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Chapter 11

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« on: January 31, 2023, 11:01:30 am »

IF Mr. Campion had not been recognized as a valued friend by Taffy Warlock, the stage doorkeeper at the Alexandra Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, it is quite possible that the incident which first shocked him and then made him so angry would never have occurred. However, as soon as he presented himself in the concrete corridor at the seamy side of the footlights, Taffy put out his dusty head and greeted him with such unaffected joy that Campion (who had not after all so far received quite that welcome home to which every returning warrior has a right) was touched, albeit in every sense of the word.

Taffy was so certain that Miss Snow would be as delighted to see Mr. Campion as he was himself, that despite one of the strictest rules of the theatre, he sent him on down the staircase without bothering to announce him.

The matinée was well advanced into the second act, and from far away beyond the single bare bulb which marked a turn in the passage, came the first sound of the Momma's Utility Baby Gets a Riveter's Lullaby number, which was Eve's high spot in the middle of the show. Campion did not recognize it, although the rhythmic clanging interested him, and he did not realize that it was Miss Snow herself who was leading the chorus. He went along to the star's dressing-room, found her card upon the door, and knocked.

The door was opened abruptly and Stanislaus Oates looked out at him. The two old friends stared at each other with exactly the same degree of guarded casualness, and even then the situation might have been saved had not Johnny appeared behind Oates.

"Oh hello, Campion," he said blankly. "Come in." He was more transparent than they were and it was evident that he was put out; "caught out" was perhaps the more correct term, and Campion, whose first impression was that the Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department had for some reason or other decided to arrest the Marquess of Carados in person, began to understand that it was not nearly as easy as that.

Oates opened the door a little wider for him to enter. He was not at all pleased. Campion, who had known him well for close on seventeen years, was in no doubt about it. They were all three embarrassed and the newcomer did his best to withdraw.

"I dropped in to say hello to Eve," he said. "I didn't realize it was a party."

"It's not," said the Chief. "I'm just going. Miss Snow will forgive me if I don't wait for her. Say good-bye for me, Carados, will you?"

"All right." Johnny sounded dubious. "All right," he repeated, adding suddenly, "you'd better take these, hadn't you?"

He gathered several papers from the settee in the corner where the two had apparently been sitting together, and handed them over. The Chief took them awkwardly, and his melancholy eyes met Mr. Campion's own for an instant. Mr. Campion had seen so many police memorandum slips in his time that he could hardly fail to recognize a bundle of them when they were passed under his nose, but he looked obligingly stupid. Oates was not deceived, and he nodded to him briefly as he thrust the packet into his breast pocket.

"I don't want you to leave London," he murmured. "Your train will wait."

It was said with belligerent jocularity, and Campion understood how ill at ease he was. The entire incident was very unlike Oates; for the life of him Campion could not help conveying his astonishment. The Chief's face darkened.

"Well, good-bye," he said, and hurried off.

It was a retreat, and Campion, the mildest of men, was first shocked and then made angry. This was too much like a secret rendezvous with a suspected person for it to pass without an explanation, if he was to consider himself in any way a party to the investigation. If he was not to be such a party, then why this infernal curtailing of his long overdue leave? His face grew hard and he eyed Carados, who was standing with his hands in his pockets, surveying him gloomily.

Johnny did not speak, and the silence went on for a long time until Campion broke it himself.

"I believe we're dining together tonight," he said.

"Are we?" Carados raised his big head at the words and a smile of sudden friendliness spread over his face. "I say, I am glad about that. Bush got hold of you, did he? What do you think of the story?"

"About the odd bottle of X, the mystery wine?"

"Yes, what do you make of it? Queer, eh?"

Campion was surprised. It had been an interesting little tale of a mild and gentlemanly kind, but when it was superimposed on a murder hunt and flanked by the most devastating conflict of all time, it seemed to him that it lost its piquancy. He was on the point of saying so when Carados forestalled him.

"It is extraordinary," he said. "I'm damned glad you're coming, Campion."

The thin man in the spectacles regarded his friend in astonishment. For a man who was a fair suspect for murder and had just had his wedding postponed on those grounds, he seemed to be engrossed in peculiar trivialities. Johnny walked up and down the room.

"Theo tells me the lad concerned is that youngster who's pinched my Susan," he said suddenly. He sounded cheerful if not particularly at ease, and Campion took off his spectacles the better to see him.

"I've just left Evers now," he said at last. "Nice, I thought."

"Is he?" Johnny seemed glad to hear it. "I must meet him. You think he's sound, do you? It matters to me quite a lot."

The enquiry was convincingly genuine and Campion did his best.

"I didn't look at his teeth or his bank balance," he said primly, "but I liked him."

"Good. Good." Johnny Carados rattled the coins in his pocket and began to whistle softly. "I hope to God he's a decent bloke," he went on presently. "I shan't part without a hell of a row if I don't approve, you know. She's got no people now except that old lion fish of a father; Tom always did say the old man needed a keeper, and my hat, how right he was. Tom was her husband, by the way, wrote himself off about a year ago. Best kid I ever knew."

"I had lunch with Mrs. Shering," said Campion.

"Did you?" Johnny paused in his walk and looked round.

"Good chap. I was worrying about her. I haven't seen her since the wedding fizzle. She's a pet, isn't she?" He sighed. "I had lunch with papa, laying mines for the police. He's magnificent at sea, I believe; there's room there for his methods, no doubt. We lunched at Black's--not his element."

Campion said nothing at all, his face was expressionless, and for a while it seemed that Carados had forgotten him. But after a time he sat down opposite him on the dressing-table chair and faced him. He looked younger than Campion had ever seen him, and there was a startled expression in his grey-blue eyes. His question was unexpected.

"Campion," he said, "when you were out there on the Continent did you ever feel you were actively at war?"

After a long moment of self-control Mr. Campion said affably:

"You ring a faint bell."

Carados did not smile; his strong sensitive face remained anxious. "Well, then," he said, "in that case you know what a lot of people around here don't know, and that is, that when one is actively at war one simply does the most expedient thing. Ordinary peace-time considerations and institutions come to look a bit remote; pleasant and good and all that, but luxurious and impractical, don't they?"

Campion thought he understood him. He looked up nervously, wondering how far he was going. "Yes, I know," he said briefly.

"Well, there you are," said Johnny. "It's a relief to find someone informed. That's the devil of it over here just now. We're all mixed up in this country; the people who are actively fighting are living at home alongside the people who aren't. Out there you were at least all on the one job." He got up and grinned. "I've only seen all this in the last day or so," he said.

Campion sat looking at him. It was quite true, of course, it was a sidelight on the times which had not occurred to him before. He went on turning over the present situation in his mind.

"Johnny," he said suddenly, "do you think that woman was killed in your room because of this projected wedding?"

Carados met his eyes, and let his own drop before them. "What can I think?" he said. "I don't care why, it's who I'm worrying about."

He turned away to resume his tiger walk up and down the room. "When sophisticated people do crack, they crack to pieces," he said. "What's frightening me is this. I'm beginning to believe that one of us has gone mad. I've tried to make it mean something else, but it doesn't add up any other way."

Campion remained silent for some time. A little more light was filtering into the picture in his mind, but even so it was by no means clear while there was one great glaring unlikelihood in the story which he could not bring himself to swallow. He turned to an easier subject.

"What was she like?" he asked. "What sort of a woman?"

"Who? Moppet?" Johnny frowned. "Oh she was all right, you know," he said. "A jolly, vulgar little person with an interesting approach. You always felt she was just about to be terribly witty and yet she never was. She had an indescribable promise of romance, too, which turned out to be rather prim sentimentality; and yet you felt kindly towards her. The worst thing I remember about her was her energy, but I can't see anyone killing her for that. Besides, she was one of those people you like even when you can't stand them about any longer."

"That's what Stavros said," murmured Campion. "He said one couldn't live with her every day, but he only found that out after he'd married her."

"Married her?" Carados was staring at Campion in amazement. "Are you talking about Stavros at the Minoan?"

"Yes. She was his wife. He married her at the beginning of the war. Didn't you know?"

"No, I didn't know anything about her." A wave of pure relief passed over his face. "I say, are you sure about that?"

"Certain. The police know all about it."

"Oates didn't know." Johnny was frowning again and the dull wretchedness returned to his face. "He'd have told me."

Campion shrugged his shoulders. "The report may be waiting for him."

"Maybe. Maybe. I hope you're right, Campion. If this is true it's a break. It means there's a chance that the whole thing comes from outside." He broke off and stood looking at the other man. "Well, I'll see you tonight then," he said. "This is good news. I was in a flat spin, absolutely bags of panic, and now I do see there is just a chance I may have been mistaken... Oh, hello, Eve."

"Hello. I'm sorry but I must change. Albert, my dear, I didn't know you were here. How are you?" Miss Snow came in with a rush, followed by the consequential Mrs. Phipps, who had been her dresser for years. Her squeaky voice, so much beloved by her enormous public, expressed every shade of her surprise and pleasure, and Campion was warmed by it.

Eve was tired, but triumphant, and she made an absurd and attractive figure in a small, white boiler suit and a baby's bonnet; her face was painted like a doll's, and from her hand hung a little silver hammer trimmed with bells. She kissed Mr. Campion perfunctorily, and waved aside his excuses.

"No, darling, don't go," she said. "I want to talk to you. Phippy, you take these, and I'll do my face." She sat down at the mirror, while Mrs. Phipps, who reminded everybody of a hare in petticoats, moved around her in efficient bounds. When she was covered with a barber's cape Eve plunged her hands in the cold cream.

"You got rid of the policeman, Johnny?" she enquired. It was her first direct remark to him, and it came to Mr. Campion that a row was in progress.

"Yes," said Johnny.

"Well, is everything all right?"

"My dearest girl, I don't know." He looked down at her as she sat smearing the grease thickly over her mouth and eyebrows. "I don't know," he repeated. "Thank you for letting me see him here. Good-bye, Campion, see you tonight."

He was gone before either of them realized it, and the door snapped shut behind him. Eve did not speak, and Campion had re-seated himself on the couch a few feet away from her before he realized that she was crying. He got up and dropped a hand on her shoulder.

"I think I'd better clear off," he said awkwardly. "Lots to do, and all that."

"No, stay. Stay, Albert. I must talk to somebody with sense." The squeaky voice was urgent. "Darling, tell me, do you think the strain--the war strain, I mean, quite apart from this other awful thing--has got him right down?" The face she turned to him, multi-colored and shining, and tragic, was still miraculously attractive. Her big, honey-coloured eyes were devastatingly sincere.

Campion hesitated. "You mean, do I think the old lad's nuts?" he enquired bluntly.

"Yes, I've been wondering that."

Campion looked round but Mrs. Phipps had bounded off behind a screen in the corner and presumably considered herself absent.

"No," he said. "I think he's got the wind up at the moment, and I think he's worried. But he'll snap out of it. It's an alarming business, you know. Lady Carados tipped it over the edge into the frightful by heaving the body about like that. She's a little odd these days, I should say. It's very nerve-racking for Johnny."

"Of course it is," she agreed, wiping off the grease and her tears with it. "Of course it is, my dear, but I'm not thinking of the murder. Not only of that. It's all the other things I mean. It must have been coming on slowly for a long time, and I never knew."

"What other things?" enquired Campion.

Eve did not look at him. "Well, his marriage, for one thing," she said in a burst of frankness. "He's not in love with that child, Albert, and he never has been in love with her. I didn't believe it of course when he first told me. I thought she was young and lovely and that he had lost his head over her in a perfectly healthy way; I didn't blame him, you know, I didn't really. That sort of thing does happen, and that's all there is to it. But now I see he's been telling the truth. He doesn't love her, Albert, and he never has loved her."

"I don't see that proves him barmy." Mr. Campion realized he was floundering in delicate flower-beds, but saw no way of avoiding them.

"But he was going to marry her," the woman insisted. "He was going to marry her because he'd promised her young husband to look after her. That's insane, really insane. Mad, I mean. You can't imagine any modern man in his senses, anybody not in a book, doing that, can you? Not here in England, certainly not Johnny."

She began on her face again with swift, practised artistry, more than half her mind on the work.

"He broke my heart but it didn't frighten me when I thought he was in love," she said. "Now I really do see he's not and never has been, I'm terrified. He's unbalanced, what else can it mean?"

Mr. Campion regarded her helplessly. He saw her as she was; shrewd, kind and, above all, adult. He could appreciate her bewilderment but hesitated to point out that in a rapidly changing world she was just a little old-fashioned. All the same, he felt it his duty to attempt an explanation. It was a laborious business, and she let him speak uninterrupted for a minute or so. Suddenly he exasperated her.

"Two worlds," she repeated after him, her voice rising in her indignation. "You too! What's the matter with you all? If you tell me you're 'at war' I--I'll hit you, Albert. Good God, aren't we all at war?"

Mr. Campion sat quiet, and thought about his train, and the green meadows beyond its furthest journey. Eve laughed.

"Sorry, darling," she said. "It's all too--too near the heart, I'm afraid. I'm not reliable at the moment. I'll see what you mean in time." Presently she added pathetically:

"He's so angry with me, Albert."

"Is he?"

"Uh-huh. Furious. Furious with us all, it's so unlike him. Isn't it called 'persecution mania'? He thinks we're all in some conspiracy against him."

"To prevent the wedding?"

"Yes. That, and--oh, it must be only that. After all, that's enough."

Mr. Campion was frowning. "Did you think there might be something else?" he asked at last.

Eve was busy with an eyebrow pencil. "I wondered," she said without taking her eyes from the mirror.

"Why did you introduce Susan to young Evers?" said Campion suddenly.

"Me?" She put down the pencil and turned to face him. "I don't think I did, did I?"

"She says so. At a party, at the Minoan."

"So that's where I'd seen her before." Eve was relieved. "That's right. She came with a crowd Gwenda brought along. Gwenda's always bringing people. So I introduced them, did I? Quite likely. I was hostess."

"It wasn't part of a plot between you and Gwenda?"

"To get the girl interested in someone her own age? My dear boy!" Eve turned her back on him and went on with her dressing while Campion sat thinking. After nearly twenty-four hours of completely inconsequential happenings, he thought he was beginning to detect a faint, illusive, spider strand of sense in their history.

"Nobody," he said, "nobody ever killed anyone simply in order to provide an awkward corpse in someone else's house. I'm not sure of much, but I am of that. Nor do I believe that a deliberate murder is ever done for the sole purpose of providing evidence against a third person. There aren't many rules, but one of them is that the killer wishes the victim dead. Eve, my dear, do you know anything about an artificial rose and some Woolworth pearls?"

"A rose?"

He remembered she was an actress, but her surprise convinced him.

"An artificial rose, and a great rope of candlegrease peas."

"I don't know what you're talking about. What is this, some sort of trick? You're frightening me, Albert."

"I don't mean to, and there's nothing up my sleeve. Only one more question. What kind of woman is Gwenda?"

"Gwenda?" Eve began to laugh. "You're absurd. Gwenda is the silliest, woolliest little rabbit in the world. I've known her for years. Gwenda's always rushing about in a self-important panic trying to do something someone else has told her to do, and thinking she's blazing a trail."

Mrs. Phipps interrupted her with a reminder of the time, and she submitted to a cloud of net which was passed over her head. As she emerged into the light again and the dresser knelt before her pulling out the folds of her skirt, Campion looked into her face.

"You dined with Johnny at the Minoan on the night Moppet was killed," he said. "Did he stay with you all the evening?"

Eve returned his stare. Her face, which possessed so much more than beauty, was very serious. "I don't know how you know, but the answer is, every minute of the time," she said deliberately. "Every minute until morning."

He hesitated. "It may be rather awkward if you have to swear that," he murmured.

"I can't help it, I should swear it."

"However mad he is?" he ventured.

Eve closed her eyes. "Don't, darling," she said.

"All right, I won't. But think what you're doing."

"I do," she whispered, "all the time."

Mr. Campion left the theatre. So Johnny Carados had an alibi; if it was genuine or not, Eve was sufficiently in love with him to risk everything she considered important to give him it. It was very interesting, and all the more so because the longer he thought about it the more convinced he was that whoever had killed Moppet Stavros, it was not Johnny Carados.

Meanwhile, the trains went by.

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