فصل 04

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Chapter four

Dinner at Fernly

As Parker, the Fernly Park butler, took my coat, Ackroyd’s secretary, a pleasant young man called Geoffrey Raymond, passed through the hall on his way to Ackroyd’s study, with his hands full of business documents.

‘Good evening, Doctor. Coming to dine? Or is this a professional call?’

This referred to my black bag, which I had put down on the oak table. I explained that I expected to be called to deliver a baby at any moment. Raymond went on his way, saying, ‘Go into the drawing room. I’ll tell Mr Ackroyd you’re here.’

I noticed, just as I was turning the handle of the drawing-room door, a sound from inside - like the shutting down of a sash window. As I walked in, Miss Russell, Ackroyd’s housekeeper, was just coming out. What a good-looking woman she was!

‘I’m afraid I’m early,’ I said.

‘Oh! I don’t think so. It’s gone half-past seven, Dr Sheppard. But I must be going. I only came in to see if the flowers were all right.’

She went, and I saw, of course, what I had forgotten - that the windows were long French ones opening on the terrace. So that could not have been the sound I heard.

I noticed the silver table, which displays silver and other valuable items. Its glass top lifts, and inside, as I knew from other visits, were one or two pieces of old silver, a baby shoe which had belonged to King Charles I, and a number of African pieces. Wanting to examine one of the figures more closely, I lifted the lid. It slipped through my fingers and fell. The sound I had heard was this lid being shut down!

I was still bending over the silver table when Flora Ackroyd came in. Nobody can help admiring her. She has pale gold hair, her eyes are the deepest blue, and her skin is the color of cream and roses.

‘Congratulate me, Dr Sheppard,’ said Flora. She held out her left hand. On the third finger was a beautiful single pearl ring. ‘I’m going to marry Ralph. Uncle is very pleased.’

I took both her hands in mine.

‘My dear,’ I said, ‘I hope you’ll be very happy.’

‘We’ve been engaged for about a month,’ continued Flora, ‘but it was only announced yesterday. Uncle is going to do up Cross-stones, and give it to us to live in, and were going to pretend to farm. Really, we shall hunt all the winter and go to London for the season.’

Just then the widowed Mrs Cecil Ackroyd came in. I am sorry to say I cannot stand Mrs Ackroyd. She is all teeth and bones, with small pale blue eyes, and however friendly her words may be, her eyes always remain coldly calculating. Had I heard about Flora’s engagement, she wondered.

Mrs Ackroyd was interrupted as the drawing-room door opened once more.

‘You know Major Blunt, don’t you, Doctor?’

‘Yes, indeed.’

Hector Blunt has shot more wild animals in Africa and India than any man living and every two years he spends a fortnight at Fernly. A man of medium height and well-built, Blunt’s face is deeply suntanned, and strangely expressionless. He is not a man who talks a lot!

He said now, ‘How are you, Sheppard?’ and then stood in front of the fireplace looking over our heads as though he saw something very interesting happening in the far distance.

‘Major Blunt,’ said Flora, ‘Could you tell me about these African things? I’m sure you know what they all are.’

Blunt joined Flora at the silver table and they bent over it together.

Dinner was not a cheerful affair. Ackroyd ate almost nothing and immediately after dinner he took me to his study.

‘Once we’ve had coffee, we won’t be disturbed again,’ he explained. ‘I told Raymond to make sure we won’t be interrupted.’

As Parker entered with the coffee tray, Ackroyd sat down in an armchair in front of the fire.

‘That pain I was getting after eating - it’s back again,’ he said. ‘You must give me some more of those tablets.’

I realized that he wanted to pretend to Parker that our discussion was a medical one. I cooperated. ‘I brought some with me. They’re in my bag in the hall so I’ll go and get them.’

‘Don’t go yourself. Parker, bring in the doctor’s bag, will you?’

‘Very good, sir.’

Parker went out. As I was about to speak, Ackroyd raised his hand.

‘Don’t say anything yet. And make certain that window’s closed, will you?’

I got up and went to it. It was an ordinary sash window. The heavy blue curtains were closed, but the window itself was open at the top.

Parker re-entered with my bag while I was still at the window.

‘That’s done,’ I said as the door closed behind Parker. ‘What’s the matter with you, Ackroyd?’

‘I’m in mental agony,’ he said. ‘Yesterday, Mrs Ferrars told me she poisoned her husband! I want your advice - I don’t know what to do.’

‘Why did Mrs Ferrars tell you this?’

‘Three months ago I asked her to marry me. She said yes, but that I couldn’t announce it until her year of mourning was over. Yesterday I pointed out that a year and three weeks had now passed since her husband’s death. I had noticed that she had been behaving strangely for some days. She - she told me everything. Her hatred of her brutal husband, her growing love for me, and the - the terrible thing she had done. Poison! My goodness! It was murder in cold blood.’

I saw the horror in Ackroyd’s face, just as Mrs Ferrars must have seen it.

‘But Sheppard, it seems that someone knew about the murder and has been blackmailing her for huge sums of money. The strain of that drove her nearly mad.’

‘Who was the man?’

‘She wouldn’t tell me,’ said Ackroyd slowly. ‘She didn’t actually say that it was a man. But…’

‘Of course,’ I agreed. ‘It must have been a man. And you’ve no suspicion at all?’

‘Something she said made me think that the blackmailer might be among my household - but I must have misunderstood her.’

‘What did you say to her?’ I asked.

‘What could I say? By telling me, she made me as guilty as herself, unless I reported her to the police. She made me promise to do nothing for twenty-four hours. I swear to you, Sheppard, that it never entered my head what she was going to do. Suicide! And I drove her to it - she saw the awful shock on my face, the horror of what she’d done. But what am I to do now? The poor lady is dead. Why bring up past trouble? But how am I to get hold of that scoundrel who blackmailed her to her death?’

‘I see,’ I said. ‘The person ought to be punished, but the cost must be understood - her reputation ruined, suspicion that you really might have been her accomplice…’

‘Look here, Sheppard, suppose we leave it like this. If no word comes from her after twenty-four hours, we won’t say anything.’

‘What do you mean by word coming from her?’ I asked curiously.

‘I have the strongest impression that she left a message for me. And I’ve got a feeling that, by choosing death, she wanted the whole thing to come out, if only to get revenge on the man who made her desperate.’

The door opened and the butler, Parker, entered carrying some letters on a silver tray.

‘The evening post, Sir.’ Ackroyd took the letters off the tray, then Parker collected the coffee cups and left quietly.

Ackroyd was staring at a long blue envelope like a man turned to stone.

‘Her writing. She must have posted it last night, just before - before-‘

He tore open the envelope and pulled out a thick letter. Then he looked up sharply. ‘You’re sure you shut the window?’

‘Quite sure.’

‘I’m full of nerves,’ murmured Ackroyd to himself.

He unfolded the thick sheets of paper, and read in a low voice.

‘My very dear Roger, - I killed Ashley and now I must die to pay for that. I saw the horror in your face this afternoon. So I am taking the only road open to me. I leave to you the punishment of the blackmailer who has made my life unbearable. I could not tell you the name this afternoon, but I propose to write it to you now. If you can, my very dear Roger; forgive me…’

Ackroyd paused. ‘Sheppard, I’m sorry, but I must read this alone,’ he said unsteadily. He put the letter in the envelope and laid it on the table. ‘Later, when I am alone.’

For some reason I tried to persuade him. ‘At least, read the name of the blackmailer,’ I said. He refused.

The letter had been brought in at twenty minutes to nine. It was ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread. I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone. I could think of nothing.

As I closed the door behind me I was surprised to see Parker nearby. It occurred to me that he might have been listening at the door.

‘Mr Ackroyd does not want to be disturbed,’ I said coldly. ‘He told me to tell you so.’

The village church clock rang nine o’clock as I passed by the gatekeeper’s cottage at the end of the drive and ten minutes later I was at home once more. It was a quarter past ten when the telephone rang. I picked it up.

‘What?’ I said. ‘What? I’ll come at once.’ I called to Caroline, ‘That was Parker telephoning from Fernly. They’ve just found Roger Ackroyd murdered!’

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