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Chapter Eight

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« on: September 08, 2023, 06:27:46 am »

THERE was one of those silences which are not noticed because thought talks so loudly. Murder is a word to which no amount of use can quite accustom us. The voice of blood calling from the earth must always be a dreadful voice, and one before which all others fall to silence.

Randall March broke this one, his voice dry and official as he said, “What proof have you that it was murder?”

Miss Silver picked up her needles and began to knit again very composedly. She said, “I have no proof. But I have a good many interesting things to tell you. To begin with, I am here in my professional capacity because Roger Pilgrim believed that two attempts had been made upon his life.”

“What were they?”

She told him very succinctly.

“You can go and look at the two rooms for yourself. The fallen ceiling was attributed to an overflowing sink, the burnt-out room to a spark from the wood fire setting light to the papers which Roger Pilgrim had been sorting. In the first case, the sink is twelve feet away on the other side of a passage the ceiling of which did not come down, and I shall be greatly surprised if you do not agree with me that the amount of wet still traceable under the floor of the room immediately over Roger’s points to water having been deliberately applied there. In the second case, Roger was convinced that he had been drugged. He fell heavily asleep after taking a small whisky and soda, and awoke to find the room blazing and, as he declared to me, the door locked on the outside. He said he had been keeping the key there because of having these confidential papers spread about. It was his habit, apparently, to lock the room as he went out. By the time the fire had been got under, he told me, the door had been unlocked again. But he couldn’t get out that way. He had to break a window.”

“Did you believe that his life had been attempted?”

She was knitting rapidly.

“I kept an open mind. There was no real evidence, as Frank Abbott told him.”

“Abbott?”

“They were at school together. Frank has relatives in the neighbourhood. He advised Roger to come and see me.”

Randall March said abruptly, “What would the motive be?”

“To prevent him from selling the property.”

What!

“He was about to do so. In similar circumstances his father also met with a fatal accident.”

Miss Silver frowned upon an exclamation which she considered profane. In a reproving voice she informed him of what the old groom William had told Roger about the presence of a thorn under his father’s saddle.

“I cannot tell you whether it was true or not. I can only tell you that Roger believed it. I did not think it wise to question William, but you will be able to do so.”

Randall March sat forward with his elbows on the table.

“My dear Miss Silver, are you seriously asking me to believe that two people have been murdered in order to prevent the sale of this estate?”

“It is what I believe, Randall.”

“But why? Good heavens---you want a motive for that sort of thing! Who had one? The next heir is Jack Pilgrim, who has been out of the country for the last four years---and why should anyone murder Mr. Pilgrim and Roger to put Jack in?”

Miss Silver coughed.

“To prevent the estate from being sold.”

“But why---why---why?

Miss Silver leaned towards him and said, “In order to answer that we shall have to go back three years.”

“Three years?”

“Yes, Randall---to the disappearance of Henry Clayton.”

He looked astonished, then quite definitely on his guard.

“Are you going to explain that?”

“Yes. And I will ask you to listen to me with an open mind.”

“I hope I should always do that.”

She inclined her head in acquiescence. After which she led off briskly, sitting up straight and knitting extremely fast.

“I must remind you of the statements made at the time by Robbins and Miss Lesley Freyne. They were, in that order and on their own showing, the last two people to see Henry Clayton. He was staying at Pilgrim’s Rest, being, as you probably know, a nephew of Mr. Pilgrim, and therefore first cousin to Roger and Captain Jerome, who were also in the house. It was about seven months after Dunkirk where Captain Pilgrim had been wounded, and about three months after he had been allowed to leave the military hospital where he had been treated and come here under the charge of Miss Lona Day, who was already at Pilgrim’s Rest, having nursed Miss Janetta through a tolerably severe illness. Henry Clayton, as you know, was employed in the Ministry of Information in London. He had come down to be married to Miss Freyne, and the wedding was only three days off. On the day of his disappearance he received fifty pounds as a wedding present from his uncle. He asked to have it in cash as he intended to use it for his honeymoon. Mr. Pilgrim was in the habit of keeping fairly large sums in the house---he collected his own rents, and did not bank them. There was no record of the numbers of the notes given to Mr. Clayton.”

Randall March smiled a little grimly.

“That makes it so nice and easy---doesn’t it?”

Miss Silver coughed with a hint of reproach.

“None of it is easy, Randall. Let me proceed. It is not in dispute that Mr. Clayton and Miss Freyne had some disagreement during the afternoon. According to her it was not of a serious nature. Robbins states that at about half past ten that night he heard Henry Clayton at the telephone making an appointment with Miss Freyne, the words, as repeated to me by Frank Abbott, being ‘No, Lesley---of course not! Darling, you couldn’t think a thing like that!’ After which he suggested coming round, and when she evidently demurred he remarked that it was only half past ten. He told Robbins he was going round to see Miss Freyne, and said that he would not be long, but not to sit up for him---he would take the key and put up the chain when he came in. He then walked out of the house just as he was, in a dark lounge suit without hat, coat, or scarf. And according to Robbins that was the last he saw of him.”

“And what exactly do you mean by that?”

Miss Silver coughed.

“For the moment I should prefer to continue. Robbins said in his statement that he did not like to leave Mr. Henry to lock up, as Mr. Pilgrim was very particular. He went through to the kitchen to tell his wife that he might be late, and then came back to the hall, where he put up the chain on the door and sat down to wait. He heard the clock strike twelve, and nothing more until it waked him by striking six.”

“How long was he away talking to his wife?”

“I do not know. Frank thought a few minutes only. The least time would be five minutes, I should think. Now we come to Miss Freyne’s statement.”

March said, “I remember that. She was watching for him, and saw him come out of the house and walk a bit along. Then she came away from the window because she didn’t want him to know that she was looking out for him. You know, that rather got under my skin.”

Miss Silver’s needles clicked.

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” she observed.

“As you say. That was the last anyone saw of Henry Clayton. And now where do we go from there?”

The tempo of the busy needles slackened. She said slowly, “We have the statements of two people here. If one of them was not telling the truth, the disappearance of Henry Clayton would be less mysterious. Or they might both be telling the truth, and yet not all the truth. Miss Freyne may have seen Mr. Clayton leave the house as she described, but that may not have been the last she saw of him. The quarrel between them may have been more serious than she was willing to admit. Instead of a reconciliation there may have been a complete breach. I do not incline to this view, because it does not explain the two subsequent deaths, but if you believe these to have been accidental you may perhaps entertain it.”

March nodded.

“Well, as a matter of fact I’ve always had an idea that something of that sort must have happened. By all accounts Clayton was a bit of a rolling stone, and if he’d had a slap in the face like being turned down on the eve of the wedding he might just have gone off into the blue and enlisted or something.”

“I do not think so. To continue. I would like to put a hypothetical case. Mr. Clayton has been seen to leave Pilgrim’s Rest, and then someone comes down the glass passage to the street door and calls him back. He re-enters the house and is taken into the dining-room, which is the first room on the left as you come in. It is a modern room, but immediately behind it lies a much older part of the house. A door leads from the dining-room into a flagged passage. In this passage Henry Clayton receives a fatal wound. I do not think that firearms would be used. There are two very striking trophies of weapons in the dining-room, comprising a number of swords and daggers. One of these could have been employed. There is a lift going down from the flagged passage to the cellars almost immediately opposite the door from the dining-room. The body could be taken down in it and conveyed to any part of the cellars upon the very convenient wine-trolley.”

“Are you serious?”

“Very serious indeed. But it is, of course, a hypothetical case.”

“But---the motive . . . My dear Miss Silver, I suppose you mean Robbins. What motive could Robbins have had?”

She replied soberly.

“There may have been a very strong motive. His daughter had got into trouble and run away. About a month before the disappearance of Henry Clayton, Robbins found out that she was in London and went up to see her. She and her child were killed that night in an air raid, but Robbins saw her in hospital before she died. If she told him that it was Henry Clayton who had seduced her, Robbins would have a motive.”

“Who told you all this?”

“Roger Pilgrim. He said that only he and his father knew about Mabel’s death. The Robbinses didn’t wish it known. Robbins said they had suffered enough and didn’t want it all raked up again.”

“Did Roger tell you that Henry Clayton was the girl’s lover?”

“No, Randall. But Mabel Robbins was brought up in this house. She was given a good education and had an excellent post in Ledlington. She was here for week-ends and for holidays. She was not known to have any special man friend. I asked Roger Pilgrim whether Robbins suspected anyone in this house. He was very nervous and upset. I asked if Robbins suspected him, or Captain Jerome, and he said No . . . very angrily. I asked if Robbins suspected Henry Clayton, and he walked out of the room.”

“Oh, he did, did he? Well, well!” He looked at her with his mouth pursed up as if he was going to whistle. Perhaps he would have liked to---perhaps the click of the needles restrained him. After a moment he nodded and said, “That’s a pretty lot of rabbits to bring out of your hypothetical hat. What do you expect me to do with them?”

She shifted the mass of wool in her lap.

“I should like you to make a thorough search of the cellars under this house.”

“You said you were serious----”

“Certainly, Randall.”

“You have presented me with a hypothetical case which offers an ingenious theory. You won’t claim to have produced any evidence in support of it. Do you expect me to apply for a search-warrant in a three-year-old case which I didn’t even handle, without any evidence?”

“No search-warrant would be necessary if you had Miss Columba’s permission.”

He allowed a faint sarcasm to flavour his tone as he enquired, “Do you suppose that she would give it?”

“I do not know.”

March laughed.

“And you consider yourself a judge of character! Even to my humble powers of observation Miss Columba appears anxious for one thing, and one thing only---‘Let the finger of discretion be placed upon the lip of silence!’ ”

Receiving no reply, he leaned back in his chair and contemplated Miss Silver and the situation. After a little while he said, “Look here, if anyone but you had put this up to me, I shouldn’t have any difficulty in knowing what to say. As it’s you, I’m going to tell you how I’m placed, and then ask you again just how strongly you feel. Colonel Hammersley, the Chief Constable of the county, is retiring at the end of the month. I have been given some tolerably strong hints that the Committee would give my candidature a very favourable reception. I don’t pretend to be indifferent to the prospect, but if meanwhile I were to raise a groundless scandal about people like the Pilgrims who’ve been here ever since the ark unloaded on Ararat, the Committee might very well have a change of heart.”

Miss Silver quoted again, in French this time but with a very patriotic accent: “ ‘Fais ce que doit, advienne que pourra.’ 

He gave a short laugh.

“Do what’s right and blow the consequences! That’s admirable! But you will have to convince me of where the right lies before I reach the point of letting my professional prospects go down the drain.”

She gave a gentle cough.

“You will have to convince yourself, Randall. I have nothing more to say.”

+++

Randall March was not called upon either to strain his conscience or to jeopardize his prospects. The truth of the homely proverb which asserts that it never rains but it pours was once more exemplified. An hour after a silent party had breakfast next day Miss Columba was called to the telephone by Robbins.

“It is a telegram, madam. I began to take it, but I thought---perhaps you would prefer----”

She got up and went out without a word.

Ten minutes passed before she returned. With no discernible change in face or voice, she addressed the only other occupant of the morning-room, Miss Silver.

“It was a telegram from the War Office about my nephew Jack. They have proof of his death.”

Miss Silver’s condolences were all that a kind heart and good manners dictate, yet to both women they seemed only what is taken for granted on these occasions. Beneath the conventions, beneath Miss Columba’s affection and grief for a nephew so long removed that his death could hardly be felt as something new, there was a compelling urgency. It brought words to Miss Columba’s unwilling lips.

“Jerome----” she said, her eyes on Miss Silver’s face. “Did you mean what you said yesterday? Is he in danger?”

“Not immediately. Not unless he should wish to sell the house.”

Miss Columba dropped her voice to a gruff whisper.

“He will have to sell---two lots of death-duties---he hasn’t any money----”

It was easy to see where her affections centred. For the two dead nephews she felt a reasonable grief. A possible danger to Jerome brought the sweat to her forehead and a dumb anguish to her eyes.

It was with this look of distress fastened upon Miss Silver’s face that she said, “I asked you to go. Things have changed. Now I ask you to stay.”

Miss Silver returned the look with one in which firmness and kindness were blended.

“My commission was from your nephew Roger. Are you now asking me to accept one from yourself?”

“Yes.”

“You must realize that I do not know in what direction my enquiry may lead. I cannot guarantee that the result will please you.”

Still in that gruff whisper, Miss Columba said, “Find out what’s been happening. Keep Jerome safe.”

Miss Silver said gravely, “I will do my best. Superintendent March is a very good man---he also will do his best. But you must help us both. He may wish to search the house. It will be pleasanter and more private if you will give him leave to do so instead of obliging him to apply for a warrant.”

Miss Columba said, “Keep Jerome safe,” and walked out of the room.

Half an hour later she was giving Randall March a free hand to go where he liked and search where he pleased. After which she disappeared into the garden, where she showed Pell such a frowning face that the customary grumble died in his throat and he allowed her for once in a way to do as she wished with the early peas. Later he told William that they would all be frosted, and they had a very comfortable heart-to-heart talk about the interferingness of women.

The search began at two o’clock. When the last of the heavy-booted men had gone clumping down the old worn cellar steps, Miss Silver came along the passage and pushed open the kitchen door. She had a cup in her hand and an expression of innocent enquiry on her face. If these were meant to provide her with an excuse for what might be considered an intrusion, they were not required, for the movement of the door and her own soft footfall went unregarded. And for a very good reason. Mrs. Robbins was standing over the range stirring something in a saucepan and sobbing convulsively, whilst her husband, with his back to her and to the room, was contemplating the flagstones of the yard upon which the kitchen window looked. Without turning his head he said harshly and in the tone of a man who is repeating what he has said before, “Have done, Lizzie! What good do you think you’re doing?”

To which Mrs. Robbins replied, “I wish I was dead!”

Miss Silver stepped back into the passage and remained there. The sobbing went on.

Presently Lizzie Robbins said in a tone of despair,

“I don’t know what we’re coming to---I don’t indeed!” And then, “If there’s any more to come, I’ll give up, for I can’t stand it. First Mr. Henry, and then Mr. Pilgrim, and now Mr. Roger and Mr. Jack---it’s like there was a curse on the house!”

He said, “Don’t talk stupid, Lizzie!” and she flared up at him, sobbing all the time.

“It’s stupid to be fond of people, and you can throw it up at me as much as you like, for it’s no fault of yours. You’ve been a hard, cruel husband, Alfred, and you was a hard, cruel father to our poor girl that’s gone, or she wouldn’t never have run away and hid herself like she did when she was in trouble.”

He made a sharp sound at that, but she went on without giving him time to speak.

“I suppose you’ll say you loved her, and I suppose you did in your own way, but it was all because you took a pride in her pretty looks, and her cleverness, and the credit she did you. But that’s not loving, Alfred, it’s just pride, and it comes to have a fall, the same as it says in the Proverbs. And you wouldn’t have her back here to be buried---and it’s a thing I shan’t never get over, your letting her and her baby lie among strangers because it’d hurt your pride to bring them here where they belonged.”

He said, “Lizzie!” And then, “That’s not true, and you’ve no call to say it! Maybe I’ve done more than what you know---maybe I’ve done more than you’d have done yourself. There’s different ways of showing what you think of people.”

She said with a gush of tears, “You forgot her birthday!”

A door banged at the end of the passage. Footsteps could be heard coming nearer. Regretfully, Miss Silver turned back, and presently met Gloria in her outdoor things.

She advanced the cup.

“I wonder if I could have a little boiling water. If it wouldn’t be a trouble. I don’t quite like to go into the kitchen---but if you----”

Gloria said, “Righty-ho!”---an expression which cost Miss Silver an inward shudder.

She took the cup, ran off with it, and brought it back full.

“Ever such a row going on in there,” she confided. “What’s the good of getting married if you’re going to quarrel like that? The p’lice in the house---that’s what’s upsetting them. He takes it out on her, and she takes it out on him. My mum’s proper upset, I can tell you. But there’s something exciting about it too, and I’d just as soon it wasn’t my afternoon off. Now if I’d wanted to get out early, ten to one I wouldn’t have been let, but just because there’s something going on everyone’s at me. Mr. Robbins, and Miss Columba, and Mrs. Robbins are all for getting me out of the way. My mum won’t half be surprised to see me so early.”

She clattered off down the passage and out by the back door, which she shut with a hearty bang.

Miss Silver, after emptying the cup down the pantry sink and leaving it on the drip-board, went across the hall to the study, where she set the door ajar and awaited developments. The time seemed long, the house was silent. Miss Janetta had declared herself quite prostrated, and Miss Day, with a much more demanding invalid than Captain Pilgrim on her hands, could be supposed to have those hands too full to allow of her coming downstairs. Where everyone else was, Miss Silver had no idea, but she had no desire for company.

When the silence was broken by the sound of tramping feet, she went out into the hall.

Randall March met her there, took her back into the study, and shut the door.

“Well,” he said---“you were right.”

“My dear Randall---how very shocking!”

It was perfectly genuine. It was not in her to feel complacency or triumph. She was most seriously and genuinely shocked.

He nodded.

“In the far cellar, behind those piled-up chairs. There’s a door to an inner cellar. The body was there, doubled up in a tin trunk. I suppose there’s no doubt that it is Henry Clayton.”

They stood looking at each other.

“Very shocking indeed,” said Miss Silver.

Randall March looked grim.

“Your hypothetical case has materialized. I take it your reconstruction just about fits the facts. Someone called Clayton back, invented a reason for getting him into the lift passage, and murdered him there. Subsequent proceedings as outlined by you. I’m collecting the knives out of those trophies and having the lift floor scraped—there may be some traces. The floor is, fortunately, bare board, but three years----” He threw up a hand, and then went on in a different tone. “I shall suggest to the Chief Constable that the Yard be asked to send Abbott down to represent them. They’ll want to be in at the death, and he was on the original enquiry into Clayton’s disappearance. There shouldn’t be any difficulty about fixing it up. And now I must get going on the telephone.”

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