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16: Gas

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Author Topic: 16: Gas  (Read 41 times)
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« on: April 28, 2023, 01:06:35 pm »

WHITSEA was, as Beamish had foretold, “fierce”. A greater contrast to the serene and self-conscious beauty of Rampleford it would have been hard to imagine than that grim, unlovely and, in wartime, desperately hard-working seaport. In place of the monastic seclusion of the Canon’s house in the Close, the Judge’s household was lodged in a gaunt Victorian mansion, with vast ill-furnished rooms which contrived to be at once chill and stuffy, whose huge plate-glass windows gave on to a wilderness of smoky chimneys by day and raised perpetual difficulties over the black-out at night.

Blackness, indeed, was Derek’s principal impression of Whitsea. By now the days were short. Work at the assizes was heavy, and in consequence the hours of sitting were long. Barber, who seemed to have become all the more conscientious with the threat to his position, sat late each day in an endeavour to finish his list, and never rose until long after sunset. It seemed to Derek that the only daylight which he saw was through the windows of the High Sheriff’s car at lunch-time, driving to and from the murky court where yet murkier crimes were investigated. He found himself envying Beamish, trudging through the rain which fell unceasingly---for, to cap everything, was not the Sheriff a Mean Bastard?---almost as much as that harassed man undoubtedly envied him.

By now, he was heartily sick of the circuit and all that appertained to it. He was sick of the top hat which he had to lug about everywhere with him, sick of the tail-coat which never had room in its pockets for anything that he wanted. The ceremonies and formalities which had amused him so much at first became stale with repetition. He knew now just where the Clerk of Assize would lose his way in the reading of the Commission, every modulation in Beamish’s Court voice. He knew almost to a phrase the admonition which the Judge would address to the first offender about to be bound over to keep the peace, the biting scorn which he reserved for the swindler, the mournful severity with which he would send the habitual thief down for his tenth term of hopeless imprisonment. Even the criminals and their offences began to wear an air of sameness. The varieties of wrong-doing are limited, and older and wiser men than he have sat longer in Courts of Justice without realizing that the varieties of human nature are not.

The only cases from which he derived any enjoyment were those in which Pettigrew was engaged. He, at least, could always be relied upon for some fresh turn of phrase, some unexpected quip to relieve the monotony. And Whitsea Assizes, fortunately, were the sheet anchor of Pettigrew’s practice. Here he had first begun to make his mark, and here several clients remained faithful to him. Not so long ago, indeed, he had confidently hoped for the Recordership of Whitsea. But when the vacancy occurred, the wrong Home Secretary happened to be in office, and this prize, like so many others, had eluded him.

Within the Lodgings, life was almost as drab as it was outside them. The social jollities which Hilda had introduced to the circuit at Southington were past and over. Almost the first letter to reach her on her arrival at Whitsea was one from her brother, indicating only too clearly that her mission to Sebald-Smith had been a failure. No arrangement now would be acceptable at any but a ruinous figure, and his solicitors were becoming more and more pressing for a speedy settlement. “Luckily,” Michael wrote, “they are an old-fashioned and respectable firm, and I think they are rather awed at the prospect of suing a High Court Judge. If it were not for that we should have had a writ before now. But I have the definite impression that they are being pushed by their client and it can only be a question of time before their respect for his lordship gives way.” Hilda, knowing only too well who was pushing the client, began despairingly on a course of rigid economy. She attempted the impossible, the unheard of thing, to live within, even to make money out of, the lodging allowance granted by the State to Judges of Assize. To Mrs. Square’s horror, the standard of meals was reduced to a level which in her eyes was barely above starvation. Hilda was unfortunate in that her necessity arose some six months before the country’s, and what a little later would have been the highest patriotism, looked now very like cheese-paring.

One traditional piece of entertaining which could not be avoided was the dinner which custom enjoined the Judge to give the Mayor of Whitsea. What Hilda endured on that evening was known only to herself. She had a double reputation to keep up---that of the Bench for hospitality, and her own, of which she was acutely conscious, as a hostess of charm and brilliance. To scintillate as a woman of London society should among the provincial dignitaries, to be witty, tactful and agreeable all at once, and at the same time to grudge her guests every morsel they ate and every drop they sipped, to sit in the drawing-room inwardly praying that her husband would not think it necessary to order another bottle of port to be decanted, was a strain which even her resilient spirit could hardly bear. When it was all over, and the company had gone, she confessed to an overpowering headache.

The sentry system was, of course, still in full vigour. It was, as it happened, her turn to watch for the first period. Derek, moved to pity by her wan cheeks, took advantage of an opportunity when the Judge was out of the room to propose that he should make himself responsible for the entire night. He was not, he declared, suppressing a yawn, at all sleepy. But Hilda shook her head.

“I shall be all right,” she said, “if I can only lie down for a few hours. Do you mind, Derek, if you take first go again to-night? Just knock at my door and wake me at----”

“I shan’t wake you at all,” Derek protested chivalrously.

“That’s sweet of you,” Hilda smiled. “Then I shall wake myself. It’s become second nature to me now. But if I should be half an hour late or so, you will understand, won’t you?”

And Derek, his heart beating warm with altruism beneath his white waistcoat, said he would understand perfectly.

In point of fact, she was not half an hour late, but almost exactly an hour and a quarter. By that time Derek, if not by the strictest standards sound asleep, was sufficiently so to be quite unconscious of anything taking place within more than a very few yards of him. The second bottle of port had been ordered up that evening, when it had become apparent from the Mayor’s glazed expression that the reputation of the whole Judiciary was at stake, and Derek had taken his full share. This contributed to make the long, still hours a grim struggle against sleep in which sleep was very nearly the victor. In the early part of his vigil he was watchful enough. For the first time since this nightly task had been imposed upon him, he was conscious of a feeling of apprehension. Since the arrival of the last anonymous letter, he had reluctantly begun to believe in the bogeys that haunted Hilda. It was no longer to his mind a question as to whether anything would happen at Whitsea, but when it would happen, and what. And on this particular evening, for no definite reason, he felt that danger in some form or another was very near. But if and when the danger arose, would he be in a condition either to recognize or to combat it?

Just when he was beginning to wonder how much longer he could keep awake, he was startled by the ringing of a bell and a loud hammering at the door. Going downstairs, he found outside a deferential but determined constable. A light was showing at the back of the house, and would he remedy it at once, please?

Derek went outside with the officer and after some difficulty found the small chink of light which was the course of the trouble. It came from one of the few rooms which had hitherto given no anxiety---a little-used library which was provided with heavy outside shutters. The high wind which was blowing at the time had evidently broken the fastenings of these, so that they gaped in the middle. The door of the room, which opened on to the hall, having been left open, some light was reflected from the upstairs landing, where Derek was keeping his watch. This having been established, the trouble was simply rectified for the time being by going back into the house and shutting the library door.

After bidding the constable good night, Derek returned to his post. This little episode, he told himself, was just what he needed. Now he would have no difficulty in keeping awake. No difficulty at all. He never felt less like sleep in his life. . . .

At the moment when Hilda’s near approach roused him, he was sitting slumped in a chair outside his own bedroom door, a position from which (when his eyes were open) he had an excellent view of the door of Barber’s room. Hoping that his drowsiness would not be perceived, he struggled hastily to his feet.

“Here I am at last!” she said softly. She seemed to be quite recovered. Her cheeks indeed were flushed rather than pale, and she looked undeniably handsome in a garment which, though technically known as a négligée, had nothing negligent whatever about it, either in its design or the manner in which it was put on.

“It was good of you to let me sleep,” she went on. “You must be dreadfully tired. Is everything all right?”

“Oh, yes,” said Derek. “Nothing’s happened at all.”

“That’s good. I don’t know why, but I felt particularly nervous to-night.”

She went towards the Judge’s room, while Derek followed, reflecting as he did so that at all events her nerves had not prevented her from sleeping pretty well. From some distance he could hear quite distinctly Barber’s heavy breathing, even louder and deeper than usual, he thought. No occasion for alarm there!

He was just about to say good night and return at long last to his own bed, when he saw that Hilda had stopped outside her husband’s door, a peculiar expression on her face.

“Come here a moment, Derek,” she said in an uncertain voice. “Do you smell anything?”

Derek sniffed. His senses were rather muzzy, whether from sleepiness or from the effects of the port, and he could not be positive.

“I---I don’t think so,” he mumbled.

But Hilda by now was down on the floor, her nose to the bottom of the door.

“Gas!” she exclaimed, scrambling to her feet. “I was certain I smelt something! Quick!”

She flung open the door and Derek followed her into the room, which was in complete darkness.

“He always will sleep with his windows shut!” she said crossly, and indeed the room, besides being dark, was distinctly frowsty. But Derek was now conscious also of a quite unmistakable heavy odour, and through the stertorous breathing from the bed he could hear a continuous, quiet hiss which came from the opposite side of the room.

The two of them fell over one another in the blackness as they fumbled for the tap of the gas fire. Eventually, after what seemed a maddening delay, Hilda found it, and the snake-like hissing sound ceased. Then Derek went to the window, pulled back the heavy curtains and flung it wide open. A fresh cold wind blew into the room, bringing with it a spatter of rain. Hilda meanwhile had gone to the bed, and was vigorously shaking the still sleeping man.

“William!” she called urgently. “William! Are you all right?”

The snores stopped, and after a pause Derek heard a sleepy voice say. “What is it? What the devil’s the matter?” Then the bed creaked as the Judge sat up. “What have you opened my windows for?” he asked peevishly.

Hilda drew a deep sigh of relief.

“There was an escape of gas,” she said. “You might have been killed.”

“Oh?” said the sleepy voice. “Silly of me. I thought I turned it off all right. All right now? Thanks, Hilda.”

There was another creak, as he sank back into bed. In a moment or two the snores were resumed.

Derek and Hilda tiptoed out of the room with unnecessary caution. Outside she turned to him, her eyes very bright, her breath coming fast.

“Thank God!” she said. “We were just in time.”

“Yes,” said Derek. “It was lucky you noticed that smell.” He spoke at random, his mind preoccupied with the thought that if he had been keeping his watch properly this danger would never have been incurred.

“Will he be all right, do you think?” Hilda asked anxiously. “Ought we to get a doctor?”

By this time Derek’s mind was beginning to function properly.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “There wasn’t much gas in the room, really, or we should have been affected. And by the time we came out, the air was perfectly clear. I think he may wake up with a bit of a headache, but apart from that I’m sure he won’t be any the worse. It’s odd,” he went on, his brain beginning to assume the unnatural clarity that sometimes comes to the fatigued, “that there wasn’t much more gas. The tap must have been only a very little on.”

“I didn’t notice,” Hilda said. “I just turned it as far as it would go until the noise stopped.”

“I don’t know much about these things,” Derek went on, “but he’s been in bed now for well over five hours. I should have thought that if he had simply not turned the fire off properly when he got into bed, the whole place would have been reeking of gas by now, even if it was quite a small escape. But there was a distinct hiss when we went into the room.”

“That means that it must have been turned on quite a short time before,” said Hilda.

“It looks like it, doesn’t it?”

“That somebody got into the room and did this”---her voice rose ominously---“while you were supposed to be watching---while you were asleep----”

“I wasn’t asleep,” Derek objected.

“I could have come right up to you without your knowing, if I had cared to walk quietly just now. Anybody could have gone in and out of the room and you would have been none the wiser.”

This accusation was, as Derek knew, not far from the truth, but coming from her in the circumstances in which it did, it seemed to him grossly unfair. This led him to say something which he afterwards was to regret.

“I don’t think anyone could possibly have done that,” he said. “After all, the fact that it wasn’t an accident doesn’t mean that he didn’t do it himself.”

He did not need to look at Hilda’s face to know that she was mortally offended. After a frozen silence, she said simply, “I think you had better go to bed now. We can discuss this better in the morning when---when you are more yourself.”

Without another word said, Derek went to his room, but it was some time before he slept. The whole episode troubled him very much---far more, indeed, than anything that had gone before in the troubled history of the circuit. Here, for the first time, was something that could not be dismissed as a mere threat, or a vulgar joke. It could only be explained as a deliberate attempt on the Judge’s life. If Hilda had not come on the scene when she did and detected the smell of escaping gas, he would have been asphixiated. Derek had always been reluctant to believe in the possibility of genuine danger, and this feeling, as well as his wish to excuse his undoubted slackness as a guard, had led him to make his rash suggestion of attempted suicide---a suggestion in which he did not really believe himself.

But if this was indeed an attempt to kill Barber, the fact had to be faced that it had been made by some member of the household. The lodgings were well guarded, and the chances of an outsider penetrating in were very small. He passed in review once more the men of whom he had seen so much and knew so little. To connect any one of them with a crime which, to say no more, would bring on all of them immediate loss of particularly snug and comfortable jobs seemed on the face of it absurd. He remembered, too, that Beamish (Suspect No. 1, as he felt sure his favourite detective novelist would christen him) knew quite well of the watching system in vogue. Was it likely that in that case he would incur the risk of being caught in the act, when he must in the ordinary course of his work have innumerable opportunities far better suited for an intending murderer?

An odd theory floated into Derek’s head at this point. Suppose Beamish had crept into Barber’s room and turned on the gas, not with any murderous intention, but simply as a crude joke, to show up the inefficiency of the Marshal’s guard, with the intention of coming back later to turn it off and to have the laugh of the sleepy sentinel? Fantastic as it was, the notion seemed in accord with what Derek had learned of his malicious sense of humour. If that were so, then the joke had been spoiled by Hilda’s unexpected appearance. He made up his mind to watch Beamish carefully next day to see if he betrayed any knowledge of the night’s events.

He passed to a fresh consideration of Savage and Greene and was annoyed to find that their characters as potential assassins still remained as blank as ever in his mind. He decided that he should henceforth cultivate them, and make a study of them as individuals; but how to set about it he had not the least idea. Mrs. Square, he felt, might immediately be dismissed from the reckoning. One had only to look at her to see that she was not the woman to leave her bed at three o’clock in the morning in order to murder anyone, or for any other reason, except under dire compulsion. And the only other possible suspect was---Hilda herself. Here another even more far-fetched idea occurred to him---that she had turned on the gas in her husband’s room merely to have the satisfaction of “discovering” the danger and averting it. Apart from the pleasure of demonstrating the necessity of keeping a watch at night, he could not imagine the object in such behaviour, but he was quite prepared to credit her with motives beyond his comprehension. Perhaps she was slightly mad, and her madness had taken the form of inventing the whole story of a plot against the Judge and the concoction of incidents to support it. After all, persecution mania was a recognized aberration and this might be merely an unusual form of it. Derek toyed with the idea for some time and for a moment almost believed that he had the clue to the whole mystery. But he soon saw that it would not do. He had seen Hilda’s face at the moment when she tasted the poisoned chocolate, and he had seen her immediately after the assault at Wimblingham. She had not invented either of those two misfortunes. Of that he felt quite positive.

Derek gave it up. As he finally drifted off to sleep, he thought of something else. If an outsider, Inspector Mallett, for example, were to investigate the case of the attempted gas poisoning of Mr. Justice Barber, his list of suspects would contain one name additional to those he had been considering---the name of Derek Marshall. And this, oddly enough, seemed to Derek the most fantastic notion of all.

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