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Chapter Nineteen

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« on: August 26, 2023, 04:46:26 am »

MISS Silver was accustomed to feel very piously and sincerely grateful, not only for the success which attended her professional activities, but for the modest comfort which this success had brought her. Part of her gratitude arose from the fact that she regarded it as a privilege to thwart the designs of the evil-doer and to serve the ends of justice, which she would certainly have spelt with a capital letter. Her experience provided many occasions on which through her agency the innocent had been protected and restored. She found a benevolent pleasure in remembering these cases. Garth and Janice Albany had figured in one of them.

On the day after her expedition to Blackheath Miss Silver was sitting by a neat, bright fire in her flat in Montague Mansions. She had almost finished the stocking for Johnny Burkett which she had been knitting in the train on the previous day. As soon as this pair was completed she would begin another, since she had promised her niece Ethel three pairs before Christmas. So extremely fortunate that she had laid in a good stock of this useful wool before the coupon system came in. Not that she had expected anything of the sort---oh, dear me, no---but she remembered only too well the alarming price of knitting-wool during and immediately after the last war, and had accordingly taken precautions. She could therefore make herself responsible for Johnny’s stockings without feeling that she was robbing his brothers, Derek and little Roger, who would also be requiring footwear for the winter.

As she knitted she regarded her room with satisfaction. Very comfortable, very tasteful, very cosy. The prevailing colour was that shade of blue known to the period of Miss Silver’s youth as peacock. The plush curtains, which had cleaned so well and which she had not yet drawn; the carpet which had been turned round so as to bring the worn piece under the bookcase; the upholstery upon the Victorian chairs with their curly walnut legs---all partook of this shade. The big workmanlike desk with its two rows of drawers was of the same shiny yellow wood as the chairs, the colour being again repeated in the maple frames of the engravings which decorated the walls---Bubbles, The Soul’s Awakening, The Black Brunswicker, The Monarch of the Glen. A further selection of these Victorian favourites adorned her bedroom, monotony being avoided by an occasional interchange between the two rooms. Upon the mantelpiece, upon the top of the book-case, and upon a table between the two windows, stood innumerable photographs, most of them framed either in silver or in silver filigree upon plush. There were a great many babies, a good many young mothers, a great many little boys and girls, with here and there a tall young man in uniform---some of them relations, but many of them the people she had helped in her service of Justice and the children who might never have been born if it had not been for that service. It was not only a portrait gallery; it was a record of achievement.

Miss Silver herself, in indoor dress, was seen to possess a good deal of mouse-coloured hair, very neatly plaited at the back and arranged in front in the high curled fringe coming down in a point between the eyebrows popularized by the late Queen Alexandra. After more than thirty years of obsolescence it had some ten years previously enjoyed a fleeting return, but whether it was in the fashion or out of the fashion Miss Silver continued to do her hair that way, the whole being very competently controlled by an invisible net. For the rest, she wore a dress of olive-green wool made high at the neck by a little vest of tucked net with a collar supported at the sides by slips of whalebone. The skirt was of a decorous length, but it disclosed that Miss Silver’s quite neat ankles and feet were encased in black woollen stockings and slippers with beaded toes, how and whence procured only she herself could have said. The olive-green dress was fastened in front by a brooch of bog oak representing a rose, with a pearl in the middle of it. A fine gold chain supported the pince-nez in occasional use for very fine print, but because the use was only occasional, the glasses themselves were looped up on the left-hand side and secured by an old-fashioned bar brooch set with pearls.

At the sound of the telephone bell she balanced Johnny’s stocking on the arm of her chair and went over to the writing-table. As she lifted the receiver, a familiar voice pronounced her name.

“Miss Silver---is that you? Sergeant Abbott speaking from Scotland Yard. I would like to come round and see you if I may.”

“By all means.” Miss Silver’s tone was cordial.

“What about now---would that suit you?”

“Perfectly.”

She had added about three quarters of an inch to the stocking by the time Detective Sergeant Abbott was ushered in, to be received very much as if he had been a well-regarded young relative. That his feelings for Miss Silver were those of respect and affection was evident. For her as for very few people his cool, superior manner thawed into admiration. The ice-blue eyes took on a tinge of warmth. For the rest he was a tall, elegant young man, product of the public school and new Police College. His earliest friends still addressed him as Fug, a nickname prompted by a lavish use of hair-oil at school. He still wore the hair rather long and immaculately slicked back. His dark suit was admirably tailored, his shoes admirably cut and polished. In a public place Miss Silver would have addressed him as Sergeant Abbott, but in the privacy of her flat he was greeted as “My dear Frank.” If the rising young man of Scotland Yard looked up to her in veneration touched with humour, she in her turn considered him to be a very promising pupil.

Compliments passed. They seated themselves. Miss Silver resumed her knitting and enquired, “What can I do for you, Frank?”

Frank Abbott said, “I don’t know.” And then, “Something, I hope---perhaps a good deal---perhaps not.” He produced a pocket-book, took out a scrap of paper, and leaned forward to lay it on her knee. “Do you happen to recognize this?”

Miss Silver laid down her knitting and picked up the scrap of paper. It was roughly triangular in shape, the base not quite two inches across with an uneven edge, the other two sides quite regular. Obviously the corner torn from a sheet of writing-paper. The side she was looking at was blank. She turned it over, and coming away from the base line were, one below the other, the following syllables -ver; -sions; -ham St. She contemplated them with gravity. The second of these two words, or fragments, was heavily smudged.

Frank Abbott said, “Well?”

Miss Silver coughed.

“It is my name, my address, and my handwriting. If you had not recognized all three you would scarcely be here.”

He nodded.

“You wrote them down for someone. Can you remember who it was?”

She had taken up her knitting again. The fragment of paper lay on her knee. Her eyes remained upon it whilst the needles clicked.

“Oh, yes.”

“You can be quite sure?”

Her cough had a trace of rebuke.

“I should not tell you that I remembered if I were not sure.”

“No, I know you wouldn’t. But it’s important. Will you tell me to whom you gave this address, and when, and in what circumstances?”

Miss Silver transferred her attention from the paper triangle to his face.

“I went down to Blackheath yesterday. On my return journey I was alone in a compartment with a Miss Collins---Miss Nellie Collins. She told me she kept a small fancy work shop not far from Blackheath Station, and that she was going up to town to meet someone who she hoped would be able to give her news of a young woman whom she had looked after as a child and whom she now believed to be dead. She had an appointment to meet the person from whom she expected this news under the clock at Waterloo at a quarter to four. When we separated she invited me to come and see her if I should visit Blackheath again. I responded by giving her my own name. She asked me to write it down for her, and I did so. Pray, what has happened to her, Frank?”

He said, “You added your address. Why did you do that? Was it for a personal reason, or---for a professional one?”

“Why do you ask me that?”

There was a glint in the pale blue eyes.

“Because I should like to know whether you wrote down your name and address for a stranger because you felt drawn to her and wanted to see her again, or because you had an idea that she might be wanting your help professionally.”

Miss Silver coughed.

“It was not, I think, quite so definite as that. Pray tell me, is the poor thing dead?”

“I think it likely that she is. At the moment the body has not been identified. I am afraid I may have to ask you----”

Miss Silver inclined her head.

“You had better consider whether that would be the wisest course. She gave me her address, and mentioned that she had a lodger---a Mrs. Smithers. It might be better if formal identification came from her. I would, of course, be willing to identify my fellow traveller, but it might be wiser if that were done privately, and just for the benefit of the police. I think that this may prove to be a very serious matter, Frank. I would like you to tell me a little more. Where was the body found, and where was this scrap of paper found?”

“You gave her your name and address written down on a piece of notepaper. Did you see where she put it?”

“Certainly. She opened her bag and folded it away in a pocket behind a small fitting mirror. Pray, where was it found?”

Sergeant Abbott still delayed to answer this question.

“Your Mrs. Smithers rang up the local police this morning. They notified us, with a description of Miss Collins and her clothes. None of the London hospitals had her. It might have been the merest moonshine. Mrs. Smithers, who had worked up an alarm, said that Miss Collins went up to meet a nameless friend. She might have gone off on the spur of the moment to stay with this friend. It wasn’t really Mrs. Smithers’ business whether she did or whether she didn’t. She had her own latchkey and did for herself. The Blackheath people obviously thought that Miss Collins had gone off on a jaunt. People do that sort of thing every day and can’t imagine why anyone should get hot and bothered about it. Well, late this morning we got a report from Ruislip.”

Miss Silver repeated the name in an enquiring tone.

“Ruislip?”

“On the Harrow line.”

“I am aware of that, Frank. Pray, what sort of report?”

“Road accident. Body found in a lane---elderly woman in a blue coat and skirt---battered black hat with a bunch of blue flowers. Wheels had been over it---wheels had been over the woman. As there was a hard frost, no identifiable tyre prints. Police surgeon says she had been dead at least twelve hours. Lane very lonely and unfrequented. Quite possible for the body to have been there all that time. It was found by a boy who delivers papers. He was bicycling in to collect them. He says he didn’t touch anything, just tumbled off his bike and had a look-see, and made tracks for the police station, where he fetched up at half past seven.” He paused.

Miss Silver had stopped knitting. She said, “Go on.”

“The body was a little on the left of the middle of the lane, on a diagonal slant. It was on its face, hands flung out---very natural attitude. The hat had come off and was lying about a yard away to the right. Handbag quite close to the body on the left. Inside the handbag a plain handkerchief, a fancy pencil, and a purse containing a pound note, eleven and sixpence in silver, some coppers, and the return half of a third-class ticket to Ruislip----”

Miss Silver interrupted.

“In which direction did she appear to have been proceeding---towards Ruislip station or away from it?”

“Away from the station. The lane where she was found is a good mile away from it. To return to the handbag---in a side pocket there was a broken mirror and apparently nothing else, but the constable who was handling it cut his finger on the glass and thought he’d better empty the bits out. He found that scrap of paper amongst them.”

There was a moment’s silence. Miss Silver took up her knitting again.

Frank Abbott went on. If she wanted to say anything she would say it. If she didn’t want to say anything, it was no use waiting. He knew his Miss Silver.

“The bits of words on the paper suggested you, even before I saw the handwriting. Lamb told me to come round and see you.”

Miss Silver inclined her head.

“I hope that Chief Detective Inspector Lamb is well?”

Frank had a momentary picture of his superior officer looking at him in an exasperated manner, his eyes quite extraordinarily like bulls-eyes, and saying in an even more exasperated voice, “Hang that woman! Can’t they so much as have a road accident in Middlesex without her cropping up in the middle of it? Oh, yes, go and see her if you like---and come back with a mare’s nest full of eggs, as likely as not!” He dismissed the pleasing vision, and assured Miss Silver that the Chief was in excellent health.

“A most worthy man,” said Miss Silver, knitting rapidly. Then she asked a question. “How do you suppose the corner was torn from the piece of paper upon which I wrote my address?”

“How big was the original piece?”

“It was a half sheet of small notepaper which she took out of her bag.”

“You saw her put it away in the pocket behind the mirror. Did you notice whether the glass was broken then?”

“I cannot say. The upper edge was intact, but these small mirrors are very easily broken---they seldom survive for very long. And the bag was not a new one, not by any means. It had certainly been in use since before the war. That class of bag is not obtainable now. I think it very unlikely indeed that the mirror was unbroken.”

“In which case that corner might have been caught and torn off when the half sheet was removed. But wouldn’t it have been noticed?”

Miss Silver’s needles clicked.

“By whom, Frank?”

“By the person who thought it worth while to remove that paper. He couldn’t have helped seeing that there was a corner missing---could he?”

“Unless it was done in the dark.”

Frank Abbott whistled.

“After the accident, you mean?”

“After the murder,” said Miss Silver.

This time he did not whistle. The ice-blue eyes narrowed a little. Then he said, “Murder?”

“Certainly.”

“What makes you think so?”

Miss Silver coughed.

“Did you not think so yourself?”

“There was nothing to make me think so.”

She smiled.

“Are you in the habit of discussing an ordinary road accident at so much length?”

“Perhaps not. It was your handwriting that brought me here, and as soon as we began to talk I felt tolerably certain that you had something up your sleeve.”

With the slightest possible change of expression Miss Silver managed to convey the fact that she was not altogether pleased with this figure of speech.

Frank Abbott produced an ingratiating smile.

“You have---haven’t you?”

Johnny’s stocking revolved briskly. Miss Silver said, “Miss Collins talked a good deal in the train. We had the carriage to ourselves. She told me the name of the person she was going to meet. She also told me that she had promised not to disclose this information to anyone. You may think it strange that she should have confided in someone she did not know, but having inadvertently let slip another name---one which she had no reason to suppose I should recognize----”

“You did recognize it?”

“I did. And when she realized this she felt, I think, that it no longer mattered whether she told me the rest.”

“What name did she mention?”

Miss Silver spoke slowly and carefully.

“She told me that she had had the charge of a little girl for some years. When the child was fifteen the father died and she was taken away by a member of a family with whom she was illegitimately connected. That would be ten or eleven years ago. It was whilst she was telling me this that the name of Joyce slipped out and she alluded to the child as Annie.”

Frank Abbott’s face changed.

Miss Silver coughed.

“I see that the name conveys to you what it did to me---Annie Joyce. Miss Collins did not put the two names together. She spoke at one time of Mr. Joyce, and at another of the child as Annie. She lives alone and was obviously in a very excited state and wanting to talk---quite full of her connection with a case which had been in the newspapers and eagerly looking forward to the appointment she was about to keep. As soon as she found that I recognized the name of Joyce she told me all about it.”

“What did she tell you?”

Miss Silver took a moment. Then she said, “Like everyone else, she had read the papers. Of course she realized that the return of Lady Jocelyn implied the death three and a half years ago of Annie Joyce. I think she may have been upset, but she had not seen the girl for ten years, and there was a good deal of excitement mixed up with it. She had led a very humdrum life. The sister who had shared her home and, I gather, dominated her, was dead, her lodger full of her own family affairs. Miss Collins took the step of writing to Lady Jocelyn to ask for an interview, ostensibly for the purpose of hearing all that there was to hear about Annie’s death, but actually, I think, because she saw a chance of being associated with a case which was attracting a good deal of attention.” She paused, and added, “I am sure that the idea of blackmail had never entered her mind.”

Frank Abbott exclaimed.

“Blackmail---Miss Silver!”

“I told you it might be a very serious case.”

He ran his hand back over his hair, already mirror-smooth.

Serious?” he said. “Good Lord---go on!”

Miss Silver frowned slightly upon this form of address. She was indulgent towards the young, but early experience as a governess had left her with a feeling that she was responsible for their manners.

“I have already stated my conviction that poor Miss Collins had no such design, but I fear that she may have conveyed a quite erroneous impression to the person who rang her up.”

“What person?”

“No name was given. Miss Collins told me that she wrote to Lady Jocelyn, I presume at Jocelyn’s Holt, but received no reply from her. Instead a gentleman rang up. He gave no name, but stated that he was speaking for Lady Jocelyn. Miss Collins was, I think, under the impression that she was talking to Sir Philip. She was a good deal fluttered and pleased at the idea, as she had never, so she said, conversed with a baronet before. I tell you this in order that you may realize her state of mind---very simple, fluttered, and excited.”

“Philip Jocelyn---I wonder?” His expression was dubious.

Miss Silver’s needles clicked.

“Quite so, my dear Frank. But on the other hand. . . . We should, I feel, withhold our judgment.”

He nodded.

“Well, someone rang Miss Collins up. What did he say?”

“He asked her whether she had told anyone that she had written about Annie Joyce. She said she had not done so. He made an appointment for her to meet Lady Jocelyn under the clock at Waterloo at a quarter to four yesterday afternoon. She was to hold a newspaper in her left hand so that she might be easily recognized. It was at this point that Miss Collins made what, I fear, was a very sad mistake. She told the man she was talking to that she would recognize Lady Jocelyn anywhere if she was so like Annie, and from that she went on to explain that though the likeness would help her in this way, she would never have been taken in by it. I am not giving you her words, as she was very diffuse, but merely the gist of them. After she had spoken of seeing Lady Jocelyn’s picture in the papers the man asked whether she would have known her from Annie, and she said no, not in the picture, but if she were to see either of them, she would know. He said ‘How?’ and she said, ‘Well, that’s telling!’ It was when she told me this that I became a little uneasy. It was not my business, but I could not help thinking that Miss Collins was unwise to have taken such a tone. Even in repeating what she had said, her intention to hint at special knowledge was quite unmistakable. I asked her how she could be sure that she would always know Annie Joyce from Lady Jocelyn---whether there was, for instance, any distinguishing mark which would certainly identify Miss Joyce. I said it seemed to me that the family was not immediately convinced that it was Lady Jocelyn who had returned to them, in which case any special knowledge possessed by Miss Collins might be very important.”

“You said that?”

“Yes, Frank. When I had done so, she began to talk in quite an excited manner. I am afraid, poor thing, that she was gratified and flattered at the idea that she was the repository of an important secret.”

“What did she say?”

“I will give you her own words as accurately as I can. She said, ‘That’s as good as what I told him. You couldn’t take me in, I said, not if it was ever so.’ Then she said the gentleman laughed very pleasantly and told her she was very positive, and she said of course she was, but she didn’t tell him why. But she said to me that when you had had a child from five years old, and washed it and dressed it and done everything, well, it stood to reason you would know anything there was to know. I do not know how much more she would have said, because just then the train stopped and a crowd of people got in. We had no further conversation of a private nature, but she turned back on the platform and asked me to come and see her next time I was in Blackheath, and I gave her my name and address.”

Frank Abbott was watching her keenly.

“Yes---why did you do that?”

Miss Silver rested her hands upon her knitting.

“I thought that she had been indiscreet. I feared she might have conveyed a false impression. I considered it possible that she might find herself in a difficulty. I did not think that she knew anyone of whom she would willingly seek counsel---I thought it possible that she might be in need of it. Something like that, Frank, but perhaps not quite so definite. It is difficult to avoid being wise when the event has declared itself.”

He was silent for quite a time. Then he said, “It comes to this---Nellie Collins had, or pretended to have, some special information about Annie Joyce. If Annie Joyce is dead, this information wouldn’t be of the slightest interest to anyone---unless the Jocelyns had any lingering doubts as to whether it really was Lady Jocelyn who survived, in which case they would be very glad of corroborative evidence, and grateful to Nellie. There’s no possible motive for murder there. On the other hand, if it was Annie Joyce who survived, and Lady Jocelyn had been dead for three and a half years as her tombstone says, then the woman who took her place would have a motive---wouldn’t she? She would have been playing for a pretty big stake---she would think that she had brought it off. And then up bobs Nellie Collins with her, ‘I washed her and I dressed her, and if there was anything to know about her, I’d know it, wouldn’t I?’ You don’t want a much stronger motive than that.”

Miss Silver said, “No.”

“But it was a man who telephoned to make the appointment----”

“Yes---for Lady Jocelyn.”

“You are quite sure Nellie Collins said that?”

“Quite sure, Frank.”

He pushed back his chair and got up.

“Then it’s a million to one that Lady Jocelyn has a completely unbreakable alibi!

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