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15: Miss Brown and Mr. Phillips

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Author Topic: 15: Miss Brown and Mr. Phillips  (Read 7 times)
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« on: November 10, 2023, 06:08:45 am »

“WHO DO you suggest as our next subject for interview?” said Mallett to Jellaby, when they returned to their temporary headquarters after lunch.

“This Brown person,” answered Jellaby without hesitation. “She seems to be right in the middle of the whole affair. Come to think of it, she’s the cause of all the ructions we’ve heard about. Everyone in a state about her, one way or the other, before the event. When it happens, she’s right on the spot. What the French call a Fem Fatal, if you ask me.”

“That’s not exactly the kind of picture of her that I had gathered from Mr. Pettigrew,” said Mallett, “but you may be right, of course. At all events, we’ll see what she has to say.”

When Miss Brown arrived, instead of the “Fem Fatal” of Jellaby’s imagination the detectives found themselves confronted by a very unhappy and obviously frightened girl. The first mention of Miss Danville produced a flood of unaffected tears that threatened to put an end to the interview before it had begun. Mallett offered to postpone questioning her until she felt stronger, but she shook her head.

“I shall be all right,” she said at last, screwing her damp handkerchief tightly in her fist. “I’d rather go through with it now than later. You must forgive me, but Miss Danville was such a very dear person, and so kind to me---I still can’t believe this has really happened.”

“You were, in fact, Miss Danville’s closest friend at Marsett Bay?” Mallett asked in a tone of warm sympathy that would have drawn confidences from an oyster. Miss Brown nodded. “Did she confide in you as to her own affairs?”

“Not very much,” was the reply. “I don’t know that she had a great deal to tell about her life. She had always lived very quietly, you know. I know that when she was quite young---about my age---she had been engaged to be married, but he died suddenly---a motor accident or something---and that had---had upset her very much.”

“Upset her mentally, do you mean?”

“That’s a very unfair way to put it,” Miss Brown replied with a good deal more animation than she had shewn hitherto. “Everybody persists in thinking that Miss Danville was mad because she didn’t look on things in the same way as other people, when actually all it meant was that her scale of values was different. You see, she believed that the other world was more important than this one, and other people can’t understand that. I didn’t understand it myself, but I could sympathize with her. It was a belief that meant everything to her---the one thing life had taught her, she used to say.”

“Spiritualism?” Jellaby ejaculated.

“She had at one time been interested in spiritualism, but not for a good many years. I think she had been through many stages in search of truth, but she told me many times that she had found peace at last. I’m sure---” her voice trembled “---I’m sure I hope she has found it now.”

“Did she tell you she had been in a mental hospital?” Mallett continued.

“No. That came as quite a surprise to me when I heard of it. Not that it should have surprised me, I suppose. Sometimes, I know, she did become a little uncertain where this world ended and the other world began, especially if people flurried her or were unkind to her, and I suppose that would have given them an excuse to shut her away. But she never spoke of it.”

“You speak of people being unkind to her. Did she ever say anything that made you think she had an enemy?”

“I am perfectly certain she had none,” Miss Brown declared with emphasis. “People would get impatient with her in the office because they didn’t understand her and see that they ought to make allowances for her, and other people used to laugh at her, as even Mr. Pettigrew did until---until I asked him not to. But that wasn’t the same thing at all. She was much too good and kind and harmless to have ever made an enemy.”

Mallett leaned back in his chair and glanced at Jellaby, to see whether he had any further question to put at this point. Jellaby seized his opportunity without hesitation.

“Why was she so keen for you to marry Mr. Phillips?” he asked bluntly.

Miss Brown received the question with complete calmness. She did, however, acknowledge that it was unexpected by looking her interrogator firmly in the face. Jellaby shifted uncomfortably in his chair under the candid stare of her unexpectedly brilliant blue eyes.

“She thought I ought to be married,” she replied evenly. “She believed that everyone had their mission in life---their proper part allotted to them to fill---and she thought that mine would be fulfilled in marriage. When Mr. Phillips---when he approached me, I had nobody else to turn to confide in, and I was very glad of her advice. She liked him very much, but she did not, of course try to influence me in any improper way, and I shouldn’t have listened to her if she had. That is all.”

“Other people didn’t approve of the idea, so I gather,” Jellaby suggested.

“I wasn’t interested in what other people thought about it,” Miss Brown replied with a touch of hauteur.

“Can you think of any other people who would be anxious for any reason to prevent your marriage to Mr. Phillips?” the inspector persisted.

“And kill poor Miss Danville as a way of preventing it?” countered Miss Brown swiftly. “That seems to me very absurd.”

And indeed, put thus baldly, it seemed very absurd indeed.

“Well, Miss Brown,” said Mallett, “we are very much obliged to you for answering all our questions. It only remains now for you to tell us what you can remember of the events of last Friday.”

There was, apparently, very little that Miss Brown had to tell, and she seemed very reluctant to tell even that little. Her nervousness returned as soon as the actual events of the day of the murder were touched upon, and her story had to be dragged out of her piecemeal.

She had been to London, on leave, to attend to her private affairs. She had returned by the train which reached Marsett Bay in the early afternoon. Shortly after she reached her office she had heard the kettle begin to whistle. Then Mr. Pettigrew had sent her to see what had happened, and she had found the door was locked. That was all she knew.

At what time did she reach the office of the Control? She could not say within a quarter of an hour. How long had she been in her room before the whistle began? She had no idea. How long before Mr. Pettigrew sent her to the pantry? She shook her head, hazarding only the opinion that it was “a minute or two”.

“It must have been a bit longer than that,” said Mallett patiently. “You see, Mr. Pettigrew tells us that he sent you to see why the kettle had not been turned off as soon as you came into his room, and by then it had been whistling for quite a long time---five or six minutes at least, he thinks. It looks as if you must have been in your room for that space of time before you went into his.”

Miss Brown dumbly contemplated her feet for a moment or two before she admitted that it did look like that.

“You can’t suggest what you were doing in that time? Did you go to the ladies’ lavatory, by any chance?”

No, Miss Brown, rather doubtfully, did not think she did.

“Well, then . . . ?”

Miss Brown passed her hand wearily across her brow.

“I think I was writing a letter,” she said at last.

“Well, that explains it, then,” said Mallett encouragingly. The girl was so obviously tired and unhappy that he felt no wish to prolong the interview any further than was absolutely necessary. “Only one more question, and we shall have finished. During all this time, did you see anybody in the neighbourhood of the pantry until you went there and found the door locked?”

Miss Brown, still looking at her shoes, silently shook her head.

“Then we need not trouble you any further. Good afternoon, Miss Brown, and if later on you remember anything else about Friday afternoon, you will let us know, won’t you?”

“Funny the way she shut up when we came to Friday afternoon,” observed Jellaby after she had gone.

“Yes,” said Mallett. “It was very noticeable after her readiness to talk about her private affairs. There might be several explanations for that, of course.”

“Shock? Nerves? Guilty conscience?”

“Yes. I should be surprised if it was the last, though. She struck me as a very genuine sort of person.”

“Those eyes of hers,” muttered Jellaby. “Most surprising. Make her face look quite different when you see them. Very determined expression, they’ve got. She’s a lot tougher than you’d think at first sight, if you ask me.”

“Perhaps it was her eyes that bowled over Mr. Phillips, and not her private income, as Mrs. Hopkinson seems to think.”

“I’d like to see this Romeo of hers,” said Jellaby.

“You shall. We might as well polish him off now. I shouldn’t expect anything too romantic, though, or you may be disappointed.”

If there was nothing romantic about Mr. Phillips when, shortly afterwards, he made his appearance before the detectives, that was the only fault that could be found with his demeanour. He was calm, grave, courteous and consistently helpful so far as his memory served. The interview proceeded smoothly, if somewhat wordily.

“You knew the deceased, Miss Danville, well, Mr. Phillips?” was Mallett’s first question after the usual preliminaries.

“Very well,” Phillips replied promptly. “I really got to know her as the result of her friendship with Miss Brown. Miss Brown and I, I should explain----”

“So I understand. Miss Brown has already told us something of the situation between you.”

“I must say, I wish she would tell me a little more about it,” said Phillips ruefully. “At present, I’m afraid the position is still a little indeterminate. That is, I have not yet persuaded her to name the day, although I have little doubt. But I fear that I am straying from the point. You were asking me about Miss Danville.”

“You were aware, of course, that Miss Danville was---how shall I put it?---somewhat eccentric in some ways?”

“I knew that she was mentally unstable,” Phillips replied precisely.

“That knowledge, Mr. Phillips, must have affected your friendship with her to some degree, surely?”

Phillips paused a little before replying, and when he spoke it was plain that he was choosing his words with care.

“It did affect our friendship, Inspector,” he said finally, “but not in the way which you might have supposed. Indeed, I may say that my recognition of her infirmity was in the nature of a link between us.”

“What exactly do you mean, sir?”

“What I am about to tell you gentlemen,” Mr. Phillips went on in his precise manner, “is in the nature of a confidence. It is not a thing that I should ordinarily mention to anyone, and indeed I have not even told Miss Brown about it. There is no reason why I should, and, to be perfectly frank with you, I am only giving the information to you because I know that you would find it out for yourselves if the course of your inquiries happened to turn in that direction, and in a matter of this kind I am anxious to avoid even the semblance of withholding---er---information.” He frowned slightly, as though offended by his own failure to find a synonym for “information”, cleared his throat, and went on: “I am a widower---a fact”---he permitted himself a slight smile---“as to which there appears to have been some doubt in certain quarters. Now my late wife was for some time before her decease an inmate of Bloomington Hospital, Hertfordshire.”

Having thus delivered himself, Mr. Phillips looked at Mallett as though to see what the effect of his revelation would be. If he was expecting any reaction from the inspector, he was disappointed, for Mallett’s expression of polite attention did not change in any way.

“I should perhaps explain,” he went on, “that Bloomington Hospital is the official name for the establishment, and has been so for many years. In common parlance, however, it is still better known by its earlier title of Chalkwood Asylum.”

“Chalkwood Asylum!” Mallett echoed. “The place where Miss Danville herself----”

“Exactly. And this melancholy coincidence, if I may so describe it, did, as you said just now, affect our friendship in a somewhat unusual way. It was naturally rather painful to me at first to be reminded in this manner of a tragedy in my past life----”

“Just a moment, Mr. Phillips. I appreciate what you say, but there is one point that I should like cleared up before you go any further. When did you learn that Miss Danville had been in this asylum?”

“At quite an early period in our acquaintance,” Phillips replied. “I am most anxious that there should be no misunderstanding on that point, Inspector. Several months at least before her death she confided in me, and when she realized that my late wife had, in fact, been a fellow sufferer there---though she was never certified, I desire to make that quite clear, she was a voluntary patient only---it was---so to speak---a bond. It was not a matter that we spoke about before others, of course, and least of all in the presence of Miss Brown, but there it was. And indeed, I think I may say that the knowledge that my former marriage had been clouded by the incidence of the distressing affliction which she knew so well made her all the more sympathetic towards my hopes for a second and happier union.”

“Quite,” said Mallett, swallowing a yawn. He found Mr. Phillips’s grandiloquence rather tedious to listen to on a busy afternoon. “You put it very clearly, sir. Now since you seem to have been in Miss Danville’s confidence more than anybody else, you may be in a position to answer this question: Was there anything in her past or present life that could give anyone a motive for murdering her?”

Phillips shook his head.

“That is what I ask myself,” he replied. “Who could have wished to lay violent hands on such a harmless, innocent person? She had ill-wishers, certainly---you will forgive me, Inspector, if I do not mention any names---they will all be well known to you, no doubt---but that, after all, is a different thing altogether. I confess to you, I am completely baffled in this matter.”

“In other words, No.” Jellaby’s murmur was just audible as he wrote down a brief note. Mallett’s moustache points twitched, but he kept his voice steady as he said:

“Just one more question, Mr. Phillips. Where were you on Friday afternoon?”

“Let me see. You will appreciate, of course, that this is Tuesday, and until the distressing revelations of the inquest in yesterday’s evening papers none of us imagined that it would be incumbent on us to account for our movements at what proved to be the material time.”

“I quite understand, Mr. Phillips, but do your best.”

“Certainly I will. On Friday afternoon, then, I was at my desk as usual after my return from luncheon in the canteen, which would be at approximately two-fifteen, until---but stay! Friday was of course the day when Miss Brown returned from leave. Of course, I recollect now.”

“What has Miss Brown’s return to do with it?” asked Mallett.

“Simply this. That as Miss Brown had apprised me by telegraph of her intention to travel on the early train, I took occasion to go down to see her for a moment or two in her room as soon as she came in. I cannot tell you the exact time, but no doubt she will have mentioned it to you.”

Mallett said nothing, but Jellaby was unable to suppress a slight start of surprise which Phillips was quick to notice.

“She didn’t tell you?” he exclaimed. “How strange---but I think I can understand. The foolish girl had evidently an idea that in revealing my presence in that part of the building she might be in some way incriminating me. I trust you will not hold it against her in any way, Inspector. This sort of suppression of information is very natural in the circumstances, but it can be very easily misunderstood. I do sincerely hope you will overlook it.”

“Suppose,” said Mallett, “you were to tell us quite shortly exactly what did in fact happen.”

“It is perfectly simple. Miss Brown, as I mentioned just now, had told me that she was returning by the early train that afternoon. The window near which I work happens to overlook the entrance to the office. I was particularly anxious to have a few words with her in private as soon as possible, and accordingly, when I saw her enter the building I made some excuse, slipped downstairs and went to her room. I was only there a few moments and left, if my recollection is correct, just before the now celebrated whistle began to sound from the kettle near by. I recognize,” Mr. Phillips concluded deprecatingly, “that this places me in rather embarrassingly close proximity to the scene of the---the event at a material time, but I feel bound to make a full disclosure of what actually occurred.”

“Did you see or hear anybody else in the neighbourhood of the pantry while this was going on?”

“No. And I may add that I am fairly confident nobody else saw or heard me.”

“Oh?”

“I can move fairly quietly, and I should say quite frankly that I was not desirous of attracting attention to myself. For one thing, people talk, and I had had quite sufficient gossip directed at myself and Miss Brown already. In particular, I did not wish to make my presence known to Mr. Pettigrew. I had already had one accidental encounter with him outside the door of Miss Brown’s room which proved somewhat awkward to all three of us, and I was anxious not to repeat the experience.”

“I see.” Mallett appeared sunk in reflection for the moment, which gave Jellaby a chance to intervene.

“What I can’t understand,” he said, “is why you bothered to take all this trouble to say a few words to Miss Brown when you were seeing her that very evening at your lodgings. Can’t have been as urgent as all that, surely?”

Phillips smiled. “I agree that it seems rather inconsistent,” he said, “but there was a good reason for it. As I said just now, I wished to speak to Miss Brown in private. It so happened that in the prevailing circumstances conditions at the Fernlea Residential Club were not very conducive to private conversation.”

“Just what do you mean?” asked Jellaby impatiently.

“Merely that, apart from all the natural difficulties inherent to a place of that kind, Miss Danville, though the kindest of persons and the very dear friend of us both, did not always realize that her presence might sometimes be superfluous. That was why on this occasion, as had happened previously, I was driven, much against my will, to trespass on Miss Brown’s business hours.”

“Thank you, Mr. Phillips,” said Mallett. “Is there anything else you would like to tell us?”

“I think not---except that I would once more ask you very earnestly not to make things difficult for Miss Brown on account of her ill-judged but, I am sure, well-meant suppression of the fact of our meeting on Friday afternoon. She is, I know, under a great strain as the result of what has occurred, and I am sure you will not judge her hardly.”

“That is a matter for our discretion, sir, but---we are reasonable people, I hope. Good afternoon!”

“Glib,” was Inspector Jellaby’s verdict, when the door had closed behind Mr. Phillips. “Much too glib, in my opinion.”

“He certainly had an answer to everything,” said Mallett.

“But he needn’t have made a speech when a plain Yes or No would have done. I always hated talkers, but I suppose some are made that way. There’s another odd thing about what he told us which I’m sure you noticed.”

“Do you mean the discrepancies between his story and Miss Brown’s?”

“That’s right. Contradict each other at every point.”

“Let’s see,” said Mallett. “In the first place, there’s the matter of his seeing her in her office on Friday afternoon. I daresay his explanation of her not mentioning that is the true one, and at any rate the fact that he volunteered it is in his favour. Then there’s the difference between their accounts of what Miss Danville told them about herself.”

“That’s what struck me,” said Jellaby. “Here’s the pair of them, each making out to be her best friend, but they might be talking about two different people. Miss Brown won’t even admit she’s mad, but she tells Phillips that she’s been in an asylum. She tells Miss Brown all about a love affair but never seems to have mentioned it to him. And she seems to have given each of them a different reason for marrying the other.”

Mallett laughed. “I don’t see anything unusual in that,” he said. “It seems to me only natural that Miss Danville should shew different sides of herself to her two friends. The only thing that does surprise me is that Phillips should never have hinted to Miss Brown that she had been in a mental hospital. He must be a very discreet man.”

“He’s a very deep one,” said Jellaby with conviction. “I can tell you one thing in which their stories do agree, though, and agree with everyone else’s story so far.”

“And that is----?”

“No alibis. Not a single soul we’ve seen, not counting the Controller, can produce a respectable alibi for Friday afternoon. It’s uncanny---and I’ve a notion it’s going to make things difficult.”

“Well,” said Mallett, “perhaps we shall pick up a few alibis as we go along. There are several more people to be seen yet. I don’t know what you think, but I’m inclined to try Mr. Edelman next.”

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