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18: Explanation at Marsett Bay

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Author Topic: 18: Explanation at Marsett Bay  (Read 11 times)
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« on: November 10, 2023, 09:35:18 am »

“ONE IS,” said Pettigrew---apologetically---“so appallingly ignorant.”

Inspector Jellaby murmured his polite disagreement.

“Appallingly ignorant,” Pettigrew repeated. “After thirty years at the bar, I thought I knew as much about my trade as the next man. In fact, I think so still. But I never realized till now what a highly specialized trade it was. It makes me feel like the kind of motor driver who takes the machinery of his car for granted and is astonished at things that are commonplaces to any garage hand. I may know a bit of law, but here’s a whole tract of the machinery of the law that is simply a closed book to me.”

“Look here, sir,” said Jellaby rather gruffly, “it’s all very well for you to talk about closed books and such, but this whole case is still a closed book to me. I got Mr. Mallett’s wire this morning. I arrested Phillips within an hour. I’ve got a statement from him which I can’t make head or tail of except that it amounts to a confession of murder. I am still in the dark. Why did Phillips kill Miss Danville?”

“He killed her,” said Mallett, “because she was in Chalkwood Asylum at the same time as the late Mrs. Phillips.”

“But we knew she was,” Jellaby protested. “We’ve known that a long time. Why should that be a motive for murder?”

“Well, the trouble was,” said Pettigrew, “that Mrs. Phillips wasn’t supposed to be there at the time. In fact, she wasn’t supposed to be anywhere at all.”

Jellaby looked despairingly from one man to the other. “Will one of you gentlemen please tell me what it is all about?” he exclaimed.

Pettigrew looked at Mallett inquiringly.

“I think it had better be you, sir,” said the latter. “For all your talk of ignorance, I think you’ve got the hang of it better than I have.”

“Very well. I shall deliver my lecture with all the confidence of a student who has just been primed by a good crammer---in this case, Mr. Flack, who is a chauffeur like myself, but had the advantage of serving an apprenticeship as a mechanic. Let me take the legal side first and then see how it applies to the facts of this case. To begin with---have you any idea what happens when you die?”

Inspector Jellaby’s jaw dropped and his honest face went rather pink at the unexpected question.

“I beg your pardon. I should have explained that I was dealing exclusively with mundane matters. I am also going on the assumption that you have an estate, large or small, to leave and somebody or bodies to leave it to.”

“Oh, if that’s what you mean, sir,” said Jellaby, “I’ve made my will, and left everything to the wife. Mr. Cartwright, the solicitor here, has got all the papers, and I take it that when my time comes he’ll do the needful.”

“Exactly. I am in the same position, except that there is no wife in my case. And neither you nor I have any but the most rudimentary idea what the needful is. Your solicitor gives you---or rather your widow---papers to sign and forms to fill up and in due course he hands over the assets of which the estate consists, less the cut taken by the State in the form of death duties, his own costs and expenses and any legacies you may have made to the local dog’s home, pigeon fanciers’ benevolent association or what have you. Precisely how it’s done is his affair. You rely on him to do the job and for anybody bred in a solicitor’s office it is a perfectly straightforward, rule-of-thumb affair. At this point I may perhaps remind you that Phillips was bred in a solicitor’s office.”

“I hoped we should be coming to him soon, sir,” said Jellaby.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, but we still haven’t settled the point, what the needful is. I’ll put it as shortly as possible, and leave out all the innumerable complications which can occur, but none of which are present in this case. Mr. Flack, I may say, left out nothing. He’s not that kind of man. I’ll take the simple proposition of a wife making a will and leaving everything to her husband, who is also sole executor; the estate consisting of stocks and shares and the usual little bits and pieces most people have about the place. What does the husband have to do to lay his hands on the cash? It’s quite simple really. First of all he has to satisfy the vultures of the Inland Revenue, so he makes out an account of the whole of the goods and chattels of the deceased, giving the proper value to every item. This he summarizes on a form known officially as A-7, but to solicitors by the more intimate, or kennel, name of Inland Revenue Affidavit. I have one of these charmers here,” Pettigrew went on, producing an eight page form printed on stout blue paper. “I lifted it off one of my ex-clients at Eastbury, much to his surprise. It is a solemn thought, by the way, that there is one of these in waiting for each of us. Golden lads and girls all must form the subject of an Inland Revenue Affidavit sooner or later---and the more golden they are, the more intricate the affidavit will be. Most of it, you will see, is made up of forms of accounts---wide open spaces in which wealth of every sort and kind can be analysed for the benefit of the tax-gatherer. There’ll be a lot of blank spaces when mine comes to be made out. The affidavit itself covers only two pages, and has a mere seventeen paragraphs. I am now going to read you the relevant parts of it. Be brave. It won’t take long, and to add a little human interest, I shall insert real names and particulars:

“In the Estate of Sarah Emily Phillips deceased.

“I, Thomas Phillips, of such-and-such an address, make oath and say as follows:

“1. I desire to obtain a grant of probate of the will of the above-named Sarah Emily Phillips deceased who died on the 19th day of September one thousand nine hundred and thirty-one aged----”

“But she didn’t,” Jellaby objected.

“Students are requested not to interrupt the lecturer. I was just coming to a nice bit about being domiciled in that part of Great Britain known as England. But let it pass. That is as far as I need go with this elegant composition, anyway. What happens next? When he has settled with the Inland Revenue, our bereaved gentleman sends the deceased’s original will to the Probate Registry. Along with it he sends the account, duly receipted by the Inland Revenue, and”---Pettigrew produced another, smaller, printed form---“the Executor’s Oath. Here it is. Only five paragraphs this time, and I shall spare you four of them:

“In the Estate of Sarah Emily Phillips deceased.

“I, Thomas Phillips, etcetera, make oath and say as follows:

“1. That I believe the paper writing hereto annexed and marked by me ‘T. P. 1.’ to contain the true and original will of Sarah Emily Phillips of such-and-such address deceased who died on the 19th day of September 1931, at Bloomington, Hospital, Herts.”

“But she didn’t!” Jellaby repeated. “She died on the 12th of April, 1934.” He looked at Mallett for confirmation.

Mallett grinned back at him.

“I think you’d better let Mr. Pettigrew tell this in his own way,” he said.

“I am obliged to you, Inspector, for trying to keep order in the class. None the less, to gratify the unseemly impatience of my audience, I am prepared to disclose that he is perfectly right. Mrs. Phillips died, as her death certificate states, on the 12th day of April 1934. But---and this is the whole point of the case---the documents relating to her estate, which are at this moment lodged in the principal Probate Registry for that part of Great Britain known as England, are precisely in the form which I have been reading to you.”

“You don’t mean to tell me, sir, that Phillips proved his wife’s will while she was still alive?”

“That is exactly what I do mean. Strictly speaking, we haven’t got to Probate yet, but I can finish the saga very shortly. On getting the papers I have mentioned, all apparently in apple-pie order, fortified by oaths and affirmations and the blessing of the Inland Revenue, with the name of a respectable firm as solicitors to the estate, the Registry grants probate of the will. And why not? I’m sure I should in their place. They are busy people and can’t spare the time to go nosing round asylums to see if some poor body is still lingering there when she’s supposed to be under the ground. They hang on to the will but send the executor a neat little photographic copy and a document called in the best circles the Probate Act. Once he has this in his hands, all is serene for our friend. It is all he needs to collect the goods of which the estate consists. By virtue of it, stocks and shares in companies are transferred from the deceased’s name to his, cash at the bank in her account is switched into his account, and so forth. But there is one rather interesting exception to the rule. It is one that proved quite expensive to Phillips, incidentally.”

“What may that be?”

“The exception is---or are---Life insurance companies. I suppose their trade makes them particularly suspicious and cynical, but the fact remains that before they will cough up, they require to see not only the probate of the will, but also the death certificate. And that, of course, was the one bit of paper Phillips couldn’t produce. So when he set to work to get in his wife’s modest estate, he had to forgo the very useful little sum of five hundred pounds for which she was insured. That explains a small matter that has been puzzling me ever since I made some amateurish investigations of my own into the affaire Phillips. Without going quite so far as Mrs. Hopkinson---by the way, I think we all owe her a handsome apology---I did feel a bit dubious about Phillips, and when the lady whom he proposed making his second wife started asking me questions about life insurance I became thoroughly alarmed. I made inquiries, and back came the answer. Mrs. Phillips had been insured all right, but the policy had been allowed to lapse for non-payment of the premiums. That satisfied me at the time, but thinking it over afterwards I was rather mystified. For a man so insurance minded as he obviously was, it seemed a bit out of character. Now we know the reason. Nobody is going to go on paying premiums on a policy which he can never collect.”

Inspector Jellaby blew out his cheeks in a prolonged sigh.

“Well, I’ve certainly learned something,” he said. “Now let’s see how this all works out.”

“It works like clock-work,” said Mallett. “This is how it goes. Phillips is married to a lady with a bit of money of her own---not much, but perhaps a hundred or a hundred and fifty a year. She makes a will in his favour. Later, she goes off her head and is sent to Chalkwood.”

“As a voluntary patient,” put in Pettigrew. “She wasn’t certified, or the Board of Control would have got hold of her affairs and this jiggery-pokery could never have happened.”

“Quite so. She goes to Chalkwood, a private institution, supported by charity, where the fees are kept low for those who can’t afford much.” He turned to Pettigrew. “What exactly happens to her money while she is there, sir?” he asked.

“I can answer that one. There’s a department at the Law Courts which looks after these things. Phillips would apply there and get himself made receiver of his wife’s income. Otherwise he couldn’t get at it at all. He would have to send in an audited account every year to prove that he was using it for her upkeep---which must have been galling to a man of his type---and of course he couldn’t touch the capital while she was alive.”

“While she was alive. Quite so. Well, in September 1931, like a good many other people just then, Phillips finds himself hard pressed for cash. He finds that he could make very good use of his wife’s capital, so he carries out this scheme of making believe that she is dead.”

“Would the department you mention be satisfied with the production of the Probate Act, Mr. Pettigrew?”

“Surely. The Probate Registry is all part and parcel of the Royal Courts of Justice too. Dog doesn’t doubt dog. I dare say he would have to swear another affidavit to get the receivership discharged, but what’s an odd affidavit or two to our Mr. Phillips?”

“Very good,” Mallett went on. “Then two and a half years later she does die in fact and there is, apparently, an end of the matter. All that has happened is that he has come into her fortune that much earlier than he should have done. It was just his bad luck that one of the inmates at the hospital at the time of her supposed death happened to be Miss Danville.

“Years later, Phillips meets at Marsett Bay another young woman with a bit of money of her own, and he thinks that here’s a good opportunity for a second marriage. Everything seems to go swimmingly, but it so happens that one of the young woman’s closest friends here is that same Miss Danville. Miss Danville’s memory is none of the best, unless there’s something to jog it, and it is quite plain that she never connects him with the Sarah Phillips she knew at Chalkwood, if indeed she remembers her existence at all. Phillips, of course, has no idea that she was ever inside the place.”

“But that wasn’t what he told us,” said Jellaby.

“To be sure it wasn’t. And it was the fact that he told us such an obvious lie that made me ready to suspect him. If Miss Danville had told him that she had been in the asylum with his wife, who had certainly died there, why should she have believed Mrs. Hopkinson’s slander for a moment? Phillips slipped up badly there, but I didn’t grasp the point of it till much later. That brings me to the evening before Miss Danville’s murder. You will remember what happened. As the result of Mrs. Hopkinson’s suggestion that Phillips was a married man, Miss Danville became so distraught that Mr. Pettigrew thought it necessary to prove to her in black and white that Mrs. Phillips was dead. He showed her a letter which stated that Mrs. Sarah Emily Phillips had died in September 1931. The effect on her was very violent and rather surprising.”

“It certainly was,” said Pettigrew.

“I think we can easily guess what was passing through her mind at that moment. For the first time, she realized that the late Mrs. Phillips was her acquaintance, Sarah Phillips, and she saw to her amazement that she was supposed to have died at a time when she knew her to have been alive. Of course, she didn’t know all that we know now, but she knew enough to make it quite plain that something was very seriously wrong and that she had been doing a terrible thing in encouraging Miss Brown to marry this man. Obviously, her first impulse would be to tell her about it at the earliest possible moment.”

“Miss Brown wasn’t there to be told,” said Pettigrew. “And so her first impulse was to tell me, and alas! I wouldn’t listen.”

“That is so. Now, what about Phillips? He was, of course, out of the room when Mr. Pettigrew showed Miss Danville the letter. He came in just in time to hear her outburst when Rickaby’s drunken stupidity, on top of the shock she had already received, produced her breakdown. He then learned for the first time that she had been in the same asylum as his wife, and at the same period. That must have been a serious blow to him. But not a fatal blow. That was to come later on that evening, when Mrs. Hopkinson approached him to apologize for having slandered him. Do you remember her words to us about that? ‘I told him straight what I’d said and how I know it was wrong now and so did Miss Danville.’ How did she know? I can hear Phillips ask. And the answer was, because Mr. Pettigrew had shown her a letter from the late Mrs. Phillips’s solicitor, confirming the fact of her death. One can imagine Phillips’s thoughts when he went to bed that night. He knew, of course, that the letter would contain the date of death which he had given on the Inland Revenue affidavit. He knew that Miss Danville was the one person who was aware that it was a false date. As a matter of course she would tell Miss Brown what she had discovered. Unless he could eliminate her before she could speak to Miss Brown, there was an end of his chance of a comfortable marriage and in its place a fairly certain prospect of a long term of imprisonment for perjury.

“Luck was with him. Miss Danville was too ill to speak to anybody next morning, but she came to the office as usual later in the day. She tried to say something to Mr. Pettigrew, but he, very naturally, put her off. Phillips knew when Miss Brown might be expected, as she had telegraphed the time of her arrival. Thanks to Wood and the other plotters, he knew to a minute when Miss Danville might be found alone in the pantry and the chances of finding that part of the building deserted. From his office window he watched for Miss Brown’s arrival. Then he slipped along to her room and held her in conversation for a few moments. This had the double object of assuring himself that she had had no word of the events of the previous evening and of preventing her from speaking to Miss Danville. From there he went into the pantry next door. When the kettle came to the boil, he was waiting for Miss Danville with the bodkin in his hand. If she made any sound when he struck her, the whistle would serve to drown it. He allowed himself one stroke only, because time was short, but it proved sufficient. Then he hurried back to his own room, locking the pantry door behind him.”

Mallett stopped abruptly and gave his moustache points a tug.

“I think that’s all,” he said finally.

There was a moment’s silence in the room. Then Pettigrew spoke.

“Yes,” he said slowly, “that’s all, so far as Phillips is concerned, poor devil. Do you think, by the way, he meant to dispose of Miss Brown once she was married and insured?”

“That one can’t tell,” said Mallett. “But I should say it was very likely. There is such a thing as the appetite that grows by what it feeds on, and a successful murderer is a dangerous sort of husband to have, especially if he’s interested in life insurance.”

“Yes,” said Pettigrew. “And he had that five hundred to get back from the Empyrean too. . . . I was thinking,” he went on, “Miss Brown knows nothing of the arrest yet?”

“No, sir,” said Jellaby.

“It will be a bad blow to her, I’m afraid.”

Pettigrew became aware that Mallett was staring very hard at him.

“I dare say it will be, Mr. Pettigrew,” he said. “I thought you might like to break the news to her yourself. You never know your luck, you know.”

“Confound your impudence!” said Pettigrew, and getting up he walked quickly out of the police station.

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