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Chapter 24

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« on: March 15, 2023, 05:48:25 am »

SEATED at a corner table in the comfortable coffee-room of the Maid’s Head, with dinner, consisting of a sole, cutlets and sweet omelette ordered, and a bottle of Burgundy in its cradle already in evidence, Pank asked his cousin the question which had been puzzling him for some little time.

“Why did you make me stop at the corner of the street to-night, Amy? What was the matter with my going in to see Uncle and Aunt?”

She twisted and untwisted her slim fingers restlessly. She was looking rather fragile but remarkably pretty, her cousin thought, in her dark red costume and black hat.

“Dad and Mummie have got some silly idea into their heads, Ern,” she confided. “I’m not going to have any secrets from you. You remember the chauffeur, Bowhill, who lodged with us before you, and that you were so curious about?”

“Yes, I remember him,” Pank acquiesced.

“Well, he’s been around asking questions about you. I think he’s a horrid man. Keep out of his way, Ernest, if you see him, there’s a dear.”

“Why should I?”

She moved uneasily in her chair. A waiter presented two cocktails upon a salver.

“What on earth do I do with this?” she asked, as she accepted the glass.

“Drink it, with your love to me,” he enjoined, “as I do with my love to you! You’ll feel strong enough then to tell me this terrible news, and I shall feel brave enough to hear without trembling what your friend Bowhill is going to do to me.”

“He’s not my friend,” Amy declared vigorously. “Oh, Ernest, what a lovely drink!”

“Don’t leave a drop,” he advised. “That’s right. Now let’s hear all about it.”

“Well, you know Mother and Dad rather liked him,” she went on. “He’s been in to see them several times. He was in yesterday and he wasn’t very nice about you, Ernest.”

“That’s too bad.”

“He says you’re one of the biggest liars in the city,” the girl confided. “He says that you don’t sell heels at all, but that you’re a detective and that you’ve come down here, fooling every one and worrying around to find out things about his master.”

“And what do Uncle and Aunt say to that?”

“They don’t like it,” she admitted. “Dad says it’s all very well to be a detective---it’s a respectable profession enough---but you’ve no call to be deceiving your own relatives.”

“Well, there’s one of them here I won’t deceive any longer,” Pank declared cheerfully. “Help yourself to the rolls and butter, Amy, and summon up your courage. He’s telling the truth. I know no more about heels than the man in the moon. I am a detective---a Scotland Yard detective too---and I’ve just been made an inspector. I had your Dad’s friend Bowhill up in London for examination a few days ago, and he’s not far off being in trouble, I can tell you that.”

“Ernest dear, it sounds wonderful. An inspector too! But why didn’t you tell Dad all about it?”

“Don’t be silly, dear,” he begged. “It was my business to find out about that man Bowhill, and I did. I shouldn’t have found out anything if I’d gone telling anybody, even my own people, that I was a detective. It’s a very serious matter I’ve been engaged upon. I have been lucky, and the Chief has used me before half a dozen men who were my superior officers. If I bring it off as I hope---”


“Here comes the fish,” he pointed out. . . .

“You’re a very aggravating person,” she complained.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because I never know whether you are really fond of me, or whether you are making use of me to make people believe that you are a commercial traveller and just my cousin.”

“That’s clever of you,” he approved. “Have some sauce with your fish.”

“I’ll give you some you won’t like in a minute, if you make fun of me,” she retorted.

Ernest Pank smiled quietly to himself. He was, in the ordinary affairs of life, a simple-minded person, and he was very fond of Amy. He had almost made up his mind to tell her so, when he was conscious of a sudden thrill of alien interest. A girl had entered the room, wrapped in beautiful motoring furs and a black béret, from the front of which flashed a diamond ornament. She was followed by a maid carrying a dressing case. The head waiter and the manager of the hotel both hurried forward and escorted her to a table. She sat down a little wearily, sent away the maid, ordered some dinner, and talked to the manager for a few moments. Presently the latter left her and she leaned back in her chair. Amy caught at her companion’s arm.

“Do you know who that is?” she asked, in an excited whisper.

He fenced with the question, but she was too interested herself to notice the fact.

“It’s Lady Louise Keynsham,” she confided. “The sister of Lord Edward. They live at Keynsham Hall.”

“She’s a very attractive-looking young woman,” he remarked.

He watched her tear the menu in half, scribble something on the back, summon a waiter and give him whispered directions. The man brought the message to Pank. He glanced it through, hesitated for a moment and rose to his feet.

“Do you mind being left alone for a minute or two, Amy?” he asked. “Lady Louise wants to speak to me.”

She looked at him in astonishment.

“But you don’t know her, do you, Ernest?” she demanded.

“She appears to know me,” he replied evasively.

“Of course, I don’t mind,” Amy assented. “Hurry, dear, I’m dying to know what she wants.”

Pank crossed the room and stood before Louise’s table. She welcomed him with a pleasant but somewhat enigmatic smile.

“Still on vacation, Inspector?” she enquired.

“Not this time,” he replied. “I’m engaged, as a matter of fact, on very serious business.”

“Still trying to discover,” she continued, “what happened to Sir Humphrey Rossiter on his night drive to London last month?”

Pank shook his head gently.

“I know all about that,” he confided.

“Then what are you still doing down here?” she asked.

His eyes twinkled for a moment. Lady Louise looked very charming, but he took eager note of the anxiety lurking in the depths of her eyes.

“There is a kind of etiquette in our profession,” he told her, “stupid, of course, but there it is---that one’s first reports must be made to one’s superior officer. Therefore I cannot explain exactly what I am doing down here, Lady Louise.”

“Have you discovered Sir Humphrey’s hiding place?”

“You know that he is missing again, then?” he countered quickly. “How do you know? There hasn’t been a word of it in the papers.”

“Yes, I knew that he had disappeared,” she acknowledged.

He became suddenly very much in earnest.

“Lady Louise,” he said, “it doesn’t do for honest people to work against the police. It never pays in the long run. I wish I could make you believe this. I wish you could make your brother believe it.”

“What are you talking about?” she exclaimed. “My brother is abroad.”

“He may be,” was the quiet reply. “That does not affect the matter.”

“Do you seriously believe,” she persisted, “that either of us---my brother or I---know anything about Sir Humphrey’s disappearance?”

“You knew that he had disappeared, which was more than any one outside Scotland Yard and the servants at Chestow Square knew,” he reminded her.

“You are too clever for an ingenuous person like myself,” she remarked a little scornfully.

“On the contrary,” he replied, “it seems to me that you or your entourage have up till now proved yourselves much cleverer than the whole of Scotland Yard. We do not know where Sir Humphrey is. You and your friends do. We learn a little every day. All the time we draw nearer to the truth. I don’t imagine it is news to you to hear that I spent the earlier part of the day around Fakenham and Keynsham.”

“I don’t see what good that did you,” she observed, watching him carefully all the time.

“I certainly found a strong disinclination towards conversation on the part of every one I spoke to,” he admitted. “At the same time, there are the police, you know.”

“You wouldn’t get much out of Choppin,” she reflected, with a little smile.

“I’m not so sure,” he answered. “What a man refuses to say is sometimes as important as what he says. Choppin is very much between two stools.”

“So I gather! Didn’t I hear something about a return visit of yours with a search warrant?”

“Is that why you are on your way to London?” he asked swiftly.

“Really,” she murmured, taking a cigarette from her case and tapping it upon the table. “You detectives get into the habit of asking such a multitude of questions that you put every one on the rack. I cannot even talk to you for a moment civilly but you try to drive me into a corner. How do you know that I am on my way to London?”

“Part of that marvellous insight with which we are gifted,” he confided. “You certainly appear to be equipped for a motor journey---maid, jewel case and all. Of course, you may be going to some other place, but I don’t fancy you are. The only thing I should like to know is---are you alone?”

“Well, that is one question I can answer,” she told him. “I am alone. If you like to step out into the courtyard, you will see my Bentley coupé and you can question my chauffeur, who is sitting in the room just across the way, having his supper. We are en route for London and we are alone.”

He reflected for a moment.

“You would be! Perhaps, after all, my visit this afternoon may have produced results.”

“What a conceited person you are!” she remarked.

He shook his head.

“Believe me, I am not that, Lady Louise,” he assured her. “I cannot even convince you of the most obvious thing in the world.”

“Which is?”

“That whether it is at your brother’s instigation or not, it is the most foolish thing in the world to enter into any enterprise of any sort which is in direct opposition to the law.”

“Thank you for coming over,” she said, with a gesture of dismissal. “You must not leave the young lady alone any longer. I’m glad to gather from what you say that you have not yet blundered across the truth.”

“I hope, for your sake, that we may not, before you have made up your mind to tell us, Lady Louise,” Pank replied.

He took his leave with a stiff little bow and crossed the room to where Amy was eagerly awaiting him.

“Well,” she enquired curiously, “whatever did she want?”

“Just to ask me a few questions.”

“Why, you looked as though you were both quarrelling all the time.”

“Well, we weren’t,” he assured her, settling himself down once more in his place. “We were like two fencers in the dark, making passes at each other. We both touched once. But let’s forget about her ladyship now and talk about ourselves. This sole is fine.”

“Delicious,” she agreed.

“And I like having meals with you alone,” he told her.

“So do I, better than anything in the world,” she confessed.

“Let’s have ’em together all the time, shall we?” he suggested, a speech which, although it may have seemed to lack romance, was exactly the speech for which Amy had been longing.

It was perfectly clear, from the moment they crossed the threshold of the little house in Chapel Fields Terrace, that Inspector Ernest Pank was faced with a hostile reception. His uncle, with spectacles pushed well back on his forehead and newspaper lowered, frowned at him coldly, without indulging in any form of salute. His aunt heaved a deep sigh and wagged her head sorrowfully.

“So you’ve been out with this cousin of yours, have you?” Mr. Pank remarked to his daughter. “Is that why you went off this morning without saying a word?”

“It was not,” Amy declared. “I didn’t know Ernest was in the city. He came to meet me after business.”

“Then he’d better not come again,” Elijah Pank pronounced, with portentous emphasis. “Do you hear that, young man?”

“I hear, but I hope you don’t mean it,” was the good-natured reply.

“When I say a thing I always mean it.”

“What’s wrong with me?”

“Your sneaking ways,” Elijah Pank confided. “I was never over-fond of the police, though I’m a right-living man myself, and for you to come down here and deceive your own folks with a tale of your being a respectable commercial traveller doing big business, and all the time ferreting and worming about, ain’t my idea of straightforward behaviour. That’s how we feel about it, young man---me and your aunt---so you’d better pick up your hat and go where you’re more welcome.”

“He’s welcome here,” Amy asserted passionately.

“Well, he ain’t. Not with me, at any rate,” her father rejoined, rustling his newspaper fiercely.

“Look here, Uncle,” his nephew begged earnestly. “I’m not going to quarrel with you, but you’ve got to look at this differently. Amy says you’ve got a weakness for the young man that was your lodger here and maybe he’s prejudiced you against me. We’ve had to have him up at Scotland Yard, but we’ve let him go. He broke the law, in a sense, but he did it at his master’s orders. All the same, we had to find out about it. If I’d come down here as Detective Pank, I shouldn’t have discovered what I wanted to know, either here or at another place in the city.”

“Yes,” Elijah Pank grunted. “Up at the Cat and Chickens. What sort of a job do you think that is---to sit up there at night and make a loose-mouthed man drunk, and worm out of him what he’d been paid good money not to tell?”

“That man, too, had broken the law,” Ernest Pank pointed out. “The police have to use their own methods to get at the truth. When there’s been a crime committed, people don’t come and give them information just for the fun of it. Your friend Tom Bowhill was serving his master. I’m serving mine. You may know who his is. Mine is the King.”

“Fine words,” his uncle muttered.

“There’s common sense behind them,” Ernest Pank insisted. “I’d rather be a soldier than a detective, if I were built for it, but we’re both serving the Crown. If we have to use subtleties sometimes, instead of our fists, we don’t do it to bring innocent people into trouble.”

“And making believe to be fond of Amy,” Mrs. Pank complained, mopping at her eyes. “That poor girl hasn’t been the same since you took to coming along. Fretting! It’s my belief that’s what she’s been doing all the time. It’s all very well to call yourself a servant of the King, Ernest, but that spying work means deceitfulness, and you can’t get away from it.”

“Well, there’s no deceitfulness about Amy and me,” Ernest Pank assured them. “We decided to get married about an hour ago and we came straight down here to tell you.”

The paper fluttered out of Elijah Pank’s fingers.

“Did you ever hear the like?” he exclaimed.

“Did you ever hear the like?” Mrs. Pank echoed. “Amy, my child, come to your mother.”

“Not unless it’s all right about Ernest,” Amy stipulated, with a defiant sob in her throat.

Elijah Pank rose and held out his hand.

“I take back what I said, Ernest,” he declared. “You’ve spoken up like a man and maybe I was hasty.”

“Ernest always was the one of the family I had a fancy for,” his aunt declared, offering her capacious person for an embrace.

“If you’d been ten minutes earlier,” his completely mollified uncle said, with a regretful glance at the clock----

Ernest slipped out of the room and came back again with a brown-paper parcel which he had left in the hall.

“Fetch out the glasses, Aunt,” he enjoined cheerfully.

“Well, I never,” the latter exclaimed, as she opened the cupboard. “Champagne wine, indeed!”

Amy threw her arms around her cousin’s neck and drew his lips to hers.

“Thinks of everything, doesn’t he?” she murmured happily.
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