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Chapter 25 - Mr. Watt Explains

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« on: December 20, 2022, 12:29:24 pm »

After dinner one evening in the following week, Abbershaw held a private consultation on the affair in his rooms in the Adelphi. He had not put the case before his friend, Inspector Deadwood, for a reason which he dared not think out, yet his conscience forbade him to ignore the mystery surrounding the death of Colonel Coombe altogether.

Since von Faber and his confederates were wanted men, the County Police had handed over their prisoners to Scotland Yard; and in the light of preliminary legal proceedings, sufficient evidence had been forthcoming to render the affair at Black Dudley merely the culminating point in a long series of charges. Every day it became increasingly clear that they would not be heard of again for some time.

Von Faber was still suffering from concussion, and there seemed every likelihood of his remaining under medical supervision for the term of his imprisonment at least. Whitby and his companion had not been traced, and no one, save himself, so far as Abbershaw could tell, was likely to raise any inquiries about Colonel Coombe.

All the same, although he had several excellent reasons for wishing the whole question to remain in oblivion, Abbershaw had forced himself to institute at least a private inquiry into the mystery.

He and Meggie had dined together when Martin Watt was admitted. The girl sat in one of the high-backed Stuart chairs by the fire, her brocade-shod feet crossed, and her hands folded quietly in her lap.

Glancing at her, Abbershaw could not help reflecting that their forthcoming marriage was more interesting to him than any criminal hunt in the world.

Martin was more enthusiastic on the subject of the murder. He came in excited, all trace of indolence had vanished from his face, and he looked about him with some surprise. ‘No one else here?’ he said. ‘I thought we were going to have a pukka consultation with all the crowd present—decorations, banners, and salute of guns!’

Abbershaw shook his head. ‘Sorry! I’m afraid there’s only Prenderby to come,’ he said. ‘Campion has disappeared, Anne Edgeware is in the South of France recuperating, Jeanne doesn’t want to hear or think anything about Black Dudley ever again, so Michael tells me, and I didn’t think we’d mention the thing to Wyatt, until it’s a certainty at any rate. He’s had his share of unpleasantness already. So you see there are only the four of us to talk it over. Have a drink?’

‘Thanks.’ Martin took up the glass and sipped it meditatively. It was evident from his manner that he was bubbling with suppressed excitement. ‘I say,’ he said suddenly, unable to control his eagerness any longer, ‘have you folk twigged the murderer?’

Abbershaw glanced at him sharply. ‘No,’ he said hesitatingly. ‘Why, have you?’

Martin nodded. ‘Fancy so,’ he said, and there was a distinctly satisfied expression in his grey eyes. ‘It seems pretty obvious to me, why—’

‘Hold hard, Martin.’

Abbershaw was surprised at the apprehension in his own voice, and he reddened slightly as the other two stared at him.

Martin frowned. ‘I don’t get you,’ he said at last. ‘There’s no special reason against suspecting Whitby, is there?’

‘Whitby?’

Abbershaw’s astonishment was obvious, and Meggie looked at him curiously, but Martin was too interested in his theory to raise any question.

‘Why, yes,’ he said. ‘Whitby. Why not? Think of it in cold blood, who was the first man to find Colonel Coombe dead? Who had a better motive for murdering him than anyone else? It seems quite obvious to me.’ He paused, and as neither of them spoke went on again, raising his voice a little in his enthusiasm. ‘My dear people, just think of it,’ he insisted. ‘It struck me as soon as it occurred to me that it was so obvious that I’ve been wondering ever since why we didn’t hit on it at once. We should have done, of course if we hadn’t all been having fun in our quiet way. Look here, this is exactly how it happened.’

He perched himself on an armchair and regarded them seriously. ‘Our little friend Albert is the first person to be considered. There is absolutely no reason to doubt that fellow’s word, his yarn sounds true. He showed up jolly well when we were in a tight place. I think we’ll take him as cleared. His story is true, then. That is to say, during Act One of the drama when we were all playing “touch” with the haunted dagger, little Albert stepped smartly up, murmured “Abracadabra” in the old man’s ear and collected the doings, leaving the Colonel hale and hearty. What happened next?’ He paused and glanced at them eagerly. ‘See what I’m driving at? No? Well, see column two—“The Remarkable Story of the Aged and Batty Housemaid!” Now have you got it?’

Meggie started to her feet, her eyes brightening.

‘George,’ she said, ‘I do believe he’s got it. Don’t you see, Mrs. Meade told us that she had actually seen Whitby come in with the news that the Colonel was stabbed in the back. Why—why it’s quite clear—’

‘Not so fast, not so fast, young lady, if you please. Let the clever detective tell his story in his own words.’

Martin leant forward as he spoke and beamed at them triumphantly. ‘I’ve worked it all out,’ he said, ‘and, putting my becoming modesty aside, I will now detail to you the facts which my superlative deductions have brought to light and which only require the paltry matter of proof to make them as clear as glass to the meanest intelligence. Get the scene into your mind. Whitby, a poor pawn in his chief’s hands, a man whose liberty, perhaps his very life, hangs upon the word of his superior, von Faber; this man leads his chief to the Colonel’s desk to find that precious income-tax form or whatever it was they were all so keen about, and when he gets here the cupboard is bare, as the classics have it.’ Martin, who had been gradually working himself up, now broke into a snatch of imaginary dialogue:

‘ “It must be on Coombe himself,” growls the Hun,’ he began.

‘ “Of course,” agrees the pawn, adding mentally: “Heaven pray it may be so,” or words to that effect. “Go and see, you!” venoms the Hun, and off goes Whitby, fear padding at his heels.’

He paused for breath and regarded them soberly.

‘Seriously, though,’ he continued with sudden gravity. ‘The chap must have had a nasty ten minutes. He knew that if anything had gone wrong and old Coombe had somehow managed to double-cross the gang, as guardian he was for it with von Faber at his nastiest. Look now,’ he went on cheerfully, ‘this is where the deduction comes in; as I work it out, as soon as Whitby entered the darkened part of the house, someone put the dagger in his hand and then, I should say, the whole idea occurred to him. He went up to old Coombe in the dark, asked him for the papers; Coombe replied that he hadn’t got them. Then Whitby, maddened with the thought of the yarn he was bound to take back to von Faber, struck the old boy in the back and, after making a rapid search, took the dagger, joined in the game for thirty seconds, maybe—just enough time to hand the thing on to somebody—and then dashed back to Faber and Gideon, with his news. How about that?’

He smiled at them with deep satisfaction—he had no doubts himself.

For some minutes his audience were silent. This solution was certainly very plausible. At last Abbershaw raised his head. The expression on his face was almost hopeful. ‘It’s not a bad idea, Martin,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘In fact, the more I think about it the more likely it seems to become.’

Martin pressed his argument home eagerly. ‘I feel like that too,’ he said. ‘You see, it explains so many things. First of all, it gives a good reason why von Faber thought that one of our crowd had done it. Then it also makes it clear why Whitby never turned up again. And then it has another advantage—it provides a motive. No one else had any reason for killing the old boy. As far as I can see he seems to have been very useful to his own gang and no harm to anybody else. Candidly now, don’t you think I’m obviously right?’

He looked from one to the other of them questioningly.

Meggie was frowning.

‘There is just one thing you haven’t explained, Martin,’ she said slowly. ‘What happened to the dagger? When it was in my hand it had blood on it. Someone snatched it from me before I could scream, and it wasn’t seen again until the next morning, when it was all bright and clean again and back in its place in the trophy.’

Martin looked a little crestfallen. ‘That had occurred to me,’ he admitted. ‘But I decided that in the excitement of the alarm whoever had it chucked it down where it was found next morning by one of the servants and put back.’

Meggie looked at him and smiled.

‘Martin,’ she said, ‘your mother has the most marvellous butler in the world. Plantagenet, I do believe, would pick up a blood-stained dagger in the early morning, have it cleaned, and hang it up on its proper nail, and then consider it beneath his dignity to mention so trifling a matter during the police inquiries afterwards. But believe me, that man is unique. Besides, the only servants there were members of the gang. Had they found it we should probably have heard about it. Anyway, they wouldn’t have cleaned it and hung it up again.’

Martin nodded dubiously, and the momentary gleam of hope disappeared from Abbershaw’s face.

‘Of course,’ said Martin. ‘Whitby may have put it back himself. Gone nosing around during the night, you know, and found it, and thinking, “Well, we can’t have this about,” put it back in its proper place and said no more about it.’ He brightened visibly. ‘Come to think of it, it’s very likely. That makes my theory all the stronger, what?’

The others were not so easily convinced.

‘He might,’ said Meggie, ‘but there’s not much reason why he should go nosing about at night, as you say. And even so it doesn’t explain who took it out of my hand, does it?’

Martin was shaken but by no means overwhelmed.

‘Oh, well,’ he said airily, ‘all that point is a bit immaterial, don’t you think? After all, it’s the main motive and opportunity and questions that are important. Anyone might have snatched the dagger from you. It is one of those damn fool gallant gestures that old Chris Kennedy might have perpetrated. It might have been anyone playing in the game. However, in the main, I think we’ve spotted our man. Don’t you, Abbershaw?’

‘I hope so.’

The fervency of the little doctor’s reply surprised them.

Martin was gratified. ‘I know I’m right,’ he said. ‘Now all we’ve got to do is to prove it.’

Abbershaw agreed. ‘That’s so,’ he said. ‘But I don’t think that will be so easy, Martin. You see, we’ve got to find the chap first, and without police aid that’s going to be a well-nigh impossible job. We can’t bring the Yard into it until we’ve got past theories.’

‘No, of course not,’ said Martin. ‘But I say,’ he added, as a new thought occurred to him, ‘there is one thing, though. Whitby was the cove who had the wind-up, wasn’t he? No one else turned a hair, and if there was a guilty conscience amongst the gang, surely it was his?’

This suggestion impressed his listeners more than any of his other arguments. Abbershaw looked up excitedly. ‘I do believe you’re right,’ he said. ‘What do you think, Meggie?’

The girl hesitated. As she recollected Mrs. Meade’s story of the discovery of the murder, Martin’s theory became rapidly more and more plausible.

‘Yes,’ she said again. ‘I believe he’s hit it.’

Martin grinned delightedly.

‘That’s fine,’ he said. ‘Now all we’ve got to do is to find the chap and get the truth out of him. This is going to be great. Now what’s the best way to get on to the trail of those two johnnies? Toddle round to all the crematoriums in the country and make inquiries?’

The others were silent. Here was a problem which, without the assistance of Scotland Yard, they were almost powerless to tackle. They were still discussing it when, fifteen minutes later, Michael Prenderby walked in. His pale face was flushed as if from violent exertion and he began to talk eagerly as soon as he got into the room.

‘Sorry I’m late,’ he said; ‘but I’ve had an adventure. Walked right into it in the Lea Bridge Road. I stopped to have a plug put in and there it was staring at me. I stared at it—I thought I was seeing things at first—until the garage man got quite embarrassed.’

Martin Watt regarded the new-comer coldly. ‘Look here, Michael,’ he said with reproach. ‘We’re here to discuss a murder, you know.’

‘Well?’ Prenderby looked pained and surprised. ‘Aren’t I helping you? Isn’t this a most helpful point?’

Abbershaw glanced at him sharply. ‘What are you talking about?’ he said.

Prenderby stared at him.

‘Why, the car, of course,’ he said. ‘What else could it be? The car,’ he went on, as they regarded him uncomprehendingly for a moment or so. ‘The car. The incredible museum specimen in which that precious medico carted off the poor old bird’s body. There it was, sitting up looking at me like a dowager-duchess.’

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