The Art-Music, Literature and Linguistics Forum
December 06, 2023, 11:11:43 am
Welcome, Guest. Please login or register.
Did you miss your activation email?

Login with username, password and session length
News: Here you may discover hundreds of little-known composers, hear thousands of long-forgotten compositions, contribute your own rare recordings, and discuss the Arts, Literature and Linguistics in an erudite and decorous atmosphere full of freedom and delight.
  Home Help Search Gallery Staff List Login Register  

10: Tea and Theory

Pages: [1]   Go Down
Author Topic: 10: Tea and Theory  (Read 29 times)
Level 8

Times thanked: 53
Offline Offline

Posts: 3383

View Profile
« on: April 28, 2023, 08:50:52 am »

“WILL you come to tea with me to-morrow?” Hilda said abruptly to Derek, just before they parted at the station.

It was more than an invitation, Derek felt. A command? Not exactly. An appeal then? Something between the two, perhaps. In any case, without knowing exactly why, he accepted, simply because he felt that he had no option in the matter. It was not in the least what he wanted to do. He was going home to his mother in Hampshire that evening and he did not at all enjoy the prospect of breaking into his short holiday. But when a hostess of Lady Barber’s calibre looks a young man firmly in the eyes---even though she may happen to have only one eye of her own available at the moment---it takes a very determined young man to refuse her proferred hospitality.

As it turned out, he found himself next day only too glad to have the excuse to return to London. Since he had been away, he had to some extent forgotten the maddening feeling of uselessness which had oppressed him ever since a medical officer had told him brutally that he was hopelessly unfit for active service. At home once more, it returned to him in full measure. All his friends in the village had disappeared into some form of war work or another. His mother was spending all her days at an A.R.P. centre, waiting patiently at the telephone for warnings of air raids which never seemed to come, and had no time for him. Moreover, the two spare rooms of the small house were now occupied by a couple of London mothers and their small children, with whom with the best will in the world he could not get upon speaking, let alone upon friendly terms. He had been accustomed to leading the rather spoiled life of the only son of a widowed mother and the contrast was somewhat painful.

Derek spent his evening composing yet another letter to somebody who he hoped might be able to find him a job in the ranks of the temporary Civil Service and in filling up yet another form supplied by that disheartening institution, the Central Registry of the Ministry of Labour. Next day he took an unnecessarily early train to London.

Hilda had appointed the meeting at her club. Derek went there vaguely expecting something in the nature of a party. He found his hostess by herself, in a small room which she appeared to have secured for her exclusive use, to judge by the fact that while they were together only two other members intruded and straightway tiptoed out again with muffled apologies. She greeted him in her usual friendly fashion and rang for tea. While this was being brought she chattered away amusingly enough but to little purpose. Derek began to wonder whether her seclusion was merely due to her disfigurement, as to which she made various more or less facetious allusions. But as soon as tea had been brought in and the waitress had withdrawn, her manner changed to one of seriousness, almost of solemnity.

“I asked you to come here,” she said, “because I wanted to talk to you without being disturbed.”

She did not say by whom she was afraid of being disturbed, but it was obvious to whom she was referring. Indeed, her next words showed in what direction her thoughts were running.

“Derek,” she went on earnestly, “this is serious. William does not appear to me in the least to realize how serious it is.”

Derek was so impressed by being addressed by his Christian name that for the moment he paid little attention to what she was saying, and during that moment looked, for him, uncommonly stupid. Hilda instantly noted his lack of attention and apparently guessed the meaning of it, for she coloured slightly and then continued, frowning in the effort to concentrate upon her subject.

“He doesn’t---he never has---pay any regard to his personal safety,” she said. “For that matter, in his own affairs he has always been quite childishly careless. You’ve had some experience of that already. And it puts a very heavy responsibility on you.”

Derek shifted rather uncomfortably in his chair under her purposeful gaze. Nobody had hitherto indicated to him that the position of Judge’s Marshal entailed any particular responsibility, apart from wearing a top hat and pouring out tea, and he had some difficulty in adjusting his mind to the idea.

Hilda, as usual, seemed to divine what was going on in his thoughts. “Do you know what the Marshal originally was?” she said. “A bodyguard for the Judge. In the old days it was part of his duty to sleep across the door of the Judge’s room to protect him from any intruders.”

Derek was moved to say that he could hardly have slept worse at Wimblingham if he had followed the old custom, but his levity was not well received.

“A bodyguard,” Lady Barber repeated. “That is what the Judge needs, and that is what you and I together have got to supply during the rest of this circuit.”

“Then you really think there is still danger of some attack on him?” Derek asked.

“I have not the smallest doubt of it. Has anybody? It isn’t only that from the very beginning of the circuit things have been happening, it is that they have been getting more and more serious each time. Just consider. First we have an anonymous letter. Then comes the motor accident----”

“But that surely can’t have had anything to do with it,” Derek objected.

“Followed immediately by another letter,” Hilda went on triumphantly. “That means at least that whoever is planning all this knew about the accident and means to use it for his own purposes. As for the accident itself---even there I am not sure. You may think it absurd of me but I have a very strong feeling that all these things hang together in some way, and that means that we have to deal with a very subtle, dangerous person. Then come the poisoned chocolates, and finally this assault on me, which of course was intended for him. What is coming next? For that something will come, I am absolutely certain, and we have got to be on our guard against it.”

“Of course I am ready to do anything I can,” Derek said, “but I should have thought a Judge on circuit was about as well guarded as anyone could be. And isn’t this a job for the police, in the first place?”

Hilda smiled.

“I haven’t forgotten the police,” she said. “You may have wondered why I have come out alone to-day instead of keeping an eye on him while he is in London. Well, the answer is that he has been followed all day by a plain-clothes man from Scotland Yard. He’s probably waiting for him outside the Athenæum at this moment. William doesn’t know anything about it. I arranged it myself. One of the Assistant Commissioners happens to be a friend of mine, you see. And that reminds me----” She looked at her watch. “I am expecting someone here directly, whom I want you to see. He should be here by now. And meanwhile”---she smiled her most winning smile---“will you help me---Derek? It means a lot to me, you know.”

Somehow or another, Derek found her hand in his. In a voice suddenly gone very husky, he grated:

“I’ll do my best---Hilda.”

The brief moment of emotion passed as suddenly as it had arisen. An instant later Hilda was sitting back in her chair, talking in a business-like fashion about the precautions which would have to be taken to safeguard the Judge during the rest of the circuit.

“We don’t know where the next attack may come from,” she said. “And after my experience at Wimblingham I feel that we have got to be prepared for anything. The only safe way will be for us to agree that at any time, day or night, he should be under the protection of one or the other of us. We should take it in turns, of course, like sentries, and there’s no reason why, if we do it properly, he should even know that there is anything unusual going on. Perhaps you think all this rather absurd?”

Derek protested that he did not.

“Very well then. I will work out a little scheme between now and Monday, and----”

There was a knock on the door, and a servant appeared.

“A gentleman has called to see you, my lady,” she said.

A mountain of a man appeared behind her.

The newcomer stood quite silent in the middle of the little room, which his great bulk made to appear even smaller than it was, until the servant had withdrawn, taking with her the tea things. When the door had closed behind her, he said in a quiet voice, “Detective Inspector Mallett, of the Metropolitan Police.”

At Hilda’s invitation he brought forward a chair and sat down. Derek noticed that for all his size he moved as lightly as a cat. He found himself looking into a pair of very bright grey eyes, set in a large red face the geniality of which was oddly contradicted by a fierce, pointed military moustache. It was a brief scrutiny, friendly but appraising, and at the end of it Derek felt that he had been sized up, noted, described and docketed for future reference. A good many people had reason to remember---and to fear---that quick, purposeful glance.

“Have you had tea, Inspector?” Hilda asked.

“I have, thank you, my lady,” said Mallett in a polite voice, in which a keen ear might nevertheless have detected a tinge of regret.

He cleared his throat, and became at once the official.

“On the instructions of the Assistant Commissioner,” he said, “I made certain inquiries this morning in Bond Street, at the shop occupied by Messrs. Bechamel’s.”

He pronounced the name unashamedly, “Beechammle”. In the rather stiff, police tone which he had adopted, any but a purely British pronunciation would, one felt, have been ridiculous.

“I was directed to report the result of my inquiries to you,” he went on, “and to take your further instructions in the matter---as to which I am at the moment very largely in the dark. Perhaps it will be most convenient if I make my report in the first place. You will then be able to judge to what extent it affects the other matters on which police assistance is required.”

He took from his pocket a regulation police notebook, carefully found his place in it, and then laid it down on the table beside him. Somewhat ostentatiously, he never glanced at it again during the course of his recital. Mallett was pardonably vain of his powers of memory and the presence of the notebook might be explained as a sort of vestigial survival from an earlier stage in his evolution as a detective.

“At eleven a.m. to-day I visited Messrs. Beechammle’s shop in New Bond Street,” he said. “I had with me a one-pound box of chocolates handed to me that morning by the Assistant Commissioner, with the information that he had received it from Lady Barber in the same state in which it was given to me. At the shop I saw the manageress, a Mademoiselle Dupont. I informed her that I was a police officer and that I was making inquiries concerning the box which I then produced to her. I explained that there was reason to suppose that the contents had been tampered with and that it was required to ascertain if possible the date on which the box had been sold and the person to whom the sale had been effected. Mademoiselle Dupont informed me that chocolates of the type in question, known by the name of Bouchées Princesses were made and sold by the firm in comparatively small quantities only, approximately fifty pounds a week. Of these about half went to restaurants and other customers who gave regular orders. A list of these was furnished to me. So far as the date of purchase was concerned, she was in the position to say that the box in question had been packed in the factory on or after the 2nd instant. She was able to establish this from the paper wrapping of the individual chocolates. Due to difficulties of supply following on war conditions, paper of a slightly inferior quality was employed on and after that date. Chocolates are normally on sale in the shop on the day following the packing of the box in the factory. It follows therefore that the box in question must have been purchased between the 3rd instant and the day on which they arrived at Southington, namely the 7th.”

“Unless they had been repacked,” said Hilda sharply.

“I invited Mademoiselle Dupont to deal with that possibility,” Mallett went on smoothly. “She informed me that so far as the upper layer of chocolate was concerned, they had undoubtedly been repacked, though in paper identical with, or similar to, the original. The lower layer, however, with two exceptions, was to all appearances untouched, and she expressed the view that nobody other than an expert in the firm’s own factory could have arranged the packing in the state in which it then was. I then inquired as to the sales of chocolates of this type during the period in question. I was supplied with a list of firms and individuals to whom boxes of one pound capacity had been sent by post on those days. I have it here. Perhaps you will tell me whether any of these convey anything to you?”

He handed to Hilda a slip of paper with a short list of names and addresses on it. She examined it briefly and shook her head.

“So far as cash sales over the counter were concerned,” Mallett went on, taking back the list, “no record was kept of the names of the purchasers, naturally, and the assistants were unable to supply me with the description of any of them. I was, however, able to ascertain the numbers of boxes sold on the different days. They are as follows: on the 3rd, three boxes; on the 4th, one; on the 5th, being Sunday, there were of course, no sales; on the 6th, four boxes; and on the 7th, two.”

“That makes ten boxes altogether,” said Hilda. “And you say there is no means of saying who bought any one of them?”

“That is so.”

“Then I don’t see that your inquiries have been very much use.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” Mallett replied politely. “We have been lucky enough to narrow down the date on which this box was bought to one of four days. That cuts both ways. It means that we can eliminate from our reckoning any suspect who could not have been in Bond Street during that time, and it means further that we know exactly to which period we must confine our attention when we come to investigate the movements of any particular person. And that, believe me, is a good deal more than the police have to go upon in the great majority of their inquiries. I ought to add,” he went on after a pause, “that we have had the contents of the box examined in our laboratory, and the results entirely confirm the analysis which I understand has already been made privately.”

“Oh!” said Hilda in a somewhat disappointed voice. That the odious Mr. Flack should have been proved to be correct was evidently not entirely to her taste.

“I think that that concludes the matter of the chocolates,” said the Inspector, putting away his notebook. “We shall, of course, continue our inquiries, but it does not look as if we shall be able to go much further at the moment. Now we come to the other matter on which I am told you wished to give instructions.”

“As I was explaining to Mr. Marshall just now, I think it is all part and parcel of the same matter,” said Hilda.

The Inspector looked somewhat doubtful.

“Indeed?” he said. “We have received a report from the police at Wimblingham on the occurrence there, and at first sight there would not seem to be any connection between them.”

“But you haven’t heard the whole story yet,” Hilda objected.

“That is so, of course,” said Mallett, and he sat back patiently in his chair, while Hilda related once more the whole catalogue of misfortunes that had marked the progress of the circuit.

When she had finished her story, the Inspector said: “And have you any suggestions to make as to who is responsible for all this---supposing that one person is responsible?”

“I should have thought that there was one perfectly obvious suspect,” Lady Barber said.

“You mean Heppenstall?”

“Yes. Once lay your hands on Heppenstall----”

“But we have done so. That is to say, he has been interviewed. I saw him myself this morning.”

“Do you mean to say that he has not been arrested?”

“Unfortunately, my lady, there was no charge on which we could arrest him.”

“But he is a convict on licence----”

“Exactly, and even in such a case our powers are very limited. They are laid down by Act of Parliament.”

“I know,” said Hilda quickly. “The Prevention of Crimes Act, 1871.”

Mallett looked at her with respect.

“Precisely,” he said. “All that is required by that Act is for a man in Heppenstall’s position to notify the authorities of his address and to report once a month. This he has done. He admits that he went to Markhampton at the time of the Assizes there, and he gave me what appeared to me genuine reasons for his visit. He denies being in or near Wimblingham at any time and I am not in a position to disprove it. I am checking up on his statements, of course, but that is as far as I can go.”

“Do you mean that this man is at liberty to murder my husband whenever he pleases, and you don’t propose to do anything whatever about it?”

“Oh, no.” Mallett smiled indulgently. “I don’t mean that exactly. All I said was that we have no evidence on which we can arrest Heppenstall. But that doesn’t mean that we shall not continue to keep him under observation.”

“Then you can guarantee my husband’s safety?”

“So far as any danger from Heppenstall is concerned, I think I can, for the present.”

“You mean that you think that there is danger from some other source?”

Mallett shrugged his shoulders.

“I am not satisfied,” he said simply. “You see, we have here three distinct things to be considered. First, there are the anonymous letters. Second, the chocolates. Third, the assault on you. Either all three are part of a concerted plan or they are not. If they are, and Heppenstall is at the back of them, then we can eliminate the probability of another attempt being successful---but only if both these suppositions are correct. I don’t like to give any guarantee based on a double supposition like that. Now, let us consider the probabilities. Heppenstall may have written the anonymous letters---it seems to me quite in keeping with what I know of his character. I can’t exclude the possibility of his having been at Wimblingham. On the other hand, the case of the chocolates seems to me to be quite apart, and I don’t personally believe that he had a hand in it. None of the assistants in the shop could recognize his photograph when I showed it to them this morning, though that is of course far from conclusive. He may have bought them through an intermediary. But would he have had the necessary knowledge that this particular brand was likely to appeal to the Judge?”

“If he had an exceptionally good memory---yes,” Hilda put in.

Mallett raised his eyebrows, but did not put the surprise which he evidently felt into words.

“Even so,” he went on, “I do not think that the man who committed the violent assault at Wimblingham last week would be likely to have preceded it by what was really not much more than a very stupid practical joke. I may be wrong, but the two things just don’t seem to me to hang together.”

“And I think you are wrong,” said Lady Barber firmly. “I feel convinced that all these things do hang together, as you put it, and that my husband is being subjected to an organized persecution.”

“Well, let’s look at it from that point of view,” said the Inspector good-humouredly. “Leaving Heppenstall out of it, I mean. Is there any common feature in the three cases---or rather in the four, for we must remember that there were two letters? Was there any one person who could physically have been responsible for all four occurrences?”

There was a pause and then Derek said:

“Let me see. To start at the beginning, the first letter was left at the Markhampton Lodgings while we were having lunch.”

“Who was we?”

“The Judge, myself, the High Sheriff and his wife, the chaplain, and Mr. Pettigrew.”

“The staff was also in the house at the time, I suppose?”

“Yes, that is, Beamish, the clerk, the butler, the Marshal’s man, and Mrs. Square, the cook.”

“Nobody actually saw the letter delivered, I think?”


“So it is possible---we are only testing possibilities---that it might have been introduced into the house---or prepared in the house itself by any of these people?”

“Yes. I suppose so.”

“And the same applies to the second letter?”

“I think Beamish found it in the letter-box---or perhaps Savage did. I forget.”

“And had anybody been to the house that morning before the letter arrived?”

“Only the Chief Constable and Mr. Pettigrew. The Under Sheriff came a little later to take the Judge to Court.”

“One other point about that second letter. It seemed to refer to a rather unfortunate incident of the night before. Who knew of what had occurred?”

“Well, nobody, except the police and the three of us who were in the car. There was, too, the man I saw in the street just afterwards who made off.”

“We mustn’t forget him. The three of you in the car were the Judge, yourself and----?”

“Mr. Pettigrew.”

“Really----” said Hilda, but Mallett with less than his usual good manners brushed her on one side.

“Coming now to Southington,” he went on. “We are on rather different grounds there. The chocolates came by post, did they not?”

“Beamish said they did, but the wrapping of the parcel was destroyed and both he and the other servants seemed very vague about it.”

“At any rate, they came from London, and had been bought not more than a few days previously. Who was there at Southington who had been in London just before?”

“Lady Barber.”

“Anyone else?”

“Nobody else in the Lodgings.”

“That excludes all the people we have been considering in the Markhampton case, with the exception of----”

Hilda would be denied no longer.

“Inspector Mallett,” she said, “I can’t listen to this nonsense any longer. It is utterly absurd to suppose that Mr. Pettigrew could possibly have had anything to do with this! You are simply wasting our time.”

“I hope not, my lady,” said Mallett with great urbanity. “All that I am trying to do is to test your theory that these matters are in some way connected and see what the possibilities are. If they lead us on to an absurd conclusion, so much the worse for the theory. Just to follow it out for the moment, was Mr. Pettigrew at Wimblingham, by any chance?”

“Yes,” Hilda admitted. “He was. But that doesn’t prove----”

“Oh, we’re a long way from proof yet. Now suppose we eliminate the chocolates, can we extend the possibilities at all?”

“I don’t want to eliminate the chocolates,” said Hilda obstinately. “You said yourself just now that they could have been bought through an intermediary. Surely that means that anybody in the lodgings could have arranged for them to have been sent there?”

“Certainly. Anybody in or outside the lodgings, for that matter. But if we are to confine ourselves to the people who had the opportunity also of being concerned in the affairs at the other two towns, that means only Mr. Marshall and the members of the staff. Is there any particular individual whom you suspect?”

“There is one whom I certainly distrust,” said Hilda at once. “And that one is Beamish.”

“His lordship’s clerk?” said Mallett in surprise. “Surely his bread and butter depends on his master remaining alive and on the bench?”

“That may be so, but I distrust him all the same. He is a thoroughly unreliable, dangerous man.”

“What precisely led you to form that opinion of him?”

But Hilda would not, or could not, be precise in the matter at all. She could only repeat in general terms that she was sure that if a potential murderer was among the circuit household, it could be no other than Beamish.

“And it is no good suggesting that he could not have written the second letter,” she concluded. “I am sure he knew all about the accident as soon as it happened. The lawyer isn’t born who could keep a secret from his clerk.”

Mallett did not attempt to dispute this piece of legal lore, but continued to press for concrete facts.

“Can you recall any occasion at the period of these incidents in which Beamish’s behaviour struck you as suspicious or unusual in any way?” he asked.

“I can,” said Derek. “The night of the business at Wimblingham.”

He went on to describe his painful encounter with Beamish in the passage and his reasons for thinking that the clerk had not in fact been in bed and asleep when the household was roused.

“I can still feel the place in my ribs where he kicked me,” he concluded.

“There you are!” said Hilda, triumphantly, turning to the Inspector. “I always knew there was something fishy about that man, and now we’ve proved it!”

“It certainly sounds strange,” said Mallett doubtfully. “But you say, Mr. Marshall, that apart from the long ulster you mention you can’t say how he was dressed?”

“No. I took no notice at the time. It was only next day that I began to try to think things out.”

“I think I can help you there,” Hilda said. “I remember next day the Judge saying to me how comic Beamish looked with a pair of green pyjama trouser legs showing underneath his overcoat. Oh!” she added, in a disappointed tone. “That’s rather against our case, isn’t it?”

“Not necessarily,” said Mallett. “It is just what one would expect in the case of a man, fully dressed, who wants to look as if he has just got out of bed. He pulls on his pyjamas over his outdoor clothes and then puts an overcoat on top to hide what he doesn’t want to show.”

“That’s all right, then,” said Hilda.

“What troubles me,” the Inspector continued, “is the very fact that originally started Mr. Marshall’s suspicions. I mean the boots, or shoes, which did the damage. If a man is going to creep about the house in which he is sleeping to commit a crime one would not expect him to wear outdoor footgear. He would be much more likely to put on soft, rubber-soled shoes, if he had them, and if not, to go about in his stockinged feet. No, I’m afraid that Beamish’s clothes tell against the theory of his being the person who assaulted you, Lady Barber.”

“Then what was he doing being dressed at all at that hour in the morning?” Lady Barber demanded.

“That is another question altogether, which may have all sorts of interesting answers. All I am saying is that it is not an argument in favour of his having committed this particular crime.”

“Really!” said Hilda pettishly. “I thought that you were coming here to help us, Inspector. Instead, you seem to do nothing but raise difficulties all the time.”

“I am sorry you should think that, my lady. As I said, all that I have been doing is to test the probabilities of different theories, and I am afraid that that is bound to give the impression of raising difficulties, as you put it. You see”---here the Inspector rose to his feet and began to pace the room with long strides---“you see, this isn’t an ordinary case, by any means. In the general way, we are called in when a crime has already been committed and it is our job simply to identify the person who is guilty of the crime. Sometimes we have reason to think that someone is contemplating a crime and we have to keep an eye on him and see that he doesn’t put his design into execution. But here is something more indefinite---a great deal more indefinite. What are we being asked to do? To prevent someone, unknown, from doing something, we don’t know what. It isn’t easy, you know. But we’ll do our best.”

And then, almost before they were aware of it, this big, substantial man had melted away, leaving Hilda and Derek alone in the room.

Derek left the club about ten minutes later. The ten minutes were occupied by a good deal of somewhat inconsequent conversation, during which the same ground was covered again and again without any tangible progress being made. Before he left, Hilda once more exacted and he reiterated his promise to help her in guarding the Judge from all the perils which might beset him. But he found it impossible to recapture any of the emotion which had accompanied the first giving of the promise. In the dry light of Inspector Mallett’s reasoning, the whole affair seemed to have dwindled to a rather tiresome problem to which the Inspector might find the key but which was obviously insoluble to him. As he came out of the club into the growing darkness of Piccadilly Derek’s thoughts were mainly occupied with the reflection that he was going to earn his daily two guineas more hardly than he had been led to understand when he consented to become Marshal to Mr. Justice Barber.

Report Spam   Logged

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

Pages: [1]   Go Up
Jump to:  

Powered by EzPortal
Bookmark this site! | Upgrade This Forum
SMF For Free - Create your own Forum

Powered by SMF | SMF © 2016, Simple Machines
Privacy Policy