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Chapter 26

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« on: January 30, 2023, 07:31:13 am »

IT WAS the first occasion on which Mrs. Holymead had visited her husband's chambers in the Middle Temple. Mr. Mattingford, who had been Mr. Holymead's clerk for nearly twenty years, seemed to realise that the visit was important, though as a married man he knew that a meeting between husband and wife in town was usually so commonplace as to verge on boredom for the husband. There were occasions when he had to meet Mrs. Mattingford, but these meetings were generally for the purpose of handing over to the lady her weekly dress allowance of ten shillings out of his salary, so that she might attend the sales at the big drapery shops in the West End and inspect the windows containing expensive articles that she could not hope to buy. Mr. Mattingford was an exceedingly thrifty man, and his wife possessed some of the qualities of a spendthrift. Thus it came about that Mr. Mattingford kept up the fiction that he had no savings and that each week's salary must see him through till the next week. Mrs. Mattingford knew that her husband had saved money, and theoretically she would have given a great deal to know how much. She repeatedly accused him of being a miser, but this is a wifely denunciation which in all classes of life is lightly made when the purchase of feminine finery is under discussion. There are some men who resent it, but Mr. Mattingford was not one of these. Protests and prayers, abuse and cajolery, were alike powerless to win his consent to his wife's perpetual proposal that she should be allowed to draw her dress allowance for some months, or even some weeks ahead. Mr. Mattingford had a horror of bad debts. He endeavoured to show his wife that the transaction she proposed was unsound from a business point of view and reckless from a legal point of view. She had no security to offer for the repayment of the advance—even if he were in a financial position to make the advance—and he stoutly declared that he was not. She might die at any moment, and then he would be left with no means of redress against her estate because she had no estate. Of course, if she first insured her life out of her dress allowance and handed the policy to him it would constitute protection for the repayment of the advance, in the event of her death, but it was not any real protection in the event of her continuing to live, for a newly-executed policy had no surrender value. As his own legal adviser, Mr. Mattingford strongly urged himself not to consider his wife's proposal, and such was his respect for the law and for those who had been brought up in a legal atmosphere that he had no hesitation in accepting the advice.

He was a little man of nearly fifty years, with a very bald head and an extremely long moustache, which when waxed at the ends made him look as fierce as a clipped poodle. He knew Mrs. Holymead from his having called frequently at his chief's house in Princes Gate on business matters, and he admired her for her good looks, but still more for her good taste in staying away from her husband's chambers. There were some ladies, the wives of barristers, who almost haunted their husbands' chambers—a practice of which Mr. Mattingford strongly disapproved. It seemed to him an insidious attempt on the part of an insidious sex to force the legal profession to throw open its doors to women. As a man who lived in the mouldy atmosphere of precedent, Mr. Mattingford hated the idea of change, and to him the thought of a lady in wig and gown pleading in the law courts indicated not merely change but a revolution which might well usher in the end of the world. So strict was he in keeping the precincts of the law sacred from the violating tread of women that he never allowed his wife to set foot in the Middle Temple. Their meetings on those urgent occasions when Mrs. Mattingford came to town for her dress allowance in order to go bargain-hunting took place at one of the cheap tearooms in Fleet Street.

Although Mr. Mattingford was somewhat flustered by the unexpected appearance of Mrs. Holymead, he did not depart from precedent to the extent of regarding her as entitled to any other treatment than that accorded to clients who called on business. He asked her if she wanted to see Mr. Holymead, placed a chair for her, then knocked deferentially at his chief's door, went inside to announce Mrs. Holymead to her husband, and came out with the information that Mr. Holymead would see her. He held open the door leading into his chief's private room, and after Mrs. Holymead had entered closed it softly and firmly.

But the formal business manner of Mr. Mattingford to his chief's wife seemed to her friendly and cordial compared with the strained greetings she received from her husband. He motioned her to a chair and then got up from his own.

"I wrote to you to come and see me here instead of going to the house to see you," he said, "because I thought it would be better for both. It would have given the servants something to talk about. I hope you don't mind?"

She looked at him with her large dark eyes in which there was more than a suggestion of tears. What she had read into his note, when she received it, was his determination not to go to his home to see her for fear she would interpret that as a first step towards reconciliation.

"What I wanted to speak to you about is this detective Crewe whom Miss Fewbanks has employed in connection with her father's death," he continued.

Her breath came quickly at this unwelcome information. She noted that he had spoken of Sir Horace's death and not his murder.

He began pacing backwards and forwards across the room as if with the purpose of avoiding looking at her.

"This man Crewe is a nuisance—I might even say a danger. I don't know what he has found out, but I object to his ferreting into my affairs. He must be stopped."

She nodded her assent, for she could not trust herself to speak. Each time he turned his back on her as he crossed the room her eyes followed him, but as he faced her she turned her gaze on the floor.

"There is no legal redress—no legal means of dealing with his impertinent curiosity," he went on. "He is within his rights in trying to find out all he can. But if he is allowed to go on unchecked the thing may reach a disastrous stage. I have no doubt that he knows that I was at Riversbrook the night that man was killed. He was not long in getting on the track of that. And the more mysterious my visit seems to him—and the fact that I have not disclosed to the police that I went up to Riversbrook and saw Sir Horace on the night of the tragedy is to his way of thinking very significant—the more reason is there for suspecting me of complicity in the crime."

When he turned to cross the room her eyes lingered on him and she glanced quickly at his face.

"I don't want to dwell on matters that must pain you—that must pain us both," he said slowly, "but it is necessary that you should be made acquainted with the danger that threatens me from this man. I am anxious to avoid anything in the nature of a public scandal—I am anxious quite as much if not more on your account than my own. But if this wretched man is allowed to go on trying to build up a case against me—and I must admit that he would probably obtain circumstantial evidence of a kind which would make some sort of a case for the prosecution—there is grave danger of everything coming out. If he went to the length of having me arrested and charged with the crime, there are bound to be some disclosures and the newspapers would make the most of them. It is impossible to foresee the exact nature of them, but I do not see how I could adopt any line of defence which would not hint at things that are best unrevealed. You yourself might be so ill-advised as to tell the whole story in the end. Of course, I would try to prevent you, and as far as the trial is concerned, I think I could use means to prevent you. But if the result was unfavourable—and knowing what eccentric things juries do, we must recognise the possibility of an unfavourable verdict—you might consider it advisable to disclose everything in the hope of having the conviction quashed by an appeal."

For the first time since she had sat down he looked at her, and as he caught her upward gaze he flushed.

"I would tell everything if you were arrested," she said, in a low voice.

"Ah, so I thought," he said, in a tone of disapproval. "The question now is what means can be adopted to prevent a catastrophe. I have thought earnestly about it, and as you are almost as much concerned in preventing public disclosures as I am, I desired to consult you before taking any definite course. It is this man Crewe who is the danger, and the question is how are we to stop him proceeding to extremes. One way is for me to see him and take him into my confidence—to explain fully to him what happened. He would not be satisfied with less than the full story. If I kept anything back his suspicions would remain; in fact, they would be strengthened. I would have to explain to him why and how I induced Sir Horace to return unexpectedly from Scotland on that fatal night, and what took place at Riversbrook. You will understand why I have hesitated to adopt that course. I would not suggest it to you now except that I see it would save you from the danger of something a great deal worse. Of course it would save me from the annoyance of being suspected of knowing something about the actual murder, but it is your interests that come first in the matter. It would be effective in putting an end to all our fears—all my fears. I would bind him to secrecy, of course. I do not ask you to come to a decision immediately, but I do ask you to think it over and let me know. I have been extremely reluctant to put this proposal before you, because I should hate carrying it out, because I should hate telling this man of things which are really no concern of anyone but ourselves. But I cannot disguise from myself that it would remove a greater danger. I believe the secret would be safe with him. I understand that in private life he is a gentleman, and that I would be safe in taking his word of honour. It would not be necessary for him to tell the police—still less to tell Miss Fewbanks."

"Is there no other way?" she asked. "Have you thought of any other way?"

"Yes. The only other way out that I have been able to find is for me to see Miss Fewbanks and ask her to withdraw the case from Crewe. I would not tell her everything—I would not bring you into it at all. But I could tell her that I had had an urgent matter to discuss with her father; that he came from Scotland to discuss it with me, and that after I left him he was murdered. I would tell her that it was quite impossible for me to disclose what the business was about, but that Crewe, having learnt that I had seen her father that night, was extremely suspicious. I would ask her to accept my word of honour that I had no knowledge of who killed her father, and to relieve me of the annoyance of the attentions of this man Crewe. I think she would agree to that proposal. That is the other way out, and from something which has happened this morning I am inclined to think that it is the better and quicker course to pursue."

She was thinking so deeply that she did not reply. At length she became conscious of a long silence.

"It is very good of you to ask my opinion—to consult with me at all. It is you that have everything at stake. I would like to do my best, but I think if you gave me time—Is there any great urgency? Two days at most is all I want."

"I cannot give you two days," he replied, with a sombre smile. "You must decide to-day—at once—otherwise it will be too late."

She looked at him with parted lips and alarm in her eyes.

"What do you mean?" she breathed. "What have you hidden? Is the danger immediate?"

"I think so. For some days past my movements have been dogged by a boy in Crewe's employ. Nearly a week ago I decided, after the worry and anxiety of this—this unhappy affair, to go away for a short trip. I thought a sea-voyage to America and back might do me good and fit me for my work again." He sighed unconsciously, and went on: "Crewe has become acquainted with my intended departure and has placed his own interpretation on it. He assumes that I am seeking safety in flight—that I have no intention of coming back to England. The result has been that the boy Crewe had set to watch my movements has been replaced by two men from Scotland Yard—one watching these chambers from the front, and the other from the rear." He walked across to the window and glanced quickly through the curtain. "Yes, they are still here."

She sprang from her seat and followed him to the window.

"Where are they?" she gasped. "Show them to me."

"There. Do not move the curtain or they will suspect we are watching them. Look a little to the left, by the lamp-post. The other you can catch a glimpse of if you look between those two trees."

"What does it mean? Why are they waiting?" she burst out. Her face had gone very pale, and her big dark eyes glared affrightedly from the window to her husband.

"Hush! I beg you not to lose your self-control; it is essential neither of us should lose our heads," he said, warningly.

She regained command of herself with an effort, and whispered, rather than spoke, with twitching lips;

"What does the presence of these men mean?"

"It means that Crewe has already communicated with Scotland Yard."

"And that you will be arrested for his murder?" Her trembling lips could hardly frame the words.

"I think so—it's almost certain. But apparently the warrant is not yet issued, or those men would come here and arrest me. But they are watching to prevent my escape—if I thought of escaping. We may yet have a few hours to arrange something, but you must come to a prompt decision."

"Tell me what to do, and I will do it. Oh, let me help you if I can. What is the best thing to do? To see Crewe?"

"No. I forbid you to see Crewe," he said harshly. "If we decide on that course I will see him myself."

"And you may be arrested the moment you go out of these chambers," she returned. "Oh, no, no; that is not a good plan—we have not the time. I will go to Mabel Fewbanks at once, and beg her, for all our sakes, not to allow this to go any further."

He shook his head.

"You must not sacrifice yourself," he said. "That would be foolish."

"I will not sacrifice myself. I would tell her just what you have told me—that her father came from Scotland to discuss an urgent matter with you, and that he was murdered after you left. I feel certain this man Crewe is going to extremes without her knowledge or consent, and that she will be the first to bury this awful thing when she learns that you have been implicated. Is not this the best thing to do?"

"It is," he reluctantly admitted. "But I do not wish you to be mixed up in it at all."

"I am not mixing myself up in it—I am too selfish for that. But I swear to you if you do not let me do this I will confess everything. I know Mabel Fewbanks, and I repeat, she is not aware of what this man Crewe has done. She would not—will not, permit it. I shall go down to Dellmere at once." Her face was pale, and her eyes glittered as she looked at her husband, but she spoke with unnatural self-possession. With feverish energy she pulled on a glove she had taken off when she entered, and buttoned it. "I will—I shall—arrive in time. In two hours—in three at most—you will hear from me."

She passed out into the outer office before her husband could reply, and closed the door behind her. Mr. Mattingford dashed to open the outer door of his room leading into the main staircase. He thought Mrs. Holymead looked strange as she passed him and descended the stairs, and he rubbed his hands gleefully. He came to the conclusion that she had come in for a cheque for £50 as an advance of her dress allowance, and that her request had been refused.

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