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9: The Balloon Goes Up

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Author Topic: 9: The Balloon Goes Up  (Read 4 times)
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« on: November 09, 2023, 09:11:49 am »

ALTHOUGH MISS Brown confronted him next morning with unruffled calm, it was with some relief that Pettigrew heard her announce that she had been granted three days’ leave and would be catching the afternoon train for London that day. He politely wished her an enjoyable holiday, and in answer to her apologies for the short notice assured her that in the present state of the legal adviser’s work her absence would not cause him any undue inconvenience.

“I congratulate you on getting even such a small instalment of freedom,” he said. “The Establishment Officer brutally told me that I am not entitled to any leave this side of Christmas.”

“Neither am I, really,” Miss Brown told him. “I got him to give me this as a special concession.”

“Oh, yes?”

Pettigrew felt he had had quite enough of Miss Brown’s private affairs, and was determined not to ask her by what plea she had managed to soften the heart of authority; but she continued, “I didn’t like to bother you, Mr. Pettigrew, but I got particulars from those other insurance people you mentioned, and Tom and I agreed that the Empyrean terms suited me best.”

Tom? Oh, of course, that was Phillips’s name. Funny he had never heard her call him that before.

“They want a medical examination, so I persuaded the Establishment Officer to advance me leave to go up for it.”

“I must say that was very clever of you. The Establishment Officer always sounds such a solid piece of work, but you seem to have found a soft spot in the structure somewhere. A bit of the cement that hadn’t set properly, or something. Well, when do we meet again? Let me see, to-day’s Tuesday. Your leave runs from Wednesday, I suppose. That carries you on to Saturday. I shall expect you on Monday, then, to tidy up the messes I shall make between now and then.”

Miss Brown shook her head.

“My leave runs from midday to-day,” she said. “Strictly, I ought to be back in the office by noon on Friday. I’ve been allowed to stay away till Friday night, but I must be working again on Saturday morning.”

“Monstrous!” said Pettigrew. “I take back what I said about the soft spot. The man must be ferro-concrete right through.”

“It doesn’t matter much to me,” answered Miss Brown. “Besides the examination, there’s only a little shopping I want to get done and I can fit it in quite easily. I shall be glad of the extra day’s leave later on, I expect.”

It suddenly occurred to Pettigrew what the object of the little shopping was, and the purpose to which the extra day’s leave would be devoted later on. For some reason, the idea of her going off alone to insure her life and buy her meagre war-time trousseau preparatory to spending the balance of her leave on a honeymoon with Phillips struck him as pathetic. But there was nothing he could do about it, except to disguise from her the fact that she was an object of sympathy.

“Well,” he said, “at least there’s no reason why you should waste any more time in the office this morning. No, don’t tell me that it isn’t midday yet. There’s nothing to be done that can’t very well wait till you get back.”

“I was going to index the Board of Trade memoranda on Colonial Preference,” Miss Brown began doubtfully, but he cut her short.

“My dear girl, if the expression was not slightly blasphemous in this place, I should say that I don’t care two pins for the Board of Trade memoranda. Be off with you. Get some sandwiches at the Black Market café in Bridge Street and be at the station in good time. Then you may get a seat, if the ruffians from the Contract Ministry haven’t filled the train up at Greenlake.”

And having got rid of his secretary with a greater sense of relief than he would ever have thought possible, he settled down to a quiet morning’s study of the delinquencies of the firm of Blenkinsop.

On the whole, the period of Miss Brown’s absence passed better for Pettigrew than he had expected. Only once did he try the experiment of sending through to the pool for a shorthand writer. His call produced a smart young person with a pretty face. Pettigrew could not place her, but she vaguely reminded him of some unpleasant incident in the past that was only just over the borders of his memory. He remembered what it was the instant that she left the room; for outside his door he heard the vulgar, confident voice of Rickaby, complaining that he had been waiting there ten minutes to take her to lunch.

He felt that it only wanted Rickaby to make his corridor, which he had once thought so sequestered, the resort of all the imbeciles in the Control. Thereafter, he abjured any substitute for Miss Brown and contented himself with compiling sheets of scrawled manuscript for her to decipher on her return. The telephone gave him less trouble. To any caller who sounded tiresome he ejaculated gruffly, and truthfully, “Mr. Pettigrew’s secretary is out. Is there any message?” Very few people, he was gratified to note, cared to entrust their messages to a mere secretary’s deputy, and a surly one at that.

Life at the Fernlea, too, seemed to have become for the time being distinctly more civilized. On Tuesday night, Wood dined out with friends, with the result that the Plot, deprived of its arch-plotter, failed to establish itself against the rival attraction of the Brains Trust. Later, Edelman, who had (in his own words) been goaded into it, treated the company to a brilliant and perverse onslaught on every kind of social and political reform. His display of verbal pyrotechnics was cut short by the belated entrance of Mrs. Hopkinson, slightly drunk. Unlike any other woman Pettigrew had ever met, she was distinctly the better for being in liquor. Her unbridled cheerfulness communicated itself to the others and before they quite knew how it had happened, they were all sitting down playing Racing Demon with ferocious abandon. The game went on till long past the usual decorous Fernlea hours and broke up at last with Phillips a pronounced winner. The next evening, Miss Clarke and the Merry Widow went to the cinema, while Rickaby took himself off to the White Hart. The four remaining men played an amicable rubber of bridge, with cards slightly creased by the orgy of the preceding night, leaving Miss Danville in peaceful contemplation of her devotional book. As he went up to bed afterwards, Pettigrew reflected that he had enjoyed the last two evenings more than any others since he had been at Marsett Bay. Chronic ill luck had made him something of a pessimist, and he found himself wondering whether this was not altogether too good to last.

It was. On Thursday it was evident at dinner that Miss Clarke had had a bad day at the office. She had come into violent collision with the Assistant Controller, and was now disposed to work off her bad temper on anyone within reach. The atmosphere in the lounge afterwards was sultry. Mrs. Hopkinson appeared as usual, but on this occasion she was not only completely sober but also entirely lacking in her usual bonhomie. Pettigrew, who had some experience in such matters, judged her to be suffering from a delayed hangover. For once, she seemed disposed to carry over beyond office hours some dreary argument that had arisen during the day, and she and Miss Clarke bickered at length and with acrimony. Presently Phillips announced his intention of going upstairs to do some work and left the room. Scarcely was the door shut behind him before Mrs. Hopkinson and Miss Clarke joined forces in abusing him. Their attack was upon lines that were to Pettigrew painfully familiar. Phillips was a sly designing brute, who had got that poor silly Brown girl into his clutches. It was a scandal that ought to be stopped, and a great pity that there was nobody to warn her of what she was doing. And so on.

Miss Danville, who was normally far too nervous of Miss Clarke to intervene in any discussion to which she was a party, here plucked up courage to defend Phillips. She thought he was an extremely nice, considerate, affectionate man, and Miss Brown was fortunate to have won the affection of anyone so worthy. At this, Miss Clarke merely sniffed and indicated that Miss Danville’s opinion of Mr. Phillips or anyone else carried no weight with her. Mrs. Hopkinson, on the other hand, suddenly launched into a violent assault on the hapless Miss Danville. It was she, as everyone knew, who was responsible for the state of affairs, she who for some dark reasons of her own was trying to drive an ignorant girl into the arms of a man who was no better than a Mormon.

“How can you say such things?” Miss Danville protested, pale and shaken.

“A Mormon!” repeated Mrs. Hopkinson. “That’s what he is! Calls himself a widower, indeed! That’s what they all do! I know for a fact that he has a wife living---yes, and three kids too, poor deserted mites. He means to be the ruin of that girl and you will be the one that’s responsible!”

“It’s not true! It’s not true!” cried Miss Danville, by now almost in tears.

The altercation, which had begun in one corner of the room with angry sotto voce splutters and hisses, had by this time become loud enough to attract the attention of the other occupants of the lounge. Pettigrew, who had been trying to write a letter at the further end, heard Mrs. Hopkinson’s last assertion and felt that it was time to intervene.

“You really mustn’t say things like that,” he said sternly, coming over to the warring ladies. “If you start making accusations of that kind, Mrs. Hopkinson, you may find yourself in very serious trouble.”

“It’s perfectly true,” Mrs. Hopkinson persisted.

“Indeed? Perhaps you’ll tell me what evidence you have to support it?”

“Everybody knows it,” said Mrs. Hopkinson sullenly. “It’s no good talking that lawyer’s language about evidence.”

“I am going to talk some more lawyer’s language to you,” Pettigrew replied sternly, “and I hope for your sake you will understand it. You have just accused Mr. Phillips of attempting to commit bigamy---a very grave criminal offence. If anyone chooses to repeat to him what you have said, you may be sued for slander and ordered to pay damages which would ruin you for life. Do I make myself clear?”

The effect on Mrs. Hopkinson was gratifying. She turned extremely red, muttered something which Pettigrew could not catch and finally joined Miss Clarke, who had retreated to the other side of the room. It was an easy triumph, but Pettigrew could not but feel a qualm as he reflected that she had after all done little more than put into words with a few picturesque trimmings the very thoughts which he had himself been entertaining only a short time before.

“It isn’t true, Mr. Pettigrew! Tell me it isn’t true!”

Miss Danville’s plaintive voice recalled him to his surroundings. She was thoroughly upset, her large, dark eyes brimming with tears and her hands fumbling uncertainly in her bag for a handkerchief.

“No,” said Pettigrew kindly, sitting down beside her on the sofa. “It isn’t true. Why should it be? Don’t think of it again.”

But she was not so readily to be comforted.

“It’s easy to say that,” she wailed, “but you don’t know. There’s no smoke without fire, and if it wasn’t true, why should Mrs. Hopkinson----”

“I have no idea why Mrs. Hopkinson should have behaved as she did, except that she was in a mood for making mischief. As for there being no smoke without fire, I think it is the silliest proverb ever invented. It is the tale-bearer’s charter. Every credulous gossip-monger trots it out as an excuse----”

He realized that he was wasting his breath. Miss Danville was beyond the reach of argument. An idea had been lodged in her crazy brain and mere reason could not remove it. Basely, Pettigrew tried another way.

“It is very un-Christian to harbour such suspicions about another,” he said.

Miss Danville’s face lighted up.

“Yes!” she murmured. “I shall pray---I shall pray. . . . But oh!” she went on, turning towards him, “if I could only have some positive assurance that I had not done a dreadful wrong to that poor girl! If someone could only tell me that they know it isn’t true!”

“I can tell you,” Pettigrew said solemnly. “I know that it isn’t true.”

“You know?”

“I know for a fact that Mr. Phillips is a widower. You can set your mind at rest about that.”

“Thank you, thank you, Mr. Pettigrew!” Then her face clouded again with doubt. “You’re not just saying this to comfort me?” she asked piteously. “You have---what was the expression you used just now?---you have evidence of it?”

“Yes, I have evidence.”

She sighed with relief. Then she laid her hand on his arm and murmured. “Please forgive me, but I have been so upset. If it isn’t too much to ask, may I see your evidence? Then I shan’t need ever to worry about this again.”

Pettigrew hesitated for a moment, but his sympathy with Miss Danville was too strong to be denied. At all costs, he felt, he must kill this dangerous slander. Besides, to be called as a witness in an action for defamation was the very last thing he desired. It was worth risking a breach of confidence to avoid it. His private papers were in a little attaché case which he had left by the writing-table. He fetched it, took from it the copy of Tillotson’s letter and handed it to her.

“Here is your evidence,” he said. It was fortunate, he felt, that Miss Danville would not be likely to inquire how it came into his hands and still less likely to make nice distinctions between the evidential value of a copy letter and an original.

Miss Danville read the letter slowly, her lips forming the words as she did so. In her overwrought state, Pettigrew was prepared for her to shew some emotion at finding the grotesque charge against Phillips disproved in black and white; but the effect was more violent than he had expected. At the first sentence of the letter she broke into a radiant smile, but by the time she had reached the end of the paragraph she was in floods of tears.

Pettigrew, not for the first time since he had come to Marsett Bay, felt horribly embarrassed. He could find no words to comfort her. After all, he had already provided the comfort, and if the result was this outpouring, there was nothing he could do except to wait and hope that she would soon stop crying and behave sensibly. If only Miss Brown had been there! She could handle Miss Danville as nobody else could, or cared to do. But then, if she had been there, it was tolerably certain that this wretched situation would never have arisen at all.

Miss Danville solved the problem, not by stopping crying, but by leaving the room, mopping her eyes with a sodden handkerchief as she went. Pettigrew hastily recovered his “evidence” to put it away. At that moment Mrs. Hopkinson, who must have been watching him from across the room, came over to him. Pettigrew looked at her sourly, but she seemed determined to make an effort at appeasement.

“Sorry about all this shemozzle,” she said. “Just when we’d been getting a bit matey, too. My fault, but I do get het up about things sometimes. I’ve got a wicked tongue, I know, but I’m like that.”

Pettigrew felt too disgusted with her to say anything. He put the letter away in his attaché case and closed the lock with a vicious snap. But Mrs. Hopkinson was not to be denied.

“You’re such a sport, Mr. Pettigrew,” she pleaded. “You won’t tell on me to Mr. Phillips, will you? I should just hate to be prosecuted for thousands of pounds damages---even if I had them. What a hope!” she added with a giggle.

“I propose to forget all about this incident as soon as I can, and I advise you to do the same,” said Pettigrew stiffly.

“There! I knew you’d be a sport. Well, that’s a load off my little chest, anyway---but, ooh! I was forgetting! What about Miss Danville? D’you think she’ll split on me?”

“Naturally, I can’t answer for Miss Danville.”

“That old looney would say anything,” said Mrs. Hopkinson peevishly. “Look at the state she was in just now---laughing and crying all at once.”

“You have yourself to thank for that, Mrs. Hopkinson.”

Mrs. Hopkinson chose to be indignant in her turn.

“I like that!” she exclaimed. “Why, it was you that set her off. I saw you. Showing her letters and things!”

Pettigrew had striven to keep cool, but this was too much for his self-control.

“This conversation has gone on quite long enough,” he said. “I am not going to stand here to be accused by you. After you had thoroughly upset Miss Danville with your wild talk, I had to do my best to undo the mischief. As for the letter I gave her to read, it may interest you to know that it was from the late Mrs. Phillips’s solicitor, confirming the fact of her death.”

He was sorry to have had to say so much, but he felt it was worth it to see Mrs. Hopkinson’s face.

“Crikey!” she exclaimed. “I am in a mess, aren’t I? She’s bound to tell him, or that Brown girl, which is all the same thing. What d’you think I’d best do, Mr. Pettigrew?”

“I really cannot advise you. If you’ve got yourself into trouble by your intemperate language, you must get out of it as best you can.”

“That’s right!” Mrs. Hopkinson snapped back. “Kick a girl when she’s down! Isn’t that a man all over? Anyhow,” she went on, “I know what I shall do without any of your advising, thank you! The very next chance I get, I’m going to tell Mr. Phillips the whole story and ask his pardon before either of those women can get at him. He won’t have the face to do anything to me after that.”

Pettigrew felt extremely doubtful of the wisdom of such a course, but in face of what he had just said, he could hardly express an opinion. He therefore watched in silence while Mrs. Hopkinson retired to the other end of the room and, after some hesitation, joined the little circle round the fire.

Here meanwhile, apparently too engrossed in their own concerns to have taken more than a passing interest in what was going on elsewhere, Edelman and Miss Clarke were listening with close attention to Wood, who was evidently winding up an exposition of the Plot.

“So I think the whole thing is fairly cut and dried,” he was saying.

It was curious, Pettigrew noticed, how confident and authoritative he was, now that he was dealing with his own subject, in contrast to the modesty which he had displayed when the question of his literary activities was first broached.

“Here’s a plan of the scene of the crime,” he was saying. “Only rough, I’m afraid, but it gives one an idea. And here’s a time-table of the movements of all the suspects. There’s an alibi for everyone, of course---or looks as if there was, at first sight. The only one I haven’t quite worked out is Rickaby, but I’m proposing----”

“Must we have Mr. Rickaby in?” asked Miss Clarke. “He does seem to me such an undesirable person in every way.”

“But we agreed to that, Miss Clarke, don’t you remember? Besides, we really need him. Now what I suggest for Rickaby is----”

“Who’s taking my name in vain?” asked Rickaby, coming in at that moment. He had been drinking, and unlike Mrs. Hopkinson, was not improved by the process. “Who’s---- Oh, the Plot, I see! Now look here, fellows, I’ve just had a simply smashing idea. Came to me in the White Hart, and I simply careered all the way back to tell you. Listen. It really will simply knock you endways, I promise you. Honestly it will. Listen, I say. Why shouldn’t old Pettigrew do this murder of ours? Pettigrew. He’s the man. We’ve been leaving you out all this time, Pettigrew, and I say it’s a shame. He’s the man. Deep and sly and---and deep and everything. He’s just----”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Rickaby,” said Edelman curtly. “All this was settled weeks ago. The murder is to be committed by Miss Danville.”

“Oh! Miss Danville!” said Rickaby, as if he were hearing the name for the first time. “Well, if you say so---Miss Danville. Mind you, I still think my notion’s a dam’ good one, don’t you, Pettigrew? However, if you say so, I suppose it is so.”

“I think you had better go to bed, Mr. Rickaby,” said Miss Clarke in the trumpet tone usually reserved for the office.

“Perhaps I had,” said Rickaby meekly. When Miss Clarke spoke to anyone in her office voice, the person spoken to had to be a good deal more drunk or of more determined character than Rickaby not to obey. Nevertheless, he contrived to assume a certain swagger as he walked to the door. He flung it open, to find himself confronted by Miss Danville, who was just coming in.

“Ah, here she is!” he exclaimed with tipsy politeness. “We were just talking about you, Miss Danville!”

She paid no attention to him, but went across to where Pettigrew was standing. She was still pale, but her eyes were dry.

“Mr. Pettigrew, I’m afraid you’ll think I behaved very stupidly just now,” she began in a low, hurried voice. “After you had been so very kind to me. But I must----”

Rickaby, still standing with the door-knob in his hand, felt that he was being ignored; and he was not in a mood to be ignored.

“It’s no use your talking to old Pettigrew,” he interrupted. “He’s been turned down. I suggested him, but he’s been turned down. You’re the one who’s been chosen.”

“Chosen?” asked Miss Danville. “I don’t understand. Chosen for what?”

“To do the murder, of course!”

“Be quiet, you young fool!” said Pettigrew. But it was too late.

“Don’t you listen to him, Miss Danville,” Rickaby went on. “He’s only jealous because they wouldn’t have him. You’re to murder the Controller. It’s all settled. Wood’s arranged it. It’s written down in the Plot. You ought to be jolly grateful to old Wood.”

But it was evident that Miss Danville was anything but grateful. A deep flush began to spread over her cheeks and she was trembling.

“So you want me to kill a man?” she said slowly, in a loud, deep voice, totally unlike her own.

Pettigrew tried once more to save the situation.

“This is nothing but a joke,” he said. “A silly sort of story which these people have concocted----”

“A joke?” Miss Danville repeated, her voice rising several tones. “Do you men and women think death and the fear of death nothing but a joke? You”---she turned to Wood---“who make murder your pastime, and spend your days devising ever fresh means to take the lives of your fellow creatures---and you”---she looked at Edelman, who was sitting back in his chair regarding her with an air of dispassionate interest---“who tempted me and tried to send me to kill another woman, what have I done to you that you should persecute me? Oh, my God!” she screamed, “is it for this that I have prayed to Thee to deliver me from the valley of the shadow of death----”

“Miss Danville!” Only Miss Clarke’s voice could have possibly made itself heard at that moment. “Cease this nonsense at once! Are you mad?”

There was a moment’s absolute silence, and then a horrible thing happened. Miss Danville began to laugh. Hideously and uncontrollably she laughed, with the tears running down her cheeks, a wavering finger pointing in Miss Clarke’s direction.

“Perhaps I am,” she said at last. “Perhaps I am. After all, I only left Chalkwood Asylum seven years ago!”

She turned to go. Phillips, evidently attracted by the noise from below, had entered a moment or two before. Bewildered by what he saw and heard, he went towards her to assist her; but she pushed him away almost violently and ran from the room.

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