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Chapter 4 - Murder

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« on: December 19, 2022, 06:30:19 am »

They went slowly back to the house. Meggie went straight up to her room, and Abbershaw joined the others in the hall.

The invalid’s corner was empty, chair and all had disappeared.

Wyatt was doing his best to relieve any feeling of constraint amongst his guests, assuring them that his uncle’s heart attacks were by no means infrequent and asking them to forget the incident if they could.

Nobody thought of the dagger. It seemed to have vanished completely. Abbershaw hesitated, wondering if he should mention it, but finally decided not to, and he joined in the half-hearted, fitful conversation.

By common consent everyone went to bed early. A depression had settled over the spirits of the company, and it was well before midnight when once again the great candle-ring was let down from the ceiling and the hall left again in darkness. Up in his room Abbershaw removed his coat and waistcoat, and, attiring himself in a modestly luxurious dressing-gown, settled down in the armchair before the fire to smoke a last cigarette before going to bed. The apprehension he had felt all along had been by no means lessened by the events of the last hour or so.

He believed Meggie’s story implicitly: she was not the kind of girl to fabricate a story of that sort in any circumstances, and besides the whole atmosphere of the building after he had returned from the garage had been vaguely suggestive and mysterious. There was something going on in the house that was not ordinary, something that as yet he did not understand, and once again the face of the absurd young man with the horn-rimmed spectacles flashed into his mind and he strove vainly to remember where he had seen it before.

His meditations were cut short by the sound of footsteps in the passage outside, and the next moment there was a discreet tap at his door.

Abbershaw rose and opened it, to discover Michael Prenderby, the young, newly-qualified M.D., standing fully dressed in the doorway. The boy looked worried, and came into the room quickly, shutting the door behind him after he had glanced up and down the corridor outside as if to make certain that he had not been followed. ‘Forgive the melodrama,’ he said, ‘but there’s something darn queer going on in this place. Have a cigarette?’

Abbershaw looked at him shrewdly. The hand that held the cigarette-case out to him was not too steady, and the facetiousness of the tone was belied by the expression of anxiety in his eyes.

Michael Prenderby was a fair, slight young man, with a sense of humour entirely unexpected. To the casual observer he was an inoffensive, colourless individual, and his extraordinary spirit and strength of character were known only to his friends.

Abbershaw took a cigarette and indicated a chair. ‘Let’s have it,’ he said. ‘What’s up?’

Prenderby lit a cigarette and pulled at it vigorously, then he spoke abruptly. ‘In the first place,’ he said, ‘the old bird upstairs is dead.’

Abbershaw’s blue-grey eyes flickered, and the thought which had lurked at the back of his mind ever since Meggie’s story in the garden suddenly grew into a certainty. ‘Dead?’ he said. ‘How do you know?’

‘They told me.’ Prenderby’s pale face flushed slightly. ‘The private medico fellow—Whitby, I think his name is—came up to me just as I was coming to bed; he asked me if I would go up with him and have a look at the old boy.’

He paused awkwardly, and Abbershaw suddenly realized that it was a question of professional etiquette that was embarrassing him.

‘I thought they’d be bound to have got you up there already,’ the boy continued, ‘so I chased up after the fellow and found the Colonel stretched out on the bed, face covered up and all that. Gideon was there too, and as soon as I got up in the room I grasped what it was they wanted me for. Mine was to be the signature on the cremation certificate.’

‘Cremation? They’re in a bit of a hurry, aren’t they?’

Prenderby nodded. ‘That’s what I thought, but Gideon explained that the old boy’s last words were a wish that he should be cremated and the party should continue, so they didn’t want to keep the body in the house a moment longer than was absolutely necessary.’

‘Wanted the party to go on?’ repeated Abbershaw stupidly. ‘Absurd!’

The young doctor leant forward. ‘That’s not all by any means,’ he said. ‘When I found what they wanted, naturally I pointed out that you were the senior man and should be first approached. That seemed to annoy them both. Old Whitby, who was very nervous, I thought, got very upstage and talked a lot of rot about “Practising M.D.s”, but it was the foreigner who got me into the really unpleasant hole. He pointed out, in that disgustingly sticky voice he has, that I was a guest in the house and could hardly refuse such a simple request. It was all damn cheek, and very awkward, but eventually I decided to rely on your decency to back me up and so . . .’ He paused.

‘Did you sign?’ Abbershaw said quickly.

Prenderby shook his head. ‘No,’ he said with determination, adding explanatorily: ‘They wouldn’t let me look at the body?’

‘What?’ Abbershaw was startled. Everything was tending in the same direction. The situation was by no means a pleasant one.

‘You refused?’ he said.

‘Rather.’ Prenderby was inclined to be angry. ‘Whitby talked a lot of the usual bilge—trotted out all the good old phrases. By the time he’d finished, the poor old bird on the bed must have been dead about a year and a half according to him. But he kept himself between me and the bed, and when I went to pull the sheet down, Gideon got in my way deliberately. Whitby seemed to take it as a personal insult that I should think even an ordinary examination necessary. And then I’m afraid I lost my temper and walked out.’

He paused, and looked at the older man awkwardly. ‘You see,’ he said, with a sudden burst of confidence, ‘I’ve never signed a cremation certificate in my life, and I didn’t feel like starting on an obviously fishy case. I only took my finals a few months ago, you know.’

‘Oh, quite right, quite right.’ Abbershaw spoke with conviction. ‘I wonder what they’re doing?’

Prenderby grinned. ‘You’ll probably find out,’ he said dryly. ‘They’ll come to you now. They thought I should be easier to manage, but having failed—and since they’re in such a hurry—I should think you were for it. It occurred to me to nip down and warn you.’

‘Good of you. Thanks very much.’ Abbershaw spoke genuinely. ‘It’s a most extraordinary business. Did it look like heart failure?’

Prenderby shrugged his shoulders. ‘My dear fellow, I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I didn’t even see the face. If it was heart failure why shouldn’t I examine him? It’s more than fishy, you know, Abbershaw. Do you think we ought to do anything?’

‘No. That is, not at the moment.’ George Abbershaw’s round and chubby face had suddenly taken on an expression which immediately altered its entire character. His mouth was firm and decided, and there was confidence in his eyes. In an instant he had become the man of authority, eminently capable of dealing with any situation that might arise.

‘Look here,’ he said, ‘if you’ve just left them they’ll be round for me any moment. You’d better get out now, so that they don’t find us together. You see,’ he went on quickly, ‘we don’t want a row here, with women about and that sort of thing; besides, we couldn’t do anything if they turned savage. As soon as I get to town I can trot along and see old Deadwood at the Yard and get everything looked into without much fuss. That is, of course, once I’ve satisfied myself that there is something tangible to go upon. So if they press me for that signature I think I shall give it ’em. You see, I can arrange an inquiry afterwards if it seems necessary. It’s hardly likely they’ll get the body cremated before we can get on to ’em. I shall go up to town first thing in the morning.’

‘That’s the stuff,’ said Prenderby with enthusiasm. ‘If you don’t mind, I’ll drop down on you afterwards to hear how things have progressed. Hullo!’

He paused, listening. ‘There’s someone coming down the passage now,’ he said. ‘Look here, if it’s all the same to you I’ll continue the melodrama and get into that press.’ He slipped into the big wardrobe at the far end of the room and closed the carved door behind him just as the footsteps paused in the passage outside and someone knocked.

On opening the door, Abbershaw found, as he had expected, Dr. Whitby on the threshold. The man was in a pitiable state of nerves. His thin grey hair was damp and limp upon his forehead, and his hands twitched visibly.

‘Dr. Abbershaw,’ he began, ‘I am sorry to trouble you so late at night, but I wonder if you would do something for us.’

‘My dear sir, of course.’ Abbershaw radiated good humour, and the other man warmed immediately.

‘I think you know,’ he said, ‘I am Colonel Coombe’s private physician. He has been an invalid for some years, as I dare say you are aware. In point of fact, a most unfortunate thing has happened, which although we have known for some time that it must come soon, is none the less a great shock. Colonel Coombe’s seizure this evening has proved fatal.’

Abbershaw’s expression was a masterpiece: his eyebrows rose, his mouth opened.

‘Dear, dear! How very distressing!’ he said with that touch of pomposity which makes a young man look more foolish than anything else. ‘Very distressing,’ he repeated, as if another thought had suddenly struck him. ‘It’ll break up the party, of course.’

Dr. Whitby hesitated. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘we had hoped not.’

‘Not break up the party?’ exclaimed Abbershaw, looking so profoundly shocked that the other hastened to explain.

‘The deceased was a most eccentric man,’ he murmured confidentially. ‘His last words were a most urgently expressed desire for the party to continue.’

‘A little trying for all concerned,’ Abbershaw commented stiffly.

‘Just so,’ said his visitor. ‘That is really why I came to you. It has always been the Colonel’s wish that he should be cremated immediately after his decease, and, as a matter of fact, all preparations have been made for some time. There is just the formality of the certificate, and I wonder if I might bother you for the necessary signature.’

He hesitated doubtfully, and shot a glance at the little red-haired man in the dressing-gown. But Abbershaw was ready for him.

‘My dear sir, anything I can do, of course. Let’s go up there now, shall we?’

All traces of nervousness had vanished from Whitby’s face, and a sigh of relief escaped his lips as he escorted the obliging Dr. Abbershaw down the long, creaking corridor to the Colonel’s room.

It was a vast old-fashioned apartment, high-ceilinged, and not too well lit. Panelled on one side, it was hung on the other with heavy curtains, ancient and dusty. Not at all the sort of room that appealed to Abbershaw as a bed-chamber for an invalid.

A huge four-poster bed took up all the farther end of the place, and upon it lay something very still and stiff, covered by a sheet. On a small table near the wide fire-place were pen and ink and a cremation certificate form; standing near it was Jesse Gideon, one beautiful hand shining like ivory upon the polished wood.

Abbershaw had made up his mind that the only way to establish or confute his suspicions was to act quickly, and assuming a brisk and officious manner he strode across the room rubbing his hands.

‘Heart failure?’ he said, in a tone that was on the verge of being cheerful. ‘A little unwonted excitement, perhaps—a slightly heavier meal—anything might do it. Most distressing—most distressing. Visitors in the house too.’

He was striding up and down as he spoke, at every turn edging a little nearer the bed. ‘Now let me see,’ he said suddenly. ‘Just as a matter of form of course . . .’ On the last word, moving with incredible swiftness, he reached the bedside and flicked the sheet from the dead man’s face.

The effect was instantaneous. Whitby caught his arm and dragged him back from the bed, and from the shadows a figure that Abbershaw had not noticed before came out silently. The next moment he recognized Dawlish, the man who looked like Beethoven. His face was still expressionless, but there was no mistaking the menace in his attitude as he came forward, and the young scientist realized with a little thrill of excitement that the veneer was off and that he was up against an antagonistic force.

The moment passed, however, and in the next instant he had the situation in hand again, with added advantage of knowing exactly where he stood. He turned a mildly apologetic face to Whitby.

‘Just as a matter of form,’ he repeated. ‘I like to make a point of seeing the body. Some of us are a little too lax, I feel, in a matter like this. After all, cremation is cremation. I’m not one of those men who insist on a thorough examination, but I just like to make sure that a corpse is a corpse, don’t you know.’

He laughed as he spoke, and stood with his hands in his pockets, looking down at the face of the man on the bed. The momentary tension in the room died down. The heavy-faced Dawlish returned to his corner, Gideon became suave again, and the doctor stood by Abbershaw a little less apprehensively.

‘Death actually took place up here, I suppose?’ Abbershaw remarked conversationally, and shot a quick sidelong glance at Whitby. The man was ready for it, however.

‘Yes, just after we carried him in.’

‘I see.’ Abbershaw glanced round the room. ‘You brought him up in his chair, I suppose? How wonderfully convenient those things are.’ He paused as if lost in thought, and Dawlish muttered impatiently.

Gideon interposed hastily. ‘It is getting late,’ he said in his unnaturally gentle voice. ‘We must not keep Dr. Abbershaw—’

‘Er—no, of course not,’ said Whitby, starting nervously.

Abbershaw took the hint.

‘It is late. I bid you good night, gentlemen,’ he murmured, and moved towards the door.

Gideon slipped in front of it, pen in hand. He was suave as ever, and smiling, but the little round eyes beneath the enormous shaggy brows were bright and dangerous.

Abbershaw realized then that he was not going to be allowed to refuse to sign the certificate. The three men in the room were determined. Any objections he might raise would be confuted by force if need be. It was virtually a signature under compulsion. He took the pen with a little impatient click of the tongue.

‘How absurd of me, I had forgotten,’ he said, laughing as though to cover his oversight. ‘Now, let me look, where is it? Oh, I see—just here—you have attended to all these particulars, of course, Dr Whitby.’

‘Yes, yes. They’re all in order.’

No one but the self-occupied type of fool that Abbershaw was pretending to be could possibly have failed to notice the man’s wretched state of nervous tension. He was quivering and his voice was entirely out of control. Abbershaw wrote his signature with a flourish, and returned the pen. There was a distinct sigh of relief in the room as he moved towards the door.

On the threshold he turned and looked back.

‘Poor young Petrie knows all about this, I suppose?’ he inquired. ‘I trust he’s not very cut up? Poor lad.’

‘Mr Petrie has been informed, of course,’ Dr. Whitby said stiffly. ‘He felt the shock—naturally—but like the rest of us I fancy he must have expected it for some time. He was only a relative by his aunt’s marriage, you know, and that took place after the war, I believe.’

‘Still,’ said Abbershaw, with a return of his old fussiness of manner, ‘very shocking and very distressing—very distressing. Good night, gentlemen.’

On the last words he went out and closed the door of the great sombre room behind him. Once in the corridor, his expression changed. The fussy, pompous personality that he had assumed dropped from him like a cloak, and he became at once alert and purposeful. There were many things that puzzled him, but of one thing he was perfectly certain. Colonel Gordon Coombe had not died of heart disease.

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