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14: Mr. Wendon's Story

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Author Topic: 14: Mr. Wendon's Story  (Read 60 times)
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« on: April 21, 2023, 12:53:21 pm »

AT first sight the place appeared to be deserted. Trimble gave the front-door bell a vigorous pull---the only effect of which was to establish quite conclusively that it was not in working order. He hammered loudly on the door and produced no response. It was only on walking round towards the back of the house that he met with the first sign of life, in the shape of an ill-conditioned terrier bitch which, from its appearance, had a family somewhere of much the same age as that of Marlene Banks. After a prolonged and suspicious inspection of the Superintendent's trouser legs it retreated a short distance and set up an ear-splitting succession of barks.

At the sound a door in a dilapidated range of sheds on the farther side of the yard opened to reveal the master of the house. He was carrying a roll of wire netting under one arm and a bundle of stakes under the other.

"Shut up, Phoebe!" he roared. The terrier scuttled off to some distant fastness behind the house, whence it continued to keep up a running commentary on the proceedings at the top of its voice.

"If you've come about pork," Wendon called across the yard to Trimble, "there's nothing doing."

"We haven't come about pork," Trimble shouted back. "We are police-officers, and----"

Wendon did not seem to have heard him above the clamour from Phoebe.

"I say there's nothing doing," he repeated. "In any case, I'm much too busy now."

He set off across the yard and away from the house. Sergeant Broome, who had remained by the car, cut him off.

"Just a moment, sir," he said. "This is a police matter, and we----"

"Police!" said Wendon with a disgusted air. "You seem to have nothing to do but persecute farmers. I've explained everything already to that Ministry of Food snooper, and he told me he was satisfied. What makes you think I've got any pork about the place?"

"This is nothing to do with pork, sir," the Sergeant repeated.

"I distinctly heard that man mention pork," Wendon persisted, indicating Trimble, who had now joined them, after picking his way across the muddy yard. "And if it isn't pork you've come about, I should like to know what it is."

"Mr. Wendon," said Trimble, "I am investigating the matter of the death of Mrs. Pink. I must ask you to be good enough to answer a few questions."

"I don't know anything about the death of Mrs. Pink," said Wendon shortly. "And I've told you already I'm busy."

"I am sure that you are not so busy that you can't give us a few moments, sir."

"It's all very well to talk like that, but people like you don't know what it is to try and run a smallholding single-handed. I'm not carrying these things about for fun, you know." He indicated the burdens in his arms. "If I don't get my chicken-run repaired pretty soon, I shall have the fowls all over the place before I know where I am."

"I expect it was one of your fowls we met just down the lane as we were coming here," the Superintendent remarked.

"Blast!" said Wendon peevishly, throwing his bundle down on to the ground. "That would happen, just when I thought I was going to get round to it at last! Did you happen to notice if it was a Leghorn? No, I suppose you wouldn't. Those fiendish birds will get out through anything. Oh well, I suppose I shall have to trust to luck that it'll have enough sense to come home to roost. It's too late to do anything about it now."

There was something almost pathetic, the Superintendent felt, in his readiness to admit defeat. He said:

"I just wanted to ask you a few questions, Mr. Wendon----"

"About Mrs. Pink---I know. Well, we'd better come indoors and get it over."

With a sudden access of energy he walked briskly ahead of them to the door of the house.

The room into which he showed them was of a piece with the exterior of the establishment---shabby, ill cared for and untidy, a jumble of odds and ends cluttering up furniture that had once been good and was now fast falling into decay. He cleared two chairs for the officers by the simple process of dumping on to the floor the litter of books and papers that encumbered them, and then opened the door of a cupboard that stood in the corner of the room.

"I usually have a snifter about this time," he remarked, producing a bottle of whisky and a slightly dirty glass. "Would you care to join me?"

Trimble shook his head.

"Oh well!" Wendon poured himself out a generous helping. "Dash it! Where's the siphon? Excuse me a moment." He went out of the room, glass in hand, and returned almost at once with the whisky only fractionally diluted.

"Mrs. Pink," he said, and took a deep drink. "What do you want to know?"

"I think that she was an acquaintance of yours, sir?"

"Yes, I knew her. A very good sort of woman, Mrs. Pink. It was a shame she had to die like that." He appeared to be addressing his remarks to the glass in his hand rather than to the Superintendent. "A great shame, but there it was," he repeated.

"Would it be right to say that you were on friendly terms with her?"

"Well, yes, I don't mind admitting that. Friendly, certainly. Yes."

Down went the rest of the whisky at a gulp.

"There's no harm in being friendly with a woman, I suppose?" he said in a tone that started by being belligerent but diminished into a note of weak protest by the end of the sentence.

"It has been suggested to me that you might have been contemplating marriage to her," Trimble went on.

"Eh?" said Wendon in a startled voice. "Who said that?"

"I'm afraid I can't give you the source of my information, sir. The only question is whether it is correct or not." He paused, and added: "I am sorry to have to pry into your personal affairs like this, but you will understand that in a matter of this nature----"

"Oh, that's all right---I don't mind talking about it. It only beats me how a thing like that could have got about. I hadn't said a word about it to a soul. Not a soul---not even to her."

"You had not asked her to marry you?"

"No. It was just a passing idea that I had---that was all. Then I saw that it wouldn't do and I changed my mind. She wouldn't have had me, anyway. After all, who would?"

Wendon appeared to abandon the possibility of marriage to Mrs. Pink with the same air of peevish resignation that had marked his abandonment of the project of repairing his chicken-run.

"I see," said Trimble. "Now, knowing Mrs. Pink as you did, were you in any way acquainted with her private affairs?"

"She never said a word to me about them," said Wendon with emphasis.

"You knew, no doubt, that there was gossip in the village to the effect that she was a rich woman?"

Wendon shook his head.

"I don't belong to the village," he said shortly.

"It is a fact, sir, that she was extremely wealthy."

Wendon looked at the Superintendent directly for the first time since the interview began---looked at him for a long time, and in silence. When he spoke, it was only to say "Oh!" in a voice quite devoid of expression.

"That comes as a surprise to you, sir?"

"It does---absolutely. I thought she was hard up. Why, I even wanted her to sell something out of her house to raise a bit of money---she had some quite decent things, you know. She wouldn't do it, though. She said all her stuff had been her husband's, and I thought she was just a poor woman being sentimental. I had no idea . . . Have you found out yet who gets her money?"

"No, sir. We shall in due course, no doubt."

"Oh yes, obviously---of course you will. I was just wondering . . ."

"Now, sir," the Superintendent went on, "I want to ask you about the last time you saw Mrs. Pink alive. I understand that you drove her up to Mrs. Ransome's house on Thursday afternoon?"

"That's right. That Pettigrew fellow asked me if I'd do it, so I did. Just in the way of kindness, that was all. I mean, I hadn't arranged to do it, or anything of that sort. It was all on the spur of the moment, at Pettigrew's suggestion. I was going up that way in any case, and it just happened to fit in. Pettigrew will tell you that it was his idea, not mine at all."

"I have already seen Mr. Pettigrew, sir, and he confirms what you say."

"Oh---that's all right then. Only I didn't want you to think that just because I happened to run the lady up to The Alps that afternoon I had anything to do with---I mean that it was because of me that she went there, or anything of that sort. Because it wasn't, I assure you. It was a pure coincidence."

"You have made the position quite clear, sir."

"Good."

"Then, I think, having driven Mrs. Pink to The Alps, you drove down again?"

"That's right."

"By yourself?"

"Absolutely."

"I don't quite understand why you didn't give her a lift down the hill after taking her up there."

Wendon went rather red.

"That damned young prig of a boy at The Alps had the impertinence to ask her in to tea and leave me outside---that's why," he said. "Good Lord!" he added. "I've just thought. If she'd not gone in there she'd not have walked down the hill, and she might still have been alive today. It just shows, doesn't it?"

"According to young Mr. Ransome, you told him that you were going to wait outside the house till his mother came home. Did you?"

"No, as a matter of fact I didn't. I did hang about a bit, but I felt a bit silly, sitting there like a chauffeur while the quality had their meal indoors. I'm not a snob, sir---God knows, I can't afford to be---but there are limits, aren't there?"

"I see. You haven't told me yet, Mr. Wendon, why you went up to The Alps in the first place."

"It was nothing to do with pork," Wendon said instantly.

"Let's try to keep pork out of it, if we can."

"All right, then. It was just a small matter of a dozen eggs, if you want to know."

"You wanted to sell Mrs. Ransome some eggs?"

"That's right. Then, as she didn't turn up, I went round to the back and left them with that foreign woman of hers. Then I buzzed off."

"You came straight home?"

"Yes."

"You are sure you didn't stop on the way?"

"Stop on the way?" Wendon repeated. "I don't think so. . . . Wait a bit, though. Now I come to think of it, I did. My hand-brake was binding, so I pulled into the car-park off the road and attended to it."

"How long would that take you, do you suppose?"

"I couldn't say, exactly. It's a fiddling little job. Quarter of an hour---twenty minutes---perhaps more. I'm a rotten bad mechanic."

"I suppose you didn't look at your watch during that time?"

"No, I didn't. Actually, I haven't got a watch at the moment. I had to pop it the other day, if you really want to know. Does it matter?"

"It matters to this extent, Mr. Wendon. We believe that we can establish the exact time when Mrs. Pink arrived at the place where she met her death. One of the means of access to that place is a path leading down from the car-park——"

"Look here!" said Wendon, starting up. "What are you getting at?"

"Merely this---that if you were there at the appropriate time it seems possible that you might have seen or heard something that would help us."

"Oh, if that's all!" Wendon subsided into his chair again. "What is your approximate time, may I ask?"

"I see no harm in telling you---ten minutes past five."

"Then I shall have to work backwards. Let's see now . . . I was in here, listening to the six o'clock news. Before that I'd fed the chickens and shut them up---say ten minutes. Brewed myself a cup of tea---twenty minutes. That's half-past five, isn't it? Oh, yes, I'd forgotten---Phoebe had caught a rat in the meal store next to the pigsty, and I wasted a good quarter of an hour trying to find where the hole was. Quarter-past five, and allow ten minutes at least to get down from the hill, in second gear because of the state of my brakes---you see, I must have left at five past at the latest."

"Very well, we will assume for the moment that you left at five minutes past five. Did you pass anybody on your way down?"

"I can't say that I did. Not to remember, anyway."

"You are sure about that?"

"No, of course I'm not sure," said Wendon peevishly. "I've just told you as much, haven't I? How can you remember everybody you pass on the road? I wish you wouldn't pester me."

"I am sorry to pester you, as you put it, sir, but you must appreciate the possible importance of the question. Try to think, won't you?"

Wendon shook his head.

"It's no good trying," he said. "I can't remember. How was I to know it was important?"

"Nobody came past while you were attending to your hand-brake?"

"If they did, how was I to know? I had my head down, dealing with the job. I should have thought any fool could have seen that."

The Superintendent gave it up.

"We'll leave it at that, then," he said. "But if anything further comes to your mind you'll let me know, won't you?"

"Yes, of course I will. But I warn you, it won't. I haven't got that sort of memory."

"Very well. Now, if you don't mind, I'll put your statement into writing, and when you have signed it we shan't need to trouble you again."

---

"Just our luck, sir," said Broome with dismal relish on the way home, "getting a witness like that at the one place that mattered."

"What had you in mind, Sergeant?"

"Well, look. He must have met Todman's car going up, mustn't he? If the boy's right in his statement, Todman got to The Alps just when Mrs. Pink was leaving. It would take her just about five minutes to walk down to where Mr. Pettigrew lost sight of her. There's only one way up the hill, so the two cars must have passed. Yet he can't remember it."

"He wouldn't say positively that he didn't see anyone," Trimble reminded him, "merely that it didn't leave any impression on his mind."

"Nothing leaves any impression on his mind," said Broome bitterly. "Except pork. Either he's a complete nitwit, or he's trying to shield Todman."

"Can you suggest any reason why he should do that?"

"No, sir, I can't."

"Neither can I. There's another thing that occurs to me. If Todman left Rose at the bottom of the hill, why didn't Wendon see him walking up?"

"Same answer, sir, I suppose. Because he's the kind of fellow who doesn't see anything."

"There might be another reason for that, of course. There's only one road for cars up the hill, but several ways for people on foot. They are all of them in full view of the road, though, except one---and that's the way through the woods which Mrs. Pink was coming down."

"That just comes back to what I was saying, sir. If we could rely on Wendon the least little bit, his not seeing Rose would be important, perhaps. But when we know he didn't see someone who must have been there anyway, it proves just nothing, except that he can't be relied on. And what about Mrs. Ransome's car? Oughtn't he to have seen that too?"

The Superintendent shook his head.

"You forget," he said. "If the boy is right, she was at a lunch party at Didbury, on the other side of the hill. Mrs. Ransome approached the house from the other side. She only comes into the picture later."

"Of course," the Sergeant said a few minutes later, "Wendon's times may be all wrong. They're only guesswork, after all."

"Remarkably clever and fluent guesswork, at that, I thought. I'm wondering, Sergeant, if Mr. Wendon is quite so stupid as we think."

"He's remarkably stupid about the way he runs his holding," said Broome, who was himself country-bred. "Did you ever see such a mess in your life? I don't wonder he has to keep himself going with killing a pig every now and then on the sly. That reminds me, sir," he added, "did you happen to notice those stakes he was carrying when we first met him?"

"I did. Split chestnut palings. Old ones---bought second-hand, I expect, like the rest of the junk he had lying about the place."

"The weapon that killed Mrs. Pink, sir---what was that?"

"Split chestnut paling, too, but heavier. A corner post, I should say. But it's no good getting excited about that, Sergeant. You know as well as I do that half the fences in the county are made of that stuff. Mrs. Ransome's got a stack of old fencing posts just inside her front gate, I noticed. There are some posts missing from the fence between the Druids Hotel garden and the hill. I'm prepared to bet they're the same timber. Whoever hit Mrs. Pink on the head believed in using local produce---more's the pity."

---

Trimble had hardly re-entered his office when the telephone rang.

"Is that you, Mr. Trimble?" said a familiar voice. "I thought you might be interested to know that a kind friend in Scotland has sent me a very nice piece of salmon."

Even for Mr. MacWilliam it was an unorthodox opening. The Superintendent murmured, "That's very nice for you, I'm sure, sir," and waited to see what would come next.

"You'll come and help me eat it, won't you?" the Chief Constable went on. "Eight o'clock at my house."

"That's very kind indeed of you, sir," said the bewildered Trimble. He could not resist adding, "I'm, of course, very busy just now, sir, but----"

"We can do a little business after dinner, if you like. By the way, I shall have another guest."

"Indeed, sir?"

"A Mr. Paine. I think you might be glad to meet him."

"Mr.---who did you say, sir?"

"Paine. P for Percy. P also for Prufrock. P finally for Paine. In the middle of the vacation---did you ever hear the like? It looks as though you have lost the trip to London I promised you!"

With a final chuckle the Chief Constable rang off.

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