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Our Library => Margery Allingham - Coroner's Pidgin (1945) => Topic started by: Admin on January 31, 2023, 07:33:27 am



Title: Chapter 10
Post by: Admin on January 31, 2023, 07:33:27 am
Mr. CAMPION remained looking into those sunken and watery eyes for some little time. Then he set down his glass.

"Quarrels do occur," he said vaguely; "a plate or two smashed here and there, what does it matter?"

"Oh, it wasn't that sort of quarrel, sir." The old man hesitated. He seemed a little at sea, and Campion lit a cigarette with great care and concentration. The waiter drifted away, played with some crockery on a side table, came half-way back, changed his mind, and shambled to the entrance where, after a brief survey of the weather, he appeared to reach a decision. He came stumbling back to Campion.

"Perhaps I ought not to have mentioned it, sir," he said, fluttering before the table. "It was just a few high words. Not really high, either. Not high at all now I come to think of it."

"About a foot?" enquired Campion with apparent seriousness.

The other man stared at him, dawning suspicion on his crumpled face. "I'm old," he said, "things kind of slip out. They didn't ought to, but I'm not used to London, and well, you might say my old tongue, that runs away with me."

"Where do you come from?" said Campion. "Sudbury?"

The decrepit figure gaped at him. "I wasn't born far from there," he said. "Perhaps I've served you somewhere? Do you recognize me?"

"Only in a general way," murmured his guest. "You're never bored for long, are you?"

"Bored, sir?"

"Gravelled for lack of excitement. Things happen when you're around, and if they don't you help them on."

The old man looked at him steadily, and there was a glint of wicked amusement deep in the faded eyes. He picked up an empty glass and began to polish it.

"That weren't much of a quarrel," he said. "It was what she said to him when she left that made me wonder, especially when I heard she'd been found gorn."

"Gorn?"

"Dead, sir."

"Oh, I see. Well, what did she say when she left?"

The waiter hesitated, apparently not to waste any satisfaction there might be in the situation.

"I wouldn't like to go to the police because of my job, you see," he said.

"What do you think I am?"

The sinful old face cracked into a purely yokel smile.

"Not a policeman, sir," he said. "Quite likely you're as curious as what I am, but like me, you ain't a policeman. I'll tell you what she said. Up here people don't take the notice that we used to in the country; up here it's all mind your own business, and I dessay no one but me realized that when the lady and her husband was talking together on Sunday, they was riled, but I did. They went into his little office and had quite a noise together."

"Noise?"

"Well, a row, sir. At least I think so, because when they came out she was red in the face and nearly crying, and when she left she said: 'Good-bye, then, I can't promise nothing. You don't understand, I can't promise nothing.' Those were her actual words."

Mr. Campion doubted it, but he suspected the sense was correct.

"It made me think," said the waiter, "especially now she's gorn. What couldn't she promise? That's getting on my mind. I'd like to know that." He spoke with such genuine wistfulness that Mr. Campion smiled.

"What's your name?" he enquired.

"I couldn't go to no Court to give evidence."

"I doubt if you'd be asked to."

"I'd say I couldn't remember."

"I'm sure you would."

"Very well, then. Me name's Fred Parker."

"Really." Mr. Campion seemed delighted. "Any--er--nickname?"

Mr. Parker's old eyes narrowed. "No," he said. "No nickname; only Fred. Well, perhaps you'd like your bill, sir? You're paying for the young lady you came in with, are you?"

"It's the custom of the country," agreed Mr. Campion, glancing across the room to where Susan's fair head was drooping a little.

"Yes, so it is, sir," said the aged Fred idiotically. "Let's see; that's the young lady talking to the American officer over there, isn't it? Table Twelve, sir."

He spoke so innocently and with such a show of doddering inefficiency that despite his recent discovery Mr. Campion was almost taken in by the technique.

"That would be the young lady advertised to marry Lord Carados, wouldn't it? A very pretty young lady, if I may say so. I recognized her as soon as she came in; that's why I was so upset when I made the slip I did, sir." He raised his eyes and again the dreadful thirst for entertainment flickered in them.

"Yes. Well, you're a prize specimen," said Campion. "Tell me, do you ever get into serious trouble?"

Old Fred permitted himself an evil chuckle. It was soundless, and involved the display of a dreadful assortment of tooth stumps.

"You will have your joke, sir," he said. "I'm only an old man interested in what I see. I'm very careful who I talk to, very careful."

"I'm glad to hear it." Mr. Campion sounded sincere. "Otherwise even in times like these I should think Mr. Stavros might regret transporting you from the 'Eastern Lion,' or whatever it was."

"The 'Totham Sun,' sir; I was there for years. A very dull place it was compared to this one. No, it's not Mr. Stavros I have to watch out for." Fred was reflective. "No, it's that Mr. Pirri, the other partner. He ain't the person to come up against in a hurry."

Mr. Campion grinned. "Thank you for the tip," he said.

"No, thank you, sir," the old man said, and hurled himself off down the room laughing. When he returned and his client had done what was expected of him, Campion ventured a single question.

"Just to satisfy an academic curiosity, do you know who I am?" he enquired.

Old Fred paused, and the desire to score wrestled visibly with his native caution.

"I did ask about you, sir," he said at last. "As soon as the police gentleman came in I did ask who you was. They told me in the kitchen. The head waiter recognized you; he used to serve you before the war."

"I see. And so you thought I was the person to honour with a few confidences. Dear me, you don't miss much, do you?"

"No, I don't, sir." He took the observation as a tribute. "Very little. Very little indeed. By the way, sir, there's one thing I thought to have told you before; that American gentleman over there, sitting with your young lady guest, sir, he came in asking for you and I took him over to the young lady." The watery glance was fixed hopefully on Campion's face. "I thought it would be all right, sir, because he's been in here with her before, several times." He waited a moment to see the effect of this latest depth charge, and then sidled off with surprising speed.

Campion watched him pause before the two young people at the far table. They came back to earth reluctantly, and turned round. Don came over immediately, Susan following him; they were both apologetic, and both pathetically grateful.

"We had no idea you were back..."

"Have you been here long?"

"I don't know what you'll think of us..."

Susan's natural frankness suddenly asserted itself amid the polite chatter. "You're all right," she said, dropping her hand on his sleeve. "I like you. What have you been doing--digesting?"

"That's a pretty fantasy," said Campion with appreciation. "No, I've been talking to the aged Fred. He's a countryman."

"A hick, is he?" Don was interested. "I thought he couldn't be a natural part of the scenery. He's pretty terrible, in my opinion."

"Not a beautiful thing," Mr. Campion agreed. "Sees himself as the Hand of Fate. He says you were looking for me, Lieutenant."

"He is. He came looking for you but found me instead." Susan was still of an age to blush violently, Campion noticed with interest. "Now, I've got to go. I'm horribly late, I see. Thank you so much, Mr. Campion. I'm afraid I'm a rotten guest, but you're the nicest host I've ever met. I can't tell you how tremendously grateful I am to you."

She paused and stood looking at him, her eyes shining. "I wish I could help," she said impulsively. "There is one thing. Lugg is terribly fond of his pig, Mr. Campion, really terribly fond; I think he'd risk anything for it."

Campion, who had risen to take her hand, looked down at her sharply.

"Oh, would he?" he said. "Thank you, Susan. That's worth knowing."

Don escorted her to the doorway and when he came back he was frowning. "I owe you a debt of gratitude, sir," he said with that transatlantic formality so much more strict than anything in England. "I'm afraid I upset your luncheon party."

"Not at all," said Campion. "The police didn't help it, you know."

Don shook his young head. "It's very disturbing business," he said, "and I'm afraid you'll think the request I'm going to make rather flippant in the circumstances. As a matter of fact I hardly know how to approach you, but I just want to ask you to join me at a very special little party here tonight."

Mr. Campion, who had envisaged many requests, but not this one, appeared both gratified and surprised. Don forestalled his polite murmur.

"I guess I'd better explain," he said. "I believe we have a mutual friend in Mr. Theodore Bush."

Campion sighed. It was not his beaux yeux after all. "Yes," he said. "I saw him here as a matter of fact about an hour and a half ago."

"I know you did. He phoned me as soon as he left here and told me to come right along and not take no for an answer." Don was looking both gloomy and preoccupied. "I'm afraid the whole thing sounds crazy to you with so much serious business going on all around," he went on. "It does to me, but quite apart from the real business abroad a whole series of silly little things, some of them pretty serious and some of them pretty small, seem to be happening in this town at top speed."

Campion smiled at him from behind his spectacles. "I know," he said. "I've not been back for twenty-four hours yet, but already I've noticed a certain March-hare quality; a sinister March hare, if I may say so, about the old home. It's very odd. Rather alarming."

"Oh, so it's not always like this?" Don appeared relieved to hear it.

"Not at such speed," said Mr. Campion cautiously. "All the same, I'd like to come to the party. What is Theo up to? Not brewing his own, I hope?"

"No, I don't think it's come to that yet." Don was laughing. "Mr. Bush takes his liquor seriously," he said, "and that's how I come into the story. You see, my father is Richard Caxton Evers."

"Is he, by Jove." Mr. Campion's expression became intelligent. "He's Theo's only serious rival in the civilized world, I believe. They run neck and neck, don't they, for the ultimate arch-connoisseur stakes?"

"I don't know if Dad would concede that," said Don, grinning. "He certainly has a healthy respect for Mr. Bush's opinions. I don't know a thing about wine myself; I imagine our lot feels it has something else to worry about, but I've gotten myself mixed up in it at the moment. I'll tell you. The man who keeps this place is a little guy called Stavros and he sold me a case of Burgundy; at least, he sold me a couple of bottles and told me he could get me three dozen if I wanted it. He wasn't actually exorbitant as things go over here now, yet it was clear that we were dealing in something pretty special."

Mr. Campion nodded to show intelligence, and the boy continued.

"It's a very ordinary story," he said, "so far. Here's where it takes a new turn. Although I'm the complete novice where wine is concerned I have been brought up by my old man, and I realized that if this bottle was half as good as Stavros said it was, then some sort of homage was due to it." He glanced up and his eyes were shy and amused. Campion began to like him. "I did what I thought I ought to," said the Lieutenant. "I took up an option on the three cases and I told Stavros to put the two bottles by for me, since I knew this spot of leave was due, and meanwhile I'd mentioned it in my letter home. It was something I could tell Dad which couldn't worry the censor."

"Was your father interested?"

"Interested? He sent me a cable. It was something like this: 'Contact Theodore Bush concerning bottle you hold stop if genuine which unlikely most remarkable stop Bush reliable judgment second to mine if he recommends expense immaterial and congratulations stop wish I were with you.'" Don broke off laughing. "He's a grand old enthusiast," he said, "but he's not usually so excited. I got in touch with Bush at once and he was even more het up; in fact, he went off the deep end and set about making a little 'do' of it. I feel I've produced the elixir of life, or something. We're meeting in a room upstairs at half after seven."

"What fun," said Mr. Campion. "Dear me, this is the first remotely jolly story I've heard since I got home. What are the magic words on the label?"

"Ah, this is where it gets mysterious," said Don, "or at least, I think so. It's a Vosne dated 1904, and it's called 'Les Enfants Doux.'"

Mr. Campion looked blank. "I haven't my snob book by me," he said, "but the year is classic. Frankly I've never heard of the vineyard. Who are the shippers?"

"None mentioned." Don was apologetic. "And they may be The Old Minoan Bathtub Company, so I warn you. I've never heard of Les Enfants either; it's not in any of the books and I asked a very decent firm of wine merchants about it and they'd never heard of it. But Dad has, you see, and so has Bush, and they ought to know."

"Oh Lord, yes, they know," said Campion, "and the great moment is tonight, is it? I'm tremendously flattered and all that, but with all due deference why do I get asked?"

Don looked at him helplessly. "Frankly, I don't know," he said, "but I'll certainly be very glad to have you come."

"That's very handsome of you," said Campion sincerely. "Who are the party? You, me, and Theo?"

"Well, no, unfortunately." Don was growing visibly more and more embarrassed. "You see it began by Mr. Bush arranging that he and I should investigate alone; then he felt we ought to have another expert whose name I forget, and just now he told me that he'd got hold of Carados, and that I was to use every wile I could think of to get you to be present also."

"My poor chap," said Mr. Campion with genuine sympathy. "Do you want to entertain all these strangers?"

The young soldier passed his hand over his fair hair. "Well, that's another awkward angle," he said. "In the beginning it was definitely my party, but since then Mr. Bush has sort of appropriated it. I protested, but he wouldn't take 'no' for an answer; yet he insisted that I should ask you. It's all a little peculiar, but since Dad put me on to him... you see?"

"Exactly," agreed Mr. Campion. "Odder and odder. This isn't like Theo, you know. He's up to something."

"I wondered," the boy said. "He seemed a rather formal person when I first met him. I wouldn't expect him to be so unorthodox."

"No," said Campion, "nor would I. No, this is something interesting. You can't remember who the other expert is, can you? You see, neither Johnny nor myself could qualify as judges."

Don shook his head. "I'm sorry, I can't," he said. "He was some notability, but the name's gone clean out of my mind. You know Carados then?"

"Yes," said Mr. Campion, adding presently, "you'll find his inclusion a little awkward, won't you?"

"Awkward? You're telling me." The cry was heartfelt and the young man sat silent for some moments. "I don't know how great a friend of Susan's you are," he said at last, "I'm afraid we weren't talking about you just now."

"Er--no," murmured Mr. Campion. "No, I don't suppose you were."

The boy smiled at him briefly and hurried on. "I had a letter from her this morning written after I saw her yesterday and it knocked me endways. She said I wasn't to see her again; she'd made up her mind to go through with this marriage. I spent the morning fooling around wondering what I'd better do when old man Bush, whom I'd forgotten, telephoned me at the hotel and told me to come here to find you. He happened to mention that you were with Susan--I came."

The statement was in the nature of a confession and Mr. Campion acknowledged it gracefully. "I trust things are more satisfactory now," he ventured.

"I don't know." Don was dubious, but game. "The wedding is postponed anyway, which is something. I'm not lying down until I've got to. Susan has a darned good reason for her present attitude, unfortunately. I don't like it, naturally, but I do see what she means. She's a sweet kid, one in a million."

Mr. Campion liked his attitude and wished him luck. Aloud, he said casually:

"You met her through Eve Snow, didn't you?"

"Uh-huh. Only three weeks ago. Gwenda Onyer introduced me to Eve and Eve introduced me to Susan all in one evening. After that--well, you know how these things happen."

Mr. Campion did indeed, but he did not say so. He was frowning. "Eve didn't put you on to Gwenda?"

"No, the other way round. I got to know Mrs. Onyer when I first came over here through some friends of my mother's. Do you know her?"

"Not well."

"She's a queer woman, or at least I thought so. She didn't take any notice of me when I first met her, and I thought she'd forgotten me. But quite three months after she suddenly hunted me up and carried me off to meet Eve Snow at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. I've never ceased to be grateful to her, because after that I got invited to the supper party here at which I met Susan."

"I see," said Mr. Campion slowly as he studied the tablecloth. "I see... Good Lord!"

The exclamation escaped him involuntarily, and both men sprang to their feet as the room was filled with angry noise. A service door had burst open and through it hurtled two shouting figures. The first was a stranger; he came backing in, his lanky figure, clad in disreputable grey trousers and a sweater, looking out of place in the elegant dining-room. Stavros followed him, apparently with intent to kill; his arm was raised, his face white with fury, and his small eyes blazing. They were bellowing at each other in several different languages, and the din was increased by the excited chatter of the staff in the passage behind them. Through the swinging doors, Campion caught a glimpse of blue uniforms as the police struggled to get by in the narrow way.

"Look out, he's got a knife," said Don, and plunged forward just as Stavros's victim turned to fly. In his alarm the man caught his foot in a tablecloth and brought down a mass of silver and glass across his path. He stumbled over the debris and fell sprawling. Stavros must have been upon him in a moment, had it not been for Don who caught him, and stripping the knife from his hand sent it spinning across the room.

Meanwhile Campion had collared the stranger, and, by the time a very angry Holly with a detective sergeant and constable behind him came striding up, the enemies were both on their feet facing one another, each held firmly by experienced captors. As soon as he was disarmed, the rage died out of Stavros. He stood drooping, his face grey and his shoulders limp.

"That settles it," said Holly to Stavros. "You're under arrest, and about time too."

"I don't charge him." The man in the sweater drew himself away from Campion and began hitching his clothes into position. "I don't charge him," he said. "We were having a friendly argument on our own premises; you can't do anything. I don't charge him."

He had an unexpected voice, very high and shrill, incongruous in one of his appearance; but there was nothing absurd in his argument, and Holly was discomfited.

"Do you always have your friendly arguments with knives?" he enquired.

"Sometimes we do," said the man in a sweater, in his high belligerent voice. "Why not? That's all right if we don't use them. There's no wound on me, is there? You can't touch him if I don't charge him, and I don't."

At this point it occurred to Mr. Campion that they must be dealing with the redoubtable Mr. Pirri.

"You must frighten each other occasionally, I suppose?" he suggested mildly.

Pirri swung round to look at him and saw him clearly for the first time during the incident. He stood staring, and his brown eyes widened visibly. Mr. Campion was taken aback himself. Although it is not possible to identify positively any man of whom one has seen no more than a single eye, and that reflected in the driving mirror of a taxi-cab, yet one may still entertain very powerful suspicions. The more he thought of it the more certain he was that here was his assailant of the evening before. He remained silent, and Pirri turned on Stavros.

"Who is this?" he demanded.

"An old customer," said Stavros dully, "a good old customer."

Pirri stared at Campion again, his expression frankly incredulous. Finally he shrugged his shoulders and walked back the way he had come. In the doorway he paused, and addressed Holly:

"I don't make any charge," he said firmly. "No charge whatever."

He went on in to the back of the house, and at a nod from Holly the detective sergeant closed on Stavros. "I'm afraid you'll have to come with me and do what we've got to do," he said. Stavros nodded; he looked broken and exhausted. "I'll come," he said.

Holly let the little procession pass out of the room before he went over to Campion and Don Evers. "These damned foreigners," he said. "We're trying to get this chap to go down and identify his wife, and on the way he suddenly sees his partner and makes a murderous assault on him. Then the partner won't prefer a charge. They're all alike; utterly unbalanced."

"Maybe he suspects his partner of having something to do with the death of his wife," said Don.

"Might be that." Holly was noncommittal. "He just saw him and rushed at him, and now the partner seems to suggest he often did it."

Mr. Campion nodded to Holly and took Don's arm.

"I think you know..." he murmured.

"I'm with you," agreed the young man promptly, and they went out into the cold sunshine together. "I suppose that all meant something to you," said Don diffidently, as they walked down the narrow road. "Being uninitiated I just get the impression that everyone's gone clean crazy around here."

"Not everyone," said Mr. Campion seriously. "Not everyone, but someone has, you know; someone has, and I'm open to bet it's not our friend Stavros."