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Chapter 25

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« on: March 15, 2023, 06:07:50 am »

AT about the hour when Detective Inspector Pank, on the following day, stepped out of the afternoon express from Norwich at Liverpool Street Station, Parkins, Sir Humphrey Rossiter’s impeccable butler, purely in order to pass the time, was polishing a set of silver salvers in the pantry of the house in Chestow Square. Directly in front of him was a row of electric bells and indicators. He was just adding the finishing touches to a very artistic piece of work when one of the former rang. He glanced up carelessly enough. It was a question of front door or side door, for the house itself was empty of occupants. Number six would have been the front door, number eight the side entrance. The indicator was down at number three. Parkins stared at it in blank and speechless amazement.

“What’s wrong with you?” Mrs. Bowman, the cook, asked, looking in at the door from her comfortable kitchen.

Parkins was temporarily bereft of words. He pointed to the indicator.

“Number three,” Mrs. Bowman exclaimed. “Why---why, isn’t that----”

Parkins finished the sentence for her. He laid down with great deliberation the salver which he had been cleaning.

“It is Sir Humphrey’s own room,” he announced. “One of those wenches you keep in order so well, Mrs. Bowman, has gone off the deep end again. If this is a practical joke, she will hear of it from me.”

Nevertheless, in accordance with his usual custom, Parkins wiped his hands upon the chamois leather, untied his baize apron and donned his coat before he mounted the stairs. Halfway up the bell rang again. He indulged in a little shiver. He was not a superstitious man, but the sound of a bell ringing from his master’s room, which had naturally been kept fast closed, was in itself disconcerting. The habits of the perfect servant persisted, however, and, arrived on the front staircase, he paused outside the door of the room and knocked respectfully. Then he gave a little gasp. A familiar voice replied in a tone somewhat sharper than ordinary.

“Come in!”

Parkins pushed open the door with trembling lingers. Sir Humphrey himself was standing before an open cupboard, apparently inspecting his wardrobe. He had a towel in his hands as though he had just come in from the bathroom.

“That you, Parkins?” he asked, without turning round. “I rang twice.”

Parkins sought in vain for words of apology, but it was useless. For those first few moments he was speechless.

“Telephone at once to Whitehall,” Sir Humphrey directed, seemingly not noticing the man’s confusion. “Ask Mr. Carthew to come around at once and bring any important papers needing immediate attention. Afterwards bring me a whisky and soda into the library and put out my dinner clothes.”

“Very good, sir. We are---I’m sure every one will be---we are very glad to see you back again, Sir Humphrey.”

The latter nodded in not unkindly fashion.

“Thank you, Parkins,” he said. “The Nursing Home was severe and in many respects inconvenient. I was glad to get away. Home, after all, is the best place when one is not feeling quite up to the mark.”

“And Mrs. Brandt, sir?” the man ventured.

His master raised his eyebrows.

“Oh, you are thinking of the Sunday night when she didn’t arrive for dinner. She apparently wrote a note which I never received. Mrs. Brandt is quite well, I believe. Go and ring up Carthew at once.”

“You will pardon me, sir,” Parkins said, looking back from the door at his master’s apparel, “but your second-best dinner clothes will have to do. You were wearing your best ones last time we saw you.”

Sir Humphrey nodded.

“So I was,” he remarked indifferently. “The second-best ones will do quite nicely. I am not leaving the house.”

Sir Humphrey, who was dressed in a very well-cut blue serge suit, descended by the front stairs and made his way to the library, where fortunately a fire had been lit each day. Parkins found him there, when he entered a few minutes later, leaning back in an easy-chair and reading the morning paper with interest.

“Parkins,” his master said, as he accepted the tumbler of whisky and soda, “you will remember when you entered my service I told you that there were two qualities I appreciated in a servant?”

“I remember something of the sort, sir.”

“One was never to show curiosity and the other was silence. Remember that, please. I have been away and I have returned. If you read the morning papers, you will see that I have been in a Nursing Home. You can accept that item of news as the true and only explanation of my absence. You can leave the whisky on the sideboard and put my clothes out. Light a fire in my bedroom. As soon as Mr. Carthew comes, he can be shown in here.”

“Very good, sir,” the man murmured. “Certainly I will remember what you say, sir.”

“The unusual circumstances of my departure,” Sir Humphrey continued, “the fact that I left by the window and in dinner clothes, you can forget. What really happened was simple. I worked myself into a nervous state of anxiety over the nonarrival of my expected guest. I felt unwell and went out to see my doctor. He sent me to a Nursing Home for a few days.”

“I quite understand, sir.”

“Sir Humphrey, thank God you are back!” Carthew exclaimed, as he came breathlessly into the room a quarter of an hour later. “This is a wonderful surprise.”

It was obvious that the young man had struck the wrong note. Sir Humphrey frowned irritably.

“Thank God for what?” he demanded.

“Why, for finding you back again, sir, safe and well. I could scarcely believe my ears when Parkins told me over the telephone.”

“My dear lad, don’t be absurd,” his employer enjoined. “I left a trifle hurriedly, perhaps, but that was no one’s business except my own. I’m glad to see you had the good sense to keep everything out of the papers.”

“Scotland Yard saw to that, sir. The stipulated time would have been up to-morrow, though. We couldn’t have kept your absence a secret any longer.”

“That may be why I’ve come back,” was the dry retort. “I hope you have brought the Russian papers with you.”

“Certainly, sir. I brought them and all the other letters which you ought to see.”

“I’m ready to start at once,” Sir Humphrey announced. “Draw that little table to the fire. I don’t think the chauffage has been working.”

“Certainly, sir,” the young man assented, doing as he was bid. “First of all, though, hadn’t I better be doing some telephoning? We ought to let people know you are back. Scotland Yard, for instance.”

“Scotland Yard? Good Heavens, no!” Sir Humphrey scoffed. “I hope they haven’t been making a fuss just because I chose to go away quietly for a few days. That’s the worst of Matterson. He scents mystery and crime everywhere. . . . No, I don’t want to ring any one up, Carthew. Get out the papers while I light my pipe. We’ll do an hour or so’s work before dinner.”

“What about the P.M. sir?” the secretary queried.

His Chief indulged in a little grimace.

“Well, I suppose you had better just report to him,” he consented ungraciously. “Don’t make any fuss about it. Say that I found the Nursing Home uncomfortable, that I’m much better, and that I decided to return here this afternoon.”

Carthew, who was still feeling rather like a man in a dream, did as he was bidden. Presently he looked across the room, the receiver in his hand.

“The Prime Minister insists on having a word with you personally, sir,” he announced.

“He would,” the Home Secretary muttered, rising to his feet. “All right. Give me the extension.”

He drew the instrument towards him.

“Hello, sir,” he began. “This is Rossiter speaking.”

“My dear fellow, how wonderful!” was the prompt and enthusiastic reply. “How amazing! Whenever did you turn up and where on earth have you been?”

“Every one seems very upset at my return,” Sir Humphrey observed gruffly. “I only went down to a Nursing Home for a few days. I wasn’t feeling quite the thing, but I’m all right now. Carthew is with me and we’re going into that Russian business. I shall be here until I go to bed, if you want me. To-morrow I shall be at Whitehall, and in the House in the afternoon.”

“But tell me---”

“Rotten connection, isn’t it?” Rossiter interrupted. “I can’t hear a word. See you to-morrow.”

He rang off and put the receiver on the hook with a grin which was reminiscent of his old self.

“That will hold old Tresham for a bit,” he remarked. . . .

For two hours Sir Humphrey went through an accumulation of papers and Ronald Carthew confided afterwards to several of his associates that he had never known his Chief so brilliant or so lucid. His decisions, always correct, were almost instantaneous. He seemed to have recovered all his old energy.

“Well, that’s everything, sir,” the young man said at last, packing up his despatch case. “A wonderful afternoon’s work, Sir Humphrey, if you’ll allow me to say so. I thought it would have taken at least two days to clear up all these things. Shall I come here in the morning, sir, or be at Whitehall?”

The Home Secretary considered the matter.

“You had better stay here in the house,” he decided. “Your room will be ready for you, I’m sure. You can send for your typist, if you like, or you can write the necessary letters yourself and be at hand, in case I want you again. Besides, there’s that infernal telephone. I expect that will be going half the evening.”

“I’ll be on hand, anyway, sir,” Carthew promised, as he took his leave.

Sir Humphrey arranged his reading lamp and helped himself from a pile of newspapers. His reading, however, was somewhat perfunctory. He leaned back in his chair, his eyes fixed upon a blank space upon the opposite wall. Here, with only the muffled and familiar sound of traffic in his ears, he was conscious of a genuine sense of isolation. His brain had never been keener than now, when he tried to face this new and grizzly problem that had come into his life. Memory, imagination, logic---they were all there, responsive, vitalized, slaves of his will. Nothing made any difference. His mind could do little except move in cycles. Always it came back to that eternal cul-de-sac, that torturing monosyllable---why?

Carthew made abrupt and apologetic entrance, and Rossiter, by no means unwilling, dropped down to earth again.

“I couldn’t stop them, sir,” he announced. “I did all I could, but Colonel Matterson is on his way. They’d heard from Downing Street, I suppose. He’ll be here directly, I should think.”

Sir Humphrey shrugged his shoulders.

“Well,” he said, “I suppose I shall have to see him some time or other. Better get it over.”

“You know what your predecessor said, sir,” Carthew reminded him, with a smile. “A Cabinet Minister can never indulge in the unusual.”

“All because I left the house by the window.”

The Home Secretary sighed with a somewhat weary gleam of humour in his eyes. From outside came the sound of a rapidly driven car brought suddenly to a standstill. The front doorbell rang. There were voices. Colonel Matterson was duly announced. He came forward with outstretched hand.

“My dear Sir Humphrey,” he exclaimed, “this is wonderful. What a relief! You will excuse me, but what a relief!”

“Sit down, my dear fellow,” Sir Humphrey begged. “Aren’t you rather overdoing these expressions of relief? I suppose I was bound to come back some day.”

Colonel Matterson regarded him curiously.

“Well,” he said, “a man who walks out of his front window in his dinner clothes, without leaving word or message behind him, and reappears ten days later, without having communicated with any of his friends in the meantime, certainly presents something of a problem. You have had one ugly adventure lately; why shouldn’t we all imagine that something further had happened along the same lines?”

“Will you take anything?” Sir Humphrey asked.

Matterson shook his head.

“Not just now, thanks. I’m too interested to hear your story.”

Sir Humphrey selected a cigarette from an open box and lit it.

“I have no story,” he confided.

The Subcommissioner gasped.

“What do you mean---you have no story?” he demanded.

“Oh, there’s this much of a one, if you like,” Sir Humphrey conceded. “I left this room at about eight o’clock last Sunday week by the window.”

“Why did you leave by the window, to start with?” Colonel Matterson enquired. “I was only a few yards away.”

“I left by the window because I found it more convenient,” Rossiter explained. “I came back this evening in a taxicab. The newspapers will tell you the rest. I’ve been in a Nursing Home.”

The Subcommissioner very nearly lost his temper.

“But, damn it all,” he exclaimed, “it was we who put the notices in the paper. We knew very well there was no question of a Nursing Home. We put it in to save your face and ours and stop gossip.”

“One of the most sensible things you ever did,” Sir Humphrey approved. “Having done it, let us accept it as the truth. Near Hastings, it probably was. Isn’t that a good place for a Nursing Home? The sea breezes have completely restored me to health. I have done two hours’ work already this afternoon and I have adopted the popular view with regard to the Russian business.”

Matterson rose from his chair, came over to the hearthrug, and laid his hand upon Sir Humphrey’s shoulder.

“Rossiter, don’t let us bluff, please,” he begged. “If you have any real solid reason for doing so, well, the whole thing can be kept from the public for a time. But just think---I’m not being egotistical---of what I represent. I represent the entire police system of Great Britain. Whether it’s to be given to the Press or not, I should be told the truth. When it happens to be a Cabinet Minister who is involved, one who less than two months ago had a narrow escape from death, I don’t ask for information---I demand it.”

“Very well put, Colonel,” the Home Secretary agreed. “And now here’s my reply. I won’t bluff with you. Twenty seconds before I did it, I had no more idea of walking out of the window in my dinner clothes than flying. Something happened, however, and I did it. I have been away for ten days and I’m back again. Now I have to think over the whole business. There are several issues involved. I no more understand certain things which are happening around me, or why I am in the business at all, than the man in the moon. Until I understand a little more about it, I’m not going to open my mouth to you or anybody else. I am the Home Secretary, who has been in a Nursing Home, near Hastings if you like, for a certain duration of time. That’s quite good enough for the general public.”

Colonel Matterson reflected.

“Is it really possible,” he suggested, “that you are sheltering criminals?”

“It may be,” the other asserted. “On the other hand, if I make a mistake, it will be myself who will pay.”

“In plain words,” Colonel Matterson went on, “you refuse to give any information or assistance to the men who have been working on your case. You are content to shelve the whole affair. You would like us to preach everywhere the Nursing Home story?”


“I don’t know how on earth we are going to explain matters to our own men,” the Subcommissioner remarked gloomily.

“Why try?” Rossiter queried. “Explanations are the most vicious things in the world. I say that, who am going about with a note of interrogation in my brain.”

“If we could only be a little more practical for a moment,” the Subcommissioner groaned.

Sir Humphrey glanced at the clock.

“We will be,” he agreed. “Half-past seven. I think if you will forgive my suggesting it, it is almost time you went home and changed for dinner.”

Colonel Matterson reflected for a moment. He had one more thunderbolt to launch, and he decided that his companion was asking for it.

“I was hoping, Sir Humphrey, for more reasons than one,” he confided, “that I should find you prepared to be entirely frank with us. If you persist in your present attitude, I think it only fair to tell you that we must go ahead as well as we can without your help.”

Sir Humphrey laughed sardonically.

“You have been doing that all the time, haven’t you?” he observed. “You haven’t got much farther, though, that I can see.”

There was a gleam of triumph in Colonel Matterson’s eyes.

“Let me tell you this, Sir Humphrey,” he said. “At Scotland Yard this morning I had a despatch from Inspector Pank, one of my men---vague, I admit, no definite information, I admit, but still assuring me that you would be back in London some time to-day.”

“Rubbish! I didn’t know I was coming, myself.”

Colonel Matterson smiled once more. He accepted the other’s incredulity as a compliment.

“It is perfectly true,” he went on. “The little man who, alone of all my staff, has shown any insight in this matter, sent me a message which I received this morning, saying that I might expect to find you back home during the day. The message, by-the-by, came from Norwich.”

Sir Humphrey whistled softly.

“My compliments to Inspector Pank,” he murmured.
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