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4: Chivalry in the Canteen

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Author Topic: 4: Chivalry in the Canteen  (Read 3 times)
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« on: November 09, 2023, 06:28:27 am »

MR. WOOD worked in the Enforcement branch, at the same table as Mr. Phillips, in the corner near A.14’s door. He could not help hearing Miss Danville’s last words, and he looked up as she brushed past him.

“Good Lord!” he said to his neighbour. “Did you notice that?”

Mr. Phillips, who was a slow and conscientious worker, looked up from his papers reluctantly.

“Notice what?” he said. “Oh, Miss Danville---she seemed to be in rather a hurry.”

“You mean you didn’t hear? My dear chap, I was right about that woman. She’s crackers!”

Phillips looked at him with grave concern.

“I trust you are mistaken,” he said. “Mental derangement is a terrible calamity for a woman---terrible.”

“Well, it’s terrible for anybody, man or woman, if you come to that,” Wood replied. “I don’t mean that I’m not sorry for the poor thing, but I suggested last night that I thought she was a bit crazy and now I’m sure of it.” He reached for a scrap of paper and began to scribble notes on it. “The only trouble from my point of view is that it makes the whole thing too easy,” he murmured.

Phillips, who usually resented interruptions to his work, seemed on this occasion quite prepared to pursue the subject.

“Too easy?” he echoed. “Insanity, surely, doesn’t make things easy. It makes them difficult---very difficult indeed.”

“Don’t mean that at all,” grunted Wood between his jottings. “From my point of view, I said. The writer’s point of view. A mad murderer explains everything. Supplies his own motive. Needn’t behave in character. Can kill most improbable people. It’s a piece of cake. I thought I’d explained all that yesterday.”

“Of course, of course,” Phillips agreed. “Only, I didn’t realize at the time---I mean, if Miss Danville is really---er---abnormal, doesn’t it make the whole thing rather---rather dangerous?”

“I don’t see that it does.” Wood carefully folded up his paper and put it away. “She doesn’t know the part we’ve cast her for, you see. No reason why she should. Otherwise, I agree, she might take the game seriously. No, what I was wondering was whether it would be better to have her murder Miss Clarke---that would be a bit too obvious, perhaps---or Edelman. On the whole, though, I see Edelman as a villain. Perhaps he could use her to carry out his own ends---the Svengali motive, you know. He’d enjoy that, I fancy.”

He looked at the clock. “Quarter to one,” he observed. “I’m going down to the canteen before it gets too crowded. Are you coming?”

“Er---not just yet. I think I’ll just finish what I’m on first. Please don’t wait for me.”

“I shan’t.” Wood left him with a grin. It had not escaped his notice that Miss Brown usually came into lunch at a quarter past one, and that Phillips nowadays always happened to be at the entrance to the canteen just in time to meet her there. His grin was without malice. It must, he felt, be an uneasy business trying to conduct an incongruous courtship under the eyes of several hundred people.

Miss Brown, meanwhile, was standing beside Pettigrew’s desk while he read through a long draft which she had just typed from his dictation. Her work, he had discovered, was neat, quick and accurate, and it was seldom that he found very much to correct. Miss Brown, too, was well aware of her own qualities, and her expression was one of meek self-satisfaction as one sheet after another was read, approved and laid aside. She was therefore taken entirely by surprise when Pettigrew, near the end of his perusal, suddenly burst into a shout of uncontrollable laughter.

“Is anything the matter, Mr. Pettigrew?” she asked.

Pettigrew took off his spectacles, wiped them, blew his nose and became himself once more.

“I apologize,” he said. “But this place is so damnably dull that anything out of the way seems irresistibly funny. It’s this bit here---just look at it.”

Miss Brown followed his pointing finger and read: “The decision is hardly compatible with Campkin v. Eager, but that case, it should be remembered, was decided at Nicey Priors.”

“Who do you suppose the Nicey Priors were?” asked Pettigrew, beginning to chuckle again. “They sound an amiable crowd of old gentlemen.”

“I don’t know, I’m sure,” said Miss Brown, blushing uncomfortably, “but that is what you dictated, Mr. Pettigrew.” She began to turn over the leaves of her shorthand notes.

“No doubt it was. Don’t bother to turn it up. It was my fault for not explaining that I was talking lawyer’s Latin, and with a lawyer’s false quantities at that.” He crossed out the words, wrote in “Nisi Prius”, and murmured, “Poor old Priors! I’m quite sorry to see them go. But they had no business in the Court of Exchequer. Their proper place obviously was the Council of Nicea. Are you well up in the early Christian Fathers, Miss Brown?”

Miss Brown was not, and indicated the fact rather shortly. But Pettigrew, chasing his own fancy, failed to see the danger sign.

“Neither am I, to be honest. I fear they are rather a neglected tribe nowadays. Miss Danville, I daresay, is quite an authority on the subject.”

Miss Brown looked her superior full in the eyes.

“I wish you wouldn’t all make fun of poor Miss Danville,” she said with unwonted firmness. “She is a very, very nice person, and it’s not at all fair.”

She gathered up her papers and retreated, leaving Pettigrew for once in his life utterly at a loss for words.

But it was not what his secretary had said that had caused his confusion, although later he reflected rather bitterly that an elderly man making fun of a young woman’s very natural ignorance cut a somewhat ridiculous figure and deserved any snub he might get. Her real impression on him had been made before she ever opened her mouth. He realized to his great surprise that this was the first time they had ever looked at each other directly. She had a trick of avoiding people’s eyes which he had noted before. Now he was suddenly aware that Miss Brown was the possessor of a pair of large, intensely blue eyes, so vivid and brilliant as entirely to transform her otherwise unremarkable face. The discovery was quite upsetting.

“And I thought she was plain!” he told himself. “Those eyes could be pretty dangerous used the right way.” His nose wrinkled. “Thank heaven,” he mused, “given proper care, there’s no reason why she should ever turn them on to me again, anyway.”

He was perfectly honest with himself, but none the less, when Miss Brown, a few moments later, put her head round the door to announce that she was going to lunch, he felt irrationally disappointed that as usual she looked firmly at his feet.

Pettigrew went into lunch late. By the time he arrived in the canteen it was already emptying. He helped himself to a plate of the stew that was the staple fare at Marsett Bay and found a seat without difficulty. From where he sat he could see the Controller, blond, fattish, and a little bald, lunching tête-à-tête with the head of the Export Department, one of the few other permanent Civil Servants in the Control. In their neat, black suits, and with their serious, aloof expressions, they contrived to bring into their incongruous surroundings an indefinable atmosphere of Whitehall. Further down the room, he noticed two heads close together---Phillips’s iron-grey hair and his secretary’s mousy brown. The sight set him thinking once more of the problem that the evident state of affairs between them was likely to cause, but this time he was less concerned with its effect on himself than the possible consequences to her. He had gleaned something of her circumstances during the time that he had been at Marsett Bay, although she was not communicative and Pettigrew was the last person to wish to pry into the affairs of others. Piecing together what he had gathered, he was surprised to realize how very much alone in the world she was. She had no brothers or sisters, and her mother had apparently died several years before. Since then she had kept house for her father until his death a year or so ago. Obviously she had never made many friends of her own age, and possibly this might explain why she gravitated naturally to the society of a much older man.

What had the father been like? Pettigrew wondered, as he finished his stew, and turned to the tasteless caramel pudding that followed it. Evidently a man of some education---at least he had given a reasonably good education to his daughter, even if she didn’t recognize “Nisi Prius”. Moreover, although he found it hard to say exactly why, he had the impression that the late Mr. Brown, if not a rich man, had not left his daughter entirely penniless. Miss Brown was certainly not extravagant in her dress or way of life, but Pettigrew felt distinctly that, unlike most of the typists employed by the Control, she had a “background”, and that in that background there was a modest, but assured, income.

Pettigrew frowned a little as he contemplated the picture presented by the couple at the table. On the one side, youth, inexperience, loneliness and a bit of money; on the other side---Phillips. There was something about it that displeased him. Not that he had anything against Phillips---on the contrary, he seemed an amiable, good natured, if rather dull, fellow. It was only in the capacity of a potential husband to Miss Brown that he disapproved of him. It was a feeling that he strove to rationalize, but not altogether to his satisfaction. He ran rapidly over in his mind what he knew of the man. An unadmitted solicitor’s clerk---a snob might say that he was hardly of the same social class as Miss Brown, but that was her affair. From what he had let fall, it was to be gathered that he was a widower, and he was obviously a good twenty-five years her elder. It seemed a drab matrimonial outlook for her, but again that was a matter in which she was entitled to make her own choice. The fact that she spent her working hours in turning Pettigrew’s words into odd-looking symbols on a pad of paper did not give him the right or the power to interfere. Further, Pettigrew told himself firmly, he had no desire to interfere, unless of course it should become a public duty, and there was no prospect of that. All the same. . . . Casting about for some reason to justify the dislike which he felt towards the situation, he wondered for the first time why Phillips had left his employers, at a time when solicitors’ clerks were extremely scarce. He was too old, surely, to have been “directed” into his present job. Was there some unsavoury story behind it? Quite abruptly, Pettigrew found that he was convinced that Phillips was an impostor, who had been dismissed by his employers for dishonesty, who was in fact a married man, and the sort of man that preys on young women with money. A moment later, he was laughing at himself for his melodramatic suspicions. They were, however, vivid enough for him to wish to dispose of them, and then and there he made up his mind to make a discreet inquiry from the firm where Phillips had been formerly employed. It could at least do no harm.

His train of thought was interrupted by a loud laugh, of peculiarly unpleasant quality, from a table near by. He did not need to look round to know who it came from, but he looked round none the less. Rickaby was sitting with a pretty, much made-up girl from the typing pool, whom Pettigrew had seen more than once on his occasional visits to the White Hart, Marsett Bay’s principal licensed house. She too was laughing, and he wondered why she seemed so pleased with her company. For Rickaby was, of all the employees of the Control, the one whom Pettigrew disliked the most. He disliked everything about him, from his fair, slightly curly hair to his elegant pointed shoes. He disliked his vulgarity, his noisiness, the easy familiarity with which he masked, without disguising, his contempt for his elders. In a word (which he had coined specially for the occasion) he disliked his unsnubbability.

Pettigrew was too much of a realist not to have wondered more than once whether the root of his dislike was not the fact that Rickaby was by many years his junior, and enjoyed life, after his fashion, to a degree not given to a middle-aged bachelor in war-time. But he had been strengthened in his antipathy when he found that it was shared by most of his fellow residents at Fernlea, and that Wood, who had had to work with him at one time, complained of his incurable idleness. Above all, he had been delighted to observe that Miss Brown, at whom Rickaby had, in his own phrase, made a pass, had quietly but firmly rejected him. His confidence in her judgment in this matter was not quite in keeping with his doubts where Phillips was concerned but even middle-aged bachelors cannot be realists all the time.

Meanwhile, Rickaby was evidently enjoying his joke, and so also was his companion. It appeared from his gestures and elaborate mouthings that he was giving an imitation of somebody. Then, in mid career of his impersonation, something occurred to interrupt him. He glanced over his shoulder towards the door, dug his neighbour violently in the ribs and at the same time assumed an air of exaggerated solemnity. This, as was to be expected, had the effect of extracting from her another peal of laughter, which she vainly tried to suppress by stuffing a handkerchief into her mouth.

Pettigrew, following Rickaby’s eyes, saw Miss Danville coming down the middle of the room. He did not find anything in the spectacle in the least laughable. The poor woman was obviously distraught. She had been crying, and seemed hardly to know what she was doing. With shaking hands she endeavoured to help herself at the serving table, but only succeeded in dropping a plate. She stared at it stupidly as it lay on the floor, making no attempt to pick it up.

To Pettigrew’s fury, this only caused further bursts of merriment from Rickaby’s table. He half rose in his seat, undecided what to do. Before he could make up his mind, however, Miss Brown had intervened. Taking in the situation with a quickness that won Pettigrew’s approval, she hurried across the room, put her arm round Miss Danville and led her to her own table. Leaving her there for a moment, she was back again almost at once with a cup of coffee and some sandwiches. Then, sitting down beside her, she began what was evidently a successful attempt to calm her. Phillips, his broad, good-natured face expressing the keenest sympathy, joined in the quiet conversation, and by the time Pettigrew left the canteen, Miss Danville appeared to be restored to tranquillity.

Miss Brown did not appear in Pettigrew’s room till a quarter of an hour later.

“I am sorry I was so long over my lunch,” she said. “But something happened to delay me.”

“You needn’t apologize,” he replied. “I saw what happened, and, if you will allow me to say so, I think you behaved very well.”

“Thank you, Mr. Pettigrew.”

“If anybody ought to apologize,” Pettigrew went on, “I think that I should. I ought not to have tried to be funny at Miss Danville’s expense. It was in very bad taste. Please forget it.”

Miss Brown once more gave him the benefit of her brilliant blue eyes.

“Of course,” she murmured. “I’ve brought you the draft amendments to the new Regulation, Mr. Pettigrew. Do you want to go through them now?”

“That will be delightful,” Pettigrew said meekly.

Delightful or not, the draft amendments claimed his attention to the exclusion of everything else for the next two hours. At the end of that time, an ear-piercing whistle was heard outside his room. It continued for half a minute or so, and then hurried footsteps were heard in the corridor and the noise ceased abruptly.

“What on earth was that terrible din?” he asked Miss Brown, when she brought in his tea shortly afterwards.

“Miss Danville’s new kettle. I’m afraid it sounds rather loud in here, but of course the gas-ring is only just next door.”

“So I had observed. But why should Miss Danville’s new kettle be of this peculiarly strident type?”

“I do hope you won’t find it too disturbing, Mr. Pettigrew, but it was my idea, really. You see, Miss Danville makes the tea for all this side of the building---that reminds me, she asked me to collect one and eightpence from you for this month---and last week she let a kettle burn right through because she forgot all about it. You know, she is rather apt to forget things sometimes,” she added in the tone of one deprecating the shortcomings of a much loved pet dog.

“That also I had noticed, but I am glad she doesn’t forget to collect her dues. Here’s your one and eightpence. Then the musical kettle is intended as a gentle reminder of her duties? In principle it seems an excellent idea, but need it be quite so loud?”

“Well,” said Miss Brown as though she were confessing to a weakness of her own, “the fact is, Miss Danville is just a little deaf. You won’t tell anyone, will you? I don’t think she would like it to be known. So when I bought the kettle, naturally I got the loudest one I could find. But of course, if you object, Mr. Pettigrew----”

“Object? When my afternoon tea and Miss Danville’s peace of mind are at stake? Certainly not. I shall look forward to it every day with eagerness. By the way, are these kettles expensive things? Because if so, you must let me contribute----”

“I couldn’t think of it, Mr. Pettigrew. Have you finished with your tray?”

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