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Chapter 25

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« on: February 01, 2023, 07:55:37 am »

THE big club-room of The Red Queen at Chessing was set for the inquest, and the landlord had done what he could. Nothing could remove the comforting smell of beer, of course, but the narrow white-scrubbed tables had been rearranged, the spittoons set inconveniently under them, and about seventy-five of the ash-trays put away. The photographs of Free Foresters secretaries and the landlord's ancestors remained.

Yeo and the County Superintendent, a delightful person, who had a smile for ever hovering on his lantern face, stood talking in a corner with a police doctor, while the jury, very solemn and tidy in its best clothes, as became its public duty, sat waiting.

At the far end of the room, Miss Pork, redder than ever in black, was nodding and glowing at Holly and Peter Onyer, who had just arrived with Theodore Bush. The secretary of the Museum of Wine looked a little pale after his recent harrowing experiences, but he still was an impressive figure and his wide tweed coat hung jauntily.

Neither Mr. Campion nor the Coroner was in the room, but they had both been seen to arrive at the inn when those of the jury who wished to do so were viewing the body, and they were supposed, by those interested, to be somewhere in the back with the Chief Constable and Stanislaus Oates.

There were a few spectators, but not many, for the victim had been a stranger, and her manner of dying, by falling from a window, was not unusual. The more extraordinary points of interest in the case had been kept under the helmets of the police and were expected to remain there. The sole purpose of the present proceeding was to get Miss Chivers decently buried, for by the law of the land interment was impossible until the local Coroner had made his enquiry and so released the parish of Chessing from its responsibility. The local authorities were curious to see so many distinguished people present, and Superintendent Beckworth of the County C.I.D. was chaffing Yeo gently on the subject.

"I see you've got plenty of witnesses, Superintendent," he said. "Hasn't the right one come yet?"

Yeo glanced up at the big moon-faced clock set over the pair of buffalo horns at the end of the room. He was uneasy.

"He'll be along," he said without great conviction. "He's R.A.F. They'll get him here."

"If he comes by parachute," put in the little police doctor a little foolishly, as he glanced at his watch. "I hope he won't keep us waiting much longer. These are busy times, you know."

"He'll come," said Yeo, but his eyes wandered towards the casement through which there was a fine view of the long straight road, rising up to the ridge a mile away.

On the other side of the room, Miss Pork was equally inquisitive, and Holly was suffering.

"We can't begin without Lord Carados, because of the formal identification, I suppose," she said. "I'm surprised the girl had no relations. I thought everyone had relations of a sort. Of course if one's mad that probably makes it less likely. Still, it makes it very hard on him; I thought he looked most upset at the time, but then we all were. He'll be very glad to see you here, Major Onyer, and you too, Mr. Bush. What are friends if they're not with one at awkward moments? It's most kind of you to come and back him up. He'll appreciate that, of course. He is late, isn't he? Perhaps he's felt he couldn't face it, but he didn't seem that sort of man."

"He'll come, ma'am," said Holly, but he, too, looked at the clock and his tone was ominous rather than assured.

Theodore Bush cleared his throat and addressed Miss Pork with a pompousness which he appeared to have decided was her due.

"In all my long experience of Lord Carados, I have never known him disappoint a gathering," he said. "A few moments late, perhaps, but absent, never."

"How nice. But, of course, you never can tell with the war," declared Miss Pork brightly. "I've experienced many wars, but this one is far more often inconvenient than any I can remember. Isn't that so, Inspector? There seems to be so much more going on in it than usual."

Holly, who was often rendered speechless by Miss Pork, was at a loss once more, and Onyer intervened.

"Yes, by Jove, there is the war," he said. "He'd have phoned if he couldn't make it, but anything might delay him. Look here, Inspector, if it's just evidence of identification I can give that as well as anybody."

"Ah, my dear boy, but perhaps it isn't," murmured Theodore Bush. "After all, he came down here with the woman, didn't he? I don't know what they'll want to go into at this juncture, do you?"

"Only cause of death, sir." Holly spoke briskly. "That's all these Coroners' Courts are concerned with. The whole thing shouldn't take above a half-hour. Oh, there's Mr. Campion out in the road, I see. No, he can't see anybody coming, either."

Peter Onyer turned. "Perhaps I'd better join him," he suggested.

"I don't think you're going to have a chance, sir. Here they come, don't they?"

Holly was right. The door had opened, and now the Coroner entered, followed by the two Chief Constables, Campion bringing up the rear.

"Just sit where you are, please," the Inspector whispered. "You'll be called when you're needed."

A hush fell over the room and Doctor Forster took his place. He was a small man, thin and shrivelled, who bore, and knew that he bore, a striking resemblance to the best-known portrait of Laurence Sterne. His lips were cruel and his eye-sockets as dark as if they had been painted, but his whole face was rendered less impressive than it might have been by an incipient naughtiness, a lightness, and a vanity which partially explained why such an obvious personality should blossom so obscurely. Before he sat down he glanced round him with brisk professional interest, not at all unlike an actor manager appraising the house on his first entrance. Then he settled himself, took up his pen with a flourish and opened the proceedings in a quiet, intentionally dangerous little voice, rather unpleasant to hear.

Mr. Campion, who had spent the last half-hour with him, was not the most attentive member of his audience. He had edged his way to a seat from which he could command a view of the road stretching out like a long grey stair-carpet towards the dark trees on the ridge. It was quite empty, and looked inexpressibly lonely in the fine rain which had begun to fall at midday and now showed no sign of clearing. As he sat, Campion's lean figure sagged, and the bones of his shoulders showed through his jacket. Every now and again he glanced down the road and at each disappointment the dull light in his pale eyes became intensified. Now that the moment had come, now that his fear was becoming a reality, he was stunned. The full story, as he saw it now, appearing in its true light, was unbearable; one of those tragedies which rankle for a lifetime. Even now with the certainty practically upon him he could not bring himself to believe it. He looked down the road again. It was unbroken and lay lonely and straight as a sword.

Meanwhile the brief inquisition was proceeding. The jury had been sworn, and as each witness made his statement it was taken down in long-hand and signed.

Mr. Campion turned from the window and gave his mind to the inquest. After all, the play was not yet over. He could see Oates sitting forward a little in his chair, and the local Chief Constable fidgeting. Yeo was uneasy, too, and Holly blinked as he strove to appear as bored as the proceedings would normally have rendered him. So far the inquest had taken its ordinary course, and even the Coroner could not make it dramatic. The ancient formula proceeded slowly and painstakingly. The local Inspector gave evidence of the place of death; the police doctor followed, and no medical Latin could hide the simple fact that a woman had fallen from a window into an area and had, by striking her head on a stone coping, broken her neck.

To Miss Pork's disappointment she was not called, and it was Holly who rose to explain the circumstances of death, together with a precise statement of the time.

Mr. Campion had heard a great deal of police evidence in his career, but he was impressed by the Inspector. The statement of fact, just sufficient for credence and not enough to make any sort of picture, was masterly.

Acting on previous information, he said, he with other police officials stood in a concealed place in the house aforementioned and observed the deceased acting in a manner which left no doubt in their minds as to her sanity. In order to prevent an act of violence offered by the deceased to the householder, he had advanced across the room and the deceased, then in a state of frenzy, had thrown herself from the window, which was closed at the time, and had fallen, most regrettably, to what was afterwards discovered to be her death.

A quirk of amusement twisted the Coroner's thin lips as he wrote, and for an instant Campion was afraid he was about to query. But the moment passed. Holly signed, and sat down.

The Coroner glanced at the statement, looked round the Court, eyed the door questioningly, and returned to murmur something to his clerk.

"Now," he said, his quiet, unpleasant voice reaching to every corner of the room, "we come to the question of identity. We are not bound to press for this in this Court. It is sufficient for us to decide how and when and where this unfortunate woman died, but in cases like this, it is always incumbent upon us to do everything we can to assist those authorities who may be in charge of any proceeding which may follow out of an incident of this kind. I understand it is generally supposed that the deceased has no near kin. I also understand that her employer, who accompanied her on the fatal occasion, was due to come here this afternoon to give the necessary formal evidence.

"Is Wing Commander Lord Carados in the Court?"

There was no answer.

The police looked wooden, and the public sheepish. The Coroner waited, and Campion understood that he was playing for time. He did it very well, too, using his natural idiosyncrasies as a cloak.

"Wing Commander Lord Carados," he said again. "Is he here? If so, will he stand up, please?"

Again there was the long silence. The usher crossed to the Coroner's table and stood whispering.

It was then that the door opened and Tovey looked in. His clean pink face wore a startled expression, and his eyes were excited. He made an almost imperceptible gesture towards Oates, who looked away. The Coroner was watching and he sighed with satisfaction.

"I see he's not here," he said. "In that case, since I feel it is my duty to see that this question is settled, once and for all, I shall take an unusual step. I have here on my table a certificate of marriage which I have reason to believe was the property of the dead woman. It is dated June the third, nineteen thirty-eight. I see that she is described upon it as Eleanor Dorothy Chivers, spinster, born nineteen hundred and nine. The other party, the husband, is, I have reason to believe, in this Court at this moment. Theodore Bush, will you stand up, please?"

For an instant the figure in the flowing coat did not move; the soft drooping face looked as if it had become grey porcelain. In that moment, with every eye in the room upon him, he was as tense, as wooden and as withdrawn as a crouching animal. The next moment he was on his feet, ready to protest, ready to fight his way. He gathered his resources and prepared for the effort. Yeo leaned forward and passed a slip of paper to Campion, who handed it on. He saw the single line as it went through his hand.

    "Your house has been searched and your papers examined. P. Yeo. Superintendent."

Bush took the message, read it, and crumpled the paper into a ball. Then he shrugged his shoulders and walked slowly up to the Coroner's table. The police closed in behind him.


Mr. Campion left the Court and went out into the rain.

He was bareheaded and as he walked forward down the road, a mist settled on his spectacles, so that he wandered in a cloudy world alone with himself.

He knew that in a few moments he must go back to them, and would join with Oates and Yeo and the other good fellows in the general jubilation. He knew he would do his best to enlighten Onyer, who had played his part so well, and had brought Bush down with him so innocently. He knew that he would speak a word with little Tovey, who had been so patient with the abominable country exchanges, and had got the all-important message from Sergeant Pelly through in time. He knew just how it would be. He could hear the guarded explanations and, thanks to the Coroner, could imagine the ride home with Oates, and could see already Yeo leaning over the back seat as he thought of yet another detail and fitted it into the completed plan. He could already hear the discussions; he could hear Yeo explaining laboriously just why Dolly Chivers had attempted to kill Bush when there was no hope of her recovering the incriminating bottles of Les Enfants Doux before he was confronted with them; could hear him explain why Bush was so certain that the wine which Don had discovered was a fake, and was yet so anxious to prove to everybody that indeed it was one, that he arranged the little party to obtain public proof of the fact.

Campion could hear Yeo cursing himself for not realizing that the man they sought was Bush all the time; Bush, the self-confessed worshipper of the good and pretty things of life; Bush most ingenious; Bush using Johnny's employees and Johnny's name.

Campion could hear and see it all so clearly that it made him sick. As he wandered on, he allowed himself to think of Johnny, and the angry questions came unbidden from his under-mind. What did you expect, he asked himself, what did you expect from that kind of man, with that kind of background, and that kind of pride? How would you have supposed he might react to an outrageous suspicion of this kind? How long did you expect him to sit down under the constant prying, the interference with his private life? What do you imagine was his reaction to the discovery that his secretary, whom he trusted, was in league against him? What would be the effect on a man of this kind of so much disloyalty everywhere? Would you expect him to make a row about it, or would it occur to you that he might throw in his hand?

Who sent him to his death somewhere out there on that perfect night? Was it Oates? Was it Yeo? Was it the sneaking fear in the faces of his own friends? Or was it you, Campion? Is it possible that you, yourself, provided the final straw?

Mr. Campion did not attempt to answer. He went striding on, his head bent, the rain creeping closer to him, hiding him, shrouding him. He was very ashamed.

The little car nearly ran him down. It pulled up with a scream as he leapt aside and a big, square head came out through the driving window to look at him.

"Walking home?"

Campion's heart leapt. The rain on his spectacles blinded him, but he knew the voice.

"Hello, Johnny," he said, unaware that his voice was not altogether normal. "I thought you weren't coming."

"So did I," said Lord Carados. "Get in. Is the party over?"

They sat in the car for a long time, and the rain settled on the roof and made maps of Europe over the windscreen. Mr. Campion made no bones about the story. His account was lucid and comprehensive.

"Theo?" said Carados. "I did wonder. I knew he had married her, you see."

"You knew?"

"Yes, I knew at the time, or just after. She told me she'd done it and regretted it, and wasn't going to live with him, and could she carry on. I said right-ho, and shut up about it. Then after that dreadful business down here I did wonder, naturally. He married her to hold her, I suppose. It must have been part of the scheme. How devastatingly thorough those chaps are, aren't they?"

"He was very clever," said Campion. "Having his own stuff from the Museum of Wine pinched was very astute."

"That was because his committee wouldn't let him send the stuff where he wanted to. There was a tremendous row about it for weeks. He's a curious chap. What will they do to him?"

"God knows. There'll be a trial in camera, I suppose, unless the war ends first."

"Yes," said Johnny. "Yes."

Mr. Campion took off his spectacles, and for the first time saw his companion clearly.

"My hat!" he said. "Are you all right?"

Johnny Carados smiled through his patches. "I'm marvelous," he said. "They think I'm asbestos, but they wouldn't let me go until two hours ago. I had a little outing last night, and got back on nothing but a horrible noise and strong smell of fire. What the hell is the matter with you?"

Mr. Campion told him. He was very weary and he spoke with a frankness which is only permissable among people of exactly the same age. Carados heard him in silence.

"You're stinkingly nearly right, old boy," he said at last, "but I'm not quite as bad as that. Not quite," he added quickly. "Damned nearly. No, what happened was that some time ago I had an idea that a single pilot in a certain kind of kite with a certain kind of load might do a certain rather useful bit of damage. I can't go into it, you don't want me to, do you? But it meant a sticky job for somebody. The target I had in mind was human and was pretty well protected." He hesitated. "Don't go and glorify this," he said. "It was just a special job which, like most of them, aren't too healthy. In fact the chances of getting there were very much better than those of getting back, if you follow me."

"Well, I thought that as I'd thought of it the least I could do was to present the prize to myself, as it were, and I moved heaven and earth to get permission. That was reasonable, wasn't it?"

"Very." Mr. Campion spoke sincerely. He was feeling much happier and some of the vague affableness of his youth returned to him. "Did you get him?"

"We don't know yet. It was a lovely bouquet right on the spot. He must have heard a pop. Then the fun started. God, I was terrified!"

"This other business was nothing to do with it?"

Johnny Carados started the car. "Nothing is nothing to do with anything," he said. "I didn't see how I could get back, and as things were I didn't see I cared much. That's roughly how it worked out. That's why I fixed up to marry Susan; she didn't love me, you know--hadn't got much idea what love was then, poor kid. Tom wrote himself off within a week of the wedding. I'm very fond of her, but I didn't see her enjoying living with me, or me with her, of course."

Mr. Campion did not quite follow, but was too polite to say so. Presently he explained:

"Money," he said. "Money, old boy. Our family always had a packet and for a very good reason. It's all entailed; no incumbent alive or dead can touch a farthing of the capital. I couldn't do much for Tom's girl except see her decently provided for, and I couldn't leave it to her. But once I'd married her, she got an income automatically from the family bag. She hasn't a bean herself, and the Admiral isn't wealthy. I promised Tom I'd look after her and this seemed the easiest way. No questions asked, no talk, nothing. I'd timed it very neatly, I thought." He laughed awkwardly. "I didn't think it was feasible for anyone to get back from this job last night. I'd have been in a hell of a mess now, wouldn't I?"

Suddenly he stopped the car, still some distance from The Red Queen's mock Tudor towers.

"I say, Campion," he demanded, "do we have to go to this ropey old pub? I've got a date with an actress."

Mr. Campion sat up as the car began to turn.

"That's a good idea," he said, "come to think of it I've got to catch a train."


It was morning, sunny and cold and promising, when Mr. Campion left the tiny station which could offer him no conveyance, and walked down the lane with the high hedges on either side. For the first time for many years he was feeling hopelessly nervous for purely social reasons.

He turned at the water-mill, and took the wooden bridge. Before him the woods of the park clustered dark and friendly. He followed the rosy wall built in serpentine waves for strength, and would have turned in at the iron gates where the stone griffins kept guard had he not been stopped by a sentry. This solid stranger in battle-dress was not impressed by Mr. Campion's story.

"Not without a pass, sir," he said firmly. "I can't help it, not whoever you are."

Mr. Campion repeated his name. "But it's my house," he said.

"Not now, sir. It's an Alandel supplementary aircraft factory now, and without a pass you can't come in."

"But Alan Dell is my brother-in-law," protested the home-comer helplessly. "My wife lives in the old chauffeur's cottage, that's it over there. You can see the roof. Look."

"I'm sorry, sir." The sentry appeared genuinely regretful, "but it can't be helped. Write to the management, state your business fully, and if everything's in order you'll get your pass in a day or so, no doubt."

The lean man in the horn-rimmed spectacles turned away. He walked on, still following the road which ran along by the wall, until he came to the corner where the bank ran high. There he paused and looked up anxiously. It was all right. The beech still hung long arms to the wiry grass. He swung himself over even more easily than he had done thirty years before, and dropped lightly on to what might well have been the same heap of rotting leaves with the same exciting aromatic smell. From where he stood he could just see the house far away on its carefully chosen eminence, looking like a dolls' house or a detail from the background of an eighteenth-century portrait, but he was not near enough to observe all the changes there. He noticed the tremendous activities in the drive, and the two new roofs rising up in a flourish of camouflage from behind the west wing caught his attention, but he did not go closer to look.

Picking his way carefully among the trees, he found the narrow path which led through the rhododendrons. It took him by graceful and leisurely stages to a wicket gate and a clearing beyond, where a little house stood with its back to him.

Mr. Campion opened the gate, crossed the vegetable patch and, skirting the cottage wall, turned on to the little grass lawn which had a muddy path running through it. There he stopped abruptly, an intense emotion, three parts honest embarrassment, overcoming him.

There was a person not yet three upon the path; he was white-haired and was wearing sun glasses. At the moment he was squatting by a puddle, one discarded sandal firmly clasped in his hand.

His preoccupation was a simple one. He was trying to fit the shoe into an imprint recently made by it in the mud.

As Mr. Campion came up to him, he raised his head from his task and stared upward, and for a time they stood looking at one another in amazement.

A girl with red hair and a wide mouth came out of the cottage and joined them. She was brown and slender, and her green dress was formal and a little old-fashioned.

"Hello," said Amanda, "meet my war work."

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