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Chapter Fifteen

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« on: September 08, 2023, 12:43:11 pm »

FRANK Abbott and the police sergeant from Ledlington heard a cry, and immediately on that the shock and sound of the fall. They had the drawers out of the chest in Robbins’ room, and they had them stacked one over the other between them and the window. The sergeant barked his shin and brought the top drawer down. They had to shift them before they could get to the window, and then they had to get the two leaves of the casement open.

By the time they had done all this Judy Elliot was looking out of a window on the floor below, staring down at the body of Alfred Robbins, which lay on the flags where Roger Pilgrim’s body had lain. Pell was stooping over it and saying, “He’s dead, certain sure.”

Abbott called out, “Don’t touch him---don’t touch anything! We’ll be down.” And with that he drew back and made for the door.

But the door was locked. Frank stared at it, and the sergeant stared at him. There was no key on the inside.

The Ledlington sergeant stooped down and looked through the keyhole.

“It’s there, on the other side. That’s a queer start. It was this side all right when we came in---I’d swear to that.”

Frank nodded.

“I thought so too, but I don’t know about swearing. You didn’t hear the door open, did you?”

The sergeant stood up.

“We shouldn’t---not if it was when we were shifting those papers.”

The contents of the bottom drawer lay out across the floor---piles of old papers, newspaper cuttings yellow with age---the Pioneer, the Civil and Military---Indian papers, dusty with thirty-year-old news of the last war---nothing later than 1918---the whole making an uneasy bed for the dead man’s shirts. And, dropped down across them where it had fallen from Frank Abbott’s hand, a brown leather wallet.

He turned for it as the sergeant stepped back for a kick at the door. The crack of the breaking lock came as he stooped to pick it up, taking it gingerly by the edges with the handkerchief he had let fall beside it. If it was what he thought it was, there wasn’t any mystery about Alfred Robbins’ death. Most men would prefer a drop from a window to a drop at the end of a rope.

He knotted the corners of the handkerchief and followed the sergeant down the crooked stair.

Pell had been perfectly right---Robbins was dead. But the death must be certified, reported, put on record. Police procedure must take its course. At the Pilgrim’s Rest end of the telephone the police sergeant called up its ordered activities. His voice could be heard from the study by anyone standing in the passage or at the end of the hall---a good firm voice with a rasp in it, but matter-of-fact, as if what he had to report was mere routine.

“Superintendent there? . . . Yes, get him on the line . . . Smith speaking, sir. There’s been another death. . . . Yes, the butler, Robbins---suicide. . . . Yes, the same window as Major Pilgrim. . . . No, nothing’s been touched. Sergeant Abbott and I were next door when it happened. . . . You’ll be out? Very good, sir.”

In this twentieth century, murder holds as exact a state as a medieval monarch. The exits and entrances are all laid down. Surgeon, photographer, fingerprint expert make their bow and play an appointed part.

Randall March played his. Once more he sat at the study table to hear statements and put questions. The two sergeants first with their report, Smith leading off.

“We’d finished in Captain Pilgrim’s room. Nothing there. Then we went up to this attic bedroom, which is where we should have begun by rights, only Captain Pilgrim asked us to do his room first so that he could get back to it---and being an invalid, that seemed reasonable.”

March said, “How long were you up there before the fall?”

The sergeant looked at Frank Abbott and said, “Ten minutes?”

Frank nodded.

“About that.”

Smith went on.

“We’d got the drawers out of the chest. Bottom drawer full of old newspapers and cuttings, which would account for us not hearing when he locked us in.”

March exclaimed. “Locked you in!”

“That’s right, sir. We’re both quite sure the key was on the inside when we got there. He must have come along, opened the door without making any noise, seen what we were up to, and reached round the edge of the door for the key. Then he pulled it to, locked us in, went through to the next room and chucked himself out. He knew his number was up all right, but he had a nerve opening the door and getting the key the way he did.”

Frank Abbott said in his detached voice, “It was what he saw when he opened the door, I imagine, which told him his number was up. I don’t think his suicide was premeditated, or he wouldn’t have come near us. He was scared stiff of course---too scared to keep away, so he came to see what was happening, and what he saw showed him the game was up. I don’t think anyone would have planned to lock the door. It was done on the impulse, so as to give him time to take the drop his own way. After what he must have seen he’d know he was for it one way or the other.”

“What did he see?” said March short and sharp.

Frank Abbott was unknotting the corners of a handkerchief. When he had them free he leaned over the table and laid the square of linen carefully on the blotting-pad. In the middle of it was a man’s brown leather wallet with the initials H.C. stamped in gold. March repeated them aloud---“H.C.” Frank said, Henry Clayton---the missing wallet.”

“Was there a missing wallet?”

“Oh, yes. Roger told Miss Silver about it. Old Mr. Pilgrim gave Henry fifty pounds for a wedding present, spot cash over this table, and Henry took out his wallet and put it away---a brown leather wallet with his initials on it. Roger was in the room at the time, and so was Robbins.”

“Where did you find it?”

Smith took up the tale.

“Back of the drawers in the chest. You know how it is, in a real good chest the drawer goes all the way to meet the frame, and this had been a good old chest in its time, but the back of the bottom drawer was broken away---worm in the wood. And this wallet had got down inside the frame, wedged between the bottom drawer and the back.”

March looked down at it lying on the spread handkerchief.

He looked up suddenly, to catch a slightly quizzical expression in Frank Abbott’s light blue eyes. Without quite knowing why, he experienced a sense of discomfort.

Smith had his answer ready.

“That’s a criminal all over. Extraordinary, the things they’ll keep. This Robbins now---how long is it since Mr. Clayton was murdered---three years, isn’t it? And Robbins is in and out of a kitchen with a good roaring fire going for the whole of that time---all he’s got to do is to push this wallet in the range any night after his wife’s gone up. But he keeps it, the silly fool---sticks it in his drawer along with all those old papers. Likely enough he never looked at them, and never knew the wallet had gone missing. But when he saw it lying there right on top of what we’d turned out he’d know that the game was up. If there was anyone in the family that could swear to it---and probably all that’s left of them could do that---well, it would hang him, wouldn’t it?”

March said, “It’s empty, I suppose?”

Frank Abbott answered.

“It feels empty. I thought they’d better go over it for fingerprints before we looked inside.”

He got a brief nod of assent. March said sharply, “What was it like behind the drawers? If there was worm, there’d be dust.”

“You’d say so if you’d seen our hands!” said Smith. “Not just wood dust either---cobwebs and all sorts. Comes of being shorthanded in a big house like this. In the ordinary way all those drawers would come out at spring cleaning and the frame brushed down properly, but you could see these hadn’t been done for years.”

“Then why is the wallet so clean?”

“It mayn’t have been there long---I shouldn’t say it had. You see, there were these papers underneath, and his shirts on the top of them. He’d been opening and shutting the drawer every time he wanted one. The wallet would be shoved away at the back. Well, one day when his wife puts his laundry away the wallet gets pushed over the broken edge at the back of the drawer.”

“Was there any dust on it?”

March looked at Frank Abbott and got a shake of the head.

“Clean as a whistle.”

“Then it hadn’t been there long.”

“I should say not.”

March knotted the corners of the handkerchief again.

“Well, that’s as far as we can go until Redding has gone over it for prints. You’d better let him have it at once, Smith. . . . Oh, just one thing before you go. How long between the cry and fall and your getting out of the room?”

“It’s difficult to say exactly---two minutes---perhaps three. What do you say, Abbott?”

Frank nodded.

“We were on the far side of the room, backs to the door---window and door about equi-distant.”

“But the wallet would be in sight of anyone opening the door?”

“Oh, yes. It’s a sizable room for an attic, with quite an uninterrupted view. We were both down on our knees. I’d got the wallet laid out on a handkerchief and was just going to tie it up, and Smith was half inside the empty chest feeling in all the corners. We had to get up, and then the stacked drawers were in the way---Smith barked his shin on a corner and brought them down. We had to get to the window and open it. Judy Elliot was leaning out of the window below us, and Pell was bending over the body. We spoke to him, and it wasn’t till after all that we found we were locked in. I picked up the wallet and knotted the handkerchief round it, and Smith kicked the lock out. I should say all of three minutes.”

“Yes, it would be. And you’ve no idea when the door was locked?”

“None---except that the most likely time would be when we were shifting the papers.”

“Yes. Well, that’s that. Did you finish searching the room?”

“Yes, while we were waiting for you. Smith stayed with the body whilst I carried on upstairs. I thought Mrs. Robbins would be wanting to go up there. We’d left the floor ankle-deep.”

“Find anything else?”

Frank held out a bulging envelope.

“This---at the back of the wash-stand drawer. Not the envelope---that’s only cover.”

Through the open flap a small cardboard box was visible---one of the sort which pull out like a match-box.

“Greenish pellets inside, like you said to look out for.”

March said rather grimly, “The whole bag of tricks! All right, Redding must go over it. And the stuff must go to the analyst---but it looks as if Miss Silver had made a pretty good guess.”

Frank said, “Do you think it’s guessing? The Chief suspects her of---I don’t like to say the black arts, because he really has an uncommon respect for her, but I rather think there’ve been times when he wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d gone out of the window on a broomstick.”

March gave a half laugh.

“There’ve been times when I’ve felt like that myself! The fact is she comes to very close quarters with people---gets at them from the inside where we only get an outside view, and an artificial one at that, because by the time we come into it everyone concerned is hard at work covering up. We don’t see people being natural---she does. By the way, where is she?”

Frank threw up a hand.

“With Mrs. Robbins. The detective sunk in the ministering angel! And she does it just as well. In fact ‘age doesn’t wither nor custom stale her infinite variety.’ ”

March allowed himself a smile.

“And I wonder whether Cleopatra or Miss Silver would be the more disconcerted at the comparison. . . . All right, Smith, take the wallet and that envelope to Redding, and let me have them back when he’s finished. I don’t suppose there’s anything left inside, but you never can tell. And just ask Miss Elliot to come here, will you. I’ll see her next.”

Frank stood back against the mantelpiece. That he was expected to stay was obvious. He certainly had no intention of going. He was here on a job, and he meant to see it through. Briefly and bitterly he concluded that if Judy didn’t like it she could lump it.

Randall March broke in upon this pleasant frame of mind.

“Why did Robbins leave that wallet where you were bound to find it? He must have known about the search. You were---how long in Jerome Pilgrim’s room?”

“Certainly twenty minutes---probably more.”

“Then why wasn’t Robbins up in his room getting rid of incriminating evidence?”

“Well, look here---he may have missed the wallet and never thought of looking where we found it. He may have thought someone had taken it---his wife for choice. I hear she’s been crying her eyes out over Henry Clayton. I think he’d suspect her before anyone. I think he’d suspect her, and hope she had destroyed it. And I think he’d let sleeping dogs lie. How’s that?”

“I don’t know---it might be----”

“As to his getting upstairs whilst we were in Jerome’s room, he was trying to go up, but Miss Columba caught him and had him into the morning-room to do a job on the window-catches there. Jerome was in there with Lesley Freyne. I should think it was then between twenty and a quarter to four. Lesley went away, Jerome went up to his room where we had just finished, and Robbins did his job in the morning-room. He then went upstairs and knocked on Jerome’s door. Lona Day opened it and asked him what he wanted. He said to speak to Mr. Jerome. She said he couldn’t---he must wait---Jerome was resting. In fact, nurse in defence of patient, and the only-over-my-dead-body touch. I don’t know what he wanted to say to Jerome, but it didn’t get said. Robbins then went upstairs, locked us in, and chucked himself out of the window next door.”

March said, “Pity Jerome didn’t see him.”

“Yes. Soothing music was being diffused by the wireless, and she wanted him to rest. He heard the knock of course, but I don’t think he took much notice of it. She went to the door, and then she went to her room. I gather she was backwards and forwards for a bit getting him his tea. She wanted him to have it at four, and then rest till supper-time.”

+++

The door opened and Judy came in. She had taken off her overall and was wearing a dark blue skirt and jumper. Her hands were scrubbed and clean. There were dark smudges under her eyes. She avoided looking at Frank, but he looked at her with a long, cold stare. She may have felt it---it was that sort of look. She couldn’t very well lose colour, because she had none. She kept her head up.

March was very nice to her. He made her sit down, and said, “I’m afraid this is all very trying. I won’t keep you long. I believe you heard Robbins scream and fall?”

Judy said, “Yes.”

“Where were you, Miss Elliot?”

“In Major Pilgrim’s room.” She coloured a little. “The one he was using. The police told me I could clear up there, so I was getting it straight.”

“Well, you heard the scream. Was it just a cry? No words?”

Judy said, “I don’t know.” She had turned very pale. “That sounds stupid, but---I really don’t. It was a---a shock.” She kept her eyes on his face as she spoke. “If you mean did I hear any words, I didn’t.”

He put her down as conscientious and intelligent.

“What did you do?”

“I ran to the window and opened it. I could see someone lying on the stones. I got a sort of giddy feeling. The next thing I knew I was half sitting, half kneeling on the floor by the window and Pell was running across the paved garden. And I called out to him, ‘Who is it?’ I don’t know why I said that, for of course I knew because of the linen jacket. Pell said, ‘It’s Robbins!’ And I asked if he was dead, and Pell said, ‘As any door-nail.’ ”

“What did you do then?”

“Sergeant Abbott and Sergeant Smith called out of the upstairs window, and I ran down to the morning-room and told Miss Columba.”

“Was she alone?”

“Yes.”

“Where were the others?”

“Miss Janetta was in bed. As I got to the top of the stairs, Miss Day came out of Captain Jerome’s room. I suppose I looked upset, for she came along the passage and asked me if anything was the matter. I told her what had happened, and she said she thought she had heard a cry, but the wireless was on and she couldn’t be sure.”

“Thank you, Miss Elliot.”

He took Pell’s statement next.

The old man stumped in, thick grey hair standing up in a fuzz above the square weather-beaten face. The hair had been as red as Gloria’s, and it was still as thick and curly. He had wiped his dirty hands on his corduroys. His small greenish-hazel eyes had an obstinate twinkle for authority. “Law-abiding I be, and no call to fear the law” would have just about hit off his mood. He planted himself squarely before the writing-table and kept that twinkling gaze upon the Superintendent’s face. It did not change because March spoke him fair, any more than it would have changed under a browbeating. He was an honest man in his rights, and he knew what they were.

He was at the other side of the garden tidying it up. He heard both cry and fall. By the time he turned round, there was Robbins a-lying on the stones. He ran over to him---“And first Miss Elliot she pokes her head out of Mr. Roger’s window and says, ‘Is he dead?’ and I says, ‘As any door-nail.’ And then the police puts their heads out of Robbins’ room and hollers to me not to touch anything, which I hadn’t, only to feel of him whether he was alive or dead.”

“You didn’t see anyone at any other window?”

“There wasn’t no one to see, nor I wouldn’t have seen ’em if there was. I was running, wasn’t I, and looking at the dead corpse? You don’t look at no windows with a corpse a-lying right in front of you on the stones.”

There was no more to it than that.

March said, “I suppose you don’t,” and let him go.

He saw Lona Day after that, grave and concerned, but not so much concerned as to impair her complexion or its delicate make-up. Where Judy had been unbecomingly colourless, Miss Day was discreetly tinted. She did not overdo her lipstick, but the colour had been freshly applied. A plain dark dress with a severe white collar gave the effect of uniform and was surprisingly becoming. Her manner identified her sympathetically with the family, and made it plain that she shared the anxiety which pressed upon its members. March remembered that in his previous examination he had found her intelligent and exact.

“Where were you at the time of the fall, Miss Day?”

“Well, Superintendent, I don’t know that I can say. You see, Captain Pilgrim had the wireless on, and I was going backwards and forwards between my room and his room and the bathroom, and I didn’t take any particular notice at the time. You know how it is, you don’t when you’re busy like that. But it must have been about a quarter to four when I came out of Captain Pilgrim’s room and saw Robbins.”

“When you say you saw him, what exactly do you mean?”

The greenish eyes rested upon his face. He found himself thinking their colour unusual---and attractive. She said at once, “He knocked at the door, and I opened it.”

“What did he say?”

“He said, ‘I’d like to have a word with Mr. Jerome.’ ”

“And what did you say?”

“I told him he must wait until Captain Pilgrim was rested, he had already done a good deal more than I thought wise, and I didn’t mean him to see anyone else until he had had a good rest. As a matter of fact I was just hurrying to get his tea.”

“Do you usually do that?”

“No, he very often comes down, or if he has it upstairs, Miss Elliot or Robbins would take it up, or I might do so myself. There hasn’t been any particular rule about it. But I often make an odd cup of tea---nurses get into the way of it, you know. I have a spirit lamp in the bathroom, and I always keep a supply of tea, and cocoa, and dried milk, and biscuits in the cupboard there. Miss Janetta likes a cup of cocoa the last thing at night and the first thing in the morning, and I make it for her.”

“Well, you were going to make tea for Captain Pilgrim. Did Robbins say anything more?”

“He said, ‘I want to see him very particularly,’ and I said, ‘Well, you’ll have to wait. No one’s going to see him till he’s had his rest.’ He went off, and I heard him going up the stairs. I supposed he was going to his room.”

“Did you go back into Captain Pilgrim’s room?”

“Just for a minute. I told him I was going to get him his tea. Then I went into the bathroom and put the kettle on.”

“And where were you at the time of the fall, Miss Day?”

“Well, I really don’t know, because I didn’t hear it.”

“You didn’t hear the cry, or the fall?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“How do you account for that?”

“The bathroom window looks to the side of the house, and the plumbing is old. I’d just been running water to fill the kettle, and the pipes make quite a noise. But of course I don’t know that I was in the bathroom at the time. I was backwards and forwards to my own room, and the windows there look out to the front.”

“But Captain Pilgrim’s windows look on to the paved garden.”

“Two of them do. It is a corner room, and there is another window to the side of the house.”

“How do you account for Captain Pilgrim not hearing the cry?”

“He had the wireless on. But I think he did hear it, because when I went in to him---afterwards, you know---he said, ‘What happened? Did someone call out?’ So I thought it best to tell him what had happened.”

“Who told you, Miss Day?”

“Judy Elliot. I saw her in the passage, and she looked so upset that I ran along and asked her if anything was wrong.”

March turned to Frank Abbott.

“You were taking a shorthand note of what Miss Elliot said. Wasn’t there something about Miss Day thinking she had heard a cry?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is that right, Miss Day?”

“Oh, yes, that’s what I said to her. But, you know, I’m not sure about it---I couldn’t swear to it or anything like that. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt, ‘Well, perhaps it was just imagination,’ because I honestly didn’t think about it at all until Judy said there had been another accident.” Her eyes dwelt upon March’s face with an appealing expression.

He said, “I see.” And then, abruptly, “Miss Day, have you ever suspected Robbins of taking drugs?”

She looked at him in a startled fashion. The word came into his head and stayed there---she was startled, but she wasn’t surprised. She said, “Oh, dear!” And then, “Oh, I wouldn’t like to say.”

“I think you will have to. I am not asking you whether he did take drugs---or a drug. I am asking you whether it ever crossed your mind to suspect him of doing so.”

She said with some appearance of relief, “Well, then, it did.”

“Did you suspect him of using any particular drug? And if you did, what made you suspect him?”

She looked distressed.

“He talked to me once about hashish. That’s cannabis indica, you know, only he called it by the Indian name, bhang. He’d been in India.”

“I think you have been there too, haven’t you?”

“Yes---that is how he came to talk to me about it.”

“What did he say?”

“He asked me if I had ever tried it. He said it gave you wonderful dreams. And of course I told him how dangerous it was, and warned him that it was illegal to use it in this country.”

“And what did he say to that?”

Miss Day gave a slight shiver.

“He looked at me in rather a curious sort of way and said I wasn’t to think he used it, only there were times you liked to feel you’d got something by you that would make you sleep. I felt sorry for him, because I knew that he and his wife were in trouble over their daughter, so I just warned him again as seriously as I could. I didn’t repeat what he said to anyone.”

“When did this conversation take place?”

“Oh, it was a long time ago---when I first came here, quite three years ago.”

“Was it before or after Henry Clayton disappeared?”

She thought for a minute, and then said, “I think it was after that---but not very long after.”

“Miss Day, did you ever see Robbins under the influence of a drug like hashish?”

She took a minute over that. When she spoke, it was with hesitation. “His manner was very strange sometimes. I couldn’t say if it was due to a drug.”

“What is the effect of hashish?”

The hesitation continued.

“It is---a narcotic----”

“But it induces dreams?”

“I believe it does.”

“Does it sometimes have an exciting effect?”

“I have heard it does---I don’t really know much about it.”

“It might induce bad dreams as well as pleasant ones?”

“I suppose it might.”

“Have you never heard of its having that effect?”

“Well---I have----”

“Miss Day, did it ever occur to you that Captain Pilgrim’s nervous attacks might be caused by something like hashish?”

She cried out at that, “Oh, don’t! Oh, how dreadful!”

“Did it never occur to you? From what I have heard, the symptoms were all present---heavy sleep, from which he was aroused by distressing dreams to a dazed and abnormal state. That is so, is it not?”

“Yes, but---oh, how dreadful---how wicked!”

“Did that suspicion ever cross your mind?”

She was in considerable distress.

“Not---not until this last attack. I did think when I first came that perhaps the sedative he had been ordered for occasional use---I did wonder whether it was agreeing with him, and Dr. Daly changed it. He didn’t have an attack for some time after that. But when he had this last one I did just think, just suspect---no, it wasn’t as definite as that---I mean I couldn’t really think it---there wasn’t any motive---what motive could there be? Oh, I do hope it isn’t true!”

“Would Robbins have had the opportunity of administering such a drug? You said just now that he sometimes took up Captain Pilgrim’s tea. Did he take up his supper?”

“Oh, yes, always---unless he came down for it.”

“It could, I suppose, be administered in anything that was highly seasoned?”

Lona’s eyes were full of tears. She brought out a handkerchief and dabbed them.

“Oh, yes, I suppose so.” She dabbed again. “I’m sorry, but it does seem so dreadfully wicked. I can’t believe it!”

March said drily, “Well, it isn’t a thing we can expect to prove. We shall see whether the attacks stop now.”

She let a smile break through and said, “That would be wonderful!”

March let her go.

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