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21: At the Druids Hotel

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Author Topic: 21: At the Druids Hotel  (Read 52 times)
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« on: April 22, 2023, 06:22:41 am »

"AN intelligent man, the Chief Constable," Pettigrew remarked to his wife, as they walked together up the lane from the railway station to their home.

"Do you say that because he doesn't think the classics obscene, or because he came to the same conclusion as you did, Frank?"

"Neither, although I should be quite prepared to argue that they are both signs of intelligence. So far as I was concerned, I made a guess, on quite incomplete data. The Chief Constable, with all the facts in front of him, had already toyed with my theory, but saw what seemed to be a fatal objection to it. When, quite unconsciously, I gave him the answer, he tumbled to it at once. From no more than the barest hint, he was able to see that what had looked like an argument against the case was the strongest possible support to it. It was very impressive."

"So everything is all right?"

"I wish I could say that, but it isn't. There's a long step between being morally certain who committed a crime and being able to prove it. At the moment I'm blowed if I can see how that step's going to be taken." Pettigrew opened the front door of the house and looked around. "I wonder where that boy's got to?" he observed.

In the kitchen the tea-things had been neatly washed up and stowed away. On the study desk was a small pile of manuscript. Of Godfrey there was no trace.

"Odd!" said Pettigrew. "He particularly asked to be allowed to stay to supper. He must have changed his mind and gone off somewhere."

He sat down at the table and began to look through what Godfrey had written. He had only read a short way when he exclaimed, "By George! This is really interesting! Listen, Eleanor----"

Turning round, he saw that Eleanor was no longer in the room. He finished reading Godfrey's script, without finding anything else calling for remark, and then returned again to the passage which had attracted his attention. He was still brooding over it when his wife came back. He saw with surprise that she was wearing an overcoat.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"I am going to the Druids," said Eleanor firmly. "And if you want anything to eat this evening you are coming too. There is nothing in the larder but a disgusting collection of remnants, and after working hard all this afternoon I absolutely refuse to consider trying to turn them into anything worth sitting down to."

"You've certainly earned an evening out," said Pettigrew. "Let it be the Druids, by all means. But what about young Ransome? Should we wait for him, in case he comes back?"

"He is quite old enough to look after himself. In any case, I don't think I should be called upon to make conversation with him at two meals running."

"I'm afraid I wasn't very helpful at lunch. Not nearly so helpful as this boy has been to me. Just listen----"

Eleanor took her husband by the shoulders and shook him vigorously.

"We are going out to dinner," she said. "With dinner I shall expect a bottle of something good. Before dinner we are going to have several expensive drinks in the bar. After dinner we shall have coffee and liqueurs. During the whole of that time we are not going to talk or even think about this disgusting, sordid, atrocious affair that has made my life a misery for the last two weeks. Now put those papers away and go and get your hat and coat."

"Very well, my love," said Pettigrew meekly. He tidied up his desk, noticing as he did so that his field-glasses were not in their usual position. He replaced them, mechanically adjusting the focus to suit his own eyesight. Evidently Godfrey had not been proof against the temptation that they afforded. "I promise not to say a word about the murder this evening, unless----"

"Unless what?"

"Never mind. I was thinking of a very remote contingency. Let's go."

---

"No," said Humphrey Rose, sipping his cocktail appreciatively. "No, Marian, decidedly not. I shall not say any such thing." He accompanied his refusal with a smile so charming that anyone watching him from a little distance---the barman at the Druids Hotel, in this case---would have thought that he was conferring a favour. "Let me get you another glass of sherry," he added.

"I don't want another glass of sherry," said Mrs. Ransome tersely. "I simply want you to tell anybody who asks you that you met me on the hill that evening and that we came in together."

"You have explained that already. Don't make me have to refuse twice. It is such a waste of effort. You would be much better employed looking at the menu and deciding what we should eat."

"Do you realize that unless I can get some sort of evidence to back me up I may be arrested at any minute?"

"All the more reason to make sure of a good meal while you can. The cooking in prison is, I can assure you, a disgrace."

"What's to prevent my saying that I saw you in the Druids' Glade with your wife that night? I certainly shall if I'm questioned again."

"Nobody will believe you, Marian, that's the beauty of it from my point of view. I have the good fortune to possess two witnesses of unimpeachable character to say that I was nowhere near her. It's a pity that you are not so lucky, but I'm not going to throw away my own security by indulging in any mistaken altruism."

"You know as well as I do that the truth of the whole matter is----"

"I'm not in the least interested in the truth," said Humphrey Rose. He spoke with the simple sincerity of a man avowing a deeply cherished principle of conduct.

"Humphrey," said Mrs. Ransome, her voice hardening and rising a semitone in pitch, "I always knew you were a double-crossing little rat, but----"

"Please don't let us have a brawl in here. I have a certain reputation to sustain here in this place. Besides, there's someone coming in. . . . It's my creditor-witness, your egg-merchant friend. Would you like to go and have a chat with him, Marian?"

"No, thank you."

"Just as you please." They were sitting at a small table, and Horace Wendon, standing at the bar, had his back to them. Rose looked interestedly while Wendon's order was given and consumed. "Two double whiskies in quick time," he observed. "Both paid for in ready money! Our friend is fairly flush for once, I'm glad to see. I owe him a lot."

"How many thousand pounds was it exactly?" asked Mrs. Ransome bitterly.

"Bless me," said Rose with a jovial laugh, "I wasn't thinking of that!"

Two more patrons entered the bar at this moment.

"That elderly type looks familiar," Rose observed. "A lawyer, if I'm not mistaken. I suppose the mousey little woman with him is his wife. She must be years younger than he. Well, Marian, if I can't persuade you to have another drink we might as well go in to dinner. I thought of ordering----" He broke off abruptly as the sound of a furious altercation made itself heard in the back regions behind the bar. Violent imprecations in French and broken English mingled with quieter but penetrating official tones and the clatter of pots and pans. There was a crash of splintering crockery. "There seems to be some trouble in the kitchen," Rose remarked.

Trouble in the kitchen there undoubtedly was; and trouble, moreover, at the very moment when a kitchen should be at its peak of concentrated efficiency---just before the first service of dinner was due to begin. As might have been expected, a convulsion in the nerve-centre of the hotel was not long in communicating itself to its outlying parts. First the head-waiter, then the manager appeared, flitted hastily across the scene and vanished in the direction of the disturbance. There was a pause, during which the noise died down, only to assert itself once more.

"It seems as though our dinner might be delayed," Pettigrew murmured to Eleanor.

"I expect it is just the chef being a little temperamental," she said hopefully.

"Possibly. But, unless I've forgotten all my French, it sounds rather more serious than that." He cocked an ear towards the hotel entrance. "Excuse me one moment, I just want to see . . ."

He walked quickly out of the bar and was absent for less than half a minute. When he came back there was a rather grim smile on his face.

"I thought so," he said. "The place is chock-a-block with police."

He spoke sufficiently loudly for everyone in the room to hear. Mrs. Ransome stiffened in her chair, her face a sudden mask of chalky-white. Rose was smiling still, looking down at the empty glass in his hand. But there was something fixed and unnatural in his smile, and his gaze was as vacant as the glass itself.

Wendon did not move from where he stood hunched up over the bar, but he ordered another double from the imperturbable barman and raised it to his lips with a shaking hand.

"I met someone else outside," Pettigrew went on, "and asked him to join us. He was in rather a mess, so I sent him to wash his hands. Here he is."

"Godfrey!" exclaimed Mrs. Ransome in surprise.

Her son took no notice of her, but walked across to where the Pettigrews were standing.

"Good evening," said Eleanor. "We had given up all hope of you."

Godfrey was confused, and for once almost inarticulate.

"I'm awfully sorry," he stammered. "I didn't know you'd be here, of course. I mean---I'm afraid---in a way---all this is really my fault."

"Dinner will be served in a few minutes now, ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to take your places. We apologize for the delay." The head-waiter, flushed but suave, had appeared at the door leading through to the dining-room. Several guests who had drifted in during the last few minutes followed him through with expressions of relief. Mrs. Ransome moved to go, but Rose restrained her.

"Now we are here we might as well see it out," he said, "It all promises to be quite interesting."

"Your fault?" said Pettigrew to Godfrey. "Do I understand that you have set the police on to the unfortunate chef at this place? And if so, why?"

"Well, you see, after I'd finished my writing I thought I'd go for a stroll. I borrowed your field-glasses and----" Looking round, he caught sight of Wendon for the first time. "Oh Lord! This is a bit awkward!" he murmured.

Pettigrew followed his gaze and then gave a sudden shout of laughter.

"Of all the ridiculous anticlimaxes!" he said. "I believe I understand!" He turned to Eleanor. "We might as well go into dinner," he went on. "Godfrey can explain it all while we feed, using the menu as a text."

But before they could move Superintendent Trimble had entered. Sergeant Broome was just behind him. The Chief Constable stood in the doorway leading to the main entrance of the hotel.

"Mr. Wendon," said Trimble, "may I have a word with you?"

Wendon turned round and faced the room for the first time. His weak face was flushed and defiant.

"Yes," he said thickly.

"If you'll just come outside for a moment----"

"I prefer to stay where I am. You can talk to me here."

Trimble's glance travelled past Wendon for an instant, towards the door. There was a barely perceptible nod from the Chief Constable.

"Very well," said the Superintendent, "if you prefer it." He cleared his throat and began to speak as though he was reciting a piece learned by heart. "I have just come from the kitchen premises of this hotel, where I took possession of a portion of freshly killed pork, for which the chef was unable to account. I have reason to believe that you supplied the chef with the pork in question without being in possession of the requisite licence entitling you to do so. It is my duty to warn you that anything you may say will be taken down in writing and given in evidence."

"Ha! Ha!" said Wendon deliberately.

"What did you say?"

"I said, Ha! Ha! You can take that down in writing and give it in evidence if you like. And you can add this, that if the chef says I gave him the pork he's a bloody liar."

"Then perhaps you would care to tell me what the chef was doing in the vicinity of your farm this afternoon?"

"He wasn't there."

Trimble extended his hand to Sergeant Broome. With the air of a conjurer, the Sergeant produced from somewhere a newspaper, its outer sheets heavily bloodstained.

"The portion of pork in question," Trimble went on, "was wrapped in the newspaper which I now show you. It is a copy of the Markshire Advertiser for the week before last and it bears your name in pencil on the outer sheet. That would appear to have been placed on it by the newsagent who delivered it to you. Would you care to explain how this meat came to be wrapped in your newspaper, Mr. Wendon?"

Wendon's defiance evaporated suddenly.

"All right," he said. He looked slowly round the room, taking in all its occupants with a gaze of weary contempt. "I hope you're all enjoying this," he went on, "watching a decent farmer being persecuted by the law. Rose, who's swindled me and others out of thousands of pounds. Mrs. Ransome, who's been only too happy to buy a pound or two of meat on the side. You all look damned virtuous now, don't you? Especially this bloody little prig of a boy---I suppose it was you who were spying on my farm today with field-glasses. I've got you to thank for this, haven't I?"

"Are you prepared to make a statement, Mr. Wendon?"

Sergeant Broome had his notebook at the ready, his pencil poised.

"Yes, I suppose so. Tell me what you want me to say."

Leaning against the bar, Wendon began to dictate to the Sergeant. Then Pettigrew, for the first and last time, took an overt hand in the proceedings. He moved over to the door, taking Godfrey with him, and spoke in an undertone to MacWilliam.

"Thank you, sir," said MacWilliam. "That is just what I wanted. Mr. Trimble, will you oblige me with that newspaper for a moment?" He studied the gory rag for a while and then nodded in satisfaction. He waited until Wendon had finished his statement and Broome had put away his notebook. Then he went up to Wendon and said in a quiet, almost casual manner, "There's another matter I wanted to ask you about, Mr. Wendon. This newspaper was the one you were reading in your car outside The Alps the afternoon you drove Mrs. Pink there---the afternoon that she was murdered, was it not?"

Wendon said nothing. Only a strange, strangled sound seemed to come from the depth of his throat.

"It carries the item about Mr. Rose's presentation of a portrait of Henry Spicer to the local museum. You read that, I think?"

Again there was no reply, but Wendon seemed to be shrinking into himself as though his clothes had suddenly grown much too big for him.

"You knew, of course, that the portrait had been in Mrs. Pink's possession, because you had seen it at her house. She had told you all her furniture was her husband's. It was this paragraph in the paper that told you that Mrs. Pink was Mr. Rose's wife. That was why you decided to kill her."

There was a long and terrible pause, broken only by the sound of Wendon's laboured breathing.

"You killed her, Wendon, all good and innocent as she was, simply because her husband owed you money. Your attempts to recover anything from him had failed because he had transferred all his property to her, and you reckoned that on her death it would revert to him, where you and the other creditors could get at it. You wouldn't have got very much, you know, because you were only one of hundreds with a claim on the estate. Do you know that if she had been allowed to live it was Mrs. Pink's intention to repay you your debt in full because she was sorry for you? Eight thousand pounds you lost, Wendon, just because you were greedy and callous, when it was there for the taking all the time."

And then Horace Wendon spoke.

"It's not true!" he gasped. "Tell me it isn't true! Eight thousand three hundred and fourteen pounds! She was going to give it to me? Oh, my God! What have I done?"

"I haven't quite finished yet," MacWilliam went on remorselessly. "You might have got away with it, you know, if you hadn't chosen to tell a very obvious lie. But it was a lie you thought you had to tell if you were to collect the fruits of your crime. When you thought that Mr. Rose had been arrested you came forward with evidence to clear him---evidence that was quite unnecessary, as it turned out, because there was a truthful witness who said the same thing. Shall I tell you why you did that? It was because you realized that of all people in the world Rose was the only man you couldn't afford to have convicted of his wife's murder. You knew that if he was, neither he nor his estate could inherit anything from her. You would be left where you started, with a penniless debtor. I give you credit for intelligence in realizing that, Wendon, but it was a fatal lie, none the less."

Pettigrew murmured something to himself. Eleanor, standing beside him, was the only person to hear what he said, and what she heard mystified her completely.

But Wendon did not even murmur. With a look of utter despair he tottered slowly forward. Trimble caught him by one arm and Broome by the other, and, dragging his feet as he walked between the two, he allowed himself to be led away, unresisting.

---

"Frank," said Eleanor, "what did you mean by what you said just now?"

"I wasn't aware that I had said anything."

"Just before the policemen took him away I distinctly heard you say something. It sounded just likeóCrippen."

"If that was what it sounded like, then that was certainly what it was."

"But what on earth could Crippen have to do with it? I know all about him---everybody does. He poisoned his wife for the love of Miss Le Neve, and dressed her up like a boy---Le Neve, I mean---and took her to America. And then Scotland Yard sent a wireless message to the ship, and----"

"Quite right. As you say, everybody knows about Crippen. But not everybody knows all about Crippen. Unluckily for Wendon, the Chief Constable does."

"Well, I wish you'd tell me what there was about Crippen that made him in the least like Mr. Wendon, because I simply don't see it."

"There is no resemblance whatever between Wendon and Crippen beyond the brute fact that they were both murderers. The point is that Wendon was, or rather might have been, rather like Miss Le Neve."

Eleanor turned helplessly to Godfrey.

"You're much cleverer than I am," she said. "Do you understand what all this is about?"

Godfrey shook his head.

"It's quite simple, really," said Pettigrew. "Crippen was hanged for murder, as everybody knows. But what not quite everybody knows is that he made a posthumous appearance in the Law Courts when Miss Le Neve, to whom he had left all his money, made a sporting attempt to claim it. She failed, for the sad and simple reason that Crippen's money had been Mrs. Crippen's until he made away with her, and the law doesn't allow a murderer to profit by his crime---nor a murderer's estate---nor, consequently, a murderer's creditors. That's why I say that if Rose had been convicted of his wife's murder Wendon would have been like Miss Le Neve. The Chief Constable, like everyone else, had been put off by Wendon's insistence that Rose, whom he hated like poison, couldn't be guilty. I happened to mention Crippen in conjunction with disputed wills and he took the hint. That's all."

"So in spite of all your protestations, Frank, you were responsible for clearing this up. The Superintendent will never forgive you."

"Let's hope he never finds out. Actually, my part was a very small one. If any one person is responsible for the arrest, I'm not sure it isn't Godfrey."

"But that's not true, sir," protested Godfrey. "I spotted the pork racket, but I never had the least idea it would lead to anything else."

"I wasn't thinking of that, although the pork affair came in very handy for the police. It was that little holiday task I set you this afternoon that did the trick. You see, after the Chief Constable and I had thrashed out the Crippen business we thought we could see pretty clearly that Wendon must have killed Mrs. Pink simply because she was Rose's wife. But there was one fatal snag: how could we prove that he knew that she was his wife? Unless she had told him, which seemed very unlikely, it seemed that he had no means of finding out. Further he must have found it out very late in the day, for up to the last moment all the evidence was that he was on the most friendly terms with her. That was where you came in, Godfrey. Right at the beginning of your account you mentioned that when you took Mrs. Pink into The Alps for tea you left Wendon outside, reading the local paper. And that paper, I had reason to know, carried the item about Rose's presenting Mrs. Pink's cartoon of Henry Spicer to the museum. It was when he stumbled on that that he suddenly saw the light. Instead of waiting for your mother he left the eggs with the servant and went off in a hurry to waylay poor Mrs. Pink as she walked down the hill. He's the weak type who would always act on the spur of the moment, I fancy. I had my first chance to tell the Chief Constable about it this evening, and----"

Pettigrew stopped abruptly. "This is dry stuff," he observed. "It may sound callous, but I'm very hungry---and thirsty. Before we go into dinner, though, I've a proposition to put to you, Godfrey. . . ."

---

"Did you know about this?" Mrs. Ransome was asking Rose meanwhile. Rose nodded.

"As a financier, I naturally looked for a financial motive," he said. "It seemed the obvious one."

"And yet you never said a word! Not even when it looked as if they were going to arrest me!"

"My dear Marian, he was my witness. I couldn't afford to let him down."

"Humphrey, if ever there was a cold, self-centred devil it's you!" The words were bitter, but there was a ring of admiration in her voice.

"Yes," said Rose quietly. He looked at her for a moment, and what he saw in her face induced him to go on. "I ought to warn you, Marian, that I shall really have no money at all from now on. My creditors will take everything."

She nodded. "I know," she said. "But if we live quietly at first---I have just enough for two. And you can't help making some more soon."

"Undoubtedly," said Humphrey Rose. "And until I do we could live on your ear-rings for a month or two. They can't have very pleasant associations for you now."

Mrs. Ransome shuddered. "I must have been within a yard or two of her body when I stopped under the yew tree," she said. "A minute earlier and I should have seen her with Wendon. I might have saved her life."

"Or lost your own," said Rose placidly. "It's no use jobbing backwards, in life or markets. Shall we have another drink?"

They were just finishing their drinks when Godfrey came rather stiffly over towards them.

"Mother," he said, "Mr. and Mrs. Pettigrew have asked me to stay with them for the rest of the holidays. There's only a week left, and I thought on the whole it might be a good arrangement."

"Of course, dear," said Mrs. Ransome with a sweet smile. "Thank them for me, will you? I'll have your things sent down tonight."

The two parties followed each other into the dining-room and sat down at tables on opposite sides of the room.

"Pork is off," said the waiter.


THE END

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