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2: A Plot is Propounded

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Author Topic: 2: A Plot is Propounded  (Read 8 times)
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« on: November 09, 2023, 04:38:10 am »

THE DISCOVERY that Mr. Wood “wrote” had, in fact, caused the liveliest interest among the inhabitants of the Fernlea Residential Club. It was, it must be admitted, an interest for the most part untempered by any knowledge of the works of Amyas Leigh. Each member of the little society, however, felt it necessary at least to give some explanation for not having hitherto read them. Miss Clarke “had very little time for reading”, which in view of the concentrated effort that she put into the work of harrying her subordinates was scarcely surprising. Outside office hours her sole interest was in the cinema, and she keenly resented the fact that Marsett Bay’s one picture-house could only manage a change of programme once a week. Miss Danville, on the other hand, had plenty of time for reading. She was seldom seen without a book in her hand, but it was nearly always the same one---a small leather-covered tome, the title of which could not be discovered. But it was easy enough to tell from her expression as she read that it was devotional. In the circumstances it was natural that she too was ignorant of “Death on the Bakerloo”, “The Clue of the Twisted Cravat” and the other Amyas Leigh titles. But rather unexpectedly she seemed genuinely distressed at the fact. “I used to be very fond of thrillers,” she explained, “but nowadays I’ve got out of the way of that kind of reading”---and she cast her eyes down again on the leather-covered book. Miss Brown, when appealed to, merely shook her head, and nobody, least of all the modest Wood, could have had the heart to expect an explanation from one so young, so shy and so obviously overcome by meeting an author in the flesh.

The men, too, made no admission of having contributed anything to Mr. Wood’s royalties. Mr. Edelman, at the mention of the nom de plume, looked fixedly at its owner for a moment, murmured “’Fraid not”, and cut for deal. Mild, bald Mr. Phillips, anxious to be polite, assured him that he must have read them all---he got all the detective stories from the library. Unfortunately, he could never remember their titles or the names of their authors, or, as it appeared, their plots. Rickaby’s views on the subject were not heard. He was out that evening, a fact for which his fellow lodgers were grateful. This left Pettigrew as the sole acknowledged representative of the Amyas Leigh public. He had, in fact, qualified for this position by having reviewed his last two productions for a legal journal, and remembering the pains that he had taken to demonstrate the many technical errors into which the author had fallen, he felt thankful that the reviews had been unsigned.

But it was insisted by all, and with particular emphasis by the ladies, that no time should be lost in acquiring and reading all Mr. Wood’s works. Even Miss Danville, prepared to be mundane for once, was quite firm on the point. It would make it so much more interesting, she observed, to read a book when you knew the author---a sentiment to which Miss Brown murmured her incoherent agreement. Here, however, a difficulty arose. Amyas Leigh was not exactly a best seller. Modestly, Mr. Wood pointed out that at the moment his books were not readily obtainable. The shortage of paper had, in fact, constrained his publishers to take them off the market altogether. The war made it very difficult for authors. One might, of course, always pick up a copy by chance. No, the bookshop in Marsett Bay had not got any. As a matter of fact, he had glanced at their shelves only the other day. No---this was in answer to Miss Clarke---he had not had anything filmed yet. Hollywood hadn’t shown any interest in him so far. Of course, one never knew, but they had so many books to choose from. . . .

His audience sighed in disappointment. To have an author in their midst was something, but an author whose authorship one had to take on trust was hardly the real thing.

It was the Merry Widow who provided the obvious solution.

The Merry Widow was Mrs. Hopkinson. She had been at school with Miss Clarke, a fact which emboldened her to treat that formidable woman with a lack of respect, a positive flippancy, that nobody else in the entire Control would have dared to emulate. Astonishingly, Miss Clarke not only tolerated her, but enjoyed her society. They lunched together almost every day, visited the cinema together regularly each week and, out of office hours, called each other by their Christian names. “Breezy” was the adjective that best described Mrs. Hopkinson. She was, to use her own phrase, “always on the go”. To her natural good looks, which she had done her best to spoil by tinting her hair to an alarming shade of bronze, she added an inexhaustible fund of vitality and a vulgar good humour that was hard to resist. Her age, as she was wont to announce with peals of laughter, was exactly thirty-nine.

On the particular evening when Mr. Wood’s double personality was disclosed, she had “dropped in” as she often did, for a chat with Miss Clarke and had stayed for a rubber of bridge. Her interest in the subject was, of course, intense. While the game was in progress, she said little, but it was obvious from her play, which was even more slapdash than usual, that her mind was not on the cards. The moment that the rubber was over, she rose from the table with hardly a word of apology to the hapless Edelman who had partnered her. She had the air of someone who had come to a great decision.

“I’ve got it!” she announced. “Listen, everybody! Mr. Wood is going to write another book.”

“Well, I hope to, of course,” said Mr. Wood mildly. “But I really haven’t the time for writing nowadays. The work here is----”

“Now, now, Mr. Wood!” said the Merry Widow archly. “Hear me out. You’re going to write another book---and it will be all about us!”

“But Mrs. Hopkinson, please!” Mr. Wood was writhing with embarrassment. “I couldn’t! I’ve never put living people into my books. One doesn’t write that way. At least, I don’t. It’s impossible to explain, but---well, it’s----”

“Oh, I don’t mean about poor little us as we really are, of course! That would be too dreadful, I’m sure. We should all be disguised, naturally---with perhaps a teeny bit of our worst selves peeping out to make it more interesting. And then we should all have the fun of reading it afterwards and guessing who was who. You’d have lots of readers, you can be sure.”

“Lots of libel actions too, I dare say,” Pettigrew murmured. Mr. Wood groaned.

“But seriously,” Miss Clarke’s deep voice put in, “would not the Control make a very suitable setting for one of your stories, Mr. Wood? I’ve always understood that these murder mysteries usually took place in a large house with a lot of people in it, so as to make the solution as difficult as possible. Here you have a very large house with a great number of people in it. I should have thought it was exactly what you wanted.”

“Well, yes,” Mr. Wood admitted. “I don’t mind saying that that point had occurred to me. Of course, when you are in the way of writing you can’t help looking out for backgrounds that would come in handy.”

“Then you are writing a book about us!” Mrs. Hopkinson exclaimed in triumph. “You see, I knew you wouldn’t be able to help it!”

“No, no! I never said anything of the sort. I have no idea of writing at the moment. I only said that I agreed with Miss Clarke in thinking that the Control would make quite a good background for a book. Given the time to write it---and the plot, of course,” he added.

“I’m sure plots come easy to you,” said Mrs. Hopkinson with a dazzling smile.

“I assure you they don’t always.”

“But we’d help you with that, wouldn’t we?” She appealed to the room. “Let’s make a start now. Who should we have for the murderer?”

“You want to settle who’s going to be murdered first, don’t you?” said Mr. Edelman, looking up for the first time from the newspaper to which he had retreated as soon as the rubber was over.

“Which do you think of first, Mr. Wood,” the Merry Widow asked, “the murderer or the poor slaughtered victim?”

“Oh really, I couldn’t tell you,” said the harassed author. “I’ve never asked myself. You can’t have a murderer without someone to murder, after all. It’s like the hen and the egg.”

“Is it true you always write the last chapter first?” Miss Danville asked.

“Certainly not. How can you tell what the end of a book is going to be before you’ve begun it?”

“Do you mean to tell me,” said Miss Clarke in a severely disapproving tone, “that you will start a book of this kind without knowing what the solution is going to be?”

“That’s not what I said at all. I only meant----”

“Order, order!” Mrs. Hopkinson clapped her hands. “We’re wandering from the giddy point. The question is, who do we want to have murdered?”

It was Mr. Phillips who was actually the first person to say, “Rickaby”, but Mr. Edelman, Miss Clarke and Miss Brown were so close behind him that the name came out almost in chorus.

“Splendid! That’s one thing settled right away. Now who----”

“Wait a minute.” In spite of himself, it was obvious that Mr. Wood was becoming interested. It was as though Amyas Leigh was beginning to stir beneath the disguise of the self-effacing temporary civil servant. “Wait a minute. I’m not sure that I want to murder Rickaby.”

“Not want to murder----? But Mr. Wood, dear, why not? We all want to. He’s such a ghastly person.”

“No, no. I’m not talking about my personal feelings. I’m speaking as a novelist. I just don’t see Rickaby as a murderee, that’s all. He’s not---how shall I put it?---not important enough. I always like to have some central figure, on whom you can focus a mass of different motives---jealousies, hates and fears and so on. Then you have something to work on. A little wretch whom everybody dislikes isn’t good enough.”

“I’m old-fashioned,” Pettigrew observed. “Give me the millionaire’s body in the library, and I’m quite content.”

Wood gave him an understanding look.

“Exactly,” he said slowly. “Now we are getting somewhere. Do you see what I see?”

Pettigrew smiled and nodded.

“What are you two talking about?” the Merry Widow asked in exasperation. “We haven’t got a millionaire in this outfit!”

“But we have a very beautiful library,” said Pettigrew.

Wood was filling his pipe with an air of immense concentration.

“Two entrances and french windows opening on to the terrace,” he murmured. “I noticed it the first time I went in there. It’s ideal.”

Mrs. Hopkinson looked from one to the other in bewilderment, and then light suddenly came to her and she clapped her hands.

“The Controller!” she exclaimed. “Why didn’t we think of it sooner? Of course! We’ll blooming well massacre the Controller!”

“Really!” said Miss Clarke in her office voice, the voice that was wont to spread alarm and despondency through her entire department. “A joke’s a joke, I know, Alice, but I have to consider office discipline, and this is----”

“Now Judith, if you are going to wet-blanket our fun and games, I’ll never speak to you again! This is out of office hours and we can say what we like. Besides, Mr. Wood is a real author, and if he says the Controller’s to be murdered then murdered he will be. Now, who shall we have for murderer?”

“This is rather like Nuts in May, isn’t it?” said Phillips.

“Rather!” Mrs. Hopkinson giggled. “Who shall we have to fetch him away, fetch him away, fetch----”

But Miss Danville had risen to her feet.

“If you’ll excuse me, I think I shall go to bed,” she said, breathlessly but determinedly. “I don’t like this---this discussion of taking the life of a fellow human being. Even in fun. It’s---it’s not seemly. Especially just now. When so many men and women are being sacrificed all over the world. I know I was to blame, too---I joined in this game, thoughtlessly. But when it comes to selecting one of us to play the part of Cain----You must excuse me.”

She walked out of the room with dignity, clutching her little leather-covered book in her hand.

There was a moment’s silence following her departure, and then Miss Brown’s soft voice was heard.

“Oh, poor Miss Danville!” she murmured in a tone of genuine pity.

Pettigrew could not but notice the look of sympathy and admiration that Phillips gave her at that moment. It was obvious that, whether he shared her feelings or not, the little secretary’s kindheartedness had moved him.

“Damn it! I believe he really cares for her!” thought Pettigrew. The reflection disturbed him. Miss Brown, he felt, was not the type to take a love affair lightly. It would ruin her efficiency as a secretary, and he was fully aware of her value to him.

Miss Danville had no other sympathizers.

“I expect we shall all be well and truly prayed for to-night,” said Miss Clarke contemptuously. She seemed to have conquered any distaste which she might have originally felt for the proposal, for she added, “Go on, Alice.”

“Where was I? Oh, yes, of course, looking for a murderer. Who can we find who’s a really villainous, bloodthirsty piece of work? I don’t mind saying I have a certain person in my mind’s eye----”

“If you mean Rickaby,” said Wood authoritatively, watching his pipe smoke curl upwards to the ceiling, “he’s no good at all.”

“Oh, Mr. Wood, have a heart!” the Merry Widow groaned.

“But he isn’t,” the novelist persisted. “You’ve just given the reason yourself. If a man is obviously the sort you’d expect at sight to commit a crime, you can’t have him for the villain of a detective story. If you do, where’s your puzzle? What you want, of course, is the most unlikely person you can find.”

“I have some little experience of this sort of thing in real life,” Pettigrew remarked. “And there, I find, the police nearly always pick on the obvious person. And it is distressing to observe that they are nearly always right.”

“We’re not getting anywhere,” complained Mrs. Hopkinson. “Look how late it is! I’ll have to be toddling in five minutes and I know I shan’t sleep if we haven’t settled this. Mr. Wood, who is it to be?”

“That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to make up my mind about. You want somebody unexpected. Well, that, I think, would apply to any of us here. The difficulty is to find a plausible motive for murdering the Controller, and motive is half the battle in these things.”

“We’d all like to murder him sometimes,” said Edelman.

“Of course, but that isn’t quite what I meant. We’d all be suspects, naturally. Anyone in the Control could be. There’s no reason why one should confine oneself to the people in this room.” He paused, and then added, “No, if I had to choose a villain, I should be rather inclined to select Miss Danville.”

“Oh, but that’s unkind!” exclaimed Miss Brown impulsively.

“My dear child, this is only a game,” said Miss Clarke reprovingly.

“Miss Danville,” Mr. Wood repeated. “I don’t know whether it has occurred to you, but she is so very religious, it’s hardly normal. For the purposes of a story only, of course, one might exaggerate the abnormality, present the Controller with some unholy hidden vice which she would discover, and then, given the right circumstances----”

“Religious mania?” Mr. Phillips inquired doubtfully. “I seem to have read something like it before---I never can remember the names of books, but----”

“Of course it has been done before,” said Mr. Wood with a frown. “Everything has. That’s the worst of this game. But I’m asked to propound a plot on the spur of the moment and that’s the best that I can do. I’m sorry if----”

“Oh, but Mr. Phillips didn’t mean that,” Mrs. Hopkinson hastened to assure him. “I think it’s a lovely idea, and I’m sure we all do. And when it’s written down, I’m certain nobody will ever guess the secret till the last chapter, except lucky us, who were in at the start. You will write it, won’t you, Mr. Wood?”

He shook his head.

“I’m afraid not. Even if I had the leisure for writing here, I couldn’t possibly do it---put real people into a book, I mean.”

“Well, if you say not, but it does seem a shame. . . . Still, there’d be no harm in seeing how the book would go, if there was a book, so to speak? And it might always come in handy for you if you were going to write a real book later on, about something different, wouldn’t it? I’m sure we’d all love to help you.”

“I don’t quite follow you.”

“I think,” said Edelman in his heavy precise manner, “that what Mrs. Hopkinson has in mind is that we should beguile our leisure by constructing an imaginary detective tale, casting ourselves for the various parts----”

“That’s it, exactly!”

“With you, of course, as editor-in-chief, so to speak. It might be amusing.”

“Well, it is an idea, certainly,” Wood admitted. “I don’t know quite how----”

“My dears, I must fly!” Mrs. Hopkinson exclaimed, gathering her belongings hastily together. “Just look at the time! Thanks ever so for a lovely evening. I think it’s a thrilling notion. We’ll have a good old pow-wow about it later on. I’m sure I shall dream of horrors! Good night all!”

Her flurried departure broke up the party. Soon afterwards the other ladies went to bed, followed by Phillips and Wood. Pettigrew remained, staring into the fire, his nose wrinkled in a fashion peculiar to him when deep in thought. Then he looked across the room at Edelman and chuckled softly.

“What’s the joke?” It was so rare for Edelman to put a direct question that the effect was quite startling.

“I was just thinking that you seem to have insured against Mrs. Hopkinson being your partner at bridge for quite a time to come.”

Edelman uttered a short, mirthless laugh.

“That is one advantage, certainly,” he said drily. “It will give her something else to do.”

“Quite. Let us hope there will be no compensating disadvantages.”

But his tone did not sound particularly hopeful.

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