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15: Paine's Fireworks

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Author Topic: 15: Paine's Fireworks  (Read 57 times)
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« on: April 22, 2023, 01:04:24 am »

MR. Paine was drinking sherry with the Chief Constable when Trimble arrived for dinner at the dark little house in the Cathedral Close. He was a large, fleshy man with a bald head and small, intelligent eyes.

The Superintendent never touched anything stronger than lemonade, and while the others finished their glasses he listened to Mr. Paine's description of the farm which he had recently bought just over the county boundary. Though his profession tied him to London, his heart, it appeared, really lay in the country. Particularly was he fond of Jersey cattle. He was also, the Superintendent noted, remarkably fond of the sound of his own voice, and the pre-prandial conversation was little more than a monologue. But of Mrs. Pink there was never a word.

They went into dinner, where Trimble listened without comprehension to a long, lyrical outburst provoked in Mr. Paine by a dark red fluid which the Chief Constable poured for him out of a very dirty-looking bottle. When the salmon appeared it became immediately the theme for a spate of reminiscences. So far as Trimble could gather, Mr. Paine was even more knowledgeable on the subject of salmon than he was on those of Jersey cattle or the wines of France. Before the meal was over he had found occasion to air his learning on at least half a dozen other subjects, each of them quite unrelated to the others and equally unrelated to the only topic in which the Superintendent was interested. An awful suspicion crossed Trimble's mind. Had this talkative stranger disposed of his business in private with the Chief Constable already? Was he, the officer in charge of the case, being fobbed off with chatter and left to pick up the evidence, whatever it was, at second-hand? Under cover of a discourse on seventeenth-century Dutch flower paintings (of which Mr. Paine modestly remarked that he had the fourth best collection in private hands outside Holland) he stole a glance across the table and caught MacWilliam's eye. The look he saw there was wholly reassuring. The Chief, he could tell, had an entirely easy conscience. Something very like a wink travelled back over the débris of the dessert. That inscrutable connoisseur of human behaviour was enjoying himself at Mr. Paine's expense, in much the same way that he had known him to do at his---Trimble's---expense. Wherein exactly the enjoyment lay, the Superintendent, burning to get at the matter in hand, could not for the life of him tell, but he was satisfied.

They adjourned to the Chief Constable's study. Coffee for three; brandy for two; a cigar for one. MacWilliam filled his pipe. Trimble glowered in his usual self-imposed austerity. Mr. Paine stretched his legs out towards the fire, made a few erudite observations on the blends and brands of Cognac, and then observed:

"I am indebted to you for an admirable dinner, my dear Chief Constable. How very right you were to insist on not spoiling it by talking shop. People who speak of mixing business with pleasure simply don't know how to transact the one or to appreciate the other." He looked at his watch. "I shall have to be getting along directly," he went on. "It will take me at least three-quarters of an hour to reach home. I am running in a new car—a Fenwick Twenty. I don't suppose you have seen one yet? This is, I believe, the first of its design not for export. I think it is going to be remarkably good, though the suspension seems to me..."

For five minutes Mr. Paine analysed the Fenwick's suspension with an expert knowledge and enthusiasm that would have done credit to a working mechanic. Then he said:

"Well, as I say, I must be getting home. Before I go you'd like to know about Mrs. Pink, I expect?"

"Well," said the Chief Constable, with a perfectly straight face, "that was rather the idea, was it not. Superintendent?"

"Just so," said Mr. Paine complacently. "Luckily it won't take more than five minutes or so. Your conversation has been so enthralling that I've already stayed longer than I intended. I've been dealing with Mrs. Pink's affairs for a good many years now, and I think I may say that I have them at my finger-tips."

"What we principally want to know," said MacWilliam patiently, "is why this apparently penniless widow should turn out to be a wealthy woman."

Mr. Paine pursed his lips.

"Wealthy, ye-es," he remarked. "I suppose you might call her that. The estate will work out at about eighty thousand pounds, I suppose."

"Eighty thousand!"

"Approximately. Possibly more. I haven't the latest Stock Exchange quotations with me. There has been something of a fall in the capital values of one or two of her largest holdings recently, I am glad to say. Estate duties, as you are no doubt aware, are calculated on the prices ruling at the date of death. It is therefore sometimes quite important to expire at the right moment. But for practical purposes we can say eighty thousand. Six months ago the figure would have been higher. Comparatively wealthy, shall we say?"

"I'll say anything you like. But why should——"

Mr. Paine waved a plump hand.

"I recollect your question perfectly well," he said. "You need not trouble to repeat it. You are puzzled by the fortune possessed by this---ah---apparently penniless widow. Has it not occurred to you, sir, that a simple explanation might be found in the fact that she was not only not penniless but also not a widow?"

Mr. Paine paused long enough for the Chief Constable to realize that some reply was expected from him.

"No," he said. "Frankly, that had not crossed my mind."

Mr. Paine shook his head in tolerant reproof.

"Surely, surely," he said, "you must be adequately familiar with the device by which assets of all sorts and kinds---often very substantial assets---are held by A for the use and benefit of B?"

"I've heard of trusts and that sort of thing, naturally."

"Trusts and that sort of thing, as you so compendiously put it, are what lawyers largely live by. We are not dealing here with a trust, in the strict legal sense of the word, but that is by the way. All that I am saying is that I am a little surprised that when a lady in the deceased's position is found to be in possession of a large estate it should not have at once been presumed that there was in the background a husband who, for reasons of his own, had elected to convey his property to her. It is the common process vulgarly known as 'putting it in the wife's name'."

"Then all this money," said the Superintendent, who could no longer keep silence, "is really Mr. Pink's."

"Oh no, no!" Mr. Paine was obviously shocked. "That would frustrate the whole purpose of the transaction. I have explained myself very badly if you have got that idea. The estate was---and had to be---exclusively, irrevocably, the property of the wife. She could do what she liked with it."

"Very well, then," Trimble persisted. "Why didn't she?"

Mr. Paine looked at him with the air of a benevolent schoolmaster.

"I think I apprehend you," he said. "But your question is not quite accurately phrased. Mrs. Pink did, in fact, do what she liked with her property. The real problem is why she preferred to do what she did."

"Exactly," MacWilliam broke in. "We've all heard of the case of the apparently rich man who gets into difficulties and then, when his creditors come down on him, turns out to be quite penniless, because everything belongs to his wife. It's the oldest swindle in the world. But I've never before heard of its being worked in favour of a wife who wasn't even living with her husband, let alone a wife who was content to live in poverty. Unless you've explained that, you've explained nothing."

"That," said Mr. Paine, "is, if I may say so, a very proper and rational comment. The problem you raise is one that I have tried to resolve myself several times during the period in which I have been concerned with this lady's affairs. The solution, obviously, is one personal to her, and could only be finally given by someone who knew her far better than I. My personal acquaintance with her, I may say, was of the slightest, but I have my theory, and I think it is probably correct. Before I give it to you I should like to ask you a question. Would you say, from your enquiries, that Mrs. Pink was altogether normal?"

The Chief Constable smiled.

"Oddly enough," he said, "I put the very same question to one of her acquaintances only yesterday."

"Ah! And what answer did you get?"

"Yes and no."

"Did you find that answer particularly helpful?"

"In view of what I have learned this evening, I think that it was. My informant suggested that Mrs. Pink's abnormality---if you can call it that---consisted simply in the fact that she was an exceptionally good woman."

Mr. Paine nodded slowly.

"Yes," he murmured. "Yes. That is the only possible explanation. Not only exceptionally good, of course, but also more than ordinarily obstinate. And rather stupid as well. Isn't it lamentable, by the way, how often those three adjectives go together? There is your woman on the one side, and on the other a husband who not only had the wit to appreciate her qualities and to see what immense use they could be to him, but was also prepared to gamble on them. For, mind you, he was taking a perfectly hair-raising risk. He must have known her uncommonly well before he did it---far better than most husbands know their wives, I fancy. After all, no normal woman would have put up with it for five minutes."

"You realize, I suppose," said MacWilliam, "that neither Mr. Trimble nor I have the least idea what you are driving at?"

"Haven't you? I'm sorry. I've been familiar with this odd situation so long that I was taking it for granted. Here's the story in a nutshell, then. Years ago, when they were first married, Pink formed the habit of giving his wife his savings to keep. She was thrifty and simple and---as we have agreed---good. He was extravagant and clever and---since we are passing moral judgments for once---bad. Not the kind of marriage to last very long, you'd say. This one didn't, as a marriage. But as a legal union it did. For one thing, Mrs. Pink was not the sort of woman who would ever consider divorce for a moment. For another, it suited Pink very well that it should continue. He knew her for a woman with an overdeveloped conscience, and he traded on his knowledge quite shamelessly. Long after they had parted, when he was moving in circles---I hesitate to say above---but far different from hers, he continued to transfer to her all the money that he could spare from his immediate needs, in the certain knowledge that with her obstinate sense of loyalty she would never touch a penny of it. Whenever he wanted it it was at his service. The Superintendent here said just now that this tidy little nest-egg was Mr. Pink's money, and of course I had to correct him. All the same, Mrs. Pink would have agreed with him. I explained the position to her time and again, but nothing would induce her to touch a penny of it. It was, in her eyes, his money, and when he wanted any he just came and took it. Fantastic, wasn't it? I know it's rude to call a lady a cow, but that's what she was---his milch cow."

Mr. Paine flicked the ash off his cigar and rose to his feet.

"Well, there you are," he said. "I think you know the whole story now. Is it of any assistance to you in your enquiries, by the way?"

MacWilliam looked at Trimble.

"What do you say, Superintendent?" he asked.

"I rather think it is, sir," Trimble replied. "That is, if I'm right in an assumption that I've been making while Mr. Paine has been talking."

Mr. Paine looked at his watch again.

"I really must be getting along," he said. "What was your assumption?"

"That Mr. Pink changed his name after he left his wife."

"Oh, bless me, yes! I should have mentioned that. You are perfectly right---he did. That was many years ago, of course. She always refused to follow suit. I never quite comprehended her reason, but it was founded on some religious scruple or another. I know she quoted some text or another to justify it. If I can turn up the letter she wrote me on the subject I'll let you know what it was, in case you are interested."

"And that the name he took was Rose," Trimble went on, as Mr. Paine walked to the door.

"Naturally," said Mr. Paine over his shoulder. "From Pink to Rose was an obvious transition. Good night, my dear Chief Constable, and once more many thanks for your kind hospitality."

They followed him out into the hall. MacWilliam helped him on with his coat.

"Did she make a will leaving everything to him?" the Superintendent asked.

"Oh, Lord, yes," said Mr. Paine, reaching for his hat and gloves. "Every penny. What else would one expect?"

The Chief Constable held the door open for him, and he bustled out to where the resplendent new Fenwick Twenty was standing. Faint but pursuing, Trimble followed him.

"If Mrs. Pink was such a good woman," he said to Mr. Paine's broad back, "why was she prepared to help her husband defraud his creditors? Surely she must have known----"

Mr. Paine disappeared into the car. He pressed the self-starter and the engine sprang to life. Then he opened the window and thrust his head out.

"Sorry to run away like this," he said, "but if I don't get eight solid hours' sleep I'm done---absolutely done. I've got to be up early tomorrow to see my stockman, and I'm cutting it pretty fine. You are perfectly right about the creditors, of course, but, as I said, she was a very stupid woman in some ways. I don't think she can have ever properly understood what it was all about---not even when Rose was made bankrupt and went to jail." He switched on the lights and engaged the gear. "Actually, something seems to have opened her eyes just before her death, now you mention it," he added. "I had a letter from her on the subject only the other day. It may interest you. I'll send it on when I get back to the office. Good night!"

The car slid forward and gathered speed. Trimble watched the tail-light travelling round the Close until it disappeared beyond the cathedral. Now that Mr. Paine had gone it was suddenly, blissfully quiet.

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