CHAPTER XV. Achilles’ Heel

After Nigel and Inspector Fox had gone out of the room, and the door was shut, Inspector Alleyn stood very still and listened to their footsteps dying away down the passage. He heard Fox speak to the constable at the entrance door, and a little later their voices floated up from the footpath beneath.

If an onlooker had been there, he might perhaps have supposed Alleyn’s thoughts were unpleasant ones. The inspector had the type of face that is sometimes described as “winged.” The corners of his mouth made two deep depressions such as a painter will render with a crisp upward stroke of the brush. His nostrils, too, slanted up, and so did the outside corners of his very dark eyebrows. It was an attractive and fastidious face and, when nobody watched him, a very expressive one. At the moment it suggested extreme distaste. One might have guessed that he had just done something that was repugnant to him, or that he was about to undertake a task which displeased him.

Alleyn looked at his watch, sighed, turned out the lights, and went to the window, where he was careful to stand behind the curtains. From here he could watch, unseen, the desultory traffic of Gerald’s Row. Perhaps only two minutes had passed since Nigel and Fox had gone. A solitary taxi came very slowly down the little street. It loitered past the flat. He had an aeroplane view of it, but he fancied that the occupant’s face was in an unusual and uncomfortable position, below the window, for all the world as though its owner were kneeling on the floor, enjoying a worm’s-eye view of the flat, and taking rather particular care not to be seen. At this Inspector Alleyn smiled sideways. He was trying to remember the exact location of the nearest telephone booth. The taxi disappeared and he moved away from the window, took out his cigarette-case, thought better of it, and pocketed it again. Three or four minutes passed. His meditations were uncannily checked by the bedside telephone, which came to life abruptly with a piercing double ring. Alleyn smiled rather more broadly, and sat on the bed with his hands in his pockets. The telephone rang twenty times and then inconsequently went dead. He returned to the window. It was now very quiet in the street, so that when someone came briskly on foot from Elizabeth Street, he heard the steps a long way off. Suddenly he drew back from the window, and with a very desolate groan, crawled under the bed, which was a low one. He was obliged to lie flat on his front. He rearranged the valance, which he had noted disgustedly was of rose-coloured taffeta. Then he lay perfectly still.

Presently a key turned in the entrance door to the flat, and whoever it was who came in must have taken off their shoes, because only the faintest sound, a kind of sensation of movement, told him someone was coming, step by stealthy step, along the passage. Then he heard the handle of the door turn and from under the edge of the valance, in the dim light reflected from the street lamps, he saw the door itself swing slowly open. In the shadow beyond a darker shadow moved forward. The faintest rustle told him that someone had come into the room. Another rustle and the scaly sound of curtain rings. The light from the street was blotted out. When the silence had become intolerable, the telephone above him rang out again shrilly. The bell pealed on and on. The bed above him sank down and touched his shoulders stealthily. The noise of the telephone changed into a stupidly coarse clatter. Something had been pressed down over it. Alleyn counted twenty more double rings before it stopped.

Nigel over in Chester Terrace had hung up his receiver and gone to dine with Gardener.

A faint sigh of relief sounded above Alleyn’s head. He could have echoed it with heartfelt enthusiasm when the bed rustled again and the weight on his shoulders was lifted. Next came the sound of chair legs, dragging a little on the carpet, and coming down finally across the room. The wardrobe door creaked. A pause, followed by furtive scrabblings. Then a metallic click. Alleyn cleared his throat.

“You’ll simply have to turn up the light, Miss Vaughan,” he said.

She didn’t scream, but he knew how near she came to it by the desperate little gasp she gave. Then she whispered bravely:

“Who is it?”

“The Law,” said Alleyn grandly.

“You!”

“Yes. Do turn the light on. There’s no reason at all why you shouldn’t. The switch is just inside the door.” He sneezed violently. “Bless you, Mr. Alleyn,” he said piously.

The room was flooded with pink light. Alleyn had thrust his head and shoulders out from the end of the bed.

She stood with one hand still on the switch. In the other she carried the little iron-bound box. Her eyes were dilated like those of a terrified child. She looked fantastically beautiful.

Alleyn wriggled out and stood up.

“I think bed dust is quite the beastliest kind of dust there is,” he complained.

Her fingers slid away from the door handle. Her figure slackened. As she pitched forward he caught her. The box fell with a clatter to the floor.

“No, no,” he said. “This won’t do. You’re not a woman who faints when she meets a reverse. You, with your iron nerve. You haven’t fainted. Your heart beats steadily.”

“Yours, on the contrary,” she whispered, “is hammering violently.”

He put her on her feet and held her elbows.

“Sit down,” he said curtly.

She pulled herself away, and sat in the arm-chair he lugged forward.

“All the same,” said Miss Vaughan, “you did give me a fright” She looked at him very steadily. “What a fool I’ve been. Such an obvious trap.”

“I was surprised that it caught you. When I saw you in the taxi, I knew I had succeeded, and then a little later, when you rang — I thought Surbonadier would have given you a latch-key.”

“I had meant to return it.”

“Really? I must say, I can’t think where the attraction lay. Evidently you are a bad selector.”

“Not always.”

“Perhaps not always.”

“After all, you have nothing against me. Why shouldn’t I come here? You yourself suggested it.”

“At nine, with me. What were you looking for in that box?”

“My letters,” she said quickly. “I wanted to destroy them.”

“They are not there.”

“Then like Ophelia I was the more deceived.”

“You weren’t deceived,” he said bitterly.

“Mr. Alleyn — give me my letters. If I give you my word, my solemn word, that they had nothing whatever to do with his death—”

“I’ve read them.”

She turned very white.

“All of them?”

“Yes. Even yesterday’s note.”

“What are you going to do — arrest me? You are alone here.”

“I do not think you would struggle and make a scene. I can’t picture myself dragging you, dishevelled and breathless, into the street, and blowing a fanfare on my police whistle while you lacerated my face with your nails.”

“No, that would be too undignified.”

She began to weep, not noisily or with ugly distortions of her face, but beautifully. Her eyes flooded and then overflowed. She held her handkerchief over them for a moment

“I’m cold,” she said.

He took the eiderdown cover off the bed and gave it to her. It slipped out of her hands and she looked at him helplessly. He put it round her, tucking it into the chair. Suddenly she seized the collar of his coat.

“Look at me!” said Stephanie Vaughan. “Look at me. Do I look like a murderess?”

He took her wrists and tried to pull them down, but she clung to his coat

“I promise you I didn’t mean what I said in that letter. I wanted to frighten him. He threatened me. I only wanted to frighten him.”

He wrenched her hands away, and straightened himself.

“You’ve hurt me,” she said.

“You obliged me to. We’d better not prolong this business.”

“At least let me explain myself. If, after you’ve heard me, you still think I’m guilty, I’ll go with you without another word.”

“I must warn you—”

“I know. But I must speak. Sit down for five minutes and listen to me. I won’t bolt Lock the door, if you like.”

“Very well.”

He locked the door and pocketed the key., Then he sat on the end of the bed, and waited.

“I’ve known Arthur Surbonadier for six years,” she said at last “I went to Cambridge to take part in a charity show that was being got up by some of the undergraduates. They engaged me to play Desdemona. I was a novice, then, and very young. Arthur was good-looking in those days and he always had a charm for women. I don’t expect you to understand that. He introduced me to Felix, but I hardly remembered Felix when we met again. He had never forgotten me, he says. Arthur was attracted to me. He introduced me to Jacob Saint, and through that I got a real start in my profession. We were both given parts in a Saint show that was produced at the end of the year. He was passionately in love with me. That doesn’t begin to express it. He was completely and utterly absorbed as though, apart from me, he had no reality. I was fascinated and — and so it happened. He asked me over and over again to marry him, but I didn’t want to get married, and I soon knew he was a rotter. He told me about all sorts of things he had done. He had a fantastic hatred of his uncle, and once, at Cambridge, he wrote an article that attributed all sorts of things to Saint. There was a case about it — I expect you remember — but Saint never thought Arthur had done it, because Arthur was so dependent on him. He told me all about that and his own vices. He still attracted me. Then I met Felix and—” She made a little gesture with her hands, a gesture that he might have recognized as one of her stage tricks.

“From that time onwards, I wanted to break off my relationship with Arthur. He terrified me, and he threatened to tell Felix about — all sorts of things.” She paused, and a different note came into her voice. “Felix,” she said, “was a different type. He belongs to another caste. In a funny sort of way he’s intolerant. But — he’s dreadfully honourable. If Arthur had told him! I was terrified. I began to write those letters, at the time I went to New York, but when I got back Arthur still dominated me. Yesterday — it seems years ago — he came to see me, and there was a scene. I thought I would try to frighten him and, after he left, I wrote that note.”

“In which you said: ‘If you don’t promise to-night to let me go I’ll put you out of it altogether.’ ”

“My God, I meant I’d tell Saint what he’d done— how he’d written that article!”

“He’s been blackmailing Saint for years. Surely you knew that?”

She looked as if she were thunderstruck.

“Did you know?” asked Alleyn.

“No. He never told me that.”

“I see,” said Alleyn.

She looked piteously at him. She was rubbing her wrists where he had gripped them. As if on an impulse, she held out her hand.

“Can’t you believe me — and pity me?” she whispered.

A silence fell between them. For some seconds neither moved or spoke, and then he was beside her, her hand held close between both of his. He raised it, her fingers threaded through his own. He had bent his head and stood in what seemed to be a posture of profound meditation.

“You’ve won,” he said at last.

She leant forward and touched her face against his fingers, and then, with her free hand, she pulled aside the eiderdown quilt and let it slide to the floor.

“Last night I thought you were going to kiss my hand,” she said.

“To-night—” He kissed it deliberately. In the silence that followed they heard someone come at a brisk walk down the narrow street. The sound of footsteps seemed to bring her back to earth. She drew her hand away and stood up.

“I congratulate you,” she said.

“On what?”

“On your intelligence. You would have made a bad gaffe if you had arrested me. Will you let me go away now?”

“If you must.”

“Indeed I must. Tell me — what made you first suspect me?”

“Your cosmetic was on the cartridges. ”

She turned away to the window and looked into the street.

“But how extraordinary,” she said quietly. “That bottle was overturned on my table. Arthur himself knocked it over.” She seemed to ponder this for a moment and then she said quickly: “That means whoever did it was in my room?”

“Yes. Your room was empty just before it happened. You were talking to Gardener next door.”

“No, no. That’s all wrong. At least he may have gone in there. No, he didn’t. He was on the stage by that time. Arthur knocked the bottle over. He was splashed with the stuff. When he put the cartridges in the drawer, there was some on his hands. Probably there was still some more of it on his thumb when he loaded the revolver. He realised it was all up with him, and he wanted Felix accused of murder. Or me. He may have deliberately used my wet-white. It would have been like him.”

“Would it? You poor child!”

“Yes. Oh, I know that’s it.”

“I wonder if you can be right,” said Alleyn.

“I’m sure I am.”

“I’ll approach it again from that angle,” he said, but he scarcely seemed aware of what he said. He looked at her hungrily, as though he would never be satisfied with looking.

“I must go now. May I take — the letters — or must they come out?”

“You may have them.”

He went into the next room and got the letters. When he came back with them she looked them through carefully.

“But there’s one missing,” she said.

“I don’t think so.”

“Indeed, there is. Are you sure you didn’t drop it?”

“Those are all we found.”

She looked distractedly round the room.

“I must find it,” she insisted. “It must be somewhere here. He threatened to show that one, in particular, to Felix.”

“We sifted everything. He must have burnt it.”

“No, no. I’m sure he didn’t. Please let me look. I know where he kept all his things.” She hunted frantically through all the rooms. Once she stopped and looked at him.

“You wouldn’t—?”

“I have held back none of your letters, on my word of honour.”

“Forgive me,” she said, and fell to hunting again. At last she confessed herself defeated.

“If it’s found you shall have it,” Alleyn assured her. She thanked him, but was clearly not satisfied. At last he persuaded her to stop hunting.

“I’ll telephone for a taxi,” he said.

“No, don’t do that. I’ll walk to the corner and get one. I’d rather.”

“I’ll come with you. I’ve just got to lock up.”

“No. We’ll say good night now,” she laughed. “I can’t be seen out with you — you’re too compromising.”

Nous avons change tout cela.

“You think so, do you, inspector? Good night.”

“Good night, Stephanie. If I weren’t a policeman—”

“Yes?”

“Give me that key, madam.”

“Oh! The key of the flat. Where did I put it? Now that’s lost.”

“Is it on the chain?”

He pulled at the chain round her neck, found the key, which had been hidden under her dress, and slipped it off. This brought them close together, and he saw she was trembling.

“You are quite done up,” he said. “Shan’t I come with you? Give me that pleasure.”

“No, please. Good night again.”

He touched her hand.

“Goodnight.”

She took a step towards him, looked into his eyes, and smiled. In a moment he had her close-held in his arms.

“What’s this?” he said roughly. “I know you’re everything I most deplore — and yet — look at this. Shall I kiss you?”

“Why not?”

“Every reason why not.”

“How strangely you look at me. As if you were examining my face inch by inch.”

He released her suddenly.

“Please go,” he said.

In a moment she had gone. He leaned from the window and watched her come out on to the pavement below. She turned towards South Eaton Place. A few seconds later, a man came out of an alley-way by the flat, paused to light a cigarette, and then strolled off in the same direction.

Alleyn closed the window carefully and put out the light. In walking to the door he stubbed his toe on the little iron-bound box which was still lying where she had dropped it. He stooped down and opened it. A look of intense relief lightened his face. He picked it up and went out of the flat.

Left to itself the telephone rang again, insistently.

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