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16: Undertaker's Parlour

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Author Topic: 16: Undertaker's Parlour  (Read 38 times)
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« on: June 03, 2023, 07:59:18 am »

THE glass door of the Bowels’s establishment was fastened but there was still light within when Mr. Campion pressed the bell and stood waiting. Considered dispassionately, the window was not without interest. It contained one black marble urn, which could only have been an embarrassment anywhere else, and two wax wreaths under glass.

Each of these last incorporated a china dove, sparrow-sized if the roses were to be believed, lying dead with wings outstretched amid the pallid blooms.

The only other item was a miniature easel bearing a black-edged card which announced ‘Reliable Interments. Taste, Efficiency, Economy, Respect,’ in small but florid type.

He was reflecting that an unreliable interment hardly bore imagining when he caught sight of Mr. Bowels, snr, rising up from the stair-well which was just visible through the door. He appeared to be eating and was struggling with his jacket, but he moved with gratifying speed and presently pressed his face against the glass.

As soon as he recognized the caller his hand went up to touch an imaginary hat and he unbolted the door top and bottom, to emerge bland and respectful.

‘Mr. Campion!’ he said with delight. ‘Well, this is a treat, this is.’ He allowed his smile to give place to cautious concern. ‘Excuse me for being so personal, but nothing professional, I hope, sir?’

Mr. Campion was affable. ‘That depends on which of us you have in mind. Perhaps we could go down to your kitchen for a moment, could we?’

The broad face became expressionless for less than a second and Campion had hardly time to recognize the fact before the man was beaming again, light on his feet and deferential.

‘Now I should regard that as an honour, Mr. Campion. This way. You’ll forgive me going first, I’m sure.’ He bowed his way round the visitor and his voice filled the building like a gong.

Campion followed him down the stairs to a narrow passage which smelled stuffy and warm after the refined emptiness of the shop. He bobbed along, taking very short steps, and talking all the time.

‘It’s humble but comfortable,’ he was saying. ‘We see enough of magnificence, me and the boy, and it hasn’t got happy associations, so in private life we like to be homely. But I’m forgetting; you did us the honour the other day when Magers had indulged, poor fellow.’

He stopped, his hand on the latch of a narrow door. He was smiling, his large front teeth all but hiding his small lower lip.

‘After me, if you’ll permit,’ he said, and went in.

He became happier at once. ‘We’re alone, I see,’ he said as he backed into the dimly lit and cluttered apartment and set a chair for his visitor at the supper table. ‘I thought the boy was here but he’s gone back to his work. A beautiful craftsman---just sit here, sir; then you’ll be on my right side and I can hear you, if you please. Yes, Rowley could have made very different furniture from that what Nature’s called him to. “You might have made things the owners were in a position to be proud of, son,” I tell him, “but none what becomes them more. Remember that.” ’

As Campion sat down his chair was lifted into position with a strength which he found disconcerting and Jas walked round to his own seat at the head of the table. His white curls shone in the comfortable gloom and there was dignity in the set of his wide shoulders. Here he achieved a new authority, for all his mock subservience. He sat there, an impressive anachronism, unlikely and nearly as decorative as a coach-and-four. Even his villainy had a gentle polish and his hypocrisy was practised and flatteringly concealed.

‘Magers is away,’ he remarked, his small blue eyes shrewd and curious. ‘As soon as there was that tragedy over the road he came hurrying in, said good-bye, and we haven’t heard of him since. I expect you knew that, sir?’

Campion nodded but offered no explanation. Jas bowed. No other description could fit that graceful, acquiescing inclination.

He took another line. ‘A very shockin’ thing, poor Wilde. He wasn’t a friend of ours, exactly, but we were very close nodding acquaintances, as one might put it. We’d both been tradesmen in this road for quite a time. I didn’t go to the inquest, but I sent Rowley out of respect. “Suicide when the balance of mind was disturbed”, they brought in: that’s always the kindest way.’

He folded his hands on the chequered tablecloth and dropped his inquisitive eyes.

‘We’re putting him down tomorrow morning. I don’t suppose there’ll be a penny to come, but we shall do him with as much luxury as if we were waiting on you yourself. That’s partly out of kindness, Mr. Campion, and partly out of business. Sad as it may seem to you, who’d hardly suspect it, a tragedy is our best advertisement. Sightseers come in hundreds and it’s the procession they remember, so we always do our best for the sake of trade.’

The new note of formality which his host was displaying puzzled Campion. He thought he observed a tea-party atmosphere about the interview, as if they were somehow in company. At the risk of shattering it completely he produced his first squib.

‘What were you carrying over your arm when you went down to see your close nodding acquaintance at two in the morning the day before yesterday?’

The old man made no sign of surprise but favoured his visitor with an expression of disapproval and reproach.

‘That’s the kind of question I should have expected to hear from the police, Mr. Campion,’ he said sternly, ‘and if you pardon my saying so, it would have come much more delicate from them. Let every tradesman do his own dirty work, that’s what I feel.’

‘Very proper,’ said Campion sententiously, ‘and that brings us to two o’clock in the morning of the day before yesterday.’

Jas laughed. His amused, half roguish, half deprecatory grin was disarming.

‘How ’uman ’uman nature is, ain’t it?’ He gathered up his own peccadillos and dropped them into the mighty pool of the world’s sin. ‘That Mr. Corkerdale, on duty in the garden of the lodge, happened to notice us, I suppose?’

The lean man allowed the question to pass and the undertaker’s rueful smile broadened.

‘I shouldn’t have said it was quite as late as that,’ he went on, ‘but it may have been. That was the evening Magers was with us, the first time for thirty years. We’d been talking of the dear departed and Magers had dropped off into a sleep which was practically a stupor, poor fellow.’ He paused, and his small eyes searched the other man’s face for signs of progress. Finding nothing, he went on again gallantly:

‘You’ll remember me telling you, Mr. Campion, when we met over at the house, that I was in a bit of a muddle about a casket at the time?’

‘Did you? I thought you tried to sell it to me.’

‘No, Mr. Campion, that was my fun. We had to get hold of a casket in a hurry for the funeral at Lansbury Terrace. Rowley had recollected the one in my lock-up over the way. “But before we do that,” I said to ’im, “before we do that, son, there’s just time to go down to Mr. Wilde to take ’im what I promised ’im.” ’

There was another fruitless pause, during which Mr. Campion remained blank and attentive. Jas became more confidential.

‘You’re a man of the world like myself, Mr. Campion. You’ll understand, I know. Poor Wilde was a very neat person. Untidiness upset him. He had a front room over the shop right on the street. The curtains were a disgrace and I chipped ’im about them. “I can’t get a mite of material, Bowels,” he said to me. “Coupons won’t run to it.” Well . . .’ he lowered his voice, ‘we use a little cotton stuff in the trade---linings and so on; it’s not durable, doesn’t have to be, but it’s very nice to look at---and the long and the short of it is that I promised him a yard or two just for the look of the shop. After all, it helps us if the street don’t go down. I took it over by night for fear of jealousy among the neighbours, and as he hadn’t used it when I fetched his body to the mortuary I took it back, and I can show it to you in the workshop this minute. That’s all we were doing, Mr. Campion, and I know that you being, as it were, a gentleman, it’ll be beneath your dignity to mention such a paltry matter in official circles.’ He finished the lie with a flourish and sat back well pleased with himself.

‘Yes,’ said Campion, and the word was neither acceptance nor rejection. ‘And the other thing I wanted to ask you was why you bothered to send for me in the first place?’

Mr. Bowels froze. Alarm spread over him like a tide. The wide face lost its pink and became pallid, and the small mouth became circular in protest. It was the first time he had shown any sign of open discomposure since Campion had met him.

I sir? I send for you?’ He was shrill in protest. ‘You’re making a big mistake there. I did no such thing. Not but what me and the boy’s not very glad to know you. Very proud, I might say. But send for you, sir? Oh, dear me no! Why, it wouldn’t be my place, would it, sir?---even supposing I had any reason.’ He was silent, and the solid hand on the red and white tablecloth trembled. ‘I may ’ave wrote a friendly letter to my relation after finding myself in the papers,’ he went on, ‘but if ’e read anything special into that, well, ’e was more of a fool than I took ’im for. I’m glad to see you here, Mr. Campion, because I want to see the whole thing cleared up, and that’s a fact, but no, sir, I didn’t send for you, sir.’

Mr. Campion was more puzzled than ever. He could understand Mr. Bowels being anxious to repudiate any responsibility, but not why he should be so frightened about it.

‘I can see that a police inquiry would not be very good for your trade,’ he began cautiously. ‘The publicity can’t be helpful and I realize that you knew that Miss Ruth Palinode was in the habit of putting an occasional shilling or two on a horse, but I don’t think that point was strong enough to make you send for me.’

Mr. Bowels blew his nose on a large white handkerchief, apparently to gain time.

‘I didn’t send for you,’ he said, ‘but trade is trade and the police are the first to forget it, I do allow that. In my business it’s discretion, discretion, discretion all the time. Who wants an undertaker with a long nose and a gabby tongue, even if he’s doing no more than his duty? However, you and me being friendly, and me trusting you to see I never get anywhere really detrimental like a witness-box, there is a little something that perhaps I ought to mention. I only saw one thing which was really curious when Miss Ruth Palinode died. It was a very small thing and may not have had any significance, but it made me think. I saw Mr. Lawrence Palinode washing up.’

A mental picture of that gangling, near-sighted man with the sweet smile and incomprehensible conversation presented itself to Campion.

‘Where was this?’ he inquired.

Mr. Bowels was still pale but some of his old knowingness had returned.

‘Not in the kitchen,’ he said darkly. ‘She died early in the afternoon, a very unusual time. You may not know it, but early in the afternoon is a most uncommon time for what you might call mortality.’

‘How soon did you get there?’

‘Tea-time. Nearly five. Miss Roper sent Mr. Grace over. The family didn’t stir hand nor foot, and that wasn’t unnaturalness, mind you. They’re human but helpless, the Palinodes, made worse because they don’t think it’s quite the right thing to be practical.’

He was getting over his fright and reasserting himself. The difference between this story and the last was subtle but inescapable. There was now none of the carefree ease of improvisation. Campion felt he was probably telling some sort of version of the truth.

‘I was just settling down to my meal when Mr. Grace knocked, and as I knew the family I got up at once, put on my black coat, took my measure and went over,’ he continued. ‘Mr. Grace said he’d rather not come upstairs, but there was nothing surprising in that. Often people won’t take you up, even when it’s someone they know well. On the other hand, some enjoy it. It’s temperament. Anyhow I wasn’t surprised when he left me on the stairs. “Leave it to me, sir,” I said. “I’m not likely to make any serious mistake of identity.” That was my little joke but ’e didn’t see it. Anyway, I went up alone, all quiet and respectful, for we tread as light as we can. I hesitated in the doorway, just to make sure, and there he was---washing up.’

‘Mr. Lawrence Palinode?’


‘In Miss Ruth’s bedroom?’

‘Yes. There was the dead lady covered with a sheet, and there was her brother---cool, but nervous, if I make myself plain---with every mortal cup or glass or spoon the room contained out on the old-fashioned wash-stand. He was dipping the last one into the jug as I came in and he swung round like a shop-lifter when he heard the door. The next moment he was very polite and kindly, but of course I’d seen him. As soon as I was alone I took a look at what he’d been up to. Quite clean, they were, spread out all along the marble. It was quite open.’

He sounded mildly indignant.

‘Is that all?’

‘The whole truth, sir. I thought it was significant.’

‘Have you told anybody else?’

‘No one. That’s a lesson I learn at my father’s knee. “Undertakers don’t talk no more than their clients”; that was ’is motto. Of course when the ex’umation order came along I thought to myself, but I didn’t speak. It’s some time ago, and it’s only my word against his, isn’t it?’

This was very true. Campion was digesting the information and its probable worth when Jas rose.

‘Could I offer you a glass of anything? Mr. Luke says I drink embalming mixture, but that’s only ’is idea of fun.’

‘No, thank you. I’m just going.’ Campion got up a little too quickly. His sudden movement startled the old man and he glanced sharply across the room to the corner immediately behind his guest.

Campion was too old a bird to look at once, but as he resettled his chair tidily under the table before following his unprotesting host towards the door he glanced casually at his side and received the shock of the day.

There was a grandfather clock in the alcove beside the range and next to it, flattened between it and the wall, not four feet behind his chair a man was standing. He was completely motionless and deep in the shadow, and must have been there throughout the entire interview.

Campion went on out of the door which the undertaker was holding open for him. His step was light and brisk, his face misleadingly blank. His host felt fairly certain that he had noticed nothing unusual.

However, as he hurried across the road, nodding to the dapper figure of Mr. James, the bank manager, who saluted him graciously with a furled umbrella, he turned up his collar and prepared to push through the small crowd of sightseers which had begun to collect outside the front gate of Portminster Lodge. He was particularly thoughtful.

That polished skull and wobbling blob of a lower lip had been distinctive, and he gave his full attention to the hitherto neglected ubiquity of Mr. Congreve.

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