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Chapter Thirty-One

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« on: August 27, 2023, 07:04:55 am »

FRANK Abbott removed the receiver from his ear, covered the mouth piece with his hand, and said, “It’s Miss Silver, sir.”

The Chief Inspector’s colour deepened, his eyes bulged. The simile of the peppermint bull’s eye recurred irreverently to his Sergeant.

“Miss Silver?” His voice had a note of exasperation.

Frank nodded.

“What do I say?”

“Who did she ask for?”

“Lady Jocelyn.”

The deepened colour became purple.

“What’s she doing in this? You can’t move for her! I suppose she’s recognized your voice! Ask her what she wants!”

“Do I tell her what’s happened?”

Lamb grunted.

“Ask her first!”

Frank addressed himself to the telephone mellifluously.

“So sorry to keep you waiting. The Chief wondered whether you would mind telling him what you wanted with Lady Jocelyn.”

Miss Silver’s slight reproving cough came to them distinctly. The words which followed were only a murmur as far as Lamb and Philip were concerned.

Frank said, “Yes, I’ll ask him.” He turned again. “She wants to come and see you, sir.”

Lamb jerked his big head.

“Well, I haven’t got time to see her---just tell her that! You needn’t wrap it up too carefully either---I haven’t got time. You can tell her it’s a murder case. Genuine this time. None of her mare’s nests, and I’ll be glad if she’ll keep out of my way and let me get on with the job.”

Trusting that his palm had been sound-proof, Sergeant Abbott proceeded to translate.

“The Chief’s very busy. The fact is there’s a bit of a mess-up here. She’s been shot. . . . Yes, dead. . . . No, not suicide. . . . Yes, we’re up to our necks in it. So you see----”

At the other end of the line Miss Silver coughed in a very firm and determined manner.

“I have something of the utmost importance to communicate. Will you tell the Chief Inspector that I hope to be with him in twenty minutes?”

Frank turned back to the room.

“She’s hung up, sir. She’s coming round. She says she’s got something important. She generally has, you know.”

The Chief Inspector came nearer to swearing than he had done for a good many years. He was a chapel member in good standing, but the strain was considerable.

Nevertheless when Miss Maud Silver arrived the meeting between them was attended by all the rites of old acquaintance and mutual respect. They shook hands. She enquired after his health, after Mrs. Lamb’s health, after his three daughters, for whom he had a heart as soft as butter. She remembered which of them was in the A.T.S., the Wrens, the W.A.A.Fs. She remembered that it was Lily who was engaged to be married.

Under this soothing treatment Frank Abbott observed his Chief relax. “And the marvellous part is that it isn’t put on. She’s really interested. She really wants to know about Lily’s young man, and whether Violet is going to get a commission. He’d see through it like a flash if she was putting it on. But she isn’t, she doesn’t---she really wants to know. Astounding woman, Maudie.”

Lamb put a period to the compliments by saying, “Well, I’ve got my hands rather full, Miss Silver. What did you want to see me about?”

They were alone in the flat. Philip Jocelyn had gone back to the War Office. Miss Silver selected a small upright chair and sat down. The two men followed her example.

Frank Abbott, who could make himself a great deal more useful than anyone would have supposed, had tidied up the hearth. He had also lighted the fire. Miss Silver regarded it with approbation, and remarked that the weather was really very cold for the time of year, after which she coughed and addressed herself to Lamb.

“I was very much shocked to hear of this new fatality. I feared that she was in danger, but I had, of course, no idea that a catastrophe was imminent.”

“Well, I don’t know about a catastrophe, Miss Silver. She wasn’t up to any good, you know. Or perhaps, for once, there’s something you don’t know. Just between you and me and Frank here---I know I can trust you not to talk---she was an enemy agent.”

“Dear me! How extremely shocking! I suspected something of the sort, but of course there was no proof.”

“Oh, you suspected it, did you? Why?”

To Frank Abbott, Miss Silver’s manner indicated that she considered the Chief Inspector to be lacking in what might be called the finer shades of courtesy. She said a little primly, “It is difficult to say just how an impression is received. As I said, there was no proof at all, but I thought she must have had some guilty knowledge in the matter of poor Miss Collins----”

“Accident,” interjected Lamb---“pure accident.”

Miss Silver coughed.

“I think not. It occurred to me that Lady Jocelyn----”

Lamb interrupted again.

“Sir Philip says she wasn’t Lady Jocelyn---says she wasn’t his wife---says she was the other woman there was all the talk about, Annie Joyce.”

“That does not surprise me. Lady Jocelyn could have no interest in the death of Nellie Collins. Annie Joyce might have had a very vital interest. Miss Collins undoubtedly knew of some distinguishing mark which would have enabled her to recognize the child she had brought up. This would give Annie Joyce a very strong motive.”

Lamb gave one of his grunts.

“I don’t know---you may be right. I’ll tell the police surgeon to look out for distinguishing marks. Well, you haven’t said how you got your ‘impression.’ ”

“From the whole circumstances, I think. I formed the opinion that an impersonation was probably taking place, and it struck me that it would have been very difficult for Annie Joyce to have planned it and carried it out without assistance. How did she know that Sir Philip was in England? She did know, because she rang up Jocelyn’s Holt from Westhaven and asked for him. After Miss Collins’ death I looked up the accounts in the Press again. I was struck by the coincidence of a lost wife turning up from occupied France just as Sir Philip was about to take up a confidential post at the War Office. His work is, I believe, very confidential.”

“And who told you that?” said Lamb.

Miss Silver smiled at him.

“You do not really expect an answer, do you? . . . To return to what I was saying. I could not help thinking that it would be very useful to the Germans if they could plant an agent in Sir Philip Jocelyn’s household. In fact, I thought her appearance a little too well timed.”

Lamb sat looking at her. She wore the old black jacket with its narrow shoulders and worn fur collar, the neat dowdy felt hat with its small bunch of purple pansies on the left-hand side. Her hands in their shabby black kid gloves were folded in her lap. He was thinking, “Looks as if ten bob would buy her up, but there’s something about her---you can’t get from it.” He said, “Well, that’s that---she was an enemy agent all right. She drugged Sir Philip last night and went through his papers. Seems he suspected her, and they were a fake lot. Military Intelligence went through them for fingerprints and found hers all over the place. We come in to arrest her, and there she is, by the table in the study, shot through the head. The question is, did Sir Philip catch her at his case and shoot her out of hand? Some men might. I’m bound to say he doesn’t look that kind to me.”

Miss Silver coughed.

“If the papers were not genuine, there would be very little motive for his shooting her. He might have done so if he had suddenly discovered that she was an enemy agent, but not if, as I understand, he knew that already and was a party to the trap which had been laid for her.”

“Um---that’s a point. Yes, there’s something in that. Anyhow he says he left her alive. They both had coffee---her bedroom was done but not his---the grate in here was all in a mess. The police surgeon says she’d been dead some hours at least. We’ll know more about that later. Well, Sir Philip starts out at twenty to nine. The porter saw him go. Says he’d just looked at his watch because he was expecting workmen round to see to the skylight on this floor---it was warped, and the blackout wouldn’t stay put---so he was about and taking notice at the time. He says Sir Philip went off at twenty to, and he says he was looking queer. The men he was expecting came in at nine o’clock and went upstairs. From then on, there they were until half-past twelve, right outside this flat---nobody could go in or out without their seeing them, and nobody did go in or out. We got on to the men, and they’re positive about that.”

Miss Silver said, “Dear me----” in a meditative manner.

Frank Abbott considered his Chief’s superior tone a little overdone as he continued.

“That narrows things down a bit---you’ll admit that, I suppose. She must have been dead before the men came at nine. That gives twenty minutes after Sir Philip left for someone to have got in and shot her and got away again. The porter was hanging about looking out for his men, and he says he didn’t see anyone.”

Miss Silver coughed.

“No doubt you pressed him on this point. People are very apt to say they haven’t seen anyone, when what they really mean is that they have not seen anyone whom it would occur to them to suspect.”

“Quite so. And, as you say, I pressed him. Actually, three people went up and came down again whilst he was waiting for the workmen---the postman, whom he knows personally, a boy delivering milk, and a man from the laundry.”

“Had the milk been taken in?”

“No, it hadn’t. That looks as if she was dead by the time it came.”

“For which flat was the laundry?”

“He doesn’t know. It was just after Sir Philip went, and he was at the back of the hall. The man went past with the laundry-basket on his head---he didn’t take any more notice than that. Three of the flats have new tenants---he doesn’t know where they go for their laundry.”

Miss Silver coughed and said, “Quite so.”

Lamb banged his knee.

“Look here, you don’t suggest that a perfectly strange laundryman comes in here, knows just where to put his hand on Sir Philip’s revolver, shoots the woman and goes off again with the weapon, all inside of five or six minutes?”

Miss Silver coughed again.

“It does not take very long to shoot anyone. Sir Philip’s revolver may not have been used. If she considered herself to be in danger she may have tried to get hold of it---she would, of course, know where it was. After committing the crime it would, perhaps, occur to the murderer that he might throw suspicion on Sir Philip by removing it. This is, however, mere speculation.”

Lamb gave his robust laugh.

“I’m glad you admit that!”

“I would like to know whether the laundryman was seen coming down again.”

“Yes, he was. The porter was answering a ‘phone call, so he only saw him out of the tail of his eye.”

“Had he still got the laundry-basket on his head?”

“Well, he would have, wouldn’t he? He’d bring back the clean clothes and take away the dirty ones. And it’s no good asking me any more about it, because that’s all I know. You can ask the porter, but you won’t find he knows any more either. No---the way it looks to me, the one that had the motive and the opportunity is Sir Philip. You may say that the motive isn’t strong enough---and there’s something in that. But the circumstances are all very suspicious. Here’s one of them. He was at the War Office from nine to half past twelve---we’ve checked up on that---but he walks in at Mrs. Perry Jocelyn’s flat at a quarter to one, sees Miss Armitage, doesn’t see anyone else---it’s one of those L-shaped rooms, and they’re round the corner---and says, ‘Anne’s dead.’ Doesn’t say any more because he realizes there are other people there, just turns round and walks out again. Now unless she was dead before he left this flat he couldn’t have known about it. His explanation is that he meant something quite different---meant, in fact, that he was now certain that it was his wife who had died three years ago. What do you think of that?”

“He said it to Miss Armitage, thinking that they were alone?”

“So I understand. Mind you, he didn’t say so---he left Miss Armitage out of it. I’m putting in what Miss Jocelyn said. She rang up to ask what had happened. It was she who mentioned Miss Armitage.”

Miss Silver coughed.

“It must have given her a great shock, poor girl. She does not look at all strong.”

“Do you know her?”

“I have met her. A very charming girl.”

“Do you mean there’s something between her and Sir Philip? Looks as if there might be, his running off to her like that. Look here, if that’s the case, he’d have a very serious motive. Say he’s tied up to this woman---doesn’t know if she’s his wife or not, but can’t prove she isn’t---there would be a very serious motive there.” He paused, and added, “His revolver’s gone. He admits it was there last night. What do you make of that?”

Miss Silver declined to make anything of it at all. She opined that it was a very interesting case, and that it was without doubt in the most capable of hands. Having permitted a perfectly genuine note of admiration to appear in her voice, she gave him a friendly smile and said, “It is so good of you to let me know just how matters stand. I am really very much interested, especially after the rather curious thing which happened yesterday.”

Frank Abbott felt a lively curiosity. What sort of rabbit was Maudie going to bring out of the hat? He had an inward spasm as he thought how much the simile would have shocked her. Or would it? You never knew with Maudie.

If Lamb felt any curiosity he didn’t show it. His tone was off-hand and casual as he said, “Oh, yes---there’s something you wanted to tell me.”

Miss Silver’s manner became faintly tinged with reproof.

“There was something I felt it my duty to tell you.”

“Well, let’s have it. I’ll have to be getting along.”

The reproof became a little more definite. The Chief Inspector had the fleeting illusion that he was back in school and was perhaps about to be rebuked. It was so strong that for a moment he saw quite plainly the village schoolroom where he had learned the three R’s---the long bare room, the rows of forms, the red-cheeked country children, the small-paned windows standing open to a summer sky and the buzz of bees, the blackboard, the teacher’s face. . . . Old Miss Payne---he hadn’t thought of her for years. . . . It came and went in a flash, but he found himself sitting up and looking respectfully at Miss Silver, who was addressing him.

“---yesterday afternoon. The sun came through for a moment, and I went over to the window and looked out. Lady Jocelyn---I will call her that for convenience---was coming down the street.”

“What?”

Miss Silver inclined her head.

“She stopped on the opposite pavement and stood there looking up at Montague Mansions. She remained like that for some time, just standing there and looking up. She could not see me of course, as I took care to stand behind the curtain. I do not know whether she had the half-formed intention of coming in. If she had done so she might still be alive. She may have been too deeply implicated, or she may have thought that her danger was not so pressing as it has proved to have been, but I have ascertained that she had rung up Mrs. Garth Albany---you will remember her as Janice Meade---and obtained my address. Garth Albany is a connection. It was in their house that I met Miss Armitage.”

Lamb was looking at her with a kind of frowning intensity.

“Is that all?”

“By no means. Lady Jocelyn had been followed.”

Lamb said, “What!” again, this time more sharply.

“By a girl in a shabby brown coat with a brown and purple scarf tied over her head. She was quite young, not over seventeen years of age I should say, and she had come out in a hurry, because she was wearing indoor shoes. She went up into the porch of one of the opposite houses and watched Lady Jocelyn from there.”

“Look here, how do you know it was Lady Jocelyn?”

“Reproductions of her portrait by Amory were in all the papers at the time of her return from France. Her identity is really not in question. Apart from everything else, her manner when I spoke to her of the occurrence----”

“You spoke to her?”

“On the telephone---but I will come to that presently. As I knew that the police were now satisfied that Miss Collins’ death was due to a road accident, and that they were no longer interested in Lady Jocelyn, the fact that she was being followed attracted my attention. In any case, the young girl I had seen would not have been employed in a police case. I thought the matter curious and somewhat alarming. My valued maid, Emma Meadows, was on the point of going out to the post. I asked her to follow the girl, and if possible to find out where she went.”

“Well?”

“She kept both her and Lady Jocelyn in sight until the latter hailed a passing taxi. I think there is no doubt that she came straight back to this flat. The girl turned round and retraced her steps. Emma followed her, but unfortunately lost sight of her a little later at a crowded corner. When she got through the crowd herself---she is elderly and rather stout---the girl was nowhere to be seen. She may have gone into a shop, or she may have got on a bus.”

“What street was this?”

Miss Silver told him, and Frank Abbott wrote it down. She continued.

“Later on, after tea, I rang Lady Jocelyn up.”

“Why did you do that?”

“On thinking the matter over carefully I had come to the conclusion that if she was being shadowed, it was in all probability at the instance of someone other than the police. When I asked myself in whose interest it would be to keep her under observation, the answer was quite simple. I had reason to believe that she had illegal associates---I found it quite impossible to accept the conclusions of the police with regard to the death of Miss Collins---and it occurred to me that if her associates, already sufficiently distrustful to have her watched, were to believe that she had formed the intention of approaching me, she would be in very grave danger. My name is not known to the public, but, especially since the Harsch case, it may have become known to those with whom Lady Jocelyn was entangled. After thinking the matter over I decided to warn her. If she had any intention of abandoning her associates, I felt that she should be encouraged to do so.”

“Well, you rang her up. What did she say?”

Miss Silver shook her head gravely.

“Her mood had altered. She assumed a confident tone and declared that she did not know what I was talking about. I offered to come and see her, and there was, I believe, a moment when she hesitated, but in the end she rang off quickly. I think she was afraid, but I think she had made up her mind to go through with what she was doing.”

Lamb got to his feet with a grunt.

“Well, it doesn’t get us much farther, does it?”

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