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England is in the grip of the Second World War and the Blitz has forced the evacuation of various government offices from London. Francis Pettigrew, an unsuccessful barrister and amateur detective, accompanies his ministry to the distant seaside resort of Marsett Bay where the civil servants must make the best of their temporary home. In this strange atmosphere, Pettigrew begins to fall in love with his secretary, Miss Brown, who is also being courted by a widowed man who is much older than her. Bored and restless, the ministers start playing a light-hearted game of 'plan the perfect murder' to pass the time. Pettigrew, caught up in his love for Miss Brown, remains detached from the silliness - until a real murder happens, and he is drawn into solving the mystery. 'One of the best detective stories published for a long time.' Spectator
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With a Bare Bodkin
by Cyril Hare
Copyright 1946 Alfred Alexander Clark.
This edition published by Reading Essentials.
All Rights Reserved.
Table of Contents
Pettigrew Goes North
A Plot is Propounded
The Blenkinsop File
Chivalry in the Canteen
Encounter at “The Gamecock”
A Question of Insurance
Answer to a Letter
Noises in the Corridor
The Balloon Goes Up
The Whistling Kettle
The Missing Report
The Inquest and After
Talking About It
Miss Brown and Mr. Phillips
Edelman, Wood and Rickaby
Illumination at Eastbury
Explanation at Marsett Bay
Francis Pettigrew was staring gloomily out of the window of his chambers in the Temple at the trees on the Embankment and the grey glimmer of the river beyond them. It was by no means an unattractive view, but it displeased him. He was a man of conservative temperament and for twenty years he had been accustomed to having his vision bounded by a sober red brick wall twenty paces distant. Two months previously one high explosive bomb and a handful of incendiaries had opened up the vista by removing the red brick wall and the two blocks of buildings beyond it. For the first time since they were built, the chambers were now exposed to the full light of day. There was, Pettigrew felt, something rather indecent about it.
He sighed and turned from the window to the man standing in the room behind him.
“Well, there you are,” he said. “It’s yours, for the duration. Apart from the gap in the ceiling, the place isn’t in bad order. I should be careful how you handle the books, though. Some of them are pretty filthy. The Meeson and Welsbys in the corner, especially, had most of the soot from the chimney next door driven into them. And of course there’s always the chance of a glass splinter here and there. You’re not bringing many books of your own, I suppose?”
The other man grinned.
“Not very many,” he said. “One odd volume of Halsbury, to be precise. I happened to have taken it home with me the night of the blitz. It’s almost the only existing relic of Mulberry Court of blessed memory. Really it’s very good of you to let me take this place over. I can’t imagine what I should have done if——”
“Say no more about it, old boy. It’s a kindness on your part to keep the chambers warm while I’m away.”
“When do you go?”
“To-night as ever is. I feel a bit of a fool launching out on a new job at my time of life, but they really seemed to want me to do it and I felt I oughtn’t to turn it down.”
“What is the job, exactly? One of these Ministries, I suppose?”
Pettigrew assumed an expression of deep solemnity.
“The Pin Control,” he said portentously. Then, “Ever heard of it?”
“Er—yes, I think so. It looks after the pin trade, I suppose?”
“So far as I have been able to find out, that is a very inadequate description of its activities. The gentleman whom I saw about the job—he was no less a person than the Controller’s own deputy assistant director, mark you—he gave me to understand in no uncertain terms that on the proper administration of the Pin Control hinged the entire—I forget how he put it, but I assure you it made a deep impression on me, more than pin-deep I was going to say, but perhaps that would be an exaggeration. And as Legal Adviser to the Control, I am going to be a person of some consequence. Just how consequential you may discover if you care to glance at that masterpiece of light literature, the Pin Restrictions (No. 3) Order, 1940—but I don’t advise you to, unless you have to.”
“I don’t see why you shouldn’t do your advising from the Temple.”
“Neither, to be perfectly frank, do I. But the Pin Control is established at Marsett Bay, and so to Marsett Bay I go.”
“Marsett Bay. Let me see, where exactly is that?”
“You may well ask. It’s somewhere on the Polar Circuit, I’m given to understand. In the very depths—no, even worse than that, on the very fringes of what Shakespeare so justly described as our nook-shotten island. Anyhow, there’s a ticket to the place in my pocket, and, by the same token, if I don’t get a move on now, I shall miss my train. So long, old boy. Take care of the chambers. If the chimney smokes, which it always does in an east wind, you will find the best plan is to open the further window six inches at the bottom and leave the door slightly ajar. The smoke will then be diverted into the clerk’s room next door, which is a great improvement, unless you have a particularly important client waiting outside. I’ll write and let you know how I get on. I might even send you a card of black-market pins.”
Unlike most people who promise to write and say how they get on, Pettigrew was as good as his word. His tenant received his first letter within a fortnight of his departure to Marsett Bay.
“Dear Bill,” he wrote, “did you ever dream that you dwelt in marble halls? If so, you will not need any description of this place. It was, I gather, decreed as a stately pleasure dome by the first and—luckily—last Lord Eglwyswrw, who made his pile (appropriately enough, in pin tables) just before the war. He chose this really lovely, but confoundedly breezy, site overlooking the sea, to plant this monstrous structure. How anybody can have seriously proposed to live in such bloated magnificence, I can’t imagine. Perhaps nobody really could—at least, his lordship died within a couple of months of making the attempt, since when it stood empty until some genius realized that the marble halls were simply ideal for accommodating platoons of typists and that the endless marble corridors were just made for female messengers to run clattering down with files, or more often teapots, in their hands.
“I am fairly fortunate in having a reasonably quiet and small room to myself, intended, I should imagine, as an abode for one of the upper servants. In an even smaller cubby-hole next door is my young lady secretary. She seems to be perfectly efficient, has no conversation, thank heaven!—dumb, or merely shy? I haven’t discovered yet—with the kind of face that once seen, is never remembered. Anyhow, in view of some of the women about the place—and I never imagined how positively cumbered with women the place would be—I have reason to be thankful for my Miss Brown.
“As to the other people in this shop, I haven’t had the time to sort them out yet. There is the Controller, of course. He dwells in Olympian seclusion in Lord Eglwyswrw’s library. I think that he would be quite a reasonable human being, if it weren’t for the fact that he is a Senior Civil Servant, lent for the duration by the Treasury to run this racket. But as it is, I find him rather heavy going. In a show like this, full of amateurs and temporaries like myself, he finds few to praise and very few to speak to. Poor devil! I suppose he’ll get a C.B. or something out of it at the end of the war, but he’ll have earned it hardly.
“The only people I have got to know at all well are the ones who live at the residential club, alias boarding-house, which is sheltering me. They are all brother or sister pin controllers, and I think I shall get some fun out of watching their antics. Besides Miss Brown—no fun to be expected there, though—there is an odd creature named Honoria Danville, whose principal function in office hours appears to be the brewing of tea—easily the most important event of the day, I need not say. She is rather deaf, elderly, amiable and, I should say, distinctly batty. Also one Miss Clarke, a female gorgon, who rules a department with appalling efficiency and scares the life out of me.
“As for the men of the party, there is a positively poisonous young gentleman named Rickaby; a decent middle-aged ex-solicitor’s clerk, whom I suspect of having designs on Miss B. (you may remember him, by the way—weren’t Mayhew and Tillotsons clients of yours? Name of Phillips); and a horn-rimmed creature called Edelman, whom I can’t make head or tail of, except that he’s extremely clever and a first-rate bridge player.
“I won’t bore you with any further descriptions, but I have made one rather amusing discovery. An unassuming little man by the name of Wood turns out to be no other than the detective story writer Amyas Leigh. I’m sure you’ve come across some of his stuff—some of it quite entertaining, though his ideas of criminal procedure are pretty wild. Apparently he has been here some time quite incognito, and he was positively pink with embarrassment when I unmasked him. He ought to get some good local colour here, anyhow. The place would make quite a good setting for a homicide.
“By the way, is it really true that they are proposing to put Burroughs J. up to the Court of Appeal? I should have thought. . . .”
The rest of the letter was of purely forensic interest.
The discovery that Mr. Wood “wrote” had, in fact, caused the liveliest interest among the inhabitants of the Fernlea Residential Club. It was, it must be admitted, an interest for the most part untempered by any knowledge of the works of Amyas Leigh. Each member of the little society, however, felt it necessary at least to give some explanation for not having hitherto read them. Miss Clarke “had very little time for reading”, which in view of the concentrated effort that she put into the work of harrying her subordinates was scarcely surprising. Outside office hours her sole interest was in the cinema, and she keenly resented the fact that Marsett Bay’s one picture-house could only manage a change of programme once a week. Miss Danville, on the other hand, had plenty of time for reading. She was seldom seen without a book in her hand, but it was nearly always the same one—a small leather-covered tome, the title of which could not be discovered. But it was easy enough to tell from her expression as she read that it was devotional. In the circumstances it was natural that she too was ignorant of “Death on the Bakerloo”, “The Clue of the Twisted Cravat” and the other Amyas Leigh titles. But rather unexpectedly she seemed genuinely distressed at the fact. “I used to be very fond of thrillers,” she explained, “but nowadays I’ve got out of the way of that kind of reading”—and she cast her eyes down again on the leather-covered book. Miss Brown, when appealed to, merely shook her head, and nobody, least of all the modest Wood, could have had the heart to expect an explanation from one so young, so shy and so obviously overcome by meeting an author in the flesh.
The men, too, made no admission of having contributed anything to Mr. Wood’s royalties. Mr. Edelman, at the mention of the nom de plume, looked fixedly at its owner for a moment, murmured “’Fraid not”, and cut for deal. Mild, bald Mr. Phillips, anxious to be polite, assured him that he must have read them all—he got all the detective stories from the library. Unfortunately, he could never remember their titles or the names of their authors, or, as it appeared, their plots. Rickaby’s views on the subject were not heard. He was out that evening, a fact for which his fellow lodgers were grateful. This left Pettigrew as the sole acknowledged representative of the Amyas Leigh public. He had, in fact, qualified for this position by having reviewed his last two productions for a legal journal, and remembering the pains that he had taken to demonstrate the many technical errors into which the author had fallen, he felt thankful that the reviews had been unsigned.
But it was insisted by all, and with particular emphasis by the ladies, that no time should be lost in acquiring and reading all Mr. Wood’s works. Even Miss Danville, prepared to be mundane for once, was quite firm on the point. It would make it so much more interesting, she observed, to read a book when you knew the author—a sentiment to which Miss Brown murmured her incoherent agreement. Here, however, a difficulty arose. Amyas Leigh was not exactly a best seller. Modestly, Mr. Wood pointed out that at the moment his books were not readily obtainable. The shortage of paper had, in fact, constrained his publishers to take them off the market altogether. The war made it very difficult for authors. One might, of course, always pick up a copy by chance. No, the bookshop in Marsett Bay had not got any. As a matter of fact, he had glanced at their shelves only the other day. No—this was in answer to Miss Clarke—he had not had anything filmed yet. Hollywood hadn’t shown any interest in him so far. Of course, one never knew, but they had so many books to choose from. . . .
His audience sighed in disappointment. To have an author in their midst was something, but an author whose authorship one had to take on trust was hardly the real thing.
It was the Merry Widow who provided the obvious solution.
The Merry Widow was Mrs. Hopkinson. She had been at school with Miss Clarke, a fact which emboldened her to treat that formidable woman with a lack of respect, a positive flippancy, that nobody else in the entire Control would have dared to emulate. Astonishingly, Miss Clarke not only tolerated her, but enjoyed her society. They lunched together almost every day, visited the cinema together regularly each week and, out of office hours, called each other by their Christian names. “Breezy” was the adjective that best described Mrs. Hopkinson. She was, to use her own phrase, “always on the go”. To her natural good looks, which she had done her best to spoil by tinting her hair to an alarming shade of bronze, she added an inexhaustible fund of vitality and a vulgar good humour that was hard to resist. Her age, as she was wont to announce with peals of laughter, was exactly thirty-nine.
On the particular evening when Mr. Wood’s double personality was disclosed, she had “dropped in” as she often did, for a chat with Miss Clarke and had stayed for a rubber of bridge. Her interest in the subject was, of course, intense. While the game was in progress, she said little, but it was obvious from her play, which was even more slapdash than usual, that her mind was not on the cards. The moment that the rubber was over, she rose from the table with hardly a word of apology to the hapless Edelman who had partnered her. She had the air of someone who had come to a great decision.
“I’ve got it!” she announced. “Listen, everybody! Mr. Wood is going to write another book.”
“Well, I hope to, of course,” said Mr. Wood mildly. “But I really haven’t the time for writing nowadays. The work here is——”
“Now, now, Mr. Wood!” said the Merry Widow archly. “Hear me out. You’re going to write another book—and it will be all about us!”
“But Mrs. Hopkinson, please!” Mr. Wood was writhing with embarrassment. “I couldn’t! I’ve never put living people into my books. One doesn’t write that way. At least, I don’t. It’s impossible to explain, but—well, it’s——”
“Oh, I don’t mean about poor little us as we really are, of course! That would be too dreadful, I’m sure. We should all be disguised, naturally—with perhaps a teeny bit of our worst selves peeping out to make it more interesting. And then we should all have the fun of reading it afterwards and guessing who was who. You’d have lots of readers, you can be sure.”
“Lots of libel actions too, I dare say,” Pettigrew murmured. Mr. Wood groaned.
“But seriously,” Miss Clarke’s deep voice put in, “would not the Control make a very suitable setting for one of your stories, Mr. Wood? I’ve always understood that these murder mysteries usually took place in a large house with a lot of people in it, so as to make the solution as difficult as possible. Here you have a very large house with a great number of people in it. I should have thought it was exactly what you wanted.”
“Well, yes,” Mr. Wood admitted. “I don’t mind saying that that point had occurred to me. Of course, when you are in the way of writing you can’t help looking out for backgrounds that would come in handy.”
“Then you are writing a book about us!” Mrs. Hopkinson exclaimed in triumph. “You see, I knew you wouldn’t be able to help it!”
“No, no! I never said anything of the sort. I have no idea of writing at the moment. I only said that I agreed with Miss Clarke in thinking that the Control would make quite a good background for a book. Given the time to write it—and the plot, of course,” he added.
“I’m sure plots come easy to you,” said Mrs. Hopkinson with a dazzling smile.
“I assure you they don’t always.”
“But we’d help you with that, wouldn’t we?” She appealed to the room. “Let’s make a start now. Who should we have for the murderer?”
“You want to settle who’s going to be murdered first, don’t you?” said Mr. Edelman, looking up for the first time from the newspaper to which he had retreated as soon as the rubber was over.
“Which do you think of first, Mr. Wood,” the Merry Widow asked, “the murderer or the poor slaughtered victim?”
“Oh really, I couldn’t tell you,” said the harassed author. “I’ve never asked myself. You can’t have a murderer without someone to murder, after all. It’s like the hen and the egg.”
“Is it true you always write the last chapter first?” Miss Danville asked.
“Certainly not. How can you tell what the end of a book is going to be before you’ve begun it?”
“Do you mean to tell me,” said Miss Clarke in a severely disapproving tone, “that you will start a book of this kind without knowing what the solution is going to be?”
“That’s not what I said at all. I only meant——”
“Order, order!” Mrs. Hopkinson clapped her hands. “We’re wandering from the giddy point. The question is, who do we want to have murdered?”
It was Mr. Phillips who was actually the first person to say, “Rickaby”, but Mr. Edelman, Miss Clarke and Miss Brown were so close behind him that the name came out almost in chorus.
“Splendid! That’s one thing settled right away. Now who——”
“Wait a minute.” In spite of himself, it was obvious that Mr. Wood was becoming interested. It was as though Amyas Leigh was beginning to stir beneath the disguise of the self-effacing temporary civil servant. “Wait a minute. I’m not sure that I want to murder Rickaby.”
“Not want to murder——? But Mr. Wood, dear, why not? We all want to. He’s such a ghastly person.”
“No, no. I’m not talking about my personal feelings. I’m speaking as a novelist. I just don’t see Rickaby as a murderee, that’s all. He’s not—how shall I put it?—not important enough. I always like to have some central figure, on whom you can focus a mass of different motives—jealousies, hates and fears and so on. Then you have something to work on. A little wretch whom everybody dislikes isn’t good enough.”
“I’m old-fashioned,” Pettigrew observed. “Give me the millionaire’s body in the library, and I’m quite content.”
Wood gave him an understanding look.
“Exactly,” he said slowly. “Now we are getting somewhere. Do you see what I see?”
Pettigrew smiled and nodded.
“What are you two talking about?” the Merry Widow asked in exasperation. “We haven’t got a millionaire in this outfit!”
“But we have a very beautiful library,” said Pettigrew.
Wood was filling his pipe with an air of immense concentration.
“Two entrances and french windows opening on to the terrace,” he murmured. “I noticed it the first time I went in there. It’s ideal.”
Mrs. Hopkinson looked from one to the other in bewilderment, and then light suddenly came to her and she clapped her hands.
“The Controller!” she exclaimed. “Why didn’t we think of it sooner? Of course! We’ll blooming well massacre the Controller!”
“Really!” said Miss Clarke in her office voice, the voice that was wont to spread alarm and despondency through her entire department. “A joke’s a joke, I know, Alice, but I have to consider office discipline, and this is——”
“Now Judith, if you are going to wet-blanket our fun and games, I’ll never speak to you again! This is out of office hours and we can say what we like. Besides, Mr. Wood is a real author, and if he says the Controller’s to be murdered then murdered he will be. Now, who shall we have for murderer?”
“This is rather like Nuts in May, isn’t it?” said Phillips.
“Rather!” Mrs. Hopkinson giggled. “Who shall we have to fetch him away, fetch him away, fetch——”
But Miss Danville had risen to her feet.
“If you’ll excuse me, I think I shall go to bed,” she said, breathlessly but determinedly. “I don’t like this—this discussion of taking the life of a fellow human being. Even in fun. It’s—it’s not seemly. Especially just now. When so many men and women are being sacrificed all over the world. I know I was to blame, too—I joined in this game, thoughtlessly. But when it comes to selecting one of us to play the part of Cain——You must excuse me.”
She walked out of the room with dignity, clutching her little leather-covered book in her hand.
There was a moment’s silence following her departure, and then Miss Brown’s soft voice was heard.
“Oh, poor Miss Danville!” she murmured in a tone of genuine pity.
Pettigrew could not but notice the look of sympathy and admiration that Phillips gave her at that moment. It was obvious that, whether he shared her feelings or not, the little secretary’s kindheartedness had moved him.
“Damn it! I believe he really cares for her!” thought Pettigrew. The reflection disturbed him. Miss Brown, he felt, was not the type to take a love affair lightly. It would ruin her efficiency as a secretary, and he was fully aware of her value to him.
Miss Danville had no other sympathizers.
“I expect we shall all be well and truly prayed for to-night,” said Miss Clarke contemptuously. She seemed to have conquered any distaste which she might have originally felt for the proposal, for she added, “Go on, Alice.”
“Where was I? Oh, yes, of course, looking for a murderer. Who can we find who’s a really villainous, bloodthirsty piece of work? I don’t mind saying I have a certain person in my mind’s eye——”
“If you mean Rickaby,” said Wood authoritatively, watching his pipe smoke curl upwards to the ceiling, “he’s no good at all.”
“Oh, Mr. Wood, have a heart!” the Merry Widow groaned.
“But he isn’t,” the novelist persisted. “You’ve just given the reason yourself. If a man is obviously the sort you’d expect at sight to commit a crime, you can’t have him for the villain of a detective story. If you do, where’s your puzzle? What you want, of course, is the most unlikely person you can find.”
“I have some little experience of this sort of thing in real life,” Pettigrew remarked. “And there, I find, the police nearly always pick on the obvious person. And it is distressing to observe that they are nearly always right.”
“We’re not getting anywhere,” complained Mrs. Hopkinson. “Look how late it is! I’ll have to be toddling in five minutes and I know I shan’t sleep if we haven’t settled this. Mr. Wood, who is it to be?”
“That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to make up my mind about. You want somebody unexpected. Well, that, I think, would apply to any of us here. The difficulty is to find a plausible motive for murdering the Controller, and motive is half the battle in these things.”
“We’d all like to murder him sometimes,” said Edelman.
“Of course, but that isn’t quite what I meant. We’d all be suspects, naturally. Anyone in the Control could be. There’s no reason why one should confine oneself to the people in this room.” He paused, and then added, “No, if I had to choose a villain, I should be rather inclined to select Miss Danville.”
“Oh, but that’s unkind!” exclaimed Miss Brown impulsively.
“My dear child, this is only a game,” said Miss Clarke reprovingly.
“Miss Danville,” Mr. Wood repeated. “I don’t know whether it has occurred to you, but she is so very religious, it’s hardly normal. For the purposes of a story only, of course, one might exaggerate the abnormality, present the Controller with some unholy hidden vice which she would discover, and then, given the right circumstances——”
“Religious mania?” Mr. Phillips inquired doubtfully. “I seem to have read something like it before—I never can remember the names of books, but——”
“Of course it has been done before,” said Mr. Wood with a frown. “Everything has. That’s the worst of this game. But I’m asked to propound a plot on the spur of the moment and that’s the best that I can do. I’m sorry if——”
“Oh, but Mr. Phillips didn’t mean that,” Mrs. Hopkinson hastened to assure him. “I think it’s a lovely idea, and I’m sure we all do. And when it’s written down, I’m certain nobody will ever guess the secret till the last chapter, except lucky us, who were in at the start. You will write it, won’t you, Mr. Wood?”
He shook his head.
“I’m afraid not. Even if I had the leisure for writing here, I couldn’t possibly do it—put real people into a book, I mean.”
“Well, if you say not, but it does seem a shame. . . . Still, there’d be no harm in seeing how the book would go, if there was a book, so to speak? And it might always come in handy for you if you were going to write a real book later on, about something different, wouldn’t it? I’m sure we’d all love to help you.”
“I don’t quite follow you.”
“I think,” said Edelman in his heavy precise manner, “that what Mrs. Hopkinson has in mind is that we should beguile our leisure by constructing an imaginary detective tale, casting ourselves for the various parts——”
“That’s it, exactly!”
“With you, of course, as editor-in-chief, so to speak. It might be amusing.”
“Well, it is an idea, certainly,” Wood admitted. “I don’t know quite how——”
“My dears, I must fly!” Mrs. Hopkinson exclaimed, gathering her belongings hastily together. “Just look at the time! Thanks ever so for a lovely evening. I think it’s a thrilling notion. We’ll have a good old pow-wow about it later on. I’m sure I shall dream of horrors! Good night all!”
Her flurried departure broke up the party. Soon afterwards the other ladies went to bed, followed by Phillips and Wood. Pettigrew remained, staring into the fire, his nose wrinkled in a fashion peculiar to him when deep in thought. Then he looked across the room at Edelman and chuckled softly.
“What’s the joke?” It was so rare for Edelman to put a direct question that the effect was quite startling.
“I was just thinking that you seem to have insured against Mrs. Hopkinson being your partner at bridge for quite a time to come.”
Edelman uttered a short, mirthless laugh.
“That is one advantage, certainly,” he said drily. “It will give her something else to do.”
“Quite. Let us hope there will be no compensating disadvantages.”
But his tone did not sound particularly hopeful.
The late Lord Eglwyswrw’s mansion was a rectangular two-storied building, disproportionately long for its breadth, perched precariously half-way down the steep slope of the north side of Marsett Bay.
The entrance faced the hill, and owing to the lie of the land, the ground floor, supported by stout rusticated columns on the seaward side, rode high above the derelict gardens running down towards the beach. Beneath it was a semi-basement, so designed that his lordship’s domestic staff should have the assistance of a north light supplied through grated windows, without being distracted from their duties by any view of the bay to the south. This now stood empty. It was equipped for an air raid shelter, and would have made an admirable one, if air raids had been known at Marsett Bay.
The bedroom storey housed the voluminous records of the Pin Control. Here the weight of the accumulated files had already caused the floor to sag in one or two places and prompted the introduction of some incongruous wooden beams among the ornamental pillars of the reception rooms beneath.
It was on the ground floor that the main work of the Control was carried on. The late owner had allowed his architect to design for him a suite of long, lofty and exquisitely ugly rooms fit for entertaining half the countryside and for very little else. It was left to the Control for the first time to populate these echoing saloons. The Ministry of Works played its part in furnishing them with trestle tables and office chairs and dividing them where necessary into cubicles with partitions of plywood and frosted glass, which reached less than half-way to the ceiling. But even so, as Mrs. Hopkinson remarked, the result was not very homely.
Even Miss Clarke, important though her position was in the hierarchy of the Pin Control, did not occupy a room of her own. In this she was less fortunate than Pettigrew, but it was a misfortune that visited itself principally on her subordinates in the Licencing department. From behind the flimsy screen that secluded her from the rank and file she was able to hear everything that went on, and they knew that at any moment she was liable to pounce upon the unwary. Miss Clarke was a great pouncer.
On the morning succeeding the murderous discussion at the Fernlea Residential Club, Miss Clarke, as though to atone for the levity into which she had allowed herself to be drawn, had been at her most severe. She had pounced frequently and violently. She was in the mood, common from time to time to most capable organizers, of wanting to meddle in every detail of everybody else’s work. The result was a very jumpy morning for the staff. Even Mrs. Hopkinson had to run the gauntlet of her inquisition. But they by now had been long versed in Miss Clarke’s ways. By dint of sheer bullying she had made them unquestionably the most efficient section in the whole office. To the public, clamouring for licences to manufacture, acquire or dispose of pins, they appeared evasive, dilatory and imperturbably indifferent; but administratively they were wellnigh perfect. They knew all the answers, even the answers to Miss Clarke’s questions. Or so it seemed, until, in an evil hour, Miss Clarke called for the Blenkinsop file.
“Miss Danville!” Miss Clarke’s leonine head appeared round the door of her cubicle. “Miss Danville!”
Honoria Danville, though she vainly hoped that nobody else suspected it, was in fact more than a little deaf. Also, her mind was at the moment wandering some way from her work. She had of late found it increasingly hard to concentrate on the things of this world, with the other world seeming nearer and more important every day. None the less, the second repetition of her name was loud enough to bring her back to her surroundings with a start. She rose, smoothed down her dress with fingers that trembled a little, and answered, “Yes, Miss Clarke.”
“Will you bring me the Blenkinsop file, please, XP782.” The head withdrew.
Miss Danville looked hopelessly at the litter of papers on the table before her, and then began to search. It always took her twice as long to find a file as anybody else, a fact that Miss Clarke had learned and accepted with a certain genial contempt, but this time she began her task with a sense of despair. She was sure she would not find the file. And in this she was perfectly right. Five full minutes later she trailed down the long room into Miss Clarke’s apartment, empty handed.
Miss Clarke, without looking up from her desk, extended her hand for the file. The gesture was characteristic of her in her more unpleasant moods, and appeared to be designed to emphasize that the staff were machines serving the interests of the Pin Control, rather than human beings. But in this instance, the machine failed to function. The extended hand remained unfilled. After a pause, during which she deliberately read through the letter which she was holding in the other hand, Miss Clarke was compelled to treat Miss Danville as a human being, and a very fallible one at that.
“Well?” she said, turning towards her. “Miss Danville, I am waiting. The Blenkinsop file, please.”
“I’m awfully sorry, Miss Clarke, but I haven’t got it.”
“Not got it?” Miss Clarke’s expression was one of disbelief rather than displeasure. “But you must have it. It is marked out to you.”
“Oh yes,” Miss Danville agreed eagerly. “It was marked out to me all right, I know. It’s on my list.”
“Very well then.”
If a file is marked out to you, Miss Clarke’s tone implied, you have it. That is the System of the department, and if the System errs, then chaos is come again.
“But I haven’t got it.” Miss Danville was trembling. “I’ve looked and looked and——” Her face cleared suddenly. “Oh—I’ve just remembered. Of course, Mr. Edelman’s got it.”
“Really, Miss Danville, this will not do. You know perfectly well that when a file is marked out to another section, the carbon transfer slip must be placed in my tray. I suppose you sent it up to Registry along with the top copy. You girls are getting too careless. Ring up Registry and ask for it back. Then——What is the matter?”
“I—I don’t think there was a transfer slip,” Miss Danville faltered.
Miss Clarke’s expression, from being merely severe became outraged.
“No transfer slip?” she echoed. Then, with the air of one determined to probe iniquity to its depths, she went on. “Then perhaps you will tell me where is A.14’s requisition note for the file?”
Even her profound emotion could not make her forget that officially Mr. Edelman was A.14.
Miss Danville, quite unstrung, could only shake her head.
“No requisition note?” Miss Clarke went on remorselessly.
“No.” Miss Danville squeaked in a curious high-pitched tone. “No. Mr. Edelman just came into the room the other day, Wednesday, I think it was, or Thursday, no, Wednesday I’m almost sure, it doesn’t matter which, I suppose, and said, ‘Can I have the Blenkinsop file for a bit?’ and I said, ‘Oh yes, I suppose so,’ and he put it under his arm and walked off with it, and I never thought anything about it, because I knew the file wouldn’t be likely to be wanted again in a hurry, as I’d sent them a form P.C.52 only the day before, and that always keeps them quiet for ages, and so——Well, that’s what happened,” she concluded, her torrent of words stopping as abruptly as it had begun.
There was a shocked silence at the end of her recital. Chaos, Miss Clarke’s expression indicated, had come again indeed.
“I see,” she said at last, grimly. “Well, now that you have remembered the whereabouts of the file, perhaps you will oblige me by fetching it.”
“From Mr. Edelman?” Miss Danville asked nervously.
“Obviously—unless somebody else has decided to have it for a bit, in which case you will fetch it from that person,” Miss Clarke replied with bitter irony.
“Might—might I send a messenger for it, Miss Clarke? Mr. Edelman is sometimes rather—difficult.”
“That was why I suggested that you should fetch it yourself. I see no reason for adding to the messengers’ difficulties. And while you are about it, please give my compliments to Mr. Edelman, and draw his attention to Registry’s standing order governing Transit of Files. Take this copy with you. It may assist your memory.”
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