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Our Library => Margery Allingham - More Work for the Undertaker (1949) => Topic started by: Admin on June 03, 2023, 08:52:21 am



Title: 17: High Wind in the Area
Post by: Admin on June 03, 2023, 08:52:21 am
‘ALL right. Don’t say another word. I’m going. I’ve had it. You’ve taken me wrong and I’ve had it.’

Mr. Campion paused in the doorway from the area just in time to catch the full force of the words. Clarrie Grace was standing halfway across the kitchen in an attitude unconsciously theatrical. He was dressed for travel. A tweed overcoat, which had seen long service, was buttoned tightly across his thin, top-heavy figure, and a sporting muffler sprinkled with fox-masks was wrapped equally tightly round his thin neck. The inevitable green demob pork-pie sat a little too far back from his lined forehead. He was very, very angry.

Renee faced him from the stove. She was red and trembling, but even in the height of her rage her full eyes were troubled and kindly still.

‘Oh, for goodness sake, Clarrie,’ she exclaimed, ‘put a sock in it, do! Go if you want to, but don’t say I threw you out and don’t tell the street about it. There’s a crowd outside, I hope you know.’

Clarrie shut his mouth and opened it again. He glanced at Campion and found in him a heaven-sent audience.

‘Love,’ he said to Renee, ‘love. Dear, dear, sweet old girl. Have a lick, just a lick of common. I’m only trying to help you. I don’t want to see you make a fool of yourself. If you like to think I’ve interfered, I’m sorry.’ And then, at the top of his voice: ‘I think you’re damned well barmy, that’s all!’

‘That’ll do.’ She was very crisp and commanding. ‘Don’t open your mouth again. You’ve said quite enough. I shan’t forget it, Clarrie. He’s making all this fuss, Albert, simply because I told the child I shall ask her boy here. Poor kid! He’s got to go somewhere, hasn’t he? He’s got no home and no money, and they won’t keep him in hospital indefinitely. Isn’t that just the way to make a girl do a silly thing, to turn your back and leave her with the responsibility like that? Go on, Albert, answer me.’

Mr. Campion saw any hope he may have had of remaining discreet and neutral vanishing abruptly.

‘I’ve not quite gathered what it’s all about,’ he said cautiously. ‘It’s Clytie and Mike Dunning, is it?’

‘Well, of course, dear. Don’t be a fool.’ Her asperity stung round his ears like a carriage-whip. ‘I’m not proposing to run an orphan asylum.’

‘I thought you were,’ muttered Clarrie infuriatingly, so that she turned on him.

‘You make me tired, you do, all you men. Here’s a nice motherly girl---don’t you laugh, Clarrie; I know---all young and upset, and very much smitten, worrying what to do for a poor sick boy. If I have him here I can have a look at him, can’t I? If he’s not suitable, and no one knows that until they’ve met him, then we can put her off him in a proper Christian way . . .’

Clarrie made a noise like a skittish horse.

‘So you’re proposing to nag the poor kids, are you? This is new. You didn’t tell me this.’

‘Rubbish! I’m only trying to look after her as if she were my own.’

He sat down at the table, folded his arms, and laid his head, hat and all, upon them.

‘Why?’

‘Why?’

‘Yes, why! Isn’t that what the whole blessed barney is about? Look here, Campion, you be judge. I’ve been trying to tell this silly old duck---whom I love like a ruddy mother, mind you---that she can’t look after the perishing world. That’s fair, isn’t it? Isn’t that fair?’

Renee’s reaction was unexpectedly violent.

‘Piggy!’ She screwed up her eyes in an attempt, apparently, to convey the image visually. ‘Pure Piggy! Oh, it’s not your fault. Your mother was all right, she was a pal of mine, and a more generous girl never breathed. But your dad! . . . I can see him in you this minute, the rat.’

Mr. Grace made no attempt to defend his father, but he looked crestfallen and aggrieved. Campion received the impression that the blow was below the belt. It was evident that Renee thought so, for she became, if not apologetic, at least anxious to justify herself.

‘Well, it’s not nice to keep watching what others are getting. What if I do give the family upstairs a little more than they can pay for? I can afford it and it’s my business. Sneaking round and trying to pump old Congreve at the bank about my account isn’t gentlemanly.’

‘That’s a lie, of course.’ Clarrie spoke without conviction. ‘Besides, Congreve doesn’t give much away. He’s trying to pump me half the time. He scraped acquaintance with me and I told you about it, and you said---stop me if I’m wrong---that banks always were nosey.’

‘You’re an eel, nothing but an eel.’ She gave Campion a faint uneasy smile. ‘I know what I’m doing,’ she said.

‘If you do, that’s all right.’ Clarrie sounded weary. ‘I only tried to protect you, you silly old fool. I just see half a dozen elderly number eight hats taking more out than they put in. I don’t want to know why you let them, mind you---although that would seem queer to some people---I only wondered if you could do it. Since you say you can, and you assure me you’re not setting fair for the poor-box, I’ll say no more. Keep the lovebirds, sweetheart, and half the street besides if you like, I don’t care.’

Miss Roper kissed him. ‘That’s an apology,’ she said. ‘Now don’t spoil it. Do take your hat off in the house, love. Look, Albert does.’

‘Sorry, I’m bloody sure!’ said Mr. Grace, and, snatching off the offending felt, he threw it at the stove, where it rolled among the cooking pots and began to smell at once. Miss Roper’s dying passion flared. Quick as a lizard, she hooked the poker into the cooking ring and thrust the hat into the flames. The iron ring sat down on it, blotting it out for ever. Then, without turning, she busied herself, moving pots and kettles with busy importance.

Perfectly white, and with tears of fury in his flat blue eyes, Clarrie rose to his feet and opened his mouth.

Mr. Campion, seeing no good purpose he could possibly serve, left the old friends together, finding touch, so to speak, just outside the door to the back stairs. There he all but fell over Mrs. Love, who was kneeling by a pail at the foot of them.

‘ ’As ’e gorn, I say ’as ’e gorn?’ she demanded, hopping up and seizing him by the coat sleeve. ‘I can’t ’ear everything, I say I can’t ’ear everything.’

She was shouting and Mr. Campion, who had formed the impression that she could not hear anything, bellowed, ‘I hope not,’ into her pink ribbons.

‘So do I,’ she said in a surprising normal murmur, adding unexpectedly, ‘it’s a funny thing, though, I say it’s a funny thing.’

As he edged his way round her he realized that the repeated statement indicated that some sort of reply was not only expected but demanded.

‘Is it?’ he ventured non-committally, gaining the stairs.

‘Well, of course it is.’ She thrust her rosy ancient face very close to his own. ‘Why should she give them so much free? They’re only lodgers, aren’t they? You would think she owed ’em something, I say you’d think she owed ’em something.’

The shrill words, which were so uncomfortably shrewd, echoed his own thoughts and brought him to a pause. The old woman seized his arm at once.

‘We’re in the news, I say we’re in the news,’ she screamed at him. ‘Look ’ere! Look over ’ere!’

Moving with the energy of a light engine, she urged him up the stairs and across the hall towards one of the small windows which in daytime let a little grudging light into the lobby by the front door. She pressed her face against the dark glass.

‘You can see by the street lamp,’ she shouted. ‘That Corkerdale is keeping ’em off. Go on, look.’

He had just come in through the stolid, silent group which stood staring hopefully at the house, but he glanced at them again obligingly. Mrs. Love’s excitement was dreadful to watch, although there was little in it which was ghoulish. She was proud and possessive, rather, like a child with a birthday.

‘I’ve got the Evenin’ ’ere,’ she said, patting the pocket of her starched pink overall where a folded newspaper protruded. ‘I say I’ve got the Evenin’ ’ere. They’ve gorn orf them others and we’ve come up in front.’

‘That’s nice for us,’ he said absently, but she was not satisfied.

‘I say they’ve gorn orf them Greek Street gunmen---not enough room in the paper, see? Isn’t it a shame? See any body you know out there?’

‘No,’ he said, not altogether truthfully, for he thought he had caught sight of Price Williams of the Signal talking to Corkerdale at the gate, and was reflecting that the old man must be on to something he thought extremely worthwhile to be there himself.

‘They’ve pulled in the Greek Street boys at last, have they?’

‘No they ain’t.’ Her Cockney intelligence, bright and direct as a bird’s glance, leapt out to capture him. ‘And that was shooting in the street. That comes first as a rule, I say that comes first as a rule. The police don’t like shooting in the street. They don’t know where it’s going to stop, I say they don’t know where it’s going to stop.’

The strong voice, pitched so high that the words made a single siren sound, echoed round the passage.

‘We’ve passed them in the papers because of the ’appenings, see? I say we’ve passed them because of the ’appenings. Miss Clytie’s friend getting done down in the undertaker’s shed, with ’is bike. Mr. Wilde the chemist poisoning ’isself when the p’lice were talking to ’im. And Mr. Edward getting dug up---let alone Miss Ruth starting it all. I say, it makes people think, I say it makes people think.’ She smiled in spite of herself. ‘Of course we ’ad to come up in front,’ she said.

He grinned at her, finding her approach refreshing.

‘I thought you didn’t come to work until later in the evening?’ he began.

‘No, not now. My friend doesn’t mind now they’ve gorn orf poisoning.’ Her snood of pink ribbon gleamed as she nodded her small head. ‘No one likes poisoning, do they? It’s mucky, I say it’s mucky. Now it’s straight neither of us minds so much. I do the shopping now. Miss Renee don’t go out, I say Miss Renee don’t go out.’

The implied invitation to question was not lost on Campion, but, as he surmised, better results were obtained by silence.

‘She don’t like to,’ the old woman shouted. ‘I say she don’t like to. She’s upset. Mr. Lawrence and her Capting are up to something.’

‘Are they?’

The door of Lawrence Palinode’s room was some five feet away from them and he glanced at it inquiringly.

‘Out!’ roared Mrs Love. ‘Out together, after calling each other words no gentleman would know nor use. I was doing me step, I say I was doing me step, and I could ’ear the words but not what they was saying. Then out they came together, both as red as a Dutch cheese, and the Capting very ah-lah, very ah-lah. “We’re going to see a lady, Mrs. Love,” he said, and laughed very high up and short. Oh, when I tell Miss Renee she was upset, I say she was upset. He’s her friend, see?’

She watched him eagerly, avid for any gleam of surprise or disapproval. Not descrying either, she struck a more personal note.

‘Going up to yer room now?’ she inquired, and suddenly grovelled. ‘There!’ she said. ‘There! I never told you. It went out of me mind, see? It’s all the ’appenings put it out of me mind. There’s a gentleman in your room come to see you about arf an hower ago. Seemed very respectable, I say very respectable, so I put ’im up there.’

‘Did you, though?’ said Mr. Campion, who expected no caller, and he moved towards the staircase. Her voice followed him cheerfully.

‘I wouldn’t let no ordin’ry person in there, because you never know what you’re going to miss, I say you never know what you’re going to miss.’

She must, he thought, be quite audible all over the house. He paused before the door of his own bedroom in surprise.

There was quite a conversation going on inside. No words were distinguishable, but the sounds which reached him suggested a polite social gathering. His eyebrows rising, he pushed open the door and went in.

Miss Evadne was sitting on the nordic throne before the dressing-table, with her back to the mirror. She was still wearing the long Paisley garment in which he had first seen her, but now there was a lace fichu draped over her shoulders, and a diamond ring in an old-fashioned gold setting shone on her large well-shaped hand. At her feet, wrestling with the plug of the electric kettle, which he was attempting to mend with a nail-file, knelt a rotund grey-haired man in formal black coat and striped trousers.

As he raised his head Campion recognized him as Sir William Glossop, the financial expert and adviser to the Treasury, whom he knew but slightly.