A PRUDENT man, working from the North to London, along the Eastern Counties, provides himself with friends from whom he can get food and lodging.
Miss Gillon, whom all her world calls ‘Aunt Ellen,’ gave me lunch at her house near Grantham. She wished to send an eiderdown quilt to an old family servant at Hammersmith. Surely I remembered Prescott from past ages? To-morrow would be Prescott’s birthday. The quilt had been delayed for repairs. A man would not know, of course, how tender eiderdown quilts were. Should I be in London that evening? Then, in the morning, would I take the quilt round to Prescott’s address? Prescott would be so pleased! And surprised, too; for there were some little birthday remembrances from herself and from Saunders wrapped up in the quilt.
Saunders, Prescott’s successor, went upstairs and returned, her mouth full of knotted strings, clasping an outsized pasteboard coffin. The eiderdown, a loudly-patterned affair, was rolled into bolster form, bound in two places with broad puce ribbons, and coaxed into it. Saunders wove lashings over all and I carried it out and up-ended it beside my steering-wheel.
Going down the drive I could scarcely squint round the corner of the thing, and at the turn into the road, it lurched into my eye. So I declutched it, and tied it to the back of the two-seater. True, I made most of the knots with my gloves on, but, to compensate, I wove Saunders’ reef-points into the rear of the car as carefully as the pendulous oriole stays her nest.
Then I went on to dine at a seat of learning where I was due to pick up a friend — Henry Brankes Lettcombe, O.B.E. — once a Colonel of Territorials — whose mission, in peace, was the regeneration of our native cinema industry. He was a man of many hopes, which translated themselves into prospectuses that faded beneath the acid breath of finance. Sometimes I wrote the prospectuses, because he promised me that, when his ship came in, he would produce the supreme film of the world — the ‘Life of St. Paul.’ He said it would be easier than falling off a log, once he had launched his Pan–Imperial Life–Visions’ Association.
He had said I should find him at St. Martin’s College, which lies in a rather congested quarter of a University town. I always look on my mudguards as hostages to Fortune; yet even I was a little piqued at the waywardness of the traffic. It was composed of the hatless young, in flannel trousers and vivid blazers, who came and went and stopped without warning, in every manner of machine. They were as genial as those should be whose fathers pay all their bills. Only one, a thick-set youth in a canoe-ended natural wood sporting machine, rammed me on the starboard quarter and declared it was my fault.
His companion-slim, spotless, and urbane — smiled disarmingly. ‘I shouldn’t chide with him if I were you, sir,’ he said. ‘He’s been tuning-in.’
I disengaged, and passed on to St. Martin’s where I found Lettcombe also tuning-in. He was returned lately from a place called Hollywood, and he told us of energies unparalleled, and inventions beyond our imaginings, controlled by super-men who, having no racial prepossessions, could satisfy the ‘mass-appetence’ of all the races who attend ‘Sinnymus.’ He spoke, further, of ‘injuncted psychoses’ and ‘endyoclinics’— unsafe words to throw at the Learned who do not attend ‘Ki-ne-mas.’ They retaliated with abracadabras of their own, and demanded definitions of his. Lettcombe, always nebulous, except in action, drank a little College Madeira to help him define, and when we left, at last, for London, was quite definite.
While driving, I listened to the creation, on improved lines, of the Pan–Imperial Life–Visions’ Association. It was now, he said, to be run in conjunction with Hollywood. (He had abandoned my scheme of vast studios at the top of Helvellyn; with marine annexes on the Wash and Holy Island!) I led back tactfully to the St. Paul, pointing out that it would be silly to have the Apostle sunstruck among Californian cacti which, in the nature of things, could not have been discovered till fifteen hundred years after his martyrdom. Lettcombe retorted that the spirit, not the letter, gave life, and offered a semi-annually divorced Film Star for the part of the Elect Lady.
I was beginning to formulate some preliminary objections, when I heard behind us one single smart, drum-like tap. Lettcombe had just unpacked from his imported vocabulary the compelling word, ‘crypto-psychic-apperceptiveness.’ I braked, being cryptically aware that Saunders’ coffin had come adrift, and was lying in the fairway, at the same time as I psychically apperceived the scented loveliness of the early summer night, and the stillness that emphasises percipience when one’s car has stopped. Lettcombe was so full of the shortcomings of all the divorced husbands of the Lady to be elected, that he kept on taking her part to the abandoned steering-wheel long after I had descended and gone back afoot (the reverse not suiting my car’s temperament) to recover the lost packet.
The road behind us ran straight, a few hundred yards, to a small wood and there turned. It was wholly void when I started. First I found the coffin, void also; hacked it into the ditch that it had nearly reached, and held on, looking for a bed-quilt tied in two places. A large head-light illuminated the wood. A small car pelted round the curve. A horn squawked. There was a sound of ironmongery in revolt; the car bounded marsupially to its right, and, with its head-light, disappeared. But before it did this, I fancied I had seen my bundle lying in its path. I went to look.
Obviously no one had been hurt, for an even voice out of the dark pronounced that someone had done it now. A second voice, gruff and heated, asked if he had seen why he had done it. ‘For Women and Wine,’ said the first voice dreamily. ‘Unless that’s how you always change gears.’
They continued talking, like spirits who had encountered by chance in pure space.
The car, meanwhile, knelt on its forehead, presenting a canoe-shaped stern of elaborate carpenter’s work to the chill road. Beneath its hindwheels lay a longish lump, that stopped three of my heart-beats, so humanly dead did it show, till I saw that I should have to find Prescott another eiderdown; and I grew hot against those infants growling and cooing together by the bows of their meretricious craft. Let them enjoy my sensations unwarned, and all the better, if they should imagine they had done murder. Thus I argued in my lower soul; but, on the higher planes of it, where thought merges into Intuition and Prophecy, my Demon of Irresponsibility sang:—‘I am with you once more! Stand back and let Me take charge. This night shall be also One of the Nights.’ So I stood back and waited, as I have before, on Chance and Circumstance which, accepted humbly, betray not the True Believer.
A shadow in a tight-waisted waterproof, with a dress-suit beneath it, came out of the ditch; saw what I had seen; drew its breath sharply, and, after a pause, laid hands slowly on the horror beneath the rear wheels. Suddenly it raised one of its own hands to its mouth and sucked it. I caught a hissing expulsion of relief and saw its outline relax. It then tugged, drew things free, and hauled and hauled at — shall we say Aunt Ellen? — till she was clear. The end of her that came out last was, so to speak, burst. The shadow coiled her up, embraced her with both arms, and partly decanted, partly stuffed, her into the dicky of the car, which it closed silently. I heard a very low chuckle, and I too laughed. The shadow tiptoed over to me. ‘Yours?’ it breathed. ‘Yes,’ I whispered. ‘Do you need it, sir?’ ‘I leave it to you, partner,’ I replied. It chuckled again and patted me on the shoulder with what seemed a mixture of appreciation and almost filial reverence, or even — but this might have been senile vanity — camaraderie. Then it turned and spoke towards the ditch: ‘Phil! She’s as dead as a classic.’
The reply, delivered apparently through herbage, was that ‘Phil’ had ruined his shirt-front.
The shadow sighed, resignedly, ‘Never mind. We’ll break it to him later, sir,’ and patted my shoulder once more. In the silence that followed I heard Lettcombe who, by now, had come to miss me, in search along the road. He chanted his desire that the glow-worm should lend me her eyes, and that shooting-stars, which are as rare as glow-worms in early summer, should chaperone me through all the Eastern Counties.
A London-bound lorry came round the bend, and asked him how much of the road he needed. Lettcombe replied in the terms of the front-line of ‘16; the lorry hurled them back with additions from the same gory lexicon, laughed pleasantly, and went on.
‘Well,’ said the voice called Phil, ‘are you going to stick here all night? I’ve got to get —’
‘Hush,’ replied the shadow. ‘I’ve disposed of her now, thank goodness. Back out, if you can.’
‘“Thus — thus to come unto thee!”’ carolled Lettcombe. ‘Did you see that lorry? ‘Nearly ran me down! What’s the matter? Has there been an accident? I’m looking for a friend.’
‘Was she a woman?’ the shadow asked him.
The two had barely time to skip aside, when the car, with unnecessary power, belched its indecent little self back on to the tar. Phil, a thick-set youth, confused among levers, put pieces of questions to the shadow, which at a vast leisure answered to the name of ‘Bunny.’
‘What’s happened? What’s really happened? What were you saying about women?’ Phil repeated.
‘I seldom say anything about women. Not even when they are dead,’ Bunny replied.
‘Have you seen a dead woman, then?’ Phil turned on Lettcombe.
‘Nothing but that dam’ lorry. ‘Nearly ran me down, too. Didn’t you see?’
‘Look here, Bunny,’ Phil went on. ‘I’ve got to be at Cadogan Gardens by midnight and — I— I’m here and — Haman’s head-light’s wonky. Something must have happened. What’s happened?’
‘And I haven’t seen my friend, either,’
Lettcombe struck in. ‘I wouldn’t worry about him, only I don’t drive much.’ He described me with the lewd facility which pavement and cinema artists are given in place of love of beauty or reverence for intellect.
‘Never mind him!’ said Bunny. ‘Here’s the Regius Professor of Medicine of —’ he named the opposition seat of learning, and by a certain exquisite expansion of bearing included me in the circle. Phil did not.
‘Then what the devil’s he doing up our street? Home! Go home, sir!’ he said to me. There was no reverence in this address, but Bunny apologised for him very prettily.
‘You see, he’s in love,’ he began. ‘He’s using this car to — er thus — thus — to come unto her. That makes him nervous and jealous. And he has run over an old lady, though he doesn’t realise it. When I get that into his head he’ll react quite differently. By the way, sir, did you observe any sign of life after we released her?’
‘I did not.’ The actual Regius Professor of Medicine could not have spoken more authoritatively.
‘Oh, Lord! Someone dead?’ Phil gasped. ‘Where?’
‘I slipped her into that lorry just now — to give her a chance. She looked rather bitten about the back, but she may be alive. We must catch up with her and find out,’ said Bunny.
‘You can’t mistake the lorry either,’ Lettcombe added. ‘It stinks of hens. ‘Nearly ran me down. You saw it, didn’t you?’
‘In that case we had better get a move on,’ Bunny suggested.
The ditching had not improved the car, but she was still far from contemptible. Her left fore-wheel inclined, on its stub-axle, towards (technically speaking) the Plane of the Ecliptic; her radiator sweated like Samson at Gaza; her steering-gear played like all Wordsworth’s own daffodils; her swivelling head-light glared fixedly at the ground beneath it like a Trappist monk under penance; but her cranking-handle was beyond comparison, because it was not there. She answered, however, to the self-starter, with promising kicks. There may have been a few spare odds and ends left behind us, but, as Bunny said, that was Haman’s fault for not having provided a torch. I understood that Mr. Haman was seldom permitted to use his own car in term-time, because he had once volunteered that he was a ‘thorough-goin’ sport,’ and was now being educated; and as soon as Lettcombe understood why I had accepted a Regius Professorship of Medicine, and what and where the old lady was, he dropped a good deal of his morbid hate against his lorry, and, for a man of his unimaginative trade, did good work.
Our labours were rather interrupted by Phil’s officious attempts to find out whether his victim were dead or like to live. Bunny was as patient with him as any nurse, even when he began once more to hope to reach Cadogan Gardens by ‘a little after midnight’; it being then eleven forty-seven and a clear night.
We all, except Phil, felt we knew each other well when Mr. Haman’s car was assembled and controllable, and, like the travellers of old, ‘decided henceforth to journey in company.’ Mr. Haman’s car led, with mine in support to light it should any of its electric fittings fail.
Owing to her brutalised fore-wheel, which gave her the look and gait of a dachshund, she carried, as mariners say, a strong port helm; and if let off the wind for an instant, slid towards the ditch. This reduced her speed, but, on the other hand, there was not so much overtaking, at which manoeuvre her infirmities made her deadlier than Boadicea’s chariots.
Thus, then, we laboured London ward for a while, deep in the heart of the night and all its unpredictable allures. (The caption is Lettcombe’s.) Presently we smelt a smell out of the dear dead days when horses drew carts, and blacksmiths shod them — but not at midnight. Lettcombe was outlining ‘The Shaving of Shagpat’ for film purposes, when our squadron-leader stopped; and Bunny, sniffing, walked back to us. ‘Do you happen to remember,’ he asked, ‘if she wore a feather bonnet — or a boa?’
Lettcombe and I remembered both these articles distinctly.
‘Then that’s all right.’ He called back: ‘She did, Phil. See if it’s anywhere on the dumb-iron.’
Phil got out and grovelled, as we walked towards the smell. He rose with a piece of loudly-patterned silk in his hand.
‘I’ve found this!’ said he hoarsely, ‘Low down on the radiator.’
‘Petticoat!’ said Bunny. ‘Torn off! Tck! Tck! I am sorry, old top.’
‘It don’t prove anything,’ said Lettcombe, ‘except that you may have grazed her. What we’ve got to do is to catch up with that lorry. Perhaps she’s only stunned.’
‘She’s pretty well red-hot,’ said Bunny, beside the crackling car.
He opened the bonnet, and the smell let itself out. It was complex, but with no trace of inferiority.
I remembered then that at least a quarter of ‘Aunt Ellen’s’ figure had been missing after the collision. We recovered a good deal of it, loose and blackening inside the bonnet yet I did not at first see why there should be greasy, fluffy deposits over the exhaust and the mechanism, any more than I could get abreast of the smell. There were motives in it of fats, butyric acid, alcohols, mineral oils, heated rubber, and singed leather, to a broadly-handled accompaniment of charred feathers, lightened by suggestions of crisped flesh.
I began to work out the birthday presents which Miss Gillon and the kindly Saunders must have packed inside ‘Aunt Ellen.’ Butter and hair-oil I could identify; gloves, perhaps; a horn or tortoise-shell comb certainly. The alcohol might have begun the journey as eau-deCologne; and there were traces of kidney. On digital exploration, it appeared to be the hair-oil that had really stopped so many of the radiator-holes with pledgets of oiled down. The fan must have sucked the mixture from the piece of quilt that had adhered to the radiator until the whole had impacted, whereby Mr. Haman’s machine had naturally choked and her works turned plum-colour.
‘Those holes ought to be cleared while she cools,’ I said.
‘Your tie-pin’s the thing.’ Bunny turned to Lettcombe, who, being of a decorative breed, detached a cameo head of Eros from his green made-up tie and handed it to Phil, who fell to work. A winkle-vendor could not have excelled him.
As Regius Professor of Medicine, my diagnosis of his condition was that the jolt into the ditch, combined with previous ‘tunings-in,’ had passed Phil into a waking trance, in which he reacted mechanically to stimuli, but felt no real pain.
‘Now, we’ve got to fill the radiator,’ said Bunny, while Phil blew at each hole after it was cleared.
In democratic England, if you make noise enough in public, someone, official or unofficial, will attend to your wants. While our twin Klaxons were developing this theme, a man came out of a gate in a hedge, and told us reproachfully that he had been sitting up solely in order to catch ‘W.E.A.F.’ on the midnight hush. Lettcombe said that at the present conjunction of the planets there was no chance of this till crack of dawn. Instantly all arguments dissolved into the babble of fellow-imbeciles. Bunny and I left them (the man tossed his head at us sideways, saying ‘Oh, that’s all right. Ask Ma.’) and went up a path to a new, dampish bungalow where there was a room with a water-tap and a jug. An old lady in a kimono came out of another room, and at once fell a victim to Bunny in his partially revealed dress-suit, who explained our position at the same time as he filled the jug, which I bore out to the car. On my first trip I passed the bungalow-man and Lettcombe still at the gate wrangling over the Alphabet. On my next, they had run into the bungalow to decide whether the amours of an ill-conducted cattery or the single note of a dismal flageolet represented all that the Western Hemisphere could give of uplift. But I continued to serve the radiator, and, before I had done, got to know something of Phil. He had, he told me, devoted himself to rowing, but that afternoon they had discarded him from his College boat on account of a slipped cartilage; since when, he had been ‘tuning in a little.’ He was, he said, the son of an Archdeacon, and would enter the Church if forced, but much preferred an unembarrassed life in one of our Dominions. He wanted to kill Mr. Haman, because Haman’s car had prevented him getting to Cadogan Gardens to keep an appointment on which a great deal depended. And throughout, he perspired inordinately. When the man and Lettcombe, followed by the old lady of the kimono and Bunny, came out, each bearing one large bottle of Bass, he accepted his with gratitude. The man told us he had been in the service of a Malayan Rubber Company at Kalang–Alang, which is eighty-three miles from the nearest white man, and that his mother had kept house for him there. His mother told Bunny that, as between leeches and tigers, she advised him to take tigers every time, because leeches got up your legs. Then, with appropriate farewells, we resumed our journey.
Barring the front wheel, which was an accident, the late Mr. Haman’s car behaved very well. We were going to compliment Phil on his work, but as soon as he got in beside Bunny, who took the wheel, he fell asleep.
Thanks to my iron nerve, and my refusal to be drawn from my orbit by the performances of the car ahead, I reached the outer suburbs of London, and steered among the heavy traffic that halts for refreshment at the wayside coffee-stalls which are so quiet by day.
Only the speed of my reactions saved me from bumping into Bunny when he pulled up without warning beside a lorry.
‘We’ve found her,’ he cried. ‘Wake up, Phil, and ask for what I told you.’
I heard Phil crash out of his sleep like a buffalo from a juicy wallow, and shout:—‘Have you got an old lady inside there?’
The reply, in a pleasant, though uncultivated, voice, was:—‘Show yourself, Maria. There’s a man after ye at last.’
And that which Phil had been told to ask for he got. Only the shadow of a profile, next the driver, showed in the lorry, so everything was as impersonal as Erebus. The allocution supposed Phil to be several things, and set them out in order and under heads. It imputed to him motives, as it proved that he had manners, of a revolting sort, and yet, by art beyond imitation, it implied all its profounder obscenities. The shallower ones, as Lettcombe said, were pelted in like maxim-belts between the descents of barrages. The pitch scarcely varied, and the temperature of the whole was that of liquefied air. When there was a pause, Bunny, who is ahead of his years in comprehension and pity, got out, went to the lorry and, uncovering, asked with reverence of the driver, ‘Are you married to her, sir?’
‘I am,’ said the pleasant voice proudly. ‘So it isn’t often I can ‘ear it from the gallery, as you might say. Go on, Maria.’
Maria took breath between her teeth and went on. She defined Phil’s business as running up and down the world, murdering people better than himself. That was the grey canvas she embroidered idly, at first, as with flowers; then illuminated with ever-soaring fireworks; and lastly rent asunder from wing to wing with forked lightning-like yells of:—‘Murderer! Murderer!’
All England seemed to be relieved by the silence when it came. Phil, alone in the car, emitted (the caption, again, is Lettcombe’s) a low wolf-like howl, shifted into the driving-seat, and fled up the London road.
‘Better keep him in sight.’ Bunny had already established himself beside me. ‘Better let me drive, sir’; and he was at the wheel, hustling my astounded two-seater out of all her respectable past. Phil, however, took insane risks among the lorries that were bringing vegetables for London to boil, and kept in front.
‘I can’t make out what’s the matter with him.’ (Bunny seemed to find talking and driving at high speeds quite normal.) ‘He was all right till the woman came.’
‘They mostly are,’ said Lettcombe cheaply.
‘Perhaps he’s worrying about the accident,’ I suggested.
‘Oh, I had forgotten about that. I’ve told him about it, for ever so long, but he didn’t seem to take it in at the time. I expect it’s realised remorse.’
‘It ain’t hydrophobia, at any rate,’ said Lettcombe, who was keeping a look-out ahead.
We had reached the opening of one of our much-advertised but usually incomplete bypasses. It by-passed what had been a village where men used to water horses and wash carriages in a paved ‘flash’ or pond close to a public-house. Phil had turned into the pond and was churning it up a good deal.
‘What’s the matter, old thing?’ Bunny asked affectionately as we drew up on the edge. ‘Won’t she swim?’
‘I’m getting rid of the proofs,’ Phil cried. ‘You heard what that woman said? She’s right. This wheel’s stiff with blood. So are the cushions.’ He flung them overboard, and continued his circular tour.
‘I don’t suppose Haman will miss ’em much more than the rest,’ said Bunny to me. ‘I cut my hand on a bit of a bottle in your quilt, sir. It was port wine, I think. It must have splashed up through the floor. It splashed a lot. — Row ashore, Phil, and we’ll search her properly.’
But Phil went astern. He said he was washing the underbody clear of the head on the dumbiron, because no decent girl could be expected to put up with that sort of thing at a dance.
‘That is very strange,’ Bunny mused to himself. ‘I thought he’d forgotten about that too. I only said “bonnet.” He must have evolved “head” out of his subliminal mind. — She’s looking beautiful now, Phil.’
‘Do you really think so? Do you really think a girl ‘ud like to see me in it?’ Phil roared above the waters he troubled.
We all said she would, and he swashed out of his pool, damp but prepared to do his duty. Bunny took the wheel at once and said they would show it to her before the dance ended.
‘But then,’ said Phil, ‘would that be fair on the woman I’ve killed? No decent girl could put up with that, you know. Doris least of all.’
‘Oh, you can always explain,’ Lettcombe suggested. ‘Just a simple explanation taken in the spirit in which it was offered.’
Phil thought upon it, while he crammed handfuls of wet dress-shirt-front back into position.
‘You’re right,’ he assented. ‘I’ll explain . . . Bunny, drive like hell to Haman’s diggings. I’ve got to kill him.’
‘Quite right, old thing,’ said Bunny, and headed for London.
Once again we followed, and for some absurd reason Lettcombe was laid low by laughter. But I saw the zenith beginning to soften towards dawn, and the dim shoulders of the world taking shape against the first filtrations of light. It was the hour I knew of old — the one in which my Demon wrought his mightiest. Therefore, I never insult him by mirth till he has released the last foot of it.
(But what should a man who visits Hollywood for instruction know of any God?)
Dawn breathed upon that immense width of barren arterial tar, with its breadth of tintless stuff at either side. A red light marked a distant crossing. Bunny was letting the dachshund range rather generously all over the unoccupied area, and I suppose he hypnotised me. At any rate both cars seemed to be abreast at the moment that one lonely young Policeman stopped us and wanted to know what we were doing all that for.
I speculated, while he partially undressed himself to get at his notebook, what words my Demon would put into my mouth. They came — weighted — gigantesque — of themselves.
‘Robert William Peel,’ they ran, ‘it is necessary in the pursuit of Art that these things should be. Amen!’
He answered that quoting Scripture had nothing to do with driving to the common danger.
I pitied him — and that he might not go uncomforted to whatever doom awaited, I told him so; merely adding that the other car had been stolen from a Mr. Mordecai, Senior Acolyte of Old Bailey, and that I was observing it on behalf of the Midland Motors’ Recoveries Company. This last convincing cadenza prevented him from trying to smell my breath any longer. Then Phil said he had run over an old lady up the road, but wished to explain and to hang like a gentleman. He continued in this frame of mind and habit of speech for the rest of the conference; but — thanks to the sublime instincts of an ancient people broken to alcohol for a thousand years — the Bobby stuck to the civil charge. Why were we driving to the common danger?
I repeated my firm’s well-chosen name. To prevent theft, not murder, were my instructions; and what was the Policeman going to do about it? Bunny saved him trouble by owning that it was a fair cop, but, given half a chance, he would reform. The Policeman said he didn’t know, and he couldn’t say, but there was something wrong somewhere.
Then, of course, we all had to help him.
He pointed out that he had stopped us. We admitted it. Then would we kindly wait where we were till he went and fetched his Sergeant? He put it to us as gentlemen who wished to save trouble — would we? What else could we do? He went off. We wished to save him trouble, so we waited where we were. Phil sat down on the running-board of Mr. Haman’s car, whimpering ‘Doris!’ at intervals. Lettcombe, who does not markedly click with Aurora, rubbed his chin and said he could do with a shave. Bunny lit a cigarette and joined me. The night had left no trace on him — not even a feather’s weight on anything that he wore; and his young face, insolent as the morning that hurried towards it, had no fear of her revelations.
‘By she way,’ I asked, ‘have you a plan or a policy, or, anything of that sort?’
‘Plan?’ said he. ‘When one is alive? What for?’
‘‘Sorry,’ said I. ‘But I should like to know who your father is.’
‘Speaking as an — er — Uncle, would you advise me so sell, sir, if you were in my position?’ the child replied.
‘Certainly not,’ I answered. ‘I never did.’
Whereupon he told me and went on: ‘If Police Sergeants have been up all night on duty they appreciate a run in the fresh air before turning in. If they’ve been hoicked out of bed, ad hoc, they’re apt to be anfractuous. It’s the Sergeant Complex.’
A lorry came along, and asked Lettcombe if any particular complains caused him so wave his hands in that way. Lettcombe said that the Policeman had warned him and his friends not so go on till he came back with the Borough Surveyor so see if the road was safe. Mass-psychology being much the same in machines as in men, we presently accumulated three lorries, who debated together with the crispness of the coming morning’s self. A north-bound vehicle approached, was halted, and said that, so far as it knew, noshing was wrong wish the road into London. This had so be discussed all over again, and then we saw, far off, the Policeman and his Sergeant advancing at the quickstep. Lettcombs, so encourage them, started a song with the refrain ‘Inky-pinky parlez-vous,’ which the first and third lorries took up in perfect time. The second hissed is conscientiously.
The Sergeant, however, did not attend so us all together. The lorries wanted their cases considered first. Lettcombe said that the Bobby had said that the road wasn’t safe. The Bobby said that he had said, that the way in which those two cars were driven on that road would make any road unsafe. His remarks were means to be general — not particular. He would have explained further, but the lorries said that they were poor working-men. The Sergeant demurred at ‘poor,’ but, before any protest could be organised, a voice from the second lorry said: ‘A word wish you, Master Sergeant Stinking Inspector General of Police, if you please.’
The Sergeant as once changed manner, and answered, like a shop-walker: ‘Oh, good morning, Mrs. Shemahen.’ ‘No good morning for you this morning, thank you,’ was she reply, and Mrs. Shemahen spoke, as she had spoken to Phil not so long ago. Her discourse this time had more of personal knowledge to relish it, and — which spurs every artist — all her points were taken by her audience. (They seemed to be a neighbourly lot along that stretch of road.) When she drew breath, the Bobby would cry hopefully: ‘Pass along! Pass along, there, please!’ but without the least effect on the enraptured lorries. When the Sergeant tried to interrupt (as to an alleged bigamous marriage) they all cried: ‘Hush up!’ and when Mrs. Shemahen said she had done with such as him, they demanded an encore.
They then drove on, and the Sergeant, morally more naked than at birth, turned to us as the loyal and zealous Policeman began: ‘At or about two-ten this morning, being on point duty —’
‘I wish to hell you hadn’t,’ said the Sergeant.
‘By the way,’ said Bunny, in a tone that will work woe in his world before long, ‘who was the woman who was speaking just now? She told us off a little while ago — much better than she did you. Her husband called her Maria, didn’t he?’
‘Oh yes. She’s quite a local character!’ (the seduced Sergeant returned to ease of manner, and natural bearing, as, some day, a girl or two will drop her guard with Bunny and —) ‘She runs a chicken-farm a bit along hereabouts. They give out she’s crazy. What do you think, sir?’
‘With a little training she’d be a revelation in our business,’ Lettcombe broke in. ‘Speaking as one who knows something about it, I can guarantee that.’
I started! Was my Demon going to lay the hot coal of inspiration on Lettcombe’s unshorn lips — not on mine? But I would allow him the count fairly, and I began, ‘One — Two — Three’— while the Bobby made a second shot at his catechism —(‘Six — Seven’)— After all, it was more in Lettcombe’s line than mine, yet — Lettcombe drew himself up, took breath, and — I saw the end, coming with the day.
‘Well, boys,’ he began on what I feel sure is the standardised Hollywood screech of a Producer. ‘The light’s about good enough now for a trial-shot. Jimmy,’ he pointed to Phil, ‘you’ve got to register guilt and remorse for the murder much stronger than you’ve done up to now.’
‘Here!’ I broke in, on the off chance that my Demon might relent, ‘let me help too.’
‘Not much,’ Lettcombe replied. ‘This is my St. Paul!’
‘Ah! I think I see . . . ’ the Sergeant began.
‘You’re right, Sergeant.’ Lettcombe swept on. ‘It’s called “Love among the Leeches”— the English end of it. Doug!’ (This was blackguardly of Lettcombe. I do not resemble Mr. Fairbanks in the least.) You’re out of this. You’ve given up trying to blackmail Jimmy and you’ve doped him.’
‘You needn’t have given Jimmy all our whisky, though,’ said Bunny aggrievedly. ‘He’d have registered just as well on half of it.’
‘Exactly,’ Lettcombe resumed. ‘That’s what Mr. Fairbanks meant, Sergeant, when he told your man about doing things for Art’s sake. You’ll find it in his notebook. I saw him write it down. And, Jimmy, register that you’re quite convinced it was Clara you ran over in your car, and that she had committed suicide through grief after the tigers had killed her mother at Kalang–Alang. ‘Got that? Say it, then.’
‘Kalang-alang-alang-alang,’ said Phil, like a level-crossing gong. ‘Look here! When do I kill Haman?’
‘In the second reel,’ Lettcombe commanded. ‘We must shoot the accident to the car all over again. Oh, we use up cars in our job as easy as lyin’, Sergeant. Now! ‘Tention! Charlie!’—(Bunny took this serve)— ‘You’re going to show poor Jimmy what he thought was Clara’s corpse. That comes after Jimmy’s arrest. Sergeant, do you mind telling your man to stand beside Jimmy? He has only got to look as if he didn’t know what’s coming next. Ready?’
And down the fully revealed road moved the wind that comes with morning-turn — a point or two south of sou-west, ever fortunate to me. Bunny moved to the dicky of Mr. Haman’s car and opened it.
‘Stand closer to the Bobby, Phil,’ he called, ‘and, Bobby darling, put your hand on his shoulder as though you were arresting him. Keep out of the picture, Sergeant, and you’ll be able to see exactly how it’s done.’
At the same time that Lettcombe levelled a light valise, in lieu of camera, Bunny took out from the dicky what he had put there less than two hours ago. And, as he had then hauled ‘Aunt Ellen’ out backwards, so now he shook her and he shook her and he kept on shaking her, forward from where her skirt was to where her head had been. Bits of paper, buttered; bits of bottle-glass; pieces of pomatum-pot (I must have been wrong about the hair-oil) and pieces of groceries came out; but what came out most and seemed as if it would never stop, was the down of the eider-duck (Somateria mollissima). Such is the ingenuity of man, who, from a few square feet of bed-gear, can evoke earth-enveloping smoke-screens of ‘change, alarm, surprise’— but, above all, surprise!
The Policeman disappeared. When we saw him again — Lo! he was older than Abraham, and whiter than Lot’s wife. He blew a good deal through his Father Christmas moustache, but no words came. Then he took off his Esquimaux gloves, and picked feebly at his Polar Bear belly.
Phil lurched towards us like a penguin through a blizzard. He was whiter than the Policeman, for he had been hatless, and his hair had been oiled, and he was damp all over. Bunny motioned him daintily to the open dicky.
The Sergeant, as advised, had kept out of the picture, and so had been able to see exactly how it was done. He sat at the base of the lamp-post at the crossing of the arterial by-pass, and hugged its standard with both arms. After repeated inquiries, none of which he was able to answer, because he could not speak, we left him there, while the Policeman persisted in trying to moult.
. . . . .
I do not laugh when I drive, which is why I was as nearly as possible dead when we followed the dachshund into Cadogan Gardens, where the numbers are ill-arranged, and drove round and round till some young people, who had been dancing, came out from beneath a striped awning into the first of the pure morning sunlight. One of them was called Doris. Phil called her, so that all Cadogan Gardens were aware. Yet it was an appreciable time before she connected the cry with the plumage of that mating bird.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10