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Chapter 7 - Five O'Clock in the Morning

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Author Topic: Chapter 7 - Five O'Clock in the Morning  (Read 8 times)
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« on: December 19, 2022, 09:45:17 am »

George Abbershaw stood in front of the fire-place in his bedroom and looked down into the fast-greying embers amongst which some red sparks still glowed, and hesitated irresolutely. In ten minutes he was to meet Meggie and Anne Edgeware in the garden. He had until then to make up his mind. He was not a man to do anything impulsively, and the problem which faced him now was an unusual one.

On the mantelpiece near his head lay a small leather wallet, the silk lining of which had been ripped open and something removed, leaving the whole limp and empty. Abbershaw looked down on a sheaf of paper which he held in one hand, and tapped it thoughtfully with the other.

If only, he reflected, he knew exactly what he was doing. The thought occurred to him, in parenthesis, that here arose the old vexed question as to whether it was permissible to destroy a work of art on any pretext whatsoever. For five minutes he deliberated, and then, having made up his mind, he knelt down before the dying fire and fanned the embers into a flame, and after coolly preparing a small bonfire in the grate stood back to watch it burn.

The destruction of the leather case was a problem which presented more difficulties. For a moment or two he was at a loss, but then taking it up he considered it carefully. It was of a usual pattern, a strip of red leather folded over at either end to form two inner pockets. He took out his own case and compared the two. His own was new; an aunt had sent it to him for his birthday, and in an excess of kindliness had caused a small gold monogram stud to be made for it, a circular fretted affair which fastened through the leather with a small clip. This stud Abbershaw removed, and, gouging a hole in the red wallet, effected an exchange.

A liberal splodging with ink from his fountain pen completed the disguise, and, satisfied that no one at a first or second glance would recognize it, he ripped out the rest of the lining, trimmed the edges with a pair of nail scissors, and calmly transferred his papers with the exception of a letter or two, to it, and tucked it in his pocket. His own wallet he put carefully into the inner pocket of his dinner-jacket, hanging up in the wardrobe.

Then, content with his arrangements, he went softly down the wide staircase and let himself out into the garden.

Meggie was waiting for him. He caught a glimpse of her red-gold hair against the dark green of the shrubbery. She was dressed in green, and despite his preoccupation with the affairs on hand, he noticed how very much it suited her. ‘Anne is just coming,’ she said, ‘I expect her any moment. I hope it’s something important you want to ask her. I don’t think she’ll relish getting up just to see the sun rise.’

Abbershaw looked dubious. ‘I’m afraid that didn’t occur to me,’ he said. ‘It is important, as it happens, although it may not sound so.’

The girl moved a step closer to him. ‘I told you,’ she said, looking up into his face. ‘Tell me. What are the developments?’

‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘. . . yet. There’s only one thing I can tell you, and that will be common property by breakfast-time. Colonel Coombe is dead.’

The girl caught her breath sharply, and looked at him with fear in her brown eyes.

‘You don’t mean he was . . . ?’ She broke off, not using the word.

Abbershaw looked at her steadily. ‘Dr. Whitby has pronounced it heart failure,’ he said. The girl’s eyes widened, and her expression became puzzled.

‘Then—then the dagger—?’ she began.

‘Ssh!’ Abbershaw raised his hand warningly, for in the house a door had creaked, and now Anne Edgeware, a heavily embroidered Chinese dressing-gown over her frivolous pyjamas, crossed the grass towards them.

‘Here I am,’ she said. ‘I had to come like this. You don’t mind, do you? I really couldn’t bring myself to put on my clothes at the hour I usually take them off. What’s all the fun about?’

Abbershaw coughed: this kind of girl invariably embarrassed him. ‘It’s awfully good of you to come down like this,’ he said awkwardly. ‘And I’m afraid what I am going to say will sound both absurd and impertinent, but if you would just take it as a personal favour to me I would be eternally grateful.’ He hesitated nervously, and then hurried on again. ‘I’m afraid I can’t offer you any explanation at the moment, but if you would just answer one or two questions and then forget I ever asked them, you would be rendering me a great service.’

The girl laughed. ‘How thrilling!’ she said. ‘It sounds just like a play! I’ve got just the right costume too, haven’t I? I feel I shall break out into song at any moment. What is it?’

Abbershaw was still ill at ease, and he spoke with unwonted timidity. ‘That’s very good of you. As a matter of fact I wanted to ask you about Mr. Campion. I understood that he’s a friend of yours. Excuse me, but have you known him long?’

‘Albert Campion?’ said Anne blankly. ‘Oh, he’s not a friend of mine at all. I just gave him a lift down here in “Fido”—that’s my car.’

Abbershaw looked puzzled. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t quite understand,’ he said. ‘Did you meet him at the station?’

‘Oh no.’ The girl was amused. ‘I brought him all the way down. You see,’ she went on cheerfully, ‘I met him the night before we came down at the “Goat on the Roof”—that’s the new night-club in Jermyn Street, you know. I was with a party, and he sort of drifted into it. One of the lads knew him, I think. We were all talking, and quite suddenly it turned out that he was coming down here this week-end. He was fearfully upset, he said: he’d just run his bus into a lorry or something equally solid, so he couldn’t come down in it. So I offered him a lift—naturally.’

‘Oh, er—naturally,’ said Abbershaw, who appeared to be still a little bewildered. ‘Wyatt invited him, of course.’

The girl in pyjamas looked at him, and a puzzled expression appeared on her doll-like face. ‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘I don’t think so—in fact I’m sure he didn’t, because I introduced them myself. Not properly, you know,’ she went on airily. ‘I just said, “Hullo, Wyatt, this thing is Albert Campion,” and “Albert, this is the man of the house,” but I could swear they didn’t know each other. I think he’s one of the Colonel’s pals—how is the poor old boy, by the way?’

Neither Abbershaw nor Meggie spoke, but remained looking dubiously ahead of them, and Anne shivered. ‘Here, I’m getting cold,’ she said. ‘Is that all you wanted to know? Because if it is, I’ll get in, if you don’t mind. Sunrises and dabbling in the dew aren’t in my repertoire.’

She laughed as she spoke, and Abbershaw thanked her. ‘Not a word, mind,’ he said hastily.

‘Not a hint,’ she promised lightly, and went fluttering off across the lawn, the Chinese robe huddled about her.

As soon as she was out of earshot Meggie caught Abbershaw’s arm. ‘George,’ she said, ‘the Colonel didn’t invite Albert Campion here.’

He turned to her sharply. ‘How do you know?’ he demanded.

The girl spoke dryly. ‘Because,’ she said, ‘the Colonel himself pointed Campion out to me and asked who he was. Why, George,’ she went on suddenly, as the idea occurred to her, ‘nobody asked him—he hasn’t any business here at all!’

Abbershaw nodded. ‘That’s just exactly what had occurred to me,’ he said, and relapsed into silence.

They walked slowly back to the house together, Meggie quiet and perturbed, her brown eyes narrowed and thoughtful; Abbershaw walking with his hands clasped behind his back, his head bowed.

He had had, he supposed, as much association with crime and criminals as any man of his age, but never, in any of his previous experiences of crime mysteries, had he been placed in a position which required of him both initiative and action. On other occasions an incident had been repeated to him and he had explained it, a problem had been put before him and he had solved it. Now, for the first time in his life he had to pick out his own questions and answer them himself. Every instinct in him told him to do something, but what exactly he ought to do he did not know.

They had almost reached the heavy iron-studded door which led into the hall, when a smothered exclamation from the girl made him stop suddenly and look up. The next instant he had stepped back into the shadow of some overgrown laurels by the house and drawn the girl back after him. Out of the garage, silent as a cloud of smoke, had come the incredible old car which Abbershaw had noticed on the previous evening.

The man-servant who had created the scene with Mr. Campion not an hour before was at the wheel, and Abbershaw noticed that for a man who had been murderously drunk so recently he was remarkably fresh and efficient. The car drew up outside the main door of the mansion not ten paces from where they stood, hidden by the greenery. The man got out and opened the door of the car. For some minutes nothing happened, then Gideon appeared followed by Dawlish and Doctor Whitby, bearing between them a heavy burden.

They were all fully dressed, and appeared to be in a great hurry. So engrossed were they that not one of them so much as glanced in the direction of the laurel clump which hid the two onlookers. Whitby got into the back of the car and drew the blinds carefully over the windows, then Dawlish and Gideon lifted the long heavy bundle in after him and closed the door upon it. The great car slid away down the drive, and the two men stepped back noiselessly into the house and disappeared.

The whole incident had taken perhaps three minutes, and it had been accomplished with perfect silence and precision.

Meggie looked up at Abbershaw fearfully. ‘What was that?’ she said.

The violence of his reply surprised her.

‘Damn them!’ he said explosively. ‘The only piece of real evidence there was against them. That was the body of Colonel Coombe.’

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