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Chapter 24

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« on: February 01, 2023, 07:40:04 am »

HE SLEPT uneasily. The urge which drove him on did not lose its force despite his physical exhaustion. He was lying on the couch in the sitting-room, having avoided his bedroom since its associations were unfortunate, and he turned and twisted under the travelling rug which covered him. All the same he did not wake; his dreams led him into a fantastic world in which aeroplanes and letters and policemen chased him and themselves in headlong circles. Finally, after many nightmare journeys he became acutely aware of Eve Snow. She was sitting on the edge of the couch thrusting a paper at him, and he waved her away angrily with the other phantoms. She persisted, however, and her voice, squeaky and attractive as ever, reached him through the clouds.

"Albert! Albert! Do you know where Johnny is?"

Again and again he heard her, and at last he sat up, his eyelids peeling unwillingly apart. To his amazement she was a reality. It was morning, and the yellow London light was streaming in through windows which someone had unshrouded. It fell upon her pale face, and on the rough whiteness of her coat. At first he thought it must be raining, for her cheeks were wet. He collected himself and blinked at her.

"Hello," he said.

"Albert, where's Johnny?"

He sat thinking stupidly, and gradually the whole story flooded back into his mind, horrible as any nightmare, but far more coherent and convincing.

"Where is Johnny?" she repeated. "Do you know?"

He glanced out at the sky. It was still wonderfully clear, pale oyster through the smoke haze. His glance returned to her.

"How did you get in?"

"Lugg opened the door to me. He's out there cooking breakfast. He says he made up your bed and you never slept in it. Albert, where is Johnny?"

She was a ghost of herself, a chic and tragic ghost, with smudged eyes and a wide mouth. "Where is he?" she repeated. "Don't you know?"

"He's gone back on the job," he said with a cheerfulness which at that hour was unconvincing. "He had a call and went straight on from Chessing. Probably he didn't have time to tell you. That's where he is; at the 'drome."

"At the 'drome?" she repeated. "But I didn't think he was anywhere near a 'drome just now. Besides, he was getting married yesterday, they wouldn't have called him back yesterday. No one else has been recalled."

In her anxiety, she was like a living manifestation of his own dread, and he almost snapped at her.

"Don't be a silly girl," he said. "It's all right. He's gone back to work. His glorious country has just sent out another of her erratic commands; anyone's liable to get lassoed by red tape at any moment these days. He'll turn up. Why the excitement?"

She sat looking out across the room. "I had a letter this morning, that's all," she said.

"A letter?" The chill which ran through him was familiar, it caught him in the chest and quickened his breath.

Eve turned towards him. Her face was blank for once and her movements were very slow. "It's only a note."

She laid a crumpled paper on the rug and he picked it up. There were only three lines, scribbled in a much more uneven script than had appeared in the letter to Susan and Don. Mr. Campion made out the words with difficulty.

    "Darling, I'll love you always--anywhere. God bless--Johnny."

He hesitated. "It's unusual, is it?"

"Very." She met his eyes and her wide sophisticated mouth bent suddenly into an imitation of a smile. "We--didn't have to. Even when he was going to marry that child I never doubted--I always knew. I--it's gone on so long--it's so sure. One was so settled, so... Oh, Albert, where the hell is he? What's happened? What's he doing?" Her face was wet again and she made no attempt to dry it. "Oh, God," she said, "I am so frightened."

Mr. Campion drew up his knees and looked round for his slippers and dressing-gown. "Look," he commanded, "give me until tonight. I'll ring you this evening. It's a bet. Clear off now like a beloved angel, and I'll get cracking."

Eve bent forward and kissed him. "You're a great comfort," she said absurdly. "Maybe I'm being hysterical."

"Maybe you are," he agreed. "Very likely. Don't worry anyway, I'll phone. Eve?"

"Yes?"

"Don't go round to Carados Square this morning."

"Why?"

"Because I'm going there."

"I see." Half-way across the room she looked back. "He's been quite different these last few months," she said. "Did you know that?"

Campion regarded her helplessly. He felt he should be spared her evidence. "Frightened?" he said unwillingly. "Worried?"

"Oh no. Not frightened." Her pride in him made her a little amused. "No. Angry, I think. You don't know Johnny, everything happens underneath with him. That's why the note scared me. Do you see?"

"No," he said honestly, "not as you do, naturally."

She nodded. "You find him for me," she said. "That's all that matters in the world."

She did not look back again and he heard her light footsteps dying away swiftly down the corridor. Presently the latch clicked faintly, and she was gone.

While he was in the bathroom, Lugg tapped at the door.

"Do you want to eat yer breakfast in the bedroom?" he enquired.

"No, of course not. Bung it on the table in the sitting-room. I'll be in."

There was a moment's disapproving silence.

"Goin' to eat where you slep'? That's not quite the thing, is it, unless you 'ave it in bed?"

Campion opened the door. "What's the matter with you?" he demanded. "Why are you here anyway? I thought you had gone down to Nidd."

"No, I ain't." Mr. Lugg was embarrassed. In his housecoat and slippers he looked more like himself; a little older perhaps, even more bald, and slightly less elephantine than in his glory, but still himself. "No, I've worked it out, see? If the bussies didn't pinch me when they 'ad me, they don't want me, and in that case I'd better get on wiv me war work. I go on me shift in a hower. I thought we'd 'ave a bite together first. I've got a tin of 'errings I've been saving up for this--you ain't 'ad much of a welcome."

Mr. Campion was touched. "I knew I was at home," he said modestly.

"Wot? The corp? I know." A shadow passed over the hillocks. "Are they pinchin' that Marchioness of mine?"

"No, I don't think they are. She didn't do the job itself and they've got their hands full, so they're not pressing the charge."

Mr. Lugg's small, black eyes widened as far as the folds around them would permit.

"I'm very glad to 'ear it, but it's 'ardly right, is it?" he said virtuously. "Someone's gettin' theirs, I 'ope."

Mr. Campion reassured him, but without enthusiasm.

It was mid-morning when they parted in Carados Square. Mr. Lugg went off to await any heavy rescue which might be required of him, and Mr. Campion rang the bell at Number Three.

Gwenda Onyer opened the door to him and to his surprise welcomed him eagerly. She had been crying, he noticed, and her affectations had vanished, leaving her a very transparent, worried little person inclined to fuss.

"There's only Peter and me here, but do come up," she said. "You haven't seen Johnny anywhere, have you?"

He followed her into the hall and answered her question as he mounted the stairs behind her. She paused, and turned to face him.

"Oh, he's gone back, has he?" she said. "How very extraordinary. But that is a relief. We didn't know, you see. We thought..." She let the rest of the sentence die and hurried on into the big, first-floor room where, when he had seen it last, the whole household had been gathered.

"Peter, dear." She spoke before she was well in the doorway. "Here's Albert Campion. He says Johnny's merely gone back."

"Really? Is that so, Campion?" Onyer rose from behind the desk at which Miss Chivers had been used to sit. "I say, I'm glad to hear it. I wondered what had happened to the old man, you know. What a hell of a business down at Chessing. You were there, weren't you?"

He, too, looked much more human in adversity. His graceful elegance was still there, but it was windswept and his narrow eyes met Campion's anxiously as soon as they were left alone.

"She went completely off her head, they say. That so?"

Mr. Campion nodded. "Yes," he said. "Best thing, don't you think?"

"I suppose so." Onyer looked down at the desk where he had been sorting papers. "I am glad Johnny's got back to work. This thing will knock him endways. He trusted those people. God knows why. You know they've arrested Gold?"

"I did hear."

"Frightful." Onyer passed his hand over his sleek head. "It will shake the old man more than anything. He insisted on assuming they were loyal; I told him he was making a mistake, but he wouldn't have it. He just insisted they were all right simply because they were here. He liked them. He's got such a capacity for liking, dear silly old ape."

Campion's heart sank. Here, he felt, was the last stone there was to turn and so far the evidence beneath it promised ill. "You personally didn't like either of them?" he suggested.

"I didn't know them," said Onyer helplessly. "Nobody did. They were in the circle but not of it, if you see what I mean. Johnny never saw that. He's damned obstinate over that sort of thing--felt he understood them if we didn't. Now there's going to be the devil of a mess to clear up." He glanced down at the desk. "I don't know how long that girl's been mad," he said.

Campion began to wish he had not come, but he went on doggedly. "What's she done, cooked the books?"

"Oh no. She only handled the social stuff." Onyer sounded thankful. "No, it just looks like petty intrigue to me." He seemed to make up his mind to a confidence. "What do you make of that?" he said. "It came this morning."

Campion took the slip of notepaper from him and looked at it with interest. It bore the trade heading of a florist in St. James's, and was addressed to Miss Chivers.

    "Dear Madam," he read.

    "We have now completed the order entrusted to us in August, 1938:

    "One dozen of Lady Forteviot roses, together with five of the thirty-five pearls (cultured) entrusted to us have been delivered regularly on 2nd September in the years 1938, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, to Mrs. Moppet Lewis, 12 Wayland Studios, Church Street, W., as per your instructions dated August 31st, 1938, and for which payment has been received.

    "We shall be glad to hear whether you wish this order to be repeated.
    "Yours, etc."


Campion handed the slip of paper back in silence and Onyer threw it on the desk.

"Damn silly," he said. "Alarming, too, isn't it?"

"It is a little. Hence the poor view taken of the parcel which arrived the other morning, no doubt."

Onyer sat up; his eyes widened. "The pearls and the roses," he said. "Good Lord, do you know that never occurred to me. Dolly Chivers sent it, I suppose. Reminding Johnny, and trying to implicate him. God, she was horribly nuts, wasn't she?"

"Yes, rather horribly. But if it was a reminder, you see...?"

"Johnny must have known about it? Yes, I do see. Hell!"

Onyer put his hands on the arms of his chair as if he were about to rise, but changed his mind as a new thought occurred to him. "I've got it," he said. "I know. That's it. Yes, it was about then, about 'thirty-eight, just before the war. Moppet's brief appearance in our lives was just terminating. Johnny must have decided that the little party was over and have arranged to send her a string of beads and a box of flowers in lieu of a farewell lunch. That's about it. That's rather his technique. I'll ask him. Yes, that's about it. He left instructions with Dolly. She must have spun it out like this just to keep her paws on the woman. That's what she was like; that's typical of her. Small, ingenious, and somehow incredibly mucky. Do you know, Campion, it makes me sick to think of that sort of girl in connection with the old man, he's so completely above it, it's out of character."

He had spoken more frankly than he had intended and a faint colour appeared in his smooth cheek. Mr. Campion met his eye. "That's how I felt," he said.

Onyer grimaced. "The old boy's a hero," he said awkwardly. "He doesn't know it and can't help it, but that's his role, isn't it? He's just over life-size. That's why it's so bad when he gets taken in. One isn't sorry for him, one blames him. One's shocked. It's a bit hard on him, but there it is. We've shoved him on a pedestal and he's damned well got to stay there for all our sakes."

Campion sat looking at his shoes. "If he got seriously involved in anything unpleasant, it would be awkward."

"It would be a bloody tragedy," said Onyer, "but that's not possible--is it?"

The final question was put sharply and Campion looked up to find the narrow eyes watching him. "Or is it?" said Peter Onyer.

Campion got up. "My dear chap," he said, "if there's anything you can say to help, for the love of mike say it. Now's the time."

"I don't know anything, that's the very devil of it." Onyer was playing with the coins in his pocket and their noise made a nervous accompaniment to his careful voice. "I heard a silly frightening rumour, and I don't mind telling you I thought of Lady Carados in connection with it. In fact Gwenda and I came up a day earlier than we'd arranged for the sole purpose of making an investigation. I made a date to see Gold on the Sunday night and tried to pump him. He was one of the few members of the household left in town, you see, but I don't think we did much good except to frighten him. Then I tried to see Eve, but I gathered that Johnny was with her, and I didn't like to butt in. It was all pretty miserable and mysterious and unlike us all. This marriage upset everybody."

"It was unexpected?"

"Completely incomprehensible. I believe Gwenda tried to interfere by finding the girl another boy friend. Something idiotic like that. I was furious with her, but the marriage did seem so mad to us who knew him. Johnny and Eve--well, it's gone on for a hell of a time and they do understand each other." He sighed. "It's taken me to the fair," he said, "the old boy's so altered."

Campion pricked up his ears. It was the second time that morning he had been volunteered the information.

"In what way?"

Onyer was like a younger brother; afraid of disloyalty yet worried unmercifully.

"He's--how shall I say it? Withdrawn. To be honest, I thought he'd found out something about his mother's activities, and when she behaved in that extraordinary fashion moving Moppet, I was certain of it. But now she's come comparatively clean, and the mystery's grimmer than ever."

"She's come across, has she?"

"Oh yes. Didn't you know? As soon as she heard about Dolly, she 'told all.' She found Moppet's body in the bedroom, that's the room behind this one, in the morning when she came to fix the flowers. Dolly was in here working and apparently she threw a sort of fit when she heard the news. Old Lady Carados promptly decided to see to everything; you don't know her well, do you? Dolly did, that's the damnable part of it. She played up to the old girl, knowing she'd rise to the occasion."

He went on talking, walking up and down the room as he spoke, the coins in his pocket ringing their little alarm as they ran through his fingers.

"Dolly seems to have been diabolically clever. She pointed out to the old girl that it looked like suicide, harped on the scandal, and then proceeded to become hysterical. Lady Carados reacted as she must have known she would. She bundled the girl out of the way and proceeded to deal with the situation herself. To do Dolly justice, I don't think she had any idea of the length to which the good lady would go, but that's what happened."

Campion lay back in his chair, and faced defeat. The picture was growing too clear, the details were slipping into place, colours were taking their true daylight value, but there was no escaping the main subject. The principal face remained the same.

"Did you know he might be called back yesterday?" he enquired suddenly.

"Who? Johnny? No, I don't understand it. As far as everybody knew he was getting married yesterday, and there's no big flap on as far as I know."

The elegant young soldier shrugged in his impatience. "I wish I understood it all," he said.

Campion got up to leave. He had not forgotten that Carados had told him that he had known of the date of his recall, but he saw no point in mentioning it. Onyer had troubles of his own.

He left him, and went downstairs alone. There was no sign of Gwenda and he was about to let himself out when a head appeared round the doorway at the other end of the hall. It belonged to Ricky Silva. He did not speak, but waved his hand carelessly before disappearing again. Mr. Campion paused with his hand on the latch. Another interview promised nothing but a further strain on his already wavering hopes. It was in his temperament to be thorough, however, and his conscience stirred. Ricky was the last possible source of information; after him there was no one, not a soul. He turned reluctantly, and was advancing down the hall when the utter uselessness of the proceeding struck him violently, and he swung round towards the front door again. His hand was on the latch when the man called him.

"I say, Campion."

"Yes?"

"About my puppet theatre." Ricky was still in battle dress and sandals and he came gracefully across the carpet. "Do you think it's safe down there? Or ought I to go and fetch it? I don't want to lose it, you see. Some of it was really awfully nice."

He stood questioningly, his large youthful eyes raised trustingly.

"It's perfectly all right, I should think." Campion was annoyed with himself for being irritated. "It may get a bit damp, but that's all."

"Damp? But that would ruin it. How damp? Enough to worry about?"

"No, I should hardly think so."

"Oh well, in that case I'm sorry you told me, for I shall worry." He stood wavering. "Oh damn," he said. Then, becoming aware at last of his ungraciousness, he smiled. "If I don't think about things like that, I'm all right," he explained na´vely, "but once I do, they get on my nerves and I get a 'thing' about them. I should never have thought of sending it away, to begin with, if it hadn't been for Dolly."

"Oh," said Campion. "When was this?"

"Within the last year. Don't ask me for dates, for I can never remember them. She had some reason, I suppose. A beastly girl, I got to hate her. I liked her at first, she was so unfeminine, but as one got to know her one saw through that. Johnny trusted her when he shouldn't have done, so I'm not alone."

Growing tired of standing he sat down on the stairs, but made no similar arrangement for his visitor. He sat with his knees drawn up, his chin resting on his palms. "She used to use me, I believe," he said. "I didn't see it then, but I do now. She used to tell me things, too. She thought I was a child, or half-witted, I believe. I used to let her get on with it, it amused me."

Inspiration came to Mr. Campion. "Ricky," he said, "what are you afraid of?"

"Me?" The big eyes were mutinous. "I'm not frightened, why should I be? I've done nothing. And it's no good your bullying me, Campion, because I won't have it."

Mr. Campion checked himself. He made a determined effort. "My dear chap, I'm sure you haven't," he said laughing. "But I do know the kind of stew a woman like that can cook up for all concerned. One finds one's been compromised before one realizes it."

"I'm not compromised!" Ricky was outraged. "Good heavens, I didn't do a thing. Johnny can't be angry with me. She only used to talk to me when he helped me with looking after my things. I'm terrified of moth, you know, and she was very good about that. I shall miss her for that. She was frightfully efficient." He paused reflectively. "But I never really liked her, you know, and I wouldn't have done a thing for her if she hadn't been very useful in her way."

"What kind of things did you do?" enquired Mr. Campion, keeping the conversation simple.

"Me? Nothing. I took a message for her sometimes, that's all. But when I found out she wanted me to do something that was little short of burglary the other day, I just wouldn't. I kicked at that. That's why I got off a day early, though, and came up here to meet her on Sunday morning. I let it out afterwards like a perfect fool. If Johnny gets on to it, he'll be furious, I know he will, and it'll be frightfully unfair because as soon as I heard what she really wanted, I refused flatly and went off and stayed with the Bertie Lambley crowd, and they can prove it."

Mr. Campion held his breath, he dared not speak, and at last his silence was rewarded.

"Imagine," said Ricky with disgust, "she wanted me to come back here at six o'clock sharp and wait here on the stairs. Then I was to take some keys she was going to have ready for me and go round to a flat in Church Street, collect some booze without being seen, and lug it off somewhere else. I told her she was demented, and she began to cry, and said it was vital and more than her life was worth and God knows what else. I found it quite harrowing, but I made it jolly clear to her that I wasn't having any. Thank goodness. That's what I feel now." He sighed contentedly. "Thank goodness," he repeated. "I suppose you've guessed whose flat it was, that frightful woman Moppet. I didn't see what was happening until I heard she'd been found dead. Then I put two and two together. Dolly tried to put her out to get the keys and killed her by mistake, I suppose; found the sleeping stuff didn't work quickly enough and so smothered her. Then, as she thought she was a murderer anyway I suppose she just went on with it. I thanked my stars I'd had nothing to do with it. What's the matter?"

The tall, thin man in the horn-rimmed spectacles was holding the balustrade, and his knuckles were white.

"Where were you going to take this stuff?"

Ricky wriggled to his feet. "I wish I hadn't talked to you," he said. "I was to take it somewhere for her, that's all, and I didn't, and that's that."

Campion cursed himself. "Sorry," he said. "I was getting interested. She seems to have trusted you."

"Of course she did. She had to." Ricky was swinging gracefully on the banisters. "I knew things about her that the others didn't, you see."

Campion smiled at him with deceptive amusement. "Where she bought her brogues, I presume?" he suggested.

Ricky flushed darkly. "No, rather more important things than that," he said spitefully. "For one thing I knew she was secretly married and was terrified of her husband. I was to take the wine to his place. I don't know why it was so important; Theodore Bush said it couldn't possibly exist. It was some filthy red stuff I'd never heard of. Les Enfants Doux, was it? She said she was afraid he'd kill her if she didn't get it back."

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