At Death’s Door
THE LIFE OF EMILY PURVICE
At eight o’clock that evening Carolus drove up Railway Road, Poplar. It was a long street and its yellow houses varied in no detail from end to end, being just large enough to have a bay window apiece and some ornamental masonry round the front door. Gaggles of children swarmed its pavements. The last red light of the midsummer sun struck luridly across it.
History in the making, thought Carolus, but then what wasn’t. These little girls would become Marcias or Emily Purvices in due course, perhaps; these noisy small boys were the Jimmy Drews and Rupert Priggleys of tomorrow. An unoriginal but a solemn thought.
His usually rather conspicuous motor car attracted little attention. It seemed that Railway Road was accustomed to the site of expensive vehicles. He parked it between a nameless lorry and a game of hopscotch and banged the knocker of Number 149
It was not the door of this house, however, which was opened but the identical one of Number 147, next door. A thin woman looked at him.
“She’s gone out. She won’t be back till eleven,” said this person, beginning in media res, as it were.
“Oh, thank you,” said Carolus.
“She’s not often in at this time,” continued the woman. She sounded slightly resentful but anxious not to let the conversation drop. “She goes out about seven, usually.”
“Was it about her husband?” asked the woman.
“No. I wanted to see Mrs. Millen.”
“Well, she’ll be back at eleven, or soon after. She wasn’t expecting you, was she?”
“No, she wasn’t.”
“I was going to say. If she was expecting you it’s different. She usually Leaves Word.”
“No, she wasn’t expecting me.” Carolus felt that a certain amount of repetition in dialogue like this was precisely comme il faut.
“I mean, if it’s about her husband I’ll tell her when she comes in.”
“It isn’t. I wanted to see Mrs. Millen.”
“I could tell you where you’ll find her,” said the woman, “only she might not like it.”
“If it was anything urgent, I know where she is. Only she didn’t Leave Word. She’s very funny about anything like that. Very funny. I don’t like to say anything or I might be wrong.”
“Yes. I understand.”
“Still, if it’s important, it’s different. She’s round at the Bricklayers’. In the Saloon. At least, that’s where she usually goes in the evening. Has done ever since I’ve known her, anyway.”
“Thank you very much. Only I’m afraid I don’t even know Mrs. Millen by sight.”
“Short party. Heavy built. You can’t mistake her. Nearly always smiling, well, unless she turns nasty, which isn’t often I must say.
“You don’t happen to know what she’s wearing?”
I don’t. Unless it’s her Green. It can’t be her Blue because she had it out on the line today. Yes, it must be her Green. You can’t mistake her. Generally has stout and mild. Well, she can afford it. You could always ask the landlord but there’s no need. You’ll see her there. You can’t mistake her.
“I’m awfully grateful to you.”
“That’s all right. The Bricklayers’. Down at the corner. Saloon bar. You can’t mistake her.
“Thank you. Thank you,” cried Carolus desperately, making for the car.
The landlord’ll tell you. But you can’t mistake her.
He pressed the starter.
“Just down at the corner. Stout party. Heavy made. You can’t . . .”
Carolus drove away. But the woman’s prediction was correct. He did not, could not mistake Mrs. Millen as she sat in the Saloon Bar of the Bricklayers’ Arms. Start party, heavy built. Wearing her Green. He approached her at once.
“Mrs. Millen?” he asked.
“I was told I might find you here.”
“I’d like to know who told you.” This was said with only mild belligerence.
Carolus decided to avoid the point and proceeded at once to more relevant matters.
“I came up to town in the hope of having a chat with you,” he said. “From Newminster.”
“Oh yes,” said Mrs. Millen guardedly. “Are you from the police.”
“I mean, I’ve read about it. I thought you might be from the police.”
“No. I’m just interested.” It sounded rather feeble. “Mrs. Polling—the fruit shop next to your sister-in-law’s––gave me your address. I thought you might be able to help me. I’m trying to find out who killed Emily Purvice.”
“Why do you want to know?”
That seems a difficult question to answer. Carolus mumbled something about citizens’ duties or murder not going unavenged.
“Well, if you ask me,” said Mrs. Millen, pointedly putting down an empty glass, “if you ask me I’d say that whoever did her in was doing a public service. That’s what I’d say.”
“There was a policeman killed, too.”
“Well, that makes one less of them,” said Mrs. Millen savagely. She drank from the pint which Carolus had brought her. “Still,” she said, refreshed, “if there is anything I can tell you I’d only be too glad, I’m sure. Your coming all this way and that.”
“I’d like to hear anything you know about Emily Purvice.”
“Anything I know? It would take a week to tell you half I know. I’ve known Emily Purvice for thirty years on and off––chiefly off. I knew her before she married my poor brother, in fact, and what he ever did that for I don’t know. I can tell you her story and a bit more besides. No, it’s my turn. You have one with me.
“Emily Purvice was always a little humpy thing even when she was a girl. East Ham she came from and they say she used to lend the other children money when she was at school and if they couldn’t pay her back she’d tell them how they could get it and take it off them before they got into trouble for what they’d done. I’ve heard lots of stories about her in those days. A nasty scheming little thing from all accounts and never a smile or a kind word. Nobody liked her. Nobody ever has.”
Carolus considered the last six words. Was it possible that a human being could pass her whole life among other human beings and at the end of it earn that as her only true epitaph? ‘Nobody liked her. Nobody ever has.’
“Not even your brother?” he asked.
“I’m coming to that. We never knew what made him do it but we were more than half sure at the time that he was in trouble and she found out about it and made him marry her to save himself from going to prison. He was a good-natured fellow, my poor brother. She gave him a life, I can tell you. Twenty years they were married until he got the gout so bad he couldn’t work in the shop or anywhere else and she Put Something in his tea. Yes, I will have another. Stout and mild it is.”
“You were saying,” said Carolus chattily as he returned with the drinks. “You were saying that your sister-in-law poisoned her husband.”
“Of course she did. What else could it have been? A great strong healthy fellow like Fred. I told the police, at the time. ‘You cut him up,’ I said, ‘and you’ll soon see.’ Full of poison he must have been. But they wouldn’t do it. They said I had no evidence. I had all the evidence I wanted and I told them so. But you know what they are. Always round when you don’t want them and nowhere in sight when you do. I hate the police!” ended Mrs. Millen ferociously.
“There ought to have been a little money when Fred died but if there was I never saw anything of it. She was money mad. Always had been. And where has it got her? That’s what I want to know. What will happen to it now?
“I understand that no Will has been found,” said Carolus, deciding to take this question literally. “I presume the son will inherit.”
“Yes, if they don’t hang him first. I suppose he killed her, didn’t he? It’s my turn. How about a drop of short? Well, I will.”
“We don’t know who killed Mrs. Purvice yet, but Dick Purvice is certainly one of the suspects.”
“I should think so. He’s never been any good. Too much of his mother in him. What else can I tell you about her? Only the way she had of getting other people into trouble. All her life she’s done that. Shewn others how they could do things she wouldn’t take the chance of doing herself. If anyone owed her anything she’d tell him where he could thieve it then take it off him and perhaps give him away to the police for what he’d done. You can’t do much worse than that, can you? No wonder she never had a friend.”
“She certainly seems to have been a lonely woman.”
“She always had some sort of little shop. Sweets and tobacco, it was once, then when she went down to Newminster twenty-five years ago she went into the fancy goods. But she never seemed to worry much about the business. That was a blind, we used to say. She was up to her tricks on the side. People coming and going. My poor brother scarcely knew what was going on half the time.
“What more can I tell you? I don’t think she had any family. I never heard of any. You can’t really imagine it, can you? I was ever so surprised when Dick was born. You can’t seem to believe it, really, her being a mother, I mean. And look how he’s turned out. You can’t expect different. Now he’s done for her and I don’t know who’s to blame most. Yes, I will have a last one. Same again, I think.
“There’s one thing though. She was In With the police down there. I can tell you that. How do I know? Well, you can believe your own eyes. I’ve seen her talking to them. Thick with them, she was. It paid her to be, I suppose, only you can see what it’s done for her now. She was what they call round here a nark when it paid to be. Give anyone away, she would. Has done, scores of times.”
“Are you sure of that?” asked Carolus.
“I wouldn’t be telling you if I wasn’t. I knew that Emily Purvice, didn’t I? There’s nothing she wouldn’t stoop to—even talking to policemen. She’s always been the same. Run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. There’s lots of them, you know. The police give them so much rope and as long as they don’t fall out all’s well. Cunning? You wouldn’t know what cunning was unless you knew Emily Purvice. Well, we must have one for the road, must we? No, it’s my turn again. You sit still.
“I hope I’ve told you what you wanted to know.”
“You’ve given the most valuable information,” said Carolus.
“That’s good, then. Glad to be of help. Though why anyone should bother to find out who killed her I can’t think. Fancy you coming all this way to ask me, too. However did you know where I was?”
“Mrs. Polling gave me your address, as I told you.”
“Oh yes. She was a very good soul. She’d never have had anything to do with putting Emily Purvice out of the way however she was tempted. He’s a caution, isn’t he? Proper funeral till he’s had one or two, then you should see him! Dancing round the bar like a two year old!”
“Really?” gasped Carolus. Some of Mrs. Millen’s information seemed a little highly coloured. Try as he might he could not bring himself to picture the melancholy Mr. Polling dancing round the bar.
“He’s a character,” confirmed Mrs. Millen, chuckling with happy memories. “You wouldn’t know him sometimes. But they’re a decent couple. I suppose the police have been on to them over this business, haven’t they? Bound to, being next door. Always behind with the rent. So it was her told you where I lived? Well, I never. And how did you know I came in here sometimes?”
“I knocked at your door and no one answered. Then the lady next door was kind enough . . .”
“Oh it was her, was it? I thought as much. She can’t mind her own business.”
“It was really very kind of her,” said Carolus loyally.
“You don’t know her like I do. Still, I’m glad you came round. Well, this must be the last. Thanks ever so much. If there’s anything else you want to know about Emily Purvice you know where to find me. I’m out all day, though. I work at the Co-op. I expect I shall be in the papers when they arrest anyone. It’s sure to be that son of hers. Well, ta-ta, then. Mind how you go. Pleased to have met you. Cheerio.”
Carolus came out into the fresh air of the June night well content. Research, he reflected, could take one into strange places and curious company. He was, he decided, thoroughly enjoying himself.
As he drove home he thought of the ugly life of family Purvice which had ended in an even uglier death. ‘Always a little humpy thing’ practising her petty usury as a schoolgirl and giving her life to the meaningless and joyless accumulation of money. Marriage apparently she had only achieved by blackmail and her son was not even a successful or a dashing criminal but a petty thief serving small sentences for mean crimes. ‘She always had some sort of a little shop’––he could picture that. Poky back rooms in which her ‘business’ was done to a smell of cooking, places to which the most disreputable of her business associates could come without calling attention to themselves. Carolus thought of other shops like that he had known in which one always seemed to interrupt a whispered conference across the counter and the shopkeeper’s unwilling ‘Yes?’ to a customer shewed his impatience to return to more interesting and probably more profitable dealings. He could see this Emily Purvice in her chosen setting and it was not a pleasant thing to contemplate.
Then that night––the man or woman admitted and the sudden brutal attack. She had not, apparently, succumbed at once, this crooked creature in her sixties, but filled with a jealous and malignant will to live had survived the first blow. Surely her murder had been prompted by hatred or revenge; otherwise why that terrible battering long after life was extinct?
Horrible. A horrible life and death. Yet how interesting. Emily Purvice would have been worth study in life and in death she was no less so.