The Art-Music, Literature and Linguistics Forum

Our Library => Cyril Hare - Tragedy at Law (1942) => Topic started by: Admin on April 28, 2023, 12:28:29 pm

Title: 14: Reflections and Reactions
Post by: Admin on April 28, 2023, 12:28:29 pm
IT was the interval between tea and dinner. Barber, who had declared his intention of preparing a reserved judgment, was (as a stealthy reconnaissance proved) slumbering in an arm-chair in the smoking-room. Derek judged this to be a good opportunity to show the parcel and its contents to Hilda. She examined it with the greatest interest and, he was glad to note, seemed to think that he had acted quite properly in waylaying it on suspicion. It was clear that she attached a certain significance to the unpleasant little incident, which to Derek was as pointless as it was disgusting; but she seemed unwilling to tell him what it was.

Hilda looked first at the legend on the label (which Derek had at her request removed from the mouse before she would consent to touch anything) and, having read it, said significantly, “Ah!”

Derek waited for something more enlightening, but in vain.

Next she examined the brown paper wrapping. This time she observed, “Addressed to him and not to me. Typical!”

Derek was more and more puzzled.

Hilda then turned her attention to the rather smudged postmark. “Can you make it out?” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” said Derek, but it looks like ‘Rampleford’.”

“Yes. I believe you’re right. And the time is---what?”

“Something 45 p.m. It looks like a six to me.”

“Six or eight,” said Hilda doubtfully. “We can find out what the time of the last collection is from the post-office here.”

“Perhaps the police would do that for us,” Derek suggested.

“I don’t think this is a matter we need trouble the police about. If it is what I think it is, I am sure we needn’t.”

“Then you don’t think----?”

“Would you be very kind, Derek, and fetch me a Bradshaw? Beamish has got one in his room, I know. And do dispose of that horrible object somewhere. It makes me quite sick to look at it.”

Derek incinerated the mouse in the dining-room fire and duly fetched the Bradshaw. When he had brought it, Hilda thanked him prettily, begged him quite unnecessarily not to mention the affair to the Judge or anybody else, and retired with it and the exhibits in the case to her own room, leaving Derek gloomily wondering why females always had such a passion for secretiveness.

Hilda had decided in her own mind at her first sight of the message attached to the mouse that Sally Parsons had sent it. It remained to see whether or not it was physically possible for her to have done so. If not, she concluded, so much the worse for possibility. But fortunately for her faith in her own instinct Bradshaw appeared to bear her out. She found that by leaving Trafalgar Square punctually at 2.15, Sally could have caught a fast train which would bring her in to Rampleford at 4.35. Supposing that she was met at the station, she would be home by five o’clock. Allow her half an hour in which to extract from Sebald-Smith an account of his visit from Hilda that morning, another half-hour in which to decide on a suitable retort and to prepare the parcel, she would be left with just sufficient time to make her way back to Rampleford in the dark and to reach the head post-office before 6.45.

None the less, though the scheme seemed possible in theory, Hilda was doubtful whether it could have been accomplished in practice. For one thing, it allowed hardly any time for catching the mouse---unless, indeed, the charming creature kept a store of them all ready for distribution among her friends. More important, perhaps, was the obvious fact that however anxious Sally was to show her opinion of Hilda’s interference, and however nimble in devising her retort, she would be most unlikely to do anything about it until she had had some tea. After all, she had probably eaten nothing for lunch beyond a hasty snack at the National Gallery canteen; and Bradshaw did not credit the train with a restaurant car. Everything, therefore, depended on whether Derek was right in reading the postmark as 6.45. Until that could be determined the matter was still uncertain.

Carefully locking away the label, box and paper, she went back to the drawing-room. There Derek looked up from the evening paper to inform her with an air of sulky martyrdom (which was completely lost on her) that he had rung up the post-office and discovered that the last collection for local delivery was, in fact, at 8.45. This put the matter beyond any doubt in Hilda’s mind. She received the news with such complacency that Derek, who had firmly determined not to oblige her ladyship by showing any curiosity at all, was provoked into asking further questions.

“Do you think you know where this parcel came from?” he asked.

“Yes. I am quite sure.”

“And you still don’t want to tell the police about it?”

“No, I don’t. Because, Derek, knowing what I know, I am certain that it has nothing to do with the threats against the Judge which we have been watching. This is just a nasty piece of vulgarity, directed against me, really---and I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you about it now.”

“I must say I should have thought there wasn’t a great deal of difference between sending a dead mouse to a person and sending him a box of chocolates stuffed with carbide. But I dare say you know best.”

And thereupon, somewhat moodily, Derek went upstairs to dress for dinner.

Hilda had been so pleased at her own perspicacity in detecting the identity of the sender of the mouse (though, candidly, this was obvious enough, and obvious also that the sender had intended it to be so) that she had not yet seriously considered its implications. Now that she began to do so, however, she found some course for disquiet. In the first place, Derek’s comparison of this parcel with the other one which had caused so much trouble at Southington was clearly a justifiable one. There was an obvious difference between them. The first had been a carefully disguised form of attack, though not perhaps a very serious one; the second was an open piece of bravado. But none the less it certainly looked probable enough that one mind had conceived the two. And if so, that mind was the mind of Sally Parsons.

From this it followed (Hilda’s thoughts ran on) that Inspector Mallett was right and she was wrong. Her theory that everything untoward which had happened during the course of the circuit must be traced to one source would not stand. Obviously, Sally Parsons was not responsible for an anonymous letter sent before the motor accident; and Hilda doubted whether she was likely to have procured someone to come to Wimblingham to give her a black eye. It was sufficiently galling to have to admit that her instinct had played her false. The fact also that there were now at least two enemies in the field gave her the uneasy sensation of being compassed about with dangers.

But it was when she began to consider the significance of the message in the parcel itself that she really felt unhappy. Obviously, it was a message of defiance. But was it not also one of triumph? Hilda had been positive, when she returned from her visit to Sebald-Smith, that she had been successful in persuading him to come to a reasonable compromise in his claim for damages. Now she was not so sure. Her enemy’s impudent gesture seemed to suggest that she had already won back the vacillating Sebald-Smith and that Hilda’s arguments of reason and interest alike would be forgotten under her influence. And if that were so, the outlook for herself and her husband was black indeed. She was under no illusions as to the intensity of Sally Parson’s dislike for her. If she had been, this latest manifestation of it would have opened her eyes. Moreover, the fact that she had addressed her disgusting communication to the Judge made it clear that she was anxious to lower Hilda in the eyes of her husband and add domestic unpleasantness to all their other troubles. Thank Heaven, that part of the scheme at least had miscarried. Meanwhile---and to Hilda’s active nature this was the hardest part to bear---there was nothing to be done except to await events. She had the night before written to Michael, telling him of what she then believed to be the success of her negotiations, and asking him to put forward a proposal to the solicitors on the other side. She could do nothing now until their reply was received, although she was only too sure in her own mind what it would be.

Fortunately for her peace of mind, dinner that evening provided Hilda with some distraction, and distraction of the kind which she most enjoyed. Her husband, having slumbered away the time which he had intended to devote to his judgment, made up for his neglect by discussing the points at issue during the meal. Hilda, more to keep her mind off other subjects than for any better reason, debated each turn in the argument with vigour and the result was that Derek was treated to a first-rate exposition, by experts, of, among other things, the liabilities of innkeepers at Common Law and the precise meaning and effect of trespass ab initio. It is to be feared, however, that his private preoccupations prevented him from profiting as he should have done from what should have been a valuable contribution to his legal education.

By the end of dinner, the case in all its aspects, both of law and fact, had been thoroughly debated, the Judge had stated what his decision would be, her ladyship had been good enough to concur with him, and there, it might have been imagined, the matter would have ended. But just as Pettigrew drank whisky to try to forget the fact that Jefferson had been preferred to him as a Judge of the County Court, so Hilda plunged into legal argument in an endeavour to dull her mind to the fact that Sally Parsons had got the better of her. It was the distraction from disagreeable reality to which she instinctively turned, just as more ordinarily constituted people turn to the cinema, the pub, or the lending library. Her means of escape certainly was more intellectual than the normal ones. On the other hand, it had the disadvantage that, given time, it became extremely boring to anyone else who happened to be in her company.

The Judge displayed exemplary patience for some time while Hilda continued to hold forth on a subject which had long since lost its interest. Sitting back in his chair, he was content to utter monosyllabic words of agreement in the intervals of eating chocolate caramels. Finally, however, he evidently thought it time to create a diversion.

“I think, my dear, since you are so interested, that you ought to refresh your memory of the original authorities,” he said. “Marshal, you will find some books on my desk. Would you mind bringing them here?”

From that moment, silence reigned in the drawing-room. Hilda buried her head in the heavy volumes of the Law Reports as though they had been the most enthralling of adventure stories. Presently Barber went upstairs to bed, and presumably also to write his judgment, for it was duly delivered next morning. Not long afterwards Derek followed him. His last sight was of Hilda, still preoccupied in her reading, and apparently forgetful of the fact that according to their agreement she was to be called at three o’clock for her turn of duty. She was sitting with a volume of the King’s Bench Reports on her knee. Apparently she had strayed beyond the subject which had originally brought it there, for she was turning its pages, reading here and there as a lover of poetry might dip into first one and then another of the contents of an anthology. It was an odd spectacle, he thought at the time, and one that he had reason to call to mind long afterwards.