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14: Unknown Visitor

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« on: May 25, 2023, 05:41:09 am »


ONCE back at the Dower House Meredith sensibly devoted the major part of his cross-examination to Hilda. After all, the parlour-maid would be in a far better position to give information than Mrs. Lundy, the cook, who was more or less relegated by her duties to the kitchen. He interviewed the girl in the big downstairs sitting-room, where there was nothing to remind her of the tragedy that had so suddenly darkened her young life. Hilda was in a bad state of nerves, pale and red-eyed from weeping. But after a few minutes of the inspector’s quiet, casual questioning, she seemed to recover a little.

From the start, however, her evidence was surprisingly clear and concise. Meredith swiftly elucidated the following facts. Her mistress had returned from the Manor shortly before nine-thirty and gone straight upstairs as usual to the small sitting-room. She appeared to be in a perfectly normal state. About fifteen minutes later Hilda had answered a ring at the front-door and admitted Mr. Penpeti. He had gone straight upstairs to Miss Parker’s room.

“You’re sure it was Mr. Penpeti?” asked Meredith.

“Oh quite sure, sir. He’s not an easy one to mistake, him dressing so odd.”

“Did he speak to you?”

“Well, he just murmured ‘Good evening’ and nodded, sir, if you can call that speaking.”

Meredith thought: “So even now she doesn’t suspect that her Mr. Penpeti was really Mildmann. It’s obvious she hasn’t yet learnt the full details of the tragedy.” Aloud he said: “I see, young lady. Well, go on.”

“Well, sir,” said Hilda, “there isn’t much more to tell. About ten minutes later I heard somebody come rather heavily down the stairs and then the slam of the front-door. Naturally I guessed that it was Mr. Penpeti leaving. About arpas ten I usually take a cup of Horlicks up to my mistress as it helps her to sleep like. So I knocks on her door and walks in and . . . and . . .”

“All right,” broke in Meredith tactfully. “I can guess the rest for myself. You rang the Manor, I understand?”

“That’s right, sir, and Mrs. Hagge-Smith got through at once to the pleece before she come over here.”

“When you entered the room, apart from the body of your mistress, was there anything else that particularly caught your attention?”

“I . . . I . . .” Hilda gulped rapidly and drew out a grubby-looking handkerchief. “Coo! It was that horrible, sir, I can’t bear to think of it. Straight I can’t!”

“But you must help us all you can, young lady.”

Hilda took a grip on herself and blurted out:

“I was that put about . . . it ain’t easy to get things straight. No, sir, I don’t think there was much else I noticed except a strong smell of cigar-smoke.”

Meredith looked up sharply.

“Really? Does Mr. Penpeti smoke cigars?”

“Come to think of it---he don’t, sir. Leastways I’ve never seen him. Just a cigarette sometimes, as far as I can recall.”

“What about Mr. Mildmann, does he smoke cigars?”

Hilda looked bewildered.

“But what’s he got to do with it, sir?”

Meredith smiled.

“It’s your job to answer questions, not ask them, you know.”

“Sorry, sir. Mr. Mildmann? Lor’ no, he’s a non-smoker and non-drinker is Mr. Mildmann. Real saint he is . . . that is, was!” corrected Hilda with a series of gulps.

“Non-drinker!” exclaimed Meredith, exchanging a quick glance with Rokeby. “You mean, of course, that he doesn’t touch alcohol?”

“That’s right, sir.”

Meredith was puzzled. Then how was it Mildmann had joined Miss Parker in a glass of sherry? And the cigar-smoke? How did that enter in? Surely the dead woman was not a cigar addict? He posed the question, but Hilda was emphatic. Her mistress did smoke but only a queer sort of cigarettes that smelt like burning hay. Then how was it Hilda had smelt this very distinctive odour in the room?

“Now tell me,” he went on, “did you hear any unusual noises coming from Miss Parker’s room at any time during the evening?”

Hilda goggled at the inspector as if he were a magician.

“Lor’ if that isn’t funny! I mean, you asking that. I was going to tell you about it. But just after the mistress come in I did hear a sort of thumping noise coming from her room. Like thumping feet it was---heavy feet. Like as if somebody was walking up and down the room in a temper. I had to come through the hall to fetch something from the dining-room. Course I didn’t think much about it at the time. I thought perhaps the mistress was doing her Sweden exercises or something. But seeing what has happened since----”

“What time was this exactly?”

“No more than a minute or so after Miss Parker come in.”

“And you heard nothing further?”

“Well, I thought I did, but by then I was back in the kitchen. So I couldn’t be sure about this.”

“And what did you imagine you heard?”

“Something overturned or knocked against downstairs in the hall. Just a second or two before Mr. Penpeti rang the bell. But cook says I’m always imagining noises that aren’t there. So maybe it was just fancy.” Hilda paused, sniffed and added defiantly: “But even cook can’t say as there wasn’t something odd I spotted about the french windows over there. Even if my ears play tricks, my eyes don’t. You see, Inspector, I could have sworn that those windows were shut and properly latched when I went into the room about arpas seven. But when I went round the ground floor sometime after ten to see that everything was locked up for the night, the windows were ajar. No fancy about that! Strikes me,” added Hilda on a solemn note, “that some queer things happened in this house last night. To my way of thinking somebody crepp into the place while the mistress was over at the Manor and crepp out again through those french windows later that evening. It was them that I heard in the hall. But ’oo they was and what they was up to . . . well, you can ask me another!”

Meredith was patently interested.

“You’re suggesting that while Miss Parker was having dinner over at the Manor, some unknown person managed to get into the Dower House and find their way up to Miss Parker’s private room? And that, later, after Miss Parker had come in, they crept downstairs and left by the french windows over there?”

“That’s the ticket, sir!”

“You’re suggesting that Miss Parker met this person before Mr. Penpeti arrived?”

“Well, that’s my belief like.”

“But could anybody have got into the house while Miss Parker was at the Manor without you realising it?”

“Oh easy, sir. Cook and me always has a bite of supper once the mistress has left. That means we was in the kitchen-wing, and if he come in quiet we wouldn’t be none the wiser, would we?”

“But surely the front-door was closed and locked? I noticed that it had a Yale lock.”

“Oh, I don’t mean he come in through the front-door. Two of the hall windows was part open. If he was slippy enough he could have sneaked in that way.”

“Then why didn’t he leave the same way?” asked Meredith sharply, half-convinced that the girl had allowed her imagination to run away with her.

Hilda considered this point and then said with a bright smile:

“Well, sir, if he saw Mr. Penpeti coming up the drive, perhaps he wasn’t so anxious to meet him. So he went out through the french windows here at the side of the house. Natural like, isn’t it?”

Meredith nodded.

“I think you’ve probably got something there.” He turned to Rokeby. “Interesting, eh? Interesting and rather curious. A definite complication.” He turned back to Hilda and patted her paternally on the shoulder. “All right, young lady, we shan’t want you any more. You’ve been very frank and helpful. I shall want you to make a signed statement about this later. But we’ll see to all that in due course.”


“And what now?” asked Rokeby, when the girl had been dismissed.

Meredith glanced at his watch.

“You may think this damned unaccommodating of me, but I suggest you go ahead in the car and order lunch at The Leaning Man. I’d like to follow on foot. Reason---a long, solitary bout of hard thinking. Any objections?”

“I was never the man to prevent anybody else from thinking,” chuckled Rokeby. “I’ve heard that it’s an excellent exercise for other peoples minds! And by the look of it, you’ve certainly got plenty to think about!”

Once Rokeby had droned off down the Dower House drive, Meredith lit his pipe and began his trudge across the park to the north entrance, which would lead him on to the Tappin Mallet road. He purposely chose a route which would steer him clear of the tents, for he was anxious to avoid all distractions. Already he was convinced that the case was not quite as simple as it appeared to be on the surface. It was in fact bristling with oddities and perplexities of a peculiarly tricky nature. A stream of pertinent questions began to race through his brain, but with a disciplined will Meredith checked the flow and began to isolate and pigeon-hole the more outstanding of these problems. If he were to get results then it was essential to deal with the various problems one by one.

Hilda’s evidence formed a natural starting-point for an analysis of the facts. Had somebody (other than Mildmann-cum-Penpeti) made contact with Penelope Parker just before her death? Certainly the girl’s information seemed to suggest this. Hilda had spoken of this possible visitor as “he”---but that was a mere figure of speech. It might just as well have been a woman, though the odour of cigar-smoke noticed by Hilda suggested the male sex. At the moment the sex of the intruder was of little account. The important fact was that somebody had possibly entered the Dower House when Hilda and the cook were at supper, crept up to Penelope’s room, had a brief conversation with her and attempted to leave the house just as Mildmann was approaching the front-door. This had forced the intruder to leave by means of the french windows, which it was impossible to latch from the outside. Accepting these bare facts what could one deduce? That this unknown person must have been familiar (a) with Penelope’s routine, (b) with that of the domestic staff, (c) with the lay-out of the house. In brief it must have been somebody with whom the dead girl was well acquainted. If so, why the stealthy entry and exit? Obviously to conceal the fact that the visit had been made. Which immediately suggested that the visit had been made with a criminal intention. But what criminal intention? Was it on the cards that the answer to this question was quite simply . . . murder?

In brief, was Penelope Parker already dead when the cloaked and bearded Mildmann entered her room?

Meredith was assailed by a brisk tingle of excitement. Assume this somewhat startling fact and then what? Mildmann had walked into that room and received a sudden and horrifying shock. Dead in the chair before him was the woman with whom he had been violently in love; with whom, perhaps, he was still in love, despite her unsavoury threat in respect of his impulsive billets-doux. From all accounts Mildmann was sensitive and highly-strung. Wasn’t it possible that he had, in a moment of mental aberration, decided to take his own life? The poisoned sherry was at hand. He might well have noticed the odour of bitter almonds and realised, at once, how Penelope had met her death. Here, he decided, was an opportune means to end his own life.

“Umph,” mused Meredith. “Neat but a trifle gaudy. Must consider the objections to this theory. An outsize one occurs to me at once. If Mildmann had committed suicide, why had he troubled to break into the desk and recover the letters? Illogical, of course. He must have known there was no possible chance of destroying them before he collapsed and died. And even if Mildmann murdered the girl himself before committing suicide, this is still a bewildering aspect of the case.”

Objection Two was this---unless Mildmann had murdered the girl, why was he wearing gloves? According to Arkwright, when his employer entered the Dower House he was not wearing gloves. When he came out he was. In other words Mildmann must have put on his gloves once he was inside the house. And unless Mildmann was to be accepted as the murderer, this was a strange and senseless thing to do.

So what? Was the girl dead before Mildmann entered her room or was he responsible for the poisoning? Umph! A delicate point to decide and one that, for the moment, would have to be left in abeyance.

Meredith switched his mind on to the modus operandi of the murder. The exhibits were: (a) a cut-glass decanter containing the poisoned sherry and bearing no sign of recent finger-prints, (b) a used glass, smelling of bitter almonds, and bearing the finger-prints of the dead girl, (c) another used glass, also smelling of bitter almonds, but devoid of recent prints. The obvious conclusion was that the murderer had doctored the sherry in the decanter with the prussic acid and later poured it into the two glasses. Now the acid, thought Meredith, had probably been sealed in a small glass phial---either in the form of the ordinary Acidum Hydrocyanicum Dilutum with two per cent of the anhydrous acid or in a Scheele’s solution of four per cent. Surely it was an unaccountable fact that the murderer had elected to smuggle the contents of his phial into the decanter instead of direct into the glasses? For one thing the decanter would have to be unstoppered and the neck, as Meredith recalled, was extremely slender. And for another, the murderer could have been more certain of an instantaneous effect if he had doped the glasses, since the prussic acid would have been far less diluted. Surely a peculiar and, at the moment, inexplicable eccentricity on the part of the murderer?

This naturally led Meredith to a second point in connection with the poisoned drink. If the liquid had been poured into the glasses from the decanter then both Mildmann and the dead girl would have swallowed a similar amount of the acid in solution. It could be reasonably assumed that the girl was dead before Mildmann left the room, since he would naturally desire to make sure of its lethal effect before taking the poison himself. According to Hilda’s evidence, Mildmann had been upstairs in her mistress’ room for about ten minutes. Certain it was that if Mildmann were the murderer he couldn’t have led the girl to drink the poisoned sherry immediately. A certain amount of conversation must have preceded the fatal act. In short, it was logical to suppose that the girl’s death had been, to all intents and purposes, instantaneous. Yet what had been the effect on Mildmann of an equal dose? He had walked downstairs, out of the house, staggered a good few yards down the drive and climbed into his car unaided. Death had not intervened until some time on the journey back to the North Lodge.

Granted that the effect of most poisons on different individuals is not necessarily identical. Some constitutions have a greater power of resistance. But in this case the discrepancy was sufficient to demand a close analysis of the facts. In other words, was the dose given to the girl equivalent in strength to that imbibed by the murderer? Mildmann could, of course, have poured himself out a smaller amount of the doped sherry. But why? If he were out to commit suicide then surely he would prefer to go out quickly rather than slowly?

One thing was essential. He must get Maxton, the police surgeon, to come over that afternoon to make a second medical examination of the two corpses. It was on the cards that when confronted with the direct query he would be able to state whether Penelope Parker had died instantly or not. As a corollary to this angle of the case, a careful analysis would have to be made of (a) the poisoned sherry left in the decanter (b) the residual drops of the liquid left in the bottom of the two used glasses.

And beyond that? Meredith pulled harder on his pipe. Sufficient unto the day was the evidence thereof. In his opinion there was only one thing more obstructive than a paucity of evidence, and that was a surfeit. He liked, if possible, to solve one set of problems before passing on to another; to tie up the loose threads as he went long.

That was what he preferred. But Fate has a habit of ignoring human preferences and bull-dozing ahead in its own pig-headed way. And, at that moment, although Meredith didn’t know it, Fate was bracing its muscles to upset his neatly-loaded apple-cart.

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