CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN. Case Ends

i

Henry and Dinah sat by the fire in the rectory study and watched the clock.

Why does he want us to ring up?” said Dinah for perhaps the sixth time. “I don’t understand.”

“I think I do. I think the telephoning’s only an excuse. He wanted us out of the way.”

“But why?”

Henry put his arm round her shoulders and pressed his cheek against her hair.

“Oh, Dinah,” he said.

“What, darling?”

Dinah looked up. He sat on the arm of her chair and she had to move a little in his embrace before she could see his eyes.

“Henry! What is it?”

“I think we’re in for a bad spin.”

“But — isn’t it Mrs. Ross?”

“I don’t think so.”

Without removing her gaze from his face she took his hand.

“I think it’s Eleanor,” said Henry.

Eleanor!”

“It’s the only answer. Don’t you see that’s what Alleyn was driving at all the time?”

“But she wanted to play. She made the most frightful scene over not playing.”

“I know. But Templett said two days before that she’d never be able to do it. Don’t you see, she worked it so that we should find her crying and moaning, and insist on her giving up?”

“Suppose we hadn’t insisted.”

“She’d have left the safety-catch on or not used the soft pedal, or perhaps she’d have ‘discovered’ the automatic and accused Miss C. of putting it there. That would have made a glorious scene.”

“I can’t believe it.”

“Can you believe it of any one else?”

“Mrs. Ross,” said Dinah promptly.

“No, darling. I rather think Mrs. Ross has merely tried to blackmail my papa. It is my cousin who is a murderess. Shall you enjoy a husband of whom every one will say: ‘Oh, yes, Henry Jernigham! Wasn’t he the Pen Cuckoo murderess’s nephew or son or something?’”

“I shall love my husband and I shan’t hear what they say. Besides, you don’t know. You’re only guessing.”

“I’m certain of it. There are all sorts of things that begin to fit in. Things that don’t fit any other way. Dinah, I know she’s the one.”

“Anyway, my dear darling, she’s mad.”

“I hope so,” said Henry. “God, it’s awful, isn’t it?”

He sprang up and began to walk nervously up and down.

“I can’t stand this much longer,” said Henry.

“It’s time we rang up.”

“I’ll do it.”

But as he reached the door they heard voices in the hall.

The rector came in, followed by Alleyn and the squire.

“Dinah! Where’s Dinah?” cried the rector.

“Here she is,” said Henry. “Father!”

The squire turned a chalk-white face to his son.

“Come here, old boy,” he said. “I want you.”

“That chair,” said Alleyn quickly.

Henry and Alleyn put the squire in the chair.

“Brandy, Dinah,” said the rector. “He’s fainted.”

“No, I haven’t,” said Jocelyn. “Henry, old boy, I’d better tell you — ”

“I know,” said Henry. “It’s Eleanor.”

Alleyn moved back to the door and watched them. He was now a detached figure. The arrest came like a wall of glass between himself and the little group that hovered round Jocelyn. He knew that most of his colleagues accepted these moments of isolation. Perhaps they were scarcely aware of them. But, for himself, he always felt a little like a sort of Mephistophelcs, who looked on at his own handiwork. He didn’t enjoy the sensation. It was the one moment when his sense of detachment deserted him. Now, as they remembered him, he saw in the faces turned towards him the familiar guarded antagonism of herded animals.

He said, “If Mr. Jernigham would like to see Miss Prentice, it shall be arranged. Superintendent Blandish will be in charge.”

He bowed, and was going when Jocelyn said loudly:

“Wait a minute.”

“Yes, sir?” Alleyn moved quickly to the chair. The squire looked up at him.

“I know you tried to prepare me for this,” he said. “You guessed that woman had told me. I couldn’t admit that until — until it was all up — I wouldn’t admit it. You understand that?”

“Yes.”

“I’m all to blazes. Think what to do in the morning. Just wanted to say I appreciate the way you’ve handled things. Considerate.”

“I would have avoided the final scene, sir, if I had seen any other way.”

“I know that. Mustn’t ask questions, of course.

There are some things I don’t understand — Alleyn, you see she’s out of her mind?”

“Dr. Templett, I’m sure, will advise you about an alienist, sir.”

“Yes. Thank you.”

The squire blinked up at him and then suddenly held out his hand.

“Good-night.”

“Good-night, sir.”

Henry said, “I’ll come out with you.”

As they walked to the door, Alleyn thought there were points about being a Jernigham of Pen Cuckoo.

“It’s queer,” said Henry. “I suppose this must be a great shock to us; but at the moment I feel nothing at all. Nothing. I don’t realise that she’s— Where is she?”

“The Yard car is on the way to Great Chipping. She’ll need things from Pen Cuckoo. We’ll let you know what they are.”

Henry stopped dead at the rectory door. His voice turned to ice.

“Is she frightened?”

Alleyn remembered that face with the lips drawn back from the projecting teeth, the tearless bulging eyes, the hands that opened and closed as if they had let something fall.

“I don’t think she is conscious of fear,” he said. “She was quite composed. She didn’t weep.”

“She can’t. Father’s often said she never cried as a child.”

“I remembered your father told me that.”

“I hated her,” said Henry. “But that’s nothing now; she’s insane. It’s strange, because there’s no insanity in the family. What happens? I mean, when will they begin to try her. We — what ought we to do?”

Alleyn told him what they should do. It was the first time he had ever advised the relatives of a person accused of murder, and he said, “But you must ask your lawyer’s advice first of all. That is really all I may tell you.”

“Yes. Yes, of course. Thank you, sir.” Henry peered at Alleyn. He saw him against rods of rain that glinted in the light from the open door.

“It’s funny,” said Henry jerkily. “Do you know, I was going to ask you about Scotland Yard — how one began.”

“Did you think seriously of this?”

“Yes. I want a job. Hardly suitable for the cousin of the accused.”

“There’s no reason why you shouldn’t try for the police.”

“I’ve read your book. Good Lord, it’s pretty queer to stand here and talk like this.”

“You’re more shocked than you realise. If I were you I should take your father home.”

“Ever since yesterday, sir, I’ve had the impression I’d seen you before. I’ve just remembered. Agatha Troy did a portrait of you, didn’t she?”

“Yes.”

“It was very good, wasn’t it? Rather a compliment to be painted by Troy. Is she pleasant or peculiar?”

“I think her very pleasant indeed,” said Alleyn. “I have persuaded her to say she will marry me. Goodnight.”

He smiled, waved his hand and went out into the rain.

ii

Nigel had driven his own car over to the rectory, and he took Alleyn to Great Chipping.

“The others have only just got away,” said Nigel. “She fainted after you left, and Fox had to get Templett to deal with her. They’re picking the wardress up at the sub-station.”

“Fainted, did she?”

“Yes. She’s completely dotty, isn’t she?”

“I shouldn’t say so. Not completely.”

“Not?”

“The dottiness has only appeared since Saturday night. She’s probably extremely neurotic. Unbalanced, hysterical, all that. In law, insanity is very closely defined. Her counsel will probably go for moral depravity, delusion, or hallucination. If he can prove a history of disturbance of the higher levels of thought, he may get away with it. I’m afraid poor old Copeland will have to relate his experiences. They’ll give me fits for your performance on the piano, but I’ve covered myself by warning the listeners. I don’t mind betting that even if lunacy is not proved, there’ll be a recommendation for mercy. Of course, they may go all out for ‘not guilty’ and get it.”

“You might give me an outline, Alleyn.”

“All right. Where are we? It’s as dark as hell.”

“Just coming into Chipping. There’s the police car ahead.”

“Ah, yes. Well, here’s the order of events as we see it. On Friday, by 2.40, Georgie had set the booby-trap. Miss Campanula tried to get into the hall before he left it. He hid while the chauffeur looked through the window. When the chauffeur had gone, Georgie re-pinned the bunting over the open top of the piano, replaced the aspidistras and decamped. At a minute or two after half-past two, Miss C. passed Miss P. in the church porch. Miss P. was seen by Gibson. She crossed Church Lane and would pass the hall on her way to Top Lane. In Top Lane she met Dinah Copeland and Henry Jernigham at three o’clock.

“Apparently she had taken half an hour to walk a quarter of a mile. We did it yesterday in five minutes. Our case is that she’d gone into the hall in a great state of upset because the rector had ticked her off at confession. She must have sat at the piano, worked the booby-trap and got the jet of water full in the face. She removed the pistol, and probably the first vague idea of her crime came into her head, because she kept quiet about the booby-trap. Perhaps she remembered the Colt and wondered if it would fit. We don’t know. We only know that at three o’clock she had the scene in Top Lane with Henry and Dinah, the scene that was watched and overheard by that old stinker, Tranter. Tranter and Dinah noticed that the bosom of her dress was wet. That, with the lapse in time, are the only scraps of evidence we’ve got so far to give colour to this bit of our theory, but I’d like to know how else the front of her bodice got wet, if not from the pistol. It wasn’t raining, and anyhow rain wouldn’t behave like that. And I’d like to know how else you can account for her arrival, as late as three, at a spot five minutes away.”

“Yes, it’ll certainly take a bit of explaining.”

“The butler remembered she got back at four. At five Henry explained the mechanism of the Colt to the assembled company, stressing and illustrating the action of the safety-catch. Miss P. had told the rector she wanted to see him that evening. Of course, she wanted to give him a distorted and poisonous version of the meeting between Henry and his Dinah. She was to come to the rectory after Reading Circle activities. About ten o’clock, that would be. Now, soon after ten, Miss C. flung herself into the rector’s arms in the rectory study.”

“Christopher!”

“Yes. I hope for his sake we won’t have to bring this out; but it’s a faint hope. The curtains were not drawn, and anybody on the path to the hall could have seen. Round about 10.15, Miss Dinah heard the gate into the wood give its customary piercing shriek. She thought somebody had gone out that way and believed it was Miss C. We contend it was Miss P. coming in for her appointment. We contend she stood inside the gate transfixed by the tableau beyond the window, that she put the obvious interpretation on what she saw, and fell a prey to whatever furies visit a woman whose ageing heart is set on one man and whose nerves, desires and thoughts have been concentrated on the achievement of her hope. We think she turned, passed through the post-stile and returned to Church Lane. To help this theory we’ve got two blurred heel-prints, the statements that nobody else used the gate that night, and the fact that Miss P. rang up shortly afterwards from the hall.”

“How the devil d’you get that?”

“The telephone operator is prepared to swear nobody rang up the rectory. But Miss P. rang up and the old housemaid called Dinah Copeland, who went to the telephone. She evidently didn’t notice it was an extension call. Miss P. said she was speaking from Pen Cuckoo. Miss P. has admitted she rang up. The hall telephone is an extension and doesn’t register at the exchange. Mrs. Ross saw a light in the hall telephone room, at the right moment. It’s the only explanation. Miss P. didn’t know the Pen Cuckoo telephone was out of order and thought she was safe enough to establish a false alibi. She probably got the water-pistol that night and took it away with her to see if the Colt was the same length. It was an eleventh of an inch shorter which meant that the nozzle would fit in the hole without projecting. Now we come to Saturday afternoon. She told me she was in her room. Mrs. Ross recognised her through the hall window, and we’ve got the scraps of rubber to prove that she handled the box. She looked through the hall window to see if the coast was clear. I imagine Templett was embracing his dubious love, who saw the onlooker over his shoulder. Miss P. took to cover, leaving the box. When they’d gone, she crept into the hall and put the Colt in position. She’d had four emotional shocks in twenty-six hours. The rector had given her fits. She’d seen Henry making ardent love to Dinah. She’d seen Idris Campanula, apparently victoriously happy, in the rector’s arms, and she’d watched Templett and Mrs. Ross in what I imagine must have been an even more passionate encounter. And though I do not consider her insane in law, I do consider that these experiences drove her into an ecstasy of fury. Since it is the rector with whom she herself is madly and overwhelmingly in love, Idris Campanula was the object of her hatred. It was Idris who had robbed her of her hopes. Incidentally, it is Idris who left her a fortune. Georgie Biggins had shown her the way. It’s worth noting here that she won a badge for tying knots, and taught the local Guides in this art. At half-past four she was back at Pen Cuckoo and waked the squire in time for tea. This account, too, sounds like conjecture, but the finger-stall proves she lied once, the telephone proves she lied twice, and the fingerprints in the teapot prove she lied three times.”

“In the teapot?”

“I’ll explain them in a minute.”

They reached the top of Great Chipping Rise, and the lights of the town swam brokenly beyond the rain.

“There’s not much more,” said Alleyn. “The prosecution will make the most of this last point. The only time the stage was deserted, after they arrived in the evening, was when all the others stood round the telephone trying to get through to Mrs. Ross and Dr. Templett. Only Miss Prentice was absent. She appeared for a moment, saw the squire in his under-pants, scuttled off to the stage and did her stunt with the safety-catch. Our case really rests on this. We can check and double-check the movements of every one of them from half-past six onwards. The rector sat on the stage, and will swear nobody touched the piano from that side. Gladys Wright and her helpers were in the hall and will swear nobody touched it from that side. The only time the catch could have been moved was when they were all round the telephone, and Miss P. was absent. She is literally the only person who could have moved the catch.”

“By George,” said Nigel, “she must be a coldblooded creature! What a nerve!”

“It’s given way a little since the event,” said Alleyn grimly. “I think she found she wasn’t as steady as she expected to be, so she allowed her hysteria to mount into the semblance of insanity. Her nerve had gone at the shock of her dear friend’s death, you see. Now she’s going to work the demented stunt for all it’s worth. I wonder when she first began to be afraid of me. I wonder if it was when I put the finger-stall in my pocket. Or was it at the first tender mention of the onion?”

“The onion!” shouted Nigel. “Where the devil does the onion come in?”

“Georgie Biggins put the onion in the teapot. We found it in a cardboard box in the corner of the supper-room. It had pinkish powder on it. There was pinkish powder on the table in Miss P.’s dressing-room. It smelt of onion. The dressing-rooms were locked while Georgie was in the hall, so he didn’t drop the onion in Miss P.’s powder. My theory is that Miss P. found the onion in the teapot, which she had to use, took it to her dressing-room and put it down on the table amongst the spilt powder. The teapot has her prints on the inside, and hers and Georgie’s on the outside.”

“But what the suffering cats did she want with an onion? She wasn’t going to make Irish stew.”

“Haven’t you heard that she has never been known to shed tears until Saturday night, when floods were induced by sheer pain and disappointment because she couldn’t play the piano? She took a good sniff at the onion, opened her dressing-room door, swayed to and fro, moaned and wept and wept and wept until Dr. Templett heard her and behaved exactly as she knew he would behave. Later on she chucked the onion into the d?bris in the supper-room. She ought to have returned it to the teapot.”

“I boggle at the onion.”

“Boggle away, my boy. If it was an innocent onion, why didn’t she own to it? There are her powder and her prints. Nobody else extracted it from the teapot. But it doesn’t matter. It’s only another corroborative detail.”

“The whole thing sounds a bit like Pooh Bah.”

“It’s a beastly business. I detest it. She’s a horrible woman, not a generous thought in her make-up; but that doesn’t make much odds. If Georgie Biggins hadn’t set his trap she’d have gone on to the end of her days, most likely, hating Miss C, scheming, scratching, adoring. Everybody will talk psychiatry and nonsense. Her id?e fixe will be pitchforked about the studios of the intelligentsia. That old fool Jernigham, who’s a nice old fool, and his son, who’s no fool at all, will go through hell. The rector, who supplied the id?e fixe, will blame himself; and God knows he’s not to blame. Templett will hover on the brink of professional odium, but he’ll be cured of Mrs. Ross.”

“What of Mrs. Ross?”

“At least she’s scored a miss in the Vale of Pen Cuckoo. No hope now of blackmailing old Jernigham into matrimony, or out of hard cash. We’ll catch the Rosen sooner or later, please heaven, for she’s a nasty bit of work, and that’s a fact. She would have seen Templett in the dock before she’d have risked an eyelash to clear him, and yet I imagine she’s very much attracted by Templett. As soon as she knew we thought him innocent, she was all for him. Here we are.”

Nigel pulled up outside the police station.

“May I come in with you?” he asked.

“If you like, certainly.”

Fox met Alleyn in the door.

“She’s locked up,” said Fox. “Making a great old rumpus. The doctor’s gone for a strait-jacket. Here’s a letter for you, Mr. Alleyn. It came this afternoon.”

Alleyn looked at the letter and took it quickly. The firm small writing of the woman he loved brought the idea of her into his mind.

“It’s from Troy,” he said.

And before he went into the lighted building he looked at Nigel.

“If one could send every grand passion to the laboratory, do you suppose, in each resulting formula, we should find something of Dinah and Henry’s young idyll, something of Templett’s infatuation, something of Miss P.‘s madness, and even something of old Jernigham’s foolishness?”

“Who knows?” said Nigel.

“Not I,” said Alleyn.

The End

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