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Chapter Five (b)

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« on: September 07, 2023, 11:33:43 am »

MISS Silver pursued her enquiries.

“Mrs. Clayton? And----?”

“My sisters Mary and Henrietta. Henrietta married a distant cousin. Jerome is her son.”

“Very charming indeed. Such delicate work.”

The four young girls in their white muslin and pink and blue ribbons gazed serenely on the room. Even in this restrained medium the young Columba looked solid and rather sulky. But Mary, who was to be Mrs. Clayton, bloomed like a rose. Perhaps the pink ribbons helped, perhaps she had been pleased with them. Her dark eyes smiled, and so did her rosy mouth.

There remained only the study, a moderate-sized room, book-lined and smelling of wood-fire and tobacco, with a faint undercurrent of dry rot. The books, handsomely bound editions of an earlier day, were obviously in dignified retirement---Thackeray, Dickens, Charles Reade, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jorrocks, and, surprisingly, the entire works of Mrs. Henry Wood. All had the air of having fallen asleep upon the shelves a generation or two ago.

+++

It was pleasant to return to the morning-room, which faced the dining-room across the hall and was of the same date. Furnished in Miss Janetta’s taste, Miss Silver approved it as bright and comfortable. True, its front windows also faced the wall, but there was less shrubbery, so the effect was not so dark, and the two side windows looked south-east and admitted all the sun. There was a blue cineraria in a pink china pot, and a pink cineraria in a blue china pot; curtains, carpets, and chintzes in variation upon these two themes; a large sofa for Miss Janetta, and a number of extremely comfortable chairs. When Miss Columba observed that her nephew Roger was standing by the far window looking out, she shut the door on Miss Silver and hastened to do battle with Pell about the peas.

With a slight preliminary cough Miss Silver addressed a rather unpromising back.

“I should be very glad of a word with you, Major Pilgrim.”

He turned round with so much of a start that it seemed he must have been unaware of the opening and shutting of the door. Miss Silver, advancing to meet him, admired the pink cineraria.

“Really most charming. Such a sweet shade. Miss Columba is a most successful gardener. She tells me these plants do not require heat, only protection from the frost.”

He said in a worried voice, “You wanted to speak to me?”

“Yes, indeed---a most fortunate opportunity.”

Roger did not appear to share this view. His voice sounded uneasy as he said, “What is it?”

Miss Silver had a reassuring smile for him.

“Just a little information which I hope you will be able to give me. I think we will remain here by the window. It will then seem quite natural that we should break off our conversation and move back into the room if anyone should come in.” She continued in a conversational style. “You have really a most interesting house---very interesting indeed. Miss Columba has just been taking me round it. I was deeply interested. No, thank you,” as he pushed forward a chair, “it will be better if we remain standing. The view from this window must be very pleasant in summer. Those are lilacs over there, are they not---and a very fine laburnum. It must be very delightful indeed when they are all in bloom together.” Here she coughed and went on with no real change of voice. “Pray will you tell me whether you have taken my advice?”

He gave a nervous start.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I think you do. Before you left me the other day I advised you to return home and inform your household that you had no present intention of proceeding with the sale of your property. Did you do this?”

“No, I didn’t.” Then, as she made a faint sound of regret, he burst out, “How can I? I’m more or less committed, and the place will have to go soon anyhow. It’s too expensive to run. Look at the house---you’ve just been over it. It wants the sort of staff people used to have and nobody’s ever going to get again. They’re all at me to keep it, but why should I? And after what’s happened here I don’t want to. I’d like to get clear of it and have a place I can run on my income. I don’t like big houses, and I don’t like old houses. I want something clean and new that doesn’t need an army of servants to look after it. I’m selling!”

Miss Silver appeared to approve these sentiments. It was, indeed, her considered opinion that old houses, though of interest to the sight-seer, were by no means comfortable to live in. Recollections of dry-rot, neglected plumbing, a deficiency of modern amenities, and a tendency to rats, arose in her mind and rendered her tone sympathetic as she replied, “You have every right to do so. I merely suggested that you should for the moment employ a subterfuge.”

He looked at her so blankly that, as on a previous occasion, she obliged with a translation.

“My advice was that you should allow your household to think that you had given up the idea of selling. You could, I imagine, ask the intending purchaser to give you a little time.”

He looked at her in a wretched kind of way.

“You mean I’m to tell lies about it. I’m no good at it.” He might have been confessing to being bad at sums.

Miss Silver coughed.

“It is very advisable, in view of your own safety.”

He repeated his former remark.

“I’m no good at it.”

“I am sorry about that. And now, Major Pilgrim, I would like to ask you a few questions about the Robbinses. I know that they have been here for thirty years. I want to know whether they have, or whether they think they have, any grounds for a grudge against you, or against your family.”

He was certainly discomposed, but there might have been more than one reason for that---surprise, offence, or just mere nervousness. What he said was, “Why should they have?”

Miss Silver coughed.

“I do not know. I should like to be informed. Are you aware of any such grudge?”

He said, “No,” but might as well have left it unsaid, there was so little conviction in his tone. He may have been aware of this himself, for he followed it up with a vexed “What made you think of anything like that?”

“I have to think of motives, Major Pilgrim. You have told me that you think your life has been attempted. There must be a motive behind that. Neither you nor I can afford to say of anyone in his house that he or she is to be beyond suspicion or above enquiry. I believe the Robbinses had a daughter----”

“Mabel? How could she have anything to do with it? She’s been dead for years.”

“Miss Columba did not say that.”

“What did she say?”

“That the girl had got into trouble and run away, and her parents had been unable to trace her.”

He turned and stared out into the garden.

“Well, that’s true. And as it happened before the war, I can’t see any reason for digging it up now.”

Miss Silver gave a slight reproving cough.

“We are looking for a motive. If you do not wish to give me the information for which I am asking, I can no doubt obtain it elsewhere, but I would rather not do so.”

He said in an irritable voice, “There isn’t the slightest necessity---I’ll tell you anything you want to know. It’s just that I don’t see why it’s got to be dug up. She used to be here in the house, you know. She was a jolly little kid. They sent her away to school, and she passed all sorts of examinations and got a very good job in Ledlington---lived there with an aunt and came back here for week-ends. Then all of a sudden they found out---the Robbinses found out, or the aunt, I think it was the aunt---that she was going to have a child, and she ran away. I was up in Scotland with my regiment, and I didn’t hear about it till afterwards. It was in the summer of ’39, just before the war. The Robbinses were frightfully cut up. They tried to find her, but they couldn’t. That’s as far as Aunt Collie knows.”

“But there is something more? You said she was dead.”

He nodded. Now that he had got going he seemed to have lost his reluctance. He said, “Yes. It was in the blitz---January ’41. I’d been down on leave. Robbins told me he’d heard that Mabel was in London. He said he was going to see her. We travelled up together. I had to go to the War Office, so I was staying with a chap I knew. There was a raid in the late afternoon. Getting on for midnight Robbins walked in looking ghastly, poor chap, and told me Mabel was dead. The baby was killed right out, but she lived to be taken to hospital, and he saw her there. He said he would have to tell his wife, but he didn’t want anyone else to know. He said they’d got over it and lived it down as much as they ever could, and it would rake it all up again. I could see his point. I said I thought my father ought to know, and he agreed with that, but we didn’t tell anyone else. I hope you won’t tell anyone. It would be very rough luck on the Robbinses if it was raked all up again now.”

Miss Silver looked at him gravely and said, “I hope it may not be necessary to speak of it. But since you have told me so much, will you tell me who was responsible for Mabel Robbins’s disgrace?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do the Robbinses know?”

He gave her the same answer---“I don’t know.”

“Major Pilgrim, suspicion is not knowledge. Have you, or have they, no suspicion in the matter? It is not pleasant to have to ask you such a question, but I must do so. Had the Robbinses any reason to suspect a member of your family, or did they suspect anyone without perhaps having a reason at all? I do not suggest that there was a reason, but I must know whether such a suspicion existed.”

He turned a horrified face to her.

“What are you driving at? If you think----”

She put up a hand.

“Pray, Major Pilgrim---I think you must give me an answer. I will put my question again, and more plainly. Did the Robbinses suspect anyone?”

“I tell you I don’t know!”

“Did they suspect you?”

He swung round with an angry stare.

“Would they have stayed on if they had?”

She coughed.

“Perhaps---perhaps not. Did they suspect Mr. Jerome Pilgrim?”

“Why should they?”

“I do not know. Did they suspect Mr. Henry Clayton?”

Roger Pilgrim turned round and walked out of the room.

+++

By three o’clock that afternoon the house was settling into silence. It was the Robbinses’ afternoon off. Lunch being at one, they could just get through in time to catch the Ledlington bus at two forty-five. Judy watched them depart, he in a black overcoat and bowler, she also in black, with a formidable trimmed hat which might once have had coloured flowers on it but was now given over to a waste of rusty ribbon bows and three dejected ostrich tips.

They were hardly out of sight, when Lona Day followed them in a fur coat and a bright green turban. She too was going to Ledlington. Jerome Pilgrim liked his books changed at least once a week, and she had shopping of her own to do as well.

Roger Pilgrim had gone for a ride, Miss Columba was in the greenhouse, Miss Janetta and Penny were resting, Miss Silver writing letters, and Gloria finishing the pots and pans in the scullery, when a tall woman walked down the street and rang the bell at Pilgrim’s Rest.

Judy knew who it must be before she opened the door. She saw good brown tweeds and a dark brown country hat. Between the brim and the coat collar a line of dark hair, a strong, well-modelled brow, and good grey eyes---in spite of which Lesley Freyne was a plain woman. The face was square, rather high on the cheek-bones, rather heavy in the jaw, and the mouth too wide, too full. But when she spoke there was something that was attractive---a deep musical note in the voice, an honest, friendly look in the eyes.

“I think you must be Judy Elliot. I am Lesley Freyne. I have been wanting to meet you. Frank Abbott wrote and told me you were going to be a near neighbour.”

Judy took her to the morning-room, where they talked about Frank, about Penny, about Miss Freyne’s evacuees, reduced now to a mere ten.

“Nearly all little ones, and such dear children. I wonder if you would like to let your little Penny join them in the mornings. We have a little nursery school. Miss Brown who is helping me has all her certificates. I thought perhaps it would be a help to feel that she was off your hands and out of mischief whilst you were busy, and it would be company for her.”

Judy found herself accepting with so much relief that the feeling startled her. When they had talked a little more Lesley said, “I should like to go up and see Jerome. He doesn’t sleep in the afternoon, does he?”

Judy said, “I don’t know.” And then, “You know so much more about them all than I do. Frank said I could talk to you if I needed anyone to talk to----”

She hadn’t meant to say any of this. It was trance-like.

Lesley Freyne said, “And do you?”

Judy’s colour rose.

“I think I do. It’s all---I don’t know what Frank told you, but he didn’t want me to come down here.”

“No---I can understand that.”

Judy faced her resolutely. It was quite horribly difficult to say, but she meant to get it said. “It doesn’t matter about me. It’s Penny---is there any real reason why Penny shouldn’t be here?”

Heaviness closed down over Lesley’s face. Her words came heavily too.

“I---don’t---know----”

Judy made herself go on.

“Do you mind if I ask you something? I mustn’t take any risks about Penny. She has taken a very great fancy to Captain Pilgrim. She goes in every morning when I’m doing the rooms round there. They talk, and he tells her stories.”

Leslie Freyne’s face had lighted up.

“How very good for him!”

“That’s what I thought. But Miss Day wants me to stop Penny going in. She says it’s too exciting for him, and he mustn’t be excited. She says the stories he tells Penny might set him off wanting to write again. It sounds nonsense to me. I mean I think it would be a very good thing if he did start doing anything that would take him out of himself.”

Lesley’s face was grave and controlled as she said,

“It isn’t easy to go against the nurse who is responsible for a case.”

Fear pricked Judy on.

“Miss Freyne, will you tell me the truth? About Penny---Miss Day said, ‘Don’t leave her alone with him.’ I want to know why she said that. I want to know if there’s any reason. Please, please, won’t you tell me?”

The strong, deep colour came up under Lesley Freyne’s brown skin. She set her jaw and kept her mouth shut for a full half minute before she said, “Jerome would never hurt a child.”

Reassurance and comfort flowed in on Judy. She cried out, “That’s what I feel---but I wanted to hear you say it. He wouldn’t---would he?”

Lesley said, “No.” And then, “I don’t know what is going on here. There’s something. There was that ceiling, and the burnt-out room, and there have been other things as well. I don’t think it’s a house for a child, Judy. That’s one of the things I came here to say if you gave me an opportunity. Frank’s Miss Silver is down here, isn’t she---perhaps I shall see her before I go. He believes she may be able to clear things up. I only hope he is right. But meanwhile why not let Penny come to me on a visit? We could say that it was to give you a chance of settling down and catching up with some of the work.” She smiled suddenly and delightfully. “And it would all be perfectly true, because I expect everything is simply inches deep in dust since Ivy went. Gloria isn’t a bad child, but she couldn’t begin to get through with the work on her own. Now, what do you say?”

Judy didn’t know what to say. She had never liked anyone better on a short acquaintance, but it was too sudden---too soon. Perhaps Lesley saw all this in her face, for she said very kindly, “You’d like to think it over, wouldn’t you? Don’t feel you’ve got to give an answer at all. Bring her round about half past nine for the morning’s play, and I’ll send her back in time for lunch. Then you’ll see how she likes it, and if you want her to come on a visit you need only bring her along. And now I’ll go up and see Jerome.”

Jerome Pilgrim was in his chair with a writing-pad on his knee and a pencil in his hand. He looked up with so much pleasure when Judy said, “Miss Freyne is here to see you,” that she went away wondering why he should not have this pleasure more often. That the occasions for it were few and far between seemed clear from his words as Lesley came in.

“I thought you had forgotten me. It’s weeks since you’ve been in.”

Miss Freyne stayed to tea, and brought Jerome down with her. It was very evident that the whole family liked her. Roger’s moody brow smoothed out as he greeted her with a “Hullo, Lesley!” Miss Janetta and Miss Columba kissed her with affection. She was introduced to Miss Silver, and created the best possible impression by saying presently that she had always admired Tennyson and felt sure that he would some day come back into his own. After which the tea-party became pleasant and cosy to the last degree. Penny behaved as every fond relation hopes its child will behave when strangers are present. She ate tidily and perseveringly, managed her cup with elegance, and only spoke when spoken to.

Lona Day, coming in when tea was nearly over, expressed her own pleasure at the comfortable scene.

“It’s turning so cold outside. I’ve been thinking of this warm room and a nice hot cup of tea for the last half hour.” As she slipped into a chair by Judy, who had made room for her, she went on in a lowered voice, “How nice that Miss Freyne was able to come in. I was worried about Captain Pilgrim being alone, but if she was with him he wouldn’t be dull. Only he must go upstairs and rest between tea and supper, or he won’t sleep tonight. He loves to see his friends, but I’m afraid he pays for it afterwards.”

She threw him a troubled glance. Then, with a sudden bright smile, she began to talk about her shopping. Judy thought she looked tired and strained. She wondered, and not for the first time, whether a nurse staying on year after year with a private patient didn’t become overanxious, overconcentrated. She thought Miss Day might be the better off for a change, and so might Captain Pilgrim.

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