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Our Library => Cyril Hare - Tragedy at Law (1942) => Topic started by: Admin on April 29, 2023, 11:19:59 am

Title: 24: Explanations in the Temple
Post by: Admin on April 29, 2023, 11:19:59 am
PETTIGREW was late at his chambers next morning. John, who was a stickler for punctuality, whether the work in hand necessitated it or not, greeted him with reproachful looks and was barely propitiated by the explanation that the Underground train by which he had travelled had been for some reason or another held up outside South Kensington station for three quarters of an hour. Grudgingly John admitted that there were no appointments that morning and only one set of papers which had come in over night and were not pressing. He had hardly left the room before he was back again.

“That Mr. Marshall is here, wanting to see you, sir,” he announced. “He has a young lady with him.”

Pettigrew, who had arrived at the chambers looking more harassed and care-worn than seemed warranted even by a breakdown on the Underground, cheered up at once.

“My dear fellow!” he cried, as the door opened to admit Derek and Sheila. “This is an unexpected pleasure indeed. I thought you were still in fetters. And Miss Bartram too---the last time I saw you, you were looking distinctly dishevelled. Congratulations on your release. Or are you only on bail?”

“No,” said Derek. “It’s all over and done with so far as we are concerned. I thought I must come round and tell you at once. We both came up before the Lord Mayor this morning. The case didn’t take more than a minute, and he was really very decent about it. He fined me forty shillings and Sheila was bound over.”

“Gross partiality. If I had been called as a witness I should have had to say that of the two of you Miss Bartram was far the more determined in her assault on the police.”

“The one snag about it all is,” said Derek, “that I’m not likely to keep my job at the Ministry after this.”

“We must do something about that. I have a few friends at court, you know, and it so happens that one of them is a high-up in your show. I think I can save your services for your country yet. But tell me about Beamish. Was he dealt with in the same charitable spirit?”

“No.” Derek looked serious. “His case was put back for seven days. They said something about a further charge being preferred.”

“I suppose that means he killed that beastly old Judge,” Sheila put in.

“H’m. I shouldn’t jump to conclusions about that. I’ve a notion that quite a number of charges could be preferred against Beamish. It would be rather a sell for the great British public, all agog to hear a man accused of murder, if he’s only run in for dispensing drink without a licence at Corky’s night club, or something like that.”

“But then who did kill him?” Sheila asked.

Pettigrew did not reply. His ear was cocked towards the door behind which sounds of altercation could be heard. Presently John came into the room, a pained expression on his face.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said, “but the inspector from Scotland Yard is back here again. He’s got another man with him and they want to see you at once. I told them you were engaged, but----”

Pettigrew’s face was rather white as he replied. “Show them in, John. If Mr. Marshall and Miss Bartram like to stay, perhaps it would be as well.”

Mallett and Superintendent Brough entered. They both looked grave and purposeful.

“You know this lady and gentleman, of course,” Pettigrew said to them. “I think that they will be interested to hear what you have to say. In fact, if it is what I expect, I’m not sure that they haven’t a right to hear it.”

The superintendent looked at Mallett, who nodded his head slowly, pulling at his moustache. Nothing was said for a moment, and then the inspector, clearing his throat, spoke abruptly.

“I have come to tell you, Mr. Pettigrew, that Lady Barber threw herself under an electric train at South Kensington station this morning.”

Pettigrew, who was standing beside his desk, felt with his hand for the chair behind him and then collapsed into it.

“So that’s why my train was late this morning,” he murmured.

“I’m afraid this is rather a shock for you,” said Mallett sympathetically.

Pettigrew raised his head.

“On the contrary,” he said, “I am very much relieved. I was afraid you had come to tell me that she had been arrested.”

“A note was found in her handbag,” Mallett went on, “I think it is in your handwriting?”

Pettigrew glanced at the slip of paper which the inspector placed before him.

“Yes,” he said. “It is. I suppose I am responsible for what has happened.”

“It is a very heavy responsibility,” said Brough, speaking for the first time.

“I recognize that,” Pettigrew replied. “But I am quite prepared to face it. That is---I suppose you were intending to arrest her for murder, weren’t you?” he asked almost anxiously.

“Our inquiries were not complete,” said the superintendent. “But in the normal course, I should probably have applied for a warrant during the next few days.”

“Then I did right,” Pettigrew said firmly. “Because, God help me! I loved the woman.”

“Are you telling us,” Mallett put in, “that this note was the cause of Lady Barber making away with herself?”

“Certainly.” Pettigrew’s brief outburst of emotion had passed, and he was once more his controlled, sardonic self. “I thought our discussion had been upon that basis.”

“Because if so, I should like to know what it means.”

Pettigrew glanced at the note again and smiled wryly.

“It is a little cryptic to the layman, I agree,” he said. “But to anyone who could understand it, it is very much to the point. It simply refers to----But aren’t we putting the cart before the horse, Inspector? And worse, aren’t we talking in riddles in front of Mr. Marshall? He has been trying to read this document upside down for the last five minutes, and he still can’t make out what it’s all about. As one who was very recently a self-confessed murderer, I think he should know the whole story, and you are certainly the only person who knows it. I can add my little piece of exegesis at the end if you wish.”

Mallett hesitated for a moment.

“You will understand, of course, that all this is entirely confidential?” he said.

“We do, indeed. So far as I am concerned, Mr. Marshall will tell you that I long ago impressed upon him the virtue of hushing things up. He didn’t altogether agree with me at the time, but I think that subsequent events have rather tended to change his views on the matter. As for Miss Bartram----”

“I shan’t breathe a word,” said Sheila earnestly.

“I trust not. Your chances of a wedding present from me depend entirely upon your discretion. I hope the threat is sufficient. Now, Inspector, make yourself comfortable and light your pipe if you wish. We are all ears.”

“It is a little difficult to know where to start,” said Mallett. “But perhaps the best way to begin is to explain how this case struck me when I was called upon to consider it the first time. You will recollect sir,”---he turned to Derek “that when Lady Barber asked me to come to her club to discuss the unpleasant events that had occurred at the first three towns on the Circuit, she was rather annoyed with me for suggesting that she might be wrong in supposing that they were all due to one cause. My reason for so thinking was that there was one incident which quite clearly did not fit in with the others. I mean, of course, the chocolates filled with carbide which were sent to the Lodgings at Southington. I had very little doubt that the two anonymous letters, sent one before and one just after the motor accident, were the work of Heppenstall, whom we knew to be in the neighbourhood at the time. There seemed every reason to believe that he was also responsible for the assault on Lady Barber at Wimblingham.”

Mallett paused and tugged at his moustache points. He looked embarrassed.

“As a matter of fact, I proved wrong there,” he said. “Not that it made any difference to the argument, as it turned out. But Heppenstall was entirely innocent of what occurred at Wimblingham. He has succeeded in satisfying us of that beyond any doubt.”

“Then who was it?” asked Derek in some eagerness. Mallett smiled.

“You were perfectly right in your guess, Mr. Marshall,” he said. “It was the person who kicked you so severely in the ribs that morning.”



“But you said yourself that if he had wanted to attack anyone at night he would have put on rubber shoes or something like that,” Derek objected.

“Quite. But Beamish didn’t want to attack anybody. His assault on Lady Barber was really in the nature of an accident. He only committed it in order to get away from the corridor before his identity could be discovered.”

“What was he doing there at that time in the morning, then?”

“We have been at a good deal of pains to discover that. He was simply making his way back to bed after breaking into the Lodgings. You see, he had been----” Mallett glanced at Sheila and coloured slightly---“elsewhere most of that night, if you follow me. I am afraid his moral character was----”

“Well, well,” said Pettigrew tolerantly. “We mustn’t be too hard on him. After all, the beds in Lodgings were notoriously uncomfortable. One can hardly blame him for seeking softer lying somewhere else. But go on, Inspector.”

“As I was saying,” Mallett resumed, “I thought that I could refer all the other events to a single source. But not the affair of the chocolates. That was a totally different type of crime. In fact, it was less like a crime than a particularly malicious practical joke.

“Now in the ordinary way, practical jokers are very difficult to detect, because the whole essence of the game is irresponsibility and absence of motive. But in this case, there was this much to go on. The Judge was already involved in a trouble unconnected altogether with Heppenstall’s release from prison---the motor accident in which Mr. Sebald-Smith was injured. Simply because on the balance of probabilities it was more likely that he should have two ill-wishers than three, I set about connecting the affair of the chocolates with the accident. I made some discreet inquiries about Mr. Sebald-Smith, ascertained his connection with a lady named Parsons, satisfied myself as to her character and that she would have a certain degree of familiarity with the Judge’s taste in confectionery, and as a result came to the conclusion that she was the person responsible for that episode.”

“Apart from that, you took no steps in the matter?” Pettigrew asked.

“No. There were really no steps to take. I had no evidence then on which to arrest Heppenstall, and I knew that I could keep an eye on him and see that the Judge came to no further harm through him. As a matter of fact, we pulled him in a few weeks later on a charge of fraud, but that was incidental. So far as the lady was concerned, I didn’t look on her as a potential danger, although she might prove herself a nuisance from time to time.

“That was the position up to the end of Wimblingham Assizes. During the rest of the Circuit, I received reports from the police forces at the various towns, which worried me a good deal. I therefore took the opportunity of seeing Mr. Marshall immediately on his return and getting an account from him while the facts were still fresh in his memory. This time, the incidents which had to be considered were, successively, the dead mouse in the parcel, the Judge’s fall downstairs and the third anonymous letter, all at Rampleford and finally the gas escape in the Judge’s room at Whitsea. There was in fact another incident which was not reported to me until long after but which proved to be the most sinister of all---the disappearance of the knife from the court at Eastbury. But I doubt whether I should have been much the wiser if I had been told of it.

“The dead mouse, of course, gave no trouble at all. It fitted in perfectly neatly with the poisoned chocolates, and confirmed me in my views about them. But the other matters were altogether different. They fitted in with nothing at all. Most emphatically, they did not fit in with the incidents on the earlier part of the Circuit. And above all in contrast to those incidents, they seemed to me on examination to show every sign of being bogus.”

“Bogus?” said Derek. “What made you think that? After all, the Judge was twice in quite serious danger. He did fall downstairs and he was nearly gassed that night at Whitsea. Nothing that happened before came anything like so close to killing him as that.”

“Exactly,” said Mallett. “They both looked like quite determined attempts on his life. But they both failed. In each case, Lady Barber was at hand to save him---and to save him before witnesses, too. The fact did not of course prove that she was responsible for them, but it did look as though whoever had made these pretended attempts had so arranged matters that somebody would be at hand to see that they failed in their object. The next thing I noticed about them, of course, was that while the earlier incidents might have been the work of a member of the Judge’s household, these almost certainly must have been. As for the anonymous letter, it seemed to prove the point up to the hilt. It was found at the Lodgings, you will remember, after the Judge’s party had left. Now no outsider, going to leave a letter of that description, would hand it in at the door when he could see for himself that the person it was intended for had gone or was in the act of going. The writer of that letter meant it to be found at the last possible moment, but in time for it to reach the Judge before his train left. I concluded that in all probability it had been left on the hall table by one of the party while actually leaving the house. In the hurry of departure it would be very easy to do, especially if the writer arranged to be one of the last to go.”

“I remember now,” Derek put in, “Lady Barber kept us all waiting while she ran back into the house for her bag, which she said she had left in the drawing-room. She insisted on going herself, although I offered to get it for her.”

“No doubt that was how it was managed,” said Mallett. “Well! There I was left with a very odd case on my hands. On the one hand, I had been appealed to by Lady Barber to protect her husband against attack from outside, and on the other I found somebody inside engineering a series of sham attacks, and, after a careful process of elimination, I was driven to the conclusion that that somebody was Lady Barber herself. Yet I was quite convinced of the sincerity of her appeal in the first place, and from what Mr. Marshall told me I was equally convinced that during the second part of the Circuit she was still genuinely doing all that she could, with his assistance, to guard her husband against any further assaults of what I may call the Wimblingham type. Why?

“In seeking for some explanation, I naturally tried to find something which one could mark as a turning-point between the two phases. I thought I could distinguish it in what appeared at first sight the most trivial incident of all---the dead mouse which came through the post at Rampleford. From what Mr. Marshall told me and from my own inquiries, I determined that up to that point Lady Barber had hopes of settling the action which Mr. Sebald-Smith was threatening on terms which would not ruin her husband completely. After that, it was apparent to her that Miss Parsons was not going to allow her to do any such thing. The thought crossed my mind that in such circumstances she might decide that it was better to kill her husband and live on what he had to leave her rather than allow his whole estate to be swallowed up in the enormous damages which Mr. Sebald-Smith was demanding.”

“Aha!” said Pettigrew.

“The theory left a good deal unexplained, of course. If that was right, why should she be going to such immense trouble to safeguard her husband’s life, and why should she be careful to see that her own attempts were unsuccessful? I thought, however, that all this might be put down to a very elaborate scheme to distract suspicion, and I decided that the theory was worth pursuing. But first I had to make sure that it was really to Lady Barber’s interest to kill her husband. I made inquiries from our legal department and I found out that if the Judge died, there was nothing whatever to prevent Mr. Sebald-Smith from pursuing his action at the expense of the estate, so that by killing her husband she would be no better off financially. That is the result, they told me, of a fairly recent change in the law.”

“Law Reforms (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1934,” Pettigrew interjected.

“Thank you, sir. Unfortunately, as it turned out, I didn’t pursue my legal inquiries quite far enough. But with that information before me, it seemed to me that my theory must be wrong. For some reason or another, Lady Barber was pretending to try to kill her husband, while all the time only too anxious to keep him alive. Only two explanations seemed to me possible. Either she was deliberately interested in frightening him, for some obscure purpose of her own, or she was suffering from some kind of mental strain. The second alternative seemed to me the better of the two. I don’t know much about such matters, but I could well imagine that a rather highly strung woman, genuinely afraid for her husband’s safety, losing her sleep in watching for the assault that never came, might in the end be so mentally affected as to start faking attacks upon him as though to justify the trouble that she was putting herself to. If I was right, I thought, then as soon as the strain of the Circuit was removed, and she was living a more or less normal existence in London again, all these odd manifestations would stop. And so it turned out.

“At the same time, I was not absolutely easy in my mind about the matter at first. Then, as time went on and there did not seem to be the least sign of any danger threatening the Judge, I felt that I must have been right. Heppenstall had been put out of harm’s way, and the first series of threats and attacks had stopped. Lady Barber had returned to London, and immediately the second, faked, series had stopped also. It all seemed too easy. Then, as though to clinch the matter, came the Judge’s attempted suicide. There was no doubt that it was a real attempt, and equally no doubt that Lady Barber had done everything in her power to save his life. Indeed, the doctor told me that but for her promptitude he would infallibly have died. That cleared my mind of my last, lingering suspicion. There could be no doubt that so far from desiring his death she was prepared to go to all lengths to preserve his life.

“Then, only a few weeks later, the Judge was killed, in circumstances with which you are all familiar. There were five obvious suspects. Three of them are in this room. The fourth was Beamish. The other, of course, was Lady Barber. The fact that the crime had been committed with a particular weapon which we could identify with the one last seen at Eastbury Assizes, led me to eliminate Miss Bartram at once and, after a little further inquiry, Mr. Marshall also. But that merely put me in this difficulty---that in so doing, I had eliminated the only two people with a motive for committing the crime at that particular moment. Yet it was plain that whoever had done so had taken a very considerable risk. The whole thing spoke not only of considerable daring and efficiency---how different, you will notice, from the half-hearted, bungling attempts on Circuit!---but also of great urgency. It looked as if the murderer had been under a compulsion to seize that one momentary chance rather than wait for a better opportunity. Looking at the three remaining suspects, two of them with not inadequate motives for murder, I could not find any such compulsion, and so far as Lady Barber was concerned, there was the added absurdity that an anxiety to keep alive must have been suddenly changed into what I have called a compulsion to kill. And yet, on the grounds of opportunity alone, it was impossible to shut one’s eyes to the fact that she was by far the likeliest of the three.

“That was my state of mind yesterday, when you, Mr. Pettigrew, gave me the key to the whole mystery, by drawing my attention to the fact that the day of the murder was exactly six months after the day of the accident at Markhampton.”

“Any competent lawyer could see the point of that,” said Pettigrew. “But I must say I was astonished that you tumbled to it so quickly. Quite candidly, I hoped you wouldn’t.”

“I didn’t see the point of it,” said Mallett modestly. “But I did see that there was a point somewhere. The date of the murder was in some way connected with the date of the accident. Very well. The only thing to do was to start all over again from the beginning, and find out what I could about the accident. Accordingly, on leaving you, I went straight to Faradays, Mr. Sebald-Smith’s solicitors. And there, almost the first question I asked brought the explanation which I had been seeking for so long. I asked what stage the action against the Judge had reached at the time of his death, and the partner whom I interviewed told me that in fact it had never got beyond the stage of negotiations. The writ in the action was actually to have been issued on the day after the Judge died. I noticed that he seemed very upset about it.”

“I bet he did,” said Pettigrew. “Are Sally and Sebald suing the firm for negligence?”

“He indicated that there was a possibility of that occurring.”

“An odd little epilogue to a murder!”

“But I don’t understand,” said Derek. “What had all this to do with the murder?”

“The answer,” said Pettigrew, “is in Sub-section three of Section one of the Act of Parliament I quoted just now. Put into non-technical language, it amounts to this: You can maintain an action against a chap for running you down even if he’s dead. But to do so you must fulfil one of two conditions. Either you can start your action while he is still alive, in which case John Brown’s body can moulder in the grave, but your case goes marching along and you cash in on the executors. Or you can start your action with J.B. already mouldering, but in that case you have only got six months to do it in, counting from the time his car hit you. If you choose to spend six months palavering about the rights and wrongs of your case before you kick off and the man dies on you, then your action descends into the grave and moulders also. And serve you right.”

“And that is what happened in this case?”

“That is what happened in this case. And it happened because Hilda---God rest her soul!---meant it to happen. She was a lawyer, you see, and it so chanced that her pet study was what is known as the Limitation of Actions---a subject I used to think dull, but never will again. She knew that Sebald-Smith’s action would ruin her husband completely if it was fought. She knew also that if he died, she would be ruined by it just the same. So she set herself to keep him alive and the plaintiff’s solicitors at bay until the six months were up. That was why she had to stop him from committing suicide last month. And that was why, the moment the period had gone by, she had to kill him before the writ could be issued. She must have thought it all out as soon as she was certain that Sally meant to have her pound of flesh---that day at Rampleford when the fatal little mouse turned up in your pocket, Marshall. I apologize, Inspector,” he added. “I’m afraid I’ve taken the words out of your mouth.”

“Not at all,” said Mallett. “You have put it all much more clearly than I could have done. I think that that is the whole of the story---except for this, Mr. Pettigrew.” He indicated the note on the table.

“That? My little footnote to the Act of Parliament? Well, it’s a very succinct missive, is it not? A mere reference to the Law Reports.”

He took the paper and read aloud:

“Dear Hilda,
(1938) 2 K.B. 202.

“That, my lord and members of the jury, is simply the reference to the case of Daniels v. Vaux, which decided a different point of law altogether, but in which the facts were rather similar to these. A well to do young man, who had omitted to insure himself, ran into a policeman and injured him badly. There was no real defence to the policeman’s claim, and the solicitors on both sides settled down to argue the amount of the damages. They were on the point of agreement when the young man himself was killed---how, history does not relate, but since all this happened in pre-bomb days, I assume either by his own car, or someone else’s. That occurred six months after the first accident, and nobody had thought of starting an action. And so the poor plaintiff had none. You will find all that set out, as my hieroglyphics indicate, in Volume Two of the King’s Bench Reports for the year 1938, at page two hundred and two. I happened to refer to it yesterday morning, and that was why the coincidence of the dates struck me so forcibly.”

Pettigrew’s face, which had been animated during his exposition, suddenly looked very tired. He reached for the note and tore it slowly into pieces.

“I suppose,” he said bitterly, as he dropped the fragments into the wastepaper basket, “I suppose that it is the first time on record that anyone has ever been driven to commit suicide by a quotation from the Law Reports.”