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Chapter Four

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« on: September 07, 2023, 10:44:27 am »

“I AM going down to Holt St. Agnes tomorrow,” said Miss Silver. “But before I go I should like to ask you some questions. I am very glad that you are able to afford me the opportunity of doing so.”

The curtains were drawn in her cosy sitting-room. She wore a figured silk dress, bottle-green with a sort of Morse code of multi-coloured dots and dashes, which had been her last summer’s best, and over it a short black velvet coatee which was one of the veterans of her wardrobe. In his more impudent moments Frank Abbott had indulged in speculation as to whether it did not date from before the last great war. He sat in front of the fire on a padded stool with the same curly walnut legs as Miss Silver’s chair. Hands clasped about his knees, he turned and permitted himself to smile.

“We do get off occasionally, you know. As Lord Tennyson has truly remarked, ‘The leisured hour, how sweet a thing it is.’ ”

Miss Silver coughed. “I do not recall the passage.”

As Master Frank had just made it up, this was not surprising. He preserved the smile, and said without a blush, “One of my favourites. What did you want to ask me?”

To pull Maudie’s leg was an awful joy. The thing he was never sure about was, did she know that he was pulling it? Sometimes he had a horrid suspicion that she did. He gazed at her ingenuously and said, “Anything I can do----”

Miss Silver knitted in silence for a moment. She had made a very good start on Ethel’s birthday jumper, but she had come to a place where it was necessary to count her stitches. Her lips moved, the needles clicked. Then she said “You can tell me more about the Pilgrim family. Major Pilgrim was in so nervous a state that I did not wish to give him the feeling that he was being cross-examined. That is one of the things I wanted to ask you about---has he always been of a neurotic temperament?”

“No, I shouldn’t say he had. He wasn’t supposed to be strong, but he grew out of that. He’s just been through a pretty gruelling experience, you know---Western Desert---prison camp---escape---hospital---his father’s death---uncertainty about his brother---I suppose he told you they’d no news of him since Singapore. And then all this ceiling-falling and room-burning business. I don’t think you can be surprised if he’s jumpy.”

“No, indeed, poor young man. I hope it may be possible to relieve his mind. He left me in a state of some uncertainty, but I have had a note from him since, asking me to go down there tomorrow. I told him that it would be as well if I could appear as an ordinary visitor, and he informs me that he has confided in Miss Columba Pilgrim, and that she agrees with my suggestion. I am, in fact, to be an old schoolfellow. This is made possible by the fact that Miss Columba went away to boarding school, whereas Miss Janetta, who was considered delicate, remained at home and shared in the studies of the Vicar’s daughters, who had an admirable governess. One of the things I wished to ask you was whether Miss Columba can be relied upon to be perfectly discreet.”

Frank Abbott laughed.

“She says so little at any time that the chances of her saying one word too much are, I should say, practically nil. She’s good solid stuff, you know, but she’s always taken her own way and had her own thoughts. Don’t ask me what they are, because nobody but Miss Columba knows.”

Miss Silver counted again for a moment before she said.

“What is your opinion of the invalid cousin, Jerome Pilgrim?”

Frank Abbott’s face settled into gravity.

“Jerome? He was one of the best. He’s a good bit older than Roger and I. Let me see---I’m twenty-nine, and Roger’s a couple of years younger---Jerome must be forty-one or forty-two. We looked up to him like anything. You know the way schoolboys do. Then I hardly saw him for years---you know how it is, one gets off on another line---until---well, something happened that brought us together again, and by that time the poor chap was a wreck. Not too good, seeing him like that.”

Miss Silver looked at him very directly.

“Frank, you know these people, you know all the circumstances. Do you think Jerome Pilgrim is responsible for what has been happening?”

“Not unless he’s off his head. I mean, the Jerome Pilgrim I knew was quite incapable of anything that wasn’t straight. But after a knock on the head like he had---well, you know----”

“Is he considered to be mentally affected by his wound?”

“No, he isn’t. The doctors hoped he’d get all right. I gather the position is this. He shrinks from going out because he thinks he’s worse disfigured than he is---imagines he gives everyone a turn---that sort of thing. The answer to that is, he ought to be encouraged to go out and get over it. Well, various people have encouraged him---my cousins, Lesley Freyne, myself. And what happens? Every time he does the least extra, there’s the most unfortunate reaction. He starts having nightmares again, shouts the house down in the middle of the night, and scares everybody into fits. So the doctors say let him alone, keep him quiet, don’t force anything. And there you are! They’re lucky in the nurse they’ve got---she seems to understand him.”

“Miss Lona Day?”

“Yes. They’re all devoted to her.”

“How long has she been with him?”

“Three years? . . . Yes, it must be quite that, because she was there when Henry Clayton went.”

Miss Silver rested her knitting on her knee and said, “Yes. I would like you to tell me about that.”

“About Henry Clayton?” He sounded a little surprised.

“If you please, Frank.”

“Well, it’s ancient history---three years ago. But it’s really quite up your street. No connection with what’s going on now of course, but odd enough to be intriguing. Henry Clayton was a first cousin---may be still for all I know---of Roger and Jerome. His mother was a sister of Miss Collie and Miss Netta. He was about the same age as Jerome, and he’d been a bit of a rolling stone---been all sorts of things---done a spot of farming, a spot of prospecting, a spot of journalism. When the war broke out he landed in the Ministry of Information---don’t ask me why. A very agreeable chap, very good-looking, always had lots of friends, generally stone broke. Well, some time towards the end of the phony war he got engaged to Lesley Freyne. Owing to the general landslide that summer they weren’t getting down to being married until early in ’41. To tell you the honest truth, the impression in Holt St. Agnes was that Henry wasn’t any too keen. I don’t know if anyone’s told you about Lesley. She’s got a good figure and a heart of gold, but she’s no glamour-girl, and Henry had a reputation for liking them glamorous. On the other hand, she had, and still has, pots of money, and I suppose Henry thought he could do with some of it. As Tennyson says, ‘Don’t ee marry for money, but go where money is.’ ”

There was a note of reproof in Miss Silver’s voice as she remarked, “Words put into the mouth of a cross-grained old farmer, Frank, can hardly be considered to express Lord Tennyson’s own sentiments.”

He hastened to placate her.

“As you say. He leaves the court without a stain on his character. Let me go on telling you about Henry. We approach the climax. Three days before the wedding Henry Clayton had a tiff with Lesley Freyne. No one knows what it was about. I call it a tiff because that’s what Lesley called it. She said it wasn’t serious, it wasn’t a quarrel. I got all this first-hand, because the Yard was called in, Henry being domiciled in London and in the Ministry of Information, and they sent me down because I knew the place and the people.”

Miss Silver said, “Quite so.”

Hands still clasped about his knees, looking not at her but down into the fire, Frank went on.

“Well, this tiff having taken place some time in the afternoon, nothing else seems to have happened until ten-thirty PM, when Robbins, the butler, was locking up for the night. They were early-to-bedders at Pilgrim’s Rest, the ladies at ten, and the old man at ten-fifteen---Roger’s father was alive then, you know. Robbins thought they had all gone up, but when he came to the study door he could hear Henry Clayton at the telephone. He wrapped it up pretty, but actually he stood there and listened. And he heard Henry say, ‘No, Lesley, of course not. Darling, you couldn’t think a thing like that! Look here, I’ll come round.’ There was a pause whilst she said something, and then he went on, ‘Oh, no---it’s only half past ten.’ Then he hung up and came out into the hall, only just giving Robbins time to get away from the door. Lesley Freyne corroborated this account, and said Henry rang to make up their disagreement, her remark in the pause being that it was too late for him to come round. Well, Henry, having reached the hall, told Robbins he was going to see Miss Freyne, and added, ‘I shan’t be long, but don’t stay up for me---I’ll take the key and put up the chain when I come in.’ After which he walked out of the house just as he was.”

Miss Silver’s needles clicked.

“In evening-dress?”

“No. There were still a good many air-raid alarms going, and the men were sticking to ordinary clothes. Henry was wearing a dark blue town suit. It was a mild evening, and Lesley’s house isn’t more than fifty yards down the street. He put the front door key into his pocket and went out. Lesley Freyne was waiting for him. When she left the telephone she went to a window which overlooked the street. It was a clear moonlight night. Pilgrim’s Rest was in plain view. It was rather an odd entrance, a sort of glass passage leading from the front door to the village street. She saw Henry come out of this passage and begin to walk towards her, and she drew back from the window because she didn’t want him to see that she was looking out for him. She let the curtain fall between her and the glass and crossed over to the other side of the room. Minutes went by. She had told him that she would leave the front door open so that he could just walk in. He didn’t come. When she couldn’t bear it any longer she went back to the window. The street was quite bright, and clear, and empty.”

He slewed round and looked up in her face.

“Well, there you are! Henry Clayton was seen leaving Pilgrim’s Rest, but he never arrived at St. Agnes’ Lodge, and from that day to this he’s never been seen or heard of.”

“My dear Frank!”

“I told you it was a queer start. He wasn’t missed until the morning. When he was, of course the obvious conclusion was that he had jibbed at the post. No one seems to have thought that he was very much in love with Lesley, and everyone concluded that he had just backed out. If it hadn’t been for the war, I expect the Yard would have thought so too. Masses of people disappear every year, but it isn’t so easy in wartime. Henry wasn’t a boy, he was nearly forty---and he had a government job. You can’t walk out on your job in the middle of a war without landing in very serious trouble. There are identity-cards, ration-cards---it isn’t all that easy to disappear. I went down to Holt St. Agnes and did my stuff. Family very upset. Lesley---well, I’m fond of her, and I don’t mind saying I’d have liked five minutes alone with Henry. She didn’t make any fuss. She was simple, she was dignified, but she was taking it hard.”

Miss Silver coughed.

“How long was she away from the window after she saw Mr. Clayton coming down the street towards her?”

“She says not more than four minutes. She went over to the fire, and there is a clock on the mantelpiece. She says she was watching the time.”

“You say the distance between the houses is about fifty yards. Is there any side street or lane?”

“No, there isn’t. The wall of Pilgrim’s Rest covers half the distance. It is too high to climb. There is an entrance to the garage and stables, but it was locked. After the wall comes a branch of the County Bank, closed for the duration, two or three shops, and then the wall of St. Agnes’ Lodge. All the way on the other side there are village houses, standing back from the street, with strips of garden in front. If Henry had wanted to do a bunk he could, of course, have made off that way. But why should he go blundering through a cottage garden into a lot of plough-land in the opposite direction from the line of rail? And why should he do a bunk on a winter’s night, however mild---it was February, but I count that winter---bareheaded, in a lounge suit, without so much as a scarf, and no luggage? Everything he had brought down to Pilgrim’s Rest was accounted for. It’s a bit much to swallow, don’t you think? Unless he had a real, genuine black out---didn’t know who he was or where he was, but just walked away into the blue.”

“He may have been picked up by a car.”

Frank nodded.

“He must have been. But no car passed through Holt St. Agnes while Lesley was waiting for him. She was on the listen and she couldn’t have missed it.”

“No.” Miss Silver agreed. “She would certainly have heard a car if one had passed then. But it might not have been then. Have you thought of that? Mr. Clayton started out to see Miss Freyne. Suppose he thought better of it and turned back. He may have gone back into the house and remained there for some time. Some mental conflict would surely precede so grave a step as an abrupt departure on the eve of his marriage----”

Frank was shaking his head.

“He didn’t come back into the house. Robbins wasn’t easy about leaving him to lock up. He’s been there since Henry and Jerome were schoolboys, and you know how it is with an old servant like that---you never really grow up. He didn’t trust Mr. Henry, not with the wedding coming on and all and Mr. Pilgrim so particular about the locking up, so he just went through to tell Mrs. Robbins he’d be late, and then he came back to the hall and waited there.”

“How long did he wait?”

“He heard the clock strike twelve, and then he must have fallen asleep, because the next thing he knew it was striking six. And Henry Clayton hadn’t come back.”

Miss Silver directed a searching look upon him.

“Robbins had been asleep for six hours. How, then, did he know that Mr. Clayton had not returned?”

“Because before sitting down to wait for him he had put up the chain on the door.”

“Why did he do that?”

Frank laughed.

“Well, he displayed a certain reticence when I put that question to him myself. I deduced that he wasn’t at all sure of being able to keep awake, and he wouldn’t have liked Henry to catch him napping, so he put up the chain. You can’t get round it---Henry didn’t come back into the house.”

Miss Silver coughed.

“He could have come back whilst Robbins was speaking to his wife, could he not?”

Frank stared.

“I suppose he could. But why should he? He had rung Lesley up of his own free will, the suggestion to go round and see her was of his own making, and he had only just left the house. Why should he come back? Or if he did come back, when and how did he leave again? The chain was up on the front door---he couldn’t have gone out that way. There’s a door at the back of the house, and a side door from the kitchen premises to the stable yard. Robbins was pressed about these doors. They were both locked, and keys in the locks. All the ground floor windows have old-fashioned wooden shutters secured by an iron bar. Robbins swears they were all closed and barred when he went round to open up in the morning. I suppose Henry might have dropped from a first-floor window. But, good lord, why should he, and risk breaking a leg, when he could have walked down by the back stairs and out by the kitchen way? Even then, he’d got to get off the premises. There’s a ten-foot wall all round the place, and every single gate locked on the inside. I’m twelve years younger than Henry, and an inch taller and a couple of stone lighter, and I’d be very sorry to climb that wall. Besides, he could have got past Robbins without waking him if he’d liked, and out by the front door---only then the chain wouldn’t have been up. No, it doesn’t make sense---he never came back into the house. The door from the glazed passage into the street was just as he left it when he went out, you know---unlocked, with the key sticking on the inside.”

Miss Silver knitted for a few moments in silence. Then she said, “What do you think happened to him, Frank?”

“Well, he was a rolling stone---I told you that. I think he started out to see Lesley, and then he had a come-over of some sort. Remember they’d quarrelled. If they made it up now, he’d be in for life. Perhaps he saw his last chance slipping. Perhaps he thought he was selling himself for a mess of pottage. Perhaps he thought he’d just cut and run, and did it---a last dash for freedom, so to speak. Suppose he did that without any plan---managed to thumb a lift. Remember it was bright moonlight.”

“Yes?” said Miss Silver in a gently interrogatory manner. “And what then?”

“Well, he wouldn’t be the first man who pitched a tale and enlisted under somebody else’s name. I’ve been over it hundreds of times, and I think that’s what must have happened. He didn’t get away by train---that’s certain. There are two stations he might have reached by walking---Burshot and Ledlington. At Burshot he’d have been recognized, and at either place he’d have been sufficiently conspicuous to be noticed---without hat, scarf, or overcoat.”

“And nobody saw him?”

“He’s never been seen or heard of again.”

+++

The room was quiet for a time. It did not seem long to either of them. Frank Abbott broke the silence by saying, “I haven’t known you for seven years, have I? But if I don’t put something on this fire, it will go out.”

Miss Silver smiled in rather an absent manner and said, “Pray do so.”

She watched him being dexterous with some reluctant embers and a shovelful of coal. Chief Detective Inspector Lamb had once remarked in her presence that if Frank was good for nothing else, he could always manage to get a fire going. Which was his way of counteracting what he considered to be a tendency to wind in the head.

When the fire was producing small but hopeful flames, she said, “There are still a few questions I should like to ask, and if you do not mind, I should like to take some notes.”

She laid down her knitting, went over to the writing-table, and opened the shiny green exercise-book which lay ready upon the blotting-pad.

Frank Abbott got up from his stool and took up a position half sitting, half leaning, against the far corner of the table.

“Well, what can I do for you?”

“You can tell me who was in the house when Mr. Clayton disappeared.”

He gave her the names, ticking them off on his fingers.

“Mr. Pilgrim---Miss Columba---Miss Janetta---Roger----”

She stopped him with a cough.

“You did not mention him before.”

“Didn’t I? Oh, well he was there---seven days’ leave. Jack was abroad out east, so he wasn’t. . . . Where was I?” He ticked off the fourth finger of his left hand---“Roger,” and went on to the fifth---“Jerome---Lona Day---Henry himself---and the staff.”

She wrote down the names and looked up at him.

“Of what did the staff consist?”

“At that time? Let me see. . . . Mr. and Mrs. Robbins---two young village girls, Ivy Rush and Maggie Pell---that’s the lot. But Maggie and Ivy didn’t sleep in, so they’re a wash-out.”

Miss Silver wrote that down.

“And who were in the house when Mr. Pilgrim met with his fatal accident?”

“The same as before---but not Roger. He was in the Middle East being taken prisoner about then.”

“And who is in the house now?”

He cocked an eyebrow, and thought, “Roger must have told her that. What’s she up to?” Aloud he replied. “Same lot again plus Roger and minus the two girls, who have both been called up. Maggie’s younger sister has taken her place. Their grandfather, old Pell, is gardener at Pilgrim’s Rest---been there since the year one.”

“And the other girl has been replaced by Miss Judy Elliot?”

Looking up to ask this question, she observed a slight change in his expression. It was so slight that with anyone else it would have passed unnoticed. It did, however, prepare Miss Silver for the fact that his voice as he answered her was also not quite as usual, the difference being hard to define.

He said, “Oh, yes.” And then, “She’s a friend of mine, you know. But I had nothing to do with her going there---in fact, I did my best to stop her. She’s got a child tagging along---her sister’s. I don’t like their being there---I don’t like it a bit. That’s one reason why I’m so glad you’re going down.”

It wasn’t the slightest good---he was giving himself away right and left. Maudie could see through him like a pane of glass.

Whatever she saw, Miss Silver showed no consciousness of its being anything unusual. The friendly attention of her manner was unchanged as she said, “There should not be any risk for them.”

He leaned towards her with a hand on the table.

“Look here, what are you driving at with these three lists? You’re not trying to make out that Henry’s disappearance has anything to do with Roger’s bonnetful of bees?”

Miss Silver gave her slight habitual cough. “My dear Frank, in the last three years a number of unusual things have happened at Pilgrim’s Rest. Mr. Henry Clayton disappeared on the eve of his wedding. Mr. Pilgrim met with a fatal accident which his groom and his son believed not to have been an accident at all. And his son is now convinced that two serious attempts have been made upon his own life. I do not assert that these things are connected, but so strange a series of coincidences would certainly seem to call for careful investigation. There is just one thing more I wished to ask you. When Mr. Henry Clayton disappeared, was he known to have any money with him?”

Frank straightened up. “Well, yes, I ought to have told you about that. It’s one of the strongest reasons for supposing that he was doing a bolt. Mr. Pilgrim had given him a cheque for fifty pounds as a wedding-present. Henry asked if he could have it in notes because he would need the cash for his honeymoon. Everyone in the family knew that old Pilgrim kept money in the house. Well, when Henry asked him if he could have the cash he took back the cheque and tore it up. Roger told me about it---he was there. Said his father went off upstairs and came back with four ten-pound notes and two fivers, and Henry got out his wallet and put them away.”

“Was anyone else present?”

“Robbins came in with some wood for the fire whilst Henry was putting the notes away. He said he saw Mr. Henry putting his wallet away in an inside pocket, but he didn’t know why he had had it out, and he didn’t think anything more about it.”

“What about the notes, Frank---were any of them traced?”

He lifted a hand and let it fall again.

“We couldn’t get the numbers. The Pilgrims own a lot of farm property, and the old man collected the rents himself. He used to ride around, have a bit of a friendly chat, come home with the cash, and stuff it away anywhere. Didn’t think much of banks---liked to have his money where he could put his hands on it. Roger tells me they found over seven hundred pounds in the house after he died, most of it in a tin box under the bed. Lord knows how long he’d had the notes he gave Henry, or where he got them.”

When, presently, after this, Frank Abbott took his leave he got as far as the first step into the hall and then came back. After all, what was the odds? If Maudie knew, she knew. He might just as well have the smooth with the rough. He said in his most detached manner, “By the way, you could trust Judy Elliot. She’s got a head on her shoulders and she’d be good at a pinch. As a matter of fact, I’ve told her about you. She knows you may be coming down.”

Miss Silver looked right through him. That at least was his impression---a very probing glance which reproved, admonished, and, a good deal to his relief, condoned. She said, “My dear Frank! I trust that she will be discreet.”

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