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7: The Practical Undertaker

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« on: June 02, 2023, 07:46:18 am »

A FACE as broad and blandly pink as a gammon rasher looked into Mr. Campion’s own from the area’s well. In the arc of the torch beam the man appeared large and solid, with wide shoulders and the breast and belly of an ox. Beneath his hard black hat his hair was white and curling, and his heavy chins rested on a glistening starched collar. The general effect was as imposing as a fine new marble tombstone.

‘Good evening, sir.’ His tone was brisk but subtly deferential and a thought knowing. ‘We did not disturb you, I hope?’

‘Think nothing of it,’ murmured the torchbearer magnanimously. ‘What are you doing? Stocktaking?’

A gleam of friendly white appeared in the pink expanse, a small vertical gleam from two large teeth and a very round mouth.

‘Not exactly, sir, not exactly, although there are likenesses. It’s all perfectly in order. All above . . .’

‘Ground?’ suggested the thin man helpfully.

‘No, sir. Board, I was going to say. It is Mr. Campion I’m addressing, isn’t it? I’m Jas Bowels, at your service any time of the night or day, and this is my son, Rowley boy.’

‘Here, Dad.’ Another face, so like the first as to be slightly disconcerting, rose into the circle of light. Mr. Bowels Junior’s hair was black and his expression was slightly more alert than his father’s, but otherwise he was one of the most aggressively legitimate sons Mr. Campion had ever seen. Two or three puffs from the bicycle pump of the years would, he felt, render the two identical.

There was a brief unsatisfactory pause while they stood looking at one another. For once Campion was unhelpful.

‘I’m just taking her across,’ remarked Mr Bowels Senior unexpectedly. ‘We hire the cellar, you see, sir, and I’ve had her in there a month or so while we was full up over the road. Now, I thought, what with one thing and another---the police and that---I’d better get her back home. Looks better. You’ll understand, being a gentleman and used to these things.’

It occurred to Mr Campion just in time that the pronoun was complimentary, as in ship.

‘She looks a very fine affair,’ he said cautiously.

‘Oh, she is, sir.’ Jas betrayed pride. ‘A very special job. One of our de-luxe types. Me and the boy call her the Queen Mary when we’re talking among ourselves. It’s not too much to say that any gentleman who is a gentleman would be proud to be buried in it. It’s like going below in your own carriage. As I always say when asked for an opinion, it’s the last thing you do so you may as well do it right.’

His blue eyes smiled innocently as he spoke.

‘It’s a pity people are so ignorant. You’d think they’d like to see a lovely job like her going across the road at any time, but no, they don’t like it. It worries them, makes them think, and so on, so I’ve got to nip her over when there’s no one about. She’s a very fine casket, a lovely casket, a credit to anybody.’

Mr. Campion felt it was a pity to spoil all this but he was growing cold.

‘Yet the man whose address is on the label had other views?’ he suggested.

The small eyes did not waver but the pink face deepened in colour, and a rueful smile, which was infinitely confiding, twitched the ugly little mouth.

‘Ah, you saw it,’ he said. ‘I’m caught and I may as well admit it. I’m caught proper. He saw your name-plate, Rowley boy. He’s very fly, is Mr. Campion. I ought to have known that from all I’ve heard from your Uncle Magers.’

The idea of Mr. Lugg being anybody’s uncle was sufficiently unnerving, but the compliment and the flattering flicker of the eyelids as it was ventured was definitely unpleasant. Campion waited.

The undertaker let the silence go on a fraction too long. Then he sighed.

‘Vanity,’ he said superbly. ‘Vanity. You’d be surprised how often I hear that in church, and yet it don’t seem to have done me the good it might. Vanity, Mr C., that’s what that there name-plate shows you. The vanity of Jas Bowels.’

Mr. Campion was diverted but not beguiled. He said nothing and laid a restraining hand on Miss Roper, who had taken breath for speech.

Jas saddened. ‘I’ll have to put it to you,’ he said finally. ‘There was a gentleman in this house once that me and the boy took a real fancy to. Am I right, Rowley?’

‘As you say, Dad.’ The younger Mr. Bowels spoke with emphasis but there was frank curiosity in his eyes.

‘Mr. Edward Palinode.’ Jas spoke with real relish. ‘A lovely name for a headstone. He was a fine figure of a man too, something like meself. Broad, you see, and wide at the shoulders. They always make a beautiful coffin.’

The clear eyes regarded Mr Campion thoughtfully rather than with speculation.

‘I loved that man, in a professional way. I don’t know if you can understand that, sir?’

‘In a glass darkly,’ murmured Campion and could have cursed himself. His tone had betrayed him and the undertaker grew faintly more wary.

‘It isn’t easy for one man to see another’s professional pride. It’s an artist’s pride, really,’ he continued with dignity. ‘I used to sit in the lady’s kitchen here and listen to the bombs dropping, and to keep me mind at peace I’d think of work. I’d look at Mr. Edward Palinode and I’d think “If you go before me, Mr. Palinode,” I’d think, “I’ll do you a treat, I will,” and I meant it.’

‘Dad did mean it,’ put in Rowley suddenly, as if Campion’s silence was getting on his nerves. ‘Dad’s a craftsman, that’s what Dad is.’

‘That’ll do, boy.’ Jas accepted the tribute and threw it lightly aside. ‘Some people understand these things and some people don’t. It’s no blame to them and it’s no credit. What I’m coming to, Mr C., is something you will understand. I did wrong, and in a way I made a fool of meself. Pure vanity, that’s what it was.’

‘I’ll take your word for it,’ conceded Campion, who was shivering. ‘You’re trying to tell me you made it on speculation, I take it?’

A happy smile lit up Mr Bowels’s face and for the first time his eyes looked shrewd and alive.

‘I see we can talk, you and me, sir,’ he said, dropping the comedy performance like a cloak. ‘I’ve had old Magers all the evening and I thought, “Well, anyone who employs you must know what’s what,” I thought, but I wasn’t sure, you see. Yes, of course, I made it on spec. When Mr. Palinode died I took it for granted we should get the order. In fact I started on me masterpiece when he was first took ill. “I expect you’re for it, old boy,” I said to meself as soon as I heard he’d had his stroke. “The time’s come,” I said. “I’ll start on it and if you ain’t ready it’ll keep.” I didn’t realize how long.’ He laughed with genuine amusement. ‘Vanity, vanity. I made it on appro and the perishing old blighter wouldn’t have it. It’s a laugh, really. He’d seen me watching him, see?’

It was a creditable performance and Mr Campion regretted the necessity to mar it.

‘I thought these things were made to measure?’ he ventured.

Jas was equal to the occasion. ‘So they are, sir, so they are,’ he agreed heartily. ‘But we old experts, we know within a little just from looking. Matter of fact, I made it to fit meself. “You’re no bigger than what I am,” I said, thinking of him. “If you are you’ve deceived me and you’ll ’ave to ’ave a tuck in you.” She’s a lovely job. Solid oak, veneered ebony. If you’ll come over to the shop in the morning, sir, I’ll show her to you in the light.’

‘I’ll see her now.’

‘No, sir.’ The refusal was gentle but adamant. ‘Neither torch-light nor the narrer passage would do her justice. You’ll excuse me, sir, but I couldn’t do it, not if you was the King of England. I can’t bring it in the house either, because some of the old folks might come down and that wouldn’t be the thing at all. No. You’ll excuse of us tonight and in the morning I’ll have her all shined up. And you’ll not only say “She does you credit, Bowels,” you’ll say, but I wouldn’t be surprised but what you’ll add, “Put her on one side, Bowels. She’ll suit me one of these days,” you’ll say. “If not for meself, for a friend.” ’

The face was smiling, the eyes merry, but there were tiny beads of sweat under the hard brim of the black hat. Campion watched with interest.

‘It wouldn’t take me a moment to come down,’ he said. ‘Believe me, I buy things much more easily at this time of night.’

‘Then we won’t impose on you, sir.’ Jas was brisk. ‘Take her along, boy. We’ve got to get across the road while it’s dark, sir, if you’ll excuse us.’

He was behaving admirably. There was no panic, no undue haste. Only the sweat betrayed him.

‘Is Lugg with you?’

‘He’s in bed, sir.’ Once again the blue eyes were childlike. ‘We sat up talking and filling our glasses, mentioning his sainted sister, my late wife, sir, and poor old Magers he got quite overcome. We put him to bed and let him rest.’

Knowing Mr. Lugg’s alcoholic capacity to be as considerable as his emotional range was limited, Mr. Campion was surprised. He controlled it, however, and made a last probe.

‘I’ve got a man in the house,’ he began. ‘He ought to be on duty. At least let me tell him to give you a hand.’

The undertaker revealed his mettle. He hesitated.

‘No, sir,’ he said at last. ‘It’s kind of you. It surely is. But no, sir. Me and the boy are used to it, you see. If it wasn’t empty, now, well that’d be another story. But there’s only the weight of the wood to carry. Good-night, sir. We feel it’s an honour to have met you. See you in the morning, I hope. You’ll excuse me for being so personal, but if you stand by that open window in your thin robe, sir, well, I’ll be seeing you when you won’t be seeing me, if I make meself plain. Good-night, sir,’ and he faded quietly into the darkness.

‘He’s a very good man,’ whispered Miss Roper as she closed the window on the two figures bumping their way gently up the area steps. ‘He’s thought very highly of in the street, but I never feel I can get to the bottom of him.’

‘Ah,’ murmured Mr. Campion absently, ‘I wonder what he’s got in the bottom of the Queen Mary?’

‘But, Albert, that was a coffin. There wasn’t a body in it.’

‘Wasn’t there? Perhaps just a little foreign body,’ said Mr. Campion with considerable cheerfulness. ‘And now, Auntie, since we appear to have overcome any initial shyness and can speak from the heart, the stink coming up from your basement can no longer be ignored. Come on, darling, tell me the truth, what’s cooking?’

‘Go along with you!’ It was typical of Renee that it was the endearment which she heard most clearly. ‘It’s only old Miss Jessica. It pleases her and doesn’t hurt anybody else. But I won’t have it in the daytime, because she gets in the way and really there is a smell. It’s worse than usual tonight.’

Campion looked apprehensive. Miss Jessica, as he recalled, was Cardboard Hat, of the park, and, recollecting some of Yeo’s more intimate details of her habits, he hardly liked to think of the possibilities which came into his mind.

‘You’ve got a fine old menagerie here, haven’t you?’ he said. ‘What is she doing?’

‘Making little mucks,’ said Miss Roper casually. ‘I don’t think they’re quite medicine. She lives on them.’

‘Eh?’

‘Don’t be silly, dear. You’re making me feel quite jumpy. We’ve had our bit of excitement tonight. That name on the coffin gave me quite a turn until Mr Bowels explained. Fancy him depending on the order like that! You would think Mr. Edward wouldn’t have disappointed him. He didn’t have a very good one either in the end. Cheap, I thought, but I didn’t say so. There’s no point in hurting people, is there, when a thing’s done and the bill’s coming in anyway.’

‘To return to Miss Jessica,’ Campion sounded chastened, ‘are you telling me she’s distilling?’

‘No she’s not, not in my house.’ She flared with indignation. ‘That’s illegal, as I told Clarrie when he wanted me to try to make some gin. I may have had a murder in the house but that doesn’t mean I’m going to set up as a lawbreaker generally.’ Her squeaky voice shook with irritation. ‘All you men are alike. The poor old girl is a bit of a crank, that’s all. She believes in New Food, and so on. I let her go her own way, although she does make me wild when she wants to eat grass and send her rations to the people who tried to kill her two or three years ago. “You do what you like,” I say to her, “but if you want to feed the hungry with your two ounces a week, there’s your own brother downstairs with every bone sticking out through his homespun. Give it to him and save postage.” She says I’m “doomed to insularity”, whatever that may mean.’

‘Where is she? May I go and see her?’

‘Dear, you can do what you like. I told you that. She’s annoyed with me at the moment because she thinks I’m a Philistine, which I am, so I shan’t come with you. She’s quite harmless and the cleverest of the three in one way. At least she can look after herself. You go down. You can find her. Follow your nose.’

He grinned and turned his torch on her.

‘All right. Go and get your beauty sleep.’

She patted her lace cap straight at once.

‘I need it, do I? Oh, you’re laughing. You are a naughty boy! Yes, all right. I’ll leave the blooming place to you, ducky, loonies and all. I’m fed up with the lot of them. See you in the morning. Be good and I’ll bring you a cupper in bed.’

She trotted off, a ghost of a warmer world, leaving him alone in the cluttered room. His nose led him to the top of the basement stairs and there almost dissuaded him. Miss Jessica might have been tanning, the atmosphere was so remarkable. He went quietly down into the reasty dark.

The stairs ended in the nest of doors, one of which was ajar. It led, as he remembered, into the main kitchen in which he and Clarrie Grace had sat talking earlier in the evening. Now it was in darkness, but the sound of regular snoring from the stoveside chair announced that Detective Officer Corkerdale was impervious both to a sense of duty and partial asphyxiation.

The air was very thick and the uppermost odour was strange as well as unpleasant. It was a whiff of ‘dragons’ lair’; strange and awful.

A sound from behind the door on his right decided him. He thrust it open cautiously. The room was unexpectedly large, one of those vast back kitchens for which past generations of great feeders had found use. It was stone-floored and whitewashed, but unfurnished save for a rough wooden table built out from a wall. On this was a gas ring, two oil stoves and an astonishing array of treacle tins, most of which appeared to be in use as cooking utensils.

Miss Jessica Palinode, clad in a Government-surplus butcher’s overall as used in His Majesty’s Armed Forces by men two or three times her size, was at work there, lit by a single very low-powered bulb swinging from the ceiling. She spoke without looking round and before he realized she had heard him.

‘Come in and close the door, if you please. Don’t disturb me for a moment. I shan’t be long.’

It was a fine clear educated voice, more incisive than her elder sister’s, and once again he was pulled up by the family’s remarkable authority. He also noticed a return of the half-childish sense of alarm which he had first experienced when she had looked up as he watched her through the miniature telescope. Here was a real witch if ever there was one.

At the moment she looked the part rather less than she had done in the park. The overall was at least a single garment and without the cardboard hat her elf-locks flowed freely and not entirely unattractively. He waited in silence and she went on stirring her brew in the treacle tin over the gas ring. With some relief he discovered she was not omniscient but had merely mistaken him for Corkerdale.

‘Now I know perfectly well that you should be on guard in the garden,’ she remarked. ‘Miss Roper took pity on you and let you into the kitchen. I shan’t tell on you and I shall expect you not to tell on me. I am not doing anything reprehensible, so your immortal soul, as well as any hopes you may have of promotion, are not in jeopardy. I am merely doing my cooking for tomorrow and the next day. Do you understand?’

‘Not entirely,’ said Mr. Campion.

She turned round at once, looked at him with the shrewd intelligence he had noticed in her before, and went back to the tin.

‘Who are you?’

‘I am staying here. I smelled something and came down.’

‘No one warned you, I suppose? The inefficiency in this house is quite extraordinary. Well, never mind. I’m sorry if you were disturbed. Now you know what it is you can go back to bed.’

‘I don’t think I shall rest,’ said Campion truthfully. ‘Can I help?’

She considered the offer seriously. ‘No, I don’t think so. All the rough work is done. I do that first, and then one hand-washing does. You can wipe up later, if you like.’

He took refuge in the child’s resort of merely waiting. When she decided that her tin had boiled long enough she took it off and turned down the gas.

‘It’s not very difficult, and as a recreation I find it amusing, even,’ she remarked. ‘People make a drudgery of feeding themselves. Either that or it’s a rite with them, something holy before which everything else must give way. That’s very ridiculous. I make it a relaxation and I get on very well.’

‘I see you do,’ he said. ‘You’re very alert. That doesn’t suggest improper food.’

She glanced at him again and smiled. It was the same ineffably sweet and disarming smile with which her brother had favoured him. There was grace in it and true intelligence. He felt she had suddenly and rather unfairly become a friend.

‘That’s very true,’ she said. ‘I’d ask you to sit down if there was anything to sit on. But these are Spartan times. What about that pail, if you turned it over?’

It would have been churlish to refuse such an offer, although the knife-sharp rim in conjunction with his thin dressing-gown produced between them a new form of torture. When he was settled she smiled on him again.

‘Would you like a nice cup of nettle-tea?’ she said. ‘We’ll have one in a minute. It’s quite as nice as yerba maté and very good for one as well.’

‘Thank you.’ Campion looked more optimistic than he felt. ‘I don’t quite understand, though. What are you doing?’

‘Cooking.’ She had a laugh like a nice girl’s. ‘It may seem peculiar to you that I have to do it in the middle of the night in my own home, but there’s an excellent explanation for that. Have you heard of a man called Herbert Boon?’

‘No.’

‘There you are, you see. Hardly anybody has. I should not have done so myself but I happened to find his book on a twopenny stall just before the war. I bought it and read it and it’s made my life possible. Isn’t that remarkable?’

Since she seemed to expect a reply, he made the prescribed polite noise.

Her eyes, which were of an odd colour, a brownish-green with a hard line round the irises, regarded him with positive excitement.

‘I find it fascinating,’ she said. ‘You see, the title of his book is so cheap and so crude that on first sight one discounts it. It’s called How to Live on One-and-Six. Now, this was written in nineteen-seventeen. Since then the index figure has risen by approximately forty per cent, so we must translate that as roughly two-and-a-penny. It still sounds miraculous, doesn’t it?’

‘It does indeed,’ he assured her gravely. ‘You’re talking about money per day, are you?’

‘Oh no, per week,’ she said. ‘That’s really extraordinary, isn’t it?’

‘Almost incredible.’

‘I know. And yet, you see, this is the delightful part, it only sounds absurd because it’s earthy.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Well, material and commonplace. Now, take A Joy For Ever, or Creative Evolution, or Civilization and its Discontents, aren’t all those absurd titles if taken as literally as you are taking How to Live on One-and-Six? Of course they are! It occurred to me at the time because I was most anxious to know how to live on a very small sum. It’s all very well to have an intellect and to entertain it, but one must first ensure that one can maintain the machine.’

Mr. Campion stirred uneasily on his pail. He felt that, intellectually speaking, he was having a conversation with someone at the other end of a circular tunnel, and was in fact standing directly back to back with her. On the other hand, of course, it was possible that he had become Alice in Wonderland.

‘Everything you say is undeniably true,’ he said cautiously. ‘Do you do it?’

‘Do I live on two-and-a-penny? Not quite. Boon lived in a district slightly more rural. Also, of course, he was simpler in his tastes; something of an aesthete, which I am not. I am my mother’s daughter, I am afraid.’

Campion remembered the celebrated Mrs. Theophila Palinode, poetess of the ’sixties, with some surprise. He saw the likeness now. This dark vivid face burningly alive with the quest of the sweetly impracticable, had once smiled out at him from the frontispiece of a little red volume on his grandmother’s chest of drawers, in a bedroom as full of draperies as a washing-basket. Miss Jessica was exactly like her, had her elf-locks been curled into ringlets.

Her clear forceful voice interrupted him.

‘I do nearly,’ she said. ‘I’ll lend you the book. It answers such a lot of people’s problems.’

‘I should think it might,’ he said sincerely. ‘Dear me yes. What’s in there, may I ask?’

‘In this tin? The thing that’s been smelling rather is over there; it’s embrocation for the grocer’s knee. But this is broth of sheep’s jawbone. Not the whole head, that’s too expensive. Boon says “two under-jaws for a farthing” but then he lived in the country and in slightly different times. The modern butchers are very unhelpful. But I’ve found one who will do what I want for cigarettes. Two jawbones for one cigarette, that is just over twopence. I tell you I’m not as good at it as Boon.’

He sat looking at her in shocked astonishment, which she misinterpreted.

‘It is very dear,’ she said.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘is this necessary?’

A slow, hard expression spread over her face and he realized he had disappointed her.

‘Do you mean am I so poor that I have to live like this, or are you merely inquiring if I am mad?’

This exact diagnosis of his precise state of mind was disconcerting. Her swift intelligence was quite as frightening as it was attractive. It occurred to him that honesty was not so much the best as the only policy.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said humbly. ‘I don’t really understand at all. You must let me see the book.’

‘I will. But you must understand that, like all important informative books, its appeal, its true appeal, is to a desire of the emotions. I mean if you do not want most terribly to understand a certain kind of love, then you will not get the best out of Plato’s Banquet. In the same way, if you do not want to live more cheaply than you dare to hope, you will not get the essence out of Herbert Boon. He may disgust and bore you. Do I make myself plain?’

‘I think perhaps you do,’ he said seriously.

His glance wandered over the depressing array on the table and back again to her clever, proud face. She was the younger sister by some ten or fifteen years, he guessed.

‘Are treacle-tin saucepans Boon’s idea too?’ he inquired.

‘Oh yes. I’m not practical myself. I simply obey the writer implicitly. It may be that is why I am successful, more or less.’

‘I expect that is so.’ He looked so worried that she laughed at him and another few years slid off her age.

‘I have less money than the others, not because I am the youngest, but because I trusted my elder brother Edward to invest the greater part of my inheritance.’ Her tone was primly Victorian. ‘He was a man of ideas and in one way he was more like my mother and myself than are Lawrence and my elder sister Evadne, but he was not very practical. He lost all our money. Poor man, I am very sorry for him. I will not tell you my exact income now, but it is counted in shillings and not in pounds. Yet, by the grace of God and the perspicacity of Herbert Boon, I am not a poor woman at all. I use the intelligence I possess to live in my own way. You may think it is a very odd way, but it is my way, and I do no one any harm. Now do you think I’m a crank?’

The word shot out at him and pinned him. She was waiting for an answer.

Campion was not without charm himself. His smile was disarming.

‘No,’ he said. ‘You’re a rationalist. I might not have guessed that, though. This is the tea, is it? Where do you get the nettles?’

‘Hyde Park.’ She spoke casually over her shoulder. ‘There are lots of weeds—I mean herbs—there, if one hunts for them. I made a mistake or two at first. You have to be exact, you know, with plants, and I was quite ill several times, but I’ve mastered it now, I think.’

The man on the upturned pail looked dubiously at the grey beverage which steamed in the small jam-pot she had handed him.

‘Oh, that’s all right,’ she said. ‘I’ve been drinking that all the summer. Taste it, and if you can’t bear it I shall understand. But you must read the book. I should like to think I’d made a convert.’

He did his best. It tasted like death.

‘Lawrence doesn’t like it either,’ she confessed, laughing, ‘but he drinks it. And he drinks the yarrow tea I make. He’s very interested but he’s more conventional than I am. He doesn’t really approve of my having no use for money, although I don’t know what he’d do if I had, for he’s none.’

‘Yet you like sixpences,’ murmured Campion. He spoke not without thinking, but despite himself, as if she had bewitched him into it. From her triumphant expression he realized with amazement that she had.

‘I made you say that,’ she said. ‘I know who you are. I saw you there today under the tree. You’re a detective. That’s why I’m talking to you so frankly. I like you. You’re intelligent. Not like my poor policeman. Isn’t it interesting how one can will people to speak? What is it, do you think?’

‘Dictatorial telepathy, perhaps.’ Campion was sufficiently shaken to take a sip of nettle tea. ‘Do you will the stout party to give you the sixpences?’ he ventured.

‘No, but I never refuse them. She enjoys it so. Besides, they’re very useful. That’s rational too, isn’t it?’

‘Utterly. To return to your more magical powers, can you see behind you?’

He thought he had foxed her but she followed after a moment’s consideration.

‘You’re talking of Clytie and her young man who smells of petrol,’ she announced. ‘Well, I knew they were there today. I heard them whisper. But I didn’t look round. They were both playing truant from their jobs or pretending to be on some errand. They’ll both get dismissed.’ She shot a purely human and naughty look at him. ‘I may have to lend them my book. But Boon doesn’t say how to feed babies. That might present a difficulty.’

‘You’re a very odd woman,’ said Mr Campion. ‘What are you doing? Showing off?’

‘I wonder,’ she said. ‘I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s possible. On the other hand, I am very sympathetic towards Clytie. I was in love myself once, and only once. It was platonic for a very good reason, but it wasn’t, if you understand me, a Banquet. Really hardly a picnic. I was encouraged to make my little intellectual advances and then I discovered that the pleasant intelligent man was using them to torment his wife, with whom he must obviously have been physically in love since otherwise he would hardly have bothered. Being rational but not suicidally generous, I withdrew. However, I am still sufficiently feminine to be entertained by Clytie. Is all this helping you, do you think, to find out who poisoned my sister Ruth?’

For a moment he did not look up but sat staring at the ground.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘is it?’

He raised his head and looked into her face, so full of wasted beauty and wasted cleverness.

‘You must know,’ he said slowly.

‘But I don’t.’ She seemed surprised herself by the admission. ‘I don’t. My magical powers are not very remarkable. Everyone who lives alone as much as I do becomes supersensitive towards the behaviour of the people they meet. Still, I assure you I have no idea who poisoned Ruth. I may as well admit I am not ungrateful to him. You will find that out, so I may as well tell you.’

‘She was very trying, was she?’ he said.

‘Not very. I hardly saw her. We had very little in common. She was more like my father’s brother. He was a mathematician of genius and went a little mad, I believe.’

‘Yet you’re glad she’s dead?’ He was deliberately brutal because he was afraid of her. She was so nice and yet such a terrifyingly and indefinably wrong thing.

‘I had cause to fear her,’ she said. ‘You see, the Palinode family is in the position of the crew of a small castaway boat. If one member drinks all his allotted share of water---she was not an alcoholic, by the way---the rest must either watch him die of thirst or share, and we haven’t very much to share, even with the assistance of Herbert Boon.’

‘Is that all you’re going to tell me?’

‘Yes. The rest you can find for yourself. It’s not very interesting.’

The thin man in the dressing-gown rose to his feet and put down his jam-pot. He towered over her. She was very small and the rags of attractiveness hung round her like dead petals. His own not insensitive face was passionately grave, the question in his mind appearing much more important than any murder mystery.

‘Why?’ he burst out uncontrollably. ‘Why?’

She understood him at once. A touch of colour came into her grey face.

‘I have no gifts,’ she said gently. ‘I am dumb, as the Americans say so penetratingly. I cannot make, or write, or even tell.’ And then as he blinked at her, trying to comprehend the enormity of the thing she was saying, she went on placidly: ‘My mother’s poetry was mainly very bad. I have inherited a modicum of my father’s intelligence and I am able to see that. She wrote one verse, though, which has always seemed to me to say something, although I dare say many people would find it nonsense. It goes:

    I will build me a house of rushes,
    Intricate; basket-work. Through the stems the wind rushes
    Inquisitive, light-fingered. It torments, its breath crushes.
    I shall not notice it. I shall be busy.


You wouldn’t like any more of that tea, I suppose?’

It was half an hour before he got back to his room and he went to bed shivering. The book Miss Jessica had lent him lay on his coverlet. It was ill-printed and impossibly dog-eared, with a crudely stamped cover and end-papers crowded with long out-dated advertisements. He had opened it at random and the passages which he had read still hung in his mind as he closed his eyes.

‘Curds (the residue of sour milk often left by ignorant housewives in bottle or can). These may be made more palatable by the addition of chopped sage, chives, or, as a luxury, watercress. I have myself, for I am not a heavy feeder, existed very comfortably on this mess, taken with a little bread, for days together, varying each fresh day’s dish by the incorporation of a different herb.

‘Energy. Conserve energy. So-called scientists will tell you it is no more than heat. Use no more of it, then, than you need at any one time. I estimate an hour’s sleep to equal one pound avoirdupois of heavy food. Be humble. Take what is given you, even if the gift is contemptuously offered. The giver is rewarded in his own soul be he virtuous or merely ostentatious. Be calm. Worry and self-pity use up as much energy (i.e., heat) as deep thought. Thus you will be free and no burden to relatives or the community. Your mind will also be lighter and more fit for the contemplation and enjoyment of the Beauties of Nature and the Conceits of Man, both of which are inexpensive luxuries the intelligent can freely afford.

‘Bones. The large and nutritious shin-bone of an ox can be purchased for one penny. On the road home from the butcher the Wise Man may descry in the hedge a root of dandelion and, if he is in luck, garlic . . .’


Mr. Campion turned over on his face. ‘Oh God,’ he said.

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