The Penrose Mystery - R. Austin Freeman - ebook

The Penrose Mystery ebook

R. Austin Freeman

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The Penrose Mystery”, fist published in 1936, is definitely up to the high standard of the wonderful Dr. Thorndyke series. Penrose is an eccentric old man in possession of some dazzling gems, which he won’t insure. When Dr. Thorndyke is alerted to a burglary at his house, a scrap of paper is found with the word ‘lobster’ on it along with two Latin words. Meanwhile, Penrose has fled in panic after a car accident. The police believe he’s gone into hiding to avoid a manslaughter charge after a hit-and-run accident. Finding him is a forlorn hope, there’s so little to go on. But Thorndyke has a way of seeing significance in the merest bits of dirt inside a tire or oddments in a pocket... Polton, Dr. Thorndyke’s lovable lab assistant, has an important presence in the plot, less this time for his remarkable technical skills than for his fondness for fixing antique clocks.

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Liczba stron: 405

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Contents

BOOK I

BEING THE NARRATIVE OF ERNEST LOCKHART, BARRISTER AT LAW

I. A GOSSIPY CHAPTER IN WHICH COMING EVENTS CAST THEIR SHADOWS BEFORE THEM

II. ALADDIN’S CAVE

III. EXIT MR. PENROSE

BOOK II

NARRATED BY CHRISTOPHER JERVIS, M.D.

IV. THE BURGLARY AT QUEEN SQUARE

V. MR. BRODRIBB PROPOUNDS A PROBLEM

VI. THORNDKYE EXAMINES THE RELICS

VII. A VISIT OF INSPECTION

VIII. MR. HORRIDGE

IX. THORNDYKE TESTS A THEORY

X. INTRODUCES MR. CRABBE

XI. RE-ENTER MR. KICKWEED

XII. MR. ELMHURST

XIII. THE TRACK OF THE FUGITIVE

XIV. JULLIBERRIE’S GRAVE

XV. WHAT BEFELL AT THE WOOL-PACK

XVI. MR. KICKWEED SURPRISES THE CORONER

XVII. THORNDYKE RETRACES THE TRAIL

XVIII. THE OPENING OF THE SAFE

XIX. THORNDYKE’S DILEMMA

XX. THE DILEMMA RESOLVED

XXI. AFTERTHOUGHTS

BOOK I

BEING THE NARRATIVE OF ERNEST LOCKHART, BARRISTER AT LAW

I. A GOSSIPY CHAPTER IN WHICH COMING EVENTS CAST THEIR SHADOWS BEFORE THEM

I have been asked to make my contribution to the curious history of the disappearance of Mr. Daniel Penrose, and I accordingly do so; but not without reluctance and a feeling that my contribution is but a retailing of the smallest of small beer. For the truth is that of that strange disappearance I knew nothing at the time, and, even now, my knowledge is limited to what I have learned from those who were directly concerned in the investigation. Still, I am assured that the little that I have to tell will elucidate the accounts which the investigators will presently render of the affair, and I shall, therefore, with the above disclaimer, proceed with my somewhat trivial narrative.

Whenever my thoughts turn to that extraordinary case, there rises before me the picture of a certain antique shop in a by-street of Soho. And quite naturally; for it was in that shop that I first set eyes on Daniel Penrose, and it was in connection with that that my not very intimate relations with Penrose existed.

It was a queer little shop; an antique shop in both senses. For not only were the goods that it contained one and all survivors from the past, but the shop was an antique in itself. Indeed, it was probably a more genuine museum piece than anything in its varied and venerable stock, with its small-paned window bulging in a double curve–as shop-fitters could make them in the eighteenth century–and glazed with the original crown glass, greenish in tone and faintly streaked, like an oyster-shell, with concentric lines. I dated the shop at the first half of the eighteenth century, basing my estimate on a pedimented stone tablet at the corner of the street; which set forth the name, “Nassau Street in Whetten’s Buildings,” and the date, 1734. It was a pleasant and friendly shop, though dingy; dignified and reticent, too, for the fascia above the window bore only, in dull gilt letters, the name of the proprietor, “D. Parrott.”

For some time I remained under the belief that this superscription referred to some former incumbent of the premises whose name was retained for the sake of continuity, since the only persons whom I encountered in my early visits were Mrs. Pettigrew, who appeared to manage the business, and, more rarely, her daughter, Joan, a strikingly good-looking girl of about twenty; a very modern young lady, frank, friendly and self-possessed, quite well informed on the subject of antiques, though openly contemptuous of the whole genus.

Presently, however, I discovered that Parrott, so far from being a mere disembodied name, was a very real person. He was, in fact, the mainspring of the establishment, for he was not only the buyer–and an uncommonly good buyer–but he had quite a genius for converting mere dismembered carcasses into hale and hearty pieces of furniture. Somewhere in the regions behind the shop he had a workshop where, with the aid of an incredibly aged cabinet-maker named Tims, he carried out the necessary restorations. And they were real restorations, not fakes; honest repairs carried out for structural reasons and left open and undisguised. I came to have a great respect for Mr. Parrott.

My first visit was undoubtedly due to the ancient shop-front. But when I crossed the narrow street to examine it and discovered in the window a court cupboard and a couple of Jacobean chairs, I decided to avail myself of the courteous invitation, written on a card, to enter and inspect and indulge a mild passion for ancient furniture.

There were three persons in the shop; a comely woman of about fifty, who greeted me with a smile and a little bow, and thereafter took no further notice of me; a stout, jovial, rather foxy-looking gentleman who was inspecting a trayful of old silver; and a small clerical-looking gentleman who appeared to be disembowelling a bloated verge watch and prying into its interior through a watchmaker’s eye-glass, which stuck miraculously in his eye, giving him somewhat the appearance of a one-eyed lobster.

“Now,” said the stout gentleman, “that’s quite an elegant little milk-jug, in my opinion. Don’t you agree with me, Mrs. Pettigrew?”

I looked at him in some surprise. For the thing was not a milk-jug. It was a coffee-pot. However, Mrs. Pettigrew did not contest the description. She merely agreed that the shape was pleasant and graceful.

“I am glad, Mrs. Pettigrew,” said the stout gentleman, regarding the coffee-pot with his head on one side, “that you regard the lactiferous receptacle with favour. I am encouraged and confirmed. The next question is that of the date of its birthday. I am reluctant to interrupt the erudite Mr. Polton in his studies of the internal anatomy of the Carolean warming-pan, but I have no skill in galactophorous genealogies. May I venture?”

He held out the coffee-pot engagingly towards the small gentleman, who thereupon laid the watch down tenderly, removed the eye-glass from his eye and smiled. And I found Mr. Polton’s smile almost as astonishing as the other gentleman’s vocabulary. It was the most amazingly wrinkly smile that I have ever seen, but yet singularly genial and pleasant. And here I may remark that this amiable little gentleman was for some time a profound mystery to me. I could make nothing of him. I could not place him socially or otherwise. By his appearance, he might–in different raiment–have been a dignitary of the Church. His deferential manner suggested some superlative kind of manservant, but his hands and his comprehensive and inexhaustible knowledge of the products of the ancient crafts hinted at the dealer or expert collector. It was only after I had known him some months that the mystery was resolved through the medium of a legal friend, as will be related in due course. To return to the present incident, Mr. Polton took the coffee-pot in his curiously prehensile hands, beamed on it approvingly, and, having stuck his eye-glass in his eye, examined the hall-mark and the maker’s “touch.”

“It was made,” he reported, “in 1765 by a man named John Hammond, who had a shop in Water Lane, Fleet Street. And an excellent tradesman he must have been.”

“There, now!” exclaimed the stout gentleman. “Just listen to that! It’s my belief that Mr. Polton carries in his head a complete directory of all the artful craftsmen and crafty artists who ever made anything, with the dates of every piece they made. Don’t you agree, Mrs. Pettigrew?”

“Yes, indeed!” she replied. “His knowledge is perfectly wonderful. Perhaps,” she added, addressing Mr. Polton, “you can tell us something about that watch. It is said to have belonged to Prince Charlie, and, of course, that would add to its value if it were really the fact. What do you think, Mr. Polton?”

“Well, ma’am,” was the cautious reply, “I see no reason why it should not have belonged to him, if he was not a very punctual gentleman. It was made in Edinburgh in 1735, and there is a crucifix engraved inside the outer case. I don’t know what the significance of that may be.”

“Neither do I,” said the lady. “What do you think, Mr. Penrose?”

“I should say,” replied the stout gentleman, “that the evidence is conclusive. Charles Edward, being a Scotchman, would have a Scottish watch; and being a papistical Romanist would naturally have a crucifix engraved in it. Q.E.D.”

Mrs. Pettigrew smiled indulgently, and, as Mr. Penrose had indicated his adoption of the coffee-pot, she proceeded to swathe it in tissue-paper and make it up into a presentable parcel; and, meanwhile, I browsed round the premises and inspected those specimens of the stock which were more particularly within my province. But it was not a very peaceful inspection, for Mr. Penrose persisted in accompanying me and expounding and commenting upon the various pieces in terms which I found rather distracting. For Mr. Penrose, as the reader has probably observed, was a wag, and his waggery took the form of calling things by quaintly erroneous names and of using odd and facetious circumlocutions; which was all very well at first and was even mildly amusing, but it very soon became tiresome. A constant effort was necessary to arrive at what he really meant.

However, in the end, I lighted upon a bible-box of dark-brown oak, pleasantly carved and bearing the incised date, 1653, and, as the little chest rather took my fancy and the price marked on the attached ticket seemed less than its value, I closed with Mrs. Pettigrew, and, having paid for my purchase and given the address to which it was to be sent, took my departure. And, as I strolled at a leisurely pace in the direction of Wardour Street, I reflected idly on my late experience, and especially on the three rather unusual persons whose acquaintance I had just made. I am not in general a curious man, but I found in each of these three persons matter for speculation. There was Mrs. Pettigrew, for instance. Admirably as she played her part in the economy of the shop, she did not completely fit her surroundings. One is accustomed nowadays to finding women of a very superior class serving in shops. But not quite of Mrs. Pettigrew’s type. She gave me the impression of being very definitely a lady; and I found myself speculating on the turn of the wheel of Fortune that had brought her there.

Then there was the enigmatical Mr. Polton with his strangely prehensile hands and his astonishing memory for hall-marks. And there was the facetious Penrose. And at this point, being then about halfway along Gerrard Street, the subject of my reflections overtook me and announced himself characteristically by expressing the hope that I was pleased with my bacon cupboard. I replied that I was quite pleased with my purchase and had thought it decidedly cheap.

“So did I,” said he. “But our psittacoid friend has the wisdom to temper the breeze to the shorn collector.”

“Our psittacoid friend?” I repeated.

“I refer to the tropic bird who presides over the museum of domestic archaeology,” he explained, and, as I still looked at him questioningly, he added, by way of elucidation: “The proprietor of the treasure-house of antiquities in which you discovered the repository of ancestral piety.”

“Oh!” I exclaimed. “You mean Mr. Parrott.”

“Certainly!” he replied. “Did I not say so?”

“Perhaps you did,” I admitted, with a slightly sour laugh; at which he smiled his peculiar, foxy smile, looking at me out of the corners of his eyes, and evidently pleased at having “stumped” me. It was a pleasure that he must have enjoyed pretty often.

“I take it,” he resumed, after a short pause, “that you, like myself, are a devotee of St. Margaret Pie?”

I considered this fresh puzzle and decided that the solution was “magpie”; and apparently I was right as he did not correct me.

“No,” I replied, “there is nothing of the magpie about me. I don’t accumulate old things for the sake of forming a collection. I buy old furniture and use it. One must have furniture of some kind, old or new, and I prefer the old. It was made by men who knew all about it and who enjoyed making it and took their time. It is much more companionable to live with than new machine-made stuff, turned out by the thousand by people who don’t care a straw what it is like. But my object is quite utilitarian. I am no collector.”

“Ah!” said he, “that isn’t my case. I am a convinced disciple of the great John Daw, a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, a hoarder of miscellaneous treasure. Nothing comes amiss to me, from a blue diamond to a Staffordshire dog.”

“Have you no special fancy?” I asked.

“I have a special fancy for any relic of the past that I can lay hands on,” he replied. “But perhaps, like the burglars, I have a particular leaning towards precious stones–those and the other kind of stones–the siliceous variety–with which our impolite forefathers used to fracture one another’s craniums.”

“Your collection must take up a lot of space,” I remarked.

“It does,” said he. “That’s the trouble. John Daw’s nest has a tendency to overflow. And still they come. I’m always finding fresh treasures.”

“By the way,” said I, “where do you find the stuff?”

“Oh, call it not stuff,” he protested, regarding me with a foxy smile. “I spoke of treasures. As to where I discover them; well, well, surely there is a mine for silver and a place for gold where they refine it; a place also–many places, mostly cottage parlours, that no bird of prey knoweth, neither hath the travelling dealer’s eye seen them, where may be found ancestral Wrotham pots and Staffordshire figures, to say nothing of venerable tickers and crocks from far Cathay. These the wise collector makes a note of–and locks up the note.”

I was half amused and half exasperated by his evasive verbiage and his unabashed, and quite unnecessary caution. A mighty secretive gentleman, this, I reflected; and proceeded to fire a return shot.

“In effect,” said I, “you go rooting about in cottage parlours, snapping up rustic heirlooms, probably at a fraction of their value.”

“Undoubtedly,” he agreed, with a snigger. “That is the essence of the sport. I once, in a labourer’s cottage, picked up a genuine ‘Vicar and Moses’ by Ralph Wood for five shillings. But that was a windfall.”

“It wasn’t much of a windfall for the owner,” I remarked.

“He was quite satisfied,” said Penrose, “and so was I. What more would you have? But windfalls are not frequent, and when they fail I fall back on the popinjay.”

“The pop–Oh, you mean Mr. Parrott?”

“Exactly,” said he. “Our friend Monsieur le Perroquet. Actually, I let him do most of the rooting about. He knows all the ropes, and, as we agreed, he doesn’t demand payment through the proboscis.”

“No,” said I, “he doesn’t appear to be grasping, to judge by the price of my own purchase; and I gather that you have got most of your stuff–I beg pardon; treasure–from him.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” he replied. “Mere purchase from a dealer is a dull affair, though necessary. But one wants the sport as well, the pleasure of the chase, not to mention those of the pick and shovel.”

“The pick and shovel!” I repeated. “That sounds as if you did a little in the resurrection line. You are not a tomb-robber, I trust?”

I was, of course, only jesting, but he took me up quite seriously.

“But why not? We may grant the impropriety of disturbing the repose of the freeholders in Finchley Cemetery. Besides, they have nothing but their bones, which, at present, are not collector’s pieces. But our rude forefathers had a foolish–but, for us, convenient–habit of taking their goods and chattels to bed with them, so to speak. Now, a man’s title to his goods, after his decease, does not extend to an indefinite period. When a deceased gentleman has enjoyed the possession of his chattels for a couple of thousand years or more, I think he ought to be satisfied. His title has lapsed by the effluxion of time; and my title, by right of discovery, has come into being. The expression ‘tomb-robber’ is not applicable to an archaeological excavator. Don’t you agree?”

I admitted that excavation for scientific purposes seemed to be a permissible proceeding, though I had secret doubts as to whether the expression was properly applicable to his activities. He did not impress me as a scientific investigator.

“But,” I asked, “what sort of things do you turn up when you go a-digging?”

“All sorts of things,” he replied. “Mostly preposterous stone substitutes for cutlery, decayed and fragmentary pots and pans, with an occasional–very occasional–torque or brooch and portions of the deceased proprietor. But I leave those. I don’t collect proprietors.”

“And I suppose,” said I, “that when you find a gold or silver ornament you notify the coroner of the discovery of treasure trove?”

“That,” he replied with his queer, foxy smile, “is indispensable. But you seem to be interested in my miscellaneous gleanings. I wonder if you would care to cast a supercilious eye on my little hoard. I don’t often display my treasures because your regular collector is usually a man of one idea–indefinitely repeated–and he is disappointed to find that I am not. But you, like myself, are more eclectic in taste and I should have great pleasure in introducing you to Aladdin’s Cave, if you would care to inspect its contents.”

I was not, really, particularly interested, but yet I was faintly curious as to the nature of his “hoard.” It sounded like a very queer collection, and might include some objects of real interest. Besides which, the man, himself, despite his exasperating verbosity and obscurities of speech, rather attracted me. Accordingly, I accepted his invitation, and, when we had exchanged visiting cards and arranged the day and hour of my visit, we separated; he shaping a course in a westerly direction and I bearing east, towards my chambers in Lincoln’s Inn.

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