War in Heaven, by Charles Williams

Chapter Sixteen

The Search for the House

Tea, tobacco, meditation, and sleep brought the inspector no nearer a solution of his problem. On the assumption that J. M. Pattison was the murdered man, there had still appeared no reason why Gregory Persimmons should have murdered him. It was true that so far he knew nothing of their relations. If Pattison had been blackmailing Persimmons now — but then why the scribblings in the Bible? Some ancient vengeance, he rather desperately wondered, some unreasoning hate? But he could not get away from a feeling that, even so, it was the wrong way round. Small nonentities did sometimes murder squires, bankers, or peers, but it was not normal that a squire should murder a small nonentity. Besides, religious mania seemed to come into it somewhere. But whether Mr. Persimmons or the deceased was affected by it, or both of them, the inspector could not decide. And why the devil? Why, in God’s name, the devil? The inspector’s view of the devil was roughly that the devil was something in which children believed, but which was generally known not to exist, certainly not as taking any active part in the affairs of the world; these, generally speaking, were run by three parties — the police, criminals, and the ordinary public. The inspector tended to see these last two classes as one; all specialists tend so to consider humanity as divided into themselves and the mass to be affected. Doctors see it in the two sections of themselves and patients potential or actual; clerics in themselves and disciples; poets in themselves and readers (or non-readers; but that is the mere wickedness of mankind); explorers in themselves and stay-at-homes; and so on. The inspector, however, was driven by the definitions of law to admit that the public was not as a whole and altogether criminal, and he inevitably tended to consider it more likely that Mr. Pattison should be guilty than that Mr. Persimmons should be. Only someone had strangled Mr. Pattison, and Mr. Pattison’s own expectation seemed to point direct to Mr. Persimmons.

Colquhoun went over in his mind the incidents which had led him to this point — his failure to connect anyone directly with the crime, his irritation with Stephen Persimmons and Lionel Rackstraw, his anger with Sir Giles, his discovery of Gregory’s connection with Stephen and Sir Giles, his not very hopeful descent on Fardles. His conflict with Ludding had relieved, but not enlightened him. He came to the events of the morning and the way in which the young stranger had recognized him. Of course, more people knew Tom Fool . . . no doubt, but he had a feeling that he knew the face. He thought of it vaguely, as Mrs. Lucksparrow and Ludding had done, as a foreigner’s. The Duke had thought of it in connection with the high friendships of his Oxford days; Kenneth as related to his intelligence of the Church and its order; Sir Giles had seen it with equal curiosity and fear — but this was almost purely intellectual, and did not suggest the revival of some past vivid experience. Gregory and the Archdeacon had answered to it more passionately, as somehow symbolical of a mode of real existence; as Barbara had recognized in it at once the safety and peace which had succoured her in the house of the infernal things. Nor, had Gregory remembered it — but the crisis of Kenneth’s death had put it out of his mind — was it without significance that the Greek had seemed to feel a power moving under and through the activities of his opponents.

But these things were not known to Colquhoun, who, nevertheless, found himself trying to recollect who the stranger was. He had met foreigners enough in his life, and he was driven at last to believe that it must have been on a visit of the Infanta of Spain some time before that their meeting had taken place; he had interviewed enough members of the Spanish police then for more than one face to have been seen and since forgotten, till chance rediscovered it. Chance also had directed the conversation with Mr. Batesby to fear and his past experiences, and so to the appeal of the late James Montgomery Pattison. At least, chance and the stranger between them, for it had been he who had asked the occasional helming question. He tried to consider whether this stranger could have had anything to do with the murder, but found himself foiled; when his mind brought the assumed Spaniard into relation with any other being one of them faded and was gone. It was chance, of course; and chance had done him a good turn — up to a point, anyhow.

He took his troubles to the Assistant Commissioner the next morning, who listened to his report carefully, and seemed disposed to make further inquiries. “On Monday,” he said, “Colonel Conyers mentioned Gregory Persimmons to me as having taken part with him in a curious little chase after a chalice which had been more or less stolen by the Duke of the North Ridings and the Archdeacon of Fardles. This Persimmons assured us he wouldn’t prosecute, and that made it very difficult for us to move. But I went to tea with the Duchess on Tuesday and had a chat with the Duke.”

“And did he admit that he’d stolen it?” the astonished inspector asked.

“Well, he seemed to think it really belonged to the Archdeacon,” the Assistant Commissioner answered, “but he was rather stiff about it, told me he had reason to believe that the most serious attempts were being made to obtain possession of it, and even talked of magic.”

“Talked of what?” the inspector asked, more bewildered than before.

“Magic,” the chief said. “The Arabian Nights, inspector, and people being turned into puppy-dogs. All rubbish, of course, but he must have had something in his mind — and connected with Persimmons apparently. I had Professor Ribblestone–Ridley tell me what’s known about Ephesian chalices, but it didn’t help much. There seem to be four or five fairly celebrated chalices that come from round there, but they’re all in the possession of American millionaires, except one which was at Kieff I did wonder whether it was that — a lot of these Russian valuables are drifting over here. But I still don’t see why the Duke should have bolted with it, or why Persimmons should have refused to get it back. Unless Persimmons had stolen it. Could the deceased Pattison have been mixed up in some unsavoury business of getting it over?”

“Bolsheviks, sir?” the inspector asked, with a grin.

“I know, I know,” the Assistant Commissioner said. “Still, ‘wolf,’ you know . . . there are Bolshevik affairs of the kind.”

“I suppose it’s possible,” Colquhoun allowed. “But, then, did Pattison mean the Bolsheviks by the devil?”

His chief shook his head. “Religion plays the deuce with a man’s sanity,” he said regretfully. “Your clergyman told you he thought he was saved, and in that state there’s nothing people won’t say or do.”

“It might be one of the American chalices,” the inspector submitted.

“It might,” the other said. “But we should have been warned of the theft from New York, probably. It might also be the Holy Graal, which Ribblestone–Ridley says, according to some traditions, came from Ephesus.”

“The Holy Graal,” the inspector said doubtfully. “Hadn’t that something to do with the Pope?”

“It’s supposed to be the cup Christ used at the Last Supper — so I suppose you might say so,” the Assistant Commissioner answered almost as doubtfully. “However, as that Cup, if it ever existed, isn’t likely to exist now, we needn’t really worry about that. No, Colquhoun, I lean to Kieff. I wonder whether the Duke would tell me anything.” He looked at the inspector. “Would you like to go and ask him?” he finished.

“Well, sir, I’d rather you did,” Colquhoun said. “I like to have some hold on people when what I’m asking them is as vague as all that — it seems to help things on.”

The Assistant Commissioner looked at the telephone. “I wonder,” he said. “We don’t know much, do we? A chalice and a Bible and a clergyman. What an infernally religious case this is getting! And an Archdeacon on the outskirts.

“Perhaps Persimmons has killed the Archdeacon by now,” he added hopefully as he took off the receiver.

The Duke, it appeared, when he got through to the butler, was not in London. He had been up for two nights, but had returned to the country on Wednesday? yesterday — morning. He had been accompanied (this when it was understood who was inquiring) by the Archdeacon of Fardles and a Mr. Mornington. They had both returned with the Duke. Should Mr. Thwaites be called to the telephone? Mr. Thwaites was — no, not his Grace’s secretary; no, nor his Grace’s valet; a sort of general utility man to his Grace, in the best sense, of course.

The Commissioner hesitated, but he didn’t want to seem to be asking questions about the Duke, and decided to try Ridings Castle first. He asked for the trunk call, and sat back to wait for it.

“It all seems to be mixed up together, sir,” Colquhoun said. “There was a Mr. Mornington at those publishing offices; it may be another man, of course — but there’s a Persimmons and a Mornington there, and a Persimmons and a Mornington here.”

“And a Bible all written over with Persimmons there, and a chalice that Persimmons stole or had stolen here,” the other said. “Yes. It’s odd. And a corpse there. We only want a corpse here to make a nice even pattern.”

Scotland Yard not being usually kept waiting for its trunk calls, they had not broken the few minutes’ silence by any further remarks before the housekeeper at Castle Ridings had been notified that she was wanted at the telephone. No, the Duke was not in the country. He and Mr. Mornington had left for London last night. By train — the car had been away for a day for some minor repairs. No, nothing was known of his Grace’s return. He had said he should be at Grosvenor Square. What had the Duke’s movements been yesterday? He and Mr. Mornington had arrived, unexpectedly, for lunch. They had gone out walking in the afternoon, and the Duke had said they might not be back. Where had they gone? She did not know; she had heard the Duke say something about a Mrs. Rackstraw to Mr. Mornington after he had told her they might not be back. Yes, Rackstraw. Could she give any message?

The Assistant Commissioner rang off and looked at the inspector, who was in a state of some excitement.

“That damned Rackstraw,” he said. “He’s always coming in. He lunches out with Sir Giles Tumulty and a man gets killed in his room. The Duke goes out to call on his wife and the Duke disappears.”

“I wonder if we’ve got the other corpse,” his chief said. “I think, Colquhoun, we might go and see what this Thwaites fellow can tell us. It’s all right, no doubt, but I don’t seem quite to like it.”

Thwaites, when at Grosvenor Square he was summoned to the presence, seemed at first, if not recalcitrant, at least reluctant. He disclaimed any knowledge of the Duke’s whereabouts; he thought his Grace would not be at all pleased if they were brought into publicity. Why? Well, he had an idea that his Grace wished for privacy. Yes, he admitted gradually, he had seen a chalice in the Duke’s possession on Monday. Considering that on the Monday night he had been awakened to watch in front of it after the other three had retired, content to believe the Archdeacon’s assertion that the attack had failed, this was a restrained way of putting it. But it had been indicated to him that the Duke desired secrecy, and secrecy Thwaites was trying to maintain. But he became anxious when he heard of the disappearance, or at least of the non-appearance, of his master and admitted more than he altogether meant. He admitted that the chalice was not now in London; the Duke and his friends had taken it with them on the Wednesday. This was Thursday, he pointed out, to himself as well as the visitors, so the Duke’s absence had not yet lasted for much over twelve hours — not so very long.

“Say four o’clock to twelve — twenty,” the inspector said.

“Well, not twenty-four,” Thwaites answered. “Only a night, you might say. Not so long but what, if his Grace was busy with something, he mightn’t easily be away.”

“Does the Duke often stay away without warning?” the Assistant Commissioner asked.

Not often, Thwaites admitted, but it had been known. He had gone for a sort of a joy-ride once and not been back for the whole twenty-four hours. Still, his Grace had been very anxious about something, something private, he didn’t know what, but something to do with the chalice, on the Monday and Tuesday.

The Duchess, Thwaites thought, had not been told, since the Duke was not much in the habit of telling his aunt anything; and he very strongly dissuaded the visitors from making any inquiries there. Her Grace, he hinted, was a notorious chatterbox, and the incidents they were investigating would be discussed in a thousand drawing-rooms. If inquiry must be made, let it be conducted by the police along their own channels.

It was, however, exactly the method of conducting it which was annoying the Assistant Commissioner. He exhorted Thwaites to let him know immediately the Duke returned, or if news of him arrived, and to report to him by telephone every two hours if the Duke had not returned. He then withdrew with the inspector.

“Well,” he said when they were in the street again, “I think you’d better go back to Fardles, Colquhoun, and see if you find out anything there. You might, in the circumstances, have a chat with the Archdeacon, and keep an eye on Persimmons’s movements. I’ll send another man down to help you. There’s only one other thing that occurs to me. When Colonel Conyers was up on Monday he asked about the Duke and the Archdeacon and the others, and also about some North London Greek who had got Persimmons this accursed chalice. I’ll put a man on to him. Ring me up later and tell me what’s happened.”

Towards evening the Assistant Commissioner received three telephone reports. The first was Thwaites, with the usual “Nothing has happened, sir. His Grace has not returned and we have received no information.” This time, however, he added, “The Duchess is becoming anxious, sir. She is talking of consulting the police. Shall I put her through to you, sir?”

“No, for God’s sake,” the Commissioner said hastily. “Tell her something, anything you like. Tell her to ring up the nearest police station . . . No, she won’t do that as she knows me. All right, Thwaites, put her through.”

The Duchess was put through, and the Commissioner extracted from her what he really wanted — permission to investigate. He then pretended to be cut off.

It was some minutes later that he received a call from Colquhoun.

“The Archdeacon isn’t here, sir,” the inspector reported. “He left for London just before lunch, about when we were at the Duke’s. They don’t know when he’ll be back. Mr. Persimmons also left, just after lunch. I must have passed him in the train. Rackstraw is here and his wife, in a cottage in Persimmons’s grounds. They apparently have a small boy, but he’s been taken to London by a maid of Persimmons’. I knew Rackstraw was in it somehow.”

“Family man, Persimmons,” the Assistant Commissioner said. “Pity you couldn’t have let us know he was coming, and I really think we’d have had him covered.”

“Well, sir, both he and the Archdeacon were away before I got down here,” the inspector said forbearingly. “Shall I come back?”

“No, I think not,” his chief said. “Stop today, anyhow, and let me hear tomorrow if there’s anything fresh. I’ve sent Pewitt to Finchley Road, but he’s not reported yet. It’s all pure chance. We really don’t know what we’re looking for.”

“I thought we were trying to find out why Persimmons murdered Pattison, sir,” the inspector answered.

“I suppose we are,” his chief said, “but we seem rather like sparrows hopping round Persimmons on the chance of a crumb. Well, carry on; see if you can pick one up and let us guzzle it tomorrow. Good-bye.”

He sat back, lit a cigarette, and turned to other work, till, somewhere about half-past eight, Pewitt also rang up. Pewitt was a young fellow who was being tried on the mere mechanics of this kind of work, and he had been sent up to the Finchley Road not more than two hours earlier, having been engaged on another job for most of the day. His voice now sounded depressed and worried.

“Pewitt speaking,” he said, when the Commissioner had announced himself. “I’m — I’m in rather a hole, sir. I— we — can’t find the house.”

“Can’t what?” his chief asked.

“Can’t find the house, sir,” Pewitt repeated. “I know it sounds silly, but it’s the simple truth. It doesn’t seem to be there.”

The Assistant Commissioner blinked at the telephone. “Are you mad or merely idiotic, Pewitt?” he asked. “I did think you’d got the brains of a peewit, anyhow, if not much more. Have you lost the address I gave you or what?”

“No, sir,” Pewitt said, “I’ve got the address all right — Lord Mayor’s Street. It was a chemist’s, you said. But there doesn’t seem to be a chemist’s there. Of course, the fog makes it difficult, but still, I don’t think it is there.”

“The fog?” the Commissioner said.

“It’s very thick up here in North London,” Pewitt answered, “very thick indeed.”

“Are you sure you’re in the right street?” his chief asked.

“Certain, sir. The constable on duty is here too. He seems to remember the shop, sir, but he can’t find it, either. All we can find, sir, is —”

“Stop a minute,” the Commissioner interrupted. He rang his bell and sent for a Directory; then, having found it, he went on. “Now go ahead. Where do you begin?”

“George Giddings, grocer.”

“Right.”

“Samuel Murchison, confectioner.”

“Right.”

“Mrs. Thorogood, apartments.”

“Damn it, man,” the Commissioner exploded, “you’ve just gone straight over it. Dimitri Lavrodopoulos, chemist.”

“But it isn’t, sir,” Pewitt said unhappily. “The fog’s very thick, but we couldn’t have missed a whole shop.”

“But Colonel Conyers has been there,” the Commissioner shouted, “been there and talked with this infernal fellow. Good God above, it must be there! You’re drunk, Pewitt.”

“I feel as if I was, sir,” the mournful voice said, “groping about in this, but I’m not. I’ve looked at the Directory myself, sir, and it’s all right there. But it’s not all right here. The house has simply disappeared.”

“That must have been what just flew past the window,” the other said bitterly. “Look here, Pewitt, I’m coming up myself. And God help you and your friend the constable if I find that house, for I’ll tear you limb from limb and roast you and eat you. And God help me if I don’t,” he said, putting back the receiver, “for if houses disappear as well as Dukes, this’ll be no world for me.”

It took him much longer than he expected to reach Lord Mayor’s Street. As his taxi climbed north, he found himself entering into what was at first a faint mist, and later, before he reached Tally Ho Corner, an increasing fog. Indeed, after a while the taxi-driver refused to go any farther, and the Assistant Commissioner proceeded slowly on foot. He knew the Finchley Road generally and vaguely, and after a long time and many risks at last drew near his aim. At what he hoped was the corner of Lord Mayor’s Street he ran directly into a stationary figure.

“What the hell —” he began. “Sorry, sir. Oh, it’s you, Pewitt. Damnation, man, why don’t you shout instead of knocking me down? All right, all right. But standing at the corner of the street won’t find the house, you know. Where’s the constable? Why don’t you keep together? Oh, he’s here, is he! Couldn’t even one of you look for the house instead of holding a revival meeting at the street corner? Now for God’s sake don’t apologize or I shall have to begin too, and we shall look like a ring of chimpanzees at the Zoo. I know as well as you do that I’m in a vile temper. Come along and let’s have a look. Where’s the grocer’s?”

He was shown it. Then, he first, Pewitt second, and the constable last, they edged along the houses, their torches turned on the windows. “That’s the grocer’s,” the Commissioner went on. “And here — this blasted fog’s thicker than ever — is the end of the grocer’s, I suppose; at least it’s the end of a window. Then this must be the confectioner’s. I believe I saw a cake; the blind’s only half down. And here’s a door, the confectioner’s door. Didn’t you think of doing it this way, Pewitt?”

“Yes, sir,” Pewitt said, “the constable and I have done it about seventeen times.”

The Assistant Commissioner, neglecting this answer, pushed ahead. “And this is the end of the confectioner’s second window,” he said triumphantly. “And here’s a bit of wall . . . more wall . . . and here — here’s a gate.” He stopped uncertainly.

“Yes, sir,” Pewitt said; “that’s Mrs. Thorogood’s gate. We called there, sir, but she’s an old lady and rather deaf, and some of her lodgers are on their holiday and some haven’t got home from work yet. And we couldn’t quite get her to understand what we were talking about. We tried again a little while ago, but she wouldn’t even come to the door.”

The Assistant Commissioner looked at the gate, or rather, at the fog, for the gate was invisible. So was the constable; he could just discern a thicker blot that was Pewitt. He felt the gate — undoubtedly it was just that. He stood still and recalled to his mind the page he had studied in the Directory. Yes, between Murchison the confectioner and Mrs. Thorogood, apartments, it leapt to his eye, Dimitri Lavrodopoulos, chemist.

“Have you tried the confectioner?” he asked.

“Well, sir, he wouldn’t do more than talk out of the first-floor window,” Pewitt said, “but we did try him. He said he knew what kind of people went round knocking at doors in the fog. He swore he’d got two windows, and he said the chemist was next door. But somehow we couldn’t just find next door.”

“It must be round some corner,” the Assistant Commissioner said; and “Yes, sir, no doubt it must be round some corner,” Pewitt answered.

The other felt as if something was beginning to crack. Everything seemed disappearing. The Duke had not come home, nor Mornington, whoever he might be; the Archdeacon and Gregory Persimmons had left home. And now a whole house seemed to have been swallowed up. He went slowly back to the corner, followed by his subordinates, then he tried again — very slowly and crouched right against the windows. On either side of the confectioner’s door was a strip of glass without blinds, and he dimly discerned in each window, within an inch and a half of his nose, scones and buns and jam-tarts. Certainly the farther one no more than the first belonged to a chemist. And yet for the second time, as he pushed beyond it, he felt the rough wall under his fingers and then the iron gate.

The Directory and Colonel Conyers must both be wrong, he thought; there could be no other explanation. Lavrodopoulos must have left, and the shop been taken over by the confectioner. But it was on Monday Colonel Conyers had called, and this was only Thursday. Besides, the confectioner had said that the chemist’s was next door. He felt the wall again; it ought to be there.

“What do you make of it, Pewitt?” he asked.

Out of the fog Pewitt answered: “I don’t like it, sir,” he said. “I dare say it’s a mistake, but I don’t like that. It isn’t natural.”

“I suppose you think the devil has carried it off,” the Assistant Commissioner said, and thought automatically of the Bible he had studied that morning. He struck impatiently at the wall. “Damn it, the shop must be there,” he said. But the shop was not there.

Suddenly, as they stood there in a close group, the grounds beneath them seemed to shift and quiver. Pewitt and the constable cried out; the Assistant Commissioner jumped aside. It shook again. “Good God,” he cried, “what in the name of the seven devils is happening to the world? Are you there, Pewitt?” for his movement had separated them. He heard some sort of reply, but knew himself alone and felt suddenly afraid. Again the earth throbbed below him; then from nowhere a great blast of cool wind struck his face. So violent was it that he reeled and almost fell; then, as he regained his poise, he saw that the fog was dissolving around him. A strange man was standing in front of him; behind him the windows of a chemist’s shop came abruptly into being. The stranger came up to him. “I am Gregory Persimmons,” he said, “and I wish to give myself up to the police for murder.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30