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10: The Letters in the Case

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Author Topic: 10: The Letters in the Case  (Read 2 times)
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« on: May 24, 2023, 07:09:14 am »


LONG after Sid had departed to the barn, Eustace sat in the softly-lit cosy little parlour of the lodge and pondered darkly. No longer were the malignant forces that had encompassed him relegated to some indeterminate background. In a flash, they had come sharply into focus. Quite suddenly Eustace could see with horrible clarity exactly where time and destiny had conspired to lead him. He was poised on the edge of an abyss. One false move now and he would be done for!

It had been an acutely difficult and embarrassing interview for both of them---for Sid because he had learnt something about his employer which his employer had obviously been anxious to conceal; for Eustace because he was naturally humiliated by Sid’s discovery. It was not pleasant to reflect that he, the High Prophet of Coo, had been found out and found wanting by his own chauffeur. But in the perilous situation which had now arisen, he had been forced to discuss with Sid Arkwright the full details of what he had just overheard. Luckily Sid had a retentive memory and he had been able to put in, so to speak, a verbatim report. Eustace had carefully written down the phrases as Sid recalled them.

It was this sheet of paper he was now studying.

Three troubling facts were immediately evident to him; (a) that Penelope had kept the letters with which he had so foolishly bombarded her (b) that she had told Penpeti about these letters (c) that they obviously intended to use these letters to defame his good name inside the Movement. The motive for this unchristian desire was not far to seek. Hansford Boot’s original reading of Penpeti’s character had been correct. The man was ambitious, determined, relentless---no doubt about that. He was in league with Penelope and together they were conspiring to undermine his position as High Prophet. It was, perhaps, Penelope’s attitude in this sorry affair that most upset him. He realised now that for all these months of apparent friendliness, Penelope had really been a snake in the grass. It was a sad and sobering thought!

And who was this man that Penpeti had met in the lane? How did he enter into this shabby conspiracy? Sid had been able to tell him little about this mysterious and furtive individual. He had described him as “about the same height and build as Mr. Penpeti, same dark sort of skin”. Sid had not overheard a single word of what he had said and was thus unable to gauge the relationship existing between the two men. This much he was prepared to say: “Seems that Mr. Penpeti was sort of scared by the other chap---like as if he’d got some sort of hold over him.” But this sort of vague generalisation, Eustace realised, did little to clarify the enigma of this clandestine meeting.

In any case, wasn’t this a mere collateral to the single overwhelming fact that Penelope still possessed his letters and was threatening to show them to Alicia. And since Alicia was already furious with him for his refusal to sponsor a production of her Nine Gods of Heliopolis, once she’d read those letters he could expect no quarter. Only the letters mattered. By hook or by crook he must recover them. Somehow he must persuade Penelope to give them up. He must go to her without delay, appeal to her better nature and throw himself on her mercy. Humiliating but unavoidable. Once the letters were destroyed, Penpeti could do nothing.

“But what,” thought Eustace in a panic, “if Penelope refuses to hand them over?”

He couldn’t take them from her by force. For one thing he didn’t know where she concealed them and, for another, she probably kept them under lock and key. And when he recalled some of the more impassioned interludes in the later notes, the complete verbal abandonment, the pleadings, the pledges, the avowals and compliments of his unbridled infatuation---yes, when he thought of all this he broke out into a cold sweat and closed his eyes against the dizziness which suddenly overpowered him.

“By Geb!” he thought, employing the single mild, yet satisfactory oath he allowed himself. “I’ve got to get them back! I’ve got to! I must see her at once. Yes, directly after breakfast to-morrow Sid must drive me over to the Dower House.”


But poor Eustace at the very outset was destined to suffer an unexpected set-back. When he sent in his name via Hilda, the parlour-maid, she returned in a few seconds with the information that Miss Parker was sorry but she couldn’t see him. Eustace blustered on the doorstep like a tongue-tied schoolboy. But it was impossible! He must see her. It concerned an important and urgent matter. Hilda must go to her mistress again and explain just how vital it was that he should see her. This time, to his enormous relief, Penelope consented to come down into the hall. But much to Eustace’s chagrin she made no attempt to ask him into the house. She asked in an uneasy voice:

“Good gracious, what is the matter, Eustace? An urgent and important matter, you say?”

“I must see you alone,” exclaimed Eustace, adding meaningly: “It’s not only urgent and important, but a highly delicate and private matter.”

“We’re quite private here. You can talk to me quite freely.”

“I should prefer to come in.”

“I’m sorry, Eustace. Please be good enough to tell me what you want here and now. I’ve a very busy day in front of me.”

“You’re sure we can’t be overheard?”

“Quite sure.”

Eustace took a quick look round and lowered his voice.

“It’s about those letters,” he said.


“The letters I’ve been writing to you.”

“Well, what of them?”

“I want them back. I must have them back. Please, Penelope. Every one of them. Now, at once!”

Penelope looked at him in amazement. The request had startled her considerably. How had Eustace found out about the letters?

“Really, Eustace---what has come over you? Why this sudden anxiety? Surely you’re not ashamed of all the frank and charming compliments you’ve paid me? Oh I know I’m quite unworthy of----”

“It’s something that I’ve heard,” broke in Eustace sharply. “Something highly unpleasant. Something so disagreeable that I had the greatest difficulty in persuading myself that it was true.”

“Something you’ve heard?” demanded Penelope with a flash of anxiety. “What exactly do you mean?”

“Something about you and Peta showing those letters to Alicia, with the deliberate intention of . . . of . . .”

“What ridiculous nonsense! I haven’t even kept the letters. I destroyed them, one by one, as I received them.”

“You’ve destroyed them?” gasped Eustace. “But . . . but . . .”

“And after such unforgivable innuendoes I should take it as a favour if you’d kindly stay away from the Dower House in the future. I can’t imagine how this wicked rumour has reached your ears. Even less can I imagine how you came to believe it!”

“But . . . but . . .”

“I’d rather not hear any more about it, thank you.” Her slim hand had already reached out for the ornate handle of the door. “I shall give the servants strict orders that you’re not to be admitted---not on any account. Understand, Eustace?”

“Yes,” he said meekly, his mind in a whirl.

“Then we’ll consider this highly disagreeable interview as closed,” rapped out Penelope. “And kindly don’t refer to the matter again. It’s upset me terribly. It’s made me feel quite ill. I’ve never been so insulted in my life. Never! Never!”

And the next instant Mr. Mildmann found himself staring blankly at the massive oak door which Penelope, as a final expression of her indignation, had slammed tempestuously in his face.


Two minutes later Penelope was on the phone to The Leaning Man. Penpeti sounded annoyed.

“Indiscreet, my dear? Yes, I know it is, but I’m frantically worried. Something really extraordinary has happened. Eustace in some astounding manner has found out. No. About the letters. Yes---that I’ve kept the letters. Oh, I can’t possibly say. He was here just now. What? The use to which we were going to put them? That’s just what I’m trying to say, my darling. He knows about it. No, of course not. I can’t imagine how he . . . You’ll come over at once? Yes, do. I shall feel much, much happier when we’ve had a little chat. Just walk in as usual. The servants know you’ve carte blanche to drop in just when you like. Au revoir, darling. And don’t waste any time!”

Penpeti obeyed her injunctions to the letter. During his stay at The Leaning Man he had arranged for the garage opposite to have a car and driver always at his disposal. Fifteen minutes later, therefore, he was ringing the bell at the Dower House. Hilda let him in without comment and he raced upstairs to Penelope’s private retiring room on the second floor. Glasses and sherry decanter were set ready on a small inlaid table. Penpeti’s worried expression gave way to a gleam of approval.

“Most thoughtful. Most thoughtful,” he said, giving her an absent-minded kiss. “I need a little stimulant. This news of yours is puzzling and upsetting, to say the least of it.” He took up the decanter and held it with a look of enquiry over one of the glasses. Penelope nodded. “Personally, I think it must be mere guesswork. A shot in the dark on Eustace’s part.” He raised his glass to hers. “There’s no need for undue alarm, my dear.”

“Frankly, Peta, I’m frightened. How could this have leaked out? You haven’t been talking out of turn, I trust?”

“Me? Don’t be absurd! Of course not.”

“You’ve never mentioned those letters to a soul?”

“Never!” he contested, with a bland expression.

After all, how could he tell her about his secret rendezvous with the ubiquitous Yacob? What lay between him and Yacob was none of her business. And besides, how could his little talk with Yacob in the deserted lane have reached Eustace’s ears. It was utterly impossible that the leakage had occurred then.

“Then, if you’ve said nothing,” went on Penelope, bewildered, “how on earth has the wretch found out? It’s queer.”

“As I said before---a shot in the dark. He’s probably been worrying about these letters for weeks and plucking up courage to come and ask for them back. Knowing damn well, my dear, that if Alicia or any other of the high-placed members of the Movement happened to see them, he’d be very much in the soup.”

Penelope shook her corn-coloured head.

“I’m sure you’re wrong about that. He expressly said that he’d heard you and I intended showing those letters to Alicia.”

“Heavens above, but it’s out of the question. Unless one of your staff overheard you talking in your sleep or something.”

“Impossible. I sleep at one end of the house---my domestics at the other.”

“You don’t imagine that he suspects anything about----?”

“About the child?” Penpeti nodded. “No,” went on Penelope. “At least he made no mention of the fact. Merely that we had the letters and were going to give them to Alicia.” Penelope set down her sherry glass. Penpeti noticed that her hand was trembling. “It’s uncanny, Peta. There’s something very queer going on around us. I can sense it. Something strange and ominous.” Adding with a look of remorse: “I rather wish now I hadn’t thought of this horrid idea. But when one’s in a tight corner, it’s so easy to say the first thing that comes into one’s head. I’m too impulsive, Peta. I didn’t really stop to think about my suggestion.”

Penpeti asked quickly:

“What did you tell Eustace?”

“I told him I’d destroyed the letters.”

Penpeti nodded his approval.

“Splendid! Splendid! I knew I could rely on you to keep your head in an emergency.” He drew her down on to the settee and went on earnestly: “Now listen---you’ve got to forget about Eustace and his visit this morning. Erase him from your mind entirely. Even if he had his suspicions, you’ve now probably convinced him that he was wrong, that the letters have actually been destroyed. In the meantime keep them safely locked away in your letter-case. Keep your bureau locked too. Don’t let Eustace into the house. Keep an eye on him. Be very, very watchful. If you haven’t convinced him he may try to do something desperate. He may even try to steal the letters or get somebody to do it for him. You follow?”

Penelope nodded.

“And you’re still willing to go through with our scheme?”

She hesitated a moment, and then said in low quick tones:

“I don’t know, Peta. When I come to think of it all in cold blood, it makes me feel rather ashamed of myself. Eustace’s visit has worried me. I can’t understand how he found out. You mustn’t think me stupid or fanciful but . . . but I can’t help wondering if . . .”


“If Eustace, perhaps, hasn’t some . . . strange gift . . . some psychical power that enables him to pick up other people’s thoughts. This unexplored realm of thought transmission . . . I’m convinced it’s a reality, Peta. Only most of us haven’t learnt how to use and control the gift.”

“Oh poppycock!” snapped Penpeti, with a scowl of impatience. “I still think Eustace was prompted to ask for those letters because he has an uneasy conscience. You mustn’t let your imagination run away with you.”

“I know it’s silly of me, but the whole affair has quite unnerved me. Do you really think we ought to go through with the scheme? Shan’t we always have it on our conscience?”

Penpeti sprang up with a little cry of irritation.

“For heaven’s sake, be logical! In the circumstances it’s one or the other of us that will take the rap---either Eustace or me. Well, which is it to be? It’s your choice, and out of fairness to me I should know your final answer.”

Again Penelope seemed to be struggling with some inward uncertainty. Then suddenly she gave a little shiver, looked up at him and said quietly:

“I suppose there’s no other way now, Peta. I shall just have to go through with it for your sake.”

“Good!” said Penpeti.

But at that moment he realised that Penelope was in a queer, unreliable mood. Her conscience, confound it! was on the prowl. It was on the cards that when the moment came for them to act, Penelope might well rat on him. It was a ticklish situation and would need very careful handling. Penpeti was worried.


So was Sid Arkwright. He had not failed to register the little scene which had been enacted on the threshold of the Dower House. From where he sat waiting, like a graven image, in the car, he had not been able to hear what had transpired, but his employer’s face, as he returned to the Daimler, had told him everything. When they reached the lodge, Sid had plucked up enough courage to ask a few discreet questions. His employer’s answers had not been reassuring. Not for a single instant did Sid believe the Parker woman’s story that the letters had been destroyed. The guv’nor, he thought, was too blooming ready to take people at their word.

“And now,” thought Sid miserably, “he’ll just swallow the yarn and let the matter drop. And before we can turn round that Parker girl will have shoved the damned letters under old Haggie’s nose. I wouldn’t trust that Penpeti chap further than I could kick him. Never have! He’s out to nab the position of High Prophet. I bet he’s put the Parker wench up to this. She’s soft on him. No mistake about that!”

But how to find out if the letters were still in the Parker woman’s possession or not? Sid clicked his fingers. Of course! He ought to have thought of it before. Hilda Shepstone---she was the answer. He’d taken her over to the flicks at Downchester on her half-day. Yes---Hilda would help him. She was beginning to get a bit of a yen on him, eh? He’d nip round to the kitchen door that evening, when everybody was having dinner at the manor, and have a talk with her, discreet like, about those blooming letters.

Sid did. And what he learnt completely justified his earlier suspicions. Luck was with him, for only that morning Hilda, passing by the little upstairs sitting-room, had heard her mistress make mention of the letters.

“That there creepy Mr. Penpeti was with her,” said Hilda. “Always in the house he is. Proper hot ’un, I reckon. Anyways, just as I went by the door, I heard him say ‘And what did you tell Eustace?’ That’d be your guv’nor, of course. And she said as she’d said she’d destroyed the letters. Then I heard him---that’s Mr. Penpeti---say as he could trust her to keep her head in an emergency. All seemed a bit fishy to me. Always laying their nappers together them two. Thick as thieves.”

“Swear you won’t breath a word about me coming here, Hilda.” Sid winked. “There’s things in the wind---see? Nasty under’and things. Now tell me---where d’you think she keeps these letters?”

“Can’t say exactly. In her desk, I expect, up in her own room.”

“What time does she usually get back from the manor?”

“Never later than ten. Usually between ’arpas nine and ten.”

Sid glanced at his watch. Eight-fifteen. He looked meaningly at Hilda, pointed to himself and jerked a thumb towards the upper part of the house.

“Safe, eh kiddo?”

“There’s cook,” breathed Hilda nervously. “She’s in the kitchen. But if you sneak round to the front, I’ll let you in through the french-windows of the big drawing-room.”

“O.K.,” said Sid.

Five minutes later, on tip-toes, he was following Hilda up the main staircase. Once on the landing, she paused and pointed to a door a little way down the spacious corridor.

“That’s the room,” she whispered. “I won’t hang about in case cook gets nosey. Let yourself out the same way as you came in, Sid. I’ll close the latch later. And hurry! Much as my job’s worth if you was caught here.”

Sid waited until the girl had regained the hall and vanished in the direction of the kitchen, before creeping softly towards the door she had indicated. Gently he turned the handle, opened the door and slipped into the room.

Then, with a stifled cry, he stopped dead. Seated in an armchair, directly facing him, was a man---a big, broad-shouldered man in a suit of plus-fours. He stared at Sid grimly.

“And what the hell may you want, eh?”

“Er . . . nothing . . . nothing,” stammered Sid. “I . . . I was just looking for something.”

“Didn’t expect to find me here, I imagine?”

“Since you ask---I didn’t.”

The man rose, stalked to the door and cautiously closed it.

“Well, now you are here, you’re going to tell me just who you are and what you’re doing in Miss Parker’s room.” Sid remained obstinately silent. “So you’re not going to talk, eh? Very well, I won’t badger you with questions which you obviously can’t answer. But before I let you go, understand this---if you breathe a word to anybody about seeing me here, I’ll . . . I’ll break your confounded neck! Understand?”

“O.K.,” said Sid, sidling gradually towards the little bureau which stood near the door. “I won’t split on you if you won’t split on me. Fair deal, eh?” His hand groped up behind his back, feeling for the handle of the desk. “Strikes me,” he added, “that you were as startled to see me as I was to see you!” He tugged at the handle, but the lid of the bureau didn’t budge an inch. It was obviously locked. “Right about that, sir, aren’t I?”

The man ignored the query and jerked a hand towards the door.

“Go on! Clear out and stay out. And remember, unless you want to get yourself into trouble, you haven’t seen me.”

“O.K.,” reiterated Sid with a grin. “O.K.!”

But once clear of the house, as he hurried through the chilly Maytime dusk that was descending like a miasma on the park, his mind began to work overtime. What the devil did it mean? Why was that big, broad-shouldered chap sitting in that armchair, obviously waiting for that Parker woman’s arrival? And how was it that Hilda was unaware of his presence in the house? All these puzzling factors struck Sid as damnably fishy.

But there was something even more curious, a simple fact that remained diamond-sharp in his mind. It was something he had noticed just as he was leaving the room. On the arm of the settee was a brown tweed cap and, flung carelessly over the back of it, unmistakable, significant, arresting, was an elegant coat fashioned of teddy-bear cloth!

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