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8: Noises in the Corridor

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Author Topic: 8: Noises in the Corridor  (Read 6 times)
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« on: November 09, 2023, 08:05:43 am »

AS THE inspector had said, the investigation into breaches of the Orders governing the Manufacture, Marketing and Distribution of Pins was a dull business, even when dignified by the glamorous title of the Black Market. Pettigrew found it difficult to maintain any interest in the subject, in spite of the fact that he might now reasonably suspect that it concerned one or more of his immediate circle at the Control. On the other hand, the relationships between the same persons, as individuals, continued to provide problems which, while they often irritated him, he could not ignore. To his annoyance, they had begun to invade the office itself, instead of being confined to off-duty hours at Fernlea.

This new development manifested itself first in a number of small disturbances outside the door of his room. The mansion which housed the Control was not, generally speaking, a quiet place, but Pettigrew had the good fortune to be situated at the quietest end of it. Between him and the echoing halls where the main work of the departments was carried on lay the cloakrooms for the female staff and the little room that housed Miss Danville’s strident kettle. Opposite these was a staircase leading up to the Registry. On his other side dwelt only the Controller and his immediate assistants. Partly because they were naturally dignified and sedate personages and partly because their rank demanded the provision of rugs and carpets even in the corridors leading to their offices, very little sound proceeded from this side. There was not much traffic past Pettigrew’s door. Visitors to the Controller from outside used a side entrance further down the corridor, and except for an occasional messenger few of the rank and file had occasion to penetrate to the august regions at the end of it. From his desk Pettigrew could hear, if he listened for it, the distant rumour of coming and going in the big rooms and the frequent footsteps of messengers ascending and descending the staircase. Otherwise, he was seldom disturbed.

It was not the noise itself that he objected to, for it was slight enough and only occurred at fairly long intervals, but rather to the fact that it did not seem to fit in with the regular sounds of the office, and he was in a mood to find anything irregular vaguely sinister. He knew the routine of the place by heart now, and could tell just when to expect the footsteps of the messenger bringing the morning’s post into Miss Brown’s room, or the firm, departmental tread of the Controller going to the canteen for his lunch. But these sounds were different. He could not relate them to any official activity at all. They seemed largely to consist of furtive advances and retreats, varied by murmured conversations which took place sometimes in the corridor itself, and sometimes (so far as he could judge) in the cubby-hole where tea was brewed.

Now that he was not so busy, Pettigrew had leisure to be distracted by these things, but it was some time before he aroused himself sufficiently to take any steps about them. Several times he was on the verge of questioning Miss Brown, but he had decided that for the time being it would be safer to confine their intercourse to purely official matters. Exactly in what way it was “safer”, he did not define to himself. At last, he determined to investigate on his own account, and this he did in the simplest method possible. One afternoon, when the mysterious noises were at their height, he walked abruptly out of his room and flung open the door leading into the corridor. Perhaps it was the long training of the London street crossings that made him automatically look first to his right, in the direction of the Controller’s room. He was just in time to get a fleeting glimpse of the figure of a man bent double at the Controller’s door, apparently in the act of looking through the keyhole.

His mind had barely time to register the sight before the man had straightened himself, and, hands in pockets, began strolling quietly towards him with an excellent assumption of ease. The light was behind him, and it was not until he was quite close that he could be recognized. It was Wood.

“Good afternoon,” said Wood when he reached Pettigrew, in a tone which might have been intended to be casual, but succeeded in sounding rather sheepish.

“Good afternoon,” Pettigrew echoed. There seemed to be nothing else to say.

Wood was about to walk on, when from behind the open door a high-pitched giggle suddenly made itself heard. It had a familiar ring, and Pettigrew was not surprised when Mrs. Hopkinson emerged, holding a handkerchief to her mouth, her face red with ill-suppressed laughter.

“Are there any more of your friends about?” he asked Wood. He tried to make the question sound as disagreeable as possible. Marsett Bay, from being a bore, seemed fast becoming a Bedlam, and he did not feel at all like suffering these particular Bedlamites gladly.

Wood’s assurance, he was glad to note, had begun to desert him.

“Would you---would you please not talk too loud?” he murmured. “You see, we’re not supposed to be here, and---and----”

Pettigrew had no intention of helping him out, and the Merry Widow seemed quite incapable of speech. He might have continued to splutter indefinitely if assistance had not come from elsewhere.

“I’m afraid we’re in rather a spot,” said a suave voice, as Edelman emerged from the pantry next door. “Would you mind very much, old fellow, if we all came into your room for a moment? This is a bit public.”

Pettigrew minded very much being called “old fellow” by Edelman at that moment, but none the less he allowed himself to be swept back into his room with the three intruders close on his heels. Recovering the initiative, he quickly entrenched himself behind his desk and sat down. Once safely there, he felt himself in a judicial position from which he could regard the trespassers with a proper air of superiority.

“I think,” Edelman began in an easy manner, “that the moment has arrived, in the classic phrase, to tell all.”

Pettigrew judged that the fatuity of this remark would be best underlined by making no reply to it. He accordingly remained silent, and waited for Edelman to try again.

“It is rather a ridiculous position to find oneself in,” the latter continued. “The fact is, Wood was trying out a little experiment and Mrs. Hopkinson and I were engaged meanwhile in---how shall I put it----?”

“Keeping cave,” the Merry Widow interposed with a giggle.

“Er---yes, I think that that schoolboy expression does just about describe this rather schoolboyish episode. Wood was naturally anxious not to be detected in an action that was rather apt to be misconstrued, and----”

Pettigrew began to lose patience.

“If you mean he didn’t want to be seen looking through the Controller’s keyhole, I can quite believe you,” he said. “But would you oblige me now by cutting the cackle and telling me exactly what you were all up to?”

“Up to?” Mrs. Hopkinson broke in. “D’you mean you didn’t tumble to it? We were rehearsing the giddy plot, of course!”

Pettigrew looked in bewilderment from one to another of the three faces confronting him.

“I think it’s up to me to explain, as I’m really responsible,” Wood said. “It’s a little difficult for anyone who isn’t himself a writer to appreciate the position, but I have always rather prided myself on getting my facts right. I---I belong to the realist school of fiction, I suppose if you like to put it that way. Or perhaps you might say, I’m even a bit deficient in imagination. The point is, I simply cannot write about a thing or place until I’ve seen it for myself. I must have a factual background to my stories, and to get that I sometimes stray into rather queer situations. Perhaps you’ll understand the difficulty when I tell you that while I was getting material for Death on the Bakerloo I was twice arrested for trespassing on the Underground----”

“Begging everyone’s pardon for the interruption,” said Mrs. Hopkinson, “but if I don’t run along now, I shall have Judith on my tail next minute! It’s all very well for Mr. Edelman, who’s a law to himself, and everyone knows how slack Enforcement is, but it’s different for poor little me. She thinks I’m in the you know what----” she nodded in the direction of the ladies’ cloakroom, “but you can’t spend half the day there, can you? Cheerybye, Mr. Pettigrew! you won’t be a spoil-sport, will you?”

“Let me get this clear,” said Pettigrew after she had gone. “I don’t see that it is any concern of mine, really, but as you have started to explain I think the explanation should be complete. So I understand, Wood, that you were investigating the possibilities of this part of the building as a setting for a crime story?”

“That’s it, exactly,” Wood agreed. “You’ll remember, the first evening this idea was ever discussed, you suggested yourself what an admirable spot for the crime the library would be. Well, I’ve only been in the room once, and I simply had to have another squint at it.”

“Besides,” Edelman added, “it was essential to the plot to know just how much of the room could be seen by an observer through the keyhole.”

“Exactly. Then we had to try all this out under actual conditions. I was very much worried with the problem of how to get my murderer to the library without being seen. This needed a good deal of study on the spot.”

“We had to find out just who was liable to go along that corridor at different times of the day, and when---study the routes of messengers and so on,” said Edelman. “Find out when the Controller was most likely to be alone----”

“Devise the getaway,” Wood put in. The pair were picking up each other’s cues now like a couple of well-trained comedians.

“But,” Pettigrew expostulated, “this is sheer, unadulterated nonsense! If you want to write a book surely you arrange the geography of your background and the movements of your characters to suit the plot, not vice versa. Do you really expect me to credit all this?”

“In a sense,” said Edelman after rather a long pause, “that is a perfectly valid piece of criticism, I admit. But you see, we’re not exactly writing a book at the moment.”

“I thought that was what you were telling me you were doing, Wood.”

“I can’t answer for Wood, of course,” Edelman continued before Wood had time to say anything. “He is a writer and I am not. So far as my part in it is concerned, we were simply doing what Mrs. Hopkinson said just now---rehearsing the plot. We were seeing whether it would be possible to carry out in practice the fictitious crime which we have been engaged in devising. After all, it would be a waste of time to work out a thing of this kind in vacuo if you were not going to see whether it could be put into practice.”

“The whole thing is a waste of time, so far as I can see,” said Pettigrew. “And----”

But Edelman, with raised forefinger, motioned him to be silent. From the little room next door the kettle was whistling quietly, getting up steam for its full-voiced scream. Edelman looked at his watch and turned to Wood.

“Ten and a half minutes,” he said. “I think that will just allow time for everything.” Then, as Miss Danville’s hurried steps were heard, he went on, “Here she comes, the deed completed. And during all this time, observe, nobody but ourselves has been down the corridor. It really works out very well.”

“Why on earth must you drag Miss Danville into your imbecilities?”

“Well, we agreed that she should be the murderer, didn’t we? Besides, if you insist on being so matter of fact, she is quite capable of killing the Controller---or anyone else for that matter---if she’s handled the right way. She’s extremely suggestible. I know that from personal experience.”

Wood murmured something to Edelman which Pettigrew could not catch.

“Ah, yes! Wood reminds me that your secretary, who disapproves of our activities, will no doubt be bringing in your tea directly, so we had better make ourselves scarce, with apologies for having taken up your time. I think I can promise that you are not likely to be disturbed again by any rehearsals. We have fixed everything now---even to the weapon. I ought just to tell you about that, as you are so curious as to our doings. You must have noticed those long skewer things the clerks use making holes in papers to tie the files up with. Pointed and very sharp. Known locally as bodkins. We’ve decided on one of those. It seems so entirely appropriate, don’t you think? And now, we must be off. Once more, our apologies.”

Over his tea, which came with such suspicious promptitude after the intruders’ departure as to suggest that Miss Brown was aware of their visit, Pettigrew reflected on the extraordinary story he had just heard. The more he thought about it, the harder he found it to believe. On consideration, he was most perplexed by Edelman’s part in the affair. He had made himself the principal apologist, and seemed to have gone out of his way to take the words out of the mouths of the others. But could he really be devoting part of his working hours to such an absurd, time-wasting scheme? Mrs. Hopkinson was different. Pettigrew judged her to be an addle-pated creature, to whom one form of what she called “fun and games” was as good as another. Wood was an author; and all writers were a little cracked in one way or another. But if Edelman was anything, he was a prodigious worker. It seemed utterly out of character for him to neglect his job in so purposeless a fashion. And yet, if he was not telling the truth, what conceivable explanation for his behaviour could there be?

Pettigrew frowned. He had the uneasy impression that Edelman was not a man who did things without some object, and he was by no means convinced that his objects would necessarily be desirable ones. He particularly disliked his easy reference to Miss Danville’s suggestibility. It tied up with his calm appraisal of the chances of her being seriously affected should she get to learn of the part allotted to her in the plot. Was it possible that for some reason the fellow intended some harm to that poor vulnerable soul? And if so, to what end?

He shook himself. This positively would not do! Once more he was beginning to indulge in melodramatic suspicions about his fellows, and with even less cause than on the last occasion. It wasn’t like him. Decidedly the atmosphere of Marsett Bay was beginning to affect him. To calm himself, he took up the file which had reached him just before he had surprised Wood at the Controller’s door. He saw with interest that his opinion was required on the advisability of taking proceedings for a serious case of unlawful trading. Evidently this was the matter which Mallett had spoken of at their last meeting. The firm’s name, he observed, was Blenkinsop. It seemed vaguely familiar. Then he recollected having heard the words “the Blenkinsop file” being uttered in various tones of annoyance and reproof by Miss Clarke at the Fernlea, though in what connection he could not say.

Presently he was absorbed in Mallett’s report, which was certainly a model of its kind. The case clearly had possibilities, but it was too intricate to master at a sitting at the fag-end of the day. Still he read on, hoping at least to have some general picture of the case to work on when he came to tackle it in detail on the morrow. But before long, he found himself distracted by noises outside his door. They were familiar noises too---the shuffling of feet, the murmur of voices, the ripple of suppressed laughter. . . . Really it was too much! He had hardly expected Edelman and Wood to keep their promise that he should not be further disturbed, but to break it within an hour was simply insulting.

In a mood of quiet fury, he once more strode to his door and threw it open. But this time it was not to see anybody at the door of the Controller’s room. What he saw instead was his own secretary’s door hurriedly closing and Mr. Phillips, rather pink in the face, walking quickly away from it.

Pettigrew went back to his room as quickly as he could. This was the last thing in the world he could have wished to happen. To find himself caught spying on Miss Brown’s private affairs, even by the merest accident, was simply degrading. What on earth would she think of him? He felt like rushing into her room to apologize for his behaviour, but that would only make matters worse. She would probably want to apologize too and that would be unbearable. It was entirely Phillips’s fault, of course, but that didn’t make things any better. Damn Phillips! Damn Edelman! Damn the Control and everything connected with it, including the Blenkinsop file! A great wave of nostalgia for the Temple swept over him. He felt utterly miserable.

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