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Our Library => Margery Allingham - More Work for the Undertaker (1949) => Topic started by: Admin on June 04, 2023, 07:43:45 am



Title: 23: Vive la Bagatelle!
Post by: Admin on June 04, 2023, 07:43:45 am
HALF-WAY across the wide landing Mr. Lugg paused, tray in hand. He was wearing his best blue suit, which made him look like a camouflaged roc’s egg, but carried a table-napkin over his arm, no doubt as a badge of office. His naked head gleamed whitely in the subdued light and he looked relieved as he caught sight of his employer coming up the stairs.

He hurried back at once and, as Campion came abreast with him, thrust out the tray.

‘Care for a baked meat?’ he inquired, displaying five water-biscuits on a fine china plate, and turned to jerk his head towards Miss Evadne’s room, whence came a deep subdued hum. ‘Old Poisoners’ Association beano in there. What ’o! Coffins at eight!’

Mr. Campion considered him with interest.

‘What are you doing, exactly?’

‘ ’Elping, cock. I come round looking for you and the old girl with the voice like a beak persuaded me to ’and round. She see at once that I could do it. It’s very funny muck I’m pushing out, but I’ve took a fancy to ’er.’

‘Who’s this? Miss Evadne?’

‘The elder Miss P. We ain’t on Christian-name terms yet and very likely never will be, the class system bein’ so stoopid, but a lovely woman! “You’re dirt and can’t ’ardly understand what I am a-sayin’ of, but I ’appens to like you.” That’s the sort she is.’

He appeared a little shamefaced.

‘Appealin’,’ he said, ‘especially when you know you could buy ’er at one end of the street and sell ’er at the other. They call it charm.’

‘Do they? When asked, I suppose? Did you get anything from Thos?’

‘Not a lot. Come in ’ere a minute. This is your room, ain’t it? I thought I reckernized your old ’alf comb on the fancy dressin’ table.’ He closed the door safely behind them and placed his back against it, the tray resting squarely on his stomach. ‘I only got a few pickin’s,’ he went on, lowering his voice discreetly. ‘Thos isn’t reelly in the business now, you know. It was ’is ole mother ’oo kept ’im on the crook. He’s almost respectable. Nearly works.’

‘I know. It’s the curse of the age. Did you find out about going up Apron Street?’

‘Nothink. We tried everybody, blokes I thought and ’oped were dead these ten years. Not a smell of a squeak anywhere. ’Owever, I picked up one little thing. Goin’ up Apron Street used to be a bit of a joke until about a year ago and then suddenly it wasn’t any more.’

‘Wasn’t it mentioned after that?’

‘Not exackly.’ Lugg spoke with unwonted seriousness and his small black eyes were puzzled. ‘Since then they’ve bin afraid of it. The London boys are proper lily on it if you arst me. I did what you said and tried for a name, but the only bloke I could ’ear of ’oo actually said ’e was goin’ up Apron Street was a finger called Ed Geddy, one ’o the West Street mob. Thos says ’e was stewed at the time and in trouble anyway, and ’e shot orf ’is mouth about goin’ down one night in the Garter in Paul’s Lane. ’E was chaffed about it and cleared out in a bit of a temper and ’asn’t bin seen since. No one’s spoke much about it lately and the subject ain’t considered ’ealthy. And that reminds me,’ he added, looking highly mysterious, ‘I don’t know if you know it, cock, but the West Street mob specializes in smokes. Remember that job the police fell down on, dead girl in kiosk? (she won’t say “no” again). They were in that. Mean anythin’ to you?’

‘Not a lot,’ Campion admitted, but he was still thoughtful. ‘The kiosk hold-up and murder was about a year ago, but I don’t quite see Apron Street as the tobacco road. Anything else?’

‘I looked up Peter George Jelf an’ ’is little lorry.’

‘Did you? That’s pretty good going. Nothing on him had come in from the police, by last night at any rate.’

A slow smug smile of satisfaction spread over the great white face.

‘The busies ’aven’t got my contac’s. ’E’s got a two-man business in Fletchers Town. Calls ’imself a ’aulage contractor and ’is new name is P. Jack. I didn’t want ’im to reckernize me so I didn’t drop in fer a chat, but I sat in the local till ’e come in. ’E didn’t see me, but I ’ad a good look at ’im. It was ’im at the chemist’s the other day all right. ’E seems to be doin’ quietly but nicely, and all sweet and respectable as kiss your ’and. It’s not a lot, I admit, but there’s ’is address and the police can take ’im apart at their perishin’ leisure. That’s about the lot, I think, excep’ for the piece of resistance I’ve bin keepin’ to last. . . . The coffin’s back.’

‘What!’

‘Startled yer?’ demanded Mr Lugg with intense satisfaction. ‘It did me. When I first found you wasn’t ’ere this afternoon I dropped in on brother-in-law Jas. Bein’ one of the family I didn’t knock, but come in through the back and nosed round the ’ouse lookin’ for ’im. The carpenter’s shop is in a little yard. Used to be a gardin for the dustbins. Very private. There’s a winder in the shed, and as I could see the door was shut I took the liberty of lookin’ in. They was both there, bendin’ over the thing. Seemed to be unpackin’ of it. Couldn’t miss it. Black as a pianner. Got as much gold on it as a commissionaire’s trousers. But I tell you one thing, it was packed flat.’

‘Really!’ Mr. Campion was gratifyingly amazed. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Take me davy on it. It was folded up like one of them screens in drorin’ rooms. I come quietly away.’

‘D’you mean it had hinges?’

‘Might ’er ’ad. Didn’t see. There was sackin’ round it, and a narrer packin’ case I reckon it come outer stood beside it. I didn’t take mor’n a look. When you’re dealin’ with Jas you want a warrant and an eel-’ook. I thought I’d do more ’arm than good. Besides, I’m a bit late, aren’t I? All right, don’t cough up if you don’t want to.’ The husky voice betrayed deep resentment. ‘I’ve bin give to understand that this ’ere problem is about to pack up.’

‘Oh?’

‘It’s news to you, is it?’ Lugg said, brightening. ‘Oh, it came to me all cut and dried. Our noble bluebottles, ’oo are certainly spread all over the district like relations at a weddin’, are casting a net. They know ’oo they want and are just about to make their well-known pounce---fallin’ flat on their kissers if the bloke sidesteps.’

‘Who says so?’

‘Every blinkin’ person I’ve spoke to except the police theirselves. Little clever’s still in a black-out, is ’e? That’s a nice change for yer. Well,’ he lowered his tray and stood upright, ‘let’s go back to the blow-out. You may pick up somethin’ there. You don’t want to miss it, cock,’ he added seriously. ‘Somethink from another world, this is. Make up yer mind what you’re goin’ ter ’ave, cup o’ yerba mat or a small nettle hot. There’s a ration of somethink else as well, smells as if it come out o’ the flowers in the ’all. There’s not a lot of call for that.’

He paused, a hand on the door. He was only partially amused.

‘Get an eyeful of my old girl,’ he said. ‘She’s worf it. She’s got one stockin’ ’arf down, nothin’ in ’er cupboard but an empty sherry bottle. ’Er sis ’as bin done in and most of the visitors ’ave only come to ’ear more about it. And she’s offerin’ filth-and-cheese-biscuits to people ’oo’ve got their minds well on poisonin’ to start with. Yet if ’Is Grace and Lady Godiva come in instead of me she wouldn’t be surprised, much less took aback. It’s what is called poise. Very taking to them as appreciates it. Would you care to be announced, or will you come in on your tod?’

Mr. Campion said he would not trouble him.

Miss Evadne’s party was a formal affair. Although the room was crammed and the refreshment peculiar, some of the elegance which had distinguished entertaining in Portminster Lodge in the nineties still hovered restrainingly over the sly-eyed ill-assorted gathering.

The guests stood about very close together among the bulky furniture and talked resolutely in subdued tones. It was evident that there were many more people present than on earlier occasions of the same kind, and the theatrical element was hardly dominant.

For instance, one of the first faces Campion recognized belonged to Harold Lines, chief crime reporter on the Sunday Utterance. His mournful eyes, bloodhound-bagged and glassy, regarded the lean man ruminatively above the first completely full glass ever to have been seen in his hand and nodded sadly to him before he turned away.

The hostess stood on the hearth close to her high-backed chair. She was still wearing the red Paisley dress which echoed her complexion so unfortunately, but the Honiton fichu and gold-set diamonds of the evening before lightened the sombre effect. She was hardly handsome but her presence was commanding, and she towered over both Mr. Henry James, the bank manager, and the small Latinate young man who could only be the lead from the Thespis and whom she was holding---either down or up---with her left hand.

Before Campion could hope to reach her he had a considerable crowd to negotiate, many of whom glanced at him inquisitively. Almost at once he found himself stomach-to-stomach with the owner of a moustache he remembered.

Clot Drudge greeted him with friendliness from behind the fuzz.

‘Hullo, sir! Made it? Jolly good show.’ The effort to keep his voice down to the general level made him a little indistinct. It became clear at once that he was a little unhappy. ‘Not quite the time, what?’ he said, and would have waved towards their hostess had there been room. ‘Pretty blush-making and all that. Worse because it’s so innocent.’ Surprisingly he was perfectly clear. His grandfather himself could not have slipped in a word of discreet disclaimer with neater effect. ‘Apples,’ he said.

The final reference was obscure, but from his new position Campion could see that on her right arm Miss Evadne was carrying a small, distinctive shopping carrier, made of wire and green string. It was still half full of bright but sour-looking apples, although many of the guests were carrying one a little self-consciously in their gloved hands. Inspiration came to him.

‘Was that Miss Ruth’s bag?’

‘The old trout carried it everywhere.’ Clot seemed astonished that he did not know. He gave up trying to speak softly and relied on the straight whisper. ‘She was never without it. Used to hand out apples to everyone she met when she could get hold of any. She used to say “keep the doctor away” and pop one in your hand. Evadne must have known everyone would remember, hence this crashing binge, I suppose---Hamlet and the play, sort of. Jolly bad show.’

This simple if depressing answer to the question which had defeated him silenced Campion for the time being as he reproached himself for not realizing that Miss Evadne was just the person to insist on playing detective in her own way and alone. Her idea, presumably, was to provoke some obviously guilty reaction. The theatre, it would appear, was in her blood.

Clot’s next whisper took him by surprise.

‘I say, is it true it’s all over bar the shouting? Police waiting to spring and all that?’

‘I haven’t heard it officially.’

Strong colour spread above and around the moustache.

‘Sorry. Shouldn’t have said that.’ His whisper was penitent. ‘Indiscreet. Sorry. Cheer-ho. Oh, by the way, and as a chum, avoid the yellow stuff.’

Mr. Campion thanked him earnestly and struggled on.

The next serious obstruction wore a cardboard hat. Miss Jessica, still dressed for the street, after her walk no doubt, was chatting to the doctor. Her high voice, edged with pedantry, but remarkably charming, was raised in enthusiasm.

‘You admit it did him good? That’s so interesting, because Herbert Boon insists that it is one of the oldest cures for cold swellings known. It’s a Saxon leechdom. You pick the yarrow buds when Venus is in the ascendant---I’m afraid I didn’t bother about that---and pound them in butter---I fear I used margarine---and just lay it on. Shall you try it? Oh, I should feel so proud if I thought you would.’

‘Well, I don’t know.’ A smile curled the doctor’s thin lips. ‘I should like to know the cause of the cold swellings first, don’t you know.’

‘Oh, you think that important?’ She was openly disappointed and he was suddenly irritated.

‘Of course I do---vital! Be careful with these things. If the skin is unbroken you can’t do much harm, I suppose, but for heaven’s sake . . . Oh.’ He glanced over her head and caught sight of Campion, whom he hailed as a friend. ‘Good afternoon. Nice to see you here. Is your colleague about?’

‘I haven’t seen him,’ Campion was beginning when a small hand came to rest on his arm.

‘Oh, it’s you.’ Miss Jessica was shyly pleased. ‘Isn’t this wonderful? I put a poultice on the grocer’s knee and it’s done it good. The doctor admits it. I made the nettle tea for the party, too, and some tansy. That’s in the glasses. You’ll know it because it’s yellow. It’s not as nice as it ought to be because I had to do without sugar, and I believe there should be lemon juice, which of course is rather impossible. You must try it. Look, there it is over there.’ She nodded her strange and dreadful hat to the far end of the room where a table, covered with a very lovely lace cloth, bore an assortment of well-filled glasses and teacups and a pair of huge enamel jugs. ‘Do push your way through and get one. You may never taste anything like it again.’

Her tone was not altogether innocent. She was certainly laughing.

‘It’s the best one can do these days.’

‘I’ll try some when I’ve presented myself to your sister,’ he promised.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I believe you will. You’re very kind.’

Before he could escape Dr. Smith buttonholed him once more. He was excited and still inclined to be irritable.

‘I hear they’re just waiting for the right moment to arrest,’ he mumbled. ‘Question of proof. Can you confirm?’

‘I’m sorry.’ Mr. Campion was beginning to find the disclaimer embarrassing. ‘I’m afraid I can’t.’ He stepped back on the last word to avoid a collision with Lawrence Palinode, who, glass in hand, had come lumbering down the room scattering the crowd. He did not stop and offered no word of apology in passing, but thrust on to the doorway and out of sight.

‘Lawrence has very little grace,’ observed Miss Jessica as the flow of the crowd swept her back to Campion’s side. ‘He never had, even as a child. He can’t see, of course. That makes it so much more difficult for him. Did you know,’ she went on, lowering her voice but making it clear that one thought followed the other, ‘did you know that Clytie has a visitor?

He was amused to see her pleasure.

‘Mr. Dunning?’ he inquired.

‘So you knew.’ She was so pleased. ‘Yes, he’s in the attic and she’s nursing him. It has made a change in her---quite astonishing. She used to be a nondescript child, but suddenly she looks quite different. I hardly recognized her this morning. She’s so alert and defined.’

It took him some seconds to realize that she had not observed any change in her niece’s costume, but was ascribing the alteration in her appearance to spiritual causes alone. He was still slightly dazed by this discovery and all it conveyed when he came at last before Miss Evadne, who released her guest of honour to hold out the wrong hand to him.

‘My right one is so tired,’ she explained, smiling with all the charm of condescending royalty. ‘Such a great many people!’

‘It’s certainly a larger gathering than usual,’ put in Mr. James from her side. He spoke primly as ever, his precise enunciation lending the words weight. For a moment he contemplated giving the obvious explanation but thought better of it and added, ‘Much larger’ with finality.

All the same, his worried glance met Campion’s own and repeated the question of the evening. He saw it was not the moment for it, however, and was sadly silent as the newcomer was introduced to the actor, who smiled a weary stage-smile and asked him if he was going to have an apple.

‘I hardly think so,’ said Miss Evadne, laughing, and conveying that he knew quite well what she had been doing, and indeed that it was some sort of little professional secret among sleuths. ‘I fear my apples have---what shall I say? . . .’

‘Buttered no parsnips,’ Campion suggested foolishly, and was rewarded with the silence he deserved. His descending glance fell on the occasional table at her side. It was in its customary muddle and even the saucer of jam remained much as he had first seen it, save that it was a little more dusty. But this time, he noticed, there was only one bowl of everlasting flowers amid the miscellany. He was querying the little point when Miss Evadne’s remark cut into his thoughts, startling him out of his wits.

‘So you didn’t bring your nice friend Sir William Glossop after all?’

He was so astonished that he wondered if he really had heard the words, and he looked up to find her, wedged in among the crowd of people, amused and triumphant.

In the little pause Mr. James, who was betraying a sensitiveness in social matters, came gallantly to the rescue.

‘Is that the Glossop of the P.A.E.O. Trust?’ he inquired importantly. ‘A very brilliant man.’

‘Yes, he is, isn’t he?’ said Miss Evadne with contented assurance. ‘An interesting career. I was looking him up in Men of Our Time in the library this morning, and I see he’s Cambridge. I had got it into my head that he was Bristol, I don’t know why. The photograph they give is very youthful. Men are vainer than women in such matters. Isn’t that interesting?’

‘Was he here?’ Mr. James was deeply impressed and the crowd paused to listen.

‘I hardly think,’ Campion was beginning when Miss Evadne forestalled him.

‘Oh, yes,’ she said. ‘Last night. He was waiting for this clever man, and so was I, and we fell into conversation. He omitted to introduce himself but’---she turned to Campion with gentle triumph---‘I read his name in his hat. It was lying on a chair facing me. I’m very long-sighted, you know. I found him knowledgeable, but not clever at mending kettles.’ Her laugh was light and forgiving, and she turned to the actor beside her. ‘Adrian, are you thinking of reciting to us or not?’

As a change of subject it was masterly. The young man addressed seemed thoroughly startled, while little Mr. James’s watch shot out as though by reflex action.

‘I thought that was to be a treat for next week,’ he said quickly. ‘I’d rather hoped so because I really must not stay today. Good heavens! I had no idea how late it was. You’re too perfect a hostess, Miss Palinode. A most enjoyable evening. You’re going to drop in to see me tomorrow, are you, or shall I call here?’

‘Oh, please come here. I’m a lazy woman,’ she said, and waved her hand to him with peculiarly charming and feminine grace, as, after nodding and twinkling at the others, he hurried off through the throng.

‘A thoroughly good creature,’ remarked the old lady as if she were throwing a careless rose after him. ‘You won’t, of course, be put off by that, Adrian. He’s hardly a mind. What do you think? Shall we or not? It’s a little crowded for Ibsen, perhaps, but there’s always Mercutio. Unless you feel we should be modern?’

Mr. Campion, glancing round for escape, was surprised to find the doctor at his elbow. He had evidently been there for some time, apparently waiting for the moment when he could intrude. He seized his opportunity.

‘I understand it was you who discovered my correspondent,’ he was beginning in an earnest undertone, his eyes fixed firmly on Campion’s spectacles. ‘I want to discuss that with you. I’m a little worried about it. I feel I ought to explain. You see, she was not a patient. That is, I didn’t treat her. She wasn’t ill---except mentally---as I may have told her.’

The murmur buzzed on, betraying the strained nerves of a much persecuted man. Campion was extricating himself gently, but with determination, when the crowd about them surged and ebbed, and Lugg appeared at their side. He said nothing, but a raising of the brows and two infinitesimal jerks of the heavy chins invited both men to follow him. They obeyed at once, escaping from the room with as little fuss as possible, and came out at last on to the landing, to find Renee waiting for them. She was very white and was holding on to the banister rail, but as soon as they appeared she came over and slid an arm through each man’s own, leading them towards the stairs.

‘Look,’ she said, striving to sound matter-of-fact and achieving breathlessness. ‘It’s Lawrence. He’s had something in there. I don’t know what it is or who gave it to him, or even if they’ve all had it, which would be frightful, but you’d better come at once. I---I think he’s dying, Albert.’