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20: Two Shocks for Pettigrew

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Author Topic: 20: Two Shocks for Pettigrew  (Read 69 times)
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« on: April 22, 2023, 05:46:02 am »

"YOU ought to have told me about this before," said Pettigrew reproachfully.

"Well, sir," Godfrey told him, a touch of defiance showing through his evident distress, "you didn't exactly encourage me to go into details when I spoke to you the first time, did you? You seemed so positive that I had nothing to worry about, and----"

"I know. I know," Pettigrew groaned. "I was too cocksure altogether. I took things for granted on incomplete data. It's so easy to do that with other people's affairs. As What's-his-name says: 'Courage in another's trouble, kindness in one's own.'"

"I don't think," said Godfrey seriously, "that you've got that quotation quite right."

"Of course I haven't; but I've got it much nearer the facts of human nature than What's-his-name ever did. But this isn't a joking matter. If I'd known about your mother's ear-ring at the time you spoke to me I should never have been so airy-fairy about the whole business. When did the police come to your house this morning?"

"Quite early. We hadn't even finished breakfast."

"Sound psychology on their part. Nobody's at their best at that hour in the morning. I suppose one should be thankful they don't turn up in the small hours, as they do in some countries. You say they were positive your mother lost the thing on Thursday evening?"

"Yes. They'd got that out of Grethe before they started on mother and me. Grethe had noticed one ear-ring was gone when she came in."

"And she came in after Rose turned up at the house?"

"So Grethe said, I gather. I was upstairs in my room, so I couldn't help them about that."

"But you did help them to this extent—that your mother had said she was going out just after Mrs. Pink had left, nominally to meet Rose?"

"Yes . . . I didn't mean to tell them anything, actually, but it slipped out somehow."

Pettigrew nodded sympathetically. "You needn't excuse yourself," he said. "That was natural enough. Making people slip things out is the business of the police. They are very good at it. Anyhow, your evidence is a minor factor. It's Todman's story that matters. You can be quite sure it was that that brought them back to The Alps."

Godfrey nodded gloomily. "Todman was there all right," he said. "After I'd gone upstairs I saw him out of my bedroom window in his car just outside the front gate."

"Todman is a nasty customer," mused Pettigrew. "Of course he may be lying to save his own skin, but if he is it's a damned inconvenient lie. It fits in too well with the known facts. What had your mother to say to all this?"

"She told the police to go to hell and said she would consult her solicitor."

"I see."

"That was roughly what she said the first time they came, of course. Only---only this time it didn't seem to work so well."

"I think I understand. They assured her that she was quite entitled to take up that attitude if she wished, and of course she need not help the police if she would prefer not to and they wouldn't question her any further. And all the time they went on asking questions that simply had to be answered. Was that it?"

"More or less."

"I think I know the technique. What was the effect of it?"

"It was rather a bad show altogether," said Godfrey reluctantly. "I've never seen Mother really rattled before, and I didn't like it. She's such a calm sort of person as a rule. She told them about half a dozen different stories one on the top of another and couldn't stick to any of them. Whenever she said one thing they just chivvied her out of it into another, like dogs after a rat. It was horrible. First she said she hadn't been out at all. That was no good, of course. Then she said she had been out to meet Mr. Rose. The Superintendent creature pounced on that. He got her to say that she had met him and then that she hadn't, and in the end that she couldn't remember whether she had or hadn't. They got her all muddled up about the different paths on the hill, and all the time they kept coming back to that blasted ear-ring. I thought they were never going to stop. But they did in the end, quite suddenly, and went off looking disgustingly pleased with themselves. I don't think they'd have been so bad if Mother hadn't made them look such fools the first time they came."

"Very likely. And where is your mother now?"

"In bed. At least, that was where she said she was going. She'd hardly let me speak to her after they had gone. She practically turned me out of the house."

"So you came down here. Very wise of you. You'll stay to lunch, won't you?"

"Thanks awfully. Mrs. Pettigrew's asked me to already, as a matter of fact."

"Good! And stay as long as you like afterwards. My wife and I have to go into Markhampton this afternoon, but you can have the run of the garden if you wish, and you can get yourself some tea."

"Thank you, sir. I was wondering, if it isn't awful cheek, do you think I could stay on to supper as well?"

"I dare say that could be managed, but are you sure you oughtn't to be at home by then? After all, your mother has had a pretty nasty experience. She'll be all alone, and----"

"That's just the point, sir. She won't be alone and she won't be at home either. Just before I left I heard her telephoning to arrange to meet Mr. Rose for dinner at the Druids Hotel this evening."

"Oh!" said Pettigrew shortly. He said nothing further for a moment, and then added, "It can't make much difference at this stage of affairs, but it's unpleasant all the same. By that, I am not referring to your dining with us, I may say. Whether the larder will stand it or not remains to be seen. We might perhaps go out for a bite somewhere. But it's a mistake to look more than one meal ahead. I think that lunch is nearly ready. What do you say to a glass of sherry?"

If lunch proved to be not too dismal a meal, the credit was due entirely to Eleanor Pettigrew. Her husband was for the most part silent, preoccupied in his own thoughts, which he was unable or unwilling to share. Fortunately Eleanor, after casting about in several directions, happened to mention that she was going that afternoon to a rehearsal of the Markhampton Orchestral Society, and found that Godfrey was sufficiently interested in music to be able to keep his end up in conversation. A lively if not very profound argument on the merits of Benjamin Britten sufficed to last out the time until the hosts had to take their departure to Markhampton.

Just before they left, Pettigrew, coming suddenly out of his abstraction, took Godfrey into his study.

"I don't know how you intend to spend the afternoon," he said, "but I have a suggestion to make. The fact that it is the precise opposite of what I suggested to you before won't, I hope, deter you from acting on it. Here is a desk, pens, ink and paper. Here is also a magnificent view of Yew Hill. My proposal is that you sit down and, firmly averting your eyes from the view, write down exactly and in detail every single thing you can recollect of what happened from the time that Mrs. Pink arrived at The Alps until you went up to your room. Everything, mind, however trivial. You will find it a quite sickening task, and I can't promise that it will prove to be of the smallest value. But I shall read what you have written when I come back, and it may be that I shall find there----." He paused.

"Find what?" said Godfrey.

"I can't tell you. If I did I should merely be putting ideas into your head, and my whole plan is to get your unaided recollection. But unless I am really the silly old man you probably think me to be, I know the truth about this case, and it's just possible that without knowing it you can supply the means to prove it. Anyhow, are you ready to try?"

Godfrey said nothing. But he sat down at the desk and before Pettigrew had left the room his shoulders were squared to write.

---

If Superintendent Trimble was, as Godfrey put it, "disgustingly pleased with himself" when he left The Alps, his pleasure was somewhat diminished by the time that he had finished the conference which the Chief Constable had unexpectedly called later that morning. Mr. MacWilliam was, as always, politely appreciative of the work that had been done, but he was decidedly lacking in enthusiasm.

"What it all boils down to is this, is it not?" he said. "The evidence of the ear-ring, which we have had since the very beginning of the enquiry, suggested that Mrs. Ransome was in the neighbourhood of the crime at about the time it took place. The fresh evidence which you have procured (and on which I should like to congratulate you highly, most highly indeed) does not do more than turn that suggestion into a virtual certainty. The question still remains---is that enough to put Mrs. Ransome on her trial?"

"I---well, I should have thought so, sir."

"Is it? With at least three other suspects hanging about in the neighbourhood? There was time enough for one of them to slip down the hill and dispose of Mrs. Pink before Mrs. Ransome ever came on the scene. Suppose she were simply to say, 'I was there, but didn't see Mrs. Pink or anybody else, so I came straight home again', how is the prosecution, without more, to prove its case? Did she say that when you questioned her, by the way?"

Trimble looked at Broome.

"She said that," the Sergeant put in. "Along with a lot of other things. She told every sort of story she could lay her tongue to, and all of them obvious lies, in my opinion."

"That's just it, sir," Trimble persisted. "You're forgetting, if I may say so, that when she was questioned she told a pack of untruths. About taking the upper path and not the lower, about meeting Rose, when in fact they came in at different times, and so on. That's quite enough to prove her guilty so far as I'm concerned."

The Chief Constable shook his head. "I fear, Mr. Trimble," he said, "that you are in danger of forgetting the great passage in Taylor On Evidence."

Trimble, as MacWilliam well knew, was not in the smallest danger of forgetting something of which he had never heard, but in the presence of Sergeant Broome he had to do his best to disguise the fact as his superior reached for a battered volume on the shelf behind him, found the passage he wanted and read aloud:

"Innocent persons, under the influence of terror from the danger of their situation, have been sometimes led to the simulation of exculpatory facts; of which several instances are stated in the books."

"What books?" the Superintendent made bold to ask.

"I haven't the least idea," MacWilliam replied, shutting the volume and returning it tenderly to its place. "I have often wondered; but as Taylor has been dead a good many years now, I suppose I shall never know. I'm sure his modern editors do not. But that doesn't alter the fact that that sentence should be engraved on every policeman's heart. A lying witness is not necessarily a guilty one. Which brings me to my next point. Are not all our principal witnesses here lying; and if not all, which of them, and why?"

The hapless Trimble squirmed in his chair.

"I'm not sure that I follow you, sir," he said.

"My fault entirely. A portmanteau question of that kind is unanswerable. Let's take it by stages. Your case against Mrs. Ransome depends strongly on Todman, does it not?"

"Yes, sir."

"Very well. If Todman is a witness of truth, it follows that Rose and Wendon are both liars. Leave Rose out of it for the moment, why should Wendon want to lie?"

"To give himself an alibi, I suppose, sir."

"Why should he need to, if Mrs. Ransome is the guilty party?"

"I suppose he can simulate an exculpatory fact as well as the next man, sir, can't he?"

"Very neat, Superintendent. I deserved that one. But is that really the position? Wendon wasn't really concerned to give himself an alibi, but somebody else. He never said that Rose had seen him. It was the other way round. And it was Rose---on the footing that Wendon is a liar---who simulated the exculpatory fact to agree with Wendon. Why should Wendon simulate a fact to exculpate someone he hates like poison? Because, mind you, unless he did, Todman's story is an invention and away goes your case against the lady."

Trimble's head was beginning to whirl, but he stuck doggedly to his point.

"I can't see that Todman has any reason for lying," he said.

"I can see every reason for his lying about Mrs. Ransome. He's a man with the strongest possible motive to kill Mrs. Pink---far stronger than hers, and at least as strong as Rose's. (Has anybody thought of any motive at all for Wendon, by the way? At the moment I can see none.) But I agree that there is no known reason why Todman should go out of his way to give Rose an alibi. Has it occurred to you, by the way, what a very lucky fellow Rose is, to have two witnesses tumbling over each other to clear him? After all, with his record and in his position, he's by far the most likely candidate. I don't mind telling you, I want Rose to be the murderer in this case, with or without Mrs. Ransome."

"Excuse me, sir," said Broome diffidently, "but I have an idea. Suppose we have Wendon and Todman both telling lies. That leaves Rose free to come up the hill the other way and help Mrs. Ransome kill Mrs. Pink."

"A beautiful idea," said the Chief Constable sadly. "But unless you can produce something new and startling in the way of evidence, Sergeant, I fear that it is destined to remain in the realm of ideas for ever."

And on that note the conference adjourned for lunch.

---

Eleanor's rehearsal was to be held in a gaunt drill hall hidden away in a back street behind the market-place. Pettigrew parted from her there with a sharp pang of envy. For an hour or two she would be in a world apart, a world where the values were purely aesthetic, the problems merely technical, a world to which he had no key. The prospect of an afternoon's leisure, for once, appalled him. At once indolent and inquisitive, he did not normally feel the need of any particular object to occupy his mind on his visits to Markhampton. The town itself, so familiar and so picturesque, so charged with historical associations and with memories personal to himself, was ordinarily a quite sufficient entertainment. But on this occasion he felt the need of something to rid his mind of the ugly thoughts that clouded it, and he could find nothing. He passed by the County Court, where Judge Jefferson, restored to health, was even now, no doubt, grappling with some insoluble problem of greater hardship or alternative accommodation, and found himself uncharitably wishing that his illness could have been prolonged indefinitely. He turned into a hairdresser's shop for a much needed hair-cut, and was quite disgusted to find himself attended to at once and turned out, shaven and shorn, into the street again within a bare twenty minutes. He turned into the cathedral, and found that for once that superb building had nothing to say to him. Finally he sought consolation in the haven of the town's one antiquarian bookseller, and buried himself in the musty recesses of the rambling old shop.

He had been there some time, wandering moodily from one shelf to another, taking down volumes only to replace them after the most cursory inspection, when he bumped into another customer who appeared to be similarly engaged on the opposite side of the narrow book-lined corridor in which he found himself. He apologised automatically and moved on. Then a voice behind him said:

"Found anything to interest you?"

Pettigrew turned round and saw the Chief Constable.

"I'm surprised to see you here," he said. "What are you looking for?"

"Pornography," said MacWilliam cheerfully.

"Really! I shouldn't have expected that here. Have you had any luck?"

"It depends what you mean by having luck. I should have said, Yes. You see, I've had a complaint from a lady that this shop is publicly offering for sale lewd and obscene so-called works of literature calculated to deprave the citizens of this town and excite impure thoughts and emotions in the breasts of the younger generation. I think I have quoted her correctly. She did not sully her pen by naming the filthy volumes to which she referred, but she was good enough to indicate exactly where in the shop they were to be found. She must have spent an enjoyable day tracking them down."

"So you have been following in her footsteps?"

"Precisely. It's not work that I care to leave to any of my officers, you'll understand. They are a very good lot of men, but they have their limitations, and to turn them loose among so-called works of literature with a roving commission to hunt for obscenities would be asking for trouble. The English," said MacWilliam, a trace of Highland accent appearing for once in his speech, "are not by and large an educated people."

"Very true. No more than the Scotch or the Irish or the Welsh, I expect. But putting that aside, what have you found?"

"What I expected. All the old friends of the smut-hound. Rabelais, The Decameron, Restoration dramatists, Tristram Shandy, and a rather nice translation of Apuleius, which I intend to buy for myself. That will be one source of depravity removed from the citizens of Markhampton, at any rate. They will have to take their chance with the rest, so far as my force is concerned. And what about you, sir? Have you found anything interesting?" He looked down at the volume in Pettigrew's hands. "You're reading the trial of Adelaide Bartlett, I observe."

"Am I?" said Pettigrew absently, and returned the book to its place.

"They've got a good collection of old trials," MacWilliam remarked, glancing up at the shelf. "They interest you, I expect?"

"Not particularly, if you mean trials for murder. There is more real drama, to my mind, in a really hard-fought action over a disputed will, say, than in half of these sordid affairs. Still, there are exceptions. I may be wrong, but I think that the murders of my youth were more exciting than any we get today. Take Crippen, for instance. What fun that was!"

"Crippen," repeated the Chief Constable absently. "Crippen! Yes---the chase across the Atlantic and all that. Crippen!" he said yet again, and this time there was a gleam of interest in his eyes. "There was an action about his will, wasn't there?"

"Yes, there was. Quite an interesting one, in its way, too. But why do you----"

"By God!" said MacWilliam suddenly. "I believe I've got it!"

He seized Pettigrew by the arm in a grip that made him wince.

"We can't talk in here," he said rapidly. "Where shall we go? I know, the County Club opposite---you're still a member, aren't you? It's bound to be empty at this time of day. Slip across there now and I'll follow. I don't want my Superintendent to see us together. As soon as I've paid for my Apuleius I'll join you. Don't argue, man, go! If you don't help me now I'll arrest you for obstructing the police! Crippen! Why on earth didn't I think of him before?"

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