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5: Encounter at “The Gamecock”

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Author Topic: 5: Encounter at “The Gamecock”  (Read 3 times)
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« on: November 09, 2023, 06:53:03 am »

LOOKING BACK afterwards, Pettigrew dated from these events the beginning of a new and decidedly less agreeable period in his life at the Control, particularly so far as the part of it that was spent at Fernlea was concerned. The atmosphere at the Residential Club, he found, had changed entirely. Its inhabitants, instead of being a collection of individuals trying, more or less successfully, to tolerate one another’s peculiarities, showed now an ever increasing tendency to divide themselves into two sharply opposed groups. The fact, that there was only one sitting-room in which to spend the lengthening winter evenings made the split all the more apparent.

The dividing line between the two parties was their attitude towards the criminal fantasy in process of being devised by Wood---“the Plot”, as it was called by its adepts; and the fact that determined to which party any individual should belong was soon seen to be a purely personal one---his or her attitude to Miss Danville. She had made it clear from the start that she disapproved of the whole business, and the fact that she had been cast for the crucial role in it without her knowledge had the effect of transforming what had been begun as an amusing parlour game into a kind of conspiracy from which she had to be vigorously excluded. Used as she was to living in a world of her own, she would probably not have resented being left in a minority of one, even if she had noticed it. But Miss Brown, who had now assumed the function of protector towards her, saw to it that she was not. Under her influence, Phillips too deserted the ranks of the plotters and the trio formed a solid group every evening in one corner of the room, while the opposition party occupied another.

The leader of the plotters was, of course, Wood, who was now never without a sheaf of notes from which he would regale his admirers with the latest ideas that had occurred to him during the day. Edelman was a powerful supporter---a trifle too powerful for the author’s taste, sometimes, when his fertile imagination threatened to take charge of the plot altogether, or, as Wood put it, “upset the whole balance of the story”. Miss Clarke, too, had now come out wholeheartedly in its favour. Her previous objections were outweighed by the prospect of putting Miss Danville in a ridiculous light, and she was prepared even to co-operate with Edelman, against whom, inside the office, she was still waging an endless war of memoranda regarding the condition of the Blenkinsop file. Mrs. Hopkinson, now a more frequent visitor than ever, was of little practical assistance but was a noisy and uncritical admirer of everything that anybody else thought of. Finally, even Rickaby was initiated into the scheme, less because he had become any more popular with the others than because it was obviously impossible for him to belong to the opposition.

To Pettigrew, hovering uneasily between the two parties and striving to keep on good terms with both, it was a somewhat disquieting situation. For one thing, his orderly, legal mind was offended by the fact that the plotters seemed to have no notion of what they proposed to do with the plot which they were perpetually discussing, altering and elaborating. Wood, indeed, evidently had the vague idea that at some future date it might, when suitably disguised, form the foundation for a publishable novel; and this was at least reasonable. Mrs. Hopkinson more than once made the wholly impracticable suggestion that the thing should be somehow transmogrified into an entertainment which could be acted for the amusement of the staff at Christmas. (She caused some amusement to the others when she offered to dye her hair in order to play one of the parts more effectively.) But for the rest, they appeared to be content with the exercise of their imaginations on a theme that grew steadily more and more fantastic.

It was, he concluded, the effect of the situation in which they found themselves. None of them had any interests in Marsett Bay outside their work. Many of the married employees had managed to transfer their families to the neighbourhood and so to maintain a more or less normal existence out of office hours. But except for Edelman, whose wife and child were in America, the Fernlea residents were unmarried. Time hung heavy on their hands, and it was natural that they should employ it in some way. But he wished devoutly that they could have hit upon some other. It was, he felt obscurely, decidedly unhealthy. More particularly, he could not believe that Miss Danville could be kept indefinitely in ignorance of the part assigned to her in what Mrs. Hopkinson had inevitably christened “the Perfect Crime”. And from what he knew of her, he feared that the disclosure when it came might have a serious effect upon her. He ventured to mention this consideration to Edelman, whom he judged to be the most reasonable member of his set. The result was disappointing. Edelman listened to him gravely, and remarked in a dispassionate tone that he was probably right, and that although it was impossible to predict human reactions with any real accuracy, the results would certainly be of interest. Pettigrew felt as though he was listening to a chemist discussing the possible outcome of an experiment. He did not pursue the subject any further.

On the day of this conversation, Pettigrew received a letter which served to relieve him of at least one of his anxieties. It came from his tenant in the Temple.

“Dear Frank,” it ran. “Many thanks for your letter. I have made the inquiries you asked for. As I expected, old Tillotson professed to be shocked at my demand, which he quite properly regarded as an attempt to induce a breach of professional confidence. As I also expected, he ended by coming across with what I wanted. I enclose a copy of his letter. It all seems quite satisfactory, though the gentleman must be getting a bit long in the tooth for a second marriage, to judge by the dates.

“Three circuit briefs have come my way recently, marked ‘for Mr. Pettigrew, on war service’. The half fees will be duly paid into your account, as we arranged. I was at Rampleford Assizes last week. Your absence was much deplored, but the mess is only a shadow of itself these days. Yours ever, Bill.”

The enclosure was in the following terms:

“Your friend need not be in any doubt that Mr. Phillips is in fact a widower---unless he has re-married, as to which, I have, of course, no information. My firm acted for him in securing probate of the late Mrs. Sarah Emily Phillips’s will as long ago as 1931. On turning up the papers, I see that she actually died on the 19th September in that year at Bloomington Hospital, Herts, her husband being sole executor. I think that this information should serve his purpose, and he will, I know, treat it as strictly confidential.

“Perhaps I should add that Mr. Phillips entered the firm’s employment in 1919, and while with us gave complete satisfaction. The particular branch of our activities with which he was concerned came to a standstill on the declaration of war, and although we should have been glad to employ him in another capacity at a not very reduced salary, he expressed a desire to find work elsewhere more closely associated with the war effort. We should certainly be prepared to consider his re-employment on the cessation of hostilities, should an opening then exist. I should point out, to avoid any possible misunderstanding, that the statutory provisions governing Reinstatement in Civil Employment, do not apply in his case.”

Nothing, Pettigrew told himself, could be more satisfactory. And if, at the same time, he felt a wholly illogical twinge of disappointment, that was clearly attributable to the craving for melodrama that clings even to mature men engaged in the most humdrum occupations. Henceforward, he could watch the development of the romance with disinterested eyes. Provided, of course, that it did not interfere with Miss Brown’s work---and so far there was no sign of that.

In the course of the next week or so he realized that there were other eyes on the situation which were not quite so disinterested. Mrs. Hopkinson began to manifest unmistakable signs of dislike for Phillips. Hitherto, there had never, so far as Pettigrew’s observation went, been anything “between” them, either by way of affection or the reverse. But, as Phillips grew progressively more and more engrossed with Miss Brown, the Merry Widow became steadily sourer towards him. At the same time, after her proposal for a dramatic version of the Plot had been rejected for the last time, her interest in it abruptly fell off. By way of compensation, apparently, she decided to devote her energies to “taking up”, or alternatively “bringing out” Miss Brown, in whom she had always shewn a rather embarrassing maternal interest. And to this operation, Phillips was an obvious and annoying obstacle. The alliance between Miss Brown and Miss Danville, whom she openly despised, naturally added to her ill humour.

To his dismay, Pettigrew found himself, not for the first time, the recipient of unwanted confidences. Penning him in a corner of the room, Mrs. Hopkinson bewailed to him that the girl was getting into the wrong hands. Something, she insisted vaguely, should be done about it. Did Pettigrew know that she had three hundred a year of her own? Pettigrew did not, and wondered very much whether Mrs. Hopkinson did, or whether she had invented the figure as a likely one. Three hundred a year! she repeated, nodding her copper curls, and no boy friends! It wasn’t natural, at that age, was it? As to Phillips, it was obvious that he was a fortune-hunter. There was only his word for it that he was a widower at all. Ten to one he had a wife and half a dozen kids somewhere. She knew that sort. It made her downright sick to see him getting away with it, and that old looney of a Danville egging her on all the time. A young thing like that ought to be enjoying herself and seeing life, the same as she had when she was a girl, instead of tying herself up with a man old enough to be her father. She knew, Mrs. Hopkinson concluded reminiscently, what it was to make a mistake of that kind, and it wasn’t everybody who was as lucky as she had been, either.

Pettigrew, left to conclude that Mrs. Hopkinson’s luck had consisted in Mr. Hopkinson deciding to die conveniently early, contented himself with inarticulate murmurs and managed to avoid committing himself. Privately, he felt bound to admit that the Merry Widow’s views, though differently expressed, were not so very far from those which he had himself felt only a short time before. He did not feel at liberty to set her mind at rest regarding Phillips’s widowerhood, and when pressed further for his opinion in the matter, evaded the issue by pointing out that Miss Brown had not tied herself up yet.

Indeed, it was singularly difficult to say as yet whether Miss Brown did in fact propose to tie herself up with Phillips or not. His intentions were obvious. So was Miss Danville’s enthusiastic support of his suit. No match-making mother ever encouraged a man more. Mrs. Hopkinson, never given to finesse, could not have made her disapproval plainer. Miss Brown remained the sole unknown quantity. Always calm and quiet, she appeared equally serene and contented whether she was by herself, with Phillips, with Miss Danville, or, as more often happened, in the company of the two together. She even seemed to tolerate Mrs. Hopkinson, though that lady complained bitterly that she “could get nothing out of her”. Her self-possession, Pettigrew felt, was admirable. He began to wonder whether she was not better able to look after herself than he had supposed.

One evening, Pettigrew felt that he could stand the atmosphere of the Fernlea no longer. He had had a tiring day. The Controller had been exceptionally obstructive over the amendments by which Pettigrew had hoped to introduce some semblance of logic into the wild ramifications of the latest Order governing the marketing of pins. Miss Danville had neglected to make the tea until her whistling kettle had blown its piercing blast for five agonizing minutes. The war news was depressing. And now the evening session in the lounge was in full swing. The plotters were huddled in their corner, eagerly discussing some new absurdity introduced by Edelman. From time to time their colloquy was interrupted by bursts of laughter, interspersed with meaning glances in the direction of Miss Danville and no less meaning cries of “Sh-h!” Miss Danville, her lips moving slowly, was absorbed in her book, from which she raised her eyes occasionally to cast approving glances at Miss Brown and Phillips, sitting together on the sofa, speaking little but apparently satisfied in each other’s company. When the door opened to admit Mrs. Hopkinson, Pettigrew decided on action. Side-stepping her neatly, he slipped into the hall, took his hat and coat off the peg and walked out of the house.

“What I need,” he said to himself as he groped his way along the pavement, “is a drink.” It came to him with surprise that it was a long time since he had had one. There was something monastic about the atmosphere of Marsett Bay that seemed to inhibit his thirst. Perhaps it was because he had so far not found anybody there he particularly wanted to drink with. Whatever the reason, he felt that by now it was decidedly overdue.

At the corner of the High Street, he hesitated. Just across the way was the White Hart. It would be, he knew, crowded with the bright young things of the Control, and in his present mood he did not want to see any more of his fellow government servants. The Crown, further down the road, would not be much better. Where else was there? He remembered that down an alley-way somewhere on his left, he had noticed a little pub bearing the sign of the Gamecock. (Was cock-fighting still practised in these parts, he wondered?) It occurred to him that this might be worth trying, if he could find it in the black-out. A quiet local, with its own faithful clientele, the kind of place where a casual visitor would be left severely alone, regarded with suspicion by the regulars. In his present mood, that was exactly what Pettigrew wanted.

Ten minutes later, he was sitting in a corner of a dimly lit bar parlour, absorbing a pint of weak war-time beer and thankfully reflecting that there was nobody within sight who took the smallest interest in him or was in the least likely to throw a word in his direction. He was about half-way through his tankard when he became aware that the light had suddenly become noticeably dimmer. Looking up, he found that he was in the shadow of a very tall, very broad figure that was advancing towards him from the bar. He registered the fact without any particular interest and was just putting his can to his lips again when a voice said, “Fancy meeting you here, Mr. Pettigrew!”

“Hell!” said Pettigrew under his breath as he reluctantly lowered his drink. Was he never to escape from the Control? Neither the voice nor the figure, however, seemed to belong to any of his Marsett Bay acquaintances, though both were vaguely familiar. Then the light caught the pointed tip of a long dark moustache and he exclaimed with pleasure as well as surprise, “Inspector Mallett, of all people! What on earth are you doing here?”

Mallett did not reply to the question at once. Instead, he produced from somewhere under his left armpit a small, wiry man with a very long nose, and said, “This is Detective-Inspector Jellaby, of the County Constabulary, sir. We’ll come and sit by you, if you’ve no objection.”

“Objection? Of course not!” said Pettigrew, who a moment before had been rejoicing in his solitude. His acquaintance with Inspector Mallett, of New Scotland Yard, was confined to a brief and tragic episode in his life, but he had then formed a great admiration for the beefy man with a nimble brain and he was unaffectedly pleased to see him again.

“This is the last place I expected to meet you,” he went on, when they were all settled. “Either my reading of the newspapers has been deplorably lax, or there has been no crime of note in this part of the world. Don’t tell me that there is really a plot to murder the Pin Controller.”

“Really a plot to murder Mr. Palafox?” Mallett repeated with the innocent gravity with which he always received the most unlikely propositions. “I can’t say that I have heard of any such thing. You haven’t come across anything, I hope, sir, that makes you suspect----”

“No, no, of course not. I was only talking nonsense. It’s a habit that’s sadly catching in this place, I’m afraid. I have the misfortune to share lodgings with a writer of detective stories, which is rather unsettling to the imagination.”

“Quite so, sir. No, I haven’t come on anything of that kind. I’ve been taken off my usual work at the Yard to---to poke my nose into matters up here generally.”

“I see. I had no idea that the Control could be an object of interest to Scotland Yard.”

“I don’t think I mentioned the Control, Mr. Pettigrew,” said Mallett cautiously.

“But you did mention the name of the Controller, and I’m hanged if I can see why you should bother to find that out unless----”

The end of the sentence was drowned in a rumble of genial laughter from Mallett.

“You had me there, sir,” he confessed. “I ought to have known better. You must let me order you another pint for that.”

“I suppose,” said Pettigrew, when the fresh drinks had been brought, “you can’t tell me what the affairs you are interested in amount to?”

He was conscious that Inspector Jellaby was looking down his long nose in a disapproving manner, but Mallett did not seem disturbed by the question. He took a long drink, carefully wiped his moustaches and appeared to meditate before he replied.

“Your position here, sir, is that of legal adviser to the Control?”

“Quite right.”

“And you have, of course, no connection, past or present, with the trade?”

“The pin trade? I don’t know the first thing about it.”

“Exactly. I don’t know if you realize, Mr. Pettigrew, quite how singular you are in that respect, so far as the Control is concerned.”

“Am I? I’m afraid I never gave any great thought to the matter. Naturally, I took it for granted that it was largely staffed by experts. It’s not my pigeon, really.”

“Just so. And the experts, of course, are drawn from the trade. Above a certain level, the great majority of the workers here are in peace-time employed by the firms who have to be governed in war by the Control. It’s inevitable, really. They are the only people who could do the job.”

“I am lamentably incurious about my fellows except where they concern me personally,” said Pettigrew. “I don’t talk shop with them or they with me. I don’t even know how most of the people I see every day earn their livings in civil life.”

“You stay at the Fernlea Residential Club, don’t you?” the inspector said. “Let me see . . . Edelman is advertisement manager to a big marketing company. Wood was head clerk to another firm in the same line. Rickaby is the nephew of the chairman of the largest exporters of pins in the world. Miss Clarke doesn’t seem to have any connection with the trade, so far as I can tell at present, but I’m not sure. Miss Brown is, of course, quite independent. That’s the lot, I think.”

“Phillips,” murmured Jellaby.

“That’s one man I do know about,” said Pettigrew. “He’s a solicitor’s clerk.”

“Of course,” Mallett agreed. “What was it I was telling you about his firm, Mr. Jellaby?”

“Amalgamation,” Jellaby observed.

“That was it. They carried through the merger of two rival trade associations just before the war. I don’t say that that is how Phillips comes to be here, but it seems likely.”

Pettigrew laughed.

“I was just thinking,” he said by way of explanation, “that you need hardly have bothered to ask me whether I had any links with the trade. You must have known the answer before you put the question.”

“Quite so, sir,” said Mallett gravely.

“Well, Inspector, to continue----”

“Well, to put it shortly, some of these people may find themselves in a position where their public duty and their private interest don’t entirely coincide. You follow me, sir?”

“Alas for human nature, I do!”

“Ninety-nine out of a hundred of them are perfectly honest, I have no doubt. But there is always the chance of the hundredth.”

“You are not telling me, Inspector, that you came all the way to this singularly uncomfortable spot on a chance.”

“It is a bit more definite than that,” Mallett admitted. “There have been certain things---leakages of information, breaches of the control and so forth that made us think that a look round here would be advisable. I can’t put it higher than that.”

“And I should be the last person to ask you to do so. Well, Inspector, you have at least given me a new interest in life at Marsett Bay, and for that alone I am very deeply in your debt. It’s time I was getting back. There is a look in the landlord’s eye that tells me he is about to call time. The worst of having police in the place is that it makes these fellows so confoundedly punctual. Good night. I don’t suppose I can be of any conceivable use to you, but if I should happen to run across anything in your line, I’ll let you know.”

“I shall be much obliged, sir. The police station here will always find me. Good night, sir. Oh by the way----”

“Yes?”

“What you said just now about a plot to murder the Controller. That was only a joke, I suppose, sir?”

“Sorry as I am to disappoint you, it was. And a very poor joke too, I’m afraid. Good night.”

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