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Chapter 14

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« on: January 31, 2023, 10:38:16 pm »

Mr. CAMPION knew just enough of the Dowager Marchioness not to be surprised by her. He felt he had had that. He stood looking at her with defensive vacancy, and she smiled at him frankly, as he thought she might.

"I heard you talking, and didn't like to disturb you," she said outrageously, "but I had to come and find Johnny. I telephoned the Minoan and they told me he was here."

"Mother, my dear girl!" Johnny appeared in the doorway behind Campion. He was very startled, and Campion, who had no wish to play Polonius to anybody's Hamlet, edged out of the way. "What on earth are you doing here, darling?"

"Oh, there you are at last. I'm so glad." She moved over to him looking remarkably youthful and feminine in her blue fur coat. "I felt somebody must warn you and it didn't seem wise to talk on the phone. My dear, they've found that awful woman's clothes."

"The police have?"

"Yes, and I'm afraid they're going to be very difficult. They're so--so stodgy, aren't they? There's a little person called Yeo, I think, who has no sense of humour whatever. He's been following me about with a pair of corsets which must have come out of the Ark. I told him they were probably Ricky Silva's and he took me quite seriously."

"Oh, God!" said Johnny, without impiety. "Look here, dearest, where did they find these things? In your house?"

"No, darling, they didn't." She linked her arm through his and stood looking up at him as once she must have looked at his father who could refuse her nothing. "I have been foolish. I do see that, so there's no use you or anybody else pointing it out again. I've been very foolish and rather vulgar too, I'm afraid. It's fashionable to be a go-getter and full of action, and all that, but I don't think it really suits us older women. I'm sorry I did it. I'm afraid I've got that man of yours into trouble too, Mr. Campion, and it really is a pity because he's an excellent old fellow and so faithful. What did you say?"

"I didn't," said Mr. Campion idiotically. "It didn't mean anything, I was only muttering. Where did you say you'd found the murdered woman's clothes?"

"Murdered? She wasn't murdered. She committed suicide, poor beastly woman."

"The police..." Carados began.

"Oh, the police," she said with relief, "I don't take any notice of the police. They're always so dramatic and gloomy, and stodgy at the same time. Oh no, she committed suicide."

"Where did they find her clothes?" Johnny repeated very slowly and distinctly.

"In your bedroom, dear," said his mother. "I couldn't see them anywhere, but they found them. Apparently they were on the window-seat, of all places, wrapped up in a shawl from the chair. I must have seen the bundle and not noticed it. It's all terribly awkward and difficult. Now, what we've got to do is all to get together and make up our minds exactly what we're going to do, and even more important, what we're going to say."

"Darling." Johnny took her elbow firmly and led her back into the room. Campion followed them and closed the door.

When she was safely in the fireside chair, her son released her and stood back on the hearthrug.

"Don't look like that, my pet. You're like your father," she said, "and he used to get enraged with me. I know I've been stupid and I've said I'm sorry. Can't we leave it like that? I only did it for you, dearest, only for you, silly. Now we must all act for the best."

"Now we must all tell the absolute truth, Mother."

"Yes, between ourselves, but not to everybody; that would be insane. No, we've got to be sensible."

"Of course we have, and that's why we're going to have a complete showdown." He spoke very gently, almost casually, and certainly reassuringly. Campion gave him full marks, but recognized the method by which Lady Carados had been able to survive so long; evidently this was the treatment to which she was used.

"What a dear you are, Johnny," she said, "so comforting. Give me a cigarette. We are in Theodore Bush's house, aren't we? He just isn't here, I suppose."

"That's right," said Carados, and the hand in which he held the match for her was perfectly steady. "Now, look here, darling, last night--my hat! was it only last night?--you told me that you'd been very silly and stupid and that you'd made a mistake when you first told me the story of Campion's flat. Last night, when we all got back, leaving that poor woman in the flat, you told me that you had found her dead in the basement of your own house and that was the story you told the police this morning, wasn't it?"

"Yes, I did." She was prettily businesslike, and emphasized her words with little stabs in the air with her cigarette. "I did, and I do reproach myself. Not for what I told the police, because I think they're blunted and warped, and no good anyway; but I do reproach myself for not telling you everything, darling. I wanted to spare you... Your leave and your wedding! Oh, it is insufferable, just when we were all going to be so happy."

Mr. Campion began to wonder if the sensation he felt round the edge of his scalp really was the well-known beads of sweat appearing. His sympathy for Carados was tremendous, and in his mind's eye he could see the sturdy, Edwardian gentleman who had bequeathed this lovely spoilt darling to a more harassed generation. Johnny was experienced where his mother was concerned, however, and he patted her shoulder.

"Too bad, sweetheart," he said. "Now, let's just have the facts. The real, no-nonsense-about-it truth."

She looked at him with tolerant reproach. "I didn't mean it to be nonsense, Johnny: I was simply thinking of you."

"Of course you were, darling. Splendid of you. But just at this particular moment let's see what really has happened, and then..."

"Then we'll all go into a huddle and plan something."

"Yes, very well, if you like, but let us know where we are first. Now, is the original tale you told, the one you told me in Campion's flat, is that the literal truth?"

"Yes. Yes, Johnny. Substantially, I think it is." She had such poise and authority, even now when she was in her softest mood, that Campion could understand much which had hitherto puzzled him. The behavior of the police, for one thing, and Lugg's unaccountable obligingness, for another. Her potential dangerousness grew at every moment. She was like a beautiful, high-powered car driven by an engaging maniac.

Johnny was gentleness itself. "No, my dear," he said, "'substantially' won't do. I want the whole truth just as it happened. At the flat you told me that you went to my house yesterday morning and found this woman dead in the bed which had been prepared for me. There was a medicine bottle by her side, and you assumed she had committed suicide; you made arrangements to remove her to an unoccupied flat. That was your first story. Then, later last night you told us you had a confession to make, and you then said that you had found her in a servant's bedroom in the basement of your own house. Now you say the first story is true. Is it?"

Lady Carados appeared to make a supreme effort.

"Yes, dear," she said. "You see, when I saw you all young and eager and happy on leave I felt I must protect you. You do understand, don't you?"

She believed what she was saying implicitly, and Campion could see her acquitting herself nobly in the witness box. Carados was beginning to look an old man; but he went on steadily with his questions.

"I've got it right, have I? You did all this alone save for the man Lugg?"

"Yes, I did." She was frank and proud. "When one's fighting for someone one loves, one gets incredible strength. But, oh darling, it was terrible! Having to touch her, I mean."

"Of course it was," he said hastily. "But you thought it out all alone, did you?"

"Yes, it came to me that I could save us all a terrible scandal. Because, you know, it did look frightful her being found just there at this time. I mean, no one would believe you hadn't broken her heart at least, would they? Perhaps you did; I don't know. I don't want to, Johnny. I just love you, you see."

"No one else knew except you and Lugg?"

"No one. I thought Miss Chivers might find out. She was in another room when I found the terrible thing, so I sent her away."

"On what excuse?"

She stared at him in astonishment. "My dear, I don't have to make excuses to an employee."

"I see. You just said, 'Go away,' or words to that effect."

"Yes. I said 'I don't want you in this house, Miss Chivers, until three o'clock this afternoon.'"

"Wasn't she surprised?"

"Johnny darling, how should I know? I know she's your secretary, but I know nothing else about her. She's here now, by the way, downstairs. She let me in."

"Yes, I sent for her," he said briefly. "Captain Gold is here, too, upstairs. Now, darling, just to get the thing settled once and for all, you're sure the only thing you did was to move the body? And the medicine bottle, I suppose? Did you take that along with you? I didn't notice it at the flat."

She was silent, and sat looking at the smoke rising unevenly from her cigarette.

"Well, what about the bottle, dear?" The tremor in the man's voice was barely impatient, but she frowned at him.

"My dearest, you mustn't bully me."

"Forgive me," he said. "I didn't mean to. Mustn't I ask about the bottle?"

"I'd rather you didn't," she said. "I don't want to make you unhappy."

The colour came into his face and he grinned. It was a brief flash of genuine entertainment, and Campion, who had begun to wonder about it, thought he saw at last where some of her tremendous charm for her menfolk lay.

"I'll bear it," said Johnny. "One can't be happy all the time. What about the bottle?"

"Well, I changed it," said Lady Carados.

There was a moment's complete silence, during which the men did not look at each other.

"Why?" Johnny's tone was deceptively conversational.

"I thought it best. Don't make me hurt you, darling. I've owned that I ought to have left everything alone, and I've said I'm sorry. Don't look at me like that, Johnny."

He sat down on the arm of her chair. "Tell us," he said.

"Oh, if I must I will, but I warn you, it's just annoying and it's horrible. The bottle that was by her side was yours, darling."

"Mine?"

"Yes, yours. You can see how bad it looked?"

"Yes, I can. But how do you mean it was mine?"

"Well, it had your name on it, dear. It was some of that stuff Doctor Robson prescribed for you long ago. Don't you remember? You had to take the prescription before you could buy it, and they'd never let you drink the last dose. I forget what it was called, but it had your name on it, and a prescription number."

"Do you mean Bromot?"

"Yes, that was it. I didn't know you had any left, but I remembered it as soon as I saw it. This must have been very old because it was all muddy and beastly-looking. There was about a quarter of a bottle left. Of course, I don't know how much she took."

"What did you do with it?"

"Oh, I put it back in the medicine cupboard outside your bathroom. I ought to have thrown it away because it had obviously gone bad, but I didn't think of it."

"And what bottle did you put by the cor... I mean, by the woman?"

"A little blue one I found. It had nothing but the chemist's name on it. I think it was some stuff they used to clean the bath with. Afterwards I remembered that they can tell what poison a person has died of, but this had 'Poison' on it clearly and I thought they might not go into it. It all sounds a little mad now, I know, but at the time I was so unnerved. It only seemed to me that I was making what had happened even more clear. Even now I don't think I did anything really wrong unless someone decides to get officious about it."

It was that last phrase which made Campion raise his eyes to look at her. She had spoken quite unconsciously, and even now, when the words were still hanging in the room, it was evident that she heard nothing odd in them. He wondered just how spoiled she was, just how far her notions of her private rights to do things which in more ordinary people were not permissible ranged into that abnormal which is politely called eccentricity. How far into, and how far beyond? He looked at Carados, and it occurred to him that he did not know either. Campion was very sorry for him.

"Well, what do we do now, darling?" said the lady bravely. "I'll do anything you want me to do. I'll even go and tell those over-stuffed policemen--why do they wear their collars so tight?--about the mistake I made if you tell me to. I don't want to, naturally, but we must all hang together, and if you think the first story is best..."

"My dearest girl!" Despite his efforts, Johnny's voice was rising. "It's not a question of 'Is it best?' Is it true?"

At once she was offended. She betrayed it very slightly, just enough to correct him, not enough to permit him to think for a moment that she was ungracious.

"Moralizing, Johnny?" she said. "I never thought I should hear that from you. Your father was always moralizing. It's not quite a simple question of right and wrong, is it? You see, it's not as if this dreadful thing was anything to do with us, dear. If it was our business, if we were actually concerned in it, if we were any of us to blame, even if you were, Johnny, then I think you know me well enough to realize that I should do just what I saw was right, whatever it cost us. But it's not like that. It's all so terribly unfair. This is just a wretched accident which happens to have occurred on our premises. We must protect ourselves, it's only sense. I told her so."

"You told her...? Mother, whom did you tell?"

She blinked at him, undecided whether to disown the slip altogether, or to prevaricate.

"What, darling? Don't flare up like that. Your nerves are completely upset. Oh, this is annoying."

"Mother, tell me. Have you ever spoken to that woman who died?"

"No, darling, of course I haven't. Don't be so dramatic, dearest. You're making an awful fool of yourself."

"Of whom are you talking?" he said.

"When?"

"Just now. You said 'I told her so.'"

"Oh, that." She had had time to recover herself, and was laughing. "Why, I told Gwenda so this morning. I said, 'It's nothing to do with us and people are simply trying to drag us into it because we're wealthy and well known.' There are always people who do that. If one fights back, they squeal."

Campion glanced at Carados and saw that whether he was satisfied or not, and it hardly seemed possible that he should be, he would not press the point. Instead he said abruptly:

"What are the police doing now?"

"I don't know. They've taken the clothes away. One of them, the same stupid little person, told me he'd be obliged to me if I'd stay indoors until tomorrow morning, which seemed silly and officious."

"And yet you came down here?"

"Well, my dear, you don't suppose I intended--or he expected me to take him literally, do you?"

Johnny Carados said nothing. Both he and Campion were listening. Footsteps sounded on the floor above, and presently someone came down the stairs. Campion hurried out to meet Captain Gold, who was on the staircase. The man gaped at him.

"I was coming down to see if anyone could arrange some coffee," he said, his deep voice lowered. "Good, strong coffee. Robson says it's to be as black as they can get it."

"Gee-gee!" Johnny came out of the door as he spoke and closed it firmly after him so that they were all huddled together in the little hall. "Does that mean--?"

"Yes, I think so." Gold's teeth flashed in his beard. "It's been a very near thing, but I believe Robson has pulled it off. The old gentleman is made of tough material. I'm needed up there, though, so if you could get some coffee made--. Robson will want you, Johnny. He's going to be a little sticky, I'm afraid."

"Is he? Right. You go back, and we'll get the coffee."

Relief was shaking Carados as fear had never done. He slurred his words a little and his hand shook on Campion's arm.

"You'll see to it, won't you? I'll get back in here and try to send her home. With luck no one need ever know about this. Poor old boy, I'm glad. Oh God, I'm glad!"

Gee-gee Gold glanced at the door. "Mrs. Shering?" he enquired.

"No, my mother."

"Oh, I see." It was evident he realized the gravity of the situation. "I'll go back then. You get the coffee, Mr. Campion. Very strong, and plenty of it."

He crept back up the stairs on fat, pointed feet, and Carados turned to Campion again.

"Not a word to a soul," he said urgently. "With luck we'll get clean away with it. I'll manage Bush and Dion; they'll see reason. This is a heaven-sent break. I don't deserve it. I can hardly believe it. I've been feeling like a murderer and it isn't true."

As Mr. Campion went on down the stairs he wondered about Johnny, and about his mother he wondered even more. The one important and immediate problem, however, was the coffee.

The house was quiet and cold, and when he found the front hall empty he looked about for Miss Chivers with a certain anxiety. There was no sign of her in the dark downstairs room, but at last he found the entrance to a flight of service stairs. Below in the basement it was still very quiet, but he saw a crack of light beneath the centre doorway. He entered without knocking and stepped into a vast, brightly lit, old-fashioned kitchen with a stone floor, hooks in the ceiling, and a huge table taking up nearly all the room. An old woman sat by the stove, her feet resting on a bright steel fender.

But it was not she who caught Mr. Campion's startled attention, for at the table, disconsolate as children kept in school, were two men each of whom appeared to be engaged in the melancholy business of sitting the other out. One was Superintendent Yeo, neat and clean in plain clothes, and the other, surprisingly clad in the uniform of a Civil Defence Warden, was a man Mr. Campion had seen twice before. Above the blue battle blouse loured the narrow face and unforgettable eyes of Stavros's partner, the ubiquitous Mr. Pirri.

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