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Chapter 20

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« on: February 01, 2023, 04:06:48 am »

IT WAS an angry-coloured house, puce rather than red, and it skulked at the end of a narrow drive flanked with too many shrubs; an essay in Victorian Gothic at its worst. They were early, but not indecently so. Mr. Campion had insisted on eating, and Holly had pressed to be allowed to make certain checks on Angus Sloane's story before they acted upon it. But all the same, it was only just after nine when Tovey, in his capacity as the necessary sergeant, brought the car up to the porch with the stained-glass windows.

Miss Pork kept them waiting in a hall which to searchers after beauty was discouraging. Despite the Chief's card, she sent word that she was at breakfast and would see Mr. Oates when she had finished, and Holly, who took a suspicious view of the excuse, was startled by the discovery that this was indeed a fact. Through panels of iron-work and glass in the door immediately on their right, a dim figure could be seen at a meal.

Oates grunted amiably at the elderly maid who brought the message, and seated himself on a hard, wooden chair which had a heart cut out in its waisted back. He looked both patient and immovable. Holly was more fidgety. He stood very near the dreadful door, and peered through it at times, his face set in disapproval. Tovey, imitating his Chief, took another wooden chair, but Mr. Campion wandered.

It had occurred to him that he had seen houses like this before; he looked for the door of a room which would have a southern view, and having located it, he drifted towards it casually.

Presently, when he was forgotten, he opened it gently, popped his head inside, and came out looking amazed. After that, his impatience to see Miss Pork was almost unbearable.

She came at last, bustling through the baroquerie, a surprise to everybody. Miss Pork had never been an English rose, nor any other flower; she was made of different stuff. She was very small, a fact which she countered by holding herself bolt upright, and she was scarlet. Mr. Campion thought he never had seen a redder human being; red face, red hands, she even had limp reddish hair, which escaped its moorings and hung fiercely round a protuberant red forehead. Her clothes were utilitarian and drooped backwards, and on her feet were large upturned, patriotically wooden shoes. She had a wide mouth and a voice with a quack in it, and, as she said herself, she was usually talking. Bright round eyes peered at them each in turn, and flickered as Oates rose to meet her.

"Well," she said, "what have you come for, eh?"

It was a direct attack of flame-thrower effect, and Campion thought how fitting it was that just such a castle should contain such a dragon.

Oates was not disconcerted. He remained sadly contemplative. "Are you Miss Dorothy Pork, ma'am?"

"I am. And you're Mr. Oates, Chief of the C.I.D. Well, state your business. If you've got something to say, say it; we can't waste time, there's a lot to be done. My goodness, if I stood about all the morning I don't know where we'd be. These are busy times; I've got work to do, you know."

"I dare say you have, ma'am." Oates was mild as ever. "We're none of us idle. I've come down from London to have a word or two with you about some goods which you took over from the Peters and Jack storage company. You have got them, haven't you?"

Miss Pork grew darker in colour, a surprising and even alarming sight. "This is the limit," she said, dating herself. "Really the outside edge. I suppose you sent that commercial traveller who gave himself such airs. You're doing this under one of those disgraceful new laws, are you? Or haven't you any authority at all? I shouldn't be surprised; I shall ring up my solicitor."

"Now, that would be a good idea," said Oates, with sudden enthusiasm. "Very sensible. Does he live near here? Could you get him over?"

Taken out of her stride, a little grunting laugh escaped Miss Pork. "No, don't be silly," she said unexpectedly. "He's a dreadful old fool. What is it you want? Only don't keep me standing about."

It was not that she melted so much as that she cooled a little. She smiled, too, widely, transforming herself into a slightly merry old dragon, in a way which was disarming. Oates smiled back at her.

"Have you got the stuff here, ma'am?" he enquired.

"Well, I've got a few pictures," she said, her good humour persisting, "and a few little ornaments. But I know whom they belong to, and I'm only doing it as a favour to him. I made that very clear at the time. Some of them are in here. Wipe your feet, won't you? I've just had the carpet cleaned; my mother made it many years ago and it's ra-ther precious. This way."

They trooped after her into the room that Mr. Campion had found and stood transfixed. Even Holly, who did not set up to have rigid views on the art of interior decoration, was silenced. It was a large room with huge, narrow windows and vast, thick curtains, but even so the effect was cramping. Mr. Campion had seen furniture like it before, but not in use. Two large corner-seats with trellised backs which turned into shelves for pottery dominated the far end of the apartment, and strange, many-seated stuffed contraptions sprawled in the foreground. Chandeliers in coloured beads, and one very lovely old candelabrum hung from the ceiling, and the wool carpet on which they trod bore evidence that Miss Pork's taste was hereditary.

The Croker Venus smiled wantonly from the wall just above a sensible office desk, and a truly magnificent bronze horse rose like a flame from a rosewood bracket hung with alternate ebony and ivory beads.

The Constable was nearly hidden by a pair of Benares candlesticks, a couple of very charming Chelsea figures, and a marble clock in the shape, roughly, of the Parthenon.

"Of course," said Miss Pork, cheerfully, "many of these treasures are my own. Now that," she went on, pointing to a small print framed in loops of brass wire which flanked the Venus, "that little Scottie with his baby mistress. I know it's only a Christmas card, but I've kept it for years because I like it. It may be sentimental, but it's very well done. That girl in the chemise next to it is a picture I'm minding. One or two people have admired it, but I was in two minds about having it up; it was only because the cellar was damp and I didn't want to get it injured. It's not everybody's meat and some years ago I should have hesitated to hang it in any downstairs room. But times have changed, haven't they? And a good thing too. I like to see these Land Girls in their knickers; so sensible and healthy."

She paused for breath and re-grouping, but no one seized the opportunity. Oates was looking round him very carefully. Holly was nervous, aware of ignorance, and Mr. Campion appeared lost in wonder and delight.

"Now, you don't just want to see pretty things," said Miss Pork, taking in hand a situation to which she was doubtless used. "You want to talk and you want to know what is mine and what is not. Isn't that so?"

"Is this all?" enquired Campion, suddenly emerging from his enchantment. "I mean, is it all here?"

Miss Pork's gooseberry eyes were turned upon him in astonishment. "All that came up from the hall? Oh, dear me, no, of course not. I didn't move the cases which were in the dry end of the cellar. I only peeped into those. I really haven't had time. There's a lot to do in a house like this. You'd be surprised, being a man."

"A lot to dust," ventured Tovey brightly.

"And wash," said Miss Pork. "I wash everything. I like things clean. Curtains, covers, carpets, tweeds--I wash them all. Now, these pictures could all do with a scrub. Good white soap and water never hurt anything. But of course," she added, seeing their expressions, "I shouldn't wash his things without asking."

"When you say 'his,'" said Oates, more for form's sake than anything else, "whom do you mean?"

"Oh, nonsense!" objected Miss Pork roundly. "None of that sort of rubbish, if you please. You must know whose the things are, or you wouldn't come looking for them, would you? I can see exactly what has happened. I only brought these things up to my drawing-room about six weeks ago. I did it solely to save them from damp, but people have admired them, and they must have talked. What of course they don't know, and I dare say you don't either, is that I'm a very old friend of the girl the Marquess of Carados is going to marry. I don't see her often, and I don't write to her because I don't write; I never write, if I can help it, and I don't read either. I believe in action. When I saw these things were in danger of spoiling, I said to my maid Jones, 'We must protect these, and the best place for them is in the drawing-room.' She agreed with me and we unpacked them. I didn't tell anybody this, why should I? Does it really matter where in the house the things are as long as they're looked after? Of course it doesn't. Now, you've come running down here all for nothing because I've seen to it now. Everything is quite in order now."

Her exertions and her triumph brought her to boiling-point again, and she glowed at them.

"What have you done, ma'am?" Holly's voice was commendably quiet.

"I've written to him, of course," she said.

"To Carados?"

"Yes. As soon as that little man, the commercial traveller, was his name Sloane? Yes, well, as soon as he came I realized that if word of my little change in the arrangements reached the Marquess without an explanation, he might well wonder what I was doing, for some of his things are quite nice, you know. So I sat down over there at once, and I wrote to him. I introduced myself, I told him I was the person who was housing his things, and I explained quite frankly about the damp. I also put in a postscript telling him to tell Susan that the jardinière I sent her for a present was from me. I haven't heard from her, and I remember I couldn't have put my name in; I never have a card handy when I want one. So there you are, you see, it's all settled now."

The visitors exchanged glances. "I should think it might be," said Mr. Campion. "When did you send this letter, Miss Pork, do you remember?"

"Perfectly. The day before yesterday. Directly after the commercial traveller left. It took me some time because as I say I don't write much and I had to find everything; clean notepaper and a good pen, you know. But I caught the post, I think, although I might have been a minute or two late, not enough to matter though, and he should have got it yesterday afternoon. At any rate you can be sure he's got it now, so if you go back and ask him I think you'll find there's nothing more to worry about."

She smiled at them again, and relented.

"I'm sorry you've had all this journey for nothing. Let me get you a glass of wine--beetroot. Home-made, but before the war. Very nice, rather like a very sweet port with a taste of cloves."

"No, thank you, ma'am. We won't trouble you." The Chief's bleak old eyes were laughing, despite his disappointment. "There's just a little formality before we go. We'll have to know exactly what you've got here, and how it came here, and where from."

At first it looked as if Miss Pork was about to protest, but whether she had taken a fancy to Oates, or whether she was enjoying the excitement, the fact remained that she decided to give them a few more minutes.

"Very well," she conceded, "but we must hurry. I've got to run down to the church and do the flowers before lunch, and they're always a bother. People do criticize so. Personally I like a lot of flowers in a vase, especially on an altar, there's nothing so cheerful. Well, you've seen these things up here; now we'll go down to the cellar and I can tell you all about it there. This way. You'll have to mind your heads, for you are all tall, I see."

She was out of the room before she had finished speaking, steaming along like a little red train, her wooden shoes clattering rhythmically on the coloured tiles. A low door in the varnished panelling led them to a flight of steep stairs up which rose a strong odour of decay and onions.

"I hang my shallots down here," said Miss Pork. "They're good for the moth as well as being so useful in stews and illness; so they serve two purposes, you see. Be careful of the third step from the bottom, there's only half of it there."

Since they were descending from the top, of course this last injunction took everybody's attention, and they arrived in a low-ceilinged chamber in silence. Vast packing cases filled all one half of it, and Holly was regretting that he had not brought two sergeants and a working constable when Miss Pork spoke again.

"There, you see," she said. "There is the damp."

And there it was indeed. It ran in green rivers from iron gratings high in the wall, and lay in iridescent pools on the mouldering floor.

"You couldn't keep pictures there," she said. "Not even furniture, although it's wonderful what good furniture will stand. So I took the contents of three packing cases upstairs. There are some little figurines which I put in the spare bedroom, by the way; ugly little things in some sort of ivory, but the rest you've seen in the drawing-room. Now, do you really want to undo all these boxes?"

"I'm very much afraid we shall have to, ma'am." Holly spoke from his heart. He was shining his torch on to one box less professional-looking than the rest, and the Chief glanced over his shoulder. An old label upon it, carelessly chalked across, announced that Messrs. Bull & Butler, wine merchants of Old Jewry, had at one time delivered the case to the Marquess of Carados. The newer label was still hidden against the side of the package next it.

"There's only some cardboard in there," cut in Miss Pork brightly. "I took a peep. It looks like scenery for a toy theatre. But there's some gilt ware in this big one; very elaborate pieces. One of them looks like a water pitcher for a bedroom, but it's covered with little figures and flowers, far too elaborate for use, but beautifully packed, so I hardly disturbed it. Now, where would you like to begin?"

"Just a moment, ma'am, if you please." Oates was polite but authoritative. "Before I have a complete inventory taken, I want to put one or two questions. When exactly did you take possession of all this?"

"Oh, a long while ago." Miss Pork was definite. "I've been so busy I've not had a moment to think about it; it was only the damp which reminded me it was here at all. Quite six or eight months, I should think, or was it this time last year? I'll ask Jones. She remembers what I forget, that's how we get along. I organize my life. It must have been quite a time, though, or I should never have thought of opening it. If one's known a parcel a year, one feels one can take liberties, don't you know."

The Chief seemed a little bewildered by this reasoning, but he rallied.

"You gave a receipt, of course, ma'am," he began cannily. "Didn't you have a memorandum at the same time? A document? Something written down to remind you what you'd got?"

"Oh yes, I understand you. I'm not mentally defective." Miss Pork's ruby face betrayed ferocious amusement. "I had a copy of the inventory on the firm's paper, of course, and I had some money. They paid me a sum for housing it all. That was why I felt I had an obligation in the matter. If one takes money, and one does nowadays, one must fulfil one's commitments. Mind you, I wouldn't have done it for anyone, but when I understood who owned it all, then I said to the woman that I felt I should do what I could. The aristocracy is dying, I know, but they mustn't be hurried, I said."

"The woman?" cried Holly, unable to play the Chief's more patient game.

"Certainly." Miss Pork turned her blazing glance upward. "The representative of the storage firm was a woman. I've entirely forgotten her name if I ever knew it, but she certainly was a woman. I don't see anything unusual in that, do you? Women do many things beside representing storage firms."

Having finished with Holly she turned to Oates. "Now, as I was just going to tell you, I received a sum of money for one year's rent on my cellar in advance, and as I have not yet received any more I deduce the year is not yet up. I hope you don't expect me to tell you how much money I received; I'll tell you if you like, but surely you don't expect me to."

"I'd like to have seen the cheque, ma'am."

"Oh, there was no cheque. As it was a small sum I accepted two five-pound notes. It suited me. I like to have a little money in the house; certain things are always paid in cash, the oil man, for instance, and..."

"But you kept the inventory, ma'am?" Oates managed to divert rather than to check the flow.

"Of course I did," she said. "In my desk. I kept it right up to a few months ago, and I've got a bit of it now, which I'll show you."

"A bit of it?" murmured Oates, his head on one side.

"Yes, the end quarter. It just says 'Sealed Case twenty-nine' or something like that. I know, because I've been looking at it lately. A young American officer came to tea and admired one of the pictures in the drawing-room; he asked what it was called, and I said I'd find out because I must say I like a boy to be interested in the home. So I went to my desk, and then I found out."

"The name of the picture?" demanded Holly in excitement.

"No." Miss Pork laughed at herself. "No. I was so annoyed. I found I'd only got this end bit of the inventory. As soon as I laid eyes on it I remembered what I must have done. I don't know if things like that come back to you, but they do to me. As soon as I saw it I knew what had happened. I came in here late one night in the winter and I couldn't find any matches; I didn't like to turn on the lights because the black-out wasn't done, but I never think a single flame counts, do you? There was a little fire in the grate left, so I went to my desk in the dark and took out something to make a spill to light a candle. I tore it in half, I remember that, for one mustn't waste paper, and I thrust one half back in the drawer, and of course that must have been the inventory. I've kept the end half, though, and I'll get it for you now."

She was off before they could stop her, her limp skirt flapping almost to her ankles as she clattered up the steps.

The Chief looked at Campion, and the younger man nodded. "Oh yes, God made her," he said, "no one else would have the nerve. They grow like that in the corners of rural England. I wonder what she's got in the spare bedroom. The Waterlow Ivories, or something like that?"

Holly, who was sitting on a packing case, studying some typewritten pages which he had taken from his pocket, glanced up. "It's the Lauderdale House stuff here," he said huskily; "that ewer she mentioned, that's the Lauderdale Treasure by the sound of it. There's a basin and a chalice made by an Italian called Mattioti; it's very valuable according to the owners. Solid, blessed gold for one thing, and she's keeping it down here." He looked round the cellar, his eyes protruding slightly. "It's wonderful, isn't it?" he said.

Oates sniffed. He had been considering the packing cases and now came to a decision. "If I were you, Holly, I'd get the local cops in on this, d'you know," he said. "There's a lot of work here, and it must be done carefully. Old Colonel Rufus is the C.C., and he's a very decent old stick. When our good lady comes back I'd slip up to the phone and have a word with him."

"Just what I had in mind, Mr. Oates." Holly spoke with relief. "It'll take care of this end and leave me free to go straight after Carados. I think we've got him now. All this will have to be checked, of course, but I think the evidence is here if we look for it."

Oates was not so sure. "There's her word and that old label on the box over there so far," he objected. "Neither is exactly concrete, I should like something better than that. But perhaps you're right. I'd like to see that inventory. I suppose she is coming back."

Holly looked up blankly. "Why, I never thought," he began, but got no further.

A woman was coming down the stairs. It was not Miss Pork, but the maidservant who had admitted them. She held a scrap of paper on a tray and thrust it out towards the group.

"Madam asked me to give this to Mr. Oates," she said. "She hopes you'll excuse her coming down for a minute or two, but she's just had a visitor come. She said I was to tell you who it was as she thought you'd like to know."

"Oh yes?" said Oates, stretching out his hand to take what was left of the inventory.

The woman dropped her glance, and spoke in a respectful murmur. "It's the Marquess of Carados upstairs," she said. "Him and a lady. The one who came here before."

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