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17: Reflections

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Author Topic: 17: Reflections  (Read 42 times)
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« on: April 29, 2023, 01:47:33 am »

HILDA did not fulfil her promise, or threat, to discuss the events of the night next morning. Indeed, it was a curious aftermath of the affair that none of the three persons involved showed any disposition to refer to it. Whether or not Derek was right in prophesying a headache for the Judge could not be determined from his demeanour. Certainly he was rather glum at breakfast, but scarcely more so than usual. It was equally impossible to say if he had any recollection whatever of having been roused in the night to be told that he was in danger of gas poisoning. The consequence was that the breakfast table was the scene of an odd little conspiracy of silence, with two of the conspirators wondering whether the third member of the party was really a fellow conspirator or not.

During a particularly dull day on the bench, however, Derek (in the intervals of dipping into the First Book of Samuel) had leisure to ponder further on the whole matter, and as a result made up his mind to speak to Hilda that afternoon. He began somewhat awkwardly, remembering the terms on which they had broken off the discussion in the small hours of the morning.

“There was something I meant to tell you about last night,” he said. “I’m very sorry I----”

“I’m very sorry I----” said Hilda at the same moment. They both laughed, and the ice was effectually broken.

It was impossible, Derek felt, to be angry with Hilda for long. And he felt, too, quite childishly glad that she was no longer angry with him.

“Something happened before you came which I didn’t mention,” he went on. “It didn’t seem important at the time, but thinking it over, I feel that it may be.”

He went on to recount the visit of the constable and his discovery of the defective shutter in the library. Hilda was puzzled.

“Very annoying,” she commented. “We shall have to see that the shutter is put right, of course. But I don’t see what this can have to do with what happened in the Judge’s room. You don’t think anybody could have got into the house that way, do you? If so, how did he get up the stairs without your seeing him?”

“No,” said Derek, “I’m pretty sure nobody came in that way. The library windows were shut and the bolt wasn’t disturbed. But what was to prevent anyone coming in by the front door, while I was round at the back with the policeman? I had to leave it open, you see, because I hadn’t a key with me.”

“I see,” Hilda reflected doubtfully.

“Suppose someone was hanging about on the off chance of getting in, he might quite well have jumped at the opportunity.”

“I suppose it is just possible,” said Hilda, plainly unconvinced. She thought for a moment, and then her puzzled expression suddenly cleared. “No!” she said abruptly. “I have a much better idea than that. It was an outside shutter, wasn’t it? Isn’t it far more likely that this man deliberately broke the fastening so as to produce the light? He would know that that would draw the constable away from the front door and give him his chance.”

“And I made the chance a certainty by going outside and leaving the door open for him. You’re right, Hilda. He would have plenty of time to go upstairs and be down again and away before I came back. You see what this means? I’ve been worrying for hours, wondering who in the house could have done such a thing. Now it’s obvious that this need not have been an inside job, after all.”

“And someone outside is still at large, trying to kill my husband,” said Hilda bitterly. “So much for Scotland Yard! All the same, it is a weight off my mind, in one way. It’s not very pleasant to be driven to believe that someone in the house must be either a criminal or a maniac. But I’m not going to let your theory run away with me, Derek. After all, there is absolutely no proof this was done in the way you suggest. We still have to be on our guard in every direction, and more so than ever now.”

“In the meantime,” Derek said, “I suppose you will want to put this matter into the hands of the police.”

Hilda shook her head.

“No,” she said. “I can see that this means more work and more anxiety for us, but that’s just what we can’t do.”

“But surely,” Derek objected, “if there really is, as you say, somebody at large trying to kill the Judge, we ought to do all we can to protect him.”

“I know,” said Hilda. “But I’ve been thinking over this, as well as you. There’s one great objection to telling the police about this particular business which you don’t realize. If we did, what do you think their first action would be?”

Derek had by now read sufficient depositions of witnesses to have some idea of how the police go to work.

“I suppose they would begin by taking statements from all the witnesses,” he said.

“Exactly. And who would be the first person they would approach for a statement?”

“The Judge, I suppose.”


“Of course,” said Derek, still rather fogged, “we don’t know whether he could say anything about it. Unless, perhaps, he has told you----?”

“No. He has told me nothing. Very likely, he remembers absolutely nothing of what happened last night.”

“I see. And naturally, you don’t want to give him anxiety by telling him.”

“Yes,” said Hilda slowly. “There is that, of course. But there is another reason why I don’t want the police to come round taking statements about this. Suppose after all, he does remember---all about it?”

“I don’t quite understand,” said Derek.

“Don’t you? I wish you did, Derek, it would make it a bit easier for me. You see---last night you made a suggestion as to how this might have happened. I was rather rude to you about it, I’m afraid. But suppose---just suppose that you were right---that he really meant to---oh! Derek, I needn’t say it outright, need I?”

She was very near to tears. Derek, made terribly uncomfortable by the spectacle, blundered hastily in to comfort her.

“But look here,” he said. “I didn’t really mean what I said last night. It was only that I was annoyed at your saying I had been asleep---and so I had been, as near as anything. Please don’t take it seriously. I never really thought that the Judge was trying to kill himself. After all, there’s not the smallest reason to suppose that he should do such a thing.”

“Thank you, Derek,” said Hilda, wiping her eyes. “It’s sweet of you to say that. But I’m afraid it’s not so easily got over as that. You see, you don’t know my husband as well as I do.” She contrived a wan smile. “That’s not very surprising, is it? Really, it is an odd situation. We have only known each other a few weeks, and now I find myself having to talk about things that I never thought I should discuss with anyone. Well, there’s no good beating about the bush. What it comes to is this: I do think that my husband is a man who might in some circumstances want to kill himself.”

Derek was about to speak, but Hilda stopped him with a gesture.

“Now that I have started you must let me go on,” she said. “You see, he is, as you must have seen for yourself, a very proud man, intensely proud of himself and his position. You know the danger that he is in of losing that position because of what happened at Markhampton---or perhaps you don’t, but the danger is there, and a very real one. He has been terribly worried by it, though he has not shown it openly. And that, added to the anxieties which this other matter must have given him, might drive him to---I don’t know. It’s fearfully difficult to guess what really goes on in his mind. He is in many ways a very reserved man. I said just now that you didn’t know him as well as I did. But when I come to consider, I begin to wonder whether I have ever known him properly myself.”

To Derek, with his small experience in the ways of the world, it came as something of a shock to realize that it was possible for two persons to live together for years and still to be in all essentials ignorant of each other’s true natures. Unbidden, the image of the ideal Sheila floated into his mind. How different, he felt, the perfect communion of mind and soul that marriage to her would be!

“Well, so there you are!” Hilda concluded, with a sudden air of brightness that did not quite convince. “I’ve said my say, and it had to be said, but you needn’t take it too much to heart. And now we must both fly, if we are not to be late for dinner.”

Derek studied the Judge with interest that evening. Indeed, it might be said that he really looked at him for the first time. At the end of his scrutiny he had to admit that he found nothing in his appearance suggestive of a disposition to commit suicide. True he had equally to admit that he had no very clear idea of what an intending suicide normally looked like. So far as he could judge, however, there was nothing remarkable about him at all, unless it was that the moroseness which had become habitual with him was perhaps a shade deeper than usual.

Hilda, however, who might be presumed to be the better judge in this matter, evidently thought otherwise. Her anxiety manifested itself in a determined attempt, which ultimately proved successful, to cheer his lordship up. It was the first time for many weeks that Derek had seen her exercising her social talents on her husband, and he found it an enthralling spectacle. Putting into the task every ounce of tact and charm that she possessed, little by little she contrived to dissipate the gloom that enveloped him. By the end of the meal Barber, to his own obvious surprise, had become talkative and almost cheerful. Derek, who had been carried along by Hilda’s stream of gossip, comment and allusion, so that almost without knowing it he had contributed not a little to the success of the attempt, realized suddenly that he too was actually enjoying his evening. Really, he thought, as he drank his coffee after dinner and listened to a judicial anecdote which, though technical, was not unamusing, if every evening on circuit were like this he would have no reason to complain. Savage came in to remove the coffee tray and before doing so, piled the fireplace high with the Whitsea Corporation’s coal. A mellow glow began to spread even through the chilly acres of the drawing-room. The Judge produced a cigar and began to discuss with enthusiasm the impregnability of the Maginot Line. Hilda, her purpose accomplished, had fallen silent. From the corner of his eye, Derek could see that she looked tired but content. He fancied that she was holding her husband’s hand. It was a moment of peace and comfort.

Looking at them now, it seemed to Derek impossible that only a short time before he had been seriously discussing with one of the pair the probability of the other’s committing suicide. After all, whatever Hilda might say, people positively did not commit suicide. People, that is, whom one knew. But if suicide seemed a ridiculous notion, sitting there amid the Victorian splendours of Whitsea Lodgings, it seemed even more absurd to think that this lank long man, pulling at his cigar on the other side of the fireplace, could conceivably be in danger of being murdered. After all, murder was one of those things that simply did not happen, except in books and newspapers. The fact that since the Circuit began he had heard three or four trials for murder did not shake this conviction in the least. People in the dock were not real, that is, ordinary people---else why should they be there? And as for their unfortunate victims, photographs of whose mangled remains the police exhibited with such relish---fortunately for Derek’s peace of mind they remained photographs.


The improvement in the Judge’s spirits, obtained at the cost of such exertion, did not last long. For the rest of the Assize he was once more remote, pontifical and irritable. On the very last day of work at Whitsea he indulged in a quite gratuitous and somewhat painful altercation with Pettigrew during the hearing of an undefended petition for divorce. Derek never wholly comprehended what it was about (except that it involved one of those wholly artificial rules of evidence which are the very breath of the nostrils of the true lawyer), but from a mild difference of opinion it developed into what the local press next day inevitably described as a Scene. For once Pettigrew lost altogether his usual air of ironic deference. He raised his voice, went rather pink in the face, interrupted his lordship without ceremony, and, when the decision had been given against him, slammed his brief upon the desk and strode out of court without the slightest pretence of a bow towards the Bench. He was not without excuse, for he had been treated with the grossest discourtesy, but it was a surprising outburst for a man of his usually restrained temperament.

Apart from this unhappy incident, there was little of moment to record of the concluding days at Whitsea. The shutter of the library was mended, and there were no further complaints from the police. The nocturnal watchers added to their routine an occasional sniff under the Judge’s door, without ever again succeeding in detecting the least trace of escaping gas. No further hint of danger appeared to vary the monotony of the days and nights of the household.

One effect of the events which had followed the dinner to the Mayor and Corporation, for which Derek was grateful, was to bring him and Hilda more closely together. Although the subject of their talk on that occasion was never alluded to again, the fact that a confidence had been given and received remained as bond between them. He found himself talking to her quite freely on all sorts of subjects and almost on equal terms, an experience which was quite new to him. He no longer felt in awe of her greater knowledge of the world. Quite abruptly, he realized that at long last he had grown up. But although he found himself in this new position of confidence with her, it remained, in diplomatic jargon, a unilateral confidence. Never once did he feel in the least inclined to unbosom himself as to his own romance. With a new-born faculty of insight, he saw quite clearly that while Hilda had a wide range of interests there were some things that did not interest her at all, and that among these things other women were included.

Derek had all the more leisure to cultivate his friendship with Hilda in that he was no longer subjected to any of Beamish’s less welcome familiarities. For some reason or another, Beamish’s attitude towards him and the rest of their little world had undergone a distinct change. Hitherto, whatever his failings, he had been consistently cheerful, or at all events serene, as though buoyed up against all difficulties by a sense of his own importance. But as Whitsea Assizes were on, it was noticeable that he had become care-worn and haggard to an extent which was not to be explained merely by the indignities put upon him by the Sheriff. He became unusually taciturn and spent long hours alone in his room. Derek suspected that he drank a good deal, but if so, it had not the mellowing effect upon him that he had observed before. Indeed, his temper had deteriorated badly. He lost no opportunity to snap the heads off Savage and Greene and he went out of his way to have several acrimonious little disputes with the Clerk of Assize. Derek had never liked him when he had been ostentatiously friendly and condescending. In his new guise, however, he found himself unexpectedly sorry for the man. It was so plain that his ill-temper was due to some hidden cause of unhappiness and anxiety that Derek almost wished that he was in a position to console him, or at least to talk over his troubles with him. The glimpse that he had had into the frustration and dissatisfaction that underlay Hilda’s marriage had produced in him a general feeling of charity towards the world at large, and it positively hurt him to see this bumptious, assured little man so obviously the prey to wretchedness.

Naturally enough, Hilda was also not unaware of the change in Beamish’s manner. But her attitude towards it was very different from Derek’s. To her, Beamish was merely an objectionable person who had now added to his other offences an extremely bad temper. This lack of charity on her part gave Derek a somewhat priggish but none the less satisfying sense of superiority. All in all, a growing sense of the little drama of human relationships within the lodgings kept Derek more interested and amused than he had ever expected, and the last week of Whitsea Assizes was for him by no means the least entertaining of the Circuit. None the less did he look forward to the return to London and the end of his servitude with all the enthusiasm of a schoolboy towards his holidays.

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