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Chapter Seven

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« on: September 08, 2023, 06:06:00 am »

DR. DALY came out of the room and shut the door, his cheerful face drawn into lines of appropriate gravity.

“Well, it’s a bad business,” he said,---“and nothing I or any other doctor could have done for him if we’d been here when he fell. Pitched on his right shoulder and broke his neck, by the look of it. You’ll need to notify the police.”

Miss Columba looked him full in the face and said, “Why?”

“There’s no need for you to worry about it---it’s just the law. When there’s a fatal accident the police must be notified, and it’ll be for the Coroner to say whether there’s to be an inquest. I’d do it for you myself, but I think I had better look in on Captain Jerome. Perhaps this lady---I didn’t catch the name----”

Miss Columba spoke it heavily---“Miss Silver.”

Dr. Daly turned to her, and saw with relief an elder person with a composed manner and an intelligent eye.

“Just ring up Ledlington and ask for the police station. Tell them what’s happened---that will be all you need to do. I’ll go along to my patient. But tell me first---does he know?”

“Miss Day was obliged to tell him.”

He allowed himself to look more cheerful.

“Ah---Miss Day---what would he do without her, poor fellow? You’re in luck to have her---great luck, with the war where it is and all.”

He moved off along the passage with Miss Columba.

Miss Silver went down to the study and put through a call to Ledlington police station.

“I should like to speak to the Superintendent.”

A bass voice appearing to demur, she repeated the words with firmness. “I wish to speak to the Superintendent. You will inform him that it is Miss Silver.”

A good many years before, Randall March and his sisters had received their early education in a schoolroom dominated by a younger but no less efficient Miss Silver. Now well in the running for a Chief Constableship, he would no more have disregarded her summons than he would have done in those far-off days. She had kept in affectionate touch with his family, and in the past few years they had been thrown together in circumstances which had enhanced his early respect. In the case of the Poisoned Caterpillars he freely admitted she had saved his life. She awaited him, therefore, with considerable confidence.

“Miss Silver?”

“Yes, Randall. I am staying in the neighbourhood. At Holt St. Agnes. I have something to report to you in your official capacity. Do you know the Pilgrims at all?”

“I know of them. I used to know Jerome.”

Miss Silver said gravely, “Roger Pilgrim is dead. He fell from one of the attic windows about half an hour ago. I am staying in the house. Dr. Daly asked me to ring you up.”

He had made some exclamation. Now he said, “Bad business. I’ll send Dawson over at once.”

Miss Silver coughed.

“My dear Randall, I said that I was staying here. I should be much obliged if you would come over yourself.”

At the other end of the line Randall March sat up and took notice. He knew his Miss Silver tolerably well. If she wanted him to come over, he would certainly have to go. She had summoned him before, but never on a fool’s errand. He resigned himself and said without any perceptible pause, “All right, I’ll be over.”

Miss Silver said, “Thank you,” replaced the receiver, and turned to see that Miss Columba had entered the room. She was in her gardening clothes---boots mired well over the uppers, earth under her nails, a smear of mud on her cheek, the grey curls wild. She might have been a figure of fun, but she was not. The heavy face had its own dignity, the eyes their own courage. She set her back against the door as a man might have done, and waited for Miss Silver to come to her before she spoke.

“It was an accident.”

Miss Silver met her look with one as steady.

“Do you think so?”

“It was an accident.”

“That will be for the police to say.”

There was no expression at all upon Miss Columba’s face. She said, “My nephew engaged you. He is dead. Your engagement is over. I should like you to go as soon as possible.”

Miss Silver showed no offence. She said, “Are you sure that you wish me to go?”

“What can you do now? He’s dead.”

“Others are living.”

“He thought you could help him. He’s dead.”

“He would not take my advice. I begged him yesterday to let it be known that he was proceeding no farther with the sale of the property. You know how completely he disregarded that advice.”

The courage in Miss Columba’s eyes never wavered. She said, “That’s all over. He’s dead. It was an accident.”

Miss Silver shook her head.

“You do not think so, and nor do I. Let us be honest with each other. We are quite alone. I should be glad if you will listen to what I have to say.”

“You can say it.”

“You said just now that it was over, but that is not true. Two people have died violently, perhaps three. Are there to be more deaths? If you can believe that your brother’s death was an accident, can you believe in the three successive accidents which befell your nephew? Either of the first two might have proved fatal. The third has done so. If you can believe that all these things were accidents, can you accept the coincidence of their happening in each case just in time to prevent the sale of the property?”

Miss Columba drew a long, slow breath. There was not enough sound in it for a groan, but it had the effect of one. She put her head back against the door and said, “What’s the good?”

Miss Silver looked at her with steady kindness.

“I must remind you of the remaining members of your family. You have a nephew who is a prisoner in Japanese hands. I understand that the estate now devolves upon him. If he survives to come home, and wishes to sell, is he to be the victim of another accident? If he does not survive, the estate will pass to Captain Jerome Pilgrim. If he decides to sell, is he to pay the same penalty?”

Not a muscle of Miss Columba’s face moved. Something flickered in her eyes. It was gone again in a flash. She said in a sort of deep mutter, “It’s not that---how can it be that?”

“What other motive is there? Do you know of any?”

There was a negative movement of the head with its blown grey curls.

Miss Silver said very firmly, “Someone is determined to prevent the sale of this property. No owner will be safe until this person’s identity is discovered.”

Miss Columba straightened up and moved away from the door. She said gruffly, “The place belongs to Jack. He’s in Malaya. Let sleeping dogs lie.”

She went out of the room and up the stair.

Miss Silver pressed her lips together and reflected upon the shortcomings of her own sex. She would not have admitted these shortcomings to Chief Inspector Lamb, or to Superintendent March. She thought very highly of women, and hoped to be able to think more highly yet, but to credit them with any abstract passion for justice was beyond her.

She considered it probable that she would have to leave Pilgrim’s Rest with her work there only half done, and it went very much against the grain. Roger Pilgrim had engaged her professional services, and she had failed to save his life. He had gone against her advice, but she felt that she owed him a debt. And a much heavier one to that Justice which she served with a single mind.

+++

Randall March had been in the house for well over an hour before he asked to see Miss Silver. It was no part of his plan to advertise an intimacy, nor did he wish to be presented with her opinions before he had had the opportunity to acquire some of his own. The study having been placed at his disposal, he sat there at the writing-table which had been used by at least three generations of Pilgrims, and looked, against a background of olive-green curtains and walls lined with unread books, much more like a country gentleman than a police officer. He might have been in the Army. The overhead light shone down on a tall, well set-up figure, good features, clear blue eyes, and naturally fair hair burned brown.

He got up to meet Miss Silver as she came in. She had a knitting-bag on her arm, and she wore an expression of gravity until she took his hand and smiled at him. Even in the presence of murder she retained the social amenities.

“My dear Randall! I hope you are well.”

No one could have looked at him and doubted it, but he produced a suitable reply. “And your mother? I hope she has quite recovered from the cold she had before Christmas?”

“Oh, yes, quite, thank you.”

“And dear Margaret and Isabel? I hope you have good news of them?”

She had never allowed herself to have favourites in the schoolroom. The “dear” in front of his sisters’ names marked this unswerving impartiality. She would not have found it necessary to say “Dear Randall” if she had been speaking to Isabel or Margaret. She may have admitted to herself that the blue-eyed, fair-haired little boy with the angelic smile and a talent amounting to genius for resisting instruction was dearer to her than the two docile and intelligent little girls, but she would certainly never have admitted as much to anyone else. And so successfully had she overcome the little boy’s resistance that here he was, in his early forties, on the brink of becoming a Chief Constable. Even the presence of death in the house could not prevent her beaming upon him as he informed her that Margaret was in Cairo, her husband in Italy, and that Isabel had just received a commission in the A.T.S.

These preliminaries over, he gave her a chair and returned to his own, looking at her across the table and thinking how little she had changed---how little she ever changed. From fringe net to beaded shoes she remained intact and unique, a stable factor in a dissolving age.

Over Ethel Burkett’s jumper her needles began to click. Thirty-five years slid away. It might have been the same jumper, the same needles, the authentic Miss Silver of his childhood.

“My dear Randall, you are not attending.”

She hadn’t really said it, but at any moment she might. He hastened to forestall her by speaking himself.

“Well? What are you going to tell me?”

“What do you know already, Randall?”

He picked up one of the papers on the blotting-pad.

“Here it is, as far as I can make it out. Roger Pilgrim rode in the afternoon, came in late to tea, and hardly spoke to anyone. Somewhere before half past five he went up to this attic room to go through his father’s papers. I gather that they had been damaged in a fire about ten days ago, and what had been saved had been taken up to this empty room to be gone through. There were a couple of tin boxes more or less intact, and a lot of partly burned stuff from a bureau or a nest of drawers. Somewhere about half past five Robbins answered the door and let in Miss Lesley Freyne. She said Roger was expecting her and went straight up to the attic. She seems to be very intimate with the family. Isn’t there something I ought to remember about her?”

Miss Silver coughed.

“She was engaged to Henry Clayton. You will remember that he disappeared on the eve of their wedding.”

“Of course! Did they ever find out what had happened to him?”

She stopped knitting for a moment, let her eyes meet his, and said, “No, Randall.”

He thought to himself, “I’m meant to make a note of that.” The needles were clicking again. He said,

“How people crop up! I remember the case. But the Yard was handling it---Henry being in the Ministry of Information and properly their pigeon. Frank Abbott was on it, wasn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“Well, to get back to Miss Freyne. It looks as if she was the last person to see Roger alive. She says he rang her up and asked her to come over because he thought she might be able to help him out over some of the damaged papers. His father was very fond of her and used to talk things over with her. She says they were sorting papers there for about three quarters of an hour. Then she looked at her watch, saw it was a quarter past six, and said she must go home and help put the children to bed---she’s got her house full of evacuees. She came downstairs and let herself out without seeing anyone to speak to. But as she crossed the bedroom corridor to the head of the stairs, she says Miss Day came out of Jerome’s room and into her own. They didn’t speak, and it’s the length of the corridor away. Miss Day says she was backwards and forwards between her own room and Jerome’s because he had had a bad turn during the night, and she never saw Miss Freyne. You may call that para one. Now we come to para two. Miss Judy Elliot says she was in the bathroom off the back stairs, washing out some things in the hand-basin. The door was half open, and she saw Robbins go up the stairs to the attic floor. Unfortunately she doesn’t know what time it was, except that it was after six, and before a quarter to seven, because the light was still good. Her feeling is that it was before half past six, but she is really very uncertain. Robbins says it was only just after six, and that he went up to his room for a handkerchief. He says he wasn’t there five minutes, and that Miss Elliot didn’t hear him come down because there’s another stair and he used that. He says he doesn’t know why---he just did.”

Miss Silver coughed.

“There are four staircases from this floor to the next, and two to the attic floor. It is extremely confusing and makes a great deal of work.”

Randall March agreed.

“It makes it impossible to check what Robbins says. Mrs. Robbins corroborates him, but of course she would---says he was only away a few minutes. The daily girl had gone home. Of course there’s not the slightest reason to suspect the Robbinses of anything. Thirty years service is a character in itself.”

Miss Silver looked up.

“A great many things may happen in thirty years,” she said.

He returned her look with one half startled, half protesting.

“And what do you mean by that?”

“I will tell you presently. Pray proceed.”

“Robbins says that Miss Freyne was still there when he was in his room, which is next door to the attic where the papers were being sorted. I asked him how he knew, and he said he could hear the voices. I said, ‘You could hear people talking, but how do you know that one of them was Miss Freyne? It might have been somebody else.’ He said it was Miss Freyne, because his window was open and he had to lean out to shut it---it’s one of those casements, as you know. He says the next-door window was still open and he could see Miss Freyne. She was sitting on the window-seat with her back to him, and Roger was standing by her. He says he heard her say, ‘Oh, Roger, you can’t do it---you mustn’t!’ and then he shut his window and came downstairs. I asked Miss Freyne what about it, and she said yes, Roger told her he was going to sell, and she felt very upset about it. She doesn’t remember exactly what she said, but it would be something like that. I asked her why the window was open, and she said Roger had an oil stove up there and they got hot. You do, you know, when you’re sorting things. I asked her if there was any quarrel, and she said oh no, of course not. And I asked her how soon after this she came away, and she said almost at once. Which to some extent corroborates Robbins, because she originally said she left at a quarter past six, and Robbins says it was ten past when he went up to his room. The trouble is that we don’t know the actual time of the fall. Nobody seems to have heard anything. And that’s odd.”

Miss Silver’s needles clicked.

“It is not as strange as it appears. The bedrooms which look out upon the garden are old Mr. Pilgrim’s and the one which Roger used to occupy, neither of which is in use, the one into which Roger had moved, and on the other side of the stairs an empty room and the one occupied by Captain Jerome Pilgrim. On the ground floor there are the two unused drawing-rooms and the study. Miss Day’s room and the one I am occupying, Miss Elliot’s and the two Miss Pilgrims’ rooms, all look towards the street.”

He nodded.

“Yes, I have seen the rooms. Jerome should have heard something, but I understand that he had the wireless going. Even so, you would have thought----” He broke off with a frown, looked down at the paper in his hand, and went on again. “Pell found him when he went to lock the gates just before seven. Daly says he might have been dead half an hour or three quarters when he saw him, which was at five minutes past seven, as he happened to be in and had only to walk about a hundred yards down the street when Miss Columba’s call came through. You see how fluid it leaves the time. According to Robbins, Roger was alive and talking to Miss Freyne at ten minutes past six. According to Miss Freyne, he was alive when she looked at her watch and left him at a quarter past. I pressed Daly as to whether he might have been dead before that, and he said it was a thing nobody could swear to one way or the other. He doesn’t think he’d been dead for more than three quarters of an hour, but---he might have been. If it was suicide it probably happened as soon as Miss Freyne had gone. I don’t mind telling you that’s what I’m inclined to think. Daly said he was in a very nervy state. He had screwed himself up to selling the place against a good deal of opposition from the family. What Miss Freyne said about it was the last straw. He waited until she was gone and threw himself out.”

“No, Randall, it was not suicide,” Miss Silver said.

“You sound very sure about it.”

“I feel very sure about it.”

“Why?”

“He did not want to die. He wanted to sell this place, get away from it, and live in a small modern house. He was not engaged, but he had an attachment. He looked forward to marrying and settling down. I feel quite sure that it was not suicide.”

“Accident then. Those windows come down to within a few inches of the floor---that window-seat affair is only a low step up. It would be easy enough to over-balance if he had any kind of a turn.”

Miss Silver shook her head again and said, “No.”

He looked at her with good-tempered exasperation.

“Then I suppose you are going to tell me just what happened.”

She rested her hands upon the now voluminous mass of Ethel’s jumper and said gravely, “No, I cannot do that. But it was murder, Randall. Roger Pilgrim was murdered.”

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