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12: Poppy Tea

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Author Topic: 12: Poppy Tea  (Read 29 times)
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« on: June 02, 2023, 01:07:54 pm »

‘I SEE ’er,’ said Mr. Lugg with firmness. ‘I see ’er with me own eyes and she comes back to me.’

‘Touching,’ said Mr. Campion brightly. He had just entered Mrs. Chubb’s room overhanging the round bar of the Platelayers Arms, to find his old friend and knave in possession and no sign of the D.D.I. Downstairs the lunchtime crowd was pressing round the counters, and the deep roar of conversation penetrated the thin walls of their crow’s nest.

Lugg was better, although there was still a certain whiteness round his eye-sockets. He was not quite so angry, either. There was a hint of excitement in the lift of his many chins and his expression was deeply inquisitive.

‘You will allow it was a funny thing,’ he said. ‘It’s a rum shop, too, and the old corp be’ind the counter ’e’s not ordinary.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Campion sat down on the other side of the table.

‘That’s right, be’ave like an official. Don’t listen and then ask.’ Lugg was contemptuous. ‘They missed something on that there island you was going to govern. “Kindly write down three times and then tear up”---quite the professional. I see Bella Musgrave, that’s what I’m sayin’.’

‘Bella Musgrave.’ Mr. Campion repeated the name blankly but as recollection came to him his eyes widened. ‘Oh yes . . . that police court,’ he said. ‘That hideous little police court and old Oates, still a Chief Inspector, telling the tale . . . Oh, lord yes, I remember her. Neat little woman with the face of a child.’

‘Now it’s two children,’ said Lugg succinctly. ‘But it’s ’er all right. Same black veil, same clean bit of airy-fairy under it, same gentle eyes full of ’ypocrisy. D’you remember what ’er speciality was?’

His employer regarded him steadily for some moments, bewilderment apparent in the very mildness of his gaze.

‘As I recall it---Death,’ he said at last.

‘That’s right. In a commercial way.’ Lugg’s black eyes were beady with interest. ‘She was the woman who used to go round with the cheap bibles. She’d look up the deaths in the papers and then trot round to the ’ouses. “Wot, not dead?” ’ He imitated female mock-commiseration rather horribly. ‘ “Oo I’m ever so sorry. Such a loss to me too. The Departed bought one of these ’ere and put down a small deposit. Only fifteen bob to pay.” The sorrowers forked out to get rid of ’er, of course, and took in a bible worth ninepence ’olesale. You remember, cock. Not at all the article.’

‘Yes, I do. There was something else too. Wasn’t she the heartbroken widow in the Streatham insurance swindle? Single-minded gal.’

‘That’s ’er and now you’ve placed ’er per’aps you’ll pay attention to this little lot. She’s about again and in Apron Street. I’ve just seen ’er. She gave me an old-fashioned look but she didn’t know me.’

‘Where was this?’

‘In the perishing chemist’s. I keep telling you.’ He was near exasperation. ‘I went in for a pick-up after my un’appy accident last night and as I was talking to old Paregoric in she come. ’E give ’er a look and she give ’im one and then she went in the back.’

‘Really? That’s very extraordinary.’

‘Well, wot am I telling you?’ The fat man wriggled in his chair with petulance. ‘What are you doing, dreaming of a White Christmas? Sorry, cock, that was beneath me, but it’s a funny thing, isn’t it?’

‘Extraordinary. By the way, I’ve been talking to an old friend of yours. Remember Thos?’

The great white face expanded with astonishment.

‘Lumme, that’s putting the clock back,’ he said at last. ‘Thos! I say, don’t ferget yer place. We’ve come on since them times, I ’ope. What’s to be forgave at twenty ain’t the ticket at forty-five, and the rest.’ He paused, sentiment struggling with his later judgement. ‘ ’Ow was the ole dreg?’ he inquired at last. ‘Not ’ung yet?’

‘On the contrary, he’s married and respectable. He’s doing a little job for us.’

‘Oh, a hemployee.’ Lugg was appeased. ‘That’s all right,’ he said magnificently. ‘Quite a useful feller if kep’ in ’is place.’

Mr. Campion looked at him with distaste. ‘You’re a horrible chap, Lugg, considered dispassionately.’

The fat man chose to be affronted. ‘I’m too old for that, and don’t bring sex in, it’s common. What about this ’ere chemist? Bella may be ’is auntie, of course. Come to think of it, she might be. ’E’s the kind of chap to ’ave that kind of relation. But on the other ’and it’s funny. I mean to say, if she’s a death fancier this is right up ’er apron, isn’t it?’

‘Talking about relations, there is Jas,’ observed Mr. Campion unpardonably. ‘Mr. Luke is still with him, I suppose?’

‘I ’magine so. He come out to me as I come into the shop. Not a nice idea a coffin shop, is it? ’E asked me very polite if I might come down ’ere and tell you ’e might be delayed. ’E looked as if ’e’d bin active.’

‘How was your brother-in-law?’

Lugg sniffed. ‘I didn’t ’ear no groans,’ he said. ‘That chap’ll go far, won’t ’e, that Charlie Luke?’

‘Oh? Why do you think so?’

‘Well, ’e can’t leave it alone, can ’e?’ The black eyes were sardonically amused. ‘No five-day week for ’im. ’E’d ’ave apoplexy waitin’ for Monday mornin’. ’Ullo!’

Swift light steps were racing up the wooden stairs from the street. The door shuddered open and the D.D.I. appeared. The room shrank a little as his personality pervaded it.

‘Sorry, sir, I couldn’t leave the old blighter,’ he said, grinning at Campion. ‘He and his son are like a couple of provincial comics. If we weren’t up to our eyes I’d have them along here and make them go through it again for your entertainment. Come to that, we could put them on at the next police concert. “That shed was let without my knowledge,” says Jas. “Boy!” ’ As usual, Charlie Luke was transforming himself into the visual object clearest in his mind, in this case Mr. Bowels’s well-frilled frockcoat. The fascinated Campion could all but see its silky creases. ‘ “I done it, Father, and I know I done wrong. I arsk your pardon,” ’ he continued, bringing the thinner Rowley vividly before them. ‘ “I done it out of charity, Father, same as you always taught me. The young fellow went on his hands and knees and begged and prayed . . .” and so on and so on.’

Luke settled himself at the table and thumped the bell for Mrs. Chubb.

‘I could have listened all day,’ he said seriously. ‘He’s very angry, Jas is, angry with Rowley and livid with someone else. Maybe young Dunning, but I don’t think so.’

‘You don’t think either of them is the owner of the cosh?’

‘It could be.’ He frowned. ‘I wish I knew what their lark was. I’ve put a man on to that, of course. Earnest young chap with a good heart but not quite enough upstairs.’ He favoured them with a stare of adenoidal stupidity coupled with a certain dog-like anxiety about the eyes. ‘It’s a pity, but he’s the best I’ve got at the moment. We’re under strength anyway, and then there’s this general call-out for the Greek-Street gunman, to make more work.’

Mr. Lugg looked down his nose.

‘There’s too much of that break a jooler’s winder, fire at a copper, and ’it a bloomin’ civilian,’ he said virtuously. ‘They get away with it too. We’ll ’ave gangs next.’

‘They’ve got ’em already in other Divisions,’ said the D.D.I. not without a touch of pride. ‘We’re short-handed, that’s all. Still, we’ll get old Jas. I can’t see him as a poisoner, though, can you, Mr. Campion?’

The arrival of their hostess with a tray of beer and sandwiches silenced any opinion the lean man might have had to offer. He got up lazily and wandered to the little window which overlooked the bar. For some minutes he stood there, idly watching the swaying wedges of crowd below. But suddenly he was on the alert, his head poking forward, his eyes puzzled behind his glasses.

‘Look at that,’ he said to Luke.

Two men had just come into the saloon section of the bar and were pushing their way to the counter. They were obviously together and appeared to be in confidential mood. One was the unmistakable Mr. Congreve from the bank and the other, gallant if shabby in an impossibly long-waisted blue overcoat, was Clarrie Grace. They were talking with the ease and intimacy of friends.

‘I’ve seen that before.’ Charlie Luke was thoughtful. ‘It’s been going on for about a week. Maybe it’s just the usual pub acquaintanceship but now I see it with your eyes, so to speak.’ He made horn-rims for himself with his vast expressive hands. ‘Yes, it’s unlikely, isn’t it? I’ve never actually spoken to the old boy before today. Never had occasion to, though I’ve seen him about, of course, and knew who he was. Thinking of him now, and then considering Renee’s lame duck---yes, I see they are a rum couple. I’ll look into that.’

‘Int’resting neighbourhood you’ve got ’ere,’ put in Lugg in his better-class voice. ‘There’s the chemist’s auntie, for instance, what about ’er?’

Luke’s response was gratifying. He swung round, his eyes sharp and excited.

‘Pa Wilde’s got a new woman, has he?’

‘She’s female.’ Mr. Lugg didn’t seem prepared to go further. ‘Does ’e often ’ave lady visitors?’

‘Now and again.’ Luke was grinning. ‘It’s a local joke. Sometimes, very seldom, a woman comes for a night or so. She’s never the same and always utterly respectable, to look at anyway. Besides, have you seen him, Mr. Campion?’

‘No. Fun to come. He’s not the type perhaps, is that it?’

‘Who is?’ The D.D.I. was both worldly and sad. ‘That’s the one subject on which there’s no rules. He just likes a certain miserable ladylike funereal type and he only likes ’em for about ten minutes. It’s peculiar, but then people are peculiar in that respect. Come to that, he’s a staggering old peculiar himself.’

‘Pardon me.’ Mr. Lugg had risen and his accent was a tour-de-force. ‘Did you say “funereal”?’

‘Yes.’ The D.D.I. seemed taken aback by the elaboration of vowel and consonant. ‘At least, they’re always dressed in black and they usually look a bit tearful, if you know what I mean. I haven’t seen this one.’

‘I ’ave. She’s Bella Musgrave.’

Charlie Luke remained unenlightened and a satisfied smile passed over Lugg’s moon-face.

‘O’ course you’re only young,’ he murmured, smugness oozing from him. ‘Now me and my employer ’ere . . .’

‘Who is twenty years younger,’ interrupted Mr. Campion brutally, ‘are bursting to tell you that she may or may not be a small-time crook whom we once saw sent down for eighteen months in the year of the Great Exhibition or thereabouts. How did the doctor take your analyst’s report?’

‘Oh, resigned, you know.’ Luke spoke with sympathy. ‘It wasn’t his fault, as I’ve told him. He told me one thing, though, which set me wondering, especially in view of your nature lesson this morning. You know the younger Miss Palinode, Miss Jessica, the gal from the park? He says she’s been giving the old man at the dairy cups of poppy tea. He’s a patient of the doc’s and suffers from sinus trouble. It means a bit of pain which the old boy insists on calling neuralgia. The doc says he found him pretty well doped and yet he said he’d had nothing but this muck which the old girl gave him for his pain, which it had stopped. The doc says if she’d used the right poppies at the right time of the year the old lad would have had a basinful of raw opium which would have put him out like a light.’

He hesitated, his dark face troubled.

‘There’s enough suspicion there to detain her, but I don’t like it. It sounds so barmy, doesn’t it?’

‘I’ve been thinking about her.’ Mr. Campion sounded as if he were making an admission. ‘But I don’t believe she could have made hyoscine from henbane she gathered in the park.’

‘No,’ said Luke. ‘I’ll have to follow it up, of course, but it doesn’t sound likely to me. She’s a strange old woman; makes me think of fairy tales, I don’t know why. She . . .’ He broke off and stood listening, and they followed his glance towards the door. It began to open very slowly and cautiously, an inch at a time.

A battered mushroom thrusting nervously into the room startled everybody. Miss Jessica in walking-out costume was an unlikely sight in any circumstances, but this opportune arrival, coupled with the utter fantasy of her array, was actively disconcerting. As they stared, she came shuffling in, looking about her anxiously. But as she caught sight of Campion on the other side of the table a smile which was partly shy appeared on her small pointed face.

‘So there you are,’ she said, her clear voice bright above the murmur from the bar. ‘I wanted to get hold of you before I went for my walk. There’s just time. Come along.’

Charlie Luke was regarding her with open disbelief.

‘How did you get here, ma’am?’

She looked at him directly for the first time.

‘Oh, I observe, you know,’ she said. ‘You were not drinking downstairs and I felt you must be here, so I searched until I found you.’ She turned to Campion. ‘Are you ready?’

‘Perfectly,’ he said, crossing over to her. ‘Where are we going?’ He was so much taller than she was that he enhanced her wispy oddity. Her motoring veil was tied a thought more carefully than usual and had been pinned in front to hide the cardboard. But her multitudinous skirts were still arranged in irregular tiers above her battered shoes and corrugated stockings. Today she carried a bag. It was made of a piece of an old waterproof tacked together inexpertly by someone who understood nothing about sewing save the principle. It appeared to contain papers and kitchen waste in equal quantities, since both made attempts to escape from every dubious seam.

She handed it to Campion before she spoke. It was a charming gesture, feminine and confiding.

‘To our solicitor, of course,’ she said. ‘You can’t have forgotten you told me we should help the police and I agreed with you.’

It came back to Campion that he had said something of the sort before leaving her downstairs in the back kitchen.

‘And so you’ve decided to?’ he said. ‘That’s going to be a great help.’

‘Oh, but I always intended to. I’ve now seen my brother and my sister and they both agree that the person to give you any information you may require is our solicitor, Mr. Drudge.’

The unusual name passed Luke by, Mr. Campion noticed, so he took it that the firm was not unknown to him. The D.D.I. looked both respectful and relieved.

‘That’s all we need, confidence, ma’am,’ he was beginning. ‘We’re not out to . . .’

‘My confidence is here,’ cut in Miss Jessica, smiling at Campion, but there was no archness in her manner. She remained both a lady and a mind.

Campion gripped the bag. ‘Splendid,’ he said. ‘We’ll go, shall we, or will you have some lunch first?’

‘No, thank you, I’ve eaten. I do want to fit this visit in before my afternoon stroll---into the park, you know.’

She stood aside and let him precede her to the street.

‘That unfortunate boy,’ she said, as they went up the cul-de-sac of Edwardes Place together, causing a stir among the more observant of the passers-by. ‘I heard from the cobbler that he’d had an accident. With his machine, I suppose? They are dangerous. And yet, you know, I’ve always felt I’d like to try one.’

‘A motor-cycle?’

‘Yes. I should look strange, of course, but I know that. There’s a great deal of difference in ignorance and indifference.’ She smoothed the uppermost of her garments, which was a thin summer frock of a fashion long forgotten, and which served as an overall, or perhaps a dust cover, above something thick and knitted and red.

‘All the difference in the world,’ he assured her with complete sincerity. ‘But I’d advise against the motor-bike on other than aesthetic grounds.’

‘Yes,’ said Miss Jessica, exhibiting an unexpected squeamishness in view of her performance of the night before. ‘I know. They smell.’

It was the first illogicality he had noticed in her and he found it comforting.

‘Where is this office?’ he inquired. ‘Shall I get a cab?’

‘Oh no, it’s just round the corner in the Barrow Road. My father believed in employing local people. They may not be the best, he said, but they are one’s own. Why are you smiling?’

‘Was I? I suppose I was thinking it was rather a large town to be parochial in.’

‘I don’t think so. London is made up of many villages. We Palinodes have carried one kind of squirearchy to its ridiculous conclusion, that’s all. I shall forgive you anything as long as you never find us sad.’

‘I think I find you frightening,’ he said.

‘That’s very much better,’ said the youngest Miss Palinode.

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