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Chapter Twenty-Four

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« on: September 29, 2023, 11:50:48 am »

BY HALF past eight that evening Miss Silver might have been residing at the Rectory for years. She had placated Mabel, who did not consider that visitors were at all necessary in wartime, she had shown Miss Sophy a new knitting stitch, and satisfied Garth that she could be trusted to behave with discretion and tact. What impression she had made upon the remaining member of the party, it was impossible to say. Miss Brown, it is true, appeared at dinner and joined occasionally in the conversation, but her look was so lifeless, her voice so mechanical, that it was impossible to feel that she was really there. As soon as they rose from the table she withdrew. Garth, coming last into the hall, watched her slowly mount the stairs, her hand upon the balustrade, her fine eyes fixed, her air that a woman who walks in a haunted dream.

When he reached the drawing-room Miss Sophy was telling Miss Silver that he had weighed ten and a half pounds when he was born. It was not until the coffee had been brought, partaken of, and cleared away that she could be detached from the saga of his infancy. Aunt Sophy was indeflectable. She supported anecdote by documentary evidence. Photographs showing Garth in a vest, Garth in a bathing-suit, Garth completely au naturel, were bandied back and forth. He retired into the Times, and thanked heaven that Janice wasn't there.

But when Mabel had carried out the tray and the door was shut, the photographs went back into their drawer and the talk got down to business. Not as crudely as this may suggest, but after a seemly fashion, and by consent of both the ladies, for if Miss Silver desired to hear, Miss Sophy was certainly anxious to talk.

Garth put down his paper, and was edified. It appeared that Miss Silver was now thoroughly conversant with the evidence given at the inquest. She touched upon it here and there, referring to Garth as well as to Miss Sophy for details as to the voice, manner, and general tone of witnesses. He became aware of a thought penetrating and illuminating whatever it touched. The prim, old-maidish manner which was its cloak began by amusing him, but before long the amusement changed to something not unlike discomfort. He felt a little as if he had picked up an old lady's work-bag and found it to contain a bomb.

Aunt Sophy on the contrary was completely happy. It was years since she had had so appreciative an audience. She poured out information about everyone and everything---about Michael Harsch; about the Madocs; about her neighbours on the Green; about the village, about the Pincotts; about the Rector, the sexton, the church, the organ; about poor dear Medora and what a terrible shock it had been to her; about the party telephone and how extremely inconvenient it was---"or might be if I ever had anything to say that I would really mind everybody knowing, because Mary Anne Doncaster---she is the younger of the two Miss Doncasters who live at Pennycott and a shocking invalid, poor thing---she sits and listens in by the hour when she hasn't got anything else to do. And I daresay there are others as well, though I wouldn't put a name to them. But I'm afraid that the only person who has interesting calls is Mrs. Mottram. She is a widow, you know, and very pretty, and young men do ring her up. Mostly friends of her husband's, I expect, but of course Mary Anne and Lucy Ellen make the most of it."

Miss Silver coughed and said that gossip was usually ill-natured and very often untrue. After which she picked up the ball of wool which had rolled from her lap to the floor and steered the conversation back to the Tuesday night when Mr. Harsch had met his death.

"You were sitting in here with the window open, Miss Fell?"

Miss Sophy nodded. She was feeling pleased and important. If she had been a cat she would have purred.

"Oh, yes---behind the black-out. It was such a mild evening."

"And you could hear the organ?"

"Oh, yes. Mr. Harsch was playing Purcell's Trumpet Voluntary---only now they say that it wasn't by Purcell at all, but by somebody called---Clark, I think it is. So beautiful."

"What time would that have been?"

"Well, I don't know that I can say exactly, but I suppose somewhere before half past nine, because Medora was still in the drawing-room, and she had gone upstairs before the half hour."

"You could hear the music quite clearly?"

"Oh, yes, quite."

Miss Silver stopped knitting for a moment and leaned forward.

"When did you stop hearing it?"

Miss Sophy's blue eyes became quite round with surprise. All her sausage curls wobbled, and so did her chins.

"I don't know. Did I stop hearing it?"

Miss Silver smiled and went on knitting.

"I think you must have done. Before half past nine Miss Brown was in the room with you. Quite probably you were talking."

"Oh, yes."

"Yet you heard the music distinctly---you could identify the Trumpet Voluntary. But at a quarter to ten you had opened the glass door and gone down the steps to the garden because---I am quoting your evidence---you wanted to smell the night-flowering stock and to hear whether Mr. Harsch was still playing the organ."

Miss Sophy nodded again.

"Yes---so I had."

Miss Silver's needles clicked.

"Will you try and remember when the music stopped. Did you hear anything after the Trumpet Voluntary?"

"Oh, yes, I did. But I don't know what it was. I thought he was improvising."

"That was after Miss Brown had left the room?"

Miss Sophy took a moment to think about this.

"Oh, yes, I am sure it was, because I remember being sorry she wasn't there. But then it stopped."

"How long before you opened the glass door?"

Miss Sophy considered.

"I don't know. It might have been ten minutes, because I waited a little, and then I put my patience cards away, and I found a letter from my cousin Sophy Ferrars which had got pushed into that drawer by mistake, and I read it all through again and thought of answering it next day, only I never did because of the dreadful news about Mr. Harsch. Yes, I think it must have been quite ten minutes. And then I thought I would go out and smell the night-flowering stock, and see if Mr. Harsch was still playing."

"Did you hear the organ at all after you opened the glass door?"

Miss Sophy shook her head. The curls wobbled again, and so did the chins.

"Oh, no---only that dreadful shot."

"So that there was an interval of about ten minutes between the time the organ stopped and a quarter to ten when you heard the shot."

Miss Sophy said, "Yes."

Garth leaned forward and spoke for the first time.

"Ten minutes during which he may have been making up his mind to shoot himself."

Miss Silver coughed.

"Or talking to the person who shot him, Major Albany."

"That line of argument isn't going to help Madoc very much---is it?"

Miss Silver looked at him.

"If Mr. Madoc is innocent, every bit of fact which can be uncovered will help him. If he is guilty, no one can help him at all. The facts will always fight for an innocent person. I have explained to Miss Meade that they are my only concern."

Garth found himself refusing to be snubbed.

"There is no proof that there was anyone except himself in the church, but if anyone did talk to him there, it is more likely to have been Madoc than anyone else. He had the key, he was angry, he was jealous, he is a man of violent temper---I think the case against him is pretty strong. On the other hand, if he did shoot Harsch it must have been planned beforehand. People don't walk about Bourne with revolvers. I don't know the man, so I can't really base any argument on his character. Janice says she can. She swears through thick and thin he didn't do it. But she also swears that Harsch didn't do it himself, and quite frankly, that seems to me to be the only alternative."

Miss Silver was approaching the heel of her sock. She set the knitting down upon her knee for a moment in order to give her full attention to Major Albany.

"How long have you known Miss Meade?"

Garth frowned, he didn't quite know why.

"I've known her always. Her father was the doctor here. They lived next door."

Miss Silver smiled.

"Pray do not be offended if I ask you some questions about her. I will give you my reason for doing so presently, and I hope you will agree that it is a good one."

There was something disarming about voice and manner---authority stepped down to ask instead of demanding. Garth lost his frown, met her look with one as straight, and said, "What do you want to know?"

She was grave again.

"Miss Meade is young. She has enthusiasm and loyalty---I do not doubt that. But I would like to know your opinion of her judgment. Is it likely to be unduly swayed by feeling?"

"I don't think so. I don't know that I agree with all her arguments, but they are arguments---they represent a point of view. She was fond of Harsch and sorry for him. She doesn't like Madoc particularly---he is an intensely disagreeable person---but she is quite sure he isn't a murderer. Is that what you want? I don't think feelings come into it---at any rate not unduly."

"Would you agree with that, Miss Fell?"

Miss Sophy started slightly.

"Oh, yes---I suppose so. Poor Mr. Madoc, he really can be very disagreeable indeed."

Miss Silver coughed.

"To return to Miss Meade. Would you take her account of anything as being accurate?"

Garth said, "What do you mean by that?"

Miss Silver coughed again.

"I will tell you presently, but just now I should like an answer to my questions."

"Well then, the answer is yes. I should say she was rather scrupulously accurate."

"A very sweet girl," said Miss Sophy. "And such a good daughter. Her father had a very sad illness, and she was most devoted---so reliable and unselfish."

"And truthful?" said Miss Silver.

Miss Sophy bridled.

"Oh, yes, indeed!"

"What do you mean, Miss Silver?" said Garth in a low, angry voice.

She took up her knitting again.

"You consider that Miss Meade is most truthful and accurate?"

"Of course I do!"

"Then I am wondering why two total strangers should have been at some pains to give me the opposite impression."

"What!"

The sock revolved briskly.

"I heard Miss Meade's name for the first time on Sunday afternoon. Two ladies behind me in a Tube booking-office were talking about her. I could not avoid hearing what they said, and I was struck by the Christian name, which I had not heard before. They spoke as if they knew her well. There was a mention of being at college together. They said she was charming but quite unreliable---you could not believe a word she said---that kind of thing. It was very well done, and I thought nothing of it at the time, but when I got Miss Meade's telegram this morning, and later on when I had seen her, I wondered why it had been done at all."

"What a strange coincidence----" said Miss Sophy in rather a bewildered voice.

Miss Silver's needles clicked sharply. She said in her most governessy tone, "I am really quite unable to believe that it was a coincidence, Miss Fell."

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