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Chapter Fourteen

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« on: September 08, 2023, 12:14:58 pm »

WHEN Maggie Pell left Miss Silver she went part of the way down the back stair. At the turn she heard heavy feet coming up. She stepped back into the bathroom and saw Judy Elliot go by with a police sergeant and a tall fair young man in plain clothes. They went up, and into the corridor and along. The sound of their feet died away, a door opened and shut. Judy Elliot didn’t come back.

Maggie waited a little. A wisp of hair had come loose. She took off her cap and made sure there were no more ends. If there was a thing she was faddy about, it was her hair. All very well for Gloria to go about with it flying every way, but it wasn’t her style at all. Satin-smooth she liked it. The way some girls would go about in uniform with their hair all of a fuzz---well, she didn’t think it ought to be allowed.

When she was quite satisfied she went on down the stair and made her way to the kitchen. Mrs. Robbins had been busy when she arrived, but she couldn’t go away without seeing her. She might be in the kitchen, or in the housekeeper’s room next door. She tried the kitchen first. It was empty, but the door to the scullery stood half open, and on the far side of it there were voices---Robbins’ and Mrs. Robbins’. Well, Maggie would rather have found her alone, but you can’t always pick and choose.

She was halfway across the kitchen, when she realized that the Robbinses were having words. Nothing so very out of the way about that when all was said and done. It was Maggie’s opinion that Mrs. Robbins had done a bad day’s work for herself when she married, and if a girl couldn’t do better than that she’d best stay single. Give and take was one thing, but to have a man lay down the law to you till you couldn’t call your soul your own was what there wasn’t any need to put up with, not if you set a right value on yourself.

Robbins was undoubtedly laying down the law.

“Police in the house, and everyone knowing about it! And Mr. Jerome giving them leave to carry out a search! If Mr. Pilgrim was here he’d not have let them across the doorstep. They’re in Mr. Jerome’s room now for all I know. ‘I’ve given them leave,’ he says, ‘and they can start on my room first.’ And him the master of the house!”

Maggie Pell shared his horror. So that was what the police were doing upstairs. A good murder on the front page of your paper was all very well, but when it came down to searching people’s bedrooms in a house like Pilgrim’s Rest---well, it did bring it home to you and no mistake. She wondered if they’d search all the rooms, and if they did, whatever would Miss Netta say? She heard Mrs. Robbins give a sort of sniffling sob, and then Robbins again, very angry.

“What’s the good of that? I tell you it’s the end!”

“Don’t speak like that!”

“I’ll speak how I like, and you’ll listen! And this is what I’ve got to say---you stop all this crying and whining about someone that’s better dead!”

Her sharp cry stopped him there.

Alfred!

“Don’t you Alfred me! He ruined your daughter, didn’t he? And he’s dead and damned, and nobody to thank for it but himself, and you go snivelling about ‘poor Mr. Henry’!”

“Alfred---” It was just a frightened gasp.

Maggie was frightened too. She wished she was anywhere else. She wished she had never come, but she didn’t seem able to go. She heard Mrs. Robbins break into bitter weeping. She heard the sound of a blow, and a wincing cry. She moved forward a step or two. She couldn’t just stand there and hear a woman treated like that.

And then, short of the scullery door, Robbins’ voice halted her. It wasn’t loud any more, but it was all the worse for that. He said, “Shut up! Do you hear---shut up! And you keep shut up---do you hear? I tell you the police think I did it, and the way you’re going on is the way to make them think it. ‘What’s she carrying on like that for?’ they’ll say. ‘What’s anyone want to carry on like that for it they haven’t got something on their mind? And what’s she got on her mind?’ they’ll say. ‘Why him’---that’s what they’ll say. ‘And she knows who done it. And how would she know about it if it wasn’t her husband? He done it’---that’s what they’re going to say. Do you want to put the rope round my neck? Because that’s what you’re doing. I tell you they think I did your damned Mr. Henry in. I heard them talking in the study, and that’s what they think---they think it was me!”

Mrs. Robbins called out wildly.

“Was it?” she said---“was it?

Maggie felt the trickle of sweat on her temples. She couldn’t have taken another step forward to save her life. She heard Gloria’s voice calling her in the passage.

“Mag---where are you? Maggie!”

She turned round and ran out of the kitchen.

+++

Judy Elliot turned to the right at the head of the stairs and walked along the corridor a little ahead of Frank Abbott and the sergeant to the door of Jerome Pilgrim’s room. She threw it open and stood back for them to go in. As they passed her, she took as much care to avoid looking at them as if they had been some plague come into the house. She stepped back lest they should brush against her.

It is not pleasant for a young man who is in love to be treated like this. Frank Abbott had a normally high opinion of himself. The girls whom from time to time he met, flirted and danced with, had done nothing to reduce it. Judy’s attitude was galling in the extreme. What it amounted to was, “It’s a low job searching people’s rooms, and you’re a low hound to do it.”

As this idea forced an entrance, an icy anger cauterized his hurt. He walked past her not only as if she wasn’t there, but as if she never had been there as far as he was concerned. Judy Elliot in fact just didn’t exist. He had a job to do, and that was that.

Judy shut the door on them with laudable self-control. She could have banged it with the best heart in the world, but she remembered that she was a housemaid and restrained the impulse. She turned, to meet Lona Day coming out of her room across the passage.

“What’s going on, Judy?” Lona’s voice was distressed, her look anxious.

Judy’s cheeks burned and her eyes were bright.

“They’re searching the house.”

“Oh---how unpleasant!”

“Horrid!”

“But why? What are they looking for? What do they think they’re going to find?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea.”

A child of three could have seen that she had lost her temper and wasn’t in any hurry to find it. Miss Day gazed at her soulfully and said, “I suppose they know best. Where are they now?”

“In Captain Pilgrim’s room.”

“Oh dear---but he ought to be resting----”

Judy’s shoulder twitched.

“He’s downstairs. He told me to take them up.”

Miss Day said, “Oh dear----” in a helpless sort of way, and then, “They won’t disturb Miss Janetta?”

“She’s to go into Miss Columba’s room whilst they do hers.”

Anger boiled up in Judy. Two men going through an old lady’s things---sorting out her drawers! Revolting!

It took Judy a little time to get away. There were times when Lona was very much the nurse, practical, self-reliant and on the spot, and there were times when she wound herself about you and clung. Judy had no natural affection for clingers, but short of brutal rudeness they are very difficult to dislodge, and it wasn’t really in her to be brutal.

Lona had got pretty far with explaining how sensitive she was to anything like crime or the police---this at any rate was how Judy put it afterwards---before she was sufficiently roused to say, “Well, you’re not the only one. And we’ve both got jobs. You’d better go and break it to Miss Janetta that her room is going to be searched.”

If she thought to provoke Miss Day she was disappointed. She got a heavy sigh and a look that asked for sympathy.

“Well, I don’t know what she’ll say. I wouldn’t mind changing jobs with you, my dear.”

Judy went down the back stair and fetched her cleaning things from the bathroom cupboard. The police having finished with Roger Pilgrim’s room, she had swept it before lunch. She thought she might just as well work off some of her emotions on polishing the floor. It would take her away from the proximity of the search, since Roger’s room was in the other wing, and the farther she could remove herself from Frank Abbott, the better she would be pleased. She got down on her hands and knees and began to rub with a will.

A little later than this Alfred Robbins left the kitchen with the intention of going upstairs to his room. He was pale with a sort of burned-in pallor, but his manner was composed. He had his foot on the bottom step, when he heard the garden door open at the end of a short passage running at right angles to the foot of the stairs. Miss Columba came in, walking as if she was carrying a weight which had grown too heavy. She sat down on the bench which ran a short way in from the door under a row of pegs and called to him, as he knew she would.

“You’ll have to pull my boots off. I can’t manage them.”

From the moment he heard the door he had known how it would be. He had to put the best face on it and come back. But when he got there she wasn’t in a hurry. She just went on sitting there, slumped down anyhow, with her shoulders in amongst the coats and mackintoshes hanging from the pegs above. He stood waiting, controlling the impatience that worked in him like yeast. Presently she said, “Lord---I’m tired!” Then, after a pause, “There’s a lot to be said for being a vegetable. Some people are. No more feelings than a cabbage. It’s feelings that get you down. Better not have any.”

Robbins stared at the ground. Everything in him said, “That’s right!” His impatience boiled up. When he couldn’t bear it any longer he went down on one knee and said, “You ought to have those boots off.”

But you couldn’t hurry Miss Collie. He ought to have known that---she took her time. That was Miss Collie---it was her time, not yours, no matter what you felt like.

She sat there looking at him until he could have screamed. In her own time she said, “You’ve been here---how long, Alfred?”

It wasn’t often she called him that. He said, “Thirty years.”

“It’s a long time.”

After another pause she said, “Pity we can’t go back. But we can’t.” She thrust out a foot at him. “There---get these things off! They weigh a ton.”

When she had put on the house-shoes which stood handy under the bench, he thought he was going to get away, but his luck was out. The catch of one of the windows in the morning-room was stiff---Judy Elliot hadn’t been able to unlatch it. He’d better come along and do it now before it was forgotten.

He did his best to get clear.

“Mr. Jerome is in there with Miss Lesley.”

“Well, he ought to be resting. I’ll go and pack him off. You’d better come along and see to that catch.”

It would never have occurred to Miss Columba that the two in the morning-room could have anything to say to one another that might not just as well be said when she was there. Lesley and Jerome had known each other for forty years, which is time enough to have said everything. She walked in bluntly, and might have had her mind changed if her tread had been lighter. As it was, even in house-shoes she was sufficiently audible to give Lesley time to withdraw a hand which was being kissed and get as far as the hearth, where she stood looking down into the fire and hoping that its glow would account for her burning cheeks. Such a flood of happiness had invaded her that she felt as if it must be shining through her for all to see. And she wasn’t ready to share it yet. It was for her and Jerome, not for anyone else---not yet, not now, with all this dreadful business going on.

As Robbins went to the window, Miss Columba after giving her a brief friendly nod began telling Jerome that he ought to be up in his room resting.

Lesley had herself in hand.

“I must go back to the children. I only came in for a minute, and Jerome kept me.”

She didn’t look at him, but she heard him get to his feet.

“My room’s full of policemen, Aunt Collie. I don’t suppose I shall find it very restful.”

“Policemen? In your room?”

“You gave them leave, didn’t you? And so did I.”

She stood there frowning, her corduroy slacks stained with earth, the great fisherman’s jersey emphasizing her bulk. Lesley saw the square hands shake. But next moment they had gone for shelter to pockets which harboured a clasp knife, odd lengths of tarred twine, labels old and new.

The hands had shaken, but the voice did not shake. She said gruffly, “What do they want? What do they think they’re going to find?”

“I don’t know.”

The catch of the window had jammed---Robbins couldn’t move it. He heard Mr. Jerome go limping into the hall to let Miss Lesley out. Went right down the passage with her to the glass door on the street. If his mind hadn’t been so much taken up he would have wondered about that, but all he wanted now was to get through with this fiddling job, to get away upstairs, to get Mr. Jerome alone if he could and have it out with him. He couldn’t go on this way. If Miss Collie would go away, he could catch Mr. Jerome on his way back from the door. But Miss Collie didn’t go. She stood there with the mud on her and her hands in her pockets and waited for him to finish with the catch. Murder in the house, and the Day of Judgment---the secrets of all hearts opened. And Miss Collie stood there and waited for him to finish with the catch of the window! He wrenched at it with desperate hands and it came over, and there was Miss Collie telling him to get a drop of oil and ease it.

As he passed through the hall, the big door stood wide. Mr. Jerome and Miss Lesley were in the glazed passage talking. If he made haste he might be able to catch Mr. Jerome before he went upstairs.

But when he came back with the oil the door was shut. Only Miss Collie stood just where she was, with her hands in her pockets, frowning.

Even then she kept him. While he was about it he could oil the other catches and make sure of them. As it turned out, there was another as stiff as the first. He had to stand and loosen it with her eye on him. Queer sort of way she’d got of looking at you as if there wasn’t anyone there. It didn’t mean anything, it was just Miss Collie’s way. But it put thoughts into your head. The secrets of all hearts---he’d never really liked to hear that read. A man’s thoughts were his own if anything was. What he had in them was his own business. But Miss Collie didn’t mean anything---it was just her way.

It was a quarter to four by the morning-room clock, all pink enamel and gilt amoretti, before he got away and went upstairs. By that time Frank Abbott and the police sergeant were on the top floor, engaged in searching his room. It is on record that he went to the door of Jerome Pilgrim’s room but did not get speech of him. After which he went up into the attic from which Roger Pilgrim had fallen just under forty-eight hours before.

At between ten minutes and five minutes to four he fell from the same window, and to the same death.

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