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Our Library => Patricia Wentworth - The Watersplash (1954) => Topic started by: Admin on June 19, 2023, 10:59:49 am



Title: Chapter Forty-Three
Post by: Admin on June 19, 2023, 10:59:49 am
“NO, my dear Frank, I am none the worse, I am thankful to say. Such a mild night, and the hot water supply at the Vicarage quite unusually good. I was able to have a most refreshing bath, and Mrs. Ball insisted upon my remaining in bed for breakfast this morning, though I assured her that it was quite unnecessary.”

He was looking at her with an expression which very few people had ever seen upon his face---moved, affectionate, concerned.

“I shan’t easily forgive myself.”

She returned his look with a very serious one.

“What else was there to do? Poor Annie’s behaviour was betraying her. To the unbalanced watchful mind of the murderer it was obvious that she knew something, and this being the case, she was a potential danger. The person who had already killed twice would not scruple to kill again. From the time of my meeting with Annie at the grave of Christopher Hale it was evident to me that her mental health was giving way under the pressure of some terrible secret, and that this secret concerned the death of her husband. It seemed necessary to consider whether she herself had had any hand in his death. He had married her for her money, treated her with neglect and violence, and was being unfaithful to her. I considered whether she might not have come up behind him as he crossed the splash and pushed him into the pool where he was drowned. But then there was the case of Clarice Dean. You will remember, in the evidence at the inquest, that the last person known to have spoken with William Jackson was Edward Random. This is confirmed by Annie, who says Mr. Edward went by her and over the splash. He met William Jackson on the rise, and she heard him say; ‘Good-night, Willy’, as he passed. I had to consider whether Clarice Dean might have been waiting inside the lych gate for the chance of a word with Edward Random. We know of two other occasions when she did this---the occasion on which Mrs. Stone saw them together, and the other and more tragic one when she went down to the splash to meet her death.”

“You think she may have seen or heard something suspicious on the night that Jackson was drowned?”

“I do not think so. I had to consider it as a possible motive for her removal by Annie, but I almost immediately rejected it. For one thing, Annie herself had seen Edward Random go on up the rise after saying good-night to her husband. If Clarice had come to meet him, what was there to keep her in the neighbourhood of the splash? She had only to follow him and link her arm with his, as we know she did on a subsequent occasion. I found it impossible to believe that she could have witnessed the murder of William Jackson. If she had done so, there would be no reason for her to hold her tongue. So far from attempting to disguise her interest in Edward Random, she took every opportunity of proclaiming it. I really could find no motive for her murder by Annie Jackson. My second reason for rejecting the idea that it was Annie who was responsible for the two deaths lay in her own mental state, which was one of acute fear. At times it became so acute as to make her court the very danger which she felt to be impending. She believed that she was doomed, and there were moments when the strain of waiting for the blow to fall became too much for her, and she would go down to the splash and hope for death.”

He smiled.

“I’ve always said that you see right through us all and out at the other side. It is a solemn thought, and I give you fair warning that when I really have something to hide I shall start avoiding you like the plague. Well, you saw through Annie, and decided that she wasn’t the murderer but only the next prospective victim. And now perhaps you will tell me how you arrived at Mildred Blake.”

She coughed in a gently hesitating manner.

“It was when I was considering the possibility that Mr. Arnold Random was the murderer. It was he who stood to lose if his brother had made a later will. It was he who was threatened with blackmail both by William Jackson and, indirectly, by Clarice Dean. It was he who more than anyone else could be said to have an interest in their deaths. And all that stood between him and the gravest suspicion was the alibi given him by Miss Mildred Blake. If she was speaking the truth, he could not have murdered William Jackson. If she was lying in order to provide him with an alibi, what was her motive for doing so? Local gossip had informed me that Mr. Arnold Random had at one time paid her some attentions which were expected to result in marriage. If I had had no personal acquaintance with Miss Blake I might have entertained the idea that she was actuated by this memory of a past romance, but after meeting her on a number of occasions I found myself quite unable to believe in any such thing. All the local talk---even Mrs. Ball’s not uncharitable comments---served to confirm my impression of her as a hard, self-centred, grasping person whose ruling passion was the love of money. There was even some faint indication of other possibilities. Mrs. Ball and the Vicar were in some concern over the accounts of the Boys’ Club. The late incumbent was a very old man. He and Miss Mildred ran all the funds. Ruth Ball appeared to be more distressed about the matter than would be warranted if it were merely the case of a nonogenarian’s lapse of memory.”

Frank whistled.

“A very unpleasant position.”

Miss Silver inclined her head.

“As you say. My attention became more and more closely focused upon Miss Mildred Blake. Though enjoying a comfortable income, she appeared in garments really suitable only for a scarecrow. When the murders were discussed in her presence she not only evinced no pity for a young man whom she must have known since he was an infant, or for the girl who was a member of her own household, but I could actually discern traces of satisfaction, even of sadistic enjoyment. In a person of this kind the memory of an abortive romance would be far more likely to produce resentment than any softer feeling.”

Frank was looking at her intently.

“Do you know, you are being very interesting indeed.”

There was a hint of reproof in her voice as she continued.

“I went back over the events of that Friday night on which William Jackson was murdered. Mr. Arnold Random was practising in the church. The Vicarage work-party was going on, and did not break up until a quarter-past ten. At a little before ten, when the strains of the organ could still be distinctly heard, Miss Mildred Blake got up and said she wanted to have a word with him about taking his duty. Mrs. Ball says it is her impression that the organ had stopped playing and the church clock had struck ten before Miss Mildred actually left. The latest testimony we have as to the whereabouts of William Jackson is that of his wife Annie, and of Edward Random. Edward Random says he passed William on the rise and said good-night to him, and he thinks he heard the clock strike some time later when he was already in the village street. Annie heard Edward Random say good-night to her husband and go on up the rise, and she too says that the clock struck after that. Knowing that William Jackson had it in his mind to blackmail his employer, I considered whether William would have let slip such an excellent chance. The sound of the organ would inform him that Mr. Arnold Random was in the church, and he had taken enough drink to embolden him. Even before Annie disclosed the whole of what she saw that night I thought it very probable that William had gone up to the church.”

He gave her a sharp glance.

“So Annie has spoken?”

“Yes. I will tell you about that presently. You were asking me how I arrived at my conclusions with regard to Miss Blake. It will be simpler if we take that first. Mildred Blake’s story was that she went across to the church, found Mr. Random putting his music away, and had a few words with him, after which he saw her home and went on in the direction of the Hall. This gave him an alibi, but it gave her one too. On the other hand, unless she had some guilty knowledge, it would not occur to her that she could possibly require an alibi, and the more I knew of her, the less could I believe it possible that she should have been swayed by sentiment.”

Frank cocked an eyebrow.

“It could have happened just as she said, you know---a few minutes’ talk in the church, and Arnold seeing her home.”

She shook her head.

“I found myself unable to believe in that alibi. Annie was on the far side of the splash, and, whatever she admitted or concealed, I was quite sure that she had not seen her husband cross the splash. And if he did not cross it, where was he while she stood waiting for him on the other side? He must have gone up to the church. And if he went up to the church, Mildred Blake must have found him there when she went across to speak to Arnold Random. Let us go back to the moment when she got up and announced her intention of doing so. There would be work to be put away, farewells to be said, an outdoor coat to be assumed, and, as I know from my own experience, after leaving the house a little time to accustom her eyes to the change from light to darkness. The clock has now struck and the organ ceased, but she knows that there is no need for her to hurry, because Arnold Random will be putting his music away. She takes the path to the churchyard, comes to the side door, and hears voices inside. I believe most firmly that that is what she did hear. She would certainly want to know what was going on. I have myself been in the church when Arnold Random was at the organ. If he had not broken off he would have had no idea that I was there. Mildred Blake could have stood and listened, as I believe she did stand and listen, to William Jackson’s clumsy attempt at blackmail. The will would have been mentioned, and an angry scene would follow. In the end William Jackson must have gone off, stupid and angry. And Miss Mildred Blake conceives her plan. She knows Arnold Random too well to suppose that he will face disgrace rather than pay blackmail. But why should the proceeds of this blackmail go into the pockets of William Jackson? He will certainly bungle the affair---has probably already bungled it. But in her hands, what a weapon, what a source of income! She knows Arnold Random’s every weakness and how best it may be played upon. I believe most firmly that she saw her whole wicked plan in a flash and hurried away to put it into execution.”

Frank had a startled look.

“You don’t mean she bumped William off in order to blackmail Arnold on her own!”

A slight cough reproved his choice of words, but she replied with firmness.

“I do indeed. And to obtain a still more effective hold upon him. You will recall Lord Tennyson’s words about ‘The lust of gain in the heart of Cain’. They exactly describe what I believe to have been that unhappy woman’s frame of mind. She hurried after William Jackson, caught up with him before he reached the splash, and was able either to stun him with her torch---it is an unusually large and heavy one---or to push him into the pool and hold him down there until he lost consciousness. He was, you must remember, in an extremely fuddled condition. The whole thing would take only a very few minutes. Next day, as I have learned from Mrs. Deacon whose daughter Doris admitted her, Miss Mildred called upon Arnold Random at the Hall. She was carrying with her the black collecting-book with which everyone in the village was familiar. Can you be in any doubt as to the nature of the collection which she had come to make? Just consider the strength of her position. She has only to come forward at the inquest and say that she had overheard an attempt on the part of William Jackson to blackmail Mr. Arnold Random on the ground that he had fraudulently concealed a will to which Jackson was a witness, and there could be very little doubt that there would be a verdict of wilful murder against him. Only a very stupid man could fail to see the danger in which he stood. There was no way out but to pay whatever she asked. In return she offered him her silence as to the quarrel with William Jackson, and an alibi which also protected herself. I really do not think, my dear Frank, that in the whole course of my experience I have ever come across a cleverer or more shockingly inhuman plan.”

He nodded.

“And the Clarice Dean business? Mildred Blake typed the note of course.”

“Oh, yes. She was up at the Church Room that morning. Edward Random told me he saw her coming and made his escape.”

“Why did she try to put the murder on him? She did, you know.”

“He would be a convenient scapegoat. There had been a good deal of gossip about his long absence, and it would not have suited her at all if Arnold Random had been suspected. She did just stop short of directly accusing Edward, though Miss Ora did not.”

He said quickly, “You don’t think she was in it!”

“Oh, no. She is just a foolish woman with a love of gossip and no sense of responsibility.”

Frank looked at her oddly.

“If you had said all this to me a day or two ago, or even yesterday, I should of course have listened to you with profound respect, but I’m afraid I should have remained rather obstinately unbelieving. But you know, that is just how it happened---as regards Arnold Random at any rate. He has made a statement, and you are right all along the line. William Jackson did come up to the church and accuse him of suppressing his brother’s will. Of course he says he didn’t---says he never knew of its existence until Susan Wayne came across it yesterday behind some of the old books she has been cataloguing in his library. Well, that seems to me to be a pretty tall story, but he and Edward Random stand together on it, and as Edward is the sole beneficiary and the will is already in the hands of the family solicitors, it has really got nothing to do with us. Arnold’s statement goes on to say that Mildred Blake approached him after the death of Jackson---that he agreed to pay her the blackmail she demanded, and that she made a further demand upon him after the death of Clarice Dean. So you were right, but I still don’t know how you got there. You know, the Chief really does suspect you of at least white witchcraft. I don’t think it would surprise him if you were to fly out of the window on a broomstick. So if you don’t want me to share his views, perhaps you will tell me just what it was that made you sure enough to take the risk I ought never have allowed you to take last night.”

She had been knitting steadily, but now she laid the small pink garment down and rested her hands upon it.

“It was a little thing,” she said, “but it convinced me. I went in yesterday morning to see Miss Ora Blake. She rang for tea, and it was Miss Mildred who brought it up. As she sat there pouring out, I noticed the condition of her skirt. It was not the one which she had worn when Mrs. Ball and I took tea with them on a previous afternoon. It was of the same dark grey colour, but the material was not the same. What I noticed was that this skirt had recently been very wet. The stuff had cockled, and there were traces of clay upon it. An attempt had been made to remove them, but, as you probably know, the task would be by no means an easy one. Miss Mildred’s natural indifference to her personal appearance had doubtless prevented her giving the matter the attention it merited. No one in the village would notice whether there were a few more stains on her garments. If I had not been a stranger I might not have noticed them myself, but having done so, I became more and more convinced that Miss Mildred had stained and wetted her skirt on the clay bank and the stepping-stones of the watersplash. After that everything fitted into its own place. I had already considered Miss Mildred to be a person who might be capable of murder. When I mentioned her name to Annie her reaction was one of extreme distress. She would not speak, and she was shaken by terror.”

“Will she speak now?”

“When she heard that Mildred Blake had been arrested she burst into tears and told me all she knew. It does not add very much to what she has said already, but what it does add is of the highest importance. You will remember that she was waiting on the far side of the splash to see if her husband would come home. The night was dark and cloudy, but there was an occasional gleam of moonlight. After Edward Random went by her and over the splash she heard him wish her husband good-night and go on again. William Jackson then came down a few steps towards the splash. She could hear the sound of the organ being played in the church, and so of course could he. She says he turned round, ran back to the lych gate, and disappeared. He had been dropping hints that Mr. Arnold wouldn’t dare to discharge him, and she was very much upset, because she was afraid he was going to do something against the law. I do not know how much he had really told her---I just give you her own words. She waited where she was. The church clock struck, and the organ stopped playing. Some time after that William came down the yew tunnel and out by the lych gate. She says he was very angry. He stumbled in his walk and kept muttering to himself and cursing. He came about half-way down to the splash, and then turned and went back. But before he got to the lych gate he seemed to change his mind. He stood for a minute or two, and then came slowly down the rise. Just as he reached the edge of the water, someone else came out of the lych gate in a hurry. Annie’s eyes were sufficiently accustomed to the darkness to see the movement of the figures and to discern that the second one was a woman, but she could not tell who it was until she heard her call, ‘William---William Jackson!’ and then she knew that it was Miss Mildred Blake. She says she could not be mistaken---there was no one else with a deep voice like hers.”

“And then?”

“William stood still, and she came down the rest of the way and stood beside him. They began to talk. At least she says Miss Mildred was talking and William was shrugging it off. She may have been talking about the will---I suppose we shall never know---but all at once William began to come over the splash, and Annie was afraid to stay any longer. She turned round and ran. She looked back once, and she says she saw Miss Mildred on the first stepping-stone. There was a gleam of moonlight, and she is quite sure Miss Mildred was not on the bank. She could see the water, and the first stepping-stone and Miss Mildred standing on it, and William two stones ahead. She says she was more frightened than she had ever been in all her life, but she didn’t know why. It just came over her and she ran all the way home.”