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Our Library => Margery Allingham - Coroner's Pidgin (1945) => Topic started by: Admin on January 31, 2023, 11:05:19 am



Title: Chapter 12
Post by: Admin on January 31, 2023, 11:05:19 am
WHEN Mr. Campion walked into the Minoan that evening the first person he saw, sitting demurely at a table by himself, was his uncle, the Bishop of Devizes. Mr. Campion's mother, who had ever been a warrior, not to say a whole panzer division of the Church Militant, had used in her lifetime to speak resentfully of her brother-in-law. She said he was both timid and obstinate, yet in her own domain he was definitely known to be neither. He was a tiny person, soft-voiced and gentle, with the bluest eyes seen out of Scandinavia; but it was typical of him that at that moment it was not he, but the Minoan, which appeared a little out of place.

When Campion presented himself, he was delighted.

"My dear boy," he said, when the preliminary greetings were complete. "How very pleasant to see you here. I was afraid I was hardly going to see a face I knew this evening; it must be ten years since I ate outside my own Club when visiting London. This place looks very clean."

It was a most kindly meant observation, but Mr. Campion felt any debt the Minoan owed him was repaid.

"The Parnassus is still on its pillars, I hope, sir?" he enquired.

"The Club? Oh yes, I've just come from there. Yes, indeed, I wonder if I'm a little early." He consulted a very thin gold watch, and tucked it back in the folds of black silk. "Two minutes," he said, adding with a sudden mischievous glance, unexpected in one so patently innocent, "you wonder what I'm up to, don't you? I'll tell you something, my boy, so do I."

Inspiration came to Mr. Campion, and a large new section of the jig-saw slid neatly into place.

"You wouldn't be about to give your opinion on a bottle of wine by any chance?" he ventured.

The Bishop raised his fine eyebrows. "Ah, so you're in the party. I'm glad of that, very sensible of them. It's a most extraordinary business, don't you think?"

It was the second time that day that someone whom Mr. Campion would have supposed to have something better to excite him had professed the same enthusiasm for the mysterious bottle. This time, however, he was not quite so astonished.

"Yes," he said slowly, "I imagine it is."

The old man laughed his gentle little laugh which had made so many people his slaves in his long life.

"You're so much more used to this sort of thing than I am," he said. It was not exactly regret in his voice, but the hint of it was there. As an observation it was true; if his uncle meant what Campion thought it did. He felt mildly irritated with Bush for dragging the old man into such a business.

"I would come, you know," said the Bishop of Devizes, who appeared to add thought-reading to his other accomplishments. "Theodore Bush came to see me last week and I told him I insisted on being present. We must all do what we can in a case like this."

Mr. Campion gave it up. He could imagine Theo going to Devizes, or indeed to Durban on the Day of Judgment about a purloined case or so of wine, but that his uncle should come to the Minoan in wartime on the same business seemed incredible.

"I don't think I can have got the full story," he said.

"Then wait," said the Bishop. "Wait. Now, is that young man over there our host?"

Campion looked round to see Don Evers standing in the doorway leading to the private part of the building. He smiled at them, and came over. It was evident that he did not know the Bishop, and that he knew rather less than Mr. Campion of the matter in hand. However, there were no explanations. The Bishop was charming and amazingly adroit. He made it clear that he had come up from Devizes to dine with a young man he had never met, having been invited to do so by a third party not yet present, and he refused to see anything unusual in the proceeding. But he would not refer to the now tantalizing bottle, nor allow anyone else to do so. His small talk was masterly, and, to Campion's relief, Don appeared to like him after a certain initial bewilderment.

"We're eating upstairs," said the boy at last. "I thought Bush would be here, but I don't see him yet. Should we go up and let him follow us?"

"I really think we might. Young Carados is to come too, isn't he?"

Mr. Campion's uncle was already advancing down the room, his silver head bobbing against Don's shoulder.

"Do you know Carados, Lieutenant Evers? A most remarkable young man. Very strong in character. A little autocratic, perhaps, but a figure; definitely a figure of our times."

Campion who was following them saw the colour rise in Don's face, and was sorry for him. For a man whose only indiscretion appeared to be that he had told his father he had bought a bottle of Burgundy, his punishment seemed unduly severe.

The room they entered was the one in which Stavros had made his tragic statement that morning. It was brighter now, and warm; the lights were comforting and the silver shone. Campion was wondering what had happened to the man when he saw him. He was standing staring down at the table which had been set for five. His head was bowed and he seemed to have shrunk so that his clothes sagged a little. He did not notice Campion immediately. Don and the Bishop were in front of him and Stavros stepped back, bowing slightly. However, as he raised his head he came face to face with the thin man in the horn-rimmed spectacles. He was astounded and afterwards afraid. His professional calm deserted him, and colour appeared in patches in his grey face. For an instant he dithered, and then turned impulsively towards a corner of the room as if he were about to rush to it protectingly.

Campion followed his glance, and saw two bottles; two very ordinary black bottles with their corks as yet undrawn. As he looked, Don went over to him.

"I'm in a dilemma, sir," he said to the Bishop. "Mr. Bush gave me precise instructions that these corks should not be drawn until we were all present, but although I don't pretend to be an expert I do feel that if we're to drink the stuff tonight it ought to be decanted very soon. What do you think?"

Stavros hurried over and murmured something to him. Don took up one of the bottles very carefully and glanced at it.

"No," he said, "no. It's quite all right, Mr. Stavros, there's no mistake. This is it. Les Enfants Doux, nineteen hundred and four. I remember that ink scribble, too. Could you send me a corkscrew and a couple of decanters?"

Stavros still hesitated, and then, surprisingly, he shrugged his shoulders and went back to Campion, where he paused and looked him full in the eyes.

"What on earth does it matter?" he said, and went out.

He had not lowered his voice, and Don's incredulity would have been funny in any other circumstances. "It's got a kind of atmosphere, this place," he said dryly.

The Bishop laughed. "My dear boy," he said, "I really can't tell you how glad I am you are precisely the young man you are. Just let me look at that, will you?" He took the bottle reverently and brought it under the light, where the others joined him, Don doing his best not to look like the small boy who has picked up the rare fossil.

"Oh yes," said the Bishop of Devizes, "oh dear me, yes."

Producing a penknife, he attempted to raise a corner of the label. When he was satisfied this was impossible he turned his attention to the cork. For a long time he examined the black seal through a reading-glass.

"Yes," he said again. "Yes, I think so."

Mr. Campion avoided Don, but the Bishop had no shame.

"Now," he said, "where's that corkscrew?"

Old Fred brought it, unholy interest in his bleary eyes, but was bundled out unceremoniously.

"That's right," said the Bishop. "We don't want anyone else here but ourselves. We ought to wait for the others, but I don't think we will, you know. I don't--think--so." He was at work as he spoke, his slender hands revealing practised skill. "No," he said, waving away his host's offer of assistance, "no, I'll do it myself, my dear fellow, if you don't mind. We must have the cork--we must have the cork intact."

Don laughed. "This is making me homesick," he said. "This is Dad's performance."

"Your father is a very sound judge," remarked Mr. Campion's uncle without looking up. "Very sound. I don't altogether agree with some of his theories, but that chapter on the Rhône is masterly... Ah!"

The cork had come out with a ghost of a pop; it was a beautiful sound, regretful, grateful, kind.

"There," said the old man, placing the bottle cautiously amid the napery. "Now, let us see."

Mr. Campion, who was quite prepared for a genie to come out of the bottle, by this time looked on with interest, as Don and the Bishop went over the cork with a reading-glass. At first they thought it was unmarked, but finally the old man sighed, as he laid a finger on a minute stamp low down on the red-stained side.

"Yes," he said. "Yes, I fear so."

He attended to the remainder of the ceremony himself, the deep bright wine ran into the crystal, caressing it, clinging to it, but the Bishop remained silent, and when he placed the full decanter on the side table, and brushed his hands with a napkin, he looked less happy than at any other time during the evening. Don suggested that they open the second bottle, but the Bishop objected.

"I think Mr. Bush will want to do that," he said, "but I couldn't resist the opportunity to satisfy my own curiosity. Where is Bush, by the way? And shouldn't Carados be here by this time?"

"He certainly should. I've been wondering. He was going to get here first." Don was still good-tempered, but he was puzzled. "Bush was very keen to be here before me; he was going to bring some sherry. He said it was the only thing we dare drink before this. I don't know him; is he likely to behave this way?"

"No," said the Bishop. "A most punctilious fellow. Dear me, I hope nothing has happened."

Campion had been trying to dismiss a faintly nagging anxiety for some time now, but he shook his head. "If it has it would hardly delay Carados too," he said. "Look, I don't want to appear unduly inquisitive but even I can hardly miss that there is something unusual about this party. Don't you think you might explain, sir? Quite apart from everything else, we seem to be behaving rather badly to our host."

"Don't worry about me. I'm taking it my father has a great hand in this, Mr. Campion." Don was at his best. "It seems to me that he must have got in touch with Mr. Bush without letting me know; the whole tone of the party has a kind of parental flavour. He still feels I need a lot of protection from the seamy side of life. Now I don't want to be suspicious in any way, but I'm getting an idea that there's a distinct possibility that this wine has been pinched from somewhere. Am I right?"

"My dear boy, I really must apologize." The Bishop's face was as grieved as a mourning cherub's. "I wouldn't have had this happen for worlds. We all did so hope it might never be necessary to tell you. I did point out to Bush that we were putting ourselves in a most invidious position by behaving like this, but as he said, there are rather serious complications and strict secrecy is absolutely necessary in the circumstances. I had not met you, so I had no idea that we should find a young man of your age so remarkably--er--tolerant and courteous."

Don was rather startled by the compliment and Mr. Campion came to the rescue. "Is the suspect identified?" he enquired.

"Oh yes, I think so." The Bishop took up the decanter and sniffed it heartily. "I fear so. We must taste it, of course, but even if one's palate were the scientifically exact instrument which some of us are stupid enough to hope, even then the other evidence must weigh very heavily. The cork, the seal, and the bottle are all beyond question in my opinion. In fact from those, and from the colour and the bouquet I think I can commit myself and say definitely that this is the genuine Les Enfants Doux of nineteen hundred and four."

Mr. Campion saw no reason to disagree with him, but wondered, albeit respectfully, where precisely that conclusion might be expected to lead them. Don was more practical.

"I think we'll have Mr. Stavros in right away," he said.

"Oh no. Don't do that, my dear boy, whatever you do." The Bishop was firm. "There's a great deal more to it than that. I promised Bush to leave any explanations we might have to make entirely to him, but since you've asked me directly I really do feel I must be allowed to tell you at least the little I know."

Mr. Campion looked up. "You had three cases of Les Enfants Doux in the lorry which got lost when the Museum of Wine was evacuated, hadn't you?" he said.

"I had. You know the story then?"

"No, I don't. All I know is that there was such a lorry. Bush told me so this morning."

"Ah. And do you know of it, Lieutenant?"

"No. I never heard of the Museum even."

The Bishop was happy to explain. After some considerable preliminaries he got down to the main story.

"This lorry went out of London during the second big raid in September, nineteen forty," he said, his beautiful precise voice lingering on the words. "Poor Bush had left things dangerously late, silly fellow. He realizes that now. The lorry carried the most valuable exhibits in the entire Museum; the Gyrth Chalice was there and the Arthurian Vase, priceless things, both of them, as well as a great deal more, and also by way of make-weight, I suppose, the two cases of my Les Enfants. This lorry was last seen turning into Theobald's Road while the raid was actually in progress. Its path lay through that part of the City which was very badly damaged that night. It never reached its destination, and neither the driver nor his mate, both reputable men with wives and families, was ever seen again."

"Were the bodies found?" enquired Campion with entirely new interest.

"There's a great deal of uncertainty about it." The Bishop found the tale painful and his bright blue eyes were cold and angry. "The remains of many lorries were found in London after that night, several of them under buildings which had collapsed on them. Three were never claimed; one of these did contain two charred corpses, but complete scientific identification was never possible and there was no trace of any of the Museum's property. Finally it was assumed that this lorry had belonged to the Museum and all it contained was written off as a total loss. In other circumstances the enquiry might have been more thorough, but at that time, you may remember..." He shrugged his shoulders.

"Then I walked in on Mr. Bush with my story," said Don. "Well, I can understand his interest."

Mr. Campion, who had been sitting on the arm of a chair, looking at the crimson glow in the decanter, now stirred himself.

"Forgive me," he said diffidently, "but by what method does one identify one particular bottle or set of bottles? I don't doubt that you can do it, sir, but I'd like to know how."

"Of course you would." At last the Bishop had extracted the question he was waiting for. "Now," he said. "This is the part of the story I always did mean to tell myself. I don't suppose either of you young men have ever heard of Les Enfants Doux before, have you?"

They shook their heads and he sighed, put crime behind him, and plunged happily into fairer country.

"Nearly all the vineyards of Vosne are small, and most of them are good," he began, lecturing them gently, one hand tucked under the tail of his coat and the other free for delicate emphasis. "Most of them are famous. There are, as you know, the three Romanées and the Richebourg, the La Tache, the lesser known Les Malconsorts, and others less important. But there is one little vineyard, I doubt if it extends to more than three-quarters of an acre, which is different, and in some opinions, in most years superior to them all. Its produce never reaches the market." He paused for his announcement to have the right effect. Nothing so forceful as a dramatic effect, but one in which just the right element of surprise and interest was as carefully blended as in, say, a very good Highland whisky.

"This little vineyard of Les Enfants Doux lies just beyond La Tache. It is hidden from the main road by a very gentle dip in the ground," he went on, his voice as mellow as the grapes of which he spoke. "The land has always belonged to a peasant family called Bigot, and at one time they had the honour of providing the great ladies of the House of Bragelonne with a wet nurse, whenever one was required." He paused, and smiled faintly. "I cannot tell you, I'm afraid, how this was arranged so felicitously, but that is the story, and on one occasion the twin sons of a certain Comte de Bragelonne were placed as infants in the care of Héloïse Bigot, the beautiful young wife of the owner of this little patch of land. About six months after their arrival an epidemic broke out in Burgundy, and the children died. The young nurse was fear-stricken and the mother heartbroken. The great lady, and the great ladies of France in those days were terrifyingly great, left the Court and drove down like a thundercloud upon the unfortunate Bigots. Her rage and grief, or perhaps it should have been the other way round, were formidable indeed, but when she came at last upon the woman she found her, so the story goes, dead of remorse (or of course it may have been the fever) lying across the tiny biers of her two charges.

"The Comtesse, touched by this devotion, for although heartbroken, you understand, she was nowhere near dying herself, suffered a most satisfactory change of heart, and instead of pressing home the punishment she had prepared for the wretched Papa Bigot, she made him what amends she could by providing a sum of money to be spent on planting his field with the Pinot, and undertaking that her family should purchase the entire output of the vineyard for ever."

"And they still do?" Don enquired.

"They still did until the beginning of this war," said the Bishop. "Heaven alone knows what tragedy may have occurred now, of course. The little place flourished, and the wine which grew there (some say from the very soil where the sweet children and their faithful foster-mother lie buried, but that is unlikely) certainly had a strange, gentle freshness to be found in no other vintage in the world. The Bragelonne family reserved the whole of the growth, about forty-five to fifty dozen a year, I suppose, and a superstition grew up among them decreeing that ill luck would befall the children of the house should the wine ever find its way off the estate."

"And yet you had three cases of it," ventured Mr. Campion.

"I had six cases once," said the Bishop of Devizes, "and I'll break my rule and tell you how I came by it. I never have told this story because it is both sentimental and romantic, and neither of those delightful things is the better for an airing, don't you know."

"If you'd rather not, sir," began Don hastily, and fumbled for the end of the sentence. "I guess we've got pretty positive proof by this time."

Mr. Campion knew his uncle well and was fond of him.

"I think I should like to hear it," he said.

"Over-ruled," murmured the Bishop, smiling at Don.

"Well, many years ago when I was a very young man, just after I came down from Oxford, I spent a holiday at Bragelonne tutoring the heir, who was a very delicate and rather stupid boy. He had an elder sister, her name was Elise; she was very beautiful and her birthday fell on the seventeenth of July. Now I would stress that there was no love affair. In those days we were circumspect, and in hopeless situations we may have formed attachments but we never had affairs."

He stood looking at them, his bright blue eyes alive with unconquerable youth. "For three years running I visited Bragelonne in the summer," he went on, "and on the last occasion I was able to congratulate my Elise on her betrothal to her cousin, Henri de Bragelonne, next in succession to her brother. I was present at the wedding and after that, although we never met, I used always to send her some trifle on her birthday and always in return she wrote to thank me and to give me an account of her fortunes. I suppose we corresponded in this way for twenty years. In the last war the little custom came to an abrupt end, but when at last the fighting was done and the German armies retreated I received a letter from a notary telling me Elise was dead. He enclosed a letter from her written very near her end, and also told me that six dozen of Burgundy was being forwarded to me at her order."

Mr. Campion gave up doubting, the old man had a very strong case. He was putting it very well, too, addressing himself mainly to Don to whom he had evidently taken a liking.

"Her letter was charming," he said, "but her news was bad. Her brother had died, her husband was killed almost immediately after succeeding to the estate, and a few months later her son had followed his father. She knew she was very ill and she feared that she would never write to me again, but as she said, she was still feminine and she did not want to be forgotten. Therefore (she was very practical, my dear Elise), she was sending me six dozen of Les Enfants Doux of the great year, and she begged that I would always drink a bottle of it on the seventeenth of July. Not the best time of year, you know, for a royal Burgundy, but how was she to know that, poor dear? Women were not connoisseurs in her day."

"You got the whole six dozen intact? That was a bit of a miracle in itself, wasn't it?" said Don curiously.

"It was. How she had managed to preserve anything so precious and yet so vulnerable during the whole of the Occupation, I cannot imagine, but she did. And as for the superstition, poor lady, I have no doubt that she felt no further ill luck could befall her family."

"It's very conclusive," murmured Mr. Campion, bringing the matter down to earth.

"Oh, it is. I'm afraid so." The Bishop picked up the empty bottle and pointed to a scribble in red ink on the lower right-hand corner of the label. "You see that?" he said. "That's J.D. They are the initials of the wine steward of the period. I remember him well, he was a great character called Jules Denise. You see, a certain percentage of the yield was put aside, always for the Comte's own table, as opposed to his chaplain's or his major-domo's or any of the other little establishments on the estate, and on each bottle of this little reserve Jules used to put his mark. All my six dozen had that scrawl; you mentioned it to Bush, Lieutenant, and when I heard of it I felt very sure. That is why I took the astonishing liberty of--er--'gate-crashing' your party."

"I should think so." Don was looking at the decanter with respect. "It seems criminal to drink it, this may be the last there is in the world. I don't think we need let Bush open that second bottle, do you? After all, a magnificent wine like that..."

"Needs no bush," said the Bishop shyly, laughing at the silly little joke which everybody made sooner or later. "Where is the man? I do hope nothing has happened. I'm afraid I've been talking for nearly an hour."

No one answered him, but in the silence which followed his remark, someone tapped at the door. It was old Fred, a gleam of anticipation in his watery eyes.

"Mr. Campion is wanted on the phone," he said. "The gentleman seemed upset, sir."

"Who is it?"

"He didn't say, sir, but he seemed very shaken. This way, it's in the passage just along here."

When Campion reached the telephone and before he had taken up the receiver he could hear someone shouting at the other end. "Hello. Hello. Hel-lo. Campion. Oh, there you are, are you? I say..."

It was Johnny Carados, sounding as nearly rattled as Campion had ever heard him.

"Yes?"

"Can you come round to Theodore Bush's house as soon as dammit? You know where it is, don't you? Forty-two Bedbridge Row. Come at once, will you?"

"I will."

"Good man. I need you. I say, Campion...?"

"Yes?"

"I'm afraid I've killed the blighter.... Good-bye."