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16: A Walk after Church

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Author Topic: 16: A Walk after Church  (Read 54 times)
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« on: April 22, 2023, 01:36:54 am »

"IT'S such a lovely day, Lady Furlong, I really prefer to walk," said Pettigrew. "Thank you very much all the same."

Morning service was just over at Yewbury Church. The size of the congregation augured well for the Vicar's Easter offertory. Pettigrew and his wife had just reached the lychgate when Lady Furlong had approached them with an offer of a lift home.

"You'll come then, won't you, Eleanor?" said her ladyship. "I'm sure you abominate walking without cause as much as I do. Besides, it will give me a chance to talk about the Women's Institute. Things are really going to be rather difficult now that poor Mrs. Pink . . ."

With a look of bitter reproach at her husband Eleanor allowed herself to be led away to the car. Lady Furlong's offer had sounded too much like a command to be lightly refused. After being called "Eleanor" in front of the assembled worshippers of Yewbury, too! Pettigrew felt that his wife had received a public accolade. He wondered, as he saw them to the car, whether Eleanor would have the hardihood to call her formidable patroness "Prudence". It would have been almost worth while to have joined them to find out.

Once off the crowded main road Pettigrew thoroughly enjoyed his walk. He was in no particular hurry---Eleanor, he reflected guiltily, would be home in ample time to do everything necessary for lunch without his assistance---and he took a little frequented bridle-path that would lead him over the lower slopes of Yew Hill and back to the road again close to the Druids Hotel. He met a few determined-looking hikers and was overtaken by a string of unkempt hacks from the local riding-stables. Otherwise he had the path to himself, until, rounding a bend, he saw, walking in the same direction as himself, a slim young figure that seemed familiar.

Pettigrew was walking at the sedate pace of an elderly gentleman not in the best of condition, but he rapidly overhauled the boy in front. As he approached he remembered having seen him that morning, sitting in the pew in front of his own. It struck him, too, that for a boy of his age he was making very heavy weather of the gentle slope up which they were both moving. His gait was little better than a shamble, his shoulders sagged, and he wandered aimlessly from one side of the path to another. Like many another middle-aged man who had not been conspicuously energetic in his youth, Pettigrew was inclined to be critical of young fellows who did not hold themselves properly. "He'll be the better for his national service in a year or so's time," he reflected. "A good sergeant-major would have something to say to him!"

Unconsciously he stiffened his own back as he drew level, and quickened his pace to an almost military step. The boy drew aside to let him pass and Pettigrew saw his face for the first time. The expression on it gave him quite a shock. He had seldom seen on anybody, of any age, a look of such utter dejection.

Pettigrew was a kind-hearted man, and his first instinct was to get away as quickly as he could and leave the sufferer to endure his private misery, whatever it was, without interference. But even as he took a pace forward he caught a glance that was unmistakably an appeal. The boy was not only miserable, he was lonely. He paused in his stride, cursed himself for an incurable old sentimentalist, and then said in a hearty voice, "Morning! It's a lovely day, isn't it? Didn't I see you in church just now?"

"Yes," said the boy tonelessly. Then he pulled himself together with an obvious effort to be polite and added, "It's an interesting old church, don't you think? Do you know the brass in the Harvill Chapel?"

"I'm afraid not," said Pettigrew. "Brasses aren't much in my line. Are you interested in them?"

"Well, yes, I suppose so, in a sort of a way," said the boy with a woe-begone expression. He said no more for a moment, and Pettigrew was about to pass on when he spoke again.

"I say, sir---excuse me---but you are Mr. Pettigrew, aren't you?"

"Yes."

"I heard Colonel Sampson speaking to you after the service, that's how I knew."

"Oh, you know Colonel Sampson?"

"Not really. I've just met him, that's all. He's awfully decent, I thought."

"Yes. He's a very good fellow."

Another silence. Whatever it was that he wanted to say, it seemed to take a good deal of saying. They walked on steadily for a few more yards, and then----

"You are a judge or something, aren't you, sir?"

"Not a judge, actually, but I have been doing a little judging lately."

"I see. I was just wondering whether---I'm afraid you'll think it rather cheek on my part, but I was wondering---- The fact is, I'm in rather a hole."

Oh Lord, thought Pettigrew, what is coming now? Avuncular advice is called for, obviously. Money, perhaps? Or has he got a girl into trouble? Whatever it is, it will be a confounded bore. Why didn't I take a lift in Lady Furlong's car when I could? Well, I'm in for it now.

"Suppose you begin by telling me who you are?" he said. "At the moment you have, as they say, the advantage of me."

"Oh, sorry; that was stupid of me. I ought to have said. My name's Ransome. My mother lives up at The Alps, you know."

"I see. I haven't had the pleasure of meeting your mother, but I know the house. I can just see the chimneys from my windows. Now that we are acquainted, what can I do for you?"

"It's awfully difficult to explain, really."

"So I perceive. I can only suggest that you tell me as shortly and crudely as possible what is troubling you. I'm not easily shocked, and if I can't help you I shan't hesitate to say so. What have you been up to?"

Pettigrew's calculated brusqueness had its desired effect. The boy flushed and said almost crossly, "I haven't been up to anything. If I had I shouldn't come to a perfect stranger for advice. This is a more or less public matter, and I thought you could tell me what I ought to do as a---as a citizen," he concluded, with a defiantly grown-up air that Pettigrew found irresistibly appealing.

"A public matter?" he echoed. "The only public matter I can think of that is likely to affect anyone at The Alps just now is the murder of Mrs. Pink. Is it anything to do with that, by any chance?"

"Yes, it is. How do you know?"

"Public matters are public knowledge, and, as I told you, I have a view of your chimneys from my house. Also I have a pair of field-glasses. Mrs. Pink had just left The Alps when she was killed. If you have any evidence to give about her you ought to be talking to the police and not to me."

"I have seen the police already. They took a statement from me yesterday."

"Very well, then, as a citizen you've nothing to worry about."

Godfrey sighed. "It's not quite as simple as that," he said. "You said just now you didn't know my mother?" he went on abruptly.

"Obviously not, or presumably I should have known you."

"That doesn't follow in my case, unfortunately. Till these holidays I hadn't seen her since I was a kid. She---er---she's rather an unusual sort of person in some ways."

"But what has your mother got to do----" Pettigrew stopped as a hideous thought crossed his mind. Was it possible that this wretched youth seriously thought that his own mother----? It would account for the misery that had first excited his sympathy, but---but what a grossly unfair position to put any man into, to expect him to advise in such a matter! he reflected angrily.

"Has your mother been asked for a statement by the police?" he asked.

"Oh yes. She wasn't terribly helpful, though."

"Well, that's her affair, after all. If you'd take my advice, I should simply leave the whole matter in the hands of the police, and not----" Not worry about it, he was about to say, but it seemed so patently foolish that the words died on his lips.

"I know," said Godfrey. "The trouble is, my mother is dreadfully silly in some ways, and I feel responsible for her."

The way in which he said it went some way to relieve Pettigrew of his worst fears.

"In what particular way is her silliness worrying you?" he asked.

"Well, she's got a friend who's been staying with us lately----"

"You mean Humphrey Rose?"

"Yes. Do you know him? I gather that he's fairly notorious."

"Notorious is the word." Pettigrew felt on safe ground at last. Until that moment he had quite failed to connect The Alps with the ex-convict whom he had last seen at Yewbury railway station. "Look here," he said, "I am, as you say, a complete stranger, and I still don't understand what you want my advice about. But I shall only give you the warning I should give to any son of mine if I had one. At all costs keep away from Rose. Even if it means leaving your mother's house---I gather that you are a fairly independent young man---get away from him, and keep away."

"Thanks very much," said Godfrey without any great enthusiasm. "As a matter of fact Rose has been rather nice to me----"

"He can be extremely nice when he wants to be. That's one of his most dangerous qualities."

"But the question doesn't arise at the moment, as he's left the house."

"Thank goodness for that!"

"And naturally the police want to know where he's gone to."

"I'm not sure that I follow that. We were talking about Mrs. Pink, weren't we?"

"That's just it. Rose came back to The Alps, walking up the hill just after Mrs. Pink left it, walking down. I told them that when I made my statement."

"I follow. Obviously they'd want to check up on him, as a matter of routine."

"Then he left the house in a hurry on Friday."

"What of it? It's a long way from that to prove any connection between that big City swindler and poor little Mrs. Pink. You've been imagining things, young man."

"There was a connection," said Godfrey soberly. "He called her Martha."

"Did he, by Jove! That must have surprised you. Tell me about it."

Godfrey related the incident of Mrs. Pink's bicycle accident. "And they went off together, like old friends," he concluded. "And he didn't come back till long after lunch."

"Interesting," said Pettigrew thoughtfully. "Interesting, and suggestive. Did you mention this to the police?"

"No. They didn't ask me anything about Mr. Rose except his movements on Thursday."

"I see. Well, if there really is any connection between them I expect the police are on to it by now. Was there anything else?"

"Yes. When he came back that afternoon he had a parcel with him. He showed it to me. It was a portrait of Henry Spicer."

"A cartoon by 'Spy', autographed by Spicer. I know. He presented it to the museum and got the local rag to write a paragraph about it."

"That's right. He told me he'd picked it up in the village, and of course I thought he'd bought it at the antique shop, but I remembered afterwards it was early-closing day. That must have come from Mrs. Pink's house."

"Very likely. It doesn't seem to me to be of much importance, but it all adds up. Rose doesn't seem to have been at much pains to disguise his acquaintance with Mrs. Pink from you, at any rate. But I don't see what this has to do with your mother being silly, or your duty as a citizen."

"Well," said Godfrey and became tongue-tied once more. "This is awfully difficult for me to say, but---my mother and Mr. Rose were----"

"Let's be men of the world and face it," said Pettigrew. "Living in sin, shall we say?"

"I'm afraid so."

"A very unfortunate predicament for you. I've already given you my advice so far as Rose is concerned, and that is quite independent of his relations with your mother. What follows?"

"Well, as I said just now, the police want to know where he is."

"And you know?"

"No, I don't. But I'm quite sure my mother does. She was telephoning to him last night, I'm certain, but of course I don't know where he was speaking from. Do you think I should----"

"Split to the police and let them make enquiries at the telephone exchange? M-m, you certainly have rather a problem there. On the whole, I think, No. It's most improbable that a man as well known as Rose will be able to remain hidden for any length of time---if he is hiding; and it's pure supposition that he is, at the moment. As for the other matter you mentioned, it might be of interest to them. . . . I tell you what, I have a certain acquaintance with some members of the local force. How would it be if I were to let them know that this information is available to them if they want it? Then, if necessary, you could slip down to the station and see them quietly without the nuisance of having them crawling round the place again and putting you in an awkward position with your mother."

"I should be awfully grateful if you would, sir."

"That's a deal, then. And whatever you do, don't go wasting any sympathy on Rose. He is no good to you, and, if I may say so, he can't be any good to your mother. Is there anything else?"

They had reached the point where their paths diverged. Godfrey stood hesitantly for a moment, his eyes on the ground.

"I've been thinking," he said. "This connection between Mr. Rose and Mrs. Pink---what do you think it is?"

"Your guess is as good as mine, I should say."

"Do you suppose they could have been married?"

"It's a possibility, certainly, though it had never occurred to me."

"It only occurred to me last night when I was thinking things over. You know how it is when you can't sleep, sir?"

Pettigrew nodded. He knew well enough, but it gave him a pang to think that a boy of seventeen should.

"Suppose they were married," Godfrey went on, "and she wouldn't divorce him---she wouldn't, I know, she just wasn't that sort. . . . Well," Godfrey gulped hard, and then the words came out in a rush, "there are Mother and Mr. Rose in love with each other and everything, and---and it does add up to a motive, doesn't it, sir?"

So it's out at last! thought Pettigrew. He gave himself a little time before he spoke.

"Is your mother a rich woman?" he asked.

"Lord, no! She's always complaining about her overdraft."

"Where does her money come from, do you know?"

"Father made her an allowance while he was alive. It comes from solicitors now, I think. Then there is some money of her own---the trustees pay it every so often. She says it doesn't keep her in cigarettes. It comes to me when she dies, she said."

"Good! Then you have absolutely nothing to worry about on that score."

"You really think so, sir?"

"I'm quite positive. If there's one thing Rose would not be interested in, it would be marriage to a poor woman. You can put that right out of your head."

"I'm awfully glad to hear you say that, sir."

"Mind you," Pettigrew went on, "I'm not saying that Rose didn't murder Mrs. Pink. If it was worth his while he'd be capable of any sort of crime. But I'm quite sure, from what you tell me, that if he did, it was not because he was contemplating becoming your stepfather."

"I see. Do you---do you suppose my mother realizes that, sir?"

It took Pettigrew a little time to see what lay behind the question.

"Let's be perfectly frank about this," he said. "You were afraid that Rose might have murdered Mrs. Pink so as to marry your mother. That would be bad enough in all conscience, but what you're putting to me now is worse. You are toying with the theory that your mother might have done the same thing in the hope that Rose would marry her. Is that it?"

Godfrey had gone very red.

"It sounds horrible when you put it that way," he said. "Of course I don't really believe it---it's just----"

"It's just the result of a rather bad night and having nobody to talk it over with. To do a thing like that, for a motive like that, your mother would have to be both desperately wicked and extraordinarily stupid. Do you think she is that?"

"No. I don't."

"All right." Pettigrew looked at his watch. "I must be getting along," he said. "The roast lamb will be a cinder if I don't hurry up. I have only two more things to say: firstly, I'm very glad to have met you; and, secondly, that if you want to come and talk to me at any time I'm absolutely at your service. Don't forget! I really mean that."

They shook hands and parted. As Pettigrew went down the path towards the road he looked back towards Godfrey, now striding up the slope towards Yew Hill. He was walking as a healthy lad should walk on a fine spring day, with the prospect of a good lunch in front of him. It was a heartening sight, and Pettigrew complacently told himself that he had done a good morning's work. But a little later, as he was urging his rather stiff legs up the lane on the other side of the valley, it occurred to him to wonder whether his confident assertions had been quite so convincing as they sounded at the time, and whether Godfrey's theory was not just the sort of one that a pigheaded policeman might seize on and run to---to death, perhaps?

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