At Death’s Door, Chapter Seventeen

At Death’s Door 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
   
MRS. POLLING BREAKS DOWN

“Looks as though you’re finding it not quite such a picnic as you supposed,” suggested Rupert.  “Have you been right through your list.”
“All but Dick Purvice.  I must wait for the police to find him, I suppose.  Otherwise I’ve seen everyone.”
“And they won’t talk, huh?”
“The trouble is they talk too much.  I tumble over one another to talk.  Even Marcia Bailey and Jane Limbrick now.  Nobody has a single secret from me, I’m given to understand.  And I still haven’t a notion who killed Emily Purvice and Jack Slapper.”
“Awkward.  I think you’d better get cracking though, sir.  I mean the betting’s pretty heavy in school.  It would be a horrible let-down if the police got in first.”
“They probably will.”
“Is there anyone else you can question?”
“The only one who has not told me anything is Jimmy Drew.  It’s a waste of time talking to him.”
“Unless you know enough to prise him open.  You’ve done that with Colbeck and the two pet-shop women.”
“There’s only one way to do that.  Let’s go and see the Pollings again.”
“That heavenly woman who talks like a mad thing!”
“Not such a mad thing.  So far she has succeeded in talking round, and under, and over and beyond the truth extremely well.”
“You must be firm, you know.  The instrument of justice.  The hard-faced investigator.”
Carolus smiled.
“I’ll try,” he said.
They found Mrs. Polling alone, arranging the flowers in her shop window to conceal the more wilting petals.
“Mr. Polling’s just slipped out,” she announced.  He won’t be long.  What can I get you?  Lovely day, isn’t it?  I said to Mr. Polling this morning, I said if the weather goes on like this it will be a record. . . .”
“Mrs. Polling, I haven’t come to buy anything, I’m afraid.  I’ve come on very serious business.”
Her face grew drawn and lined.
“Oh dear, whatever is it now?  I thought we’d had enough with the bad time we’ve been through and all that nasty business next-door.  I’m sure we’ve never wanted anything but . . .”
“You distinctly told me that although you were acquainted with Mrs. Drew you didn’t have anything to do with her son.”
“Well, who would want to?  He broke his mum’s heart, that’s what he’s done, getting himself sent to prison and being a disgrace in the town.  I’m sure we’d never wish . . .”
“Yet on the evening of the murders he called here and was admitted.”
“Whoever told you that?  What a thing to say about anyone!  I’m really surprised that a gentleman like you should ask me such a question!”
“I haven’t asked you any question.  I’ve recalled to your memory the fact that young Drew came to see you, leaving the dance in the Town Hall to do so.  Later he came back.”
“I don’t know what to say, I’m sure.  We . . .”
“The truth, I suggest, Mrs. Polling.”
“Haven’t I told the truth?  What with you and the police on at me with questions I scarcely know where I am sometimes.  You can’t always remember everything, can you?”
“What did he want?  The first time, I mean?”
The doubt and distress evident in Mrs. Polling had now become painful to see, but just then she had a moment’s relief because a small girl entered the shop.
“Hello, Mavis dear, how’s mum?  That’s right.  You tell her to get plenty of fresh air—that’s what she wants.  Tomatoes, dear?  Yes.  I wonder what mum wants them for?  She better have the best, then we know it’s all right.  Beauties, these are, tell mum.  Careful now, don’t squash them, there’s a good girl.  You run straight home.  That’s it!”
Mrs. Polling opened the shop door for the small customer whose serious little face scarcely changed expression during this gushing monologue.  The child did not look back or smile but clutching her paper bag hurried down the pavement.
“I was asking you,” said Carolus relentlessly, “what young Drew wanted when he came here the first time that evening.”
“Only just looked in with a message from his mum.  She’s never been well, poor soul, since her husband died and what with the trouble young Jim’s been to her . . .”
“What was the message?”
“Nothing really.  A little fruit we let her have sometimes.  A few grapes are the only things she fancies when she has one of her bad turns and Mr. Polling and me have always tried to help anyone when we could, though goodness knows it’s hard enough to keep things going.”
“Did he take any grapes with him?”
“No.  We hadn’t got any.  He just popped in to say that his mum was bad again and could we let her have a few and I said I was sorry we couldn’t.”
“That was at about eleven o’clock.  Why did he come back when the dance was finished?”
Mrs. Polling looked desperately through the flowers and between the boxes in her shop window as though praying that relief might come again.  But the few passers-by in Market Street seemed bent on business unconnected with fruit or vegetables.  Then, just as she was going to face Carolus, a woman entered and looked surprised at the warmth with which Mrs. Polling greeted her.
“Hello, Mrs. Bishop!” she exclaimed.  “Well, this is a surprise!  I thought you were going out to Australia?”  She gave the woman opportunity to do no more than shake her head.  “Well, perhaps it’s best after all.  You never know with those places, do you?  Some say they’re all right and others tell you you’d have done better to have stayed at home.  Potatoes?  Have you got anything to put them in?  There.  Nice today, aren’t theyy?”  The woman was walking resolutely towards the door and Mrs. Polling took a step or two in pursuit.  “We shall see you Sunday, I suppose?  Yes, at the eleven o’clock.  Mr. Polling will be back in a minute.  You may meet him as you go down the road.  Good-bye for now, then.  Glad to see you about again.”
Nothing could delay Mrs. Bishop and moment more and the shop door was soon closed behind her.
“You were just going to tell me why young Drew came back when the dance was finished,” Carolus reminded Mrs. Polling.
“Come back?  Come back here, you mean?  Never.  I should have seen him.”
“You did see him, Mrs. Polling.  You went to the door of the shop and let him in.”
“Whatever do you mean?  Me let young Jimmy in here after midnight when I was alone?  It’s more than I would dare do, knowing what he is.  I think you’d better come back here when Mr. Polling’s in.  Saying such things to anyone.”
“Perhaps you don’t quite realise how serious this is, Mrs. Polling.  For Drew and for you.”
“He never done it, if that’s what you mean.  He may have been a bad boy but it wasn’t young Jimmy who killed Emily Purvice, and it’s no good your trying to make out it was.”
“How do you know?”
“He couldn’t have done.  It wasn’t in him.  Besides . . .”
“Yes?”
“Well, it wasn’t him, that’s all.  Whatever do you keep on at me for?  Can’t anyone have who they like to see them without a lot of questions as if they committed a crime?  If I was to drop dead I should say the same; it wasn’t young Drew killed Emily Purvice, Nor Constable Slapper either, for that matter.”
“Mrs. Polling, I am not a policeman and I have no right to expect you to give me information which you want to withhold.  But I must point out that when the police know that Drew came here at eleven o’clock that night and again at half-past twelve it is going to be very serious for both him and you.  If, as you say, he did not kill Emily Purvice hs best hope is for me or the police to find out who did.”
“Well, why don’t you, then, instead of keeping all on at me till I don’t know whether I’m standing or sitting?”
“Because it’s not easy to find out anything when I’m not told the truth.  Now, this Mrs. Polling, why did Jimmy Drew come and see you twice that evening?”
“I’ve told you, his mum . . .”
“Oh very well.  We will leave it at that, Mrs. Polling.
“If there was anything else I could tell you I’m sure I’d only be too glad.”
“Would you?  You’d tell me, for instance, that young Drew came here that evening with the express intention of breaking into Mrs. Purvice’s shop?”
“Well, if you know, what do you want to ask me for?  You never give anyone a moment’s peace.  I said to Mr. Polling last night, I said, since this has happened we never seem to get a moment to ourselves.”
“You knew that Drew meant to rob Purvice’s shop?”
“I never said anything of the sort.  He just wanted to have a peep out the back, if you must know.”
“Why?”
“However should I know?  He’s not called on to tell everyone what he does, is he?”
“Aren’t we wasting rather a lot of time, Mrs. Polling?  Young Drew left the dance to come here and make certain arrangements.  At half-past twelve that night he returned.  That evening he expressed his intention of breaking into the shop.  Hadn’t you better tell me what you know about it?”
“Well, can you wonder, when she was going to turn us out next day?  I’d never thought such a thing in my life and as for Mr. Polling—well.  But it was the night that both Mr. Polling and Mrs. Purvice went to the Spiritualist’s . . .”
“What?” Carolus almost shouted, so astonished was he by the sudden, and holy unexpected, remark.
“Yes.  Didn’t you know about that?  You don’t know everything, you see.  It’s the last Tuesday in every month.  She goes up to Mrs. Grove’s in Bidlake Street.  There’s about a dozen of them go and I’m sorry to say Mr. Polling’s one of them.  It’s the only thing we differ on.  A rare old set-out it is too, from all accounts.  Table turning and wrapping and voices and that.  Mrs. Purvice was very keen.  Oh, very keen, she was.  It was about the only thing she did take an interest in besides her business.”
“And she was going to this meeting on that night?”
“Must have been.  Mr. Polling was going.  It was the night she went, regular every month.  The last Tuesday.  She wouldn’t miss it.”
“What time?”
“Ever so late, it was.  I used to see her going off about ten.  Sometimes she’n Mr. Polling would walk up there together.  Then back at all hours of the morning.  It was the only time she did go out anywhere except just to the bank or shops round about here in the daytime.”
“It seems an odd time to go to a meeting.”
“You can’t call it a meeting, not like going to chapel.  Mr. Colbeck always told me it was more jiggery-pokery than anything else.  There’s some real Spiritualist’s in the town—one of our customers belongs to it and a nice serious person she is who would never go in for all this rapping and thumping.  My opinion is that this Mrs. Grove did it late at night to make it seem more spooky.  At any rate that was the time they went to her house.”
“And young Drew knew this?”
“Of course he did.  That was the first thing he said.  ‘She’ll be out tonight,’ he said.  Up at Mrs. Groveses.’ ”
“So he intended to rob the shop while she was out?”
“Well, just to see if there was anything lying about.  I’m not saying it wasn’t wrong but with us being turned out and that. . . .  Of course, Mr. Polling didn’t know anything about it.”
“Drew broke in from your backyard?”
“No he never.  That’s what I’m coming to.  He came round at eleven or so and asked if he might have a look out the back.  Then he said no one would ever know he had come through the shop because he might have got over the wall.  All he asked was that I should let him in presently.  Of course I know very well I ought never to have done it but . . . and what Mr. Polling would have said if he’d been there I can’t think.”
“You say he didn’t break in?”
“No.  I let him pop out into the yard.  Well, there was no harm in that, was there?  I mean it’s our yard, after all.  Time?  I daresay it was getting on for one.  Some while after the dance finished, anyway.  I waited in the back room of the shop and he wasn’t gone ten minutes.  He came back as white as a sheet.  ‘Whatever is the matter?’ I asked him.  ‘Nothing,’ he said.  ‘But you keep quite,’ he said.  ‘I haven’t been here, remember.  You haven’t seen me tonight,’ he said.  He was in a state.  I’ve never seen anyone so upset.  ‘What’s happened?’ I asked him.  ‘I’ve seen something,’ he said.  ‘Never mind now.  You best go to bed and remember I haven’t been here.’  I had a look in the street and when I said there was no one about young Jimmy went off.”
“How was he going to get into Mrs. Purvice’s?”
“By the little window of her back room which looks on to the yard.  Now I’ve told you everything and I hope you’re satisfied.  You’re not going to go running off to the police with what I’ve been telling you, are you?”
“If all this is true, Mrs. Polling, Drew was not the murderer.  I am only interested in finding out who killed Emily Purvice and the constable.  If I can manage to do that with out making your part in the events of that night I will do so.”
“Well, I hope you do, that’s all.  I’m sure I don’t want any more trouble especially as young Jim never done it all broke in or anything else when it came to it.  What his mum would say I don’t know if she was to find out that he was up to any mischief again.”
“Have you seen Drew since that night?”
“Not to speak to, I haven’t, though Mr. Polling ran into him one evening in the Duke and all he done was to ask if I said anything.  I had to tell Mr. Polling about it by that time and he said of course I hadn’t and I wouldn’t have done better if you hadn’t of found out about him meaning to break in in coming to see me and that.  Still I’m not sorry now to have told someone because it’s been on my mind something wicked.”
“Will you assure me that you do not know what it was that turned Drew back that night and made him as you say go ‘white as a sheet’?”
“Well, I’ve guessed since, of course.  But he didn’t say at the time and you may be sure I never went out into the yard again that night.  The back door was locked and I went up at once.  It was next morning before I heard about the murders.”
“And Mr. Polling?  He was out that night, wasn’t he?  What time was it when he came back from Mrs. Grove’s?”
“Oh, I couldn’t say, I’m sure.  I only half woke up when he came in and he’d never notice the time, not if he was standing under a church clock.”
“Did he pass anyone he knew?”
“I’ve asked him since and he says he never saw a soul.  He walked part of the way with Mrs. Pinks, a Daily Help who goes to these meetings, too, and never saw anyone all the way back.  He’d have told me if he had of done.”
Carolus took his leave.