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6: A Question of Insurance

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« on: November 09, 2023, 07:18:27 am »

MALLETT’S PRESENCE at Marsett Bay and the matters that had brought him there did, as Pettigrew had said, add a new interest to his life at the Control, but for the next ten days after the encounter at the Gamecock he had little leisure to reflect upon it. A sudden spate of work descended on the legal adviser, which necessitated long and ever longer hours at the office, culminating in a flying visit to London where the question of the new amendments was threshed out at what in political circles are known as “the highest levels”. During this period he caught an occasional glimpse of Mallett in the streets of the town and once in the Controller’s office, which he happened to be entering just as the inspector was leaving. At all these encounters Mallett passed him by with no more than the slightest nod of recognition. Pettigrew understood without being told that he did not desire to have any undue attention called to himself in public. On his side, in spite of his vague promise of assistance, Pettigrew had no particular wish to interest himself in whatever skulduggery the inspector was investigating, even if he had the time to do so. It would certainly be dull and probably tiresome, he reflected. “Not my pigeon,” he repeated thankfully to himself, and plunged to work again.

At last, little by little, the pressure eased. The files of papers began to dwindle, swollen no longer by the reinforcements that for days past had overflowed his “In” tray. The telephone remained silent for hours together. Soon he was able to look across his desk to where Miss Brown, rather pale but unshaken by the crisis, patiently took down his interminable memoranda. Then a day came when, quite suddenly, it seemed, there was nothing left to do. The last draft was approved, the last letter signed, the last minute added to the last file. And Miss Brown, conscientious to the last, was positively saying, “Is there anything else you want me to do to-day, Mr. Pettigrew?”

Pettigrew yawned, stretched himself and cast incredulous eyes at his empty tray.

“Nothing,” he said. “Absolutely nothing. There are moments when I feel that ‘nothing’ is the most beautiful word in the language, and this is certainly one of them. There’s at least an hour to go before we can decently leave the office and it looks like being one hour of complete and blessed idleness. I suppose, being young and strong, you have some knitting in your bag to occupy you. Personally, I propose to spend the time in meditation on the beauty of nothingness. Will you be good enough to wake me up at, say, half-past five?”

Pettigrew became aware that Miss Brown had not paid the least attention to what he had been saying. She was looking at her feet, clutching her writing pad firmly in one hand, and there was a slight flush on her cheeks.

“Is anything the matter?” he asked.

She lifted her head and her brilliant blue eyes looked straight into his.

“Do you mind if I ask you something, Mr. Pettigrew?”

“No, of course not. Fire ahead.”

The question, when it came, surprised him.

“Do you know anything about insurance, Mr. Pettigrew?”

“Insurance? Well, I suppose so, although I’m no expert. But what kind of insurance do you mean? Fire, accident, marine, employer’s liability?”

“I meant, insuring one’s life. Do you think it’s a good thing to do?”

“A very sensible, prudent thing to do, if one has any dependents to consider. Of course, it’s impossible to advise unless one knows all the circumstances, but I should hardly have thought that you---I mean, I don’t want to pry into your personal affairs, but----”

Miss Brown’s gaze had wandered down to her shoes again.

“I have a little money of my own,” she murmured. “I could afford the premium quite well for, say, a thousand pounds. I’ve got some papers here which the company sent me, if you wouldn’t mind looking at them.”

“Certainly I will, if you wish. But that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. I meant, a single woman doesn’t usually----” He found it strangely difficult to put it into words. “Are you---are you proposing to get married, Miss Brown?”

Completely calm, Miss Brown replied, “I’m not quite sure yet, but I think I am.”

Really, Pettigrew thought, this young woman is uncannily matter of fact. It’s not natural.

“I should have thought,” he said in a tone which he could not prevent sounding a little peevish, “that it was rather more important to decide whether to get married than whether to get insured. Aren’t you putting the cart before the horse?”

Miss Brown smiled cheerfully. “I suppose I am, really,” she said. “Only the two things seem to hang together, somehow, and I thought you could give me some advice about insurance----”

“Whereas my advice on the other matter would not be worth listening to? I expect you are perfectly right there.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean that!”

“None the less, you had a perfect right to mean it. It would be an impertinence on my part to give an opinion where it was not asked for. But since we have gone so far, perhaps you wouldn’t mind telling me who it is you are thinking of marrying. Should I be right in guessing that it was Mr. Phillips?”

“Yes.”

“I needn’t ask if he wants to marry you. Any doubt in the matter comes from your side.”

“Yes.”

“Well,” Pettigrew went on, beginning to be anxious to bring this embarrassing colloquy to an end, “you will have to make up your own mind whether or not you love him.”

“Oh, but I know I don’t love him,” Miss Brown replied as calmly as ever.

“Then why on earth----?”

“It’s rather difficult to explain, really,” she said, sitting down and regarding her writing pad as though to get inspiration from it. “You see, ever since Father died I’ve been alone, and I’m not used to it. And I’m not at all good with young men, at least the only young men I’ve met. And Mr. Phillips is very kind and---and sensible about things, and I know I could make him happy. I think it would be quite a good plan, really. Honoria---Miss Danville thinks so too.”

“Miss Danville!”

Miss Brown nodded. “She’s very keen on it,” she added.

“But my dear girl, you’re surely not going to tell me that you are depending on Miss Danville’s advice in a matter of this kind?” Remembering what had occurred the last time Miss Danville’s name had come up between them, he hastened to add, “I don’t mean that I have anything against her, of course, please don’t think that. But surely, a woman who has never even been married herself----”

“That’s just it,” was the reply. “She knows what it is not to be married. I don’t want to grow up to be like Miss Danville.”

Pettigrew passed his hands through his hair in despair.

“Of all the arguments for matrimony!” he groaned. “Anyway, why should you grow up to be like Miss Danville? You might equally well turn into something like Miss Clarke.”

“Do you think that would be any better?” she retorted, and their joint laughter relieved the tension.

“By the way,” Pettigrew observed a moment later, “was it on Miss Danville’s advice that you thought of insuring your life?”

“Oh, no. That was Mr. Phillips’s idea, entirely.”

“I see. . . . Before you had even accepted him?”

“I’m afraid I rather let him take things for granted,” she replied demurely.

Pettigrew made no reply. His nose wrinkled in thought, he was idly drawing circles on his blotter. After a pause, Miss Brown got up.

“You haven’t told me yet,” she said reproachfully, “what you think about my insuring myself.”

“Haven’t I? We seem to have discussed so many things that I quite forgot where we began. Well, I’ll look through these papers of yours and tell you what I think about them. As for the question of principle, I absolutely decline to say anything until you and Miss Danville have settled your matrimonial future between you.”

“Very good, Mr. Pettigrew.”

The remainder of the hour’s idleness was spent in meditations rather less peaceful than those that Pettigrew had promised himself.

“This is nothing to do with me,” he told himself again and again. “Absolutely nothing. If this young woman chooses to make a fool of herself, it is her affair, exclusively and entirely. Merely because she happens to be thrown in my way, I absolutely refuse to let myself be jockeyed into the position of father confessor.”

Nobody, it occurred to him at this point, had asked him to act as father confessor---least of all Miss Brown herself. She preferred the counsel of Miss Danville---a fact that simultaneously amused and irritated him. All she had asked him to do was to look at a proposal form for a policy of insurance. Well, why not do just that? It was a perfectly sound company, and it would take him just five minutes to glance through it and assure her that it was all in order. After that, he had no further concern in the matter. The obvious, practical, common-sense thing to do then was to wash his hands of the whole affair, let her insure her life---a prudent action, had he not just told her?---marry Phillips, and----

And what, exactly? Live happily ever after? He was not concerned in his secretary’s happiness. Pettigrew tried to bring himself to face the problem like a rider forcing a balking horse to face an ugly fence. It wasn’t a question of her living happily, it was a question, purely and simply, of her living at all. All his former suspicions of Phillips returned to him with a rush. He was a widower all right, he had established that, but what sort of a widower? A widower who had inherited some property from his wife, and who, when he thought of marrying again, looked round for a young girl, also with property of her own, entirely alone, and, as a first step towards matrimony, suggested that she should insure her life for a thousand pounds! Nobody with any knowledge of the world could fail to see the possible implications of such a situation. Could anybody, seeing them, be content to stand by and do nothing?

“Hell!” Pettigrew exclaimed aloud. This was precisely the set of circumstances that he would instinctively seek to avoid, with which he felt utterly incompetent to deal. All his working life had been spent in resolving other people’s problems, but they had been the problems of strangers, dealt with at arm’s length through the medium of a solicitor, and considered in the quiet, dust-laden atmosphere of the Temple, where matters of life and death, fortune and bankruptcy resolved themselves into carefully phrased opinions and the comparison of reported cases. It had not taught him what to do when he found himself confronted with a girl walking blindfold into what might be mortal danger. He felt deeply aggrieved that fate should have set such a burden on his shoulders, but he saw now that he could no longer simply pretend that the burden wasn’t there.

He considered, and dismissed, the idea of speaking to Inspector Mallett. It would be a waste of time, he reflected, at this stage to consult the police with so little to go upon. After all, it was no crime to want to marry a woman much younger than yourself, and if you chose to suggest to her that she should take out a policy of insurance on her life, what affair was that of Scotland Yard’s? If there were any evidence of the first Mrs. Phillips having died anything but a natural death, why should not Mallett, who had obviously made a close study of the antecedents of all the Control’s employees, have mentioned it? That did not conclude the matter, of course. How many women had George Joseph Smith married before anyone became suspicious of all his bathroom misadventures? Once put upon inquiry, though, it wasn’t so difficult to reveal the whole damning series of deaths. If he could prove that Phillips’s first marriage bore a suspicious likeness to the one he was now proposing, there would at least be a case worth propounding to Mallett.

He sat for a few moments, his nose wrinkled completely out of shape, then seized his pen and dashed off a letter to his old chambers in the Temple.

“Dear Bill,” he wrote, “I am sorry to bother you again, but please treat this as urgent. Ask no questions, and don’t think me mad, but just do as I say. Ascertain as soon as you can (a) how much the late Mrs. Phillips left; (b) whether her husband was sole beneficiary; (c) how much of the estate was represented by an insurance policy, and (d)---this is important---when the policy was taken out. I don’t care how you find this out, whether by blackmailing old Tillotson, or by going to Somerset House (if that’s where they keep wills in war-time) but I must know. The policy will probably have been with the Empyrean, if that’s any help to you.

“Yours urgently,

“Frank.

“P.S. This is not a joke.”

He had written the address and was just sealing the envelope when Miss Brown knocked at his door.

“It is half-past five, Mr. Pettigrew,” she said. Then, almost coyly, she added, “How were the meditations?”

“Very enlightening,” Pettigrew replied grimly.

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