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An Inspector Mallett mystery - Daylesford Gardens, South Kensington, is an unlikely address for the discovery of death by strangulation. Even more unusual is that the house does not belong to the deceased financier. In the meantime, the mysterious tenant, Colin James, has disappeared. Inspector Mallett of Scotland Yard is brought in to unravel a complicated trail.
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Tenant for Death
by Cyril Hare
Copyright 1937 Alfred Alexander Clark.
This edition published by Reading Essentials.
All Rights Reserved.
Tenant for Death
Friday, November 13th
Daylesford Gardens, S.W., is one of those addresses that make the most experienced of taxi-drivers hesitate for a moment or two when you give it. Not that he will have any difficulty in determining its general direction, which is in that quiet and respectable region where South Kensington borders on Chelsea. The trouble arises from the lack of imagination displayed by the building syndicate which first laid out the Daylesford estate some time in the middle of the last century. For besides Daylesford Gardens, there are Daylesford Terrace, Daylesford Square, Upper and Lower Daylesford Streets, not to mention a tall, raw red-brick block of flats known as Daylesford Court Mansions and two or three new and almost smart little houses which still keep the name of Daylesford Mews. The houses in Daylesford Gardens, however, are neither raw, tall, nor red-brick, nor new, nor anything approaching smart. On the contrary, they are squat, yellow and elderly, bearing on their monotonous three-storied fronts the same dingy livery of stucco, drab but—with an effort—respectable. One or two have sunk so far as to become boarding-houses, several may be suspected of paying guests, but for the most part they still contrive to carry on the unequal warfare against adverse circumstances and keep the banner of gentility flying.
House agents have been known to call the district a “retired” one, and the description is just in more ways than one. It certainly suits almost all the inhabitants of the Gardens. They are pre-eminently the refuge of the not too wealthy middle-aged. Retired colonels and County Court judges, ex-Civil Servants and half-pay naval officers, with one or two lean sallow-faced men who have in their time perhaps governed districts half as large as England, now share between them the empire of the muddy grass and draggled laurustinus bushes which constitute “the gardens”. Their houses, too, discreet and unassuming, seem also to have retired from whatever busy existence they may once have had, and to be awaiting with dignified resignation the fate that is in store for London houses when the building lease falls in.
At the northern end of Daylesford Gardens, where Upper Daylesford Street, noisy with omnibuses and motor vans, marks the boundary of the old Daylesford property, Jackie Roach, the newspaper seller, had his pitch. Every evening he was to be seen there, his comic blob of a nose wobbling uncertainly above his ragged red moustache in time to his husky chant of “News—Star—Standard!” Most of the householders in the Gardens knew him by sight. How much he knew about them, their circumstances, habits and domestic staffs, few of them probably ever guessed. They were, as he put it, among his “regulars”, and it was almost a point of honour with him to be acquainted with their affairs. He knew—and liked—old Colonel Petherington at No. 15, with his threadbare grey suit and erect habit of body, who went so punctually to his club every afternoon and returned so punctually every evening for dinner. He knew—and disliked—the flashy Mrs. Brent at No. 34, and could have told her husband something of the man who came to visit her when he was away, if he had ever thought of enquiring in that direction. He knew the quiet, shy Miss Penrose of No. 27, whose maid, Rosa, came so regularly at six o’clock every evening for the Standard, and could always be relied upon for a few minutes’ gossip.
On this chill, windy evening, Roach would have been glad of a little chat with anyone who would stop to pass the time of day—anything to keep his mind off the rheumatism that always tortured him at this time of year. But nobody felt like stopping now. They only paused long enough to thrust a copper into Jackie’s hand and snatch a paper, for all the world as though a chap was an automatic machine. Rosa was different. Whatever the weather, she would always hang about a bit for a chat at the corner, as well she might indeed, with a warm back kitchen to go home to.
But no Rosa would come this evening. For a month past Miss Penrose had been away. She had gone abroad, and Rosa had gone to her family in the country. The house was let furnished to a Mr. Colin James. Roach knew his name, thanks to a nodding acquaintance with Crabtree, the manservant who had usurped Rosa’s place at No. 27, but he had never spoken to him, or even sold him newspapers. Unlike most of the other inhabitants of the Gardens, he was still in business. At least, nearly every morning he took an eastward bound bus from the corner, and came back again in the evening, so his business was to be presumed. Roach did not like him the better for it. He felt obscurely that such behaviour was letting the Gardens down.
At about half-past six, when the throng in Upper Daylesford Street was at its height and the long-threatening rain had begun to spatter down, Roach, fumbling with numbed fingers for elevenpence change, caught sight of Mr. James on the other side of the street. There was, as he afterwards explained to certain interested persons, no mistaking Mr. James. For one thing, he was the only resident in Daylesford Gardens with a beard. It was no mere apologetic tuft, either, but a bushy mass of brown hair, that fairly covered his face from the mouth down. Then there was his figure. He was noticeably fat, with a fatness that seemed quite out of proportion to his thin legs, so that he walked always with a cautious waddle, as though afraid that his weight would overbalance him. Roach noted the passing of the familiar ungainly shape without interest. Then something made him look round again, and stare after him with renewed attention. That something was the simple fact that on this occasion, Mr. James was accompanied by another person.
“The old —— what lives by ’isself,” was Roach’s private description of Mr. James. Most of the Gardens’ inhabitants, indeed, were of the type that keep themselves to themselves. Roach respected them all the more for that. But Mr. James was of them all the most completely alone. During his short residence at No. 27, no visitor had ever been known to cross the threshold, not so much as a letter or parcel, so Crabtree asserted, had ever been delivered there. And never, until now, had he seen Mr. Colin James in the street except alone.
But this time—there could be no doubt of it—Mr. James had found a friend. Or if not a friend, at any rate a near acquaintance, to judge from the way they went along the pavement side by side, their heads close together, as though in quiet, earnest discussion. A pity, thought Roach, that the stranger was on the far side as they went round the corner, so that James’s great bulk blotted him out completely. Just for curiosity’s sake, he would like to have known—“News, sir? Yessir! Fi’pence change, thank you, sir!”
He screwed his head round to look down the Gardens. There was a lamp-post opposite No. 27, and the couple were just within its beams. The light shone on the yellow-brown bag which Mr. James always carried. They stopped and Mr. James was evidently fumbling for his key. Then he opened the door, went in and the stranger followed him. Roach, as he turned to thrust a paper into the hand of a customer, felt oddly triumphant. Mr. James had a visitor! In a small way, it was as though a long-standing record had been broken.
Nearly an hour later, the newspaper seller finally left his pitch. The rain was now a steady downpour. The street was wet and deserted. The “Crown” in Lower Daylesford Street would by contrast be warm and friendly. Cold and thirsty, Roach sheltered his papers beneath his arm and set off in the direction which James had taken before him, but upon the other side of the street. He was halfway down it, his eyes fixed on the pavement, his thoughts on the refreshment that awaited him, when the sound of a street door closing made him look up. He was opposite No. 27, and a familiar figure, carrying the inevitable bag, had just emerged, and was now walking away towards the upper end of the Gardens.
“Old Man-of-Mystery again!” said Roach to himself. “What’s he done to his pal, I wonder?”
He reflected, as he went on his way, that he had never before seen Mr. James walk so fast.
Two minutes later he was standing in an infinitely pleasant, muggy atmosphere before a crowded bar.
“’Ow’s trade, Jacko?” asked an acquaintance.
“Rotten bloody awful,” answered Jackie, a tankard to his lips. “There ain’t nothing in the papers nowadays ’cept this political stuff. What we want to make ’em sell is a murder.” He took a long pull and repeated, smacking his lips: “Murder—bloody murder, that’s the ticket!”
Saturday, November 14th
The London and Imperial Estates Company, Ltd., and its eleven associated companies, familiarly known on the Stock Exchange as “The Twelve Apostles”, occupied imposing offices in Lothbury. There were eight storeys in all, a grandiose Portland stone façade without, waxed oak panels within. The entrance hall was adorned with pillars of polished marble, and was guarded by the largest and smartest commissionaire in the City of London. On the floors above, large airy rooms housed during business hours regiments of typists, clerks, and office boys. In smaller and more luxurious apartments, their superiors—managers, accountants and heads of departments—pursued their mysterious and, presumably, profitable ways. But to the man in the street, and more particularly to the investor or speculator in the City, all this splendour was summed up in and made significant by the personality of one man—Lionel Ballantine.
Ballantine was one of those picturesque figures appearing from time to time in the financial world of London, whose activities lend colour to the ordinarily drab record of commerce. He was, in the generally accepted sense of the phrase, one of the best known men in the City. That is to say, a large public was familiar through the papers with his outward appearance and that of his country house, his racing stables, his yacht and his herd of pedigree Jerseys. A smaller and more closely interested public knew something, though not as much as it would have wished, of his financial interests. In actual fact, the man himself was probably as little known as it is possible to be. He had no intimate friends and even his closest associates knew how far they were from possessing his full confidence. His origin was obscure, and if many people would have liked to penetrate the veil in which he chose to shroud it, there were more who contented themselves with prophesying, cynically or blasphemously, as to his future.
By the world in general, however, Ballantine was taken as what he appeared to be—a spectacularly successful business man. In a comparatively short space of time, he had risen from nothing—or at least from very little—to a position of genuine importance and even power. Such a career is never to be achieved save at the cost of a good deal of jealousy and detraction, and he had received his fair share of both. More than once there had been unpleasant whispers as to his methods, and on one occasion—the famous Fanshawe Bank failure of four years before—something louder than whispers. But each time the murmurs had died down, leaving Ballantine more prosperous than ever.
But now the whispers were beginning to be heard again in many places, and nowhere more urgently than in the little ante-room to Ballantine’s private office on the top floor of the great building. Here the affairs of the company were being discussed in low tones by two of its employees.
“I tell you, Johnson,” said one, “I don’t like the look of things. Here’s the Annual General Meeting not two weeks away, and the market’s getting jumpy. Have you seen this morning’s figures?”
“The market!” said the other contemptuously. “The market’s always got nerves. We’ve been through worse scares than this, haven’t we? Remember what happened in ’29? Well, then——”
“I’ll tell you another thing,” went on the first speaker without listening to the interruption. “Du Pine has got the jumps too. Have you seen him this morning? He was absolutely green. I tell you, he knows something.”
“Where is he now?” asked Johnson. “In there?” He nodded his head to a glass-panelled door labelled “Secretary”.
“No. He’s in the old man’s room. Been in and out there the last half-hour, like a cat with the fidgets. And the old man isn’t there either.”
“Well, what of it? Would he be, on a Saturday morning?”
“Yes, he would—this morning. He’s got an appointment for eleven o’clock. I was here when Du Pine made it for him.”
“An appointment? Who with?”
“Robinson, the Southern Bank man. And he’s bringing Prufrock with him.”
“Prufrock? The solicitor?”
Johnson whistled softly. Then he said after a noticeable pause:
“Percy, old man, I suppose you don’t happen to know what it was they were coming to see him about, do you?”
“What are you getting at?”
“I mean, if it was the Redbury bond issue they were asking about, and if old Prufrock starts nosing round——”
“Well?” said Percy. “Suppose it was. You had the handling of that issue, hadn’t you? What about it?”
Johnson was looking straight in front of him. He looked right through the wall and saw a trim red-brick villa at Ealing, heavily mortgaged and utterly desirable, with two small children playing on its minute scrap of lawn, and his wife on the doorstep watching them.
“Well?” Percy repeated.
Johnson turned his head.
“I was just thinking,” he said. “A pal of mine in Garrisons’ told me there was a head clerk’s job going there. It would mean dropping fifty a year, but—I think I shall put in for it, Percy old man.”
An understanding glance passed between the two men, but before either could speak the telephone on the table between them rang. At the same moment the door of Ballantine’s private room opened and Du Pine, the secretary to the company, walked quickly out. He picked up the receiver, barked into it: “Send them up at once!” and had disappeared again in the space of a few seconds.
“You see what I mean?” murmured Percy. “Nervy, eh?”
“I suppose that was Robinson and Prufrock,” said Johnson, rising to his feet. “Well, I’m going round to Garrisons’, now.”
In the inner room, Du Pine took a deep breath and squared his thin shoulders, like a man preparing to face an assault. For a moment he stood thus, then relaxed. His hands, which he had kept still during that brief space by an effort of will, began to jump uneasily from the wrists. He paced the room twice in each direction, then came to a halt opposite a looking-glass. He saw in it a face which would have been handsome but for the unhealthy sallowness of the cheeks, black hair neatly brushed down, a pair of bright beady eyes with heavy lines beneath them. He was still staring at the reflection, as though at the portrait of a stranger, when the visitors were announced.
Du Pine spun round on his heel.
“Good morning, gentlemen!” he exclaimed.
“You are Mr. Du Pine, I think?” said the solicitor.
“At your service, Mr. Prufrock, I think? Mr. Robinson I have met before. Won’t you sit down?”
Mr. Prufrock did not sit down, still standing, he looked slowly round the room.
“Our appointment was with Mr. Ballantine,” he said.
“Quite so,” answered Du Pine easily. “Quite so. But he is unfortunately not able to be here in person this morning, and has asked me to deal with the matter in his absence.”
Mr. Prufrock’s eyebrows went up in shocked surprise. Mr. Robinson’s, on the other hand, came down in a threatening frown. It would be difficult to say which of the two expressions Du Pine found the more unpleasant.
“Mr. Ballantine has asked you—you—to deal with this matter in his absence?” repeated the solicitor incredulously. “With the Redbury bond issue? May I remind you once more that we have a personal appointment with Mr. Ballantine?”
“Just so,” said Du Pine, beginning to show signs of nervousness. “Just so. And I can assure you, gentlemen, that Mr. Ballantine would certainly be here if—if he could.”
“What do you mean? Is he unwell?”
Du Pine indicated assent.
“That seems very strange. He seemed in perfect health yesterday. Can you tell me what form his illness takes?”
“No, I cannot.”
“Very well. Then we can assume that it is not serious. I think that the best thing would be for us to make an appointment to see him at his private house.”
Robinson here spoke for the first time.
“I rather doubt whether we should find him there, well or ill,” he observed. “If I might make the suggestion, it would be more to the purpose to enquire for him at the house of Mrs. Eales—his mistress,” he added in an aside to Prufrock, who pursed his lips and sniffed by way of reply.
“I have done so already,” Du Pine broke in. “He is not there.”
“I see.” The solicitor looked very steadily at him for a moment, to give his next question its full weight. “Mr. Du Pine, will you please answer me directly: Do you know where Mr. Ballantine is?”
Du Pine took a deep breath, like a swimmer before the plunge, and then began to speak at a great pace.
“No, I do not. And I am quite aware that in the circumstances Mr. Ballantine’s absence may seem rather—that it is a matter which calls for enquiry. But—gentlemen—before you put any construction on it—before you take any steps which—any irrevocable steps—there is one matter that—in fairness to Mr. Ballantine—in fairness to myself—it may be of importance in the future——”
“Mr. Ballantine had a visitor here yesterday morning, who disturbed him very much. It may in some way account for anything erratic in his behaviour——”
Prufrock turned to Robinson. His mouth was set in a hard line.
“Really, Robinson, I think we are wasting our time here,” he said.
“But, gentlemen, this is important,” Du Pine insisted.
“I can hardly think of any visitor yesterday who was more important to Mr. Ballantine than the appointment he had made for today,” said Prufrock drily.
“But I can assure you, sir, I can assure you that Mr. Ballantine had every intention of meeting you today. He had a perfect explanation of any little discrepancies there might be in the bond issue. There is only one possible explanation for his not coming, and that is that he was not physically able to come.”
“What is all this nonsense?” Robinson spoke wearily. “And what has this mysterious visitor to do with it?”
“Perhaps you will understand when I tell you that the visitor was Mr. Fanshawe——”
The two men stiffened with interest.
“Fanshawe?” echoed Prufrock. “He’s still in gaol, isn’t he?”
“His sentence is about due to expire,” put in Robinson. “Poor fellow, I knew him well before. . . .”
“——And that he threatened him, in my hearing,” went on Du Pine wildly. “Perhaps now you gentlemen will understand—and—and give Mr. Ballantine a little time to—to make arrangements,” he ended weakly, his voice trailing away as though he were at the end of his physical resources.
“I only understand one thing,” said Prufrock drily. “Failing satisfactory assurances as to the Redbury bond issue, which Mr. Ballantine promised to give us here—personally—today, I have my client’s instructions to issue a writ against the company. He has failed to keep his appointment—whether, as you seem to suggest, because he has been kidnapped by the person you speak of, or not, does not concern me. Affairs must now take their course. The writ will be served on you on Monday morning. The bank loan, I take it, is being called in at the same time?” He glanced at Robinson, who nodded agreement. “Well, Mr. Du Pine,” he continued, “you see the position. We need not occupy your time any further. Good day.”
There was no reply. Du Pine, supporting himself by one hand on the table, a lock of his dark hair falling across a forehead glistening with sweat, appeared utterly exhausted. The solicitor shrugged his shoulders, and taking Robinson by the arm walked out of the room without another word.
Du Pine watched them go, and a full minute passed before he roused himself. Then he took from his pocket a small phial of white tablets. This he carried to the lavatory opening out of Ballantine’s room. There he filled a glass with water, dropped a tablet in, and watched with eager eyes while it dissolved. He drained the mixture in one gulp and little by little the colour began to come back into his cheeks and the animation to his eyes. When the drug had done its work, he walked back with his usual quick, springy steps, into the room. He took from his pocket a bunch of keys, selected one and fitted it to his employer’s private desk. It was all but empty, and of its few contents there were none that interested him. Next he turned his attention to the safe which was let into the wall. Here too his search was fruitless. With a shrug of his shoulders, he cast one last look round the room that had been so long the nerve-centre of a great business, and departed.
Saturday, November 14th
Mr. Du Pine was quite right. Wherever Ballantine was, he was not with Mrs. Eales. In fact, while Mr. Robinson and Mr. Prufrock were making their enquiries in the City, that lady, sitting up in her bedroom in Mount Street over the remains of a very late breakfast, was wondering earnestly why he was not. A pile of letters lay beside her. They were, and were likely to remain, unopened. Every envelope, she knew, contained a bill, and at the moment she had not the strength of mind that would bear ascertaining how much she owed. In her mind’s eye, however, she could not but see some of the items in those bills, and they made her shiver. Her extravagance had in the past been the cause of endless quarrels with her protector, and now, as she glanced at the ominous heap, she automatically reflected: “There’ll be a first-class row when he sees that lot.” Then, with the dismal realization of how much better was an angry man than no man at all, she felt near to tears.
There was a knock at the door, and before she could answer it, her maid came into the room.
“What is it, Florence?” asked Mrs. Eales, with a smile more charming than is usually accorded to their servants by securely placed women.
Florence did not return the smile. Her manner was abrupt—almost insolent.
“Will Mr. Ballantine be coming in today?” she asked.
“I don’t know, Florence, I’m sure. Why do you ask?” Then receiving no answer, she went on hastily: “You can have this afternoon off if you want it. I shall be able to manage quite well, even if he does come.”
“Thank you, m’m,” said Florence, ungraciously. “And can I have my wages for last week, please?”
“Oh, yes, of course, how stupid of me!” cried Mrs. Eales, a thought shrilly. “Fetch my purse from the dressing-table, will you? Now let me see. . . . Oh, dear! I’m so sorry,” she exclaimed, fumbling in the purse, “but I seem to have run terribly short. Will it do if I give you ten shillings on account and the rest on Monday?”
Florence took the proffered note without comment, but her eyes rested for a moment on the unopened letters before she went on: “Mr. Du Pine was on the telephone just now.”
“Mr. Du Pine!” said Mrs. Eales quickly. “I can’t speak to him.”
“He didn’t want to speak to you. He was just enquiring after Mr. Ballantine. I told him he wasn’t here and then he rang off.”
“I see. Did he say—did he tell you anything about Mr. Ballantine?”
“No. He just rang up to make sure he wasn’t here, he said. He didn’t sound as if he thought he would be, somehow.”
“That will do, Florence,” said her mistress coldly. “Will you take the breakfast things, please?”
Florence sulkily removed the tray. At the door she turned, and said over her shoulder:
“If the Captain calls, am I to let him in?”
“Oh, go away, go away!” cried Mrs. Eales, at the end of her patience. The last man in the world of whom she wished to be reminded at that moment was Captain Eales.
Saturday, November 14th
A little before noon a cab drew up outside a small white villa on the outskirts of Passy, and there set down a thin middle-aged man. He was observed and recognized from a first-floor window by a dishevelled maid, who with a “Tiens!” of annoyance and surprise set down her feather duster and hastened to make herself presentable before admitting him.
“Bonjour, Eléonore,” said John Fanshawe on the threshold, when the door was at length opened to him.
“Monsieur! Mais, que cette arrivée est imprévue!”
“Unexpected, but not unwelcome, I hope,” said Fanshawe in French which a long lack of practice had made somewhat uncertain.
Oh, monsieur was joking! As if he could be unwelcome at any time! And had monsieur had a good journey? And was he well? But she could see for herself that he was well—only thin. Mon Dieu! How he was thin! She had hardly known him at first.
“And mademoiselle?” asked Fanshawe, as soon as he could make any headway through the flood of words. “How is she?”
Mademoiselle was well. It was a thousand pities that she was not there to greet her father. If monsieur had but let her know of his approach, how happy she would have been. But it was like monsieur to spring a surprise so happy upon her. And now mademoiselle was out and would not be returned until that afternoon, and nothing was prepared. Monsieur would excuse the confusion in the house, but mademoiselle would of course explain. But what was she—Eléonore—doing? Monsieur was hungry, of course, after his so long journey at this terrible season of the year. Monsieur must eat. There was not much in the house, but an omelette—monsieur would have an omelette aux fines herbes, would he not? And some of the Beaujolais wine that he always took with his déjeuner? If monsieur would wait but a little quarter of an hour he should be served.
With a final flurry of words she darted away to the kitchen, and Fanshawe with a sigh of relief made his way to the salon and sat down to await his meal. His face, which had lit up with pleasure at the well-remembered sound of Eléonore’s eloquence, now resumed the expression of wary cynicism that was habitual to him. A mistake, he reflected, to arrive anywhere without warning—even at your own daughter’s house. He was old enough to have known better. This was what happened when you had been marking time for years, waiting, concentrating on the one event which would bring you back to life again. You forgot that for the real, live world outside things didn’t stand still, as they did for you. He had so often in imagination arrived at this villa to find his daughter on the threshold ready to leap into his arms, that it had not occurred to him that any arrangements were necessary to ensure her being there. A luncheon engagement—an appointment at the hairdresser’s—and there was the great reunion scene manqué, and the prodigal parent left to eat his omelette alone.
Fanshawe shrugged his lean shoulders. He was making a great fuss about nothing, he told himself. A man comes out of prison a week or so before he is expected to. He visits his daughter in France without warning. Not unnaturally, she is out when he arrives. That was all. But the other half of his intelligence was not so easily satisfied. If that was all, why had Eléonore been so plainly upset at his first appearance? And now, as she appeared with the announcement, “Monsieur est servi!” was there not a trace of pity in the eager friendliness of her manner?
Fanshawe detained her in the dining-room while he ate his lunch. He had had enough of solitude during the last few years. She gossiped with him readily enough about all manner of past acquaintance and happenings, but was reticent on the one subject that interested him at the moment. Once, in a pause in the conversation, she remarked suddenly and apropos of nothing in particular: “Without doubt, mademoiselle will have many things to tell her father.”
“Evidemment,” said Fanshawe in curt agreement, and did not pursue the matter further.
The meal over, he returned to the salon, there to smoke and drink the excellent coffee which Eléonore brought him. Tired as he was, he would have slept in his chair, if some part of his consciousness had not remained ceaselessly on the alert, listening for the sound of the front door opening. The lines in his face grew deeper as he waited, and the expression of patient disillusionment more marked.
It was not long before he heard the unmistakable sound of a key being fitted to the door. He rose and took a step towards the hall, then as he heard footsteps hurrying from the interior of the house, returned quietly to his chair. So Eléonore had been on the watch too! The sounds of a whispered colloquy on the doorstep came to his ears, and without hearing what was being said, he realized that for some reason she found it necessary to break the news of his arrival to her mistress. The delay was but a short one, but it seemed long enough to Fanshawe before the door was flung open, and with a cry of “Father!” his daughter was in his arms again.
She quickly broke away from his embrace, and held him at arm’s length so that she could see his face, murmuring broken little phrases of concern at his pallor and grey hairs. He on his side looked at her narrowly. She too had changed, he remarked. She had lost some of the girlish charm that he remembered, but in its place had gained the poise and good looks of mature womanhood. “Just the type to attract a Frenchman,” he said to himself. Just now her cheeks were flushed, and there was an expression in her eyes which caused him to raise his brows in a mute question.
She noticed it, and by way of answer drew a little further away from him. “I didn’t think you would be—be free for another week,” she murmured. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
“I gathered so much from Eléonore.”
“Then you didn’t get my letter?”
“Evidently not, since I am here. That is, I presume that the letter was to tell me not to come?”
She looked away, in evident distress.
“Father—this is so horribly difficult. . . .”
“Not at all.” Fanshawe’s dry, unemotional tones were not unkindly. “I am in the way here. That isn’t very surprising, is it?”
“Father, you mustn’t say that. It sounds so——”
“I can imagine a good many circumstances,” he went on, “in which the reappearance of an ex-convict might be embarrassing to his daughter. For example, it might be rather prejudicial to her prospects of a good marriage——”
She drew a sharp breath and looked him in the eyes. He read in her face all that he needed to know.
“We understand each other,” he said gravely. “On such occasions, it is the father’s duty to disappear as quietly as may be. Only, why didn’t you let me know before?”
“I—I tried to, often, but I hadn’t the courage. I was a coward, I know, but I kept on putting it off and off until the last moment—I felt so ashamed.”
“You have nothing to be ashamed of,” he assured her. “Who is the young man? That is, I hope he is young. He is a Frenchman, I suppose?”
“Yes. His name is Paillard—Roger Paillard. He——”
“Of the automobiles Paillard? I congratulate you. And his family, of course, know nothing about me?”
She shook her head. “I am on my way to stay with them for the first time,” she said. “He is an only son, and his mother, of course——”
“She, of course, thinks the world of him. And he is un jeune homme bien élevé, très comme il faut—and all the rest of it?”
He mimicked the precise accents of an elderly Frenchwoman so well that she laughed in spite of herself.
“Very good,” he went on. “I hope you will be happy, my dear. The family skeleton will now return to his cupboard and lock himself in. Where is Roger now, by the way?”
“Outside, in the car. We’ve been lunching, and I only came in to pick up my bag.”
“Then hurry, my dear, hurry. You mustn’t keep him waiting! He will be wondering what has become of you.”
He kissed her lightly, and she turned to go. At the threshold she stopped.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Father, you never said anything about—I mean, you must be terribly short of money. If I can help——”
“Money?” he echoed her gaily. “No, you needn’t worry on that score. We crooks, you know, have always a little nest egg put away somewhere.”
She winced at the ugly word, and the ironically defiant tone in which he uttered it.
“But what are you going to do?” she asked.
“Perhaps Eléonore will let me stay the night here,” he answered. “Even two nights, if I feel like it. I shall be gone before you return, in any case. Then I shall go back to London. Your aunt has kindly promised to put me up for as long as I please.”
“It will be very dull for you,” she murmured.
“I don’t expect so. And in any case, two lonely people are less dull together than apart. And now you must go. I insist. Good-bye and—good luck.”
She left him, and as she ran down the steps to the waiting car, the words “two lonely people” rang in her ears like a tolling bell.
Sunday, November 15th
The Café du Soleil in Goodge Street is always busy at lunch time on Sundays. The narrow white-walled room with its two rows of little tables attracts a clientele from an area far wider than the somewhat shabby neighbourhood that surrounds it. The customers, indeed, are a mixed collection. Many are foreign, some are shabby, a few prosperous, hardly any smart. They are united by one characteristic and one only—that they know and appreciate good food. And Enrico Volpi, the stout little Genoese who learned the art of the kitchen in Marseilles and refined it in Paris, sees that they are not disappointed.
Frank Harper, clerk in the firm of Inglewood, Browne & Company, Auctioneers and Estate Agents of Kensington, had discovered the Soleil in the course of a visit on his employer’s business to the Tottenham Court Road. He had been agreeably surprised by the food, and after his meal less agreeably by the bill. Regretfully, as he paid, he had decided that the Soleil was not an eating-house for poor men. He had resolved that so far as he was concerned it must be reserved for some special occasion.
This was such an occasion. Harper had been to a good deal of trouble to plan a meal that should be worthy of it, and Volpi, who knew a young man in love when he saw one, had excelled himself in its execution. So it was with a tone of confidence well justified that over the coffee Harper murmured to his companion:
“Well, Susan, enjoyed your lunch?”
Susan smiled contentedly.
“Frank, it’s been the dream of a lunch. I’ve made a perfect pig of myself, and I shan’t be able to eat anything at dinner. You’re a perfect genius to have found this place. If only—” Her candid grey eyes had a troubled expression.
“If only it wasn’t so ruinously expensive.”
Harper’s rather fatuous expression of happiness gave way to a look of disgust.
“Need you bring that up now?” he asked wearily. “I should have thought——”
Susan was all contrition.
“Darling, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say anything to spoil things. It was beastly of me.”
“Angel, you couldn’t be beastly if you tried.”
“Yes, I can, and I was. But all the same,” she went on, returning to the attack, “we’ve got to be practical sometimes.”
“All right, then,” said the young man roughly, “let’s be practical. I know what you’re thinking. I’m a clerk in a dud firm that pays me two pounds ten shillings a week, which is probably about two pounds nine shillings more than I’m worth. I have been there four years and my prospects of getting any further are precisely nil. You have a dress allowance of fifty pounds a year, and if your father can raise it to a hundred when you’re married you will be lucky. Being what are known as gentlefolk, we can’t get married under seven hundred a year—say six hundred as a bare minimum. And if we tried it even on that we should hate it, and your father would have seventeen distinct apoplectic fits if we suggested it. Is that practical enough for you?”
“Yes,” said Susan in a small sad voice.
“Therefore,” he continued, “it ill becomes me to spend fifteen shillings on a decent meal, when I might be putting it in a nice little savings bank, like that ghastly young pup who shares my room at the office.”
Susan made a gesture of despair.
“It does seem pretty hopeless, doesn’t it?” she said. Harper looked out past her at the grey prospect of Goodge Street.
“I hate London,” he said suddenly.
A silence followed his outburst, and when he spoke again it was in a different tone of voice.
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