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Chapter 8

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« on: January 31, 2023, 06:46:42 am »

Mr. CAMPION glanced round the Minoan Restaurant with interest. It was his first introduction to the era of elegant make-do. The glossy white walls, and the green-tinted table-linen were pleasant enough, but here was improvised grandeur, temporary tastefulness. In its not very distant past before Philip Stavros had transformed it, the building had been a pull-up for carmen, and even now the floors had a worn griminess and the woodwork a disgruntled air. However, the clientele, despite their uniforms and their new gravity, were recognizable. They sat taking their food seriously, and their wine with nostalgic sadness.

Stavros himself was standing near the doorway, and he came forward as the two appeared. He had altered considerably since Campion had last seen him, his famous stomach was now a mere drapery, and the dark smudges over his eyes were tinged with white, but he still walked with a roll and his manner was impressive as ever.

"For my friends, the lobster pilaf," he murmured, looking furtively about him as if he were imparting a state secret. "I bring you something to drink with it. Over there, behind the arch--a little table, kept for you."

It was his old approach to the unexpected guest for whom by some miracle there was yet room, and Campion, who had heard it many times before in the far-off days, was still amused.

"Of course I'm in disguise," he murmured foolishly.

The Greek raised his head sharply to look at him.

"But of course," he agreed smoothly, and then smiled suddenly, disclosing a whole treasure trove of gold and ivory. "Ah, now I know you," he said disarmingly. "Mr. Campion, how are you? Are you all right? I thought you were killed. Oh, my friend, my friend, the chaos, the disaster--we don't think of it."

"That's one way," observed Mr. Campion cheerfully. "How are you?"

"Terrible," said Stavros, with unexpected honesty. "My life has become catastrophic. Since this morning. I come and tell you about it later, maybe."

He sounded as if he meant it, and his small brown eyes with the yellow whites were na´ve.

"How horrible," murmured Campion, as he manoeuvred Susan into a small, gilded kitchen chair. "Either I've grown a sympathetic face, or everyone I meet is having hell. An old lady with no manners cursed me in Beirut. Do you think I may have taken her too lightly?"

Even while he was speaking he realized the flippancy was misplaced. She shivered a little as she looked around. He watched her helplessly.

"What's up?" he demanded. "Memories, and all that?"

She blushed, and he saw to his horror that there were tears in her eyes, but she was game and nicely brought up, and her remark was formal.

"I've got a cold," she said. "It's very good of you to feed me like this."

"Not at all," he said gravely. "I only hope it cures it and that I don't catch it. Do we get real food? I see old Theo Bush over there; if he's drinking coloured water he's doing it very stoically. Study Theo, by the way, you may never see his like again. He's the greatest authority on the unfortified wines in the world, or was. Some old Hun with greater facilities may have caught up with him now, of course."

Susan glanced across the room obediently. "That rather grim old man with the hideous child?"

"Child?"

"The girl about sixteen--white with spots."

Mr. Campion stared and was shocked. "Good heavens," he said. "I missed her. That must be Hebe, his niece--she sprang fully armed from a champagne bottle, I believe. We used to hear a great deal about her at one time; her parents were going to bring her up to have the perfect palate. I'm afraid the war must have ditched that. She was to have gone on a serious drinking tour of the world at fourteen, as far as I remember. Something like that."

He paused to watch his companion. She was not listening to him. Her young face was tragic, her eyes dark.

"I say," he said suddenly, "why on earth don't you cut the whole thing and go and tell Johnny? He's a good chap and really wasn't born yesterday. People have fallen out of love before, you know."

She raised her eyes and gave him the annihilating stare of the very young and very honest.

"You don't understand," she said. "You mean so well, but you don't understand at all."

Mr. Campion regarded her with his head on one side. "I've been young, though," he said at last, defensively.

For a moment he thought she was going to query it, but she was not as young as that and she smiled at him.

"It's not so easy for us now," she said, "there are so many different worlds, you see. We each have to live in two or three."

It was an echo of the remark Johnny had made when he had gone to find the taxi, and Campion remembered it with interest. "I'm living in two different worlds," he had said, "two utterly different worlds."

Susan was watching his expression across the table and her own face became very earnest.

"You think Don and I were saying good-bye yesterday, don't you?" she demanded.

It was exactly what he had thought and he felt it unfair to deny it.

"I know you did," she agreed, as he nodded, "but we weren't. We'd just decided we couldn't. That's why all this mess is even worse than it looks."

Campion sat looking at her. "You feel it unfair to announce your intention of jilting Johnny just when he appears to have become involved in a scandal," he said. "Well, that's all right by me. We used to get ideas like that in the twenties, and then someone set a fashion for passion being trumps and all was fair in love as well as war. It's turned the circle again now, has it?"

"It's got practical now," said the girl, "like everything else. You don't see the situation at all. In the first place I don't think Johnny's ever been in love with me, but I didn't know I'd never been in love with him until..." She hesitated.

"Until you did fall in love with someone else," said Campion. "Go on, I'm keeping up with you here and there."

"Yes. Well, there it is," she said. "I was going to explain it all to Johnny and he'd have got us both out of it. It wouldn't have been easy, but he'd have done it. Now it's going to look as if this beastly suicide is the cause of it, and it's going to be impossible."

Campion noticed that she still said suicide, but put that on one side. He was wondering how to put the question which had come into his mind, when she answered it.

"I think Johnny decided to marry me when my husband was killed," she said gravely. "You knew I'd been married before, didn't you? I knew Tom exactly six weeks. Five days after we were married he was killed. It's all part of the different world I was telling you about. Tom was one of Johnny's pilots and he asked Johnny to look after me. When he was killed, Johnny did. It sounds very young and peculiar in this sort of atmosphere, I know, but it wouldn't on an R.A.F. station, you know."

Mr. Campion looked up; the rare experience of surprise had come to him and he began to treat her confidences with a new respect. Of course she was right. A world in which everyone was young and everyone might die tomorrow was not the same world as the one mirrored in Stavros's new white paint. Johnny Carados belonged to both. It appeared to Mr. Campion that that fact might well account for quite a lot.

Susan smiled at him faintly, almost kindly, and he realized that for all her youth she probably knew more about the Great Absurdities than he did.

"Johnny is a hero, both there and here," she said. "Now do you understand?"

He nodded. "If Tom's girl gives the old man the bird because some damned tart wrote herself off on his doorstep, certain people will take a dim view, and they matter," he suggested.

"Yes," she said. "They matter terribly. That's it. But if Johnny had decided to pass the girl to some lad of whom he could approve, that would have been oke. No one in his home world liked him marrying me, they're quite as insular and all-for-one and one-for-all as Tom's crowd are. I realized that as soon as I saw them. I think Johnny saw it too as soon as he got back amongst them. That's the nicest thing about Johnny, he does so belong wherever he is."

He sat looking at her and thinking how right she was. Two different worlds, two utterly different worlds. Susan interrupted his reflections.

"I think that man you were talking about is coming over," she said. "He keeps looking at you."

"Theo Bush?" Campion turned his head to nod to the man who was waiting for his bill. "Yes, it looks like it," he agreed. "Let me see. His Temple got shaken up in the Blitz, didn't it? He was the moving spirit in the Museum of Wine, you know. Secretary Curator, and High Priest generally."

"Really?" She was politely interested. "Wasn't that the thing Johnny was mixed up in? It was all a bit precious, wasn't it?"

"Don't you believe it," said Mr. Campion feelingly. "The Museum of Wine was one of the more beautiful thoughts of the period you will always be told you were so lucky to have missed, and which you'll always regret never having seen. Johnny financed most of it and started it really with his father's wonderful collection of antique drinking vessels. In fact, it was that collection which gave Theo the idea. He found a little house in Jockey's Fields, near Barnabas the publishers, and got himself put in charge." He shook his head reminiscently. "It was a fascinating place; I went to the opening. I hope it still exists."

Susan frowned. She was making a gallant effort to take a proper interest.

"I'm afraid something did happen to it," she said. "I can't quite remember what. Some cad drank it, perhaps. But it was all books and cups and jewelled flasks and things, wasn't it? There wasn't any actual wine there, was there?"

"No wine? My dear girl!" Mr. Campion was mildly scandalized. "It was one of our most brilliant rules that certain approved connoisseurs, all subscribers of course, were allowed to mature small quantities of their rarest vintages in our ideal cellars under Theo's pontifical eye. No one was permitted to take anything away, of course, until Theo pronounced it at its zenith, and at that psychological moment out it had to go and Theo would come and help you drink it, if pressed." He laughed. "Perhaps it was a bit precious and luxurious by modern standards, but it was very nice old gentlemanly fun at the time."

"I bet it was," she said. "Did you keep anything there?"

"I think my heirloom half-bottle of Grandfather's Dream was being used as a door-stop in one of the less sanctified corridors," said Mr. Campion modestly. "I hope Theo isn't coming over here to tell me he's lost it. Come to think of it, he has that look, hasn't he?"

There was a small upheaval behind them, and Theodore Bush came by. On his feet he appeared a smaller man than he had done when sitting, but his presence was still impressive. He had the head of a Victorian statesman and the skin of his face was loose, giving him a structural appearance round the skull, and much superfluous drapery about the chin; but his eyes were bright and very intelligent and he had a way not so much of smiling as of hinting that he was about to smile which lent his face a pleasant uncertainty.

"I see you are back, Campion," he said, rather as if he were imparting an interesting fact. "That's good, don't you know, that's very good."

Mr. Campion made the prescribed happy noise, and the older man nodded at him. "I shall hope to see something of you," he went on. "You heard about my little tragedy?"

"I was just wondering. Was the Museum destroyed?"

"Destroyed? Oh no." Bush brushed his wide-brimmed, black hat against the skirts of his enormous brown tweed overcoat. "No, nothing entirely catastrophic. We evacuated, you know. Unfortunately we left it rather late and were actually moving out in the very midst of the second of the big raids. Everything escaped except--"

"My half-bottle," murmured Mr. Campion.

Bush reproved him with a glance. "I saw no humour in it," he said coldly. "A whole lorry-load of utterly irreplaceable stuff was utterly destroyed. All those things in the cabinet under the south window in the big room went, all the Russian flasks, intrinsically some of the most valuable stuff in the whole collection; and there were ten cases of beautiful glass including all the modern Swedish exhibits."

"Any wine?"

"A little." Theo's small eyes rested for a moment on Mr. Campion's face. "A very little. One small parcel was put on at the last moment to make up the load. It was not entirely without interest, though, I'm afraid; it belonged to the Bishop of Devizes."

"My uncle," said Mr. Campion piously. "Good heavens."

"Oh, not the port, not the port, my dear fellow." Theo was reassuring. "That's safe. At the beginning of the war I made him take it home. Some of those cellars at the Palace are quite excellent; I told him so. Let me see, you're the only nephew now, aren't you? That sister of yours...?"

"The port descends in the male line," said Mr. Campion so seriously that Susan was misled. Bush laughed.

"I have devoted my life to wine," he said, "and to me it is important and always will be. I shall hope to see you, Campion."

The faint emphasis on the final pronouncement made it sound like a command, and as he passed on, his coat brushing the tables on either side, Mr. Campion sat looking after him in astonishment, for as they had shaken hands a slip of paper had passed into his palm. He read the message now, under cover of the tablecloth. It was written on a leaf from a pocket diary and was brief and extraordinary:

"I may need your help in near future. Stand by. Theodore Bush."

As a gesture it was so unlike the man as he remembered him that Campion blinked. He was still looking at the note when Susan spoke.

"Is he always like that?" she enquired. "Always portentous and mysterious?"

"Portentous, yes; mysterious, no," said Campion, rolling the message into a pill. "Dear me, what a jolly place this is. Do you come here much?"

"No, I don't, I'm afraid. Very seldom. I told you, Miss Snow introduced me to Don here; I believe she uses it a great deal, but she's not here today."

"Miss Evangeline Snow, miss?" The ancient waiter, whom Stavros had enticed from some country town hotel, cut into the conversation with the happy provincialism of his kind. "No, she's not here today, and I haven't seen her since the day before yesterday. She's often here, you know."

"That's nice for you," said Mr. Campion.

"Yes, it is, sir." The bleary eyes brightened. "She's very nice indeed. Such a good lady, if you know what I mean. She always comes to one of my tables. Last time I saw her here was on Sunday, dining over there with Lord Carados."

"With Johnny? But that's impossible. He didn't come home on leave until yesterday." Susan spoke involuntarily, and the old man's hand shook as he set down her plate.

"That's right, miss. I made a mistake," he said easily. "Now I come to think of it, it wasn't Lord Carados, it was another gentleman. It's very difficult to tell people in uniform, you know."

He wavered off, nervously, leaving an air of apology behind him.

"Wonderful to live to that age and still be indiscreet," observed Mr. Campion, glancing after him. "His life must have been one long fall downstairs, and still going strong, I see."

"But how extraordinary." Susan was unusually pale. "Johnny couldn't have been in London on Sunday night; that was the night that woman must have--died."

"Forget it," said Mr. Campion firmly. "Look, Susan, this is the first food I've had since I got home. So far we've had some lovely horse, and this looks like beautiful rice shape with raw medlars. Let's eat it, and forget our own and other people's troubles just for half an hour, shall we?"

Susan smiled. "Grand girl," said Mr. Campion, and raised his glass. He put it down again untasted, however; advancing down the room towards him, with a purposeful nonchalance which stamped "police" all over him, was Superintendent Yeo.

On the whole, Mr. Campion went quietly.

"I won't keep him a moment, miss," said Yeo to Susan. "I only want a word with him. I'll send him back in no time. Sorry, I'm sure, Mr. Campion."

"Gestapo!" said Campion, as they entered the passage behind the service door.

"No need to be abusive," said the Superintendent mildly. "You're going to be very interested in half a moment."

"That's nice," said Mr. Campion. "What'll you bet?"

Yeo did not reply immediately. He led the way to a small office whose single window looked over the yard behind the restaurant. It was deserted, but excitable sounds reached them faintly from an inner room.

"We've identified the body, sir." Yeo was wagging an imaginary tail. "Her name was Moppet Lewis once, but when she died she was Mrs. Philip Stavros, the wife of one of the partners of this restaurant. He says he hasn't seen much of her lately and he seems straight about it. But will you look out there, sir?"

Mr. Campion glanced out of the window and saw, in the yard, a uniformed constable keeping guard over an ancient taxi-cab. The near-side window had a hole through it, just such a hole might have been made in reinforced glass by the heel of a shoe.

"The handles have been filed off on the inside of the doors," remarked the Superintendent. "It makes you think, doesn't it?"

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