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Chapter Nine

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« on: September 08, 2023, 09:03:12 am »

JUDY Elliot heard the trampling feet and stood a moment on the back stair by the bathroom door. A word came up to her here and there, and her hair rose on her head. Something had happened---something more. The words told her that, but they didn’t tell her what it was. She was left with a sense of horror and apprehension much greater than would have been produced by actual knowledge. Because as soon as you know a thing you can bring your reason to bear upon it, but the unknown takes you back to the cowering savage terrified by all the things he cannot understand.

The trampling ceased. She went down a few steps, and met Mrs. Robbins on the last of the stairs with a face as white as lard. They had hardly spoken before---no more than a good-morning here and there. The Robbinses hadn’t wanted her, and they made it felt. But now, with Mrs. Robbins holding to the rail and staring as if she had seen a ghost, Judy ran to her.

“What’s the matter---has anything happened?”

A hand came out and clutched her. She could feel the cold of it right through her overall.

“Mrs. Robbins---what is it? You’re ill!”

There was a faint movement of the head that said, “No.” The cold clutch persisted. The white lips moved.

“They’ve found Mr. Henry----”

Something like a small piece of ice slid down Judy’s spine. She hadn’t been a week at Pilgrim’s Rest without hearing from Gloria how Henry Clayton had walked out of this house on the eve of his wedding and never been heard of again. But that was three years ago. She couldn’t get her voice to work. When she forced it, it didn’t sound like hers at all. It said, “He went away----”

Mrs. Robbins moved her head again, and whispered, “He were in the cellar all the time---he were dead and buried in an old tin trunk. And Alfred says it fare to serve him right. But I don’t care what he done, I wouldn’t want him buried thataway, not him nor no one, I don’t care what they done. But Alfred says it fare to serve him right.”

Judy was shocked through and through. The woman’s look, the terrible whispering voice, conveyed a sense of horror. The country accent, the turn of words, the manner of their delivery all took her back to something simple, primitive, and dreadful. She didn’t know what to say.

Mrs. Robbins let go of her arm with a shudder and went on up the stairs. Judy heard the slow fall of her climbing feet, the heavy clap of a door on the attic floor. Her own knees were shaking when she came out on the corridor by her room. It was in her mind to go in there and pull herself together. People were murdered every day---you read about them in the papers. It wasn’t sense to go cold and sick inside and feel as if your legs were dangling loose like one of those jointed dolls which are threaded up on elastic and go limp when it begins to wear, just because Henry Clayton had been murdered three years ago.

As she stood there outside her own door, something twanged in her mind like a string being plucked on a fiddle, and something said in a small, clear voice with an edge to it, “Henry Clayton three years ago---and Roger Pilgrim yesterday. So the murderer is still in the house---and who will it be tomorrow?”

The red carpet down the middle of the corridor went all fuzzy at the edges and seemed to tilt. She put out her hand and caught at the door post to stop herself sliding down the tilt which would land her in Jerome Pilgrim’s bathroom. And just as she thought about that, and how surprised Lona Day would be, his bedroom door opened and he stood beckoning to her.

She remembered that she was a housemaid, and the floor got back into the straight. He had his finger on his lips, so she didn’t speak, only walked rather carefully down the middle of the red carpet until she reached him, when he put a hand on her arm, pulled her in, and shut the door.

“What’s going on?”

What was a poor housemaid to do? If she’d known that telling lies to a nervous invalid was part of the job she’d have seen everyone at Jericho before she took it, because she never had been and never would be the slightest use at telling lies. Something in her got up and screamed with rage. Why should she have to tell lies? And what good did they do anyhow? Jerome would have to know.

He had his stick in his hand, but he wasn’t leaning on it. A faint smile moved his lips. He said in an encouraging voice, “Stop thinking up a good convincing lie and tell me the truth---it’s much more your line. Lona will give me all the soothing syrup I need, so get on with it before she comes in and throws you out on your ear. Why this influx of policemen?”

“How did you know?”

“I looked out of my Aunt Columba’s window and saw them arrive. What did they want?”

Judy gave up.

“They’ve been searching the house.”

“Not this part of it.” He limped over to his chair and sat on the arm. “Did March produce a search-warrant---or did Aunt Columba give him leave?”

“I think Miss Columba said he could.”

“Well, where did they search?”

When Judy said, “The cellars,” she had that sick feeling again. She got to the other chair and sat down on the edge of it.

Jerome Pilgrim looked at her white face and said, “Find anything?”

Judy nodded, because she had a horrid feeling that if she tried to speak she would probably begin to cry. She saw Jerome’s hand clench on the stick.

“I suppose they found Henry.”

She nodded again.

He did not speak for what seemed like quite a long time. Then he got up and began to take off his dressing-gown.

Judy got up too.

“What are you going to do?”

He was dressed except for the jacket of his suit. He reached for it now.

“I’m going down to see March, and I don’t want to have any argument with Lona about it. Give me a hand---there’s a good child. You’ll find a coat and a cap and muffler in the wardrobe. Just take them along to the hall, and see that no one gets them whilst I’m talking to March. I may have to go out.”

She said “Out?” in such a tone of surprise that he almost smiled again.

“I’m not dead and buried,” he said. And then, “Someone has got to tell Lesley Freyne, and I think it’s my job.”

+++

Randall March hung up the telephone receiver and looked up as Jerome Pilgrim came into the room. When he saw who it was he pushed back his chair and went to meet him. For a moment the official manner fell away. He said, “My dear fellow!” And then, “Look here, are you sure you’re up to this?”

“Yes---but I’ll have a chair.”

He got down on to it and took a moment.

March said, “Do you object to Miss Silver being present? I don’t know if you know that she is a private detective, and that Roger----”

Jerome put up a hand.

“Yes---he told me. She had better stay. I hear you’ve been searching the cellars.”

“Yes.”

“Well---I hear you’ve found Henry.”

“Yes.”

“Will you tell me about it?”

March told him.

Jerome said, “Then it was murder. He was murdered.”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“We’ll know more about that after the post-mortem. The indications are that he was stabbed in the back. There’s a slit in the stuff of the coat. The clothes are pretty well preserved. There’s no weapon present. Now may I ask who told you we had found him?”

Jerome was sitting forward in the chair, his elbow on the table, his chin in his hand. He said, “Judy Elliot.”

“And who told her?”

“I don’t know. You’d better ask her. She’s in the hall.”

March went to the door, opened it, and called, “Miss Elliot!” She came in, holding Jerome’s outdoor things. March took them away from her and went and sat down at the table. A little to his left, in the prim Victorian chair which might have come out of her own flat, Miss Silver was knitting.

Judy didn’t know what to make of it. She supposed there was something she oughtn’t to have done. She stood waiting to find out what it was. The nice-looking policeman had offered her a chair, but she didn’t feel like sitting down. You feel taller and more important when you are standing.

“Miss Elliot---Captain Pilgrim says you told him that Mr. Clayton’s body had been discovered in the cellars. How did you know?”

She told them about meeting Mrs. Robbins on the back stairs---“And she said, ‘They’ve found Mr. Henry.’ ”

“Was that all she said?”

They were all looking at her. The sick feeling had begun to come back. She shook her head because it was easier than talking.

“Will you tell me just what she said?”

Now she would have to speak. She found Mrs. Robbins’ words, one, and two, and three at a time. It was dreadfully difficult to say them.

“ ‘Buried in an old tin trunk. And Alfred says it fare to serve him right.’ ”

“Are you sure she said that?”

Judy nodded.

“Yes---she said it again at the end. She said she didn’t care what he’d done, she wouldn’t want him buried like that. She went on saying it, and at the end she said again, ‘But Alfred says it fare to serve him right.’ ” She looked at March, her eyes suddenly dark and distressed. “I went on upstairs. I was feeling---very upset. Captain Pilgrim saw me. He asked me---what was going on.”

Jerome lifted his head.

“Oh, leave the child alone! She was looking green, and I dug it out of her. She didn’t want to tell, but you could hardly expect me not to know that something was going on. I’m not deaf, and your constabulary are heavy on their feet.” He got up. “Thank you---that’s all I wanted to know at present. We can talk again when I come back. I’m going to see Miss Freyne now.”

The thing hung in suspense for a moment. Then March let it go. He dropped the official manner to say, “You’re sure you’re up to it?”

“Yes, thank you. My coat, Judy. You can come along, and see Penny.”

They went out together.

Miss Silver continued to knit. Randall March turned to her with an exasperated expression.

“Well?”

“I do not know that I have anything to say, Randall.”

“I couldn’t very well stop him going to see Miss Freyne.”

“No.”

“What did you think of Robbins as reported by Mrs. Robbins via Judy Elliot?”

Miss Silver coughed.

“I think that Judy repeated what she heard. The turn of the words is unusual. She was repeating what she had heard Mrs. Robbins say.”

“Yes.”

Judy and Jerome Pilgrim made their way down the glass passage and came out into the street. It was so many months since he had set foot outside that everything had a strangeness. When you haven’t seen things for a long time you see them new. There were grey clouds with rifts of blue between. There was a light air that came against the face with a touch of damp in it. The winter had been dry and the runnel of water on the other side of the street had fallen low. On any other errand his mind would have been filled with these impressions and a hundred more, but now it was like looking at everything through a darkened glass.

They had gone about half the length to the stable gate, when there were running footsteps behind them. Lona Day came up, flushed and distressed.

“Oh, Captain Pilgrim!”

He stood leaning on his stick.

“Please go back, Lona. I am going to see Miss Freyne. I shan’t be long.”

She stared at him.

“I saw you out of Miss Janetta’s window. I simply couldn’t believe my eyes. You are not fit for this. Please, please come back! Judy, you shouldn’t have let him---it was very, very wrong of you.”

“Leave Judy out of it, please. It has nothing to do with her, and I shall be obliged if you will stop making a scene in the street. I shan’t be long.” He began to walk on again.

After a moment Lona turned and went back to the house. It certainly wouldn’t do any good to have a scene in the street. She looked about her in a smiling, easy way. You never knew who might be looking out of cottage windows. There was enough for the village to talk about without giving them any more. All anyone need think was that she had run after him with a message.

Lesley Freyne looked up in surprise as the door opened and her elderly maid announced, “Captain Pilgrim----”

She came to meet him with both hands out.

“Jerome, my dear---how delightful!”

He had left his outdoor things in the hall. He leaned his stick against a chair and took her outstretched hands.

“Let’s sit down, Les---here, on the sofa.” Then, when they were seated and her expression had changed to one of grave enquiry, “My dear, I’ve come to tell you something.”

Her colour failed a little.

“What is it, Jerome? Miss Columba rang me up about Jack.”

“It isn’t Jack, my dear.”

He was still holding her hands. She felt him press them strongly. She said quite low, “Then it’s Henry----”

“Yes.”

She drew her hands away, looked down at them, and said, “He’s dead.”

“Yes, my dear.”

A minute went by before she spoke again.

“Will you tell me?”

“Les, he’s been dead a long time.”

“How long?”

“Three years.”

She looked up at him then and caught her breath.

“Since that night?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“Les, you’re so awfully brave----”

She said, “Tell me.”

“He was murdered. They think stabbed.”

“Oh----” It was just a long, shaken breath.

“They’ve found his body. March had the cellars searched. He was there---in the little cellar at the far end, behind the furniture.”

He took her hands again, and she let him hold them.

“All this time----” she said. “Oh, Jerome!”

There was a long pause. Before either of them moved to end it a knock came at the door. Lesley got up and went to it. Jerome heard her speaking in a quiet, ordinary voice. He couldn’t hear who spoke to her, or what was said, only Lesley’s voice making its quiet answer, “No, I can’t come just now. I have Captain Pilgrim here. . . . Tell her she mustn’t do that. It would disappoint me very much. Tell her to remember what she promised.”

She shut the door and came back to him.

“Jerome---who did it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Who would have done it? I can’t think. I don’t seem to be able to think or to feel. It’s---it’s such a shock. It doesn’t seem possible. I thought he was dead---I’ve thought that for a long time now---but I never thought of this.”

“My poor dear!”

She looked at him steadily.

“No---don’t be too sorry for me. It isn’t like that. I want to tell you---I wasn’t going to marry him.”

“You weren’t?”

“No. Something happened---it doesn’t matter now. I felt I couldn’t go on. If he had come to see me that night, I should have told him so. But he didn’t come.”

“Does anyone else know this?”

“No.”

“Then I should keep it like that.”

“I’ll see. I won’t say anything if I can help it. But they’ll ask questions. I won’t lie about it.”

“You told them before that the disagreement between you wasn’t a serious one.”

“It wasn’t---in itself. And then something happened---I felt I couldn’t go on. When Henry rang up and said he was coming round to see me I made up my mind to break our engagement. Then when he disappeared and it was all so public I thought what was the good of making it any worse. It wasn’t as if I had actually broken with Henry---he didn’t even know I was going to, so it didn’t account for his going. It was just in my own mind. I’ve never told anyone but you.”

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