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Chapter 26

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« on: March 15, 2023, 06:38:04 am »

GENERAL Sir Harold Moore did not hesitate the next day to speak his mind frankly. He had occasion to pay an official call upon the Home Secretary at Whitehall and, his business finished, he turned the conversation to personal matters.

“I am going, sir,” he threatened, “to take a liberty.”

“I felt sure that you would before you left,” was the brusque reply. “Let’s get it over.”

“You have been the victim of one outrage lately, an outrage committed under most mysterious circumstances. I am glad to be able to tell you that one of my young detectives has pretty well got to the bottom of that.”

“Dear me,” Sir Humphrey remarked, with gentle sarcasm.

“In that matter,” the Chief Commissioner continued, without flinching, “we shall act entirely as though you were a private individual, and the law will take its course.”

“You will do nothing of the sort,” Rossiter pronounced firmly. “My office would lose every scrap of dignity it possesses if that story ever became known.”

“I might point out for your consideration,” the Chief Commissioner observed, a little nettled, “that a man was hanged through that night’s interference with your actions.”

Sir Humphrey’s swift look was steely, almost menacing.

“That was purely accidental. No one could have foreseen my approaching illness. Did you come here to remind me of that, General?”

“That was not in any way the purpose of my visit,” was the uneasy reply. “I have come to point out to you that, although you seem to take the matter very calmly, you have again become the victim of some sort of a plot or outrage, some sort of an illegal action, at any rate, or you would scarcely have disappeared without leaving a word of explanation and have stayed away for so long a period of time.”

“I don’t know,” Sir Humphrey murmured. “I was very comfortable.”

The Chief Commissioner, when he was worked up, was afraid of no one, and he spoke his mind.

“I cannot agree with you, sir,” he said sternly, “that this is a matter for flippancy. I would venture instead to point out to you that at Scotland Yard we are not quite so ignorant of what is going on as you seem to imagine. We know, for instance, that the host of the shooting party which you left at Keynsham---Lord Edward Keynsham---was himself, in some measure, responsible for that first outrage upon you. We know also---or we have a very shrewd idea---where you have been, during this second disappearance. With these facts in our possession, we feel that we have the right to claim your entire confidence.”

Rossiter felt that he was being hard pressed, but he thought none the worse of his visitor for his pertinacity.

“How do you know that there was anything illegal about my absence?” he demanded. “A man is master of his own actions, even if he happens to be a Cabinet Minister. I can leave home for a few days at any time if I want to.”

“It is not a reasonable supposition,” the General persisted, “that you would leave your house, where you were waiting in a state of great anxiety for a delayed guest, and step out of the window in your dinner clothes without a word to your servants. There is no doubt in the mind of any person with common sense that you were decoyed away somewhere, and there is very little doubt but that your disappearance was associated in some way with the disappearance of Mrs. Brandt. Why do you handicap the course of justice by refusing information to which the police have a right?”

“Let me remind you, General,” Sir Humphrey pronounced, “that you jump to conclusions, when you state definitely that I was decoyed away. I acted that night, and I am acting now, as I think fit and best in my own interests and the interests of others, and I repeat to you what I have told Colonel Matterson---for the immediate present, I have nothing official to say.”

“You will permit me to remark---even if it involves handing in my resignation---that I find your attitude preposterous,” General Moore declared.

“Such a remark does not involve your resignation for one single moment,” was the suave reply. “I agree with you entirely. My attitude is preposterous, but then, you see, I am in a preposterous situation. I claim the right to use my own judgment in my struggle to escape from it alive.”

The Chief Commissioner responded quickly to the more friendly note in Rossiter’s tone. He was, nevertheless, very sad.

“You are notoriously a man of common sense, Sir Humphrey,” he acknowledged. “The position you have taken up is utterly incomprehensible, but no one, of course, can compel you to speak. I hope you will admit that I am only doing my duty in protesting.”

“Certainly I admit it, General. I should feel just the same, if I were you. Let me tell you this, if it makes you feel any more at ease---I may be keeping details back from you, but what the mischief this whole business means, in which I have become an unwilling participator, I can assure you that I don’t know. I am more mystified than any man ever was in this world. It is because I fear to do the wrong thing that, until I get a ray of light, I am keeping silent.”

“But silence means inaction,” the Chief Commissioner protested.

“And action might mean stirring up a hornets’ nest,” Rossiter rejoined. “One has to temporize sometimes to attain the best results.”

“But don’t you feel that you are in any danger?” the Chief Commissioner persisted.

“Possibly,” was the equable reply. “Fate deals out a certain amount of danger into the lives of every one of us. This particular risk which I am running now I am going to run for a short time longer.”

The General rose to his feet.

“I have nothing more to say,” he decided. “I daresay you realise that you have already the Cabinet Minister’s dole.”

“What do you mean?”

“You are under police protection so far as we can afford it. There are detectives in this building, one guarding your house and one will be on the outside of your car, or following it in a taxi whenever you leave here.”

“Have I asked for this sort of thing?” Sir Humphrey demanded.

“A request from you was not necessary,” was the dogged answer. “We have ourselves and our reputation to protect. Any one who has been threatened as you have is guarded as a matter of course. If anything were to happen to you, the first people to be blamed would be Scotland Yard.”

“I’m glad you have told me of this,” Sir Humphrey said, “because it gives me an opportunity to speak plainly. You will be so good as to withdraw these men.”

“I’m sorry,” the Chief Commissioner objected. “They are there in accordance with custom, and the necessity for their presence has already been proved.”

“No misunderstanding about this, please,” Rossiter insisted. “The three men are to be withdrawn. I won’t have my house watched. If any one wants to pay me a visit, as friend or enemy, I want the road to be open. Neither will I be watched here or in the streets. If any one wants particularly to assassinate me, a detective hanging around won’t improve my chances.”

“These are your orders, sir?”

“My definite orders. I will not be guarded. Especially I will not have the avenue to and from my house blocked.”

“Meaning that you actually want to get in touch with the criminals?” the Chief Commissioner suggested shrewdly.

Sir Humphrey shrugged his shoulders. For a moment he seemed at a loss.

“That is my business,” he answered.

There was a brief silence. There were a great many things which the Chief Commissioner was longing to say, but he was beginning to realise their hopelessness.

“Would you mind putting your orders in writing, Sir Humphrey?” he begged.

The Home Secretary adjusted his eyeglass and scribbled a few lines which he handed over.

“That will let you out officially,” he observed, “if I am removed bodily again or transported to another sphere. Good morning, General. My first day back in harness and a busy one. Interviews are all curtailed. Forgive me.”

He rang the bell. The Chief Commissioner folded up the paper he had received and took his leave. Outside he tore it into small pieces which he dropped into the muddy street out of his taxicab window.

“How are we getting on, Carthew?” Sir Humphrey asked his secretary an hour or so later.

“We have cleared up everything important, sir, when you’ve signed one or two more letters,” was the cheerful reply. “It’s four o’clock now. No need for you to be down at the House until half-past seven or eight. I have ordered the car around. I thought you might like to rest at home for a short time. I can come along, in case there is anything there.”

“That sounds all right,” the Home Secretary agreed. “Bring the letters at once and we’ll get along.”


Tea and buttered toast in the warm luxury of his study, a pipe of fragrant tobacco and a very comfortable chair. Sir Humphrey relaxed gratefully and shook out the Times. The wind was blowing outside but there was little to be heard through the closely drawn curtains. It was the most peaceful hour of the day. Carthew came in from his own room with some papers in his hand.

“Glad to see you looking so comfortably drowsy, sir,” he observed. “Do you good to take a nap. I’m afraid you will have to say a few words to-night about that Maryford affair. Simple business, though. I have all the notes here. There’s nothing else to trouble you about, except one caller.”

“Who is that?”

“A man I think you will have to see, sir. Mr. Debenham of the firm of Debenham, Twiss and Debenham. Excellent firm of lawyers in the West End. He has been asking to see you personally every day for a fortnight.”

“A firm of repute, you say?”

“Without a doubt, sir. Mr. Debenham, the one who is calling to see you, was in the House for some time---member for Wolverhampton. Lost his seat at the last election.”

“I remember,” Sir Humphrey murmured. “Yes, he must be all right. I will have a word with him when he calls. Meanwhile, take the telephone over to your room and leave me undisturbed.”

The period of quiescence was brief, however. It was less than a quarter of an hour afterwards when Carthew reappeared, ushering in the expected visitor. Mr. Debenham, as a West End solicitor and representative of an old-established firm, conformed to type in every respect. He was fashionably but quietly dressed, pleasant, well-mannered and well-spoken.

“Terribly sorry to disturb you, Sir Humphrey,” he apologised, as he accepted the chair to which the latter motioned him. “It really is in a way, though, an urgent affair. It has to do with the estate of that poor fellow, Cecil Brandt, who was hung.”

“Good gracious!” Rossiter exclaimed. “How am I interested?”

“Well, curiously enough,” the other announced, “you appear to be one of his executors.”

Sir Humphrey frowned. This was a contingency which had never occurred to him.

“Brandt should not have done that without asking my permission,” he muttered. “I’m not at all sure, Mr. Debenham, that I shall feel inclined to accept office.”

“That course is quite open to you, sir,” was the courteous reply. “In your official position you would naturally have every excuse for refusing. I must tell you that Mr. Brandt’s affairs are largely in the hands of a New York firm of lawyers, for whom we in this country act only as agents. They asked us to see you to ascertain whether you would be content to serve and also to put one or two questions to you.”

“Mrs. Brandt is a very old friend of mine, as she was of my wife’s,” Sir Humphrey reflected. “Who is the other executor?”

“Only Mrs. Brandt.”

“Humph! That simplifies matters. What questions were you to ask me?”

“Well, they appear to be based upon the supposition that you were intimate enough with Brandt to know something of his affairs. The estate in New York is of considerable dimensions, but there seems to be an idea on the part of the lawyers that Mr. Brandt also possessed a large fortune over here.”

“I know no more about his affairs than the man in the moon,” Sir Humphrey declared. “He always had the reputation of being wealthy and he has certainly spent large sums at times---the theatre, for instance, which he gave to his wife.”

“Our correspondents speak,” Mr. Debenham confided, “of a large quantity of bonds, or similar securities, deposited on this side. They have no idea where they are, and his bank, although they hold a considerable balance, know nothing of any securities. I naturally called first upon Mrs. Brandt, but unfortunately she was away.”

“I see,” Sir Humphrey meditated. “Well, so far as information about poor Brandt’s estate goes, I’m afraid I am useless to you. I was on no sort of terms of intimacy with him. It was his wife entirely who was our friend.”

“That would make you the more acceptable to her as executor,” the lawyer ventured to remind him.

“I’m not saying that I will refuse the post,” Sir Humphrey confided. “I shall ask you to give me a day or two to consider it. I should say there is no doubt but that Brandt had money on this side somewhere. Only last year he offered to settle five hundred thousand pounds upon his wife if she would promise to leave the stage finally.”

“All the information we have been able to gather,” the lawyer observed, “points to Mr. Brandt having been a man of great wealth. The position will no doubt elucidate itself.”

“I gather the will is an American one?” Sir Humphrey asked.

“The only will we have knowledge of at present. We wondered, as there seems to be some mystery about the English estate, whether perhaps it was deposited in some way to avoid death duties. It seems certain, however, in that case that Brandt would have left a letter explaining things, and so far as I can gather, no one has received anything of the sort. You don’t happen to know of any intimate friend with whom Brandt might have left it?” the lawyer asked, as he rose to his feet.

“Not one,” Sir Humphrey confessed. “I used to see his name in the papers, with his wife’s as attending a great many of these social gatherings, but I myself have been somewhat of a recluse for the last few years. Good afternoon, Mr. Debenham. You shall have my reply very shortly.”

Sir Humphrey sat back once more in his chair with a little shiver of distaste. It was not a pleasant position. Executor to the hanged man!---And a large estate missing. He summoned Carthew.

“No one else, I hope?” he enquired.

“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” his secretary apologised. “A young American gentleman has been waiting for some time on the chance of seeing you. I know him slightly and didn’t like to turn him away altogether---Mr. Van Pleyden.”

“What does he want?” Sir Humphrey demanded a trifle irritably.

Carthew shook his head.

“He knows that I am your confidential secretary, sir, but he would not tell me. I explained that you were most unlikely to see him without knowing his business, but he decided to take his chance. For what it’s worth, sir, I might tell you that I met him in Washington, when I was at the Embassy. He was their best man at polo, almost good enough for the international game, and he put me up for the Racquet Club in New York when I came across him there.”

“So he’s that sort, is he,” Sir Humphrey observed, “and you feel under certain obligations to him. I quite understand, Carthew. I will see him for a few minutes. Afterwards tell Parkins to get a bath ready. I will change into another morning suit and go down to the House. No dinner at home, tell him. I will have a cutlet there when I find out how things are going.”

Carthew picked up the letters which his Chief had signed, and disappeared for a brief space of time. When he returned, he brought with him a tall, broad-shouldered young man, pleasant-faced, clean-shaven, of rather boyish appearance, but with several significant lines in his face.

“This is Mr. Van Pleyden, Sir Humphrey,” he announced.

“Sir Humphrey Rossiter,” the young American said, crossing the room with footsteps which seemed to eat up the ground, “I am proud and glad to know you, sir.”
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