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Our Library => Patricia Wentworth - The Traveller Returns (1945) => Topic started by: Admin on August 26, 2023, 07:31:15 am

Title: Chapter Twenty-One
Post by: Admin on August 26, 2023, 07:31:15 am
“I TOLD you she would have a cast-iron alibi.”

Frank Abbott sat back in his chair and waited for Miss Silver’s reaction. It was hardly noticeable. She had begun Johnny’s second stocking and almost finished the ribbing at the top. Her needles did not check nor did her expression change as she replied,

“You are naturally in a hurry to let me know that you were perfectly right.”

He spread out his hands with a laughing gesture.

“Revered preceptress!”

Miss Silver permitted a very faint smile to relax her lips.

“When you have finished talking nonsense, Frank, perhaps you will go on telling me about Lady Jocelyn. It is all very interesting.”

“Well, when we came away from the flat the Chief asked me what I made of her. He has a way of doing that, and when you’ve told him, he doesn’t utter. He may think it’s tripe, or he may think it’s the cat’s whiskers, but he won’t let on---just sticks it away behind that poker face and takes the next opportunity of snubbing you good and hard. I’ve got an idea that the snub is in inverse ratio to the value he sets on your opinion---in fact the bigger the snub, the bigger the compliment. I got Remarks from a Superior Officer to a Subordinate on the Dangers of Swollen Head, all the way down the stairs.”

Miss Silver coughed.

“And pray, what did you make of Lady Jocelyn?”

“Ah---now that is very interesting. I think the Chief thought so too---hence the homily. She opened the door to us herself, and if we’d been Gestapo with death-warrants spilling out of all our pockets, she couldn’t have been more taken aback.”

Miss Silver coughed again.

“She has, after all, been living under the Gestapo for more than three years.”

“So she took occasion to remind us. Grasped the nettle with great firmness and presence of mind, said we’d frightened her dreadfully, and led the way to the drawing-room, where she very nearly passed out when the Chief mentioned that we’d come to ask questions about Miss Nellie Collins, who was dead. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone come so near fainting and not do it. And the only reason she didn’t do it was because she wouldn’t. She made the sort of effort that is painful to watch---it was like seeing a steel spring being coiled up. And she pulled it off. But the really extraordinary thing was the isolation and concentration of the effort---the throat muscles were perfectly tense, but the hands lying in her lap remained quite lax. Odd, you know, and pointing to great powers of control. Only what was it all about? She was horribly frightened when she first saw us, but she was pulling out of that. Then the Chief told her Nellie Collins was dead, and it very nearly knocked her out. I’ll swear she didn’t know it till he told her, and it came as a quite terrific shock. Why? She was frightened before she knew that Nellie Collins was dead---horribly frightened. She hears of the death and nearly faints. I want to know why. If she hadn’t any guilty knowledge, why the initial fright? If she had, why the subsequent shock? What does it matter to her that Nellie Collins should be a road casualty? What’s Hecuba to her, or she to Hecuba?”

Miss Silver gazed at him silently.

“Annie Joyce might have two excellent reasons for shock. Relief, the effects of which are often quite overwhelming, or affection---she may have been really fond of Nellie Collins.”

He said, “Annie Joyce----”

The needles clicked.

“Certainly, my dear Frank. Abnormal interest in Nellie Collins suggests very strongly that it was Annie Joyce who survived, and not Anne Jocelyn. Lady Jocelyn would have no reason to be afraid of any special knowledge which Miss Collins might possess. Annie Joyce impersonating Lady Jocelyn would have every reason to fear it. I can think of no possible reason why Nellie Collins’ death on the road should inflict any shock upon Lady Jocelyn. The news of it would be no more to her than the death of a person just heard of but never encountered. Such things happen every day, and are dismissed with a casual expression of sympathy. We say, ‘How sad!’ and do not think of the incident again. If the death of Nellie Collins inflicted so severe a shock as you have described, I am forced to the conclusion that this shock was inflicted upon Annie Joyce.”

He looked at her keenly. The basis of their relation was the fact that each admired and stimulated the other. In her presence all the mental processes were quickened and intensified, thoughts stood out sharply. He said, “If that is so, your second reason doesn’t apply, I’m afraid. She certainly wasn’t shocked at Nellie Collins’ death because she was fond of her. That stuck out about a mile---it’s the sort of thing you can’t miss. The Chief went on talking about her, and there wasn’t a trace of affection in Lady Jocelyn’s replies. Of course if she is Annie Joyce, she wouldn’t be wanting to show any particular feeling, but if there had been anything there, I think I’d have got it. All I did get was---well, it isn’t easy to put it into words, but indifference comes near---genuine indifference to Nellie Collins as a person, combined with knock-out shock on hearing of her death. Now just how do those two things combine? They were there---I’ll swear to that.”

Miss Silver nodded gently.

“Yes---that is very interesting,” she said. “Assuming that Lady Jocelyn is Annie Joyce, the logical deduction would be that she considered herself to be threatened by Nellie Collins. I told you that I feared the poor thing might have laid herself open to misconstruction. Certainly her conversation on the telephone with the unknown man who represented himself as acting for Lady Jocelyn may have given him reason to fear an attempt at blackmail. There is nothing more dangerous than the attempt of an amateur to blackmail an experienced criminal. I am quite sure that Miss Collins had no such intention, but I fear she gave the impression---the very strong impression---that her continued existence would be dangerous. I must direct your attention to this unknown man. It is clear that he knew of Miss Collins’ letter to Lady Jocelyn---she probably handed it on to him. This would explain the behaviour which puzzles you. Still assuming that she is Annie Joyce, the appearance of the police would naturally be very alarming. When to this general alarm there is added the sudden intelligence that Nellie Collins has been murdered---and in the circumstances there could be no doubt that it was murder---the shock would naturally be very great. It is quite possible, in fact extremely probable, that she did not know what was intended. She may have thought that Nellie Collins was to be dealt with in some other way---dissuaded from coming to see her, convinced that she had nothing to gain, discouraged in any attempt to pursue an unprofitable connection. The shock of finding herself involved in a murder might well produce the effect which you described so vividly.”

He nodded.

“Yes---it might be like that. I think it’s clear that she wasn’t in at the death, so to speak.”

Miss Silver primmed her mouth.

“A distasteful metaphor, Frank.”

“Apologies---you know what I mean. The girl at Jocelyn’s Holt, Ivy What’s-her-name, says she came up to town with Lady Jocelyn and was never out of sight or sound of her for more than a minute or two until they all went to bed just short of eleven. All the doors of the flat were open, and they were going to and fro from one room to the other, unpacking and arranging things. Mrs. Perry Jocelyn arrived just before four, and they all three carried on. She stayed till seven o’clock, when Lady Jocelyn went into the kitchen and began to prepare the evening meal. Ivy says she’s a lovely cook, but I think she considered it a bit infra dig. Sir Philip got in at half past seven. After dinner he was working in the study, and Ivy and Lady Jocelyn went on clearing up. Mrs. Perry Jocelyn corroborates---says she was there from just before four until just before seven. She and Ivy both say that Lady Jocelyn never left the flat. Well, as far as active participation in the crime is concerned, that washes her out. She is accounted for right through the afternoon and evening and up to just before eleven at night, when the three people in the flat went to bed. The medical evidence comes down heavily on Nellie Collins having been dead well before then. As First Murderer, Lady Jocelyn, or if you prefer it, Annie Joyce, is out of it. But of course it’s too easy---the First Murderer is undoubtedly the agreeable gentleman who Miss Collins hoped was a baronet. We have only to find him.”

Miss Silver’s small nondescript eyes met his with an unexpected spark of humour.

“Are you by any chance thinking about a needle and a bundle of hay?”

He laughed.

“Make it a whole hay-harvest and have done with it! The Chief has put me on to follow up anything I can find. So far all we’ve got to go on is, first, Miss Collins’ description of a very pleasant gentleman, and her supposition that he might be Philip Jocelyn, which of course he wasn’t. Now you talked to her, and I didn’t. Would it be safe to assume that this means the fellow was what is called a gentleman? I mean, do you think she would know?”

“I should be inclined to think so.”

“Because, you see, that would be a clue---cultured murderer with an agreeable telephone manner. Secondly---and here we are on firmer ground---he is someone who knows Ruislip and its surroundings pretty well. You know, I don’t think she was killed there. I think she was taken there afterwards, and I’ll tell you why. The lane where she was found is just about the most likely place for a body to lie undiscovered for the whole blackout period. And then take another look at this.”

He produced the triangular scrap of paper torn from the half sheet upon which Miss Silver had written her name and address for Nellie Collins. One below the other, coming in from the jagged edge, stood the syllables -ver; -sions; -ham St.; the second of these being so badly smudged as to be almost illegible.

Miss Silver looked at the smudge.

“That has been worrying me,” she said. “How did it happen?”

“I think it was done on purpose. Smeared probably with a damp handkerchief. There weren’t any fingerprints. You know, we both thought this corner had got caught on the broken glass and left behind that way. But now I don’t think so---I think that’s what we were meant to think. Actually, I’m pretty sure it was deliberate. Because there’s a Cunningham Street in Ruislip, and a Miss Oliver who lives there in a house called ‘Soissons.’ Now do you see why somebody smudged the torn-off part of your Mansions? The local police were feeling very clever, and quite sure they had linked up the torn address with poor Miss Oliver, who is an eminently respectable spinster, and so much upset at the idea that she might have to identify a body or attend an inquest that she probably presented a most convincing picture of guilt. The poor lady assured me in a quavering voice that she had never heard of Nellie Collins in her life. I quite believe her, but if I hadn’t recognized your writing, and you hadn’t recognized this scrap of paper, we should have had a very nice red herring trailed across the path. And poor Miss Oliver might have had to face that inquest.”

Miss Silver coughed and said, “Just so. There is a clever mind behind all this, Frank.”

He nodded.

“Well, our cultured gentleman knows Ruislip pretty well. Of course he may have sat down with a directory and just gone on looking till he found something to fit in with your scrap of paper, but I don’t somehow think so. It would have taken too long, it wouldn’t have been worth while. I think he just had a brain-wave, remembered Miss Oliver, and chucked her in to keep things humming. It’s got a spur-of-the-moment smell about it.”

Miss Silver agreed. He went on.

“Well, culture and Ruislip---neither of them very hot scent. And then there’s Lady Jocelyn. There must be a connection there if we can find it.”

Miss Silver coughed.

“The connection would be, I think, with Annie Joyce.”

Frank ran a hand over his shining hair.

“Who left England more than ten years ago, and whose associations and dossier since then are submerged in occupied France. What a hope!”