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Our Library => Margery Allingham - More Work for the Undertaker (1949) => Topic started by: Admin on June 02, 2023, 11:58:57 am



Title: 9: Money Talking
Post by: Admin on June 02, 2023, 11:58:57 am
IT was a remarkable room with the bloom of the genuine antique upon it. As a bank manager’s office it was as dated as a Penny Black stamp, or a top hat on the head of a cricketer. It was small, with a rich Chinese red and gold paper, a Turkey carpet, a coal fire, and a corner cupboard which might well have contained sherry and cigars. There was a desk made of mahogany and shaped like an ostentatious vault, and a green leather armchair for the client, with a high back and earpieces outlined with brass studs.

Over the fireplace hung a competent mid-Victorian oil painting of a gentleman in a fancy waistcoat and a collar whose mighty wings all but obscured the lower part of his face.

As Campion glanced round him it came into his mind for no reason at all that the word ‘bankrupt’ used once to be printed ‘b----pt’ as if it were improper.

In this setting Mr. Henry James looked modern and slightly uncomfortable. He stood behind his desk considering his visitors dubiously. He was neat to the point of fussiness, and his receding light-brown hair was brushed so closely to his head that it might have been varnished there. His linen was as white as icing sugar, and the small bow-tie at his throat had a pattern so discreet as to be the next best thing to invisible. He was rubbing his pink hands together.

‘Dear me, this is very awkward. In all my experience I don’t think I’ve ever had anything quite like it to deal with.’ The voice was as neat as the man, the vowels pure, the consonants precisely marked. ‘I told you, Inspector, The Bank’---he gave it capital letters, like the Deity---‘can give no information whatever save under subpoena, and I hope to goodness it isn’t going to come to that, I really do.’

In these surroundings Charlie Luke looked more like a gangster than ever. His grin was wide in every sense of the word and he glanced at his companion much as a polite dog host might offer the first bite to a guest.

The thin man in the horn-rimmed spectacles regarded their quarry with interest.

‘This is social,’ he said, ‘almost.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘I’m sorry. I mean, could you consider forgetting the bank for a moment?’

A faint thin smile spread over the round face opposite him.

‘That I can hardly do.’

It was probably an accident that both men turned and glanced at the portrait over the mantel.

‘The Founder?’ Campion inquired.

‘The grandson of the Founder, Mr. Jefferson Clough, at the age of thirty-seven.’

‘Now dead?’

‘Oh, dear me, yes. That was painted in eighteen-sixty-three.’

‘A remarkable firm?’

‘Hardly remarkable.’ The tone was gently chiding. ‘The best banks are, if I may say so, distinguished by a lack of that quality.’

Campion’s smile was disarming.

‘We’d like to talk to you without this unremarkable bank. You know the Palinode family in a private capacity, don’t you?’

The other man passed a hand over his forehead.

‘Oh hell,’ he said unexpectedly. ‘Yes, I suppose I do. I’ve known them since I was a child. But they’re also old clients of The Bank.’

‘Then we’ll avoid the subject of money. Any good?’

Henry James’s face was half rueful, half genuinely amused.

‘We’ll have to. What do you want to know?’

The D.D.I. sighed and pulled up a chair. ‘It’s only routine,’ he said. ‘Miss Ruth Palinode was murdered. . . .’

‘Is that official?’

‘Oh, yes, but don’t publish it before the inquest is resumed and over. We’re The Police, you know.’

The worried round eyes flickered with appreciation.

‘You want to know how well I knew her and when I last saw her. Is that it? Well, I’ve known her since I was a boy and I last saw her one morning in the week she died. I’ve been trying to remember which and I think it was the morning before the day she was taken ill. She came in here.’

‘On business?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then she had an account here?’

‘Not at that time.’

‘Then her account had been recently closed?’

‘How can I answer that?’ He was flushing with anger. ‘I tell you it’s impossible for me to say anything about the monetary affairs of my clients.’

‘Gong,’ put in Campion from the green leather armchair. ‘Let’s get back to when you were a child. Where did you live then?’

‘Here.’

‘In this house?’

‘Oh yes. Perhaps I ought to have explained. There are living quarters over these offices. My father was the manager at that time. In due course I went into our Head Office in the City, and finally, when my father died, I came here as manager. We are not a large concern as banks go and we specialize in personal service. Most of our clients have been with us for generations.’

‘Are there many other branches?’

‘Five only. The Head Office is in Buttermarket.’

Charlie Luke opened his mouth, and, seeing in his eye some jovial reference to the Post Office Savings Bank, Campion made haste to intervene.

‘I expect you remember the Palinode family in its great days?’

‘Oh, I do!’ The warmth of his outburst surprised them. There was tragedy in his regret. ‘Thirty-five years ago this whole street was lined with carriages. The mews at the back here were full of beautiful horses. Servants hurried to and fro. The tradespeople were prosperous. There were receptions, dinner parties---silver, you know, and glasses and all that . . .’ He waved his hand as words deserted him.

‘Candelabra?’ suggested Luke helpfully.

‘Exactly.’ He seemed grateful. ‘Professor Palinode and my father were almost friends. I remember the old man well. He had a beard, you know, and a tall hat, and eyebrows---yes, great eyebrows. He used to sit in that green chair and waste my father’s time and it didn’t matter. The whole district used to revolve round the Palinodes. I’m not depicting this as clearly as I should like, in fact words escape me, but it was a great time and they were very great people. The furs in church! The diamonds when Mrs. Palinode went to the theatre! The Christmas parties for those of us who were lucky enough to attend! Well, when I came back and found them as they are now it was a shock, a genuine shock.’

‘They’re still very charming people,’ Campion ventured.

‘Oh yes, and one still feels a duty to them. But my dear sir, then!’

‘Perhaps Edward Palinode was not the business man his father was?’

‘No,’ said Mr. James shortly. ‘No.’

There was an unproductive silence.

‘Miss Jessica tells me her weekly income is measured in shillings,’ Campion began.

‘Miss Jessica!’ He threw up his hands before a wooden expression settled on his face once more. ‘I cannot discuss that,’ he said.

‘Of course not. But when you saw Miss Ruth last, it was the day before she died. Is that right?’

‘Do you know, I really cannot be sure. She was only here for a moment. I must endeavour to fix this for you. Wait.’

He hurried out of the room, to return almost at once with a personage who might well have once been the original Mr. Jefferson Clough’s right-hand man. He was tall and thin and so old that the skin of his head clung with almost embarrassing tightness to his naked skull. Sparse white hairs bristled from a drooping face at unexpected places and his chief characteristic was an unpleasantly unsteady lower lip which stuck out from his jaw in a blob. His wet eyes were sharp, though, and he betrayed no astonishment at the introduction.

‘It was either the afternoon of the day before she died, or the same afternoon.’ His voice was harsh and didactic. ‘The afternoon.’

‘Do you know, I don’t think so, Mr Congreve.’ The manager raised his voice when speaking to him, they noticed. ‘My impression is that it was the morning of the day before.’

‘No.’ He had the complete assurance of the old and obstinate. ‘The afternoon.’

‘The deceased was taken ill just before lunch and died at two in the afternoon,’ said Charlie Luke mildly.

The old man stared at him blankly and Mr. Henry James repeated the information in a louder tone.

‘Hearsay,’ said Mr Congreve with conviction. ‘I know it was the afternoon because I looked at the lady and thought how fashions had changed. It was the afternoon of the day she died. She was perfectly well then---a big woman, you know.’ He straightened himself and stuck out his chest, bending his knees a little.

Mr. James glanced at Campion apologetically.

‘It was one morning that week, I feel certain,’ he said. ‘I do really.’

A superior but forbearing smile pursed the wobbling lips still tighter.

‘You have your way, Mr James,’ he sniggered, ‘you have your way. Poor lady, she’s dead now anyway. It was the afternoon. Well, if I can’t help you any further, gentlemen, good-day to you.’

The D.D.I. watched him out and then rubbed his own lip vigorously.

‘Yes, well, we shan’t put him in the witness box,’ he said. ‘Anyone else in the office outside who might help, Mr. James?’

The neat little man looked so uncomfortable that they might have misunderstood him.

‘Unfortunately no,’ he said at last. ‘I’ve given the matter some thought, naturally, but our Miss Webb was away with influenza for some while just then and Congreve and I had to manage alone.’ He coloured slightly. ‘You may think us short of staff. We are, very. It’s almost impossible to get the right sort of people nowadays. At one time, I assure you, it was very different. I’ve seen fourteen clerks at the high desk in the counting-house. This was a rather larger branch then.’

Campion had the rather uncomfortable impression that Clough’s Bank was shrinking before his eyes.

‘Suppose we stick to the morning of the day before she died, shall we?’ he suggested. ‘She was quite well then, was she?’

‘On the contrary.’ He was slightly indignant. ‘I thought she might be very ill. She was excitable, you know, very overbearing and extravagant in her demands. In fact, when I heard next day---yes, I’m certain it was next day---that she’d had a stroke I wasn’t at all surprised.’

‘You accepted the diagnosis without question?’

‘I did, I’m afraid, absolutely. Doctor Smith is a very conscientious man, highly thought of. As soon as I heard I said, “Well, I’m not astonished. There’s one weight off the shoulders of those poor people.” ’ As the words left his lips he started and his expression grew blank. ‘I should never have seen you. I knew it. I knew it from the first.’

‘I don’t know,’ Campion murmured. ‘It was generally agreed that Miss Ruth was trying. Relatives often get on one another’s nerves. Even so a family seldom takes practical action, so to speak.’

The little manager was grateful.

‘Yes,’ he said mendaciously. ‘That was what I meant, of course. I feared for a moment that you might misunderstand me.’

Charlie Luke prepared to rise and as he did so the door opened to admit Mr. Congreve again.

‘There’s a person to see the Inspector,’ he murmured, his voice lowered to hoarseness. ‘We don’t want him in the front office, Mr. James. I think he should come in here.’ He nodded to Luke. ‘I didn’t send him away,’ he said.

As a piece of offence tempered with magnanimity the performance was masterly. He did not wait for a reply but stood aside and made sweeping motions to someone behind him.

A plain-clothes man with a gloomy deep-lined face, in which hard disillusioned eyes shone dully, came quickly in. Apparently he saw no one at all save Luke.

‘Could you come next door, sir?’

The D.D.I. nodded and they went out together without another word being spoken. Mr. Congreve closed the door and shuffled over to the window which gave on to the street. He pinched the net curtain an inch to one side and without ceremony put an eye to the chink. Presently he began to laugh, the foolish high-pitched giggle of the very old.

‘It’s our right-hand neighbour, Mr. Bowels,’ he said. ‘Now what’s he been up to, eh?’

‘Perhaps he’s gone up Apron Street,’ observed Campion stupidly. His pale eyes watched the ancient head lazily, but there was no movement. Mr. Congreve remained quite still, peering out into the street. After a long time he straightened his back.

‘He can’t do that, sir, because this is Apron Street,’ he said severely. ‘You must be a stranger if you don’t know that.’

‘I’m afraid old Congreve’s hearing varies.’ Mr. James made the observation with apology, and added as he conducted his visitor to the street door, ‘He has been with us a great many years and has certain privileges, I’m afraid, or thinks he has.’ He paused, sighed and blinked. ‘I tell you,’ he said with sudden fury, ‘even Money isn’t what it used to be. That’s pure heresy, but sometimes I believe it. Good morning.’