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13: Cat and Mouse

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Author Topic: 13: Cat and Mouse  (Read 35 times)
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« on: April 28, 2023, 12:04:17 pm »

IT is unnecessary to describe Rampleford. The place is in all the guide-books. A thriving city in the seventeenth century, a decaying and corrupt corporation in the eighteenth, it began to acquire merit as a quaint survival in the nineteenth, until the dawn of the great tourist industry set it on a new career of prosperity. The fortunate discovery that one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence was born in the city and the still more fortunate, if not quite fortuitous, identification of his birthplace with the most picturesque house in the High Street, put Rampleford in the very first class in this important branch of commerce. There were some who declared that in a good season Rampleford’s turnover of picture postcards exceeded Stratford’s. This, no doubt, was an exaggeration, but the very fact that the claim could be seriously made was sufficient indication of the city’s standing in the trade.

Rampleford in wartime, on the other hand, was a depressed and depressing place. Its only overseas visitors now were bored Canadian soldiers, quartered, to the city’s disgust, in the best hotels, who knew not Jonathan Pennycuick, founder of the Constitution, and were openly critical of the olde worlde tea-shops which lined the High Street. A heartless government having chosen to build a vast munitions works two miles away, the district could not even replace its vanished tourists with evacuees from target areas. Grimly facing the worst, the shopkeepers of the stricken city put away their stocks of souvenirs and memorial china and prepared to face the siege until better times came.

No economic distress, however, could affect the real beauty of Rampleford Cathedral or the charm of the Close in which it stood. By ancient custom, the Judge was lodged in the house of one of the minor Canons. Derek was enchanted with his surroundings. For a young man in love, it would be difficult to find a place more congenial. In the morning he would be awakened by the clatter of jackdaws in the Cathedral spire from a sleep which the chimes of the belfry never seemed to disturb. At night, when the gates of the Close had been shut, and the great bulk of the Cathedral loomed black against the stars over the darkened town, he could imagine himself back in the Middle Ages. Such conditions are apt to be productive of bad poetry, and at Rampleford Derek contrived to write a good deal.

Hilda was quick to notice that the situation of the lodgings had other advantages besides their romantic appeal. The Close gates were shut and barred at sunset, and anybody seeking entry after that time had to pass the scrutiny of the doorkeeper who had for the duration of the assizes been reinforced by a plain clothes policeman. In addition, a constable in uniform was continually on duty at the door of the lodgings. At night, Derek could hear his measured footfall on the gravel outside. Obviously, no risks were being taken with the Judge’s safety. Nevertheless, Hilda did not allow herself to be content with official precautions. On the evening of their arrival at Rampleford, she outlined to Derek a system which she had prepared by which one of them should be continuously on guard over the Judge by day and night---particularly by night. A year later, when fire-watching had become commonplace, Derek could recall with amusement the hardship which this proposal seemed to him at the time. He hinted that this was a duty which should be shared by Beamish or Savage, but Hilda rejected the suggestion with contempt. They were not to be trusted. Nobody could be trusted. The work devolved on them alone.

In the result, on alternate nights thereafter Derek kept watch over his lordship’s slumbers from eleven till three, and from three till seven. Contrary to his expectations, it did not turn out so irksome after all; but for this some credit is due to his state of mind at the time. To sit up for a few hours, writing yet another interminable letter to Sheila, or trying to coax into rhyme sentiments which if not exactly original were at least sincere, was no very heavy task, even though it had to be varied every half hour or so by creeping stealthily down the corridor and listening to the reassuring vigour of the Judge’s snores.

By day, the matter was simple enough. The weather was cold and the Judge showed no disposition to take any form of exercise. It was simply a question of accompanying him to the Courts and back again. Whether from new-found motives of economy or not, he invited no guests to the lodgings, and apart from the Sheriff or his Chaplain (who did not look as though they were disposed to perpetrate a criminal assault on the Judge) no outsider penetrated into the lodgings. Within the Court itself, one glance at the ranks of policemen at every conceivable point of vantage made it clear that any amateur bodyguard was quite unnecessary.

In short, Rampleford assizes proved to be not only quite uneventful but intolerably dull. Indeed, if it had not been for the distraction afforded by Sheila’s letters---and these, though fairly frequent, were somewhat disappointingly short and uncommunicative---Derek would have been more thoroughly bored than at any time on the circuit. Even Hilda’s vivacity, he noticed, had flagged a little. She was often listless and silent for long periods at a time. Inaction rather than the sleepless nights which she had imposed on herself, obviously preyed on her. As for the Judge, the realization of the peril in which his professional career stood had produced a curious reaction. As though determined in any event to go down with his colours flying, he assumed a manner that was an exaggeration---almost a caricature---of his every-day self. Never had he been so dignified, so pompous, so loftily condescending to the junior Bar, so icily critical of the leaders. His allocutions to convicted prisoners were longer than ever and, as the prisoners found to their cost, were followed by sentences proportionately long. The whole system of English justice depends upon the immunity and security of those who administer it. A psychologist would have observed with interest the effects of threatening one of these with loss of his position. Perhaps the only person with knowledge of the facts who could thoroughly have appreciated the position was Pettigrew, and he, to Derek’s regret, did not attend the assize.

---

After the first week Hilda considered the position at Rampleford to be sufficiently secure to justify her in leaving her husband for the day. She did not say where she was going; she simply hired a car and had herself driven from the lodgings. Barber displayed an almost ostentatious lack of interest in her movements, but it might have been observed that his manner on the bench that morning was even more pontifical than usual. It was as though he strove to project the sense of his power and importance beyond the narrow confines of his court, to influence in some fashion the drama that was being played out ten miles away, on which his fate depended.

Hilda had chosen her time well. She had seen advertised for that day a concert at the National Gallery which she knew Sally Parsons would be bound to attend, and an examination of the railway guide had assured her that she would be well on her way to London by the time of her arrival. She left her car at the gate of Sebald-Smith’s house (which was in effect a huge music room with a minute cottage attached) and walked boldly in. The maid who opened the door to her had obviously had instructions to admit no visitors, but took one frightened glance at Hilda’s determined face and surrendered at discretion. Hurriedly she flung open the door of the music room, mumbled, “Lady Parker, sir!” and fled back to the kitchen.

Sebastian Sebald-Smith was lying on a sofa in the centre of the great, bare room. His left arm was in a sling and with his free hand he was turning the pages of a music score. He raised his head as Hilda entered and looked up at her with his disturbing, yellow-brown eyes.

“Hello, Hilda!” he said with no trace of surprise or embarrassment in his voice. “I’m just looking at this new suite of Katzenburg’s. Have you heard about it?”

“No,” said Hilda. She remembered how absentminded Sebastian could be when he was absorbed in anything that interested him, and realized that he was for the moment quite unaware of anything unusual or unexpected in her presence. “No,” she repeated. “Do you like it?”

“M-m, I’m not sure yet. I’m pretty sure the Great British Public won’t. I’ve been asked to conduct it at Bristol in January, if I’m fit enough.”

“Mitigation of damages!” was Hilda’s instant mental reaction. Aloud she said, “That sounds splendid, Sebastian! It’s quite a new departure for you, isn’t it? I’m sure you’ll be a tremendous success as a conductor.”

“I’m sure I should be, if I knew the first thing about the orchestra, which I don’t. I can only imagine the B.B.C. thought of me because I played in Katzenburg’s piano quintet the first time they did it over here. But one must do something.”

“Of course, of course,” Hilda cooed. Then in an anguished tone she went on, “Sebastian, you can’t think how miserable this dreadful accident has made me!”

“It’s bloody, bloody, bloody!” exclaimed Sebald-Smith with sudden violence, banging his fist upon the open pages beside him. “God! when I think what this swine has done to me----I say, Hilda! I’m sorry, I clean forgot! You----I----”

“Go on!” said Hilda in tragic tones. “You needn’t mince your words so far as I am concerned. We deserve it. If saying anything would help----”

She went through the motions popularly known as wringing one’s hands. Her hands were long and beautifully shaped, and the effect was very attractive.

There was a moment’s silence. Sebald-Smith, sitting up on the sofa, was looking at her with close attention.

“It’s awfully good of you to come and see me, considering everything,” he said at last, in a somewhat embarrassed tone.

“It was the least I could do.”

The pale eyes narrowed.

“But I don’t quite see what you have come for,” he went on, with a perceptible hardening of his voice.

“Come for? But Sebastian, I had to come. Ever since I heard about this awful affair, I’ve been thinking of you, lying here, eating your heart out----”

“It won’t do, Hilda! We’d much better not beat about the bush. You’ve come here for a purpose. Hadn’t you better tell me what it is?”

Hilda dropped her hands to her sides and raised her head.

“You are perfectly right,” she said steadily. “It was silly of me to try and pretend to you. I have come for a purpose. Can’t you guess what it is?”

“If it is to ask me to let your husband off, you had better think again.”

Hilda’s manner underwent yet another change. This time she became the business woman, brisk and sensible.

“Sebastian,” she said. “We are grown-up people. Can’t we discuss this reasonably, without indulging in schoolboy talk about ‘letting people off’? I simply want to see what can best be done in everybody’s interests.”

“ ‘Everybody’s interests’ is good. Your interests aren’t mine. In fact they are the exact opposite. Your husband has sent you here, to see how cheaply he can get out of this mess.”

“That isn’t true, Sebastian. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even tell him I was coming to-day. I wanted to put the position squarely before you as it affects William.”

“Why should I be interested in how this affects him? It’s myself I’m thinking about.”

“I’ll show you why in a moment. If you insist on the demands your lawyers have been making, William will be ruined.”

“I am sorry, Hilda,” said Sebald-Smith coldly, “but much as I like you---very much as I used to like you---nothing would give me greater pleasure than to ruin your husband.”

“And ruin me?”

“Aha! Now we are getting to the point!”

“No, we are not. It’s a side issue, really. I only asked out of curiosity.”

“Very well, then. Personally, I should be sorry to see you deprived of the flesh-pots you always longed after.” Hilda thought she could detect a significant emphasis on the “personally”. She knew only too well that there was another member of the household who would wish to see nothing better; and it was against her unseen influence that she was striving. “But one can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and you, my pretty egg, will have to go the same way as that precious bad egg, your husband. So the answer is---Yes, and ruin you!”

“And ruin yourself?”

“My good woman, I am ruined already---and for life, I may remind you. All I want to do now is to get what compensation I can for it.”

“Which is precisely what you won’t get if you go on the way you are now,” snapped Hilda. “Let’s leave sentiment out of this, and discuss it as a pure matter of business. Everybody knows that you are the standing example of an artist who is a good business man too.”

Sebald-Smith, who had dissipated most of his very large earnings in the wildest speculations, swallowed this gross untruth with gusto.

“Very well,” he said. “Let’s talk business, by all means. But I warn you, I set a pretty high value on this hand of mine.”

“It’s not a question of how much it is worth, but how much there is to give you. A bankrupt debtor is no use to anyone. Now listen. Either you force my husband off the Bench or you let him stay there, earning his salary. I’m going to tell you just how much you can expect in either event, and your solicitors can satisfy themselves that I am speaking the truth.”

Hilda had her case cut and dried. Into the pianist’s ears she poured an endless stream of figures and calculations, entering into every detail of the Judge’s past, present and future financial position, providing for every possible contingency. The gist of her argument was, of course, the impossibility of the Judge’s being able to provide immediately any sum remotely approaching adequate damages for the injury he had inflicted, and the folly of taking action which would deprive him of the only source of income from which future payments could be made.

Sebald-Smith listened, at first incredulously and rather resentfully, then with interest and finally with resignation as the flood of words poured over him. It was obvious to Hilda that what she said was taking effect. He was evidently beginning to look upon the matter in a new light. For the time being, at any rate, he had laid aside the crude ideas of revenge which had at first obsessed him, and was considering the question from a purely financial aspect. To give their due to the solicitors acting for either side, very much the same arguments had already been quietly suggested by Michael to Messrs. Faraday, Fothergill, Crisp & Co., and they had in their turn passed these on to their client. The fact remained that Sebald-Smith had been impervious to words of reason when expressed by his advisers and a good deal more prepared to attend to them when spoken by Hilda. Hilda, while giving herself due credit for her charm and persuasiveness, knew quite well what was the main reason for her success. She was able to develop her argument unopposed. The lawyers’ letters, on the other hand, were read by somebody else besides the man to whom they were addressed---a somebody who could be relied upon to garnish them with a spiteful commentary of her own; a somebody, moreover, who would certainly be even far more interested in humiliating Hilda through her husband than in securing damages for Sebald-Smith. It was Hilda’s one hope that she could succeed in so far convincing Sebastian of the good sense of what she was now saying that he would stand up to the pressure which Sally Parsons was certain to put upon him as soon as she returned.

In all, Hilda’s interview with Sebald-Smith lasted for the best part of an hour. When she left, it was with the feeling that she had succeeded in her mission. Sebastian had been brought to agree in principle that it would be futile in his own interests to make public property of the Judge’s fall from grace. He had promised to write to his solicitors instructing them to settle the matter on the best terms possible. He was naturally unwilling to take on trust the figures with which Hilda had plied him (a neatly written copy of which she was careful to leave with him) but she assured him that Faraday and Co., would be given the fullest opportunity to verify them at their leisure. She had been unable to extract a final decision from him, but this was more than she had ever allowed herself to hope for. He had promised to consider the question afresh in the light of her arguments and to take proper advice upon it, and with this she was well content.

Hilda thought it wise to refuse Sebastian’s invitation to stay to lunch, but she accepted a glass of sherry, and they parted good friends. His parting words to her stuck in her mind.

“You have certainly fought the good fight for that husband of yours,” he said. “I’m glad to think you find him worth all the trouble. Or is it only your own flesh-pots you are fighting to preserve?”

It was the second time in a few days that someone had suggested to her that the bond between her and the Judge was essentially only one of common interest.

“At any rate,” she reflected with pride, “nobody has ever suggested that I haven’t been faithful to him.”

---

The party at the lodgings that evening was more cheerful than it had been for some time. It was as though a dark shadow had been lifted from the household. Hilda, on her return, had said two words in private to the Judge which had caused his frozen dignity to thaw into something approaching common humanity. He was unusually talkative at dinner and alluded more than once to the fact that Derek was Marshall by name and Marshal by occupation. As for Derek, he had his own sources of contentment. He had successfully completed a sonnet which embodied two new and highly effective similes, and he had received an exceptionally long letter from Sheila. True, the letter was chiefly remarkable for an exhaustive account of an embittered dispute between the Sister at the hospital and the Red Cross Commandant concerning some missing Thomas’s splints, which to an unprejudiced mind would not have seemed of any great or general interest; but Derek’s mind was highly prejudiced, and he was happy. The general atmosphere of relaxation affected even Savage, who served the port with an air of cringing geniality. Whether it extended to Beamish was known only to the contestants at a dartboard near by, whither he had repaired very early in the evening.

That night it was Derek’s turn for the second watch. Consequently he was awake when the rest of the household was beginning to stir. It naturally followed that he was shaved, bathed and dressed by the time that the postman made his early morning delivery. It was, of course, pure coincidence that he happened to be standing in the hall at the moment when the letters were pushed through the slit in the front door. A man of mature years does not hang about waiting for the post in that way, even if he does happen to be in love. At the same time, he felt that it was a very fortunate coincidence indeed when the first thing that he saw, lying face upwards on the mat, proved to be a deliciously fat envelope addressed to him in Sheila’s straggly hand. He picked it up and then glanced cursorily at the rest of the post. There was nothing else for him, but he observed with interest a very small, untidy brown paper packet, addressed to the Judge in roughly printed capitals. He examined it with interest. After the episode of the chocolates, anything coming through the post for the Judge was, he felt, a proper object of suspicion, and this, for some reason or other, seemed to him particularly suspicious. He was trying to decipher the postmark when he heard footsteps approaching.

One does not want to be found at an unreasonably early hour investigating postal matter addressed to somebody else. Acting on the spur of the moment, Derek slipped the little parcel into his pocket and was half-way up the stairs before the approaching servant had reached the hall. Once in his room he naturally enough turned his attention first to his letter.

It is, perhaps, always a mistake to read letters on an empty stomach unless one is quite sure that their contents will be agreeable. Derek had every reason for expecting nothing but the purest pleasure from this particular letter, but by the time he had finished reading it he had no appetite for breakfast left. It was not that it was lacking in affection. On the contrary. It began with the words, “Derek darling,” the adjective being underlined twice. But it continued ominously, “We are in awful trouble!” and this time the adjective received three underlinings. Derek’s natural disquiet at this introduction was not allayed by the fact that when he had finished the letter he was still entirely in the dark as to what the nature of the trouble was. It related to Daddy---hitherto a dim figure on the horizon, whom he had never met and to whom he had given little thought---so much was clear. But what Daddy’s trouble was, and why it should affect Sheila and apparently Derek himself, even a second and third re-reading of the letter failed to determine. It was, according to Sheila, “too Dreadful”, apparently too dreadful to be put into precise words. She asserted several times that so far as she was concerned it would make No Difference to her feelings for him but at the same time she gloomily contemplated the possibility of never being able to look him in the Face again. If on his side, he never wanted to have anything more to do with her she would absolutely Understand. Which was considerably more than her correspondent did.

The only conclusion that Derek could come to was that in some unspecified way Daddy had succeeded in bringing disgrace upon his family. He tried to fortify himself with the reflection that, as Sheila said of herself, it would make no difference to him. At the same time, he would have felt a good deal more confident even on that point, if he had known what it was that was to make no difference. It is somewhat difficult to disregard with lofty chivalry a blot on the family scutcheon unless you can see the blot. Daddy might merely have run off with somebody else’s wife. On the other hand he might have been arrested for murder, or, worse still, have been discovered to be a fifth columnist in disguise. It was all most unsettling.

Gloomily Derek descended for breakfast, gloomily he toyed with his food and gloomily accompanied the Judge to Court. It was not until, sitting in his place on the bench, he put his hand in his pocket to take out and read once more the mystifying letter, that he found the parcel which he had put there some hours before. Until that moment he had entirely forgotten its existence.

Having found it, he was rather at a loss to know what to do with it. Obviously, he had no right to have it in his possession at all, and the morning’s spirit of suspiciousness which had induced him to examine it in the first place had long since evaporated. If he were to be found waylaying what was probably a perfectly normal and innocent package intended for the Judge, his position would be, to say the least of it, awkward. Meanwhile, what the devil was he to do with the thing?

He took it out of his pocket, and under cover of the ledge in front of him stole a look at it. He noticed that the string, which was loosely tied, had nearly slipped off one corner. It would obviously be perfectly easy to take it off without even untying the knot. Well, since he had already gone so far, he might as well go the whole hog. After all, there was always a chance. . . .

He left the bench quietly and went into the stuffy little apartment at the back which was his lordship’s retiring room. There was the inevitable policeman at the door, but luckily the authorities had not gone so far as to station one inside. As Derek expected, the string slipped easily off the brown paper. Inside the paper was a cardboard soap-box. Inside the box was the corpse of a mouse. Attached to its neck by a piece of string was a label on which, written in the same crude capitals as the address, Derek read:

        “WHEN THE CAT’S AWAY----”

“Anyhow,” Derek said to himself a few minutes later, as he listened to one of Flack’s most florid speeches, “I bet I’m the only man who ever sat on the bench of a Court of Justice with a dead mouse in his pocket.”

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