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Chapter 24 - The Last of Black Dudley

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« on: December 20, 2022, 11:41:04 am »

‘I’m sorry to ’ave ’ad to trouble you, sir.’

Detective-Inspector Pillow, of the County Police, flapped back a closely written page of his notebook and resettled himself on the wooden chair which seemed so small for him as he spoke. Abbershaw, who was bending over the bed in which Prenderby lay, now conscious and able to take an interest in the proceedings, did not speak.

The three of them were alone in one of the first-floor rooms of Black Dudley, and the Inspector was coming to the end of his inquiry.

He was a sturdy, red-faced man with close-cropped yellow hair, and a slow-smiling blue eye. At the moment he was slightly embarrassed, but he went on with his duty doggedly.

‘We’re getting everybody’s statements—in their own words,’ he said, adding importantly and with one eye on Abbershaw, ‘The Chief is not at all sure that Scotland Yard won’t be interested in this affair. ’E is going to acquaint them with facts right away, I believe . . . I know there’s no harm in me telling you that, sir.’

He paused, and cast a wary glance at the little red-haired doctor.

‘Oh, quite,’ said Abbershaw hastily, adding immediately: ‘Have you got everything you want now? I don’t want my patient here disturbed more than I can help, you understand, Inspector.’

‘Oh, certainly not, sir—certainly not. I quite understand.’

The Inspector spoke vehemently, but he still fingered his notebook doubtfully.

‘There’s just one point more, sir, I’d like to go into with you, if you don’t mind,’ he said at last. ‘Just a little discrepancy ’ere. Naturally we want to get everything co’erent if we can, you understand. This is just as a matter of form, of course. Only you see I’ve got to hand my report in and—’

‘That’s all right, Inspector. What is it?’ said Abbershaw encouragingly.

The Inspector removed his pencil from behind his ear and, after biting the end of it reflectively for a moment, said briskly: ‘Well, it’s about this ’ere tale of a murder, sir. Some of the accounts ’ave it that the accused, Benjamin Dawlish, believed to be an alias, made some rather startling accusations of murder when you was all locked up together on the evening of the 27th, that is, yesterday.’

He paused and looked at Abbershaw questioningly. The doctor hesitated. There were certain details of the affair which he had decided to reserve for higher authorities since he did not want to risk the delay which a full exposure now would inevitably cause.

Whitby and the driver of the disguised Rolls had not returned. Doubtless they had been warned in time.

Meanwhile the Inspector was still waiting. ‘As I take it, sir,’ he said at length, ‘the story was a bit of “colour”, as you might say, put in by the accused to scare the ladies. Perhaps you ’ad some sort of the same idea?’

‘Something very much like that,’ agreed Abbershaw, glad to have evaded the awkward question so easily. ‘I signed the cremation certificate for Colonel Coombe’s body, you know.’

‘Oh, you did, did you, sir. Well, that clears that up.’

Inspector Pillow seemed relieved. Clearly he regarded Abbershaw as something of an oracle since he was so closely associated with Scotland Yard, and incidentally he appeared to consider that the affair was tangled enough already without the introduction of further complications.

‘By the way,’ said Abbershaw suddenly, as the thought occurred to him, ‘there’s an old woman from the village in one of the attics, Inspector. Has she been rescued yet?’

A steely look came into the Inspector’s kindly blue eyes. ‘Mrs. Meade?’ he said heavily. ‘Yes. The party ’as been attended to. The local constable ’as ’er in charge at the moment.’ He sniffed. ‘And ’e’s got ’is ’ands full,’ he added feelingly. ‘She seems to be a well-known character round ’ere. A regular tartar,’ he went on more confidentially. ‘Between you and me, sir’—he tapped his forehead significantly—‘she seems to be a case for the County Asylum. It took three men half an hour to get ’er out of the ’ouse. Kept raving about ’ell-fire and ’er son comin’ of a Wednesday or something, I dunno. ’Owever, Police-Officer Maydew ’as ’er in ’and. Seems ’e understands ’er more or less. ’Er daughter does ’is washing, and it’s well known the old lady’s a bit queer. We come acrost strange things in our work, sir, don’t we?’

Abbershaw was properly flattered by this assumption of colleagueship.

‘So you expect Scotland Yard in on this, Inspector?’ he said.

The policeman wagged his head seriously. ‘I shouldn’t be at all surprised, sir,’ he said. ‘Although,’ he added, a trifle regretfully, ‘if they don’t hurry up I shouldn’t wonder if there wasn’t much for them to do except to attend the inquest. Our Dr. Rawlins thinks ’e may pull ’em round, but ’e can’t say yet for certain.’

Abbershaw nodded. ‘It was Dawlish himself who got the worst of it, wasn’t it?’ he said.

‘That is so,’ agreed the Inspector. ‘The driver, curiously enough, seemed to get off very lightly, I thought. Deep cut acrost his face, but otherwise nothing much wrong with ’im. The Chief’s been interviewing ’im all the morning. Jesse Gideon, the second prisoner, is still unconscious. ’E ’as several nasty fractures, I understand, but Dawlish got all one side of the car on top of ’im and the doctor seems to think that if he keeps ’im alive ’is brain may go. There’s not much sense in that, I told ’im. Simply giving everybody trouble, I said. Still, we ’ave to be ’umane, you know. How about Mr. Prenderby, sir? Shall I take ’is statement later?’

Prenderby spoke weakly from the bed. ‘I should like to corroborate all Dr. Abbershaw has told you,’ he said. ‘Do you think you could make that do, Inspector?’

‘It’s not strictly in accordance with the regulations,’ murmured Pillow, ‘but I think under the circumstances we might stretch a point. I’ll ’ave your name and address and I won’t bother you two gentlemen no more.’

After Prenderby’s name, age, address, and telephone number had been duly noted down in the Inspector’s notebook, Abbershaw spoke.

‘I suppose we may set off for Town when we like, then?’ he said.

‘Just whenever you like, sir.’ The Inspector shut his notebook with a click, and picking up his hat from beneath his chair, moved to the door. ‘I’ll wish you good day, then, gentlemen,’ he said, and stalked out.

Prenderby looked at Abbershaw. ‘You didn’t tell him about Coombe?’ he said.

Abbershaw shook his head. ‘No,’ he said.

‘But surely, if we’re going to make the charge we ought to do it at once? You’re not going to let the old bird get away with it, are you?’

Abbershaw looked at him curiously. ‘I’ve been a damned fool all the way through,’ he said, ‘but now I’m on ground I understand, and I’m not going to live up to my record. You didn’t hear what Dawlish said to us last night, but if you had, and if you had heard that old woman’s story, I think you’d see what I’m thinking. He didn’t murder Coombe.’

Prenderby looked at him blankly. ‘My head may be still batty,’ he said, ‘but I’m hanged if I get you. If the Hun or his staff aren’t responsible, who is?’

Abbershaw looked at him fixedly, and Prenderby was moved to sarcasm. ‘Anne Edgeware, or your priceless barmy crook who showed up so well when things got tight, I suppose,’ he suggested.

Abbershaw continued to stare at him, and something in his voice when he spoke startled the boy by its gravity. ‘I don’t know, Michael,’ he said. ‘That’s the devil of it, I don’t know.’

Prenderby opened his mouth to speak but he was cut short by a tap on the door. It was Jeanne and Meggie.

‘This will have to wait, old boy,’ he murmured as they came in. ‘I’ll come round and have a talk with you if I may, when we get back.’

‘May Michael be moved?’ It was Meggie who spoke. ‘I’m driving Jeanne up to Town,’ she explained, ‘and we wondered if we might take Michael too.’

Prenderby grinned to Abbershaw. ‘As one physician to another,’ he said, ‘perhaps not. But speaking as man to man, I don’t think the atmosphere of this house is good for my aura. I think with proper feminine care and light conversation only, the journey might be effected without much danger, don’t you?’

Abbershaw laughed. ‘I believe in the feminine care,’ he said. ‘I’d like to come with you, but I’ve got the old A.C. in the garage, so I must reconcile myself to a lonely trip.’

‘Not at all,’ said Meggie. ‘You’re taking Mr. Campion. Anne and Chris are going up with Martin. Chris’s car is hopeless, and Anne says she’ll never drive again until her nerves have recovered. The garage man is taking her car into Ipswich, and sending it up from there.’

‘Where’s Wyatt?’ said Prenderby.

‘Oh, he’s staying down here—till the evening, at any rate.’

It was Jeanne who spoke. ‘It’s his house, you see, and naturally there are several arrangements to make. I told him I thought it was rather terrible of us to go off, but he said he’d rather we didn’t stay. You see, the place is quite empty—there’s not a servant anywhere—and naturally it’s a bit awkward for him. You’d better talk to him, Dr. Abbershaw.’

Abbershaw nodded. ‘I will,’ he said. ‘He ought to get away from here pretty soon, or he’ll be pestered to death by journalists.’

Meggie slipped her arm through his. ‘Go and find him then, dear, will you?’ she said. ‘It must be terrible for him. I’ll look after these two. Come and see me when you get back.’

Abbershaw glanced across the room, but Jeanne and Michael were too engrossed in each other to be paying any attention to anything else, so he bent forward impetuously and kissed her, and she clung to him for a moment.

‘You bet I will,’ he said, and as he went out of the room he felt himself, in spite of his problems, the happiest man alive.

He found Wyatt alone in the great hall. He was standing with his back to the fire-place, in which the cold embers of yesterday’s fire still lay.

‘No, thanks awfully, old boy,’ he said, in response to Abbershaw’s suggestion. ‘I’d rather stay on on my own if you don’t mind. There’s only the miserable business of caretakers and locking up to be seen to. There are my uncle’s private papers to be gone through, too, though Dawlish seems to have destroyed a lot of them. I’d rather be alone. You understand, don’t you?’

‘Why, of course, my dear fellow . . .’ Abbershaw spoke hastily. ‘I’ll see you in Town no doubt when you get back.’

‘Why, yes, I hope so. You do see how it is, don’t you? I must go through the old boy’s personalia.’

Abbershaw looked at him curiously. ‘Wyatt,’ he said suddenly, ‘do you know much about your uncle?’

The other glanced at him sharply. ‘How do you mean?’ he demanded.

The little doctor’s courage seemed suddenly to fail him. ‘Oh, nothing,’ he said, and added, somewhat idiotically, he felt, ‘I only wondered.’

Wyatt let the feeble explanation suffice, and presently Abbershaw, realizing that he wished to be alone, made his adieux and went off to find Campion and to prepare for the oncoming journey. His round cherubic face was graver than its wont, however, and there was a distinctly puzzled expression in his grey eyes.

It was not until he and Campion were entering the outskirts of London late that evening that he again discussed the subject which perplexed him chiefly. Mr. Campion had chatted in his own particular fashion all the way up, but now he turned to Abbershaw with something more serious in his face.

‘I say,’ he said, ‘what did happen about old Daddy Coombe? No one raised any row, I see. What’s the idea? Dawlish said he was murdered; you said he was murdered; Prenderby said he was murdered. Was he?’

His expression was curious but certainly not fearful, Abbershaw was certain.

‘I didn’t say anything, of course, to the old Inspector person,’ Campion went on, ‘because I didn’t know anything, but I thought you fellows would have got busy. Why the reticence? You didn’t do it by any chance, did you?’

‘No,’ said Abbershaw shortly, some of his old pompousness returning at the suggestion of such a likelihood.

‘No offence meant,’ said Mr. Campion, dropping into the vernacular of the neighbourhood through which they were passing. ‘Nor none taken, I hope. No, what I was suggesting, my dear old bird, was this: Are you sleuthing a bit in your own inimitable way? Is the old cerebral machine ticking over? Who and what and why and wherefore, so to speak?’

‘I don’t know, Campion,’ said Abbershaw slowly. ‘I don’t know any more than you do who did it. But Colonel Coombe was murdered. Of that I’m perfectly certain, and—I don’t think Dawlish or his gang had anything to do with it.’

‘My dear Holmes,’ said Mr. Campion, ‘you’ve got me all of a flutter. You’re not serious, are you?’

‘Perfectly,’ said Abbershaw. ‘After all, who might not have done it, with an opportunity like that, if they wanted to? Hang it all, how do I know that you didn’t do it?’

Mr. Campion hesitated, and then shrugged his shoulders.

‘I’m afraid you’ve got a very wrong idea of me,’ he said. ‘When I told you that I never did anything in bad taste, I meant it. Sticking an old boy in the middle of a house-party parlour-game occurs to me to be the height of bad form. Besides, consider, I was only getting a hundred guineas. Had my taste been execrable I wouldn’t have risked putting my neck in a noose for a hundred guineas, would I?’

Abbershaw was silent. The other had voiced the argument that had occurred to himself, but it left the mystery no clearer than before.

Campion smiled. ‘Put me down as near Piccadilly as you can, old man, will you?’ he said.

Abbershaw nodded, and they drove on in silence. At last, after some considerable time, he drew up against the kerb on the corner of Berkeley Street. ‘Will this do you?’ he said.

‘Splendidly. Thanks awfully, old bird. I shall run into you some time, I hope.’ Campion held out his hand as he spoke, and Abbershaw, overcome by an impulse, shook it warmly, and the question that had been on his lips all the drive suddenly escaped him.

‘I say, Campion,’ he said, ‘who the hell are you?’

Mr. Campion paused on the running-board and there was a faintly puckish expression behind his enormous glasses.

‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Shall I tell you? Listen—do you know who my mother is?’

‘No,’ said Abbershaw, with great curiosity.

Mr. Campion leaned over the side of the car until his mouth was an inch or two from the other man’s ear, and murmured a name, a name so illustrious that Abbershaw started back and stared at him in astonishment.

‘Good God!’ he said. ‘You don’t mean that?’

‘No,’ said Mr. Campion cheerfully, and went off striding jauntily down the street until, to Abbershaw’s amazement, he disappeared through the portals of one of the most famous and exclusive clubs in the world.

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