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20: Mr. Dudley Talks

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Author Topic: 20: Mr. Dudley Talks  (Read 3 times)
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« on: May 25, 2023, 11:04:47 am »

IT was about half-an-hour later when a police car, driven by a uniformed constable, swished into the courtyard of the inn. Meredith had once more arranged to have the landlord’s private parlour placed at his disposal, and in a few minutes he, O’Hallidan, Inspector Baker of Hitchin and Mr. Dudley were snugly behind its closed doors. The latter, a well-built, middle-aged man, looked tired and worried. But Meredith liked at once his open expression and unaggressive manner. Right from the start it was evident that Dudley was prepared to be as helpful and outspoken as the occasion demanded. Ordering O’Hallidan to take down a verbatim report of the interview, Meredith began his cross-examination.

“You realise why Inspector Baker asked you to come down here and make a statement, Mr. Dudley?”

“Only too well, I’m afraid.”

“And you’re prepared to answer my questions?”

“To the best of my ability---yes.”

“Very well. Information has come to hand which suggests that you paid a visit to the Dower House last Thursday evening. That you saw Miss Parker for a few minutes shortly before she was found dead in her sitting-room. And that, subsequently, you left the house by the french windows and returned to your car which you had left on the road to the south of the park. Is this correct?”

“Perfectly correct. May I say ‘startlingly’ correct?”

“This wasn’t your first visit to the Dower House?”

“No. I had come down on two previous occasions after . . . er . . . Miss Parker had moved from Welworth.”

“And on one of those occasions a young man came into the room where you were waiting for Miss Parker?”

“He did.”

“And may I suggest that on each of these occasions, Mr. Dudley, you managed to slip into the house without the knowledge of the domestic staff?”

“That’s perfectly true.”

“But why?”

Dudley smiled, uttered a weary little sigh and leaned back with an air of resignation in his armchair.

“Look here, Inspector---you already appear to know a good deal about my recent movements and my attempts to make contact with Miss Parker. Wouldn’t it save time if I told you the whole story from A to Z?---the circumstances which have prompted me to act as I have, the reasons for my somewhat underhand behaviour, a full, straight-from-the-shoulder statement, in fact?”

“Nothing would suit me better,” said Meredith approvingly. “That is if you’re prepared to----”

“I’m prepared to tell you everything!” exclaimed Dudley, suddenly raising his voice and emerging from his previous lethargy. “What can I gain now by concealing any of the details? I’ve acted like a damned fool! I admit it. And now, like any other damned fool, I’ve got to take the rap. But believe me, Inspector, I refuse to look on myself as a criminal fool. A misguided one, perhaps. You see, I’m one of those unhappy devils to whom providence delights in dealing out one shabby hand after another. Five years ago the barometer of my existence seemed to be at ‘set fair’. But now . . . well, it’s no good whining. I’ll cut the cackle and come to the goose, eh?” He was now sitting bolt-upright in his chair, obviously in a state of acute nervous tension, yet in perfect control of his speech and emotions. He went on jerkily: “Five years ago I was a contented married man. I was interested in my job as a chartered accountant. I was deeply in love with my wife and I fondly imagined that she was as deeply in love with me. That was my first illusion. She wasn’t. I found it out by degrees. A tiff here, an argument there, an ever-increasingly critical attitude to all I said and did. I’m an ordinary average sort of chap, as you may have gathered. I’m interested in the ordinary average things of life. Well, my wife wasn’t. I say ‘wasn’t’ advisedly, because she’s now dead and---beyond the reach of my abortive attempts to bridge the gulf between us.”

“Good God!” rapped out Meredith. “You mean to say----?”

Dudley nodded wearily.

“Yes. Penelope Parker was my wife. When she left me, she retook her maiden name and did her damnedest to forget that she’d ever been Mrs. John Keith Dudley. The trouble was, Inspector, she ‘got religion’. She got it badly. De mortuis nil nisi bonum and all the rest of it, but I can’t be less than honest with you. I went through hell on account of Penelope’s high-flying notions. I wasn’t tuned up to lead the Higher Life. To her I wasn’t far short of a gross and unteachable savage. Well, I won’t drivel on about our wretched married life. I only thank heaven there weren’t any children to complicate matters. Two years ago she left me and went to live at Welworth Garden City. She chose Welworth, needless to say, because it was the Mecca of Cooism---the one place where she felt she could spread her wings and soar onto the High Plane or whatever they call it.” Dudley paused, mopped his brow, sank back again into his chair and went on brokenly: “The hell of it was that I still loved her to distraction! Once or twice I was driven in desperation to see her and plead with her to return. Oh, I admit she wasn’t exactly unsympathetic, but I couldn’t shake her. She was devoting her life to a cause and I no longer entered into the picture. That was her argument in a nut-shell. Me versus the Higher Life. And the Higher Life won all along the line! Then one day, after some hesitation, she confessed that she had fallen in love with a member of her confounded religion. You can guess, of course, to whom I refer?”

“Naturally,” said Meredith. “To Eustace Mildmann---the late C in C of the Movement.”

Dudley sat up with a jerk and stared at the inspector with an expression of incredulity.

“Mildmann? Good heavens! What are you talking about? She didn’t give a damn about him except as leader of the cult! It was that dago she’d fallen for, that slimy two-faced wog, Penpeti!”

“You’re sure?” demanded Meredith sharply.

“Am I sure?” cried Dudley with a scowl of exasperation. “Haven’t I watched her making a fool of herself with him for months? Haven’t I had his virtues flung in my face every time I visited her? Of course it was Penpeti. I believe Mildmann made a few innocent advances, but he meant nothing to her as a man. You can imagine how I felt. If she’d fallen for a decent upstanding sort of chap, perhaps I shouldn’t have taken it so hardly. But that dolled-up apology for a man gets me under the collar!”

“You met him at the house?”

“No---never face to face. But I used to hang about the place to watch his comings and goings. Penpeti never realised I was watching him. Hitchin is only a few miles from Welworth and it was easy for me to drive over and act the amateur detective. And in the end . . . well, I just lost control. I decided to---shall I say?---erase him.”

Meredith consulted the dossier which Inspector Duffy had forwarded the day before.

“With the result,” he observed, “that on the night of Saturday, December the third of last year you made an attempt on his life in an unfrequented lane known as Mayblossom Cut.”

“Good heavens! Is there anything you don’t know, Inspector?”

“Little enough in broad outline,” said Meredith with a smile. “But quite a lot in detail.”

“All right. I’ll tell you just how that happened. I never meant to make the attempt that night. It was just chance. I’d driven over to Welworth with the intention of making yet one more appeal to my wife to give this fellow up. Just outside the big corset factory there, I had a tyre burst. And while I was changing the wheel, I’m damned if I didn’t see Penpeti himself entering the building with a girl. I learnt that there was a dance on in the factory and, in a sudden fit of fury at his hypocrisy, I decided to wait for him to come out. For some time past I’d been carrying an automatic, so I realised I was all set to act if the opportunity occurred. Well, when Penpeti came out I heard him arranging to take the girl home via Mayblossom Cut. I knew it was a deserted and badly-lighted spot, so I jumped into the car and . . .” Dudley paused, slowly shook his head and said in a dull voice: “But why go on? You seem to know the rest of the story.”

“Quite,” agreed Meredith. “But do you, Mr. Dudley?”

“What the devil do you mean?”

“Do you realise that the man you attempted to kill that night was not Penpeti.”

“Not Penpeti? What on earth are you talking about?”

In a few brisk sentences Meredith explained. Dudley was flabbergasted. More than once he muttered: “I’d no idea. No idea at all!” At length he said:

“Then the fact that my shot was not fatal is luckier even than I suspected.” He was thinking, too, of that night when the knife he had thrown had missed Penpeti’s head by inches. But of that incident he was not going to speak. He went on: “To have killed Penpeti would have probably put a noose about my neck, but at least I should have had the grim satisfaction of knowing that the fellow was beyond the reach of my wife. On the other hand, to have killed an innocent young man by mistake . . . no, thank God! My aim was too low.”

“And that same night you visited your wife?”

“Yes---before I drove back to Hitchin.”

“And then?”

“I kept clear of Welworth for a time. My description as a wanted man was in the local papers, though the name of my victim was not publicly divulged. I soon realised that whatever had happened to Penpeti, he was still very much alive. Only two days later I saw that he had given a lecture in the town. And then I learnt about this impending conference and Penelope’s intention to take up temporary residence at the Dower House. Once more---you see what a persistent fool I am?---I made contact with her. I pleaded with her to give up all this religious nonsense and make a home with me again. She flatly refused. But I was still unprepared to take no for an answer. Finally, on Thursday night, we had a violent quarrel and, for the first time, I realised the hopelessness of my position. She spoke again of Penpeti and suggested a divorce.” Dudley slowly shook his head, his face devoid of expression. The weight of his misfortunes seemed to overwhelm him. Then he added quietly: “You see, Inspector, that night she told that she was going to have a baby and that Penpeti was the father.”

“Penpeti!” cried Meredith. “So he was responsible for your wife’s condition. Not Mildmann.”

“So you know all about----?”

Meredith nodded.

“Yes. I naturally received a full medical report from the police surgeon. But I never suspected Penpeti. What you’ve just told me, Mr. Dudley, alters the whole aspect of the case. Thank heaven you decided to make a full statement. And now, with regard to your exact movements on Thursday night?”

Dudley gave a wry smile.

“This is the part that really matters, eh?”

“How did you approach the Dower House?”

“As you know, I parked my car on the road to the south of Old Cowdene. I managed to get into the Dower House garden, without being seen.”

“What time was this?”

“Just after eight-thirty.”

“And you entered the house---how?”

“Through one of the hall windows. You see, Inspector, by then I knew pretty well where everybody would be at that hour. The domestic staff having supper in the kitchen. My wife at dinner over at the Manor. It was all dead simple.”

“And then you went up to your wife’s room?”

“Yes---and hung about there waiting for her return.”

“Did you smoke?”

“Yes. A cigar. It helped to steady my nerves.”

“And then?”

“Well, about half-past nine Penelope walked in. I’ve already explained what happened. She told me about the child that was on the way and asked me to divorce her. I confess I lost my temper then. I told the poor girl just what I thought of her and Penpeti! After that I walked out, intending to leave the same way as I’d entered.”

“And you didn’t?”

“No. I was just getting through the hall window when I saw somebody coming up the drive. Although it was nearly dark, I had no difficulty in identifying the visitor. It was, of course, Penpeti.”

“And then?”

“I had to act quickly because I didn’t want to meet the fellow. If I met him face to face, I was frightened of losing my self-control. So I dodged into a room to the side of the house and let myself out through some french windows.”

“And the time then would be?”

“About a quarter to ten. I can’t say with any accuracy.”

“And you managed to get away from the house without being seen?”

Dudley hesitated and then said cautiously:

“I can’t give a hard and fast answer to that question. On my way out I took the path that led by the gardener’s cottage. As I went by I thought I saw faces at the window. I may have been wrong, of course. But that was my impression.”

“Quite right,” said Meredith briskly. “You were seen. By both the gardener and his wife. Shortly before ten o’clock, Mr. Dudley.”

“I see,” said Dudley.

“Shortly before ten o’clock,” repeated Meredith with emphasis.

“I don’t . . . er . . . follow.”

“The point I’m trying to make is this. You let yourself out through the french windows, on your own evidence, at about a quarter to ten. The gardener’s cottage, as I happen to know, is less than a hundred yards from the house. Do you realise, Mr. Dudley, that you took at least ten minutes to cover that hundred yards. Not exactly a world record, is it?”

“I hid for some time in a clump of shrubs just outside the window. I wanted to make sure that Penpeti was inside the house before I attempted to get away.”

Meredith said with a penetrating glance:

“You’re quite sure, Mr. Dudley, that during those ten minutes, you didn’t return to your wife’s room?”

“Most certainly I didn’t!”

“Tell me, did you happen to notice a tray of drinks when you were in the room? A decanter and a set of glasses?”

Dudley replied with a bewildered expression:

“I may have done. I really can’t say. I wasn’t in a particularly observant mood, but I’ve a vague idea that there was a tray of drinks set out on a small table somewhere in the room.”

“I see.” Meredith suddenly got to his feet. “Well, that’s about all I wanted to ask, Mr. Dudley. I’m glad you’ve been so frank. Sergeant O’Hallidan will escort you out to the car. I want to have a private word with Inspector Baker.”

The moment Dudley had gone out, Baker asked:

“What do you make of him?”

“My instinctive reaction is to take him at his word. My professional caution warns me that he could have slipped back into the house during that ten minutes lapse. You’ll be holding him in the interim, I imagine?”

Baker nodded.

“A warrant has been drawn up for his arrest on a charge of attempted murder. He’s bound to get a stretch for that Mayblossom Cut affair. My personal feeling is that the poor devil has been the victim of circumstances. I’ve an idea that he’s been telling us the truth.”
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