

“Is he confined to his bed?”

He stared.

“Jerome? Oh, no. He gets about---except when he has a bad turn. It’s his head chiefly. They used to say he’d get all right, but he doesn’t, you know.”

Miss Silver coughed.

“Major Pilgrim, I am obliged to ask you---is your cousin at all mentally unbalanced?”

The stare was repeated.

“Jerome? Oh, good lord no! I mean---no of course he isn’t, poor chap.”

Miss Silver left it at that. If at this stage of the proceedings it occurred to her that an explanation of the incidents narrated by Roger Pilgrim might not be far to seek, she had a constitutional caution which warned her against accepting too easy a solution. She contented herself with underlining Captain Jerome Pilgrim’s name, and enquired, “Are those all the inmates of Pilgrim’s Rest?”

Roger disliked the word inmates. Coming on the top of being asked whether poor old Jerome was off his head, it produced a definitely irritated feeling. He had found it a relief to talk. Now he began to wish he hadn’t come. It was in a slightly sulky voice that he replied,

“No---there’s Miss Elliot, and the little girl.”

He met an encouraging look and a questioning “Yes?” He explained.

“She’s come down to help in the house. One of the village girls who came in has been called up, and the other is only fifteen.”

“And what age is Miss Elliot?”

“Oh, quite young. Her name’s Judy. About twenty-two, I should think. She isn’t called up because of the little girl. It’s her sister’s and there isn’t anyone else to look after it. The father and mother were killed in an air raid.”

Miss Silver inclined her head.

“A tragic bereavement.”

She wrote, “Miss Judy Elliot,” and paused with suspended pencil for the name of the little girl.

“Oh, Penny Fossett. She’s about three. And they couldn’t have had anything to do with what’s been happening, because they’ve only just come.”

“I see. Major Pilgrim---who would succeed to your property if you were to meet with a fatal accident?”

He looked startled. Then his frown deepened.

“Oh, my brother Jack. But we don’t know whether he’s alive or not. He was in hospital in Singapore the last we heard of him, just before the Japs walked in. And of course we hope he’s all right, but we can’t tell.”

“So that if either of those accidents had had a fatal result, the sale of the property would have been indefinitely postponed?”

“I suppose it would. As a matter of fact it couldn’t be sold as long as there was no proof one way or another about Jack.”

“And if there was proof of your brother’s death---who would inherit then?”

“Oh, Jerome.”

There was quite a pause. When she thought it had lasted long enough Miss Silver said in a serious voice, “What do you wish me to do? If I am to help you, it will be necessary for me to be on the spot. I could either come down openly as an enquiry agent, or, which would be preferable, as an ordinary visitor. Do you think it would be possible to confide in one of your aunts? Because if so, I could be paying a visit in the character of an old friend---perhaps an old schoolfellow.”

He said in a doubtful voice, “I might tell Aunt Collie. Not Aunt Netta---she’d get in a flap. Or I might tell Lona---she could say you were her aunt or something.”

Miss Silver glanced at her list of names.

“Miss Lona Day---the nurse? No, I do not think that would be desirable. It would be better to confide in Miss Columba. People who spend their time gardening are as a rule very reliable. The qualities of industry, patience and perseverance are fostered, and they usually have calm and steady nerves. I do not think that you gave me Miss Day’s age.”

“Lona? Didn’t I? Well, as a matter of fact I don’t know it. She’d be somewhere over thirty, you know. She’s an awfully good nurse, and I don’t know what we’d do without her. Now I come to think of it, she must be nearer forty than thirty, because there was something said about her age when she came. Three years ago it would be, because it wasn’t very long before all that business about Henry.”

Miss Silver coughed and enquired, “Who is Henry?”

+++

Judy had come to Pilgrim’s Rest in the pouring rain. It is not the best way to arrive, or to see a house for the first time. The old hired car which had met them at Ledlington stopped halfway down the village street. It was about the wettest street she had ever seen, because not only were there gallons of water falling on it from the low grey sky, but quite a sizable little stream ran down the left-hand side in a paved channel bridged at intervals to give access to the houses which lay beyond, each with its own front garden and paved or gravelled path.

The car stopped on the right, and she saw the rain running in cascades over what looked like a conservatory. When the old driver opened the door of the car she discovered that it was a glazed passage about fifteen feet long leading from the street to the house. Of the house itself she had only a vague impression. For one thing, there was a high brick wall on either side of the entrance. It looked big and old-fashioned and there were a lot of windows. She wondered if she would have to clean them.

And then the door of the glass passage was opening, and she jumped Penny across the narrow wet pavement on to old, dry cocoanut matting. The passage was paved with small red and black tiles, with the cocoanut matting running down the middle. A row of staging on either side supported some sparse and disagreeable plants. She was to discover that they were a source of controversy between Miss Columba and her sister---Miss Netta insisting that they should be retained because they had always had plants there, and Miss Collie asseverating that you couldn’t expect any self-respecting plant to put up with the draught in that horrible passage, and that if Miss Netta wanted to keep them there she could look after them herself. At the time, Judy was taken up with paying the driver, taking charge of the hand-luggage inseparable from travelling with a child, and controlling Penny, who was thrilled to the core.

It was the butler who had opened the door, an elderly man with a disapproving face. Whether it was always like that, or whether he thought it as well that Judy should know straight away how he and Mrs. Robbins felt about a young lady housemaid with a child of four, she had no means of knowing. There was, however, no sign of softening when Penny put out a small polite hand and said, “How do you do?” in her very best social manner.

They came into a large square hall with rooms opening off it on either side and a staircase going up in the background. The house felt big and cold though it wasn’t really a cold day. When she sorted out her impressions afterwards, that is what they amounted to---rain, and a big, cold house, and Robbins’ unwelcoming face.

The sorting out took place, as it generally does, at bedtime. She and Penny had a nice room, only one floor up, which was a great relief to her mind, because she would have hated to leave Penny all by herself at the top of the house. Their room was quite near the stairs, and farther along there was the invalid cousin, and his nurse, and a bathroom. She and Penny didn’t use it. They went through a door and half way down a crooked stair, and when you got there, the floor was all uneven and the roof very low, and the bath was enormous, with a wide mahogany surround. Penny found it all very thrilling.

But their room was quite modern, with twin beds enamelled white, which was a surprise, because the house rather suggested gloomy four-posters. Judy lay on a rather hard mattress and told herself that it wasn’t too bad at all; that everything would feel better when the rain had stopped and the sun came out; that it was idiotic to suppose it wouldn’t come out, because it always did in the end; and doubly, trebly idiotic, to let anything Frank Abbott said make the slightest difference to her feelings about Pilgrim’s Rest.

She began to think about the people there. Miss Columba coming into the hall to meet them. Rather a shock after only seeing her in town, large and quite normally covered up in a fur coat and a felt hat. In sprawling birdseye tweeds she looked immense, with an orange sweater up to her double chin and thick curly grey hair cut almost as short as a man’s. Perfectly enormous hands and feet, and even less to say for herself than at their previous meeting. But quite nice and kind---the sort of kindness that expects to be taken for granted, and takes you for granted too. Very difficult to connect her as a sister with Miss Janetta, sitting in the sofa corner working at a tambour frame with a small frail white hand which looked as if it had never in its life done anything more practical than embroidery. The one thing that she and Miss Collie had in common was the curl in their hair, but Miss Netta’s was silver-white where Miss Collie’s was iron-grey, and she wore it in the most elaborate rolls, and curls, and twirls. And not one of them looking as if it could get out of place if it tried. Judy had wondered how long they took to do, and could make an approximate guess when she was informed that Miss Netta’s room could never be done till twelve o’clock, as she breakfasted in bed, and did not leave it until then---“I’m a sad invalid. I’m afraid I give a great deal of trouble.”

Judy thought she didn’t look in the least ill, with those blue eyes and pink cheeks, but of course you never could tell. Some of the colour was make-up, and very well done. She suspected that her personal appearance was one of Miss Netta’s preoccupations, the other two being her embroidery and her health.

Roger Pilgrim---she had sat through a meal with him, but they hadn’t exchanged a word except the bare conventional “How do you do?” If Miss Janetta didn’t look ill, Roger certainly did. And nervous. His hand shook when he lifted his glass, his eyes looked here and there, he jumped when a door banged. Having come in late for the meal, he disappeared as soon as it was over, with a hasty “I’ll go and have a cigarette with Jerome.” When she came to think of it Judy couldn’t remember that he had spoken at all between his “How do you do?” to her and this excuse to get out of the room.

The invalid cousin’s name naturally brought Miss Day into her mind. Lona---that’s what they all called her---the nurse who looked after Captain Pilgrim and Miss Netta. She didn’t dress like a nurse, because Captain Pilgrim hated things that rustled and Miss Netta found the uniform inartistic. So there was Miss Day with a skirt of russet tweed and a soft yellow jumper. Not very young, but she had a good figure, and the jumper showed it off. Not goodlooking exactly---a peaked, pale face, greenish hazel eyes, and a lot of chestnut hair---rather good hair. There was some likeness---something odd and elusive---Judy couldn’t place it. It stayed in her mind in the irritating niggling way that sort of thing does. But she was quite sure she had never seen Lona Day before---she would have remembered her if she had. Something warm and interested in her manner. She seemed really to care about Penny, and about Nora and John. It wasn’t Judy who mentioned them, it was Miss Janetta. Lona Day hadn’t said a word, but Judy felt as if she cared. She had talked very nicely about Captain Pilgrim.

“I’m afraid his room is going to be rather tiresome for you. You will have to do it whilst he is in the bathroom, but that will give you quite half an hour, because he shaves there as well as having his bath. He wouldn’t shave for a long time because of the scar, but I am so glad he has begun now. He’s so sensitive about the disfigurement, and it’s so bad for him, poor fellow.”

“Doesn’t he come down at all?”

“Oh, yes, he does as a rule---on his good days. But it really is an ordeal for him to meet a stranger, and he’s dreadfully afraid of frightening your little Penny. What a perfectly lovely child she is. I don’t wonder you feel you can’t part with her. And so good!”

The last of all this was the best. Penny was being the authentic angel child, and she had gone down in the most miraculous way. It was too good to last, but just as well to begin with a buttered side. For this evening at least, Penny had done all the things which even the Victorian child was supposed to do---had said “Yes, please,” and “No, thank you,” had dropped no crumb on the floor, spilled no drip on the table, and had reserved for the privacy of the bath an enthusiastic appreciation of Miss Columba.

“Wouldn’t she make a lovely big yelephant!”

With a sleepy giggle Judy drifted out of waking thought.

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