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Chapter 29 - The Last Chapter


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« on: December 21, 2022, 01:56:07 am »

In the six weeks which followed the unsatisfactory trip to the Essex Marshes, Prenderby seemed inclined to forget the Black Dudley affair altogether, and Martin Watt had gone back to his old haunts in the City and the West End.

Wyatt was in his flat overlooking St James’s, apparently immersed as ever in the obscurities of his reading.

But Abbershaw had not forgotten Colonel Coombe. He had not put the whole matter before his friend, Inspector Deadwood of Scotland Yard, for a reason which he was unable to express in definite words, even to himself.

An idea was forming in his mind—an idea which he shrank from and yet could not wholly escape. In vain he argued with himself that his thought was preposterous and absurd; as the days went on and the whole affair sank more and more into its true perspective, the more the insidious theory grew upon him and began to haunt his nights as well as his days.

At last, very unwillingly, he gave way to his suspicions and set out to test his theory. His procedure was somewhat erratic. He spent the best part of a week in the reading-room of the British Museum; this was followed by a period of seclusion in his own library, with occasional descents upon the bookshops of Charing Cross Road, and then, as though his capacity for the tedium of a subject in which he was not naturally interested was not satiated, he spent an entire week-end in the Kensington house of his uncle, Sir Dorrington Wynne, one-time Professor of Archæology in the University of Oxford, a man whose conversation never left the subject of his researches.

Another day or so at the British Museum completed Abbershaw’s investigations, and one evening found him driving down Whitehall in the direction of the Abbey, his face paler than usual, and his eyes troubled. He went slowly, as if loth to reach his destination, and when a little later he pulled up outside a block of flats, he remained for some time at the wheel, staring moodily before him. Every moment the task he had set himself became more and more nauseous.

Eventually, he left the car, and mounting the carpeted stairs of the old Queen Anne house walked slowly up to the first floor. A man-servant admitted him, and within three minutes he was seated before a spacious fire-place in Wyatt Petrie’s library.

The room expressed its owner’s personality. Its taste was perfect but a little academic, a little strict. It was an ascetic room. The walls were pale-coloured and hung sparsely with etchings and engravings—a Goya, two or three moderns, and a tiny Rembrandt. There were books everywhere, but tidily, neatly kept, and a single hanging in one corner, a dully burning splash of old Venetian embroidery.

Wyatt seemed quietly pleased to see him. He sat down on the other side of the hearth and produced cigars and Benedictine.

Abbershaw refused both. He was clearly ill at ease, and he sat silent for some moments after the first words of greeting, staring moodily into the fire. ‘Wyatt,’ he said suddenly, ‘I’ve known you for a good many years. Believe me, I’ve not forgotten that when I ask you this question.’

Wyatt leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, his liqueur glass lightly held in his long, graceful fingers. Abbershaw turned in his chair until he faced the silent figure. ‘Wyatt,’ he said slowly and evenly, ‘why did you stab your uncle?’

No expression appeared upon the still pale face of the man to whom he had spoken. For some moments he did not appear to have heard. At last he sighed and, leaning forward, set his glass down upon the little book-table by his side.

‘I’ll show you,’ he said.

Abbershaw took a deep breath. He had not been prepared for this; almost anything would have been easier to bear.

Meanwhile Wyatt crossed over to a small writing-desk let into a wall of bookshelves and, unlocking it with a key which he took from his pocket, produced something from a drawer; carrying it back to the fire-place, he handed it to his visitor.

Abbershaw took it and looked at it with some astonishment. It was a photograph of a girl. The face was round and child-like, and was possessed of that peculiar innocent sweetness which seems to belong only to a particular type of blonde whose beauty almost invariably hardens in maturity.

At the time of the portrait, Abbershaw judged, the girl must have been about seventeen—possibly less. Undeniably lovely, but in the golden-haired unsophisticated fashion of the mediæval angel. The last face in the world that he would have suspected Wyatt of noticing.

He turned the thing over in his hand. It was one of those cheap, glossy reproductions which circulate by the thousand in the theatrical profession.

He sat looking at it helplessly; uncomprehending, and very much at sea.

Wyatt came to the rescue. ‘Her stage name was “Joy Love”,’ he said slowly, and there was silence again.

Abbershaw was still utterly perplexed, and opened his mouth to ask the obvious question, but the other man interrupted him, and the depth and bitterness of his tone surprised the doctor.

‘Her real name was Dolly Lord,’ he said. ‘She was seventeen in that photograph, and I loved her—I do still love her—most truly and most deeply.’ He added simply, ‘I have never loved any other woman.’

He was silent, and Abbershaw, who felt himself drifting further and further out of his depth at every moment, looked at him blankly. There was no question that the man was sincere. The tone in his voice, every line of his face and body proclaimed his intensity.

‘I don’t understand,’ said Abbershaw.

Wyatt laughed softly and began to speak quickly, earnestly, and all in one key. ‘She was appearing in the crowd scene in The Faith of St. Hubert, that beautiful little semi-sacred opera that they did at the Victor Gordon Arts Theatre in Knightsbridge,’ he said. ‘That’s where I first saw her. She looked superb in a snood and wimple. I fell in love with her. I found out who she was after considerable trouble. I was crazy about her by that time.’

He paused and looked at Abbershaw with his narrow dark eyes in which there now shone a rebellious, almost fanatical light. ‘You can call it absurd with your modern platonic-suitability complexes,’ he said, ‘but I fell in love with a woman as nine-tenths of the men have done since the race began and will continue to do until all resemblance of the original animal is civilized out of us and the race ends—with her face, and with her carriage, and with her body. She seemed to me to fulfil all my ideals of womankind. She became my sole object. I wanted her, I wanted to marry her.’

He hesitated for a moment and looked at Abbershaw defiantly, but as the other did not speak he went on again. ‘I found out that in the ordinary way she was what they call a “dancing instructress” in one of the night-clubs at the back of Shaftesbury Avenue, I went there to find her. From the manager in charge I discovered that for half a crown a dance and anything else I might choose to pay I might talk as long as I liked with her.’

Again he hesitated, and Abbershaw was able to see in his face something of what the disillusionment had meant to him.

‘As you know,’ Wyatt continued, ‘I know very little of women. As a rule they don’t interest me at all. I think that is why Joy interested me so much. I want you to understand,’ he burst out suddenly with something akin to savagery in his tone, ‘that the fact that she was not of my world, that her accent was horrible, and her finger-nails hideously over-manicured would not have made the slightest difference. I was in love with her: I wanted to marry her. The fact that she was stupid did not greatly deter me either. She was incredibly stupid—the awful stupidity of crass ignorance and innocence. Yes,’ he went on bitterly as he caught Abbershaw’s involuntary expression, ‘innocence. I think it was that that broke me up. The girl was innocent with the innocence of a savage. She knew nothing. The elementary civilized code of right and wrong was an abstruse doctrine to her. She was horrible.’ He shuddered, and Abbershaw fancied that he began to understand. An incident that would have been ordinary enough to a boy in his teens had proved too much for a studious recluse of twenty-seven. It had unhinged his mind.

Wyatt’s next remark therefore surprised him.

‘She interested me,’ he said. ‘I wanted to study her. I thought her extraordinary mental state was due to chance at first—some unfortunate accident of birth and upbringing—but I found I was wrong. That was the thing that turned me into a particularly militant type of social reformer. Do you understand what I mean, Abbershaw?’

He leant forward as he spoke, his eyes fixed on the other man’s face. ‘Do you understand what I’m saying? The state of that girl’s mentality was not due to chance—it was deliberate.’

Abbershaw started. ‘Impossible,’ he said involuntarily, and Wyatt seized upon the word.

‘Impossible?’ he echoed passionately. ‘That’s what everybody would say, I suppose, but I tell you you’re wrong. I went right into it. I found out. That girl had been trained from a child. She was a perfect product of a diabolical scheme, and she wasn’t the only victim. It was a society, Abbershaw, a highly organized criminal concern. This girl, my girl, and several others of her kind, were little wheels in the machinery. They were the catspaws—specially prepared implements with which to attract certain men or acquire certain information. The thing is horrible when the girl is cognizant of what she is doing—when the choice is her own—but think of it, trained from childhood, minds deliberately warped, deliberately developed along certain lines. It’s driven me insane, Abbershaw.’

He was silent for a moment or so, his head in his hands. Abbershaw rose to his feet, but the other turned to him eagerly.

‘Don’t go,’ he said. ‘You must hear it all.’ The little red-haired doctor sat down immediately. I found it all out,’ Wyatt repeated. ‘I shook out the whole terrible story and discovered that the brains of this organization were bought, like everything else. That is to say, they had a special brain to plan the crime that other men would commit. That appalled me. There’s something revolting about mass-production anyway, but when applied to crime it’s ghastly. I felt I’d wasted my life fooling around with books and theories, while all around me, on my very doorstep, these appalling things were happening. I worked it all out up here. It seemed to me that the thing to be done was to get at those brains—to destroy them. Lodging information with the police wouldn’t be enough. What’s the good of sending brains like that to prison for a year or two when at the end of the time they can come back and start afresh? It took me a year to trace those brains and I found them in my own family, though not, thank God, in my own kin . . . my aunt’s husband, Gordon Coombe. I saw that there was no point in simply going down there and blowing his brains out. He was only the beginning. There were others, men who could organize the thing, men who could conceive such an abominable idea as the one which turned Dolly Lord into Joy Love, a creature not quite human, not quite animal—a machine, in fact. So I had to go warily. My uncle was in the habit of asking me to take house-parties down to Black Dudley, as you probably know, to cover his interviews with his confederates. I planned what I thought was a perfect killing, and the next time I was asked I chose my house-party carefully and went down there with every intention of putting my scheme into action.’

‘You chose your house-party?’ Abbershaw looked at him curiously as he spoke.

‘Certainly,’ said Wyatt calmly. ‘I chose each one of you deliberately. You were all people of blameless reputation. There was not one of you who could not clear himself with perfect certainty. The suspicion would therefore necessarily fall on one of my uncle’s own guests, each of whom had done, if not murder, something more than as bad. I thought Campion was of their party until we were all prisoners. Until Prenderby told me, I thought Anne Edgeware had brought him, even then.’

‘You ran an extraordinary risk,’ said Abbershaw.

Wyatt shook his head. ‘Why?’ he said. ‘I was my uncle’s benefactor, not he mine. I had nothing to gain by his death, and I should have been as free from suspicion as any of you. Of course,’ he went on, ‘I had no idea that things would turn out as they did. No one could have been more surprised than I when they concealed the murder in that extraordinary way. When I realized that they had lost something I understood, and I was desperately anxious that they should not recover what I took to be my uncle’s notes for the gang’s next coup. That is why I asked you to stay.’

‘Of course,’ said Abbershaw slowly, ‘you were wrong.’

‘In not pitching on von Faber as my first victim?’ said Wyatt.

Abbershaw shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘In setting out to fight a social evil single-handed. That is always a mad thing to do.’

Wyatt raised his eyes to meet the other’s.
‘I know,’ he said simply. ‘I think I am a little mad. It seemed to me so wicked. I loved her.’

There was silence after he had spoken, and the two men sat for some time, Abbershaw staring into the fire, Wyatt leaning back, his eyes half-closed. The thought that possessed Abbershaw’s mind was the pity of it—such a good brain, such a valuable idealistic soul. And it struck him in a sudden impersonal way that it was odd that evil should beget evil. It was as if it went on spreading in ever-widening circles, like ripples round the first splash of a stone thrown into a pond.

Wyatt recalled him from his reverie. ‘It was a perfect murder,’ he said, almost wonderingly. ‘How did you find me out?’

Abbershaw hesitated. Then he sighed. ‘I couldn’t help it,’ he said. ‘It was too perfect. It left nothing to chance. Do you know where I have spent the last week or so? In the British Museum.’ He looked at the other steadily. ‘I now know more about your family history than, I should think, any other man alive. That Ritual story would have been wonderful for your purpose, Wyatt, if it just hadn’t been for one thing. It was not true.’

Wyatt rose from his chair abruptly, and walked up and down the room. This flaw in his scheme seemed to upset him more than anything else had done. ‘But it might have been true,’ he argued. ‘Who could prove it? A family legend.’

‘But it wasn’t true,’ Abbershaw persisted. ‘It wasn’t true because from the year 1100 until the year 1603—long past the latest date to which such a story as yours could have been feasible, Black Dudley was a monastery and not in the possession of your family at all. Your family estate was higher up the coast, in Norfolk, and I shouldn’t think the dagger came into your possession until 1650 at least, when an ancestor of yours is referred to as having returned from the Papal States laden with merchandise.’

Wyatt continued to pace up and down the room. ‘I see,’ he said. ‘I see. But otherwise it was a perfect murder. Think of it—Heaven knows how many fingerprints on the dagger handle, no one with any motive—no one who might not have committed the crime, and by the same reasoning no one who might. It had its moments of horror too, though,’ he said, pausing suddenly. ‘The moment when I came upon Miss Oliphant in the dark—I had to follow the dagger round, you see, to be in at the first alarm. I saw her pause under the window and stare at the blade, and I don’t think it was until then that I realized that there was blood on it. So I took it from her. It was an impulsive, idiotic thing to do, and when the alarm did come the thing was in my own hand. I didn’t see what they were getting at at first, and I was afraid I hadn’t quite killed him, although I’d worked out the blow with a medical chart before I went down there. I took the dagger up to my own room. You nearly found me with it, by the way.’

Abbershaw nodded. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘I think it was instinct, but as you came in from the balcony I caught a glimpse of something in your hand, and although I didn’t see what it was, I couldn’t get the idea of the dagger out of my mind.’

‘Two flaws,’ said Wyatt, and was silent.

The atmosphere in the pleasant room had become curiously cold, and Abbershaw shivered. The sordid glossy photograph lay upon the floor, and the pretty childish face with the expression of innocence which had now become so sinister smiled up at him from the carpet.

‘Well, what are you going to do?’ It was Wyatt who spoke, pausing abruptly in his feverish stride.

Abbershaw did not look at him. ‘What are you going to do?’ he murmured.

Wyatt hesitated. ‘There is a Dominican Foundation in the rocky valley of El Puerto in the north of Spain,’ he said. ‘I have been in correspondence with them for some time. I have been disposing of all my books this week. I realized when von Faber passed into the hands of the police that my campaign was ended, but—’

He stopped and looked at Abbershaw; then he shrugged his shoulders. ‘What now?’ he said.

Abbershaw rose to his feet and held out his hand. ‘I don’t suppose I shall see you again before you go,’ he said. ‘Good-bye.’

Wyatt shook the outstretched hand, but after the first flicker of interest which the last words had occasioned his expression had become preoccupied. He crossed the room and picked up the photograph, and the last glimpse Abbershaw had of him was as he sat in the deep armchair, crouching over it, his eyes fixed on the sweet, foolish little face.

As the little doctor walked slowly down the staircase to the street his mind was in confusion. He was conscious of a strong feeling of relief, even although his worst fears had been realized. At the back of his head, the old problem of Law and Order as opposed to Right and Wrong worried itself into the inextricable tangle which knows no unravelling. Wyatt was both a murderer and a martyr. There was no one who could decide between the two, in his opinion.

And in his thoughts, too, were his own affairs.

---

As he stepped out into the street, a round moon face, red and hot with righteous indignation loomed down upon him out of the darkness. ‘Come at last, ’ave yer?’ inquired a thick sarcastic voice. ‘Your name and address, if you please.’

Gradually it dawned upon the still meditative doctor that he was confronted by an excessively large and unfriendly London bobby. ‘This is your car, I suppose?’ the questioner continued more mildly, as he observed Abbershaw’s blank expression, but upon receiving the assurance that it was, all his indignation returned.

‘This car’s been left ’ere over an hour to my certain personal knowledge,’ he bellowed. ‘Unattended and drawn out a foot from the kerb, which aggravates the offence. This’ll mean a summons, you know’—he flourished his notebook. ‘Name and address.’

Abbershaw having furnished him with this information, he replaced the pencil in its sheath and, clicking the book’s elastic band smartly, continued his homily. He was clearly very much aggrieved.

‘It’s people like you,’ he explained, as Abbershaw climbed into the driving seat, ‘wot gives us officers all our work. But we’re not goin’ to have these offences, I can tell you. We’re making a clean sweep. Persons offending against the Law are not going to be tolerated.’

He paused suspiciously. The slightly dazed expression upon the face of the little red-haired man in the car had suddenly given place to a smile.

‘Splendid!’ he said, and there was unmistakable enthusiasm in his tone. ‘Really, really splendid, Officer! You don’t know how comforting that sounds. My fervent wishes for your success.’ And he drove off, leaving the policeman looking after him, wondering a little wistfully if the charge in his notebook should not perhaps have read, ‘Drunk in charge of a car.’

THE END

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