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 91 
 on: April 30, 2024, 12:15:22 pm 
Started by Admin - Last post by Admin
JUDITH---Appleby reflected---would have landed him in precisely this absurd situation. It was again the principle of going on till you are stopped. He recalled the occasion, for example, upon which she had insisted upon their 'exploring'---which meant simply breaking into---a house seemingly even more derelict and untenanted than this which confronted him now. There had been a moat round it, and owls had been appropriately hooting. It seemed incredible that any other human being had approached it for years. So they had climbed in through what had once been a window. They had hazardously ascended and descended tottering staircases. They had doubtfully distinguished on mouldering walls what had once been linenfold panelling. It had been great fun. And then the man had come. He was some sort of caretaker---an abandoned family retainer (they had afterwards decided) told off to prowl the place in order to repel such vulgar persons as might commit nuisances in corners or scratch initials or even more objectionable graffiti upon disgraced chimneypieces. They had heard his footfalls from afar. Footfalls plus an unnerving tap. For he was an ancient creature who got around only with the aid of a stick.

Plop, plop, and a tap. Plop, plop, and a tap. Admittedly it had been unnerving. Judith had persuaded him to hide in a cupboard.

Much later, and in an unwary moment, Appleby had told this story to the children. It must have been after dinner and when the Applebys---as tended to be their habit---were lingering amid Beaujolais and guttering candles before turning to at the washing-up. And now the story, if inexpugnably hilarious, had turned faintly tedious. The man, like some homing device of ghastly sophistication in modern warfare, had walked and tapped his way straight to the cupboard. He had thrown open the door---and there Sir John and Lady Appleby had been, like the woman (according to Bobby Appleby, who was of a literary turn) in a play of Strindberg's, who lived in a cupboard because she believed herself to be a parrot. And Appleby had emerged, fumbling for the famous visiting-card in one pocket while noisily jingling a kind of Danegeld of halfcrowns in the other. The man (according to Bobby) had behaved in an impeccably Jeeves-like manner. Recognizing (despite the halfcrowns, which had been a false note attributable to Appleby's unassuming origins) the presence of the upper classes, he had bowed the Applebys deferentially off the premises.

Bobby Appleby was not only of a literary turn. He had lately become a novelist. He was entitled to his fantasies. But had it been a fantasy? Appleby could no longer precisely remember. The cupboard indeed he could vividly recall. It had exuded what he vaguely conjectured to be the smell of the droppings of untold generations of bats. But had there really been that moment in which he had simultaneously obtruded an oblong of pasteboard (Sir John Appleby, New Scotland Yard) and a couple of halfcrowns? Appleby no longer knew. But he had been left with a distaste of what might be called false situations. Perhaps he was heading for one now.

+++

The garden through which Mr. Ashmore had conducted him abounded chiefly in hemlock and thistle---these (as once at Byron's Newstead) having choked up the rose that once bloomed on the spray. Here and there headless statues presided over exhausted fountains and departed shrubberies. There was a croquet-lawn abundant in fungi and mushrooms. Appleby rather suspected that Mr. Ashmore relied upon these as upon a home farm; that the fatally inviting stile had tumbled him into the society not merely of a pathological recluse but of a pathological miser as well. The mere possession of a tobacco-pouch had transformed his status with the proprietor of this impressive if mouldering mansion. Extravagantly prosperous gentlemen in the City of London would part with large sums for the possession of so authentically feudal a set-up as lay before him. But Mr. Ashmore was prepared to admit to it anybody who would provide him with a free smoke.

'I like your house very much,' Appleby said. 'I must have missed it on my map. What is it called?'

'Ashmore Chase, of course.' Mr. Ashmore had turned to stare at him. 'What do you think? They're all around me, my damned brothers and cousins in their bogus Lutyens homes-and-gardens manor houses. Opening their interesting grounds for the benefit of District Nurses and God knows what. But I'm the head of the family, after all. You may say that the Sixteenth Century means nothing nowadays. Fair enough. But land does. I've been out in your bloody modern world, and I've crashed in it. The Celebrated Coward and all that. But the estate's mine too. And that's a different matter---eh? I know my rent-roll, and I know their rotten stock-jobbing bubble-and-squeak standing. No wonder they hate me. Well, I hate them too.'

Appleby said nothing. These family amenities didn't strike him as a very proper matter of communication to a stranger. But he was surprised that he hadn't heard, either from Judith or one of his new neighbours, of a network of Ashmores in the county; he promised himself to gain more accurate information about them than was likely to come from the eccentric old person he was now listening to. But he also wanted to know about the old person's harping on the theme of the Celebrated Coward. Just for the moment, he couldn't place this at all. He had been challenged to respond to the name of Ashmore in a way that in fact he couldn't do. When the old man had said 'You've heard of me' some faint bell had indeed rung in his head. But it hadn't, so to speak, rung up any curtain. Mr. Ashmore owned some perished history which the world had cast into a deeper oblivion than he knew. Because curiosity had been so large a part of his professional life, Appleby had an instinct to get at this. But the time for it hadn't quite come. Perhaps it would come when the old fellow found that pipe.

But now it didn't look as if this was going to happen in a hurry. Mr. Ashmore---Martyn Ashmore, as he had declared himself to be---appeared curiously reluctant to go indoors. They had reached a terrace which, although much overgrown, could be distinguished as attractively paved in ancient brick. This ran the length of the house on the front now exposed to them, and from it a few farther steps led up to a front door in equally ancient oak.

The door was shut. Apparently it was locked as well, for Ashmore as he walked up to it had produced from a pocket an impressively large key. Instead of applying this to the keyhole, however, he somewhat surprisingly applied his ear to it instead. Then, with a gesture to Appleby to follow him in silence, he moved softly down the terrace, pausing every now and then to peer cautiously through a window. But the windows were in so begrimed a state that this inspection could have had little practical utility, and Appleby was unable to resist an uncomfortable impression that what he was witnessing was a compulsive ritual devoid of rational significance. Presently they came to a second and smaller door of what appeared to be comparatively recent date, sheltered beneath a frankly unauthentic Gothic portico. This door---Appleby was further instructed to remark---was ajar and swaying gently to and fro in a light chilly breeze which was now rising. Ashmore paid no attention to it. He walked on to the next window, stopped, and anxiously examined its fastenings.

By this time it seemed evident to Appleby that there must be somebody around the place charged with the not very easy duty of looking after Mr. Martyn Ashmore. Yet nobody of the sort had appeared---and for that matter he had been building up a strong impression that the old man lived in this great place in absolute solitude. He was about to frame a question which might throw some light on this when he saw that Ashmore had moved on.

But now they were approaching an angle of the house, and Ashmore's behaviour had become stranger still. He still held the big key in his hand---or rather he held it in both hands, cradling it as a trained Commando might cradle an automatic weapon. And some fantasy of this kind he actually went on to enact. As if this corner were a spot peculiarly vulnerable to a lethal enfilading fire, and with an agility altogether surprising in so elderly a man, he crouched, sprang and swung round the corner at the double. Appleby, caught unawares, found himself adopting a ludicrous compromise between the same manoeuvre and a more reasonable manner of circling a secluded country house on an unremarkable autumn day. He reflected impatiently that there was a great deal of Ashmore Chase; what had appeared at a first glance was that the house did nothing if not sprawl; this depressingly senile or demented war-game might go on for quite some time.

And this it did---to an extent indeed which prompted Appleby to ask a question the tone of which he a little regretted as he uttered it.

'May I ask whether you do this kind of thing often?'

For some moments Ashmore---who had started the window-business again---offered no reply, so that Appleby feared he must have offended him. But this proved to be not so, and Ashmore's answer when it came held almost the suggestion of polite conversation.

'Oh, dear me, no! Not at all. Only on the anniversary.'

'The anniversary?'

'Of their all being killed, of course. Massacred. Today is the anniversary. I told you, didn't I, that I remember the date?' Suddenly Martyn Ashmore looked strangely grim. 'I still have reason to.'

Suddenly Appleby quite definitely knew that he wanted to ask no more. Yet this, in some obscure way, was not possible. To close up when so strange a remark had been offered one would represent an indecent withdrawal of human sympathy. And he did feel a genuine if still wholly uncomprehending sympathy with this strangely driven recluse. He waited however until the ritual dash round a further wing of the house had been made.

'I'm afraid I don't quite understand you. Do you mean that there is one special day in the year in which you face a peculiar physical hazard?'

'Just that. They make an attempt upon my life only on the one day. And, even so, only one single attempt. It's a matter of their honour. Too much honour---honour and dishonour---about the whole thing.'

'Why don't you keep yourself securely shut away on this one dangerous day of the year? Or call in the police? It ought to be quite easy.'

'I funked once. I gave in once. No good came of it. Did you ever read Nostromo by the fellow Conrad? Some sort of foreigner.'

'I've read it more than once, as a matter of fact.'

'Dr. Monygham. A gentleman---English gentleman. He gave in. It broke him.'

'It didn't break him. He ends up as the voice of reason and morality in the book. But why did you give in?'

'They had an electrical thing. After some hours I couldn't take it any longer. I could show you the places---if they were at all decent.'

Appleby acknowledged a long silence. They had now got right round the house. Its front door was again ahead of them. The day seemed to have darkened---to have turned suddenly colder, as is said to happen when ghosts walk. Appleby knew that he must speak again.

'Something very bad followed?'

'The whole village. The men were shot. The women and children were told to go and pray for their souls in the church. Then they fired it. I was made to watch.' The crazed country gentleman called Martyn Ashmore was silent again for a time. 'It wouldn't have been quite so bad, you know, if my mother hadn't been French.'

'But even in the years immediately after that sort of thing happened, surely, people didn't exact vengeance from men who . . . who were tortured until they talked.'

'It wasn't believed. It was thought to be a put-up job. Don't blame them. Collaboration often worked like that.'

'Good God, man!' In the stillness of the early afternoon Appleby heard his own voice almost crying out. 'This must have been nearly thirty years ago! You can't believe----'

Ashmore made no direct reply. He walked up to the front door, and this time put the key in the lock without hesitation. He turned it, threw open the door, and stepped back as if to let Appleby be the first to enter. 'I hope,' he said, 'you'll stay to lunch.'

+++

It was in this second that the thing happened. Suddenly between the two men the worn brick on which they stood quivered and seemed to explode. There was a crash and an effect of flying splinters. There was a brief dust. A large flat stone---a roofing stone---lay in fragments at their feet.

Appleby looked up. He saw a mouldering and crenellated parapet. Behind it there must lie a flat leaded space. Beyond that rose the swell of the ancient roof from which this deadly projectile must have come. He was instantly and enormously angry. Martyn Ashmore had been within inches of his end. So for that matter had been a retired and inoffensive Commissioner of Metropolitan Police. He grabbed Ashmore and dragged him within the shelter of the doorway.

'Have you servants?' he demanded. 'Have you a telephone?'

'A telephone? Yes, of course. But they've disconnected it. The post-office people. They were demanding some extortionate rent.'

Appleby scarcely heard this. He was listening to something else---the sound of flying feet on what must be an uncarpeted staircase. He dashed into a gloomy hall. A door banged. He turned towards the noise, but its direction eluded him. Then from somewhere beyond the back of the house came the roar of a motor-cycle engine. It rose and then rapidly faded into distance.

'Another failure,' Ashmore said. 'Three hundred and sixty-five days to go.' He laughed harshly, but his voice was steady. 'And now about luncheon. Would claret or burgundy be your choice?'

+++

It was not much Appleby's habit, in any crisis, to lose a tolerably sharp consciousness of his surroundings. But he was forced afterwards to admit that it was in an almost dreamlike state that he had traversed shabby and almost empty rooms, had watched his host light a candle, had descended behind him into just such a cellar as he had fatuously imagined he might be incarcerated in by a maniac. It wasn't an empty cellar. He opened his eyes wide, indeed, at what he saw.

'What about this?' Ashmore was asking, and held up a bottle.

'That's brandy,' Appleby said. Even in this extraordinary situation he was able to reflect that it was a long time since he had set eyes on just such a bottle---its neck bulbous with wax, its label hand-written in France long ago.

'Yes, of course.' Ashmore put the brandy back in its rack. 'We want a half-bottle, wouldn't you say?' His impulse of hospitality seemed to be moderating itself. 'One doesn't care to turn too sleepy of an afternoon, eh? And here they are. Lafite.' His unnerving laugh echoed queerly beneath the vaulting of the chilly place. 'You must try my Lafite. Just a glass.'


 92 
 on: April 30, 2024, 09:42:01 am 
Started by Admin - Last post by Admin
Part One: A Near Thing at Ashmore Chase

WHEN out walking by himself, Appleby commonly obeyed his wife Judith's rules. These---perhaps picked up from her American connections---could be summarized in the injunction, 'Go on till you're stopped'. When, on the other hand, he was accompanied by Judith, he still, after more than thirty years of companionable pedestrianism, made intermittent attempts to check her more obviously unlawful and even hazardous courses.

That a stile had not necessarily been constructed for her use, nor a fence been allowed to fall into disrepair for her convenience, were propositions which Lady Appleby was indisposed to entertain, nor could she be brought to believe that the presence of a readily negotiable hunting-gate did not of itself guarantee the absence of an unnegotiable bull. Appleby for his part, although not much given to taurophobia, had no fancy for enforced tauromachy either, and he moreover owned a pronounced dislike of engaging uncivil landowners and surly farmers in fruitless disputation over field paths and rights of way.

But the paradox remained, and was operative with Appleby in his unaccompanied condition now. For here was this rather high wall---beginning to crumble in places, but formidable nevertheless---and inset in it a zigzag of protruding stones which made scaling it easy enough. These no doubt attracted Appleby as forming a stile more in the manner of his own north country than of this southern England where he had spent most of his working life. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps simply because it promised access to a line of higher ground from which he could hope to orient himself on his map, Appleby hoisted himself briskly to the top of the wall. It was very improper; the stile clearly existed for somebody's shepherd or keeper, and not in the least for a retired policeman, however respectably circumstanced in the county; but Appleby was, if anything, now rather pleased with the impropriety of his proceeding. He was also pleased with the sense that his weight was right, and that his muscles were therefore more than adequate to this small athletic occasion. He celebrated this sense of well-being by not bothering to feel for the steps on the other side of the wall. He simply jumped. So he was in mid-air---a vulnerable posture---when the howl of rage assailed him.

Or had it merely been a cry of alarm? Appleby wasn't sure. But he found he had taken the precaution---by a kind of second nature, acquired in more adventurous days---of landing with his back reassuringly against the high wall he had just tumbled over. This was of course absurd. And the appearance he now saw before him, although oddly ambiguous, stopped short of being in any degree alarming. It was not for example an infuriated bull. It was only an infuriated old gentleman. But was he infuriated? Or was the visible trembling of his stooped and scraggy frame occasioned by some violent and senseless alarm? It was in this that the point of ambiguity lay. The old gentleman's first utterance would no doubt resolve the problem.

'What the devil do you mean,' the old gentleman demanded, 'by pitching yourself into my property like that?' He took a wary step backward as he spoke, and at the same time raised in air a blackthorn walking-stick of club-like proportions. It certainly wasn't a gesture interpretable in terms of amiable salutation. The old gentleman was frightened and angry together. These after all were emotions which companioned each other often enough. Only it was hard to find in the present situation much occasion for either of them.

'I am very sorry,' Appleby said pacifically. 'I must apologize for trespassing on your land. It was simply that, noticing the stile, I thought I might venture up to the brow of the hill there, and get myself straight on the map.'

'A pretty story!' The old gentleman produced an unexpected and displeasing cackle of dry laughter. 'A very pretty story, indeed. Do you think I don't know the date?'

This irrational response to a speech which had been eminently correct naturally occasioned some indignation as well as bewilderment in Appleby. And this was rather less than assuaged when he suddenly thought he had a glimpse of what occasioned it. The old gentleman's laughter had been echoed near by by a not dissimilar sound: the harsh clattering call of a cock pheasant. This was answered by a second bird on a note of sharper challenge or alarm, and a moment later both were airborne and their dialogue fading amid a whirr of wings. The owner of these creatures---in whose presence Appleby presumably stood---was supposing himself to have apprehended a poacher. There was indeed something in his glance that supported this bizarre suspicion. He could be sensed as, so to speak, peering into Appleby's pockets as he stood---or at least as endeavouring to assess the bulk and weight of anything they might contain. That was it. This outrageous landed proprietor was supposing them filled with lengths of fishing-line, bread-pellets, and small bottles of gin.

Appleby wondered how to proceed. One possibility was to produce a visiting-card. But there was a flavour of pomposity about that; it was the sort of thing his children made fun of. Perhaps it would be better to give the equivalent information---or some of it---verbally.

'My name is Appleby,' Appleby said. 'I live about twelve miles from here, at a place called Long Dream.'

'Long Dream Manor?'

'Yes.'

'Stuff and nonsense. You're an impudent impostor. Everard Raven lives at Dream. Old friend of mine. I see him regularly.'

Appleby opened his mouth, checked himself, and spoke gently.

'Everard Raven died about fifteen years ago. One and another thing has happened since then, and now my wife has inherited the place. We've lived there since I retired a couple of years ago.'

'Retired?' The old gentleman glowered suspiciously at Appleby as he went off at a tangent. 'Why should you have retired? You're a perfectly able-bodied man, so far as I can see. Idleness and mischief, eh?'

'I was a policeman. It's thought quite a good thing that they shouldn't hang on too long.'

'I don't believe a word of it. The Raven girls were always a queer lot, but I don't see one of them marrying a copper. Where was your last beat?'

'It wasn't exactly a beat. I was Commissioner of Metropolitan Police. Of course I was other things earlier on. And now, my dear sir, with renewed apologies, I'll take myself off your land.'

'You'll do nothing of the sort!' The old gentleman was still studying Appleby's pockets. And suddenly Appleby was visited by the fantastic notion that it wasn't a mere poacher's kit, but rather some lethal weapon, that he was suspected of carrying. Moreover the old gentleman was also listening---listening for something that didn't exist: footfalls, whispers, stealthy stirrings behind a bush or on the other side of the wall. The old gentleman lived in fact in some unfortunate condition of chronic anxiety. It was this perception that governed Appleby's conduct in the succeeding moments. 'You'll do nothing of the sort!' the old gentleman was repeating. 'You'll come with me to the house. This is the sort of thing that must be checked up on.' He brandished his walking-stick in a feeble but spectacular fashion. 'In front of me, please. You see the path. Quick march! Allez-vous en, vite!'

It was clear that neither law nor courtesy required Appleby (who surely couldn't be taken for a Frenchman) to pay any heed to this extraordinary command. He had only to inquire whether this unreasonable person would prefer him to retreat as he had come or to terminate his trespass by some other route. It was no doubt a mixture of curiosity and compassion which prompted him to do as he had been told. He was to reflect afterwards that the mixture was an unholy one, and that he had no business to complain that trouble followed.

+++

The house lay in a hollow, and this was no doubt the reason why Appleby hadn't spotted it earlier. It was ancient---as ancient as Dream and a good deal larger. Architecturally it would have to be called a mess, for from some nucleus which had long since been swallowed up and vanished it wandered indecisively here and there in half-timber work, red brick, and stone---and this now on one scale of pretension and now on quite another, no doubt according to the several whims and material circumstances of numerous generations of its owners. All appeared to have been very fond of chimneys; clusters of these, some weathered smooth and others still distinguishably carved with Tudor elaboration, sprouted from a grey stone roof which had turned sinuous and undulant with the years. The effect was rather that of some improbable monster in a medieval Bestiary, horripilant like the porpentine against its foes. Although the autumn day was chilly, and although the mansion scarcely had the appearance of one in which an unobtrusive central heating had been laid on, Appleby observed that from one of these numerous stacks did there come the faintest trail of smoke.

The place might have been untenanted. He began to wonder indeed if it was untenanted; if he was being led---or rather driven or shepherded---into some fiendish trap prepared for casual passers-by by a maniac. Perhaps when they reached the shelter of the building the old gentleman---already so unnervingly padding along behind him---would expertly cosh him on the head with the blackthorn and then manacle him for life amid a congeries of random victims in an abandoned wine-cellar. This morbid persuasion became momentarily so strong in Appleby that he halted, turned round, and casually felt in a pocket for his pipe and tobacco-pouch. At the same time he looked the old gentleman steadily in the eye---a proceeding, as everybody knows, highly correct when maniacs are in question.

'Chilly,' Appleby said. 'But these gleams of sunshine are pleasant, all the same.'

The old gentleman appeared nonplussed. He even neglected to brandish his stick. Appleby took the opportunity to have a better look at him. He wondered why, if his dwelling had suggested some fabulous creature, he himself so strongly suggested a tortoise. He was thin, angular, and capable of at least a certain range of rapid nervous movements, so the image ought not to have fitted at all. Then Appleby remembered that tortoises are reputed to live for a very long time---the really big kinds for several centuries. And this is what the old gentleman gave the impression of doing. He looked by no means what could be called exceptionally old, but he did look as if he were engaged on the job of living almost indefinitely. It was a pervasive desiccation perhaps that rendered this impression; one felt that nothing could happen to his physical frame except---at some utterly remote future time---a slow crumbling and turning to dust. In a humbler walk of life he would be destined eventually to a booth in a fair, surrounded by impressive-looking documentary evidences of his extreme longevity, and offering to shake hands at sixpence a time.

This would have been an uncomfortable fancy in itself. But what made Appleby feel obscurely uneasy was his impression that the life thus suggesting itself as abnormally hardwearing and tenacious seemed also a life abnormally burdened after some nervous fashion. Here in fact was Pilgrim grown old with his bundle still on his back. It might be full of remorse and guilt and morbid scruple, as was the case with Bunyan's character. Or it might be full of the standard horrors of a modern psychiatric clinic: senseless obsessions, phobias, chasms of depression, self-hatred, despair.

The old gentleman had made no reply to Appleby's inane remark about the sunshine. He had simply stood in silence, watching him stuff his pipe. Something had changed in his manner, all the same. And this was signalized by the words---wholly surprising words---with which he greeted Appleby's first puff.

'What's that stuff you're smoking?'

'John Cotton 1 and 2.'

'I thought so.' The old gentleman hesitated. A new species of agitation appeared to have possessed him. 'I think I've got a pipe in the house,' he said.

'Then may we go and find it?' Appleby turned to walk on, but then paused until the old gentleman had come abreast of him. It was like dropping in on Treasure Island and coaxing Ben Gunn with an offer of Parmesan cheese. He wondered whether his host---as it suddenly seemed reasonable to term this curious old creature---was quite fantastically impoverished. The house they were now approaching certainly suggested it. So did the wild garden they had entered through a gate from the small park with its ill-repaired wall. Appleby took a cautious sideways glance at his companion. He wore a knicker-bocker suit of antique cut. It was piped and patched at appropriate points with stout leather, and the cloth seemed of a quality that would last for ever anyway. The outfit might well have been tailored for the old gentleman's father round about the time of the Boer War. It carried a strong suggestion of the earliest days of cycling. Anything much in the way of shape had long since departed from it. But it was quite clean.

'My name is Ashmore,' the old gentleman said abruptly. He had come to a halt---and this time it was he who appeared to look Appleby steadily in the eye. If there was something wild in his gaze, there was something uncommonly penetrating as well. 'You've heard of me,' he said.

'I'm afraid I don't quite---Appleby broke off. It was, he supposed, as a local magnate that the man called Ashmore presumed he must be known to his visitor. But the name rang only some faint and elusive bell. Unlike Judith, Appleby hadn't the knack of regarding anybody within fifteen miles as a close neighbour. If Judith had talked about this ancient Mr. Ashmore as among the attractions of the neighbourhood her husband had been most culpably not listening to her. Nevertheless it was awkward to have to deny something that Ashmore had so dogmatically assumed, and Appleby was for a moment at a loss, Ashmore himself resumed the conversation.

'Don't think I'm a fool,' he said. 'Don't think I'm an old fool, or a bloody fool, or even just a born one. Didn't you say your name was Appleby, and talk about the police? I've placed you, you know. It's taken me a minute or two---but that doesn't mean my wits are wholly decayed. Mind you, they may be, but this isn't evidence of it. You've been an important man---Sir John, isn't it---but not all that important. So it takes a little thought to sort you out. And of course you've heard of me. Nobody in your position could have failed to.' Ashmore paused. 'Used you not to see those plays by that fellow Bernard Shaw?'

'Decidedly I did.'

'There's a man in one of them who goes around handing out his card. Mr. X, the Celebrated Coward. Just like that. Well, I'm Martyn Ashmore, the celebrated ditto.' Ashmore laughed harshly. 'So now we are introduced. Can I have a fill of your tobacco, all the same?'


 93 
 on: April 30, 2024, 08:08:15 am 
Started by Admin - Last post by Admin
There are five parts and twenty-one chapters in "Death at the Chase":

Part one: A Near Thing at Ashmore Chase
    [chapters 1 to 4]

Part two: Benevolent Intentions at Long Dream Manor
    [chapters 5 to 8]
 
Part three: Death at Ashmore Chase
    [chapters 9 to 13]

Part four: A Call at King's Yatter
    [chapters 14 to 15]

Part five: Abbot's Yatter and Elsewhere
    [chapters 16 to 21]


 94 
 on: April 29, 2024, 12:36:56 pm 
Started by Admin - Last post by Admin
Oh, most lame and impotent conclusion! —Othello

“COME in.”

Appleby spoke the words not by way of summons but as the beginning of an explanation. It was after breakfast, and everybody was in the library. Even Rushout and Moody were present---their arrival at Urchins having been hastened by a telephone call.

Come in. Almost as soon as I heard the words, of course, I ought to have begun wondering what Lewis Packford was up to. For consider. His summer-house presented simply a blank wall on the side by which I approached it. So he couldn’t possibly have spotted me---and indeed when I walked in he was clearly completely surprised. He assured me moreover that he was quite out of contact with either Englishmen or English women. No doubt one might argue that, hearing a knock on a door, a man will instinctively call out in his own language. But that simply wouldn’t be true in the particular circumstances of the case. Packford had fluent Italian, and he had been settled there at Garda for a good part of the summer. So you may put it this way. What would the reasonable inference have been if Packford had called out Herein?”

There was a moment’s silence in the library, and then Edward Packford spoke a shade impatiently. “One could be pretty sure that he was expecting a German, of course.”

“Precisely. His calling out in English was, admittedly, not so completely definitive as that. But at least it suggests a strong probability that your brother was expecting a visit from an Englishman.”

“Or from an American.” Limbrick, who had taken up a position from which he could glower offensively at Moody, made this suggestion with animus.

“Quite so. And Packford was certainly expecting somebody. Once or twice he looked at his watch in a way that wasn’t wholly civil; and when I left him he was hurrying back to that summer-house like a man with an appointment. Thinking it over afterwards, I came to the conclusion that he had agreed to meet somebody quietly there either before one evening hour or after another one. That happened to make it possible for him to give me dinner at tolerable leisure---and to produce quite a lot of talk which later events have shown to be highly significant in itself. But even while talking he was distrait at times. So I didn’t find it difficult to accept Room’s later suggestion that I had chanced to pay my call on Packford on the very evening that something extremely important was happening.” Appleby paused. “In fact Room’s suggestion fitted in with my own sense of the whole incident. What was later to puzzle me a good deal was why Room made it.”

“Puzzling conduct,” Ruth Packford said, “appears to have been Mr. Room’s forte. That, and howling bad taste. Whether he was a rascal or not, I don’t know---and I don’t greatly care. But to make his death a kind of grotesque echo of Lewis’s was disgusting.”

Alice nodded approvingly. “I quite agree with that, I must say. Leaving the same message---about the long farewell, I mean---was in bad taste. It wasn’t a thing a gentleman would do.”

“I suppose,” Edward Packford asked, “that the handwriting will prove to be authentically Room’s?”

“I’m quite sure it will.” Appleby spoke with authority. “He had been annotating some legal documents, so I’ve been able to make a comparison. Room wrote the scrawl we found last night.”

“Echoing what my brother wrote?”

Appleby shook his head. “Your brother never wrote anything of the sort. Both these messages were written by Room.”

+++

There was a baffled silence. And it was Ruth’s mind which first got to work effectively on Appleby’s announcement. “In other words,” she said, “Lewis was never by way of saying farewell to anybody or anything?”

“Precisely. I had to consider, of course, the possibility that he had been killed immediately after writing something merely designed to announce that he was solving his difficult matrimonial situation---if that’s the right word for it---by packing up and clearing out. The suitcase which turned up in his car seemed for a time to support that interpretation. But the suitcase was Alice’s work. I am inclined to think that, during the period of total loss of memory which she has described, she visited Packford in this room and suggested flight, Then, still in the same dissociated state, she packed a suitcase for him and hid it in his car, together with a little travelling case of her own. I’ve already explained this hypothesis to Alice, and she doesn’t disagree with it. All this, of course, wasn’t a confusion upon which Room could have been reckoning at all. But it was otherwise with the simple arrival of the two ladies at Urchins and the crisis which that produced. Room certainly engineered that. It was an essential part of his plan. Or rather it was an essential part of one of his plans. For he had a great belief in keeping things flexible. It was a trait which emerged in my first conversation with him. You might call it his Napoleon complex. That in turn was a reflex of his vanity. And these elements are at the heart of the case.”

“Are we to understand, then,” Canon Rixon asked, “that this unfortunate solicitor was throughout prosecuting some criminal design? This is shocking, indeed.”

“You are to understand, for a start, that he planned an elaborate, foolish and conceited hoax.”

“A hoax?” Edward Packford’s voice was sharp, and he had swung round on Appleby. “Just what do you mean by that?”

“You will understand what I mean presently. And it is better, I think, to speak of a hoax than of a fraud---at least in the first instance. But let me go back to Garda. I left your brother, so to speak, expecting an English visitor---and concealing the fact of that expectation from a casual caller in the person of myself. Well, yesterday I discovered---and in rather an odd way—that that English visitor had almost certainly been Room himself. You will agree, I think, that your brother had rather a simple sense of humour, and was moreover fond of repeating his little jokes?”

Edward nodded. “Perfectly true.”

“When I called on him, he happened to remark upon the decoration of his summer-house. There were wall-paintings of a somewhat insipid erotic cast. He referred to them as amorous shrimps, and added that there was no vice in them. When I happened, in this connection, to repeat the phrase ‘amorous shrimps’ to Room, Room at once, in speaking of your brother, used the phrase ‘no vice in him’ to me. The associative link was unmistakable. Room too had heard that joke from your brother in the summer-house. But Room had implicitly denied ever having visited your brother at Garda. He had simply corresponded with him, and arranged for the transfer of £1000—the sum required, according to Room’s story, to buy some valuable book or document from an impoverished nobleman of Verona. It became clear to me that this impoverished nobleman was moonshine. Room had invented him; and had persuaded your brother that he, Room, was acting as an intermediary in delicate negotiations.”

There was silence again---oddly broken by a burst of rather harsh laughter from Rushout. “Is this leading up to the proposition that the supposed annotations by Shakespeare in that Ecatommiti are a fake---a forgery?”

“Certainly it is. Room was a bit of a scholar and a bit of a palaeographer. And Lewis Packford---Mr. Packford here has told me---used rather to laugh at Room’s pretentions, and indeed to make fun of him generally. With a man of Room’s temperament, that was a dangerous thing to do. And Room furthermore possessed a dangerous accomplishment: he had made himself into a brilliant forger. Not, of course, of his clients’ signatures on cheques, or anything of that sort; but simply in the field of literary and antiquarian investigation. The history of scholarship is oddly full of that sort of thing; and there are all degrees of the impulse. The learned joke about Bogdown, if I may venture to say so, is a sort of first-cousin to it.”

Canon Rixon raided a mildly protesting hand at this. “My dear Sir John, I consider that remark to be contentious. But proceed.”

“Room, then, determined on a shattering hoax at Packford’s expense. On the one hand, he counted on his own quite exceptional skill; and on the other, on what may be called a sanguine streak in his proposed victim. He told me that he regarded Packford as credulous. Even so, his proposed deception was a great gamble. But then he admired gambles. He told me that too. And he particularly admired the gambler who will double his stake at a crisis. The relevance of that will appear a little later.”

+++

Appleby paused to look round his auditory. With the exception of Alice, who had clearly given up trying to grasp what it was all about, they were as attentive as any actor or lecturer could wish. Moody, who had perhaps been hurried over his breakfast, was covertly swallowing one of Dr. Cahoon’s pills. But nobody else moved.

“The hoax might have worked. As we all now know, Packford went so far as to write a letter to Professor Rushout, stating his conviction that he had found an incomparably important body of marginalia by Shakespeare. And he dropped various hints about it to other people now in this library. The time had come for Room to disclose the truth, and set the whole learned world laughing at Lewis Packford’s gullibility. Unfortunately Room had, at quite an early stage, allowed himself one of those swift changes of plan he was so proud of. He had admitted a simple profit motive into his enterprise, and collected from his victim a large sum of money---ostensibly to hand over to the impoverished Veronese nobleman. This, when you come to think of it, was really a hopeless and pitiable muddle at the start. For it would only be for so long as the authenticity of the marginalia went virtually unquestioned that there would be no danger of investigations which would ultimately expose the whole Veronese story as a fraud. Room could, of course, have handed back the £1000 at the moment of exploding his hoax. But clearly he didn’t want to. So he thought again, and changed his strategy once more.”

Again Appleby paused, and again for a moment nobody moved. But then Limbrick struck a match and lit a cigarette. “I can’t see,” he said easily, “that you aren’t possibly making all this up. About the spuriousness, I mean, of the marginalia in the Ecatommiti. Let us admit that Room was in Italy. But he may genuinely have been acting as a go-between, in relation to a genuine nobleman owning a genuine Shakespearian treasure. So far, you have been importing the notion of forgery simply on the strength of your own reading of Room’s character.”

Appleby nodded. “There’s some truth in that. If I were a barrister, presenting this material in court, I should have to begin by ordering my entire material much more carefully. As it is. I’m assuming things that can only appear incontestable a little later on, when the rest of the evidence is fitted into place. You’ll find that’s to say, that matters to which I shall presently come are not reconcilable with the assumption that the marginalia are genuine.”

At this Rushout took it upon himself to nod judiciously. “So far,” he said, “your case at least possesses what I’d call internal coherence. And I’m prepared myself to believe the damned stuff is bogus. If only”---he sighed---“because it’s too good to be true.”

“Very well. And I’ve now come to a point at which Room, as I conceive the matter, began to evolve a really formidable battery of alternative plans. He had found out about the embarrassing matrimonial dilemma which his client and victim had fallen into. Mr. Packford here had advised his brother to take legal advice, and so Lewis Packford had told Room the story. Room’s instinct would be to exploit it in some way. And in one set of eventualities, he saw, a descent by the ladies upon Urchins might afford a useful element of confusion. So he communicated with them anonymously, and saw to it that they presented themselves here virtually simultaneously. He himself came down to Urchins at the same time.”

Edward Packford raised his head at this. “Did he? We certainly knew nothing about it.”

“I understand that it was your brother’s invariable habit to spend an hour or two alone in this library before going to bed. Room had no need to announce himself. On a summer evening, he could simply walk in by the french window. And that is what he did.”

“Intending murder?”

“Almost certainly not. Indeed, I’m not positively certain that he intended to confront your brother at all. It seems to me conceivable that he simply intended to slip into the house and conceal himself. The plan at this time in the forefront of his mind was probably theft. And that is where Mr. Moody comes in.

“Huh?” This was the first sound that Moody had uttered.

“The position, remember, was this. Lewis Packford had possessed himself of these supposed marginalia by Shakespeare. He had informed Professor Rushout about them, and he had dropped hints to other people. Packford, of course, was a great name in this particular field of learning, and his opinion would carry much weight. When, however, the marginalia were eventually given to the world, they would almost certainly be questioned, debated and eventually exposed. That was no longer what Room desired, or looked forward to as other than thoroughly inconvenient. Rut if he could possess himself of the Cintio again---steal it, in fact---he could dispose of it to that sort of collector who doesn’t object to clandestine acquisitions, and who indeed has rather a fancy for them. Mr. Moody certainly falls into that category. He has a fancy for possessing remarkable things that nobody knows about. He told me so himself. Isn’t that right, Mr. Moody?”

Moody considered this question sombrely for a moment. “Huh,” he said.

“Quite so. And let us notice that Mr. Moody would be paying a substantial sum for the marginalia on the strength of the conviction which Lewis Packford had arrived at about it, while at the same time being unable, in the nature of the case, to call in further expert opinion by way of corroboration. Room, then, had a lot to gain by simply walking off with the Cintio if he could lay his hands on it.”

Professor Prodger, who had for some time given the appearance of slumbering within the recesses of his venerable beard, was prompted to speech by this. “But that mightn’t be easy---eh? That mightn’t be easy, at all. Even if he had the advantage of knowing the precise book he was looking for. Am I right, Rixon? Limbrick, would you agree with me?”

Appleby nodded. “That is obviously true. And there is no doubt that Room did in fact have an interview with Lewis Packford here in the library. And there is equally little doubt that Packford produced the Cintio. Room’s simplest way of finding out where it was kept would be to contrive this. Unfortunately he found out something else as well. Perhaps you can guess what that was.”

“That Lewis knew the truth, after all?” It was Ruth Packford who asked this. She had been following Appleby with absolute concentration.

“Certainly that he knew a great deal of the truth. Your husband, that is to say, had detected the fact of forgery. He had done so, it may be, only within the preceding few hours; and without doubt he had, so far, communicated his discovery to no one. There seems a high probability that Room had underestimated his victim’s intelligence right from the start. Packford had indeed been bowled over by the magnitude of the supposed find, so that for a time his critical faculties were in abeyance. But from the first I believe that doubts and suspicions were gnawing at his mind---even without his being at all consciously aware of it. The drift of our conversation at Garda seems to me highly significant now. He talked about the technique of literary forgery---old paper, a chemically correct ink and so forth---and also about its psychology: forgery sometimes starting as a joke, gratifying an impulse to laugh up one’s sleeve, being particularly attractive to those who have reason to suppose themselves patronised or looked down upon. Very obscurely, in fact, his mind was groping after the basis of the whole deception which was being launched against him at that very moment. And now some more minute study of his find had flashed on him the truth that it was spurious.”

“And you think,” Ruth asked, “that he taxed Room there and then?”

“No, I don’t. I think his first supposition was that both he and Room had been equally the victims of an imposture. But you see the crisis with which Room suddenly found himself confronted. Once Packford had communicated his revised opinion to Professor Rushout, or anybody of the sort, the Cintio would become virtually valueless. So there was no point in stealing it. And, whether he stole it or not, Lewis Packford would certainly conduct an investigation as a consequence of which he himself could scarcely escape exposure. Nor would he then be able to plead that he had been devising a harmless and even salutary hoax. For the cold fact would be that he had fabricated a false document, invented a false provenance for it, and sold it for a large sum of money. Things were turning very awkward for him. It was incumbent upon him, therefore, to bring one of his reserve plans into operation. Fortunately he had---or believed himself to have---a Napoleonic genius in that direction.”

+++

“And so,” Edward Packford asked, “we come to murder?”

“And so we come to murder---and to a little more forgery. It is obvious that, if your brother died there and then, with the fact of his final discovery of the spuriousness of the marginalia undisclosed, Room could still do very well. He could walk off with the Cintio, just as he had already proposed. Later, Professor Rushout would certainly make public the fact that Packford had believed himself to be in possession of important Shakespeare marginalia; there would be a vain hunt for the missing volume; and Room would have something pleasingly notorious to peddle to Mr. Moody on the quiet.”

“Huh.”

“And already the way was paved for this alternative operation. Acute domestic embarrassment had been, so to speak, dumped on the doorstep of Urchins that very afternoon. If Lewis Packford was given the appearance of committing suicide there and then, there would be a ready-made motive. So Room shot him, and scrawled that note. He had, of course, put in a lot of time perfecting his command of Packford’s handwriting. I think it likely that he was ingenious enough to use a particularly slow-drying ink---in the hope that the first person brought to the spot by the shot would notice this apparently incontestable piece of additional evidence.”

There was a scrape of a match as Limbrick lit another cigarette. “And this,” he said, “is the point at which your whole case. Sir John, turns to sheer nonsense. You say that Room committed murder and ingeniously disguised it as suicide. But everybody knows that he was later virtually the only person to declare that it was murder. Do you maintain that he was simply putting up a crazy double bluff?”

Appleby shook his head. “Not quite that. The Napoleonic change of plan had a fatal attraction for Room simply, one may say, for its own sake. It cropped up in his conversation in a way that clearly indicated an obsession. But there was, at the same time, a rational basis for this very hazardous second---or third--- thought, when he embarked upon it. And this again concerns our American friend, Mr. Moody, who has so kindly come along this morning.”

Limbrick blew out a cloud of cigarette-smoke. “Huh,” he said impudently.

“Huh?” Moody eyed Limbrick aggressively. Then, perhaps warned by some interior spasm, he reached for his pills again. “Huh,” he said.

“The point was this,” Appleby went on. “The Cintio had appeared obscurely, and it had been changing hands obscurely. If it had left in its wake, so to speak, nothing more serious than a suicide, Mr. Moody or some similar purchaser might have risked coming out into the open with it, after all. Once it was heard about, it would almost certainly be examined by experts, and the danger of its being proved a fake would be very real---so that once more Room might be booked for trouble. Murder is a different matter. Once any strong suspicion that Packford had been murdered got abroad---once it was known that the police were seriously pursuing the possibility, and so forth---then it would become a very dubious and dangerous possession indeed, and its new owner would almost certainly keep quiet about it. Hence Room’s new attitude. He lay in wait for me---I can now see---after Packford’s funeral, and began airing a theory of murder and robbery. Indeed he had already begun on that line with my colleague Cavill---expressing his conviction, for instance, that the message on the post-card was a forgery. Later he was to assure me that it was a brilliant forgery---which is a pretty enough instance of the operation of his very large conceit. And of course it was Room who got yesterday’s evening papers to turn Packford’s death into a sensation and reveal that I had come down to investigate. Perhaps he knew, by the time he did this, that Mr. Moody had actually arrived in England. And here, incidentally, we come to a yet more compelling reason for Room’s turning Packford’s death into murder. There’s just nothing that Mr. Moody likes better than that sort of thing. He has a remarkable collection of more or less blood-streaked relics. Isn’t that so, Mr. Moody?”

“Huh?” Moody considered for a moment, and then appeared to resolve on speech. “Sure,” he said.

“And the collection is growing all the time?”

“Sure. I can get those things when I want them. I can get most anything when I want it.”

“Exactly. That, if I may say so, is a most succinct statement of your position. And when you read in the English papers last night a lot of stuff about Lewis Packford’s having been murdered, you wanted his Cintio even more than you wanted it before?”

“Sure. That’s only sense, isn’t it?”

“Of course it is.” Appleby nodded with conviction. “In addition to all those scribblings by Shakespeare, the book would have this further associational interest. I believe that’s the term. And now we’re almost finished with Room. But not quite.”

Canon Rixon shook his head. “And, meantime, the wretched man is finished with us. I am bound to say I think it’s to his credit. The Archbishop would no doubt disagree with me. And of course theological considerations must not be ignored. Still, Room has, so to speak, taken himself off before a great deal of horrible degradation in courts of law. I admire his courage.”

Appleby was silent for a moment. “I at least admire his cleverness---and the less reluctantly, perhaps, because it was, in a last analysis, of such a crack-brained sort. One can’t, in my line of territory, afford to admire anything at all in a really tiptop and thoroughly capable criminal. But those on the lunatic fringe one can extend a little charity to, even when their cleverness has drawn them into horrible crime. But that’s by the way. I now come to the second stage of my investigation.”

+++

“You certainly seem disposed to give us good measure.” Edward Packford had risen to his feet and strolled to the window. Now he was surveying the whole company with a speculative eye. “There’s more to come? Something more lies behind Room’s taking the course he did?”

“What lies behind it,” Limbrick said, “is presumably the good Sir John’s chasing him up---chasing him up with what I myself would still describe as a wonderfully convincing fantasy. Perhaps Room judged it so convincing that he didn’t see much hope in the mere fact of its being a high-class policeman’s fairy-tale. And that would be too bad.”

Alice, who had continued mute during the further intricacies of Appleby’s exposition, was suddenly prompted to make a purely human remark. “All this would be a little less bad,” she said to Limbrick, “if you kept your bloody mouth shut.”

“I thoroughly agree.” Prodger sat up so suddenly that a couple of startled moths flew out of his beard. “Limbrick, having been humiliatingly exposed in reprehensible courses not many hours ago, ought in mere decency to be silent.” He turned to Alice. “Nor, my dear young woman, need you blush at so legitimate a use of the resources of the vulgar tongue. Sir John, proceed.”

“Thank you. Well, the final stage of the affair turns on the fact that Room liked, as he expressed it to me, to be ready for all eventualities. Even, apparently, for tolerably unlikely ones. He may have got wind of the fact that Mr. Moody---whose reputation and habits I discovered to be well known to him---was in this country. But when Room returned to Urchins yesterday with Packford’s will and so forth, he can surely have seen only a remote chance of Moody’s actually being here or in the neighbourhood. Nevertheless Room was prepared for that, as for other things. He brought two suit-cases with him.”

“So he did.” Ruth Packford nodded. “I noticed them when we collected him from the railway station.”

“Quite so. And you may have noticed something more. They were twin suit-cases.” Appleby smiled grimly. “And that is something which no Napoleon should provide himself with.”

“Do you mean, ” Rushout asked curiously, “because they can get muddled up?”

“Just that. But now I must say something about Mrs. Husbands. I see she isn’t here in the library, so I can begin with a well-deserved compliment. Amid all these alarms, the household over which she presides continues to run very smoothly.”

Rixon nodded emphatically. “I quite agree. If the cook, for example, has been discomposed at any time, the circumstance has never been allowed to impinge upon our host’s table. And that is truly admirable, we shall all agree.”

Appleby nodded. “It is more immediately relevant to my own argument, however, that the house-maiding seems to remain equally efficient. My own suit-case was unpacked for me in the most orthodox way. But Room’s was not.”

Edward Packford came back from the window and sat down again. “I’m afraid,” he said mildly, “that it’s too late to apologise to him. But is the circumstance highly relevant?”

“As it happens, it is. Yesterday evening, and by mere chance, I became aware of Mrs. Husbands coming out of what later revealed itself as Room’s bedroom. She came out as if anxious not to be seen doing so. That was rather odd. But much odder was the fact that she appeared to be in a state of shock, and even perhaps terror. I resolved to investigate the matter as soon as I had an opportunity. It was thus that I later came upon Room preparing to go to bed. I had a conversation with him, which I found interesting in several particulars. But much more interesting was something I simply saw as soon as I opened the door. Room was standing by one of his suit-cases, and fishing out a pair of pyjamas. Why hadn’t this job been done for him, as it had been done for me? There was an obvious answer. He had forgotten to unlock the suitcase containing his clothes. But this could scarcely in itself have had a shattering effect upon Mrs. Husbands, who had presumably been going round the house to see that everything of that sort had been attended to. There must be some other explanation. And that other explanation was clear. Room had failed to unlock the right suit-case simply because he had in fact unlocked the wrong one. It contents had been unpromising, and the housemaid had retired baffled. But Mrs. Husbands had investigated. And she had come upon something that completely shattered her. To put the point crudely, she did a little covert rummaging among Room’s possessions---and her action was the proximate cause of Room’s death.”

Edward Packford had stood up again. “It seems to me,” he said seriously, “that this is a very grave statement. If the matter is to be taken further now, I think Mrs. Husbands should be present. Shall I fetch her?”

For a fraction of a second Appleby hesitated. Then he nodded. “Yes, do,” he said.

Edward moved to the door. “I presume,” he asked, “that you have already had some talk with her about this queer development?”

“I had some talk with her very shortly after Room’s death.”

“And she admitted finding something shattering---I think that was your word---in the suit-case which Room had so rashly unlocked?”

“She did.”

Edward nodded. “She ought not have rummaged. I’m surprised at her. Still, if it helps to clear things up ---as you seem to think it does---nobody’s going to blame the lady. I’ll find her right away.”

Edward left the library, and there was a long silence. It was broken---rather nervously---by Rushout. “You say that Moody’s being here was an eventuality for which this unfortunate and bloody-minded solicitor had arrived prepared. And you have spun us this yarn about a right and a wrong suit-case. I take it he had brought the Cintio back with him? It was what Mrs. Husbands stumbled on?”

“He had certainly brought the Cintio back with him.” Appleby spoke out of what appeared to be a profound and sombre abstraction.

“Then I must say he had a nerve. He was proposing, if the opportunity offered, actually to do a deal with Moody here on the spot?”

“Just that. When I told him that Mr. Moody would be around in the morning. Room said very happily that in that case he’d make bold to stop at Urchins a little longer than he had intended to. He and Moody, he said, would certainly have a chat.” Appleby smiled faintly. “He was wrong about that.”

“I can only repeat: he had a nerve.”

There was a long, awkward silence. Then Appleby appeared to rouse himself. “A nerve? Well, yes. He drew my attention to the fact that the faking of a suicide for Lewis Packford had been a palpable false step, likely to direct investigation into a very narrow field: that of persons who could conceivably bring off the forgery on that postcard. Or words to that effect. He was a bold criminal, without a doubt.”

“Edward must be having difficulty in finding Mrs. Husbands.” Ruth spoke casually---but with one hand she was nervously tapping the arm of her chair.

“Yes,” Appleby said.

Limbrick made to light another cigarette, and then appeared to think better of it. Alice’s broadside had shaken him. Alice herself appeared to be uneasy---which was no doubt the reason why Canon Rixon had taken once more to a fatherly patting of her hand. Prodger was perhaps asleep. Moody was glancing about the library---warily, but at the same time with the assurance of a man who gets most anything he wants. And then the door opened and Mrs. Husbands came in.

She was alone. She shut the door behind her, and looked round the room. She was carrying a book in an ancient leather binding. She walked up to Ruth and put the book down on a table beside her. “Mr. Packford,” she said, in a strained voice, “asked me to give you this. He asked me to say that of course it is yours---and that he is sorry it isn’t worth much.”

Ruth glanced at the book, and then swiftly from Mrs. Husbands to Appleby. “But where is he?” she asked. “Where is Edward?”

Nobody had a reply. And then, in the instant’s silence, in some distant part of the house, there rang out a single pistol-shot.

Alice was the first to spring to her feet. “What is it?” she cried. “What was that?”

Appleby too rose. “I am afraid,” he said quietly, “that it is another long farewell. The last.”

+++

It was a couple of hours later, and Appleby and Ruth Packford were alone in the garden.

“You let him go and do it,” she said. “I think I admire that---taking the responsibility, I mean, of letting him go. But I suppose that, in a policeman, it wasn’t quite regular. You ought to have arrested him. And the endless horrors ought to have followed. Do they hang people nowadays? I forget.”

Appleby made no reply. They walked on. The morning was faintly autumnal, and already sycamore and chestnut leaves were falling on the fringes of the lawn. “I wonder,” Appleby said, “what happens to this place now? Is it all tied up, so that some distant Packford has to be found to take it over? Or does it come to you?”

“Room would know.” Ruth made a long pause. “Why did he kill Lewis? It was madness. It was an absurdity.”

“Yes, it was. And the only real answer is that he thought it clever. Of course he was going to make money out of Moody, and all that. But it was his own cleverness he was in love with.”

“And Edward?”

“He was devoted to Lewis. I remember, early on, a sudden fire in him when he said he wished he had been here when Lewis was killed. He meant that the mere intensity of his feeling would have directed him to be killed. And he said something even more revealing about his having a flair for summary justice. Or something of the sort. But one must realise---if one is to get the simple moral issues of this ghastly business straight---that Edward Packford committed precisely as grave a crime as Room. He fancied himself as an embodiment of justice. Or, if you prefer it, he fancied himself as a public executioner. He judged Room, and he put Room to death. Well, he had no business to. He was a murderer. He would have been a murderer, even if his motive hadn’t been, in actual fact, vitiated and corrupt.”

“You mean that Edward had a profit motive, as well as a notion of executing justice?”

“Certainly he had. He was going to kill two birds with one stone---and feather his own nest on the proceeds.” Appleby’s voice had an unwonted hardness. “He was lucky to be let blow his own brains out. And there’s an end to it.”

“Very well. There’s an end of it. But there are still things I don’t understand.”

“Not many, I imagine. You see, Room had with him in that second suit-case what you might call his whole bag of tricks. Mrs. Husbands may have seen the Cintio---but I doubt whether it would have conveyed much to her. What she certainly did see---as she admitted to me finally last night---was a notebook of Room’s. It contained, jotted down in his hand, a number of appropriate Shakespeare quotations which might have been useful as last messages. Mrs. Husbands opened the thing straight on Farewell, a long farewell. No wonder that she was staggered. She went straight to Edward and told him of her discovery. He went at once to Room’s bedroom and found not only the notebook but the Cintio. This, I believe, was while I was having some talk with Alice. When I subsequently saw Edward, he was a changed man. He had realised almost the whole truth about his brother’s death. And presently he was to glimpse a tremendous temptation.”

“The Cintio?”

“Yes. Remember that Urchins isn’t at all flourishing, and that he was left with the task of keeping it up without his brother’s purely personal fortune, which comes to you. It was an inconvenient sort of inheritance. The precise nature of the book---Cintio’s Ecatommiti with its marginalia---was real news to him; and he at once understood its value. He also knew about Moody, who would give an enormous sum for such a thing even if it had to remain an absolutely secret part of his collection. Moreover he felt---Edward felt---that justice required that he, Edward, should have it. Edward, as we have seen, was very strong on justice. It’s what’s killed him.”

Ruth shivered. “Yes,” she said, “I see that. But, you know, he’d only have had to ask me for the damned book. Wouldn’t he know that?”

“Apparently not. His case was---these were his own words to me---that you were entitled to anything you had a reasonable expectation of. And that didn’t include this enormously valuable discovery of his brother’s. So he avenged his brother and stole from him---or from you---in one and the same act. He killed Room, left on his table the ripped-out page from the notebook, and made off with the Ecatommiti. He still didn’t know, of course, that it was a forgery. And even when that disconcerting truth broke on him this morning, he still thought he was all right. It was only when he learnt I had got Mrs. Husbands’ story that he realised it was all up with him.”

Ruth shook her head. She looked dazed and weary. They turned back towards the house. “At least it’s over,” she said. “A ghastly story. Is there a moral to it?”

Appleby thought for a moment. “There’s no moral. There’s only a caution.”

“And that is?”

“When you’re in the middle of Italy, think twice when a voice calls ‘Come in.’ ”

THE END

 95 
 on: April 29, 2024, 11:11:20 am 
Started by Admin - Last post by Admin
THE shot hadn’t been fired in the library or anywhere immediately adjoining it. And this was all that Appleby could say. He went to the door, threw it open, and listened. There wasn’t a sound. But he couldn’t conceivably be the only person still awake in Urchins; it seemed indeed improbable that any of the people who had so lately been in this room with him could be already asleep. They were hesitating, in fact, to be the first person to emerge and start the shouting. They were telling themselves that what they had heard was perhaps the fall of a picture or a looking-glass from the wall, or the back-fire of a motor-bicycle in some near-by lane.

But now the silence was broken. It was broken, very faintly, by distant screams. And then he heard Edward Packford’s voice, calm and authoritative, in some distant part of the house. “Mrs. Husbands---can you hear me? Tell those women to stop that noise and get back to bed.”

Well, that told one something at once. It was the housekeeper’s domestic staff that had judged it incumbent upon itself to kick up a shindy. And as this part of the establishment was almost certainly accommodated in the attics, and as it must indeed have been abruptly roused from slumber thus to indulge in instant hysterics, the inference was that the shot had been fired at least as high as the main bedroom floor.

Appleby ran down the long corridor upon which the library gave, and then up the main staircase. A light went on as he reached the first landing, and he was just in time to see Edward Packford, in pyjamas and dressing-gown, emerge some distance away through a green baize door. Edward recognised him and strode forward. “It was unmistakably a pistol shot,” he said crisply. “We’d better run it to earth before the real rumpus starts. It’s my impression it was down here---past your own room in the east wing.” He turned to flick on more lights. “Ah---there they go!”

It was certainly true that there they went. All over the house doors were now opening and voices calling. It must have been just like this, Appleby thought grimly, on the night Lewis Packford died. But on that occasion there hadn’t been a policeman about the house. “Would you please remember,” he asked Edward, “not to touch any door-knobs with your bare hand? Use your handkerchief.”

Edward nodded, brought out a handkerchief, and threw open a door. He felt for the switch and turned on a light. “A blank,” he said. “Stupid of me. This one hardly ever is used. Try the one opposite.”

Appleby had already done so---and as the door swung back he became aware of a reek of gunpowder that told its own tale. “The mischief’s here,” he said. “Would you mind stopping all those people from coming down this corridor?”

Edward turned back without a word; he seemed to acknowledge that it was Appleby’s job to give the orders. For a second Appleby stared into the enigmatical darkness ahead of him. He reached out for the light switch---knowing that what was about to spring into visibility wouldn’t be wholly unfamiliar to him. He had been here already that night.

Room lay in a crumpled heap in the middle of the floor. Appleby crossed over to him and stooped down. In a second he knew that the solicitor was dead. The revolver lay by his limp right hand. It was a small and ineffective looking affair. But it had killed Room, all right.

Appleby went back to the door and glanced down the corridor. Nearly everybody seemed to be assembled at the end of it in a dishevelled and anxious group. Appleby walked towards them, his glance moving rapidly from one to another. “I am very sorry to have to tell you,” he said quietly, “that Mr. Room is dead. What we all heard appears to have been the revolver shot that killed him.”

There was a stunned silence. The first to speak was Canon Rixon. “Do you mean,” he asked, “that this unhappy man has taken his own life?”

Appleby shook his head. “I am not the coroner and his jury, Dr. Rixon. Room has died---and rather as Lewis Packford died a few nights ago. I will say no more than that. And now, please, we must have the local police called at once. And, of course, a doctor. Mr. Packford, will you see to that?”

Edward nodded. “I’ll get them on the telephone at once.”

“Thank you. Where is Mrs. Husbands?”

“Mrs. Husbands?” Edward seemed surprised. “Isn’t she here? But now I remember. I called out to her to go and quiet the servants. If you want her, I’ll find her presently.”

“Perhaps Mrs. Packford will be good enough to do so.” Appleby turned to Ruth. “While Mr. Packford is telephoning, will you find Mrs. Husbands and bring her straight here?”

“Certainly.” Ruth hesitated. “But you mean actually to----?”

“Yes,” Appleby said, “I do. She must be more or less used to violent death by now.”

Appleby went back to the dead man’s room and took another look at the body. It was in pyjamas, and somehow it looked mean and meagre. The bedclothes were turned back---and in a fashion, it seemed to Appleby, that told a story. They hadn’t simply been given the token turning-back that is part of a housemaid’s ritual. They weren’t, on the other hand, in any marked disorder. Room was a man of neat and precise habits, who loved nothing more dearly than a well-rolled umbrella. He would get into bed without much disturbance. And if he had occasion to get out again, it would be just to this necessary extent that he would shove things away. If Room had shot himself, he had got neatly and calmly out of bed to do so. If he had been shot by somebody else, it had been after getting out of bed in the same good order.

Appleby moved carefully around the room. The dead solicitor didn’t appear to have done much unpacking. What was chiefly in evidence was a small pile of legal documents on a desk before a curtained window. Appleby looked at them closely. They were type-written, but freely annotated in pencil. They seemed entirely concerned with Packford family affairs.

And then Appleby’s glance travelled to the other end of the desk. A pencil lay on it; and beside the pencil was an irregular sheet of paper, such as might have been torn roughly out of a notebook. And on the paper was a stencilled scrawl. It read:

      Farewell, a long farewell!

There was a knock at the door. Appleby turned away from the desk---he had spent a couple of further minutes there---and opened it to admit Mrs. Husbands. The housekeeper too had presumably been in bed, but now she was dressed again, although hastily. She had daubed her face with powder---seemingly regardless of the fact that what it notably lacked was colour. Mrs. Husbands, indeed, looked like a ghost; it was as if she had been abruptly translated from the Edwardian to a Stygian world. She was the second person, Appleby reflected, whom he had seen strangely transformed at Urchins that night.

“Please come in.” Appleby spoke gravely and with courtesy. “I believe you can be of great assistance to me.

He stood aside. Mrs. Husbands hesitated. Her glance was going---half fearfully, half curiously---past him to the grim huddle of mortality on the floor. “Must it be---here?” she asked.

“I am sorry to distress you. But I think it will be best.” Appleby closed the door behind the housekeeper. “Let me be quite frank, Mrs. Husbands. I am anxious that you should answer one or two questions at once---and before there has been any possibility of confusion.”

“Confusion, Sir John?”

“I think it possible that, were you now to engage in private consultation with another member of this household, a certain undesirable confusion might result.”

He could hear Mrs. Husbands catch her breath. “I don’t understand you,” she said. “And I don’t consider it proper to say anything without consulting Mr. Packford, who is now my employer.”

“I certainly can’t oblige you to talk.” Appleby had walked across the room, so that the dead body now lay sprawled between Mrs. Husbands and himself. “I am myself here as Mr. Packford’s guest. But I am also here officially, and at the invitation of the Chief Constable of this county. I cannot possibly venture to put any improper pressure upon you, even if I were anxious to do so. You may, if you wish, defer all discussion of what happened in this house tonight, and all further discussion of what happened in it a few nights ago, until you have taken legal advice.”

“Then I shall certainly do so.”

“But I should like you to consider. I should like you to consider that, when one is faced with this”---and Appleby made an almost imperceptible gesture toward Room’s body---“only the truth, and the immediate truth, is remotely adequate.”

“I don’t know the truth. Anything I say may only lead fatally away from it.”

“That is very unlikely, Mrs. Husbands. And you must consider that, where there have been two violent deaths, as in this house, the position becomes unpredictable and dangerous until the full truth is known. Concealment means danger---perhaps for yourself, perhaps for others.”

“Are you trying to frighten me. Sir John?”

“Conceivably I’m giving you a rational warning. And I can assure you that it is only a small number of questions which I should like you to answer. Will you come and look at something on this desk?” Appleby waited until she had crossed the room. “It’s rather like your experience of the other night, is it not?”

Mrs. Husbands looked at the torn sheet of paper with its pencilled scrawl. “You mean this?”

“Yes, I do. Have you seen it before?”

“But of course. It’s the same message. Mr. Room has written the same words that Mr. Packford did.”

“So it would appear. And I can’t help feeling it was a little uninventive.”

Mrs. Husbands frowned. “Uninventive? I don’t understand you.”

“He might have borrowed the first line of the same speech and written So farewell to the little good you bear me. Or, later on, I seem to recall a bit about swimming beyond one’s depth. Would that, I wonder, have been appropriate?” Appleby paused, and then lightly touched the fragment of paper. “But I think,” he said, “that you may be said to have seen this before---in another sense?”

Mrs. Husbands was silent.

“In fact, you have seen this actual piece of paper---either as it is now, or in its place in a notebook?”

“Yes, I have.” Suddenly in Mrs. Husbands’ voice there was weariness and despair. “Now, what more do you want of me?”

But Appleby shook his head. “Nothing at all,” he said. “My investigation is concluded.”


 96 
 on: April 29, 2024, 08:36:10 am 
Started by Admin - Last post by Admin
It was eleven o’clock when Appleby knocked at the door through which he had earlier seen Mrs. Husbands so oddly emerge. The whole household seemed to have gone to bed, so he wasn’t surprised when he got a reply from within. He opened the door and entered. The occupant was Mr. Room.

The solicitor was standing in front of a suit-case, fishing out a pair of pyjamas. He turned and looked at Appleby with sombre distaste. “Ah, Sir John,” he said. “I am very glad to see you. For a word in private, that is to say. For I must confess that I am still very much dissatisfied. However, it is something that the matter is now in your hands. I hope you have come to agree that the police didn’t, in the first instance, get to the bottom of the matter.”

“Yes, I have.” Appleby sat down. “And I must tell you at once that certain of your suspicions, at least, have been substantiated. Packford did undoubtedly procure in Italy something not only of the greatest scholarly interest but of a very large monetary value as well.” Appleby gave a brief account of the Cintio. “So that’s what the thousand pounds went for, we must presume. And it was a wonderful bargain, you’ll agree.”

“Most interesting,” Room said. “And I fear that our late friend’s secretive disposition was fatal to him. Had he divulged the nature of his find to myself or any other competent person, it would have been represented to him that such a treasure should be kept in the strong-room of his bank. As it was, he was shot and robbed. It is all most distressing.” Room unfolded the pyjamas and laid them neatly on the bed. “But there is the faked suicide. Sir John. That was a false step, surely, on the murderer’s part. It gives us a vital piece of information---one which enormously narrows the field. I regret that I cannot offer you a cigarette. I never smoke.”

“Thank you. I’ve finished smoking for the night. And I think I know what you mean. If the words written on that postcard were indeed a forgery---as I know you believe---then the field is certainly narrowed. It’s no use looking outside the circle of those who could produce such a thing. But aren’t you neglecting another possibility? If Packford himself wrote those words, either upon quite a different occasion, or there and then but with no notion that he was going to die, then the situation is quite different. There’s an open field. And now consider another point. You mentioned his secretive disposition. But if he was murdered simply that somebody might steal and market this book, then it is surely probable that its very great value was known to the murderer beforehand. So who could have known? At what point did the secretiveness break down? I came upon one answer this evening.”

Room looked suddenly sharply curious. “Here at Urchins?”

“No, not at Urchins. Everybody here seems to have known that Packford had made some important discovery; and I have indeed some evidence of an awareness that this perhaps implied the presence of an enormously valuable article somewhere here in the house. But what I’m speaking of is something different. Usually, I seem to remember, Packford saved up his more important discoveries for a book. This time he decided on a learned journal. He wrote a preliminary letter, stating just what he believed he’d found, to a man called Rushout. You’ve heard of him?”

“Certainly.” Room sounded offended. “I take a considerable interest, you know, in the field of scholarship with which we are involved. Rushout edits The Elizabethan and Jacobean.”

“Exactly. So there is one man who knew, well before Packford died, just what Packford had got hold of. And there’s another. For Rushout passed on the information---I fear not entirely properly---to an American collector called Moody.”

“Moody? God bless my soul!”

“I see you know something about him too. But what you probably don’t know is that both Rushout and Moody are within a couple of miles of us at this moment.”

“You greatly surprise me. Sir John.” Room contrived his usual effect of implying that he really wasn’t surprised at all. “It bears out the adage,” he added, “that one ought to be prepared for all eventualities.”

“No doubt. Certainly we must be prepared to see both these people turn up at Urchins tomorrow morning: Rushout to represent confidentially to Edward Packford the very great value of something conceivably just lying about the house, and Moody to flourish a cheque-book far, far bigger than our compatriot Limbrick’s.”

“I presume you have told Edward Packford about this. Sir John?”

“Certainly. And I understand he was going to tell his sister-in-law before he went to bed. He at once pointed out that the Cintio, being simply part of his brother’s personal property, would go to her.”

Room nodded. “That is incontestable. And he realises, I suppose, that this book is likely to be worth more than Urchins itself and everything else it contains?”

“I’m sure he does. And he too, by the way, has heard of Moody. His brother, it seems, had anecdotes about him.”

“I can well believe it. Sir John. As a collector. Moody might be described as notorious rather than distinguished. Still, the cheque-book is there. Should the book turn up, I doubt whether Mrs. Packford will get as good a price in any other quarter.”

“What do you think of Mrs. Husbands?”

“Mrs. Husbands?” If Room was startled by this abrupt question he did nothing to betray the fact. “I cannot say that I have ever addressed my mind to the subject of our late friend’s housekeeper. What she says of the ink on that postcard I suspect of being nonsense. Apart from that, she seems an entirely competent person. And she gets a small legacy.”

“Only a small one? She has clearly been very much affected by her employer’s death; and I have wondered whether the connection might be a close or long-standing affair. You have had no private conversation with her?”

“Dear me, no.” Room appeared to be genuinely surprised. “But of course I will have a word with her before I leave. That will be only civil.”

Appleby got up to go. He had learnt something during this little interview---although it hadn’t been precisely from Room’s conversation. “And when in fact are you leaving?” he asked.

“It was my intention to leave quite early tomorrow morning. But now I think I shall venture to stay rather longer.” Room gave his singularly mirthless smile. “Yes, I think I shall make so bold as to stop on till lunch-time. You say that Rushout and Moody will be coming to Urchins. Rushout I already know. But I should like to make the acquaintance of Moody, and I don’t mind a later train. One’s plans should always be flexible, as I think I have remarked before. Moody, from all accounts, is not perhaps a person to admit to one’s intimacy without a good deal of thought. But a short chat is another matter. I shall certainly have that with him.”

+++

At half-past eleven Appleby entered the library. It was a modestly unobtrusive entry, effected only with the aid of a tiny pencil of light from a pocket torch. He picked up a couple of cushions from a chair, climbed the spiral staircase, and seated himself in as comfortable a fashion as he could contrive in the small gallery. It afforded an excellent view---or would have done so, had there been anything but a pit of darkness beneath him. He had always had a fancy, he told himself, for the front row of the dress circle. Only on this occasion there was no very definite promise that the curtain would go up. He was fairly sure that there had been a performance on at least one previous night. But it mightn’t repeat itself now. There are some activities which tend to be inhibited by the presence of the police in the house.

And in any case he would probably have a wait of an hour or two. To a marauding mind it is the small hours that seem most secure. It wouldn’t do not to take up his own position early---but it almost certainly meant a long and unentertaining vigil. He had kept a good many of them in the past, and sometimes in positions vastly more uncomfortable than this. No doubt it was wholesome a little to renew his youth in this fashion. . . . Somewhere in the house a clock struck midnight. And it had scarcely ceased when there was a sound below. The library door had opened.

Appleby felt a faint shiver run down his spine. Yes---it was like old days. Not, it was true, like any of the old star occasions---but certainly like quite a number of endearingly humdrum ones. . . . A light had now been flicked on down below: the soft light of a single reading-lamp. Well, you could call that curtain-up. He himself was still securely shrouded in shadow. He leant forward to distinguish the play.

It was---somewhat against his expectation---old Professor Prodger who held the stage. He was swathed in a thick woollen dressing gown. Viewed from this angle, his bald head set above his white beard suggested a large poached egg. He was standing in the middle of the floor and appeared to be pointing at one of the rows of bookshelves. So decided was this impression that Appleby peered round the library in search of a second intruder whose gaze Prodger might be directing in this way. But then Prodger’s hand and extended finger moved in a series of short jerks. He was counting. And presently, having achieved this to his satisfaction, he toddled over to a particular shelf and began taking down the books and examining them one by one.

Well, that was that. That precisely such a process had been going on in Lewis Packford’s library lately had been the conjecture formed by Appleby as a consequence of his own careful inspection of the shelves. But Prodger was somehow a surprise. However, he was now going to receive a surprise himself. Appleby was about to lean forward from the gallery and address the venerable person below, when he saw Prodger suddenly straighten himself and turn round. He had clearly heard something to alarm him from outside the room. The next moment, and with astonishing agility, he had reached over the back of a sofa to the reading-lamp and plunged the library back into darkness. A bare second later, the door opened.

Appleby chuckled to himself. Perhaps it was Edward Packford. Perhaps it was the vigilant Mrs. Husbands. In any case, it would be amusing to see Prodger detected and embarrassingly exposed. . . . Again a light flicked on. It was the same subdued light from the same lamp. Prodger, by some continued gymnastic skill, had contrived to vanish. In the middle of the room---also in pyjamas and dressing-gown---stood Canon Rixon. He looked more extravagantly ugly than ever, so that Appleby found himself wondering whether so villainous an appearance was really compatible with the elevated moral character which its owner in all other regards seemed to evince. Appleby was just recalling this as an issue which had been raised in an interesting context by Socrates, when the room below him once more vanished abruptly into darkness. Rixon had acted precisely as had Prodger---and presumably for the same reason. A third visitor was turning up.

This time it was Limbrick---who had rather been the subject of Appleby’s expectation in the first place. And Limbrick was bolder. He switched on the main lights in the library, so that Appleby had hastily to edge himself more securely out of sight. But it was possible to see that Rixon was now as invisible as Prodger---and that Limbrick had gone straight to a far corner of the room and begun the same sort of examination as Prodger had been engaged upon when interrupted.

Limbrick worked in silence, and in silence Appleby regarded him. The whole situation was like something in a farce---a farce that has gone hopelessly wrong and is playing itself to a mute and baffled theatre. Prodger and Rixon were presumably cowering behind some of the larger pieces of furniture, and each proposing so to remain until he had the library to himself again. But that looked as if it might be a long time. Limbrick had the air of a man who means serious business, and there was no reason to suppose that he mightn’t work till dawn. For there could be very little doubt about what all this was in aid of. Without perhaps knowing specifically what they were looking for, each was cherishing the hope that Lewis Packford’s last and most enigmatical discovery was something that could be run to earth carelessly thrust away between one book and another. It was a supposition that squared quite well with much in the known habits of the dead man. But Appleby thought rather poorly, all the same, of the chances of these devoted and nocturnal researchers. And he didn’t feel that he himself was, after all, learning very much. It might be a good idea if the audience now gave the players a token round of applause and then went off to bed. Appleby was just about to make himself heard to this effect when there was a fresh development. Once more the library door had opened---this time without any preliminary awareness on the part of the intruder already holding the field. And the person who appeared framed in it was Alice.

A second later, Limbrick turned and became aware of her. “Oh, hullo,” he said coolly. “What are you doing here, my girl?”

“I’m looking for something.”

Alice, who had not undressed, said this in a perfectly commonplace way. Nevertheless Appleby leaned sharply forward to get a better view of her. And Limbrick too seemed to look at her with closer attention. He returned a book to its shelf. “Looking for something? Well, so am I, so we can count ourselves in the same boat. And just what are you looking for, may I ask?”

“I don’t know.”

Limbrick laughed rather uneasily. “Don’t you, indeed? I’d suppose that to be rather unusual. But it applies, oddly enough, to myself. I’m damned if I know what I’m looking for. However, I shall know it when I see it---if I’m not a greater fool than I suppose myself. So go about your business, my dear, and leave me alone. I don’t mind your poking around, as long as you don’t make a row.” He made to turn back to the shelves, and then paused. “Are you going to recognise what you’re looking for, when you see it?”

“I don’t know that either.” This time, Alice’s voice was troubled. She looked round the room. “Is this,” she asked, “a public library, or something?”

“What’s that?” Limbrick laid down another book and looked at her sharply. “Have you been drinking? Or are you just being damned silly?”

“That isn’t a thing any gentleman ought to say to a lady.” Alice was angry, and she had raised her voice. “No perfect gentleman would say that about drinking.”

“Be quiet! Do you want to wake the whole house, you little idiot?”

What next happened was surprising. Alice had moved, in a curiously hesitant fashion, to a table upon which stood a small bronze statuette. Now she picked this up and threw it at Limbrick with astonishing force. It flew past his head and crashed into a shelf of books beyond. Thwarted in this attack, she was looking round for another missile---and Limbrick, correspondingly, seemed to be preparing to make a rush at her---when Appleby called out loudly but calmly from his gallery. “That will do, I think. Alice, sit down and be quiet. Limbrick stay where you are.”

+++

“And now, I wonder if you’d all emerge?” Appleby had come down the spiral staircase and placed himself close to Alice. He turned to Limbrick. “You’ve had quite an audience, you know. Prodger, for instance. Professor, may we have a word with you?”

This summons was obeyed. Very composedly, Prodger emerged from behind a stack of books at the end of the room. He had a pair of spectacles on his nose and was carrying a bulky volume. “Did I hear voices?” he asked mildly. “Dear me, Dr. Appleby! You too, perhaps, have the habit of nocturnal research. There is much to be said for it. There is really a great deal to be said for it. The quiet of the night is conducive to concentration, is it not?” He held up his book. “I have been refreshing my mind on the subject of conditional-concessive clauses in Old English prose. An important topic---but intricate, undeniably intricate.” He paused. “But do I see Limbrick? Pilfering, I presume. Looking round, I should judge, for some small and unconsidered trifle to carry off as a memorial of our poor friend Packford. One of the rarer quarto editions, perhaps, of an Elizabethan play. A thing eminently convenient to slip into the pocket. Well, well. Well, well, well!” Prodger made his guinea-pig’s noise. “And now I suppose we ought to go to bed.”

“We ought certainly to do so quite soon,” Appleby said. “But first, perhaps, we should conduct a little more research into what you call nocturnal researching. Dr. Rixon, might it not be a good idea if you were to join us?”

Canon Rixon had been behind a sofa, and this was so placed that his emergence had to be on all fours. But he seemed no more perturbed than Prodger had been. “I haven’t found it,” he said. “But perhaps it doesn’t greatly matter. Perhaps we can rely on the discretion of whatever person it falls into the hands of. Alice, my dear, you look a little strained. I think it might be as well to get you off to sleep. You will feel much better in the morning. So, for that matter, shall we all.”

“Do I understand,” Appleby asked, “that you came down to hunt for a recent and very valuable acquisition of the late Lewis Packford’s, Dr. Rixon? And, if so, was it---well, discreet?”

“It would have been most indiscreet, had I been doing anything of the sort, Sir John. But my quest was for something quite different. I believe you have heard about Bogdown?”

“The imaginary antiquarian you all had some joke about? Well, yes---I have.”

“I judged that it would be just as well to possess myself of our transactions. The transactions, that is to say, of the Bogdown Society. They were in poor Packford’s keeping. Judged strictly as a matter of private diversion, they are not unentertaining. But there is undeniably an element of lampoon in them. They make injudiciously free, in places, with the names and reputations of some of our colleagues. Publicised in any way, they might occasion pain. Which would be deplorable, would it not? So I decided to look round for them, here in poor Packford’s library, and remove them into safe-keeping. And, naturally, it wasn’t a matter with which I wanted to trouble our present host.”

“What pitiful twaddle!” Limbrick had taken a step forward and spoken indignantly. “Isn’t it perfectly clear that we’ve all been caught out neatly by this confounded policeman?” He gestured contemptuously at Appleby. “Isn’t it undeniable that we’ve all been nosing after whatever it is that Packford had come up with? Unless a thief has got away with it----”

“Don’t you mean,” Appleby asked mildly, “unless a thief has already got away with it?”

“I simply mean that Packford had certainly got hold of something enormously important. Everything he hinted at showed that---and he was no fool in such matters. And, if it’s still about, there’s a damned good chance that it’s simply shoved in somewhere on these shelves. He’d think that safe enough, and know just where to lay his hands on it. I’m so certain it’s a big thing that I’d buy every book in this room to get hold of it---as I told his wife this afternoon. But I’d like to get my nose into it first, all the same. And so would you two.” Limbrick waved a hand at Prodger and Rixon. “But what this girl’s after---if she hasn’t simply taken leave of her senses---beats me. And now I’m going to bed.”

Limbrick turned and marched from the room. Appleby watched him go. “I see no good reason,” he said, “why you gentlemen shouldn’t follow our friend’s example. I think I can promise the Bogdown Papers, or whatever they are called, won’t cause any embarrassment to the learned world. And perhaps. Professor, you could take the conditional-concessive clauses with you. I’d like to have a word with Alice.”

“Quite so, quite so.” Prodger nodded cheerfully. “But my investigation is, in fact, concluded. The matter is intricate, as I say---but I am fairly confident that I now have a good grasp of it. Which is satisfactory. It is also satisfactory that Limbrick---whom I have always distrusted, as you know---should have been unmasked. Good night, good night.” Prodger toddled to the door. “Or ought one to say good morning?” He paused expectantly, got no reply, and went out with a final vague nod.

Canon Rixon gave a benevolent sigh. “Poor Prodger,” he said. “I fear he is beginning to show the burden of his years. At times, however, he remains remarkably shrewd. And old age---although it is a sad thing to admit---often has its unscrupulous side. I am only too afraid that Prodger’s actual aims in this library tonight were identical with those of Limbrick.”

“Are you, indeed?” Appleby allowed himself no more than a mild irony in this.

“And now, my dear Sir John, I wonder whether I might not myself be the better person to have a little talk with our friend Alice? She and I are in a relation of confidence, I am happy to think. And then I can see the dear girl to bed.”

“If she isn’t in a state to see herself to bed, I shall call Mrs. Husbands.” Appleby now spoke briskly. “If you want to have a talk with her, it had better be at breakfast. Because she’s going to be off shortly afterwards.”

“That’s right. ” During the whole of these exchanges Alice had sat curiously limp and mute. But now she sat up and spoke with energy. “I’m leaving, I am.” She turned to Appleby. “Not that the Reverend hasn’t been nice to me---in an old gentleman’s fatherly way, if you know what I mean. But none of them thinks I was really right for Loo.”

“This is very sad.” Rixon moved to the door. “But I hope, my dear Alice, that I may be able to see you now and then. There is, I judge, no impropriety in a clergyman’s visiting a tavern from time to time. Positive frequentation is, of course, another matter. Good night, my dear. Good night. Sir John, I am confident that I can leave that delicate little matter of our transactions to your discretion.”

+++

“Would you describe yourself as all right again?” Appleby had turned to Alice as Rixon left the room.

“Yes, thank you.”

“You know that you’ve been chucking things around?”

“Chucking things around? Come off it!” Alice was indignant. “I wouldn’t think of such a thing. Not in a gentleman’s seat, I wouldn’t.”

Appleby walked across the library and picked up the statuette. “You nearly got Limbrick’s head,” he said. “With this. You might have knocked him out. Do I understand you remember nothing about it?”

“Nothing at all.” Alice was frightened and subdued. “It must have come over me again. I just know I went upstairs to bed.”

“Well, as you can see, you came down again. You came down to look for something.”

“It would be my travelling-case, that Loo gave me.”

“Exactly. You’ve been worrying about it, as I discovered before.” Appleby paused. “You’ve really no idea where it is?”

“Of course I haven’t.” Alice managed to speak again with some spirit. “I wouldn’t be behaving queer about it if I did.”

“It’s in the boot of Lewis Packford’s car. I think you put it there yourself. I think, Alice, you really did have a shot at taking him away---quite a resolute shot. But you don’t remember it. Because it happened when you were upset. Perhaps when you were very upset indeed.” Appleby carried the statuette across the room and replaced it on its table. There was no sign of its being much damaged. “It’s still a blank?” he asked. “Your memory, I mean, of all that?”

Alice nodded dumbly, a picture of woe. When she did speak, it was with a sudden spurt of resentment. “Look here,” she said, “it’s your job to clean up all this, isn’t it? It’s your job to find out what really happened, and why it happened, isn’t it? Well---why don’t you? Why don’t you get us all out of our misery? I can’t bear it any longer, I tell you---not knowing at all what it was that happened to Loo.”

“Yes, it’s my job. Remember, though, that I haven’t been on it very long.” Appleby spoke quietly. “Even so, I don’t think there will be much more waiting. You remember my saying how I hoped the mystery wouldn’t last very far into today? Well, it won’t. I’ve one or two people to get a little more information from. And then I think we can have---explanations.”

“That’s really true?” Alice looked at him round-eyed, so that it was almost as if she were frightened again. “But who? Who have you to get things from still?”

“The housekeeper, Mrs. Husbands. And Room.”

“The lawyer?” She spoke sharply. “I don’t trust that man. I said so before, didn’t I? He’s not straight.”

“Perhaps he’s not. Unfortunately not many people in this affair have been quite as straight as they might have been. Look at these three precious worthies who were here a few minutes ago.”

“The Reverend’s all right.”

“Perhaps so. But we needn’t start checking up on the cast now, Alice. It’s round about one o’clock in the morning, and you ought to be in bed. How do you feel? Shall I get hold of Mrs. Husbands, or of Ruth?”

“I’m quite fit to look after myself, thank you.”

“Then I’ll see you to your room. Come along.”

Alice stood up and shook her head. In country houses, she had doubtless read, it is not customary for ladies to be escorted to their bedrooms by gentlemen guests. “You stay where you are,” she said firmly. “But if I see you at breakfast, I’ll be glad.”

Appleby smiled. “I’ll look out for you,” he said. “And we’ll try to sit together.”

+++

Alice’s footsteps quickly died away. Appleby lingered in Lewis Packford’s library. He walked up and down, as the dead man must often have done when probing one or another of his literary problems. Perhaps Prodger was right in declaring the quiet of the night to be conducive to concentration. It was quiet enough now. There wasn’t a sound throughout the house---and from beyond it there only came, very faintly, the occasional hooting of an owl. At “The Crossed Hands” Rushout and the egregious Moody were presumably asleep. Or were they? Moody, at least, might be wakeful; it was even rather surprising that, with his consuming mania for unique possessions, he was letting a night pass without laying actual siege to Urchins. But Moody, after all, was only on the fringe of the case. All the vital actors were under this roof, here and now.

Or was that right? Wasn’t there something to be said, perhaps, for moving Moody, if not Rushout, a little nearer to the centre of the puzzle? As Appleby asked himself this question---still pacing softly up and down the silent library---he became aware of other questions obscurely redisposing themselves in his mind. And then he became aware that one, that another, that a third was evolving its own answer in the process. He already knew a lot; now he was learning that, in fact, he knew significantly more.

For some minutes he was lost in profound abstraction. So deep was this, indeed, that when he was abruptly haled out of it by an unexpected sound in the night, it was a full second before he realised that that sound had been a revolver shot.


 97 
 on: April 29, 2024, 06:24:14 am 
Started by Admin - Last post by Admin
EDWARD Packford looked up as Appleby entered the little room. For a moment he didn’t appear to recognise his visitor. And for a moment, too, Appleby had once more the odd sensation of seeing a Lewis Packford who had, as it were, shrunk in the wash. Indeed, this time the effect was even more striking, for there was something shrivelled or diminished about Edward; he seemed not quite the man who had greeted Appleby that morning.

“I’m afraid,” Appleby said, “that your solicitor’s news hasn’t been too good?”

“My solicitor?” Edward frowned---abstractedly, as if his mind were still rather far away. “Room isn’t my solicitor. And it’s a pity he was Lewis’s.”

“He mismanaged things? I understand his claim to be that he was very little consulted over money matters.”

“It may have been so. Sir John. I don’t know much about it.” Edward Packford had drawn forward a chair with automatic punctiliousness. But he appeared indisposed to talk freely.

“Would you say that your brother had confidence in him?”

There was a marked silence. Edward for some reason seemed to find this question hard to answer. “Did Lewis have confidence in him?” he repeated. “I believe that, in some ways, he had. But he used to laugh at him---not as a lawyer, but as a would-be scholar. And he used to put on a turn.”

“A turn?” Appleby was puzzled.

“Lewis was rather good at mimicry. He used to put on a turn---imitating this fellow Room rolling his umbrella. I expect Room resented it.”

Appleby looked at Edward curiously. “What makes you think that?”

Edward frowned again, as if the question irked or puzzled him. “He expresses himself in a kind of gloating way. No---that’s not quite right. He makes remarks that in themselves express ordinary decent feelings. But he takes care that they sound quite forbiddingly unconcerned and conventional.”

Appleby nodded. “I noticed that in him almost at once. But it may be no more than a mannerism. And I’d say that Room has ability.”

“No doubt.” Edward appeared uninterested.

“But you’re more concerned with the fellow’s news than with the fellow himself? And money’s going to be tight?”

“Certainly it is. There’s a widow to provide for. To say nothing of a mistress.” Edward produced rather a grim smile. “The jointure for a mistress is apparently £5000.”

“You’d quarrel with that?”

“Of course not.” Edward spoke sharply. “If Lewis found the girl worth going to bed with, she must have whatever sum he named.”

“Even if she’s not worth it?”

Quite unexpectedly, Edward Packford smiled. “But she is worth it. You know that as well as I do. If I were quite a different man from what I happen to be. I’d be prepared to write a big cheque for the privilege of having slept with Alice. Or so I suppose. But of course that’s all damned nonsense. The point is that the girl’s a good sort of girl. Let her take her £5000 and depart. I’m sure we bore her most horribly.”

Appleby laughed. “As it happens, I know that to be only too true. But she won’t take the money. She thinks it ought to go either to Ruth---for having beaten her, I suppose, to the altar---or to you, my dear sir, in order to enable you to maintain what she calls a country seat.”

“Well, that’s very handsome of her, and bears out what I said. But I don’t know that £5000 will go far in the way of patching up Urchins. Not, Sir John, that matters of that sort are at all your business.”

“I assure you that I can’t help taking an interest in them.” Appleby said this rather drily. “And I suppose that the real mischief is your brother’s having contracted a valid marriage as well as a bogus one. How do you feel about Ruth?”

“Feel about her?” Edward, who had been prowling restlessly round his small room, turned round impatiently. “Am I called on to have any feeling about the woman---whether the one way or the other?” He stared queerly at Appleby---queerly, since his gaze seemed to be directed upon something quite different and quite absorbing which he was viewing through Appleby as through a window. “She’s all right, I suppose---although I think we agreed she wasn’t precisely the dream-woman for either of us.” Edward laughed---and his laughter, more than his speech, brought it home to Appleby that he was in some quite abnormal state. It seemed certain that the new owner of Urchins did tremendously care about the place, and that Room’s disclosure of the full precariousness of the position had shocked him profoundly. This, at least, was the best way of accounting for his condition.

“I’m not sure myself,” Appleby said, “whether Ruth improves more on acquaintance or just impresses more on acquaintance. It’s not by any means the same thing.”

“It would be idle to maintain that I greatly care to find out. She was good enough for Lewis---although it’s true the fact might be more impressive if he hadn’t almost immediately made a fool of himself with this other girl. And so, I suppose, she’s good enough for me---as my brother’s widow. It isn’t, one supposes, a very close relationship.”

“You’d say that, after this clandestine and rather tenuous marriage, she’s fully entitled to her share of his property?”

“Of course she is. She’s entitled to anything she has a reasonable expectation of. Let her take it, and depart in charity.”

There was another silence. Appleby devoted it to wondering just what it was in Edward that now so acutely puzzled him. Was there some whole aspect of the man which, earlier that day, had simply escaped him? Or, since then, had something transforming occurred which Appleby himself hadn’t tumbled to or got into focus? Certainly he found himself strangely in the dark with Edward now. And into his head there floated---utterly incongruously, as it seemed---the image of Alice on a lamentable occasion; the image of Alice being suddenly hit on the head with a bottle by that perfectly respectable person who had the habit of dropping in to listen to the nine o’clock news. It was just such an impression that Edward, somehow, now gave. He might have been hit over the head with a bottle no more than ten minutes ago. The ten minutes was important in the picture. For it wasn’t from something revealed to him some hours ago that the man was suffering now. Almost immediately before he himself had entered this room---Appleby found himself grotesquely convinced---Edward Packford had been hit on the head with a bottle. And his assailant, it was possible to feel, had borne an appearance as respectable as Alice’s.

But all this didn’t seem particularly helpful, and Appleby decided to move on to other matters. “I came in,” he said, “to give you several pieces of news. And the first of them takes us back to Room. So far as I’m concerned, he was the first man to advance a number of notions which decidedly deserve chewing over still. And one of them we may regard as now verified. Your brother did acquire in Italy---whether in Verona or elsewhere---a literary document of the greatest importance. Unless he was all wrong---your brother, I mean, not Room---he had got hold of an Italian book quite copiously and very significantly annotated by Shakespeare. But perhaps this isn’t news to you, after all?”

“It’s news, all right.” Edward spoke slowly, and for the first time in their interview there was something in his voice that carried simple and unenigmatic conviction. “Of course, Lewis seems to have been dropping hints to that learned crew of his about something pretty remarkable. But it might quite well have been remarkable only to scholars. Whereas, unless my sense of these things is badly astray, what you are telling me is big news in a purely practical and mundane sense.”

“Precisely. Your brother had possessed himself of something worth a very large sum of money.”

Edward, still prowling around his room, turned and looked at Appleby steadily. “And then he was killed.”

“So you say. So Room said. So some others appear to think. So part of the apparent evidence makes it very difficult to believe.” Appleby paused on this succinct statement. “And to all this we must add that nobody appears to know where that immensely valuable book is now. But we do appear to know whose legal property it is, if and when it turns up.”

“Certainly we do. It’s Ruth’s.” Edward could not have made this statement in a tone that was more matter of fact. “By the way, may I ask you how you have come by this fresh knowledge?”

“From a fellow called Charles Rushout.”

Edward shook his head. “I’ve never heard of him.”

“He’s a Professor of Literature in some northern university or other. He edits a journal called The Elizabethan and Jacobean Quarterly. And I found him at your local hotel this evening, all agog to present himself to you and tell you of the immense treasure which Urchins at present so unsuspectingly enshrines.”

“How does he come to know about it?”

“Your brother wrote and told him. Later, your brother was going to send him a paper for his journal, announcing and describing his discovery. But that’s not quite all. Rushout’s first action on hearing the news was to pass it on quietly to an American collector called Moody. And Moody’s now at your local hotel, too.”

This time, Edward did really appear to be staggered. But he still spoke quietly. “What sort of a collector? A college librarian---that sort of fellow?”

“Not at all that sort of fellow. Shrewd, ignorant, vastly rich, and in the grip of some advanced acquisitive mania.”

“Does he keep on swallowing pills for the benefit of his duodenum?”

“Well, yes---he does.” Appleby was surprised. “You know him?”

“Dear me, no. But I’ve heard Lewis talk about him. I’d forgotten his name. But that’s right---Moody.”

Appleby laughed. “He’s the fellow, in fact, that Prodger consistently refers to as Sankey, and baits Limbrick with.”

“No doubt. And I’ve heard Lewis tell some queer yarns about him. You think Moody is proposing to come along and make an offer for this book if it can be found? Ruth must be told at once. It’s her affair, and it’s obviously of the greatest importance. What’s this book called?”

“It’s the Ecatommiti of Cintio---or perhaps part of the Ecatommiti, I’m not quite sure. It isn’t a thing I’ve ever set eyes on. But Ruth herself will know about it, since it’s her line of country too. And Rushout, of course, will be able to describe it accurately.”

“Good.” Edward had become brisk and incisive. “We must have a thorough hunt for it tomorrow. It may, of course, have been stolen. In fact, we can’t blink the high probability that it has been. On the other hand, it may conceivably just be lying about. Lewis, as you perhaps know, could be almost incredibly careless about such things. Do you think it had dawned on him, by the way, that this Ecatommiti was not only his final passport to fame but also potentially his absolute financial salvation?”

Appleby shook his head. “I can’t possibly tell. But my guess is that he hadn’t focussed that second aspect of the thing at all.”

“Well, that makes it the more probable that he simply did leave it lying about. He may conceivably have left it lying about so carelessly that the thief---if there was a thief---was baffled after all. Do you think that’s possible?”

“Yes, I do. And I have a notion somebody else does, as well.”


 98 
 on: April 29, 2024, 05:27:11 am 
Started by Admin - Last post by Admin
Pleasure and action make the hours seem short. —Othello

WHEN Appleby got back to Urchins he was shown to his room by the maid who answered the door. His suit-case had been unpacked and his bed turned down; it continued to be evident that the place had a smooth domestic routine which hadn’t been disturbed by the untoward events recently taking place in it. The night was mild, and Appleby spent a few minutes by the open window, smoking a cigarette and staring out into the darkness. The ground must fall away here, for there were a few sleepy yellow lights low down in the middle distance. It suddenly seemed a very short time ago since he had been gazing into quite a different darkness, with Lewis Packford beside him and the waters of Garda invisible below. There hadn’t been any mystery then. Or rather---Appleby thought---there had been, but he had lacked the alertness to mark the fact. It was deplorably true that, as a detective, he had a certain leeway to make up.

Which was a good reason, he told himself, for getting on with the job now. He put out his cigarette and left the bedroom. It was almost at the end of a long corridor---one corresponding, he supposed, to the downstairs corridor along which he had been conducted that morning. He was about to step into it when he became aware of another door opening a little farther down. It was the manner in which this was happening that arrested him. For the door was being opened from within, and inch by inch. He was in the presence of extreme nervousness and caution---and of these qualities exercising themselves in a manner not very effectively controlled by intelligence. If one wants to reconnoitre the outer world from inside a room, one’s best plan is to act swiftly. A door briskly opened and briskly shut again attracts little attention. A door opening in very slow motion is something that most people become aware of at once.

Appleby stepped back into the darkness of his room, leaving his own door a little ajar. Probably what he was witnessing was something of no great significance. There are people for whom other people’s rooms hold a compulsive fascination, and the phenomenon known as “just taking a peep” is of not uncommon occurrence in miscellaneous house-parties. Still, he had better make sure. He had better both mark who this was emerging, and then discover whose room was being emerged from.

It was Mrs. Husbands. For a moment Appleby was disposed to conclude that this was very much a mare’s nest. Nobody at Urchins, presumably, had a better title to move from room to room than the housekeeper. And if there was something a little odd in her manner of performing this commonplace task, that might simply be because recent events had badly shaken her nerve. She might, for instance, have become subject to irrational fears, and have taken her preliminary survey of the corridor in order to reassure herself that she wasn’t being stalked by somebody with a gun.

Only it wasn’t like that. Appleby had to take only a glance at the woman as she now stood revealed to realise that any such explanation of her conduct and condition was totally inadequate. The corridor was brightly lit, and her features as well as her posture were clearly distinguishable. Mrs. Husbands was breathing fast; she was as pale as the wall behind her; and her eyes glittered with what might have been either excitement or fear. Even when one remembered that she rather went in for putting on emotional turns, her present bearing in the apparent solitude of this corridor was sufficiently striking. But now she seemed to brace herself, and Appleby heard her taking a single deep breath. Then she looked quickly in either direction, walked quickly but rather unsteadily to a staircase, and disappeared.

Appleby stepped back into the corridor and moved towards the room from which Mrs. Husbands had appeared. It wasn’t necessary to suppose that it was empty; what Mrs. Husbands had emerged from might be some harrowing or alarming interview. She might even have found another dead body, complete with a valedictory message still wet upon a postcard . . . Appleby checked himself before this irresponsible fancy. He would knock at the door. If there was a summons to enter, he would stick his head in, identify the occupant, and excuse himself on the score of unfamiliarity with the house. If there was no reply, he would simply walk in and look around.

But this plan didn’t come off. His hand was raised to knock, when a voice spoke reproachfully behind him. “Oh, hullo! Why didn’t you come in to dinner?”

He turned round. It was Alice who had somehow appeared just behind him, and she was now looking at him with frank curiosity. “I went out to the local,” he said.

“I can’t say I blame you.” Alice gave a large unashamed yawn. Then, seeming to remember that this was somewhat unrefined, she gave another imitation, one with a rosy hand elegantly raised to her lips. “Oh, my,” she said, “wouldn’t it be lovely to go to bed!”

“Well---why not?” Appleby wasn’t sure, as he heard himself say this, that it didn’t contain an undesirable ambiguity. “Why don’t you?” he emended.

“It wouldn’t be polite---not before a quarter past ten.” Alice spoke with confidence; this must be something that she had read in a manual of such matters. “But---I say---I know where we can get a drink. And without anybody knowing.”

Appleby wasn’t convinced that this was polite either. But he allowed himself to be led downstairs and into what proved to be the library. The little mystery of Mrs. Husbands, he had decided, could wait. A private word with Alice mightn’t be without its usefulness.

“Over on that table, they are.” Alice sat down with aplomb. She knew when it was the business of a gentleman to dispense refreshment. “I’m leaving,” she said suddenly. “Tomorrow, first thing. And they won’t find me in a hurry, either.”

Appleby poured drinks. “You’ve had enough?”

“More than enough. I can’t understand what they talk about, and I don’t want to. Tonight was the worst of the lot. I’m going after breakfast, I am. And please don’t come after me.”

Appleby laughed. “The police, you mean? I don’t expect they’ll want to.”

“And not the lawyers either. That Mr. Room, for instance. I don’t like him. I don’t like him at all. And I don’t want his money.”

Appleby was startled. “Room’s been offering you money?”

“Well, Loo’s money. Loo had written something extra, saying that I was to have £5000. And I won’t take it. It makes me angry to think about it.”

“It’s certainly not very much.” Appleby thought he ought to be soothing and persuasive. “But perhaps, when you consider that his affairs haven’t been going well----”

Alice nodded vigorously. “That’s just it. Mr. Room has explained about the will. Edward has to have this house, and the rents from the farms and places. But it won’t be enough---not to keep a gentleman’s place the way it ought to be. And everything else goes to Ruth. But that won’t be much, either.”

“I see.” Alice’s processes of mind, Appleby thought, were never predictable. “But you know, if that’s how it is, Ruth’s share is bound to be very much more than £5000. Besides, she earns money from her job.”

“They pay her?” Alice was astonished. “For talking all that stuff about who Thomas Horscroft was?”

“Certainly.”

“I call that queer---I do. But I won’t have that £5000, all the same. I oughtn’t ever to have been more than a bit of fun---not to Loo. I must have got ideas---don’t you think?---for poor Loo almost to have married me, and then to have written in about all that money. But they can’t make me take it---can they?---if they don’t even know where I am.”

“Obviously not, Alice. But you can refuse the money without disappearing, you know. And I think you really want to disappear for quite a different reason. This sort of place, and these sort of people, bore you stiff. Don’t they, now?”

“Of course they do.” There was a hint of a tear on Alice’s exquisite cheek. “I’d give my eyes to be back in a nice superior corner of the trade at this minute.”

“Then back you go.”

Alice looked at Appleby round-eyed. “I really can?”

“There’s nothing in the world to prevent you. If we do want you, we’ll find you, all right. You know that as well as I do. Meanwhile, if you cut out of it, my dear, you’ll be doing a very sensible thing. By the way, didn’t you try to cut out of it before? And with---um---Loo?”

“Cut out of it with Loo?” She looked at him in perplexity. “What do you mean?”

“On that very first night? Be honest, Alice. Didn’t you try to persuade him to make a run for it with you?”

“Of course not!” Alice was indignant. “I was much too cross with him. I don’t know what I wanted---or what I did, or what I said. I just don’t remember. But of course I didn’t try to take him away. This was his own house, wasn’t it?”

“Have you lost anything since you came to Urchins, Alice?”

“Only my temper once or twice. And who wouldn’t do that, among such a lot? I ask you!”

“I rather agree. But you’re sure you haven’t missed anything? Nothing in the way of personal property?”

Alice looked suddenly rather frightened. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said.

Appleby shook his head. “When somebody uses those words, my child, it’s ten to one that he or she means just the opposite. You have missed something, haven’t you?”

“Well, yes. But nothing important. It’s just something that that cook, or one of the girls, has taken, I suppose. You can’t expect everybody to be honest all the time, can you? It just isn’t life, that isn’t.”

“Perhaps it’s not. But you haven’t mentioned this loss to anyone?”

“Certainly not!” Alice was again indignant. “That wouldn’t be refined. Not when you’re a guest in a gentleman’s private residence. It would be different in a hotel. But I never like hearing that sort of thing---complaints of pilfering, I mean. There’s nothing gives licenced premises a worse name. And it would be dead common to complain about such a thing, when you’re in a country seat.”

Appleby chuckled. “I’d have missed some rather interesting inquiries in my time, Alice, if that particular rule of good society had been observed. But let’s not bother more about it now. You get off to bed---and pack as soon as you get up in the morning. Now I must go and see Edward.”

“You’ll find him in that funny little room of his, I think. But I can really go in the morning? I shan’t be wanted for more of the---the mystery?”

Appleby shook his head---seriously, this time. “The morning is still quite a long time off,” he said. “And I’m beginning to hope the mystery won’t last far into it.”

 99 
 on: April 28, 2024, 01:42:39 pm 
Started by Admin - Last post by Admin
THE hotel before which Appleby found himself deposited was called “The Crossed Hands”---so that he wondered whether Thomas Horscroft had found in it an irony sufficiently pungent to be commented on by the Princeton professor. It hadn’t been reconstructed lately, and therefore it didn’t look particularly antique, but there was a certain undisturbed solidity about it which seemed to promise a decent meal. The lounge was quiet and shabby, with large Victorian steel engravings depicting various more or less catastrophic occasions in English history: the execution of Mary Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay Castle, the trial of Charles the First, the death of General Gordon. There was even Thomas Chatterton clutching a phial of poison in his garret, so that Appleby was appropriately able to reflect on his obscurely significant conversation with Lewis Packford at Lake Garda.

But was it so obscure? He sat down and ordered himself a drink. Wasn’t there, indeed---as he had rather rashly hinted to Ruth---a first glimmer of light beginning to break on the whole affair? He had at least arrived at one substantial certainty; and he looked back with some amusement to the moment to which he was indebted for it. But it wasn’t a certainty that seemed to have much power of carrying other certainties with it; indeed it instantly presented one very large puzzle. For the solution of this, Appleby presently applied himself hopefully to his glass of sherry. It wasn’t a very reliable ally---a really hot bath was miles better---but he would give it a fair chance.

“Waiter---bring me a bottle of your best champagne!”

This command was uttered so close to Appleby’s ear that for a moment he thought he was being addressed. Then he saw that the speaker had sat down---gregariously if somewhat unnecessarily---in the next chair. He had a loose grey skin, and loose grey clothes, and he was now applying himself to the study of a bundle of cables and telegrams. They looked important---and no doubt the problems they presented amply warranted the order their recipient had just given. Appleby returned to his sherry. It was not assisting his mental processes in any way. Perhaps it was the wrong drink.

The champagne arrived with an expedition which almost certainly meant that it would be tepid. The waiter poured a glass in gloomy silence. He clearly disapproved of this exotic behavior. Then he set the bottle down on a table.

“That’s all I want. Take it away and drink it yourself.” The grey man said this in a threatening rather than a cordial voice. “And see there’s another like that waiting for me at dinner. Get?”

The waiter withdrew without vouchsafing any sign that he had got. He was now thoroughly offended. The grey man watched him go, and then turned to Appleby.

“Moody,” he said.

“Well, yes. I dare say he’s had a long day.”

“I said Moody.”

“Oh, I beg your pardon.” Appleby now understood. “Appleby.”

The grey man nodded with a sort of ferocious cordiality. “You have some of that champagne, Mr. Appleby? We can have it back.”

“No---thank you very much. I’ve a drink here. Dry sherry.”

The American called Moody glanced at Appleby’s glass with suspicion. “I wouldn’t call that safe,” he said. “I’m on strict orders to drink nothing but champagne. French champagne. Because of my duodenum. Haven’t you a duodenum, Mr. Appleby?”

“Well, I rather suppose I have---about twelve inches of one. But it never seems particularly to have called for champagne, I’m glad to say. Haven’t your doctors given you rather a costly prescription?”

“Huh?”

This, from Moody, appeared to be a sound indicating bafflement. He gave Appleby a long stare which somehow suggested great ability. He might have been a person of the most commanding intellect who has been presented with a philosophical proposition just too remote for comprehension.

“But it does come, you know,” Appleby was prompted to add, “in half-bottles. Handier for between meals.”

Mr. Moody shook his head decisively. “The corks don’t come out right,” he said. “Not out of the little ones.” He took a sip of champagne, put down the glass, and produced from his waistcoat pocket a small bottle of pills. “I’m glad you said that about meals,” he went on. “I have to take these half an hour before. Dangerous to forget. I was warned that way by Dr. Cahoon. I go into his clinic every Fall. Come across and look him up, Mr. Appleby, if you ever find you have that duodenum after all. I guess you’d like Dr. Cahoon’s clinic. Most expensive in the United States.”

“I’ll certainly bear it in mind.” Appleby felt it was only fair to make a civil response to this gratifying estimate of his financial rating.

Mr. Moody swallowed a pill. Then he raised a hand and pointed over Appleby’s shoulder. “That’s mine,” he said.

Appleby turned his head. All he could see was the death of General Gordon. “Is it, indeed?” he said. “That’s most interesting.”

Mr. Moody’s pointing finger described a semi-circle. “And that’s mine too. But there’s somebody disputes it, and says he has.”

This time Mr. Moody was indubitably indicating the execution of Queen Mary. Presumably he was the enviable proprietor of the Victorian masterpieces in oils after which these engravings had been made. Appleby tried to think of some apposite question. “Are they in good condition?” he asked.

Mr. Moody had finished his champagne and risen painfully to his feet. He was still clutching his cables, and it appeared that he was proposing to withdraw with them into privacy. “Condition?” he said. “Absolutely first-class, Mr. Appleby. Soaked in blood. Drenched in it.”

“Blood?” Appleby could only echo this weakly.

“I’ve gotten a lot of things like that.” Mr. Moody nodded---confidentially, mysteriously. “I’ve gotten things that nobody knows.”

It wasn’t precisely from his sherry that Appleby had to spend a little time sobering up. When he went into the small hotel dining-room he found it crowded, and he was shown to a table already occupied by another diner. This was a middle-aged man who was paying little attention to what he ate, being absorbed in the pages of what appeared to be a magazine. But he closed this when Appleby sat down, and murmured a polite good-evening. Appleby responded---and decided at a glance that his retreat from Urchins had not in fact dispensed him from academic society. This person could only be a don. Appleby glanced at the journal he had set down. It announced itself---in an elegant red type on a grey ground---as The Review of English Studies.

One oughtn’t to be caught peering at another fellow’s reading. But the stranger, following Appleby’s glance, smiled amiably. “It’s not Mind," he said, “and it’s not The Journal of Classical Archaeology. It’s not even Nature. So I’m afraid I can’t offer it to you with the greatest confidence. Still, it’s pretty good in its way. Certainly as good as my own affair---or perhaps a wee bit better. That’s why I keep an eye on it. Of course, our affair is more specialized.”

“You edit a journal, sir?” Appleby asked politely.

The Elizabethan and Jacobean Quarterly. You won’t have heard of it.”

“Well, I have---as a matter of fact.” Appleby paused. He found it impossible to believe that the learned person opposite had found his way to the neighbourhood of Urchins at this particular juncture entirely by chance. “I can’t claim to read it regularly. But I have got hold of it from time to time to read papers by an old acquaintance of mine. You probably knew him. Lewis Packford.”

The stranger received this for a moment in silence. He was probably doing much the same sort of thinking as Appleby. “Yes, of course,” he said presently. “And Packford’s death has been a very shocking thing. Incidentally, there’s some extraordinary stuff about it in the evening papers.” He paused. “My name is Charles Rushout.” He tapped The Review of English Studies. “I try to teach this sort of thing---or the literature with which it is somewhat tenuously connected---to the young people in the University of Nesfield.”

“How do you do. My name is John Appleby. I am a policeman.”

“How do you do.” Rushout had taken this bald announcement very well. “Your name, if I may say so, is familiar to me. Am I right in thinking that you run Scotland Yard?”

“My dear Professor, you would be right in thinking that Scotland Yard runs me.”

Rushout smiled---and at the same moment, with an expertness scarcely to be predicted of a scholar, summoned a waiter with the flick of a hand. “Don’t you think,” he asked, “that we might share a bottle of claret?”

Appleby nodded. “I have an idea,” he said, “that we might quite usefully share rather more than that.”

+++

“It wasn’t this stuff in the evening paper,” Rushout said presently, “that has brought me down to this part of the world. I’d set out---as you can easily calculate---before that appeared. My first idea was simply to write to Packford’s executors. But I suddenly felt, for some reason, most uneasy about this enormously important thing. So I decided to come straight here, and to call on poor Packford’s brother in the morning. The suggestion, here in the newspaper, that Packford’s death may have been a matter of murder and theft makes me sorry I didn’t act sooner. If the book is really lost, it’s a calamity.” Rushout applied himself appreciatively to his claret. “In fact I can’t bear to think of it.”

“You interest me very much.” Appleby reached for the bottle and replenished his companion’s glass. “But I ought to say that this report in the paper is in no sense inspired by the police. I’d very much like to know by whom it was inspired. If I had the faintest hope that the paper would tell me. I’d be on the line to them now.”

“You mean it may be without substance?” Rushout brightened. “The book may be safe?”

“There is certainly some substance behind the story. As for the book, it may be safe enough, whatever it is. But I very much doubt it.”

“You don’t know about it? You don’t know about the Ecatommiti?” For a moment Rushout looked surprised. “But naturally you don’t. Packford had, I gather, been dropping hints. But he hadn’t come out with it. The paper he intended to send me for the Elizabethan and Jacobean was to be the first public word about it.”

“I seem to remember,” Appleby said, “that the Ecatommiti cropped up in a conversation I had with Packford in Italy not very long ago. It’s Shakespeare’s source for Othello?”

“Well---yes and no. It’s a collection of yarns put together by an Italian we usually call Cintio, and published in 1565. One of the yarns is the Othello story. But it’s never been known whether Shakespeare worked straight from the Italian---a language there’s no positive evidence that he knew---or from a translation into French---a language he almost certainly had some knowledge of. Some people have supposed that he must have come across an English version now unknown to us. But Packford had settled the matter---and much more. He’d somehow acquired---I gather from a source in Verona---a copy of the original Italian, copiously annotated by Shakespeare himself. It’s the greatest Shakespearian find of the century. Indeed, it sounds to me like the greatest ever.”

“You haven’t seen it?”

“No. As far as I know, Packford at the time of his death had shown it to nobody. All I had from him was a letter announcing his discovery and saying that he proposed to send me a paper about it for publication later.”

“It would have been far and away his most sensational contribution to scholarship?”

“Oh, decidedly. I hope it still will be---although it must be a posthumous achievement now . . . I think there may be another half glass.”

Appleby poured the claret. “If this book turns up, there is bound to be a tremendous debate whether the annotations are really in Shakespeare’s hand?”

“Inevitably.” Rushout chuckled. “It will keep people busy for years. But Packford, for whose judgment most of us have a vast respect, was quite confident in the matter.”

“Substantial specimens of Shakespeare’s hand are extant?”

“Well---yes and no, again. There are signatures. And there is a substantial whack of a manuscript play, quite reasonably to be ascribed to him on literary grounds, in a hand which some of the best authorities declare to be the same that executed the signatures. And Packford declared that the annotations were indistinguishable from either.”

“You gathered that he was excited about the business?”

“Very much so. He did, you know, become tremendously enthusiastic. His letter assured me that the annotations gave a marvellous insight into the mind of the dramatist as he first addressed himself to his material.”

“His enthusiasm might upset his judgment there.”

“I think it very well might. And poor Packford was no literary critic, one is bound to admit. Even if the annotations were quite commonplace---which seems not terribly likely---he would readily convince himself of their profundity. But on the whole scholarly and palaeographical side of the matter he would be very shrewd.”

Appleby was silent for a moment. “Would you say that Packford,” he then asked, “was thinking about his discovery at all in terms of money? I happen to know that his affairs were embarrassed---so embarrassed that even he couldn’t be unaware of the fact. Didn’t his find, if genuine, represent a fortune?”

Rushout drained his glass and nodded. “Undoubtedly. I haven’t, of course, any notion of a figure. But it would be staggering. You know the sort of fancy prices that have been given in the present century for paintings which people have taken it into their heads to declare among the very greatest in the world. I’d suppose this book, although it’s only a batch of rather inferior yarns scribbled in by a busy working dramatist, would certainly command money of that order.”

“Don’t you think,” Appleby asked, “that there’s something a bit queer about the whole thing? How did Packford come by the book? If from somebody in Verona, did that somebody know, or didn’t he know, what he was selling? If he knew, how did he ever come to part with the thing at any figure Packford could rise to? If he didn’t know, how was contact between seller and purchaser ever made? I have it from another source, I may say, that Packford paid a thousand pounds. That seems just wrong, when you come to think about it. It’s far too little to have been a reasonable offer to make to an informed person for such a treasure. And it’s surely a good deal too much to offer for a copy of Cintio’s work if Shakespeare’s association with it was unsuspected by the owner.”

“I agree with you. There is a great deal of force in what you say.”

“And there’s another puzzle. If Shakespeare really visited Italy, acquired a Cintio, and scribbled in it copiously with the notion of blocking out a play, why did he then leave the book behind him? Wouldn’t it have been reasonable to shove it in his luggage and bring it home? Then again, he did write a play about Othello. Did he do it from memory?”

Rushout chuckled. “My dear Sir John, you are starting in on just the sort of questions that all the learned will be asking---supposing that the book is safe and sound, and presently given to the world. There are all sorts of possible answers. Shakespeare may have visited Italy rather late on in his career, and written Othello on the spot. Or he may have gone there as a young man, come across the Ecatommiti, scribbled in it and then abandoned it. Later on, and back in England, he may have remembered his abortive interest in the story of the noble Moor, and got hold either of another copy of the Italian or the French translation of it.”

“Yes, any of these things is possible.” Appleby spoke this time with his eye on the dining-room door. He was awaiting with some curiosity the arrival of Mr. Moody for his dinner and his bottle of champagne. “I ought to tell you,” he said, “that there are several people at Urchins now who possess a more or less professional interest in our topic. Have you heard of some sort of learned joke about a fellow called Bogdown?”

“I think I have.”

“Well, the members of the Bogdown Society, or whatever it is called, were gathered at Urchins at the time of Packford’s death. And they are there still. In addition to which there is Packford’s widow, who also belongs to the learned world.”

“A widow?” Rushout was surprised. “I’d no idea he was married.”

“Nor, till the other day, had anyone else. And that’s not entirely the end of the story. But the important people at the moment are those who might take a special interest in Cintio. None of them, so far as I can tell, knows the whole story you have told me. But some of them know quite a lot. Prodger, Limbrick, Rixon. Do these names convey anything to you?”

“Certainly they do. And they would all be very interested indeed.”

Appleby still had his eye on the door. “And Sankey---does that convey anything?”

“No. I’ve never heard of him. ”

“Prodger had a good deal to say about an American collector called Sankey. But I think he may have got the name wrong. He’s been muddled by Gospel Hymns.”

Gospel Hymns?”

It was at his moment that Mr. Moody entered the dining-room. Appleby indicated him with a swift gesture. “You wouldn’t associate him with Gospel Hymns?”

Rushout looked quite blank. “I’ve never seen him before. And I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“That is Moody. Presently he’s going to drink champagne. Prodger gets his name wrong, simply because, once upon a time, another Moody collaborated with a Sankey in making a hymn-book. But you, Professor Rushout, know nothing about this Moody?”

Rushout hesitated. For a moment, indeed, he seemed thoroughly confused. “I didn’t say that,” he said. “I only declared that I’d never seen him before. Nor has he ever seen me.”

“May I take it, then, that you have corresponded?”

“Yes.”

Appleby smiled. “You’ve told me quite a lot, over this very tolerable claret of ours. Might it be a good idea if you told me a little more?”

+++

The editor of The Elizabethan and Jacobean Quarterly received this proposition without enthusiasm. “Aren’t we,” he asked, “getting on to something quite irrelevant?”

“It certainly isn’t irrelevant that the chap over there---who is one of the biggest collectors of this that and the other thing in America---should be lurking within a few miles of Urchins. That it’s irrelevant that you and he have corresponded is something which, of course, you are at liberty to maintain. But perhaps”---and Appleby looked ironically at his companion---“a moment’s further thought will suggest some connection to you, after all.”

Rushout didn’t reply to this. He was glancing with some misgivings at Mr. Moody, who was now in process of ordering his dinner. “You know,” he said rather defensively, “so many of the great American collectors are highly cultivated men. Indeed, one may confidently say scholarly men. It is a pleasure to have any association with them.”

Appleby smiled. “I don’t doubt it for a moment. In fact, I know several myself. But, at the moment, our concern is with the gentleman over there. I’d describe him---well, as belonging to another tradition.”

“He looks deplorable.”

“My dear Professor, that, if I may say so, is a somewhat illiberal and hasty judgment. My own acquaintance with Mr. Moody is perhaps also too slight for confident appraisal. But I rather like him.”

“I certainly ought to labour to do so.” Rushout peered rather gloomily into his empty glass. “For he is, in fact, a benefactor of mine. Not in a personal sense. But---well, he puts up most of the money for The Elizabethan and Jacobean. Learned journals, you know, are now uncommonly expensive affairs to finance.”

“That is most enlightened of him. Don’t you think, Professor, that you ought to go over and introduce yourself to him? And might I, perhaps, venture to join you for coffee? You and I will have a cognac. Moody, on the orders of Dr. Cahoon, will continue to drink champagne.”

Rushout received this suspiciously. “Don’t make fun of me,” he said. “The position has been a delicate one, as you are perfectly capable of guessing.”

“You mean that Moody’s financial aid to the---um---investigating classes hasn’t been of an order of the most disinterested?”

“And don’t quote Henry James at me.” Rushout grinned with recovered cheerfulness. “It’s not seemly in a policeman.”

“You gave him tips?”

“Just that. As editor of The Elizabethan and Jacobean, and with the full agreement of my Advisory Panel----”

“Whatever’s that?”

“A collection of impeccably respectable learned persons who are supposed to advise me about my job. With their approval, as I say, I have from time to time given this Moody chap tips. That’s to say, when I’ve had early notice of the turning up of something that might be of interest to a collector. I’ve let him know.”

“I see. That wouldn’t include General Gordon’s Bible?”

“General Gordon’s Bible?”

“Moody believes himself to own it---together with the prayer-book which Mary Queen of Scots took to the scaffold. Both are satisfactorily drenched in blood. I was puzzled at first, because I thought he was referring to pictures.”

“I didn’t know he went in for relics. Beastly things, if you ask me, whether drenched in blood or not. But he has got a tremendous collection of books and manuscripts in the literary field.”

Appleby nodded. “It sounds as if old Prodger was right in maintaining that Moody---or rather Sankey---was just the man for Packford’s big find, and that this fellow Limbrick wouldn’t have a chance against him. So I understand you let Moody know about Shakespeare’s Ecatommiti?”

“In the strictest confidence.” Rushout was again defensive. “Simply to get him in at the head of the queue. That was more or less the spirit of our agreement.”

“No wonder he’s come hurtling across the Atlantic at the news of Packford’s death. If he gets the book, I suppose he’ll finance your journal for the rest of his days?” Rushout managed a spirited reply to this. “If he doesn’t,” he said, “he damned well ought to.”


 100 
 on: April 28, 2024, 12:16:26 pm 
Started by Admin - Last post by Admin
THE autumn afternoon would soon be over, but Appleby continued his prowl round Urchins. He had decided to spend the night there if Edward Packford invited him. But he rather thought he would make off to the nearest pub for dinner, thereby relieving the household for a time of what was, after all, a somewhat awkward professional presence. Meanwhile he would complete his circuit of the building.

It was thus that he came upon a stable-yard. Like many places of its kind, this now smelt not of horses but of oil and petrol. Along one side a row of loose boxes had been adapted to accommodate half a dozen cars, and there were in fact five standing side by side now. One was the ancient affair with which Ruth had met Appleby that morning, and some of the others presumably belonged either to Edward Packford or to the guests whom he had so amiably taken over from his dead brother. But presumably one must have been the property of Lewis Packford himself. Appleby was wondering which it might be---although the speculation didn’t seem very material---when the old gardener whom he had seen at the time of his arrival went past wheeling a barrow. Appleby spoke to him. “Good evening,” he said. “Now, which would have been Mr. Packford’s car, and which is Mr. Edward’s?”

“Mr. Packford’s car?” The old man shook his head. “We called ’un Mr. Lewis here---them that had worked here man and boy as I han.”

“Ah, yes---no doubt you knew his father. And which is his car?” The old man again shook his head---this time with a more pronouncedly negative suggestion. “Mr. Packford never did have a car, sir. He was always one for fine horses, like.”

“I see. But I mean Mr. Lewis. Which is his car, and which is his brother’s?”

For a moment the old man appeared to be regarding all this curiosity as uncivil. But then he extended a gnarled hand. “That be Mr. Edward’s, sir---the green ’un with the dust still on it. Mr. Edward, e did have ’un out this morning, and that young varmint Tom bain’t got round to it. But Mr. Lewis’s, sir, that be the big ’un with the good shine to it. It hasn’t been touched since the death, sir. Mr. Edward’s special orders.”

“Thank you.” Appleby nodded and strolled away. But when the old man had departed he retraced his steps. Lewis Packford’s car was a large, undistinguished and fairly new saloon. Appleby went up and peered into it. He tried the doors and found that they were unlocked. He tried the boot, and found that this was unlocked too. He opened it and discovered that it contained a suit-case. He felt the weight of this. It certainly wasn’t empty. He shifted it to try the lid. The catches slid back. He had raised the lid and was peering inside when a voice spoke ironically behind him.

“I suppose it’s your feeling that there will be a sale? Mr. Limbrick will get the books, and you will get the old clothes. So you’re poking round. Is that the idea?”

“I wouldn’t call these old clothes.” Appleby turned and confronted Ruth. She had put on an overcoat, and had the air of one who is prepared for an expedition. “It’s true they’re not new, but I wouldn’t call them shabby. And, even when they’re neatly folded like this, it’s possible to guess they come from a decent tailor. Have a look at them, will you?”

Ruth came up and looked. “Well?” she asked challengingly.

“It’s not quite clear to me, you know, just how much domestic life you and your husband managed together. Would it run to your being able to identify his clothes? In fact, are these his?”

Ruth took another look. “Yes,” she said firmly. “They are certainly Lewis’s. And so is the suit-case.”

“And do you recognise the packing, as well as the things packed?”

She turned and stared at him. “I don’t understand you.”

“It’s quite simple. Is that how Lewis Packford packed?”

“Pecks of pickled pepper.” Ruth offered this facetious response rather desperately. Then she shook her head. “No---it isn’t. And it isn’t how I pack, either.”

“That is an additional point of interest, no doubt. Appleby poked at the topmost garments. “He didn’t keep a manservant. But perhaps Mrs. Husbands, or a housemaid, packed for him. Would you say it’s like that sort of packing?”

“Not quite.” Ruth now spoke slowly. “It’s certainly not by Lewis, I’m sure. He would chuck things in anyhow. On the other hand, it doesn’t strike me as being by what you would call a professional. Not, you know, that I live in a world of valets and lady’s maids---as you. Sir John, no doubt do. So my opinion is not authoritative. It’s a careful job, but an amateur one. That’s my opinion---for what it’s worth.”

“I should always value your opinion.” Appleby said this with a courtesy that didn’t sound wholly ironic. “There’s a smaller case here as well. Shall we open it too?” He lifted up a square leather case, not much bigger than a handbag.

“We?” Ruth looked at Appleby with some indignation. “I don’t know that I’ve taken on the post of your first assistant. But open away. It’s clear enough what it is: a useless little collection of brushes and bottles and things of the kind that some women travel with.”

Appleby opened the case and confirmed this prediction. “I suppose you’re not,” he asked coolly, “dissimulating the fact that it’s your property?”

“Certainly not. I don’t traipse around with an affair of that sort.”

“I don’t think Alice would be so scornful of it. In fact, at a guess, I’d say it was hers, and that she’s rather proud of it.” Quite casually, Appleby shut down first the little travelling case and then the boot of the car. “So what does our discovery suggest?”

“I’d rather not talk about it.” Ruth’s voice was steady, but her lip was slightly trembling. “And now I’d better go about my business. I’ve promised Edward to go and fetch this man Room. I suppose you wouldn’t like the run?”

Appleby was surprised. He was even---rather absurdly---pleased. “I’ll certainly come,” he said. “But I’ll go in and see Edward first. It’s my notion to get a meal elsewhere, and then come back to Urchins for the night.”

Ruth nodded. “I don’t grudge you a quiet grill and a pint of bitter. The Husbands cuisine is rather distinguished. But I’m bound to confess I’m getting a bit tired of the conditions under which I’m privileged to partake of it.”

Appleby laughed. “I have a feeling,” he said, “that Edward Packford’s protracted house-party will soon be breaking up.”

+++

They found Mr. Room at a point outside the railway station at which he could scan the road from Urchins. He had, it appeared, made one of his Napoleonic changes of plan, caught a motor coach, and thus con¬ trived to arrive early. But as he had twin suit-cases each rather heavier than there seemed any occasion for, and had therefore been indisposed to wander round seeking a further conveyance, his strategy hadn’t resulted in any particular advantage. Except that he had exchanged his silk hat for a bowler, he presented precisely the appearance under which Appleby had first encountered him. And his manner too was unchanged. Having apparently been apprised of the peculiar marital status of his deceased client, he took early occasion to deliver himself to Ruth of sundry conventional sentiments on the theme of sad occasions, distressing circumstances, and the like. These Ruth received with patience. “You know Sir John Appleby?” she said.

“Certainly I do.” Room limply shook hands. “And I was very glad to see he had taken the matter up. Although I disapprove, of course, the deplorably sensational cast of the report.”

“What’s that?” Appleby was startled.

Room was already climbing into the back of the old car. But now he paused to rummage in the pocket of his overcoat. “Perhaps,” he said, “you haven’t yet seen the evening paper. Allow me.”

Appleby took the newspaper and got in beside Ruth. The death of Lewis Packford, he found, had belatedly made the front page. So had something vaguely described as “a priceless Shakespeare relic.” The police, the report declared, now thought it highly probable that Packford had died as the result of foul play, and that the priceless relic had been stolen at the same time. There was also a photograph of Appleby---which was something that Appleby always particularly disliked seeing.

Ruth had read the report over his shoulder. She now started up the car. “At least,” she said, “there’s nothing about bigamy---yet.”

“That is certainly something,” Room said from the back. “But one wouldn’t expect anything of the sort, until they felt very sure of their ground. They have of course no consideration for the personal feelings of those involved in this deplorable affair. But at least they keep an eye on the law of libel. If they announced that my late client had conspired with---um---the young person now at Urchins to commit bigamy, and the allegation turned out to be without substance, we should have them. We should have them very nicely. Unfortunately, when this further trouble does emerge into daylight, there will be very little we can do. From the point of view of my late client’s reputation, the whole affair is truly lamentable. And, of course, for others concerned as well.”

Appleby tapped the evening paper. “But doesn’t this represent pretty well your own view of the case? Isn’t this Shakespeare relic they talk about simply a journalist’s term for what you suppose Packford to have got from that impoverished nobleman of Verona? And don’t you believe that he was, in fact, murdered? Or has the discovery that he’d got into that desperate scrape over marriage now persuaded you to take another view?”

Room took time to consider this battery of questions carefully. “I must still incline,” he said presently, “to my former opinion. I was shown, you know, that postcard purporting to be poor Packford’s last message. And I was convinced it is a forgery.”

“If so, Mr. Room, it is certainly an uncommonly good one. Our experts accept it as genuine, and although I understand you have some knowledge of these matters yourself, you are at least outvoted on the point, so far.”

“It’s certainly an uncommonly good forgery. It might be called a brilliant forgery. That, my dear sir, is simply part of my case.”

Ruth had begun to drive fast through the dusk, so that the Thomas Horscroft country was slipping by in rather an alarming fashion. But now she slackened pace and spoke. “I know nothing about this point technically,” she said. “But I see no reason to suppose that Lewis didn’t write that message. There’s sense in it. Just what sense, Sir John and I discovered less than an hour ago. It’s perfectly plain that Lewis and Alice had decided to cut and run for it. In fact, the long farewell was to me.”

“I am extremely sorry that you should have occasion to suppose so.” Room got a maximum of unfeeling quality into this, combined with a large suggestion of gloom. “At the same time, I am not without a suspicion that you may be introducing an unwarranted simplification into your view of the matter. That your husband had decided to cut and run for it is conceivable. Indeed, I am sorry to say that I am myself the bearer of information which enhances the credibility of such a supposition.” Room had fallen to his favourite occupation of rolling his umbrella. “But it must nevertheless be evident, my dear madam, that such an intention---and even the taking of certain definite steps to put it into execution---is not incompatible with the sadly sinister interpretation of our melancholy occasion to which I myself find it necessary to incline.”

A speech so heavy as this was not unnaturally followed by an interval of silence. Urchins Pydell went dimly by. And then Ruth spoke abruptly. “Just what did you mean by that about being a bearer of information making it the more likely that Lewis was thinking of bolting?”

“There is no reason for reticence in the matter. You must certainly know at once, and so must the dead man’s brother. Sir John’s discretion is doubtless impeccable.” Room paused as if for a word of thanks for this testimonial. Not getting it, he pursued his ponderous course. “I have made a careful preliminary investigation of Lewis Packford’s affairs. I ought to say at once that I have not myself hitherto had much concern with them on their financial side. Had they been substantially in my hands, I should conceive myself to be gravely indicted of irresponsibility by the deplorable posture in which they now stand.”

“Is all this,” Ruth asked, “a way of saying that Lewis had been living beyond his means?”

“Certainly that. He appears to have been entirely careless. I fear that there are grave difficulties confronting his estate.”

“But you don’t suggest,” Appleby asked, “that there was anything discreditable behind his difficulties? Apart from his recent queer aberration in contracting two marriages---which is quite another matter---there was nothing more culpable than a rather large inability to bother himself with his own practical affairs?”

“That is, I think, true.” Room could be glimpsed in the driving-mirror as nodding gravely. “There were, so far as I know, no---um---irregular courses.”

“You mean women---more women?” Ruth asked this challengingly. “What about Italy?” She turned to Appleby. “You visited Lewis there, it seems. Were there any signs there of what Mr. Room calls irregular courses?”

Appleby smiled. “I can’t say that there were. He flirted with his cook, but she was in her seventies. He talked about amorous shrimps. But they turned out to be wall-paintings.”

“Exactly,” Room said. “One is happy to think that there was no vice in him---or not of any positively degrading sort.”

“You put it very nicely.” Ruth spoke in a more acrid tone than Appleby had heard her use before. “Alice would be grateful to you, too.”

“Would you say that Packford was in any sense a gambler?” Appleby asked this chiefly by way of gliding over an awkward moment. “A man can quickly lose a great deal, that way.”

“And he can quickly gain a great deal, too.” Room made this reply rather surprisingly. “To my mind, there is something we are bound a little to admire in the true gambler’s temper. To win handsomely, and then double one’s stake, must at least take resolution. But the answer to your question is quite simple. Packford didn’t gamble. He didn’t even, in the substantial sense, speculate. Had he done so, he might well have come to grief long before now. For, able though he was, there was something guileless and even credulous about him. Not, perhaps, as a scholar. But certainly in life’s larger relations. He could, in the vulgar but useful phrase, be had.”

There was another pause, in which Appleby could feel Ruth punch the accelerator. She wasn’t at all slow, it occurred to him, to take Room’s pontificatings in a personal sense. “You’ll drop me at that pub?” he asked. “I’ll get back to Urchins about nine.”

Ruth nodded. “Very well. And I hope you’ll have done something about it.”

“Something about it?”

“You arrived this morning and announced that there was a mystery about Lewis’s death, after all. I hope you’ll arrive again to-night announcing that you’ve brought the solution.”

“Hardly that.” Appleby spoke seriously. “But I might well bring a part of it.”


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