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Chapter Eleven

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« on: September 08, 2023, 10:47:28 am »

WHEN March knocked at Miss Janetta’s door and went in he found Miss Lona Day in attendance. He was aware that the stage had been set and his part mapped out for him. He was undoubtedly the crude policeman blundering into a lady’s sick-room. The curtains, half-drawn across the windows, were flowered in roses and forget-me-nots. Pink linen blinds half down converted the cold daylight into a rosy glow.

Just at first he couldn’t see anything. Miss Day conducted him deviously amidst furniture until he reached the bed, where he was provided with a seat. After a minute or two his eyes cleared and he discerned Miss Janetta amidst pink bed-linen with an embroidered coverlet drawn up to her waist. She appeared to have sufficient strength to sit up. She wore a bed-jacket trimmed with a great many yards of lace, and not a hair of her elaborate curls was out of place. A boudoir cap composed of about two inches of lace, a rosebud and a bunch of forget-me-nots nestled coquettishly amongst them, and she wore several valuable rings. He reflected that she looked a good deal more like a Dresden shepherdess than a mourning invalid.

She was speaking to him out of the pink haze.

“You must forgive me if I have kept you waiting. It has been such a terrible shock. I am not as strong as my sister. You will not mind if my nurse stays in the room.”

“I would rather see you alone, Miss Pilgrim.”

She gave a fluttered sigh.

“Do you know---I don’t really feel---I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to let her stay. Lona dear, my smelling-salts----”

Miss Day’s eyes met his with sympathy. She said, “I think you’d better let me stay.”

He gave up. If he pressed her, she would probably swoon, and then it would all be to do again.

After producing a vinaigrette Miss Day had drifted tactfully over to the window. Miss Janetta addressed him.

“Just tell me what you want to know, and I will do my best. But I must save my strength---you will help me to do that?”

“I won’t keep you longer than I can help. I wondered whether you could tell me what was the general feeling in the family with regard to the sale of the estate---when it was first suggested.”

Miss Janetta forgot all about being prostrated. She said with surprising energy, “It was my brother. I can’t think how he came to think of such a thing. I never was so shocked in my life. And getting Roger to break the entail! I can’t think what either of them were thinking about. We were all quite horrified.”

“When you say we, to whom do you refer?”

The curls were lightly tossed.

“All of us---the whole family. Why, my sister would simply have broken her heart. She lives for the garden, and---of course you couldn’t be expected to understand, but there have always been Pilgrims at Pilgrim’s Rest.”

He produced a sympathetic smile.

“Yes, it is very sad when these old places pass into other hands. But I gather Mr. Pilgrim intended to proceed with the sale.”

Miss Janetta heaved a sigh. “He was very, very obstinate about it. He had a very obstinate character. If he hadn’t died when he did, we should all have been turned out.”

Miss Day had come back from the window. She said in a soothing voice, “Are you sure you are not talking too much, dear?”

It didn’t go down at all well. There was an acid edge on the voice that snubbed her.

“I think you had better go and see if Jerome wants anything. You can come back presently.”

March felt a little sorry for Miss Day, but she was probably used to it. What a life!

She faded from the room, and he resumed.

“The sale fell through owing to your brother’s death?”

She heaved another sign.

“Yes. It was quite providential. A terrible accident of course, but he was in failing health, and he has been spared all these terrible things---Roger, and poor Jack---and now Henry.” A lace-edged handkerchief touched her eyes for a moment.

March would have bet his last sixpence that the gesture was purely ritual. He said, “Yes.” And then, “Roger was about to sell, wasn’t he?”

A natural flush deepened the colour in her cheeks.

“And look what came of it!” she said.

“My dear Miss Pilgrim----”

The curls were tossed with vigour.

“I suppose you don’t believe in things like that, but I do. My brother was going to sell, and he died. And Roger was going to sell, and he died. There’s a verse about it. It’s carved over the mantelpiece in the hall----

    ‘If Pilgrim fare upon the Pilgrims’ Way,
    And leave his Rest, he’ll find nor rest nor stay.
    Stay Pilgrim in thy Rest, or thou shalt find
    Ill luck before, Death but one pace behind.’ ”


“Yes, I’ve seen it,” said March drily. “Henry Clayton wasn’t selling the estate though, was he? How do you account for him?”

The brightness went out of her eyes. They looked vague.

“My brother was trying to sell---it stirs up ill luck---you don’t know where it will strike next. You mayn’t believe in things like that, but I know they’re true. If Jerome tries to sell, something will happen to him.”

“I don’t think it will,” said March grimly.

“There must always be a Pilgrim at Pilgrim’s Rest,” said Miss Janetta.

He got nothing from her of any more value than that. She remembered the evening her nephew Henry disappeared. She had been very much fatigued by the large family party, and had gone to her room at half past nine. But not to sleep---oh, dear no! She was a perfect martyr to insomnia.

“Your windows look out to the street, Miss Pilgrim. Did you hear Clayton go out?”

It transpired that she had heard nothing.

“I feel the cold too much to have my windows open. Dr. Daly doesn’t advise it.”

March found it impossible to resist the belief that the insomnia existed only in her imagination. Anyone who was awake in this room would surely have heard that big front door fall to. He came downstairs a little later and went on with his interviews.

Miss Columba had taken her heavy heart to the garden. It was very heavy indeed. It was a relief to dibble in another row of peas under Pell’s disapproving eye. He laid his peas in a trench and raked the earth over them. It aroused all his worst passions to see her using her middle finger as a dibber and making a separate hole for every pea. The fact that her rows usually did better than his was an old and gnawing grievance---one of the things which added bitterness to the tone in which he talked to William about “females.” “Females wasn’t never intended to garden---stands to reason they wasn’t. ’Twas Adam was set to till the ground, not that flighty piece Eve. Childer and cooking---that’s all that females are fit for. Getting in trousis and doing a man’s job is clean flying in the face of Providence, and you can’t get from it.”

The dead weight which Miss Columba carried lifted perceptibly as she put in her peas. In the house they were all sorry for her. All except Janetta, who never thought of anyone but herself. Even Robbins---no, she wasn’t sure about Robbins. Dark---secret. Like a plant that has run to root. She remembered an apple-tree when she was a girl. Never bloomed or fruited, and her father had it taken up. Six foot of tap root. Dark---secret. Going down and down. They planted it again with a paving stone under it. It did all right after that.

Pell’s voice came up out of the wordless grumbling which had accompanied his digging.

“That grand-daughter of mine’s home.”

Miss Columba poked a hole with her finger and dropped a pea into it. “Which one?”

“Maggie. Looks a show in her uniform. Against nature, I call it.”

“Leave?”

Pell cleared his throat.

“Peck of rubbish! Calls herself a corporal---two stripes on her arm! Flying in the face of Providence, that’s what I call it.”

Miss Columba put in another pea.

“Maggie’s a good girl.”

“She was. No saying what she is now. Paints her mouth!”

“Girls do.”

He gave a crowing laugh.

“Same as Jezebel! And what come of her---answer me that!”

Miss Columba made two more holes, dropped in two more peas, and said with finality, “Maggie’s a good girl.”

It was all very soothing. Pell wasn’t sorry for her. If the whole family was lying dead, he would be just as cross-grained and obstructive as he always was. It kept you in the world you were accustomed to, the world of normal disagreeable things---north-east winds---May frosts---hail---drought---green fly---wireworm---Pell. Very steadying. Murder was not a normal thing. Something out of control. Something out of madness and nightmare. Wrenched loose. Threshing round. Killing. Don’t think about it. Plant the peas. They’ll put down roots and throw up shoots. Bloom. Fruit. Fade. Go back to manure the ground. Natural. Murder not natural. Don’t think about it. Think about Pell. Think about Maggie.

She put in another pea, and said, “I’d like to see Maggie. Tell her to come up and see me.”

+++

March got down to the net results of his interviews after lunch. Miss Silver in the convenient small chair which left her elbows free---arms can be very hampering when you are knitting---Frank Abbott posed negligently on the arm of one of the big leather-covered chairs and looking as if he had never done anything in his life except exist beautifully in a workless world, an appearance to which a pile of very neat typescripts at March’s right hand gave the lie.

“Well, Abbott, I’ve been over all the notes you took, and I don’t know what you think, but it looks like Robbins to me.”

Frank nodded.

“We could do with some more evidence.”

“Oh, yes. But I don’t see where we’re going to get it. However, I’d like to run through all the other possibilities. We may turn something up that way. Something may have struck you or Miss Silver.”

She was finishing the right sleeve of Ethel Burkett’s jumper. Her attention appeared to be wholly engaged by the ribbing at the wrist. March experienced a slight feeling of impatience. He was taking her into the fullest confidence, letting her in where he could without any complaint from her have left her out, and he thought a little response would not be out of place. There was no sign of it. She might have been in the next room. She might never have heard of Henry Clayton. She might have been in Timbuctoo. He didn’t go quite as far as to wish her there, but he was well on the way to it. He picked up a sheet of foolscap covered with his own writing.

“I’ll lead off with Robbins---just a close summary. I think there’s no doubt he suspected Clayton of having seduced his daughter. She may have told him so before she died, or it may have been just suspicion. Miss Freyne’s evidence is important on this point. She says Mr. Pilgrim told her that he was afraid Henry Clayton was responsible, and said that Robbins had told him so. Well, there’s the motive. By all accounts he had been very hard hit, wouldn’t have the girl’s name mentioned, wouldn’t have her and the child buried down here---Mrs. Robbins seems to have felt this very much---wouldn’t even give out the fact that she was dead. All this is evidence that he was very deeply and to some extent abnormally affected. Then a month after the daughter’s tragic death with her child in an air raid Henry Clayton comes down here to marry another woman. That strengthens the motive very considerably, I think. As to opportunity---well, Robbins had it if anyone did. His account of what happened after half past ten that night is corroborated at one point, and only one. Henry Clayton did leave the house. Miss Freyne saw him emerge into the street and come towards her. She says he was halfway between the door of the glazed passage and the gate to the stable yard when she turned away from the window. That distance is some ten to fifteen yards---I’d allow a margin because he was coming directly toward her and it was moonlight, both disturbing factors. In any case the distance was such that Robbins could either have called to him from the entrance to the glazed passage or run after him. Whichever it was, it is, I think, quite certain that Clayton returned to the house. What excuse Robbins used, we can’t tell, but Clayton undoubtedly turned round and came back. Robbins may have had the dagger ready. He may have stabbed him at once, in the passage or in the hall, or he may have got him into the dining-room or into the passage where the lift is on some pretext or other. We’ll never know about that unless he tells us. If he had it all planned, he would of course get him as far as he could. But there may not have been any premeditation---he may just have felt that he had got to have it out with him about his daughter. Clayton’s going off like that to see Miss Freyne might have been the last straw. If Robbins suddenly taxed him with having ruined his daughter, that would have turned Clayton back all right. And he wouldn’t want anyone listening in. There was the dining-room all handy, and on the opposite side of the house from Mr. Pilgrim’s room and his aunts. And once they were in the dining-room all those daggers were very handy too. I think it happened that way.”

Frank ran a hand back over his immaculate hair.

“That’s a point, about the position of the rooms, but it would apply to other people besides Robbins. I’m not disagreeing, you know. If the murder was premeditated, the dining-room would have been chosen anyhow, on account of having a door through into the stone passage just opposite that lift. If it wasn’t premeditated, it was still the best room to have a quarrel in. You see, the room Judy Elliot is in overhead was empty. Henry was in the room Miss Silver has now. Then comes another empty room and Lona Day’s. Jerome’s room looks the other way, and isn’t over the dining-room at all. Lona is the only one who could possibly have heard anything, and its unlikely she would, through these walls.”

March nodded.

“Well, there we are. That’s the case against Robbins as far as Henry Clayton goes. Passing to Mr. Pilgrim’s death---I’ve seen the groom William, and he says there was a thorn under the saddle, and it was a long black thorn from a tree hanging over the stable yard. But there’s no real proof, and never will be, that the death was not accidental. If it wasn’t, Robbins could have done it, just as anyone else in the house could have done it. Motive---Mr. Pilgrim was about to sell the house. If it was sold, the cellars would be cleared out and Clayton’s body discovered. The person who killed him couldn’t afford to let that happen.”

Frank Abbott said, “Quite.” Miss Silver did not lift her eyes from her knitting.

March frowned and went on.

“We come to Roger Pilgrim’s death. If he was murdered, the same motive would apply. Without the discovery of Clayton’s body, any coroner’s jury would bring in a verdict of accident, with a feeling at the back of their minds that it was probably suicide, but kinder to the family not to say so.”

Frank Abbott gave a short laugh.

“Who says we’re not a sentimental nation?”

Miss Silver gave a slight reproving cough.

“Reluctance to inflict unnecessary pain can hardly be considered reprehensible.”

March went on.

“The discovery of Clayton’s body makes it a good deal more likely that Roger was murdered, because except for the death of Mr. Pilgrim, who really could not have had any motive for murdering his nephew, the household here was the same as at the time of Clayton’s disappearance. And that means that there was probably someone amongst them who had already done one murder and had an extremely strong motive for covering it up by committing another. Now see how this applies to Roger’s death. Miss Elliot saw Robbins go up the back stair at some time after six but before a quarter to seven. She thinks it was before half past six, but she isn’t sure. She saw him go up, but she didn’t see him come down. Robbins says it was only just after six, he wasn’t in his room five minutes, and he came down by the stair in the other wing---which seems odd, because it’s right out of his way on the other side of the house. He says Miss Freyne and Roger were together in the attic room when he came down. Miss Freyne says she left at six-fifteen. Well, there you are---he could very easily have waited to see her go, and then have gone in and pushed Roger out over that low sill. He had just seen him from his own room, right up there in the window. If he wanted to bump him off he couldn’t have had a better opportunity. It all rather piles up against Robbins, you know. Take the fall of the ceiling. It would be the easiest thing in the world for him to pour water down on to it from the floor above---he and his wife had the whole place to themselves up there. And the business of the fire. It was he who took the tray of drinks along to the room which was burned out. Roger said the drink was doped. I gather that Jerome has sleeping tablets knocking about. It wouldn’t be difficult for Robbins to get hold of one or two, and it would be the easiest thing in the world for him to come back, set light to the papers, and lock the door. That cross passage which runs in between the burned-out room and the lift is his own lawful direct way from the kitchen to the dining-room---he’d every right in the world to be going to and fro along it.” He put down the paper he was holding and took up another.

Miss Silver had begun to cast off. Frank Abbott said, “Well, that’s Robbins. What about the others?”

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