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17. "Words, words...."

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Author Topic: 17. "Words, words...."  (Read 38 times)
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« on: April 16, 2023, 11:20:04 am »

SERGEANT Rogers picked the bottle up and held it against the light.

"Empty, I see," he said, and put it down again. His face was as expressionless as ever.

"Well?" said Julius, eagerly. "Isn't that the thing you are looking for?"

"It seems so, Sir Julius. Briggs will be able to identify it, no doubt." His tone was unenthusiastic, almost uninterested.

"And it was in my wardrobe, of all places! How the devil did it get there, do you suppose?"

"Well, sir, your room is readily accessible from the stairs. Once on the landing, it is the first door one comes to."

"Quite. Next door to Lady Camilla's, in fact. Mrs. Carstairs' room is just beyond."

"I have that in mind, sir."

"You searched their rooms last night, I suppose?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then, how----?"

"I have no suggestions to offer, sir. And unless the person who put it there chooses to tell us, I see no means of finding out."

The disapproval in the sergeant's voice was too plain to be ignored.

"I suppose," faltered Sir Julius, "I should have left it where it was until you could see it."

"You should, sir."

"There might have been fingerprints on it, and so on."

"There was the possibility of fingerprints, certainly."

"I am sorry. It was stupid of me. I'm afraid I rather lost my head when I saw it there."

"I quite understand, sir." Rogers paused before he went on, a little ominously, "No doubt the officer who takes charge of this case in due course will accept your explanation, in view of your position."

"Good God, Rogers, I should hope so!" Julius exploded.

"He will, of course, have to take account of the fact that there is no corroboration of your statement of how this was found."

"Tchah!" said Sir Julius.

"However," Rogers went on smoothly, "there is one point as to which I shall be able to satisfy him. It was not in your wardrobe when I searched it last night. Let me see, you say it was underneath the top handkerchief in the pile just now?"

"Yes."

"I opened that drawer when I was assisting you to change your clothes this afternoon. If anything had been disarranged there at the time, I think I should have observed it. I cannot be sure, but I think I should. That may help to limit further the period in which it was placed there."

Rogers picked up the bottle and put it in his pocket.

"There is nothing else you would like to tell me about this, sir?" he asked.

"There is nothing else I can tell you. You have all the facts."

"There is one fact," observed Dr. Bottwink, "which is to me, at least, of some comfort."

"What is that, sir?"

"The fact that this bottle is now empty. It means that I shall be able to eat my dinner with some degree of confidence."

He got up and left the room. Whether for the reason he mentioned or not, he looked considerably less depressed than he had been. His face remained serious and thoughtful, but it had lost the look of blank dismay that it had worn ever since the tragedy of Mrs. Carstairs had been discovered. He walked briskly enough to the north-east wing of the house, climbed the familiar, narrow stairs and found himself once more in the muniment room.

For once the haven failed to work its familiar spell. To all appearance it was unchanged. The roof had miraculously withstood the assaults of the weather. The archives still stood in their oak presses dry and intact. But now they cast their allurements in vain. Something had come between them and their impassioned suitor. The twentieth century, vulgar, discordant and disquieting, had invaded the stronghold of the eighteenth and put it to rout. To his own deep astonishment, Dr. Bottwink found himself completely uninterested in the papers of the third Lord Warbeck.

He sat idle at his desk for several minutes before he confessed himself beaten. Then he laid down the pen with which he had been aimlessly playing and began to walk up and down the length of the narrow room. He had turned at the desk for the fourth time and was just approaching the door for the fifth when without warning it opened suddenly.

"Ah!" said Dr. Bottwink, startled. "Lady Camilla!"

"Am I disturbing you, Dr. Bottwink?"

"That your ladyship should put me such a question! Disturbing me, indeed! When I consider my behaviour to you just now, believe me, I"

"That's what I came to see you about," said Camilla, cutting him short without ceremony. "I rather think you owe me an explanation. Just what were you and all the others doing in my room?"

"It was an unhappy misunderstanding on my part. Perhaps, though," he corrected himself pedantically, "the adjective is inappropriate. I do not wish to give yet further offence. I am very happy in that I was mistaken. Quite simply, when I came into your room I thought you were dead."

"You thought----! That is the oddest excuse I've ever heard for coming into a woman's room, and I've heard a good many."

"It is true, none the less."

"And why should I have been dead at that particular moment?"

"My lady," said Dr. Bottwink seriously, "if I were to answer that question directly, I should perhaps be guilty of yet a further blunder. But may I remind you of what you yourself said this afternoon just before you went up to your room to rest yourself?"

Camilla shook her head.

"I don't remember," she said.

"No? Let me repeat it. You said that this house smelled of death. You asked which of us would be the next to go."

"Did I? I must have been in a pretty bad state to talk like that. It was very silly of me."

Dr. Bottwink stared at her in admiration.

"How wonderful are the recuperative powers of youth!" he said. "A few hours of sleep and all is well again! But you did say that, Lady Camilla. And, you see, it turned out, unfortunately, that your words were not so silly, after all."

"I don't quite understand."

"You have not been told, then? Is it news to you that Mrs. Carstairs is dead?"

"Mrs. Carstairs!" Camilla blenched, but recovered herself admirably. "What has happened?"

"She has been poisoned, my lady, apparently from the tea which was prepared for you and which she drank herself because she found you asleep."

Camilla said nothing. She stood very rigid in the middle of the room, her fine eyes fixed upon Dr. Bottwink's.

"I trust," said the historian earnestly, "that you were in truth asleep when Mrs. Carstairs came to your room."

"Did she come to my room? Certainly I was asleep if she did. I knew nothing about it."

"That is well." He sighed in relief. "That is very well indeed. You will remember to tell the police that when they question you?"

"Of course." Camilla looked more puzzled than ever. "You understand, Dr. Bottwink, don't you, that I haven't the least idea what you are talking about?"

"Be it so, my lady. Provided that you on your part will understand that in this matter I am your friend."

"I think you are," she said slowly. "Though for the life of me I don't know why you should be."

"For the life of me!" Dr. Bottwink repeated. "That is a slang expression, is it not? It is a suitable one, perhaps, for the situation we have been in. That reminds me, there is another phrase, Lady Camilla, which I have recently heard, on which I should be glad of your assistance. However proficient a foreigner may become in your language, I find there is still something to learn."

"Really," said Camilla, "you are a very strange person! First you tell me that someone has tried to poison me and has poisoned Mrs. Carstairs, and then you expect me to settle down to a quiet discussion about English slang! Are you---are you feeling all right, Dr. Bottwink?"

"Thank you, my lady, I am perfectly sane. And I can assure you that I do not raise this matter out of idle curiosity, but because it may be of importance to both of us. Will you be good enough to bear with me and answer one single question?"

"Very well."

"I am obliged." Dr. Bottwink adjusted his spectacles, put his hands behind his back, and raised his voice as though addressing a room full of students. "My question is simply this. What meaning would you attach to the following phrase in the mouth of an individual of the working class: 'I met So-and-so today; I had some words with him (or her)'?"

"Male or female individual?"

"Female."

"In that case," said Camilla without hesitation, "I should say she said something pretty nasty to So-and-so."

Dr. Bottwink rubbed his hands.

"Excellent!" he said. "And if the expression were: 'We had some words'?"

"That would probably mean that the other woman answered back. It would be stronger, of course, if she said simply: 'We had words.' That would certainly mean a row."

"That is a most delicate distinction. I have always maintained that English is the most expressive language in the world. Thank you very, very much."

"Is that all, Dr. Bottwink?"

The historian hesitated before he answered. "Yes," he said finally. "There are some other questions I should like to put, but perhaps you would regard them as impertinent. Besides, there is somebody else whom I believe to be in a better position to answer them."

"Oh! And who may that be?"

"Naturally, a female individual of the working class."

---

The female individual of the working class was in the pantry with her father when Dr. Bottwink found her. She looked at him with suspicion when he entered. Briggs was hardly more welcoming, but the correct formula came automatically to his lips.

"Were you requiring anything, sir?" he asked.

"Yes, Briggs. I should esteem it a great favour if with your permission I put an important question to Mrs. Warbeck."

"I'm not saying anything," said Susan at once. "I've told the sergeant everything that happened, and he says I shall have to say it again to the other police when they come. That's enough, isn't it?"

"May I assure you, madame, that the question is not one put to you already by the sergeant. I accept every word that you said to him."

"I'm not saying anything," she repeated.

"Briggs!" There were positively tears in Dr. Bottwink's eyes as he turned towards the butler. "Briggs, I implore your assistance! We are---all of us---under a shadow here. It rests with your daughter to deliver us. A simple statement that can in no way incriminate her---that she can deny tomorrow if she wishes---will you not help me to obtain it?"

"I think it is a matter for her to decide, sir," said Briggs uncertainly. "I'm sure I don't want to stand in your way, if you think it can help, but it's not my place to give orders, after what's happened. All the same, Susan, I don't see why you shouldn't do what the gentleman asks."

"You're like all the rest!" Susan broke out. "Badgering and bothering me about one thing and another! There's not a person in this house that hasn't been at me sooner or later, and now he has to start! Why can't they leave me alone?"

"Did Mrs. Carstairs badger and bother you, madame?"

"She was the worst of the lot!"

"Ah!" Dr. Bottwink breathed a sigh of relief. "That was when you met her outside Lady Camilla's door, no doubt?"

Susan looked at him suspiciously.

"What do you know about that?" she asked.

"Nothing. You see, my child, we have arrived at the very question I wished to ask you. Tell me about Mrs. Carstairs' badgering and bothering, and I think I can promise you that you will be neither badgered nor bothered again."

"What's it got to do with you?"

"Perhaps nothing at all. Perhaps a great deal. I cannot tell until I hear. You and she had words, did you not?"

"It was all her fault if we did."

"Naturally. I am not suggesting otherwise."

"It was she began it."

"Of course."

"I shouldn't have said a word if she hadn't tried to come the high and mighty over me."

"No doubt you were greatly provoked."

"Well, you could hardly blame me speaking my mind, could you?"

"But certainly not!"

"I told her straight, 'I'm not in your Sunday school, now,' I said, 'to be treated as a nobody. I expect to be spoken to respectful.'"

"Indeed, yes. That was no more than just."

"The impertinence of it! Her asking me what was I doing outside of her ladyship's door! I've a right to go where I like in this house, haven't I?"

"I should be the last to deny it of you, madame."

"It gave her quite a turn, hearing me talk like that," said Susan with reminiscent relish.

"It must have, indeed."

"She said she wondered what the girls of today were coming to, and did I remember who I was speaking to. 'I know who I'm speaking to all right,' I told her, 'I know that,' I said. 'That's not the question,' I said. 'Do you know who you're speaking to?' I asked her. 'That's what I want to know.'"

"Precisely."

"'I'm the Honourable Mrs. Warbeck,' I said, 'and what's more, my little boy is the rightful Lord Warbeck now his grandfather's dead, as Sir Julius knows, and nobody's going to keep him out of his rights,' I said, 'nor me either.'"

"My felicitations, madame. I was not aware of your good fortune. I trust his lordship is well. Is he with you now?"

"That's what she wanted to know, only she didn't put it like that. 'Where is this brat?' she said. That's what she called his lordship---a brat! 'Safe at home with his auntie,' I said, 'where nobody can get at him.' And then she looked at me so fierce, if she hadn't had the tea-tray in her hands I believe she'd have gone for me."

Dr. Bottwink clicked his tongue in disapproval of such behaviour.

"The teacup was rattling in the saucer, she was that upset," Susan went on. "Trembling all over, she was. I thought next minute she'd drop the tray and all. And her face! Green, she was. Like she was going to be sick."

"Yes, yes. Quite so." Dr. Bottwink nodded his head, his eyes half closed, as he tried to visualize the scene. "Pray continue, madame."

"Well, that's all that happened, really. She hadn't a word to say after that. I mean, how could she? She just turned away, leaving me standing where I was, and went down the passage to her own room. She was trying to walk haughty like, but she was still all of a tremble. When she gets to her own door she turns round and says, 'I shall have tea in my own room,' she says, 'and please understand Lady Camilla is asleep and not to be disturbed.' Still trying to be high and mighty, you see? But not succeeding, oh no! She was properly put down, I can tell you! Then she goes into her room and shuts the door, and that's the last I see of her."

A long pause succeeded Susan's recital. The pantry seemed very quiet when her shrill voice was stilled at last. Briggs looked at his daughter in shocked silence. Dr. Bottwink was silent too, but his face was serenely satisfied. When he finally spoke, it was in tones of profound relief.

"Thank you," he said quietly. "Thank you very much indeed. Mrs. Warbeck, it is now only just that I should explain to you----"

Susan interrupted him.

"Dad," she said to her father, "isn't that a bell ringing somewhere?"

All three listened. A tinkling sound could be distinctly heard from the direction of the hall.

"God bless my soul, if it's not the telephone!" Briggs exclaimed. And forgetting the training of years, he ran to answer it, without even stopping to remove his apron or put on his coat.

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