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George Oliver Onions (13 November 1873 – 9 April 1961) was a British writer of story collections and over 40 novels. He wrote in a variety of genres, but is perhaps beset remembered for his ghost stories, notably the highly-regard collection Widdershins and the widely anthologized novella "The Beckoning Fair One". He was married to the novelist Berta Ruck.Greatest Collection of Oliver Onions________________________________________A Case in CameraIn Accordance with the EvidenceMushroom TownThe Debit AccountThe Story of LouieThe Tower of OblivionWiddershins
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The Collected Major Works of Oliver Onions
A Case in Camera
In Accordance with the Evidence
The Debit Account
The Story of Louie
The Tower of Oblivion
A Case in Camera
BY OLIVER ONIONS
AUTHOR OF "THE COMPLEAT BACHELOR" "IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE EVIDENCE" "THE DEBIT ACCOUNT"
New York THE MACMILLAN COMPANY 1921
All rights reserved
COPYRIGHT, 1920 AND 1921,BY THE MACMILLAN COMPANY Set up and electrotyped. Published March, 1921
TOOLE LUK OIE
"Our Life is like a curious PlayWhere each doth strive to hide himself.One Mask doth to another say'Let us be open as the Day'The better to conceal himself."
[Pg 8] [Pg 9]
PART I WHAT HAPPENED IN LENNOX STREET
[Pg 10] [Pg 11]
The tale I am setting out to tell has to do with the killing, on a May morning of the year 1919, of one young man by another who claimed, and still claims, to have been his friend. The circumstances were singular—perhaps even unique; the consequences affected a number of people in various interesting ways and byways; and since the manner of telling the story has been left entirely to me, I will begin with the breakfast-party that Philip Esdaile gave that morning at his studio in Lennox Street, Chelsea.
Philip had at least two good reasons for being in high feather that morning. The first of these was that barely a week ago, with a magnificent new quill pen, he had signed the Roll, had shaken august hands, and was now Philip Esdaile, A.R.A., probably the most gifted among the younger generation of painters of the pictorial phenomena of Light.
I and his second reason for contentment happened to arrive almost simultaneously at the wrought-iron gate that opened on to his little front garden. We all[Pg 12] knew that for many months past our barrister friend, Billy Mackwith, had been tracking down and buying in again on Philip's behalf a number of Philip's earlier pictures—prodigal pictures, parted with for mere bread-and-butter during the years of struggle, and now very well worth Philip's re-purchase if he could get them into his possession again. (I may perhaps say at once that I don't think Philip owed his Associateship to his pictures of that period. It is far more likely that the artist thus honored was Lieutenant Esdaile, R.N.V.R., sometime one of the Official Painters to the Admiralty.)
A carrier's van stood drawn up opposite the gate, and I saw Mackwith's slim, silk-hatted and morning-coated figure jump down from the seat next to the driver. Evidently Philip had seen the arrival of the van too, for he ran down the short flagged path to meet us.
"You don't mean to say you've brought them all?" he cried eagerly.
"The whole lot. Fourteen," Mackwith replied. "Glad I just caught you before you left."
Esdaile and his family were leaving town that morning for some months on the Yorkshire Coast, and it was this departure that was the occasion of the farewell breakfast.
The three of us carried the recovered canvases through the small annexe, where the breakfast-table was already laid, and into the large studio beyond. There we stood admiring them as they leaned, framed and unframed, against easels and along the walls. No doubt you remember Esdaile's paintings of that period—the gay white and gray of his tumultuous skies, the splash and glitter of his pools and fountains, the[Pg 13] crumbling wallflowered masonry of his twentieth-century fêtes-champêtre. There is nothing psychical or philosophic about them. He simply has that far rarer possession, an eye in his head to see straight with.
"Well, which of 'em are you going to have for yourself, just by way of thank-you, Billy?" the painter asked. "Any you like; I owe you the best of them and more.... And of course here comes Hubbard. Always does blow in just as things are being given away, if it's only a pink gin. How are you, Cecil?"
The new-comer wore aiguillettes and the cuff-rings of a Commander, R.N. He was a comparatively new friend of mine, but for two years off and on had been a shipmate of Esdaile's, and I liked the look of his honest red face and four-square and blocklike figure. We turned to the pictures again. I think their beauties were largely thrown away on Hubbard. Somebody ought to have told him that their buying-in meant a good thousand pounds in Esdaile's pocket. Then he would have looked at them in quite a different manner.
In the middle of the inspection Joan Merrow's white frock and buttercupped hat appeared in the doorway, and we were bidden to come in to breakfast. Monty Rooke and Mrs. Cunningham had just arrived, which made our party complete.
The little recess in which we breakfasted was filled with the sunlight reflected from the garden outside. Everything in it—the napkins and fruit and chafing-dishes on the table, the spring flowers in the bowls, the few chosen objects on the buff-washed walls, the showery festoon of the chandelier overhead—had the soft irradiation of a face seen under a parasol. Little shimmers of light, like love-making butterflies, danced here and there whenever glasses or carafes were[Pg 14] moved, and the stretches of shining floor almost looked as if trout might have lurked beneath them.
And where the tall French windows stood wide open the light seemed to be focused as if by a burning-glass on the two little Esdaile boys who played beneath the mulberry that rose above the studio roof.
I don't suppose the whole of Chelsea could have shown a merrier breakfast-party than we made that May morning. For, in addition to our host's new Associateship and those fourteen wandering pictures safely back home again, we had a further occasion for light-heartedness that I haven't mentioned yet. This was the wedding, to take place that day week, of Mrs. Cunningham and Monty Rooke. Philip was generously lending them his house and studio for the summer. Monty we had all known for years, but Mrs. Cunningham I for one set eyes on for the first time that morning. Later I got a much more definite impression of her. For the present I noticed only her slender and beautiful black-chiffon-covered arms, the large restless dark eyes that seemed to disengage themselves from under the edge of her black satin turban hat, and her manicured fingers that reminded you of honeysuckle. The Esdailes had received her "on the ground floor," so to speak, and it obviously pleased Monty that Philip had called her Audrey straight away.
So we talked of the approaching wedding, and the Associateship, and the painting-cottage in Yorkshire, and so back to the pictures again. On this subject Commander Hubbard unhesitatingly took the lead.
"Well, it's certainly Art for mine my second time on earth," he good-humoredly railed, the aiguillettes swinging gently on his breast. "Fancy going out of town this weather! Taking away all that gear[Pg 15] behind the bulkhead there,"—he jerked his head to where Philip's painting paraphernalia lay ready packed in the hall—"a few yards of raw canvas bent on battens—and bringing it back again worth twenty pounds an inch!"
Hubbard had a Whitehall job that summer, and loathed it. Esdaile laughed.
"Can't see why they didn't make me a full Academician while they were about it," he said.
"And he's grumbling!" Hubbard retorted. "Perfectly revolting fellow. That's too much lunching with Admirals. Listen, Mrs. Esdaile, and I'll tell you the kind of thing we mere senior officers had to put up with. A hoist breaks out from the flagship, and every glass in the Squadron is glued to it. You'd think at least we were to proceed to sea immediately. Nothing of the sort! It's the Admiral presenting his compliments to this wretched wavy-ringed fellow your husband, and would he give him the pleasure—would Lieutenant Esdaile, R.N.V.R., condescend—stoop—to take luncheon with him! The Admiral, if you please! And that's what it is to be an Official Painter!"
Esdaile laughed again. He was trying to remove in one unbroken piece the paring of an apple for Joan Merrow.
"Give him a smile now and then and he'll eat out of your hand, Mollie," he said. "Now, Joan, the last little bit—this is where a steady hand comes in—there!" He held up in triumph the wiggle of apple paring. "Throw it over your left shoulder and see what initial it makes on the floor. Here's my guess on this bit of paper under my napkin—'C for Ch' ... Ah, clumsy infant!" The strip had fallen in two pieces.[Pg 16] "There goes your luck. Allee done gone finish. I'll have the apple myself; you'd better go and write the rest of those labels."
The Esdailes had to all intents and purposes adopted Joan Merrow now that she was alone in the world. On the day when Philip, half scared by the risks he was taking, had informed his private pupils that their tuition took up too much of his painting-time, he had not included Joan. She had continued to prime his canvases and to make use of his models at long range from odd corners of the studio; and then, during his absence on Service, she had come to live in the house, had taught and mended for the children, and had been companion and friend to Mollie. By an affectionate fiction, her former fees were supposed to cover the cost of her board, and a proper arrangement was to be come to one of these days. She was twenty, had only lately ceased to have the stripling figure that is all youth and no sex, and was already acquiring that mystery of physical shape and of mind and emotion that causes men's heads to turn behind and their lips to murmur, "Ah—in another year or so——"
There was still the faint echo of chattering schoolrooms in the repartee that came from her pretty lips. Pertly and with little tosses of her head she enumerated the duties she had discharged that morning.
"The labels are all distinctly written, with the name at the top, then a space, and 'Santon, Yorks' quite at the bottom so you can tear it off and use the label again for somewhere else. Both the taxis are ordered for one-thirty, and Mr. Rooke won't have to send on letters because they're all being re-addressed at the Post Office. The doors and windows are all fastened, and I've shown Mrs. Cunningham where everything[Pg 17] is for after the wedding. And I didn't want the apple, and you've no business to write things about me on your horrid bits of paper!"
And we all laughed as she suddenly twitched Philip's napkin away and tucked the horrid bit of paper safely away into her bosom.
I have told the foregoing in some detail because I want you to see the careless and happy party into which that morning's bolt dropped a quarter of an hour later. I want you to see the contrast between our homely light-heartedness and the complex tangle of all that followed. I will now tell you what the bolt was.
Breakfast was over, and we men had gone into the studio again. Mrs. Cunningham was helping Mollie to clear away, and Joan Merrow had joined the children in the garden, and with them was looking up at an aeroplane, the soft organ-like note of which had suddenly ceased. We were having Hubbard's views on Art again.
"But that submarine sketch of yours is the pick of all you've done to my mind, Esdaile," he was saying. "Old Horne at the periscope, eh? You caught him to a hair; a snapshot couldn't have been better! And we bagged that beggar ten minutes later, Norwegian flag and all," he added with professional satisfaction.
Philip Esdaile gave a quick exclamation.
"By Jove, that just reminds me! The orange[Pg 18] curaçao, of course! The very thing after all that fruit—corrects the acidity, as the doctors say. We'll have some."
The Commander gave him a sharp look. On the face of it there was no very evident reason why the torpedoing of a German ship flying the Norwegian flag should remind Esdaile of orange curaçao, but no doubt there was a story behind that we others knew nothing of. If ships have to be put down there is no sense in sending bottles of delectable liqueur to the bottom of the sea also.
"What!" cried Commander Hubbard, R.N. "You don't mean to say that you had the infernal neck to take your whack——"
A mere wretched wavy-ringed fellow to loot bottle for bottle with his betters like that!
But Esdaile, with a wink, demanded the key of the cellar from Monty Rooke, told him to get the liqueur glasses out, and was off.
It was at that moment that the crash came that seemed to bring the whole of Chelsea running out of doors.
The shrill cry of "The aeroplane! The aeroplane!" was hardly out of the children's mouths before it was upon us—I don't mean the aeroplane, but the other thing. Judging from the harsh but muffled roar, the first installment of the crash, so to speak, which was the plane itself, must have been a quarter of a mile away; but between that and the second one there was hardly time to take breath. Simultaneously, as it seemed, there came a rushing of air, a loud cracking, and a nauseating thud on the studio roof; and Joan Merrow ran in with the children, one under either arm and her head down. The street outside[Pg 19] was a sudden clatter of running feet and short spasmodic cries.
"Good God, right on our heads!" the Commander muttered, his eyes aloft.
The next moment he was at the studio door looking for Esdaile.
Had he found him I should not be writing this story. Not finding him, he assumed command.
"All right. All over now, little fellows. There won't be any more. Mrs. Esdaile, you ladies will stay just where you are, please. Get on to the telephone, Mackwith. You other fellows come with me."
He thought it better that somebody should investigate before the women began to move about too freely.
One order at any rate was superfluous—that to telephone to the police. Aeroplanes do not crash in Chelsea in the middle of the morning unobserved. Already the windows on the other side of the street were packed with faces, and every face was turned in the same direction.
This was towards the torn fabric of a parachute that had lodged partly on the studio roof, partly in the branches of the mulberry in the garden.
Hubbard ran out through the French windows and looked up. Tapes trailed and rippled and fluttered in the merry morning breeze, and the gray silk ballooned and rose and fell. But the sound of running feet warned Hubbard not to pause. He strode quickly down the flagged path, shot the catch of the wrought-[Pg 20]iron gate in the faces of the too curious, and then hurried into the house again. He addressed Rooke, who stood by the group of shocked women.
"Here, you seem to know this house pretty well. How do we get up there?" he asked.
"Bathroom window, I should think," Rooke replied. "This way."
The bathroom lay at the end of a short passage on the floor above. The three of us dashed upstairs. Rooke tried the bathroom door, but found it locked. "Damn!" he muttered, and then I reminded him that possibly he had the key of it in his pocket.
It was oddly irritating to watch him try first one key and then another. We wanted to tell him to make haste, as if he could have made any greater haste than he was doing. Then luckily he hit on the right one. The door opened, we sprang across the cork-covered floor, and Rooke began to tug at the window-catch. The window was one of these late-Victorian windows with a colored border and white incised stars, and already the tragic huddle a dozen yards away could be seen, violently crimson through the red squares and morbidly blue through the blue ones.
Then, as the sash flew up, all was sunshine again, and the wrecked parachute and the two men enwrapped in its folds could be seen only too clearly.
Monty Rooke had a new silver-gray suit on that morning, but already he had thrown one leg over the sill.
"I'm not so heavy as you fellows," he muttered. "I'm not so sure about this gutter—give me a hand while I try it. Then I can shin up that spout over there."
Hubbard took the small, nervous hand in his own[Pg 21] beefy fist and let him down three or four feet. "All right," said Rooke, after a moment's trial; and, spread-eagled out on the annexe roof, he began to make his way towards the higher roof of the studio beyond.
"Tapes oughtn't to have fouled like that," I heard the Commander say under his breath as we watched. "Parachuting's safe enough if you're any height at all. This breeze, I suppose, and risking the double load. Wonder they didn't go slap through."
It was, indeed, merely by inches that the two men had missed the roof-glass. Apparently the parachute, the roof-frame and the mulberry had shared the shock among them. Not that another fifteen feet would have made much difference to the poor devils, I couldn't help thinking.
The street was now a densely-packed mass of faces, all watching Rooke's progress. Even the whispering had ceased. Then cries of "Make way there!" were suddenly heard. Fifty yards away a ladder, preceded by a plump young man in a horsey check coat, was being passed over people's heads. Every hand that could touch the ladder did so, as if out of some odd pride of assistance. What anonymous mind had foreseen the need of it none could have told. Down below Mackwith opened the gate; an Inspector, followed by a couple of constables and the last relay that bore the ladder, entered; and Mackwith closed the gate again. The ladder was set up by the splintered mulberry, and the Inspector and one of the constables joined Rooke on the roof.
Five minutes later Rooke was down again. Hubbard and I had also descended. We met him as he came in at the French window.
"Well?" we both demanded at once.
He was agitated, as indeed he had some reason for being. He had had an unpleasant task. Before replying he advanced to the breakfast-table and poured himself out some water into the nearest glass. The glass knocked unsteadily as he set it down again. Then he glanced down at his clothes, made a movement as if to brush the grime from them, but gave a jerk to his tie instead.
Nevertheless his news was not all bad. In one particular it was rather astonishingly good. One of the two men, it appeared, was by no means fatally hurt—was, indeed, quite likely to pull through.
"Do you know who they are?" Hubbard asked.
Again Monty seemed preoccupied with his clothes. Then we had his tidings, jerkily and bit by bit.
The plane itself had come down somewhere by the Embankment, and was said to have caught fire. Parts of the parachute seemed to be singed too. Both men were civilian flyers; at least neither was in uniform. The other poor fellow was killed. The ambulance had been sent for, and for the present there was little more to be done. The police were seeing to the rest. This was the sum of what Monty told us.
Then we heard the voice of Mackwith, who had come up behind us.
"That's so," he confirmed. "I've just been having a word with the Inspector about that. He doesn't think anybody here will have to attend any inquiry or anything; the police evidence ought to be enough. So I was thinking, Mrs. Esdaile," he turned to Mollie, whose face was still pale and drawn and who bit the corner of her lip incessantly, "that the best thing for you to do is to stick to your program just as if this hadn't happened. You'll do no good staying[Pg 23] here. You didn't see it,"—here Joan Merrow, from the little sofa, raised her head but dropped it again without speaking—"well, I mean that even Joan didn't see anything that five hundred other people didn't see just as well. Rooke may just possibly be wanted, but anyway he'll be here. And as for Philip——"
He broke off abruptly. Of a sudden we all stared at one another. We had forgotten all about Philip. Where was he?
If you remember, he had gone down into the cellar to fetch a bottle of wine. And in performing this simple errand he had been away for close on half an hour.
Mollie Esdaile, all on edge again, turned swiftly to Monty Rooke.
"Where is he? He did go down there, didn't he? You did give him the cellar key, didn't you? And nobody heard him go out of the house?"
Well, that was a matter that was very easily ascertained. Already Hubbard had taken a stride towards the door that led to the cellar.
But he did not reach the door. A footstep was heard behind it and the turning of a key, and Esdaile entered. In one hand he carried a stone jar of Dutch curaçao. In the other, arrestively out of place in the spring sunshine, its flame a dingy orange and its little spiral of greasy smoke fouling the air, he held a lighted candle in a flat tin stick.
For a moment we all gazed stupidly at that jar and candle; but the next moment our eyes were fastened on Philip's face.
Now ordinarily Esdaile's face, clean-shaven since 1914, is quite a pleasant one to look at, lightly browned, and with the savor of the sea still lingering about it. Nor was it noticeably pale now. Indeed, you might have said that some inner excitation made it not pale at all. But there was no disguising the strained tenseness of it. At the same time he was obviously attempting such a disguise. His features were set in a would-be-easy smile, but the smile stopped at his eyes. These blinked, though possibly at the sudden brightness after the obscurity below. And he spoke without pause or preliminary, as if rehearsing something he had had time to get letter-perfect but not to make entirely and naturally his own.
"Did you think I was never coming up?" The mechanical smile was turned on us all in turn. "I suppose I have been rather a long time. Just wool-gathering. I apologize to everybody. Where are the liqueur-glasses?"
There was a dead silence. Was it possible that he had heard nothing, knew nothing of what had occurred?
Monty Rooke was the first to speak.
"Do you mean to say you didn't hear it?" he blurted out.
Then, as Philip seemed to concentrate that artificial smile suddenly on him alone, he seemed sorry he had drawn attention to himself.
"And where on earth have you been?" Philip[Pg 25] demanded slowly. "What's the matter with your clothes? Been emptying the dustbins? Here, let me give you a clean-up, man——"
He got rid of the jar of liqueur, not by putting it down on a table, but by the simple if unusual expedient of letting it drop through his fingers, where it made a heavy thump, rolled over on its side, and came to rest. He stepped forward.
But Rooke, for some reason or other, stepped much more quickly back. He muttered something about his clothes not mattering—it was only a few grains of dust, but damp—better let it dry before touching it——
It was at this point that I caught Cecil Hubbard's eye.
Hubbard's is a bright blue eye, with angular lids like little set-squares and a tiny dark dot in the middle of the blue. That eye may not know very much about pictures, but it knows a good deal about men and their faces. Esdaile was taking risks if he hoped to play any tricks with that eye on him.
Then, having caught mine for that moment, the eye was attentively fixed on our host again.
You see how preposterous it was already. Esdaile apparently could notice a trifle like the dust on Rooke's clothes, but he seemed to be both blind and deaf to everything else—the soft surging murmurs of the crowd outside, the voice of the Inspector in the garden, the shadows of strangers across the French windows. He just dropped heavy stone jars to the floor, talked about wool-gathering, and had not even thought of extinguishing the candle that was melting and guttering in his hand.
Wool-gathering—Philip Esdaile, the least woolly-minded of men!
Already I was certain that he was deliberately acting, and acting far from well at that.
It was little Alan, the elder of the two boys, who broke the spell that seemed to have benumbed us all. He ran forward, his blue-and-white check smock against his father's knees and his little face upturned.
"A naeroplane, daddy!" he cried eagerly. "Some men fell out of a naeroplane close to Jimmy and me, didn't they, Auntie Joan? In a parachute, bigger'n this room!" The little arms were outstretched to their widest reach. "Do come quick and look, daddy!"
And he seized his father's hand.
Again I caught Hubbard's eye. Esdaile was at it again, this time with a badly-exaggerated gesture of astonishment. He might have made just such a gesture if Alan had told him that the Grandmother in the bed was really a Wolf—good enough for children but not for anybody else. Hubbard at any rate thought that this had lasted long enough.
"Do you mean to say that you didn't feel the whole house shake half an hour ago?" he demanded.
Esdaile turned, but with a curious reluctance that I didn't understand.
"I did fancy I heard a noise of some sort," he admitted. "What about it?"
Hubbard gave it to him plain and unvarnished, for all the world as if he had been in the Admiral's office with a sentry with a bayonet at the door.
"A plane crashed, and two men came down on your roof in a parachute. One's living, the other's killed. Those are the police in your garden now. That's all—except that you seem to live in a pretty solidly-constructed house."
This time Esdaile made no demonstration. He[Pg 27] stood listening for a moment longer, as if he thought Hubbard might add something; then, without a word, he released himself from Alan's hand and strode, not to the garden where the voices were, but towards the studio door.
The studio (into which Hubbard and I immediately followed him) was a large oblong apartment, with a portion of one of its longer sides and almost the whole of the roof glazed. More or less light could be admitted by means of a system of dark blue blinds and cords running to cleats on the walls. It was to the roof-glass that my eyes turned first of all. One corner of it was darkened, as if melted snow had slipped down its slope, but the irregular triangle thus made was not so dark but that the shapes of the two heads could be seen, a little darker still. Nearer up to the ridge one thick pane was badly starred, and in the middle of the star was a small hole. This I judged to have been made by the broken branch that still brushed and played about it. A couple of pictures had fallen from the walls and lay face downward among their sprinklings of broken glass on the floor. One or two others were disarranged. Otherwise the apartment seemed to be undamaged.
Esdaile's behavior was now odder than ever. With those two men lying on the roof just over his head and the police moving about the garden outside, apparently he found nothing more urgent to do than to move displaced rugs about and to push at the bits of broken[Pg 28] glass with his foot. And he did this with the candle, now a stalagmite of tallow, still licking and flickering in his hand.
He made no remark when Hubbard took the candle almost roughly from him, blew it out, and set it down on the table where the artist's tubes and brushes usually stood.
"We'll be rid of that first of all," he said. "Unless it's a mascot. Scaring 'em to death with that in your hand like a sleepwalker in traveling-tweeds! Now what about it, Esdaile?"
There was sudden attention in Philip's attitude, though he still looked down at the floor and pushed at a rug with his toe.
"What about what?" he asked.
"About this last half-hour."
"You mean where have I been? I went down into the cellar. I went to get that liqueur."
"That doesn't take half an hour—and it certainly didn't take this particular half-hour."
To this Esdaile made no reply.
"Come," said Hubbard again after a pause. "You admitted just now that you thought you heard something."
The words came slowly. "Did I? Yes, I remember. But it was all muffled. Honestly, I couldn't tell from the sound that it was—that it was all this."
"Was that when you were down there, or as you were going down, or when?"
"I'd just got down, I think."
"But didn't you wonder what was the matter? What kept you all that time? And what's the matter with you now that you have come up?"
"The matter?" Esdaile began once more to parry;[Pg 29] and then suddenly his manner changed. For the first time he looked up from the floor, and the mask, whatever it was, almost dropped. "Look here, you fellows," he said almost appealingly, "you might see I'm a bit worried. I've been trying to hide it, but perhaps it wasn't much of an effort. Not so dashed easy to hide. But if you're suggesting that I've been somewhere else besides in the cellar I can only tell you I haven't. Couldn't for one thing; Rooke's got every key of this house. I had to get the cellar one from him. By the way, what's he doing now?"
"Looking out your next train. But what I want to know is——"
He broke off suddenly as sounds were heard over our heads. About the snowslip on the roof other shadowy shapes could be seen. Feet shuffled and moved, and the broken branch was dragged away. They were preparing to get the two men down.
And until they should have finished our conversation ceased.
But in the meantime Esdaile did yet another trivial incongruous thing. Moving towards one set of blind-cords he motioned to me to take another set. With short sticking tugs we drew the blinds across a foot at a time, and soon only narrow gold lozenges of sunlight showed among the rafters. All below was a dark blue twilight, as if for an obsequy within instead of for one on the roof.
Then, when from the cessation of sound all appeared to be over, Hubbard made a fresh appeal. He took the painters arm.
"Now let's have this out," he said. "No good letting a thing get way on when a few plain words will stop it. A perfectly ordinary thing's happened.[Pg 30] Simple parachute accident. No mystery about it whatever. The mystery only begins when you come in carrying your damned candles and dropping jars and coming in here to tidy up instead of going outside to see what's happened. That's where the answer begins to be a lemon, my son. Listen to me. Whether you heard that crash or whether you didn't, at any rate you know all about it now. Then why can't you be just decently upset like the rest of us and have done with it?"
"Decently upset?" The words seemed to strike him. "Have I been behaving any other way?"
"You were behaving damnably indecently when you came up out of the orlop there—and that was before you were told a word of all this, remember."
At last Esdaile saw the point. His behavior had been extraordinary for whole minutes before the situation had been explained to him. One would have thought that during those minutes he had been deliberately trying to find out how much we knew about something or other before committing himself. When next he spoke it was almost apologetically.
"I see," he said quietly at last. "Yes, you're perfectly right. That was certainly the proper way to take it—just be decently upset. I see now. I must have looked a perfect zany.... Now look here: I want to tell you both all about it, but the trouble is that I can't just at this moment. At present it's somebody else's affair, not mine at all. Must get that cleared up first. I'm not perfectly sure of my ground either; you'll see by and by. But as regards the accident—well, that's the whole point at present. I mean anybody would say it was an accident, wouldn't[Pg 31] they? It looked like one, I mean? It would never occur to anybody who saw it that——"
But here he broke off abruptly as his wife appeared in the doorway.
Perhaps at this point I had better tell you who "I" am who write this, and also how our little circle came to choose me for the task.
As a minor actor in these events you may set me down as a working journalist. Among other things I am one of the sub-editors of the Daily Circus. But that is not the whole of my life. I am also a novelist of sorts. And one of my reasons for sticking to journalism when I could manage at a pinch to do without it is that in this way I escape the doom of having to produce two novels a year whether I have anything to write about or not.
But that was not their idea in asking me to put into shape the mosaic of differently-colored pieces that constitutes this Case. I believe their idea was that my two capacities might supplement one another—that I might hold fast (so to speak) to the bed-rock facts with my journalistic hand while the other was left free for the less tangible elements. I don't know that I altogether agree with this distinction. I happen to have some experience of how much fiction people swallow when they take up their morning papers, and also of how much mere hurdy-gurdy-grinding they accept as "human nature" when it comes to them in the form of a novel. But that is their look-out.[Pg 32] I told them that with their help I would do my best.
I had to have their help. Obviously I could not always be at the side of this person or that, Rooke or Esdaile or Hubbard, throughout every winding of a complicated chain of events. But I have known Esdaile for twenty years, Rooke for a dozen, and most of the others long enough to have a fairly reliable impression of them, and their accounts are quite trustworthy. If I have any doubt about this I say so.
I cannot deny that we took a good deal of responsibility when we conspired to hush up the facts of this Case. We have no more right to come between the agents of the Law and their duty than any other set of private persons. And, though many of the beaten tracks are lost in these changing days, and new precedents are making whichever way you turn, I for one don't like making new precedents, especially moral ones. I like tradition to have my homage even when I am resolved to break it. But we are dealing with a fait accompli. The Case is a Case. It became so in spite of laws and customs and institutions. First one person acted as according to the laws of his individual being he had to act, and another did the same, and then another and so on, until the phenomenon was complete.
So, as my chief business in life is precisely those human accidentals that make us all different beings destined to different acts, perhaps they have chosen their historian more or less rightly after all.
One caveat (as Mackwith would say) I must enter, however. This is with regard to my own Services in the War that is now over. Most of these services, though as a matter of fact performed in belt and khaki,[Pg 33] might just as well have been discharged in a dressing-gown, so unadventurous for the most part were they. Thanks to a "joy-ride," I did just see War, but for the rest I went where I was told to go and did what I was told to do. It is therefore just possible that from the point of view of those who lived in the hell I only briefly visited, one or two of my values may be a little "out." The North Sea cannot be quite the same to me that it was to Esdaile and Hubbard, the air means just what it meant to Maxwell and Chummy Smith. For this I am afraid there is no help. But there is always the chance that if I have minimized, they might have stressed a little unduly. For while our Case has nothing to do with War, War is always antecedent to it, as for a generation to come it will be antecedent to everything.
So, on this understanding, we may get on with the tale.
A slightly embarrassing little scene next took place in that breakfast-room in Lennox Street, Chelsea. Rooke had put down the Time Table, and Mollie Esdaile's face wore an expression of exasperation.
It appeared that Philip wanted to pack his family off according to program but wished to remain behind himself. For this he gave no reason—or rather he gave several reasons, all of the thinnest description.
"But how tiresome!" broke from Mollie. "Why on earth do you want to upset everything like this?"
Philip muttered something about the newly-arrived pictures needing a thorough overhauling.
"And the children all ready, all but their hats!" Mollie exclaimed.
"Better hurry them up.... At least seven of them are to frame too."
"Then there's Monty and Audrey, what about them? When you offer people a house——"
But at this one of Mrs. Cunningham's slender hands was imploringly raised. Her small mouth was parted in appeal.
"Oh, please! Don't think of that! I should be miserable if I thought that was going to make any difference!"
"But of course it makes a difference!" Mollie declared. "All your things will be coming here, all your things for the wedding, and anyway you won't want Philip hanging about the place. Better never have offered the house at all!"
"Oh—for a day or two—I shan't be in the way," said Philip uneasily.
But it was awkward for all that. If Esdaile had offered his house to one of his more prosperous friends he would not have hesitated to say frankly that he was sorry, but something unforeseen had happened, and the hospitality must be considered "off." But this was different. It was known that these two were the reverse of well-off. Monty as a matter of fact had already given up his rooms in Jubilee Place, and I had gathered at breakfast that Mrs. Cunningham only intended to occupy her bed-sitting-room in Oakley Street for a very few days longer. There was her story, too, which I shall come to presently. Philip's decision certainly upset a number of minor arrangements.
"Oh, it's too ridiculous!" Mollie declared again[Pg 35] with vexation. "If it means that the wedding's to be put off I don't feel like going away at all."
But Philip only continued to mumble soothingly that it would be quite all right, and it wasn't for long, and nobody had said anything about putting off the wedding. The situation looked rather like a deadlock, and Mackwith already had his silk hat in his hand and the Commander's white-topped cap was tucked under his upper arm. Whether Philip went or stayed was a private family matter after all.
But as we were on the point of taking our leave yet another significant little trifle was added to all the rest. And again Monty Rooke provided the occasion.
Monty, I ought to say, is one of these fellows who, whenever any odd job is to do, especially a domestic one, instinctively seems to take it upon himself. I dare say his living in rooms and studios hardly big enough to turn around in has made him methodical in his habits. It was Monty, for example, who had looked out the train in the Time Table; it was Monty who had picked up the jar of curaçao when Esdaile had let it fall to the floor; and it was Monty who, just as the rest of us were leaving, wandered off towards the studio, presently returned again, sought the kitchen, and reappeared with a sweeping-brush.
"What are you going to do with that?" Philip asked, seeing him making for the studio again.
"I thought I'd just sweep up that broken glass," Monty replied.
"Better leave it," Philip answered.
Monty carried the brush back to the kitchen again, and presently wandered off to the studio once more. Esdaile must have had eyes in the back of his head,[Pg 36] for I, who was facing the studio, had not seen Monty preparing to draw back the roof-blinds again.
"I wouldn't bother about that just at present," Esdaile called rather loudly. "Just see if there's a train about tea-time, do you mind?"
Monty, once more returning, took up the Time Table again. Philip walked with us to the door. Then another little exclamation broke from him. Monty had put down the Time Table and had asked him for the cellar key.
"What on earth do you want the cellar key for?" Philip demanded.
"To put this jar of stuff back," Monty replied. "It won't be wanted now."
Hereupon Philip broke out with a petulance that struck me as entirely disproportionate, if indeed there had been any occasion for petulance at all.
"Oh, we can do that any time. We've got all the rest of the day to ourselves, haven't we? Sit down and smoke a cigarette or something; you've done about enough for one morning——"
It was then that we left.
PART II WHAT HAPPENED OUTSIDE
[Pg 38] [Pg 39]
It may have already struck you that while Esdaile, a responsible householder directly interested in any unusual occurrence on his premises, had not once been into his garden to see what the trouble was, I myself, a journalist with quite a good "news story" in the wind, had shown little more eagerness. Well, I will explain that. In the first place, we have our own reporters, who do that kind of thing far better than I can. Next, however interesting things outside might have been, I had found them quite interesting enough inside. But my real reason was this:—
Rooke had said that both these aviators were civilians. Well, as regards civilian flying, we on the Circus had something that for want of a better name I will call a policy. To speak quite frankly, this policy was a supine one enough, and merely consisted in waiting for a definite lead.
As you know, no such thing as a definite lead existed. Except for war purposes, the future use of flying was at that time the blankest of blanks. It is true we talked a good deal about it, but that was merely our highly specialized way of saying nothing and filling space at the same time. Nobody admitted this lack more readily than those who had drawn up the provisional Regulations. These were merely experimental, any accident might change them at any moment, and, in one word, all our experience was still to be earned.
For this reason, I was just as much interested in opinion about the facts as I was in the facts themselves, and already I was looking forward to an exchange of views with Hubbard and Mackwith.
But time had flown. Both Hubbard and Mackwith had appointments for which they were already late, the one at the Admiralty, the other in the Temple. I therefore parted from them at Sloane Square Station, and, being in no great hurry myself, turned back along King's Road. What I was in search of was a representative public-house. We have all heard of "the man in the street." You often get even closer to the heart of things when you listen to the man in the pub.
I think it was the sight of a plumpish young man in a horsey brown coat that settled my choice of pub. For a moment I couldn't remember where I had seen that or a similar coat before; then it flashed upon me. A man in just such a coat had preceded that ladder that had been passed over the heads of the crowd in Lennox Street, and he or somebody very like him had managed to get inside Esdaile's gate and to secure a privileged position within a few feet of the mulberry tree in which the parachute had lodged.
I followed this coat through two glittering swing-doors a little way round the corner from the King's Road, and found myself in a closely-packed Saloon Bar full of tobacco-smoke and noise.
I will venture to say that the man I followed was never shut out of a tube-lift in his life, however crowded it was. He jostled through the throng about the counter as if it had been so much water. I learned presently that he had had no sort of interest or proprietorship whatever in that ladder that had been passed along Lennox Street. Seeing a ladder approaching he had merely pushed himself forward, had placed himself at the head of it, and, with energetic elbowings and loud cries of "Make way there!" had made it to all intents and purposes his own, squeezing himself in at Esdaile's gate with such nice judgment that the very next man had been shut out. He called this "managing it a treat," and I further gathered that neat things like this usually did happen when Harry Westbury was anywhere about.
The aeroplane accident had at any rate given the licensed trade a fillip that morning. When I asked for a glass of beer I was curtly told, "Only port, sherry and liqueur-brandy—three shillings." Yet many a three shillings was cheerfully paid. Nothing so stimulates conviviality as an undercurrent of tragedy. Apparently half Chelsea had given up all thought of further work before lunch, and in my Saloon Bar there were already signs that more than a few would make a day of it.
And so bit by bit I managed to edge myself nearer to Mr. Harry Westbury.
I dare say you know the kind of man. If the house had a billiard-room upstairs no doubt he had his private cue in it, as well as his private shaving-pot at the barber's round the corner. For all his freshness and[Pg 42] plumpness, there was nothing of the jovial about him. Either he had no humor, or he did not intend that humor should stand in his way through the world. His convex blue eyes were hard and bullying, and his rosebud of a mouth never blossomed into a smile. Probably his wife had a thin time of it. But she would have as good a fur coat as any of her neighbors.
He was holding forth as I drew near on what he called this "Tom, Dick and Harry sort of flying."
"And here you have the proof of it," he was saying, his fingers pronged into four empty glasses and his hard eyes looking defiantly round. "Look at the damage to property alone! What price these air-raids? Three—million—pounds in the City in one night! That's my information as an estate-agent. Three—million—pounds! And now everybody's going to start. What I want to know is, is it peace or war we're living in? That's what I want to know!"
He also wanted to know whether it was the same again—the three-shilling brandy. He was "not to a shilling or two" that morning. It was only right that as a spectator from the reserved enclosure he should "put his hand down."
"I wasn't thinking of property; I was thinking of those two poor lads," a gray old man said from his seat near the automatic music-box. I happened to know him by sight as old William Dadley, the picture-frame maker—"Daddy" of the fledgling artists of the King's Road.
But Westbury would have no weak sentiment of this kind. There was a blood-and-iron ring in his voice as he set the brandy down.
"Poor lads be blowed!" he said. "They know the risks, don't they? They're paid for it, I suppose?[Pg 43] What I want to know is who's going to put his hand in his pocket if they start coming down on top of those houses we're building in Wimbledon or where I live in Lennox Place there? Let 'em break their necks if they want, but not on my roof! The world isn't going to stop for a broken neck or two. I don't think!"
"Well, tell us all about it, Harry," somebody said; and Mr. Westbury, taking the middle of a small circle, did so.
I am not going to trouble you with all he said, but only with as much as I saw fit to make a mental note of. At this stage of our Case he was simply a vain and interfering busybody, who had had a rather better view of things than anybody else. But first of all I noted the obstinacy with which he dwelt on the fact that Monty Rooke had been first on the roof, several minutes before the arrival of the police. There was, of course, nothing in this, excepting always Westbury's dull insistence on it.
Next, he described in detail the bringing-down of the two men. There was nothing remarkable here either, except that the living one had "kept on moving his hand all the time like this"—illustrated by an aimless fluttering of the right hand, now a few inches this way, now a few inches that.
But I had an involuntary start when Mr. Westbury pompously announced that he "had offered himself to Inspector Webster as a witness in case he should be wanted." It was, of course, just what such a fellow would do, if only out of vain officiousness, and I don't quite know why I didn't like the sound of it. I had gone into that Saloon Bar to glean, if possible, what people at large thought of flying over London, what their temper would be if there were very much of this,[Pg 44] and similar things; but instead I had apparently hit on some sort of a human bramble, who hooked himself on everywhere with a tenacity out of all proportion to the value of any fruit he was likely to bear, and who would scratch unpleasantly when you tried to dislodge him. There was nothing to be uneasy about, but the whole of the events of that morning were so far inexplicable, and to that extent intimidating.
"Yes, me and Inspector Webster will probably be having a talk about things this evening," Mr. Westbury continued with hearty relish. "We're neighbors in Lennox Place, the very street behind Lennox Street—you can see right across from my bedroom window. So I had my choice of two good views in a manner of speaking.... Five-and-twenty to two. Not worth while going home for lunch now. May as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. I wonder if they've got a snack of anything here?"
If they had I have not the least doubt he got it.
Musingly I mounted an eastward-bound bus and sought my office. The more I thought things over the less able I became to shake off the sense of accumulating trifles, of gathering events. And it was as I passed through Pimlico that yet another incident, temporarily forgotten, came back into my mind. This was the curious way in which Esdaile had snapped—it had been a snap—when Rooke had wanted to sweep up the broken picture-glass, to draw the studio blinds back again, and to return the bottle of curaçao[Pg 45] to its place in the cellar. "You've done enough for one morning," Esdaile had said. What had Monty done that was "enough"?
Now I have known Monty Rooke, as I told you, for a dozen years, and in that time I have learned not to be surprised at anything he does provided it is sufficiently out of the way, unprofitable to himself, and unlike anything an ordinary person would have done. I will give you an instance of what I mean.
A year or two before there had arrived one night at his studio a bundle of washing, fresh from the laundry. This bundle, on being opened, had proved to contain a fully-developed infant girl of a fortnight old, no doubt the pledge of some unknown laundrymaid's betrayed trust. As a joke you will see the possibilities of this, particularly in the merry Chelsea Arts Club; but don't imagine that Monty was a butt. What he did was enough to dispel that idea. He had immediately wanted to adopt the foundling, and would certainly have done so but for the strong dissuasion of his friends; whereupon he had made a drawing instead, a drawing quite singular for its wistfulness and emotion and depth, of the infant just as it had arrived, with the newly-ironed shirts and socks for its cot, deriving none knew whence, cast for none knew what part in Life, save for Monty friendless, the close of one obscure drama but the beginning of another.
That was Monty, our little friend of the warm, unprofitable impulses, the shy and easily daunted manner, but also of the quiet persistence of purpose that kept him afloat in his seas of petty difficulties and enabled him once in a while to produce a drawing or a painting that you returned to again and again, a bit of philosophy that cut clean down to the quick of[Pg 46] things, or—an indiscretion that it would hardly have occurred to one in a million to commit.
What was there between him and Esdaile now?
The moment I reached the office I rang up the Record, our evening sheet. But their reporters were still out, and nobody could yet tell me anything about the accident I didn't already know. Willett, my young colleague on the Circus, did not propose to give the story exceptional treatment.
"If the thing caught fire in the air we'll let it alone," he said. "Fire's too much of a bugbear. We want the joy-riding idiot and the lunatic who stunts over towns. I'm for letting it alone, but we'll wait and see what the others do."
He was quite right. On its merits as Publicity it looked as if we should hear little more of the Case. I settled down to my work.
I had not actually expected that Hubbard would ring me up, but I was not greatly surprised when, at about four o'clock, he did so. He wanted to know whether I could go round to the Admiralty at once. That we must have a talk at the earliest possible moment was a foregone conclusion. I therefore replied that I would be on my way in ten minutes, and, hastily swallowing the cup of tea that had been placed on my desk and telling Willett to carry on, I took up my hat and stick, sought the lift, threaded my way through the Record's carts and bicycles and boarded a passing motor-bus in Fleet Street.
I had no very clear notion of the nature of the job that kept Hubbard in town that spring, and that had caused him to envy Esdaile his luck in being able to get away into the country. Indeed, I can tell you very little about the organization of that mysterious Service that moves, familiar yet isolated, in our midst. I understood that originally he had been a torpedo man, but had later been drafted into the Inventions branch. It is quite possible that the scope of his work had been expressly left rather ill-defined. So many amazing extemporizations had to be hurriedly made and applied.
Still, these war-improvisations have to be overhauled afterwards, so that it may be seen which disappear with the emergency, and which are to be permanently incorporated in the strategy of the future; and I knew that one at any rate of Hubbard's tasks was to explain to a certain Parliamentary Committee a number of technical and basic facts that have a way of not varying very much however the political situation may change.
I found him alone in his room on the third floor. The screen just within the door was so disposed that, in the spot to which your eyes naturally turned on entering, the officer you had come to see was not. They are old in cunning in the Senior Service, and I had never seen Hubbard at work before. His voice came to me from quite a different part of the room, and I had the feeling that if I had been a stranger there would have been a moment in which I should have been pretty thoroughly looked up and down.
"Come in and take a pew," he said. "Hope I haven't fetched you away from anything important. But I couldn't stop to talk this morning. I only got rid of my By-election Blighters half an hour ago. Well——"
And, as I sat down in the chair at the end of his desk, he plunged straight into the matter by asking me how long I had known Esdaile.
Now how long you have known a man, in the sense of how well you know him, is not always simply a matter of time. I have told you how humdrum my own War services were. They had not included those incredible moments of intensified action that may more truly reveal a man to you than years of desultory familiarity. It was plainly something of this kind that Hubbard had in his mind now. He frowned as he trifled with a paper-weight.
"No, it's absolutely unaccountable," he broke out suddenly, putting the paper-weight down with a slap. "He's not that kind of man. It simply doesn't fit in."
"His behavior this morning, you mean?"
"Yes. It was another man altogether. Why, before I knew Esdaile well I remember I bet him a supper that he'd drop his palette on the quarter-deck when the first shell came over. Well, it came, and half the bridge was wrecked, and he never turned a hair. Just carried on with that sketch of Hopkins at the range-finder. Absolutely undefeated sportsman. So why should he behave as he did this morning?"
Hereupon—though not as throwing very much light on the question after all—I told Hubbard of my own surmise with regard to Rooke. He looked rather quickly up.
"What, little Queerfellow? He's—er—all right, isn't he? What about him? Tell me about him."
This too I told him as well as I was able. And I may say that I noted with pleasure, as perhaps the real beginning of a valued friendship, that there did not seem to be any question in Hubbard's mind as to[Pg 49] what kind of man I was myself. He was quite content to accept my summing-up of Monty.
"So it's between 'em, you think, whatever it is?"
"Or else I give it up," I replied.
"I wonder if you're right," he mused.... "But then," he added suddenly, "what about all that time he spent in the cellar?"
From that point our conversation took for a time a curious little turn.
For Hubbard, while seeming to have no explanation that as a sensible man he must not reject as fantastic, seemed nevertheless to be reluctant to let something go. He seemed to hint and to dismiss and then to hint again, to come to the brink of saying something and then to leave it unsaid after all. And again I had the feeling that though he had known Philip Esdaile for only two years as against my twenty, in some things he might be the familiar and I the outsider.
Then again he seemed to decide to take a risk. He spoke to the paper-weight in his palm.
"You don't happen to know anything about these new sound-appliances, do you?" he asked.
"No. Which are they?"
"Oh, there are a lot of 'em," he answered again, half evasively. "There's sound-ranging, of course. Then there's the hydrophone. And as a matter of fact the best brains in the world to-day are trying to cut-out sound—aeroplane propellers and so on.... What I mean is Esdaile's not hearing anything. I suppose it's just possible that he didn't. All a matter of where the sound-wave hits. You remember the broken windows in the Strand when Fritz used to come over and drop his eggs? First a broken one, then two or three whole ones, then broken ones again, all along[Pg 50] the street? Well, this might have been one of those dumb intervals. Otherwise he must have heard. And I should have thought he'd have felt the vibration too."
"He's admitted he thought he heard something."
"Pooh, there was no mistaking it. If he didn't recognize it we can take it he didn't hear it. If we believe him, of course."
"Don't you believe him?"
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