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6: Bedtime Story

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« on: June 02, 2023, 04:30:17 am »

MR. Campion was mercifully asleep in a bedroom conceived by the same man who had evolved the staircase (if fretted pitch-pine and Burne-Jones were anything to go by) when his door opened softly. He sat straight up out of sleep, turned on his elbow and waited.

‘There’s a light-switch by your side, ducky,’ said Miss Roper’s voice softly. ‘Turn it on. I’ve got a letter for you.’

He found the button, noted his watch on the bedside table said forty-five minutes past two, and glanced up to find her already halfway across the room, looking like a travesty of something out of the lesser chapters of his youth. She wore a gay little happi-coat, still showing its folds from the tissue, over pink fairy-wool pyjamas, and a lace-and-ribbon boudoir cap of the mystifying cloche era. Moreover, in her arms, clutched to her bosom, were a syphon, a bottle of Scotch, half full, and two large tumblers. The note in a blue envelope was lightly caught between her knuckles.

It flickered through his mind that to be truly in period she should have carried gin, but he took the note while she unloaded on a huge fumed-oak dressing-table ornamented with an inlay in green wood of vertical sections of tulips. The note was on official police paper, but was written in longhand apparently by a hasty-tempered schoolboy.

Dear Sir, re Ruth Palinode, deceased. Sir Doberman’s report to hand 0.30 hours this morning. Organs contain two-thirds grain hyoscine in available material, indicating much larger dose. Probably administered in form hyoscine hydrobromide but no evidence to show if taken subcutaneously or by mouth. Normal medicinal dose one-hundredth to one-fiftieth grain.

Re Edward Bon Chretin Palinode, deceased. Proposed have up pronto. Belvedere Cemetery, Wilswhich N. 4.0 a.m. approx. Cordial invitation extended, no offence taken if you cut it.

C. Luke, d.d.i.


Campion read the document through twice and folded it. He decided once again that he liked Charlie Luke. Proposed to have Edward up pronto, did he? What a dear chap he was. Well, he could have his exhumation, and good digging.

At this point Miss Roper handed him a glass half full of dancing amber.

‘What’s this for? To steady my nerves?’

To his dismay her hand wobbled. ‘Oh, dear,’ she said, ‘it’s not bad news, is it? A policeman brought it and I thought it was probably your licence, and you might be lying here worrying about it.’

‘My what?’

Her kind foolish eyes wavered in embarrassment.

‘Well, I don’t know,’ she said defensively. ‘I thought you might have to have a paper or something, to protect yourself if---if----’

‘If I got poisoned?’ he inquired, smiling at her.

‘Oh, the whisky’s all right,’ she said, mistaking him promptly. ‘Take my dying oath it is. I’ve had it under lock and key. Well, you have to these days anyway, don’t you? But I have and, see, I’m going to have mine.’

She settled herself daintily on the extreme edge of the end of his bed and took a sizeable swig. Campion sipped his own but with less enthusiasm. He was not a whisky drinker and indeed by custom drank little of anything in bed in the middle of the night.

‘Did the policeman wake you?’ he said. ‘I’m sorry. There was no great urgency.’

‘No, I was about, you know.’ She spoke vaguely. ‘I’m usually about. I got used to pottering around at night in the war. It’s all what you are used to. There’s a lot to be done too. I want to talk to you, Mr. Campion. First of all, you’re sure there’s not bad news in that letter?’

‘Nothing that wasn’t expected,’ he said truthfully. ‘I’m afraid we shall find that Miss Ruth was poisoned, that’s all.’

‘Well, of course she was. They didn’t wake us up to tell us that, I hope.’ She spoke comfortably. ‘That’s the one thing we are sure of, unless we’re all going to look bloody fools. Excuse my French, it’s the whisky. Now look here, Mr. Campion, I want just to tell you this. I’m absolutely on the level with you. I’m more than grateful to you and you really can trust me. I shan’t keep anything back. I mean that, see?’

It was a protestation which could have appeared suspicious from anyone else but was here curiously impressive. Her small red bird’s face was serious under her sportive cap.

‘I didn’t think you would,’ he assured her.

‘Oh, I don’t know, there are little things one keeps to one’s self. But I won’t. Now I’ve got you here I’ll play fair with you.’

He laughed at her gently. ‘What’s on your conscience, Auntie? Your young woman who changes on the roof?’

‘On the roof. So that’s how she does it. Little monkey.’ She was surprised and it would seem relieved. ‘I knew she took them off somewhere because last week Clarrie caught sight of her in the Bayswater Road all dolled up, and I met her coming in the same night in her old clothes. I did so hope she didn’t do it---well, in front of anyone. She’s not that kind of a girl at all, poor kiddie.’

It was not quite clear if her pity bubbled up at this particular deficiency of Miss White’s, or at some more general weakness.

‘You like her?’ he suggested.

‘She’s a pet.’ The old woman’s smile was tickled as well as kind. ‘She’s had such a dreadful upbringing. These poor old folks don’t understand girls. How can they? Now she’s head over heels in love and she’s like a bud unfolding. I’ve read that somewhere, haven’t I? I was going to say it doesn’t sound like me. But she is. Thorny, you know, but with a little bit of pink just showing. Clarrie says the boy is very nice with her. Frightened to touch her, if you ask me.’

‘Is he very young too?’

‘Oh, quite old enough. Nineteen. A great bony fellow in one of those fair-isle pullovers shrunk till he looks like a skinned rabbit. I think he must have chosen those new clothes of hers. She’s paid for them of course, don’t go getting her wrong. There’s nothing like that about her. But she wouldn’t know how to buy herself a bathing dress. But from what Clarrie said, the whole outfit sounded to me like a boy’s idea.’

She took another sip and giggled.

‘He said she looked like a cross between the chorus and washing day. Plenty of frills, I expect, and everything a bit too tight. That’s a boy all over. On the back of the bike, too. So dangerous!’

‘Where did she find him?’

‘God knows. She never mentions him. Blushes whenever she hears a petrol engine, and thinks nobody knows.’ She paused. ‘I can just remember being like that,’ she said with a ruefulness which was delightful. ‘Can’t you? Ah, you’re not old enough. It’ll come back to you one day.’

Sitting up in bed with his drink, hearing the small hours tick away, Mr Campion rather hoped it wouldn’t. But she was off again, bending forward now with delicate earnestness.

‘Well, dear, as I was saying, there is just one little thing that’s been going on for a long time and I feel I ought to mention it just so you don’t go rooting it out and being surprised. . . . Hullo?’

The final word was directed towards the door, which had opened quietly. A slender soldierly figure clad in a solid blue-cloth dressing-gown of wonderful cut and braiding had appeared on the threshold. Captain Alastair Seton stood hesitating. He was covered with embarrassment and extremely apologetic.

‘I do beg your pardons,’ he said, betraying just the accent but a slightly deeper voice than Campion had envisaged. ‘I was passing the door and thought the room was unoccupied. My---er---attention was caught by the shaft of light.’

‘Go along with you, you smelt it,’ said Renee, laughing. ‘Come along. There’s a tooth-glass over there. Bring it here.’

The newcomer smiled with an innocent mischief which was wholly disarming. It was a handsome face, a thought weak perhaps, and, for all its superficial sophistication, remarkably ingenuous. ‘Something to mother,’ reflected Mr. Campion, and he looked sharply at Miss Roper. She was pouring the whisky, a neat two fingers, obviously a ration.

‘There,’ she said. ‘Now, it’s quite a good thing you’ve come because you can tell Mr. Campion exactly how it was that Miss Ruth was taken ill. You were the only one who saw her except the doctor. Keep your voice down. We’re in committee and anyway this bottle won’t last if anyone else comes in.’

She was turning it into a party, showing off and covering up at the same time. So this was her secret. It seemed highly respectable.

The Captain settled himself comfortably in a fumed-oak armchair shaped like a Nordic throne and took a reverent sip.

‘I didn’t kill the lady,’ he said, smiling shyly at Campion as if he hoped he was going to be liked. ‘On the contrary.’

‘You didn’t know her, Albert,’ said Renee hastily, as if she were afraid to let go of the situation. ‘She was a great big woman, larger than the others, and she wasn’t quite so clever. I know what Clarrie thinks but he’s wrong.’

‘Strange as that may appear,’ murmured Captain Seton into his glass and laughing a little spitefully, as a cat might.

‘They didn’t kill her because of that, anyway,’ she went on, ignoring him. ‘They were all very angry with her, I know, but it wasn’t because she wasn’t clever. She was ill, poor woman. The doctor told her straight her blood pressure nearly broke his instrument. He told me that nearly two months before she died. “If she doesn’t take it very easy she’ll have a stroke, Renee,” he said, “and that’ll mean more work for you. She’ll go like her brother did.” ’

Campion sat up. ‘Mr. Edward died of a stroke, did he?’

‘So the doctor said.’ Miss Roper put commiseration, suspicion and a warning into the words and her head was held on one side like a robin’s. ‘Still, we don’t know about him, do we? They may not even disturb him, poor man. One’s enough, I should think. Well, on the day she died Miss Ruth went out early with her shopping bag. There’d been a bit of a barny the night before because I heard them all shouting at her in Mr. Lawrence’s room. But anyway, off she went that morning, but no one seems to have seen her until she came in about half past twelve. I was in the kitchen, the others were out, but the Captain here met her in the front hall. Now you go on, love.’

The Captain cocked an eye at the endearment and his narrow mouth twitched with amusement.

‘I saw she wasn’t well,’ he said slowly. ‘One could hardly miss it. She was shouting, for one thing, don’t you know.’

‘Shouting?’

‘Talking very loudly.’ He dropped his own pleasant voice on the words. ‘She was crimson in the face, waving her arms about and staggering. Since I happened to be there I did what I could, naturally.’ He sipped his drink reflectively. ‘I took her down to the sawbones next door. We made a pretty pair, I can tell you. Heads popped out of every window in the city, or so it seemed to me.’ He laughed at himself, but there was still a trace of resentment lurking in his eyes.

‘Very embarrassing, but all the same a noble act,’ said Campion.

‘That’s what I say,’ put in Renee eagerly. ‘It was nice of him, wasn’t it? Didn’t call me or anything. Just quietly did the right thing. That’s like him. And the doctor was there, you see, but he didn’t help.’

‘No, no, my dear, it wasn’t quite like that.’ With an apologetic glance at the man in the bed, the Captain hastened to counter some earlier complaint. ‘I must be reasonably honest. What actually happened was this. As we came roaring up the street like a copper and a female drunk we found the sawbones on the point of locking up his surgery. With him he had some great lout of a fellow who, to add to the general discomfort, was in floods of tears. They were dashing off to officiate, as far as I could understand, at a birth’---he paused and added, ‘of some sort.’

It was clear that the scene was returning to him with some vividness and he was viewing it with sour amusement.

‘There we all were,’ he said, ‘on the doorstep. I was looking ineffectual, clutching my old green hat which I probably resemble. The doctor was tired and worried by the intimate symptoms the lout was relating. My lady friend, who was wearing her spring costume---a sugar-sack sari over a flannel petticoat, I fancy, Renee.’

‘It was obviously two dresses, dear, not a petticoat. They all wear funny clothes. They’re above clothes.’

‘Miss Ruth was beneath these,’ said the Captain grimly. ‘As more and more safety-pins came adrift, so that much became alarmingly obvious. Well, anyway, there she was, shouting all these figures . . .’

‘Figures?’ demanded Campion.

‘Yes, figures. She was the mathematical one of the family. Didn’t Renee tell you? The police keep asking me “What did she say?” and all I know is that it sounded like figures. She couldn’t articulate, you see. That’s how I knew she was ill and not merely mad.’

‘The doctor ought to have taken her in,’ said Renee. ‘He’s a busy man, we know, but----’

‘Oh, I see his point of view.’ Captain Seton was being obstinately fair. ‘I do admit I thought his behaviour extraordinary at the time, but I was harassed myself, God-dammit. No, he realized that she was as near her own home as made no difference and he thought she’d had a stroke as he’d predicted. He took one look at her and said to me: “Oh, dear. Yes, yes, indeed. Yes. Take her to her room and wrap her up. I’ll come the moment I can.” Mind you,’ he added, directing his queer self-depreciating smile at Campion, ‘by this time the weeping lout, who was a good foot broader than either of us and possibly thirty years younger, was making it exceedingly plain that the doctor was coming with him and not me. He said so with considerable force, as I recall. At any rate I gave way, muttering something pettish, I expect, and I escorted my titubant doxy, who was now frothing at the mouth, through the crowd which had begun to collect, and up to her room on this landing. I placed her firmly in the one chair which did not contain books, tucked a pile of old clothes over her, and slunk down to the kitchen for Renee.’

‘Where he stirred the saucepan I had on the stove, while I went up to her,’ said Miss Roper, smiling at him with deep affection. ‘He’s a good old boy.’

‘Whatever they say,’ finished the Captain for her, and his eyes met hers provocatively and laughed.

‘You drink up and don’t be so greedy for praise,’ she said. ‘Well, Mr. Campion, when I got up to her she seemed to be dozing. I didn’t like the way she was breathing but I knew the doctor was coming, and I thought I’d better let her rest, so I put another blanket round her and came away.’

The Captain drained his glass with a sigh. ‘Next time anyone looked at her she was dead,’ he said. ‘Very little trouble to anybody, except me, of course.’

‘Oh, don’t make it sound so awful!’ The pink bows on Miss Roper’s cap quivered. ‘It wasn’t quite as bad as that, although of course it was nearly. I caught Miss Evadne, Mr. Campion, just as she was coming in, and we went up together. That was nearly two in the afternoon, I suppose. Miss Ruth was still asleep but she was making a terrible noise.’

‘Was Miss Evadne helpful?’ inquired Campion.

Renee met his eyes. ‘Well, no,’ she said. ‘Not more than you would expect of her. She spoke to her sister, but when the poor woman didn’t wake she looked about the room and picked up a book from one of the shelves, read a little bit, and then told me to send for the doctor as if I hadn’t thought of it.’

‘When did he come?’

‘Well, it was nearly three. He had to go home after the baby was born. He said it was to get cleaned up, but I think it was to explain to his wife why he was late for his meal. Miss Ruth was dead then.’

There was silence for a moment before the Captain said:

‘He certified a thrombosis. After all, it was what he expected. Must have seemed plain sailing. One can’t blame him.’

‘Yet somebody did.’ Campion made the remark and was surprised to find them both immediately on the defensive.

‘People will talk,’ said Renee as if he had censured her. ‘It’s human nature. Any sudden death makes a lot of stink. “Quick, wasn’t it?” they say, and then “weren’t you surprised? Nerves of iron, haven’t you?” Or, “Perhaps it’s a blessed relief to you.” It makes me sick.’ Her small face was flushed and her old eyes angry.

The Captain rose and set down his tooth-glass. He was a little pink round the gills himself.

‘At any rate I did not kill the vulgar trollop,’ he said with suppressed venom. ‘I had words with her, I admit it, and I still feel I was within my rights, but once and for all I did NOT KILL HER!’

‘Shush!’ Renee quietened the military voice with the firmness of her authority. ‘Don’t wake the house, dear. We know you didn’t.’

The Captain, thin and compact in his Edwardian robe, bowed to her and then to Campion, and even from him the gesture was theatrical.

‘Good night,’ he said stiffly. ‘Many thanks.’

‘There.’ The old woman let the door close behind him before she spoke. ‘Silly old fool. Now all that’ll have to come out, I suppose. He’s highly strung to begin with and a single drink puts him right on his dig.’ She paused and regarded her adopted nephew dubiously. ‘It was only because of the room,’ she said. ‘Old people are like children. They get jealous. I gave him a nice room when we came here and Ruth always wanted it. She said she’d had it as a child and when she found she couldn’t get any change out of me she had a go at him. That’s all there was to it. Really, I’m not lying. It was too footling to mention.’

She looked so guilty that he laughed at her.

‘How long did the feud last?’

‘Too long altogether,’ she admitted. ‘All the time we’ve been here. It blew up and then cooled down and then started again. You know how these things do. There was nothing in it and although he has said dreadful things about her he was the first to do what he could for her when he saw she was ill. He’s like that. A sweet old Flick when you know him. I’d go bail for him any day.’

‘I’m sure you would,’ he agreed. ‘By the way, is that the awful secret you were going to uncover?’

‘What! Me and the Captain?’ She threw back her head and her laugh was full and deep with amusement. ‘My dear,’ she said with cheerful vulgarity, ‘we’ve lived in the same house for nearly thirty years. You don’t want a detective to find out any secret there. You want a time-machine! No, I was going to tell you about the coffin cupboard.’

The sleepy Campion was taken off his guard.

‘I beg your pardon?’ he said.

‘Of course it may not be coffins.’ Miss Roper tipped a teaspoonful of spirit into her glass, added a ladylike splash, and continued airily: ‘It may be anything in that line.’

‘Bodies?’ he suggested helpfully.

‘Oh no, ducky.’ Her tone was reproving but she was quite ten years younger after her laugh. ‘It may be simply wood or perhaps those nasty little trestles they use. I’ve never seen inside. Never had the chance. They always come at night, you see.’

Campion roused himself. ‘Suppose you tell me what you’re talking about.’

‘I’m trying to.’ She sounded plaintive. ‘I’ve let one of my cellars---the little ones leading off the area round by the front door and not actually in the house at all---to old Mr Bowels the undertaker. He asked me as a special favour and I didn’t like to refuse him as it’s always as well to keep in with people like that, isn’t it?’

‘In case you want a quick box-up at any time? Well, you know best. Never mind, go on. When did all this happen?’

‘Oh, years ago. Months, anyway. He’s very quiet. Never makes any trouble. But I thought you might find it locked and get it open and wonder if the things inside were mine, whatever they are. It might look funny, I mean.’ She was perfectly serious and her eyes, grey and round, met his own placidly. ‘I thought you might possibly hear him and his son down there tonight, as a matter of fact,’ she said.

‘Is he here?’

‘If he isn’t he soon will be. He popped in when you were up with Miss Evadne to say I wasn’t to be nervous if I heard him moving about between three and four. He’s a very thoughtful man. Old-fashioned.’

Mr Campion ceased to hear her. Charlie Luke had surely said that the exhumation of Edward Palinode’s body was fixed for four a.m., but that was at Wilswhich Cemetery. He wondered if he was quite awake until the explanation occurred to him.

‘Of course! They didn’t bury him,’ he said triumphantly.

‘Not Mr. Edward. Bowels and Son didn’t. No.’ She looked troubled. ‘Oh, there was a fuss about that! Mr. Edward had put it in his will, the thoughtless old man. Didn’t care how much he hurt people’s feelings. The dead don’t. But there it was, all written out. “Having spent grim nights in an abominable cellar listening to the menacing roll of guns and the thunderbolts of enemy attack, with the man Bowels watching me and mentally measuring me up for one of his gimcrack carrion-caskets, I declare that should I die before him, which I would have him know I doubt, I will not have my body interred by him or any member of his insignificant firm.” ’

Her imitation was not unskilled and she finished with a gesture.

‘I got it off like a part,’ she explained. ‘It seemed so wicked.’

Her audience appeared delighted.

‘A man of character,’ he observed.

‘Pompous old idiot.’ She spoke with feeling. ‘He was full of smarty ideas and had no manners, even in his grave. He lost the family their money, being so clever. Well, there you are, my dear. If you hear any thumping it’s just the undertaker.’

‘The ultimate reassurance,’ said Campion, and he got out of bed and into a dressing-gown.

‘Are we going to have a look?’ She was so complacent about it that it occurred to him that it might have been her object from the beginning. ‘I’ve never liked to spy on him,’ she murmured confidentially, ‘because there was no excuse and anyway you can’t see from my room. It’s three or four months since he came last.’

In the doorway Campion paused.

‘How about Corkerdale?’ he demanded.

‘Oh, we needn’t worry about him. He’s asleep in the kitchen.’

‘What?’

‘Now, Albert,’ she used his Christian name with daring, he felt, ‘don’t be unreasonable and don’t do anything to get the poor man into trouble. It was my idea. I didn’t want him to run into Bowels. “Everybody’s in,” I said, “and it’s the inside you’re watching. You come and sit down in a comfortable chair in the warm.” Of course he came. I haven’t done anything wrong, have I?’

‘Only demoralized a good man, the sort of thing you go to hell for.’ Mr. Campion sounded cheerful. ‘Come on. Like to lead the way?’

They went softly along the wide landing and down through the house, which was only comparatively silent. The Palinodes slept as they lived, with a fine disregard for the rest of the community. From one room a thunderous sound of snoring reminded Campion that brother Lawrence’s goose-like voice had probably an adenoidal explanation.

On the ground floor Miss Roper paused. The man behind her stopped but his attention had been caught, not by a sound but by an odour. It crept up from the basement, a thin coil of appalling affront. He sniffed and smothered a cough.

‘Good heavens, what is it?’

‘Oh, that’s all right. That’s nothing. That’s only cooking.’ She was deliberately offhand. ‘Can you hear them?’

There was a noise, he heard it now, very far off and muffled, a lumping, scraping sound suggesting hollow wood.

Although there was nothing of the charnel house about the alarming odour from the lower floor, the effect of it in conjunction with the sound was eerie. The hall struck cold and the darkness gathered round them like folds of gauze. He started when she touched him.

‘This way,’ she whispered. ‘We’ll go in the drawing-room. There’s a window there just above the cellar door. Keep close to me.’

By holding the tail of her happi-coat he could just edge along over the worn carpet. Either she knew her way perfectly or she could see in the dark, he was not sure which. The drawing-room door creaked when she touched it, but swung open quietly enough to admit them to a vast shadowy room, faintly lit by the subdued glow of a single far-away lamp outside on the corner of Apron Street.

The bay window taking up most of one end was partially shrouded by curtains and cut square at the top by the sharp line of a Venetian blind. The noise was much nearer now and as they waited a flicker of light appeared at the bottom of the centre pane.

Campion made his way cautiously through an archipelago of furniture and peered over the final barrier, a set of empty fernpots wired together on a stand.

The coffin appeared suddenly. It swung up vertically on the other side of the glass as someone hoisted it from below to get it clear of the open cellar door. Renee sucked in her breath in a silent scream as she saw it, and at the same moment Campion switched on the torch which hitherto he had thought it wisest not to use.

The broad white beam lit the casket like a searchlight. The sinister headless shape of the thing was made infinitely more repellent by the smoothness and blackness of the wood. It shone like a piano, broad, important and silky with veneer.

The dust-sheet which had been covering it had fallen back and the wide brass name-plate faced them nakedly. The lettering was so bold and legible that its message might have been shouted through a megaphone:

EDWARD BON CHRETIN PALINODE
Born September 4, 1883
Died March 2, 1946


In the silent airless room the two stood staring at it until it heeled gently over and out of sight, while the sound of careful footsteps reached them clearly from the narrow chasm below.

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