Authors: Ellis Peters
He didn't protest, he wasn't angry. When I finished, he didn't say a word. Until I saw that dead, blank look of shock in his eyes again I couldn't even be sure whether he'd heard me, or understood what he heard. It was the first disaster over again, only a thousand times worse.
As he'd known all along that he was a thief, and yet been shattered when the fact was dragged into the daylight, so he'd known all along that she was a bitch, and yet having her unworthiness laid before him in so many words had all the impact of a revelation.
He sat looking at me for a long moment in the silence of despair, and then the numbness faded out of his face before the absolute, awful conviction of his loneliness and desolation. His hands began to grope in front of him in panic, feeling for anything that still shared the darkened world with him. I gripped and held them, and went on talking to him, not about her now, about him, about his future, about his ability to remake his life. He struggled for a moment, and then he collapsed.
He still hadn't said a word or made a sound.
The MO gave him an injection, and he slept for twelve hours. He was under drugs for several days. Gradually, rather more readily than expected, he came back to what was now normality for him â a dumb, patient, listless resignation, obliging but unconvincing. He'd lost a lot of flesh, and with it, surprisingly, years of his age. He had even become unexpectedly good-looking in a motionless, emaciated way. But grey streaks had appeared in his hair.
He was quite calm now, and he never talked about her. No one could tell what was going on in his mind, but certain queer traits in his behaviour seemed to worry the MO.
People often turn to spiritualism or occultism when bereaved, and I suppose no one was ever more bereaved than he; yet there was a nasty feeling of the abnormal about his new preoccupation with signs and portents, with superstitions we'd never heard of, and oracles appropriate rather to the play of children than to the desperation of men. I think he was still hoping for a sign from heaven that somehow Eileen would be given back to him.
He asked for library books on the occult, and talked with a kind of willing faith about visitations and dreams and their meanings, about sendings, ghosts of the living, and portents of death.
Only once did he mention his wife. He said he had met her in the yard during exercise. She was wearing her mink coat, and she came towards him as though he didn't exist. Just as she began to melt into his flesh she vanished.
But, that tendency apart, he was decidedly better than he had been since his trial and, in spite of all the MO's misgivings, unquestionably sane. He went about the daily routine with more will and quickening interest, still dully, but intelligently. I began to hope that he was at least entering on convalescence.
I'd planned to meet him myself when he was released, but a very awkward case blew up that morning, and I had to send a car to fetch him while I rushed off to the other end of the county. The driver had orders to bring him straight to my house, where I meant to keep him until I saw how he was shaping.
My housekeeper, who is a good soul, and considers my job to be very much her concern, had guaranteed to take care of him until I came home. But I was away all day, and when I got back at six o'clock in the evening she was waiting for me with a long face, and there was no Willard to be seen.
âHe gave the driver the slip,' she told me. âAsked him to stop while he bought some stamps, and then walked out of the post office by the other door.
âThere was nothing for the poor man to do but come back and report. He couldn't possibly find him. I thought about ringing the police to look out for him, but after all, we can't force him to accept help, and he hasn't done anything wrong. Only it does make one rather anxious.'
I was more than anxious by that time, but there was nothing I could do about it. She had even gone down unobtrusively and walked past Mrs Willard's house, to make sure there was no one hanging about there, and no sign of any disturbance.
I told her everything was sure to be all right, and we were being silly, and sent her home; but I sat over the telephone all the evening, hesitating whether to notify the police or not.
It was impossible, of course, when it came to the point. He was adult, sane and, as far as I knew, without either criminal or irresponsible intentions of any kind. I couldn't send out a hunt for him as though for an escaped lunatic.
Towards nine o'clock I took the car, and drove slowly through the town, keeping my eyes open, but there was no sign of him. All the same, I didn't go to bed; I couldn't have slept.
It was just after midnight when something came fumbling at the door, like a blind man feeling about its surface for a latch. A tiny, shuffling, hair-raising sound one wouldn't have heard at all in the day. I opened the door, scared for my life of what I was going to find; and there he was, groping stiffly with one hand, and dangling a gun from the other.
The light made stony, pale pebbles of his staring eyes, and his jaw hung open and rigid. I brought him in on my arm, and he stumbled up the steps and moved like an automaton across the room, wherever I led him. He let me put him into a chair, and lay there, still with that fixed, horrified face. I tried to get some brandy into him, but he choked on it, and it ran down his dangling chin.
Then I tried to take the gun from him, but he held on to it with sudden resolution, and said, âNo, don't touch it! Not you; only me!' And he began to weep, almost silently, without any sobs.
âWhat's happened?' I asked him, shaking him by the shoulders. âWhere have you been? What have you done?'
âI've killed her,' he said. The voice that came out of him was small, still dazed but quiet. âI shot her. I'm sorry about your driver, but you see, I had to go and get the gun. And I didn't want you to be involved. I had to get away from you. I was going to kill her, and then myself. And I've done the one, but there's no need to do the other. I'm going to die, anyhow. I've had a sign.'
I wasn't interested in signs, only in facts. I shook him roughly, shouting at him to tell me exactly what had happened, and how he'd obtained the gun in the first place. He said it belonged to an old lag he'd made friends with in prison, who had revealed the fact that he possessed one. Willard had asked if he could borrow it when he went out, and the man had given him a note for his wife, so that she would let him have it. Then he'd gone to earth in a cinema until night, and on to Eileen's house under cover of darkness.
âThe door wasn't locked,' he said in the same soft, hopeless voice. âShe was expecting somebody. Not me. One of
! The hall was in darkness, and the stairs, too, but upstairs her bedroom door was half open, her light was on. It cast a very faint light down the well of the stairs. I didn't need any light. I knew every knot in the floor, every worn place in the carpet.
âI began to climb the stairs; and when I was coming up to the midway landing I met myself coming down. I'm not mad! I looked up suddenly as I stepped on to the landing, and I was there â face to face with myself â coming down. I'm not mistaken! I know what I saw. I know this face, I know the clothes I'm wearing. And the gun! He â I â had the gun, too. So I knew I'd already done it, and she was dead. And I'm going to die, too. When you meet a sending of yourself, you know you're going to die.'
It made no sense, it couldn't have happened, and yet I was afraid. I bullied him, trying to get straight answers out of him.
âYou turned back on the stairs? You didn't go on to her room?'
âWhat need was there?' he said, beginning to shake all over with horror and the reflection of my fear.
âBut you didn't â did you? When you met him â yourself â you were frightened, you ran out of the houseâ'
âYes, I ran out of the house.'
âYou didn't go on? You remember that?'
âI don't know! No â I killed her! She's dead!'
âWhat time was it? Do you know? Did you come straight here to me when you ran away?'
I was only confusing and frightening him even more. The awful sobs came, shattering him, tearing out of him with such violence I was afraid he might die under my hands.
I imagined him feeling his way up the stairs in the half darkness, trembling with despair, and love, and hate, lightheaded with hunger, for he'd surely never thought to eat anything all day. How could he know what he was saying or doing? It would have to wait until he was rested, and fed, and calm, and by then we should know well enough that Eileen Willard was alive and venomous as ever, and all he'd suffered was a crazy hallucination.
I filled him up with sedative tablets, and got him into my own bed, which I certainly wouldn't need myself that night. After some time the tablets worked, and he passed out. He still had the gun clutched in his hand, determined that no print should ever connect me with it, and I hadn't cared to distress him further by forcing it away from him. Now that he was fast asleep at last I was afraid to try to break the death grip he had on it, but even more afraid to leave it where it was.
I got it away from him gradually, gently working his fingers loose, one by one. And just as I was going downstairs to examine it somewhere well away from him, the telephone rang.
It was the police. They wanted to know if Frank Willard was safely with me, where they understood he was supposed to be. I said he was, and asleep in bed. My heart was pumping so, I thought the Inspector couldn't help hearing, but my voice sounded all right, and I was encouraged to ask, âWhy? What's it all about?' Only checking up, I thought. Knowing the state he's been in.
âJust wanted to make sure he was safe in your hands,' said the Inspector. âLucky for him! Constable on the beat by his wife's place spotted the side door was ajar about half an hour ago, couldn't rouse anybody with the knocker, so he went in. Found the woman dead in her bedroom â murdered. Glad your man's well out of it. What time did he turn up?'
How fast can you sort out all the pitfalls, and present an impregnable lie, without even knowing you're going to do it? I did it â so far as the circumstances could be reckoned up on the known facts â in half a second flat.
They would easily find out he'd given us the slip this morning. They might find out about the gun, but that could be disposed of, he could have repented and thrown it in the river. Then, my housekeeper knew he was still missing when she went home at something after six. Had he been seen by anyone during the last hour or so before he came to me? There was no way of knowing, I could only make a guess.
How much time could I give back to him without risking a host of witnesses against us? What time had she been killed? Late? Lovers steal in by unlocked side doors only after dark, and after the crowds have gone home from the cinemas.
âAbout ten o'clock,' I said. âNot in very good condition. He's up against a tremendous readjustment, and it's all rather too much for him. I've given him a sedative, and he's dead to the world. Anything I can do?'
âThis won't exactly help the poor devil,' said the Inspector sympathetically.
âYou're right, it won't. Maybe I can keep him from hearing about it for a day or two. Try not to ring me here, in case he's around. Any idea who did it?'
âNo statement yet,' he said, and rang off.
When I put down the telephone I was shaking like a leaf. The gun had gone clean out of my mind, and lay forgotten in the desk drawer all night. I felt sick. I couldn't believe it was myself I'd heard, lying, calculating, obstructing the police, aiding and abetting a possible murderer. I couldn't grasp it. I felt caught like a fly in a web. So that's how these things begin, as smoothly as that, out of pity and rage, out of a sense of an injustice which was certainly not the fault of the law. From whom had Frank Willard received solid help and sympathy, if not from the police and the prison authorities? And yet what I'd done I couldn't for my life have helped doing.
She was dead. She had been murdered.
No use hoping now for a nice, bright, normal morning, the kind that makes midnight fancies contemptible, a bright morning and Eileen Willard passing by, alive and well on the arm of one of her new men. One point in his story was confirmed already; now what, for God's sake, was I to do for him, and for my miserable self? I'd begun something that had to be finished, but to save my life I didn't know how.
I couldn't rest. I prowled about the house until the first light, and then I left Willard still sleeping heavily, and went down into the town. I had to find out more about times and details, in order to know what to say when the inevitable further questions began. Until I knew more I could neither come out with the truth nor go on lying.
The Inspector didn't seem surprised to see me. I suppose some uneasiness on my part was only too natural, since I had the husband in my care.
âWhat are you worrying about,' he said, with a smile that disquieted me horribly, âif your protÃ©gÃ© was tucked up in bed soon after ten?'
âAll very well for you,' I said. âI have to break the news to him sooner or later, and I know how precariously balanced he is. I want to be able to answer all his questions, and get the miserable business over. How do you suppose he's going to react if a couple of uniformed policemen turn up suddenly to interview him, after all he's been through?'
âThat won't be necessary,' he said placidly. âWe won't even ask him to identify the body; she has a brother who can do that.'
With cold sweat crawling down my back I fished doggedly on. âThank goodness for that. I'd hate him to have to view the wreckage. She can't be so pretty now â like that, in her bloodâ'
âWho said anything about blood?' he asked mildly, hoisting an eyebrow. âBut you're right about her not being pretty. Strangled women aren't.'