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Chapter 29

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« on: March 15, 2023, 07:47:44 am »

THEY found Inspector Pank, looking very harmless and benevolent, waiting on the doorstep of the house in Chestow Square. He came forward to open the door of the car, having first rung the bell, and unobtrusively shepherded them into the house.

“If I might suggest it, Sir Humphrey,” he said, as Parkins was divesting the latter of his coat, “I think it would be an excellent idea if you wouldn’t mind spending the evening in the drawing-room upstairs.”

“Out of harm’s way, eh?” Rossiter observed.

“Precisely, sir. However well guarded they are, your two ground-floor rooms, the dining room and the library, are simply an invitation for intruders. At the present moment, I know where I am. I have searched the house thoroughly and I know that there is no one in hiding. If you will dine and sit in the drawing-room, I can have a man on the back stairs as well as the front, and so far as the thing is humanly possible, you will be safe. It will leave our hands much freer to deal with anything that might turn up.”

“Would you mind that, Katherine?” Sir Humphrey asked.

“Why should I? I always look upon your drawing-room as a beautiful room wasted.”

“We will go straight up there now, then,” Sir Humphrey suggested, leading the way. “Show Colonel Matterson up when he arrives, and I shall want dinner for two served there later on, Parkins.”

“I’m afraid, sir,” the man said dubiously, “that you may find it a little cold. I lit the fire at the Inspector’s suggestion some time ago, but it takes a great deal of warming.”

“According to the Inspector,” Sir Humphrey observed, “we might find our downstairs room even less healthy. Come along, Pank, and settle us down.”

The drawing-room was an apartment of faded beauty, of Victorian hangings and perfumes, with stiff, but not unlovely furniture.

“Haven’t sat up here for donkeys’ years,” Sir Humphrey remarked.

“You will be perfectly safe here, anyway, sir,” Pank assured him.

“Perfectly safe!” Sir Humphrey repeated. “God bless my soul, sounds as though we were back in the Middle Ages! I say, Parkins, can’t you do something to make the room look more human? Bring up the flowers from below, and some decanters and glasses.”

“Certainly, sir. Colonel Matterson has just arrived.”

“Show him up,” Sir Humphrey enjoined. “Katherine, my dear,” he went on, as soon as the door was closed, “I am afraid this sort of thing is going to get on your nerves.”

“It isn’t that,” she insisted, dropping into a chair a little wearily. “I’m not thinking about myself at all. The one thing I regret is having brought all this trouble and annoyance upon you. Why, I can see the marks of that young man’s fingers upon your throat now.”

“Yes, I can feel them too, when I eat,” Sir Humphrey acknowledged, with a grimace. “To think too that I have been the advocate of ‘No firearms’ throughout the force! I shall get my own revolver out as soon as Matterson has left.”

The Subcommissioner entered the room. It was to his credit that he avoided all signs of self-complacency when he shook hands with Sir Humphrey and was introduced to Katherine.

“We are very sorry to hear of this last trouble, sir,” he said.

“The young fellow nearly throttled me,” Rossiter confided. “If you had not disobeyed orders, Colonel, I don’t know where I should have been.”

Matterson coughed.

“I had not had time to take the men off fortunately,” he compromised, “and I’m afraid you will have to put up with them for a few more days. Pank seems to have an idea that there’s something brewing.”

“I’ll put up with them, all right,” Sir Humphrey decided. “The matter must be cleared up. It is perfectly ridiculous to be going about as though we were in Chicago. I took a wrong view of it at first. I have changed my mind. I want to hear in a few words the result of Inspector Pank’s enquiries in Norfolk and I will offer you a few confidences in exchange.”

Colonel Matterson drew a sigh of relief.

“That’s what we have been hoping for,” he admitted. “We have been working too much in the dark. Pank slipped out of the room just now, I noticed, but I should like to send for him, and then, when you have heard his story, you can ask him any questions you like.”

“Fetch him up,” Sir Humphrey begged, “or rather, ring the bell and Parkins will get him.”

Parkins made due appearance, arranged the evening papers upon a side table, and set out decanters, syphons and glasses upon a side table which had previously held some treasures in the shape of wool-worked flowers and stuffed birds under glass cases. Afterwards he superintended the building up of a more satisfactory fire and, receiving instructions with regard to Inspector Pank, went off in search of him.

“One of your particular stars, is he, this young man Pank?” the Home Secretary enquired.

“I don’t know whether we shall ever be able to proclaim him a star,” Colonel Matterson observed. “He is undoubtedly intelligent and very tenacious, but in this particular matter he had the great advantage of being a Norfolk man. Very clannish they are in those parts. He asked to be dismissed from the force for a few days so that he could pose as a commercial traveller, and I must say that he did very well. He’s at a blank end now, though. What we’re needing is just half a dozen words from you.”

Sir Humphrey nodded.

“And what I am needing is just half a dozen words from another.”

Inspector Pank was shown in. He looked very trim in his neat dark clothes and a great deal of the nervousness of his earlier days had gone. Nevertheless, he had the appearance of a worried man. Lines were beginning to find their way into his face. Intelligence could take him no farther in his quest, and that curious extra sense which the born detective is supposed to possess was all the time warning him that danger was at hand.

“What do you think of the present conditions, Pank?” his Chief asked him.

“Sir Humphrey and the lady are much better off up here, sir,” was the quiet reply. “I have the back and front stairs guarded, the street patrolled, and an extra man in the library. I think I can guarantee you against anything in the nature of a surprise attack.”

“I should like you,” the Subcommissioner directed, “condensing the story so far as possible, to tell Sir Humphrey the result of your investigations in Norfolk. I think when you have done so he will probably be more inclined to help us.”

“I sincerely hope so, sir,” Pank said, “for his own sake. I am not an alarmist,” he added, “but I think that there is a very dangerous gang at work in London just now and they seem prepared to go to any lengths to secure what they want. Our great handicap, of course, is that we don’t know what it is they do want. That is where we are hoping for help from Sir Humphrey.”

“You shall have all the assistance I can give you,” Sir Humphrey promised, “but even then you’ll find we shall still be asking one another---why? Get along with your story, Pank.”

“It won’t take long, sir. I was detailed to go down to Norfolk with two other men to enquire into the circumstances of the outrage upon you after you left Keynsham Hall on the night of December the nineteenth. We didn’t get very far at first, simply because my two companions were known to be Scotland Yard detectives. I got a line on the chauffeur, however, and, curiously enough, one night when I was in a little public house which I have always had rather a fancy for, a man came in whom I knew by repute, and he let something fall as to a peculiar job he had had lately---the man, by-the-by, Sir Humphrey, was wearing a soiled grey suit marked with white paint---one of the few things you were able to pass on to us.”

“I remember the brute,” Sir Humphrey muttered.

“Well, with these two things in my mind,” Pank continued, “I got Colonel Matterson to allow me to go back to Norwich as a commercial traveller and make a few independent enquiries. As a result of them, I discovered who was the employer of the chauffeur who fetched you from Keynsham Hall, and I discovered that the place to which you were taken was no English country house at all, but an artificial series of buildings erected by the staff of a cinema company up near Hellesdon.”

“I always felt there was something unreal about the whole place,” Sir Humphrey exclaimed. “Of course, that was it. Go on, Pank.”

“The man whom I had come across in the public house was the head carpenter, and the first thought that flashed into my mind when I saw the white paint on his grey clothes, and heard from the landlord of the public house that he had been employed by a cinema company, was that six years ago he had been apprenticed to Prince, the hangman. They didn’t keep him because he drank.”

Sir Humphrey shivered, but this time, though Pank had paused, he did not interrupt. For a moment something seemed to stick in his throat.

“I also discovered,” Pank continued, “that the men who were your gaolers that night were members of an international society to which Brandt, the man who was hanged, had also belonged. The proprietor of the studio had been paid a very large sum for his properties, and the morning after you left, the whole place was destroyed and every one of the properties burnt. There was practically not a trace left of the affair. That is why, if I had not chanced to get in touch with the man in the grey suit with the white paint marks, we might have searched Norfolk for ever without finding the place to which you were taken.”

“You followed up, I presume, the man to whom the studio had belonged?” Sir Humphrey asked.

“Certainly, sir,” Pank replied. “We discovered from him the name of the person who had hired the studio for the night. The same person was the employer of the chauffeur.”

“And his name?”

“Lord Edward Keynsham.”

There was a moment’s complete silence. Curiously enough, although Sir Humphrey had been perfectly well aware of what was coming, he seemed to feel all over again his first sensations of amazement. The whole thing seemed so incredible, so impossible---that Keynsham, whom he had known most of his life, should, through the morning and afternoon, have been his courteous and considerate host, as he had been for three preceding days, and that an hour after leaving his house, he should have presided at that grim and sinister farce!

“Let me think this out for a moment,” he said. “They either were going to kill me or they were not. At first, I looked upon the whole thing as a stupid, flamboyant piece of melodrama. I remember distinctly that during the last sixty seconds I came to the conclusion that they were in earnest. Then came the telephone message that Mrs. Brandt had her story to tell me in London, and, provided it was true, I was honourably enabled to sign the reprieve. I promised them to grant it, if Mrs. Brandt here, who was waiting in my room, as they told me, gave me the information they said she was going to give me. They let me go on that understanding. I was bundled back to the outskirts of London and found that Mrs. Brandt really was waiting for me. I was ringing up the Governor of Wandsworth to tell him to postpone the execution, when I was taken ill. Now I ask myself this question---and I ask it of you too---do you suppose that their subsequent enmity towards me was influenced by the fact that, after all, I failed, through no fault of my own, to keep my word, and that Brandt died?”

“If you will permit me to state my theory, sir,” Pank begged, “I think not. I believe that the only reason for their wish to have Brandt reprieved was that one of them might arrive at an interview with him. They wanted something. I don’t know what it was, but they wanted something. In some way or other, he had treated them badly or robbed them or put them in a dangerous position. They wanted him not to be hung until one of them had got something out of him.”

“It’s a very plausible theory,” Sir Humphrey mused.

“But it is only a theory,” Pank pointed out. “We’re stuck and that’s the long and short of it. You will forgive my speaking plainly, sir. We are doing everything we can to save your life and the life of this lady who seems to be threatened too. You should, I think, give us such assistance as is in your power. We should like to know the story of your disappearance and Mrs. Brandt’s, on the night you were to have dined here together.”

“Our disappearance,” Sir Humphrey announced, “was entirely engineered by Lord Edward and Lady Louise Keynsham.”

There was a brief silence. The faintest of smiles parted Inspector Pank’s lips. Matterson sat like a man dazed.

“My belief is,” Sir Humphrey continued deliberately, “that Lord Edward, and his sister at his instigation, intervened to save our lives. I believe that this gang, whoever they may be, had planned to murder both Mrs. Brandt and myself, as we were sitting at dinner downstairs. I believe that Lord Edward finds himself in a terrible position. He is in a hopeless minority with his associates, and for some reason or other, he dare not break with them. He made sure of getting hold of Mrs. Brandt that Sunday night by having a faked taxi and his own car waiting outside the Savoy. In the park, her chauffeur pulled up on pretence of engine trouble, and Lord Edward arrived. It took him a long time to convince Mrs. Brandt---but in the end she was convinced---that there was danger in her keeping her appointment with me---danger to both of us. He drove her to his own house, in the first instance, and made her write a few urgent lines to me which Lady Louise brought to Chestow Square. She entered the house with a latchkey---one of those with which the members of this gang seem to have already provided themselves. I happened, by a fortunate chance, to be alone, as you, Matterson, were in the other room telephoning. She showed me the line from Mrs. Brandt. I had about five seconds to make up my mind. Whether I was wise or not, I don’t know, but at any rate, I am alive. We should have met you, Matterson, in the hall, so we stepped out of that fatal low window of mine into the car and drove off. . . . Keynsham dared not keep us in his house, but he sent us off to a place of safety and made us promise to stay there for four or five days. He had a belief, for some reason or other, that at the end of that time everything would be in order. . . . Perhaps I can follow what was in his mind, for during those few days’ absence of ours, Mrs. Brandt’s trunks and belongings were thoroughly and systematically ransacked. My own safe and desk and any place where I would be likely to hide anything were also searched. On thinking it over, I have come to the conclusion that Keynsham knew something of the plans of these people, and believed that they were prepared to go to any lengths to get what they wanted. If they had found the key, their interest in us would have ceased and we should be safe. If they failed to find it amongst our possessions, he believed that they would decide that we neither of us had it and leave us alone. He was wrong, but that is roughly the story of our disappearance.”

“Keynsham this time,” Matterson meditated, “acting not as your abductor but as your benevolent guardian.”

“Quite true. Now we come to yesterday afternoon,” Sir Humphrey went on. “That young man—confound him, I thought he was one of the nicest young fellows I had ever met!---told me his name quite frankly. Van Pleyden---Richard Van Pleyden---a well-known Philadelphian family. Carthew actually knew him. He came and was in the act of strangling me because I would not, or rather could not, give him what he wanted. I honestly believe that if Pank had not turned up just when he did, it would have been all up with me.”

Colonel Matterson smiled. His sympathy for the Home Secretary was subordinate to his sense of growing vision.

“Now things are getting clearer,” he declared cheerfully. “You were abducted in the first place from Keynsham, Sir Humphrey, in order to force you to sign a reprieve for Brandt, that they might have time to get from him something which he still possessed. They failed there by the sheer accident of your illness. You were his executor and, I imagine, a very dangerous one for their plans. They knew that this article, whatever it was, or document, would eventually come into your possession. That is why you have been looked after ever since. Your young man visitor let out what it was---a key.”

“Precisely,” Sir Humphrey observed, with a sardonic gleam in his grey eyes. “And the joke of it is, if one could find any humour in the situation at all, that I have told more innocent lies about it than I have ever told before in my life! A few hours after Brandt’s execution, a warder from Wandsworth Prison brought that key to this house. My butler, Parkins, received it, pushed it behind a dish in his pantry, and in the shock of my illness, and never imagining that it was of any importance, forgot all about it until yesterday.”

There was a tense, though only momentary, silence.

“So you have had the key all the time?” Pank exclaimed breathlessly.

“I have had it all the time and I have it now,” the Home Secretary acknowledged. “What Brandt wanted me to do with it I can’t imagine, but it was sent to me in his last moments without a word of explanation of any sort.”

“Does Mrs. Brandt know any thing about it?” Pank demanded eagerly. “She has probably seen it at some time or other in her husband’s possession.”

“Never,” she assured them all. “I never saw my husband with any special key. I never even heard him speak of any of his possessions. I have no more idea than any of you what it is the key of or what he wanted Sir Humphrey to do with it.”

Colonel Matterson was the first to ask a not unreasonable but somewhat obvious question.

“Where is it now?”

They all looked at one another. The Home Secretary smiled.

“Well,” he said, “after that nice young Harvard man and Keynsham, one rather loses confidence in one’s fellows, but I think I can trust you three. It is in the official safe in my official room in the House of Commons.”

“Not a bad place,” Matterson approved.

“Can you describe the key at all, Sir Humphrey?” Pank enquired.

“It is very plain but quaintly shaped, flat, and apparently made of oxidised silver,” Sir Humphrey told him. “I feel almost sure that it was not made in this country. It has a number on one side of the shaft—1431—and on the other just a name—Grimmett.”

There was a half-stifled exclamation from Colonel Matterson. Pank for a moment remained grimly silent. Then he pointed towards the papers spread out on the table.

“Seen the Evening News?” he asked.

“I have not seen any evening paper,” Sir Humphrey replied.

“The manager of Grimmetts’ and one of his watchmen were both murdered this afternoon in the vaults of their establishment. They were shot down by two men who tried to get their pass-keys.”

“Who on earth is Grimmett?” the Home Secretary gasped.

“Grimmett is the patentee and director of a marvellous new safe deposit system,” Pank explained. “They opened a branch in Lombard Street about twelve months ago. That key is the key to one of the safety chambers.”
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