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Chapter Twenty-Nine

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« on: September 30, 2023, 06:12:32 am »

GARTH ALBANY came knocking on Miss Silver's door before she was dressed next morning. She opened it in a warm red flannel dressing-gown trimmed with hand-made crochet, her hair rather flat but perfectly neat in spite of the absence of a net. He slipped inside, shut the door behind him, and said, "Ezra Pincott has been found dead. The milk boy brought the news---Mabel has just told me. I thought you ought to know at once."

"Yes---yes, indeed." She stood quite still for a moment. "I felt very apprehensive. I had asked that he should have police protection."

"Well," said Garth, "at any rate they can't say Madoc did it---can they?"

Miss Silver said, "No---" in rather an absent voice. And then, "Pray give me any particulars you may have learned."

"I didn't see the boy myself. He's about sixteen---Tommy Pincott, a cousin of Ezra's and quite a bright lad. Mabel says he told her Ezra was found face down in the stream just beyond the last house in the village. It's no depth there---not more than about a foot---but if he was drunk and tumbled in, there would be enough water to drown him."

Miss Silver coughed.

"You think it may have been an accident?"

Garth said bluntly, "No, I don't. Drunk or sober, Ezra knew his way home, and got there. He'd been at it for too many years to drown himself a good quarter of a mile out of his way. I think somebody did him in and hoped it would be taken for an accident---and if he had been trying his hand at a spot of blackmail, there's your motive."

She said, "Yes." And then, "I must dress. Inspector Lamb must know of this at once. He will be coming down."

But it was half past three in the afternoon before the Chief Inspector and Sergeant Abbott rang the Rectory bell. Miss Silver received them in the study. Even at a moment like this she could not dispense with the personal side of a valued friendship. She shook hands with a smile. She enquired by name for each of the three daughters who were the pride of old Lamb's heart.

"The one in the A.T.S. has her commission? How very nice. Such a pretty girl---I remember you showed me her photograph. Lily---such a sweet name, and so appropriate for a fair girl. And Violet---in the Wrens was she not? . . . Engaged to a Naval officer? How very, very interesting. And your youngest daughter Myrtle---I think she was a W.A.A.F.? Such important work. I am sure she is enjoying it. And I hope Mrs. Lamb is well, and does not miss her girls too much."

Frank Abbott controlled a humorous twist of his lips. There had been a time when he suspected Miss Silver of diplomacy, but it was all as serious on her side as on old Lamb's. She really wanted to know about his daughters, and whether his wife was enjoying good health. He took the opportunity of sharpening a pencil and waited for them to emerge from domesticity.

Lamb led the way.

"Well, well, we must get down to business. I hear you want to see Mr. Madoc."

"I should like to do so, if you will be so very kind as to make it possible."

He nodded.

"Eleven o'clock tomorrow. He's in Marbury jail, as I expect you know. There isn't very much you don't know---is there? And whilst you are there, see if you can get him to talk. Not about the crime of course---that wouldn't be proper now he's been charged---but the War Office is pestering us about this invention of Mr. Harsch's in which they were interested. Harsch made a will leaving everything to Madoc, and that includes all the notes about his experiments, and this invention, whatever it is. They say the whole thing was practically completed and they want it badly. Madoc won't play because he's a pacifist. They don't know whether they can get the will set aside or not, but meanwhile they are in a regular stew about Harsch's papers, because if he was murdered for them, they won't just be left kicking about. Mind you, I'm not saying that's why he was murdered. Our case was against Madoc, and the motive there would have been jealousy, but this Sir George Rendal is very hot on its being the work of an enemy agent, and he's like a cat on hot bricks about those papers. Madoc, he won't play---just says they were left to him and they're his affair."

"So I understand from Major Albany."

"Well, you try and get Madoc to say what he's done with them. Between ourselves, we've put on two men from the Special Branch just to see there isn't a convenient burglary up at Prior's End."

Miss Silver coughed.

"You said just now that your case was against Mr. Madoc. Did you use the past tense advisedly?"

Lamb had seated himself in the Rector's old chair, which was of very comfortable proportions for a man of his size and weight. There was a shade of reluctance in his expression as he looked across at Miss Silver busily knitting a khaki sock for her second cousin Ellen Brownlee's son in the Buffs. The Air Force pair, duly completed, now reposed upstairs in the left-hand top drawer of Miss Fell's spare bedroom, waiting for the address which she had asked her niece Ethel to send on to her as soon as possible. The needles clicked, the ball of khaki wool revolved. Miss Silver sustained that reluctant look with a pleasant, deprecating smile.

Lamb cleared his throat.

"As a matter of fact, this man Ezra Pincott's death---well, it's a complication, there's no doubt about that. I'll give you what we've got. If you can see where it fits in, I can't."

Miss Silver coughed.

"You mean, Inspector, that it does not fit in with your case against Mr. Madoc?"

Frank Abbott, sitting up at the writing-table with his notebook ready, chose this moment to lean upon his elbow and slide a hand across his mouth. Behind this screen he relaxed into an appreciative smile. Lamb said stolidly.

"I'm not saying that one way or the other. I'm giving you the facts."

Miss Silver said brightly, "Unfaith in aught is want of faith in all. It is the little rift within the lute That by and by will make the music mute And ever widening, slowly silence all." She coughed and added, "Dear Lord Tennyson---and how true!"

Sergeant Abbott gave himself up to reverent enjoyment. His Chief Inspector's response was all that he could have hoped.

"If that's poetry, I'm not much of a hand at it. And as to being true, it sounds to me like throwing away an apple because it's got a speck on it."

Miss Silver smiled.

"What a good illustration! I fear I interrupted you. You were going to tell me about Ezra Pincott. Pray continue."

"Well, there it is. The police surgeon's done the post mortem, and the man was drowned."

Miss Silver knitted.

"I think there was something more than that."

Lamb gave a grunt.

"He was found face down in a foot of water. He was drowned. What more do you want?"

"A shocking fatality. But there is something more, or you would not be concerned about it."

Lamb shifted in his chair.

"Well, if you must know, he'd been hit. Bruise behind the ear. He didn't get that falling on his face into water."

Miss Silver said, "Dear me!"

"He went in alive, but he'd been hit first. He'd had a good deal of liquor---some of it was brandy. Now he didn't get brandy at the Bull. Beer was what he drank there, and by all accounts he could put away more than most before he was what you could call drunk. One of your steady day in day out topers, but they tell me nobody's ever seen him incapable or in any way unable to get himself home. And he didn't have that brandy at the Bull."

"Where did he have it?"

"I'd be glad if someone would tell me that. Well, there you are. You sent me a message yesterday to say he was boasting that he knew something that would put money in his pocket, and you thought someone ought to keep an eye on him. I'm sorry I didn't take you at your word and put a man on to him then and there. I didn't think there was all that hurry. Abbott was coming down here today, and I left it over till then. Seems I was wrong, but it's no good crying over spilt milk. The man's dead, and I'm going to find out how he died, whether it knocks the case against Madoc endways or not."

Miss Silver gazed at him approvingly.

"That is just what I would expect from you, Inspector."

He said rather gruffly, "It sounds as if he was planning to blackmail someone. I've had a word with the landlord of the Bull, and he says Ezra always talked big when he'd had a few, but he'd been talking bigger than usual. I asked him if Mr. Harsch's name was mentioned, and he said it was. Just that---and he'd got something that would put money in his pocket if someone knew which side their bread was buttered. The landlord said he didn't take it at all seriously. But there you have it---the man boasted of what he knew. Now after that somebody gave him brandy, somebody hit him and he drowned in a foot of water. No evidence to say how he got there, but he may have been put. The place he was found was out of his way if he was going home. There's one thing more---the sort of thing that mayn't mean much, or then again it may---I haven't had time to think it out. Frank there can tell you about it---it's his pigeon."

Abbott took his hand away from his mouth and sat up.

"It's just that I had a look at his boots," he said. "There was a speck or two of dry gravel on them."

Miss Silver looked at him with extreme interest.

"Dear me!"

Rightly considering this to be a tribute, he continued.

"You know how sloppy the village street is. Even in the warm dry weather we've been having it's damp, and between the Bull and the place where this fellow was found there's a dip in the road which is more or less of a quagmire. The only gravel anywhere about is on the drives of the houses round the Green and on the paths in the churchyard. If Ezra got gravel on his boots from any of those places, it couldn't possibly have been dry and clean by the time he got to the place where he was drowned---if he walked there."

"That is very interesting indeed," said Miss Silver.

"His boots were muddy all right---that's how the gravel stuck. But once it got there it stayed clean. It wasn't walked on---not to that miry place where he was found. I say he was given a tot of brandy and knocked out. Then he was taken down to the stream and put into it. It could have been done with a hand-cart or a wheel-barrow. Unfortunately the place has been so trampled over that there isn't much to go by. I should think everybody in the village has been out to have a look. Anyhow all the traffic there is goes along that road, so there isn't much chance of picking out a single track."

"The churchyard----" said Miss Silver slowly. "That is very interesting. Yes---of course---there are gravel paths in the churchyard. And that reminds me that I have some information for you. The first item takes us a little away from our present subject, but it is so important that I feel you should have it without delay. You will, I am afraid, be unable to call Miss Brown as a witness in any possible case against Mr. Madoc."

Lamb stared.

"Indeed?"

The needles clicked, the khaki sock revolved.

"I had a conversation with her this afternoon, and she informed me that she married Mr. Madoc on June 17th five years ago, at Marylebone Register Office."

Frank Abbott said, "That's torn it!"

His Chief Inspector turned a deep plum colour.

"Well, if that doesn't beat the band!" he said in an exasperated tone.

Miss Silver coughed.

"I felt that you should be informed immediately. But let us return to Ezra Pincott. Without wishing to link my second item of information with his death, I cannot but feel that it has a certain relevance in view of the fact that the churchyard paths are gravelled. I have discovered a witness, a young girl by the name of Gladys Brewer, who was in the churchyard round about ten o'clock on the night of Mr. Harsch's death. Her companion was a lad of the name of Sam Bowlby. I have not interrogated him, but Gladys says they saw the sexton, Bush, come out of the church at a little before ten."

The Chief Inspector's eyes bolted.

"She saw him come out of the church?"

Miss Silver inclined her head.

"She says he came out, locked the door behind him, and went off in a hurry round the building in the direction of the gate which opens upon the village street."

"Miss Silver!"

She inclined her head again.

"Yes, I know. It makes a very considerable difference, does it not?"

"Bush came out of the church before ten o'clock?"

"A few minutes before the clock struck. We must allow time for him to lock the door, skirt the church, and be out of sight before the clock struck. Gladys and her friend were sitting on the flat stone of Mr. Doncaster's grave right up against the Rectory wall. They were immediately opposite the side door of the church, and it was bright moonlight. They could see perfectly, but were screened themselves by the branches of a copper beech which overhangs the wall at this spot."

Lamb was leaning forward, his big body tilted, his eyes more like bullseyes than ever.

"You think she's reliable, this girl? She's not having us on---or working off a grudge against Bush? If she's in the way of going into the churchyard with her boy friends at night she might have had the rough side of his tongue---see?"

Miss Silver coughed.

"I do not think so. I believe that she was telling the truth. I arrived at the point in a somewhat oblique manner, and it was only when pressed for every detail of what she had seen on Tuesday night that the facts emerged. She was impatient to be gone to the pictures with Sam Bowlby, and she had, I am sure, no idea that what she told me was of any importance whatever. She said at the end, 'I told you it wasn't nothing, any of it,' and went off without a thought in her head except about her boy and the film they were going to see."

Lamb took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly.

"Well, I'll take your word for that. But what a mix-up! Bush came out of the church before ten. He was in it not so very long after the shot was fired. If he hasn't got an alibi to cover the time, there's nothing to say he didn't fire that shot himself. He was seen coming out. If he wasn't seen going in, well . . . And there's another thing. If that girl's telling the truth and she saw him lock the door, then all that business about the keys goes west---there's nothing to show that the door was locked at all before Bush locked it. The fact that Madoc had a key isn't nearly so important as it was."

Miss Silver said, "Exactly. The theory that Mr. Harsch committed suicide was based on the fact that he was found behind locked doors with his own key in his pocket. The case against Mr. Madoc was based upon the discovery that he had come into possession of Miss Brown's key after a jealous scene with her, and about a quarter of an hour before the shot was fired. But since it now appears that the door behind which Mr. Harsch's body was found was neither locked by his own key nor by the one in Mr. Madoc's possession, but by Bush, it seems to me that the case against Mr. Madoc is very much weakened. When it is further considered that there is evidence that Ezra Pincott was murdered last night, the case would seem to be very weak indeed, since Mr. Madoc could have had no hand in this murder."

Lamb hoisted himself out of his chair.

"Well," he said, "I won't say yes, and I won't say no. But this man Bush has certainly got something to explain. We'll have to see him and ask him what about it."

Half way to the door he turned back.

"You haven't got a motive to hand us, I suppose? Respectable sextons don't go about murdering organists as a rule. You've got to have a motive, you know. Juries are funny that way."

Miss Silver drew herself up. It was the slightest, most ladylike of gestures, but it certainly conveyed to Sergeant Abbott, if not to his superior officer, that the Chief Inspector had allowed a perhaps natural exasperation to impair the courtesy due to a gentlewoman. There was a faint chill upon her voice as she said, "There is a possible motive, and I feel it my duty to acquaint you with it. Bush, though born a British subject, is of German origin. His parents settled in this country. The name was Busch, spelt in the German manner with an sch, the English spelling being adopted during the last war. Miss Fell informs me that a short time previously this man Frederick Bush, who was then about seventeen years of age, was approached by enemy agents who endeavoured to persuade him to obtain information for them. He was at that time under footman in a house where the conversation at the dinner table might have been of considerable value. I must hasten to add that he immediately refused, and that he acquainted Miss Fell's step-father, who was then Rector of Bourne, with the particulars."

Lamb pursed up his mouth and whistled.

"Well!" he said. Then with an abrupt movement he turned to the door again. "Oh, come along, Frank---come along before she tells us anything more! I've got as much as I can get through with for to-day."

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