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9: A Blow in the Dark

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Author Topic: 9: A Blow in the Dark  (Read 35 times)
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« on: April 28, 2023, 05:49:09 am »

DEREK turned over in bed for the twentieth time, and for the twentieth time his bed registered a tinny protest. The movement had no effect on his comfort, as owing to the deep trough in which he lay his body returned always to exactly the same spot. The knobs and protuberances which variegated the surface of the mattress went into his right side instead of his left, and that was all. Dismally comparing himself to St. Lawrence on his gridiron, Derek prepared to await the dawn.

Like most healthy people, who do not know what insomnia really is, Derek viewed the prospect of a sleepless night with horror. He would have found a book to occupy the time, but he shrank from the labour involved in replacing the cumbrous black-out curtains which he had incautiously removed before retiring. Besides, he reflected, the light was so placed as to make it impossible to read in bed without straining his eyes. There was nothing for it but to endure his fate with hardihood. It was his second night at Wimblingham, and, he was thankful to think, his last. The assize, no less grandiose and expensive than its predecessors at Markhampton and Southington, had barely filled a short working day. Three prisoners only had appeared and two of these had obligingly pleaded guilty. In the remaining case, Pettigrew, holding a brief for someone much junior to himself who was serving in the army, had skilfully jollied the jury into an acquittal in the face of determined opposition from the Bench. There had, Derek remembered, been more than a hint of personal antagonism towards Pettigrew in the summing up, and undisguised malice in the smile with which counsel had bowed to the Judge when, at the conclusion of the case, he formally asked for his client to be discharged. Why, he wondered, did the two men dislike each other so much? Had it anything to do with Hilda? (He had already reached the stage of thinking of her by her Christian name, and he vaguely wondered whether he would ever have the courage to call her by it openly.) Certainly she appeared to manage to remain on the friendliest possible terms with them both. Was there, his rambling thoughts continued, anything at all in Hilda’s idea that any danger threatened the Judge? And who was this person Heppenstall whose name kept on cropping up whenever the subject was discussed? Heppenstall, in a way, had been responsible for the accident at Markhampton. At least, it was after his name had been mentioned that the Judge had started drinking all that brandy. Perhaps Beamish could explain. He seemed to have all sorts of private knowledge at his fingers’ ends. But one didn’t like to encourage Beamish too much. He was quite familiar enough already. Queer fish, Beamish. Can’t say I like him much. Hilda can’t bear the sight of him. Should like to know exactly what she has against him. Don’t expect she would ever say outright, though. She’s marvellous at just indicating her feelings without any direct words. Like the quotation: “Just hint a fault and indicate dislike.” That’s wrong---not “indicate”, some other three syllable word . . . “Intimate”? No. . . . I forget. . . . Odd, what Pettigrew said to Beamish this morning, just before the Court sat. “Been playing darts much, lately?” Seemed to annoy Beamish, too. . . . Darts. . . . Beamish. . . . “Institute dislike?” Silly idea, of course not. . . . You institute proceedings, not dislike. . . . Proceedings for darts in the King’s Bench Division. . . .

Derek slept.

Some time later he awoke with a start. His sleep had been a light one, and troubled with fantastic dreams, and he seemed to jump into full consciousness all at once in a manner quite different from his usual slow, reluctant morning wakening. He sat up in bed. Apart from the inevitable noise occasioned by the movement, he could hear nothing. The last Wimblingham tram had long since clanked its way to rest and the street outside was completely quiet. None the less, Derek felt certain that it was a noise that had roused him, and further, something told him that the disturbance, whatever it had been, had come, not from outside, but a good deal nearer at hand. He continued to listen for a moment or two, and had just decided to try to go to sleep again when the silence was broken quite unmistakably by a whole series of different sounds. Afterwards, Derek was annoyed to find a good deal of uncertainty in his recollection of the precise order in which these sounds occurred, but of their nature there was no doubt. Somewhere a door slammed sharply, footsteps moved hastily along the corridor---the main corridor, Derek thought, and not the little passage outside his room---there was a bump that quite certainly indicated that somebody had stumbled over one of the concealed flights of steps, and, at some point or other in the jumble of untoward noises, there was a loud, high-pitched scream. It was this last that brought Derek in a bound from his bed.

He fumbled in the dark for his dressing-gown and slippers, groped for, but failed to find, his torch, and opened the door of his room. He listened for a moment, and heard the confused hum of a household suddenly roused from sleep. Taking a step forward into the darkness he once again missed his footing on the steps so ingeniously provided immediately outside the door. This time he almost fell prone in his haste, and as he tried to right himself he was knocked into by a heavy unseen form coming from further up the side passage. Derek went down to the floor and the newcomer tripped over him, in so doing kicking him firmly in the ribs. It was, Derek felt, rather like falling on the ball in front of an advancing pack of rugger forwards.

Derek, badly winded, prepared to grapple with his unknown assailant, but at that moment an electric torch was flashed in his face and Beamish’s voice said, “Oh, it’s you, Mr. Marshall! You nearly gave me a nasty fall.”

Derek made no reply to what he felt to be a gross understatement. “What is the matter?” he asked.

“That’s what I came to find out,” said Beamish. “It’s a fair disgrace there being no lights in this passage. It’s all skylights above, see? And the Council won’t go to the expense of doing the black-out properly.”

Waving his torch, Beamish preceded him down the passage into the main corridor, which was dimly lighted enough, but seemed by contrast a blaze of illumination. In it Derek recognized the other members of the household---figures familiar enough, but strangely transmogrified in their night attire. The Judge looked gaunter and gawkier than ever in an unexpectedly gaily patterned dressing-gown. Mrs. Square was positively Dickensian in curl-papers. Savage, dishevelled but infinitely respectful, contrived still to look unmistakably a butler. Beamish, Derek now perceived, was closely buttoned into a huge check ulster which reached almost to the ground and gave him a singularly rakish appearance. A surly looking individual, whom he presumed to be a night watchman, stood rather helplessly by. All this he observed with the unreal clarity of things seen in a nightmare, before he became aware of the cause and centre of the whole uproar. When he had once seen this, however, he no longer had eyes for anything else. On the floor, her head supported by her husband’s arms, lay Hilda Barber. She was very pale. One eye was half-closed and blood was trickling from a cut just beneath it. She held her hand to her throat and appeared to be breathing with difficulty. She was not unconscious, for from time to time she muttered words which Derek could not catch.

For a time that could not have been longer than a few minutes but seemed endless, everyone seemed stricken with the paralysis that sudden emergency sometimes produces. It was a paralysis, however, that did not affect their tongues. Everybody was talking at once. Mrs. Square was repeating over and over again, “Poor lady!” and “Did you ever!” The Judge said several times, “Hilda! Can you hear me?” as if he was talking on an unsatisfactory telephone. Then he added, “Fetch a doctor, someone!” and “Where are the police?” The night watchman rejoined in an aggrieved tone, “I’ve rung down for the police. They’ll be ’ere in a minute.”

Derek broke into this dialogue by boldly coming forward and seizing Lady Barber round the ankles.

“We ought to put her to bed, sir!” he fairly shouted at the bemused old man who still had hold of the other end of the patient.

“Yes, yes, of course!” said the Judge, coming suddenly to life.

Together they lifted her and carried her into her bedroom, a little further along the corridor. The spot where she lay, Derek noticed, was outside the Judge’s room, next to it. As they laid her on the bed, Hilda lifted her head and said, quite distinctly, “Are you all right, William?”

“Yes, yes!” answered Barber. “Can you hear me, Hilda?”

“He hit me,” she said, and then appeared to lose consciousness.

Through the open bedroom door, Derek could see that the passage had suddenly become crowded with policemen.


Ages later, as it seemed to Derek, he was sitting at breakfast with the Judge. After the turmoil of the night, which had seemed positively endless, the breakfast table, with its coffee and bacon, appeared refreshingly normal. The Judge was already seated when he came in, reading the Times as usual, and apparently with his appetite unimpaired. His eyes were somewhat bloodshot, but otherwise he showed no traces of what must have been a sleepless night.

Derek inquired after Lady Barber.

“As well as could be expected,” was the reply. “Of course she must be kept very quiet.” His eyes returned to his paper. “I don’t like the look of things in Finland,” he announced. “Another cup of coffee, please, Marshal. It seems to taste very peculiar, I don’t know what’s wrong with it. The water can’t have been properly boiling when it was made.” He took the cup and went on, “How did that man get in here last night, I want to know? I shall have a word or two to say to the Chief Constable when he appears.” He drank a mouthful of the coffee, made a grimace into the cup, looked back at his paper and concluded, “It’s a shocking business altogether.”

Derek murmured agreement, although from the context he was left in some doubt whether the last words referred to the state of affairs with regard to Finland, the unsatisfactory nature of the coffee, or the adventures of the night before. He was trying to find some comment which would be equally appropriate to all three subjects when a diversion was effected by the door opening to admit Hilda.

“My dear!” cried the Judge, starting to his feet. “What does this mean?”

“I’m sorry if I startled you,” said Hilda, calmly. “I know I look a hideous spectacle, but I thought you would be prepared for it. Now Mr. Marshall takes it all quite coolly.”

She turned towards Derek a face disfigured by an enormous black eye. Beneath her make-up she was pale, and round her neck she wore a chiffon scarf which could not wholly conceal some ugly bruises on either side of her throat.

“But, Hilda, you ought to be in bed! The doctor said positively----”

“The doctor doesn’t know what the beds in these Lodgings are like,” said Hilda, helping herself to toast and butter. “I lay there as long as I could bear it and then I decided to get up. It was all I could do to get outside my door, though. There was a great fat policeman blocking it. On the stable-door principle, I suppose.”

“The Chief Constable will be here shortly,” said the Judge. “He sent a message just now to ask if you would feel equal to making a statement. I told him----”

“I’m quite ready to make any statement to anybody, so long as I can get away from Wimblingham this morning and never see the place again,” said Hilda firmly.

“But tell me, what actually happened?”

“My dear William, what happened was exactly what I had warned you might happen. Somebody made an attack on you last night and I got in his way, that’s all. No details, please! If I’ve got to tell the whole story to the policeman I don’t want to go all through it twice. It was quite unpleasant enough without that.”

“An attack on me?”

“Certainly. You don’t imagine anybody’s going to take the trouble to break in here just for the fun of blacking my eye, do you? Besides---you’ll hear all about it directly. May I have a look at the Times, if you’ve done with it?”

Barber meekly surrendered the paper.

“When I think”, he observed, “of the fuss that the average woman makes about the smallest misadventure and how gladly she will seize the opportunity to tell her story twenty times over if possible, I---I am really impressed by you, Hilda.”

Hilda, rustling the pages of the Times, looked up with what would have been, but for her disfigurement, a charming smile.

“That”, she observed, “is as it should be.”

Ten o’clock brought the city Chief Constable, an amiable but badly worried man. With him came a detective inspector and a doctor. The latter was professionally shocked at finding his patient out of bed, but on examining her could do no more than congratulate her on her splendid constitution. He wrote out a prescription which Hilda light-heartedly made into a spill for her cigarette as soon as his back was turned and left her to the two policemen.

Lady Barber’s statement was quite short and to the point.

“I woke up in the night,” she said. “No, it’s no use asking me what the time was. I didn’t look at my watch, and in any case it’s hopelessly unreliable. I thought I heard someone moving in the passage outside, so I went along to my husband’s room to investigate. It was quite dark and I was feeling my way along the wall. Just as I got to his door I bumped into someone. I said, ‘Who are you?’ or something like that. The next thing I knew was a torch being flashed in my face. The man, whoever he was, caught me by the throat---here”---she indicated the bruises beneath the scarf---“and then I felt a terrific blow in the eye. I think he must actually have hit me with the torch, because everything went dark. He let go of me as he struck and I fell down. Then I suppose I screamed. And that is really all I can remember.”

There was a pause, and then the inspector said softly, “Why did you go to your husband’s room, Lady Barber?”

“Because I suspected that there was somebody about, and I thought he might make an attempt on my husband’s life---and I was right,” she added triumphantly.

“Had you any reason to fear for his lordship’s safety, then?”

“Certainly I had. Otherwise I shouldn’t have come to Wimblingham---odious place.”

The city Chief Constable blenched at this slur on his own town, of which he was oddly proud.

“Perhaps it would help us if you would tell us your reasons,” he said.

Hilda nodded towards the Judge.

“You tell,” she said.

Somewhat haltingly, Barber related the story of the anonymous letters at Markhampton and the incident of the poisoned chocolates.

“I freely admit”, he added, “that I did not take any of these incidents particularly seriously. But it seems that I was wrong.”

The Chief Constable looked wise and said nothing. Rather diffidently, the inspector took it upon himself to speak.

“It seems a strange business,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to hang together, if I may say so. I mean, the person who sent the threatening letters might follow it up by sending poisoned chocolates---though it was a crude kind of poison, admittedly---or he might attempt a crime of violence, but hardly both. I mean, sir,” he addressed his superior, “we don’t generally find one man attempting two different classes of crimes, do we? Criminals generally tend to keep to a groove.”

“That is so,” said the Chief Constable. “Of course, we have no proof that the assailant in this case came here with the intention of committing an act of violence. He might have been merely a thief. Had you any articles of particular value in your room, my lord?”

The Judge shook his head.

“I had not,” he said. “And frankly, what the man intended to do here is a question that does not interest me very much at the moment. What I want to know is, how was it that he got into these Lodgings and how did he get out again without being apprehended? It is a somewhat extraordinary state of affairs if the lodgings of His Majesty’s Judge of Assize can be visited by a marauder with apparently complete impunity, and one which, I must say, appears to me to reflect very little credit on the police force of this city.”

The Chief Constable’s face bore the expression of a man who had long foreseen a blow which he could not avoid. In his distress the mask of officialdom dropped off and he became quite human.

“I can only say, my lord,” he said, “that if I had had any warning at all that particular precautions were necessary---any hint of the story you have just told me, for instance---I should have stationed a constable outside your lordship’s room all night. Short of that, honestly there is nothing I can do to make this place safe---nothing! I have spoken to the Clerk of the Peace about it time and again, but nothing has been done. It is hopeless!”

He went on, with an eloquence born of deep feeling, to enlarge upon the peculiarities and disadvantages of the building in which they were. It had twenty different recognized entrances and exits. Apart from these, two of its irregular sides fronted on to narrow alleys, from which it would be the simplest matter to break into one of the ill-protected ground-floor windows, and in the blacked-out streets it would be mere chance if a patrolling constable happened to catch him in the act. Once inside, there was nothing to prevent the intruder from rambling all over the building.

“There are night watchmen, of course,” the Chief Constable added, “but there never were enough of them, and a good half have been taken for war service of one kind or another. Doors are locked, but there’s not one in the place I wouldn’t undertake to force with a hairpin.”

“It would be pretty difficult for anyone to find his way about the place, though,” Derek pointed out. “Unless he knew it fairly well to start with. I know I lost my way completely between here and my bedroom on the day we arrived. Don’t you think that points to a man with local knowledge?”

“It ought to, but it does not,” said the Chief Constable more despondently than ever. “For sixpence you can get at any bookshop in the city a local handbook with a complete plan of the building, showing all the principal rooms, including, of course, the Judge’s lodgings. That’s because this is an Ancient Monument. All I can say is, Ancient Monuments are all very well in their proper places, which is museums, but they have no call to put Judges in them and expect the police to guard them. If you’ll excuse my saying so, my lord.”

“And”, the inspector put in by way of rubbing it in, “I ought to point out that it would be quite unnecessary to break into the building at all. All that anybody need do would be to come in during the day on one of a dozen pretexts---to make an inquiry about his rates, or A.R.P., or what not---and conceal himself somewhere in the place till nightfall. It’s as easy as pie.”

Derek had an inspiration.

“The public gallery of the Court opens out of this corridor,” he said.

“Exactly. And a very likely place to choose. I’m obliged to you for the suggestion, sir.”

“Well,” said Barber, “this certainly reveals a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. I am not at all sure that it is not my duty to make some official representations upon the matter. But I can quite see that in view of what you tell me, my strictures upon the police force which you command, Mr. Chief Constable, may have been somewhat---ah!---more severe than was appropriate to the circumstances. Meanwhile----”

“Meanwhile,” said the Chief Constable, looking a good deal more cheerful than he had been at any time since the interview began, “meanwhile, we shall of course do all we can to bring this man to justice. If he is a local man, there won’t be much difficulty. By midday to-day every man in the city with a record of violence against him will have been pulled in and we shan’t let any of them go until they have fully accounted for every minute of last night. I have spoken to the Chief Constable of the County and he is doing the same for his jurisdiction. If he’s not a local, then it’s a different matter altogether. But we’ll do our utmost. You would wish the Yard to be notified, my lord?”

The Judge hesitated for a moment and then nodded.

“Yes,” he said, “I think that that will be necessary.”

The Chief Constable rose and was about to leave the room when his subordinate murmured something in his ear which caused him to turn back.

“There is one further possibility, my lord,” he said, “which you may think very far-fetched, but I feel bound to mention it. Do you consider that this assault could have been committed by someone inside the lodgings, a member of the household, I mean, and not an intruder at all?”

There was a moment’s stupefaction and then the Judge laughed.

“Apart from ourselves, there are only four persons who were sleeping here last night,” he said, “and one of them is a woman. I think I can safely say that from what I know of them you can discard that theory.”

“Thank you, my lord. That is as I expected but I thought I ought to mention it.”


Later that morning the party left for London. Hilda had contrived a rakish veil which fell over one side of her hat and completely concealed her black eye while looking exceedingly becoming. She need hardly have bothered, however, so far as any spectators at Wimblingham station were concerned, for an impressive body of police kept nearly half the platform free until they were safely in their carriage. Evidently the Chief Constable was taking no chance. Looking out of the window, Derek could see his broad chest heave with a sigh of relief as the train steamed out.

“Shut the window, Marshal,” said Barber.

As he tugged at the strap, Derek was conscious of a sharp pain in his side. He realized that he was still sore from his encounter with Beamish of the night before. How hard he had kicked him! You wouldn’t have thought bedroom slippers could hurt so much. He put his hand to his ribs and winced. Could they have been bedroom slippers? And if they were not, why not? He tried to recollect Beamish’s appearance. There had been a big ulster which had hidden everything else. He had been too busy to look at his feet. . . . A fantastic notion, born of the Chief Constable’s last words, floated into his mind, and refused to be dislodged.

“Mr. Marshall, you look quite distraught,” said Hilda kindly. “Have one of the Judge’s caramels. They’re quite safe. I bought them myself.”

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