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Chapter Three

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« on: November 20, 2023, 11:39:53 am »

“DR. GARSTANG, I’m certain this is the boy I told you about---the boy I travelled up from Devon with,” said Sarah Dillon, holding out her copy of the Daily Telegraph to her employer.

David Garstang took the newspaper his secretary handed to him and read the paragraph she indicated. It was one of those rather colourless police statements, mentioning a casualty at Paddington Station on Monday night---the night of London’s atmospheric black-out. The statement was followed by a description of the injured man and a request that anybody who could identify him or who “could give any information, should telephone Whitehall 1212, or any police station.”

“I’m sure it must be that boy,” said Sarah: “apart from anything else, I noticed that mark on one of his fingernails: he said he’d pinched it in a drawer.”

“In that case you’d better ring Whitehall 1212,” replied Garstang.

“But I don’t know anything about him,” said Sarah. “I don’t know who he is or where he lives or where he was going.”

“Well, you gave me a very good description of him, plus details of his nervous preoccupation,” said Garstang, “so I think it’s up to you to pass it on to the police. Besides---haven’t you ever felt you’d like to ring Whitehall 1212, Sally, just to see what happens? We’re so often being asked to ring that number, I’ve often felt I could succumb to the temptation of doing so, just as small boys operate fire-alarm signals, because they know they oughtn’t.”

Garstang was a psychiatrist; a consultant and practitioner who spent most of his working hours trying to unravel the complexities of human behaviour and its causes. Himself the most humane of men, he had the sensitivity and quickness of understanding which made him able to apprehend the obscurer impulses of confused and unhappy minds. Garstang was fifty, a tall grey-headed fellow with friendly eyes and a deceptively casual manner. He said that Sarah made a good secretary to one of his profession because she was an optimistic extrovert.

Sarah replied at once to his last statement: “Well, here’s your chance. You ring them. You can say that I don’t know anything about the boy: that’ll be that.”

“Don’t you believe it. If I were as good at my job as the C.I.D. is at theirs, I’d be much more use than I am. But I’ll do the approach stuff---and then we’ll see. Meantime you can type those notes for me, before you get involved with the arm of the law.”

Five minutes later Garstang rang through to his secretary. “A chief inspector, name of Macdonald, will be round here in a few minutes. Come along in here and we can give him the once-over together.”

When Sarah came back into the consulting room, Garstang said: “Of course this is your pigeon, Sally. I’m not on, so to speak, but I’d enjoy observing the technique, detective approach, and what have you, so can I stay and hold a watching brief, unless I’m turned out?”

“Yes, please do. He can’t turn you out. It’s your consulting room.”

“Maybe, but it’ll be interesting to see if he does the authoritative. I’ve known a lot of policemen and prison warders---and prisoners, for that matter---but I’ve never met one of these high-ranking C.I.D. men. You know, in a sense, their job and mine aren’t dissimilar: that’s why I shall enjoy studying the official technique.”

When Macdonald was shown in, Garstang said: “Good morning. This is my secretary, Miss Dillon. She believes she travelled with the boy you’ve described, Chief Inspector. She mentioned him to me: in fact she told me quite a lot about him. So if it’s all the same to you, I should be interested to hear your interrogation.”

Macdonald bowed to Sarah, his eyes half smiling. “I’m very grateful to you for reporting, Miss Dillon.” To Garstang he said: “Stay by all means, sir. You’ll probably be able to help me quite a lot.”

They sat down, Garstang behind his desk, Sarah in the chair usually occupied by the patient, Macdonald near the fire, facing her. It was Macdonald who spoke first:

“You think the description you have read fits a lad you saw in the train. Will you tell me first about the points which tally, so to speak?”

“All the points mentioned,” said Sarah. “Height, approximate age, colour of hair and eyes, clothes, and the black pinch mark on his left hand---the index finger. The mark was about halfway up the nail. He said he pinched his finger in a drawer, and that’s what it looked like. He’d got nicely kept hands, with long fingers and a very wide span.”

“You’re a very observant person,” said Macdonald.

“Well, I was with him quite a long time,” said Sarah. “I got on the train at Newton Abbot, and that’s about four hours from London in the usual way: last night it was much longer. We both stood in the corridor and looked out at the River Teign, and then at the sea by Teignmouth and Dawlish, and then up the estuary to Starcross.” She broke off, and Macdonald put in:

“Yes. I know it quite well. It’s a grand piece of line.”

“Oh, good, then you know what I mean about standing in the corridor to stare---and if another person enjoys it too, well, you get talking. He was a nice boy: I liked him, and I liked the way he talked about Cornwall and Devon.”

“I think it’s pretty safe to assume that the lad you’re talking about is the same lad we’ve got in hospital,” said Macdonald, “but I’d like you to come to St. Monica’s sometime and see if you can identify him, though it won’t be too easy. As an exhibit, he’s mostly bandages at present, and he may be unconscious for days, or even die without recovering consciousness, though they seem quite hopeful about his chances.”

“What happened?” asked Sarah. “Did he fall under a bus or something?”

“Certainly not under a bus. We don’t know what happened, but we’re doing our best to find out. Now you say you got talking. How much did he tell you about himself?”

“Not very much. He said his name was Richard, and I think he must live not far from Plymouth. He got on the train at Plymouth.”

“Did he tell you if he lived at Plymouth?” asked Macdonald.

“He didn’t actually tell me, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t. I think he changed trains at Plymouth, because he said something about travelling on that small line that runs up to Horrabridge and Yelverton—it’s a narrow-gauge line beyond Yelverton and it goes on to Princetown.”

She broke off, and Macdonald smiled back. “It does. I know it---professionally and otherwise. Did he mention any other places up there?”

“He spoke of Roborough Down, and places higher up on the moor---Walkhampton and Cadover Bridge and those places with the nice names---Mary Tavi and Peter Tavi, up towards Tavistock, and he really knew the moor---Dartmoor, I mean, away over to Princetown. My own home’s near Kingsbridge, but I know Plymouth and the moor quite well, and I know that he must have lived somewhere not far from Plymouth because he knew the country so well: you don’t get to know it like that just on holidays.”

“That’s quite true,” said Macdonald. “Did you gather he was coming to London for a holiday?”

“I don’t know. You see at Exeter a large lady got in. I suppose she was a writer, anyway she wrote like fury all the way up to Paddington, and she looked so concentrated we didn’t talk much after Exeter, except vaguely about the country. By the time we reached Taunton it was getting foggy, and the fog seemed to bother him somehow.”

“Can you enlarge on that?” put in Macdonald. “Do you mean he was worried because the train was running late?”

“No. I don’t think it was that,” said Sarah: she hesitated a moment and then added: “I’m a bit bothered about this part. You know who Dr. Garstang is, don’t you?”

Macdonald smiled across at the psychiatrist. “Yes. I’ve heard quite a bit about him. He’s quoted to me quite frequently.”

Garstang spoke here. “May I put a spoke in? Miss Dillon noticed that the boy wasn’t quite normal, but she’s diffident of telling you so, in case you think she’s aping a professional interest because she’s my secretary. That’s about it, isn’t it, Sally? I should like to say that I think she’s an accurate observer, that she doesn’t exaggerate, and that what she told me about this boy was intelligent---and intelligible.”

“Thank you, sir, that’s very helpful,” said Macdonald, and then turned back to Sarah. “Please don’t be diffident about telling me anything that came into your mind, Miss Dillon. You will have learnt from Dr. Garstang that he often obtains his most important evidence from some remark let out by a patient when the latter isn’t in the least aware of having said anything relevant. If you will only talk, tell us the things you noticed as they come into your head, Dr. Garstang and I will sort out the priorities, so to speak.”

Sarah smiled back at him: “If you’ll go on those lines, I’m only too glad to tell you anything I can. It’s just that I should hate you to think I’m trying to be important, or pretending to be informed, because I’m not.”

She paused, thought a moment, and then went on: “I thought at first he was claustrophobic: the fog did seem to shut us in, myself and the writing lady and Richard. He looked around and stared into the mist almost as though it hurt him: and he began sentences and didn’t finish them, and when I said anything he didn’t seem to hear what I’d said. I can only express the feeling he gave me by saying that he was trying to tell me something and that he couldn’t get it out---a sort of mental stuttering.” She looked appealingly at Macdonald. “I expect I’m telling you all this very badly, but I’ve got to say that it wasn’t calf love, or anything like that. He hadn’t suddenly gone goopy over me. In fact I didn’t matter to him except as a person who was trying to understand what he said. It was some crisis of his own.”

When she paused, Macdonald put in: “You said to begin with that the mist worried him. Did you suddenly run into a fog, so that visibility became minus all at once?”

“No. It wasn’t like that. It was a faint mist to begin with. Then as it thickened, it seemed to swirl, like smoke. I remember saying it was like smoke wreaths, rather evil, which gave you a feeling of something being choked. And I wished I hadn’t said it, because he looked so troubled. So I shut my eyes and decided to go to sleep---because I couldn’t bear to look at him.” Again she paused, and Macdonald and the psychiatrist waited for her to go on. “I did go to sleep for a bit and when I woke up he said he thought we were somewhere between Newbury and Reading. And then we stopped at Reading and two men got in. I borrowed Richard’s book and read for a bit, but all the time I realised that he was staring at the two men who’d just got in. He was staring at them---well, as though they were the answer to his problem, whatever his problem was. . . .” She rumpled up her short, curly hair and gave a great sigh. “I don’t know if this all sounds silly, but I was so sorry for him. I was sure by this time that there was something wrong with him. I even wondered if he were an epileptic or something ghastly like that. Then I went along the corridor and spent as long as I could washing in very gritty water, and then I stood in the corridor and smoked till I knew we were nearly at Paddington.”

“What a journey,” said Macdonald, and she laughed a little and went on:

“It was. It was simply grim. He was sitting with his elbows on his knees and his face on his hands, staring at the floor, and I wondered if I ought to ask him if he knew his way in London---but then when the train stopped, he jumped up and said something to one of the men who’d got in at Reading and jumped out on to the platform after them without even looking at me---and I didn’t know whether to be glad or sorry, because he was a nicely behaved boy: he’d been well brought up.”

It was Macdonald’s turn to laugh a little: he was rather taken with the old-fashioned phrase coming from this most contemporary-looking young woman. He liked Sarah Dillon; her fresh skin and blue eyes and close-cropped curly hair were very young-looking, but her mind was observant and analytical, and Macdonald knew he was lucky.

“Now let’s get this a bit clearer. What did he actually say to the two men?”

“He said: ‘Wait a minute. Haven’t we . . .’ or it might have been ‘Aren’t you?’---or something like that.”

“As though he were going to say: ‘Haven’t we met before,’ or: ‘Aren’t you so and so?’ ” asked Macdonald.

“Yes. Just like that. I was surprised, because although he’d stared at them so queerly, I don’t think they’d taken any notice of him. And I don’t think any of them had been talking. When I came back into the compartment, the boy was staring at the floor, the older man was still drowsing over his paper and the spiv was sitting with his hands in his pockets, sucking his teeth, and looking quite revolting, and the writing body was putting her script together.”

“Then let’s have a little more about the fellow travellers,” said Macdonald. “Did you grasp if the two men who got in at Reading were acquaintances?”

“I don’t think so,” said Sarah. “Anyway, they didn’t utter, and they were quite different. The older man was about fifty, solid and prosperous looking, stockbrokerish. I should have expected him to have an educated voice---though I didn’t hear it---and a good bank balance, and his clothes were good clothes. The younger man was quite young, and a nasty bit of work: cheap smart clothes and a horrible tie and a green scarf with red dogs on it and too much hair muck. He was fat and pasty-faced, like a white slug.”

“And which of them was the lad speaking to when he said: ‘Wait a minute’?” asked Macdonald.

“I don’t know. You see, they were all standing up, the large lady holding the door, then the two men, then the boy, and I was left in the corner coping with my own suitcase.”

“A thing which doesn’t often happen,” put in Garstang. Turning to Macdonald, he added: “May I tell you what strikes me as odd about all this? Miss Dillon said that when she first talked to the boy while they stood in the corridor he was perfectly normal: they chatted on about the countryside, and obviously he was quite coherent and easy to listen to. Then, when the fog began to thicken, after Taunton, he became different---strained and difficult and ill at ease. The suggestion of claustrophobia was quite apt, but I don’t think that’s the real explanation, because if he had suffered markedly from that particular neurosis, I’m certain he’d have got out of the train at Reading, if only to stand on the platform, just for the relief it would have given him. Advanced claustrophobia is a tormenting state, and even a momentary change of environment can be a tremendous relief. But he didn’t get out: he stayed put and stared at the newcomers---‘as though they were the answer to his problem’ was the way Sally put it, and it’s a very telling phrase.”

“Yes. I agree with you that that’s an odd point,” said Macdonald. “I know there’s not much to go on, but would you make a guess as to the cause of the boy’s changed behaviour?”

“ ‘Guess’ is the word, and my opinion’s not worth any more than yours at this stage,” said Garstang, “but it looks as though the boy had some complex or inhibition, and a chance word or impression sent his mind off the rails. Well, there was the fog: and there was Sally’s remark about it being like smoke wreaths and something choking. That might have done it: if this boy had ever been shut up in a burning building and been badly frightened and then tried to cover up his fear, he might have reacted in the way described. But that doesn’t account for his behaviour over the other two men, unless he was in an advanced state of neurosis, and thus liable to associate anybody he happened to be with, with his own phantasy, as it were.”

“Thanks very much, sir,” said Macdonald, and then turned to Sally again. “Can you remember if the boy had any luggage with him?”

“He’d got a haversack, a khaki-coloured thing with a webbing strap which went over his shoulder,” she replied. “He’d got it with him when he got out of the train. I don’t know if it’s of any interest to you, but the coach we were in was just behind the restaurant car, and we were in the centre of the coach.”

“Yes. That’s very useful,” replied Macdonald. “How were you all sitting?”

“I was in a corner on the corridor side, facing the engine, the boy was opposite to me. The writing lady was in the other corner, back to the engine, and the two men who got in at Reading sat on my side. I didn’t really get a good look at them till I stood up and got my grip down from the rack when I wanted my sponge bag and towel. I’m quite sure the older man wasn’t taking any interest in any of us; he was half asleep. The younger one, the spiv, kept on looking at us in a furtive, calculating sort of way.” She hesitated and then added: “I don’t want you to think I’m dramatising this. He really was a nasty job. If I’d been alone with him I’d have been ready for anything.”

“Can you describe the ‘writing lady’?” asked Macdonald.

“Oh yes. She was quite a person. She was a big woman, tall and stout, in a very well-tailored suit, navy blue with a pin stripe, and a severe white blouse with a cravat effect furnished with a black bow, so that the whole effect was masculine rather than feminine. She had dark, straight hair, cropped like a man’s, very soignée and well brushed, and dark eyes with George-Robeyish eyebrows. She wore horn-rims and she had an enormous ring on her left hand, a sort of scarab effect. At Paddington she pulled on a black beret and she wore a heavy navy-blue topcoat---pilot cloth, I think it was, and a rather dashing black and white scarf. She was quite a noticeable body, and she had a very deep voice.”

“Did she talk to you at all?”

“Oh no. She looked as though she’d have hated anyone to speak to her, but when the train stopped at Reading she exclaimed: ‘It’s Reading, thank God,’ and her voice was so deep it nearly set me giggling. You see, by that time, what with the fog and everything, the journey had become a sort of nightmare---or phantasy. And the writing lady was the pantomime dame.”

Macdonald laughed. “If I manage to trace the writing lady, I shall be very much interested to know if she noticed anything odd about the setup,” he said. “Now I wonder if you noticed if either of the two men who got in at Reading had any luggage or cases with them?”

“The older man had a leather case---quite a small one. I remember seeing him put it on the rack. The younger one hadn’t anything with him.”

“You have a very good memory,” said Macdonald, and Garstang put in:

“She’s a visualiser. She remembers things as a visual pattern.”

“That explains it,” said Macdonald. “In my experience visualisers have accurate memories.” He turned again to Sarah. “You’ve remembered that the boy had a haversack, the older man a small suitcase----”

“Oh, largish attaché case,” said Sarah.

“All right. And the writing lady?”

“A brief case and an outsize in handbags.”

“And you?”

“I had a suitcase and a grip---one of those zipup efforts.”

“Can you remember anything about luggage labels on anybody’s cases?”

Sarah stared at him, as though puzzled: then she said: “I couldn’t read any of the labels, if that’s what you mean. I think Richard’s haversack had a very chewed, crumpled bit of label on it, and I know the older man’s case had a tie-on label, because it hung down a bit from the rack. But I can’t tell you what was on the label.”

“And your own luggage was properly labelled, I’m sure.”

“Yes. It was. Though I don’t see why you’re so sure.”

“Because I think you’re a very practical, efficient person,” rejoined Macdonald, and Garstang chuckled.

“You’re right. She is. She always sees my bag has a label when I go away.”

“You’ve been most helpful to me, Miss Dillon,” said Macdonald quietly, “unexpectedly helpful, because you have just the qualities we hope for in witnesses and very seldom find. I’m grateful to you, and I shall be more grateful if you’ll do one thing more. Write out a detailed description of the appearance of those two men who got in at Reading. I think it’s sometimes easier to write down a description than it is to say it in words.”

“Yes. Of course. I’ll do it now, if Mr. Garstang doesn’t mind.”

“Go along and do it, my child---on your typewriter. It beats me how these efficient young things are so conditioned to their typewriters that they never use a pen,” he added. “I can’t think on a typewriter, and they can’t think without one.”

“That’s grossly unfair,” said Sarah indignantly. “The chief inspector has just said I’m a perfectly good witness, and I didn’t type a word at him.”

After Sarah had made a dignified exit, Garstang turned to Macdonald. “Look here, Chief Inspector, I think a few words off the record are indicated. In a sense, I feel responsible for that child---Sarah Dillon. It was my doing that she came to London. I don’t think I need explain to you what’s in my mind.”

“No. You needn’t,” said Macdonald. “I’m glad to hear you say that you do feel a responsibility towards her, because I assure you that I do too. The plain fact is that she’s touched the fringes of what may be a very ugly business. Speaking in confidence, the boy she travelled with was the victim of a savagely murderous attack.”

Macdonald repeated to Garstang the opinion of the surgeon: that the lad had first been knocked out and then deliberately battered over the head with the iron bar. “Robbery with violence is common enough these days,” went on Macdonald, “but the violence is generally used to enable the thief to win his loot. As I see it, this case is quite different. The theft was an attempt to conceal the boy’s identity: everything was taken from his pockets, and then an attempt was made to murder him. It doesn’t look to me an ordinary case of robbery with violence. What was the nature of the mess the boy had got into we have no means of guessing at present, but we do know that somebody capable of a brutal murder is involved. I assure you that I shall be very careful that that person does not get to know that Miss Dillon has volunteered evidence.”

“When you asked her about the labels on the suitcases, were you thinking that the name and address on her own labels could have been read by those fellows who joined the train at Reading?”

“Yes. I was, though I find it difficult to see how they connect up with the boy. You see that train doesn’t generally stop at Reading. There couldn’t have been any arrangement to meet the boy on the train, because the stop there was unexpected, due only to the fog. But the fact that the boy spoke to the others---or to one of them---as he jumped out of the train, has got to be considered. There wasn’t much time between the arrival of the train and the assault on the boy---a matter of fifteen minutes at the outside.”

“It’s an odd business,” said Garstang. “You know when Sarah Dillon says the boy was a nice boy, she does mean something by it: he wasn’t a tough.”

“Possibly not, but it’s no use assuming that nice boys don’t sometimes get involved in situations the reverse of nice,” said Macdonald dryly.

Garstang sat and stared at his desk for a moment or two, then he said, “You asked me what I made of it: if I began to write down my own reactions I should start with three words: the mist, the moor, Princetown.”

“Yes,” agreed Macdonald. “Anyone who knows Princetown knows about the moor and its enveloping mists. It’s often the mist which has defeated convicts who have tried to escape from Princetown. But no prisoner has escaped from Princetown recently, and no boy of this boy’s age has been sent to Princetown. All the same, I’m interested in your headings. They’re so much to the point that I’ve got my work cut out not to be overinfluenced by them.”

“But it was the mist which upset the boy,” murmured Garstang. “Before they ran into the mist he was perfectly happy. So that’s the starting point---as I see it.”

“The mist was a conditioning factor, but it’s too nebulous for a detective to base his case on,” replied Macdonald.

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