In the bright cool of Monday morning Grant drove himself down Wigmore Street. It was still early and the street was quiet; Wigmore Street’s clients do not stay in town for weekends. The flower shops were making up Saturday’s roses into Victorian posies where their errant petals could be gently corseted. The antique shops were moving that doubtful rug to the other side of the window out of the too questioning gaze of the morning sun. The little cafes were eating their own stale buns for their morning coffee and being pained and haughty with inconsiderates who asked for fresh scones. And the dress shops took Saturday’s bargains out of the cupboard and restored the original prices.
Grant, who was en route to see Tisdall’s tailor, was a little disgruntled at the perversity of things. If Tisdall’s coat had been made by a London tailor it would have been a simple matter to have the button identified by them as one used by them for coats, and for Tisdall’s coat in particular. That wouldn’t clinch the matter but it would bring the clinching appreciably nearer. But Tisdall’s coat had been made, of all places, in Los Angeles. “The coat I had,” he explained, “was too heavy for that climate, so I got a new one.”
Reasonable, but trying. If the coat had been made by a London firm of standing, one could walk into their shop at any time in the next fifty years and be told without fuss and with benevolent politeness (provided they knew who you were) what kind of buttons had been used. But who was to say whether a Los Angeles firm would know what buttons they put on a coat six months ago! Besides, the button in question was wanted here. It could not very well be sent to Los Angeles. The best one could do was to ask them to supply a sample of the buttons used. If they remembered!
Grant’s main hope was that the coat itself would turn up. An abandoned coat which could be identified as Tisdall’s, with one button missing, would be the perfect solution. Tisdall was wearing the coat when he drove away the car. That was Sergeant Williams’s contribution to the cause of justice and due promotion. He had found a farmer who had seen the car at the Wedmarsh crossroads a little after six on Thursday morning. About twenty past, he reckoned, but he hadn’t a watch. Didn’t need one. Tell the time any time of day, sun or no sun. He was driving sheep, and the car slowed down because of them. He was positive that the man driving was young and wore a dark coat. He didn’t think he’d be able to identify the man, not on his oath, he wouldn’t — but he had identified the car. It was the only car he had seen that morning.
Williams’s other contribution had not been so happy. He reported that Jason Harmer had not stayed at the hotel he had given as his sleeping place at Sandwich. Had not stayed at Sandwich at all, in fact.
Grant had left his Sunday kidney and bacon untouched and had gone out without ado to interview Mr. Harmer. He found him in his pinkish flat at Devonshire House, covered in a purple silk dressing gown, black stubble, and sheet music.
“It’s not often I’m up at this hour,” he offered, pushing sheets of scrawled paper off a chair to make room for Grant. “But I’ve been sort of upset about Chris. Very good friends, we were, Inspector. Some people found her difficult, but me, no. ‘Cause why? D’you know why? ‘Cause we both felt no account and were afraid people’d find it out. Humans are awful bullies, you know. If you look and act like a million dollars they’ll lick your boots. But you let them suspect that you don’t think much of yourself and they’re on you like ants on a dying wasp. I knew Chris was bluffing first time I set eyes on her. You can’t tell me anything about bluffing. I bluffed my way into the States and I bluffed the publishers into printing my first song. They didn’t find out about it till the song was a wow, and then they sort of thought it might be a good idea to forget about having one put over on them. Have a drink? Yes, it’s a bit early. I don’t usually myself till lunchtime, but it’s the next best thing to sleep. And I’ve got two songs to finish on contract. For — for —” his voice died away “for Coyne’s new film,” he went on with a rush. “Ever tried writing a song without an idea in your head? No. No, I suppose you haven’t. Well, it’s just plain torture. And who’s going to sing them anyhow? That Hallard dame can’t sing. Did you hear Chris sing ‘Sing to Me Sometimes’?”
“Now that’s what I call putting over a song. I’ve written better songs, I admit. But she made it sound like the best song that was ever written. What’s the good of writing songs anyway, for that up-stage Hallard bird to make a mess of?”
He was moving about the room, picking up a pile of papers here only to set it down in an equally inappropriate place there. Grant watched him with interest. This was Marta’s “merry kettle” and Judy’s “smoldering type.” To Grant he seemed neither. Just one of those rather ordinary specimens of humanity from some poor corner of Europe who believes he’s being continually exploited and persecuted by his fellow men, self-pitying, ill-educated, emotional, and ruthless. Not good-looking, but attractive to women, no doubt. Grant remembered that two such widely differing types as Marta Hallard and Judy Sellers had found him remarkable; each reading her own meaning into his personality. He apparently had the ability to be all things to all men. He had been friendly to the disliked Marta, that was certain: Marta did not hotly defend indifferent worshippers at her shrine. He spent his life, that is to say, “putting on an act.” He had admitted so much himself a moment ago. Was he putting on an act now? For Grant?
“I’m sorry to disturb you so early, but it was a matter of business. You know that we are investigating Miss Clay’s death. And in the course of investigation it is necessary to check the movements of everyone who knew her, irrespective of persons or probabilities. Now, you told the sergeant of the County police force, when you talked to him on Thursday, that you had spent the night in a hotel at Sandwich. When this was checked in the ordinary course it was found that you hadn’t stayed there.”
Harmer fumbled among the music, without looking up.
“Where did you stay, Mr. Harmer?”
Harmer looked up with a small laugh. “You know,” he said, “it’s pretty funny at that! Charming gentleman calls in a perfectly friendly way about breakfast time, apologizing for disturbing you and hopes he isn’t going to be a trouble to you but he’s an inspector of police and would you be so very kind as to give some information because last time your information wasn’t as accurate as it might have been. It’s lovely, that’s what it is. And you get results with it, too. Perhaps they just break down and sob, on account of all the friendliness. Pie like mother made. What I’d like to know is if that method goes in Pimlico or if you keep it for Park Lane.”
“What I would like to know is where you stayed last Wednesday night, Mr. Harmer.”
“The Mr., too, I guess that’s Park Lane as well. In fact, if you’d been talking to the Jason of ten years back, you’d have had me to the station and scared hell out of me just like the cops of any other country. They’re all the same; dough worshippers.”
“I haven’t your experience of the world’s police forces, I’m afraid, Mr. Harmer.”
Harmer grinned. “Stung you! A limey’s got to be plenty stung before he’s rude-polite like that. Don’t get me wrong, though, Inspector. There aren’t any police brands on me. As for last Wednesday night, I spent it in my car.”
“You mean you didn’t go to bed at all?”
“That’s what I mean.”
“And where was the car?”
“In a lane with hedges as high as houses each side, parked on the grass verge. An awful lot of space goes to waste in England in these verges. The ones in that lane were about forty feet wide.”
“And you say you slept in the car? Have you someone who can bear witness to that?”
“No. It wasn’t that kind of park. I was just sleepy and lost and couldn’t be bothered going any further.”
“Lost! In the east of Kent!”
“Yes, anywhere in Kent, if it comes to that. Have you ever tried to find a village in England after dark? Night in the desert is nothing to it. You see a sign at last that says Whatsit two and a half miles and you think: Good old Whatsit! Nearly there! Hurrah for England and signposts! And then half a mile on you come to a place where three ways fork, and there’s a nice tidy signpost on the little bit of green in the middle and every blame one of that signpost’s arms has got at least three names on it, but do you think one of them mentions Whatsit? Oh, no! That would make it far too easy! So you read ’em all several times and hope someone’ll come past before you have to decide, but no one comes. Last person passed there a week last Tuesday. No houses; nothing but fields, and an advertisement for a circus that was there the previous April. So you take one of the three roads, and after passing two more signposts that don’t take any notice of Whatsit, you come to one that says Whatsit, six and three-quarters. So you start off all over again, four miles to the bad, as it were, and it happens all over again. And again! And by the time Whatsit has done that on you half a dozen times, you don’t care what happens as long as you can stop driving around corners and go to sleep. So I just stopped where I was and went to sleep. It was too late to drop in on Chris by that time, anyway.”
“But not too late to get a bed at an inn.”
“Not if you know where an inn is. ‘Sides, judging by some of the inns I’ve seen here, I’d just as soon sleep in the car.”
“You grow a heavy beard, I notice.” Grant nodded at Harmer’s unshaven chin.
“Yes. Have to shave twice a day, sometimes. If I’m going to be out late. Why?”
“You were shaved when you arrived at Miss Clay’s cottage. How was that?”
“Carry my shaving things in the car. Have to, when you have a beard like mine.”
“So you had no breakfast that morning?”
“No, I was planning to get breakfast from Chris. I don’t eat breakfast anyway. Just coffee, or orange juice. Orange juice in England. My God, your coffee — what do you think they do to it? The women, I mean. It’s —”
“Leaving the coffee aside for a moment, shall we come to the main point? Why did you tell the sergeant on duty that you had slept at Sandwich?”
The man’s face changed subtly. Until then he had been answering at ease, automatically; the curves of his broad, normally good-natured face slack and amiable. Now the slackness went; the face grew wary, and — was it? — antagonistic.
“Because I felt there was something wrong, and I didn’t want to be mixed up in it.”
“That is very extraordinary, surely? I mean, that you should be conscious of evil before anyone knew that it existed.”
“That’s not so funny. They told me Chris was drowned. I knew Chris could swim like an eel. I knew that I had been out all night. And the sergeant was looking at me with a Who-are-you-and-what-are-you-doing-here expression.”
“But the sergeant had no idea that the drowning was more than an accident. He had no reason to look at you in that way.”
Then he decided to drop the subject of Harmer’s lie to the sergeant.
“How did you know, by the way, where to find Miss Clay? I understood that she kept her retreat a secret.”
“Yes, she’d run away. Gave us all the runaround, in fact, including me. She was tired and not very pleased at the way her last picture had turned out. On the floor, I mean; it isn’t released yet. Coyne didn’t know how to take her. A bit in awe of her, and afraid at the same time she’d put one over on him. You know. If he’d called her ‘kid’ and ‘chocolate’ the way old Joe Myers used to back in the States, she’d have laughed and worked like a black for him. But Coyne’s full of his own dignity, the ‘big director’ stuff, and so they didn’t get on too good. So she was fed up, and tired, and everyone wanted her to go to different places for holidays, and it seemed she couldn’t make up her mind, and then one day we woke up and she wasn’t there. Bundle — that’s her housekeeper — said she didn’t know where she was, but no letters were to be forwarded and she’d turn up again in a month, so no one was to worry. Well, for about a fortnight no one heard of her, and then last Tuesday I met Marta Hallard at a sherry party at Libby Seemon’s — she’s going into that new play of his — and she said that on Saturday she had run into Chris buying chocolates at a place in Baker Street — Chris never could resist chocolates between pictures! — and she tried to worm out of Chris where she was hiding out. But Chris wasn’t giving anything away. At least she thought she wasn’t. She said: ‘Perhaps I’m never coming back. You know that old Roman who grew vegetables with his own hands and was so stuck on the result that he made the arrangement permanent. Well, yesterday I helped pull the first cherries for Covent Garden market and, believe me, getting the Academy Award for a picture is nothing to it!’”
Harmer laughed under his breath. “I can hear her,” he said, affectionately. “Well, I went straight from Seemon’s to Covent Garden and found out where those cherries came from. An orchard at a place called Bird’s Green. And on Wednesday morning bright and early Jason sets off for Bird’s Green. That took a bit of finding, but I got there about three o’clock. Then I had to find the orchard and the people who were working in it on Friday. I expected to find Chris straightaway, but it seemed that they didn’t know her. They said that when they were picking, early on Friday morning, a lady passing in a car had stopped to watch and then asked if she might help. The old boy who owned the place said they didn’t need paid help, but if she liked to amuse herself good and well. ‘She were a good picker,’ he said, ‘wouldn’t mind paying her another time.’ Then his grandson said he’d seen the lady — or thought he’d seen her — one day lately in the post office at Liddlestone — about six miles away. So I found Liddlestone, but the post office regular staff was ‘home to her tea’ and I had to wait till she came back. She said that the lady who sent ‘all the telegrams’— seems they never saw so many telegrams in their lives as Chrissent — was living over at Medley. So I set out in the half-dark to find Medley, and ended by sleeping in a lane. And sleeping out or no sleeping out, that was a better piece of detective work than you’re doing this morning, Inspector Grant!”
Grant grinned good-humoredly. “Yes? Well, I’ve nearly done.” He got up to go. “I suppose you had a coat with you in the car?”
“What was it made of?”
“Brown tweed. Why?”
“Have you got it here?”
“Sure.” He turned to a wardrobe, built in the passage where the sitting room led into the bedroom, and pulled the sliding door open. “Have a look at my whole wardrobe. You’re cleverer than I am if you can find the button.”
“What button?” Grant asked, more quickly than he intended.
“It’s always a button, isn’t it?” Harmer said, the small pansy-brown eyes, alert under their lazy lids, smiling confidently into Grant’s.
Grant found nothing of interest in the wardrobe. He had taken his leave not knowing how much to believe of Jason Harmer’s story, but very sure that he had “nothing on him.” The hopes of the police, so to speak, lay in Tisdall.
Now, as he pulled up by the curb in the cool bright morning, he remembered Jason’s wardrobe, and smiled in his mind. Jason did not get his clothes from Stacey and Brackett. As he considered the dark, small, and shabby interior which was revealed to him as he opened the door, he could almost hear Jason laugh. The English! They’d had a business for a hundred and fifty years and this was all they could make of it. The original counters probably. Certainly the original lighting. But Grant’s heart warmed. This was the England he knew and loved. Fashions might change, dynasties might fall, horses’ shoes in the quiet street change to the crying of a thousand taxi hooters, but Stacey and Brackett continued to make clothes with leisured efficiency for leisured and efficient gentlemen.
There was now neither a Stacey nor a Bracken, but Mr. Trimley — Mr. Stephen Trimley (as opposed to Mr. Robert and Mr. Thomas!)— saw Inspector Grant and was entirely at Inspector Grant’s service. Yes, they had made clothes for Mr. Robert Tisdall, Yes, the clothes had included a dark coat for wear with evening things. No, that certainly was not a button from the coat in question. That was not a button they had ever put on any coat. It was not a class of button they were in the habit of using. If the Inspector would forgive Mr. Trimley (Mr. Stephen Trimley), the button in question was in his opinion of a very inferior make, and would not be used by any tailor of any standing. He would not be surprised, indeed, to find that the button was of foreign origin.
“American, perhaps?” suggested Grant.
Perhaps. Although to Mr. Trimley’s eye it suggested the Continent. No, he certainly had no reason for such a surmise. Entirely instinctive. Probably wrong. And he hoped the Inspector would not put any weight on his opinion. He also hoped that there was no question of Mr. Tisdall being in trouble. A very charming young man, indeed. The Grammar schools — especially the older Grammar schools of the country — turned out a very fine type of boy. Better often, didn’t the Inspector think so? than came from the minor public schools. There was a yeoman quality of permanence about Grammar-school families — generation after generation going to the same school — that was not matched, outside the great public schools.
There being, in Grant’s opinion, no yeoman quality of permanence whatever about young Tisdall, he forbore to argue, contenting himself by assuring Mr. Trimley that as far as he knew Mr. Tisdall was in no trouble up to date.
Mr. Trimley was glad to hear that. He was getting old, and his faith in the young generation which was growing up was too often sadly shaken. Perhaps every generation thought that the rising one lacked due standards of behavior and spirit, but it did seem to him this one . . . Ah, well, he was growing old, and the tragedy of young lives weighed more heavily on him than it used to. This Monday morning was blackened for him, yes, entirely blackened, by the thought that all the brightness that was Christine Clay was at this hour being transformed into ashes. It would be many years, perhaps generations (Mr. Trimley’s mind worked in generations: the result of having a hundred-and-fifty-year-old business) before her like would be seen again. She had quality, didn’t the Inspector think so? Amazing quality. It was said that she had a very humble origin, but there must be breeding somewhere. Something like Christine Clay did not just happen in space, as it were. Nature must plan for it. He was not what is known, he believed, as a film fan, but there was no picture of Miss Clay’s which he had not seen since his niece had taken him to view her first essay in a dramatic role. He had on that occasion entirely forgotten that he was in a cinema. He was dazed with delight. Surely if this new medium could produce material of this strength and richness one need not continue to regret Bernhardt and Duse.
Grant went out into the street, marveling at the all-pervading genius of Christine Clay. The mind of all the world it seemed was in that building at Golders Green. A strange end for the little lace-hand from Nottingham. Strange, too, for the world’s idol. “And they put him in an oven just as if he were —” Oh, no, he mustn’t think of that. Hateful. Why should it be hateful? He didn’t know. The suburbanity of it, he supposed. Sensible, and all that. And probably much less harrowing for everyone. But someone whose brilliance had flamed across the human firmament as Clay’s had should have a hundred-foot pyre. Something spectacular. A Viking’s funeral. Not ovens n the suburb. Oh, my God, he was growing morbid, if not sentimental. He pressed the starter, and swung into the traffic.
He had yesterday changed his mind about going to the Clay funeral. The Tisdall evidence progressing normally, he had seen no need to give himself a harrowing hour which he could avoid. But only now did he realize how very glad he was to have escaped it, and (being Grant) began instantly to wonder whether after all he should have gone. Whether his subconscious desire to get out of it had influenced his decision. He decided that it had not. There was no need for him now to study the psychology of unknown friends of Christine’s. He had had a good cross-section of them at Marta’s, and had learned very little, after all. The party had stubbornly refused to break up. Jammy had begun to talk again, hoping that they would dance to his piping. But Marta vetoed any more talk of Christine, and although they had come back to her several times, not even Jammy’s genius for evocation could keep them on the subject. Lydia, who could never stay off her own subject for long, had read their palms, chiromancy being a sideline of hers when horoscopes were not available (she had given a shrewd enough reading of Grant’s character and had warned him about making a mistaken decision in the immediate future: “a nice safe thing to say to anyone,” he had reflected) and it was not until one o’clock that the hostess had managed to shepherd them all to the door. Grant had lingered, not, curiously enough, because he had questions to ask her (the conversation had provided answers for him), but because she was anxious to question him. Was Scotland Yard called in to investigate Christine’s death? What was wrong? What had they found? What did they suspect?
Grant had said that yes, they had been called in (so much would by now be common property) but that so far there was only suspicion. She had wept a little, becomingly, with not too disastrous effect on the mascara, had treated him to a short appreciation of Christine as artist and woman. “A grand person. It must have taken tremendous character to overcome her initial disadvantages.” She enumerated the disadvantages.
And Grant had gone out into the warm night with a sigh for human nature — and a shrug for the sigh.
But there were bright spots even in human nature. Grant edged in toward the curb, and came to a halt, his brown face glad and welcoming.
“Good morning!” he called to the little gray figure.
“Oh, good morning, Mr. Grant,” Erica said, crossing the pavement to him. She gave him a brief little smile, but seemed pleased to see him; so much was apparent through her schoolboy matter-of-factness. She was dressed in her “town” clothes, he noticed; but they did not seem to be an improvement on her country ones. They were neat, certainly, but they had an unused look; and the gray suit she was wearing, although undoubtedly “good,” was dowdy. Her hat had been got to match, and matched also in dowdiness.
“I didn’t know you ever stayed in town.”
“I don’t. I came up to get a bridge.”
“But it seems you can’t get them by the yard. They have to be made to measure. So I’ve got to come up another day. All he did today was put a lot of clay in my mouth.”
“Oh, the dentist. I see. I thought only old ladies had bridges.”
“Well, you see, the silly thing he put in the last time doesn’t hold. I’m always picking it out of bits of toffee. I lost a lot of side teeth when Flight fell with me at a post-and-rails last winter. I had a face like a turnip. So it had to be a bridge, he says.”
“A misnomer, Flight.”
“In one way. Not in another. He was nearly at the other end of Kent before they caught him.”
“Where are you going now? Can I give you a lift anywhere?”
“I suppose you wouldn’t like to show me Scotland Yard?”
“I would. Very much. But in twenty minutes I have an appointment with a lawyer in the Temple.”
“Oh. In that case perhaps you would drop me in Cockspur Street. I have an errand to do for Nannie.”
Yes, he thought, as she inserted herself beside him, it would be a Nannie. No mother had chosen those clothes. They were ordered from the tailor just as her school clothes had been. “One gray flannel suit and hat to match.” In spite of her independence and her sureness of spirit, there was something forlorn about her, he felt.
“This is nice,” she said. “They’re not very high, but I hate walking in them.”
“My shoes.” She held up a foot and exhibited her very modest Cuban heel. “Nannie thinks they are the right thing to wear in town, but I feel dreadful in them. Teetery.”
“I expect one gets used to them in time. One must conform to the taboos of the tribe.”
“Why must one?”
“Because an unquiet life is a greater misery than wearing the badge of conformity.”
“Oh, well. I don’t come to town often. I suppose you haven’t time to have an ice with me?”
“I’m afraid not. Let’s postpone it until I’m back in Westover, shall we?”
“Of course, you’ll be back. I had forgotten that. I saw your victim yesterday,” she added conversationally.
“Yes, the man who fainted.”
“You saw him! Where?”
“Father took me over to luncheon at the Marine.”
“But I thought your father hated the Marine?”
“He does. He said he’d never seen such a set of poisonous bloaters in his life. I think ‘bloaters’ is a little strong. They weren’t so very bad. And the melon was very good.”
“Did your father tell you that Tisdall was waiting there?”
“No, the sergeant did. He doesn’t look very professional. Mr. Tisdall, not the sergeant. Too friendly and interested. No professional waiter looks interested. Not really. And he forgets the spoons for the ices. But I expect you upset him pretty thoroughly the day before.”
“I upset him!” Grant took a deep breath and expressed his hope that Erica was not going to let the plight of a good-looking young man play havoc with her heart.
“Oh, no. Nothing like that. His nose is too long. Besides, I’m in love with Togare.”
“Who is Togare?”
“The lion tamer, of course.” She turned to look at him doubtfully. “Do you really mean that you haven’t heard of Togare?”
Grant was afraid that that was so.
“Don’t you go to Olympia at Christmas? But you should! I’ll get Mr. Mills to send you seats.”
“Thank you. And how long have you been in love with this Togare?”
“Four years. I’m very faithful.”
Grant admitted that she must be.
“Drop me at the Orient office, will you?” she said, in the same tone as she had announced her faithfulness. And Grant set her down by the yellow-funneled liner.
“Going cruising?” he asked.
“Oh, no. I go round the offices collecting booklets for Nannie. She loves them. She’s never been out of England because she’s terrified of the sea, but she likes to sit in safety and imagine. I got her some marvelous mountain ones from the Austrian place in Regent Street in the spring. And she’s very knowledgeable about the German spas. Good-bye. Thank you for the lift. How shall I know when you come to Westover? For the ice, I mean.”
“I shall send you word through your father. Will that do?”
“Yes. Good-bye.” And she disappeared into the office.
And Grant went on his way to meet Christine Clay’s lawyer and Christine Clay’s husband, feeling better.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14