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19: A Young Lady Gives Evidence

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Author Topic: 19: A Young Lady Gives Evidence  (Read 2 times)
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« on: May 25, 2023, 10:26:04 am »


THE moment Meredith had concluded his long and detailed call to Inspector Baker of the Hitchin police, he set out to walk from the Dower House to The Leaning Man. As in the case of Rokeby the day before, he had sent O’Hallidan ahead in the car. Once more he was anxious to do a little hard and solitary thinking.

The biggest jolt he had received since the case opened had been handed to him that morning by Luke Spears. Weak solution of the prussic acid in the decanter. Concentrated solution in the glasses. Why? Well, more and more, it could be assumed that the set-up of the double tragedy was far more complicated than he had originally supposed. The mystery surrounding the tray of drinks seemed insoluble. It wasn’t merely a question of who had poisoned the sherry, but how they had doctored it. O’Hallidan’s theory that one glass of strongly poisoned sherry had been emptied back into the unpoisoned sherry in the decanter was full of good sense. But why had the murderer done this? What was he to gain by it? There must be a reason for such a crazy action. If so, what was it? Exactly. What? Meredith gave it up. The mystery, so far, did seem insoluble.

His next consideration was Terence Mildmann. That he had withheld his true reason for not accompanying Mrs. Summers to Downchester was undeniable. It was equally undeniable that just prior to the tragedy Terence Mildmann had been lurking about not four hundred yards from the Dower House. And if that wasn’t significant . . . !

“All right,” reflected Meredith, “accept the fact that Terence is well up on my list of suspects. Could he have worked the crime? Assume he managed to creep into the house---what then? Did he sneak upstairs and break in on his father’s tęte-ŕ-tęte with the Parker girl? Did he then manage to slip the acid into the sherry when they weren’t looking and persuade them to take a drink? But why poison the girl? He had nothing against her. His father---yes. In that case he had motive, since they were at loggerheads over most things, including his friendship with this Miss Blake. Not a strong motive, I admit. But in a moment of blind anger . . . But even then, how does this explain away the queer allocation of the prussic acid? Oh hell! That lad’s concealing something from me and I’m damned if I know exactly what it is. He may be the murderer, on the other hand there’s a kind of likeable naivete about the young fellow that half-convinces me he isn’t!”

And Penpeti? Well, Penpeti would make a very nice murderer. His appearance, his character, his strange two-faced behaviour---all dovetailed beautifully into such a rôle. And Penpeti, above all others, had motive. Strong motive. He had a great deal to gain by Mildmann’s sudden death. The kudos of the High Prophetship; the very handsome annual salary that went with the position. And the girl? Well, he had been in league with Penelope Parker over the threatened publicising of those foolish letters. Suppose the girl had ratted at the last minute and sworn, not only to burn the letters, but to tell Mrs. Hagge-Smith and the other bigwigs in the Movement of Penpeti’s plot to discredit Mildmann to his own advantage?

Meredith’s pulse quickened. By heaven! This new theory had a sound ring about it. Beside it his previous assumptions seemed half-baked. Wasn’t it possible that the idea of using those letters had originated with Penpeti? The girl had been persuaded against her will to play this underhand trick on the High Prophet, then at the last minute her conscience had rebelled. What then? Penpeti could see the High Prophetship and that five thousand a year dissolving before his eyes. So he acts. He acts quickly. He must get rid of, not only Mildmann, but the girl! And somehow he had learnt that Mildmann was to visit the girl that night, and somehow he had managed it so that they had both drunk a glass of poisoned sherry.

Wonderful! Superb! A faultless piece of reasoning. Except for two factors. How did Penpeti get the poison into the glasses and persuade them to drink it? And how could he have been near the Dower House when he, above all other suspects, had a perfect alibi?

The theory was good. But the objections to the theory were far, far better. To suspect Penpeti of being the murderer was to walk into a blind alley with one’s eyes shut on a foggy night! No---Penpeti was definitely “off the menu”.


Then came more startling news. More bewildering evidence. This time it was Maxton ringing The Leaning Man from Chichester shortly after lunch.

“Well, Meredith, I’ve performed the autopsies.”

“That’s fine.”

Maxton’s sardonic chuckle floated down the line.

“Is it? You wait until you’ve heard the details of my findings. They’re going to knock you for a six. I won’t trouble you with analytical minutiae and percentages of concentration and that sort of thing. I’ll just give you the plain facts.”

“I’m a plain man,” Meredith reminded him.

“Well, here’s something to be getting on with. I’ve analysed the stomach content in each case, as I said I would. Point A is this---the girl died of a fairly concentrated dose of prussic acid diluted with sherry. Point B is this---Mildmann died of a far more concentrated dose of prussic acid that had not been diluted with sherry!

“Good God!”

“It’s my considered opinion that Mildmann took that poison neat. A four per cent Scheele solution. He must have gone out like a snuffed candle.”

“But damn it all . . . !” blustered Meredith.

“Oh and that’s not all,” said Maxton smoothly. “Miss Parker was going to have a baby. Not immediately. But in about six months’ time. Not particularly noticeable at a cursory examination, but in the case of an autopsy . . .” Maxton paused, uttered another short sardonic guffaw and concluded: “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she were murdered on account of her condition. And since Mildmann had been writing her those intimate letters . . . Well, au revoir, my dear fellow. We’ll meet at the inquest on Monday, I imagine.”


“Well, Sergeant,” said Meredith, when he had handed on Maxton’s information to O’Hallidan, “where do we go from here?”

“ ’Tis back to Chichester Oi’d be an’ no question asked, sorr, if Oi had me way. There’s no future in this case---no future at all there isn’t. Oi’d have said that Mildmann murthered the poor colleen because it was herself that was going to have a baby. An having murthered the girl, Oi’d have said it was himself who committed suicide to diddle the hangman’s noose. But Oi’ve a notion you won’t be agreeing with me about that, sorr.”

Meredith shook his head.

“How the devil can I? If Mildmann had wanted to commit suicide he’d have taken a glass of that poisoned sherry. Point is, he didn’t. He died of a concentrated dose of unadulterated prussic acid.”

“Which he couldn’t have drunk before leaving the house, sorr.”

“Exactly. To have reached his car after such a dose would have been impossible. So what?”

“Would he have poisoned himself now, after he was back in the car?”

“He could have done. But what about his condition as he came down the drive? Arkwright said he was staggering and obviously in pain. In fact, the poor devil gasped out that he was ill and told Arkwright to get him back to the North Lodge as soon as possible.”

“Would it have been play-acting at all?”

“If so I can’t see the point of it,” objected Meredith. “Frankly I can’t see the point of anything. You’d never have thought that one decanter, two glasses and a shot of hydrocyanic acid could have set such a bamfoozling problem.” Meredith looked up sharply as the landlord of The Leaning Man came into the now deserted dining-room. “Looking for me?” he asked.

“Aye, surr. There’s a call just come through for you from Hitchin.”

“Splendid!” said Meredith, jumping up. “I’ll take it at once.” A few minutes later he rejoined O’Hallidan. He looked as pleased as a kitten with two tails. “Progress at last, thank God! Hitchin have picked up Dudley at his house and he’s prepared to make a full statement. He’s already admitted that he was down here on the night the girl died. Hitchin are driving him down at once so that I can cross-examine. They hope to get here in about three hours’ time. In the interim, I suggest we----” Meredith broke off and jerked a finger towards the window. “Hullo, who’s this? I wonder if they’re looking for us, Sergeant?” He crossed quickly to the latticed casement and asked politely: “Can I help? You don’t seem to know your way about. Are you looking for the landlord?”

“No, I . . . as a matter of fact . . . I was told that I should find the police inspector here. The detective who’s investigating----”

Meredith smiled.

“Then you needn’t look any further, young lady.”

“Oh thank heaven! If you’re Inspector Meredith, may I come in?”

“Please do.”

After Meredith had introduced O’Hallidan, they settled themselves about the table.

“And your name,” asked Meredith, “is . . . ?”

“Oh, I’m Denise Blake. Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s secretary.”

“You have all my sympathy,” chuckled Meredith. “And what exactly brings you to me?”

“Well, it’s something that I’ve heard---a rumour that’s going around the camp. You’ve no idea how swiftly things get around here. It’s startling.”

“It’s the divil!” exclaimed O’Hallidan. “Oi’ll be wagering ivery soul in the place knows me middle name is Corny, though me own mother would have long since forgetten the fact.”

“And what is this rumour, Miss Blake?”

The girl hesitated, blushed becomingly and then murmured:

“It’s something I’ve heard about Terence Mildmann. You’ve met him?”

“Oh yes, I’ve met him,” said Meredith with a meaning glance at O’Hallidan.

“Well, it’s all so disturbing and beastly that I felt I just had to come and see you. Mrs. Hagge-Smith doesn’t know I’ve slipped away like this, so I’ve got to be quick.” For the second time Denise hesitated and then blurted out: “Inspector! It isn’t true that Terence had anything to do with this terrible affair at the Dower House, is it? They say the police suspect that he may have . . . have been responsible for his father’s death. But it’s untrue! I know it is. Terence didn’t like his father, I admit, but to do anything like this . . . he just couldn’t! It’s horrible of people even to suggest it. I just can’t understand them. They’re supposed to be living a Higher Life and all that sort of thing and yet they can talk about Terence in this vile way. They’re such awful hypocrites.”

“You’re fond of young Mildmann, eh?”

“I . . . no . . . yes . . .” Then rather defiantly: “Yes, I suppose I am. He’s such a helpless sort of mutt. One can’t help liking him.”

Meredith said quietly:

“I’m afraid the rumour is not entirely unfounded, Miss Blake. The police never suspect anybody of anything without good reason. And in this case we have a good reason. You see, shortly before the tragedy at the Dower House occurred, the lad was seen only a few hundred yards away and he refuses to----”

“That’s what I’ve come to see you about,” broke in Denise eagerly. She snatched up her handbag, opened it and handed Meredith a folded slip of paper. “Please read that, Inspector. I think then you’ll realise how this foul rumour began.”

Meredith flattened out the sheet and, for O’Hallidan’s benefit, read the brief missive aloud.

Darling Denise,

If I don’t see you soon I’ll go haywire. We’ve simply got to meet. Now, please listen. I’m supposed to be going over to Downchester with Mrs. Summers next Thursday, but I’ve persuaded her to keep mum if I give this date a miss. I shall wait for you near the lily-pond at eight o’clock, so do your damndest to slip away directly after dinner. I shall hang on there until I have to go and meet Mrs. Summers off the Downchester ’bus. My darling Denise, you know I’m crazy about you.

Lashings of love,


“Well, well, well,” said Meredith as he handed back the note. “So that’s the reason for the young man’s reticence. He refused to tell me why he was waiting near the pond. He didn’t want to compromise you, young lady. That was rather nice of him, eh? In view of the circumstances, I mean.”

“Oh, it was marvellous of him!” cried Denise with shining eyes. “Marvellous! But it’s no more than I should have expected of him. Terence is like that. So thoughtful and . . . and so decent about everything.”

“And you were unable to keep the tryst---is that it?” asked Meredith.

Denise nodded miserably.

“The Blot suddenly took it into her head to dictate a whole batch of letters. She kept me at it until well after ten.”

Meredith’s grey eyes twinkled.

“The Blot, I imagine, is your somewhat graphic pseudonym for Mrs. Hagge-Smith?” Denise nodded again. “And so the poor lad hung about there until it was time to meet Mrs. Summers?”

“Yes, I suppose so. I haven’t had the chance to see him since. He probably thinks I didn’t want to meet him.”

“Well, I’ll soon disillusion him on that score, young lady. Don’t you worry. And thank heaven you had the good sense to show me that note. It explains everything. And if anybody dares to link that boy’s name with what happened on Thursday night, you can tell them from me that he’s entirely cleared of suspicion.”

“That’s nice of you,” concluded Denise warmly.

“Well,” said Meredith to Sergeant O’Hallidan, when Denise had left, “that knocks one more off the list. A charming and level-headed young lady. And if Dudley goes the same way as Terence Mildmann we’re back where we started. Mildmann poisoned the girl and then poisoned himself.”

“Oi’ve been thinking, sorr.”

“The devil you have!”

“About the gloves, Oi have.”

“What about the gloves?”

“It was yourself who was wondering how Mildmann could have got rid of his gloves once he was in the car.”

“That’s true.”

“Well now, sorr, will ye consider my theory that Mildmann was only play-acting when he came out of the house. That he didn’t take the poison at all until he was on his way back to the North Lodge. Faith now, an’ it’s a good an’ simple explanation, as you’ll admit.”

“At the moment,” agreed Meredith, “it’s the only explanation. It means that somewhere on that drive home, Mildmann opened the car window, threw away his gloves, closed the window again and then settled back to shuffle off his mortal coil, eh O’Hallidan? Why he did all this we can’t say. Why there were two used glasses beside the decanter we can’t say. Why Mildmann waited until he was in the car before poisoning himself, we can’t say. Why he broke into the desk and removed those letters when he knew he was going to commit suicide, we can’t say. The only thing of which we can be certain was his motive for the crime. It wasn’t only the threat of those letters which worried him. Good God, no! He had something far more unpleasant to conceal. He killed Penelope Parker because she was with child, and he, the High Prophet of this fanatical bunch of High Lifers, was the father of that child!”

“Sure an’ Oi won’t be disagreeing with you about that, sorr.”

Meredith rose and picked up his hat.

“Very well, Sergeant, we’ll put your theory to the test. If Mildmann got rid of those gloves by throwing them out of the car window, there’s a chance that they’re still lying somewhere on the verges of the drive. Suppose we take a slow and careful walk from the North Lodge to the Dower House. After all, if we do find those gloves, we’ve got to approach the whole modus operandi of the crime from a new angle.”


A couple of hours later, after a gruelling, back-aching search, Meredith and O’Hallidan returned to The Leaning Man. They had not found the gloves. Near the Dower House drive-gate, however, lying close to the rhododendron bushes in the long grass, O’Hallidan picked up a child’s water-pistol. The utter irrelevance of this discovery infuriated Meredith. He observed sarcastically:

“We comb the ground for a top-line clue and what do we come back with? Damn it all, Sergeant, a kid’s toy! And don’t you start putting up any airy assumptions about it being connected with the crime. It probably is, but for God’s sake don’t suggest it! The whole set-up’s quite complicated enough as it is. Come on, let’s see if mine host can conjure up a nice strong pot of tea!”

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