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10: The Whistling Kettle

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Author Topic: 10: The Whistling Kettle  (Read 6 times)
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« on: November 09, 2023, 09:54:55 am »

BREAKFAST NEXT morning at the Fernlea Residential Club was a more silent affair than usual, though, indeed, it was not ordinarily a talkative function. The scene of the night before had left a sense of guilt upon most of the participants. They munched and gulped stolidly, read their newspapers and avoided one another’s eyes. Miss Danville did not appear. Pettigrew ventured to ask Miss Clarke how she was, and was told that she had had a cup of tea sent up to her room, and thereafter locked her door.

“I spoke to her through the door,” Miss Clarke said. “She said she didn’t want anything. I invited her to apply for sick leave in the proper way, but she told me she felt much better and hoped to be at the office this morning. I’m sure I hope she will not. The position would be most awkward. I think that it is really my duty to speak to the Establishment Officer about her. If necessary, he must take the matter up with the Controller.”

Pettigrew murmured sympathetically. He appreciated Miss Clarke’s difficulties, but his real sympathy was for Miss Danville. Obviously, her days with the Control were numbered. He felt that he would miss the poor harassed creature, and wondered what future there was for her in a world that had already used her so hardly.

During the morning, he was too busy to have much thought for the troubles of Miss Danville or anybody else. For the last two days he had been occupied in putting the finishing touches to the case against the peccant firm of Blenkinsop, and he now devoted himself to straightening out the last convolutions of that intricate affair before sending it to the prosecuting authorities in London. It would be the first prosecution since his appointment, and he was determined to do the Control credit. He broke off for lunch with the job half done, and went into the canteen, with figures, dates and schedules still running in his head, punctuated by an orderly march of Statutory Rules and Orders, Directions and all the stately paraphernalia of Control.

He was recalled to actuality when, midway through his meal, another tray was set down beside his own and he looked up to see Miss Danville taking her seat next to him. She appeared to be quite calm and normal, except that her thin lips were set in a straight line, giving her an unusual, and to Pettigrew rather alarming, air of determination. There was something about her that made him quite certain that she intended to unbosom herself to him, and the prospect filled him with dismay. More and more, and always against his will, he had found himself drawn into the private affairs of his colleagues at Marsett Bay. He was determined to go no further, if he could possibly avoid it. For the sake of his own peace of mind, he must choke Miss Danville off---gently, if he could, brutally, if he must. He quickly made up his mind to forestall her before she could begin.

“I am surprised to see you here to-day,” he said. “I understood that you would not be coming to work. Do you think you were altogether wise?”

“Thank you, I am feeling better. Miss Clarke advised me to apply for sick leave, but I particularly wanted to come. I wanted the opportunity of seeing you, Mr. Pettigrew, before this evening.”

Pettigrew deliberately ignored her last sentence.

“Honestly, I think you were unwise,” he said. “You are not looking at all strong. Don’t you think a day in bed would be the best thing for you?”

Miss Danville shook her head.

“That was what Miss Clarke said,” she observed, as though that in itself was a sufficient answer to the suggestion.

“And I am sure she was right. I know that she is sometimes a little difficult to get on with, but in this matter I feel she was only thinking of what was good for you.”

“She has been very patient with me this morning,” Miss Danville admitted. “She has only given me the simplest things to do, and asked me to go home early this afternoon. But I told her I must stay to make the tea for everyone as usual. It’s about the only thing I do that seems to be of any use.”

“I should have thought that someone else could be found to do it for once,” Pettigrew observed, but Miss Danville was not to be sidetracked any longer.

“About last night,” she said abruptly. “There’s something important I must explain.”

“Please!” protested Pettigrew. “I assure you there is nothing to explain---nothing at all.”

“But there is,” she persisted. “I know you must have thought----”

“I thought you were disgracefully treated, and you had my sympathy. That is all there is to it. I really don’t think we can usefully discuss it any more.”

“I don’t exactly want to discuss anything, Mr. Pettigrew. I feel that I ought to tell you something about myself.”

“Listen,” said Pettigrew firmly. “I don’t know quite how clear your recollection of last night is, but during the course of the evening you---you let fall that at one time you had suffered from what is, after all, medically speaking, simply an illness of a particular type. I accept that as a fact, just as I would accept any other fact about an acquaintance.” His heart smote him as he saw Miss Danville shrink at the word. “Or, shall I say? a friend of no very long standing,” he added hastily. “But, to be quite frank, it is not a matter which I feel concerns me particularly, or on which I am in the least competent to give advice. So far as it affects your position here, it is a question between you and your official superiors. I don’t want to seem lacking in sympathy, but I can do absolutely nothing about it. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be getting back to my work.”

Feeling rather as though he had been hitting a child, he rose from the table.

“Please,” said Miss Danville, looking up at him almost despairingly. “Will you tell me one thing? When is Miss Brown expected back?”

“This evening, so far as I know. Didn’t she tell you?”

“Yes, I remember now, she did. But I forget things sometimes---like I did last night, until something reminds me. . . .”

“Look here,” said Pettigrew, relenting a little. “If you want to talk your situation over with anyone, why don’t you wait till she returns? After all, you are great friends, and you’ll find it much more easy to speak to another woman about it than you would to me.”

“Yes, yes, I will. Of course I will,” Pettigrew heard her murmuring as he beat a hasty retreat.

It was with difficulty that Pettigrew wrenched his mind back from the problems of Danville to those of Blenkinsop when he got back to his room. Before he could do so, he went through an uneasy period during which he saw himself in the part of the Levite who passed by on the other side. But he was consoled by the thought that at least he knew, as the Levite did not, that the Good Samaritan was due on the evening train. To those competent hands he was content to entrust the wayfarer. His conscience thus quietened, he worked steadily on through the afternoon, and the Blenkinsop papers were complete and in his out-tray when the first tremulous pipe from the kettle next door told him that it was four o’clock.

During Miss Brown’s absence on leave, Pettigrew had perforce gone without his tea. Perfect in all else, she had forgotten to make alternative arrangements for him. He could not make it for himself, as he had not succeeded in discovering where his tray and teapot were hidden. Consequently, the sound was on this occasion of interest to him only as marking the passage of time and not as heralding a break from labour. He paid little attention to it, but it struck him that the sound of Miss Danville’s footsteps came more promptly than usual after the first notes; generally it was not until it was in full cry that she appeared. Then a curious thing happened. Instead of Miss Danville’s arrival being followed by abrupt silence as the kettle went off the boil, the noise continued. It reached its loudest pitch. It continued at that pitch. It went on and on as though it would never stop. The whole building seemed to ring with the furious, insistent sound.

Just when he was beginning to wonder if he could stand the racket much longer, Pettigrew was surprised to see his door open and Miss Brown appear. She was without a hat, in her office clothes, and looked as though she had never been away.

“What is the meaning of this?” he asked her. “You’re not supposed to be at work till to-morrow. What will the Establishment Officer say?”

“It’s the fault of the railway, really,” she replied. “They have taken off the afternoon train from London, and I couldn’t bear to take the last one and get here about midnight. So I caught the early train, and I thought I would fill in the time filing----”

“The Board of Trade memoranda---I know. How single-minded your sex is.” Pettigrew could not resist adding, “This will be rather a surprise for Mr. Phillips.”

Miss Brown neither bridled nor blushed. “I don’t expect so,” she said calmly. “I sent him a telegram to say I was coming early.”

“Well, it is a pleasant surprise for me, at any rate. Your first task is going to be to get me some tea. I have three days’ sugar ration accumulated. But when is Miss Danville coming to stop this infernal row? I thought I heard her some time ago, but it must have been you. You were responsible for this horrible contraption. Please do something about it before my head splits.”

“I’ll go and see.”

Miss Brown left the room. She was back again almost immediately.

“Will you come at once, please,” she said breathlessly. “I think there’s something wrong.”

Pettigrew followed her quickly into the corridor. Outside the pantry door they met Mrs. Hopkinson coming from the direction of the Licensing Section.

“When are we going to get our giddy tea?” she shouted above the noise of the whistle. “Is the Danville saying her prayers again or what?”

“I don’t know what’s happened,” said Miss Brown. “I can’t open the door.”

“Just what I said! She’s gone off in a holy swoon, like she did once before, only this time she’s locked herself in. Here, wake up!” and she hammered on the door.

Pettigrew turned the handle and put his shoulder to the door. It was certainly locked. Like most of Lord Eglwyswrw’s furniture, it was strongly constructed, and he experienced a moment of helplessness as he pushed vainly against its solid resistance. He was relieved to see a messenger approaching down the corridor.

Messengers in Government departments do not usually hurry, and this one did not. He came up to the anxious little group at his ordinary steady pace, and stopped when he was abreast of them.

“Door locked?” he inquired.

“Yes,” said Pettigrew, exasperated. “Help me break this down, will you? It may be urgent.”

The messenger deliberately put his load of papers on the floor and felt in his pocket. After some fumbling he produced a key.

“This opens most of them,” he announced, and fitted it in the lock.

The key turned and the door swung open. Pettigrew dashed in, followed by the two women. The little room was filled with steam escaping from the kettle, the lid of which was bouncing madly, while the whistle screamed like a locomotive entering a tunnel.

Miss Danville was kneeling, or rather crouching, on the floor, her head against the leg of the table on which the gas ring stood. “What did I tell you?” shouted Mrs. Hopkinson. “She’s at it again! Good Lord!”

As she spoke Miss Danville quietly collapsed sideways. Pettigrew was in time to catch her before she fell. Her face, he saw, was a dead white, and her breath came in deep, convulsive gasps.

“Mrs. Hopkinson, there’s a first aid post somewhere in the building, isn’t there?” he cried. “Go and get it. Miss Brown, telephone for an ambulance at once.”

Still supporting Miss Danville with one arm, he reached over with the other and turned off the gas. It suddenly became absolutely quiet in the tiny room.

Pettigrew became aware of the messenger at his elbow. In the excitement of the moment he had forgotten him altogether.

“Better lay her down, sir, don’t you think?” he suggested. “And open the window to give her a bit of air.”

Pettigrew laid the sagging body down on the floor, and, kneeling down, supported her head in his arms. The messenger meanwhile flung the window open. It was obvious that Miss Danville was in a state of complete collapse, but he could see no apparent sign of any injury.

“I hope those first aid people won’t be long,” he murmured.

“I know them,” observed the messenger contemptuously. “Never at hand when they’re wanted, and precious little use when they are there.” He came closer, looked at the figure on the floor and added, “But I’m afraid there’s not much that anyone could do in this case, if I’m not mistaken.”

As he spoke, Miss Danville’s eyelids fluttered. She looked up at Pettigrew and something in her face told him that she recognized him. She murmured something and he bent his head to catch it. But the faint voice trailed away, and he could distinguish nothing. There was a slight tremor in her body and then her head fell back, a dead weight on his arm. For the second time that day Miss Danville had been unable to tell him what she wanted to say, and there was to be no third chance.

Whether because, as the messenger had said, the personnel of the first aid post were out of the way when their services were required, or because Miss Brown was more efficient in an emergency than Mrs. Hopkinson, the ambulance arrived first on the scene. The frightened young woman in charge of the first aid post was several minutes behind and her appearance coincided with that of the doctor whom Miss Brown had also summoned on her own responsibility. By then, Miss Danville was already on a stretcher and the ambulance men were contemplating her with an air of resignation.

“I’m afraid she’s gone, doctor,” said the leading ambulance man. “We’ve been trying artificial respiration, but she doesn’t respond.”

The doctor was very recently qualified, and he was honest enough to admit to himself that the man had a great deal more experience of death in its various manifestations than he. Nevertheless, he made a perfunctory examination. At the end of it, he nodded.

“What do you think was the cause of death, doctor?” asked Pettigrew. “She was perfectly well a few hours ago.”

“I can’t possibly tell you without a proper examination. There will have to be a post-mortem, of course.”

“And when will you do that?”

“I shan’t. This matter will have to be reported to the coroner, and he is the person to order a post-mortem. It is the job of the county pathologist to carry it out. Now will you give me a few particulars about the deceased, please?”

A few minutes later the ambulance left, carrying Miss Danville’s body to the mortuary. Pettigrew, as he saw it go, felt the feeling of self-reproach which had come over him after lunch return with double force. She had been so anxious to explain things to him, to confide in him, so pitifully hurt by his refusal. He felt no particular curiosity to know what it was that she had tried to say, but it hurt him very much to think that by listening to her he might have made the last few hours of her life a little happier. It was quite irrational, of course. How was he to know that the traveller would die before the Good Samaritan arrived? All the same. . . .

“Mr. Pettigrew,” said Mrs. Hopkinson just behind him, “Mr. Pettigrew, do you think it would be very awful of me if I went in there to make some tea? We do really want it badly, and after a shock like this——”

“Of course,” Pettigrew said. “I quite understand. Only, if you don’t mind, I’d rather you took the whistle out of that kettle before you boil it up again.”

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