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19: Conclusion

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« on: November 10, 2023, 09:54:36 am »

PETTIGREW’S ROOM at the Control had a disagreeably familiar aspect when he entered it. There were three or four fresh files on his desk awaiting his attention. A collection of neat typewritten notes from Miss Brown informed him that various people had telephoned in his absence and wished to speak to him as soon as he returned. Another note, thoughtfully typed in red, stated that the Controller wished to see him as soon as possible on a matter of urgency. Pettigrew pushed them on one side and sat, his chin supported in his hands, staring at the wall opposite. He sat there, immobile, for the space of ten minutes.

Anybody observing him would have said that he was deep in thought. Actually, his mind during this period was as near to being a perfect blank as if had been at any time in his life. It was as though his brain, confronted with a task from which it shrank, had deliberately gone on strike. If there was one thing on which Pettigrew prided himself, it was his capacity for honest, and, if necessary, ruthless self-analysis. For once his power had failed him. He could not bring himself to examine the emotions that he dimly felt at the back of his consciousness. That way, he was aware, lay pain and ridicule beyond bearing. It was much easier to sit staring at the wall, thinking of precisely nothing.

At last he straightened his back and sat up in his chair. He yawned, looked at his watch, was surprised to see how late it was, and then, hastily, as though afraid he would change his mind, pressed the button of the electric bell on his desk.

“Better get it over and done with, I suppose,” he muttered.

Miss Brown came into the room, gave him a civil good afternoon, and sat down on her usual chair, her shorthand pad on her knee and her pencil poised. It might have been any ordinary afternoon at the office, Pettigrew reflected, with an absurd stab of regret for the carefree days when he was new to Marsett Bay. She was looking as neat and composed as usual, he observed, and certainly no paler than she had been when he left to go to Eastbury.

“You can put away your pencil and paper, Miss Brown,” he began in a voice that sounded far rougher than he had intended. “I’m afraid I have some rather serious news for you.”

She looked up quickly, looked straight at him, and once more her whole face was transfigured by the revelation of these astonishing eyes.

“For me?” she asked.

“Yes. Your---er---Mr. Phillips was arrested this morning.”

Her self-control is marvellous, thought Pettigrew. Except for a sharp indrawn breath, she gave no sign of emotion.

“He was arrested for the murder of Miss Danville.”

“Yes. It would be for that, of course.” She spoke very quietly, hardly above a whisper. She was looking away from him now and Pettigrew had the impression that she was speaking to herself rather than to him.

“I’m afraid this must be rather a shock to you,” he went on. She was taking it well, he said to himself, and he ought to be grateful to her for that. He had had enough of feminine emotions at Marsett Bay to last him a lifetime. At the same time, he could not but feel an obscure sense of disappointment. Surely the girl might show a little more emotion! It was unnatural. He had been prepared for anything, but not for this flat calm. From somewhere in the back of his mind floated unbidden a theatrical expression he had heard somewhere: “The scene went over very flat.”

Miss Brown was speaking and to his ear it seemed that she was picking her words with care.

“Yes,” she said slowly, “it is a shock---a shock to everybody, I suppose. We---we all knew him so well, didn’t we? But after all, anything is better than letting poor Miss Danville’s murder”---for the first time her voice quivered a little---“go unpunished. I couldn’t have borne that.”

Pettigrew could not keep a touch of asperity from his voice. “I think you’re a very remarkable young woman,” he exclaimed. “After all this man was----”

He stopped, feeling thoroughly annoyed with himself for having been betrayed into saying the one thing he had not intended to say. But she seemed in no way offended.

“I wasn’t in love with him, you know, Mr. Pettigrew,” she said very clearly and distinctly. “Never at any time.”

“I dare say not,” he retorted. “But after all, you meant to marry him, and I should have thought----”

What sort of a ridiculous argument was he getting himself into now? he asked himself helplessly.

“No,” said Miss Brown very firmly. “I did not mean to marry him. He meant to marry me, but that’s not the same thing, is it?”

Pettigrew leaned back in his chair.

“This,” he said, “is extremely interesting.” His voice, at its driest and most judicial, disguised the wholly irrational sense of jubilation which her last words had produced. “When did you make up your mind to refuse him?”

“I never made up my mind to accept him,” Miss Brown pointed out in her precise fashion. “But it was only after Miss Danville’s death that I knew for certain that I couldn’t possibly marry him.”

“Just what does that mean?” I wish, thought Pettigrew, that I didn’t feel as though I were cross-examining a dangerous witness on inadequate instructions, but I must know. “Do you mean you knew all the time that he had killed her?”

“Good heavens, no!” she answered quickly. “Nothing of the sort. How could I? It was simply that after her death he seemed to change his nature altogether. I can understand it now, of course, but it was a shock to me then. He had been quiet and reasonable and---gentle is the only word for it. All at once he became impatient and greedy and possessive. He tried to rush me into marrying him straight away. He pretended to be sorry about Miss Danville, but I could see he didn’t mean it. I got the feeling of something vulgar and ugly coming through the outside surface. Did you ever see a dragon-fly coming out of the skin of its larva? It was like that, only the other way round. I just knew I had nearly made the most terrible mistake in the world---with poor Miss Danville egging me on all the time to do it, too!”

“It was because she found out what a mistake it would have been that she was killed,” Pettigrew said.

Miss Brown did not appear to have heard him. She was still pursuing her own line of thought, talking almost as much to herself as to him.

“Of course, part of the change was in me,” she went on softly. “I think I must have grown up quite a lot in the last three weeks. I realized how very, very stupid I’d been. Stupid about Tom Phillips, of course, and stupid about Miss Danville and lots of other things.”

What a delicious voice she had when she talked like this, Pettigrew was thinking. Almost as remarkable in its way as her eyes. Strange he had never noticed it before. It was as much to persuade her to go on as for any other reason that he said, “Other things? Such as----?”

For once the composed Miss Brown looked uncomfortable and awkward. Looking fixedly at her feet, she flushed distinctly as she muttered, “Oh . . . love---and marriage---and things in general. It doesn’t matter now.”

She stood up to go out.

“Wait a minute,” said Pettigrew, standing up in his turn. “There’s one thing I still don’t understand. Before I went to Eastbury you told me you were taking your extra leave at Christmas and didn’t expect to be coming back to the Control. I took it for granted you were getting married. Why did you want to leave here?”

Almost sullenly, she answered, “I didn’t want to stay on without Miss Danville.”

“Was that the only reason?”

“It’s reason enough isn’t it? What more do you want?”

Miss Brown’s composure, maintained so long, was beginning to break down at last. There was a ring of desperation in her voice. Her face was white and drawn and there were tears standing in her eyes. In two strides Pettigrew was round the desk and stood confronting her.

“Was I the reason?” he demanded. “Did you want to get away from me?”

He seized her hand. The pencil which she still held stuck up grotesquely between their clasped fingers.

“Please! Please don’t!” she cried in distress. “You only make it worse for me. Let me go!”

“Eleanor,” said Pettigrew, speaking very rapidly, “I am old, I am unattractive, I am unsuccessful. I am crotchety and quirky and set in my ways. I am given to futile little jokes and I have been known to drink too much. I am utterly unfitted to marry anybody, let alone a girl of your age. But I’m damned if I am going to allow it to be said that I let you run away from here because you didn’t think I cared for you. I want you desperately, and I want you here. If you go, you go with my malediction on your head, and I promise you solemnly I shall use all my influence with the Ministry of Labour to have you directed into domestic service in a hospital for bombed-out inebriates. Now, what do you say?”

+++

She laughed contentedly.

“I suppose it was Inspector Mallett who told you my name was Eleanor,” she said.

“No,” said Pettigrew. “As a matter of fact, that was Inspector Jellaby. Our police are wonderful, aren’t they?”

The telephone rang. Miss Brown answered it.

“It’s the Controller,” she announced. “He wants to see you at once. What shall I say?”

“Tell him,” said Pettigrew happily, “to go and stick pins in himself.”

THE END
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